Modern 
Desire

A Modern 
Desire

A Modern 
Desire

Modern 
Desire

A Modern 
Desire

Grounded SF from
The Netherlands
and Flanders
no. 1

Grounded SF from
The Netherlands
and Flanders
no. 1

AUTHOR

Hanna Bervoets

PITCH

In the near future, heterosexual couples will be able to have their DNA checked in commercial clinics for potential physical or mental disorders that might affect their offspring. Coupling thus takes on a practical aspect: attraction is one thing, but what if your genes are a poor match?

Grounded SF

Translated by: Jonathan Reeder

Whenever he’s quiet for too long, she always suggests hanging up. She doesn’t say it in so many words but mumbles something like “guess I’ll get going now”— for her, a phone call always feels like an interruption of something, never an activity as such.

Whenever he’s quiet for too long, she always suggests hanging up. She doesn’t say it in so many words but mumbles something like “guess I’ll get going now”— for her, a phone call always feels like an interruption of something, never an activity as such.

Whenever he’s quiet for too long, she always suggests hanging up. She doesn’t say it in so many words but mumbles something like “guess I’ll get going now”— for her, a phone call always feels like an interruption of something, never an activity as such.

Whenever he’s quiet for too long, she always suggests hanging up. She doesn’t say it in so many words but mumbles something like “guess I’ll get going now”— for her, a phone call always feels like an interruption of something, never an activity as such.

Whenever he’s quiet for too long, she always suggests hanging up. She doesn’t say it in so many words but mumbles something like “guess I’ll get going now”— for her, a phone call always feels like an interruption of something, never an activity as such.

And apparently she interprets his silence as a sign that the conversation has reached its end, the words are used up, the voice is spent. He doesn’t see it that way.

For him, being quiet together is a higher form of togetherness; being together without the cement of words. Whoever can do that is Ready.

And ready they are! How they sat at breakfast this morning. He had set his alarm (vibrate mode, tucked under his pillow) to get up before her for once. He had bought rolls at the supermarket, she had put the butter and marmalade on the counter. She sliced off the end of a roll, smeared it with butter, and dipped it in the marmalade. She would repeat the procedure after each bite, and he would imitate her moves. They had not exchanged a single word in the course of the breakfast—yes, they were Ready.

He glances sideways. The tram shakes and rocks, but her face remains unperturbed, a buoy in the waves. He then turns his head toward the window, registers the side street: four more stops, then a few minutes’ walk.

As forecast, it has started raining. Raindrops slam against the window and trickle, bruised, downward. “Mini kamikaze soldiers” pops into his mind. Luckily he’s brought an umbrella. It’s a big one, so if she huddles up against him, they’ll both fit under it; no need for either of them to get wet.

---------------

“Four more stops, then that’s us,” he whispers in her ear. She nods, she knows, she has been counting the stops the whole way. She looks outside: the curbs, stoops, and facades have been darkened by the rain. Then she allows her arm to glide off her lap. Her fingers seek out his fingers, his hand clasps hers as soon as their palms touch; it’s almost automatic. She is reminded of a Venus flytrap.

She doesn’t normally do this, you know. As a rule, he’s the one who takes her hand, and usually she lets him. She prefers it that way. She doesn’t want to seem like his mother. And that’s not really how it looks, she’s aware of that—she is well-preserved, and since he’s stopped shaving, he can pass for either hip twenty-something or lazy thirty-something—but it’s just the idea of it.

She squeezes his fingers. He squeezes back. She stares ahead, in the direction of that little monitor where the names of the stops scroll upward like film credits—she can feel him looking at her. And from the corner of her eye she sees him grinning.

Soon they’ll be given a list full of difficult words and numbers, Dr. Amarassi had told them last time: they’ll go through the results thoroughly, but it would be a good idea for her and her husband—ah, yes, boyfriend—to discuss beforehand what would and wouldn’t be acceptable. She had examined the poster on the wall behind Dr. Amarassi (gosh, who’d have thought an umbilical cord was almost thicker than its little arms?), he had taken her hand, and they both nodded. Yes, doctor, that would be a good idea, yes...

---------------

He fumbles in his pocket. Did he put his transport card back in his wallet after all? If she were alone, she’d probably have taken a taxi. But she knew he would insist on paying for it, and she did not want to run up his expenses.

They each press their card against the card reader—beep-beep, beep-beep—but when the time has come, he will have gotten his driver’s license. Surely that’s doable in nine months. After that, he’ll drive her wherever she wants. To the beach and to the woods and to one of those farmers’ markets she’d mentioned recently. They’ll walk hand in hand, buy all sorts of fresh stuff. Mint leaves to stick into glasses of hot water, little berries to press between each other’s lips, cane sugar for in genuine mojitos; mojitos he’ll make for her, before they—cha cha cha!—go out dancing.

Surely there’ll be a babysitter on hand?

And once he has a car, they’ll never have to walk through the rain again, his arm around her waist in order to hold her as close as possible. “Let me hold the umbrella”—“No, it’s okay, I’ve got it.”

Here’s the street.

The building looks whiter than it did last time, as if the rain has rinsed it clean.

And apparently she interprets his silence as a sign that the conversation has reached its end, the words are used up, the voice is spent. He doesn’t see it that way.

