See You Again
When I return to the lab, the new tanks are the first thing I notice. My colleagues had no details about my daughter’s service, no address to show up at or send a card to, so I think the octopuses might be their version of sending flowers. I flip through the paperwork. They were delivered on the very same day as Kara’s burial—with the kind of spontaneity that has had no precedent in this lab for twenty years. And being the only evolutionary psychologist on staff, let’s say the bouquet is designed for the person meant to receive it.
I feel eyes on me that whole day, but no one says anything or makes any special presentation of the cephalopods. Sometimes people know you better than you think they do. Toward the end of the day, Estelia pours a glug of whiskey from her emergency flask into my coffee cup. Soon after, the others begin to encourage me to go home to rest. But I make the excuse of having loads of work to catch up on and wait impatiently for them, one by one, to leave me alone with the octopuses. Whatever this says about me, I have never been able to enjoy a gift until the person who gave it to me went away.
I turn on the lights installed underneath the lid of the tank. It was designed to look like sunlight filtering down from the surface of the ocean, and the effect is more or less as intended. I turn off the lights in the lab, with the exception of some blue light that emanates from a few of the half-sleeping monitors. There are four octopuses. The one called Pia—yellow and blue for the moment—sits on top of the large rock positioned at the center. She drapes her skirts around it, made of the webbing between her legs. Something glints on the ground a few inches from the rock. I squint and see that it is the gold-tinted lid from a jar of salsa. In this I recognize a familiar experiment designed to measure novel learning. Pia had obviously figured out how to open the jar and then refused to return the lid. In the depth of ocean she’s used to, any glimmer of light is a commodity.
The glass between us is a transparent lie. It allows us to look into each other’s eyes as if we were not looking across universes, across ages. Pia floats up, sinks back down. Her third heart stops pumping when she swims, so she prefers not to. At a certain point, I look at my watch. Fifteen minutes have passed. I consider the parts of my night I’ve yet to prepare for, my husband, our dinner, and I wonder how long our time together has felt to Pia. Her species has a lifespan of one year, and out of that year, perhaps four or five months have already been spent. If she is conscious of her mortality—although implausible, I do believe in the possibility—then I wonder what it feels like to have such an intense burst of short-lived awareness. Maybe it is all relative, maybe different existences take longer to resolve than others, maybe lives always feel over at the precise moment that they are over, all of the open questions and anxieties snapping to at the last moment, dissolving into the backlit beyond. Here’s to hoping, at least. Pia turns black, like the mini-shades of her dermis are pulled shut from the inside, blocking out all light.
She disappears into the backdrop of dark water, until she shoots off the rock and floats softly back down again, strange ghost with the parachuting grief, and I have the distinct feeling that I’m being mocked.
Funerals are full of redactions. I had never noticed before Kara’s, but it’s true. Everyone dressed in black, their whole bodies crossed out, pretending out of sympathy for the grievers that they also don’t exist, stepping softly. I’m not here, they seem to say. They believe they are acting with kindness when tracking lies into my house like dirt on the bottom of their shoes. There are no more clean cups, my sister kept insisting while guests still filled the house. You need to run the dishwasher. She treated me a little roughly, and I understood her meaning. She wanted me to admit to some degree of relief. Kara’s life had been too much trouble anyway, she thought. She couldn’t see around that view, and my husband might have taken her point, I’m not sure. They whispered something behind my back. What I know is that together they tried to get me to close the casket, and when I refused, they wanted me to let the undertaker use some 3D technique to make her head look larger. She was nine. I knew how badly I needed to see her as she was. I had already started to feel the foreign rays of my imagination move like northern lights, like someone making several arms of rope dance at once. Of course, I did not admit this to anyone. But when the undertaker emailed me the preview picture, I replied: HANDS MORE TWISTED.
