***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Christina Dalcher
If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them. But I wouldn’t argue. I wouldn’t say a thing.
I’ve become a woman of few words.
Tonight at supper, before I speak my final syllables of the day, Patrick reaches over and taps the silver-toned device around my left wrist. It’s a light touch, as if he were sharing the pain, or perhaps reminding me to stay quiet until the counter resets itself at midnight. This magic will happen while I sleep, and I’ll begin Tuesday with a virgin slate. My daughter, Sonia’s, counter will do the same.
My boys do not wear word counters.
Over dinner, they are all engaged in the usual chatter about school.
Sonia also attends school, although she never wastes words discussing her days. At supper, between bites of a simple stew I made from memory, Patrick questions her about her progress in home economics, physical fitness, and a new course titled Simple Accounting for Households. Is she obeying the teachers? Will she earn high marks this term? He knows exactly the type of questions to ask: closed-ended, requiring only a nod or a shake of the head.
I watch and listen, my nails carving half-moons into the flesh of my palms. Sonia nods when appropriate, wrinkles her nose when my young twins, not understanding the importance of yes/no interrogatives and finite answer sets, ask their sister to tell them what the teachers are like, how the classes are, which subject she likes best. So many open-ended questions. I refuse to think they do understand, that they’re baiting her, teasing out words. But at eleven, they’re old enough to know. And they’ve seen what happens when we overuse words.
Sonia’s lips quiver as she looks from one brother to another, the pink of her tongue trembling on the edge of her teeth or the plump of her lower lip, a body part with a mind of its own, undulating. Steven, my eldest, extends a hand and touches his forefinger to her mouth.
I could tell them what they want to know: All men at the front of the classrooms now. One-way system. Teachers talk. Students listen. It would cost me sixteen words.
I have five left.
“How is her vocabulary?” Patrick asks, knocking his chin my way. He rephrases. “Is she learning?”
I shrug. By six, Sonia should have an army of ten thousand lexemes, individual troops that assemble and come to attention and obey the orders her small, still-plastic brain issues. Should have, if the three R’s weren’t now reduced to one: simple arithmetic. After all, one day my daughter will be expected to shop and run a household, to be a devoted and dutiful wife. You need math for that, but not spelling. Not literature. Not a voice.
“You’re the cognitive linguist,” Patrick says, gathering empty plates, urging Steven to do the same.
In spite of my year of practice, the extra words leak out before I can stop them: “No. I’m. Not.”
Patrick watches the counter tick off another three entries. I feel the pressure of each on my pulse like an ominous drum. “That’s enough, Jean,” he says.
The boys exchange worried looks, the kind of worry that comes from knowing what occurs if the counter surpasses those three digits. One, zero, zero. This is when I say my last Monday word. To my daughter. The whispered “Goodnight” has barely escaped when Patrick’s eyes meet mine, pleading.
I scoop her up and carry her off to bed. She’s heavier now, almost too much girl to be hoisted up, and I need both arms.
Sonia smiles at me when I tuck her under the sheets. As usual, there’s no bedtime story, no exploring Dora, no Pooh and Piglet, no Peter Rabbit and his misadventures in Mr. McGregor’s lettuce patch. It’s frightening what she’s grown to accept as normal.
I hum her to sleep with a song about mockingbirds and billy goats, the verses still and quiet pictures in my mind’s eye.
Patrick watches from the door. His shoulders, once broad and strong, slump in a downward-facing V; his forehead is creased in matching lines. Everything about him seems to be pointing down.
In my bedroom, as on all other nights, I wrap myself in a quilt of invisible words, pretending to read, allowing my eyes to dance over imagined pages of Shakespeare. If I’m feeling fancy, my preferred text might be Dante in his original, static Italian. So little of Dante’s language has changed through the centuries, but tonight I find myself slogging through a forgotten lexicon. I wonder how the Italian women might fare with the new ways if our domestic efforts ever go international.
Perhaps they’ll talk more with their hands.
But the chances of our sickness moving overseas are slim. Before television became a federalized monopoly, before the counters went on our wrists, I saw newscasts. Al Jazeera, the BBC, Italy’s three RAI networks, and others broadcasted occasional talk shows. Patrick, Steven, and I watched them after the kids were in bed.
“Do we have to?” Steven groaned. He was slouched in his usual chair, one hand in a bowl of popcorn, the other texting on his phone.
I turned up the volume. “No. We don’t have to. But we can.” Who knew how much longer that would be true? Patrick was already talking about the cable privileges, how they were hanging on a frayed thread. “Not everyone gets this, Steven.” What I didn’t say was, Enjoy it while you can.