For him, being quiet together is a higher form of togetherness; being together without the cement of words. Whoever can do that is Ready.

And ready they are! How they sat at breakfast this morning. He had set his alarm (vibrate mode, tucked under his pillow) to get up before her for once. He had bought rolls at the supermarket, she had put the butter and marmalade on the counter. She sliced off the end of a roll, smeared it with butter, and dipped it in the marmalade. She would repeat the procedure after each bite, and he would imitate her moves. They had not exchanged a single word in the course of the breakfast—yes, they were Ready.

He glances sideways. The tram shakes and rocks, but her face remains unperturbed, a buoy in the waves. He then turns his head toward the window, registers the side street: four more stops, then a few minutes’ walk.

As forecast, it has started raining. Raindrops slam against the window and trickle, bruised, downward. “Mini kamikaze soldiers” pops into his mind. Luckily he’s brought an umbrella. It’s a big one, so if she huddles up against him, they’ll both fit under it; no need for either of them to get wet.

---------------

“Four more stops, then that’s us,” he whispers in her ear. She nods, she knows, she has been counting the stops the whole way. She looks outside: the curbs, stoops, and facades have been darkened by the rain. Then she allows her arm to glide off her lap. Her fingers seek out his fingers, his hand clasps hers as soon as their palms touch; it’s almost automatic. She is reminded of a Venus flytrap.

She doesn’t normally do this, you know. As a rule, he’s the one who takes her hand, and usually she lets him. She prefers it that way. She doesn’t want to seem like his mother. And that’s not really how it looks, she’s aware of that—she is well-preserved, and since he’s stopped shaving, he can pass for either hip twenty-something or lazy thirty-something—but it’s just the idea of it.

She squeezes his fingers. He squeezes back. She stares ahead, in the direction of that little monitor where the names of the stops scroll upward like film credits—she can feel him looking at her. And from the corner of her eye she sees him grinning.

Soon they’ll be given a list full of difficult words and numbers, Dr. Amarassi had told them last time: they’ll go through the results thoroughly, but it would be a good idea for her and her husband—ah, yes, boyfriend—to discuss beforehand what would and wouldn’t be acceptable. She had examined the poster on the wall behind Dr. Amarassi (gosh, who’d have thought an umbilical cord was almost thicker than its little arms?), he had taken her hand, and they both nodded. Yes, doctor, that would be a good idea, yes...

---------------

He fumbles in his pocket. Did he put his transport card back in his wallet after all? If she were alone, she’d probably have taken a taxi. But she knew he would insist on paying for it, and she did not want to run up his expenses.

They each press their card against the card reader—beep-beep, beep-beep—but when the time has come, he will have gotten his driver’s license. Surely that’s doable in nine months. After that, he’ll drive her wherever she wants. To the beach and to the woods and to one of those farmers’ markets she’d mentioned recently. They’ll walk hand in hand, buy all sorts of fresh stuff. Mint leaves to stick into glasses of hot water, little berries to press between each other’s lips, cane sugar for in genuine mojitos; mojitos he’ll make for her, before they—cha cha cha!—go out dancing.

Surely there’ll be a babysitter on hand?

And once he has a car, they’ll never have to walk through the rain again, his arm around her waist in order to hold her as close as possible. “Let me hold the umbrella”—“No, it’s okay, I’ve got it.”

Here’s the street.

The building looks whiter than it did last time, as if the rain has rinsed it clean.

He fumbles in his pocket. Did he put his transport card back in his wallet after all? If she were alone, she’d probably have taken a taxi. But she knew he would insist on paying for it, and she did not want to run up his expenses.

He fumbles in his pocket. Did he put his transport card back in his wallet after all? If she were alone, she’d probably have taken a taxi. But she knew he would insist on paying for it, and she did not want to run up his expenses.

He fumbles in his pocket. Did he put his transport card back in his wallet after all? If she were alone, she’d probably have taken a taxi. But she knew he would insist on paying for it, and she did not want to run up his expenses.

He fumbles in his pocket. Did he put his transport card back in his wallet after all? If she were alone, she’d probably have taken a taxi. But she knew he would insist on paying for it, and she did not want to run up his expenses.

He fumbles in his pocket. Did he put his transport card back in his wallet after all? If she were alone, she’d probably have taken a taxi. But she knew he would insist on paying for it, and she did not want to run up his expenses.

“Did you fall for his pretty eyes,” Malu had asked, “or for the idea that those eyes would get passed on to your child?”—as usual, with that telling grin on her face.

“His eyes, of course, his eyes!”

Only later did she realize that Malu had tricked her into giving the wrong answer: No, really, I fell for his looks!

But does it matter why she fell for him?

And, anyway, her desire was there before she fell for him, so it’s not so strange that this desire still has priority. Yes, it is entirely natural that they are sitting here.

“We have an appointment with Dr. Amarassi at 2:30,” she hears him say. The young man behind the counter nods, and directs their glance with his own to the waiting area: a row of bucket seats pressed out of a single sheet of Plexiglas, no armrests—emphatically chic.

“Take a seat. Dr. Amarassi will be with you in a moment.”

Last time there was a young lady behind the counter. That time, they had been given a cup of coffee.

Because you want to give a new life a good life ... The words glide across a screen up on the wall behind the counter, like surtitles at the opera. The guy should be singing, but instead he sits silently bent over his laptop.