Developmental regression, the doctors called it. At ten months, Kara abruptly stopped learning new things and forgot, one by one, those she already knew. It was like watching a broken VCR eat the tape of our daughter’s cognitive record, and we had to sit helplessly in front of the monitor to watch the static dance across the screen. Everything Kara had learned—everything I taught her—was snatched back. She had been able to say “cat” and “mama,” to get Cheerios into her mouth, to turn the pages of a book. I knew I could remember these things because I could picture the waxy shine of her little fingernails, the alien wrinkles on her skinny knuckles. But maybe I had imagined them? I brought out the baby book that my sister had given me, regretted the empty lines next to each milestone. Her development had always fallen in the normal range. So meticulous, always, at the lab, yet at home I had apparently found it too mundane to fill in the date that Kara first waved bye-bye, ate with her fingers.
I said nothing to Ed, except that I wanted her out of daycare. I wasn’t ready to involve him, and he did not protest, not even when I took leave from work. During that period, Kara and I would often pass the entire day without leaving the apartment. I remember once, after spending several days inside, we ventured out on the subway. I was dressed in formless clothes, my hair stringy but clean—I always kept us both clean—but I had not wanted to bother with the stroller. I held Kara in my arms, wrapped in a blanket. I remember that I refused to meet the eyes of a young derelict, wanting to avoid the scenario in which he would certainly beg for money. But he had us cornered, so I looked away from him and instead at our reflections in the glass doors of the moving train. But he followed suit and found eye contact with my reflection.
“Excuse me,” he said, “what is today?”
I would have answered him, but I couldn’t. I reached into my mind and found I had lost the whole concept of time. I stared at him dumbfounded, unable not only to tell Tuesday from Wednesday, or the fifteenth from thirteenth, but to get any foothold at all. Month or year. Our train stopped without the doors opening, and another train pulled in from the other direction, then started up again before us, provoking that strange illusion of backward movement.
Through all of this, the derelict and I continued to stare at each other.
“Monday, the seventeenth,” said the person behind me, and it was over.
I looked down and hugged my daughter to my chest, made sure the blanket was covering her face. When we got home, I pulled out my calendar and began to record day by day the things Kara could do (swallow her food, grip my finger in her hand, hold her head up), and then soon those she could no longer do (hold her head up, grip my finger in her hand, swallow her food). It’s difficult to describe the effect of this constant erosion, but maybe I will come close if I say that it felt like time was moving both forward and backward at the same time. A few weeks after the incident on the subway, we got the diagnosis.
When I had been dating my husband for six months, a friend asked me out for a drink for the sole purpose of letting me know on behalf of her entire circle that Ed was a jerk. This woman and I had been friends for several years, and though I felt barely close to her, she kept professing in a bald, and to me, embarrassing, way that she cared for me. She must have said so three or four times in the time it took to get to her point: that I was too blinded by love to see Ed accurately, so she felt obligated to step in. I politely thanked her and made it clear that her conclusion was probably accurate, but at the same time, that I preferred the term asshole, which I considered sexier than jerk.
I finished my drink and left the bar, never speaking to her or any of them again. She must have thought I was offended on behalf of Ed, but in reality I was absolutely furious with myself for having, apparently, presented such a dishonest face to the world. An attractive woman, young, petite. It was obvious that those who looked at me saw someone bookish, quiet, intelligently agreeable, and assumed therefore that I was sensitive and harmless; in fact, easily harmed. They had mistaken my reticence, my unwillingness to share my true feelings—in short, my selfishness—for weakness, and I had facilitated their misperceptions because, of course, it was easier for a woman if you did.
At the lab my colleague, Estelia, brings me a coffee. “Hi, bitch,” she says. We have known each other since before either of us were married. Now Estelia is divorced—her husband wanted children, she did not. After feeling the same for a long time, I changed my mind at the last possible moment and got pregnant. But now, again, I catch pace with her in childlessness. This is Monday, and she asks me about my first weekend since starting back to work. I tell her that Ed was in Chicago, so I spent both days in the lab with Pia. I do not say that my husband’s girlfriend was with him, but she picks it up. That Ed has girlfriends is not something I’ve gone out of my way to hide from Estelia. Though I could do without her ironic eyebrows.