Except there wasn’t much to enjoy.
Every single show was the same. One after another, they laughed at us. Al Jazeera called us “The New Extremism.” I might have smiled if I hadn’t seen the truth in it. Britain’s political pundits shook their heads as if to say, Oh, those daffy Yanks. What are they doing now? The Italian experts, introduced by underdressed and overly made-up sexpots, shouted and pointed and laughed.
They laughed at us. They told us we needed to relax before we ended up wearing kerchiefs and long, shapeless skirts. On one of the Italian channels, a bawdy skit showed two men dressed as Puritans engaging in sodomy. Was this really how they saw the United States?
I don’t know. I haven’t been back since before Sonia was born, and there’s no chance of going now.
Our passports went before our words did.
I should clarify: some of our passports went.
I found this out through the most mundane of circumstances. In December, I realized Steven’s and the twins’ passports had expired, and I went online to download three renewal applications. Sonia, who’d never had any documentation other than her birth certificate and a booklet of vaccination records, needed a different form.
The boys’ renewals were easy, the same as Patrick’s and mine had always been. When I clicked the new passport application link, it took me to a page I hadn’t seen before, a single-line questionnaire: Is the applicant male or female?
I glanced over at Sonia, playing with a set of colored blocks on the carpet in my makeshift home office, and checked the box marked female.
“Red!” she yelped, looking up at the screen.
“Yes, honey,” I said. “Red. Very good. Or?”
Without prompting, she went on. “Crimson! Cherry!”
“You got it, baby. Keep up the good work,” I said, patting her and tossing another set of blocks onto the carpet. “Try the blue ones now.”
Back at my computer, I realized Sonia was right the first time. The screen was just red. Red as fucking blood.
Please contact us at the number below. Alternatively, you can send us an e-mail at applications.state.gov. Thank you!
I tried the number a dozen times before resorting to e-mail, and then I waited a dozen days before receiving a response. Or a sort of response. A week and a half later, the message in my inbox instructed me to visit my local passport application center.
“Help you, ma’am?” the clerk said when I showed up with Sonia’s birth certificate.
“You can if you do passport applications.” I shoved the paperwork through the slot in the plexiglass screen.
The clerk, who looked all of nineteen, snatched it up and told me to wait. “Oh,” he said, scurrying back to the window, “I’ll need your passport for a minute. Just to make a copy.”
Sonia’s passport would take a few weeks, I was told. What I was not told was that my passport had been invalidated.
I found that out much later. And Sonia never got her passport.
At the beginning, a few people managed to get out. Some crossed the border into Canada; others left on boats for Cuba, Mexico, the islands. It didn’t take long for the authorities to set up checkpoints, and the wall separating Southern California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas from Mexico itself had already been built, so the egress stopped fairly quickly.
“We can’t have our citizens, our families, our mothers and fathers, fleeing,” the president said in one of his early addresses.
I still think we could have made it if it had been only Patrick and me. But with four kids, one who didn’t know enough not to bounce in her car seat and chirp “Canada!” to the border guards—no way.
So I’m not feeling fancy tonight, not after thinking about how easily they kept us prisoners in our own country, not after Patrick took me in his arms and told me to try not to dwell on what used to be.
Here’s what used to be: We used to stay up late talking. We used to linger in bed on weekend mornings, putting off chores and reading the Sunday paper. We used to have cocktail parties and dinner parties and summer barbecues when the weather turned. We used to play games—first, spades and bridge; later, when the boys were old enough to tell a six from a five, war and go fish.
As for me, on my own, I used to have girlfriends. “Hen parties,” Patrick called my nights out with the girls, but I know he didn’t mean it unkindly. It was just one of those things guys said. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.
We used to have book clubs and coffee chats; we debated politics in wine bars, later in basements—our version of reading Lolita in Tehran. Patrick never seemed to mind my weekly escapes, although he’d joke about us sometimes, before there wasn’t anything left to joke about. We were, in his words, the voices that couldn’t be hushed.
Well. So much for the infallibility of Patrick.
When it started, before any of us could see what the future held, there was one woman in particular, one of the louder sorts. Her name was Jackie Juarez.
I don’t want to think of Jackie, but all of a sudden, it’s a year and a half ago, not long after the inauguration, and I’m sitting in the den with the kids, hushing their laughter so Sonia doesn’t wake up.
The woman on the television is hysterical, Steven points out when he returns to the den with three bowls of ice cream.
Hysterical. I hate that word. “What?” I say.
