How to Say Goodbye in RobotNatalie Standiford
How to Say Goodbye in Robot
FOR MY SISTER, KATHLEEN
You can love somebody without it being like that.
You keep them a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend.
TRUMAN CAPOTE, BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S
Table of Contents
Goebbels materialized on the back patio, right before we moved to Baltimore, and started chewing through the wicker love seat. We figured he was an escapee from one of the neighbors’ houses, probably the Flanagans two doors down. The Flanagans had a lot of pets, and the parents looked the other way while their sons, Pat and Paul, fed them various foods that animals shouldn’t eat, like Twinkies and Pop Rocks, and then raced them to see how the food affected their performance.
“Can’t blame the little guy for making a break for it,” Mom said. She picked up the gerbil and stroked his tiny head. He pooped in her hand.
“Here.” Mom passed him to me. “He’s yours.”
“Gee. Thanks.” I’m not exactly a rodent person. But we couldn’t send him back to the Flanagan Torture Chamber, so I put the gerbil in a fishbowl until we had a chance to go to the pet store and buy a cage. He tried to scamper out, but the sides of the bowl were too slippery and steep. I fed him some sunflower seeds.
“What are you going to name him?” Mom asked.
“You can name him,” I said.
“No, he’s yours,” Mom said, hurt creeping into her voice. “You name him.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call him Goebbels.”
We had just studied World War II in school and I was reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that summer. Joseph Goebbels was a Nazi propaganda guy, very diabolical. I didn’t know any German, but I was fascinated by the way the names were pronounced—GOEbbels sounded like GERbil. That was the only reason I thought of the name.
“You can’t call him Goebbels,” Mom said. “That’s a terrible name.”
“You said I could name him.”
“What about Peaches?”
“He’s not a Peaches,” I said, looking at his gnawing little front teeth. “I’d never saddle any living creature with a name like Peaches.”
“Oh, and I suppose it’s better to be named after a Nazi.” Mom’s face pinched up, hurt, as if I’d just mashed her finger in the door. The Pinch was a new look for her.
After lunch we drove to the pet shop. Mom waved to Motorbike Mike, the mustached biker dude who ran the costume shop in the same strip mall. Mom and I were frequent costume renters. We liked to dress up and create scenes from old movies, which I then photographed. It was just this thing I did. I didn’t enjoy official extracurricular activities, like the Social Committee or the school newspaper, but I had to do something, so I took pictures of myself posing as, say, Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8. When I looked at the pictures, I could almost believe I lived in that shadowy, glamorous, black-and-white world. Mike’s shop had wigs, dresses, makeup, fake guns—everything we needed. But we didn’t stop for costumes that day. We were on a gerbil mission. We bought a little gerbil cage with an exercise wheel, a bag of cedar chips, and some gerbil food.
When we got home, Goebbels was lying at the bottom of the fishbowl, dead.
“Oh,” Mom said with a catch in her throat that meant tears were only seconds away. “Oh no. Why? Why-y-y-y?”
I poked at Goebbels’s stiff little legs with a straw. “Maybe the Flanagans poisoned him before he escaped,” I said. “They probably fed him Sweet’N Low to see if it would cause cancer—and it worked.”
“We’ll have to bury him,” Mom said. “We’ll have a funeral.” She picked him up and cupped him in her hand. Then she started to cry. “We’re moving next week. We’ll have to leave him behind. Who will tend his tiny grave?”
If other people had been around, I would have been mortified. Actually, no one else was around, and I was still mortified.
“Mom, please,” I said. “We knew him for two or three hours, tops.”
“Poor Peaches!” she sobbed. “Poor little Peaches.”
I once had a cat named Iggy, who died when I was twelve. The night after he died, a huge water bug skittered across the kitchen floor of our old house in Austin. The bug’s zigzaggy gallop looked like Iggy’s, and my grief-numbed body flushed with hope and gratitude. He was back! For a split second I was sure that bug was Iggy reincarnated, come back to live with me again. I didn’t care that he was a water bug, as long as I could have my Iggy, whatever form he took. Then Dad squashed him—the water bug, I mean—and that hope turned acid and dissolved. I felt I’d lost Iggy yet again.
But I was wrong. The water bug wasn’t Iggy. Iggy wasn’t coming back, not in any form. I repeated those words to myself over and over until I stopped seeing him in every fly, every moth, every mouse, and accepted it. I learned my lesson. By now, Mom should have learned this lesson too. No amount of wishing will bring back the dead.
“His name wasn’t Peaches,” I said. “He was probably old. How long do gerbils live, anyway? A few weeks? A year?”
“Oh!” Mom cried. “You’re heartless.” She put the gerbil’s body back in the fishbowl and stared at me hard. “You’re not a girl,” she told me. “You’re a robot!”
