“Isadora’s father had been an acting teacher, so at first it had been hard to distinguish his changes from performance.”
The text message had said only Want 2 mt @ S.bucks? B gd to tlk. But it had the air of urgency, and now Maddie’s stride confirmed it. She didn’t look at any of the kids playing with blocks and dolls in the preschool section of the coffee shop, just beelined for Isadora.
They hugged, and Maddie’s hard belly was between them.
“How are you feeling?” Isadora asked.
“Oh, you know.” She gave a helpless half-laugh. “My back is killing me, but my preeclampsia risk is down to nine percent.”
Maddie took her phone from the pocket of her billowy sari pants and slid it across a tube of fruit puree. “Twenty-four grams of sugar. I don’t care how natural it is, that’s ridiculous.”
In college, they’d binged on donuts while scrolling through their respective textbooks. Medical billing for Isadora, Mandarin for Maddie. We’re genetically fucked—that was their battle cry—so we might as well enjoy life while we can.
The barista, an indigenous-looking teenager in a black newsboy cap, said, “Will that be all?”
“I guess I’ll get one of the new reusable cups too,” Maddie said.
“Mine finally biodegraded.”
“I have one of the old ones, the real metal ones?” the barista said. “It’s great; it was my mom’s from a long time ago.”
Isadora ordered a grande almond fandango, as she did on days when she was feeling more fucked by her Huntington’s risk than saved by her good arteries, which were as clear as a magnetic freeway.
“Sixteen-oh-five,” said the barista.
Isadora followed Maddie to her seat near the playground. The preschool teacher, who wore the same black and green uniform as the barista but without the apron, was lining the kids up to go inside for their afternoon lesson. A girl in a peppermint-striped dress was having a tantrum.
The phone on the table next to them vibrated, and its owner—a man with the same straight black hair as the tantrum-thrower—closed his laptop and got up slowly. He put on a cheery voice when he got closer to the preschool section.
“What’s the matter, Beverly-everly?”
Once the girl had been appeased, the kids filed into the Little Beans room and their parents, glad not to be Beverly’s dad, returned to the white glow of their laptops.
“Are you going to send your baby here, or to a charter preschool?” Isadora asked, although she didn’t really care.
“I’m like the last person in America who can’t work remotely, so I guess I’ll go charter,” Maddie said with a sigh. She was a freelance simultaneous interpreter whose work took her to skyscrapers one day, squat government buildings the next.
“But doesn’t Xanthi do a lot of her counseling sessions on Facetime?” Isadora said.
“Yeah, but there’s this push to do more in-person sessions, ever since that study about the power of touch came out. Are you feeling okay?”
In the years since college, her accusations about the early signs of Huntington’s had shifted from sarcastic and tacky to gentle and concerned. The latter was far worse.
“It’s all the baby stuff,” Isadora said. “Of course it’s going to splice me a little.”
Maddie put her hand over Isadora’s. “Of course. I’m sorry. All pregnant women should have to live on an island together until their babies are a year old. We’re the worst.”
Isadora and Maddie used to be a we together—the genetic underclass—but now she was a member of the baby-wearing, milk-buying, nursery-painting class. Her dimpled cheeks were as round as they’d been in her twenties. She wore her hair short, half green, half blonde, in the tradition of punk moms. Her seven-month belly dwarfed her still-small breasts.
She’d gotten them—the breasts—their third year of college. She’d loved her old ones. They were a perfect C-cup, symmetrical, pink-nippled. The night before surgery, they’d swallowed blue ovals of Enerloft with shots of tequila, and hit upon the idea of Maddie getting her nipples pierced. If she had no feeling in them, it wouldn’t hurt. And fake tits didn’t require a bra. So there was an upside after all.
Now Isadora could see the small hoops pressed against Maddie’s black maternity top.
“Xanthi ran the baby’s numbers,” Maddie said quietly. “She’s positive for BRCA-2.”
Isadora nodded solemnly. You had to react just right—not too devastated, not too dismissive. You couldn’t say, I’m so sorry. You couldn’t say, It’s no big deal, just do gene modification.
“Want to see a picture?” Maddie smiled with half her mouth. She held up her phone to show the projection the computer program had generated. It showed a six-month-old baby with caramel skin and fuzzy reddish hair. She had Maddie’s dimples, but her round eyes must have belonged to her donor. “I mean, these things are notoriously unreliable, but it’s fun. I think she looks like Xanthi, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess she does.”
