Like White Elephants Revisited

By Marilyn Bobes
Translated by Anne Fountain

Ana Carla Urizarri was an expert on abortions. At sixteen she had her first one when Freddy, a classmate at the Preparatory to whom she lost her precarious and never highly valued virginity, left her pregnant. Feigning ignorance of his obligations from that escapade, several months later Freddy married his real girlfriend, a chubby, nerdy girl with a sanctimonious air. All Freddy’s girlfriend needed was a stiff headpiece to look just like a nun.

Ana Carla did not consult anyone about her decision. She knew from her friends that in the Gynecology and Obstetrics Hospital she would wait in a short line, they would do an analysis, and then, with proof that somebody had made a blood donation on her behalf, she would be freed of the uncomfortable proof of her laxity. If she gave birth, it would set tongues a-wagging and proclaim to the four winds her lack of morality. Ending the pregnancy also meant that motherhood would not frustrate her goal to become the best architect in the world.

From her piggy bank, the one given by her parents when she was ten years old, a little plaster pig with a small bird on top and a polychrome snout, she extracted fifty pesos and paid a street-smart guy on her block so that he would go to the blood bank. Once the proof of the blood donation was in her hands, she shaved her pubic hair in silence and presented herself for the date with the gynecologist. This took place in May 1976. Two weeks after the operation, and in spite of the moralizing message of the doctors, who let her know the dangers of using abortion as an anti-contraceptive measure and of possible consequences for her future fertility, Ana Carla felt relaxed and happy just like she had been before the unexpected and fateful meeting with Freddy in the bushes of Bosque de La Habana, Havana’s urban forest.

The idea of being a mother seemed as absurd as it was scary. On one occasion when she needed to use the bathroom while her mother was bathing, she had seen her mother naked. She was horrified by that stomach massacred by stretch marks and flaccid skin. The skin hung down like a pendulum toward her private parts, almost covering her sex. Ana Carla thought that if these were the ravages of maternity, it was not worth it to bring into the world beings that were like parasites adhering to the mucous membranes of the intestines. They were pernicious pests that only served to destroy the organism that nourished them and which they outlived.

Ana Carla’s mother had abandoned her studies after the first pregnancy. From then on she was consumed by household mess, shrieking voices and the complaints of unruly children, who, if truth be told, included Ana Carla herself. Children decidedly had a numbing effect and made you ugly. She would never be a mother or would be a mother as late as possible. Never at the age of sixteen.

Fortunately, Professor Saavedra already had two children when Ana Carla met him at the university. He was married to a woman as ill-treated by pregnancies as the mother of his favorite student. He was clever, brilliant and good looking, although he drank too much and it was said that he liked to mistreat women when he got drunk. In the course of her clandestine, amorous relation with the professor, Ana Carla came to see that he was both possessive and suspicious. He spent weeks not calling her just because, in a casual conversation, she had mentioned the name Carlos Javier three times. Carlos Javier was a classmate, and Saavedra felt particularly jealous even though the two students were only linked by a pristine and aseptic friendship.

By the time she started to go out with Saavedra, Ana Carla had taken out the intrauterine device that she had gotten six years before, following the abortion. She removed it because she suffered pelvic pains and bled too much during her periods. Now she was taking birth control pills but, unfortunately, because of a forgetful lapse she became pregnant again, this time by her professor.

In spite of her resistance to motherhood, Ana Carla thought that she could use this pregnancy to wrangle Saavedra into getting a divorce. Ana Carla wanted him to leave his wife to marry her. A child could bring about the decisive hook so that the professor would give in to the supplications and requests that had not borne fruit for six months. Later, she told herself, she would decide what to do with what she was carrying in her womb. Perhaps she would fake a spontaneous abortion or utilize all her wiles to make Saavedra believe that he really didn’t want another child. The main thing at the moment was to utilize her condition to convince him to get divorced. Saavedra would not be well served by a scandal at the university and this was the best moment to call him to account.

