My daughter, Mosie, called me early to remind me about the dentist. She was feeding the dogs, and I could hear them whimper and moan as she gratified them. The old dentist had suddenly stopped taking my insurance. I stood watching the lake, its blind surface: here I was, a condo with a view and I’d never had any feelings for Lake Washington.
She had nothing else to say to me. Both of my children—Basho and Mosie—were first-time souls for whom the emotional was alien.
When I emerged onto the street, I saw the bus already swinging low on the bus stop, and I broke out running. I felt as horrifyingly revealed as I’d always felt on the playground—the curse of being a hardy but unathletic child. Just as I arrived, the bus sank to the curb. I knew it didn’t kneel for me, but I let myself feel flattered. Ahead of me, a great pile of human drove himself on board.
“Hey guy,” said the bus driver.
“I’d shake your hand but I just took a shit.” The voice from the wheelchair was almost buried.
The bus driver, on his own throne, said evenly, “I appreciate your consideration, Mr. Griffith.”
I took a seat up front. It was impossible not to feel soiled. The bus driver pulled out of a heavy turn, straining against his harness.
I heard Mr. Griffith grunt, and I turned around. A teenage girl wearing black lipstick and a rag of an army jacket met my eye and gave me the finger. I had brought my knitting in a Greenpeace bag, and I squeezed the challah of yarn. When Mosie was in seventh grade she’d become attached to another misfit: Regina Spivak, whose dyed black hair had sharp ends. I overheard Mosie indoctrinating Basho, “You know my friend Regina? She has crippling depression.”
Basho was making faces at his reflection in the turned-off TV screen, and I materialized in the doorway. “Crippling, eh?” The skin around Mosie’s eyes got red and punched-in looking. It wasn’t usually so easy to disarm her. Poor Mosie.
How I had hoped, at first, though, that Regina would confess to me: there was something wonderfully subversive about bringing yourself down to their level, not to mention meddling with somebody else’s child. I had gone so far as to picture myself invited onto the small couch in the middle school principal’s office. The currency in the girl groups Mosie was cut off from was emotional intensity regarding trees and whales, and I would ask the principal if he had considered that preteen suicide was linked to anxiety about the environment. Being in his presence made me want to confess my own anxieties about everything.
The bus window was abraded and greased with airborne sediment, so that the sunlight seemed opaque, sourceless. I adjusted the knitting baby on my lap. I was guilty of canceling the Greenpeace membership after receiving the free tote bag. Japanese whaling and Antarctica. Somewhere it was always summer (currently here in Seattle), and somewhere it was winter and people prayed for global warming to alleviate their utility bills. Maybe that was the problem, I thought cynically: the balance of the earth would be its own undoing. I had a recurring dream of polar bears with yellowed bellies.
Someone pulled the cord for a stop, and the pressure changed as if the bus were trying to slow against its own strength, its own momentum, on the runway. The teenage girl stalked up the aisle.
“Capitalist mutants!” she shouted back into the bus as she descended.
The bus driver closed the hatch, and it was as if she were sealed out—I looked for some sign from him that he’d done it to protect us.
It must have been Regina who initiated Mosie to Tampax. I’d found the toxic shock syndrome warning unfolded on top of her bureau, and I snatched it up thinking I’d use it as proof—that if she knew I knew, she’d be forced to come clean, admit to me she’d gotten her period. What was I thinking? That there was blood on her hands, just being a daughter?
I’d crept downstairs to find her. She was eating cereal on our fat chenille sofa. “Why are you using a fork?” I demanded. I touched the tampon box warning in my pocket. Her purple eyeshadow made her look like she’d risen from the undertaker’s cold table. She raised the fork to show me how she was chasing o’s up each tine, how it could take all morning.
It seemed like we’d been idling forever in the town center. I didn’t know Lake Forest Park yet, but in theory I could walk from my condo to the yarn shop, or Planet Fitness. Finally, the brakes let out a sigh, and the bus rocked from side to side before moving forward.
