Maddie darted across the bedroom carpet in her baby doll PJs, jumped up onto the chair and threw her stuffed pony into Carlotta's face. "I won't, Mommy. I don't want to get into the box."
"Get in, sweetie, and tomorrow we'll have more and more fun."
Maddie grimaced, showing off the new gap between her front teeth. "I don't like the Babybox."
"Maddie, silly! You're lucky we can afford twenty thousand dollars a month for this box." As Carlotta spoke, she scooped up Maddie in her arms and lowered the little girl into the box, laying her out on the white cushion. "Ooof! When did you get so heavy, baby?"
Maddie reached up out of the box and wrapped her arms tight around Carlotta's neck. "Don't go, Mommy. You're my best friend."
"You're my best friend, too," Carlotta said, struggling to break Maddie's grip. "Good night, now."
"Okay." Maddie sighed. "Bye-bye."
Carlotta snapped the lid into place, and the girl in the box went limp, her face draining to the color of skimmed milk, her eyelids reddening as she ceased to breathe—or very nearly ceased. Carlotta dragged the box into the home gym between their two bedrooms, sliding it over the smooth bamboo floor. With her shoes laced up, she stepped onto the treadmill and ran, looking down at the unconscious child. From that angle, the bone structure of an older girl seemed to press up through the childish face; a trick of the light, perhaps.
Ten minutes later, Carlotta's phone beeped, and she answered without breaking pace, coming into the middle of a fuzzy conversation and drunken laughter, not directed into the phone, followed by an explosive, "Hey, Carlotta!"
Carlotta panted a greeting.
"I'm at Juvenescence with Charlie," Carlotta's friend stressed the man's name as though to prove to the company around her she knew it. "He has this friend, so—"
"I don't leave Maddie in the box to go clubbing. That's not what the box is for."
"Oh, fine, Ms. Perfect. Just don't pretend you don't use it as much as the rest of us. If not more. Charlie, stop it."
Carlotta beeped off, shaking her head. The box was a gift to children, not to their parents. It spared Maddie from dreary hours with a nanny or a tired, distracted mommy. Of course, the box rewarded Carlotta, too, not because she used it selfishly to go out with men, but because she could turn off the clock, gaze down at Maddie and hold on to this precious time.
And still, the girl grew older. Just that morning she'd lost a tooth, marking her baby smile—those two rows of even chicklets—with a black gap. The tooth looked tiny, spat out onto the breakfast plate. Hard to believe years had passed since that white serrated edge cut through Maddie's clean, pink gum. The whole teething process seemed as recent as Carlotta's last facial. Maddie had hardly fussed, was an easy baby in general. Carlotta always planned to have another, but time slipped by, and now she was too old.
On the treadmill, Carlotta ran faster, though her thighs and buttocks burned. The phone beeped again, loud in the quiet house, punctuating the hypnotic rhythm of the machine and Carlotta's breathing.
"Opportunity calling." It was her agent's voice. "You're set for the Daytime Emmys ceremony. It's a milestone in your career to be presenting an award."
"Thanks," Carlotta said, though she'd rather be the young actress receiving it.
Motivated, now, to drop a few pounds, she forced herself to run even longer, envisioning herself on television, sleek in a clingy gown. Pearl-gray silk seemed appropriate, dignified yet sexy.
Carlotta ran until her legs shook, then stepped off the machine and into the bathroom. After her shower, she stood in the dim, moody light slanting through the steam and gazed at her reflection with half-closed eyes: not bad. She'd buy a gown to show off her boob job, taking the audience's eyes off her neck, which was a tad ropey. The boobs, though, were perfect. She cupped them in her hands, leaning forward.
With her white terrycloth robe lashed round her waist, Carlotta dragged Maddie's box into the bedroom, where it lay like a bassinet beside the bed. There, reclining on throw pillows, Carlotta sipped water and paged through scripts. Theoretically, she'd like to do another film, though she wasn't yet resigned to playing the mother-in-law. Acceptable offers came to her rarely; lately not at all.
