Quotes from The Condition, a novel by Jennifer Haigh telling the story of a family around the pivotal event of the diagnosis of the daughter, Gwen, with Turner's Syndrome.
Summer comes late to Massachusetts. The gray spring is frosty, unhurried: wet snow on the early plantingsm a cold lesson for optimistic gardeners, for those who have not learned. Chimneys smoke until Memorial Day. Then, all at once, the celing lifts. The sun fires, scorching the muddy ground. At Cope Cod the rhythm is eternal, unchanging. Icy tides smash the beaches. Then cold ones. Then cool. The bay lies warming in the long days. Blue-lipped children brave the surf.
They opened the house the third week in June, the summer of the bicentennial, and of Paulette's 35th birthday. She drove from Concord to the train station in Boston, where her sister was waiting, and happily surrendered the wheel...
It was the sameness that Paulette treasured, the summer ritual unchanging, the illusion of permanence.
Paulette knew what
Frank would want to do. His sexual demands overwhelmed her. If he'd asked
less often, she might have felt bad about refusing; but if Frank had his
way, they would make love every night. After fifteen years of marriage,
it seemed excessive. Paulette sometimes wondered if other couples did it
so often, but she had no one to ask... Married sex: the familiar circuit
of words and caresses and sensations, shuffled perhaps, but in the end
always the same. The repetition wore on her. Each night when Frank reached
for her she felt a hot flicker of irritation, then tamped it down... Years
later she would remember those marital nights with tenderness: for the
brave young man Frank had been, and for her young self, the wounded and
stubborn girl. She'd had a certain idea about lovemaking, gleaned from
Hollywood or God knows where, that a man's desire should be specific to
her, triggered by her unique face or voice or better some intangible
quality of her spirit; and that of all the women in the world, only she
should be able to arouse him. And there lay the problem, Frank's passion,
persistent and inexhuastible, seemed to have little to do with her. He
came home from work bursting with it, though they hadn't seen or spoken
to each other in many hours. "I've been thinking about this all day," he
sometimes whispered as he moved inside her.
That one little word had the power to freeze her. Not, "I've been thinking about you." But, "I've been thinking about this."
It would seem comical later, how deeply this upset her. Like so many of her quarrels with Frank, it seemed ridiculous in hindsight. Once, early on, she had tried to explain it to Anne: Frank loves sex. If he hadn't married me, he'd be having sex with someone else.
So? Anne said.
For me it's different, Paulette persisted. I love Frank. If I hadn't met him, I never would have had sex with anyone.
It wasn't true of course, but she wanted it to be. Her ideas were fixed, impossibly idealistic: Frank was the only man she could possible have loved. Later this wuld seem a childish notion, but times had been different then.
They were apart 12
hours a day, 6 days a week. In that time, how many nubile young students
did he imagine undressing? When, in a weak moment, she'd admitted her concerns,
Frank had merely laughed: Honey, there are no pretty girls. It's MIT.
This was not the answer she'd hoped for.
Recently her worries had grown sharper. The department had hired a new secretary. Now, when Paulette called Frank at work, a young female voice answered the phone. Paulette had done research: the secretary, Betsy Baird, was blond and attractive. Was it her presence that fired Frank's libido?
For girls it was never simple... Paulette thought of her own puberty. All these years later, the memory still pained her: the interminable months of waiting, her failure so conspicuous, displayed for all to see, In her long, sunny childhood, she'd never felt envy, but at puberty it filled her every waking hour. She envied ceaselessly, obsessively, the few classmates who, heaven knew why, seemed to transform overnight. She'd hated them blindly, indiscriminately; hated even Marjorie Tuttle, her dear good friend. Now, as a mother, she remembered those girls with compassion, knowing they'd faced their own difficulties: attention from older boys, grown men even; foolish adults like Frank who couldn't distinguish between a woman and a child. Once, twice, she'd caught him ogling girls barely out of grammar school. I'm not a pervert, he insisted when she brought this to his attention. How am I supposed to know? She had to admit, it was a fair question. The girls had adult-looking bodies, and dressed to show them: miniskirts, tight T-shirts, sometimes with nothing underneath. She'd been lucky hadn't she? to come of age in more modest times. She recalled how, at Wellesley, they'd worn raincoats over their whites as they crossed campus to the tennis court. Those rules had existed to keep girls safe and comfortable. And, it seemed to her, to make things more equitable. Proper clothing kept the buxom from feeling conspicuous and preserved the vanity of the shapeless and the plump. How cruel to be a girl now, with no such safeguards in place. To be exposed to adult reactions no child was equipped to handle, the lust and ridicule and pity, the creeping shame. God help Gwen, she thought. God help us all.
