Connie usually wrote beautifully; black or blue loops would flow easily from her hand onto the pages of journals she had filled in the past. Today the words seemed caught in her wrist, frozen to the pen connected to the page. Since returning from the doctor’s, it didn’t seem like there was much more to write.
Dr. Munsch had said this upon releasing Connie’s feet from the plastic and leather stirrups: “Well, you’re not pregnant. And thank God. It would be too risky at your age.” He stripped off his gloves and washed his hands in the silver surgery sink. The water steamed up onto his bare hands.
Connie read the anti-smoking posters on the wall. She learned then that the smoke she had been stacking into her lungs since thirteen, when those older than her would finally hand the sticks down, went straight to the babies that weren’t in her stomach — or weren’t now, and never would be. She learned that everything a mother can eat and drink and smoke goes straight to her babies or not-babies or no-babies. It was an interesting read, and she scanned intently. Women were like such garbage disposals, digesting and sending on to some complicated pipe system all their nutrients and the bad things as well.
“Did you hear me, Connie?” Dr. Munsch had rolled the sleeves of his collared shirt down. She hadn’t seen him strip off the blue gown, but there were the two seafoam drawstrings hanging out from the trash: two tiny arms, desperate to stay afloat.
Connie understood, and she did hear, as well. But just then she was reading the poster. The PSA was warning that smoking during any stage of pregnancy could cause major birth defects, ovarian cysts (the source of the pregnancy symptoms she’d thought for the past month surely meant there was a bun in her oven or irons in her fire), or just plain old infertility.
Connie marinated in the bath for far too long after leaving the gynecologist’s office. The water turned blueish and cloudy until her fingers, filtered through sewery skin filth, were whiteish sausage guppies, and her legs were grey swamp eels. She wanted to weep but instead looked at the parts of her wrinkling further in her self-sauce honestly. There was a shampoo and conditioner membrane that separated her eyes from her body below the waist. Above the murky barrier were Connie’s breasts, her upper arms. She’d just turned fifty last month. Why had she waited so long to do the things she was supposed to do? To be a woman? Why was there no one with whom to make love and then babies? In fifty years, who had there been? There had been Ralph, the car salesman she’d caught herself, some miserable, sticky caterpillar, hanging around the long side of the used car lot to see. Precious, possibly fertile weeks had passed before she realized he wanted to sell her on a beaten white VW two-seater. She bought it quietly to save face—of course she knew what he had wanted—and went away and did not spend any more time there.
Connie’s mother had at some point decided that roast eggplant would accompany nicely that night’s dinner of roast beef and roast vegetables, as if roasting were the only method of extracting nutrition from food—it was a fad of course, but as a seventy-year-old in the beginning rust of human rot, she was allowed her quiet eccentricities. Since Connie always cooked a vegetable side, it was her responsibility to blister the eggplants under the broiler. It was uncomfortable to take the molten eggplant from the oven and scoop its dead, seeded guts into the waiting bowl. Everything that allowed it to give was there, burnt up and lightly seasoned, and she did remove the once-fertile guts, steaming that green grey. All the bowls matched, and they were surgical feeling, and she cried quietly over the plant’s halves as she did the work, was a silently sobbing surgeon for ten minutes as she took the last of the eggplant’s seeds and stomach; all the soft parts were gone. Connie went to bed without supper that last night, left her mother to eat alone.
Connie noticed, after that appointment with Dr. Munsch, the way her womb hung low. Although maybe it didn’t, and she was noticing it now the way one notices a mole’s irregular nature after hearing a skin cancer commercial so many times. This was not, unfortunately, an FDA recommendation on the appropriate length of sun tanning spells. This was motherhood wrenched from Connie’s hands and low-hanging stomach (was it? She searched several times in the full length mirror across from her childhood bed).
And that bed—once, even yesterday, this morning, it had felt so constricting, as though at fifty, she needed more space than she had been allotted by a standard American twin bed. Sitting back on it, in an uncomfortably paisley blouse her mother had regifted her, Connie realized that the bed was fine. The mattress had molded to her figure after a lifetime in it, and besides: would she be needing it much longer?
Through the mirror, she made out fuzzily the figure of her mother, hunched and tottering out with an unforgiving unsteadiness. Connie kept herself from sighing. Mother shouldn’t have to walk to get the mail, not when it was so hot and so late, and the mail was so rarely anything important.
Mother sway-walked herself back to the front door. In that way that people transferred from the outside disreality to the inside’s audiological real world, Mother became real again, and Connie heard the door open, saw light flood the driveway for a moment as this happened, then saw the doorstep darken as she heard it slam—all in the same second! And all of this, Connie heard and saw from her place on the bed, looking intently into the gold-framed mirror angled past her toward her window.