I was always late, my knitting trailing behind me, as if I were determined to fulfill the stereotype of the single mother. But this morning I’d allowed a full hour to get downtown to the dentist. Neurons that fire together, wire together, and hup! I’d told myself: This was the new, condo Sheila. I didn’t even need a house key. There were touchpads, and I used Mosie’s birth date for everything.
A piece of her soul. Or a reminder that they’d had to knock me out on her birthday. I had thought she’d shed light on me in gratitude for releasing her, but this baby was powerfully knotted inward, a rock grown into roots, a contusion.
They couldn’t do the pushing for me, honey, and they sure as heck couldn’t get in there if I kept on fighting like a marlin. The doctor must have been a billfisher. Memory had a hopscotch of its own: the same extraterrestrial white lights in the delivery room as at the dentist. As a girl I’d thought the dentist was going to suck me out by the breath when I closed my lips around the evacuator.
Mosie had said, “I have no understanding of your fear of the dentist, Sheila.”
“I just don’t necessarily like to go along with their recommendations, like a lamb to the slaughter.
“A mutton,” I added.
“She doesn’t like anyone telling her what to do,” mimicked Mosie.
“You know they can’t even prove flossing.”
“You do floss, Mosie.” I felt my chest tighten. She had always been deliberately lazy.
Now I looked out the bus window without seeing. I’d learned limbic system breathing at a workshop. I felt my waters flush, a wave machine, until I remembered that the limbic system was more like rock formations. But I kept coming back to how I’d be forced to start from scratch, a whole new portfolio of medical history questionnaires and x-rays, glassy films of the teeth in my skull with their gristle of roots, sunless shadows. I imagined all those disclosures releasing their toxic mists, their metallic aftertastes into the air and the water—
Mosie had told me drily to take a Xanax.
“Pharmaceuticals are turning waterways florescent.” I could hear the dogs barking in the background. “What’s that about?”
“Cookies,” said Mosie. Her husband said the dogs’ libido was hunger.
The barking got louder and I pictured her turning the phone into the yard for my benefit.
The bus braked a full block before the traffic lights, and again it was like a pressure change at altitude. The air made painful caves in my ears, Mosie.
There was rain in the atmosphere, but it wasn’t raining. I’d lived in Seattle my whole life, but not up here at the neck of Lake Washington, and I wasn’t sure of the new distances.
I thought: My ancestors were from the prairie. Starched grass, ghost choir.
My mother, Maureen, was born in a dooryard packed hard and polished smooth as Mexican tile. Inside the house the menfolk were not to be disturbed. Wisps of cottonwood fleece, spackled sunshine, the woman at first doubled over and then drawn and quartered; then making her way on all fours to the shade side of the house, out of sight of the door and the single window. Between contractions she carefully removed her undergarments.
She folded them and put them under a flat rock. She was forty-two years old, and Maureen was her first child.
“I don’t understand,” I used to say darkly, “why she couldn’t tell the men she was having a baby.”
Proto-feminism was strong and silent. Maureen said levelly, “She washed me at the pump, threw the placenta to the pigs, and went inside to make dinner.” I never wanted my mother to go back in time to her mother.
“I’m not like her at all,” I said stubbornly.
I’d aged into a good witch look, in my big hats and coarse linen. Flax. I had never been to the prairie. Mosie once took the hem of a tunic between her fingers and said, “Mortification of flesh, Sheila?” My legs had not seen the sun in years, and they were raw, in private, as if they were defrosting. When I got close to the mirror I saw that my face had been balled up in someone’s fist and then released—it un-crinkled slowly. My mother stared back at me. What a cliché for a woman my age to become her mother, but the woman in the mirror was not Maureen at a correspondingly still-soft-eyed mid-fifties. I looked like my mother the night she crawled all the way across the plastic floor of her shared room at Shoreview, bloodless as an opossum, looking for death, and finding it when she reached the door they cruelly left open to the low-ceilinged, florescent-singing corridor. They told me she expired at the threshold, and with all my strength I hissed, “She was an outdoorswoman.”
“Is that right?” said the administrator over her reading glasses.
