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The Science of Motherhood
A Story of Involuntary Time Travel
4:33 pm, September 2, 1989
I am somewhere familiar, there's an oak tree and a broad lawn covered with crisp leaves. I am sitting on a picnic blanket looking in your eyes. Something bubbles in my throat. My head throws itself back, noise bursts from my mouth like a fourth of July sparkler spitting silver. I cover my mouth with my hand, my vision blurs into stars.
You are laughing as hard as I am. I have as much control of your laughter as of my own. That is to say, none. Tears sting my eyes. Two women hurry away from us pushing a stroller. They wear heels and hairspray helmets, one grey, one blond. They are grandmother, mother and child, and they are offended. They were telling us how difficult it was to keep a bow on the baby’s fine hair, until they discovered they could just glue it to the top of its head. You and I almost held it inside, but then we looked at each other. I put my hand to my side and gasp.
Mother stomped into my kitchen in her hyper-thinsulate boots, leaving gooey purplish tracks on my newly mopped floor.
“The idea is brilliant,” she muttered, knocking the flour canister across the counter, “but where are the matches?” The sugar canister followed the flour, sliding across my just-wiped counter. I set down my mid-morning coffee and ran to catch it before it plummeted over the edge like Mother that time she was climbing Mt. McKinley, testing a new formula for super-density rope. The rope broke and over she went, but luckily her patented elasta-mite grappler caught her at the last second, just as I caught the sugar.
"Behind the coffee maker," I said. My mother lived and worked in a lab over my garage, and when her experiments were not working out she came down into my clean kitchen in her filthy mechanic's overalls and smoked Camels.
Fire burst from between her fingers and she inhaled with deep satisfaction. Camel unfiltered had been my father’s brand, but she smoked more than he ever had: 15 packs on my weekly grocery list, paid for by the royalties from her super-bondo invisible paint patent.
“Going to be a doozy,” she said from inside a cloud. “Nothing like it ever.”
“Couldn’t you wipe your feet before you come in here?”
“Can’t be done,” she continued, pacing from the fridge to the sink, “Without another participant, however. Need someone else’s consciousness,” she mused. “For reference. Someone else’s life.”
“One of your colleagues?” I went to fetch the mop and bucket.
“Pah!” she spat. “Colleagues!”
“Mom, remember what I told you about spitting!” Spitting was not allowed in my house or in the large private yard—I bought this place for the yard, so that the neighbors won’t be unduly alarmed by occasional volatile chemical spill or Mother walking around ten feet tall in the latest version of her hyper-extension marshmallow sneakers--but only in her lab over the garage. Where I in turn never went, it being full of who knows what sort of mess and asphixiating smells. Enough trailed in on her shoes. I wielded the mop.
“My colleagues are a bunch of horse’s pattooties,” she yelled at the refrigerator. “They sit in their air-conditioned government offices and study the freezing temperature of mayonnaise in zero gravity. If they even think of time travel they immediately make some kind of combustion engine,” she hollered, stamping out her cigarette, “with flames painted on the sides!”
“Mom, move your foot.”
“Ridiculous!” she yelled.
I mopped around her.
“"The problem with this sort of travel," she said, "is that the mechanisms have always been designed backwards. We try to send ourselves into the past or the future, while arrogantly keeping ourselves the same. A present body, displaced into another time, will alter and disturb that time. Even tiny changes have, according to chaos theory, an infinite potentiality for damage. It can’t work.”
She stuck another cigarette between her lips and lit it with the first. "Instead of changing time to suit us, we must adapt ourselves to suit the time to which we wish to go. We must research the traveler’s life, and send her back to a specific moment which we knows cannot be changed—a moment at which the traveler was acting involuntarily.”
“Sleeping. Dreaming. Choking. A time when you were are acting without free will, when events or circumstances compelled you to act in one way and one way only. I could perhaps travel to the seconds after I fell off that cliff, or the time I was bandaged from head to toe after the liquid glass exploded…"
"I don't think this method of time travel will catch on," I said.
