Escape Pod 774: A Wild Patience (Part 3 of 3)
A Wild Patience (Part 3 of 3)
by Gwynne Garfinkle
When Jessica got home that night, she and I talked for a long time, and we agreed we needed to speak to our birth mother before we made any decisions. Then Mom and Jessica and I talked some more. By the time Jessica and I went to bed, my voice was hoarse, and Dad hadn’t come home.
The next day was Saturday. Dad still hadn’t come home. That morning Mom drove us in the station wagon to Santa Cruz. When we asked if she’d told Dad what we were doing, Mom said, “I haven’t spoken to him, and I’m not going to ask for his permission.”
Jessica and I wanted to get a look at our biological mom before we spoke to her, even though Mom had her phone number. Maybe that wasn’t very considerate, but we wanted to keep whatever little control of the situation we had. It was a mild sunny day, perfect for a road trip, but I couldn’t relax and enjoy the ride, even though Mom was the best driver I knew, the safest and most efficient (unlike Dad, who often drove too fast and erratically). The other robot moms I’d ridden with were good drivers too. Only now did it occur to me it was their programming.
Jessica fiddled with the radio dial until she hit on a station playing “The Tide Is High” by Blondie, and she sang along loudly and goofily. Mom smiled in the rearview mirror as though she was certain everything was going to be all right.
In Santa Cruz, we stopped at a diner for lunch, but I was too nervous to eat more than a few bites of my grilled cheese. Then we headed for the bookshop. Mina’s Books was a sprawling one-story used bookstore, full of happily browsing customers. It was by far the largest bookshop I had ever been in, and I would have happily browsed too, if not for the reason we were here.
Behind the counter, a guy with grizzled hair rapidly sorted through a box of books, occasionally pausing to examine a volume. Another guy rang up purchases at the register. There were some women in the store, but no one who seemed to work there. Classical music played quietly on the radio.
We split up and explored the bookstore. I walked along the wall of Fiction and Literature, my eyes briefly resting on Cather, Chekhov, Colette, before scanning the place again for someone who might be my mother. A woman walked in and started chatting with the guy sorting books. She looked soft and round in a long flowered dress as she leaned on the counter. Her voice was low and a bit hoarse. She had brown hair and owlish glasses, and seemed like she might be the right age. I surreptitiously scoured her face for any family resemblance.
Jessica came up to me, looked pointedly at the woman, and shook her head. “Are you sure?” I whispered, and she nodded. I let out a sigh. I wished we had photos of our biological mom, but Dad hadn’t kept any–not even photos of her with us as little kids.
I headed deeper into the store and wandered through World History without taking in any of the book titles. Eventually I met up with Mom in the Feminism section. She had picked out several books. “This is a wonderful store,” she said, smiling. “Any luck?” I shook my head.
A big blond cat meandered along the aisles. It head-butted my jeaned leg, and I knelt and scratched it between the ears. “Kitty,” I murmured. The cat looked up at Mom and froze. Then it gave a low growl and bounded off. Suddenly I realized why we’d never been allowed a dog or a cat, and why none of our friends had one. (We’d had goldfish.) The truths of our lives kept revealing themselves in unexpected moments, making the ground feel unsteady beneath my feet.
I got up and walked toward the front of the store. The same two guys were behind the counter. What if our biological mom didn’t even come in today? Mom had her home address, but what if she was out of town? Maybe not calling first had been a mistake.
A middle-aged woman I hadn’t seen strode right past me. Had she come in through the back? She had brown hair with a little gray in it, and she wore jeans and a crisp white shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She went behind the counter and conferred with the guy sorting through books. There was something familiar about her. Suddenly I realized she looked like an older, lankier version of Jessica. Or was I imagining? I looked around wildly for my sister, but Jessica was already hurrying to my side. She grabbed my arm and nodded emphatically.
“Really?” I whispered.
“Look at her!” Jessica whispered back, digging her fingers into my arm.
The woman looked up and saw us. She gazed at us with a puzzled expression. Then her eyes widened, and she grabbed onto the edge of the counter. The guy sorting books said something to her, but she didn’t seem to hear him.
“Come on,” Jessica whispered, and we made our way toward the counter as if in slow motion. We stood before the woman in silence.
“Jessie?” she asked. Then she scrutinized my face. “Gretchen, is that you?”
“Hi,” Jessica said in a small voice, at the same instant that I said, “It’s me.”
The woman’s face contorted with tears, and I realized I had never seen Mom cry, not once. How had I never noticed that? I didn’t know how to handle this woman crying. It made me feel simultaneously like apologizing and like running out the door.