She glances sideways. He’s been staring at her again. He smiles when she catches him; she smiles back. Happy parents make happy children make happy parents—it must have been a year ago now that she first came across this phrase. They had only just met, but it would have been strange for someone like her not to have checked out this clinic. Someone who had seen firsthand what it’s like not to be able to give a new life a good life.

Her sister was twenty-seven when she had Fari. She had never mentioned having children before, but she and Boris were so in love, wouldn’t it be beautiful if someone were to walk around who resembled them both, a whole new little person they had created together—the banality of their words probably escaped them at that moment, and hey, it escaped her too, because sure, wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing, a product of their love, a modest mascot of their unity—a teddy bear dressed in the team colors of its parents?

But little Fari did not become a mascot. There was no guilty party; he was just dealt a bad hand. A mutation in the CDKL5 gene, twice: both parents were carriers.

Take a good look while you clamp that convulsing little face in your hands and you’ll see that Fari has his father’s nose. And that left ear, the protruding one, could have come from his mother. But mostly Fari looks like the other children who have the same disorder. Those scrawny arms, the bulging eyeballs, that bumpy little neck; the inflexible fingers that just won’t wrap themselves around the joystick of his Permobil: his mannerisms, motor functions, voice, and appearance are the result of his illness, not his background or upbringing. Yes, Fari has more in common with his fellow patients than with his parents and is therefore a stranger in the family. Isn’t it cruel to let someone be born a stranger?

Yes, it is. And no one can blame her for doing everything in her power to spare her offspring that fate.

“Last time, they gave us coffee,” she hears next to her.

---------------

He said it wasn’t necessary. And the expense, on top of it. He offered to pay half, but she refused. “I’m doing this for myself,” she said. He paused to consider what that meant. The possible answer drove him to the gym where he spent the entire evening on the cross-trainer until he’d gone through four old Futurama episodes and a sweat stain the shape of a pine tree had formed on the back of his T-shirt.

Later today, once they’ve got the results, this is exactly what he’ll have to do, too: don’t think, act. And he knows how.

He has put a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru—he’s given it some thought—in his refrigerator.

He will lead her to the sofa (his isn’t as gigantic as hers, and therefore comfier, sexier: no matter how you sit, you’re cuddled up together), lay his hand on her thigh, and they’ll chat a bit—about this afternoon, perhaps about the results, and then about the future—after which he’ll let his hand slide slowly up her thigh, moving from the outside to the inside.

“Well, as long as she makes you happy,” his father said after their first visit. She had brought three little pastries from the bakery—“one each, I see”—and they talked mostly about her work. He didn’t get what his father meant by that “well” and all, and replied, “Yes, of course she makes me happy!”

It makes him happy that he can phone her up and she answers. It makes him happy that he can take her by the hand and that she wraps her fingers around his. It makes him happy that he can take her home, and she lets him in. It makes him happy that he can wrap his arms around her, and that she stays lying just as she was.

“And what about her?” his father had asked. “What do you like about her?”

“I just told you: she makes me happy! Her eyes make me happy, and her small round belly makes me happy, and her taste in clothing...”

And her thighs. And the idea that tonight, when they’re at his place and have laid their wet jackets over the radiator, he will press those thighs apart slightly, slide one hand under her trousers, unzip them with his other hand; the pants she wears usually have a zipper along the hip, a small zipper, that little pull thing only just fits between his thumb and index finger.

First he’ll rub over the fabric of her panties for a bit, until the dampness makes the cloth feel thinner. Then she will pull down her panties herself, and he’ll place a pillow under her buttocks. No need for protection this time, he will take it easy but won’t pause either, this time is important, this time requires extra concentration, this time it has to happen, so that after this time, she’ll continue to make him happy.

“Did you fall for his pretty eyes,” Malu had asked, “or for the idea that those eyes would get passed on to your child?”—as usual, with that telling grin on her face.

“His eyes, of course, his eyes!”

Only later did she realize that Malu had tricked her into giving the wrong answer: No, really, I fell for his looks!

But does it matter why she fell for him?

And, anyway, her desire was there before she fell for him, so it’s not so strange that this desire still has priority. Yes, it is entirely natural that they are sitting here.

“We have an appointment with Dr. Amarassi at 2:30,” she hears him say. The young man behind the counter nods, and directs their glance with his own to the waiting area: a row of bucket seats pressed out of a single sheet of Plexiglas, no armrests—emphatically chic.

“Take a seat. Dr. Amarassi will be with you in a moment.”

Last time there was a young lady behind the counter. That time, they had been given a cup of coffee.

Because you want to give a new life a good life ... The words glide across a screen up on the wall behind the counter, like surtitles at the opera. The guy should be singing, but instead he sits silently bent over his laptop.

She glances sideways. He’s been staring at her again. He smiles when she catches him; she smiles back. Happy parents make happy children make happy parents—it must have been a year ago now that she first came across this phrase. They had only just met, but it would have been strange for someone like her not to have checked out this clinic. Someone who had seen firsthand what it’s like not to be able to give a new life a good life.

