Plastic Voices and Pretty Faces
The asked specifically for orphans. Although I wasn’t technically an orphan at birth, I might as well be.
My parents died in a car crash when I was 20, not that they really raised me at all. My dad was a drunk and his job was a salesman. He thought his coffee or tea would hide the bitter smell of alcohol but it never did. Not from me or his bosses at work. My mom was a teacher at one point, making pretty decent money but as soon as I was born she quit to stay home and raise me like a proper woman. But she was unhappy. Filling her time with china patterns and tending to the every need of a baby wasn’t what she wanted. She ended up drinking with dad, and even got some pills prescribed by the doctor to help “take the edge off” as she used to say.
I remember standing alone at their graves on the warm, rainy day in April. They were just, gone. I had just seen them, swinging by my house where I lived with my husband at the time. My dad was quiet and brooding as always. He tried to corner my sweet John about pursuing sales but John wanted to be a college professor. He always jumped on the opportunity to try and change his mind. My mother had always loved to complain but it was a special treat for her when she came over because she hated everything; the color of the rooms, the mantle over the fire, the size of the backyard, everything. She pressed us about kids but I knew I wanted to finish college first.
“Maggie, it’s nothing but a waste,” she said, lighting a cigarette. A new habit that I hadn’t learned about yet. “As soon as you finish you’ll have a baby and then it all goes down the drain,” she took a long drawl and let the smoke curl around her lip.
I was relieved. So relieved when they left. And they were hit by a semi-truck on the way home. Some man who had been driving for 18 hours fell asleep at the wheel. They died instantly, or so the police told me. They wouldn’t let me see their bodies so their funeral was the first time I had seen them.
I could hardly recognize them. Laying motionless like some disfigured vampires; their skin painfully white and caked with makeup over thick black stitches that looked like the only things holding their bodies together anymore.
Five years later, John died. I hated myself for awhile after his death. We never got around to having kids, like I always promised him we would. I was just packing up my desk at the elementary school I taught at, reading over my lessons plans one last time before I was due to be home to get dinner on the table. I remember hearing heels hurry down the empty hallway, switching between a walk, tap… tap… tap… and a jog, taptaptaptap. Ms. Kealy’s face hovered in the door.
“Ms. Kealy, I was just finishing up for the day. What can I help you with?” I said as sweetly as possible to the secretary who just would not leave me alone. She always popped by at the end of the day, forcing me to make idle chit-chat for almost an hour. I swore that if she invited me to another potluck I would just flat out say no- no more excuses, it was time to be direct.
She poked her head into the office but it was... different. Twisted up and puckered. I felt the words touch me before she even spoke. “Maggie… there’s…. There’s been an accident,” she said.
I don’t remember how I got home, maybe I flew or teleported myself although both seem unlikely. The police were already there, I could see the lights flashing in my driveway from down the block. Neighbors were gathering outside, sipping drinks and smoking on their porches, eyeing my front door.
The police told me that it wasn’t, in fact, an accident like idiot Kealy had told me it was. They informed me that my sweet husband had killed himself. He didn’t leave a note but just shot himself in the head right in his office at Boston University. Maybe he was having an affair, they said. I didn’t know. They left me in an empty house to pick up the pieces alone.
I didn’t leave the house for a week. Maybe I’m the kiss of death, everything or everyone that comes near me dies. I left the school to work at a perfume counter at the department store. I made enough to keep our house which quickly fell into ruin. Shrubs became distorted, the inside was dusty and dirty. I wasn’t sure how long I could carry on but carry on I did for years and years.
Until I saw the ad. The ad asked for orphans, and although I wasn’t an orphan I certainly felt like one and it said I needed to be over 18. I ripped it from the light post, folded it carefully and tucked it in my purse pocket.
I took the short bus ride that Friday. The ad didn’t give details, only to ask for Dr. Watts at MIT. I arrived only a short while later at the campus and found my way to Dr. Watt’s office. I waited outside for almost two hours and was about to go when he appeared. A young man with tousled brown hair that shot out at all different directions and small, circular framed glasses.