"…Or the moments before death, or perhaps sneezing. I don't know. The first step is to map out all the involuntary moments on a life graph. We’ll be able to gauge their length but not what they are until you visit them. Come up to the lab and let’s get started."
The water in the bucket was suddenly cold.
Her eyes had a copper gleam. “You are perfect. We can plot and graph you and there will be no unforeseen events. You have had an excellent predictable life,” she said, rubbing her hands together and spewing ash everywhere.
“Mother! There’s a Portable Cloaking Device in my closet and a weightless freighter hull in my backyard. I kept house in a succession of cheap apartments while you muttered and concocted things with strange smells. For my sixth birthday you gave me a bunsen burner and for my sixteenth, when all the other girls had sleepovers and did their nails and got go-go boots, you took me to Rhodesia for heavy-ore extraction testing. How can you call that predictable?”
“Six is old enough to operate a burner. You were a very responsible child.”
I sighed. It was true. I had always been very responsible. I’d had to be.
She lit a new cigarette from the end of the old and paced holding both.
“You never even tried to boil mercury,” she said sadly. That I had not become a scientist was the biggest tragedy of her life, after my father’s death. “I spent my childhood trying to keep things together,” I said. ”I can’t stand the thought of blowing them apart.” I let the mop splash into the cold water. “So I may be dull, Mother, but it’s how I have to be. Count me out.”
She squinted at me as if I were something bubbling in a test tube emitting yellow smoke instead of the expected green. “Don’t you want to know? Aren’t you even curious?” She glared. It was something about me that she could never fathom, how I could live contentedly knowing only as much as I already knew. “You could revisit your past with your present consciousness. Perhaps see the future. But if I go, you would have to stay here and monitor the equipment. Which is tricky, and you don’t know how to do it. I would probably get trapped somewhere and never be able to get back to write and compile the research.”
“That sounds tempting.”
She looked enormously hurt. Like many insensitive geniuses, she was remarkably susceptible to slights.
“I was kidding, Mother,” I said. “You know I think your work is important. It’s just that….”
“I know,” she said. “You like safety.”
Then I was angry at her condescension. “Something you have never, ever provided me.”
Suddenly my Mother looked small, aged by smoke and stooped by work. She bowed her head. “This could be my greatest creation.”
I looked around at my house, my yard, my kitchen, my clean floor. “Oh, Mother.” I sighed. “Alright. But just the initial step. Mapping out the involuntary parts of my life.” Her head bobbed up, eyes gleaming, and she stubbed out both cigarettes in my coffee cup so she could clap her hands together.
“This is one of them,” I said.
1:15 pm, June 22, 1966
My fists pound something hard and cold, voice shrieks out of my body, slithers up my throat like electric snakes and bursts from my open mouth, the noise terrifies me and I cry more, louder and louder, my back flat against something hard, a floor with grit on it, strange feet stepping around me, following the round red wheels of a grocery cart, all of which makes me cry louder. And making me cry loudest of all, and pound my fists into the floor, the one pair of feet which do not step around me, do not step at all but stay planted, a writhing body’s length away. I know if I look up I will see the underside of your elbows and forearms, because your arms are folded. I scream because suddenly I don’t like your elbows, I don’t want to see your elbows, I don’t want you to be crossing your arms high above me; I want you to do what I want, even tho my crying has so startled me I have forgotten what that is.
A creative woman on a tight budget is a dangerous thing. I remember when Mother was working on a Portable Cloaking Device for some hush-hush division of IXM; I could never find my coat. Or when she got the contract from Shipbuilders of Tacosea for converting steel to weightlessness; when I unplugged the toaster it floated away. When she was working on that crazy liquid glass project the dining room windows melted into puddles at my feet. Which was better than exploding in my face, I admit. For her greatest creation ever she had commandeered every clock in the house, the padded rocker from my sewing room, the corncob holders from the kitchen junk drawer, and all of my photo albums.
