I’m walking home from my first Postmodernism 101 class when Mum calls and tells me that the cat is dying. Cancer, she says — some rare kind of canine cancer.
‘Don’t you mean feline?’ I ask.
‘No,’ she says, and doesn’t elaborate.
He’s on tablets for it now, she tells me, but there isn’t really anything that can be done at this point. Now we play the waiting game, she says. I don’t ask what the tablets are supposed to do. I’m a plane ride away, and since there’s no such thing as cat funerals, I stay home. When I tell Ben about it, he says that he’s sorry, but also that the cat is old and I must have known, at least on some level, that this was coming. Hadn’t I felt it coming?
It’s early March in Melbourne and the leaves are turning everything orange. On my walk to Woolworths: orange. On my walk through Carlton Gardens to make it to Bimbos before the end of happy hour: orange. Everywhere: orange. Before I moved here, deciduous trees were the stuff of movie nights and scenes filmed in Central Park, and belonged to a life lived by someone else — someone who is always carrying a takeaway cup of coffee, someone with a Great Dane named something like Stanley. ‘Stanley would very much like it if you would take a stroll with him in a park this evening,’ this person would say to a cute guy (probably the guy who served her all those coffees). And when she said Stanley she really meant that she was the one who wanted to take a stroll with him that evening, and he would understand because that’s the way people flirt when they live their lives in a city where deciduous trees grow.
Where Ben and I are from up north, leaves are either green or dead, with no middle ground. It might be an unpopular thing to say, but now that I know what it is to live amongst slowly stripping trees I think that the northern way is better, perhaps. More honest. There’s no room for a tree to change its mind. The word deciduous sounds like the tree is still in a state of deciding, and I have enough indecisiveness in my own life without adding flora into the equation. I can’t even figure out what I’m going to have for dinner most nights. I just wander the supermarket until they start to make all those moves like they want to close up soon and then I just buy the same thing I always buy and feel anxious about it. I’ve been breaking up with Ben since we got together – I don’t know how else to be.
The only thing I learned in my first Postmodernism 101 class is that almost nobody wants to be there, and the people that do want to be there are all assholes. I don’t know how the tutor stands it, year in, year out. Why would a person voluntarily subject themselves to such a thing? A pop-collared guy from one of the more frattish colleges is going to read Kathy Acker, because he is required to by University Tutorial Law, and this seems to bother no one besides myself. Worse, he will form fully-formed Ideas and Thoughts about Kathy Acker, and I will be forced to bear witness to these Ideas and Thoughts, and there’s really nothing I can do about it.
The next week, I give my presentation on the fallacy of postfeminism.
‘Don’t you think that feminism has kind of run its course?’ Pop Collar asks me during question time, as, of course, I expected him to all along. (I had pointed him out to my friend Bridget while we were stealing vegan sausages from the astronomy club’s O-Week booth. ‘Oh, that guy,’ she had said. ‘I heard he started a tally in chalk on the common-room wall of his college. Every time one of the boys sleeps with a new girl, they get a point.’)
‘I don’t know,’ I tell Pop Collar. ‘Probably not.’
I decide to give the class one more week. Perhaps it’s not too late to take up French, or economics.
When I walk into class in Week 3, there’s a girl sitting in my seat. (I mean, the seats aren’t assigned, exactly, but I’m a person who craves routine. Every single public toilet I’ve ever frequented more than once, I’ve picked a cubicle and stuck to it.) I slink into the one opposite her like I don’t care. I don’t remember the girl from any of our previous classes, but she looks really familiar. Intimately familiar.
I’m trying to figure out where I know her from when it hits me. She’s got Ben’s eyes. His eyebrows, too. Her mouth purses like my mother’s, and when she sighs she’s all me. She’s even wearing the same converse sneakers as me — actually, I think they really are the same converse sneakers. They have the same black smudge down the side that I got trying to skateboard with the kids at Lincoln Square my first week in town.
(‘Hey bae!’ they had called. ‘Wanna see something cool?’
‘Please,’ I had said. ‘You don’t know who you’re talking to. Anything you punks can do, I can do.’ I had, in fact, been wrong, and had ended up with two stitches.)
There’s only one conclusion to be drawn, and I draw it. I take out my notebook, and flip to the very back page, where I like to write important thoughts and observations. I write:
I met our daughter in my postmodernism class today and I love her already. She is so beautiful — like, we produced a supermodel baby, or something! She is more beautiful than me, strikingly more beautiful, but I am not jealous of her because she is my daughter and the sum of our parts. I know things haven’t been great lately, and I’ve apologised and apologised for breaking your new rice cooker, but you wouldn’t get off the computer and help me with dinner even thought I asked you at least three times… Anyway, now I know we’re going to work things out because we have a daughter and she is so beautiful. We’re bound together for eternity, now, you see? You can never leave me because we are parents and in this together and we have a baby, an almost-adult postmodern baby, and she needs us, B, she really does.
I tear the sheet of paper from the notebook and fold it up and put it in my pocket.
