Tidbits of Arabic News translated into English

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The baby that Eve caught

    ‘I am the baby that Eve Carson caught.’
    Juan told me this as I was fiddling with my bookbag zipper, wondering if I should take my notebook and new books out. Besides Juan, who had just introduced himself, the classroom was empty and class supposed to start now. Ignoring this for a second, I tried to puzzle out what Juan meant.
    ‘I am the baby that Eve Carson caught.’
    Eve Carson. I remembered the name from the memorial garden on the main lawn. She had been the student body president from 20 years back, before most of us were born, and yet when I arrived as a freshman, the orientation leaders had devotedly sat us down and explained who she had been.
    ‘You are the baby that Eve Carson caught?’ I asked blankly.
    ‘Sure thing,’ said Juan happily. ‘I’m from Ecuador. Eve Carson was helping out in the clinic the year I was born, summer of '07, and I am the first baby coming from the womb she caught. My mom told me. I wrote about it in my essay for the study abroad application to come here. They called up my doctor and tried to make sure. He couldn’t remember exactly, but he remembered that Eve had been there that summer … my mom promised it was true.’
    ‘Oh, wow, I mean I obviously never knew her but everyone here knows she was pretty amazing -’
    ‘I know from the stories my mom told. Everyone in the village loved Eve. Then they heard she had been killed. Well, my mom always wanted me to be a doctor after that, so that I could catch babies in Eve’s place.’
    ‘That’s such a beautiful story!’ I cried. ‘So are you studying to be a doctor now?’ Juan told me that the chancellor had asked him the same question when they met, and he had assured him it was so.
    ‘The Chancellor said he met Eve when she had been in high school. Then he put his head on my shoulder and I think he cried a little!'
    We talked some more, then checked our class schedules and realized that we both had misread the classroom number. It was embarrassing to walk in late, but hey, who doesn’t mind meeting a friend like that?

    If you are a stranger to the University of North Carolina, you might not remember any longer who Eve Carson was, but she was the student body president here 20 years ago. Perhaps outside of our little academic enclave people have forgotten, but here the campus leaders still like to quote her, and the bookstore sells her poster, and besides there is the garden, the run, and the scholarship (which is a pretty big deal).
    Juan wanted to take in all the experiences that North Carolina had to offer. Just as UNC had sent the girl to ‘catch’ him during his birth, he was determined to do something in return. Alas, he went scouting around UNC Hospitals and soon discovered that novice college students are not allowed to ‘catch’ babies in this country, and that he was not welcome in the delivery rooms. He decided to spend a day visiting the state capitol in Raleigh. When he returned he told us the ‘funny’ joke he had heard, that ‘if you put a fence around Chapel Hill, then it turns in the real North Carolina zoo’. Ha ha, he soon found that us Tar-Heels have a different sense of humor.
    Wanting to show him a warm-hearted and spontaneous side of me, something I admired in many of my university peers, I very kindly offered to drive him anywhere he might want in North Carolina, and to act as his guide, so that he did not return saying such tactless things. He would study a map for a minute and suggest the Town Creek Indian Mound, or the real North Carolina zoo in Asheboro, or the mall in Raleigh. On several of those golden weekends in fall, we piled into my car and took off down the road. 
    Juan talked and talked on our trips. He liked the small little hamlets in the country-side, and the anonymous, rusty roadside businesses that signaled the arrival of a city. He tried to convince me that the stores advertising ‘Cortes Magicas’ and fortune-tellings were legitimate.
    ‘But, of course!’ he exclaimed, as we passed one. ‘What, you’ve never been to one of these?’ One glance at my befuddled expression and he told me the story of how his mom’s favorite fortune-teller was a lady experienced in the art of sifting through coffee grounds.
    ‘She told my mom many years ago that in two years she would give birth to a boy, and in two years, I was born. What more proof do you want? That was before my mom even met my dad. I can’t pass up not going to one of these in North Carolina.’