Frank felt invigorated.
Cristina was a hit with the other postdocs. Her science was stimulating;
so he admitted to himself was her simple presence. Though his conduct
with her was perfectly proper, he observed her discreetly, and made exhaustive
mental notes. On certain days she wore her hair in a bun, exposing plump
earlobes. She favoured silky button-down shirts in deep colours; she left
the first two buttons undone, and sometimes the first three. When summer
came, he discovered another feature of these shirts: in an air-conditioned
room, they did not hide her nipples. Without ever seeing it or touching
it, she had revived his limp appendage. What Rabbi Kleinman, with full
use of hands and mouth, had barely achieved, Cristina unknowingly brought
about several times a day. His condition was cured. Frank McKotch was not
Cristina had a lover. Not surprising: she was a beautiful girl. That the lover was vital and young, a swarthy Greek on a motorcyle, likewise made perfect sense. It was a probable outcome, wholly predictable if he'd been paying attention. He had simply been looking at the wrong data. For months he'd fixated on apricots, earlobes, protruding nipples. Busy counting buttons, he'd ignored other crucial facts. One morning she'd come to work sullen and bleary, eyes swollen as if she'd been crying. The next day a bouquet of roses arrived at the lab; when Betsy Baird teased her, Cristina had blushed... But Frank was not a young man. In those few moments he'd agred twenty years.
Neil was never happied
than when he was asking questions. In the old days it had driven Frank
crazy. He hadn't minded the factual ones where did you take Paulette
for dinner? But those were just the warm-up. Neil wanted to know the reasons
for things. Why were you home so early? Why did she get mad at you? Why
do you supposed she felt that way? Are you sure that's the reason.
At the time Frank had been flattered; he assumed that Neil, with no girlfriend of his own, as living vicariously through him. Later, he saw those questions in a different light. His friend's curiosity, the depth and dazzling breadth of it, was his primary strength as a scientist. Other investigators, including Frank, were driven to find the correct answer to a question the single, uniquely perfect answer. Neil was interested in the whole range of possibilities; he truly enjoyed positing thoeires, playing out scenarios as far as imagination could take him. Unlike Frank, he didn't mind being wrong. It's the only way you learn anything, Neil often said, but Frank found the whole process tiresome. He didn't have the patience for mistakes.
Frank glanced over at his daughter. To anyone who knew Turners syndrome, her condition was obvious. She was short but not petite; her broad chest seemed to be sized for a much taller person. Her short legs were thick and muscular. She had the powerful build of an Olympic child gymnast: the narrow hips, the shield chest. Watching the games last summer, Frank found himself wondering if all the team were Turners. At their young ages thirteen or fourteen it was hard to tell. Severe cases of Turner's, where a girl's second X chromosome was missing entirely, were easy to identify. Small stature plus certain telltale physical features low set ears, a low hairline, folks of excess skin at the sides of the neck could have no other cause. But Gwen's second X chromosome wasn't missing, just partially deleted. This explained her asymptomatic childhood and probably, her good health as an adult: by Gwen's age, many Turners women developed serious ailments. Thirty percent had kidney abnormalities... But with most of her second X chromosome intact, Gwen had escaped these complications entirely.
The snow was falling,
falling on the house in Concord, and this more than anything else more
than gifts or gralands, more than the familiar old carols or the insipid
new ones playing in the bank and hair salon and grocery store that afternoon
made December 24th feel like a holiday. Her errands done, Paulette stood
at the front door and stared out through the frosted glass. As a girl she'd
loved the snow, its first appearance each year a thing to celebrate, Roy
and Martine dragging their Flexible Flyers to the top of the hill behind
their house, stopping periodically to wait for her, too little to keep
up. Now her brother and sister lived in warmer climates Martine in New
Mexico; Roy and his new wife in Arizona and only Paulette was left to
witness the crystalline scratching at the window panes, the heavy blanket
accruing on the front step.