When her eyes grew tired of reading, she pushed up her glasses and rested her head back on the yielding pillows. Across the room, a square of picture-glass reflected the opulent bed floating in the mellow lamplight, but not Maddie in semidarkness on the floor. Feeling judgmental eyes upon her—so many people denounced the Babybox—Carlotta asked these imaginary critics what else the girl would be doing right now. Watching television? Playing on the computer? From an early age Carlotta had walked home from school to an empty house, hung out on the street with other unsupervised kids, watched her parents watch television at night, listened to them yell at her brother to come out of his room, ate carrot sticks and cottage cheese alone on her bed, Glamour or Cosmo spread on her knees. In contrast, she and Maddie sat down to a home-cooked dinner every night. Though she could have afforded a personal chef, as well as a nanny and a driver, she adored doing all those jobs herself for her little baby doll. As a girl, she'd never played house. Lucky her, lucky Maddie, they got to play now.
The next day around ten, dressed and coiffed—no reason to scare the girl with bed-head mommy—Carlotta removed the lid and Maddie popped up, grinning her gap-toothed grin. "Park?"
Inexplicably, Maddie had fixated on the public park, a grungy place of metal, sand and dirty, cracked plastic. To Carlotta it simply was not on the map, but stood outside the circuit she and her daughter made through their happy, cotton-candy-colored world.
"No park today. But we'll have fun."
After lunch they drove out along winding streets, past pink and beige and cream Mediterranean-style homes, toward the gate. As they passed under the stucco arch, Carlotta waved to the guard, but the young man stared past as though she were invisible. Carlotta smoothed her hair then gripped the wheel again. So many wrinkles ringed her wrists. If Babytech made boxes big enough for adults she'd get one—damn the cost—though she'd have to hire someone to haul her out of it or she'd lie there forever.
A few blocks on, the tall gray Nordstrom building slid out from behind a row of eucalyptus trees, and Maddie began to pout. Carlotta drove into the mall, reassuring her, "We'll have fun. We always do."
After two loops round the parking lot, she found a place beneath a leathery-leaved magnolia tree. Hand-in-hand, she and Maddie crossed the asphalt, walking toward the monumental glass facade of the PlayDaySpa. Inside, they left their shoes in cubbies and padded into the vast central room.
"You go play while Mommy gets a manicure."
Maddie walked away in her purple socks toward the enormous play structure while Carlotta signed in with one of the uniformed play-associates. She left Maddie climbing the big green net and strolled toward the manicure tables near the wall of mirrors. Once enthroned in a padded black leather chair, she checked back across the room. Maddie had reached the crow's nest at the top of the structure and stood looking out toward the manicure stations. Carlotta waved. The little girl didn't see, or pretended not to, turning away and crawling into a big red tube.
After her manicure, Carlotta started toward the consultation booth to reserve a chemical peel for the following week, passing on the way the door to the massage room.
Carlotta looked into her friend's flushed face. "You're...relaxed. Nice massage? Never saw the appeal, myself."
"You're too tense, Carlotta. You should've come out with us last night. His friend was thirty, and hot."
"I know, your little girl comes first." The woman made a sour face as her own daughter ran up to her side.
"Can we go now, Mom?"
"Don't rush off." Carlotta prolonged the conversation long enough to let drop that she was presenting an award later that month. "I'm glad I got that eyelid lift last spring. The lighting at those awards thingies isn't as forgiving as on the set."
"Christ!" her friend exclaimed, as though Carlotta had jogged her memory. "Have you seen my 'soap husband' this season?"
The impatient daughter, grimacing, braces glinting, tugged on her mother's arm, pulling her in the direction of the shoe cubbies. The woman called back to Carlotta. "Check him out at frighteningplasticsurgery.com."
Carlotta turned to the play associate who'd silently appeared at her elbow. "Ma'am, we have a situation," he said.
Carlotta's smile tightened as she looked past him to the play area where two toddlers stood blubbering at the sides of the plastic ball pit while Maddie sat in the middle, waist-deep in blue and red balls. All three mothers reached the scene within moments. The first, a squat woman in gray sweats, swooped out one of the sobbing toddlers and scowled at Carlotta.
"Is that big girl yours? She dived in and squashed my son." Clutching the little boy to her freckled chest, she glared down at Maddie. "This place is for little kids."
In the car on the drive home, Carlotta asked, "Did you have fun? Before the problem?"
"I want to go to the park next time."
