The women in my family are born remembering. I’m not talking about that vague instinctual nonsense that’s just as likely to do harm as good in the latest version of the world. I’m talking about flexing my infant fingers with the memory of arthritis in my grandmother’s hands. I’m talking about reading before teething. I’m talking about taking my first clumsy steps toward an electric bill I already know is due next Thursday. I know because my mother knew.
Paying that bill will be one of the last things I do before I die. I will spend twenty minutes of my precious time on hold, waiting to set up the account for automatic debit, a generous legacy to my grateful descendants.
We’re always looking for ways to save time.
The reflection of what appears to be a girl of eleven looks back at me from the full-length mirror in the bedroom that was my mother’s. Together we spit out yet another baby tooth, which reminds me I need to drink another calcium-enriched protein shake. Either that, or eat what remains of my mother.
She’s the pile of coarse dust scattered across the bedsheets. Some of my kind swear by mother dust, the way certain factions among the rest of the population swear by breast feeding. And there are benefits, whether you’re still a kid with growing bones or an adult woman facing osteoporosis by the end of the week.
But my mother is not strawberry-flavored, so I opt for the shake.
Some people make a religious ceremony out of gathering up the remains, saying a prayer over it before ritualized ingestion. My family has never really gone in for that kind of thing. A Dust Buster and a bad joke have always been good enough for us.
“Bye, Mom,” I shout over the clattering motor. “Thanks for the memories.”
Still, my mother had a bit of the mystic in her, so I scoop up some dust from the sheets and drop it in my glass. She would have wanted it that way.
With funerary services complete and the sheets churning away in a washing machine I can finally reach, I go to the dozens of postcards my mother left on the coffee table in the cluttered living room. Each one bears the same message in my mother’s hand, energetic block letters that say, Still Kickin’. The one kicking is not her, of course, but me—a mother traditionally prepares the postcards her only daughter will mail to her far-flung cousins, confirming the survival of another nearly forkless branch on the rangy family tree. My mother addressed the cards, but she didn’t take the time to put stamps on them, and I’m annoyed by her selfishness. At least the stamps are here, hundreds of them, purchased in bulk years ago by a distant ancestor who sacrificed part of her short life standing in line at the post office. I raise my gritty strawberry-mom shake in silent salute, and start applying stamps to cards.
When I’m done, I sift through the dozens of books stacked up around the living room, looking for something to read while I wait for my awkward adolescent body to catch up with my mind. Most of the books are ones the women in my family wanted to read but just didn’t have time for, and I pause when I find Anna Karenina among them. I have an ancestral memory of the first seven books, courtesy of a foremother who died before she could get to the end. Some of her descendants considered finishing it, but Anna has already thrown herself under the train, and so far no one has been willing to spend time on the denouement. Maybe later, I lie to myself, knowing that I won’t read it either.
Instead, I grab the trashiest looking bodice-ripper I can find in the hope that it will distract me from the growing pains that will keep me up most of the night.
The early morning light comes through the pale, thin curtains as I push myself up into a sitting position and dig through the snack wrappers that cover the bedspread until I find the last of the protein bars. I climb out of bed and see myself in the mirror: the apparent nineteen-year-old is as tall as I’m going to get, just as those breasts are as perky as they’ll ever be. I head into the bathroom and shower away the sour smell of rapid growth.
In the closet I find jeans in several different sizes—in this, at least, we’re no different from other women. I grab a pair that look like they’ll fit, and the first T-shirt I find. Porn Star, it says. Oh, Grandma—what the hell where you thinking? But of course I know: she liked the glitter.
I’m too ravenous to bother looking for another shirt. Instead, I go straight into the kitchen to eat an entire box of cereal so I’ll have the energy to cook a proper breakfast. I’m glad to see the refrigerator still holds five gallons of milk, and when I check the dates on the cartons I notice my daughter-to-be will probably expire before the milk does.
My mother forgot where she left the apartment keys, so by the time I find them I’ve got a late start on my necessary trip to the grocery store. I meant to take the stamped postcards out to the mailbox, but I’m already in the lobby before I remember them and I don’t want to take the time to go back upstairs. One of my neighbors enters the building as I’m leaving, and we exchange nods with only the briefest flash of eye contact, the way people do when they understand that a crowded city holds together because we’ve all agreed to mind our own business.
My neighbors might see an old woman or a kid in the hallway, a teenager or a pregnant woman alone in the lobby. They’ll look vaguely alike, the way families do. Maybe the neighbors see a young woman coming out of the same apartment every couple of weeks, and she seems a bit different each time: a little taller, a little shorter. She’s probably just wearing different shoes. Her face isn’t memorable, so they never notice that it’s changed. And so far—as long as every fourth generation writes a rent check from the family trust—nobody cares that we’re here.
The grocery store seems crowded for a Friday afternoon, but maybe that’s just because every person stands out as someone who could end up in line ahead of me.
