I like Kate A. because right away she told me how much her period blood stinks.
I like Kate B. because of how elegantly she pins up her hair. Like she just hopped off a bicycle in Lisbon.
I like the first Kate S. because of a series of events that rendered us both essentially fatherless while still having a father figure endomiciled. Also she lies all of the time. I couldn’t avoid them, so decided to love her for the lies.
Kate C. gave me the notebook in which I'm writing this.
There are two more: Kate M., Kate P.
Kate M. has spindly fingers, is my soul’s mate, and calls me dude.
Kate P. and I haven't spoken for three years but she has the same birthday as the first Kate S. and Kate C., and she ate her placenta twice. If there is a party, Kate P. is the person to sit next to, even if, especially, she does not feel like talking.
The second Kate S. is hard to like and easy to love and no one can give the finger like she can, and though she thinks she is unforgiving, loyalty is perhaps her biggest fault.
When I was having an affair, my mother saw me with him in a coffee shop and said nothing. The next day she said, "He has a kind face"—a face she could not have seen from any angle but my own lap because of his hat. It's not that she lied about seeing his face. It's that she saw his ridiculous hat. I broke it off.
Kate A. is married to the first person she ever slept with and still begs for sex at lunchtimes. He acquiesces only every other day.
Kate B. is more of an ancillary acquaintance. She has hairy, genteel ankles, and I've always imagined that she has a very small vagina. Charmed, I'm sure. That is what I would say to it if I ever got a look. I'd wear a Mamie Eisenhower hat and tip it ever so slightly in acknowledgment of its narrow introitus.
Mine, by the way, is "not the biggest" that my most recent partner had ever seen, and he's seen quite a number to be sure. So, it's not that small. But not the biggest in RI, CA, England, and several youth hostels in Athens in the 90s.
Though he might have meant the lips and not the tunnel, the latter of which, they say, is roughly the size of your mother's. I bring this up because something is stuck inside my own mother's, and oh, it's the Kates and me.
My mother said to me once— she said this to me in her car at a stoplight near a college campus as we both watched a handsome man with a messenger bag cross a parking lot—"You know, if you wanted to date somebody who was Black, I think that would be fantastic."
Since that day, here are the thoughts I've accumulated on her statement:
- Well, that was her way of being liberal.
- My mother and I are both dangerously naive.
- Dangerous to other people.
- This is one of only two pieces of relationship advice that I can remember her giving me, and it's not really advice.
- The other one was to move a couch with someone before committing to them.
- But the occasion to move a couch up three flights with someone does not usually present itself until after the question of cohabitation. At which point it feels too late.
As I write this, leaning against her cervix with the notebook balanced on my knees, I have been stuck inside my mother's vagina with the Kates for going on ten years.
We were hanging out in my driveway one night. Me, Kate C., and the second Kate S. Talking. How did we get where we are, these lives we're waistdeep in now, etc.
There's the idea of love being a kind of perseverance. There's the sunk cost fallacy. They do say routine is freeing. Eat the same foods daily to save your decision-making energy for the grander things. Or, it was something to do with our mothers. Who were asleep at that hour.
Mine happened to be sleeping nearby. She was in state. As in, she was the only one of our mothers asleep that night in Rhode Island. Embalmed in her hand lotions. We went to pay our respects.
We had been sitting in camping chairs I'd dug out from the garage, next to a box of 150 headlamps from a spelunking project my ex had done. We’d had some wine and the headlamps were right there, with my mother's sleeping body easily accessible, and so in we went.
I love my friends very much and now that they have been lost with me for so long in my mother's vagina—
I don't know how to finish that sentence!
Things got serious almost right away that first night. What are we looking for, I asked, even though it was my mother and thus my life. Kate C. was quiet. She knows everything but doesn't have to let you know it. The second Kate S. said: "We're looking for what your problem is."
What is my problem?
Or, as Kate M. says to me, "Dude, what's your deal?"
What *is* my deal? I'm inside my mother's vagina, the walls of which are reminiscent of a milkweed pod. Delicate-seeming, smooth. Straw-colored. She always smells like Jergens lotion but in here she smells like a September field.
I remember her brushing her teeth one night when I was nine. She was a nurse then, and she had nurse's hands: clean, lotioned, skilled. Though it has been decades since I've touched her hands.
She is very private. After that one time, I can't say that I ever witnessed her hair- or teeth- brushing again. She will not take off her shoes unless she is alone. The bathroom door is always locked. Rare it is that she will eat in front of us.
We decided to split up. Me to the Patent Office. Kate S. to the riverbank. Kate C. to the Department of Records—for a poet, she has a beautiful practicality. Kate S. mistrusts the official word on things, thus the riverbank. My thinking with the Patent Office was that perhaps my problem, when created in or by my mother, had been registered.