He explained the procedure to me and I signed the dotted line. Maybe this is the good that I can do with my life, I thought. Maybe this is how I can help humanity.
I was given a hospital gown and shown the room that I would spend the next 67 years in. I remember thinking that it was dark, only illuminated by the heart rate monitors beside each incubator tube.
“What if I get cold?” I asked.
“These incubators respond to your internal body temperature, so they will adjust the temperature if your body needs it,” Dr. Watts explained. I just stared at him, blinking. “You’ll always be cozy,” he finally said.
I smiled at nodded at him from the edge of the incubator.
“We will take care of your house for you and will provide you with a stipend for every year that you are with us in a special bank account that you will be able to access once you wake up.”
I nodded again, he had already told me all of this when I signed the paperwork.
“Any final questions?” he asked me.
Yes, am I insane? I thought to myself. What sort of person gives up their entire life to be cryogenically frozen for over a decade? Oh, that’s right, me.
“No, I think you covered everything,” I said, actually looking forward to a nice long sleep.
I was mostly connected to the tubes and the monitors when Dr. Watts asked me to count backwards from 10. I tried to get the words to come out but I drifted off to sleep before I could even start.
I can’t remember what it felt like, being born. But I imagine it was something similar to coming out of the incubation tube. Bright lights that blinded me, sounds that I thought might deafen me, and all the smells and movement at once made me want to cry.
The lab room looked… different. Bright white lights and clean tiles glistened. Not to mention updated incubators. The man I spoke to wasn’t Dr. Watts, I was told that he retired years ago but he would love to speak to me in the coming weeks. I nodded at the not-Dr. Watts but my ears rang when he spoke. I said a little prayer that I wasn’t missing anything important.
I was given my bank account that was a hefty amount now, over $100,000 and the house had been demolished twenty years ago. They set me up with an apartment and told me they would foot the bill to make up for it. I didn’t miss the house when I heard, a part of me was almost relieved that I didn’t have to go back there. They set me up with a teaching job at a charter school and said my training started next week. God, I missed teaching. It had been so long since I’ve been able to teach. I just had to check in once a week for the first year and we would “see how things go” from there.
Not-Dr. Watts handed me an updated passport and ID along with a folding brown wallet.
“Is this supposed to be mine?” I asked Not-Dr. Watts.
“It’s standard, everyone got the same,” he explained.
I opened the ugly brown wallet with a long sigh, feeling disappointed but unsure why.
“There’s no cash in here,” I shut the wallet and crossed my arms, “where’s the closest bank?” I asked, bracing myself for the answer. I didn’t want to spend my entire day in a new millennium taking the bus back and forth to the dumb bank. It used to take me hours to go get petty cash to keep at the house for John in case a salesman came by or we needed an extra dollar or two for groceries.
“That’s what the cards are for,” he opened the wallet and pulled out a plastic cherry red card, “the money is all on your debit card.” I blinked, looking at it. A debit card. Not-Dr.Watts explained that it’s just like money but easier. No more balancing checkbooks, just swiping cards.
He placed a small device on the table in front of me that lit up, showing the time.
“This is yours as well,” the man told me.
“What is it?” I asked, touching the reflective glass that had gone from a watercolor picture to glossy black. It lit up again at my touch.
“It’s a phone,” he told me.
I felt a smile creep into the corners of my mouth, waiting for Not-Dr. Watts to crack but he kept his serious charade up nicely which made me laugh harder. It felt so good to laugh, I let myself laugh until tears welled up in my eyes and ran down my face. I couldn’t remember the last time I laughed like that.
“That’s not a phone,” I finally managed to say, pointing at the technology. “So what is it really?”
He looked at me like I was growing a second head. “Its… a phone.”
I picked it up, turning it in my hand over and over. “Where?” I asked.
Now, it was his turn to laugh. “Let me show you how to use it,” he said through a bemused smile.
An hour later, I was finally ready to head out. I picked up my duffle bag that I had brought with me and took my last deep breath of sterile, filtered lab air. Apartment, job, I had everything I needed to succeed. I held the paper with all the important information on it tightly in my hand.