A woman looks at me strangely as I put the last giant tub of vanilla yogurt in my cart with a half-dozen others. I smile at her in a vague, forgettable way, and feeling generous I say, “I’m sorry, did you want that?”
“Uh, no, thanks. I’m getting the non-fat kind.”
“Oh, good—there’s enough for both of us, then.”
“Yeah,” she says, glancing at the full cart again before going on her way. I hope she’s not headed for the ice cream.
I pick through the ice cream flavors, searching for novelty rather than nutrition. Double Cherry Black Forest Cake. Ooh. I don’t remember that. I’m just about to reach for it when it’s pulled away by a hand accessorized by an expensive watch. I look up into a pair of smoky gray eyes. I turn on the charm and the pheromones, and ask nicely, “Oh, that’s my favorite. Do you mind?”
He gives me a smile frosty enough to compete with the ice cream.
“Sorry, it’s my boyfriend’s favorite, too.”
I nod apologetically and take Raspberry Fudge Swirl. I have memories—vague, as the oldest ones are—of distant ancestors smiling sweetly as they asked wealthy-looking men to hand over their wallets, sometimes the same men who fathered their daughters. Child support, they joked. It used to be standard operating procedure, until they gathered enough for the money to start breeding, too.
It seems repulsive to me, but not so repulsive I’m unwilling to spend the money.
I come home. I put away groceries. I climb into a hot bath. Time stops in the bathtub, then starts up again as the water gets colder.
I dig around in the closet, going back two hundred generations to find, among other things, a beaded halter top. I saw a few of them around while I was out on my errands. Apparently they’re back in fashion again.
I’m feeling guilty about my lack of contribution to our branch’s cultural heritage, and, wanting to compensate for spending so much time on a disposable novel, I try to get up the heart for the Bergman retrospective at the local art house.
When I check the paper I discover a theater across town is playing early Hitchcock. Score.
On my way out through the lobby I see the mail has finally arrived, and I realize that once again I’ve forgotten to take the cards downstairs with me. I open the mailbox and flip through the postcards I’ve received. Among the usual Nous vivons, Nog hier, and Accendiamo, there are indications that our population will once again outpace accidents and reproductive apathy. Gemelo. Bliznetsy. Twins. There’s even one from Hong Kong that says, Triplets, and under that, in different handwriting, We two survived.
The number of twins in this set of cards is much like what I remember from my mother’s week but unlike anything I can recall from the generations before. Only the Viennese branch of the family has shown an abiding interest in our genetics, and I wonder what they would make of this before the thought is crowded out by the other things on my mind.
“Tell me about the timbale of smoked salmon.” I’ve chosen this restaurant almost exclusively because they use words like timbale. I’m also digging the floor-to-ceiling red velvet drapes.
“Of course. The timbale of smoked salmon is baked in pastry and served with heirloom tomatoes, herbed chèvre, and a lovely sweet onion marmalade.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Never mind.” I’m being unfair; the waiter is already disconcerted to be serving a woman alone in a place like this, but he’s doing his best to behave himself because my credit’s good enough for the ’61 Haut-Brion. “I’ll start with the smoked salmon, followed by the coriander-crusted lamb with braised endive. Oh, and you’ll probably want to get started on a chocolate soufflé.”
After dinner I change neighborhoods and find a divey-but-not-too-divey bar. It’s not especially busy, but there’s a decent enough crowd and I start looking for a mate, preferably a quiet boy with a slow metabolism and large, liquid eyes.
It’s still early, so I can be picky.
“Can I buy you a drink?” He’s pretty, but he smells of cancer. It wouldn’t kill our daughter any sooner, but it would kill harder, and I’m still holding out for heart disease.
“Thanks, but I’m waiting for someone.”
The bartender has his back to me as he draws a beer. He catches my eye in the large mirror behind the taps and speaking to my reflection says, “Haven’t I seen you in here before?”
“No,” I tell his reflection, “but I have one of those faces.”
He turns to look at me directly. “I guess you do.”
I see he’s older than the kid-tending-his-way-through-college I took him for, and when he brings me my drink I spot a touch of silver in his hair. He looks like someone who took up bartending because he wanted to keep his own hours, and may even have done something interesting with them.
“Opening a tab?”
“Yeah, thanks.” I take out the family American Express Card: May E. Mosca, Member Since 1985. I’m not sure how many greats would prefix the grandmother who applied for the card—at least a thousand. I hand it over to the bartender, who has a long look at it.
“What’s the E stand for?”
“Thanks. It was my grandmother’s name.”
“Are you sure I don’t know you?”
“Oh, I’m sure. But maybe you knew my grandmother.”
He laughs. I remember that bartenders flirt to encourage higher tips, and decide I’ll try not to take him too seriously.
A man sits down on my right and smiles at me. I smile back and consider initiating a conversation, but I’m too distracted by the maddeningly virile scent of the bartender and keep involuntarily glancing his way. It doesn’t help that he wanders over to my end of the bar when he isn’t busy with something else.