“I admit I would have liked a trip to Chicago,” I say, not giving her a chance to make the joke that she is definitely in the process of devising. “To see the fossils.”
Fewer than ten octopus fossils have been discovered across the world, most of which belong to Lebanon, except for the temporary exhibit set up in Chicago. When I read about it, my hope was that I would get to see Styletoctopus annae sooner than expected. I even told Ed, who often travels to Chicago for work, that I’d like to join him on his next trip. But when he told me last week that he was going, and that Bridget would meet him to spend the weekend, he may have forgotten my interest, but probably not. More likely it’s too soon after Kara.
“I’ll go with you,” Estelia says.
“I would have gone on my own,” I say. “It’s more a matter of finding the time.”
I call her over to my computer and pull up a picture of the centerpiece fossil from the exhibit. The gills have been preserved in facsimile detail, while the hearts and soft tissue organs blur amorphously in an orange stain. Below that, the ink sac is three-dimensional—a darkly spilled hole. Its legs dance with autonomy, and a complicated coordination, like light. Researchers think this genus can be traced from ninety-five million years ago to several modern species. The fossil should not remind me, but it does, of the silhouette flashes of atomic bodies recorded on walls of buildings now preserved in museums of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Different versions of photographs. You would think the big difference is how long it takes to record the image, but if there is good availability of the right minerals, fossilization can happen over a matter of weeks or even days. It’s the waiting that takes time—ninety-five million years between the loss and the rediscovery.
I think of Kara’s deformed body shut into a steel drawer in the undertaker’s basement, drained, then pumped full of unnatural liquids. Three days she spent there, periods of dark alternating with fluorescent lights, layers of makeup built up on her young face. Who can say what is more or less cruel to a body, or what helps or hurts the living. The spectacle of the made-up body, the funeral, the stones with letters carved into them. These practices are standard, default. Rows and rows of graves in the same yards. Most dead lying side by side with those they never knew in life, the order merely chronological, the graves rarely visited. I wish I had been given alternative choices. A light-stain in the shape of her body, captured milliseconds before it fell to ash. Or the remains of her soft and hard tissue coiled into rock. Some record for future ages to puzzle over the underdeveloped head, the twisted hands. To draw their own conclusions.
Estelia once drew me a picture of all of Ed’s mistresses, seven or eight women walking single-file up a hill. It was done in the style of that familiar evolutionary cartoon where, as they climb the hill, each individual develops more advanced adaptations. In this case, the woman at the bottom of the hill squirms on her belly without upright vertebrae, the second one crawls, and so on, until at the top of the hill is me, which is Estelia’s way of giving me a compliment, to say, in other words, that Ed is symbolically readying himself for me in the manner that one climbs a mountain, pulling himself up by lowly boulders in order to eventually reach the highest peak. On the day when Estelia handed it to me, I sat at my desk frustrated over some set of data, and although I recognized it as a gesture of friendship, I was annoyed. Both of us had a lot of work to do and no time to waste, and besides, the drawing itself seemed stupid, since a central tenet of my research, as Estelia very well knows, is that evolution is not linear. Less a steadily ascending hill, it is much closer to the pattern of a bush that grows out of the ground from several trunks, and from each trunk, several branches.
Most nights before Ed went out to meet the various women, we would have dinner together as a family. Kara would be strapped into her chair, two thick bands across her forehead and chin to hold up her head, a dribble of applesauce or processed carrots leaking a trail from her mouth. She did not always need a feeding tube, and for several years Ed and I had a routine. We sat at the table and talked peaceably while alternating turns feeding her and feeding ourselves.