Her sister was twenty-seven when she had Fari. She had never mentioned having children before, but she and Boris were so in love, wouldn’t it be beautiful if someone were to walk around who resembled them both, a whole new little person they had created together—the banality of their words probably escaped them at that moment, and hey, it escaped her too, because sure, wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing, a product of their love, a modest mascot of their unity—a teddy bear dressed in the team colors of its parents?

But little Fari did not become a mascot. There was no guilty party; he was just dealt a bad hand. A mutation in the CDKL5 gene, twice: both parents were carriers.

Take a good look while you clamp that convulsing little face in your hands and you’ll see that Fari has his father’s nose. And that left ear, the protruding one, could have come from his mother. But mostly Fari looks like the other children who have the same disorder. Those scrawny arms, the bulging eyeballs, that bumpy little neck; the inflexible fingers that just won’t wrap themselves around the joystick of his Permobil: his mannerisms, motor functions, voice, and appearance are the result of his illness, not his background or upbringing. Yes, Fari has more in common with his fellow patients than with his parents and is therefore a stranger in the family. Isn’t it cruel to let someone be born a stranger?

Yes, it is. And no one can blame her for doing everything in her power to spare her offspring that fate.

“Last time, they gave us coffee,” she hears next to her.

---------------

He said it wasn’t necessary. And the expense, on top of it. He offered to pay half, but she refused. “I’m doing this for myself,” she said. He paused to consider what that meant. The possible answer drove him to the gym where he spent the entire evening on the cross-trainer until he’d gone through four old Futurama episodes and a sweat stain the shape of a pine tree had formed on the back of his T-shirt.

Later today, once they’ve got the results, this is exactly what he’ll have to do, too: don’t think, act. And he knows how.

He has put a bottle of Chablis Grand Cru—he’s given it some thought—in his refrigerator.

He will lead her to the sofa (his isn’t as gigantic as hers, and therefore comfier, sexier: no matter how you sit, you’re cuddled up together), lay his hand on her thigh, and they’ll chat a bit—about this afternoon, perhaps about the results, and then about the future—after which he’ll let his hand slide slowly up her thigh, moving from the outside to the inside.

“Well, as long as she makes you happy,” his father said after their first visit. She had brought three little pastries from the bakery—“one each, I see”—and they talked mostly about her work. He didn’t get what his father meant by that “well” and all, and replied, “Yes, of course she makes me happy!”

It makes him happy that he can phone her up and she answers. It makes him happy that he can take her by the hand and that she wraps her fingers around his. It makes him happy that he can take her home, and she lets him in. It makes him happy that he can wrap his arms around her, and that she stays lying just as she was.

“And what about her?” his father had asked. “What do you like about her?”

“I just told you: she makes me happy! Her eyes make me happy, and her small round belly makes me happy, and her taste in clothing. . .”

And her thighs. And the idea that tonight, when they’re at his place and have laid their wet jackets over the radiator, he will press those thighs apart slightly, slide one hand under her trousers, unzip them with his other hand; the pants she wears usually have a zipper along the hip, a small zipper, that little pull thing only just fits between his thumb and index finger.

First he’ll rub over the fabric of her panties for a bit, until the dampness makes the cloth feel thinner. Then she will pull down her panties herself, and he’ll place a pillow under her buttocks. No need for protection this time, he will take it easy but won’t pause either, this time is important, this time requires extra concentration, this time it has to happen, so that after this time, she’ll continue to make him happy.

I just told you: she makes me happy! Her eyes make me happy, and her small round belly makes me happy, and her taste in clothing...

I just told you: she makes me happy! Her eyes make me happy, and her small round belly makes me happy, and her taste in clothing...

I just told you: she makes me happy! Her eyes make me happy, and her small round belly makes me happy, and her taste in clothing...

I just told you: she makes me happy! Her eyes make me happy, and her small round belly makes me happy, and her taste in clothing...

I just told you: she makes me happy! Her eyes make me happy, and her small round belly makes me happy, and her taste in clothing...

Her name is Ms. Laksi. But the husband’s name, Dr. Amarassi has forgotten. She skimmed their dossier just now, a tad too quickly. She should have been more thorough, but it was the best she could do. She’s twenty minutes behind schedule as it is, and she did not want to cut short her lunchtime stroll, so now she is hotfooting it toward the elevator to the waiting room. Nothing she can do about it. Her backlog is entirely thanks to the second couple this morning, the students.

The young woman was as meek as a lamb, the kind of girl whose every gesture seems intended to dismiss her own presence. He, on the other hand, draped himself across her desk as though he might yank her out of her chair and carry her in his arms like a film gorilla out into the hall: “Answer my questions, or I’ll drag you home with me!” He kept badgering her with, “But how much chance, then?” Lots of people do that. Her job is to explain their results, period. But this kid made it personal: “What would you do if you were us, what would you do?”

If I were you two, I wouldn’t even think about children in the first place, she thought. Puppy love, first-time infatuation; this kind of setup seldom survives the arrival of a baby. But she didn’t say that; she said, “I can’t advise you, I’m not authorized to do that. I can only give you information.”

This time she was relieved she could leave it at that. But sometimes she wished she could say more, like, “Oh, you really shouldn’t worry. Breast cancer is treatable these days, and I doubt it’ll be a girl anyway.” Or, “Well, rheumatism is a pretty nasty disease, and besides, ma’am, that fellow of yours is not much of a catch. You’re still young and attractive, you’re sure to find someone else, someone with better genes!”