“It’ll be a nice little fuck-you to all those snobs who could afford to merge their eggs.”
Maddie and Xanthi had done things the old-fashioned way, sperm and egg and tube and vagina. Xanthi, despite a family history of diabetes and Alzheimer’s, had gotten all the right genes herself, but after a half dozen tries, she hadn’t gotten pregnant. So they’d rolled the dice and gambled on Maddie, who was forty and BRCA-2 positive.
“Iz, I don’t know if we can afford gene mod,” Maddie said. “Did I do something really reckless? Getting pregnant when I knew the risk? What if her only option is surgery?”
“You survived it.”
“But the ethics were different back then. They didn’t even do prenatal genetic testing unless there was something specific they suspected. I’m going into this with my eyes open. I have responsibilities.”
Isadora’s father had been an acting teacher, so at first it had been hard to distinguish his changes from performance. She’d been ten when the first worm of doubt inserted itself in her brain; later she would think doubt was like a cancer, a thing that could copy itself and mutate.
“Iz-kid, we’ve got to get ready,” her father said. He stood in the doorway, the afternoon heat slamming into the air-conditioned coolness of their apartment.
“Get ready for what?” She was at the dining room table, feet folded beneath her, IMing with her classmates about their extinct-animals project. Isadora had fallen in love with the Samoan little dodo bird, a pigeon-like cousin of its long-extinct ancestor. It was gray with rusty wings and small black eyes. Something about its plainness and predestined doom spoke to her.
“The big contest,” her father said. His upper lip was sweaty. His forehead glistened. “Knitting! Iz-kid, you know how to knit, right?”
His tone was so eager, so alarmed, that she felt guilty telling him no, of course she didn’t know how to knit.
“It’s in fourteen days,” he said, pulling a kitchen chair across the linoleum with a metallic screech.
My dad wants 2 tell me something. Talk 2 u later, she typed.
“Here’s what I’m thinking,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “We’ll make a spacesuit, like astronauts used to wear. A knitted spacesuit—what’s not to love?”
“What’s an astronaut again?”
“Back when they sent manned missions into space,” he said. He seemed anxious to get to the next part. “You make the body, and I’ll do some thinking about the helmet. That’ll be tricky.”
By the time her mother got home from work, Isadora had set aside the little dodo and was sketching spacesuits on her tablet.
“Mom, Dad and I are gonna win the knitting contest!” she said.
Over the years the moment had acquired a weight it couldn’t possibly have had at the time, like an extinct creature who’d been tanned and stuffed and posed . Her father: his leg bouncing beneath the table, his bent head of spiky black hair, his nervous excitement. Her own excitement, her purple hand-me-down overalls. And then her mother’s tired, confused frown—she’d had a long day at the high school where she subbed English, she didn’t really care what knitting contest.
Even back then, her parents were members of a dying breed: middle-class kids who’d majored in liberal arts. Work was sporadic. They raised their only child in a Valley apartment half the size of the homes they’d grown up in. Her father eventually died without paying off his student loans.
A few confusing exchanges later, her mother did ask, “What knitting contest?”
Her dad now looked less like an inventor seized by inspiration than one of the homeless people she passed on the way to school.
“The—you know—” But her dad was unable to finish. He frowned, as if searching some internal internet.
There was no knitting contest. There was no spacesuit. As time passed, it all sunk into the realm of legend, along with astronauts themselves. Instead, there were trips to a neurologist. There were sobbing fits and wild outbursts. When her father had them, they were symptoms. When her mother had them, they were adjustment disorder, DSM VI code 309.9. When Isadora had them, it was time for bed. There were white pills and yellow pills that didn’t help. There was the shuffle and slur, as if he were perpetually drunk. Sometimes her mother was actually drunk.
Things did not get better. Her father’s moods swung further. His brain scans grew increasingly splotchy. Every test led to another test, and none of them led to a cure. It was like that book, If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. If you give a man a test, he will want a test for his daughter. If his daughter’s test shows the same coils of DNA, she will need to make a decision about her own child, which is for it not to exist.
