I kept reminding myself that this was my second chance, my rebirth so to speak. Only I was starting at the point where I could look after myself. I could choose what I was going to eat and could afford to buy luxury goods on the computer. There was no need to make friends, so I didn’t. But my body was still young and fine, and I sometimes believed there were lots of things to look forward to.
So, I took some bad advice and got my ass back out there, but I was messing up with these other dudes. I kept attracting the type whose idea of a compliment was to inform me that I looked like a girl from a Jean-Paul Goude picture. If these guys caught feelings, they seemed surprised at themselves and would ask me what was happening to them, like I knew. “Must be witchcraft,” I’d tell them, but I wasn’t funny. Something inside me had paused and shifted like the needle of a record player. I laughed at myself anyway. It wasn’t that I missed my man, although I did miss him. Besides my day job, I hardly ventured further than the parking lot behind my apartment. I doubted that adopting an animal would help. It felt like I’d put on a costume and couldn’t unzip myself. I was losing track of time. I was starting to believe in everything.
Sometimes Maelo my downstairs neighbor would come up with a baked Alaska to talk about it. “The sooner you cheer up,” she said, “the sooner you can get back to being the love criminal instead of the love victim.” Love criminal sounded like a villain in an arthouse film, so this advice appealed to me.
In the kitchen window before the floodlights and palm trees our landlord had pitched throughout the courtyard, Maelo was lit up like a tropical goddess. She wore a family reunion t-shirt with some velvet pants and leaned over the sink slurping an out-of-season watermelon. Maelo made me think it probably tasted good. She had gotten to point shoes and beyond. But even if she’d achieved nothing in life, she still had that glow of someone who could make things happen.
Thursday after my day job, I was napping face down on my kilim rug when Maelo came upstairs with dessert. She’d baked an earthquake cake with extra marshmallow and served the slices in the green glass bowls that she’d inherited from her grandmother. I rubbed an essential oil on my face and sat with her on the sofa where for a year and a half we’d been talking about the price of gas, our lost loves, and maybe travelling to a village on the Sierra Madre del Sur if things didn’t turn around. Towards the middle of this conversation we got quiet, probably realizing that we were always talking about the same things. That’s when Maelo told me about the retreat.
“We don’t have a set location per se,” she said, “but we’ve got all the main things.” This included reading materials, activities, and the vague mission of achieving emotional transference. “Join us,” she said. This was not a request. I felt that old tension between shame and relief, the kind I’d always felt on being included.
Maelo was one life stage further along than me so I gave her the benefit of the doubt. As the chosen recipient of her desserts I found myself considering my own little talents in comparison, and treading lightly. She had friends outside the complex.
Still, I didn’t like it when people surprised me.
“I don’t know if it’s for me,” I said pitching my fork into the cake. It was nice of Maelo to bake some.
“Oh, Ivy . . . ” She shifted with mild irritation to pull a shibori pillow from under her rear. “You don’t know anything about it.”
But I already knew these women, since we were allegedly in need of the same thing. We were the type that wanted to talk about pain as though it was something that could be avoided. We were heartbroken as all get out because we were finding out that maybe hope ran in limited supply and ours had all but dried up—and yet work, love, babies in time, death. We were desperate for conclusions, even if we didn’t believe in them, because we feared a life where they weren’t possible.
“But by the end of the retreat,” Maelo was saying, “you’ll have the tools to overcome the spiritual violence you’ve been subjected to.” She promised I’d learn to become centered, even self-positive.
“Sounds like sorcery,” I said, suppressing a smile, giggling like a machine gun when I realized this might insult her.
“It’s not sorcery,” Maelo said, unhurt. I pictured her people, a group of women crouching tentatively out of a cave, spying lightning, and running back inside. Clearly Maelo didn’t see her retreat that way, and she stretched across my sofa in a feline display of patient indifference. It brought to mind the one who’d left me and his parting criticism, that I required too much patience.
I said, “You can tell me about it. If you want.”
One woman was a lawyer, another an accountant. There was an interior decorator and a teacher like Maelo. I was the only one trying to become an artist. I should have agreed right away, but the prospect of leaving my apartment for the weekend made my knees react.