A sawed-off nose, was Mosie’s verdict. She must have been in preschool. It was just a little bit blunt, I heard myself protesting. Mosie quietly stoppered her own nostrils with black olives at the kitchen counter. I knew even then that I would trade the worship of all the men in the world for my own daughter thinking I was beautiful.
The short-haired young mother across the aisle switched into her native Russian on the phone and suddenly started stroking her little daughter with great feeling. She caught me looking at her, and I dropped my eyes to her hooker sandals. Single mother, I thought. It takes one to know one.
Some mornings I lay on my back in my bed till noon, long divorced, still single, still, if truth be painfully told, living on alimony, releasing secret after secret. I didn’t bother to open the curtains; Lake Washington would still be there. Loose strands of light off the water unraveled across the ceiling, and I imagined all the ancient people who believed in fate and god-systems were really talking about genetics. How cavalier I’d been in choosing the human yarn with which to weave my children: Chris Shinerock. (I’d had to keep my maiden name so as not to be Sheila Shinerock, the daytime starlet.) I’d gone back to work after he left me, after being the Microsoft wife in clover. It was a startup to do with corporate self-discovery: subcontracting with the Myers-Briggs people, What Color Was Your Company’s Parachute? There was no proper HR department, so I had to be everything to everybody. I’d understood right away that if I was going to smuggle Basho and Mosie past my boss when they had daycare daze, I’d have to parade my bready legs in miniskirts: as if it were good manners to demonstrate an openness to sleeping with him. I trained my little chimps to say, “Thanks so much for having us, Mr. Newcomb,” but Mosie was all of five when she challenged me, “Is Mr. Newcomb your boyfriend?”
And how else was I going to get a week off to visit my sister, Nina, older by a decade, when she had her first baby? (I could finally lord it over her.) I slept on a cot in the basement and folded her laundry when I couldn’t fall asleep at night. My niece’s name was Penny, and her appendages were crooked and mottled, her bottom fleshy and without muscle. I couldn’t read her eyes. It made me nervous when the cat watched her from a hard-backed chair, switching its tail over the seat, but I shared the animal’s aversion, as if the baby were a changeling.
For the first time, I missed my own children. Their voices were almost unrecognizable on the phone, and I got the sense that they didn’t believe my voice either. My mother tried her best to report, but it was strange that she didn’t know them as I knew them. Finally, when I returned to the front door of our little stucco three-bedroom on the edge of Capitol Hill, stiff rosemary bushes covered with delphinium-blue flowers behind me, I felt I could see myself as Basho and Mosie saw me. The prodigal mother. I peered down the dark hallway. Then the spell of my absence broke and I rushed toward them.
Basho, up until now my angel, redeemer after Mosie, never anxious, always vivid, took a firm step behind my mother. Mosie stood her ground, but I did not go to her.
“Basho!” I pried him out and knelt to hold him to me. He was wooden. I tried to pick him up, but he made himself heavy, and I had to drag him across the room and onto my lap on the sofa. My mother’s helpless look, as witness—
I pressed him crosswise to my breast in the old nursing position. Did he even remember? Mosie stood by, coolly observing, keeping her thoughts to herself as always.
“Tell your mother what we did this morning, Mosie,” exclaimed my mother. She mouthed at me, Listen.
“We saw our dad and our stepmother,” said Mosie.
My mother drew back sharply. “Mosie!”
Mosie circled her fingers through her loose hair. She liked how it felt on the backs of her hands.
“We did not. We didn’t at all.” My mother sounded almost hurt, bewildered.
“You never let me see them!” cried Mosie. My mother made a cut-off motion across her throat at me, but I matched Mosie: “They don’t want to see you, you ignorant child!”
Out the bus window—where were we? Usually the bus took 522 on the diagonal to join with I-5, the main river, but we were dribbling through the neighborhoods—a pulse of yellow caught my eye.
Mosie had desert-blooming Scotch broom in her dogpatch in Shoreline. A thrushy, overripe smell penetrated the air. It made me sick even before Mosie told me her husband thought the flowers smelled sexy. Then I couldn’t suggest they clear-cut, stuff its head of gold in Yard Waste.