---------------

She always bites her tongue at this point. They’re strict here. Liddy was suspended for three months recently for telling a couple that a gay child was also okay. The parents filed a complaint, the internal commission found Liddy guilty of unwarranted interference—the European advisory board let it go this time, fortunately, but the media, of course, did not: they started calling them, asking questions, just like they did when the clinic opened. Are you now screening for sexual orientation, and what about gender selection and late-onset diseases? Come on, isn’t offering information just as unethical as offering advice?—well, we’ve brought in an expert who says expanding choices in fact diminishes the level of personal autonomy, don’t you agree, would you care to respond?

“Ms. Laksi and. . .  sir!”

The couple leaps up from their bucket seats, a simple but chic design: somewhere in the past couple of decades, simplicity has become equivalent to futuristic. Sometimes Dr. Amarassi suspects this reflects a modern desire.     

“Right this way.”

She walks in front of the couple on the way to her office; they do not see her face. She opens her mouth as wide as she can and sticks out her tongue. Crosses her eyes, opens and closes them. No, it’s not a tic. It is thorough physical preparation. In a moment, her face must remain the picture of composure for the duration of the session, even if she (or he!) starts crying or asks awkward questions. So she’s better off discarding her own emotions now. One last grimace: gulp, gulp like a fish, mouth open and closed, teeth clenched, OK, ready!

“Do come in. Please take a seat.”

There used to be a tissue dispenser on the table. Metal thing. She had them take it away. Grief is an opinion—and she is not here to administer to opinions.

“During your last visit we took blood from both of you for preconception screening, packet 4” (always begin by recapping, so that everything’s clear—often they don’t hear the first sentence anyway), “and today we are here to go through the results and to discuss any specifics” (never “abnormalities,” always “specifics”).

“Just tell us up front,” Ms. Laksi says, “are we carriers?”

Dr. Amarassi opens a ring binder. “It’s not that simple,” she says, “let’s just go through the results step by step.”

“No, carriers of CDKL5, I mean. We asked if you would pay special attention to that one. My sister is a carrier, and her husband…”

Ah, now Dr. Amarassi remembers—she should have had this at her fingertips, she should have just read the dossier, for God’s sake—and says, “Yes, that’s right. And we did indeed look into that.” She skims the sheet of paper in front of her. “Neither of you is a carrier of this mutation.”

Ms. Laksi remains as composed as the doctor. But, Dr. Amarassi notes, her cheeks are reddening, from joy, excitement... This is not good. But Dr. Amarassi is not allowed to use the word “however.” She says: “Let’s continue, shall we?”

“You, ma’am, are a carrier of the well-known mutations in the SIRT1 and POLR3A genes. And with you, sir, we found mutations in the CHEC2 gene and the TP53 gene. That means, in a nutshell, that your offspring could be at a slightly increased risk of hormone-related cancers, old age diabetes, and certain autoimmune disorders; for instance, in the intestines.”

“Hormone-related cancers?” Ms. Laksi asks at once. “What’s that? Is that from him?”—she nods at her husband (or was it her boyfriend?).

“Your husband... partner... is a carrier of the gene that we now believe to be connected to breast and prostate cancer. But if I understand correctly, you haven’t any indications yourself in that area?”

“What?” says the man across from her now. “Me, cancer?”

“The gene could be passed on in reproduction. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Mutations in CHEK2 only manifest themselves in one out of nine carriers, so the chance that any possible offspring would be afflicted is still relatively small.”

“OK,” says Ms. Laksi, her voice slightly higher than it was. “But still, you say that through him...”

“Please remember,” Dr. Amarassi hastens to add, “that a good sixty per cent of men are carriers of this specific gene.”

She has been here before. Women like Ms. Laksi, men like...  come on, what is his name again: he looks at her so hopefully, almost imploringly. But there is nothing she can do for him.

Her name is Ms. Laksi. But the husband’s name, Dr. Amarassi has forgotten. She skimmed their dossier just now, a tad too quickly. She should have been more thorough, but it was the best she could do. She’s twenty minutes behind schedule as it is, and she did not want to cut short her lunchtime stroll, so now she is hotfooting it toward the elevator to the waiting room. Nothing she can do about it. Her backlog is entirely thanks to the second couple this morning, the students.

The young woman was as meek as a lamb, the kind of girl whose every gesture seems intended to dismiss her own presence. He, on the other hand, draped himself across her desk as though he might yank her out of her chair and carry her in his arms like a film gorilla out into the hall: “Answer my questions, or I’ll drag you home with me!” He kept badgering her with, “But how much chance, then?” Lots of people do that. Her job is to explain their results, period. But this kid made it personal: “What would you do if you were us, what would you do?”

If I were you two, I wouldn’t even think about children in the first place, she thought. Puppy love, first-time infatuation; this kind of setup seldom survives the arrival of a baby. But she didn’t say that; she said, “I can’t advise you, I’m not authorized to do that. I can only give you information.”

This time she was relieved she could leave it at that. But sometimes she wished she could say more, like, “Oh, you really shouldn’t worry. Breast cancer is treatable these days, and I doubt it’ll be a girl anyway.” Or, “Well, rheumatism is a pretty nasty disease, and besides, ma’am, that fellow of yours is not much of a catch. You’re still young and attractive, you’re sure to find someone else, someone with better genes!”