    My eyebrows had frozen politely as I found myself entering the weary little shack, bedizened with ancient paint that must look dim even in bright summer sunshine. We progressive college students must never assume that our worldview is correct – in fact, it is most often mistaken – and we would not like to admit we avoided a daring, new situation, although common sense might call it silly. So in I went.
    No one can claim I made a graceful picture in there. My fortune-teller worked her bony fingers on mine, and I sat hoping my smile looked genuine. It was a hard act. Then her sultry voice said –
    ‘Your boyfriend’ – novio, she said, but both me and Juan understood that – ‘is very smart. He constantly blames you for his mistakes while extricating himself out of them as a thread can easily come clean from flour. Yours is a hard life.’
    I was shocked. For a progressive female student at a liberal university! -  to be accused of letting a guy stomp on you! – it was ghastly! It was autumn, like I said, and when we stepped outside I felt mangled and invisible under the gently strained and oddly angled sun-rays that encapsulated us into a bubble of lemon-clementine mist translucent.
    I was not so talkative on our way back. I couldn’t figure out if Juan realized the fortune-teller had stumbled on the truth - he had never really met my boyfriend - and I feared that both words and silence from me would confirm it. So I took the easier choice and said nothing.  Juan, as usual, was blabbing away.
    ‘I love children!’ he chirruped happily. ‘I cannot wait to get married and have my own. When I have a girl I’ll name her Eve, and my boy, my first boy, I’ll name him Carson. Then I’ll have Eve and Carson. And if I have another boy I’ll name him Juan and if I have another girl…ummmm…’
    We reached Chapel Hill, the familiar moment when the brick building tips became visible over the thicket of trees manning the highway. That view, embedded now with the colorful upholstery of fall, was always comforting to me. As we stepped out of the car amidst the leaf-strewn narrow strip of parking, I cut Juan off for a second.
    ‘How have you come to think so much about Eve? I mean, I know she watched you be born and everything – well, I guess that makes sense. It’s just that no one else I know thinks that much of her.’
    We were maneuvering around the parked cars to get to the dorm entrance. Juan paused. ‘Well, it’s not just me, you know,’ he explained thoughtfully. ‘My mom says that when Eve left, our whole village cried.’ I thought back to what I had heard of the aftermath of Eve’s murder – a veil of sorrow had hung over the community, and you could now sit beneath the tree dedicated to her in the pastures, or on the butterfly bench named for her on the main lawn, and remember that a truly remarkable woman had loved this place, and studied here long ago. I wondered if I would ever be important enough to even just one person, that they would feel the same about me.
    I went through a period thereafter, when my courses felt as illuminating as a dull note struck repeatedly on a pitchy piano, and Juan’s insightful comments in our English class were starting to bother me. All around me, my peers had impaled themselves with solemn fury into the ethics of university achievement – open, friendly faces, and embracing of spontaneous midnight trips to the beach (two hours away), and probing the peculiarities of the latest assignment with friends, pizza, and soft drinks, conversations so engaging that everyone hangs around until five in the morning. And I…I was simply going to class, disinterested, and lonely.
    Juan tried to talk to me. He sidled up to me after class to walk me out, and if he caught me studying on building steps he promptly started flowing about all his particular thoughts and experiences that day. He would especially love to tell me about his village. From what I could gather, his home was a desperate enclave teetering in a mountain crag – sorry, in the language of free-spirited scholars, it was really a beautiful, remote land of peaks and breathless steeps, an Elysium where you could really find yourself.
