I guess now is as good a time as any to mention that my mother, Rebecca Barren, died four months ago in a freak accident.
Yes, despite the many technological marvels of my world, people still got killed for no good reason. People also acted like assholes for no good reason. But, sorry, I’m trying to tell you about my mother, not my father.
Like a lot of high-impact thinkers, my father needed everything that didn’t involve his big brain managed for him. Of course, most of these functions could be automated, but my mother embraced a handmade quality to our family life that could be seen as tactile and quaint and also could be seen as neurotic and sad. Like, if she didn’t personally fold my father’s clothes, clean his study, serve his food, he wouldn’t be able to unlock the mysteries of time travel. And it’s entirely possible she was correct. Because he did unlock the mysteries of time travel, and within a few months of her sudden death, everything was a total disaster.
They met at the University of Toronto. My father’s parents had emigrated from Vienna to Toronto when he was nine years old, and he never lost an Austrian clip to his vowels. My mother came from Leeds on an international exchange program to continue her undergraduate degree in literature and never lost her British ability to reflexively vector herself within rigid class dynamics.
My father was a graduate student in physics and my mother noticed him around campus, always wearing mismatched socks. She wanted to know if it was a fashion choice above her station or the mark of someone with more important things on his mind. One day, she walked up and handed him a gift—a box of one hundred identical socks. He had no idea who she was. They were married within a year and slotted themselves into their respective lifelong roles—my father was the lighthouse, my mother the keeper who wound the clockwork, polished the lenses, and swept all those rocky steps.
My father had a wife who was more like a mother. And I had a mother who was more like a sister. My father’s reputation propelled him up through the scientific community, but it cocooned my mother from any honest, vulnerable friendships. She had a role to play—midwife to my father’s genius—and she couldn’t admit to anyone that she felt hollow, lonely, full of dread.
Except me. My mother would tell me everything. I was her confidant, her simpleton therapist, a forever ready ear to her bottomless reservoir of anxious chitter-chatter. My father’s job was to change the world. My mother’s job was to create a warm, soft nest for him to preen in. My job was to listen to my mother talk, endlessly, so she didn’t have a nervous breakdown while suppressing anything consequential about herself in case it spoiled my father’s expansive mood of cosmic contemplation.
My mother’s comfort was books. Not the immersive virtual storytelling modules the rest of us enjoyed—actual books, the paper-and-ink kind that nobody made, let alone wrote, anymore. Her leisure time was spent reading words written in a previous era. Before she met my father, she’d imagined a career surrounded by books, teaching them, editing them, maybe even writing them.
I should clarify that my father never requested any of this. Part of his blissfully unaware state of grandiose self-importance is that he noticed none of it. He somehow found a spouse who would naturally wear herself down into a ball of gray wool. She became the comfortably downy socks that were always clean and ready in his drawer whenever his feet felt cold. As far as he knew, the house just made them to order.
And then, four months ago, while she sipped a coffee and read a novel on a patch of grass outside my parents’ housing unit, a malfunctioning navigation system caused a hover car to break formation, careen out of control, and smear half of my mother across the lawn in a wet streak of blood and bone and skin and the end of everything.
When someone dies they get very cold and very still. That probably sounds obvious, but when it’s your mother it doesn’t feel obvious— it feels shocking. You watch, winded and reeling, as the medical technicians neutralize the stasis field and power down the synthetic organ metabolizer. But the sentimental gesture of kissing her forehead makes you recoil because the moment your lips touch her skin you realize just how cold and just how still she is, just how permanent that coldness and that stillness feel. Your body lurches like it’s been plunged into boiling water and for the first time in your life you understand death as a biological state, an organism ceasing to function. Unless you’ve touched a corpse before, you can’t comprehend the visceral wrongness of inert flesh wrapped around an inanimate object that wears your mother’s face. You feel sick with guilt and regret and sadness about every time you rolled your eyes in annoyance or brushed off a needy request or let your mind wander when she told some inconsequential anecdote. You can’t remember anything thoughtful or sweet or tender that you ever did even though logically you know you must have. All you can recall is how often you were small and petty and false. She was your mother and she loved you in a way nobody ever has and nobody ever will and now she’s gone.
