Me and Janie and Melissa, we want to be other women. Not the women we are expected to be, but the ones we’ve seen on television and read about in novels. Women we barely remember from movies we watched as little girls. Older women. Wealthy women. Sad, married women. We are twenty-four and single and broke, but we have good imaginations.
We’ve been in school forever: enrolled in early preschool, sent to after-school tutoring, fanny-patted into summer programs, waved away to college, and cheered off to graduate school by proud, tearful parents. Sure, we are smart. Smart enough to know we cannot be what our parents want us to be. So, we’ve made a decision. We will not be hard-working, career-focused, driven, successful. We will not even try. We will shrug off these ambitions like wet raincoats onto a floor. We will fall, together, over the edge of a cliff. Light as a feather, stiff as a board.
Months ago, our grad school advisors waved us out of their offices. They had good intentions. They wished we were engineers. Now it is August and we have used their job-hunting literature for apartment decoration. Janie papier-mâchéd lists of active verbs onto a lamp shade and Melissa’s pamphlets on interview techniques have been unfolded, then refolded, and origamied into swans, crabs, and Yorkshire terriers. They are thumbtacked to our ceiling with lengths of floss. They swing in tune with the oscillating fan. This is how we use our imaginations to turn one thing into another.
In July, we broke up with our boyfriends—first me, then Janie, then Melissa. They were softies, sweethearts, grad school accessories. They reminded us of our youths and we no longer wanted to seem youthful. Now we are alone, which feels right. We more accurately resemble bored housewives and lonely empty-nesters. The newly-ex-
boyfriends still call—soft-spoken and full of apologies. “Are you okay?” they ask. “Is there anything I can do?” Our indifference is a fortifying tonic.
Some nights, the apartment hums with the barely audible symphony of vibrators. In separate rooms, we masturbate to clichéd fantasies of pool boys, electricians, and FedEx deliverymen. They enter our rooms to find us cross-legged on beds, drowsy with ennui, crocheting tiny dog sweaters or reading The House of Mirth. They stride toward us, all thigh muscles and eye contact, and only unbuckle their belts once we’ve tossed our needles and novels to the floor.
We don’t want to be pragmatic, like our mothers. We want to be cynical and jaded. To cleanse ourselves of hopefulness and optimism. We want to be the sexy mother in The Graduate; the trapped wife in Revolutionary Road; that woman in The Awakening who walks stoically into the sea. In September, our newly-ex-boyfriends start boring entry-level jobs, to which we respond with subtle ridicule and disdain. They are corporate copywriters, high school drama teachers, phone-answering assistants. Unlike them, our pride will not stop us from taking our parents’ money.
So, no. We are not broke. Not exactly. Checks arrive in the mail, folded up inside notes from our mothers. They write to us on free notepads from the hospitals and offices where they work. Beneath the ads for new fungal creams and fluoride gels, their neat cursive spells out advice we do not consider. Put half of this into savings! Don’t forget your iron supplements! Call me on Sunday if you feel like a chat!
Our mothers have never been wealthy housewives. We have overworked, overextended, overweight mothers. They are on their feet all day. When they were our age, they say, women didn’t have so many choices. They are tired, yet indefatigable. Our veiny-nosed, chip-toothed, baggy-eyed mothers. They live in small houses in the small towns where we were raised. They have never lived in a city and cannot comprehend the simplest aspects of our lives—the swipe of our subway cards through the metal turnstiles; the pop culture references on our comedic news shows; our trendy, uncomfortable shoes. They attended colleges, but sent us to better ones. They have framed the papers touting their associate degrees and certificates, while we have lost the diplomas from our pricy liberal arts schools, stuffed them absentmindedly into some drawer. Or maybe we never picked them up from the registrar at all.
We are so many things that they have never been. Our dogged, sensible, matter-of-fact mothers. They rarely come up in conversation. But when Sunday evening descends, we call and tell them every detail of our lives. We press hot cell phones to the sides of our faces. We ask if they are still on the line. We talk and talk and talk to them until we have nothing left to say.
