Mom taught me the importance of checking the eggs at the grocery store. She believed that finding a cracked egg in the carton upon arriving home was a sin. Dropping an egg on the kitchen floor was even worse. In the dairy aisle, as I check a box of Cage-Free Large Grade AAs, Mom’s voice squawks in my brain, “Eve didn’t really bite an apple. She dropped an egg . . . and out slipped the snake!”
The checkout clerk flashes me a titanium-white smile, then opens the carton to double-check for cracks before scanning the price. Apparently the fear of broken eggs is ubiquitous.
“How are you doing?” she asks.
“I’m decaying,” I tell her, envying her sculpted forearms, her unlined face, and her smooth, white knuckles.
She points to the large gold cross hanging just above her perky bust, smiles like a knowing friend, and says, “Great.” She’s misunderstood me, thought I said, “I’m praying.” Maybe prayer would help. Earlier this morning, my dentist informed me that my gums are receding at an alarming pace — more than one millimeter per year. Gum surgery is inevitable.
At thirty-one, I steadily decay. Breasts succumb to gravity and sag. My eyes weaken. My senses falter. Well-meaning friends have offered referrals for plastic surgeons, opticians, and psychoanalysts, hinting at the necessity to fight the breakdown of body, the breakup of mind. But $3,800 is the best deal I can get for a breast lift; even if my boyfriend, Matt, pitches in half like he’s promised, my credit is all overdrawn, and it’ll take me at least six months to save up the other half. Until then I must be content to imagine myself forever young, all firm-titted and white-toothed, in that parallel universe called Eden.
When I’m not working as a college writing instructor, I tutor students privately, meeting them at the local espresso bar. One day in December three years ago, a lanky Japanese-American named Sam handed me his term paper while I sipped a cappuccino. I felt his eyes on me, but when I glanced up, he looked away quickly, flustered, and fiddled with his pencil, pressing the pink eraser against his mouth. He had thin, intelligent lips, an angular body, and a painfully vulnerable manner; I had presumed that he was gay.
“There’s nothing wrong with this paper,” I said. “You don’t need my help.”
“I, uh, want . . .” he muttered, his hand rummaging about in his cheap, black attaché case. He pulled out a plastic-wrapped red rose garnished with baby’s breath and set it on the table. Then he placed his pale hands on mine. Flattered, I let him fondle my fingers while he stammered, “Can I see you again? You understand me, and I need support. I love you.” He confessed that for the past three semesters he had received D’s in his business education courses and was on academic probation. A B+ grade average was mandatory if he were to remain in school. “I want to be a painter,” he told me. “I’m planning to take art courses next semester, but if I don’t make the grades this semester I’m moving to Manhattan and joining the Mafia.”
“How exciting, but you’ll pass,” I assured him.
“Will you go out with me?” he asked. “If you will, I won’t join the mob. I’ll become an accountant, and you’ll have my children.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t. I have too much to do this semester. I’m on several committees, nonprofit organizations, et cetera. I am sorry.”
Sometimes I get impatient with people, particularly with students who think they’re in love with me. I told Sam my story of octopus courtship. “The female octopus is a model for the liberated woman. If the male octopus advances on the female when she’s not in the mood, she bites off his penis, which protrudes from his nose. Male octopuses are endowed with eight penises — emasculation is anticipated by nature. And rape is unheard of in octopus society.”
Sam turned pink and held back tears, but I had no time for him. It was people in general I cared for, not people in particular.
Two years later I received a card postmarked in Manhattan. Sam had scribbled in fuchsia ink: I have done it. No return address. I suppose I should’ve married him, kept him meek and mild. By now he’s probably addicted to heroin, or he’s killed a score of innocents at ten grand apiece. Is that my fault?
“Of course it’s your fault. Everything is your fault,” the voice in my head replies.
It’s Mom again. My mother has been dead for seven years, but her voice resides in a closet of my memory. Barreling into my thinking space, never knocking, her voice traveling faster than the speed of light, she crashes through the wall that separates the dead from the living. That’s right, Mom. I should’ve dated him, screwed him, and borne his children. I should’ve sacrificed myself, like Christ — a deed worthy to get me through the needle’s eye and into heaven.