There at the Patent Office was a long desk and behind it the doors to four large reading rooms and three small antechambers. My mother had had four live births. And three miscarriages. It was clear her Patent Office was organized around her uterine activity. I am not sure this fact is an argument for or against children. I possess a rippling mistrust of all conclusive statements, and this is my greatest quality.
The Patent Office reading room dedicated to me was not as big as I had anticipated. I am the eldest child, after all.
"Therapy," the second Kate S. said, peering in from behind me. "You probably dismantled a lot of your mother's inventions in therapy." She reported that the riverbed was dry. As expected. My mother had likely been in menopause for several years. Then she (the second Kate S. loves discoveries) said:
-Hey! what are these three little rooms?
-I want to go in one of these. Back soon. You keep looking for your problem.
I was 19 at the time of my mother's most recent miscarriage, so she must have been 40. It was late. I was coming home from dogged sex on a golf course with a boyfriend. She was in the bathroom and not coming out. She never stayed in the bathroom if anyone else wanted it, which is the kind of mastery she has over her bodily functions. I don't remember her ever releasing intestinal gases. (Because my mother has never said the word "burp," never mind undertaken the action, I must say "release intestinal gases" here in lieu of "fart.") I don't know how, but I knew it was a miscarriage.
If in September you have occasion to pass through a meadow and smell the straw and dry sweetness, and you lie down on your side and watch the yellow color spreading, you will know what it was like that first week as the Kates and I languished in the offices of my mother's vagina...
I spent days in the Patent Office reading room dedicated to me. All sorts of inventions had been registered. Not much genetic, lots behavioral. For instance, my mother had patented, in my name, a refusal to share my domestic preferences with any roommate or partner. I do not think my first husband ever knew of my terror of non-stick cooking surfaces. We used his parents' old Teflon frying pan to make omelets. The PFAS accumulating in my bloodstream were not any business of his.
My problem is what? Sometimes I'd see Kate C., her arms full of manila folders from the Department of Records. She'd arch an eyebrow at me and be on her way.
(I love how Kate C. keeps her counsel. Once, she didn't say something, and didn't say it so intensely and for so long that I finally had to hear her say it in a dream.)
And then the other Kates started showing up, one by one. The first January, there was a deep and drifted snow inside my mother’s vagina. She’s always loved winter. And I saw Kate B. elegant as ever go snowshoeing by. (She has the type of beauty and bearing that has never been valued by my mother.)
The first Kate S., my oldest friend, was harvesting my mother's desiccated eggs. She picked a few off my coat, which had adhered to it like burrs. Then she put them in a bucket and continued on.
Kate A., blithely not looking for my problem, was training for a triathalon, up and down the vaginal walls with crampons. I was sure that the crampons must be causing my mother a not insignificant amount of pain, but I said nothing. My mother wouldn't have wanted me to.
Kate M. wrote letters to me from the vaginal vestibule, where she had taken up the lookout. Kate P. kept her company, drinking and toasting her problem and, when I visited them, mine. Kate P. asked me whether Kate B. was attached. I looked down at my ankles, which are thick and hairless. Like my mother’s.
We'd gotten in but couldn't get out. I'm so sorry, guys! I have apologized at length. How tedious for my friends to be stuck in my mother's vagina. We should have gone in your mother's, I always say to Kate C., suspecting we would have been in and out in a number of hours, headlamps stowed, hands washed, done.
Though maybe not. Vaginas are like the cup Darwin filled with three spoonfuls of mud and then covered until eventually 537 different plant species grew. He was surprised but hey, only the obvious is amazing, and the conditions for life, if you have them in you, as the Kates and I do—well it was foolish not to anticipate that my mother's vagina would be deep and diffuse and contain so many meticulously filed records.
It also housed joys, which can be boring to report on. Or rather, if you report a joy accurately and well, you destroy it. How could I do that to my mother?
But they all came around to the idea before I did, the Kates: something has to be destroyed in order to be created. (I suspect the Kates are all getting together without me sometimes. And that beautiful tattooed woman Kathy whose last name I don't know. And my cousin Katie. They’re here too.)
My mother singing "Edelweiss" with a child in a rocking chair—a vision I saw through a window in the Death Certificate Office before it smashed closed. Window after window in this office is smashing closed. This, I venture, is mainly for effect. A series of dramatic smashing closures is not what the loosening of the parent-child bond feels like. Only dying lilacs affect me in real time. Also, my mother is always very busy. "We are sometimes at our most resourceful when we are putting things out of our minds." I read that in this month's NYRB. The subscription has caught up with me here.
There is the lovely September meadow feeling of the main tunnel. And then these antiseptic offices. The Death Certificate Office crammed with dry, yellow papers.