The house, on a wide tree-lined street at the edge of town, had seen many winters; 199, according to the town clerk. It had been the boyhood home of Josiah Hobhouse, a Unitarian minister and ardent abolitionist. Paulette cherished this history as though it belonged to her, as though it were her very own ancestors who'd fought at Harpers Ferry alongside John Brown. Perhaps because of this, she couldn't imagine selling the place, as the men in her family Billy, Roy periodically urged her to do. In financial terms, the house was a disaster. Like all the elderly, it had begun to break down...
Time was the enemy; with each passing year she became more aware of its momentum, the destruction it wrought. Her own face was a constant reminder: still beautiful, her son insisted, but Paulette was not fooled. Her skin was delicate, etched with tiny lines. She was so vigilant about her weight that her features were sharper than they used to be; her hair, if she were to stop coloring it, would be more gray than dark. Most shocking were her hands, knotted with ropy veins. How transparent her skin had grown! It struck her as faintly indecent, her inner workings, the circulation of her blood, so utterly exposed.
At certain times in his life, Frank had loved the early dark. When he and Paulette were newlyweds, it had simply meant more nighttime; when he come home from the lab they went directly to bed. More recently, he'd come hom to find the windows bright, music blasting, Deena Maddux barefoot in the kitchen, singing and cooking dinner. Without her he found the dark evenings depressing, his few entertainments TV, reading, booze inadequate distractions.
Wetly Scott made his way to his office, a cramped cubile he shared with Jordan Funk, who taught history and civics and advised the drama club. By a cruel trick of destiny, Jordan was the least funky person Scott had ever known, a skinny kid in round John Lennon glasses cool ten years ago and a cardigan sweater than hung from his shoulders like a bathrobe. He had a tendency to stutter when excited; that and his puppylike enthusiasm made him seem younger than the students, who radiated boredom and cynicism. Fresh out of Bennington, Jordan was still plagued with teenage acne. The blemishes came and went in cyclical fashion, like constellations appearing in the heavens.
Jane Frayne had been
his first love, though he'd understood this only later. This was, he saw
now, a hallmark of his character: the failure to see what anything meant
until it was gone forever. Other people knew when they were in love, and
behaved accordinly. Carter Rock had told him freshman year that Beth would
be the girl he would marry. At the time Scott had found this outrageous.
How can you possibly know? he'd demanded, laughing. Inwardly though, he'd
felt a strange panic. Dude, said Carter, I just know.
At the time and even now Scott found such certitude unimaginable. Beth had been a pretty girl, one of the prettiest. But pretty enough to keep Carter interested forever? Enough to compensate for the incalculable truckloads of prettiness hundreds of girls, thousands he'd be swearing off for good? These were his thoughts in the winter of 1986, when he first met Jane.
Quizzes had seemed to him a capitulation, but Scott had found no other way to coerce the students into reading the assigned number of pages from Great Expectations. He spent an unspeakable number of hours composing these quizzes. He found himself looking forward to quiz-making, the Sunday night ritual of sipping a glass of wine while reading Cliff's Notes and scouring the Internet for pirated study guides, the same strategies his students used. He sometimes stayed up half the night devising questions that couldn't be answered by these illicit means. It became a game to him, the imagined battle of wits with his students, the satisfaction of ferreting out the malingerers. It was the most rewarding aspect of his job.
There were certain conversations Billy didn't wish to have. These included, but were not limited to, religion, past sexual partners, and the price of anything. (He'd been raised to consider such discussions crude.) And of course, his family. Above all, he disliked talking about the future. He had only just gotten comfortable in the present.
Billy couldn't remember
any skin but Srikanth's, any mouth, any smell. I don't want anyone else,
he'd once told Sri. Of course you don't, Sri replied. People irritate you.
And you're terrified of change.
Even now, if Billy were to fall into bed with someone a stranger from a bar or bookstore, the cute blond barista who flirted with him at Starbucks it somehow wouldn't matter. Sri would know instantly and tease him mercilessly; but nothing would change between them. Billy knew this as surely as he knew his own name, and the knowledge comforted him deeply. He couldn't imagine his life any other way.
Different on the surface, they were alike in ways that mattered. Both eldest sons of successful fathers; both sent away to demanding schools. With Sri, Billy was not merely happy. He was understood. When he thought of their lives together, he felt a deep relief. Sri was his solution to a particularly nettlesome problem: how a man like him was to live.
