She Called Me Baby
By Vylar Kaftan
30 May 2005
My mother was born Maria Dana Szczepanski-Sanchez, so it's clear why she legally changed it for her career as a model. She became Maria-Danae, no last name, when she was discovered at age 15. When I was born, she named me Maria-Danae, no last name. That's how it was entered in the birth records. I had no name but hers. This is the way our relationship progressed until I was old enough to know better.
—Excerpted from Chapter 1, She Called Me Baby, by Baby
Kip's face on the phone is bright with excitement. "The book's selling like ice cream cakes in hell, kiddo."
I give a lopsided smile and put my feet up on the plush ottoman. Applesauce sloshes out of my bowl onto my thigh. I lean back in my chair and lick it up with the left half of my tongue. I've just had the right half lengthened another six inches. Today it's rolled up and swollen inside my jaw. Until it heals, I speak through a voice synthesizer against my throat. "I didn't know you could sell ice cream in hell. There's probably rules against it."
"Probably. But the rules go out the window when the place freezes over."
I laugh along with Kip. My tongue twitches a little. "It's good to see you again," I say. Kip's been my agent for ten years now, ever since I've been on my own. He's the best in the business.
"How's your tongue?"
"Healing nicely. My hand mods are doing great too." I lift my right hand to show him the series of segmented metal cords that replace my tendons. I wiggle my fingers at him. "I can already bend my fingers backwards to touch my wrist. And I think the implants are scarring nicely—there's a solid line of keloiding here, don't know if you can see that over the phone—"
"Not really, the connection is bad. The locals tell me this is typical for off-planet calls."
"Did you sign the deal for the zero-gee shoot?"
"Still working on it. The station is resisting. The guy who makes the decision is old. Old enough that he remembers your mother's Floating series she did up here, right when the station was built. I think he's got some sort of loyalty to her."
"She doesn't even model anymore."
"I know," says Kip, and a shadow crosses his face. "Baby, I got another message from your mother."
"I told you, I—"
"Baby," he says sternly, "it's really happening this time. She's dying."
I take a deep breath and set down my applesauce. I fold my arms over my breasts. Buddhist mandalas etched into the curved metal press against the skin of my arms. "Kip, she ruined my life. She controlled me for fifteen years and treated me like property."
Kip gives an ironic smile. "I know, hon. I've read your book. I'm marketing it, remember?"
"I'm serious. I have nothing to say to her."
"Even if she's dying, and she asked to see you?"
"I was never a person to her, Kip! I was just a career move." Kip rarely talks to me about my mother, and I wish this conversation weren't happening. I don't like to think about how he used to be her agent years ago. He quit because of an argument with her—I never found out what it was, but I think it was about me. I hired him as soon as I was free from her.
Kip says, "You share her DNA but not her life. You're your own person. You're not your mother, and she knows that."
I clench my teeth so that I don't lose my temper. My new tongue aches with pressure. "She went to court so that she could have me. It's documented evidence, from her court case, that she wanted to have me so that I would inherit her career when she retired."
"The exact wording was 'I wish for my daughter to be cloned from my DNA, so that I may give her a secure future in every cell of her body.' Your mother was giving you a gift—badly, perhaps, but she meant well. Now, will you go see her as she's dying?"
I sigh. "No. I don't want to see her. I've built my own career, despite her efforts to stop me. I have nothing pleasant to say to that woman."
Kip is silent. The interplanetary connection crackles at us. Finally, he says, "Baby, I've respected you all the time I've known you. I've been with you through everything. I chose to work for you, after the split. Remember how I got you that shoot at Tenochtitlan? Your first one, after you left your mother and got your first bodmods? I'm asking you to trust me, hon. I know about all the stuff she did to you—the age-defying creams, the mandatory modeling lessons, that awful therapist she hired to brainwash you. Your mother screwed a lot of things up, I agree. But what I'm saying is, she's dying. You won't get another chance. Listen to me on this one."
"Kip, I don't—"
His voice breaks a touch as he interrupts. "My dad—he was a military man, single father, back during the Philly uprisings in the thirties. I was a punk kid who protested everything. He and I argued over the police response to the uprisings, and then we argued over how I should live my life, and then I split. Never looked back. Didn't hear about his death until six months ago—three years after it happened. I wasn't even mad at him anymore, not really. I'd just lost track of things. Forgotten."
His expression is calm, but he's blinking a lot. I listen to his story, and speak quietly. "I don't know, Kip. This is my mother we're talking about. You know what she's like."