In fact I could still sense the lake on the left, a quiet, cold contour. I used to imagine it started at the moon and flowed all the way down to Mount Rainier. But I never worshipped it.
Something small and light dropped out of my hair. A translucent green worm, more plant than animal, took up where it left off and shrugged its way across my bag of knitting. Mosie would have squashed it with the butt end of her fist. Where had she come from?
Basho was a programmer; he worked for a game company. He practiced extreme solo sports, eschewed human contact, had dull eyes that I had seen star-shower like an IMAX when he sat before his computer. Every once in a while, he jumped out of airplanes. He was gay in a cold, anti-family, anti-future kind of way. I kept this to myself. I had never met a boyfriend. I once asked Mosie if she had.
“You’ve never been that close with Basho.”
Stung, I countered, “How does your husband feel about having a gay brother?”
“All guys have a little gay in them these days,” said Mosie.
Mosie, only sixteen months older—I had taken clomiphene, and I always used to make a point of explaining why my pregnancies were one on top of the other—went by Maureen now, her birth name. We had both inherited my mother’s flat, Scandinavian face, strong teeth, general density. Mosie at twenty-five was overweight and unimaginative, round-faced and flat-bottomed. She had married her first and only friend (I couldn’t count Regina—Razor Girl, Mosie called her later), a ghoul in combat boots with a heavy blond forelock in his face who was in eighth grade when she was a sophomore. He nuzzled her in my presence. I had hardly seen his eyes until the wedding, nd then, of course, they were the warrior’s horse’s eyes, huge, liquid, ready at any moment to see something that spooked them.
That first summer I kept thinking the Earl Gray tea bag packages were condom wrappers in the garbage. How quickly I realized that Mosie’s hanging out with this Teutonic, six-foot-tall middle-schooler was worse than her being a short, fat Stevie Nicks, if Stevie Nicks wore a trench coat like a female school shooter.
When I was showing off for people, I called him by his last name, Straub, as if I were making fun of his masculinity. Mosie called him Stuber. His name was Stewart, which Basho annunciated in halves like but-ler; the young people thought it was funny.
The first time Stuber called me Mother Sheila I cried out in fear, and he looked on keenly. He shot me emails once a week headed “Factoid.” He never mentioned the correspondence when we saw each other. The oldest living human was born closer to the signing of the Constitution than to today, Mosie’s husband wrote me.
Mosie identified with his family. She had always wanted to be normal, by which she meant working-class, apparently; had always longed for the normal world to embrace her and feed her its Doritos. It liked nothing better.
When the bus doors folded open for a local stop, I could still smell Lake Washington. I wondered if I should start worrying about being late. A sisterhood of little dolls in glossy ringlets and masks of makeup boarded: they fancy-footworked down the aisle. Everybody looked on stoically. Their chaperone brought up the rear: she had dead hair as if they’d sucked the life out of her. She leaned into my seat to inform me, “Irish step dancers.”
Mosie’s horse managed parking lots. Now he looked like a skinhead—people would think he was a skinhead—rolled in ink, “ripped,” as Basho once sniggered. He cruised around Seattle behind custom tinted windows while Mosie managed his website, transported dogs in crates in her prehistoric minivan. Mosie had told me herself that he was turned on by his own success, unforgiving in his dealings. How could I imagine he was forgiving with Mosie?
He said they weren’t going to have children.
“Is that okay with you?” I once asked her.
I used to complain to my mother that Basho and Mosie had enormous vanity but little ambition; that they punted their childhoods. As babies they could have been anything, changed the world. But by the time Mosie was five, she’d slammed the door on storybooks, at six she became unmusical, at seven she retreated from soccer—with her sturdy little body, she was good on defense—at nine she hated nature, and she ended up squeezing through the only door she’d accidentally, it seemed to me, left open by the time she finished high school: marriage.
I looked up the aisle. I needed air—
But then again, why didn’t I change the world myself, rescue polar bears, instead of blaming my daughter for eating junk food in her minivan, leaving the wrappers?