For years this was the phrase he used. As a teenager he viewed his sexuality as a medical condition, invisible to the naked eye, but requiring management. Watching other boys in class, on the playing field, he wondered: Is he like me? Some were, had to be.
Earily Lauren became his girlfriend. She phoned him nightly from her dorm at Yale, spent every other weekend curled around him in bed. She appeared and was beautiful at his fraternity formal; she impressed his friends with her intellect and wit. At those moments Billy was weirdly proud of her, like a parent who'd watched an awkward child blossom. He remembered Lauren at fourteen awkward, peering at the world from behind her curtain of hair and found himself rooting for her. It was not the way other guys loved their girlfriends, but it was a kind of love nonetheless.
With exams looming,
Billy found himself inventing excuses to avoid trips to New Haven. Don't
you miss me? she sometimes asked, her voice husky with hurt. Of course
I do, he insisted, though it wasn't exactly true. How could he miss her
when he already had her? Lauren thinking of him, caring what happened to
him, his lacrose practice, his biochem exam, the boring details of his
What he didn't miss, in fact, was sex. He couldn't seem to conjure up the desire, the plain animal list that made normal college couples wild to see each other, the real reason Topher Craig put 500 miles on his car each weekend to visit his girlfriend at Cornell. I don't know how you do it man, Topher sometimes said, as he packed his duffel on a Thursday night. After a week I'm ready to explode.
To this Billy had no answer. The real answer that he did explode, nightly, alone in his room was unspeakable and pathetic. Unspeakable too what he thought as he pumped himself. He was not thinking of Lauren.
For a long time, love,
the possibility of it, seemed lost to him. It was the cold reality of his
condition. He could want another man, he could touch and be touched, fuck
and be fucked; but this was not love. Was, rather, a terrible parody of
it, somehow comical, somehow grotesque. Love was the movies of his adolescence,
John Travolta strutting and preening, twirling the girl in the Lycra dress.
Billy couldn't name the actress, couldn't even recall her face, but still
he'd absorbed the lesson: it wasn't love unless someone was wearing a dress.
Sex now, sex could be had. When he started med school that fall, he sensed
its presence in the streets, in the dance clubs where he occasionally ventured,
New Order playng so loud he couldn't hear a thing, only feel it in his
chest. How does it feel to treat me like you do?
Boys in boots, in peg-legged jeans, eyed him brazenly from across the room. The night-owl complexion, the hollow cheeks: to Billy, who'd spent his adolesence crushing on Bowie and Mick Jagger, they could hardly have been more seductive. But in the fall of 1984, they were also suspect. The virus had been identified, a name assigned. Still, the obituaries in the Times were full of code words: of pnemonia, after a long illness. Suddenly nobody looked healthy, and suddenly this mattered a great deal. For the average gay man, getting laid was a scary business... So to hell with women; to hell with men.
Halfway through her
freshman year, as she was leaving Physical Anthropology, she'd fallen into
conversation with a classmate, a thing that rarely happened. The girl,
Cynthia Denny, was from Tennesse horse country, which explained it. Gwen
had noticed a difference an ease, indiscriminate chattiness in girls
from the South. They talked about the day's class. The professor, Andreas
Swingard, had recently published an oral history of a little-known tribe
of Amazonian Indians.
"You're ruining the curve," Cynthia complained. "You know just as much as he does."
"I read his book. It's interesting stuff."
"Can I ask you a question?" Cynthia said, with a sly smile that seemed nearly flirtacious. "How old are you?"
Gwen understood then, that there was a point to this conversation. That Cynthia wasn't simply being friendly.
"Nineteen," she said warily.
"I know it's none of my business," Cynthia stammered. "We just thought you were younger. You know, some kind of prodigy. I saw your mom drop you off the other day." Again the smile. "No offense, I hope."
At the time Gwen had been horrified. Her classmates the mysterious 'we' had taken her for a child. But the more she thought about it, the more she liked this vision of herself, which, if not exactly flattering, was preferable to the truth: it was better to be a genius than a mutant.