When I climbed the steps to her lab over my garage—where I hadn’t been since the aardvark-cloning incident brought out the ASPCA—there was no vehicle painted with flames. Nor a phone booth with wings, purple smoke, magic carpet. There was however my Mother, with her hand on the back of my sewing rocker, from whose padding bristled corn cob holders, wires and cords which spun around the room and connected to a computer, a blood pressure cuff, and a battery of clock workings. "I call it The Involuntary Time Dial. ITD. Let's hook you up."
She ripped apart the Velcro edges of the cuff.
“You owe me, Mother,” I said.
“I birthed you. All my debts are paid.” She tightened the band on my upper arm. The dials on the ITD whirled. A graph covered with red dots appeared on a monitor.
"These squares are years. The ITD graphs every year of your life from conception until death. Red indicates the moments of involuntary action. The green vertical line is the present.
“I can zoom in on a graph of a single month”—she double clicked—“zoom again and see any particular week”—double clicked again—“and even see all the involuntary moments of a single day.” She clicked again, and the top of the screen said June 23, 1989. The rest of the screen was divided into 24 squares, unevenly dotted with pinpricks of red, some of the pinpricks clustering to form larger glowing blobs. I turned my head away; it was appalling to see how much of my life had been out of my control.
"As I expected, it's completely red until you were born.” The top of the screen now said 1962. Mother’s yellowed fingers rested on the mouse.
“After birth the red appears with decreasing frequency throughout your toddler years. I wondered whether you were such a crabby baby just to spite me. Now I see you couldn't help it. At least until you were about two, and learned the word 'no’."
She clicked some buttons on the computer, and a huge printer in the back of the room began spitting out a swath of thick paper covered with black lines and red splotches. “I’ll print it all out and match it up to what we know of your history,” she said. I noticed her desks and most of the floor were covered with photos from my albums. She’d also found my school yearbooks somewhere and what looked like a pile of artwork from elementary school I had no idea she’d kept.
“Now let’s see.” She clicked the mouse again. “Here’s the past year of your life. Here’s last week.”
“There are seven large regular dots and a lot of small irregular ones."
"Well, you don't think you have control of yourself when you're sleeping, do you? It will be extremely interesting to go back to a past dreaming state, with your present conscious awareness."
“I’m not going anywhere, remember?”
She ignored me.
"What are all the smaller blips?” I asked.
"No way of saying. Who really knows what one does voluntarily, and what is determined by situation, brain chemistry, heredity."
"So if we strapped this thing to your arm it might be speckled with dots for every time you light up?"
She ignored me again. The red blotches glared. All the uncontrolled moments of my life. Pinpricks, larger blobs, and far to the right, past the green line, a huge ball glowing like Jupiter.
“What is that?” I whispered, pointing.
Mother clicked on the object. “June, 2001,” she said. “About two years from now. A very long time of involuntari-ness. Lasts….”she clicked keys. “Apex seems to last 23 hours, then decreasing over a period of weeks.”
“But what IS it?”
Mother looked thoughtful. “And accident, perhaps. A sudden prolonged sleep. A period of illness or madness. I don’t know.”
“A period of illness or madness.”
“Or something else.” She hesitated. “There’s no way of knowing.”
The safety I had worked so hard to achieve as the antidote to my peculiar childhood fell in pieces around me. I had congratulated myself on the choices I made in my life; I had thought they were well reasoned, practical. I had thought they were choices. Now I saw my life was full of red blobs, tiny, larger and huge, all as unchosen and involuntary as the blast, which killed my father when I was a baby. I had two years until I walked into something huge, unexplained, and probably dangerous. Illness or madness. I was not going to wait two years to find out what it was.
“There’s one way.”
Stealthy as smoke a grin spread over her face.