We seemed to be on a latitude with Magnuson Park, which bulged out into the lake before tapering to the Cut: freshwater met salt, and university crew boats shot from one pool to the other. The bus knelt again, and Mr. Griffith wheeled himself off capably. “You have a good one, now,” said the driver, cool as ever.
A handful of passengers watched and waited on the sidewalk. One by one they filed past those of us who practically lived on this bus by now, and we passed our silent judgment.
It was stop and go—I was sure it wasn’t supposed to be a local.
I was anxious again, and again I mis-imagined the limbic system. But water, water everywhere—Seattle was just an obstacle course for water.
The bus driver seemed to have a force field around him, and if he heard my cough of conversational initiation, he gave no indication.
I wouldn’t bother my knitting.
In any case, I needed the time to center the action. I needed to decide if I was controlled or exposed. Would I allow x-rays? I used to refer to e-mail as “Emily,” the idea being that determining its name gave me power over it. Basho had regarded me with open horror. “Do you have a little name for your indoor plumbing?” cackled Mosie. I’d never been to the prairie, but I had authority problems originating from my grandmother’s refusal to tell the men inside the house she was in labor. If I capitulated at the dentist, gave them what they wanted—it seemed to me they were after my very independence.
Recently, grudgingly, Mosie had agreed to drive me to the vast cemetery in North Seattle where my mother was buried. Empty dog crates slid across the hull of the minivan, banging into the bare metal walls at startling intervals, but I reminded myself to be on my best behavior. I told her I could smell the wet cedar tree beside my mother’s stone, and she flipped off a driver who accidentally met her eye as he passed us.
The light was loose in the clouds, and I realized with some shock that it was late June, the sun playing hooky at bedtime, the time when schoolchildren were about to explode from bunkers across Seattle. I used to imagine they’d been beating on the doors all winter. The way they spun around and shot-put their backpacks at the kneecaps of their caregivers, swelled the neighborhoods, broke down doors, laid waste, set fire—by dinnertime of the first day of summer, they would have shrunk their parents down to tiny custodians.
What was I supposed to do with Basho and Mosie? Be my real self? Hand myself over, do what you will with me, plant your strange selves in my private soil?
Mosie said she’d wait for me in the car in the cemetery parking lot—she had tree allergies. “You never had them on my watch, Mosie.” I was aware that I couldn’t stop worrying her like a dog with a bone, the rawhide twists she bought in bulk from Amazon.
She made herself comfortable in her seat and picked up her phone from the console.
“I don’t even remember where her stone is,” I said in defeat as I dismounted.
“Ask the office.” She did not look up from her websites.
They offered me coffee from a pod, creamer inside a tiny aseptic cupcake. The woman was a triathlete, but her face was completely ruined, so that she looked like a crone in a stolen body. The man leaned over the counter to make some lines and circles in roller-ball on a fold-out map I could take with me. His windbreaker sported the cemetery’s logo. I had already turned to go when for some reason I stopped and said viciously, “You know she’s not really here, don’t you?”
I’d scattered my portion of Maureen’s ashes at a retreat center that backed up on a broad creek in a grassy valley. My plan was to be there when the world apocalypsed and we had to share food and guard water: I had worked-studied in the kitchen, and there was peanut butter and chocolate and frozen soy margarine to last till we discovered life on Mars and dusted off our old covered wagons. Passing the talking stick around the circle dignified loneliness: not so different from the way dignified men must visit prostitutes. I was a Pisces, I said: my dreams were loaded with augury during my bleeding. Would my dreams dry up when I completed menopause? “Powerful, Sheila,” said the workshop leader.
I cast one last look at the minivan as I set out into the cemetery. Mosie could have used the exercise. Never would I have denied my own mother—and then I realized my tears were packed so tight in my chest it hurt, like breaking rock, to release them. How I missed her! I forged the grounds without heeding the directions. My brother, John, taking a wide stance, had demanded not only a marker but a fake burial.
There was a woman ahead of me on the road, plodding steadily beneath an enormous rain poncho. My prehistoric heart, thundering, couldn’t help but recognize my mother.