Not-Dr. Watts, whose name I eventually discovered was Dr. Page, set up my phone so that a driver would come pick me up outside the building and drop me off at my apartment only 10 minutes away and I paid for it with my credit card.
My brain buzzed when I finally pushed open the clean white door and the sun touched my face. I savored the prickly feeling on my skin until the wind came. A typical northeast wind, a breeze bit through me under my black dress and stockings. I was such a Prima Donna, committing to wearing all black for the rest of my life like some Little Miss Moffit of death. I wrapped my wool jacket tight around me. It was fall in Boston and the year was 2019. It smelled like a new city- a different city. The trees that lined the streets were vivid shades of gold, red, and orange and the ground was littered with leaves.
Kids rode by on bikes, buzzed past on scooters, used a board to slide down the rails of the a campus building. Other people rushed by, holding phones up to their ears and sipping steamy drinks from cups they just tossed in the trash.
Women wore jeans and pants suits, and short skirts with tights underneath. Men had baseball hats and converse sneakers on with their plaid shirts and tight jeans. They all looked lost, like a mishmash of style and personality that came from the generations before them. Nothing truly belonged to them, but to their ancestors. They simply had the luxury of picking the parts they liked and trashing the rest to create a style that was individual to each person. A tapestry of their life and their realities. It was beautiful, the variety. It made the blood pump through my veins a little harder and my breath catch in my lungs.
Women held hands as they walked down the street and one tenderly wrapped her arms around the waist of the other before gazing up, her eyes full of expectation. The other girl reached down to touch her face, whispering something that only the two of them could hear before their lips met. My eyes got large as I looked around, waiting to see if anyone else saw what I did. No one else noticed, or they simply didn’t care. I guess why should we care, that’s their business, I thought. I kept an eye out for the police, just in case. Maybe I could whistle them a warning before a patrol officer would spot them.
A mom and dad walked by pushing a stroller. The mom, a beautiful black woman with wildly curly hair and rich brown skin, peeked inside the stroller. The dad, a white man with an angular jaw and long hair pushed back took out his phone and told her to smile. She flashed a dazzling smile, her cheekbones sharp enough to cut a diamond. She picked up the baby and together they cooed at it. Smiling like they just took the egg.
Again, I looked around nervously. Did they know people could see them? Did they know the police heavily patrol this campus area? No one else around seemed to bat an eye. A boy flipped his hair while staring at his reflection in a shop window and two girls sitting at the café across the street smiled at the phone, holding up their drinks and striking a pose. What could they be doing?
A man in a wheelchair came down the sidewalk with a small dog in tow. The wheelchair moved on its own, he didn’t need to crank the wheels in exasperation to move forward and the sight almost brought me to tears. He looked, happy. He seemed content and I realized that I had never seen a person in a wheelchair before. I mean, I had seen them on television and on advertisements that played early in the morning on basic cable but had never seen a person in a wheelchair in real life. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he moved along right next to his dog who excitedly grabbed a leaf off the ground and presented it to his owner. The owner graciously took the leaf and tossed it into the air making the pup dance in circles trying to catch it again. Such a small, simple moment. I had never seen anything like and, I had never shared in someone else’s joy like I did with this stranger and his dog.
Tears rimmed my eyes as my phone began beeping loudly. A black car pulled up to the building and it matched the picture of the car on my phone, so I jumped in.
“Margret?” the older woman behind the wheel croaked.
“Maggie, yes,” I said with my sweetest smile and a plastic voice. I heard my mom use the plastic voice first. She would scream at me to clean up my toys, put away my crayons and then answer the phone like a flight attendant. I learned that there is the voice you use in your head, where no one can hear you and the voice that people not only want to hear but need to hear in order to feel like they can approach you, that you’re nice.
I was always a ‘nice’ girl. A ‘good’ girl. A ‘plastic voice’ girl. Maybe it was my 67 year slumber or maybe it was the people… how different they are, the world seems to be. I felt a little tug on my heart. It felt like a nudge from my insides telling me to follow that voice. The voice that whispered for me to try something different. Try another way.
