“Go to hell, you saggy-faced frumpy old bag.”
The words hit me, piercing the tender space between my chest and my heart. My daughter. Screaming at me. Rage puckering her acne ridden face, and her limp hair clinging to her scalp as she flicks it in defiance, stopping short of giving me the single middle finger.
The door slams. I blink. My Cassie. Screaming at me. How the hell did we end up here?
I walk into the kitchen and grip the bench, my knuckles white, heaving shaky breaths to fight off the rising panic and quell the looming self-doubt.
I straighten. If she’s so determined to shut me out of her life, then she can make her own dinner. I switch off the oven and pause by the fridge, running my finger over a tatty baby photo pinned under a bunny-shaped magnet. She can keep herself company for the evening, too.
It’s passive aggressive. I know it. But the self-righteous contempt is delicious, and I can’t resist. I grab my keys. I’m heading into town.
I stand outside the shop staring at the brightly coloured posters, dithering. Her words still sting, but the burning has given way to the crushing ache of guilt.
Teenagers are savage creatures, I remind myself, swiping at my tears. What I wouldn’t give to feel the weight of my sweet baby in my arms again. To watch her sleep, swaddled in pink, lying in her bassinet, smelling of lavender, with pudgy fingers clasping the purple piping on her wrap, rosebud lips slack in the milk haze afterglow.
The memory presses on my chest. This is a terrible idea. I swallow and open the door.
A man sits behind the counter, his short spikey hair radiating off his head at every imaginable angle. He adjusts his glasses, running his gaze over me and frowns.
“Can I help you?” he asks.
“I’d like to buy a session, please.” I nod at the poster on the wall, sucking in a breath, and hoping it will firm up my bottom lip, which, despite my best efforts, won’t stop quivering.
“Generic or specific?” he asks.
He closes his fingers together, making a pyramid with his hands and leans forward. “You can only do this once,” he says, and coughs. “It’s important not to make a rash decision.”
I nod, bringing my trembling fingers to my lips. I want to see my sweet baby one last time.
He sighs. He’s seen this before. “There are things you should know.”
I want to feel the weight of her in my arms, trace my finger over her porcelain skin, over her delicately arching eyebrows, let her fingers grasp mine, listen to her sucking on her lip, ready for a feed.
“Ma’am. Ma’am.” He taps the counter. “Are you hearing me, ma’am?”
“We can call up a single hour of your life and immerse you in that memory, so it seems you’re back in that world. But you can only do it once. It’s too hard on your brain otherwise. This is your one trip into the past. You need to choose your memory carefully.”
“I know the one.” It’s my favourite memory. My voice cracks and I struggle to get out the words. “When my daughter was a baby.”
He adjusts his glasses. I feel his frustration wafting off him in waves, but I ignore it. He’s not me. He doesn’t know what I need.
“Ma’am,” he says softly, gently resting his hand on my arm. “The other thing you need to understand the memory we pull up is exact. Not the sanitised version your mind has created over the years. Our service, it was designed for victims of crime, witnesses, that sort of thing. Now that it’s evolved for a more commercial purpose, we find people don’t always feel satisfied with what they experience.”
I stare at him. I need to see my baby girl. To remember the love. To remember when I was her whole world. To remember when parenting was easy.
“Revisiting a specific favourite memory, well, it’s usually a disappointing process. You could still choose the generic option, go back to a nonspecific time.”
I wait for him to say more. He doesn’t.
“Take me back,” I say.
He nods. “Follow me.”
The chair moulds around me, threatening to swallow me whole. I shuffle, but I only sink deeper into its white plushness.
“Try to lie back and relax,” the man says.
I resist the urge to fidget and close my eyes. Cassie's words echo through my mind and their venom catches in my throat. Such a sweet baby. Such a savage teenager.
The man fastens a helmet on my head, fiddling with straps and adjusting wires. “Close your eyes.” He pulls down the visor on the helmet and the world lurches into two parallel realities.
I shake my head and my stomach heaves; I’m struggling to make sense of what I’m seeing.
“Don’t fight it,” he says, resting a hand on my shoulder.
In one reality I’m in the chair, current time, and in another I’m hopping between memories. The fight, the slamming door, the kitchen bench, bouncing back and forward, parallel realities.