1:56 pm, March 14, 1972
A tiny army of dust particles climbs up my nose hairs. My mouth opens, my eyes squint, my head arches back. I am kneeling on a wooden floor by a bed with a brown and orange dust ruffle. I let go of the smooth handle of a dust mop as I raise my hands to my mouth. Aaaaaaa--The bed disappears, everything is black and upside down and stopped--choo! My body lurches, blackness whirls around my head and dissipates. I breathe again.
"Brown and orange dust ruffle?" asked Mother.
“Sounds like late sixties,” I said. "What day did you send me to?"
"March 14, 1972."
"Hmm. I was ten. We lived in that apartment on Hawthorn Drive. Furnished, remember."
"With hideous castoffs. Did it have wood floors? I don't remember ever making you dust under beds," said Mother.
"You were so busy then with research, and hustling up funding.
You certainly weren't going to."
She looked at me, and took a drag. "You were a strange child."
I laughed. "You were a strange mother.”
To get used to the technology we had decided to begin with the less-risky past. I revisited childhood dreams, baby laughs, adolescent coughs, and the time I missed the chairlift and slid down a hill backwards on my bum. Mother plastered her walls with my life: rows and rows of red oasi with photos, diary entries and old homework pasted up in appropriate spots. “Why did you miss so much school?” she asked.
“That’s kind of what happens when your parent takes you to Rhodesia or Tibet or Tacosea.”
We visited a tantrum I’d had in 1966, when I was three.
“I remember you as a horrible toddler,” Mother said. “But why did I just stand there with my arms crossed? And what was that place we were in?”
“Shelves of cans, Mother? You must have taken me to a grocery store, back before I could do the shopping myself.”
She shuddered. “Terrifying places. Necessary, I suppose, but I’ve always hated them.”
“Perhaps that’s why I was crying.”
11:45 am, April 14, 1974
There’s a jungle gym. Girls in dresses whirl around the bars while trying to keep their skirts covering their underpants. I am standing under the whirling girls, my foot is on a bottom bar; I am climbing up. But I stop, I can’t climb anymore, there’s a heat flooding my body and overflowing out my eyes. Boys are circled around me, their loud voices ricocheting off each other in the taunting lilt of elementary school. Salt tears sting my mouth. “Who are you going to bring to the Father-Daughter picnic, your Mommy?” I try to force the tears back down, try to get my other foot up on the jungle gym, but the tears keep coming.
Mother snorted. “Father-daughter picnics were one of the stupider inventions of the seventies. I took you to the science fair.”
I bit back a retort, the taste of those old tears still in my mouth. “Yes, you did.”
She peered at me, angled her lips sideways and blew out. For some reason smokers seem to think the trajectory of second hand smoke makes a difference. “Huh. You still missed the picnic.”
11:47 pm May 17, 1984
The man runs towards me with a hatchet in his hand. It gleams in the afternoon light, and I see it has three round holes in one side of the blade, like the holes in the paper for a three ring binder. I run through a wood thick with scrub pine and tall trees. The branches are made of toilet brushes. My heart beats faster and faster. The branches press closer together until I shoulder through dense undergrowth, which paws at my clothes and scratches at my face. The branches become the arms of dresses hanging on round carosel racks in the sale department of Nordstrom's. The man pursues me and I am afraid the salesclerks see me; I am not supposed to be there. Suddenly my father glides down on an escalator, holding a large stuffed giraffe. I frantically wave my arms, but he doesn't see me. I know this isn't really happening, or anyway that it happened long ago; in my peripheral vision the edge of the dream wavers like burning paper. I know I 'm not really waving my arms, but my arms keep waving anyway.
"It wasn't really like burning paper, but that was the best I could think of," I said.
"It's a classic anxiety dream, anyway,” said Mother. “The three ring binder/hatchet is your schoolwork..."