Kip doesn't seem to have heard me. He's gazing into the distance, at something off-screen. "I work with you because I respect you, Baby. Yeah, the pay's incredible, but that's not what I'm interested in. If I don't respect you . . . I don't think I can do this."
I stare at him in disbelief. I owe most of my career to Kip. He's not just my agent—he's like a father to me. He cares more about me than my mother ever has. "Are you saying that you'll quit? Quit working for me?"
Kip speaks sharply. "Working for a woman who refuses to see her dying mother? Who's built an entire career based on satirizing her mother's work? Whose best-selling book was inspired by her mother and couldn't have been written without her influence?"
I wince. "You make me sound so heartless. I'm not heartless. Am I?"
"No," he says, more gently. "You're not. That's why you'll go to her."
"Don't tell me what to do, Kip."
"I won't, I just—"
"I'm not going," I say. "Yell at me, quit your job—I don't care. I won't see her."
Kip just looks at me. The screen crackles, filling the silence. I take another bite of applesauce. Finally, he says, "This is exactly why I left your mother."
The words fall between us like rocks. Carefully I lap up the last of the applesauce. I'm glad the voice synthesizer masks my tone of voice. "I can't believe you said that."
His voice is calm. "Baby, hon. Talk to me. What's really going on?"
"I'm frightened," I confess. "Every time I think of her, I feel like a child again. She controlled me for so long. I'm worried that if I see her, she'll figure out a way to manipulate me."
"She won't. You're Baby, and you have your own career, your own look. There's no one like you in the world."
I close my eyes for a minute. My mother's face looms in front of me, just as I last saw her, in court: dark-eyed, angular, a femme-fatale beauty. It's the face I was heading towards, when I left ten years ago—the face that I have tattooed, scarred, and reshaped until it's mine. I open my eyes and force the words out. "I need to do this? You're sure, Kip?"
"All right. I'll go."
Kip smiles. "Good for you. Later—I've got an appointment with the director up here." He vanishes. I'm left alone in my library, once again pondering what else I can modify, how else I can look different from my mother.
When my mother's controlling behaviors forced me to run away from home, I was four days shy of my fifteenth birthday. Escaping her wasn't easy. I had to bribe some local maintenance workers to smuggle me out, and one of my underground connections to remove the tracking device from my neck. From there, I made my way to a well-known surgeon specializing in unique body modifications. My first procedure was the rune of transformation scarred into my forehead. My second procedure was triple-pierced nipples. I continued to modify my body over the next three months. I call this series Dagaz, after the rune for Breakthrough.
During this time, I went to court and got Emancipated Minor status. I planned to file for financial support from my mother, but she disowned me instead. In response, I started my next series of modifications: Teiwaz (or the Warrior), followed by what's widely considered my masterpiece, the Wyrd series. (See Appendix A for pictures.)
—Chapter 6, She Called Me Baby, by Baby
It's a week before I can make time to see my mother, since she lives in southern California and I'm up near Puget Sound. Secretly I'm hoping that she'll die before I can get there, which makes me feel guilty. It's been a long time since I've felt anything except anger towards my mother.
I tried to reach out to her once, about three years ago. Kip doesn't even know about this. It was after the shoot at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens, the one where I embraced a saguaro cactus—famous picture, most people have seen it. They say that in the pictures, I look like I'm miles away from the needles in my flesh.
I wasn't miles away—I was years away. My mother held my hand, and it was my sixth birthday. We walked down the paths in the garden, ignoring the paparazzi who stalked us with powerful zoom lenses. I wore a large floppy hat, a dark shield over my face, and a lightweight UV suit to prevent any damage to my skin. My mother had brought me there because I told her I wanted to see the desert. I remember looking up at her, in her identical outfit, knowing I would be just like her when I grew up. A famous model.
That's what I'm thinking about, in the Phoenix series. After the shoot, I emailed my mother and asked her if she wanted to do lunch, my treat, anywhere on-planet she liked. She responded by blocking my address. Furious, I blocked hers too, and that was the end of that.
I remember this moment, and my cheeks flush as I step into my waiting vehicle. My driver waits until I have settled in place, and then closes my door. I stare at the streets of West Seattlewood as we go, at the elaborate houses of my neighbors. My mother would probably like it better up here, where it's cooler, but her generation still has a sentimental attachment to southern California. When I reach downtown, the people on buses stare at my car driving past—probably startled to see a private vehicle outside of Seattlewood. I'm glad that they can't see through my tinted windows. I don't want any attention today.