They were in a bar in the mezzanine of a five-star hotel. Saavedra already had taken in four double shots of aged rum and Ana Carla was lingering over her second daiquiri. She tried to think of how to spring the surprise. Now on his fifth drink, Saavedra had begun to pronounce ironic sentences about women’s inconstancy and interrogated Ana Carla sarcastically about the conversation he had seen taking place between her and the inevitable Carlos Javier during a class session. Both she and her male friend had exchanged what seemed to Saavedra to be malicious laughter as they sat at their desks. Perhaps they’re making fun of my incipient baldness, he thought. Surely, for Ana Carla, the professor was not nor ever would be anything more than an unhappy man filled with complexes.

Only when they were at the point of parting ways at the stairway landing did she dare speak to him about the pregnancy. The veins in the professor’s neck began to swell and he became as red as a bullfighter’s cape. This was followed, after shouted questions about what guarantees he had that the child was his and not one belonging to Carlos Javier, by a hard slap to the face that made her lose her balance and tumble down the steps. Bellboys on the first floor rushed to help her, but, in pain and embarrassed, she got up quickly and ran toward the street with tears in her eyes. She didn’t stop running until she reached the bus stop, fearful that the monster would be coming after her and would attack her if he were able to catch up.

Once at home, Ana Carla began to feel a pressing pain in the lower abdomen and sat down on the toilet. Soon she was overwhelmed by the strange sensation that she was expelling something from her vagina, and when she got up and looked in the toilet bowl she saw a floating mass of coagulated blood. Quickly she put absorbent compresses in place and went out to find a taxi that could take her to the hospital. Once there, she was rushed to an operating room and they cleaned away what remained of that possible child, who on this occasion, not she but Professor Saavedra had determined to eliminate.

The next day, the assassin of the coagulated mass called her to say he was sorry but she was adamant not to exchange a word with him unless it was to say, as a threat, that if he ever bothered her again she would let Saavedra’s dean know what had happened in the hotel. Thus she became free of the pregnancy and the dangerous abuser at the same time, and concluded that children were not good at bringing forth a positive attitude from men. Definitively. The idea of becoming a mother was counterproductive and unsettling.

Ana Carla graduated and went to work for a construction firm. There she met Manuel Castillo, a young man and a recent graduate like her. He had a reputation as a womanizer and seducer, but nonetheless fell in love with Ana Carla and, after six months of less-than-memorable sex, he ended up proposing marriage.

Manny and his wife were in agreement that children were like ballast when it came to a couple’s happiness. They intended to seek happiness by having good times in their life together, as well as in their separate lives, and declared themselves an “open marriage.” They lived that way for ten years until, bored by what he described as their routine sex life, the husband proposed an experiment, a ménage a trois, with the couple’s best friend: a second-rate actor given to all kinds of deprivations, and a man with an aura of corruption and bisexuality.

Ana Carla considered herself a woman free of conventional prejudices. One night after an excess of alcohol and a little bit of marijuana, she made love with the actor in the couple’s matrimonial bed while Manuel, from a large adjoining armchair, observed them excitedly. The actor ejaculated in Ana Carla’s vagina and then Manuel also made love to his wife, reaching orgasm quickly. That night Ana Carla had forgotten to put in her diaphragm and the result was her third pregnancy.

Once again she found herself obliged to go to the Gynecology and Obstetrics Hospital. This time a new method called menstrual regulation or MR freed her from a child that belonged to nobody. The MR method worked by absorbing the embryo with a modern apparatus that some jokesters, male and female, had baptized as the “suction cup of Hercules” because the pull was so strong. When it was over, Ana Carla felt totally demoralized and, against all her boasting of being a woman beyond most taboos, she decided that the marriage to Manuel had finally gone too far. That episode of immorality disguised as anti-conventionalism had taken her to a level of degradation she was unwilling to accept. She divorced Manny the week following the procedure.

