Back to the Future

I often—while soaking in a hot bath—orchestrate a fantasy of visiting with my younger self. These tête-à-têtes degenerate quickly into lectures. After a perfunctory inventory of the indignities that seven years of childbearing have inflicted on my present body, we move on to a more cerebral plane. (I have no patience for reminiscing about her firm, unwrinkled abdomen. Of course she’s perfect—she’s 25. )

She yawns. How dull I have become. My older self is smug and full of conclusions. There is no room for argument. My younger self can’t get a word in—not that she should, anyway. Her head’s empty, her life is unlived.

“Motherhood is the total abnegation of the self,” I instruct my young self (whose eyes are already glazed). “You wouldn’t believe it,” I continue. (I grab her by the shoulders and shake her awake. ) “You wouldn’t believe the catalog of what you’ll lose over the next decade: reading, writing, running, working in the darkroom, spicy foods, the friends of your youth, time inside your own head. And just as you start thinking it can’t possibly get any harder than this, a hole opens up in the universe and somebody who depends on you needs you more. More hours. The 2 a. m. ear ache, vomit on the rug, endless drilling of multiplication tables—”

“Don’t bore me with the details,” interrupts my younger self. She flexes a sculpted quadriceps. “What right have you to complain, anyway?  Didn’t you realize what you were getting us into?”

“Wait!” I tell her. “It gets worse: can you imagine giving up every second of leisure, including all those self-improvement chores, like exercise, and still coming up short on time enough to get your work done?”

She slouches to her armpits in the bubbles. She is having none of this.

“And worse: everything you do supplants another obligation of equal or greater importance. It’s a continual compounding of debt.”

“Spare me.” She sinks to her chin.

“Whenever you work, you shortchange your children. Whenever you’re with your children you’re neglecting your work. Laundry piles up. Life becomes circular and impossible. You do nothing well. Everyone is always unhappy . . . “

She disappears beneath the surface.

The door flies open, and in rushes a bevy of naked little girls, chorusing: “Bath time! Bath with Mommy! We’re coming in!”

“How old will you be when I’m your age, Mom?” I run my fingers through her silky hair, refusing to do the mental arithmetic. “Old as the hills,” I say.

“Will you be a hundred?”

“I’ll probably never be a hundred.”

“Well, here’s what I’m asking: How old will I be when you die?”

I find it interesting that my present self has no inclination to entertain any visits from the future. Never has, never will. Soaking in the tub I try to block out the vision of what another decade of sun exposure will do to the skin of my forearms. Already, they are finely etched, almost silvery in the bathroom light, and speckled with faint brown irregular patches, like fallen leaves. My belly, played out after so many rude distensions, nestles atop my hips like an exotic, wrinkled little dog. My feet are callused, my legs chapped. My breasts droop like sorry flowers.

The survey amuses me. I no longer care to be perfect (1 assure myself) and have come to accept who I am. But why can I not bear to think forward to whom I am about to become?  Is she not also me?

The door flies open, and she enters. (Don’t drop that bathrobe!)

Nonetheless, the tattered robe falls around her bony ankles. (Don’t get in the tub!)

I avert my eyes as she climbs in heavily beside me. The water level rises precariously with her bulk. (Don’t say it!)

“Eureka.” Her eyes flash merrily.

I refuse to be amused, noting with mild disdain the papery dewlap in her chin, her flabby upper arms, the gray streaks in her hair. I slouch against my inflatable pillow and sink to my shoulders in the irresistibly warm water, thinking, at least I am still young. (When was it that I began to add “still”? )

She is speaking: “Start putting away more money in the college funds. Discipline yourself! Those children don’t need velvet overalls from The Gap. They need an education.”

Yeah, yeah. I have a ditty running through my head, “Lightly Row,” a Suzuki violin tune. Turn up the volume.

“Start flossing your teeth! Get a mammogram! It’s you who’s lazy, but I who’ll suffer—”

I sink again. Water laps invitingly at the edges of my hair. I begin to hum, but I hear her anyway: “If you won’t do those stretches the physical therapist gave you, the bursitis will only get worse. Think your hips hurt now?  Try running when you’re my age.

I can’t take it any more. One deep breath and I am under. I am gone. Back to the future. Now she sidles comfortably into my place, glad enough for the extra room, for she has understandably put on a little weight during the past few years. (The present me had the temerity to lecture the past me about the stresses of gaining and losing a total 170 pounds during the course of her reproductive years. But the future me’s weight gain is permanent, ballast for life. )

She spreads out comfortably in my place, unfurling one of the thousands of magazines I’ve tossed away unread over the years. She has time now for all the reading I’ve missed, though before she can begin, a pair ofdemi-glasses must necessarily materialize upon her nose. What’s next, false teeth?  (Perhaps I should have flossed. ) The bathroom’s terribly still; it’s all hers now, for there are no longer any naked little girls to interrupt her daydream. Does she miss them?  I think not. I think she has learned to accept their absence in her life, to embrace the quiet. I think she has taught herself how to relegate the vision of naked mermaids to a fond memory. She has moved on. For this, more than any of her other faults, I hate her.

Friends without children of their own ask me: What do you see when you look at your girls?  Do you see yourself?  Do you see your husband? The answer is easy. I search their faces for each other, and sometimes I do get a glimpse of Lauren’s green eyes in Madeline’s brown ones, or Caeli’s or Pascale’s blue. I see my brother Chris in Madeline’s gap-tooth smile, and my maternal grandmother in Caeli s pout. But I have never seen myself in my daughters, nor have I ever looked. My girls ask me, what was it like when you were a girl? And I answer as honestly as I know how: I stole a bag of candy orange slices and hid beneath the platform of the Christmas tree, eating them as quickly as I could till I felt sick. The trains were circling around above my head and I could hear my mother’s footsteps: coming, coming. There were sugar crystals on the floor. I was afraid. I was afraid when I broke the blue crayon and the boy with pudgy fingers said, “Oooooo, I’m teeeeelling.” I was afraid when I swallowed the tiny gold necklace my aunt gave me, then lied to my mother and helped her search for it beneath the bed. Maybe I would die. Maybe my mother would die. I played Orphans with my sister and Parcheesi with my Pop-Pop Rile. I was good at spelling and horrible at Double Dutch. The other girls made me a “rag doll” and I wept hot tears of shame in the recess yard. And I cried even harder, ashamed of my tears. I had a perfect report card. I grew bored and nearly failed pre-algebra. I was happy. I was sad. I was exactly like you. We are nothing alike. Everything was different, then. Everything is always the same.

About the Author

Karen Rile

Karen Rile is a winner of a 1998 Leeway Foundation writer’s grant award in creative nonfiction. The author of “Winter Music” and numerous works of short fiction and creative nonfiction, she teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

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