I'm getting out of the car for my private plane when Kip calls me. I hold the phone in front of me and slip the receiver into my ear. The static indicates that he's still off-planet. "Hey, Baby. Just wanted to tell you how glad I am that you decided to go."
I glance around. Tourists stare at me, but I'm used to being recognized everywhere I go. "If she kills me, sell the pictures and donate the money to charity."
He smiles. "Looks like your tongue has healed—that voice box was terrible. Still on schedule for the spine augmentation?"
"Yeah." I'm getting titanium implants in my spine. They'll let me bend at right angles in my back, and compress my torso by about four inches when I want to. It'll involve nanobots reconstructing each disc of my spine. It's my most intense procedure yet.
Kip nods. "Thank God for immune boosters. I don't even want to think how long it would take you to heal otherwise."
I take a deep breath. "I really don't want to do this, Kip."
"I know, Baby, but it's the right thing to do."
"I have nothing to say to her."
"It'll be fine. You can call me if you need to talk."
Thinking about it makes my pulse race. I have no luggage, so I start walking towards my flight. "How're negotiations?"
He pauses. "Not good. They want your mother's permission before they'll let you do a shoot up here. Just as a courtesy to her. They sent her a form."
"Shit!" I check for reactions from the potential eavesdroppers. I shouldn't be having this conversation in public. You never know where the paparazzi have bugged. Or when a civilian is going to sell his story to the tabloids. The last thing I need is a headline reading "Clone's Career in Jeopardy." They love to make up stories about me, but they're even happier when the stories are true.
Kip sighs. "I know."
"She'll never agree."
"That's true. She might deny permission, in which case it's probably hopeless. Or she may not get to the paperwork before she passes away. In which case, it'll go to the executors of her estate, and it's hard to say what they'd do, and for what price. The director up here might change his mind, or the whole thing might go to court."
"I'm used to that," I mutter. Since I left her, most of the times I've seen my mother were in court. I still remember the expression on her face when they declared me an Emancipated Minor. She stared at me across the room with a mixture of hatred and helplessness. I stared back, forcing myself to look braver than I felt. Cameras snapped everywhere—capturing her face, capturing mine. I grit my teeth at the memory.
"So, looks like we're blocked here, for now," he says. "I'm looking for other opportunities—"
"I'll make her sign it," I say abruptly.
I'm feeling reckless as I duck into a bathroom stall for privacy. I never use the phone rooms—they're always bugged. "Why not? I don't have anything to talk to her about. I'll talk about this. I'll get her to sign it—or, if I can't, I'll get her to reject it, so at least the issue is closed and we don't need the lawyers."
Kip's voice is strained. "Baby, this is your dying mother. Now is not the time to confront her about business."
"Our whole relationship has been about business," I snap. "From the moment she decided to make me—make me, not have me."
"Stop it, Baby. Put it aside for now."
"How? I've always been a thing to her. I'll do it, Kip. I'll get her to sign it somehow. I know how she thinks. I can get her to do it."
Kip blows air over his lower lip. "Fine."
"I'll catch you later."
"This bitterness hurts you more than it hurts her."
I end the call and bury my face in my hands. The warmth of my tattooed right palm contrasts with the coolness of the steel-plated left. I wish I hadn't spoken so sharply to Kip—he's just trying to help. I think about calling him back to apologize, but he's invoked my stubborn side. It's a matter of pride now, to get my mother to sign the form.
The thing to understand about my mother is that she was always in control. Always. Some people remember her for her beautiful face, but more people remember her as the woman who spearheaded the pro-cloning movement. Maria-Danae v. the United Nations captured the world for a whole year. And my mother—with her lawyers—won over the World Court, and overturned the old human cloning bans. Although she's got some talented lawyers, my mother was the real mastermind behind the scenes. She knew the case she wanted them to make, and that's what they did. She spent years focused on the issue during my childhood, which may partly explain why she was so unprepared for my case against her.
People ask me what it was like to be a celebrity before I was even conceived, to be in the tabloids before I was born. Answer is, I don't know. I wasn't alive yet. But my whole life was lived as Maria-Danae's clone, until I was fifteen and attained my freedom. Since then, I've spent my career as a model and artist redefining what it means to be Maria-Danae—what it means to be me, to be Baby. I'm proud of my new fame, because it's mine.