She composed herself with visible effort, wiped her eyes, and walked out from behind the counter. I thought she was going to hug us, but she stopped short. Jessica let go of my arm and moved forward to give her a quick hug. Then I did the same, more because Jessica had than because I wanted to. It was almost like hugging a stranger, though the woman vibrated with emotion. She held me at arm’s length and shook her head. “I can’t believe it,” she whispered.
Customers were starting to stare, as was the book-sorting guy.
The woman slowly let go of me. Only then did I notice Mom standing there, clutching her armful of books. “Mina? I’m Judy,” she said. “Your store is wonderful.” She set the books on the counter and held out her hand for Mina to shake.
Our biological mother seemed loath to take her eyes off us, as if we would disappear if she looked away for an instant. “And you are…?” she asked Mom.
“She’s our stepmother,” Jessica said.
“Oh, you’re Richard’s wife?” she asked, giving Mom a brief, frosty handshake.
“Not really,” Mom said.
“What does that mean?” Mina asked.
“It’s complicated,” I said.
Mina glanced around and noticed people were watching. “Come with me,” she said and led us into a back room that contained books, a desk, phone, typewriter, three-ring binders, and other office supplies. If not for the circumstances, I would have been excited to see the inner workings of a bookstore. There were only two chairs, so we stood around awkwardly.
“So you’re not really Richard’s wife?” Mina asked. “Does that mean you’re getting a divorce?”
“That wouldn’t be necessary,” Mom said.
“I don’t understand,” Mina said.
“Is it okay to tell her?” I asked Mom, and she nodded.
“Tell me what?” Mina asked.
“She’s a robot,” Jessica said.
Mina looked from Jessica to me to Mom and back to Jessica. “Is that your nickname for your stepmother? That’s not very nice.”
“No, she’s literally a robot,” I said.
“Maybe you’d like to sit down,” Mom said pleasantly. Mina sat down, and we filled her in. At first she kept asking if this was some kind of a joke. Then she just listened but kept cursing under her breath, mostly calling Dad a fucking asshole, which entertained me and Jessica. (I’d never known Mom to swear. Another issue of her programming, probably.) We told Mina everything, except for our idea about coming to live with her.
“I need a drink,” Mina said when we were done.
We followed her pickup truck to her apartment building, a cheerful two-story place painted light yellow. Mina’s apartment had one bedroom, a spare room full of books (the whole place was full of books), a small bathroom, small kitchen, and largish living room. As far as I could tell, Mina lived alone. She made spaghetti and poured a glass of red wine for herself. We sat at the table between the kitchen and the living room. Mina asked me and Jessica about our lives, our school, our favorite subjects and hobbies. Mom mostly kept quiet and ate spaghetti, though I knew she couldn’t be hungry. Everything felt awkward, like we were trying to bridge the impassable gap of years.
“So do you have a girlfriend, Mina?” Jessica blurted out.
Mina blinked at her. “Why do you ask?”
“Dad said…I thought…” Jessica looked down at her plate and muttered, “He said you liked women, not men, and that’s why you got a divorce.”
Mina gave a laugh. “Of course he did.” She sipped her wine. “For the record, Jessie, I like women and men. I also like being on my own. I just didn’t like your father anymore. It was easier on his ego to believe I was a lesbian, and it served his purpose in custody court.”
I wound spaghetti around my fork and silently revised what I’d thought I knew about our biological mom. If she liked being on her own, did that mean she wouldn’t want us to move in with her?
“Speaking of custody arrangements…” Mom said, and she looked at me and Jessica. My sister and I glanced at each other, then nodded at Mom, who continued: “The girls and I were wondering if you might like them to come live with you.”
Mina looked blank. I held my breath. Then Mina’s face collapsed in tears again. “Of course I would,” she managed to say. “I would love that.” Jessica and I cried a little too. Only then did I realize how much I’d wanted her to say yes, even though she mostly felt like a stranger. A cool stranger, though. A stranger I wanted to know much better.
Mom and Mina strategized about how to get Dad to agree to let us move to Santa Cruz. They decided we should come to live with Mina at the beginning of summer, rather than leave school so near the end of the semester. Meanwhile, Mina said, she would clear out the spare room for us. We’d have to share a bedroom, but we agreed that was better than staying with Dad. If we liked living with her, Mina said, she’d find a bigger place.
After dinner, I browsed the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the living room. So did Mom. There were a lot of novels and biographies.
“So you like books, huh?” Mina asked me with a crooked smile, and I nodded.
Jessica glanced at the shelves without much interest. Then she let out a gasp and cried, “Oh my god! I remember these!” She pulled out an old-looking hardcover of Ozma of Oz. There was a whole shelf of Oz books. We had read paperbacks of some Oz books when we were kids, but Mina had a lot more, all in slightly weathered hardcovers.
