I brush out my braid and rip apart the plastic packaging of a pregnancy test. Plum blossoms grow in scattered patterns of pinky purple along the dark, twisted, mottled branches of the tree outside. I sweat, in chalice-shaped patches, onto the torso and sleeves of my polyester shirt. The dye on the test runs suggestively flame-red, but the oracular square that contains my fate is empty. The relief feels like passion; it overwhelms my mind, bowls me over, saturates my mouth and chest like a fistful of sugar cubes. No part of me wants motherhood, or the maroon-tinted, lab-made prediction of motherhood, or the dreamy possibility of it — not even a little bit. Why? All the usual reasons apply here, plus a few of my own, informed by troubled relationships to family, body, and self. Do I want to be convinced otherwise? Not at this time. I don’t object to feeling differently in the future, but I will resist every attempt to reject my present views simply because they don’t align with the desires of others.
Is it wrong to say that I like life (mostly), but I wouldn’t wish it on another? Living a human life is as pleasurable as a blood draw; distressing, eye-averting, but when the results arrive I read them avidly, contemplatively. Every year, I open another red envelope and receive another revelation. Sometimes, the revelations are howlingly sad. Other times, they are like a splash of coral-pink flowers growing along the split between sidewalk and gutter. Neither type of missive is enough to cancel out the other, but they have allowed me to acquire a range of tastes: bitter disappointment, cloying joy and love, rancid terror, chalky grief. Life is something I have come to tolerate. Via exposure therapy, the tolerance might one day morph into hesitant affection.
My geneaology is freckled with cancerous seeds of indulgent, paralyzing melancholy, and I know perfectly well that I’ve grown into that worldview, the way a daughter might inherit her mother’s body, clothes, and mood. I’ve grown into a woman who is cheerfully sad. Don’t think I haven’t considered how that affects my choices. After all, the only comfort in overthinking is the chance to indulge in the power of honest self-reflection, self-flagellation.
Did I have a bad childhood? Did I read too many maudlin books at too young an age? Was I seduced by nihilism before the age of reason? No, yes, maybe. Don’t I want to feel the total, all-encompassing, love-with-abandon that a mother feels for her offspring? Not necessarily. Aren’t I afraid of being alone in my old age? Of course. Can’t I admit to that fear without fearing judgment? Don’t I want to experience all life has to offer? Definitely not. Life has a lot of evil to offer. Good fortune is rare, but pain is everywhere. There are many belief systems that twist that pain into something worth beholding, like rending an old rag into ribbons, and that idolize pain as necessary, prized, intrinsic to meaning. I understand why these beliefs exist, even if I don’t share them. All I know is that pain is everywhere. In the water, on land, and in the recesses of my body, clotted into flesh and bloody discharge. I can’t protect anyone from it.
A gulf yawns between the past and the future. Supposedly, this space is meant to be filled with the present, but I’m not confident I know what this means nor entails. A wide view of the present contains yesterday, today, and tomorrow. A narrower view contains only a single fleeting, blistered millisecond: the now. The now is capricious. Sometimes she hovers above and below me, a current of gilded roses, rippling forward and saturating my perspective in optimistic golden tones. But at other times she is brattier and less eager to please, sticking to my soles and palms like dark, rapidly solidifying lava and pulling me deep into the Earth’s soft, burning-hot mantle. Either way, the now cannot be trusted, though irrevocably I am swept up into its deviousness, which has the same effect on me as impossible, fantastical dreaming.
I am always trying to pierce the waves of shifting transitions. I am always looking for the anchor that reaches from my heart (located so perilously in the now) into the securest version of the future. But I look at my life and can’t detect where now and present become past and future. Instead, I feel like I am swimming at the mouth of a river, unable to comprehend where I am located in the stream, and unable to see how to get out the sea.
I’m repeatedly told to “plan for your future” but, at what point, in “the future,” will I know the planning is done? When I try to settle on a personal deadline, the time horizon in my mind moves and smears like dragging a hand through a still-wet stripe of thick oil paint. There will always be something yet to plan, and something yet to decide. Past and future disappear, replaced by a constantly vacillating, wounding present.
I walk past the shuttered nature conservatory, the empty coffee shop, the quiet, sunlit park, and take two trains to campus, where I discover that the school library has been closed to avoid the spread of disease. On my way back home, I wait on the platform and stand underneath the Japan Rail digital announcement panel. In oddly spaced, blinking green 8-bit letters, the panel reminds me to wash my hands, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. Later, I read online that “for the time being,” public facilities will remain closed. Two weeks later, my brother flees his college dorm and returns home, to a country that closes its land borders only days after his arrival. A sense of dread shoulders into my apartment and watches as I line the walls of my kitchen cabinet with canned red kidney beans, “just in case.” My father texts me to tell me he isn’t busy during the day anymore, which is his way of asking me to call to check up on him. I think of the fish in its struggle to reach the sea, its scales like gold coins, surfacing, belly-up, on the shores of the river delta. The future immediately twisted into nothing as the present eats itself.