Isadora met Domingo Allen when she was twenty-eight, out of her collegiate fuck-it phase and at the beginning of her cure-it phase. It was too late for her father, but research on the co-enzyme Q10 looked promising. She ate spinach, nuts, berries and fish, and not much else. She’d discovered the adulthood miracle of self-determination: her own small apartment, membership at local museums, a RisFit that blinked encouragement at her whenever she walked up a hill or hit her omega-3 goal for the day.
Domingo approached her at a Highland Park fish shop. Her RisFit was blinking red, which it usually only did if she ate processed meat or walked by a Zone 8 site. Was there a radon leak? Was she doing something wrong?
“I think it’s malfunctioning,” a voice said.
She turned away from the case of scales and ice. The voice, which was smooth and not quite deep, belonged to a short man with a carpet of dark stubble covering a cleft chin. He wasn’t quite handsome, but he looked like he could play the pothead brother of someone handsome.
“Can I see?” He smiled, showing clean but crooked teeth. “Did you think there was a nuclear meltdown at the soap store next door?”
He moved a finger around the face of the device, navigating the control panel with the deftness of a pianist.
“That’s so nice of you to help,” she said.
“I haven’t fixed it yet.”
In the end, he didn’t. He was a low-level IT guy for a personalized ad agency—good at tinkering but at a loss when the problem with a thing lay in its bones. That day in the fish store, she touched her phone to his and slid her thumb over the “enable” button.
Her settings were such that her phone didn’t transmit her genetics, just her number, her profile and her recent views and listens. The gene-share movement was just beginning then. But there were people who wore their risks—cancer, arthritis, aneurysm—with defiant pride. Maddie was one of them. Those people didn’t have Huntington’s printed on every cell, though.
On their first real date, Isadora referenced a band that occupied several spots on her profile, and Domingo gave her a blank look.
“The Standard Deviations,” she said. “I saw them last week at a roof party? Sorry, I don’t mean to be one of those people who expects you to know everything about me—”
But who didn’t scan their date’s profile? Who bothered to pretend anymore?
“Oh, sure, they show up in my feed sometimes. I just—I’m a nerd. I like the element of surprise, the whole in-person thing.”
He looked at her with his dark eyes, crinkles at the corners, and she believed he was looking at her, not the facts of her, and it felt so good she wanted to cry.
“They’re sort of a combination of braz-hop and old-school ska with a garage-y sound.”
“You Latinish?” he asked.
“I get that a lot. It’s the eyes. But no, my mom’s Euro; my dad was Chinese.”
The was nudged the door open. But Domingo didn’t ask. Then, and for years, she was grateful for his relentless attachment to the moment. Even when he did learn about her Huntington’s gene, he shrugged it off—he wasn’t one of those conspiracy theorists who believed genetic testing was the new opiate of the masses, he just didn’t quite believe in the future.
Finding such a beautiful, non-defective person who was capable of loving her seemed like proof that the co-enzymes were working. That things would work in general.
But then came the study that showed the enzymes only delayed onset of the disease by a few years at best. Then came a debate—followed only in the small circle of people who cared about Huntington’s in the first place—over whether Huntington’s should even be screened for. If there was nothing you could do, wasn’t it best not to know?
But I already know, Isadora wanted to scream. What about me?
A few years into their marriage, she and Domingo rented a pedal boat and made their way around the artificial lake at the Sepulveda Recreation Center. The water was oily and studded with white down, as if a body had been tarred and feathered and then sunk to destroy the evidence. Across the pond, a man and a woman about their age pedaled with a three-year-old between them. She wore a white sun bonnet that made her head look like a flower, and kicked her short legs against the side of the plastic bench.
“Do you ever think about it?” Domingo asked.
She did. “No. Of course not. I put that idea to bed long ago. It would be totally irresponsible. Back when my parents had me, all they tested for was Down Syndrome.”
“So do you wish you’d never been born? That they’d tested and aborted you?”
“No, of course not,” she sighed. “I thought you were okay not having kids.”
“I am. I like our life. It’s just, you know, we could think about it—”
“No. I can’t think about it. If I let myself go there—”
It was too late, though. She was going there. Something cracked open and a thin beam of hope leaked out. Domingo would be such a good dad, patient and playful. She would have to be the bad cop, but she wouldn’t mind.