Jessica paged through the book, poring over the illustrations. I wondered if she really remembered that exact copy from when she was little. She sure seemed to. “You can take it with you, if you like,” Mina said.
“Thanks, Mina,” Jessica whispered, holding the book to her chest.
Soon it was time to go. Jessica and I each hugged Mina goodbye. Then Mom hugged her, which seemed to take Mina aback at first.
In the car on the way back to Ramseyville, I thought about what Mina had said about liking women and men and being on her own. As far as I knew, I didn’t like men or women. Maybe I just wasn’t programmed for love and romance like Jessica was. I wasn’t sure I would like being on my own either, though.
When we got home that night, Dad rushed out into the hall. “Where have you been?” he demanded. His face was stubbly, his tan pants and polo shirt rumpled. I smelled sweat and whiskey on him and took a step back.
“What are you doing here?” Mom inquired.
Dad stared wild-eyed at her. “What am I doing here? This is my house!”
She kept looking at him, her head cocked to one side.
Finally he said, “I came to pick up a few things. When none of you were here, I thought…”
“You thought what? That I’d kidnapped the girls?” Mom’s tone was light and curious. “Really, Richard, don’t be so dramatic.”
He’d come to pick up a few things. I wondered where he was staying.
“I called that boyfriend of yours,” Dad told Jessica. “He wouldn’t tell me where you were.”
“You called Tom?” Jessica rolled her eyes. She was carrying Mina’s copy of Ozma of Oz.
“What’s that?” he asked, and she clutched the book tighter. “Where were you all day–book shopping?” He made it sound like a crime.
“As a matter of fact, we did go book shopping,” Mom said, and she turned her paper bag of books around so Dad could see the Mina’s Books logo with its cartoon bookshelves. “Did you know your ex-wife runs a bookshop?”
Dad’s mouth dropped open.
“We let Mina know what’s been going on around here,” I said. I could barely believe how calm I sounded. I expected Dad to yell at me, but he just went pale and quiet.
“The girls would like to go live with Mina for awhile,” Mom said. “For the summer, and perhaps longer.”
Dad’s mouth trembled like he might actually start to cry. I had never seen him cry, and in spite of everything, I felt bad that Jessica and I were hurting his feelings. But then he said, “Perhaps that would be for the best. The situation here has become untenable.”
Jessica and I exchanged looks of amazement.
“I’d rather the girls lived with Mina than with you,” he added nastily, glaring at Mom.
“None of this is Mom’s fault, Dad,” I said.
Dad looked at me with a solemn expression. “I know you won’t believe this, but I did all this for you.”
“That’s crap, Dad,” Jessica said. “You did it because you could.”
He shook his head as if trying to block out her words. Then he rounded on Mom. “And what about you, Judy? I hope you don’t think you’re going to freeload here with me when the kids are gone.”
Mom stared at him. Then she laughed and laughed.
I’ve been working at Mina’s bookstore this summer. Jessica finally got to cut her hair short and dye it purple (though she might have to dye it back when school starts, and she has to hide it under a pink-and-white hat at her ice cream parlor summer job). Mom waitresses at a local cafe. Many of the other moms moved to Santa Cruz too–mostly the ones whose kids opted to stay with their dads or to go live with their biological moms or other family. Tom still lives in Ramseyville with his dad, but he visits Jessica often. Mom rents a small house with Tom’s mom, Lucy Jensen’s mom, and Annie Powell.
Soon after we got settled in Santa Cruz, Mr. Ivers tried to shoot Mrs. Ivers with a handgun, but he was drunk and missed. Then he turned the gun on himself, or, at least, that’s what the newspapers said. Cecilia doesn’t like to talk about it. She and Mrs. Ivers moved to Santa Cruz too when the furor died down.
Jessica and I haven’t visited Dad since we moved, though we talk on the phone. He’s thinking of getting transferred to another branch of his office, in Phoenix. A lot of people have been leaving Ramseyville, especially after what happened with Mr. Ivers. Tom says Dad’s having an affair with his secretary. Maybe he already was, before all of this started.
Mina’s place is kind of close quarters with me and Jessica here. We’ve been looking at apartments. We want to be all moved in before school starts in the fall. It’ll be weird to make new friends who have regular, flesh-and-blood moms. Then again, we have Mina, but she’s more like a friend than a mom. She hasn’t figured out how much she should lay down the law with us yet (like when Jessica stays out late with Tom). Mina doesn’t like punk rock any more than Dad did, though she at least tries to listen. She’s into Joni Mitchell, which makes Jessica groan, though I secretly like some of her songs.