Both of us preferred this method to having Kara’s nurse always in our company. During one meal, Kara must have been four years old, I remember Ed telling me about some conflict at work. It’s difficult to remember the details, but the nature of the difficulty was almost always the same. A subordinate who had to be shown his place on the ladder without any appearance of Ed being made to actively show him. I had figured out a working strategy for this conversation that often recurred. Rather than immediately suggest the course of action I thought best, given how likely it was to be rejected, I would be silent and let Ed talk. Then he listed all the available actions under consideration, and when he arrived at the same solution I had originally wanted to suggest—it never came up first, but it would always show its face eventually—I said, “That’s it. That’s what you should do.” And Ed would agree. Somewhere in the middle of this familiar process of conversation, when it was Ed’s turn to extend a spoon toward Kara’s mouth, I found that the spoon was instead veering in the direction of my own. He kept talking about his work problem as he inserted the spoon with the mashed plums between my lips, and I opened slightly, tasting the heartbreakingly sweet and sour fruit on my tongue.
“Ed,” I had to say, before he realized.
“Oh,” he said. “Sorry.”
During this time, after Ed went out and Kara fell asleep, I would spend the rest of my evenings exploring online. The soft analgesic glow of the computer screen beaming out at me in an otherwise dark room, me hunched over the mouse for neck-crunching hours. They say, and accurately, that no one knows you better than your search engine knows you. The sorts of terms I keyed into the bar at the top of my screen are not things I’d care to repeat here. It was nothing pornographic. I was never sexually shy or repressed in the least, so clandestine sexual content holds no interest for me. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t drawn to the sites I visited with something like perversion: the emotionally sentimental, the superstitious, the mystical—not the overtly religious. My objective was not to trade one straightjacket for another.
Sites that fit into these categories are in no short supply. Chatboards about cancer and blogs about MS, that kind of thing. It comforted me to see other minds splintering, too, under the stress of affliction, all the unreasonable turns their thinking would take, how logical it could seem. Many people believed they were in communication with other worlds—that of the dead or of another planet, another time. I understood. Or I thought I did. I thought they were trying to escape their suffering.
In any case, I got very invested in the dream logic of certain stories, and I was carried away by the currents of the narratives. It’s not so unusual, and happens all the time when we watch films, and if I stepped outside afterward to take out the trash, I would feel jarred by the open air of the real world. However, I restricted myself to observation, and no matter how involved I was in the story, I never contributed anything myself. Except once, in response to something I read about a year ago.
The author of the post had emigrated with his teenage daughter from Greece to the dry plains of Kansas, where his brother was already living and he was able to get part-time teaching in a college’s math department. But when they arrived, his daughter hated her classmates, and the middle-American landscape made her feel nauseous. She was contemplating going back to Greece on her own, although it would mean living with her grandparents, when her father convinced her to wait it out a little longer, at least to the end of the school year. She agreed, and then a month before school let out, she caught a staph infection and died.
This testimony, written months later, was the one that dragged me out of the basement:
My brother wants me to go to Wyoming to see the geysers, but my answer is why would I? I prefer to stay at home and do my work, but my brother, he goes to my closet and pulls out my suitcase. Pack! he tells me, so okay okay I do it. It is more than one day to drive there and at the park there is still more waiting for anything to happen. “The thing is dead,” I tell him, but he grabs my arm and makes me stay, two, two and half more hours with the pool of water at 350 Fahrenheit. Every one or two minutes there is a pop! The way a drop of water would fly up out of a very hot frying pan, nothing else. I am so mad at him for wasting my time and bringing me here, but then when the eruption finally begins...my god…I can feel my daughter with me again. I have a sure feeling that she has traveled as ocean water from Greece all the way back and under the earth to find the way back to me. She pushes up through all the layers of earth to get to me, and then as steam she tries to return to the same atmosphere. All this effort, and still there is no way for my world to knock contact with her world? How can it be?
I read this and already could not bear it, even before I scrolled, rushing, to the comment section at the bottom of the page. I knew what I would see there: unconditional affirmation of the belief that steam = daughter; embarrassing hoops jumped through to explain the logistics of how the teenager’s spirit started from Greece even though she died in Kansas. It was like those people who will weigh and tally in ounces and pounds each animal who piled onto the ship in order to prove the physics of Noah’s ark. Even the generic issuance of compassion and pity was inadequate to the point of insult. I tried to think of some more appropriate response and failed myself, concluding that it was not the stupidity of individuals but of the form itself that was stripping this man of his dignity. “Leonard,” I wrote instead. “Delete this immediately and write directly to me.” In uncharacteristic trust, I left my email address where anyone could have recorded it, had he not instantly erased the thread.
