Two Short Stories by Stacey Streshinsky
The Vitamin D Deficiency
She was 15 when her father sat her down to talk. Soon you will probably start thinking about having children. She doesn’t remember what else he said; she’s not sure there’s much more to remember. The fact remains: this day, almost exactly ten years ago, marked the arrival of a new, sobering clarity — childbearing was expected to be the pinnacle of her existence. Laughable to have thought that she could ever be an Artist, not a Mother.
About two-and-a-half years later, her father’s new wife took her shopping. “You have to start dressing the part of a marriageable young woman,” she said, handing the girl a pair of six-inch heels made of baby blue leather. Presumably, this is what she had done and it’d worked! Granted, the man she now had two children with was married to someone else at the time of their births, but the net-result was the desired outcome; she was just playing the long game out of necessity. Fatherless herself, at the age of 28, her idea of having a teenage daughter must have entailed preparing the girl to fulfill her womanly purpose. It was likely that the conversation the father had with his daughter was her idea.
The daughter had always regarded her reproductive system with alien fascination, as if it belonged to someone else. As if it was foreign to her body. Cramps felt like something inside of her must be rotting; rupturing cysts like something with sharp talons clawing at her insides. After discovering, during a routine ultrasound, that she had two uteruses (a rare but mostly harmless congenital abnormality), for two days she could not stop staring at the image of those cavities inside her. As a teenager she had gotten in trouble for using tampons instead of pads, and from the ages of 16-18 she had to lie to doctors about being sexually active, because her mother, who guarded her virginity like Hades’ hound at the gates of hell, came to every appointment. At 23, in the hospital with a bad abdominal ache, she was made to take a pregnancy test and an ultrasound, even though she repeatedly told the doctor that she was having a sexless few months.
It was that same year, at the age of 23, that she was made to seriously consider motherhood for the first time. An endocrinologist told her that she had to get pregnant as soon as possible, that otherwise she was risking insanity. She would become a crazy pet-lady, cats or dogs, it didn’t matter. Her progesterone was at pre-menopausal levels. She needed to undergo hormone therapy and get pregnant as soon as possible to resolve her hormonal issues once and for all. Her partner didn’t want children right now? Honey, you don’t even have the hormonal makeup to know what love is, drop the man and find someone who wants a baby! She’d just gotten into graduate school and felt like she had a future for the first time? Babygirl, that education won’t help you when you’ve gone crazy! But how will she raise a child, she still feels like a child herself? When it happens, you'll just figure it out.
She ended up choosing the threat of insanity (she likes animals), and never to be responsible for making someone feel like they were the solution to a problem she had. She also stopped counting calories and exercising compulsively. She doesn’t know where her progesterone is at, but she chooses to believe that she can’t have children. She never really fancied herself a Mother anyway — there are more compelling arguments for not having children, chief of them being that the future on this earth is looking increasingly bleak, and why would she ever choose to subject someone to that? Recently, in a moment of feeling low, walking towards Hudson River Park, she thought about how not having children is a form of suicide. A compromise between her worst impulses and her love for those who have given up on not giving up on her.
It would be funny if it turned out that all that was wrong with her, endocrinologically-speaking, was a vitamin D deficiency.
Once, winter meant launching oneself downhill on a sled, or a large plastic saucer which careened and spun. You’d have a sled if your parents were traditionalists; a saucer, if they were understanding of the juvenile itch for adrenaline. The saucer kids were always the ones with more swagger. On the 6th of December the village celebrated the arrival of Samichlaus, as he is known anywhere Swiss-German is spoken. He would arrive dressed in scarlet Bishop’s garments, in a procession with a donkey, his helper Knecht Ruprecht, and a fleet of angels carrying paper lanterns that looked like stained glass windows, their glow gently pushing through the fog of the snowy evening. The sound of whips produced by two teenage boys wearing canvas shirts and solemn faces would announce the arrival of the procession on each street, followed by the jangling of cowbells and the singing of carolers. In third grade, one would spend all of November’s woodworking lessons building a stick-donkey with a muzzle that would snap open at the tug of a string, its mane fashioned out of limp-hanging fabric scraps. Then, on the eve of St. Nikolaus day, you would join all the other children with their rickety donkeys in the streets of the village and collectively you would shout HOLLI-HALLI-HÜ DÄ CHLAUS ISCH DA at the entrances of business and private residences alike. For this you would be rewarded with treats. Mostly peanuts, chocolate coins, mandarin oranges. Sometimes Carambars, Kinder sticks, or simply 10 Rappen coins. The pharmacies always gave out licorice root.