---------------

She always bites her tongue at this point. They’re strict here. Liddy was suspended for three months recently for telling a couple that a gay child was also okay. The parents filed a complaint, the internal commission found Liddy guilty of unwarranted interference—the European advisory board let it go this time, fortunately, but the media, of course, did not: they started calling them, asking questions, just like they did when the clinic opened. Are you now screening for sexual orientation, and what about gender selection and late-onset diseases? Come on, isn’t offering information just as unethical as offering advice?—well, we’ve brought in an expert who says expanding choices in fact diminishes the level of personal autonomy, don’t you agree, would you care to respond?

“Ms. Laksi and. . .  sir!”

The couple leaps up from their bucket seats, a simple but chic design: somewhere in the past couple of decades, simplicity has become equivalent to futuristic. Sometimes Dr. Amarassi suspects this reflects a modern desire.     

“Right this way.”

She walks in front of the couple on the way to her office; they do not see her face. She opens her mouth as wide as she can and sticks out her tongue. Crosses her eyes, opens and closes them. No, it’s not a tic. It is thorough physical preparation. In a moment, her face must remain the picture of composure for the duration of the session, even if she (or he!) starts crying or asks awkward questions. So she’s better off discarding her own emotions now. One last grimace: gulp, gulp like a fish, mouth open and closed, teeth clenched, OK, ready!

“Do come in. Please take a seat.”

There used to be a tissue dispenser on the table. Metal thing. She had them take it away. Grief is an opinion—and she is not here to administer to opinions.

“During your last visit we took blood from both of you for preconception screening, packet 4” (always begin by recapping, so that everything’s clear—often they don’t hear the first sentence anyway), “and today we are here to go through the results and to discuss any specifics” (never “abnormalities,” always “specifics”).

“Just tell us up front,” Ms. Laksi says, “are we carriers?”

Dr. Amarassi opens a ring binder. “It’s not that simple,” she says, “let’s just go through the results step by step.”

“No, carriers of CDKL5, I mean. We asked if you would pay special attention to that one. My sister is a carrier, and her husband…”

Ah, now Dr. Amarassi remembers—she should have had this at her fingertips, she should have just read the dossier, for God’s sake—and says, “Yes, that’s right. And we did indeed look into that.” She skims the sheet of paper in front of her. “Neither of you is a carrier of this mutation.”

Ms. Laksi remains as composed as the doctor. But, Dr. Amarassi notes, her cheeks are reddening, from joy, excitement. . . This is not good. But Dr. Amarassi is not allowed to use the word “however.” She says: “Let’s continue, shall we?”

“You, ma’am, are a carrier of the well-known mutations in the SIRT1 and POLR3A genes. And with you, sir, we found mutations in the CHEC2 gene and the TP53 gene. That means, in a nutshell, that your offspring could be at a slightly increased risk of hormone-related cancers, old age diabetes, and certain autoimmune disorders; for instance, in the intestines.”

“Hormone-related cancers?” Ms. Laksi asks at once. “What’s that? Is that from him?”—she nods at her husband (or was it her boyfriend?).

“Your husband. . . . partner. . . is a carrier of the gene that we now believe to be connected to breast and prostate cancer. But if I understand correctly, you haven’t any indications yourself in that area?”

“What?” says the man across from her now. “Me, cancer?”

“The gene could be passed on in reproduction. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Mutations in CHEK2 only manifest themselves in one out of nine carriers, so the chance that any possible offspring would be afflicted is still relatively small.”

“OK,” says Ms. Laksi, her voice slightly higher than it was. “But still, you say that through him...”

“Please remember,” Dr. Amarassi hastens to add, “that a good sixty per cent of men are carriers of this specific gene.”

She has been here before. Women like Ms. Laksi, men like . . .  come on, what is his name again: he looks at her so hopefully, almost imploringly. But there is nothing she can do for him.

“Hormone-related cancers?” Ms. Laksi asks at once.
“What’s that? Is that from him?”— she nods at her husband.

“Hormone-related cancers?” Ms. Laksi asks at once.
“What’s that? Is that from him?”— she nods at her husband.

“Hormone-related cancers?” Ms. Laksi asks at once.
“What’s that? Is that from him?”— she nods at her husband.

“Hormone-related cancers?” Ms. Laksi asks at once.
“What’s that? Is that from him?”— she nods at her husband.

“Hormone-related cancers?” Ms. Laksi asks at once. “What’s that? Is that from him?”— she nods at her husband.

“The most striking detail,” she begins as she looks past her audience, like when she gives a presentation, “is that you are both carriers of a mutation in the COL7A1 gene. That is a mutation that causes the disorder called epidermolysis bullosa. Are you familiar with it?”

“Epidermolysis?” Ms. Laksi asks, her face no longer taut, her voice now soft. “Is that with all those skin wounds?”

“That’s right, epidermolysis bullosa is a disorder that causes extremely painful blisters on the surface of the skin and mucous membranes. You can find plenty about it on the Internet.”

“God, I remember seeing a documentary about it once. The mother had to change the bandages every morning, and that child, that child. . .  ”

“Are there any cases of it in your family?”