It’s nice to be near the water instead of in landlocked Ramseyville. It’s still all such a big change, though. I have nightmares about Dad taking Mom apart, arms and legs scattered everywhere, and the moms shooting the dads, and other scary stuff. Mina says that’s understandable.
Mom loves to visit the bookstore. This afternoon Mina was teaching me how to work the cash register while harpsichord music played on the radio, and Mom came in with Mrs. Ivers and Mrs. Jensen. Seeing I was busy, Mom just smiled and waved at me, and the three of them wandered off to browse. The usually laid-back bookstore cat let out a yowl and jumped up onto the counter.
“I know what you mean, JoJo,” Mina murmured, stroking him. She smiled wryly at me. “I do like them, you know,” she said under her breath. “They’re just…disconcerting.”
Mom and her friends stood in front of the Poetry section, deep in conversation about some paperback. The bearded guy who’d just bought a bunch of mysteries turned to ogle Mrs. Ivers, auburn hair flowing down her back.
The mothers seemed to feel eyes on them. As one, they turned and leveled a stare at him, and my breath caught. Clutching his paper bag, the guy walked out the door, and the women returned to their conversation. Mom’s hair was still just as short as the day she’d lopped it off. Mrs. Jensen had a few splotches of paint, red and purple and orange, on her t-shirt and jeans, and I remembered what Lucy Jensen had said about her painting a mural of the moms on their kitchen wall. I wondered whether the mural was still there, back in Ramseyville. Probably Mr. Jensen had painted over it. That was okay. The mothers looked happy. They looked so alive. In their quiet way, they looked so punk rock–though if you didn’t know what they were, they must have seemed like ordinary middle-aged women.
by S. B. Divya
Several years ago the author, Gwynne Garfinkle, wrote a poem called “Misogyny,” inspired by The Stepford Wives movie (the 1975 version), as part of an ongoing series of poems inspired by classic horror movies. That started her wondering how someone would react if they found out their mother was a robot, and “A Wild Patience” grew from there. The novelette is also her love letter to the life-changing poetry of Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Alta, and other feminist poetry that she first read in the 1980s.
In a recent interview I did, I was asked if my novel was a response to an existing work of science fiction because so many stories are in conversation with works that have come before. This is very much true for “A Wild Patience,” which is a feminist and female viewpoint answer to the original movie. There have been other movies that explored alternate visions of the story, but this version is the first that I’ve come across that looks at the robot’s perspective rather than assuming that an enslaved machine is a permanent state of being.
“A Wild Patience” questions what women’s liberation could mean to a robot. It’s an interesting lens through which we can examine some of the same questions raised by Rossum’s Universal Robots, which is having its 100th anniversary this year. The women’s lib movement of the 1960s and 70s pushed for the freedom to self-actualize, to reach one’s full potential without having to sacrifice one’s ambitions for the sake of others.
In 2021, this concept has moved on to questions that are more complicated. From a philosophical standpoint, can anyone be a member of society without giving up some of their desires? Can self-actualization happen in a way that’s environmentally sustainable and racially equitable? How do we balance the needs of parenting and career in a way that’s fair to all people in all types of relationships?
While this story doesn’t try to answer all of those questions, I love that it never doubts the right of the robot women to have independence, to pursue their own goals, and to be their own people.
Come back next week for Spaceship October, by Greg van Eekhout, one of the stories in the Escape Pod 15th Anniversary Anthology.
And our closing quotation this week is from Alta Gerrey: “I called the press Shameless Hussy because my mother used that term for women she didn’t approve of, and no one approved of what I was doing.”
Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.
About the Author
Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her collection of short fiction and poetry, People Change, was published in 2018 by Aqueduct Press. Her work has appeared in such publications as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Apex, Not One of Us, and Lackington’s.
About the Narrator
New York Times bestselling author Alethea Kontis is a princess, storm chaser, and Saturday Songwriter. Author of over 20 books and 40 short stories, Alethea is the recipient of the Jane Yolen Mid-List Author Grant, the Scribe Award, the Garden State Teen Book Award, and two-time winner of the Gelett Burgess Children’s Book Award. She has been twice nominated for both the Andre Norton Nebula and the Dragon Award. She was an active contributor to The Fireside Sessions, a benefit EP created by Snow Patrol and her fellow Saturday Songwriters during lockdown 2020. Alethea also narrates stories for multiple award-winning online magazines and contributes regular YA book reviews to NPR. Born in Vermont, she currently resides on the Space Coast of Florida with her teddy bear, Charlie. Find out more about Princess Alethea and her wonderful world at aletheakontis.com.