A little later, winter meant days free of school because the car doors were frozen shut. It’s cold, but -35C didn’t feel so bad, at least not in Moscow, because it was dry and there never was much of a wind. So we would play outside instead of going to school. It also meant weeks-long preparations for New Years, the big winter holiday in Russia. Perfectly secular, a leftover Soviet tradition. Who you’d spend it with was only almost just as important as what would be eaten; the Russian New Year's spread is an institution. There had to be buterbrodi — white bread slathered with butter, upon which small mounds of red caviar glisten in the light. Cold cuts in different shades of pink, smoked fish, and sliced cucumbers fanned out on a plate. Pickles and herbs. Maybe some sort of aspic (holodets) and definitely “Herring in a Fur Coat,” most aptly described as Russian lasagna, consisting of layered herring, potato, onion, mayonnaise and beets; the culinary equivalent of the weird uncle you have no choice but to invite. Then further assorted mayonnaise mush Russians call salad, king of them a presumed Frenchman named Olivier, personified in a tub of diced boiled potato, carrot, onion, canned peas, dill, pickles, meat of some description (usually ham or bologna). The big New Year's gathering would always be held at our house. At a certain point Father Frost (Ded Moroz) and his Snow Maiden (Snegurochka), played by relatives in yearly shifts, would come and distribute gifts. At midnight everyone would gather in front of the TV, sing the national anthem and watch the president’s address, imbuing . Champagne glasses clinking. Fireworks. The night would end with a yearly collective viewing of The Irony of Fate, a Soviet romcom which hinges on the architectural uniformity of Soviet cities.
Then the large gatherings stopped and the attempts at replicating them were like flabby skin on the bone of the past. After the replicas, my New Year's Eves were mostly spent among incidental strangers, the friends of others. There was an NYE breakup, which ended with a drunken fist fight. This was at a garishly wallpapered apartment in one of the crumbly five-stories of Chertanovo, which a friend had inherited from his grandmother. When I was leaving, I got a hug from one of the few other girls at the party — she was the one who had waited for our friend while he was in the army. It was a warm, compassionate hug. A few days later she came down with a fever, fell asleep and never woke up again.
Two winters ago, I was visiting my older brother in Switzerland, and as we were walking through the mall in his commuter-town, he told me how depressed he felt about being prescribed antidepressants for his seasonal-affective disorder.
Last winter I came home and realized that it was no longer home. I haven’t been back since.
This winter I have spent in California, following my boyfriend around to wherever his boss wanted them to produce music from. In Joshua Tree, while he was working, I was alone, in a house on a lot of desert ground enclosed in a metal fence. I can’t drive, so my days were spent between the sofa and the chair on the front porch. The days were clear and quiet, only the howl of coyotes or house dogs, or both, interrupting the hissing of the wind. It wasn’t warm or cold and could have been any season. There I started feeling like I had separated from my body. I observed myself do little else but watch the sun move across the sky, the passage of time nearly a physical experience. Nothing I did, other than making the bed and something to eat, had any consequence. Time and space, to which I had given myself over, are generally unresponsive entities. Reality became speculative, and with it my existence.
I’ve never read Hegel, but apparently he says Merry Christmas.
Stacey Streshinsky lives in New York and has no intention of leaving.