I slowed to quiet my pulse. And to suspend the dream—was there any harm in it? I thought suddenly of a hiking trip in the North Cascades when I was just out of college and my red hair still had all its pigment: my mother and I in first-generation polypropylene tights, gathering mountain goat wool from the prickle bushes. I let her take the lead. I didn’t like the sense of having her behind me, of leaving her behind. Even then. Even when she was heavy and strong, her thick hair pulled off her broad forehead by mirrored sunglasses.
Traffic through Ravenna. So at least we were going inland from Lake Washington. Outland toward Puget Sound—was it a real factoid that both the human body and Planet Earth were two-thirds water? You could almost say the same for Seattle.
The couple behind me were grousing that the alternate route, which the driver was contractually bound to follow, had clearly been computer-generated in Bangalore.
“It’s not the usual route?” I ventured, rubbernecking around behind me.
“No,” said the man flatly, speaking for both of them.
Nothing further. I retracted. I wondered if the bus driver had heard me. I sunk my hands in my bag of knitting.
Mosie and Stuber had a cookout wedding. One of Stuber’s cousins went online to become a Universal Life minister; he wore a T-shirt laminated with a tuxedo front. We all gathered under one of the BBQ shelters at Carkeek Park. “We have a hitchuation here, people!” said the cousin. In fact, Maureen and I were stuck at the back of crowd; we were second-class citizens, like children.
Another cousin was pouring beer out of cans into plastic cups under the tablecloth. I would have declined, had I been offered. I approached my counterparts, Mosie’s in-laws, who sat as one shelf of fat, who had themselves been married beneath a picnic shelter. Stuber’s mother reached over her husband’s lap to clutch at me. “Welcome to the family, Shirley. Did you see their cute tats?” She held out her own ring finger, which was bare. I, in contrast, had always been good with names.
Mosie was busy talking to the minister as I picked up her chubby little hand and held it in mine. I wanted her undivided attention, but had I ever given her mine? Freely? I examined the wedding ring tattoo, its 3-D rock. I checked to see that it went all the way around. “Did it hurt?” I asked in a quiet voice. She didn’t hear me.
There were burger buns in bags as big as bed pillows. Industrial-strength ketchup. Frozen pucks of patties—Stuber sidled up to me and said the two tattoos had only cost “a buck fifty.”
Chris, my ex-husband, made his way over to where I was stationed beside Maureen under a pile of coats in her wheelchair. Behind him was Riley DeBlasi, the creature-woman he’d left me for when the children were practically still in diapers. “She’s so sweet,” whispered Riley, cocking her long head at my sleeping mother.
“Quite the event,” said Chris. Was it possible he had regrets? Would he have liked, finally, to walk his daughter down the aisle? All the fight had gone out of me. It was never about Chris, or Riley the Microsoft lawyer—I felt suddenly and strangely unclaimed. I felt that my memories made a map, but I didn’t know how to read it.
Riley offered to stay by Maureen while I went to the beach to join the party. She pulled out her phone and disappeared seamlessly. Chris pivoted toward the daylight outside the shelter and turned into a phone also.
I crossed the grass and the parking lot to the pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks that cut off the coastline. I paused at the top of the stairs, in the batting cage, to look out toward the Olympics. The mountains, as usual, had wrapped their statues with cloud burlap. Puget Sound was narrow here, as if Carkeek were a stop along a corridor. There was a stiff wind, and the concrete floor seemed to be quaking—I reached for the chain link to steady myself. I looked down to restore my balance, and there was an oily egg of bird shit gleaming like an oyster.
I raised my eyes again carefully. There was Mosie down below in jeans (“At least white ones?” I’d pleaded; naturally she defied me) and her new father-in-law’s huge Seahawks sweatshirt. She was talking and laughing with her tribe. Stuber had shaved the sides of his head clean and spiked his forelock into a Mohawk for the party. A caste of little kids screeched to the water’s edge, then, arrested by a new idea, started throwing rocks at the white wedges that were seagulls.