Later I find that I’ve spent so much time talking to the bartender that I’m caught off guard when he excuses himself to turn up the lights and walk around the bar hollering, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.” I’d comply, but he still has my credit card, so I sit back and watch customers slide grumbling off their bar stools.
Finally he comes back to me and gives me my credit card. “You,” he says slowly, “don’t have to go home, but we can’t stay here.”
“Okay, really—does that ever work?”
He grins, disarmingly bashful. “Sometimes.”
There was an unsettling time when we thought fear of disease and rising condom use might be the end of us. But irresponsibility prevails, and so we live on.
When I move to get up the bartender’s soft snoring stops abruptly. He takes my hand and gently pulls it back toward him.
“I have to go home,” I say.
Still half asleep, he mumbles something that sounds an awful lot like, “So you can’t stay here.” He squeezes my hand once before he lets go and returns to sleep.
My apartment isn’t far by cab, so it isn’t long before I’m stretched out in bed, eyes closed, expecting only a short nap before I’m awakened by hunger pains or contractions in the middle of the night. Instead, I wake with a start early in the morning of my fourth day, obviously not pregnant.
This throws off my schedule, but it isn’t an irretrievable disaster.
When one of us has a child on Day Three, she’s usually around to help with the birth of her granddaughter. This used to be typical, but in the last few years we’ve evolved our way to safer, easier births, and most of us would rather have a little more fun before reproducing.
Now it’s common to wait until Day Four before you have your daughter, and some women—my mother among them—will even push it to Day Five. She lasted long enough to get me up and around, which is all I really needed, anyway.
I’ll go out again tonight, and this time I’ll stay focused.
I decide to spend my last childless afternoon at another movie, and on my way out I finally remember to take the postcards.
I’m concentrating on the mailbox across the street, so I don’t notice the car until both its brakes and its driver scream at me. It comes to a stop only after I’ve been knocked to the ground. At first I think it’s done no more damage than bruising my hip and scattering the postcards all over the street, but when I stand pain shoots up my ankle. I try to hide it—the last thing I want is attention, and that includes medical attention.
A few bystanders who subscribe to the theory that a dramatic moment is everyone’s business rush around picking up cards, but most of them find reasons to move on, not wanting to be tagged as a witnesses to an accident. I take the cards that are pressed on me and wave away offers of assistance, then do my best to calm the frightened and angry driver by acknowledging fault and suggesting we forget the whole thing. He drives off as quickly as he can, leaving a mangled and unreadable postcard fluttering behind. I don’t recover it, and someone somewhere will assume my branch of the family is gone, unless I manage to have a daughter who can tell them otherwise.
I turn back to my apartment building, doing my best to conceal my limp and the expression of pain trying to work its way onto my face. Normally I’d be too impatient to wait for the elevator and would take the stairs, but my ankle isn’t giving me a choice.
When I get back to the apartment I put ice on my ankle, knowing I’ve made it worse by walking on it right after the injury, hoping it will heal enough to use again soon.
In the meantime, I address postcards. I apply stamps. I write, “We’re here” over and over and over again. Maybe the repetition will make it true. And when I’m done, I read the end of Anna Karenina.
At midnight I test my ankle, then call a cab.
It’s a large, sleazy-looking dance club. We try to avoid going to the same place twice, but I don’t have time to mess around. I need a sure thing.
I limp my way to a dark corner, picking out the best possible candidate in the vicinity and whispering in his ear, “You. Me. Alley. Now.” The first one doesn’t go for it, but I move on and don’t run out of corners before I get what I came for.
“Oh my God,” he says as he staggers back against the wall. “I wish there were more women like you.”
“Be careful what you . . .” I glance at his dull, bleary eyes and don’t even bother to finish the sentence as I leave.
It takes me longer than expected to catch a cab back, and I commit to memory the strong suggestion to any descendent who finds herself in a similar situation that she tell the cab to wait.
On my way through the lobby I stop to pick up the mail. There’s a thick envelope among the postcards. Austria.
I limp straight for the kitchen and grab a bag of frozen peas, a spoon, and a large jar of peanut butter. I save the three cases of calcium-enriched protein shake mix for my daughter, who shows her appreciation with a swift kick to my bladder.
I lie down in the bedroom, frozen peas on my ankle and peanut butter in my mouth. I flip through the postcards before opening the envelope from Vienna. My memory of German is rusty, but the letter is full of charts and tables of numbers, one of which goes from two to two thousand in less than a dozen rows. Then the contractions start.
Evolution has been kind to us, and it isn’t long before the next May is in my arms, a little messy but otherwise fine and looking up at me with a clear-eyed recognition the rest of the population would probably find unsettling, but which is reassuringly familiar to me.
I only have a few moments to get acquainted with May before insistent contractions kick in again.
I’m going to need another name.