The sobs returned then, the kind that shake your whole body. She melted onto the kitchen floor in a puddle of tears and lilac cologne.
Maybe I am a robot, I thought. Am I? I knocked on my belly. It didn’t clang, the way a robot’s belly should. Far from it. But that assumed a robot was always made of tin, or steel, or some other clangy metal. By now, it seemed to me, scientists should have invented a robot material that felt and sounded more like human flesh. Or at least that wouldn’t clang.
Meanwhile, there was Mom, still crouched in her pool of lilac-scented tears. What is she so upset about? I wondered. It couldn’t be the gerbil. She’d been crying a lot even before we found him. It had to be the Move. But we’d already moved a thousand times—it felt like a thousand times, anyway—and it had never seemed to bother her before. I was the one who hated moving, until I finally got used to it. I learned not to get too attached to anything. I stopped thinking of the houses we lived in as my house, or the street we lived on as our street. Or my friends as my friends. Not that I had so many.
We moved for Dad. Most professors stay at one university, but Dad was
always looking for more grant money or smarter students or more kowtowing from his colleagues. So we moved from Iowa City to Madison to Austin to Ithaca…Up next, Baltimore. Johns Hopkins, the holy grail of pre-med students and biology professors like Dad.
I’d have to start my senior year of high school in a new city at a small private school where all the other kids had known each other since they were three. And you didn’t see me crying. So what was Mom’s problem? Ithaca was freezing in the winter, and the town was pocked with deep gorges that Cornell students threw themselves into when they got depressed, and no one blamed them. Baltimore had to be better than that. At least it couldn’t be worse.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why are you so upset?”
She sat up, sniffed, and wiped her eyes. “I don’t know. The poor little thing! I can’t leave him behind…”
“You mean it is the gerbil?” I said. “You’re really upset about the gerbil?”
She gave me a piercing, angry stare then that scared me. Her eyes seemed to say, “Where did my sweet little daughter go? And who is this hard-hearted robot?”
I looked at the dead Goebbels. The moment seemed to call for a bit of ceremony, a gesture of some sort. So I stiffened my limbs and held my hands flat and straight, like a mime. With an expressionless face I jerked my hands over the gerbil’s little body and squeaked, “Ee er oo. Ee er ee. Eh-eh.”
Mom lifted her head. “Oh my God,” she said. “What are you doing?”
“I’m giving the gerbil a final benediction,” I said. “In Robot.”
My first morning in Baltimore, I woke up in my box-filled room, got dressed, and took an exploratory walk down our new street. It was a mid-morning Tuesday after the off-to-work rush, so the neighborhood was quiet. The brick and stone houses were mediumold, from the 1920s or so, with tall elms guarding patchy little yards, and here and there a sprinkler whirring over the grass.
I turned a corner and came to a small church. There was a headstone near the path leading to the church’s wooden doors. I stepped closer to read the headstone. It said FOR THE UNICORN CHILD.
That is so cool, I thought. What a funky town this was. I imagined a neighborhood Legend of the Unicorn Child, about a one-horned little boy who’d died tragically, hit by a car or shot by a mugger or maybe poisoned by lawn pesticides. The story of the Unicorn Child was so real to these people they’d erected a stone in his memory.
Then I read it again. The stone didn’t say FOR THE UNICORN CHILD. It said FOR THE UNBORN CHILD.
That night I lay in bed, staring at the leafy shadow mice skittering across my bedroom wall. Our new house was muggy and airless and made strange groaning noises. Dad wasn’t home from work yet, even though it was almost midnight. And the next day I’d start at Canton, my new school. I knocked on my stomach again, wishing that metallic clang would answer back. Even Robot Girls get nervous sometimes.
I’d been the new girl before; I didn’t care what the Canton kids would think of me. One year and I was out of there forever. I don’t care what they think, I chanted to myself. I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care what they think. I repeated those words until they felt truer than true. By then it was two in the morning. Dad had come home and he and Mom were in their room. I wasn’t sleepy.
In Ithaca I’d listened to the radio to fall asleep—the Bob Decker Show out of Albany, full of late-night conspiracy talk about the pyramids, alien invasions, shadow people, 9/11, clairvoyant spies, the Kennedy assassination, and on and on. Somehow the paranoia in the callers’ voices soothed me. I guess I found it reassuring to know I wasn’t the only one who felt a vague, hard-to-define anxiety and was looking for something to pin it on. But I couldn’t pick up the show down here in the Land of the Unborn Unicorn Child.
So I began my alternate insomniac bedtime routine: imagining myself dead. I used lots of different death scenarios. There was the classic funeral scene: lying in my open coffin, dead but more beautiful than I ever looked in life, like Snow White in her crystal bier. Everyone I knew would pass by to gaze at me and cry. They should have appreciated me while I was alive. The world as they knew it will never be the same.