When I was born, my mother planted a lemon tree on their property and once a year she would make lemon tarts, her grandmother’s recipe, for my birthday. That tree, thirty-two years old, same as me, was just strong enough to stop the hover car from smashing right through the large window of my father’s study, where he was considering matters of lofty import and absentmindedly eating the grilled cheese sandwich that my mother had prepared for him as she made herself a mug of coffee to drink while sitting out in the sunshine to read a chapter of Great Expectations before it was time to do some other incredibly thoughtful routine thing that made my father’s life so pleasant and that he would realize she’d done for him for more than thirty years only once she was gone.
Without that tree, my father would be dead too. I would be an orphan. And everything would be much, much better for everyone. I remember, as a kid, when I first understood that only half of every tree is visible, that the roots in the soil are equal to the branches in the sky, that a whole other half is underground. It took me a lot longer, well into adulthood, to realize people are like that too.
The funeral was on a crisp, sunny morning. A few dozen of my father’s employees, their spouses and bored kids, my mother’s relatives from northern England, my father’s relatives from Austria, several of the families from my parents’ housing subsection, some close friends of mine, and three ex-girlfriends gathered at the spot where my mother died to listen to a bunch of eulogies spoken by people who quickly revealed they knew nothing about her internal life.
I should’ve spoken, I wanted to, but I couldn’t get any words out that day.
After the vacuous eulogies that, to be clear, still made me cry like hell, everyone watched, solemn, as my father sprinkled her ashes at the base of the lemon tree that was planted on the day of my birth and prevented his death, and I wanted to scream that this was a repul sive commemoration of a kind, brittle woman who collapsed into herself for her husband. Except it wasn’t. It was in fact a perfectly appropriate commemoration. Her final living act was to slow the malfunctioning hover car just enough that the lemon tree could stop its deadly momentum. In death as in life she was there for my father.
So, he scattered her ashes and, after the reception, I slept with one of my ex-girlfriends in my childhood bedroom.
In full disclosure, I subsequently slept with the other two ex-girlfriends who came to the funeral, as well as one of my closest friends from high school, whom I’d never made a play for because she was so cool that I didn’t want to screw up our camaraderie by inevitably disappointing her as a boyfriend.
I’m not bragging here. I mean, I could be more discreet about it, but I’m trying to do that by not mentioning their names. Out of respect. Or, I don’t know, maybe not mentioning their names seems sleazy.
All four encounters followed more or less the same script. She would ask to talk in private, really talk, she’d say. I got the wary sense she felt some shudder of excitement at me so openly expressing my grief to her, to her alone, as if she were the only one who could coax it out of me before it rotted right through my skin.
Looking back, it’s like the grief was an offering I made to them in exchange for their bodies and, for reasons I’m not insightful enough to understand, my tears turned them on. Or maybe it was just a simple thing that each of them decided I needed and they could do for me and I should be grateful, because it helped. At the time it felt like an honest moment of sadness and want. I was flailing out for something alive. Sex was basically the first thing I could think of to knit back together my unspooled heart, and if those four women had declined I guess I’d have come up with a second idea. But their gentle willingness and my lack of imagination led to four nearly identical encounters.
We’d be alone, late at night, and I’d tell them about sitting with my mother at the hospital in the hours between the accident and her official time of death, while the stasis field kept her alive from the waist up because she’d been obliterated from the waist down, and how all she could do was repeat the same phrase over and over, like the trillions of neurons in her brain had cooperated in a final slurry of consciousness to make sure her last thought was transmitted to whoever might listen.
“He’s lost, my love, so you must help him be found,” she’d say, again and again.
And I’d cry and say she’s right, I am lost, but I don’t think I can be found. I knew saying it like that, sobbing and jagged, instead of shrugging it off with a self-deprecating joke or a snarky dismissal, would resonate with the woman I was speaking to, because three of them had ended things with me for the same reason, which is that they got sick of my bullshit and realized I wasn’t going anywhere in my life, except for my friend from school, who knew me well enough to discount a romantic relationship before one could even start, no doubt aware she’d eventually end it with me because she’d get sick of my bullshit and realize I wasn’t going anywhere in my life.
So I’d cry and they’d hold me and we’d look at each other and I’d kiss them.
“I don’t know if this is a good idea,” they’d say. “It’s the only idea I have,” I’d say.
They’d kiss me back. We’d take off our clothes. I’ve lived in a world of infinite amazement and technological marvels, but none of it was worth a damn to me compared to those four nights.
