The first thing that happened was we started getting our mail delivered to their house. Mostly bills, any important info sent along by the bank. It was easier to do our taxes, we reasoned, if our mailing address was a more permanent place.
But then we found ourselves in the wide-open space between contracts—the unsteady freelance work that barely kept our heads afloat. Moving into my parents’ basement seemed like the responsible thing to do. We packed up our little black truck, filled a U-Haul with the rest of our furniture and junk. We put all our books in cardboard boxes, which we unpacked, then stacked one on top of the other, hidden away on a plywood basement shelf. We put the rest of it—the velvet couch and the popcorn machine and all the other seasons’ clothing—in the separated garage or the back corner of my parents’ walk-in closet.
We liked it for a little while. The cable and home-cooked dinners made it easy to get comfortable, like a perfectly warm bath in a big clean white tub. The squeaky bed frame just meant waiting for everyone to be out so that we could have sex. Which, admittedly, turned out not to be all that often.
And it was an adjustment, it’s true, quitting smoking. And having to sneak our empty vodka bottles out in the bottom of the bathroom trash. The vodka inevitably led to hushed fighting—hurling insults at each other in strained whispers, embarrassed by the way our voices carried up through the kitchen floor. Fucking was replaced with shared snacking—chip bags propped on horizontal chests, cookie crumbs accumulating in the tangle of the unwashed guest bed sheets. Snacking didn’t make the bed squeak.
One day you drove back to the city and stayed there—you said that we needed some space. And then the we became a me.
I hadn’t lived at home in years, and spending time with my parents was like getting to know them as people for the very first time. All of us were adults—that loose classification that applies to most of a life.
Dad was an important man in business. He had a direct gaze, a good fake laugh, and a willingness to pretend he knew someone when he couldn’t remember their name. He was always getting asked to speak at dinners, where he addressed other business people on topics like “What are motivational myths?” or “How to boost coffee break morale”—meaning he was out of the house an average of two to three nights a week.
The night after one such speaking engagement, he sat at the kitchen table eating prosciutto pasta with my mom and me. I asked him what he’d talked about the evening before, when it was just my mom and me with lasagna.
“The unmeasurables that need to be measured,” he said as he reached for the Costco-sized parmesan cheese. “I asked everyone to raise their hand if they’d ridden in a driverless car. Two or three of them had, most of them said they were willing. But there was always a human in the driver’s seat. Just sitting there, not driving. They were there to put the passengers more at ease.”
“Emotional intelligence is very important,” my mom said like she thought she agreed.
“Then I asked if anyone would ride in a plane piloted only by AI. No one raised a hand. And I asked who would let themselves be treated by a machine learning doctor. Again, no one would. People base their lives on emotional, irrational, and illogical decisions.” He pretended to slam the table with his fist.
“People want a good bedside manner,” said my mom. “When my sister thought she had cancer she changed doctors three times before she found one that she liked. The fourth one warmed his stethoscope in his hands before he put it on her ribs. It made her believe him when he told her everything was going to be okay.”
“I told them in order to better succeed in business we need to find a way to quantify the unmeasurable irrationalities that are controlling our employees’ lives.”
“How do you do that?” I asked.
He was silent while he chewed and then swallowed. “That’s what research and development teams are for.”
Winter came and the basement was unheated, so I moved upstairs to my high school bedroom. I was too tired from applying for jobs to change out the old decorations: the cross country photos and jazz band participation ribbons, the Build-a-Bear Workshop panda that asked me to homecoming in the voice of my high school ex-boyfriend when I pressed on his paw.
I got healthy from the organic food my mom bought and lost a lot of weight really fast. I couldn’t afford new clothes, so I started wearing my old Hollister and Abercrombie things—graphic tees and lace-trimmed leggings under short and distressed denim skirts.
You had taken our truck, so if I wanted to go out, I had to wait to get a ride from my parents. There was nowhere to go except the outdoor mall one town over—a strip mall with an identity crisis that called itself a “pedestrian-friendly shopping destination.” I followed the swirling stream of high school students to Bath and Body Works and American Eagle, to Noodles & Company for Wisconsin Mac & Cheese, and Cold Stone Creamery for manhandled marble slab dessert. When my dad drove me, he’d slip me a twenty as I moved across the leather seat to get out. “Try not to spend it too fast.”
I spent it immediately on plumping lip gloss, racking up Sephora points in exchange for free foundation samples that didn’t match. I went back to lining the waterline of my eyelids with Urban Decay 24/7 eye pencil in Legend, even though it still made me look like a raccoon.
I started getting listless, killing time walking laps in TJ Maxx. I spent a week trawling Ebay for an OPI nail polish shade released in the fall of 2011. Uh-Oh Roll Down the Window swatched as a murky olive green, and my juvenile sense of humor couldn’t get enough of the name. My mom thought I needed some structure and signed me up to be a leader with my old Girl Scout troop.