After lunch Maddie galloped around her bedroom, skidding over the smooth floor and crashing into her canopy bed, before lying down in the Babybox for her nap. Carlotta snapped the lid in place and sat back in the sudden quiet, breathing hard. She stood and wandered through the cool, dim house. In the living room she passed the fireplace, with its scent of cold ash, and ended up at the computer on her desk.
Within seconds, she'd logged onto the plastic surgery website. First standing, then sitting, Carlotta scrolled down past poorly lit photographs of boob-jobs, collagen injections, and facelifts. Some of these people she knew; most were in the entertainment industry. She had to laugh at her friend's soap husband with his orange tan and raised eyebrows jutting to the corners of his forehead. Going down farther, sometimes wincing and moving on, sometimes pausing to stare, she scrolled until she caught her breath and touched her hand to her mouth.
Actually—and this was funny—she recognized the blue dress first. She'd worn it to the Vanity Fair party, where a tabloid photographer must have snapped this picture. But though the dress seemed familiar, the face was not. That could not be her.
It was, of course. Below her photograph, the caption read: "Sure, wrinkles are a bitch, but so is having a face made of wax." Carlotta leaned closer to the screen. In such lighting even a teenager would look bad, especially shot from below. Still, her face was as tight and shiny as a rubber doll's.
Carlotta clicked off, stood up, and turned to the gilt mirror above the fireplace, brushing her fingers across her cheek. Her friend must have known the picture was there. Perhaps she'd mentioned the soap husband to lead Carlotta to the website. Carlotta reached for her phone, started to punch in the number, but stopped herself in time and threw the phone onto the chair. She wouldn't vent. Mentally, she crossed that friend off her list, though. It was a shame.
Carlotta moved to the window and peeked out through the Venetian blinds at the California afternoon, the sprinklers showering her emerald-green front lawn. She turned to check the clock on the mantel. Not much time had passed since she put Maddie down. She slipped across the shiny floor to the door of the workout room and stood with her hand on the frame, regarding the metal machines with their weights and shin-bruising bars. While she hesitated there, the muscle under her left eye twitched, once, twice. She smoothed it with her index finger and turned away. One day off wouldn't hurt. The effort seemed somewhat pointless, now.
With nothing else to do, Carlotta strayed back into Maddie's bedroom where her daughter lay stretched out, gangly, on the white cushion in her box. She'd towered over that pair of toddlers. Perhaps she really had outgrown the PlayDaySpa. Then Carlotta would have to do without its convenience. Maddie's happiness mattered most.
For ten more minutes, Carlotta paced the living room, straightening cushions, aligning the edges of stacked magazines; what to do, what to do. Their lives were changing. Adjustments must be made, not just to this afternoon but to the next and the next. After staring into the refrigerator and at her computer, knowing they both offered diversions that could harm her, Carlotta restarted Maddie earlier than usual.
"Want to go to the park?"
Twenty minutes later, Carlotta slid the car into a parking place parallel to the park's chain link fence.
"I just worry so much about you," she said, as she popped the door lock, releasing Maddie from the car. On the sidewalk, Carlotta squatted to rub sunblock on the little girl's cheeks and nose. "No jumping off the swings, okay?"
Carlotta swung open the gate and followed Maddie into the park. The little girl looked from the monkey bars to the slide to the teeter-totter, before spotting a friend playing in the sand.
"Hi, Maddie!" The enormous giraffe of a girl, with knobby knees and elbows, waved a stick and grinned. Her two front teeth had grown in freakishly large for her face. The girl stabbed her stick into the sand and ran to the swings with Maddie. The two began pumping, building up higher and higher until their legs pointed straight out into the air and then even higher, flashing their underpants and the backs of their legs.
"Let's jump!" Maddie hollered.
"I can jump farther."
"No, I can."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Carlotta called out. She looked around for support, but the girl seemed to be on her own.
The two girls bailed out at the same time, landing in the sand on their knees. At first Maddie giggled, thrilled by the danger she'd survived, then she noticed that the other girl had touched down three feet farther from the swings. Carlotta remembered those big front teeth. Maddie's friend had passed her by at least six months, though she'd been born a year after Maddie. Maddie's cheeks reddened. The friend, unaware, ran back to the swings.
"Let's do it again."