Aliens take off from a field circumscribed within cool blue mountains. Adam Adams and Jeremy Renner watch their departure, and their detached expressions, coupled with the vision of daybreak flooding the grass, results in a scene equal parts intimate and cinematic. In the background, the soundtrack’s violins churn expertly, and their sound is pure, precise, crystalline, but also, somehow, impossibly soft, like icicles that fracture the air before exploding into cascades of velvet on impact.
It’s a final scene that marries absolute visual and acoustic splendor with the inescapable, inscrutable sensation of grief. It reminds me of the multitudes of a word like “haunting,” which can suggest not just plain “scary,” but “unforgettable,” too. I should be enamored, and the biggest part of me wants to be; this scene, and Arrival itself, hit all the right notes. A larger-than-life epic with themes that traverse space-time, but that also acknowledge and defend the microcosms entombed in human plight, and human passion. (Interstellar, a film that I found grander in some ways, still failed in this essential regard.) And yet, though I can recognize that the scene performs exactly as intended, and pulls at the heartstrings with pinpoint accuracy, I can’t help but roll my eyes.
When Renner turns to Adams and tells her that extraterrestrials surprised him less than meeting her, I laugh unkindly at that predictable payload of emotion (“You know what surprised me the most? It wasn’t meeting them. It was meeting you.”) I imagine the screenwriter, the director, and the actor, pouring their energy into the line, and I respect the effort; but for me, a woman of evergreen jadedness, it somehow doesn’t land. I’m perversely proud of it; I regard my cynicism not as armor, but as the spear that shatters the emotional fraudulence of the world.
I look at my seventeen-year-old brother, Alex, expecting him be laughing too at the goofy expediency of it all–elegantly coiffed, impeccably dressed Hollywood artists confessing their love via perfectly delivered lines, all in a time of space aliens. But his eyes are glued to the screen. He is transfixed.
I watch him for a few moments, surprised both at his response to the scene and his apparent obliviousness to everything outside it. He is at an age known for various, occasionally contradictory traits: what I and others might summarize as “edginess.” Alex is reserved, but not uncommunicative; aloof, but not apathetic. At times, he can be dogmatic. His personality is known for periods of impenetrable silence, but also periods of blinding discursive passion. It is not always easy for him to apologize. His commitment to personal truth brushes shoulders occasionally with arrogance. He does not divulge his thoughts easily. He does not cede ground. He wields sarcasm expertly. He is at the center of a lush, private world.
I was recently seventeen, and I’ve known my brother his entire life. We are similar in that eerie, arcane way that siblings sometimes are. I presumed that these facts suggested at an inherited ability to intuit Alex’s inner nature. But today I finally understand that it was vanity on my part to believe that I understand Alex. I can’t predict his behavior, I can’t read his thoughts. My supposed intuition is just a shadow that cannot probe mystery, only project expectation. This myth–that an older sibling has a direct line into the heart of a younger sibling–has trailed me since childhood. We’re not four and eleven anymore. We’re no longer elementary school students sleepily watching the landscape from the bus together. In a flash, the veil is parted to reveal colossal castle in the sand. Now all that is left is to allow the warm, finely milled sand to fall through my slowly parting fingers.
Alex doesn’t find it cloyingly absurd that Arrival ends with an expression of love. Adolescence hasn’t embittered him. He doesn’t conceal his feelings with hard-edged cynicism. His heart does not require armor. He is capable of recognizing and honoring the vulnerable earnestness of human emotion without falling prey to the instinct to wound it. If there are any edgelords here, he isn’t one of them.
I watch the night approach us through the sliding glass doors. Thinned into bloodied violet, it descends with the same preternatural inevitability as a vow of love. Inside my body, a similar sun, no less red, is setting.
There’s a tender (soft/sore) intimacy to the emergency room, in its small dimensions bathed in desert tones. Dun, milk-white, olive-yellow, carmine. Emotion has receded into my hands, but I don’t have any physical contact with the world; I feel as though I am interacting with shadows, or mirages. Only tiny images remain: the burst blood vessels in her eyes.
She is at the age now where Death comes with us everywhere: I watch him, through the rear view mirror, sweat jeweling over his brow, leaning against the palm trees. His smile is more apologetic, and comforting, than I would have anticipated. In the heat shimmer of early summer, the distance between us is like the space between me and God. Natural, and unnatural, in equal measure.