Troop 437 still met in St. Anne’s basement on Thursdays, and the troop leader, Mrs. Farber, was the same degree of decrepit as I remembered from my youth. My old uniform sort of fit—like a glove if it was the leather/mesh fingerless kind—the skirt ending a somewhat slutty distance from the sharp edges of my knees.
Our main objective was still cookies, albeit with the addition of a gluten-free line. The girl who won first place set up a Facebook page for her cookie empire. Apparently she was a twelve-year-old influencer of some kind, driving traffic and tripling engagements in a coordinated campaign spanning all her social media accounts and using the hashtag #CookieBlessed.
I sold some Thin Mints to my parents and—in the course of a single day—I finished off the rest. My mind didn’t get the memo that my stomach was full.
“When are you moving out?” you’d text me at least once a day. Which was pointless because I didn’t have an answer, and the one that I gave you was always the same.
You didn’t like the idea of long distance, but I convinced you to give it a try.
“There’s no distance in long distance relationships anymore,” I said over FaceTime. “See?” I tilted my bowl of popcorn towards the camera on my phone. “Before you just would have heard crunching without any context.”
There was good old-fashioned texting, as well as Gchat, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram DMs. There was FaceTime, Skype, and Snapchat. And there was always the option of virtual sex. You ordered me one of those vibrators that can be controlled remotely with a Bluetooth-connected app. It arrived two days later on my parents’ front step.
The app for the vibrator connected to the front-facing camera on my phone. But seeing a close-up of my face—along with a video stream of your face searching earnestly for a reaction from mine—was like masturbating in close proximity to a one-way mirror. I felt disconnected from my own body, not to mention yours. I hid the vibrator under my mattress, told you it fried in the shower, and we never spoke of it again.
Being hyper-connected through technology made it impossible to really connect. I had a hard time figuring out what I was feeling, much less updating you on those feelings every hour of the day. I started sending a steady stream of Dave Chappelle gifs in lieu of actual texts. Technology didn’t add context, it took all the affect away.
“You’re losing me,” you texted me. But how could you be lost when I saw you right there in the Find My Friends app on my phone? “When are you moving out?”
“Idk, hopefully soon,” I responded. Which made it sound as though I didn’t have a say.
One day I got back from a Girl Scout trip and found my mom in the home office, tax-looking papers before her, her graying hair pulled up into a nubby little bun.
The weekend had been stressful. One girl was allergic to hornets and demanded I destroy a wasp nest that was completely out of the way of her tent. Mrs. Farber had gotten wasted sitting at the campfire after the girls were in bed, offering me sips from her Navajo-print flask in between stories about her misadventures on SilverSingle.com. My arms were covered in stings that by that time were itching like crazy, and my stomach still felt sick from a surplus of the almond flour graham-style crackers in the compulsory s’mores.
“What’s this?” I asked, nudging a box full of tapes with my hiking-socked toe.
“Those are all the home videos your dad wanted me to start trying to convert,” she said, not glancing up from the desk.
“Oh yeah, the magnetic media crisis is coming. I heard them talking about it on NPR. Anything not converted to digital by 2028 will be rendered obsolete.”
At one point on the segment the woman’s voice had grown fast and excited, prophesying the vast destruction of university archives and museum collections. We were on the brink of cultural destruction, she had gleefully foretold.
My mom put down her pen and gave me more of her attention. “And what exactly am I supposed to convert it to? My new computer doesn’t even have a CD-ROM drive. I would just have to turn around in a few years and convert it all over again.”
“The cloud I guess.”
I moved the top layer of tapes—with unhelpful labels like Family Trip and Birthday—to reveal the messy stack all labeled Christmas in a jumble underneath.
My mom let out a sigh, a low sustained whistle that sounded like the noise in a cartoon when something’s falling down a well. “What does that even mean? All our family memories floating up in the clouds? What happens if the internet breaks?”
“I’m not sure that would make a difference. I think they’re still physically stored on a server in a warehouse in the middle of a desert somewhere.”
“Well, I told your dad I’d get to it. But I didn’t tell him when.”
She had a point. We could keep preserving and updating. But memories, like technology, have a shelf life. A general “best by” date. They didn’t really mean much past then.
A certain proportion of scouting alumni were simultaneously reaching old age, so the higher ups at Girl Scouts of America HQ came out with a new kind of patch. Tired of pre-pubescents talking back, smirking pointedly at the coffee-stained free space on my faded green vest, I decided to go for this one. I should probably try and get something achieved.
The Caregiver Patch had rigorous requirements. You had to spend x number of hours reading to someone over 60, as well as x number of hours listening to whatever they wanted to say. My parents made the cut off, so I moved down the hall into their bedroom, unrolling my American Girl sleeping bag across the couch that faced their bed.