Though we may not be broke, and we may not even be completely single, we are twenty-four and we are really, truly, very much unemployed. We don’t work; we consider it intellectually. It is an algebra problem with too many variables. Janie, who wrote a thesis on Anna Karenina, wants to avoid falseness and find value in a simple life. Melissa believes in patents—big pay-offs for little effort. One of these days, she says, the right idea will hit her. She hums jingles while smoking cigarettes on the windowsill—clap on, clap off—and stares down into the traffic below.
On our laptops at coffeehouses, we troll through disheartening wastelands of job posts full of asterisks and exclamation points. The companies hiring are too embarrassed to even list their own names; they are “busy, fast-growing organizations” and “professional environments in downtown locations.” We cannot lower ourselves to these standards. We can hardly consider it.
“Make some calls,” Janie’s mother says. “Find the job you want. Don’t wait for one to fall into your lap.” But she can’t understand the scale of our unimportance here, the extent to which we don’t matter, the swiftness with which someone will shoo us from the premises and not return our calls.
“Come home,” says Melissa’s mother. “We’ll find you a job here.” But our lives are not fit for parental observation. We still make too many mistakes, too many bad decisions that would make them cringe or cry.
“You’re so smart,” my mother says, “you could do almost anything.” According to our missing diplomas, this should be true, but it is not. Perhaps the system has failed us. Perhaps we have just failed.
We wish we didn’t know what our mothers’ lives had been like at twenty-four. It would be nice if we could not picture them thinner, longer-haired, married to our handsome fathers, pregnant, and starting jobs they would have forever. Young women who looked so much like us and had already achieved so much more.
In October we join volunteer organizations, but we never volunteer. We take up hobbies we’ve been meaning to adopt for years: watercolors, crosswords, harmonica playing. Some hobbies become obsessions. Melissa looks forward to hours in the day that call for meal preparation; she stands in our one-person kitchen with a knife in her hand, the stove warming her back. She’s particularly drawn to the home-style production of condiments— ketchup, hot sauce, jam—foods that demand hours of attention, patience, the directions to stir occasionally and let simmer.
We see matinées mid-week with a handful of old people and high schoolers cutting class. We conceal tiny feasts in oversized purses—jars of Melissa’s homemade peanut butter, plastic knives, and Buttercrisp crackers. The pockets of our pea coats bulge with the smooth, cylindrical outlines of travel-sized Merlot bottles.
In the theater, it’s hard not to think of the ex-boyfriends—their fuzzy forearms and soft fingers, the sloping cliffs of their faces in profile as the screen brightens and darkens. On our first nervous movie dates, years ago, the films seemed to last forever. Now, because things end as soon as we sit down, we splurge on double and triple features. When we finally wrest ourselves from the velvety chairs and stumble out onto the street, the sun has disappeared.
We are so unemployed, what else can we do but spend our parents’ money? We make friends with the used clothing store owners in our neighborhood—the gay men with sideburns named Bob and Gerald, the women in black stockings and vermilion lipstick. We create a new term—hanger fingers—to describe the speed and efficiency with which expert shoppers flip through the racks. We breeze in unwrapping the scarves from our necks, blow Gerald kisses, and disseminate, each claiming a circular rack. We put our hanger fingers to work. We flip counter-clockwise. We pull for style, shape, fabric, pattern. We know the exact dimensions of each other’s bodies—Janie’s long torso, Melissa’s broad shoulders, my flat chest—and we pass things around. We look out for each other. The plastic hangers clack and scrape along the metal poles, the polyester shushes against cotton against silk, and we are soothed. We forget about the way our fingers shake when we try to hold them still. We keep them moving and flipping. Keep them distracted.
When we call our not-so-newly-ex-boyfriends, suddenly, we’re forced to leave messages on their machines. They are seeing new girls and making less time to talk. They’re too busy out on dates, eating food we would never eat, watching the type of awful movies we always refused to see. When they do answer, they mention unfamiliar names—Gretchen, Brandy, Julia. They sound so different from us, these women. Around the apartment, we laugh about their high foreheads and love handles and thin lips and long toes, about how ugly they must be. How our exes surely still imagine us while having sex. But we know what is more likely. The new girlfriends are probably mature, which we never were and are not now and possibly never will be.