OK, Sam. I’m really sorry.
On the kitchen wall of the house I grew up in, there hung a plaque: a two-dimensional wooden doghouse was glued to it, and five wooden dogs — a daddy, a mommy, two brothers, and a baby sister — hung on hooks to the left. My mom thought it a funny coincidence that the doggy family was the structural equivalent of our household. Who’s in the Family Doghouse? was inscribed on the plaque, and an extra hook was screwed into the doghouse doorway. Every morning I would notice the littlest dog — my representative — hanging in that lonely house. I would speedily replace it with one of the others, but by dinnertime my dog had mysteriously resumed its place in the house of shame. I was certain it was Mom who kept me there; on several occasions she had spoken of her dissatisfaction with me, particularly with my birth defect (webbed toes) and my clumsy talent for dropping eggs. Yet when I accused her, she blamed a poltergeist.
Right before she died, as she lay chalk-white on a bed in the intensive care unit, intravenous tubes sticking out of her forearm, Mom confessed, “You were a disappointment as a daughter. I hope you have better luck.”
After five months, I’ve managed to save $1,780 toward my breast lift, but now the do-it-yourself pregnancy test screams yes by turning my piss blue. I figure I’m approximately three weeks pregnant with Matt’s child, only I’m not sure I want to tell him about it. I know how he feels about fat chicks, and I don’t really have the time. Besides, it’s my karma to have a disappointing child, isn’t it?
Still, pregnancy is not without fringe benefits. Tonight before going to bed, I invoke my guardian angel, praying for it to visit my dreams and inform me of a cure for morning sickness and, more important, grant me a vision that will help me decide whether to have or have not.
Instead of an angel, I dream of visiting my mother in hell. Mom sprawls on a couch in her blue terry bathrobe, absorbed in the task of cutting her cuticles, casting the dead skin onto the mustard-colored shag carpet.
“How did you come to reside in hell, Mom?” I ask.
Mother sighs, patting a space beside her. I recognize the couch: orange and yellow daisies blossoming against a black sky, circa 1972, straight out of the house I lived in until I was fourteen, wonder years when my eyes tested twenty-twenty, my healthy gums gleamed, and my breasts saluted at will. As I sit on the couch next to my mom, I fall into a sleepy, comfortable familiarity.
“Oh, in heaven they told me I’d bitched too much,” Mom says, nodding toward the stucco ceiling. “But with you being an old maid and your father hating cruise ship vacations, who could blame me?” Finished with her cuticles, she starts clipping her toenails. “When are you going to get that lift? You ’re not getting any younger, and your Matt won’t ever marry you in that pendulous condition. He prefers small busts, you know.” She’s standing up now, twirling about, cupping her breasts. “Haven’t you noticed? No more sags, not a crow’s foot, and my tummy flat as a board. Hell boasts the best in plastic surgeons, and liposuction is a miracle.”
I walk through the hallway into the kitchen and notice the dog family plaque. My dog sulks in the doghouse. “Why am I still in the doghouse?” I ask Mom, removing the plaque from the wall.
“Because you’re still a bad girl, a troublemaker, and you still don’t listen to me.” She adds, “I spoke to your brother in a dream, and do you know he blames you for his drinking problem?”
She has it wrong; my brother blames her for his problem. But I’m not in the mood for an argument, so I take a deep breath and alert her to the fact that I traveled all the way to hell for no other reason than to evict her voice from my brain. Pulling back the mustard-colored draperies, I open the window and cast the doggy plaque into the fires of hell, then quickly shut the window against the flames. To her lineless face I declare, “I will love myself. I will not take blame.” I don’t dare tell her about the baby.
“Of course, you’ve always loved yourself more than anyone else. You’ve always been selfish. Selfish. Selfish. Selfish. Just like your grandfather, and would you believe it, he bullshitted himself right to heaven.”