Suddenly she heard a loud plastic thump. Water splashed her calves as her head hit the metal pole supporting the canopy over their heads.
There was a pause, then a pulsing red pain. She yelped and clamped her hand to her skull, surprised to feel tears welling.
“What the hell?” Domingo said. They turned around and saw two teenage boys laughing and pedaling away.
“Did you fucking do that on purpose, cabrones?” he yelled after them.
“They didn’t,” Isadora said, rubbing her head. “They’re just young and goofy.”
“Why are you defending them? Look what they did. ”
The downside of Domingo’s permanent residence in the now was his moodiness. If there was only the moment, a bad moment was eternal. Moodiness was a symptom of Huntington’s too, and though Isadora had long ago stopped worrying that Domingo was spiraling into anything other than his own personality, she wondered about the future—when they would both lose their shit over incorrect coffee orders and malfunctioning cars.
In the days after the boat incident, Isadora was unusually moody. Someone broke into her car, and it sent her on a two-day crying jag. When she studied billing codes at work, the numbers jumped around on the page. She had trouble sleeping. She knew what was happening.
As it turned out, she did not: Her fog did not denote early Huntington’s but rather an old-fashioned concussion. The PA who saw her told her to take ibuprofen and avoid strenuous activity for a month. She was ecstatic, as only the doomed could be, when they got a chance to mingle with the run-of-the-mill.
But Isadora wasn’t sure what constituted “strenuous activity,” and over the ensuing weeks, she stopped hiking and taking ballet-boxing classes at the gym and driving faster than ninety-five kilometers an hour. Once, walking to the corner store, she slipped on a smear of wet grass and found herself unable to make it the rest of the way down the block. She sat on the curb and wished she had a cigarette, though she hadn’t smoked since college.
By the time she made it to the store, she couldn’t remember what she’d come for. So she bought an e-cig, even though the artificial nicotine increased her risk of myeloma by eight percent. She vaped one and studied the quiet stream of cars on Van Nuys Boulevard and knew this was the start of something.
For Maddie and Xanthi’s baby shower, Domingo ordered a Baby RisFit 3.0—the most expensive thing on their registry—and scanned his mother’s favorite recipes to upload into the cloud they shared with Maddie and Xanthi. Seeing Corie Andrade Allen’s recipes for pico de gallo and vegetarian pozole there on the screen, written in her loopy handwriting and dusted with flour, made Isadora’s heart clench.
They parked at the Sepulveda Recreation Center, where the pavement was already wavy with heat. Maddie greeted them in all her fat sweaty glory, as if climate were a state of mind. Yellow balloons hovered above the picnic tables. There was something a little sad about them, and Isadora missed the bigger, non-biodegradable balloons of her childhood. The ones that choked sea turtles with happy birthday messages.
A couple of Maddie’s translator friends were chatting in Spanish, but switched to English when they saw Isadora and Domingo. Why did they assume she wasn’t one of them?
“I’m Ru. We’ve met before.” The older of the two women, who had a pile of Frida Kahlo hair and a filigreed tattoo on her cheekbone, extended her hand. As if Isadora would have most certainly forgotten her, as if she were crumbling toward her diagnosis.
“I remember you,” Isadora said. “You work with Maddie, right?”
“Now and then. The freelance vida, right?” She laughed. “How gorgeous is Maddie? And Xanthi’s glowing too, I swear.”
“I can’t remember if you met my esposo, Domingo,” Isadora said.
“Mucho gusto,” said Ru. “And that’s my daughter over there, making sure Beth’s little boy doesn’t fall off the play-gym.”
The sun-whitened playground a hundred meters from them was nearly empty. Its only occupants were a pre-teen girl who looked like Ru but with a shaved head, and a chubby toddler in a vaguely nautical cap. The girl was twelve or thirteen, and Ru was in her mid-thirties. So Ru would have been one of those girls who’d heeded the studies about young pregnancies, and chosen low birth defect rates and a lowered risk of breast cancer over financial stability. Plenty of women got pregnant at twenty-five, put the fetus on a shelf, and carried it at forty—but not as many as you’d think. A lot planned to do that, then got swept up in the hormones and the excitement and had their babies young.
“I wish she’d grow her hair. It would be so pretty,” Ru said. “But with this kind of heat, who can blame kids for wanting to shear themselves like little cabritas?”