"May 1984, senior year finals." I got my degree, and immediately afterwards took a job in a bank, where I became indispensable because I know where everything is, even the triplicate pink foreign-fund deposit slips.
"Why would you dream about your looks or your clothes?"
I laughed. "Are you kidding? We never paid attention to those things when I was growing up, did we? 'Frivolous', you said. I always felt like there was a language or a code I didn't understand."
"You dress well now."
"I dress neatly. My socks are darker than my slacks. My hair band matches my sweater. Not exactly style. Though I dress better than you."
"I wore dresses when your father was alive. With nylons." She grimaced. "He was still popping up in your dreams in college?"
"He's in my dreams now, sometimes."
She sighed. “Mine too.”
3:06 am, June 22, 1962
Thumping so loud my whole body shudders. Rhythmic, mellifluous, it seems to come from somewhere inside me, as if my skin were the tuned surface of a tympani. I float in liquid flannel flavored with icing sugar and tears. Magenta clouds and yellow shadows pour over me. I smell warmth. My body rolls, the muscles of my arms flex. My chest moves up and down, though there is no air, my eyes open and close, my toes wiggle, my thumb finds my mouth. All this action is mine, and yet not mine. Just as my body is mine, and yet not mine; it includes the drumbeat, the flannel liquid, the pulsing cord which spins through to the placenta, even until the boundary of the universe, beyond which there must be something, although I cannot imagine what. A sound like the voice of a golden bird, flying high overhead and speaking a language I understand perfectly, though I know none of the words, reverberates in my world.
"Come back," said my Mother again.
"You can't stay there."
"I could stay there forever."
"No, you couldn't.” She pulled on my arm, I pushed her away.
She grabbed both my arms and pulled. I struggled, still blind and trapped in my memory. She tugged, I fell out of the padded rocker and we both sprawled on the floor. There was a panicked, shaken look to her. “I have no idea what would happen to you,” she said, ”if you re-experienced your own birth with the consciousness of an adult.” She struggled to get up, I held out my hand. “I think we were toughest as babies, and gradually weaken as we go along." She sat down, still holding my hand.
"That was inside, then?"
”Yes, my dear. You have a funny look on your face."
"It was so...so...oh, Mom!"
She patted my hand, her eyes moist, and I thought she would say something more, but she drew it back and pushed me to the computer keyboard.
“Write it down."
August 1, 1965
I have to go. You and Dad and I are driving in that long station wagon we used to have, with wood grain on the sides and ashtrays in the arm rests with little metal lids I liked to flip open. I squirm on the back seat, my voice getting higher: I have to go, I have to go! The outskirts of a town whizzes past the windows. Dad is singing. You lean across the seat and tell me I can hold on, we will be at a gas station in just a minute. But I do not understand “minute.” All I know is that “minute” does not mean “now.” And I have to go now. I tighten every muscle, but the car hits some ruts in the road and pee leaks onto my underpants.
I came down to my kitchen the next morning feeling grey and shaky. I hadn’t been sleeping well. The large red blob, like Jupiter, kept shining into my dreams, waking me up like the flashing light of an alarm; I woke in the night in sheets damp with sweat. What could cause me to act involuntarily for longer than a whole day straight? A massive illness, an accident. An episode of complete madness? Marginal sanity did run in my family. Perhaps explosions and death did, too.
I poured myself a coffee and sat at my kitchen, looking out the window at the skeleton of a ship hull with wheels, one of Mother’s early prototypes of a tanker which ran along the ocean floor on rails. I’d been mildly successful at getting honeysuckle to grow over it, and now it was blooming, the bright scarlet blossoms looking irritatingly like red blotches on a computer printout. I turned away from the window, the floor had a path worn in it in a triangular shape between the fridge, sink and coffee pot. The refrigerator’s bald white face shouted “Involuntary!”
But then heard Dad’s singing, and remembered the beauty of being inside the womb, the absolute calm--against all my knowledge and experience--of a time when I had no control over anything at all.