“We could hold the retreat here,” I said, expecting gratitude and understanding, but Maelo only winked and gave me the nod.
“I knew you could do it,” she said. “And I bet you can let some light into this place by tomorrow at lunch time too.” Then she carried her beautiful dishes to my sink and washed them.
My apartment was as good a location as any. The living room window overlooked a smoggy mudtrap of skyscrapers, highways, and bayous slashed up by power lines and corrugated fences. Each unit needed major repairs and sometimes there were break-ins. On occasion, vermin caused the air conditioner to go out. But from the first to the thirtieth, sometimes the thirty-first, I had somewhere to be. I could surround myself with the things I liked—my dining table that I’d sanded and stained myself, my stiff armchairs, my struggling plants, my bed pushed against the wall like a crib, my pictures, my liquor—and enjoy the view.
I considered striking up a relationship with someone close by so I’d never have to leave my apartment. But the folks I caught most often were the weed dealer in the act of double parking one of his Mazdas, and a ceiling-eyed kid named Jeff, manager of something or another, who’d recently taken an interest in a stray cat. He never took the cat in but he left a towel-draped cage out front, almost blocking the door so that nobody could get inside without looking the cat in her large, wet eyes. At night Jeff would be out there, feeding the cat from the palm of his hand. I thought that was smart: leaving food unattended would attract more vermin.
One day I said, “I like your cat.” Because if a lie came to me first, I’d go ahead and tell a lie.
“Good,” said Jeff. “Because Jiggy is going to need a lot of love. Would you believe someone would leave her by her lonesome? They never expected her to make it, but here she is thriving. It’s fine to be the underdog. I been one all my life. People never see me coming but that’s okay because they get their surprise.”
“But Jiggy can’t be like you,” I said. Pointing a finger, I couldn’t help but laugh a little. “She’s an undercat.” Jeff looked at me as though I were a mystic. I was always in the wrong situation but somehow making it through.
Friday afternoon Maelo and her women’s group came promenading into my apartment with pillows and designer sleeping bags, balancing towers of Pyrex dinners and the nice kind of notebooks you get in a stationery store. Seeing that many people so hopeful and pleasant made me feel jetlagged. But since they would be in the apartment all weekend, I thought I should learn their names.
Numa performed choreographed gestures while speaking. Her hands pulled at scarves, made geese kiss lips, or formed an invisible golden peach that existed just above her eye-line, so that even she had to look up hungrily for her meaning. Also, Numa had brought the greens, which were remarkable. If she wasn’t illustrating her knowledge, she sat chin in hand watching her dish disappear first. Something about each gesture told on her, on what she knew but wouldn’t say: You can fake modesty only to a point.
Semika, the other school teacher, ate the most. Everyone watched, wondering how she did it. She had a great pair of oiled, onyx legs that she kept crossing because she knew we were looking.
Pam talked about how to save a drooping flower by inserting a toothpick up the stalk, and she showed off her necklace which she’d crafted herself from a wooden peg and a D-ring. Her hazel eyes looked feral when she spoke, so I liked her the best. I wasn’t surprised when she admitted that she liked to write rhyming poetry, the kind that had to be performed.
Gail looked like she had tried to cut her own hair. Yet her expressions coin flipped between two precise forms of judgement: the raised eyebrow smile when she asked Semika what type of lotion she used, the flexed nostrils smirk when she suggested that Pam sell her jewelry on the computer to make some extra money. She had done an excellent job with her makeup to counter the effects of her haircut, and the colors and sparkles made her glamorously intimidating. Therefore, my gaze kept drifting back to her haircut.
Nothing changed after lunch was served, or after the first round of brown liquor. But once at home in the bougie slum of my apartment, the women proceeded to tell their tales of where it all went wrong:
Gail: “I wanted a baby. I didn’t want to miss out.”
Maelo: “I promised to never leave him. It was probably the only promise I’d ever meant to keep, but in the end, he left me. I figured if I had threatened to leave first, he may not have had cause to do it. Telling the right kind of lies might have saved my relationship.”