“Connie.” The way Mother’s voice creaked paper-thin from the front hallway, it shivered up Connie’s back. That is the voice of a woman whose life was lived, and Connie was barely twenty years behind, childless on a child’s bed.
She was hungry, and there were no more eggplants to roast and then eat.
The next morning, Connie had to make up her mind. Neither the carrot nor the stick was prodding her on now toward anything, so she went to the grocery store for mother.
Maybe Connie should have realized that at some point, when the candles on cakes have to be abridged to numbered candles rather than individual sticks (or else risk one’s vanilla on vanilla single-layer sheet cake looking more like a funeral pyre than a birthday cake), that that is when you should probably decline to have children. But here’s what happened: Connie had gone to New York thirty years ago to write music, had written her music, pressed one hundred limited press records, and for the subsequent three decades, she had been sending them out with diligence to record companies to help her distribute them. She hadn’t fallen in love but had written about it in indefatigable loops and in three-four time, and in dozens of journals, whose yellowing leaves populated her lone bookshelf. She was unbroadcasted and existed only in the final pressing not sent.
“Walk of shame,” the clerk announced, as Connie arrived at the belt with a six pack of cokes and a box of condoms. She noticed he seemed surprised at how funny he believed his own comment to be.
Connie wasn’t ever particularly funny, but that day, feeling queer and eggless and fifty, she was just quiet. Her items had already begun traveling across the electric beltway and been bagged. She was faced with an impatient sixteen-year-old.
“Are you paying or what, lady?”
Connie was paying every day. “Walk of shame,” she repeated. She pulled out a wallet, small and red. She was accustomed to its emptiness any time she wasn’t running errands for Mother. She retrieved her change and shuffled out of flickering fluorescents to daylight.
She was not rabid or feral, Connie was drizzling out words strange to her with the wide end of what was left of her father’s pipe in her mouth. She’d been chewing down the corn-cobbed wood in her mouth just to take away its texture. Now it was permanently wet and stunk patiently with the start of mold. Connie had nothing else to write and spat out a splinter to the most distant of her bedroom’s corners, to a space behind her wastebasket, where her mess was hidden by the eaves of wicker-painted plastic.
Let me be if I can be. Let me not be if I can’t.
Connie kissed what was left of the sleeping woman that had raised her, was still raising her, and headed for California in a car she’d bought from a man she thought she loved, and that she thought loved her, so as not to look foolish.
Connie wasn’t necessarily foolish. She was fifty years old, completely unpublished and unknown. She was a dreamless sleeper now that what should have been her life was wrenched from her hands and passed on to someone whose nails were not contrasted by the beginnings of liver spots. Who are you when you’re not the starlet or the mother or really even a daughter anymore? Is there much to raise in a fifty-year-old? What a sour dough she’d make.
Flying down the highway, the woman who was a girl and a driver at this moment felt and fully realized the wrinkles at the corners of her mouth—there she really was, and childless. Empty and cystic if you asked Dr. Munsch (she had, unfortunately).
A month ago, Connie had sent out that second-to-last of her one hundred children to a company in Wyoming, and even they had rejected her. The singer-who-was-not, the unsinger, had ninety-nine rejection letters, no husband, no children, and a mother near death. It was not an ideal situation. She couldn’t send her last record in the mail, and so decided to leave with it in her hand, in the Beetle she’d bought from Ralph, and take it to Araby Records near Venice Beach.
At nearly every junction, the journey leapt away from Connie. The car died in Denver after so much sun and rain and the opening of formerly blind eyes had turned the two seater into a jalopy (Ralph was full of grease, selling her such a beautiful broken thing as that). Connie ate cool tins of eggplant with staling crackers across Nevada and busked until she’d made back some of the money from replacing the back left and front right tires.
She succeeded in drinking most of that away and busked some more to get out of the state. Not knowing how gas prices differed from state to state, Connie discovered more than half of the way through that she needed more money to get through to Venice Beach as the numbers soared past Iowa’s small-town sale points.
Finally, on a Friday, Connie arrived at Araby Records. The outside was all mirror, like some space diner transported to her earth. It would have been beautiful if it wasn’t so frightful. On leaving the car, penniless, unshowered for the past two weeks, and looking at herself in the mirrored windows, Connie realized who she was, what she was, how she was—she was horrible.
Her teeth, mossy, jutted toward her reflection. Her hands were liver-spotted and clawed with arthritis over her last record. Her dream, waiting on the other side of the door, was no longer for her. She was a beast, and as such, returned to her carriage and drove into the dark.