“Women are crazy,” he continues. “It’s not like it’s news, Mom. You know that saying about hysterical women and fits of the mother.”
“What?” I say again. “Where’d you hear that?”
“Learned it in school today. Some dude named Cooke or something.” Steven hands out the dessert. “Crap. One bowl’s smaller. Mom, you want the smaller one or the bigger one?”
“Smaller.” I’d been fighting to keep the weight down ever since my last pregnancy.
He rolls his eyes.
“Yeah. Wait till your metabolism hits forty-something. And when did you start reading Crooke? I didn’t think Description of the Body of Man had made it into must-read high school fodder.” I scoop up the first of what looks like three mouse-sized bites of rocky road. “Even for AP Lit.”
“Try AP Religious Studies, Mom,” Steven says. “Anyway, Cooke, Crooke. What’s the diff?”
“An r, kiddo.” I turn back to the irate woman on the TV.
She’s been on before, ranting about pay inequity and impenetrable glass ceilings, always inserting plugs for her latest book. This one bears the uplifting, doomsday-preaching title of They Will Shut Us Up. Subtitle: What You Need to Know About the Patriarchy and Your Voice. On the cover, a series of dolls—everything from Kewpies to Barbies to Raggedy Anns, stares out in full Technicolor, each doll’s mouth photoshopped with a ball gag.
“Creepy,” I say to Patrick.
“Over the top, don’t you think?” He looks, a bit too longingly, at my melting ice cream. “You gonna eat that?”
I hand him the bowl, not turning from the TV. Something about the ball gags bothers me—even more than a Raggedy Ann with a red ball strapped to her face should bother me. It’s the straps, I think. The black X with the bloodred center crossing out each doll’s face. They look like half-assed veils, obliterating every feature but the eyes. Maybe that’s the point.
Jackie Juarez is the author of this and a half dozen other books, all with similarly nails-on-chalkboard titles like Shut Up and Sit Down, Barefoot and Pregnant: What the Religious Right Wants You to Be, and Patrick and Steven’s favorite, The Walking Uterus. The artwork on that one was gruesome.
Now she’s screaming at the interviewer, who probably shouldn’t have said “Feminazi.” “You know what you get if you take the feminist out of Feminazi?” Jackie doesn’t wait for an answer. “Nazi. That’s what you get. You like that better?”
The interviewer is nonplussed.
Jackie ignores him and bores her mascaraed eyes, crazed eyes, into the camera so it seems she’s looking right at me. “You have no idea, ladies. No goddamned idea. We’re on a slippery slide to prehistory, girls. Think about it. Think about where you’ll be—where your daughters will be—when the courts turn back the clock. Think about words like ‘spousal permission’ and ‘paternal consent.’ Think about waking up one morning and finding you don’t have a voice in anything.” She pauses after each of these last few words, her teeth clenched.
Patrick kisses me goodnight. “Gotta be up at the butt crack of dawn, babe. Breakfast meeting with the big guy in you know where. ’Night.”
“She needs to pop a chill pill,” Steven says, still watching the screen. He’s now got a bag of Doritos on his lap and is crunching his way through them, five at a time, a reminder that adolescence isn’t all bad.
“Rocky road and Doritos, kiddo?” I say. “You’ll ruin your face.”
“Dessert of champions, Mom. Hey, can we watch something else? This chick is a real downer.”
“Sure.” I hand him the remote, and Jackie Juarez goes quiet, only to be replaced by a rerun of Duck Dynasty.
“Really, Steve?” I say, watching one bearded, camo-clad mountain man after another wax philosophical on the state of politics.
“Yeah. They’re a fucking riot.”
“They’re insane. And watch your language.”
“It’s just a joke, Mom. Jeez. There aren’t really people like that.”
“Ever been to Louisiana?” I take the bag of chips from him. “Your dad ate all my ice cream.”
“Mardi Gras two years ago. Mom, I’m starting to worry about your memory.”
“New Orleans isn’t Louisiana.”
Or maybe it is, I think. When you get down to it, what’s the difference between some backwater asshole’s advising men to marry teenage girls and a bunch of costumed drunks flinging beads to anyone who shows her tits on St. Charles Avenue?
Probably not much.
And here’s the country in five-minute sound bites: Jackie Juarez in her city suit and Bobbi Brown makeup preaching fear; the duck people preaching hate. Or maybe it’s the other way around. At least the duck people don’t stare out at me from the screen and make accusations.
Steven, now on his second can of Coke and second bowl of rocky road—an inaccurate picture because he’s forgone the bowl and is spooning the last bits of ice cream directly from the container—announces he’s going to bed. “Test tomorrow in AP Religious Studies.”