“Focus on your specific memory.” He wraps my fingers around a small box. “Press the button when you reach it. What you’re seeing now is how you remember past events. Pressing the button will activate the immersion and you’ll experience what your brain actually processed at the time. The raw data, so to speak.”
“Okay.” My voice is hoarse, and I hiccup. I clench my teeth, terrified I might vomit, the parallel realities almost unbearable.
“Let your mind wind back time now,” he says, his voice calm and distant.
I scroll through the memories like photos on a phone. Faster and faster, I let them roll. Cassie’s first driving lesson. Her first day of high school. First sleepover. Faster and faster.
The process is unsettling, and a trickle of sweat runs down my forehead. She’s at primary school, hair in pigtails, skipping with her best friend. Last day of preschool. First day of preschool. First steps. Learning to crawl. First foods. First sleep in the cot.
I scroll slower, looking for that one perfect afternoon.
And then I’m there. Holding her in my arms, the pink swaddle, purple piping, rosebud lips.
I press the button.
The surge of emotion plummets into me, and I stagger under its weight. I’m holding the baby, she’s four weeks old, and she’s crying.
I’m not coping.
Her lip quivers as she screams, her fingers clenched around the purple piping of the swaddle. I rock her, closing my eyes, my throat tight with desperation. Sleep. Stop crying and just sleep.
She’s heavy and my arms ache. I want to put her down and walk away, have a shower, have a pee, by God have an entire cup of hot coffee.
But I don’t. I rock her, swaying under the weight of the solitude. It’s me. Me and the baby. Always. Always together. Always alone.
Her cries give way to whimpers and I stare at the wall, struggling to maintain the arduous, incessant motion. I’m grieving for my old life. This is anything but easy.
And so I rock.
And finally, her eyelids droop, and she relaxes into sleep, her hands softening, letting go of the swaddle and her breathing slows, steady, regular.
Relief shoots through my body, and I bend over the bassinet, starting the elaborate dance of the transfer. Success. I pull the blanket up to her tiny shoulders. Perhaps it's too high. I pull it to her waist and tuck it in. Hopefully, she’s not too cold.
A finger of doubt creeps across my neck. It’s all so hard. The weight of every decision. The doubt. The guilt. The relentlessness of it all. I heave a shaky breath to fight off the rising panic and quell the looming self-doubt.
I stare at my baby, all swaddled in pink, asleep in her bassinet, smelling of lavender, with pudgy fingers clasping the purple piping on the wrap, rosebud lips slack in the milk haze afterglow. A flutter tickles in my chest and I still my mind, listening.
It’s love, I realise. Amongst the overwhelm and chaos of hormones and emotions, I’m feeling a flicker of love for this helpless, dependent baby. It’s small, but it’s there.
I smile and pull my phone out of my pocket, snapping a picture of my sweet, sleeping Cassie.
Her eyelids flutter at the noise, and my throat tightens. The fleeting flicker of love forgotten, replaced by horror.
Please don’t wake.
I rip off the helmet and struggle out of the chair. The ground is hard as I sprawl onto my hands and knees and pant.
The man is resting his hand. “Easy there, slow deep breaths.”
I stumble out from his grip and stagger for the door. I need to go. Be away from this place. My favourite memory is nothing more than my favourite lie.
I tumble onto the footpath, sucking in deep breaths of the cool night air. My mind fragmented and sluggish, half in the past, half in the present, and struggling to bridge the gap between the two realities. I bend over and vomit.
The overwhelming sense of love that I remember swelling in that moment was just an overwhelming sense of relief the baby had gone to sleep. The disappointment is crushing.
The wipers slash across the windscreen, fighting a losing battle against the unrelenting raindrops. I weave in and out of the traffic, not sure where I’m going or why. A thought niggles in my mind, struggling to break free.
Babies are sweet. Teenagers are savage. Every stage has its challenges.
And then I’m turning into the drive at home. I once agonised over where to tuck her blanket. Now I’m agonising over how to hold space for her teenage angst.
The struggle remains. My heels click on the concrete as I walk to the front door. Perhaps in years to come, I'll conjure only the Hallmark moments of her teenage years.
Maybe that’s just the way love works, focusing on the beautiful, the best. Maybe it’s just nature’s way of making sure mothers don’t crumple into a heap on the floor.
My hand pauses on the doorhandle. I’m home and I’m going to tell Cassie I love her.
I’m a mother. I’ve got this.