Compassion is a strangely narrow thing. At times I’ve thought of it as a chip I was missing, at other times, something terrifying that would overwhelm me if I allowed it any level of entry.
When I was in my twenties, a boyfriend who I might have ended up with told me that if he ever fathered a severely handicapped child he would take it somewhere and kill it. After a few minutes of being shocked, I thought to myself, yes, I can see how killing the child might be the ethical thing to do. This is exactly the kind of mind I have. Meaning it can be carried away.
Luckily, it can be carried away again, and again, and yet again. In the first ten months of her life, Kara carried it in the puppy folds of her skin. There was no boundary between us. I don’t want to think about a life in which I did not have those months to imagine her first as an extension of myself. In another world, people say. All I can do is remain grateful for that time I had. For the way the brain begins to imagine the pair of lips sucking at your breast as a second pair of its own lips. What difference is there, when you get down to it, between us and amoeba that reproduce by breaking in half? I am grateful that by the time the severity of Kara’s condition was understood—by the time I understood how different her life would be from my own—it was too late to detach myself. I already loved her as I love myself.
Estelia and I do our paperwork in front of Pia’s tank. The lab does not name all the animals. We do not, for example, bother with the mice. Estelia thinks it is stupid, even, to name the animals that have individual personalities—the monkeys, the octopuses. She thinks it’s just like naming hurricanes: it shows how incapable humans are of understanding anything in terms other than their own.
“Pia probably has a name for you, too,” I say, so enamored with her intelligence that I forget myself, like a soldier lifting his arms and letting flash an inch of tender belly out of the armor.
“Then I don’t want to know what she calls you,” Estelia says with a wicked grin.
She would not miss a chance to poke me, given that they come around so rarely. I don’t mind. Estelia is teasing me because Pia has started to single me out in a rude way. Every time I open the tank, she shoots a jet of saltwater into my face. If Estelia or one of the other scientists show their faces above her tank, she only watches them calmly. Such stories are common in labs with octopuses. It’s well-documented that they can differentiate from, and also form preferences for and aversions to, humans they interact with. Knowing this, I should be offended that Pia dislikes me when I’m so fond of her, but instead I’m flattered. Somehow the abuse from Pia feels like the kind we suffer from those who love us most, as if during moments of her frustration, I am the only one in the lab—not Estelia, not Peter, or anyone else—who she trusts enough to lash out at.
From the time that Kara was three, I took her to the library most Saturday mornings. She spoke no words at all by then, but in my experience, and her doctor agreed, she understood most if not all of what was said to her, and we often checked out the maximum number of books. One Saturday, I had a stack of books that was too big for me. We were in the hallway outside of our apartment, seven-year-old Kara looking accusatory in her stroller as she waited (patiently, because she had no choice but to be patient) for me to lock the door behind us. Struggling, I dropped the whole stack of books. Other details of the morning must have previously frustrated me, and in response, I screamed, my voice echoing explosively through the five floors of the building, since we were close to where the winding staircase opens up all the way from top to bottom. “Why” is what I screamed, although I tried to add a second syllable onto the end to disguise the hurtful word I had chosen, so it ended up sounding more like “wide,” which instead made no sense, and feeling stupid made me even angrier. I bent down and picked up the book Kara had enjoyed the most that week, a story about a princess tracked down by her prince with the help of magic, which I had been made to read over and over again. Seeing the book in the hallway, I became electrically charged with judgments about my daughter’s taste, wondering whether I would even like her personality if she was able to make it known to me through speech. I took her favorite book and, while looking her in the eyes, chucked it down the middle of the stairwell so it fell three stories. I expected her to be upset, since it was my explicit intention to make her upset, but instead she was laughing at me. With her eyes she indicated another book on the ground. It was the childish retelling of Persephone’s marriage in Hades that I had pushed on her every time she requested an additional reading of the princess book. She meant I should throw that one down the stairwell next, so I did, and I felt we both understood what we were doing: acting out a mother-daughter rivalry that could not be serious as long as I had to play both opposing roles. Kara showed me in her eyes that she understood this, and I showed her in my eyes. This kind of mind-reading is undeniably an ability that humans have. Sometimes our interpretations are more accurate than other times, but that is also the case when we interpret each other’s words.