The closer she sways towards the edge the more fiercely I believe she will live forever. I won’t pretend to understand the logic of this. It is something I have long since chalked up to the useless beliefs of suicidal women and their failed daughters.
On the way back from Tarragona, my mother informs the rest of the car that she wants to buy tomatoes. Her body is built into, but not limited to, the space of the driver’s seat. In quantum physics, observing an object changes it, due to the instruments used in observation. How can we know anything, when observing an outcome changes it, and does an outcome happen if no one observes it?
Outside of the car: road, and mountains that seem constructed, faulted and folded with full intent. The burst of a timeline, igneous matter compressing underneath welts of dirt, proving that yes, you are, you have been, yes, you are stronger than rocky engineering. Mountains here are low and complacent, letting green fester and producing folksy air for the tourism industry, placing the little traveler in it’s trust and wake. Mountains here are giant Repenomamus, are prehistoric mammal, and the places where a rolling plain flat lines a bony dinosaur-filled womb.
My father says that it’s not worth it to stop for tomatoes. He’s produced a map from somewhere only he knows, and is holding it to his face, nose brushing the monuments marked in red and the highway letters marked in bold. My mother is speaking in the voice that always makes me feel like I’m in trouble, like she’s discovered the pornography collection I didn’t know I owned. Someone, a female motorist, has tried to overtake her on the car’s left side, un punto ciego, she says, gesticulating and spewing a number of insults towards the foolhardy female. We drop off the highway, away from mountains and into more familiar territory, quaint factory and apartment territory, where my mother can loosen her grip on road and motorist and pull a hand back to adjust her dyed brown hair, her sunglasses. In quantum mechanics, enough experimentation will allow us to know what will occur when we observe a result. But we don’t ever really know what will happen until we actually observe a result, do we? Turning onto our street, my mother asks should we go rent a movie? more a recommendation than a question, evidently having forgotten the tomatoes. Un punto ciego, a blind spot.
At two o’clock in the morning my mother turns on all the lights in the house. She wipes off her shoes and shucks off her lipstick. My mother breathes like the bogeyman, leaving shell-shaped marks of perspiration on the walls. She opens a drawer to tuck in the silk grey scarf and the matching elbow-length gloves that I sometimes steal from her. I spread the stitching open and sleep in her clothes, familiarize myself with the missing perfume I coveted as a babe, the velvet-lined pockets she keeps her peppermint candies. I imprint her milk sea smell onto my skin, and it feels as warm and as intimate as a scream, a womb.
My father pokes a searching hand, and then a head and a belly, from out of the covers. My parents had bought the covers in a furniture store off Dolores Marquez for cheap. I had found them tucked into their mattress upon coming home one weekday: cotton in ugly purple and yellow geometric shapes, vaguely reminiscent of a lava lamp. I couldn’t believe a household purchase had been made that I hadn’t been informed about, let alone one that screamed bachelor pad. My father had insisted that they had been my mother’s choice and my mother, from her perch in the living room, had yelled “Liar!”
My mother sits on the side of the bed and wraps a Chinese-print robe around herself. Her eye lids are baby raw and baby thin, the heliotrope of a halved plum. She starts talking about the restaurant she and the bus stop mothers had gone to. My father makes a sharp squawking sound, opening one eye, sclera glinting in the dark. He is woken up by the careening external factor of my mother’s white arms, my mother’s thick, black voice. When I was young, the rule of the house was that if I wanted a glass of water, if I had had a nightmare, if I had burst awake in the night with the conviction I was going to die then I’d wake my father up and not my mother. The knowledge came as I slithered out of a birth canal, with the perfume of my mother’s dizzy body.
She doesn’t have a problem waking up my father. He rubs his neck with his fingertips as she gets to the part about the drag queen from Ribaroja named Cruella Bin Laden. My father, the man in the corduroys and the neat crushed strawberry shirts and the glasses, does not know what a drag queen is. The next morning, as we’re brewing the exotic chocolate tea my mother had bought on a whim in a bazaar (it’s dank and unpalatable; we later have to drain it down the sink), he’ll ask me. When I tell him, he smiles. If it had been me or my brother at a drag queen venue he would would raised his sparse cat-like eyebrows and been uncomfortably, privately horrified. But it is my mother, so we know to look at each other with the understanding of compatriots. He opens the dry, brown mouth that built the sky my mother birthed for me. He lets his inside voice bloom into laughter I coveted as a babe along with my mother’s smell, sound I followed through halls like thermoluminescence. We watch my swimming, growing, baby mother, frictionless, careless creature be.