By Emily Ansara Baines
She bit her cheek as she approached the checkout clerk with the curly red hair and large lips that couldn't be Botoxed, not on a grocery store salary. The clerk was the only reason Astrid went to this market, with its inconveniently narrow parking spaces and its consistently poor selection of produce. Astrid kept adding packages of Tropical Twist gum in one long orange procession, one small rectangle after another, just to elongate their meeting. The man in line behind her grunted with each addition. Eventually the clerk—Patty, according to her nametag—informed her that if she really wanted all that gum she should take the whole display box and be done with it. No, Astrid did not own a California Super Saver Card. She left the store with thirty dollars worth of gum, one bottle of water, and a rather hefty concern for her own mental stability.
As a child, Astrid’s nanny would read her this picture book—Are You My Mother?—about a baby bird searching for his actual mom. Astrid felt a special kinship with the tiny bird. She, too, met every new female in her life with the quiet assumption that she could possibly be her mother. On Astrid’s insistence, Marta would read it over and over again, using special voices for each potential parent. One night Astrid’s mother came home early and, horrified, slapped the book out of Marta's hand. Marta didn't know that Astrid was adopted. Marta certainly did not know that Astrid knew it. Marta left at the end of the week.
The more Astrid stared, the more she thought about sex. She imagined kissing Patty the store clerk’s pillowy lips, their buoyancy a cushion for the thin, hard line of her own mouth. Often, lying in bed, waiting for sleep, she squeezed her own dry nipples in sheer boredom. Her left breast was slower to react than her right. She assumed this had something to do with being right-handed. What would it feel like to squeeze another woman's? Tiny and pink nipples, just waiting to be pinched. The men she slept with certainly did not like it, but she had a feeling a woman would.
The neighborhood librarian purposely sporting cat glasses to frame her large eyes and inordinately long lashes, her hair up in a messy bun. Sexy Librarian was a mockery of all normal women who loved to read. Just last week Astrid had regarded the Sexy Librarian and her cat glasses in silent disdain. After all, Astrid couldn’t be the only one aware of the sudden influx of gentlemen readers at the library. Before, the vestibules had been filled with truant teens and well-mannered homeless seeking shelter from their inhospitable worlds. Then the Sexy Librarian arrived, and a new kind of riffraff congregated, invading Astrid’s sanctuary with their leers. Boys with hipster glasses and acne, men with loosened neckties and removed wedding rings, all sought the soft smile and kindly book recommendations of the Sexy Librarian. How Astrid had hated their oafish attempts at flirting, their obvious innuendos.
But now Astrid was the one gazing. Now Astrid was the one returning three Agatha Christie mysteries she had not yet read. Perhaps the Sexy Librarian would strike up a conversation with Astrid about their mutual love for literature. Perhaps the Sexy Librarian would like to go home with Astrid. The Sexy Librarian would not care that Astrid was at least twenty years her senior. She would find Astrid’s age and the wisdom it implied exciting. Together they would watch Masterpiece Theater as a portly Hercule Poirot twirled his moustache and made thick-accented witty deductions. They would drink hot chocolate—Poirot's favorite drink—and cuddle under warm wool blankets surely one of them must own. With tiny, bird-peck kisses, Astrid would kiss away the whip cream moustache the Sexy Librarian would endearingly acquire, and giggle when the favor was returned.
Sexy Librarian scanned Astrid’s returned books but did not look up. Astrid opened her mouth to say something, anything, and instead ended up hacking up phlegm so loudly Sexy Librarian raised one perfectly-arched eyebrow and pointed to the ladies’ restroom.
Twenty years ago, as an eighteenth birthday gift for herself, Astrid hired the private investigator with the smallest advertisement in the yellow pages. She figured small ad meant subtle snoop. The private investigator had called Astrid two weeks later, informing her that they had a Mama Mia-type of situation on their hands. She had three possible biological mothers. Nodding, Astrid cradled the phone against her right shoulder as she wrote the names and numbers the snoop rattled off, his voice grating like skates on ice. She stuck the piece of paper on her refrigerator, using a circular orange magnet to keep it in place.
There were the four pairs of slacks and three little black dresses at the neighborhood dry-cleaners Astrid refused to pick up. She couldn't handle another run-in with the Armenian mother-daughter team at Bubble Cleaners who loved to comment on her pants’ expanding waistline. Astrid’s hair went un-dyed, so fraught with tension with the very idea of making an appointment at Farrah's Faucets. Fingering her bangs, Astrid stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror. She always suspected she was going prematurely gray; now she had the proof.
At the liquor store two teenage girls, the skin of their arms stitched with a tapestry of tattoos, quickly snuck small bottles of vodka into their backpacks. One girl, the thicker one, the one with toned arms that women in Astrid’s tax bracket dreamed of possessing, crossed her arms when she caught Astrid watching. Her partner snickered at a bright blue box of Super Plus tampons. Astrid smiled and made a big point of looking away. She bought another pack of gum from the disenchanted youth playing Angry Birds on his phone.
The morning of Astrid’s eleventh Thanksgiving, she woke to discover delicate drops of rust-colored blood had leaked through her starch-white panties. Curious, Astrid had stuck her middle finger between her small, delicate folds and into the warm, wet hole she had never before realized existed. The feeling of her own finger pushing against herself was invasive and unpleasant. She quickly removed her hand, only to find it coated in a sticky, sweet-smelling blood. Certain that if she stood her entire body would leak out of this newly discovered void, Astrid had refused to leave her bed, even when her adoptive mother had threatened to withhold pumpkin pie.