Semika: “Older dudes—married dudes—had never appealed to me. But one day it seemed like that was all there was. I felt like I had all this space in my life, and they were so thirsty to fill it.”
Pam: “I tried to make it work. Really! I said, ‘You are special and uniquely made.’ Now, imagine if that were true. All eight billion of us?”
Numa: “After our first night together, I just wanted to get the hell up out of there. He took himself very seriously. From jump street, I could tell that he would try too hard to give me what I wanted. But I married him anyway because I knew too many girls in my position. I couldn’t take it if he ended up with one of them that wasn’t me.”
Together the ladies shook their heads. It was just like us to search for unconditional understanding in places it could never be found. In a Pyrex container or in hardware store jewelry, at work, with potential sisters, should-have-been mothers, strangers.
As I shifted around under my blanket, the springs in the sofa creaked. I was the only one who hadn’t cracked open my chest for a looksee, and the others interpreted my sudden movement as a request to speak. Sipping and smoothing skirts, they looked at me, the silence like a pot on low boil.
“Your go, Ivy,” said Maelo. “Let the planets speak their truth through you.”
“Well, you know, all these stories are the same at some point—if they’re getting at the truth, anyway.”
“Surely,” Maelo said. “But what about your story?”
She had taken on a stately kind of snobbery that I had always associated with the leader of her coven, a position that’s easy to spot if you’ve never held it, of course. It was a posture that said Numa, Gail, Pam, Semika—these were her people, and despite the desserts and the invitation and regardless of the simple fact that I was hosting them all, I was not in the clique. Their implicit demand was that I make an impression, earn my keep. They wanted a little offering in the form of some words that would make us all reflective on the spiritual waystation where we found ourselves. So looking at their hopeful expectant faces, I told a lie. The saddest, most pathetic series of events that my imagination could find.
“But,” I said, attempting to conclude positively, “the great thing I found out is that I was not changed for the better, nobody has to pay for it, and this sort of thing will definitely happen again. Maybe next time I can be the aggressor.” The women passed the tissues, both hopeless and desperate for a moral, but I didn’t have to level with anyone. Maelo looked at me in such a way that I remembered I’d worn the same dress two days in a row. Suddenly the air in my apartment felt tight and stale.
“Who wants to watch a movie,” said Maelo. She stood up and walked with broken wrists toward the television. It was time to look at a screen and come to accept that our collective long-term malaise was simply a fragment of a holographic reality in which we were all deeply loved. Right away, I started to doze.
“The lamps,” Numa said, pointing down the hall at two chinoiserie lamps set on a side table, all of which I’d purchased on the computer.
Maelo studied the remote and all its buttons. “Give your eyes some time to adjust,” she said. “You’ll forget they’re even there.”
It was Saturday when I woke up. Outside the window the fog seemed to collar the skyline. It took me a minute to recognize the menacing, sleepy town that I was okay with living in for the time being. I was on the sofa, still in the dress I always wore, and the lamplight stung my eyes. I listened to the pigeons quarrelling while thinking of Maelo’s movie and all the good advice I’d missed. It was only after the pigeons started to come to an understanding that I recognized their meekest, throaty love call as Pam’s cry for help.
Pam stood between the television and a plant and she was big and pregnant and pressing her hands to her face as though slowly realizing this. Throughout the living room Numa, Semika, and Gail struck various poses of surprise. Every one of them was drop dead pregnant and confused. Even Maelo looked like her belly had grown the rest of her body and not the other way around. I alone was spared.
Maelo glanced appraisingly down the length of my body. I crossed my legs in defense. “Always odd man out, I see?” She smiled coldly, which wasn’t fair.
I’d heard before that eyewitness testimony often turned out to be faulty. You remembered a deranged lumberjack, while the perpetrator turned out to be a grocery bag-boy.
I’d also heard about women and girls who could not see for themselves that they were pregnant. They surprised themselves and everyone by delivering their first born at prom, on the bus, in a port-o-john.
But what was going on in my living room belonged to neither category. These were women who’d been managing their fertility for nearly half their lives, who were financially independent, who could be counted on to correct and pass along a busted résumé so some ungrateful cousin might get an opportunity too. It seemed kind of late for them to squalay on their brand of respectability politics. Yet here they were, in a state light years past our wildest dreams, and there didn’t seem to be any way to get back.
