Palo Alto Weekly 22nd Annual Short Story
I started crying when my 17-year-old self walked through the door. It was a stupid thing to do. The 17-year-old me already looked painfully awkward standing in the doorway, Mother’s Italian purse clutched like a paper bag in her hands. She was the first to arrive at the party, moving distastefully into the small, paneled room I had rented at the San Francisco Airport Hilton. For a second, I thought she might leave, flee back into the lobby and call up Mother to take her home. Home. Mother…
But the 17-year-old me did not leave. She walked across the room, shoulders thrown back and hugged me, although gingerly. “How old are you,” she asked, after a pause. For a moment, I wanted to lie, to say I was 40 or even 65. I laughed through my tears. “I’m 53,” I said. “53.” I was telling the truth. The two of us sat in a corner and talked as we waited for the others to arrive. “How’s life?” she inquired, smiling uneasily. Under the shy, yet expectant gaze of my younger self, I moved uncomfortably in my seat.
As I moved, I became aware of my size. My thighs caught against each other. The skin around my neck seemed to sag. My nipples, prominent under the purple knit sweater I had bought specifically for this occasion, suddenly seemed disgusting to me: grotesquely elongated; fatigued by the tugging of so many greedy mouths; children, lovers. I crossed my arms over my chest and smiled. “Good, I guess. I mean. HA! I don’t want to scare you or anything.”
The teenage girl let out a harsh, humorless bark of laughter. An awkward silence was shared. After a bit, I continued, “You know, you have kids, a husband. I mean… well, I don’t want to give anything away.” The young me looked interested, mischievous. A playful grin lit up her lineless, round face. The familiarity of this smile, my smile, relaxed me a little and when she whispered confidentially, “So… you’ve had sex?” it was my turn to laugh a little too loud. “Uh-huh,” I answered brightly. “If the 19-year-old us shows up maybe she’ll tell you about it.”
The next me to arrive was the 32-year-old, plump from the unshed weight of our first pregnancy and toting the infant me strapped to her chest. “Oh, my!” she laughed, spotting Miss Seventeen. “I was so hot!” We shared an appreciative chuckle. Our teenage self looked predictably (and deceptively) bashful. We wasted a few minutes as the other two assured myself that I had not, in fact, “let myself go.” At a quarter past six, my 7, 12, 15, 20, 49, 58 and 60 year old selves rushed in, bringing with them a considerable amount of noise and nervous energy.
As the space grew crowded, livelier, I kept my seat in the corner. I didn’t want to miss the collisions of my, our, interactions. Bemused, I watched my selves flit around the room, exchanging ages, confidences and laughing at our own predictable, yet delightful jokes. The 15-year-old me hooked up her I-pod to computer speakers and the room filled with the sweet, raw hip-hop beats of my youth.
The music relaxed us; excited us. Soon the 20-year-old me felt bold enough to light up in a dark corner. Most of us giggled breathlessly. The 15-year-old choked on the harsh smoke. I noticed our 12-year-old self looking scared. “Come here, sweetie,” I said, gesturing toward her. “Ignore them. It’s just a stage we go through.”
We watched as the 60-year-old me begin to bob her head, energized by the loud music, smoke and vague memories. Through the window, we glimpsed the glorious evening glow of a peach summer sky. Even my cool detachment began to thaw in the light of my own youth’s brilliant, brave rebellion.
The waiter, a stooped man in frayed formal wear, stopped to ask, “Are all you women related?” We shrieked with laughter. “Damn right we are!” the younger ones yelled.
Visibly irritated by the smoke and defiance, our 58-year-old self testily threw open a window – just as our final self walked in. The 80-year-old’s appearance sent a hush rippling through the room, accompanied by a distinct chill that ran down all our spines. This newcomer, this ghost of me, was almost bald, frail and withered. She reminded me horribly of Grammy in her last year: chemotherapy thick in her blood, her lashless eyes watery and raw.
The 40-year-old me hurried to help our senior self into a chair. She sank slowly, excruciatingly, into the red upholstered seat as an Outkast song blasted hollowly off the walls. Simultaneously, my 20- year- old and 40- year -old selves dived to stop the music. There was a silence, a complete silence, as everyone gazed terrified upon the shell of themselves that sat before them. I stiffened, reminded of the dread, that panic, that I used to feel at bedtime when I was a child, as the light snapped off and death’s locomotive roared in my ears, incessant and unstoppable: What if…? What if…?
The infant, my tiniest and purest self, began to wail. Her cries shook us from self-absorption. The baby’s fragile body writhed as she threatened to escape the inexpert grasp of my 7-year-old arms. The adult mes in the room remained still, paralyzed by the wails of our littlest self. After an unbearable minute, the 80-year-old me opened her mouth to speak. We held our breath. The 12-year-old jerked uncomfortably and I instinctively grabbed her forearm.
“I think that child is hungry,” the oldest me stated calmly, her voice stronger, much stronger, than I think any of us had expected.
We looked around helplessly. None of us had thought of this. What was the baby to eat? What could she eat? We turned our eyes to the waiter, who shifted uncomfortably behind the bar. “I don’t got any milk,” he mumbled. Only the 80-year-old acted, trying to distract the baby by caressing her flushed cheek gently, with a long, skeletal finger. The 32-year-old me pushed forward, seizing the baby from the tired arms of my 7-year-old self. We watched as she settled herself next to the eldest. As the sun dipped below the salt marshes outside, we finally, one by one, understood what was about to happen.
We watched as she, we, opened herself like a flower, undoing her shirt a button at a time. A maternity bra glowed white as a lily in the darkening room. The blue net of veins that traced the swell of her breasts seemed as fragile and perfect as petals of morning glory. We watched, open-mouthed, as she removed hook from eye and exposed the right nipple, swollen with milk. “That’s right, girl. Give her what she needs,” the 80-year-old crooned, fingering the baby’s pink toes.
Our infant self latched hastily on to the nipple and drank, deeply and instinctively. We watched, whispering in wonder, until the child released herself from the breast, groggy and content. “Hush now,” our mother self cautioned. “She’s sleeping.”
And so we obeyed, standing guard as the small chest rose and fell, leaning in to hear the smallest sigh. Silently, reverently, we held our breath, waiting for that moment when, finally, she opened her eyes, and saw.