When did sophomores start taking AP classes? And why isn’t he doing something useful, like biology or history? I ask him about both.
“The religious studies course is new. They offered it to everyone, even the frosh babies. I think they’re phasing it into the regular curriculum next year. Anyway,” he says from the kitchen, “that means no time for bio or history this year.”
“So what is it? Comparative theology? I guess I can tolerate that—even in a public school.”
He comes back into the den with a brownie. His nightcap. “Nah. More like, I don’t know, philosophy of Christianity. Anyway, ’night, Mom. Love ya.” He plants a kiss on my cheek and disappears down the hall.
I turn Jackie Juarez back on.
She was much prettier in person, and it’s impossible to know whether she’s gained weight since grad school or whether the camera has added its proverbial fifteen pounds. Underneath the professional makeup and hair jobs, Jackie looks tired, as if twenty years of anger have drawn themselves on her face, one line at a time.
I crunch another Dorito and lick the salty chemicals off my fingers before rolling up the bag and setting it out of reach.
Jackie stares at me with those cold eyes that haven’t changed, accusing.
I don’t need her accusations. I didn’t need them twenty years ago, and I don’t need them now, but I still remember the day they started. The day my friendship with Jackie started going south.
“You’re coming to the march, right, Jean?” Jackie stood, braless and makeupless at the door to my room, where I lay sprawled among half the library’s neurolinguistics collection.
“For fuck’s sake, Jean, this is more important than some stupid aphasia study. How about you focus on the people who are still around?”
I looked at her, letting my head drop to the right in a silent question.
“Okay. Okay.” She threw up her hands. “They’re still around. Sorry. I’m just saying what’s going on with the Supreme Court thing is, well, it’s now.” Jackie always called political situations—elections, nominations, confirmations, speeches, whatever—things. That court thing. That speech thing. That election thing. It drove me insane. You’d think a sociolinguist would take the time to work on her vocabulary every once in a while.
“Anyway,” she said, “I’m going out there. You can thank me later when the Senate confirms Grace Murray’s seat on the bench. The only female now, in case you’re interested.” She started in again on “those misogynistic fuckwits on the hearing committee two years ago.”
“Thanks, Jackie.” I couldn’t hide the smile in my voice.
She wasn’t smiling, though.
“Right.” I pushed a notebook aside and shoved my pencil through my ponytail. “Would you quit giving me shit? I mean, this neurosci class is killing me. It’s Professor Wu this term and she’s not taking any prisoners. Joe dropped. Mark dropped. Hannah dropped. Those two chicks from New Delhi, the ones who always go around arm in arm and have their butt imprints on next-door library carrels, dropped. It’s not like we’re sitting around trading anecdotes about angry husbands and sad wives and sharing our vision for how teenage text-talk is the wave of the future every Tuesday.”
Jackie picked up one of the copied journal articles from my bed, glanced at the title. “‘Etiology of Stroke in Patients with Wernicke’s Aphasia.’ Riveting, Jean.” She dropped it onto the comforter, and it landed with a dull thud.
“Fine. You stay here in your little lab bubble while the rest of us go.” Jackie picked up the text, scribbled two lines inside the back cover, and let it fall again. “Just in case you can find a spare minute to call your senators, bubble girl.”
“I like my bubble,” I said. “And that’s a library book.”
Jackie didn’t seem to give a shit whether she’d just tagged the Rosetta stone with a can of spray paint. “Yeah. Sure you do, you and the rest of the white feminists. I hope someone never comes along and pops it.” With that, she was out the door, a mountain of colored signs in her arms.
When our lease was up, Jackie said she didn’t want to renew. She and a few other women had decided on a place up in Adams Morgan.
“I like the vibe better there,” she told me. “Happy birthday, by the way. You’ll be a quarter of a century next year. Like Marilyn Monroe said, it makes a girl think. You stay cool, now. And think about what you need to do to stay free.”
The present she left was an assortment of related trifles, a themed gift pack. Wrapped inside bubble paper was a bag of bubble gum, the kind with the idiotic cartoons inside each individually papered brick; a pink bottle of soap with a plastic wand attached to its cap; bathroom cleaner—you can guess which brand; a split of Californian champagne; and a pack of twenty-five balloons.
That night, I drank the sparkling wine straight from the bottle and popped every bubble in the wrap. All the rest went into the garbage.
I never spoke to Jackie again. On nights like this, I wish I had. Maybe things—the election thing, the nomination thing, the confirmation thing, the executive order thing—wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.
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