All things considered, they were taking it well. I got the feeling that anything could happen, and they’d roll with it. They seemed to know this about themselves too. Nobody had any idea why.
After all that looking around, Maelo opened her hands and said, “Well, this is unfortunate.” Her response seemed to smooth things over. The other ladies tried to take heart, or not seem too disappointed, as you may be on hearing that people intend to pray for you.
Then Gail, who hadn’t said a word to me, except to ask my dietary restrictions, went into labor. She kept apologizing for the interruption. Grabbing for something, she got a grip of Numa’s hair and everyone debated whether to cut Numa free or to have her ride along to the hospital like that.
I went to my room and called my sister-in-law.
“Sounds like a pregnancy pact,” said Raynell. In the background, her mother was telling one or more of my nieces to have a seat.
“Oh, so it has a name?”
“I remember girls doing that sort of thing in high school. A group of friends would plan to get pregnant at the same time so nobody would be on their own. It was the sweetest thing to do for a friend. I always wanted to be in one.”
There was a pause. On the other side of town Raynell’s mother cautioned one of the little ones against pointing her finger, and the youngest began whining tentatively to see who in the world would even care.
“Why?” I said fast. “Why would you want to do something like that?”
“Well,” said Raynell. I could sense the smile, with unyielding hope in it as well as pain, spreading slowly across her delicate face. “To do something. To be different.”
The phone warmed my ear with radiation. I thought about asking Raynell why she thought getting pregnant in high school would make her different.
“Ride it out,” she said. “It’s only a weekend. You’re a Glover,” Raynell said with patience, because patience had mostly seen her through and so she had some for me. And because she loved my brother and nieces dearly, by extension she sort of loved me too. “You can handle anything for a weekend.”
The retreat continued as scheduled. On the rooftop Semika, with her oiled legs shining, demonstrated an exercise that allowed you to release hidden animosity through your hips.
Numa described the rules and benefits of a chromatic diet. “If Friday is the color yellow, for example, you can eat summer squash, lemon curd, scrambled eggs.” Pam and I exchanged a look. Numa went on: “Transitioning to chromatism can leave you feeling the randomness of life—if you allow the diet to change you.”
Maelo led a discussion on healing. We each had to find a method of acquiring new thoughts to fill up the emptiness by which we were surrounded. She challenged us to reach this level of clarity in everything we did, for the rest of our lives.
Pam smiled again. I nodded eagerly, sensing I had won her over. I had prevailed over these other hens by virtue of my own mystical charms. I dared looking into a future where the two of us enjoyed elevated conversation while ignoring a mild desire to possess one another. But early into the conversation, Pam destroyed all that when she set a hand on my shoulder saying, “What I just can’t figure out is how it got in there.”
“Do you know?”
I’d been disappointed before. I edged away from her and leaned against the fence wondering why my landlord even bothered putting a fence on a roof.
Gail returned with the baby, a little boy the color of a ham hock with a head full of black curls. He looked at each one of us, annoyed at our shared part in pulling him out from the cosmic abyss just so he could learn to speak and get old.
“Had I known about him . . . ” Gail said with a raised eyebrow. “Oh, don’t get me wrong. He is a miracle.”
I went back to my room and got on the computer. I opened a window onto a picture of my man and his demon princess riding a horse backwards like a conjoined twin horse’s ass. I tried feeling offended that although my successor looked nothing like me, she still had my man in the version of himself that he had wanted to become. I opened another window that revealed my lipstick was still out of stock.
Then I rubbed my face in antioxidants, went back into the living room, and sat on the sofa to listen to Pam tell me how it was high time women got theirs. “Partnership,” she said, “can make you feel like you’ve done worse than sell your soul. You’ve given it away for a kind of nothingness.”
She was so pregnant. Her glow was almost chemical. I sort of wanted to thump her head. To know that I could do it and to know what it was like. “These relationships can be a lot like getting a higher degree in miseducation,” Pam was saying. “They can discourage you from getting even the lowest certification. That’s why I still haven’t done my driver’s ed—because if everybody I know has been in an accident, I just can’t see how driver’s ed can really help me.”