Until she was forty years old, the architect enjoyed many sexual experiences. She never again forgot to use a diaphragm. A French friend, the only one to whom she dared comment on her aversion to the possibility of being a mother, gave her a book titled L’amour en plus, written by a researcher with the last name of Badinter. The writer postulated in her text that maternal instinct was a social construct and not a biological condition as most people claimed, and although the book received many negative critiques in France, to Ana Carla it seemed sensational.

We are not in a train station from which we can see hills like white elephants that extend beyond the valley of the Ebro, and the express train from Barcelona is not going to arrive in forty minutes, but Luis Alberto, like the girl in the story, asks me what we should drink and I tell him I’ll have a beer.

Luis Alberto is now taking the role of the girl in the Hemingway story, and I that of the man who tries to convince her that in reality an abortion won’t be a big deal, not even a real operation. Luis Alberto insists on the necessity of completing our family even though it might be with a child people label as different, and I tell him with other words: “You have to understand that I won’t do it unless you want me to; I’m perfectly willing to have it if it means something to you.”

Yesterday, at last, I went to a gynecologist and saw a doctor who, unlike the others, the ones I knew from my past, recommended that I think it over really well: a first-time mother at forty-four runs major risks. I could give birth to a deformed child.

To begin I will have to undergo a test, amniocentesis I believe is what he called it: a test to see if the child I carry within me is a Down syndrome baby. According to the statistics, the doctor continued telling me, Down syndrome presents itself in a proportion of one in every thirty-five cases of women my age. That is to say, I have greatly increased chances of giving birth to a mongoloid child. Will I be paying for all the abortions I had during my adolescence and youth but that now seem so far away?

Just after the doctor told me about what amniocentesis might reveal and about the chromosomes of those children that Luis Alberto describes as “different,” I experienced a new sensation. For the first time in my life, I desired a pregnancy that might be denied me. At the same time, I asked myself if I would be capable of adapting to a special-needs child.

 A scientist friend of Luis Alberto told him that not every Down syndrome child is a handicapped one. Today many live to be fifty years old, they work, and some even get married and live a semi-independent life.

I’m no longer thinking about my mother’s flaccid abdomen because my own has begun to stretch in spite of my never having given birth. And I’m no longer thinking about temper tantrums and bad-mannered children. I’m thinking about the anguish that a “different” child might cause us. I’m a successful professional but have an empty spot inside that only Luis Alberto has been able to fill. He’s given me a simple peace that I used to associate with deathly boredom. With a child, however the child turns out, we won’t be bored, and much less so with one who requires special care.

I still believe like the French author E. Badinter that motherhood is a social construction, and that every woman should have the right to choose. But now I don’t want to choose. I want to listen to my husband’s arguments against what would perhaps be my last abortion. Soon I’ll be facing menopause. Nonetheless, a mongoloid child is something that scares me. It’s not something I was expecting and now I’m in the group of women whose chances are one in thirty-five that this might happen.

Could it be that because of Luis Alberto I am willing to become what I always rejected and now, after so many years, am beginning to desire with all my being? “I don’t want to do it, in reality I don’t care,” I tell him. And I say it with sincerity, thinking about the happiness that it would represent for him and also for me to have a little person who would never be unfaithful, never push me to degradation, who would have dreams like the ones I had and will cry for me like I cried for my mother after taking care of her for six months before colon cancer led her to death’s door.

Luis Alberto is the only person I have remaining since my brothers left Cuba. One brother is serving in an embassy and the other lives in Miami. Luis is not an intellectual. He’s a house painter. But he is a man with very highly developed sensibility. He was brought up to have a family, like a family should be, the only kind capable of giving me happiness after so many false steps. “Mother, father, and baby,” just like in the schoolbooks.