We want to be like women who don’t give a fuck; women who fuck for fun; women who, after fucking, hug their knees and stare out windows watching rain fall. But as it gets cold, we spend most of our time together, looking down onto the street. We pull chairs up to the sill, clumping like ants around crumbs. We sit for hours watching the neighborhood gentrify. At the rent-controlled end of our street, families hold stoop sales on the weekends, hocking books and records and gently worn jackets that were left in free boxes at the other end of the street. At that end, a children’s clothing store is opening amidst the brownstones. The windows are strung with tiny T-shirts and onesies.
Here in the middle, our rent is high. Too high. Astronomical, our mothers say, and they don’t even know about the hole in the ceiling. They don’t know about the cockroaches. We avoid getting up at night, even to pee, so we don’t see the roach-babies scuttling over our kitchen counters. We don’t see them, and we pretend not to hear them, and we almost forget they are there. It is preferable to lie in the dark, curled up like infants, with our thighs clenched together. It is preferable to spray the counters down in the morning as if we’re simply warding away bad spirits.
After the store’s grand opening in November, the babies below our window sport sweatshirts with ironic phrases. I knew about breast milk before it was cool. They look nothing like the unsmiling women pushing their strollers.
We will not be mothers. Of this, we are sure.
Janie has been sure since third grade when her classmate’s mother died giving birth to his baby brother. Melissa has been sure since eighth grade when she watched the Farrah Fawcett-haired woman in The Miracle of Life spread her legs and birth an alien. I’ve been sure since ninth grade when I watched fifteen-year-old Helen Burnham’s stomach swell up like a watermelon with Eddie Morrison’s baby.
We’ve been sure since our first pregnancy scares when we lost our virginities, and all the subsequent scares after that. Since we learned to live with the constant fear of one pill taken too late, one condom applied too hastily, one man pulling out at the too-last second. We’ve even had pregnancy scares after dry humping, since our health teachers assured us our eggs would attract sperm like magnets. We have been sure we do not want to be mothers since our five-year high school reunions when a handful of former classmates arrived pushing their actual babies in strollers so cheap they must have been meant for baby-dolls, and Helen Burnham showed up at mine with a pre-teen.
We will not be mothers because we pity the women who want this. Women who keep lists of bridesmaids in their drawers. Women who coo at small children with hands between their knees. Women who clamor to hold babies at parties, then walk away gazing into the bundles in their arms, searching for some sort of decree. We know Gretchen and Brandy and Julia must be women like that.
“I need you to stop calling,” the ex-boyfriends tell us. “I just don’t have the time.” Surely the new girlfriends are behind this. They must hate the messages we leave, the texts we send, our emails that still end in Xs and Os. We boost our call-frequency in retaliation. “Saw a hummingbird today and thought of you,” we chime onto their voicemails.
We still get drunk and laugh about masturbation, but no longer about our FedEx fantasies. We confess all of the things in the apartment that we have rubbed up against when no one was watching—the rounded edge of the stove, the slightly-less-rounded edge of the refrigerator, the couch backs and cushions and armrests. Collectively, we have humped everything in the house. Months ago, we would have found this hilarious and empowering, but now we seem desperate, possibly dangerous. When we smile, our canines catch the light and gleam like daggers. We drink the cheap wine and cast our eyes around the house suspiciously.
“Maybe this isn’t working,” our mothers say. “Maybe we should think about Plan B.” They don’t want to tell us it’s about the money, but we are smart enough to know it has always been about the money.
Who have we been imitating? We don’t know women like that. In our hometowns, women work as college professors, ministers, mayors, hockey coaches, waitresses, convenience store clerks, librarians, crossing guards, dairy farmers. Even the women without jobs have jobs—they sew clothes for their children and sing the national anthem at high school basketball games and measure spices at the co-op for store credit. No one seems particularly world-weary. Not enough to do nothing like us.