The truth is that it’s not her eyes or her eyebrows or her pursed mouth or her sigh. It’s not Ben’s sister’s beautiful long red hair, and it’s not my very own nose. None of these things are how I know. I know that she is our daughter because I gave birth to her, sometime in the future, and now we are linked so completely — a link that transcends space and time. Call it a mother’s intuition — call it whatever you want. Now I have to think of a way to make Ben understand that this fully-grown baby came from us; belongs to us. I don’t know why this has happened now, of all times, with my cat slowly dying of canine cancer thirteen hundred miles away and Ben’s recent appendicitis scare that turned out to just be constipation. We have so much on our plates already, you know what I mean? It’s not like we have ambulance cover or frequent flyer miles.
‘Sorry to bother you,’ I say to my daughter. ‘I was wondering if we could trade seats.’
‘Uh, sure,’ she says.
I can tell that she thinks I’m a loser, or a freak, or something — she’s giving me that look. The look all daughters give their mothers. I think about my own mother, holding my dying cat in her arms and trying to force tablets down his throat, and wonder what age I was the first time I ever looked at my mother like that, and whether she realised. Whether later that night, in bed, she had said to my step-father, ‘Well, Greg, it’s the beginning of the end.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say. ‘It’s just…’
‘No problem,’ she says, although clearly, for her — for us — it is.
When attendance is called, I am surprised to discover her given name is Vanessa. (I am unsurprised to find we share the same surname, as Ben and I discovered on this course of action years ago. ‘Why shouldn’t my own children carry my name?’ I had asked. ‘I don’t really like my dad anyway,’ he had replied.) Why on earth would I name my firstborn — assuming she is my firstborn — after Ben’s lizard queen mother? Perhaps in the future Ben’s mother is dead. You can forgive a dead person many sins.
The next week, Vanessa is sitting two tables across from me, and she’s kind of smiling to herself like she just discovered a massive secret. I wonder if she knows that I’m her mother, and that’s why she’s here. Why else would she travel all the way from the future, if not to be here with me? I wonder if I’m her secret, the same way she’s mine. I want to ask her if she lives on campus, whether she works part-time, if she has enough money and whether she has a boyfriend or girlfriend and if she’s eating right, but I don’t because no girl of twenty wants to deal with her mother’s nagging. Anyway, we have all semester for that.
Now that I’m a parent I see the world so differently. I feel like my heart is doing wheelies in the Woolworths parking lot, and I’m watching from a distance or from above, or something. I think about slipping a twenty dollar note into her pencil case while she’s not looking. How do parents stand this? Their own hearts, walking around outside of their bodies.
‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’ I ask Vanessa as we leave the classroom. I have perfectly timed it — my packing up of books, my stride, the pause to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything — so that we walk out at the same time.
‘What?’ she asks.
‘Um,’ I say. ‘Nothing.’
I wonder if Ben still loves me. Do you still love me in 2023, Ben? When our daughter leaves us to travel through space and time and we’re left alone together and don’t have anything to talk about? Have you forgiven me for the rice cooker?
Every week I look for her and every class she’s there and I catalog in my mind everything she’s wearing and everything she’s saying.
Vanessa wearing the yellow doc martens and the red hooded jumper Vanessa with the clip in her hair Vanessa with the new notebook with the pug on it Vanessa isn’t from here she’s from somewhere else Vanessa has so many feelings about Joseph Gordon-Levitt and she doesn’t know what to do with those feelings. (I read this in a text message over her shoulder — I know it’s wrong, but it’s what you’re meant to do, right? When you don’t know what’s going on with your daughter, so you snoop? If this were an American sitcom she’d find out that I was snooping and she’d yell I HATE YOU I HATE YOU SO MUCH and I would yell FINE GOOD HATE ME ALL YOU WANT YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOVE ME VANESSA YOU JUST HAVE TO BE SAFE and then like at the end of the episode we’d hug, though that end point always seems so untenable.)
There are only three weeks left of class before the end of the semester, and I’m no closer to knowing my daughter or figuring out why she has been birthed into my life so very prematurely. I contemplate hacking into the school computer mainframe, finding out what classes she’s enrolled in next semester and enrolling in them myself. ‘Oh, you’re taking Dickens too?’ I’d ask. ‘That’s so funny.’ But I’m not much of a computer hacker, and I don’t want to cramp her style.
The leaves are almost all gone from the trees now, and at home Ben has to break out the space heater even though using it sends our electricity bill through the roof. I hand in an essay on Blood and Guts in High School and get full marks. The character is both father and boyfriend, I had written. Either, and also neither. Acker creates a space for this indecision to exist, and invites the reader to occupy it with her.
It’s the last class of the semester and I know that I can’t leave things like this. What if I never see her again? My beautiful baby girl. It’s too much to even contemplate.
After class, I run up to Vanessa and flag her down as she heads towards a cafe.
‘What?’ she asks. ‘Did I forget something in class?’
‘No, but isn’t there something you want to tell me?’ I say. ‘Or something you want to ask?’
‘Uh, no. Like what? What do you mean?’ she asks.
I look into her eyes — Ben’s eyes — and it feels like something that should be easy or special but isn’t. I’m not ready for motherhood, I realise.
‘Um,’ I say. ‘I think I got the wrong person. Sorry.’
Later, I will go home and tell Ben that it’s finally over. I’ll tell him that I’ve decided, and that there won’t be any going back this time.
Next semester, I will study economics.
Image: Randi Hausken