I am not exactly a conventional woman, but just thinking about Manuel Castillo, that depraved guy, makes me wish I had never been born. It’s the same when I remember Professor Saavedra and so many others who made my life a succession of passing pleasures and only left me with bad memories when they departed. None of that was love nor anything that even approximated love but rather selfish egotism from a generation that saw freedom as a way to continue exploiting the ingeniousness of women capable of repeating that the hills are like white elephants. A woman who would absolve them from taking responsibility.

I don’t know why I am reading and re-reading that story, “Hills Like White Elephants,” and it seems like only with re-readings have I come to understand it completely. Before I thought it was about lack of prejudice by a contemporary man facing a woman with conventional attitudes who wanted to trap him. Today I see the drama of a girl who wants to be a mother and has a partner who doesn’t want to commit himself, but at the same time fears losing the woman’s love. He feels culpable and is uncomfortable to the point of saying, referring to the pregnancy, the new being she carries within her womb, “This is the only thing that bothers us, this is the only thing that makes us unhappy.”

“And do you think if you do it we’ll be fine and be happy?” Luis Alberto asks me.

“I know we will be. You needn’t be afraid. I know loads of people who have done it.”

“I do also,” he answers me. “Afterwards they were all very happy.”

“Well,” I tell him, “if it’s not what you want I don’t have to do it. I know that everything is very simple.”

“And you, do you really want it?”

“I believe it’s the best we can do. But I will not do it if you really don’t want it.”

Then it occurs to me to ask him: but if I don’t have the abortion and we have this child even though he or she is “different,” and I say that things look like white elephants, will I please you then?

Luis Alberto looks at me astonished. He doesn’t know that we are playing the parts of a Hemingway dialogue adapted to our circumstances. He does not understand what I’m saying about white elephants. I don’t understand it either. What I understood is that finally I’m going to have this child who might be slow to turn over, sit up, stand up, and respond. A little elephant whose head might be smaller than normal with a flattened nose, protruding tongue and eyes slanted upward.

“You have to understand,” I insist, “that I won’t do it unless you want me to do it. I am perfectly in agreement with having the child if it means something to you.”

“Will you do me a favor now?” he asks, finishing his beer.

“I would do anything for you.”

“Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, will you stop talking?”

I look at him with tenderness. He leans over the table to kiss me. I smile at him.

“Do you feel better?” he asks.

“I feel very good,” I say. “Nothing’s wrong. I feel very good.” And once again the hills begin to look to me like white elephants.

Marilyn Bobes is a poet, novelist, short story writer, literary critic and editor. Her formal training is in history but she has excelled in conveying the realities of contemporary life in Cuba, especially for women. She is co-editor with Mirta Yáñez of the anthology of women’s fiction Estatuas de sal [Statues of Salt]. Bobes has won national and international literary prizes for her work. She participated in the 2012 Latin American Studies Association conference held in San Francisco and was a guest speaker at San José State University in May 2012.

Anne (Anita) Fountain was born in Argentina. Her PhD in Spanish and her Graduate Certificate in Latin American Studies are from Columbia University. She is Professor of Spanish at San José State University and teaches Spanish American literature of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Her principal research fields are Cuban literature and translation studies. Recent translation work includes: Disconnect/ Desencuentro (an English/Spanish edition of short stories by Nancy Alonso, 2012); Closed for Repairs (Trans. of Nancy Alonso’s Cerrado por reparación, 2007); Cuba on the Edge (A co-edited anthology of Cuban short fiction, 2007); and Versos Sencillos: A Dual Language Edition (José Martí, Translation, Introduction and Notes by Anne Fountain, 2005). She has written extensively on José Martí in both English and Spanish. Her books with University Press of Florida José Martí and U.S. Writers (2003) and José Martí, the United States, and Race (2014) both include a focus on translation. She has translated stories by Cuban authors Nancy Alonso, Marilyn Bobes, Senel Paz, Leonardo Padura Fuentes, and Aida Bahr.