Silence opened between them. Normally it was Gwen's secret weapon, a tool she wielded with surgical precision. Other people feared it; faced with a lapse in the conversation they blinked, stammered, babbled incoherently. Her parents hated it. The Toddlers (young noisy colleagues) were particularly vulnerable. Faced with Gwen's silence, they blushed and fidgeted, then scrambled to fill it, like lemmings leaping to their death. Only Heidi seemed to understand that Gwen didn't enjoy silence either. That sooner or later it would unnerve her, and she would be the one to speak.
A broad-shouldered blonde remdinded Gwen of the field-hockey girls she'd kown at Wellesley. Same phenotype, her father would say.
A woman is her body.
That night, after her bath, Paulette did a thin she hadn't done in years.
She stood before the mirror and looked at herself... Clothed, she could
face the world. But nobody had seen her naked in years. She remembered
with a pang the way Frank used to undress her, the hungry way he'd looked
at her... After the divorce, with Donald Large, she'd been more reserved.
She was forty then, and already self-conscious. His words had reassured
her, a steady stream of sweet compliments that soothed like a gentle ran.
And there was this: his own body was far from perfect. Perhaps that's why
she'd chosen him in the first place.
The truth dawned on her. No one would ever touch her again. To live another 20 or 30 years untouched and unloved: it seemed impossible that this was what nature intended. Her whole life Paulette had believed in a natural order, nature a loving mother, wise and provident. Yet aging and childbearing were natural processes. There was no escaping it: her ruined body was nature's work. Nature was not kind.
She realized, of course, that not every life unfolded as hers had. Couples could grow old together. Paulette remembered Frank as he'd looked on Christmas Eve, his eyed hooded, his red hair dusted pink. Age hadn't spared him either. But Paulette had known him young and handsome, his athlete's shoulders, the square cut of his jaw, in her mind the two pictures blended together. The result was something infinitely kinder than what a stranger saw.
Paulette thought of Rand and Barbara Marsh, Wall and Tricia James, couples her own age, couples who'd endured. After so many years, did these husbands and wives still look at each other, still want each other? Perhaps that was what nature intended. No woman of 56 should have to undress for a new lover. She should be spared that anguish. There was nothing wrong with nature's plan. It was Frank and Paulette who had failed.
"I couldn't believe
the way you sucked up to her," Penny said now. "'I know how it is. I'm
an educator too'."
Scott winced at Penny's gruff imitation of his voice, aware, on some level, that he had mocked her first. The dull churlishness of their fights depressed and mortified him. He felt strongly that marital spats should display some esprit: some brittle cleverness, some Edward Albee-like theatricality. His parents had fought brilliantly, though his mother had often resorted to tears in the end. Penny, luckily, was not a crier; but neither did she engaged in clever repartee. Together they sounded like children on a playground.
Years ago, at Pearsem Scott's classmate 'Jens' Jensen had tutored him in chemistry, physics and calculus, all the subjects Scott hated. He'd watched, mystified, as Jens poured over a complicated problem, his pale brow furrowed in concentration. At the time Scott had chalked it up to cultural difference. Jens was from Norway? Denmark? Some cold northern latitude where it was always dark and people stayed indoors solving equations. He knew at the time that Jens had saved his bacon. Now he saw that, in a larger sense, the Jenses of the world were saving everybody's bacon. That if every brain worked the way Scott's did, there would be no science or higher math, the kind used to design tall buildings and bridges and aeroplanes that didn't fall out of the sky. People would live in huts and wear animal skins, or become crummy English teachers who hadn't read a fraction of the books they should have.
Paulette had always wished for Gwen to meet someone an anthropologist perhaps, or an archaeologist. He and Gwen would fall in love. It would be clear at a glance what had drawn them together their common love or anthropology, or archaeology. The young man's motives could be trusted because they would make sense. Gwen would marry and adopt children or, like many women these days, love contentedly without. With each passing year, this scenario seemed increasingly unlikely; but Paulette continued to hope. yet now a young man had appeared, and she was filled with love. Her daughter was in love, possibly for the first time. Paulette had learned long ago that there was no more vulnerable state. A woman in love would part with anything. Comfort, security, dignity; her own plans for the future. And when loved raced off to Providence in the new truck she'd bought him, she would stand at the curb waving good-bye.
In a mere three weeks, the paper would be in print the fastest publication of Frank's career. Waiting was a kind of sweet torture, not unlike the first weeks of courtship, the runway leading to sex.