    But I faltered in the code of university lovingness towards Juan one day. It was close to Thanksgiving, and the music had been snuffed from the lilting air of autumn by the onset of an iron-cast sky. The last few minutes of my economics class had been usurped by two girls returned from studying abroad in Syria. They had made a short documentary, and were showing it around campus to raise awareness of the lingering effects of the 2012 war there fifteen years ago. Now Juan was in front of me, trying, likely un-consciously, to convince me of the joy of walking to his old school two kilometers away on winter mornings – ‘there’s such a soft, lovely, stolen crunch-crunch on the snow beneath yourself, like you are stealing the sound of time dripping by’ – ah, the romance! – when I said,
    ‘Juan! That might be really beautiful, but – but at least babies here don’t die because they don’t have enough to eat! Okay? It’s not all bad here. Just because we’re not poor doesn’t mean we can’t see beauty. Just because kids here don’t have to walk forever to get to school doesn’t mean they’re less strong or something. It’s just – that’s not what a childhood is for!’
    Juan sat down soberly beside me. He was quiet – actually quiet! – for a minute. Deep in thought, he had intertwined half of his fingers and the others were wagging at the air or rubbing at his chin. I almost laughed, but then felt ashamed that this was the only humor I’d felt all day.
    Then he said, ‘there are many good things for kids here. But it’s not all good. You know, they let me stay in the emergency room sometimes and hold the kids’ hands who are there alone’ – everyone in this world is useful and helpful except myself – ‘a little girl died in there the other day. She was in the back seat of a car. Her mother was in front and her mother’s boyfriend, who was drunk, was driving.’ I cupped my forehead in my hands, horrified. ‘The girl’s sister was also in the car and she lived, but she has problems now, broken bones and broken organs.’
    ‘And the mother and the driver?’ I asked, although I could guess the answer.
    ‘They’re both fine,’ said Juan.
    I would have invited Juan over to my place during winter break, but he had plans to bestow the mighty and fair of New York City unto his memories. The year spun by, I was almost a senior. I ditched my boyfriend. Rather, we drifted apart and when he ditched me, I did not run after him. In the prelude to spring break, I renewed my invitation to Juan and he promised he would accept if only we took the train. I asked if his mom had been on a train two years before his birth when she received the sudden and accurate omen of the impending child, but no, he said, he merely wanted to experience the trains in North America.
    Everyone in my small town was delighted with this handsome foreigner. I could not help but grin watching him charm Rhoda, the awesome flirt of the town. But he was good with small kids, too, like Rhoda’s little orphaned niece Lyddie, and with the old folks, like the delicate way he took Aunt Lu’s tiny tiny hands, the skin shriveled against porcelain bones and writhing purple veins. Rhoda told him all the gossip of the town, as she served fresh juices and we lounged lazily on her porch. Here is a place where spring’s slow advance invites - or orders -  you to participate as she unburdens the pregnant world of her ripe new largess. Rhoda told him about how the old high school used to be moldy and smelly, and how the new one looked like a prison. I glanced at Juan and was surprised that he was not faking his interest. Rhoda talked about her husband George, how he’d run off to the Marines for a dozen years, the result of a high school spat. She marched us over to Mrs. Emmeline of the gray hair, who told the story of how the heavens had surprised the town with six inches of snow the day before Rhoda was born; how no ambulances could get through the roads – only half that amount of snow would have sufficed to incapacitate the town – how Rhoda had been the last baby in these parts born at home.
    ‘But we ain’t never had that much snow before nor since, so…’
    Now you already know how this story ends, right? This was all leading to the day when Juan could catch his little NC baby, in memory of Eve. It happened at Rhoda’s neighbor’s place. A teenaged girl lived there and had been pregnant all winter long, but she knew it wouldn’t be cool with the parents, so she had dressed all winter, and even into spring, in big baggy sweaters. Or the parents must have been blind. Either way, she went into labor and told no one, and when it was finally discovered, the house went wild and the mother went into shock and the father – well, the father was not there. It was the middle of the night, but my house was next door, so me and my family and Juan rushed over. Rhoda’s place was on the other side, so all of them rushed over. The baby was born and the calmest among us was Juan, and he basically delivered the baby even over the protests of the shrieking, reluctant grandmother. Tears in his eyes, Juan told them about his own birth, and who had been there, and they called the little girl Eva.

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