“God, no, not that I know of. ”

The movement of the head is minimal, but Dr. Amarassi notices it clearly. Yes, the man nods. And he drums, softly, with his fingers on her desktop.

“My cousin,” he says. “My cousin had it. They had to let her go when she was twenty.”

“Your cousin?!” And there goes Ms. Laksi: “Why didn’t you ever tell me, for god’s sake, your cousin!”

They sit at her desk for another half hour. “Are you sure?” “How much chance, exactly?” “And what if he weren’t a carrier?”—the more Ms. Laksi asks, the quieter her boyfriend becomes. His fingers make the only sound, still drumming on the edge of her desk, an SOS whistle that blares across the surface of the huge, empty ocean.

Then they get up. Dr. Amarassi offers her hand. No “I’m sorry” or “all the best” or “good luck”, just “I hope I have informed you sufficiently.”

She closes the door as soon as her clients are in the hallway. Then she walks over to the window. She peers outside; it’s still raining. And after a few minutes, they leave the building together.

He opens an umbrella. A large, black circle now hovers above the sidewalk. The circle glides along a couple of meters, then stops. Ms. Laksi is still standing on the front steps, Dr. Amarassi only now notices. The woman fumbles in her bag, removes something, a stick, a relay race baton. She jabs it out in front of her like a saber, and the small umbrella pops open.

Look, there they go: two dark dots above the wet paving stones. The dot on the right is slightly bigger, the dot on the left moves more quickly, Dr. Amarassi sees. Then it overtakes the larger dot.

She squints. But no, all the way to the end of the street, the dots do not touch.

“The most striking detail,” she begins as she looks past her audience, like when she gives a presentation, “is that you are both carriers of a mutation in the COL7A1 gene. That is a mutation that causes the disorder called epidermolysis bullosa. Are you familiar with it?”

“Epidermolysis?” Ms. Laksi asks, her face no longer taut, her voice now soft. “Is that with all those skin wounds?”

“That’s right, epidermolysis bullosa is a disorder that causes extremely painful blisters on the surface of the skin and mucous membranes. You can find plenty about it on the Internet.”

“God, I remember seeing a documentary about it once. The mother had to change the bandages every morning, and that child, that child. . .  ”

“Are there any cases of it in your family?”

“God, no, not that I know of. ”

The movement of the head is minimal, but Dr. Amarassi notices it clearly. Yes, the man nods. And he drums, softly, with his fingers on her desktop.

“My cousin,” he says. “My cousin had it. They had to let her go when she was twenty.”

“Your cousin?!” And there goes Ms. Laksi: “Why didn’t you ever tell me, for god’s sake, your cousin!”

They sit at her desk for another half hour. “Are you sure?” “How much chance, exactly?” “And what if he weren’t a carrier?”—the more Ms. Laksi asks, the quieter her boyfriend becomes. His fingers make the only sound, still drumming on the edge of her desk, an SOS whistle that blares across the surface of the huge, empty ocean.

Then they get up. Dr. Amarassi offers her hand. No “I’m sorry” or “all the best” or “good luck”, just “I hope I have informed you sufficiently.”

She closes the door as soon as her clients are in the hallway. Then she walks over to the window. She peers outside; it’s still raining. And after a few minutes, they leave the building together.

He opens an umbrella. A large, black circle now hovers above the sidewalk. The circle glides along a couple of meters, then stops. Ms. Laksi is still standing on the front steps, Dr. Amarassi only now notices. The woman fumbles in her bag, removes something, a stick, a relay race baton. She jabs it out in front of her like a saber, and the small umbrella pops open.

Look, there they go: two dark dots above the wet paving stones. The dot on the right is slightly bigger, the dot on the left moves more quickly, Dr. Amarassi sees. Then it overtakes the larger dot.

She squints. But no, all the way to the end of the street, the dots do not touch.

“The most striking detail,” she begins as she looks past her audience, like when she gives a presentation, “is that you are both carriers of a mutation in the COL7A1 gene. That is a mutation that causes the disorder called epidermolysis bullosa. Are you familiar with it?”

“Epidermolysis?” Ms. Laksi asks, her face no longer taut, her voice now soft. “Is that with all those skin wounds?”

“That’s right, epidermolysis bullosa is a disorder that causes extremely painful blisters on the surface of the skin and mucous membranes. You can find plenty about it on the Internet.”

“God, I remember seeing a documentary about it once. The mother had to change the bandages every morning, and that child, that child. . .  ”

“Are there any cases of it in your family?”

“God, no, not that I know of. ”

The movement of the head is minimal, but Dr. Amarassi notices it clearly. Yes, the man nods. And he drums, softly, with his fingers on her desktop.

“My cousin,” he says. “My cousin had it. They had to let her go when she was twenty.”

“Your cousin?!” And there goes Ms. Laksi: “Why didn’t you ever tell me, for god’s sake, your cousin!”

They sit at her desk for another half hour. “Are you sure?” “How much chance, exactly?” “And what if he weren’t a carrier?”—the more Ms. Laksi asks, the quieter her boyfriend becomes. His fingers make the only sound, still drumming on the edge of her desk, an SOS whistle that blares across the surface of the huge, empty ocean.

Then they get up. Dr. Amarassi offers her hand. No “I’m sorry” or “all the best” or “good luck”, just “I hope I have informed you sufficiently.”