Maddie climbed the slide, pretending not to hear. At the top of the ladder, she sat down with her legs splayed on the metal slope and gazed out at the playground.
Carlotta turned toward the voice, placing the face, if not the body. She recalled this woman lying on a mat, breathing out through open lips like an angry gorilla.
"Lamaze class." Carlotta stood and reached over the chain link fence to shake hands with the woman standing on the sidewalk. "It's been awhile."
The woman had put on weight, probably weighed more now than she had nine months pregnant.
"We were passing, and I saw you here. Danny, say 'Hi'." She spoke to the teenage boy standing behind her.
For either financial or ethical reasons the woman had let the boy grow naturally.
Carlotta pointed to the little girl on the top of the slide.
"I know. I'm trying to cut down."
With her eyes still on Maddie, the woman raised her hand in a goodbye salute. "Nice to see you."
"We should do coffee again," Carlotta said, as the woman walked away.
On the playground, the tall girl squatted in the sand digging with her stick, while a new, smaller girl, Maddie's size, knelt on the bottom of the slide looking up at Maddie, who came whooshing down, using the rubber soles of her shoes to stop at the bottom, inches away from the new girl. Both of them giggled. Soon they were climbing on the play structure with their eyes closed, trying to catch each other. Though Carlotta winced whenever they neared the edge, they managed to stay on the structure, probably by peeking through their eyelashes.
Carlotta found a bench in the shade of a big pine tree where the air smelled resiny, like Christmas. She brushed away the rough needles before she sat down. Underfoot, more needles mixed with the sand. She slipped off her mules and poked her toes into the coolness, remembering through the soles of her feet something her mind had forgotten years ago.
Carlotta considered the day. She really did want to have coffee with that woman, just as she actually did intend to cut down on Maddie's hours inside the box. It was true; adjustments must be made.
Maddie was quiet in the car driving home.
"Whatcha thinking 'bout?" Carlotta asked in a sing-song voice.
"Her. That girl."
"Your new friend? I like the way you make friends, Maddie."
"I don't want to come back to the park next time and have her be bigger than me."
This was new. Maddie never used to care who she played with. If one child passed her by, she settled for another.
At home half a dozen envelopes stuck out of the brass box on the front porch. Carlotta flipped through them while Maddie jumped down from the porch to the flagstone walkway.
"Watch me! You're not watching."
Maddie stomped up the three steps to the porch and jumped again, while Carlotta considered the pay slip from the modeling agency for a life insurance ad in which she simpered at her "daughter" in a bridal outfit. How had she come to this? The money was hardly worth the humiliation. However, she and Maddie had an expensive lifestyle to maintain.
Carlotta looked up from the pay slip as Maddie caught the toe of her shoe on the top step and fell into a nosedive, landing hard on her hands and knees. Carlotta leapt after her, hitting the sidewalk almost as quickly as her daughter. Maddie sat back on her bottom to examine her scraped palms and skinned knees. Blood welled out of an inch-long cut on her left knee.
"Oh, baby doll, this is Mommy's fault. Mommy wasn't paying attention." Carlotta led the little girl into the house to the powder room, where she washed the cut with a soapy washcloth. "Now we'll get something for this boo-boo."
The medicine cabinet door reflected her face, a face of wax. That the awful picture was going to hurt for some time. In a way, though, the pain didn't matter. She could ignore her private hurts, though perhaps not the deepening heartache of her life with Maddie.
She opened the cabinet. "Where are those Band-Aids?"
Carlotta's thin hand riffled through the crèmes, lotions, and toothpaste in the cabinet, batting them about. There were no Band-Aids. She'd never bought them, though such an oversight seemed impossible. "Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry."
The cut had stopped bleeding.
That night Maddie refused to brush her teeth and fought as Carlotta dragged her toward the box.
"Tomorrow, after your classes, we'll go to the park again, and your new friend might be there."
"No. I don't have any friends," Maddie objected. She stepped into the box, though, and sank down, defeated. As Carlotta reached for the lid, she pushed away the hope that the little girl would fight harder, the possibility that she would cave in to her daughter's rebellion.