I had no place there—the jostling, raucous laughter; the cold metallic water. I could almost taste the treatment plant; there were shellfish warnings everywhere. I pressed myself against the cage to see better. The cousins all seemed to have the same girlfriend, in cheap flared jeans and big hooded sweatshirts, and they all looked like my Mosie. I thought suddenly that I hadn’t recognized her when she was born, either. She wasn’t uglier than any other baby. She certainly wasn’t more beautiful. But there was no answering chord. I named her after my mother in an attempt to naturalize her, domesticate her to me—replicate something of what I had with my first Maureen, my mother.
The couple behind me on the bus had begun arguing loudly. “You’re constantly bragging about how much money you have, and then have you noticed how everybody lets you pay for everything?”
The man kept blowing his nose like a kazoo.
“Can’t you ever let your mother pay for anything?”
The bus pulled over, and the broken couple disembarked. I leaned forward and gave the driver the dentist’s address and asked if I should get out with them.
The bus driver said, “You want University Street Station.”
I thanked him, thinking thanking was almost always a form of apology.
I thought of a day my mother and I had taken the children for a hike up a small mountain above the flower farms and the oyster beds of Skagit Valley, north of Carkeek Park along the same water. Basho had to be lured with M&Ms—“Hup, Bash,” my mother kept saying—but Mosie was a born trudger. I took it to mean that she was insensitive to her own feelings. We made a big to-do about being on a leg of the Pacific Crest Trail for a while, but we got off on a horse path and ended up at a small pond recessed in the forest. It was murky, skeined with plants and frogs, islands of swamp-tuft connected by drowned trees which made irresistible bridges. I ate the rest of the M&Ms myself—first the browns, etc.—sitting on a log with my mother, watching Basho and Mosie, who were skeptical but subdued by the water. It must have been soon after Chris left, and I remembered thinking that now I myself could go back to being a child.
I stared at the bus window, like an old sheet of plastic. On a recent flight out to visit my sister, Nina—Niece Penny was off to college—my seatmate had talked about ducks getting caught in the propellers, feather pillows. Or maybe Rainier was shedding its weather, I suggested, webs of snow that had been woven all winter around the mountain. He looked at me blankly. When we cleared the Cascades, the earth looked like another planet. Inhospitable fissures, drastic temperatures—no life, no water. I felt disoriented. Had the moon been privatized? Was the project on Mars actually taking sign-ups? Could you buy a Tesla at a Toyota-Hyundai dealership? I was sliding backward and forward indiscriminately. There were no special brakes, nothing to hold me in middle age. I felt I could see my death from up there; my seatmate offered me a drink with more concern than chivalry. Mosie didn’t drink, so I had stopped drinking.
I thought about how Maureen’s mother, my grandmother, was from a time when it still wasn’t clear if humans were going to be able to dominate nature. She lived on the prairie when tracts of grassland were unclaimed, still bloodless. And now the age of the Anthropocene: my mind the seat of self-consciousness re coal, nuclear, fracking, Greenpeace. The age of guilt. Great barges of melting ice, polar bears washing up on tropical beaches, their jaws impossible to open. I had no real duties. No plants, no animals. No survival issues.
A one-bedroom condo with a balcony off the bedroom that looked through fernlike conifers to Lake Washington. The one false note was an electric stove, but Mosie was quick to remind me I had never cooked. I said, “At least you and I have that in common.” Buckled in, seat-back and tray table and duck-hunting seatmate, I thought we were doomed: I couldn’t imagine good old God as an environmentalist.
How I wanted to go back to a time when the world had seemed to carry its own weight! When it could retain its own ice caps!
The dentist’s waiting room was large and airy, on the fourteenth floor of a landmark downtown building. Framed photographs on the wall were for sale: muscular waterfalls, de rigueur Rainier, a steep-bank beach oppressed by dripping evergreens.
I had arrived in plenty of time, but perhaps I should have heeded Mosie and got hold of some kind of pill—anxiety certainly was the word of the day, but now I thought it was more like a sense of being completely overwhelmed by my own material.
I perched on the edge of the stylishly cracked leather sofa and closed my eyes. I imagined my jaw sockets turning counterclockwise, unscrewing tension.