More and more teenagers were shaving their heads. It was cool and easy and cheap, but they looked to Isadora—and to their mothers, no doubt—like they were lining up for concentration camp showers.
Beth, mother of the toddler, was helping Maddie scrub a recently bird-bombed table cloth. Ru lowered her voice. “Did you hear about Woody? The baby?”
“Maddie’s baby? I thought she was having a girl.”
“Beth’s baby,” Ru said. “The one on the play-gym.”
More people were arriving, carrying gifts and cards and cupcakes, wiping sweat from their foreheads, giving their phones a last look before tossing them into the box Xanthi had placed next to the drink cooler.
“She was one of those all-natural girls. I was so young when I had Candle, I didn’t even think about not getting all the usual tests, you know? I didn’t know I had choices.”
You don’t, Isadora wanted to say. And when you’re older still, you’ll come back around to knowing it.
“But now I’m glad, because we could do early intervention for her ADHD. But I don’t fault Beth. She made the best decision she could with the info she had.”
Domingo had been half paying attention, but now he said, “Wait, what decision? What happened?”
“Tay-Sachs,” Ru said. She hissed the word, and it sounded like a toxic gas. “You almost never hear about it anymore, because anyone who tested would abort. It’s a no-brainer. But it’s one of those awful Ashkenazi diseases. Woody’s is late-onset, but in a year, his little muscles will go weak and he’ll have trouble turning his head, even swallowing. We’re all trying to be there for Beth, but what can you do?”
Beth was chatting with Maddie’s mom while keeping one eye on the play-gym. Suddenly she wasn’t just a mother making sure her kid didn’t scrape his knee. She was in the camp of Isadora, the camp of people watching the clock run out, wondering, Is this the last time he climbs that ladder?
“That’s terrible,” Domingo said to Ru, and though his voice was sincere, he would have expressed the same condolences when hearing about a long line at the Apple Store.
Quietly, Isadora retrieved her phone from the box and looked up Tay-Sachs. Rare autosomal recessive genetic disorder, said her feed. Common among Ashkenazi Jews, French Canadians and Cajuns in Louisiana. Beth was not Jewish that Isadora knew of. No one was just one thing anymore. She had auburn hair that frizzed at her hairline, skin the color of faded stucco, hazel eyes, a few extra kilos around her stomach and hips. She could have been anything. She could have been any one of them.
Dysarthria, dysphagia, ataxia, spasticity. Woody could look forward to symptoms he’d never learn to pronounce, because of the dysarthria. The words he had would leave him one by one, the way they’d left Isadora’s father. Or no, not one by one, not always—sometimes they’d seemed to depart in clusters, like party guests who realized all at once how late it was getting.
“Isadora, come on,” Domingo said. She glanced up to see her husband, looking tired, looking like he knew what this was all about.
“I know I should never google—” she began.
“Just put your phone away. That box is there for a reason. Either be here or don’t be here.”
She tossed her phone back into the box with a plastic clatter.
There was lemon-mint cake and a half-hearted water balloon toss. Despite huddling under the shade trees, everyone was red-cheeked and sweating.
“—and if she has to get her tits done in college, que será, será,” Maddie’s mom was saying to Domingo. A glass of champagne swayed in her hand. “It made Maddie stronger, if you ask me. And although I’d never wish cancer on anyone, I’ve survived for forty years now! All we had back then was surgery and chemotherapy, and I’m still here.”
Isadora had always liked Alisha Sternkins. Like Maddie, she had a throaty voice and a tone that implied she was confiding in you. She’d worn her hair as short as Ru’s daughter since Isadora had known her, as if she were perpetually just out of chemo. She managed to seem both warm and battle-scarred.
“Isadora! It’s so good to see you!” She kissed Isadora’s cheek. She smelled like lemongrass and sun.
“It’s been a long time.”
“This is bullshit, this idea of getting together only when someone has a baby or gets married or dies. We need to have dinner, Isadora, like you and Maddie and I did when the two of you were in college.”
“But now it’ll be us and Domingo and Xanthi and the baby, too,” Isadora said. She said it to try out the truth of it: Worlds expanded. Eventually they shrank. At forty, the universe moved around them in both directions like a torrent.
“I think that would be fun,” Domingo said.
“I didn’t say it wouldn’t.”