Scott settled into his first-class seat. The plane was packed with students in Trinity and Wesleyan sweatshirts. A few of the boys seemed drunk already, red faced and jubilant, cranked up for a week of joyful parent-financed depravity in Lauderdale or Daytona. In their dumb happiness they reminded him of dogs, panting with the confidence that came from never having failed at anything. Gratefully he watched the girls, their glossed lips, their thighs in snug blue jeans, glad they drew breath in the world. Years of teaching high school had inoculated him, mostly, against the charms of the young, though he backslid briefly each September when he cast his prettiest students in riotous daydreams. These fantasies lasted a few days, a week at the outside, and ended as soon as he heard the girls speak.
"I wanted to get an
update on Gwen."
"Oh Frank, wonderful news. She's back in Pittsburgh. Scott went down to Saint Raphael and talked some sense into her."
"Scott talked sense into her? Impossible. Who talked sense into Scott?"
- Paulette and Frank
Paulette said. "You have to take a vacation sooner or later. You can't
work every single minute. No wonder you're ill."
I am desperately ill, Billy though. I've had a heart attack. I've been attacked by my heart.
Scott was mixing drinks;
somebody he or Frank had stocked the bar. After some protest, Paulette
let him make her a weak gin and tonic.
"Be careful with that stuff, missy," Frank said, smiling slyly. "Scott, did I ever tell you about the time your mother tried to drink a martini?"
Standing in the doorway
to the kitchen, Billy watched the scene unfolding in his living room. His
father sat opposite Sri on the hideous new couch in rapt attention... He'd
understood for years that something was wrong with his father, some basic
human quality missing the way he'd treated Paulette, the way he'd treated
Gwen. Now, suddenly Frank's odd detachment looked for all the world like
virtue. The old man was not incapable of love. He simply reserved his love
for the natural world, the subtle mysteries that governed it. It was a
type of love that did not lead to happy marriages, or successful parenting;
yet it was a sublime thing, beyond the capacity of most humans: to love
what had nothing to do with oneself.
And yet. Watching his fathing nodding, smiling, laughing in hearty approval, Billy remembered the wretched Thanksgiving Lauren had suffered in Concord, his father's warmth and welcome, the intuitive way he had put her at ease. Now he offered Sri the same kindness. His father was kind.
Billy didn't get loaded in the afternoon, not normally. Not ever. But he was in Truro; he was an adult now; and at the Captain's House, adults drank. Cocktails at five, earlier on weekends. Those golden summers of his childhood: it had somehow never occurred to him that his grandfather and Mamie and Roy and Martine, probably even his mother, had spent half of them in the bag. How else, really, could you spend an entire summer with your family? There was wisdom in the old ways, he reflected, improvising a second pitcher of Bloodies. A different sort of system.
Winter comes late to
St. Raphael. The November sun sets early. The big ships return to the harbour.
The resorts, empty during storm season, begin to fill. At Thanksgiving,
at Christmas, the tourists appear like refugees. They are escaping the
holiday, the anguished pilgrimage to the family stake. Instead, they fly
southward, moneyed travelers with seasonal depression, ashamed of their
pale winter hides. Gwen is glad to see them and not just for the dollars
and euros they charge to their credit cards. She greets them kindly, with
a warmth she'd never suspected she possessed. To her they are survivors
of natural disasters. Her impulse is offer cots and blankets, to bandage
wounds. There was a time, not long ago, when she wouldn't talk to strangers.
That time seems remote now. Like a dream remembered, it haunts her for
a moment, then quickly seems like nonsense.
Where did you come from? she asks them all. Are you here for the holidays? The two questions are enough. Travellers are lonely. They hunger to discuss themselves, to remember who they are.
Forgiving Scott took
longer. Pride wouldn't let her hear his apologies. His latters she sent
back unopened. She refused to answer the phone when he called. Finally,
in desperation, he had sent a telegram:
I Suck. I Hope You Forgive Me. I Love You. Scotty. PS Don't Blame Mom.
In the end his Scottness had melted her. You do suck, she wrote in an e-mail. You also bite. I love you too.
She ignored the telegram's last line. Gwen had learned that forgiveness was elastic. Forgiving Rico, and later Scott, had been a stretch. But never in this life could she forgive Paulette. The very thought of her mother nearly snapped the band.
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