“If Ed was an octopus,” Estelia says. “What style of mating would he engage?”
Octopus mating could mean violent, sixteen-arm tangles resulting in strangulation of the male. As a result, long-armed males sometimes opted instead for the less risky sneak-attack. They reached around a corner of reef to deposit sperm into the female’s mantle.
“Pass,” I say.
“Better question,” says Estelia, raising her eyebrows. “Which kind of suitor would you more likely strangle?”
I shake my head at her, disbelieving. I don’t understand how she could possibly know. She is an intuitive one, especially when it comes to sex. All I’ve said is that I’m taking a long weekend, that I would be back on Monday. I go back to my clipboard.
It is my turn to do inventory, as it has been every fourth week for almost the last twenty years, each time dragging my pen down the same form, placing the check marks in the same boxes. It is by now an automatic enough process that it sends my thoughts up to the sky like flares. The hand with the pen keeps moving down the page making competent check marks while my imagination wanders off. Today it is Ed the strangled octopus floating up lifeless toward the surface, his packet of sperm a foreign object in the pocket of my siphon; I reach inside the pocket of my dress to finger the binder clip I had earlier deposited there. I go back to checking boxes, but soon after there is Ed again, his cavity filling up with water, his size exaggerated and tentacles spread, changing colors like a siren of panicked iridescence. There was a time when it was thought that octopuses had a language of color, perhaps as complicated as our own language, with an equivalence in syntax and vocabulary, the whole system. But that was before we knew they are colorblind. What a waste, everyone thought. More recently, though, another pendulum swing: some ambiguous theories about how octopuses might perceive color after all, just in alien ways we can’t explain in our limited human terms. All those dedicated years of study just to meet that same brick wall. Octopus Ed still flashing, trying to tell me something. Maybe he wants to tip me off about the irregular mutation of the soon-to-be fertilized egg he just slipped inside of me, or more likely he’s just pissed off about his murder by strangulation. His colors are beautifully expressed, but it’s all for nothing, because I can’t understand anything, not even from inside my own dream.
I stay late at the lab because I don’t want to go home and risk seeing Ed before I leave town. Incidentally, I will also leave the higher ground that has insulated me in my marriage. Maybe I am moralistic, but being better than Ed has felt protective. It turns out there are more important things than protecting oneself. Or trying to.
I thought, If I could just find the right words. But I have piled them up here and piled them up; meanwhile I still haven’t said what I need to, and I begin to think it is the words themselves that cause the problem. I hope when I return on Monday that things will be different. But who knows if I will be able to communicate with Leonard or not.
When I picture myself with him, we sit shoulder to shoulder looking out there, into the middle distance where words detach from their meaning, and instead of the English that we use with everyone else, we speak to each other in a new language, a negative language. We speak of the sand, for instance, and the backdrop of the mountains and the foreground of the bubbling heat, but no one is ever obliged to say, I believe my daughter is a geyser. Instead we leave glowing apophatic blanks wherever we most need to be understood. And we are.
I get Pia’s attention when I remove my wedding ring in front of her tank, flashing it at her a few times conspiratorially when I take it off. She picks up its glimmer and watches carefully. She watches the ring, and as I turn it for her, she watches me. I leave it on the table in front of her tank so she can attend to it while I’m gone.
LAUREN GENOVESI is a writer who lives and teaches in Philadelphia. Her work has been published in Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Coast, Poet Lore, American Literary Review, and other places. She is at work on a story collection called Siblinghood and a series of essays about substance use disorder.