Alisha Sternkins’ gaze darted back and forth between the two of them. “No one would blame you if you two wanted to have one.”
“She’d blame herself,” Domingo said. His voice was sour and resigned. “She’d rather be a fulltime baby shower martyr.”
How convenient for him, she thought, to place the entire weight of life’s injustice on her. She could be the buffer between him and truth; she could filter out all the grit and poison and give him a glass of pure cold water. Then he could look at her mineral-scarred life in disgust, and discard her.
“Look,” said Alisha Sternkins in her between-you-and-me voice, “everyone’s a baby shower martyr. Let’s be honest; they’re awful. If you ask me, you should get a party when you get cancer or lose your job.”
Domingo laughed politely and said, “I’m going to—” and trailed off, not bothering to come up with an excuse.
This is the person I’m so thankful for? Isadora wondered. “I guess I should go see what he’s being so crabby about,” she said.
She found him by the beer cooler. He had a forty-two percent tendency toward alcoholism, but he’d never fallen down that hole. He was content to abandon half-full beer bottles on picnic tables and windowsills; his real addiction was the flow of the party, and he would follow it anywhere.
“I guess Maddie and Xanthi are going to do the name announcement soon,” she said.
“Mm,” Domingo said. “And I guess you want to get out of here before that happens.”
“I didn’t say that. What are you talking about?”
“You’re just so tortured by other people’s happiness. And god forbid I’m happy for them because it would be some kind of betrayal of your beautiful, tragic fate.”
There were times when this assessment would have been dead-on. The same clued-in intimacy that had enabled Domingo to read her like a lit phone on their first date had since backfired on her hundreds of times—there was no such thing as putting on a brave face around him.
But she also knew this was not one of those moments. She wasn’t exactly happy for Maddie and Xanthi, but their good fortune hadn’t torn her down today. She was here, overheated and neutral, a cranberry julep in her hand. It was a triumph—this accepting of the truth and showing up anyway—and Domingo didn’t see it at all.
Her face hot with tears, Isadora made her way through the blurry park to the play-gym. Candle sat on a faded sheet playing with her phone while Woody slept next to her. The hat shaded his eyes, but his pink lips and cheeks were baby-perfect, that smoothness that hadn’t yet succumbed to the world’s ruin. Woody’s ruin, of course, would come from the world inside him. Didn’t his limbs look a little floppy? Wasn’t his neck at a funny angle?
Candle looked up, a question in her eyes.
“Hi. I’m Isadora. I’m friends with Maddie and your mom.”
“Oh. Buenas,” she said.
“She sent me over to see if you wanted a break from babysitting.” The lie rolled out easily.
“Oh, god, yes. Woody’s cute, but kids are tiring,” Candle said.
“My mom told me he has Tay-Sachs.”
Isadora remembered her own middle-school fascination with dirty jokes and torture-porn movies illegally pilfered from someone’s dad’s tablet. The boring known plus the terrible-wonderful unknown. And then her father had gotten diagnosed, and she’d gotten a crash course in the terrible known.
“So I guess he’s going to die young?” Candle whispered.
“I guess.” Isadora said. She would not be the one to say, No one really knows, the way so many people had said to her about her father. Because the truth was, people had known. Any of us could get hit by a demagnetized car, people liked to say. As if the possible were the same as the probable.
“That’s so sad,” Candle said. “I’ve been watching him since he was, like, a baby baby. I sort of thought when he got older I’d get to take him places by myself and teach him to ride a bike and stuff.”
“That’s nice. He has a good friend in you.”
“At least Beth is pregnant again,” Candle said. “Maybe that’ll make her less sad.”
“Beth is pregnant?” So that explained the thickness around her stomach and hips. Isadora usually picked up on such things.
“Maybe that was supposed to be a secret; I don’t know,” Candle said. “Ima get some cake, okay?”
Isadora sat with the sleeping Woody. From a distance, she watched her husband and friends perform the rituals of Party. The opening of the few non-digital gifts. The gentle bouncing between conversations. They all seemed small and duped, smug in the knowledge that they got to die a little later than other people, which for them was the same as not ever dying. That’s what they believed today, with their big squares of white cake.