On the way back to her apartment Astrid spotted a man walking a small French bulldog. Casually wrinkled band t-shirt, no ring, small dog meant he was using the dog as bait, and Astrid leapt. An hour later, coiled in bed sheets sprinkled with the stains of cherry sugar-free Popsicle drips and now a rather surprising amount of semen, Astrid felt incredibly turned on but not at all satiated. She asked the man—Dylan? Dill? Doug?—to leave. She had work to do. (She did not have work to do.) The man agreed and stood up. His chest was quite impressive, but his small and albeit cute pet was a deal-breaker. The bulldog, tied up against the bike rack outside her building, had been barking for the last half hour. She knew her upstairs neighbor, a cantankerous old bastard who claimed to have survived a concentration camp but was about twenty years too young, would have already left an angry note in her mailbox. She used the magazine subscription card Dylan-Dill-Doug had scribbled his number on to house her chewed Tropical Twist gum. Then Astrid spent the next half hour masturbating without relief.
The paper had followed her everywhere. They both yellowed with age. At night she’d hide it under her pillow, a totem for sweet dreams that never came. In the morning she’d smooth it out and place it back on the fridge. As she moved from apartment to apartment, city to city, she would shed possessions, but never the list of mothers.
Then, three years ago, Astrid received in the mail an invitation to her adoptive mother’s funeral postmarked two days after the actual event. Astrid, frankly, was shocked that anyone from that family thought to mail her an invitation at all. The only tangible proof of her adoptive mother’s influence on her current life was her unfortunate name. Astrid. How she loathed the harsh, ugly sounds that made up her identity. In elementary school, her classmates, lured by the easy crudity of the consonants, would call her “ass turd,” or, when feeling contrite, “turd.” Ironically, her adoptive parents had chosen her name, or so they repeatedly informed her on the afternoons she came home crying, due to its Nordic translation: “fair, beautiful goddess.” Astrid did not, nor ever did feel like a fair, beautiful goddess with her name. She felt like an ass. Or a turd.
Holding the newly arrived announcement of her fake mother’s death in one hand, the fading list of possibilities in the other, Astrid had finally called the three numbers she had long ago memorized. Her fingers ached with phantom pain as she pressed the numbers into her landline. Two were disconnected. The third’s owner was also dead. She placed the piece of paper back on the fridge and threw out the funeral invitation. Then she opened a can of clam chowder and poured it into the trash bag, careful to fully immerse the crumpled invitation in the white, stinking goop. She learned to sleep alone.
Astrid stripped the sheets and dumped them on her shower floor. Then she ran herself a hot shower; if the shampoo and body wash could clean her wrinkled skin it could certainly clean some sweaty sheets. The wet sheets blocked the drain and caused the water to rise. Strands of Astrid’s fallen, graying hair quickly rose and wrapped around her legs. She imagined long, thick tentacles of her discarded hair crawling up from the drain and dragging her down deep beneath the murky water.
The smooth croon of Frank Sinatra drifted through the air vent from above. Cantankerous Old Bastard Neighbor was letting her know he was home, and had heard everything. Frank Sinatra sang about love as Astrid lathered her vagina with lavender soap.
Her phone, still perched on top of the toilet from yesterday, rang, the vibrations knocking it to the floor. Astrid left the shower running and stepped out to answer it. She always answered it.
“Are you happy with your mobile service plan?” asked a deep voice.
“Mom?” Eventually, the duckling found his mother. It was a touching scene, but only warranted one page in the picture book.
The voice paused, turning its own response into a question. “No?”
She was dripping water on the floor but did not care. Still leaking, she walked to her stripped bed and lay down. “I do not have a mobile service plan.”
“Really?” asked the voice. “That seems fairly anachronistic.”
“Big word for a telemarketer.”
The telemarketer hung up. The dial tone was calming, and she spent several long minutes listening to its toneless groan.
Laughter like the fluttering of piano keys outside her window. Astrid stood and peeled back her thick curtains, allowing one small sliver of sunlight to breach her dark cocoon. A young girl ran circles in the neighboring backyard composed more of dirt than grass. The girl blew the petals off her dandelion with infectious glee. A woman in a floral housedress chased after her daughter, her laughter silent but nonetheless piercing through her wide-open mouth.
The little girl, her hair matted with the wisps of white petals, spotted Astrid spying and pointed. The mother stopped and drew the child towards her, a look of concern darkening her once jubilant expression.
Astrid yanked the curtains completely open and let the sunlight warm her naked body. She soaked in their stares, threw her gray hair back, and laughed. Still smiling, she pulled open her windows, taking a moment to smell the barbecue and pollution all around her before sticking her head out to address the still-staring mother and daughter.
Dandelions are a kind of weed, you know.
Emily Ansara Baines is the author of The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook and The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook. Her work has appeared in Narrative, Jezebel, The Independent, Read It Forward, and Peaceful Dumpling. She is currently pursuing her MFA at Otis College of Art and Design, and lives in Los Angeles with her boyfriend and an invisible cat named Rufus. Her favorite word is murmur.