My grandmother's last minutes choking for air... My mother held her hand and was sure that medical technology would prevail and thus turned her mind to her 7:30 a.m. work meeting. I know what my mother's thoughts were that morning of my grandmother’s death but I don't know her well enough to be able to answer: where has she filed this scene?
In an effort to communicate to me that pubic hair was "normal" and not to be shaved, my mother once told me, while folding laundry in the basement beside the slop sink, about her friend "Virginia.” Poor razor-happy Virginia, who suffered the consequences. Virginia! The first Kate S. and I had laughed and laughed. Her faults be as they may, my mother has an excellent instinct about communication. Hide the message.
I love my friends so much. I have always dreamt of becoming orphaned and having to make a family from the Kates. Or keep my mother alive but far away. Maroon me on Rapa Nui and her on an ice floe in the Northwest Passage. Or fine, she can stay right here but has to tone down loving me so much.
"I don't think there is a woman in this world who doesn't know on the cellular level that her mother has to be dead in order for her to live. IDK. Maybe not. I'm putting ‘live’ in quotation marks, you get me dude?" This is what I wrote recently in a letter to Kate M., who will read it perched at the vestibular cleft, and who will hopefully, meaning full of hope, write back.
Here in my mother's vagina, the Skene's glands—glands named after a Victorian gynecologist who peered into the vaginas of women whom I do not imagine wanted or assented to the attention, but first "discovered" by Regnier de Graaf when he gazed into the vaginas of aroused rabbits—are dry. They have remained dry through the 183 bouts of intercourse that my mother has had these ten years. I have a friend, Kathleen—every single detail in this story is true—who does female genitalia education. I never did the mirror class with her, but I liked hearing the history.
None of the Kates or I has ever been inside a vagina save for our births, and only Kate P. has regularly had her tongue in one. "Remarkably supple," Kate A. said of my mother's vaginal wall, laughing. She has been laughing a lot in here, though this, on the whole, feels to be a serious matter.
I like when people laugh during and at serious circumstances—a deep-in-the-tunnel recognition of how incongruous and out of tune things always are. Though from what?
The questions that brought me to my mother’s vagina have not mellowed with age. And the answers remain as rare as the seeds of the fairy lantern, a flower that has been on my mind a lot since the last of the headlamps sputtered out.
I have stopped apologizing and now take a weird pride in the fact that my mother's vagina is roomy enough to accommodate all of these Kates and me. Too, it is still flexible enough to allow the weight of two or more Kates against a portion of its wall to create a kind of cozy indent. There is that Herodotus line, something to the effect of: “From the beginning I didn't write straight on about the big things but went for the supplementary story.” And that is the conversation that many of the Kates and I had been having for years even before we entered the vagina: What does complete mean?
My mother once ran for Congress and lost. In her vagina’s Death Certificate Office there is a folder with six certificates on that episode. After her second wedding, on a honeymoon in Eastern Europe, she called her kids, who slid down her parents' banister and begged to get off the phone. I have spent months on the certificates from this episode, which, unlike the Congressional defeat, span several shelves. Though there is also the possibility, occurring to me only recently, that the records here have been arranged and curated purely for my benefit, and that the true deaths housed in my mother remain a secret.
As I mentioned, she has had penetrative sex 183 times in these ten years. We retreat to the cervix when this happens. The most recent time, Kate P. tried to rally the group: "Let's all grab on to the tip when it gets close, and when it pulls out, we get out with it."
We sat in respectful silence after that suggestion, but rescue via penis was never an option.
In all this time, my mother has not masturbated. Do not take this to mean she is against climax. Rather, knowing my mother, I'd say that her refusal to masturbate is the strongest piece of evidence I have that she values and believes in it.
The feeling of not being able to feel has been the prevailing state of my life. What if all of this research is a distraction? Information as numbing agent... I should sit alone in my mother’s vagina, hands empty, and listen to the sounds of her gastric acid and to the valves of her heart muscle.
But, too, I can see that this yearning for emptiness is just another stage in the search.
My mother is a shy person and has yet to acknowledge that the Kates and I are here.
The most harmonious furniture-moving relationship of my life has been with my mother. Move a couch three flights up with her and you will forgive her everything. If there were anything to forgive.
The second Kate S. thinks there is. Things to forgive, that is. Kate C. is, as usual, circumspect. When this is all over I will text her.
Have I ever seen my mother laugh? I can't be sure. Like the first Kate S., she is a gifted and committed liar.
But it’s I who wants to do the lying. And I don’t want to be subordinate to the subject. Then again, I don’t want to write “on” her, stomping all over her with my Doc Martens while she sleeps. I am therefore in what seems to be the only morally defensible position. Inside. Now how to get out? The Kates and I have decided to synchronize the pushing of our fingers into my mother's Grafenberg spot. The plan is to keep pushing, come what may.