Alone again, she poured herself a tumbler of red wine and sat at the computer, returning to her photograph on the plastic surgery website. The wine soon washed heavily through her size-two body, while she scrolled down over the parade of freaks. What had they all been thinking? The same mistakes repeated, over and over. Carlotta laughed at the first young girl with boobs like cantaloupe halves glued in place, but after six examples, wondered what kind of body image problems those gorgeous young women had. Before and after pictures showed round-faced lovely girls changed, with the help of cheek implants and nose jobs, into chiseled beauties who, oddly, weren't as pretty anymore. Many of the before pictures dated to when the girls were local celebrities in places like Australia or Spain or England.
"Look what we've done to you," Carlotta said to an Irish girl whose lovely mouth—with a delicately carved upper lip, and tender curving lower lip—had recently ballooned into a duck bill, a cartoon mouth, better to be seen from a distance on the red carpet.
The older women were worse, of course, even when the surgery worked. A smooth-faced actress of sixty had a cheek she could bounce a dime on, but when Carlotta, thinking of Maddie, tried to see the six-year-old in that face, she knew this face had never been six years old. This face was a surgeon's creation.
Carlotta slammed the laptop closed and cursed her friend. She hadn't needed to see this website. She smashed her face into her hands, elbows on the desk, baggy skin be damned. Maybe she should get fat, like her friend from Lamaze class—the woman who would never call about going out for coffee. Carlotta wanted to yell, "I have no friends!" like her daughter.
Poor Maddie. If her new playmate passed her by like all the others, she'd be sad. No, she'd be angry. Angry at Carlotta. She wouldn't see that her mommy had meant well, had only wanted to give her a long, wonderful childhood.
Carlotta got up, hand flat on the desk, and went to Maddie's room. The lamp was on, glowing through the pink-pleated shade. The light could not disturb the child's unnatural sleep, and besides, Carlotta liked to keep Maddie visible, close by, though perhaps the girl deserved some privacy now, since she seemed to have different desires and new demands.
Through the glass, the reddish slug-mark stood out on Maddie's pale knee. It would heal to become her first scar. Carlotta sat down on the carpet, drew up her knees to her chest and leaned against the box. She lay her hand on the cool glass, asking the universe for guidance. After a time, her unfocused gaze fixed itself on a shiny, aspirin-sized mark on her wrist. In another life, she'd burned herself baking a birthday cake for her mother. Scars. Everyone has them. On her manicured index finger, a silvery hyphen mark reminded her of Ginger the guinea pig, who once mistook her finger for a carrot. On her elbow, a white crescent recorded a fall from a scooter thirty, thirty-five years ago. And she bore a long, thin, silvery scar on her shin from running through a rosebush during a neighborhood game of tag. Birthday cakes, guinea pigs, tag. A tumble off the front porch. These were the things that scarred young girls. Not so terrible after all.
Carlotta looked again at her daughter's cut knee, still glistening red, not yet darkening into a scab. Of course not. If Maddie did not age in the box, she also would not heal. If she did not heal, she would not scar. Carlotta rose to her knees and leaned over the box, reaching for the latch. Carlotta raised the lid. She lifted out the little girl, one arm under her knees, the other around her shoulders. Carlotta's daughter would age, heal, and scar.
Maddie woke at once when Carlotta set her down but wavered woozily on her feet.
"Stay here." Carlotta hurried into the living room and stood, looking around, until she settled on the andiron in the fireplace and lugged it back to the bedroom.
"Stand back." She raised the andiron, so heavy her biceps shuddered and her wrists buckled under the strain as she brought it up and let it fall, swinging down, cracking into the side of the box, destroying further temptation.
"No more box," Carlotta told her.
No box, no financial burden, no foolish advertisements, no frightening red carpet photographs, all good. An alternate future eluded her, though. Imagining tomorrow, or the next day, an old-timey home movie played in her mind, a flickering image of Maddie climbing up the slide at the public park while Carlotta sat under a pine tree with her bare feet in a messy mixture of cool sand and prickly, half-rotten pine needles. She heard happy laughter in the distance and saw decay at her feet.
Notes from the Author
When my son was younger he played a lot of video games, and in one of them he had a pet that he could put in a special cage when he didn't want to take care of it. The pet would be in a sort of suspended animation. I imagined, somewhat guiltily, what it would be like if we could do that with our children! As a parent, I suppose I wished I could hold onto my son's childhood. Babybox is about a mother confronting her complicated feelings for her daughter.