Hell, this is a new life. I can be anyone I want to be so why not be exactly who I always wished I was. Now was the time.
The driver didn’t utter another word the rest of the trip which was rather rude, I ended up staring out the window at the cars. There were huge cars that looked like celebrities could be inside. They had dark windows and wheels and vibrated with bass. Other cars were small and sleek, they had flashy wheels and sat low to the ground. John would have loved to see all these cars. Our Pontiac was his pride and joy. He would never believe that all of these other cars even existed.
Fifteen minutes later I was outside of a brown brick building that had small flower pots hanging from the first story windows. I entered my single bedroom apartment on the first floor that had large windows that flooded the living room in light. One window had a piece of stained glass on top that made rainbows on the white couch. Everything was clean and bright and boring except the architecture. The doorways were high arches, the ceiling was high and accented with two old beams. The floor in the kitchen was mosaic tile that made it look like waves. It made my heart flutter.
The closet was full of all my old clothes, some hung up but most in boxes. I sorted through it all and yet didn’t feel like I was quite ready to get rid of clothes. Not that they were anything special but they felt like the last little bit I had to remember my old life by. I hung up the dresses and sweaters I thought it made sense to keep and put the other 25 dresses or so back in the boxes.
I left my apartment, locking my door on the way out and looked at the P.O. Boxes across the hall. The door next door slammed, making me jump. I looked over, my nose puckered from being startled and a super tall man emerged. He was light skinned and had to bend half way over to make it through the door frame. His eyes landed on mine and I felt a blush come to my cheeks.
“Hi,” he said, his eyes unmoving.
“Hello,” I said, looking down at my shoes. Boy’s don’t like a girl that’s too forward, my mother would always say. They like the quiet, polite ones. That meant giving them the big doe eyes and being clueless. Or at least pretending to be. I sat through so many boring tutorials of things I already knew how to do in order to appease the ego of men. I wondered if maybe, she was wrong. That there was another way to be.
“Did you just move in next door?” he asked, leaning his elbow against the top of the mailboxes.
“Yes, I did actually,” I said, fiddling my keys, bringing my eyes up to meet his. Just be yourself, I thought. Which is easier said than done when you really don’t know who you are.
“Word, that place has been empty for years now. I was starting to think it was a hide out for a secret government agent,” he said clasping his hands together to make a gun.
I smiled at him, “Who’s to say it’s not?”
He smiled, clearly amused. One point for the new and improved Maggie. “I’m Paul,” he stuck out a hand.
“Maggie,” I said grasping his hand. He wrapped his fingers all the way around me and gave it a small shake.
“It’s nice to meet you Maggie, welcome to the neighborhood and I’m sure I’ll see you around,” his brown eyes melting me where I stood. He threw on a cap and walked out the front door.
Dabbing the sweat off my forehead, I slowly walked out the front door into a crowd of people walking with a purpose. I decided to explore the little town that seemed to be bursting with coffee shops and businesses.
On my walk into town I realized how hungry I was. My stomach gurgled to remind me that I hadn’t eaten real food in 67 years. I walked past a few coffee shops before deciding on a café called Café Luna and sat at the bar, next to another woman who was alone. The placed with afternoon diners. Low conversation rumbled around me and some witchy woman vocals echoed in the back over a guitar. I swayed a little bit, soaking up the buzz of energy around me.
The bartender was a pretty girl with smoky eye makeup. Her nametag said Jamie and it hung loosely off the tee that she clearly cut the sleeves off herself.
“I love your dress!” she cried when she made her way over to me with a glass of water.
“Really?” I had made the mental note to get some new clothes when I left the college. I’m not sure what I expected people to dress like but I knew that I stood out like a sore thumb and, quite frankly, that’s the last thing I wanted.
“It’s such a fucking mood! I’ve totally been feeling the retro vibe myself recently. Where did you get it? Does it come in purple, you think?”