—Chapter 11, She Called Me Baby, by Baby
I'm standing just outside my mother's bedroom. I was admitted to the house by my mother's caretaker, a small gray woman whose name never quite made it to me. She disappeared, mumbling something about my mother preparing to see me. So I'm left alone with the room, and my thoughts.
The strangest thing about being back in my mother's house is that it still has artwork I remember. I walk over to an abstract work I used to love when I was a kid. It's blue and purple swirls, which I've always thought looked like a pair of dancing snails. My mother told me it was a stylized yin-yang symbol, with each swirl a small part of the other. I never thought so, because there was so much more purple than blue. It was like the purple snail was dancing on top of the blue one, squishing it into the floor. Mother and I used to like the same art, when I was young. I find that I dislike the painting now. It's a meaningless scrawl, like kindergarten fingerpainting. But my mind is sifting through ideas of a purple-and-blue themed shoot, with body paint to accentuate the tribal tattoos on my lower back—maybe with something pressing me down, like barbells or restraints.
I turn towards her bedroom door and try to listen through it. She and her caretaker are speaking quietly. The caretaker opens the door and speaks to me. "Wait." Her eyes flicker over my face for a moment. Then she walks away down the hall, leaving me alone. There's a print from my mother's Floating series on the wall, which I try not to look at.
Finally, I hear my mother say, "Enter." The side of my lip curls, and I go in to meet her.
I know she's been ill, but I hadn't understood how badly. My mother reclines in her large wooden canopy bed. She leans against the white pillows, which are so perfectly symmetrical that I know she arranged them. She wraps the plum-colored Chinese silk robe more tightly around her thin body as she stares at me.
I'm caught by her face, which is wasted from the toxic aftereffects of her skin treatments. Mother used plastastica early in her career, before anyone realized that some people would suffer a long-term rejection of the material. This was before it was taken off the market, a decade ago. The beneficial effects lasted for years; during my court battles with her, she could have passed for an older sister. But now my mother is paying for it. Her eyes are sagging, and her skin looks like loose tree bark. It's faded from smooth golden brown to dull beige. The effect is surreal against her beautiful black hair, loose around her shoulders.
I find myself wondering whether I might have tried plastastica if I'd been born in my mother's generation. Looking at my mother now is like seeing a mutilated version of myself. The thought triggers a memory: my mother calling me "mutilated" the first time she saw my bodmods. I change my opinion: my mother doesn't look mutilated. She looks destroyed.
The silence is uncomfortable. "Hi," I say, my extended tongue rolling partly out of my mouth. I don't know where else to start. Now that I see her, getting her to sign the contract seems like the most ridiculous plan ever—although I'm less afraid of her than I thought I'd be.
My mother's hands fall back against her sides. Her robe falls open a little bit, and I notice an electrode attached to the skin over her breastbone. I wonder how many nanobots are working in her lungs, keeping capillaries open so that she can breathe. Her eyes rove over my body, examining my bodmods. Her expression is hard to read through her distorted face. "The tongue is new," she observes. "It looks like a lizard."
"I'm proud of it," I snap. The moment of sympathy has passed. It feels like spikes are lifting from my back as I react to her criticism. Maybe I should install spikes with my new spine.
My mother stares at me without saying a word. Finally, she says, "Yes, of course." She looks down at the white quilt and smoothes it with one hand. The action is very slow. I regret my tone of voice, but I can't take it back.
"Are you in much pain?" I ask, as politely as I can.
"Not much. I've got strong medication." She lets her hand fall and looks at me again. "How is your book?"
I'm startled. "Hit the New York Times bestseller list last week. Hoping it'll go to number one."
"Have a seat." She gestures at the edge of the bed.
I pull over a plush green chair and sit down. "Yeah, the book is selling great. The free press from the tabloids isn't hurting. You and I have always been popular with them."
"I'm sorry I haven't read it," she says. "I've been so tired."
"It's all right. I don't expect you to."
"I wanted to."
"You've got other things on your mind."
"The contract they want me to sign."
Of course she's already read it—they sent it last week. "Oh yes," I say. "Well, there'll be plenty of time to look it over later." She looks so fragile, like a doll, not quite real.
She shakes her head and leans back against the pillow. Her eyes focus on my shoulder, where the strap of my tanktop hides the black X of the Gebo rune. "Baby, it's good that you came. I want to say something."