“Listen,” I said. “You need to raise up out of my circumference with that.”
Pam got up grumbling and sat next to Semika who also didn’t know anything. They talked about the mind’s duality with Numa jumping in to provide laconic commentary on the different regions of the brain. None of them required much. They played with Gail’s baby and Gail watched, chin in hand. Gail caught me staring and smiled, but her eyes were sad. More than sad, she seemed heartbroken, she and the baby both. When I commented on this, folks kind of stopped talking to me, which is what I’d been going for.
The thought occurred to me that maybe I had gotten all these women pregnant, by myself. That they’d gotten a good look at me and what all I had going on and a sharp inner voice in each one of them said, No, ma’am. That . . . is not an option. Then boom: they were pregnant. They had used their wombs to fight against the forces that made a situation like mine possible, even perpetual. Because quite simply it was time to no longer be like me.
Maelo announced that she was hungry so then everybody else wanted to be hungry too. From her lecture, I’d learned to find my true self in any situation and so I sprang to action, running to the kitchen drawer for the to-go menus which I then spread across the coffee table. It’s what I love about this town. You call a number and someone appears with a plastic bag of world cuisine that fits your wrist like a bracelet. I explained the three major differences between vadouvan and regular curry, but nobody appreciated it. And since the women in my living room couldn’t decide on anything but pizza, we ordered pizza.
When the pizza arrived, I took my chance to confront Maelo in the hallway. Behind me I heard the pizza guy laugh awkwardly and say, “Oh. You’re all pregnant.”
“Are y’all doing this on purpose?” I said.
Maelo glanced down from behind the shield of a raised shoulder. “Excuse me?”
“I feel like y’all are protesting me. And everything y’all do and become is an extension of how much y’all want to distance yourselves from me.”
Maelo slowly released her lower lip from the straight edge of her front teeth. “Let’s talk about you, Miss Thang. Since everything’s got to be about you. Besides that bold-face lie you told yesterday, you haven’t participated in a single activity. You weren’t present during the duality of consciousness module and you didn’t put in for the juice cleanse. You haven’t even filled out any of the feedback cards. But you say that we want to distance ourselves from you? You got that wrong, Ivy dear. It’s you who don’t want to be like us. You never wanted to do the retreat in the first place. You just wanted a distraction from plotting how to get back that dude who left you.” She threw her head back, clapping at the absurdity.
But I didn’t want him back. I only understood it then. I wanted him trapped on my computer screen, looking happy with other women so I could stay mad that he had been the catalyst for my change. That trick of showing love and snatching it back had turned me into what I’d always been, alone. I liked being mad at his ghost. I liked what I was doing which is why I hadn’t done much else.
I followed Maelo back into the living room. The women were perched around Rex the pizza guy, laughing at his awkward laughter and taking every opportunity to place a hand on his knee or shoulder. He seemed equally thrilled and embarrassed to have walked into what looked like one hell of a weird porno.
The conversation landed on a robot cat Rex had built with his yearly earnings of ten thousand dollars. “Well, I have a robot dog,” said Numa, raising a glass to her unimpressed lips. “But I only paid twenty-three ninety-nine.”
His invention was different from the kind imported from Japan and sold in loudly colored boxes because his robot cat, he told us, was outfitted with its own spinal cord and nerve endings. In this way, Rex argued, his cat had a soul. He even showed us a video of a metal cat doing cat-like things, while his young lusty face looked on.
Maelo was still stuck on the part where Rex had said that his robot cat had a soul. The others jumped in right away, arguing that his robot couldn’t have a real soul when it didn’t even have real parts, because everybody including Semika knew that actual spinal cords and nerve endings are not made from wires and metal.
“But they function the same way,” said Rex, almost sadly. “Does it matter if an oven runs on gas or electric,” he said, “if it still bakes cookies?” He explained that the difference between his cat and a real cat was purely aesthetic and his eyelashes looked heavy and clung together in dark triangles.
I didn’t feel like confronting my shaky convictions on account of a pizza guy, so I spoke up. “But is it a real cat or is it shorthand for a cat?”