I climbed the stairs to Mother’s lab, and sat in the sewing chair with full capability to decide whether to stand, or run, or puff a Camel. “I’m ready for the future,” I said. The thin green line blinked on the screen.
Mother seemed startled to see me, though I had spent every day in the chair or at the computer writing down details of my travels. “I’ve changed my mind,” she said. “It’s too dangerous. I don’t want you to do it."
“You don’t want me to do it?” I said.
“It might change you.”
I stared. “You don’t want me to do it? Mother, It’s my future pasted in sheets all over your laboratory like a bad wallpaper job. It’s my future with a big red blob in it. It’s my choice. Besides," I said, with more force than I had ever spoken to her, “you're as curious as I am.”
"I have never known a time when I was not much more curious than you.”
I grabbed the cigarette from her hand and took a drag. "Perhaps that time is now."
She stared at me as I collapsed in a fit of coughing. Then she whirled in her chair and swung her elbow through the computer screen. When I recovered she had grabbed up the arm band and ripped it, climbed on the chair and began ripping things from the walls: my childhood fluttered through the air, my babyhood flopped over the desk, my adolescence spilled onto the floor. “You’ve been through enough!” she cried.
I flung my arms around her waist and tried to haul her down, but though she was small and frail she fought, kicking and grabbing and knocking things over. The small blue box flew off a table and bounced across the floor. “I have to know!” On the computer screen which held all the accounts of my forays into the past, the green line blinked, as if it newly awakened to its own fragility. “Besides, this is your greatest project ever!” I rasped. A fit of coughing took her and she went limp in my arms. “No,” she panted, then straightened her shoulders and sat up. “No. You are.”
Something expanded inside me. She had never taught me to say, ‘I love you.’ So I said what I always did. “Oh, Mom.”
With bias tape from my sewing box I repaired the armband, sat in my sewing chair and strapped the band around my arm. “It took a long time, but you taught me to be a scientist, Mother.”
She once again looked old and frail, standing in the middle of a mess of paper graphs, upturned ashtrays and uncapped red felt pens. “Well, then.” She looked around. ”I wish I could come. But since I’m the one staying home…maybe I’ll have a go at cleaning up.”
We set the computer for June 17, 2000. And though both our hands trembled, she set the cursor directly over the huge glowing blob, and I pushed the button.
8:56 pm, June 17, 2000
A squeal falls to a guttural moan. The sound comes at me from all corners of the darkened room. Who is screaming? I smell blood and the talc of rubber gloves. The murmur of professionals. A small red light near my head blinks. Pain ebbs from my limbs, through my torso and into my pelvis, retreats into the gaping hole which widens with every contraction.
The pain is a circle. It begins again its engulfment of my body. The adrenalin pours into my bloodstream, my muscles tense, there is a smell of lemon and the reverberation of another scream. Over and over the contractions come. I can feel them but not suffer them. I am surrounded by them but not in them. I understand them, but cannot believe I could live through them.
The shell that is my body is opening. I will fall out onto the floor. All of me: blood, organs, past, future and presently experiencing self. All of me, falling out through the maw of involuntary turning inside out. All of me, future and present, and more than all of me.
A ring of fire bursts into flame, I feel the roundness somehow of the flames, that they burn in a circle within me. I feel the hardness, the heaviness, and the unbelievable weight falling through me, tearing through my flesh. Shrieks peel from my mouth like the skin of an apple, releasing the fruit and making it naked. Hands hold my shoulders; perhaps they are your hands. My legs shake uncontrollably. My eyes squeeze shut; there is the scent of nothing, the sound of everything, a rush of blood.
The cycles of pain have sped up so much they are indistinguishable as cycles. The pain has sped up so much it is indistinguishable as pain. And so, my body, which is no longer I but a container of the future, stops. It floats suspended in the eye of the maelstrom.
And then, in the blackness, a small angry cry.