My dad was usually at work, and my mom made an effort to pretend I wasn’t sitting at home by ignoring me for most of the day. We filled my hours log at nighttime, before we succumbed to sleep in our respective sleeping bag and California-king bed. We’d alternate: a night spent with me reading, a night of me listening to them.
“My sister got some of those Tesla charging boxes installed up at their cabin the other day,” said my mom on one of the listening nights. “Here’s a picture she sent me.” She passed me her phone.
The photo on her screen was so realistic it moved, a live photo animating itself as I swiped forward then back. A blue-jeaned ankle caught fleeing before the frame settled into stillness—a very clean garage, with shiny grey paint on the floor and slip-free speckles of darker grey paint over that. Two boxy-looking boxes, unassuming and white.
“What? I’ve been on the waitlist for months,” said my dad, “just trying to give them my hard-earned cash. The technology is there, they just don’t want everyone to have it.” It was unclear, exactly, who he was referring to as “they.”
“She said it’s already had an effect on their electrical bill. It took her awhile to convince Bill they should do it, but she finally made him see what a huge impact it’s going to have.”
We all went quiet then, the three of us thinking our separate thoughts in the warm womb-like darkness of the room. It was unclear to me what exactly the impact had been, or whether the electrical bill had gone up or decreased. It made sense to me that it would have gone up, in which case I wondered if Bill was mad? Or maybe my aunt was talking about the impact on the environment.
I scrolled through two more pictures of Powerwalls: one with my aunt standing in front of the boxes, smiling, and my uncle—a Republican—grimacing like he always did in a terrified-seeming way. I swiped again and there was a picture of my mom.
She must have taken it herself. The angle was consistent with a front-facing camera. She wasn’t posed like she was trying to take a selfie, though. Her eyes were focused on something off to the side, and her hand was halfway to her face. When I held my finger down—making the image, for a brief moment, come alive—her long fingers fluttered up to her earlobe and back. She seemed worried, like she’d seen what Uncle Bill had, and it had also made her scared.
“What’s this one?” I held the phone up so she could see.
She put on her glasses and leaned forward to peek. “Oh, that? That’s nothing.” She snatched the phone away and turned it off, her face and the room disappearing into darkness. “It must have taken on accident when I was searching for that one-pot pasta recipe on there the other day.”
I heard my dad begin to snore a short while later, a chesty rumble that usually made me calm. I laid there for a long time, listening to my dad and the crickets that had emerged along with spring. But I could still see the corner of my mom’s mouth in my mind, creasing into lines I’d never noticed as her lips in the photo pressed firmly together and turned down into a frown.
I took out books from the library on my dad’s card because I still didn’t have one of my own. My dad showed a penchant for sci-fi, Orson Scott Card and Philip K. Dick. My mom seemed to like more nonfiction, books about the Romanovs and biographies of Marilyn Monroe.
Our library was kind of shitty in that it didn’t actually have very many books. I ended up requesting a lot of things through interlibrary loan. My dad had to forward me the emails saying when the books were ready to be picked up.
“Everything ok?” he wrote at the top of a forwarded message informing him House of Hilton: From Conrad to Paris had arrived at our branch.
“Everything fine,” I wrote back, unsure if that’s how I actually felt. “Just thought we’d try a change of pace.” The reviews I’d read online made it seem like this book could be a nice compromise between science fiction and fact.
To explain why he only dated Paris Hilton’s maternal grandmother for a month, Los Angeles produce king Chet Frangipane said, “It’s like a piece of food. You want it, but the more you look at it you say, what the fuck do I need this for?”
“That doesn’t even remotely make sense,” my dad said that night after I read the line out loud. “Who says that about food? Cause, effect. You eat food because if you don’t then you die.”
“Nobody knows why certain foods are their favorite. It’s just who you are. It comes down to a matter of taste,” said my mom.
I thought about a television commercial I’d seen earlier in the day: a beer company bragging about its use of AI. With machine-learning technology, it took only a few minutes for them to detect a new marketable flavor. The last time I went to the Starbucks in the mall they’d played three songs that were currently in my Discover Weekly playlist. Maybe my dad was right. Maybe there was a way for the unmeasurables to be measured. If a computer could map out my feelings, maybe I wasn’t all that complex.
I only had to complete three more hours before I could send for my Caregiver patch. I’d stopped going to Girl Scout meetings, but I enjoyed reading aloud to my parents by then.
I’d saved my dad’s library login on my phone. That way, I could request a new book as the idea arose. It got to the point where he was forwarding me upwards of five new emails a day—an electronic record of my thoughts as they occurred.
“Took you long enough,” he wrote at the top of an email for Make Life Happen: How to Stop Letting Life Happen to You. It reminded me of when I was little, and my parents seemed to know what I was feeling before I figured it out on my own.
A ping. “When are you moving out?” read the text.
I scrolled to the top where it said Contact, clicked on your image, and called Home.