“It’s shorthand,” Rex conceded, “for now.” But he had a plan to make his shorthand cat much more sophisticated through his latest experiment in emotional transference.
“If emotional transference is what you’re into,” I said glancing at Maelo, “then you’ve come to the right place, my friend.” Smiling vaguely, Maelo removed the olives from her pizza.
“Basically it involves isolating the undesirable series of cells that make up our saddest feelings, and transferring them into the cat. If the procedure works, and I think it can, eventually I won’t feel bad about anything. At least I won’t feel bad for very long, not until the next procedure anyway. The only problem is that I think I’d feel guilty for making the cat feel how I felt. So, unfortunately, I haven’t gotten very far on the project. Not yet.”
“You should have put that money in an IRA account,” said Semika. The others unanimously agreed.
But I went a step further. I can’t say why, but the idea of Rex feeling guilty about his made-up cat brought me a lot of satisfaction. “I hope you learned something from this experience,” I said. Rex looked at me like I was supposed to tell him what he had learned, like it was my responsibility. Then everybody was looking. “Don’t play God,” I said.
Maelo looked straight into my eyes and smiled sweetly. Then she stood up and walked into my bedroom. The women sat back drumming their bellies. There was a spell of awkward expectant silence, like in a baptism when the congregation watches to see if the pastor accidentally drowns the new believer. I understood this to mean that people wanted me to quit it.
Rex made up a pretty good reason to go. He had other pizzas to deliver.
The women watched him stand, brushing the front of his khakis. Knowing he was being watched, Rex gulped and took long strides across the room to the door. Nobody showed him out. When he left, they all hurried to the window to see him loop the palm trees in the courtyard and spook himself by setting off a security light before regaining his composure, letting himself out the gate, disappearing from view.
“It’s all a big trap,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“A trap?” asked Semika.
“My apartment,” I said. “My day job. My computer.”
“Life is a trap,” Pam said, with such soul that I admired her. Then I remembered what business had brought her and the others to my apartment. We were doing fine, mostly we were alright. But what we really knew showed in the way we carried ourselves, even at our most evolved states. This knowledge brought us together, sometimes.
“This pizza is really good,” said Semika. Everybody agreed.
I put on my favorite pair of pajamas and considered combing my hair. Then I poured a little mescal into a cordial glass and walked into the living room.
People were going on about Rex’s robot cat. They were disturbed by the moral dilemma of inserting human emotions into a robot while agreeing that robotics seemed a better host than their own bodies. This position was further problematized by a vital part of their upbringing that cautioned them against being wasteful. You couldn’t extract the bad feeling and just kick your heels up. You couldn’t waste anything, the feeling had to go somewhere. The trouble then was figuring out which two of the remaining options was worse: putting those emotions into a robot cat who wouldn’t know why he was in pain, or harvesting those feelings yourself without knowing what it meant.
Before anyone could reach a conclusion, Semika went into labor. Pam and Numa helped her to standing, but she sat on the sofa again, saying she didn’t know if she could go through with it. Gail took her baby boy and car keys and waited by the door. The fact that I wasn’t helping had become harder to conceal. Everybody knew it was my turn to help but said nothing because it was a pretty important step in my journey to learn when to insert myself and when not to. I considered sending Semika some money. Money is the greatest gift, better than love because you could make it last, better than children because nobody ever gave money on accident. But Semika and I weren’t real friends so in the end, I figured it was better to send nothing. And anyway, you can’t go around feeling bad about everything.
I popped open a Kronenbourg and got on the computer to study some make-up tutorials. I sat back in my leather tufted chair, drinking and looking, watching all these miniature strangers transform.
On my bed, under a nest of ticking stripe, Maelo began to stir. Half asleep she was stunning. Strong and smooth and shimmering matte like a chocolate blimp. She was what your grandmother meant when she said you carry your weight well. She caught me staring but had just woken up and needed answers. I played it cool. I needed to know that someone still liked me.
“Where did everybody go?” asked Maelo.
“To the moon,” I told her blooming silhouette.
She climbed up the headboard and pulled back the blinds to see for herself.