She closes the door as soon as her clients are in the hallway. Then she walks over to the window. She peers outside; it’s still raining. And after a few minutes, they leave the building together.

He opens an umbrella. A large, black circle now hovers above the sidewalk. The circle glides along a couple of meters, then stops. Ms. Laksi is still standing on the front steps, Dr. Amarassi only now notices. The woman fumbles in her bag, removes something, a stick, a relay race baton. She jabs it out in front of her like a saber, and the small umbrella pops open.

Look, there they go: two dark dots above the wet paving stones. The dot on the right is slightly bigger, the dot on the left moves more quickly, Dr. Amarassi sees. Then it overtakes the larger dot.

She squints. But no, all the way to the end of the street, the dots do not touch.

Hanna-Bervoets

HANNA BERVOETS 

Hanna Bervoets (1984) is a Dutch novelist, essayist, and scriptwriter. After her award-winning debut, Or How Why (2009), she wrote five novels that combine literary narratives with science fiction themes. Dutch critics sometimes refer to Bervoets’s work as “lab literature” because her stories often have an academic setting but also because they explore human behavior in more or less artificial circumstances.
Bervoets’s third novel, Everything There Was (2013), is an apocalypse tale with a philosophical undertone: how do we define ourselves when the world as we knew it gets destroyed? Efter (2015) is set in a near future in which our thinking about mental health has changed so radically that society has come to believe that being in love is a mental disorder that can and should be treated in special clinics. Ivanov (2016) refers to the true story of Russian scientist Ilya Ivanov who tried to crossbreed humans with apes in the 1920s. The novel, however, is set in 1990s New York during the AIDS epidemic. In her latest novel, Fuzzie (2017), Bervoets explores the mechanisms behind our need for affection.
Bervoets has received several nominations and awards for her work. Her novels have been translated into English, German, French, and Turkish. In the spring of 2018, Bervoets will be a resident at Writers Omi at Ledig House, New York.

Photo: Sanne Klein


Published twice a year by Lebowski Publishers
© Lebowski Publishers  |  Amsterdam

For international rights please contact:
Oscar van GelderenTracy Fisher, Jill Gillett or Sylvie Rabineau

This literary magazine for Grounded SF
from The Netherlands and Flanders is
published twice a year by Lebowski Publishers.
© Lebowski Publishers  |  Amsterdam

For international rights please contact:
Oscar van GelderenTracy Fisher , Jill Gillet or Sylvie Rabineau

This literary magazine for Grounded SF from The Netherlands and Flanders is published twice a year by Lebowski Publishers.


For international rights please contact: Oscar van GelderenTracy Fisher, Jill Gillet or Sylvie Rabineau

© 2018 Hanna Bervoets, Willem Bosch, Rob van Essen, Jerry Goossens, Erik Nieuwenhuis, PJ Pancras, Joost Vandecasteele

© TRANSLATIONS Antoinette Fawcett, Kristen Gehrman, Thijs van Nimwegen, Jonathan Reeder, Sarah Welling, Joni Zwart

© 2018 Hanna Bervoets, Willem Bosch, Rob van Essen, Jerry Goossens, Erik Nieuwenhuis, PJ Pancras, Joost Vandecasteele

© TRANSLATIONS Antoinette Fawcett, Kristen Gehrman, Thijs van Nimwegen, Jonathan Reeder, Sarah Welling, Joni Zwart

© 2018 Hanna Bervoets, Willem Bosch, Rob van Essen, Jerry Goossens, Erik Nieuwenhuis, PJ Pancras, Joost Vandecasteele

© TRANSLATIONS Antoinette Fawcett, Kristen Gehrman, Thijs van Nimwegen, Jonathan Reeder, Sarah Welling, Joni Zwart

© 2018 Hanna Bervoets, Willem Bosch, Rob van Essen, Jerry Goossens,
Erik Nieuwenhuis, PJ Pancras, Joost Vandecasteele

© TRANSLATIONS Antoinette Fawcett, Kristen Gehrman, Thijs van Nimwegen, Jonathan Reeder, Sarah Welling, Joni Zwart

© 2018 Hanna Bervoets, Willem Bosch, Rob van Essen, Jerry Goossens,Erik Nieuwenhuis, PJ Pancras, Joost Vandecasteele

© TRANSLATIONS Antoinette Fawcett, Kristen Gehrman, Thijs van Nimwegen, Jonathan Reeder, Sarah Welling, Joni Zwart

EDITORS Oscar van Gelderen, 
Jasper Henderson, Maaike Pleging

DESIGN 
Bart Heideman  |  uncanny.design

EDITORS Oscar van Gelderen, 
Jasper Henderson, Maaike Pleging



DESIGN
 
Bart Heideman  |  uncanny.design

EDITORS 
Oscar van Gelderen, 
Jasper Henderson, 
Maaike Pleging

DESIGN 
Bart Heideman
uncanny.design

EDITORS 
Oscar van Gelderen, 
Jasper Henderson,
Maaike Pleging

DESIGN 
Bart Heideman  |  uncanny.design

EDITORS 
Oscar van Gelderen, Jasper Henderson, Maaike Pleging

DESIGN 
Bart Heideman  |  uncanny.design