Holy crap this girl just cursed at me. I felt my mouth hanging slightly ajar. I had never heard a woman curse before, not in public like that. Sure, I was guilty of muttering a curse word under my breath while cooking or even while teaching but not out in public. It took me several seconds before I was able to bring my brain back around to her question and she stared at me, tapping her nails on the counter while waiting for an answer.
“I honestly do not know,” I told her. 67 years on ice, my memory felt a little soggy. Things like where I used to shop for clothes didn’t seem to be one of the threads that my brain was able to hold on to but snapped at some point during incubation. I expected her to scoff at me and walk away, the standard treatment for a clueless woman.
“Oh em gee, I know. I can’t remember where half my stuff is from either,” she gave a small chortle. “I’ll give you a few minutes and be back to take your order,” she said with a smile.
Hm, no scoff. What a delight, I thought while considering the massive menu. I decided to order pancakes, corned beef hash, and “the kitchen sink” and finished every last bite without hesitation. I chided myself, feeling incredibly full and satisfied mixed with feeling guilty. If my mother were here should we tell me to “keep it light”, especially out in public. My cheeks flushed as Jamie came around again to collect my plates- multiple plates- and I braced myself for some snarky remark.
“Now that’s my kind of girl,” Jamie squealed at me while clearing my last dish. I patted the corners of my mouth with a napkin and smiled, maybe the times have changed. “I bet you’re always down for all you can eat sushi with! Give me your number, we MUST hangout,” she demanded.
For a moment I hesitated and thought about the two women holding hands outside the school building. Was this girl flirting with me? Was she just being friendly? I considered both options for a moment and decided that I really didn’t care either way. I had zero friends, zero known acquaintances in this, 67 years in the future, Cambridge so I might as well try. Even if it means making some mistakes. I put my number (that took me 20 minutes to figure out) into Jamie’s phone when a message popped up on the screen. I get off at 3 if you want to hang! The message read. I paid for my food and told Jamie I would see her at 3.
I decided to stroll around the city some more and after 10 minutes of walking I realized I had landed myself on the corner of Lexington and Dudley Heights. Where my small, two bedroom house used to be sat a huge building. An apartment building took up the entire block of Dudley Heights and must have hundreds of apartments inside. I wasn’t sure what I expected to feel, but a small hollowness is my chest began to ache. Not in a sad way, but in a finite way. The world continues turning, I thought. Good things happen and bad things happen but at the end of the day, people push forward. We are not a frozen in time or backpedaling species. We take inventory of the fire and smoke and damage and then we keep going forward. Sometimes things get better and sometimes they get worse but humans will continue to put one foot in front of the other until there is no scorched Earth left to walk on.
That’s what we do. It’s what I did. First with my parents and then with my husband. The world crashed and burned around me but I put one foot in front of the other until I ended up in the future. Where the world is a little bit more beautiful, a little bit more free, a little bit more authentic. I realized it’s something that I’ve been needing so badly for so long; authenticity. For so long I went along with what my parents wanted, what I thought I should be doing, and where I thought that I should be that I never took even a minute to ask myself what I wanted. I never considered my goals or dreams or even preferences. I never imagined that a world as vibrant and painful and full as this could ever exist but it does and I’ve found it. I’ll be damned if another second of it goes to waste.
I thought about how life used to be, so separate and sterile. Everything in life needed to be compartmentalized, we couldn’t be true to ourselves or even have real conversations. Admitting you had a problem meant admitting that you were a failure. Admitting you had feelings meant you were hysterical. Admitting that you cared for people that didn’t think or look like you meant you were an animal. We used to hide our thoughts and our feelings and our fears behind plastic voices and pretty faces. Maybe that’s what’s good about this world, this new world. People have learned to be more imperfect, they’ve learned to say what they think and how they feel. They learned the shit that worked and the shit that didn’t and they kept the parts they spoke to them; that lit their souls on fire that made them feel connected to something or someone. They don’t pretend to know they way or have all the answers but they are determined to figure it out. And I’m determined to figure it out with them.