Grandpa wasn’t selfish though; he was a mystic, and a misunderstood one at that. He insisted on playing photographer at all our family gatherings, howling a tantrum if anyone objected, until no one ever did. He believed that a camera magically stole the soul of the person photographed. “That’s why all those movie stars go nutso or kill themselves off,” he would say, turning the lens away from sentient beings and shooting clouds instead. I have albums full of cumulus, thunderhead, and cirrus clouds, foggy portraits of my high school graduation, my brother’s wedding, Grandmama’s funeral. The major events of my life are recorded as nothing but vapors. “Use your imagination,” Grandpa would say. “That way the old is made anew.”
One midwinter afternoon, on my thirteenth birthday, Grandpa began to see visions in the clouds — bisexual angels, Jehovah wind surfing, Grandmama doing it doggy style with St. Augustine — and, subsequently, my ashamed family voted to commit him to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. I kicked the white-faced attendants who took him away before locking myself in my bedroom, where I fasted for two long days. On the third morning I stained my mattress with my first menstrual blood. I vowed never to have children.
A trip to hell can change a person’s life. Today I decide to buy a carton of eggs, refusing to check for cracks.
I arrive home from the market and find Matt lying on the floor of my apartment, watching a fat TV evangelist conduct a praise-a-thon. I kiss Matt’s neck, wondering if the time is right to tell him about the fetus, which even now feasts on my blood, but I am seduced by the preacher’s televised ranting.
“The harvest is ripe! Let’s seize the opportunity,” the fat man shouts confidently, while the wall-sized screen behind him broadcasts footage of the Berlin Wall falling and close-ups of a decapitated statue of Lenin.
“The guy’s right,” Matt tells me. “Everything is breaking down. What if Armageddon is coming?” The veins in his neck bulge. Breakdown frightens him. He prefers never-never land to life.
I turn the volume down and switch on the radio. While the evangelist offers yet another proof of the approaching Rapture — the Los Angeles riots — Ringo Starr sings, “I’d like to be under the sea, in an octopus’ garden in the shade.” I whistle along, and soon all the tragedies of the world seem like surrealistic choreographies. Suddenly, I’m overwhelmed by desire. I remove my black sweater and bra, wantonly pushing my floppy tits in Matt’s face, embarrassing him by my spontaneity.
“What’s got into you?” he asks, with a twisted grin.
“I’ve decided not to get them lifted,” I say, shaking my breasts about. “I’ve changed my mind.” Next, I’ll tell him about the baby.
“Hey, I told you I’d pay for half,” says Matt, quickly drafting a check for $1,900. “I mean, think how great you’ll look.”
I put the check on top of the TV. “I’ve changed my mind. Let’s take the money and move to Bali . . . and have a baby?” He’s silent, stunned. Mom was right: Matt won’t ever marry me in my pendulous condition. He’ll only have me if I pay the doc to make me twenty-five again. Too bad for him.
I run my finger across his lips, then down to his zipper. He’s growing hard, but I’m thinking of my old Astronomy 101 class and the wise teachings of Professor Clancy. “Without gravity there could be no stars,” I inform Matt, my breasts proudly swaying.
He falls asleep fast after sex, and I am left wide-eyed and restless. Something stirs inside — the baby, of course, but also something harder to define. My forgotten soul? My autonomy? I get up and prowl through a closet, exploring some old things I’d stashed in a cardboard box: my first communion dress, Leo the stuffed lioness which I shed my childhood tears upon, a Polaroid I took of my mother wearing the blue bathrobe she will wear forever in hell, the card Sam sent from New York, and a picture book of nursery rhymes. Humpty Dumpty sits on the wall. Humpty Dumpty topples and falls.
Into Matt’s dreaming ear I whisper, “Why do the king’s horses and men want to put Humpty back together again?” Matt just snorts loudly, a black eyelash falling from his closed lid and landing on a stubbly cheek. Several strands of his black, curly hair have attached themselves to my pillowcase. Tomorrow he will rub Minoxidal on his scalp and pray to the hair god. No matter, I advise myself, carefully placing Sam’s postcard, along with Matt’s check for $1,900, in my purse. I will have a beautiful baby even if Matt goes bald, even if my breasts droop, even if my belly’s like a basketball, even if I’m on my own.