And, also, they seemed impossibly, painfully lucky. Isadora didn’t envy their health so much as their ignorance. She envied her parents, who’d had the good luck to be blindsided by their diagnoses. (Her mother was alive and nearly well, just a little pre-osteoporosis and a couple of skin cancers that had been zapped early.)
Woody opened his eyes and took in his surroundings—the trees, the brim of his hat, Isadora staring down at him—and it was hard to know if he was studious or having trouble maintaining muscle control. But they were defiant and serious brown eyes, and Isadora fell in love with them.
She hooked her hands to his and pulled him to a sitting position. “Hi, Woody. How’s it going?”
He said something indistinguishable. A bubble formed on his lips and popped. He reached for her hair, and she let him have a handful. She smiled when he gave it a solid tug. He wasn’t weak yet.
“It’s hot out here, isn’t it? Should we go find some shade?” She lifted him, shaking off the sheet and bits of ground-mulch. It would be easy enough to deliver Woody back to Beth’s arms, but she didn’t do that. When she looked at Beth in the distance, she saw only a prescreened fetus nestled beneath Beth’s billowy shirt.
Woody was heavy in her arms; she imagined his limbs as full of something denser than muscle and bone—something like mercury, silver and poisonous. His head lolled and then righted itself.
His fate was worse than hers, worse than her nonexistent child’s. But his ignorance was pure.
Once her dad had taken her to an improv class he taught, where he warmed up wannabe actors by asking them to pretend their bodies were full of various substances: straw, pudding, ants. The adults walked lightly or heavily or itchily, following Erick Wu’s increasingly absurd direction the way they would have followed furniture assembly instructions. Isadora had been only seven or eight at the time, too young for self-consciousness. So while others thought about trying to let go, she thought about ants, tunneling through her intestines, lugging their small dead up her spine. She grew taller, jerkier. Everyone commented on how great she was. For a second she’d known why people loved acting. The thrill of abandon, the lack of responsibility to a character who existed only in the present.
She walked away from the baby shower. Woody bounced in her arms and pointed to things. A rusty shopping cart. One of the cat-sized red squirrels the city was always unsuccessfully trying to eradicate.
“People call them ‘ugly bunnies,’ but I think they’re cute,” Isadora whispered beneath the eaves of his hat. “I think they’re survivors. They must be genetically superior to either of us, think about that.”
“Gubba,” he said.
“Gubba,” she nodded. “But we’re pretty cute too, don’t you think?”
They walked down a wide boulevard flanked by big apartment buildings that had once boasted multiple bathrooms, swimming pools and parking garages. When Isadora was growing up, this part of the Valley was home to aspiring actors and immigrants who wanted to keep their kids out of gangs. Now the gangs were pressing down, and all the apartments had been subdivided.
There was a strip mall on the corner—home to a medical clinic with a long line out front, a liquor store and an old Starbucks. There was no preschool at this one, no playground, no bank, no art gallery. Just coffee and a few dingy workstations. But it would be cool inside, and that was all Isadora wanted.
She bought herself an iced coffee and a tube of expensive mango puree for Woody. Why shouldn’t he have the good stuff?
Beth was probably worried by now. Or maybe she wasn’t. What if she secretly hoped he’d been hit by a car or kidnapped? Some quick fate that would save her from watching his demise. Did parents wish for such things? Or would they suffer the worst—which was to watch their children suffer—to give them another few centimeters of life?
Woody handled his fruit tube clumsily, smearing orange puree all over his face. Again, Isadora didn’t know if this was what two-year-olds did, or what Tay-Sachs kids did. She thought about looking up the stages of deterioration, but her phone-purse was light and empty. Even at this old Starbucks, there were a half-dozen screens she could consult if she wanted to, but she let her sweaty palm rest against her phone-purse. She felt its embroidered edges, its delicious lack of information.
“No one knows we’re here, and we don’t know anything,” she said to Woody.
“No no no woah,” he said.
“Exactly.” She wanted to howl with him, a long nooooo like wolves had made, back when there were wolves. “I should take you back to your mom.”
“Nonono,” he said.
The phrase “no-no boy” appeared in her head, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember what it applied to. Something a hundred years old. Huntington’s eroded your memory, of course. It made you behave erratically. Knit a spacesuit. Kidnap a child. She touched his cheek and sucked the smudge of mango off her fingertip.
Art by Yvonne Martinez.