We are smart enough to know we don’t really pity our mothers. We wish we were our mothers. Our mothers then. Those twenty-four-year-old women with good heads on their shoulders. They had a better picture of what their lives would look like, a better grasp on what the world had in store. They knew how to write checks and manage savings accounts, could bring fevers down and staunch bleeding wounds. They drove stick-shift beaters, handled raw flank steaks with bare hands, and started fires in wood stoves using newspaper and kindling and one single match. We want to be them, we just don’t know how.
This time of not knowing, however, is temporary. Soon I will realize this. This time of not knowing is before my mother gets sick. Before she calls to say, “I have some bad news.” Before the malevolent thing in her breast is discovered. This is months before Janie and Melissa sit on my bed watching me pack to go home, watching me change. Before the hot water bottles and heating pads, the plastic pill dispensers, the vomit-stained towels rotating through the wash. Before I rise early to boil tea water, to blow on spoonfuls of oatmeal with my father, to wave his truck down the road as he heads to work. Before I get re-accustomed to driving, finally learning the importance of deliberate deceleration. I will drive so slowly with my mother next to me that her body never moves an inch from the seat back.
This is before I will retrieve a bin from my closet, dig through the dried-up rubber cement jars and packs of batteries and the ripped blouse I’ve been meaning to mend, until I find the photographs. The ones from her youth. Her breasts are unassuming—barely detectable lumps beneath sweaters and turtlenecks. The small curves of her nipples push at the fabric of a crocheted swimsuit and a cotton T-shirt. In one photo, she smiles at the camera while holding a tiny bundle to her breast. It is me. Me and my mother and her breast, all together. Our own female family. A temporarily self-sufficient circle.
During one of her post-chemo naps, I will hold the photo between us, then take it away. Back and forth. Past mother, present mother. Like this, like that. She is an angel, a crone, a goddess, a husk. The embodiment of health and beauty and power, and a cancer patient.
But before all of that, Janie and Melissa and I decide to try. We need money and we are smart. We attach our résumés to e-mails and send them out into the ether. We print copies on heavy paper and keep them in old, heart-covered folders from junior high. We remember writing our names on these folders, in bubble letters and block letters with three-dimensional shadows. We remember how we used to have different ideas about ourselves. We played MASH and imagined ourselves as grown women: an award-winning author with three kids and a silver Toyota 4Runner; an abstract painter with five kids and a red Mazda Miata; a beautiful actress with zero kids, but a dark blue limousine and a long-haired dachshund and a honeymoon in Switzerland. We married cute boys from our gym classes. The combinations changed, but there were always husbands, homes, cars, jobs. In junior high, we imagined ourselves like our mothers, just better. We thought we’d never have to try. Just be yourselves, they told us. You can do almost anything.
We wear leggings to the coffee shops and tights to the restaurants and bare legs to the bars. If there’s one thing we should be able to do, it’s serve drinks. “Can you work weekends?” they ask. “Early mornings? Late nights?” Yes. We can. We say this with confidence. The managers shake our hands; they will get back to us.
We call our mothers as soon as we get home. “I had an interview,” we say. “They’re going to call me back.”
“What kind of job?” Our mothers ask about hours and wages, and sigh when we tell them. “I guess that’s something. But don’t sell yourself short.”
When we shout, our mothers’ voices get quieter. “I’m glad for you, honey,” they say. “But I really can’t talk now. I’ll call after work.”
We hang up. We hate them. We are as far from them in this moment as we will possibly ever be. “What do you want from me?!” I throw a pillow at our cheap plaster wall, and the Yorkshire terriers dance above my head. “What do you want?” My voice is not echoing, I realize—Janie and Melissa are screaming it, too. We are all in the apartment, in our separate rooms, shouting at the small boxes of wires and circuits that have been transmitting our mothers’ voices into our ears. Or are those voices our own? We are a pack of wild things without their mothers—big, dumb animals incapable of survival. Our windows are painted shut and our outlets are overflowing with cords and the traffic outside is carrying people into and out of the city, but we cannot go back to them. If only we could make them proud, we think. If only we could need them less. If only we could be what they’ve always wanted us to be, which is only what we want to be: like them, like that, like something.
This story first appeared in Copper Nickel, Fall 2016.