I catch my breath. I don't want a deathbed confession, not now, not yet. I'm not ready for this. "Mother—"
But she just says, "I didn't know what to do. I still don't. I don't know how I could have stopped you from leaving, how I could have kept you close."
Of course. She's still thinking of me as her possession. I expel my breath in an angry burst. "You couldn't. There's no way. You don't control me, not the way you did when I was a kid. I know better now."
My mother looks down at the bed. She whispers, "Do you hate me?"
I pause, not wanting to answer the question. "You raised me to be just like you. You dressed me just like you. You told me I'd be an artist and model, just like you."
She lifts her head and challenges me with her eyes. "You are an artist and model, aren't you?"
"You didn't let me make my own choices."
My mother sighs. "You told me that's what you wanted. To be just like me, when you grew up."
"Every daughter says that at some point," I say, but I'm remembering the botanical gardens in Phoenix. I wonder if this is a mind game my mother is playing with me, something to make me doubt myself. She's an expert at making me doubt myself.
Her eyes are angry, as she looks at me. "How could I have known? You were my only child. All I knew was what you told me."
I'm uncomfortable. I try to placate her with words. "Look, I don't know that now is the time to talk about this. What's done is done. You obviously did what you thought was best at the time, and it's all over now." I stand up, wanting to be out of there.
"That's not what I wanted to tell you." My mother's voice is like a hammer. I sit down from the impact.
"What, then?" I ask.
My mother is staring at the wall now. "I wanted to tell you about when I was a girl in San Diego." She pauses, and her voice softens. "It was years ago now. When I was a girl, before I knew anything about contracts or politics or anything, I used to play house with friends. We had little rag dolls that we called our babies. They weren't very good dolls, but we loved them. My doll was named Cecily May—Cecily because it was the prettiest name I knew, and May because it was the month that was both spring and summer. I decided that when I had a daughter someday I would name her Cecily May."
I don't know why she's telling me this story. "Well, why didn't you?"
"I forgot," she said simply. "It was a game as a child. And when I had you, I wanted to generate publicity. Because being famous is about publicity. I wanted the best family business to give you. My lawyers and I agreed that our case was strongest if I showed how serious I was. They said I should give you my name, so I did."
"I wish you hadn't."
"You could have changed it."
I know she's right. I kept my name because it helped with my career. The world already knew me as Baby, and that fame helped me get my career started. But I say, "It's hard to change a name, once given. You get used to it."
"That's true," she says. "So do you hate me? Answer the question. Please."
"No," I say, surprised to realize that it's true.
She smiles, her eyes filled with relief. "You were right, what you said earlier. I did what I thought was best at the time. You have no idea how much I've hurt myself over this question, whether you hated me after everything that happened. All these years, it's chased me around like dogs."
It's like her, to be thinking of herself even now. But I don't resent her. I reach out and take her hand. It's papery and rough. I say, "There's no use hanging onto it all."
She breathes deeply, and her lungs shudder. "Will you stay with me tonight?"
I look at her ruined face. "Yes," I say slowly. "I can stay tonight. Let me make a phone call."
"About the contract—the one where you want to do a parody of the Floating series—"
"Never mind that. We can talk about it later."
She smiles and squeezes my hand. "All right. I was very proud of my Floating series, you know. It launched my career."
I let go of her hand and step outside the room. The yin-yang painting catches my eye, and I remember why I liked it. Maybe I should model some dance steps instead, when I do the purple-and-blue shoot—something in a soft light. I'm considering the possibilities as I call Kip. When I reach him, he's holding a margarita in one hand. "Baby! How's the visit to your mother?"
"Complicated. But I'm staying here an extra day."
"Good for you, hon. It must be going great."
"Listen, Kip—drop the negotiations. I don't want to do the shoot anymore."
"What? But I just got the contract this morning. Your mother signed it and returned it."
"She did?" I'm confused, but starting to see. "Kip, what's the timestamp on that?"
"I don't know." He glances down at something. "Eight this morning, Pacific Standard. Wait, when did you get there?"
"Noon. Kip, cancel the shoot."
"You heard me. I'm not interested in doing it."
He squints at me. "What do I tell these guys?"
"You'll think of something. I need to go. I'll call tomorrow and we'll figure something else out. Somewhere new for me to go."
I end the call and turn the phone off. I return to the room where my mother rests. She's fallen asleep in the last few minutes. Carefully, I sit on the bed and take her hand. I stay with my mother and watch her sleep. I imagine her floating, in a space all her own.