The last mourner was always a boy, whatever boy I had a crush on at the time. He’d be a wreck, totally destroyed by my death. When he saw me in my coffin, he’d suddenly realize that he’d loved me all along. The other kids in school, the fools who had ignored me all year, were wrong, so very wrong. The injustice of it would overwhelm Crush Boy, who’d run into the street and throw himself in front of a truck.
It was all very satisfying.
Then there was Slow Hospital Death, where I touched the heart of a handsome doctor, and Death in My Sleep, where Mom came in to wake me up for school but…oh no…she just…couldn’t…wake me…My spirit would float over the bed, laughing, Ha-ha! I won’t be going to school today.
Those were just the Greatest Hits, but there were many, many more.
I’d never told anyone about this nightly habit. I was sure my parents would send me to a shrink if they knew, and the shrink would institutionalize me or drug me or give me shock therapy or at least make me visit him five days a week. They wouldn’t understand. I didn’t want to die. I just found death soothing to think about.
The next morning Mom burned her hand on the waffle iron. No one had asked for waffles; no one wanted waffles. She just got it into her head to make them for the first day of school, even though it was 95 degrees out with 95 percent humidity. She’d been accident-prone all summer—tripping over sprinklers, catching her hair in the fan, numerous cooking mishaps—so no one made a fuss over the burned hand. We were used to Mom hurting herself. I tossed her an ice pack and gulped down a banana and some orange juice.
Dad came downstairs, knotting his tie. “Hurt your hand?” He took the ice from Mom and peered at the burn. “I think you’ll live.” He kissed the spot, replaced the ice, grabbed the last banana, and kissed my forehead. “Good luck today, kiddo.” Then he left for work, buzzing through our morning like a fly.
I pushed away from the kitchen table. “I’d better go too.”
I looked at Mom, trying to decide whether to kiss her or not. She pressed the dripping ice pack on her hand and blinked at nothing. I waited for her to reach for me and ask for a kiss, but she didn’t look up.
Missed your chance, I thought. No kiss. I knocked on my stomach. Clang clang. I was starting to hear it now.
On my way out I looked back at her, sitting at the table alone in her bathrobe. She caught me staring. Her hollow eyes said, Please leave. Please just hurry up and leave.
So I left.
The Canton campus—a cluster of Gothic stone buildings buffered from the city by playgrounds, athletic fields, and a thin strip of woods—was only half a mile from my house, so I walked to school in the soggy heat.
Each day began with an assembly in the Upper School auditorium, where the Canton students arranged themselves alphabetically, by class. I found myself on a metal folding chair in the fifth row next to a girl with curly black hair. Like me, she was wearing a plaid kilt and a white shirt, the girls’ uniform. But somehow I looked dorky and she looked cute.
She smiled at me. “All right. Finally.”
“Finally?” I didn’t know what to do with this strange greeting. Was this girl expecting me?
“I mean, finally I have a buffer between me and Ghost Boy.” She nodded at the empty seat to my right. “I’ve had to sit next to him in Assembly for the past eleven years. It’s nice to get a break.”
I swiped my hand through the air over the empty seat. Was this girl saying there was a ghost sitting next to me? Maybe she was crazy. I decided to fold my hands in my lap and stare straight ahead, in case she was.
But the girl wouldn’t leave me alone. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Anne Sweeney,” she said.
I patted the empty seat beside me. “A
nd who is your ghost friend?”
“Jonah Tate,” she said. “He’s not really a ghost…I don’t think. He just looks kind of like Casper, without the sugary smile. You know, pale and shapeless and…white. You’ll see when he gets here.”
“Sounds more like the Pillsbury Doughboy,” I said.
“If you poke Jonah in the tummy, he definitely will not giggle,” Anne said. “He’s more of a Death person than a Dinner Roll person, know what I mean?”
“Not really,” I said.
“We had a funeral for him once,” Anne went on. “In seventh grade. Someone spread a rumor that Jonah was dead, and then when he showed up for school, we all pretended we couldn’t see him or hear him, to try to make him think he was a ghost. Then we held a mock funeral for him behind the gym. This one boy gave a hilarious eulogy about how much we would have missed Jonah, if only he’d ever said or done anything memorable. For a while, any time we saw Jonah, we’d scream ‘Aaahhh! A g-g-g-ghost!’”
“That’s…pretty mean,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” Anne said. “But we were just kids. Shhh! Here he comes now.”
A pale-haired boy slid down the row into the seat next to me. His skin was flour-white and his eyes were gray as pond ice. He did look kind of like a ghost. He smelled of menthol, Vicks VapoRub. I couldn’t decide if that made him seem more ghostly or more earthbound. Anne Sweeney elbowed me and rolled her eyes, as if to say, See what I mean? Total Casper. Then—just for kicks, I guess—she said, “Aaahh! A g-g-g-ghost!”