A sleek-haired young hygienist appeared as if to guide me on my spiritual journey. My previous dentist was buck-toothed and beady-eyed, with a damp warren in the basement of a head shop in Fremont.
The examining cubes we passed had real walls instead of partitions, and each one, I noticed, was lined up with a window, so that you could float among Seattle’s towers, enjoy composed angles onto Elliott Bay, and classical music.
“Here you are,” said the hygienist, letting me go ahead now. Just as I sank into the recliner, Bachianas Brasileiras gave chase over the ceiling-mounted speakers.
“Eight cellos chewing up the scenery,” I said, and the girl laughed uncertainly.
I hauled in as much air as I could, and let my whole chest heave to deflate as I sighed it out again.
I thought to myself once more: Was I controlled or exposed? What was my tactic, my posture? I imagined Mosie with her dog pack. Her flabby flanks and hunched shoulders; the weird, closed sign language she used with the animals…
The hygienist was looking over the intake forms, her slender back turned against me. I couldn’t help thinking she was Mosie’s age. But I didn’t think she lived in Shoreline in minor squalor.
“It looks like you haven’t filled out the medical history section,” she said, still reading as she turned on her white medi-clogs, all bright business.
I tried to remained composed and silent.
“Could you do that for me?”
I knew it was coming. My tears were like cement in my throat. Well, no, I thought to myself. No, I couldn’t. There was no way I was going to check forty-five boxes. I took a deep breath—I tried—and imagined I was gathering my powers.
The hygienist was staring curiously.
“You know what?” I said.
Up went her eyebrows.
I shook my head slowly. “I can’t do it.”
There was an almost ear-splitting silence. A pure, ringing-with-cold silence. I thought of Antarctica, and I thought: This was the new, non-babbling Sheila.
“Well, my goodness!” she cried. “We have to know—”
“A dentist?” I cut her off. “Really?”
“A heart murmur!”
“No heart murmur.”
The hygienist handed me the clipboard, but I didn’t take it.
“Miss!” I’d brought her to incredulous. “This isn’t optional!”
“Oh, fine!” I cried. A terrible keening sound came out of me. And then—uncontrolled, exposed—I could no longer stop myself from crying. I tucked my head into the task and carved a line down through all the “No” boxes. Of course I suffered headaches, anxiety attacks, herpes, thyroid, but these were the secrets that made me who I was, and I wasn’t going to give them away to any old dentist.
I handed back the clipboard. I was wretched. Everything the hygienist said, with her ice pick and her little mirror on a wand and her rinse gun in my mouth, I agreed with. I made myself as fluid, as accepting as possible. The pick scraped the lime scale, punctured my gums, and my eyes watered.
“Is that all you can open?”
“You have a tiny mouth!”
I looked up into the hygienist’s eyes, and the lashes were cluttered and frozen with black makeup.
I walked past one of Stuber’s pay lots farther up Second Avenue. I would shop until I was no longer in danger of crying. My mother would have done the same at the new dentist. Tried to assert her independence, only to face humiliation. Maureen would have shopped until she was clear of crying. I was, in fact, so much like my mother that there was no need for me to have been born. No need for my mother to have died, was more like it.
Where did you come from, Mosie?
The doors of Nordstrom Rack opened and sucked me in. I plunged my hands into the first exhibit I came to, pawed furiously through the dollar panties table, unburying X-rated thongs and days of the week in Necco Wafer colors.
Time seemed to turn me over, too, and I thought of my grandmother’s “things,” as my mother called underwear, stashed underneath that rock, just in time for the crowning. The unpainted wood homestead folded back into the prairie. The light swam across the huge sky—there was so much light you could see clear through yourself, my mother once told me—and I saw myself finally—it shocked me—and I was no longer a child.
KIRSTIN ALLIO is the author of a short-story collection, Clothed, Female Figure, and a novel, Garner, a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Honors include the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, a PEN/O. Henry Prize, and fellowships from Brown University’s Howard Foundation and the MacDowell Colony. Her fiction, essays, and poems appear most recently in AGNI, The Southern Review, Seneca Review, and Conjunctions, and are forthcoming from Prairie Schooner and Fence. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.