I doubt they felt the same about me. Maybe I just seemed pitiable and pity is a strange aphrodisiac. It definitely screwed things up with my friend from school. She insisted she didn’t regret it, but that I was obviously in a difficult place and it was a mistake to consider anything more right now, and she hoped in time things would get back to normal between us. And I said I hoped the same, but after that we only hung out one last time, surrounded by our other friends, who tried to keep it light and airy around me, unsure how to behave with someone whose mother died and so acting like it didn’t happen, even though they were all at the funeral. Except her, my friend, more quiet than usual, smiling sadly at my dumb jokes, as if she thought that’s what I needed to feel better, her sad smiles at my dumb jokes.
Just because we could holiday on the moon or teleport to a shopping mall or watch a fetus gestate in a celebrity’s uterus or regenerate body parts from a plasmic soup or any of the countless things that sound like science fiction to you but were documentary to me, it doesn’t mean we had everything figured out. We were still just people. Messy, messed-up people who didn’t know how to act when one of our lives came undone. So my friends cracked jokes and squirmed in my presence and I slept around, and whether or not it was right or wrong it helped for an hour or two at a time. And I’ll never know if my friend and I would’ve figured out how to be friends again or if I would’ve gotten back together with one of my exes. I’ll never know if one of those nights of sadness and want could’ve turned into years of happiness and plenty.
My friend’s name was Deisha Cline and she was funny and smart and mischievous and sweet. My ex-girlfriends were Hester Lee, Megan Stround, and Tabitha Reese and they were funny and smart and mischievous and sweet too. And it doesn’t matter if I mention their names because none of them exist anymore.
My father’s interpretation of “He’s lost, my love, so you must help him be found” was to offer me a job.
We sat in his study, the lemon tree that saved his life outside the window, fat lemons hanging heavy on its branches, ripe for lemon tarts that would never be made for a birthday that he would forget and I would ignore. My father has given countless public lectures about the future, but this was the only one I can remember that had anything to do with me. The gist of it was that his father gave him the freedom to f ind his own way in the world and he’d wanted to do the same for me, to respect that even if it seemed that I was meandering through a dispiriting procession of pointless endeavors, maybe an actual direction would eventually emerge, as if by sorcery, from the haze of randomness and caprice. But after thirty-two years, my father thought it was time to reassess that judgment. After all, my grandfather was a pharmacist, not a visionary inventor, so it stands to reason that I, as the progeny of greatness, might require firmer parenting.
To sum up—he’s a genius, I am not, I am a disappointment, he is not. He didn’t need me to tell him he was a genius, and I didn’t. I didn’t need him to tell me I was a disappointment, but he did.
It’s interesting that neither of us, for even a moment, thought my mother might not have been talking about me. “He’s lost, my love, so you must help him be found,” she said. We both assumed I was the lost he and my father the my love. Even though I was the one at her bedside, holding her hand in those final hours, feeling the papery skin against my fingers, trying to ignore that everything below her rib cage was gone, a grim magic trick. But the idea that he might be the lost one wasn’t worth considering, let alone that I could be the one to help.
All the chrononauts had understudies—contingency associate is the official term—who trained alongside them, learning everything they did, ready to take their place on the historic mission in the unlikely event they were somehow incapacitated. When my father appointed me as Penelope Weschler’s understudy, he presented it as a vote of confidence, letting me train next to his very best chrononaut. This was obviously bullshit. I was made Penelope’s understudy for two reasons. One, the condescending side of my father hoped if I worked closely with someone as impressive as her, some of her focus and drive might rub off on me. Two, the pragmatic side of my father recognized that, of all the chrononauts, Penelope was by far the least likely to need an understudy. She was the most instructive and also the safest choice.
On a petty, sad, adolescent level, I still get a tiny shiver of pleasure at how seriously, for all his towering intellect, my father misunderstood Penelope.
But not me. He had me pegged just right.
This is how someone of my wildly limited capacities was granted a key—although clearly incidental—role in the planet’s most sought-after scientific experiment.
You could see it as my father dutifully honoring my mother’s deathbed wish. I prefer to think that she had to die for him to pay attention to anything she said.
From ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai, published on February 7, 2017 by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LC. Copyright © 2017 by Elan Mastai.