March 19, 2024

Cult ClassicFiction by Anabelle Johnston

By this point, my stomach had ballooned beyond proportion, leaving me largely immobile and not at all like Demi Moore in that one photoshoot. I wasn’t beloved so this wasn’t a shock to the system, but still, it was an objectively dismal social situation. There was no one to tend to me, bring me multivitamins or reprimand me for vigorous exercise, to even call to inquire about my health or the baby. My mother was a career woman, which meant I spent most of this time alone flipping through channels and reading gossip magazines, waiting for her to return from work so I could get a direct answer to all my questions. I adored Isabella Rossellini, but she would never tell me when to introduce solid foods or if anyone had ever accidentally killed their baby. Life was coming and I still had many things to sort out, like is it normal for my feet to hurt this much? How do you know what this much is? What if I hurt more than you, on average? On principle?

I thought my mother would be able to answer me, if not because she raised me then at least because gynecology was her medical specialty. Of course, I couldn’t be sure. For most of my life we didn’t have a professional relationship. I’m not slut shaming. Truthfully, I only recently became the sort of person that could be described as adventuresome. One day, I was copying kinematic equations onto looseleaf when I looked down and saw my parabolic young life paralyzed by equal and opposite forces in a process known as ambivalence. Nothing happened and then kept happening. Now was the best time to act, second only to just-before-it-was-too-late. Usually when people use the phrase take advantage of they mean something bad, but in this case it was positive: I had decided to take advantage of my youth. From my mother I knew this condition was precious and fleeting.

“Your life only looks like a series of choices at the end,” my mother had said when I announced I was seizing the day. “Until then it’s just pointillism.” She didn't even look up from the obits when she said this. She was not a stick in the mud but the ooze itself, unrelenting.

Of course I was anxious about accumulating experiences. Bravery is not an endless reserve. You only get a couple chances to make a bold move and I didn’t want to waste mine on a blunt bob or a secret piercing. I developed a list of interesting things that girls did in movies but it seemed my options were limited. I wasn’t invited to parties and didn’t want to get murdered, so I decided to lose my virginity, even though that compromised my allure to a subsect of strange individuals. I would never be a cult classic.

Popular refrain was that you had to do it with someone who mattered, but the only person that was special to me like that was Takeshi Kitano. For once in my life, I was refreshingly realistic about events happening my way. In the end it wasn’t with anybody important, but he did have a car, in which I had sex one-and-a-half times, including penetration. I knew him from being a regular customer at the video store where I worked. Whenever I recommended movies, he’d always respond with the name of the director. For example, right before we did it the first time, I said, “You should check out Nuts in May.”

And he said, “Oh yeah, Mike Leigh.”

And before the half-time, when the condom broke and put me in the predicament I am in today, I recommended Working Girls and he just shrugged. “Oh yeah, Lizzie Borden.”

I told him with that encyclopedic knowledge maybe he should’ve worked at the video store instead of me.

Then he said he didn’t like to mix business and pleasure.

Even though we had this really great rapport going on, I could tell I was not the type of girl he usually went for, the ones who knew what they were doing and would never let condoms break inside of them as a result of their thorough sex education. Many of them had even been taught by my mother, which I gleaned from the way they reacted to me. I had been freaked out when girls at school started getting pap smears because our grade was so small and repressed about sex. I can’t get into specifics due to HIPAA, but I was certain they were relieved when I stopped coming to class, like this is what I deserved for knowing about their cervixes. I guess we mutually ignored each other because I didn’t reach out to them either. But in my defense I was too busy getting ready to bring life into this world, which was a lot more work than studying the government.


I don’t mean to complain. Even though I couldn’t touch my toes I was still experiencing unprecedented freedom. I slept in late, kept the TV on, and used the whole kitchen for prenatal yoga. Sometimes I stood in front of the mirror and ran circles over my bloated belly, pretending I was in a Christian photoshoot and my husband was secretly a homosexual.

“Oh honey, what will we name her?” I said out loud to myself in my regular voice.
I turned the other way. “What about Glinda?” I replied down a register.

After three days of this I figured I should update my real friends over in Beverly Hills. I got the idea from a former child star who mentioned fan mail briefly in an interview I was reading while waiting for the end of the work day. The star was promoting this new indie movie where she had to go topless on screen to be taken seriously. Most of the people who wrote to her were total creeps and weirdos, but she got a few really heartfelt messages that didn’t mention her tits at all and that offered much-needed perspective. She told the reporter how important it was to her to get those letters, how they gave her the confidence to keep flashing tastefully and thus advancing her career. We had a lot in common, both being from New Jersey, so I figured it wouldn’t be too much of a challenge for me to write without saying anything about her breasts or what I’d do to them. I was the opposite of if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all. And I needed to practice building up a woman’s confidence because I was about to have a daughter in less than two weeks. My mother was the kind of feminist that didn’t believe in vanity, so I didn’t have a normal framework for that sort of thing.

I hope you are well out in California. It is beautiful over here this time of year. The sun feels much less like a nearly perfect ball of hot plasma than a benevolent Greek god. Did you know that it is ordinary, just one of 100 billion in our galaxy? I guess what makes it special is us, and that we need it. It’s like love in that way. Can you feel it?

I sealed the note with a God Bless the USA stamp but then I worried I was giving off an unintentionally patriotic attitude towards life and letters. Everyone was always misinterpreting me. I knew it then and even more when my neighbor squinted at my protruding stomach while watering her gardenias. She was always doing things like a Stepford Wife plucked straight from the cinema. She practically mouthed what a disgrace while I was trodding to the mailbox. I lifted the flag to alert the mailman that I communicated with people far beyond central Jersey and made a little wave at her.

After that I sat around and waited for my life to change. Prior to my pregnancy, my lack of ambition was a repeated source of tension with my mother, who tried to persuade me to take initiative, suggesting that if I liked movies so much, why didn’t I direct them? I resented the idea that the only way to appreciate something was flimsy reproduction. 

True to form, after we argued about my irresponsibility which I had “taken to a whole other  level” by involving a new life form, I gave up let my mother write me into her system. I got my own file at her office and everything because the future was the only time frame where she had a sense of control. It went like this: after softball practice, I would walk to the Y for a night course on early parenting. They made a big hullabaloo about choking and accidentally suffocating your baby, but no one ever wanted to talk about what really mattered, like how to say what you mean even when your consonants were flattened by baby talk. Then I’d come home and do my homework in our kitchen. Sometimes I’d look up and catch my mother from the window, jogging laps around our duplex. She was distressed about the finances, in addition to the broader situation. I couldn’t help but wonder about our previous budget and how it had gotten so constricted. Other people supported whole families, not just one daughter who never asked for anything.

For a while the days drifted by me, blurry as the  neon green exits on I-95, tail lights gleaming in the traffic of the court-mandated holiday visits to my father in Florida. Even though I was afraid of dying, I still had to see him twice a year. Spring break after he moved away: I got all the way inside Newark before I started hyperventilating. Gaze glued to the window, I watched countless planes ascend towards certain death. Eventually, my mother grabbed my elbow and pulled me to the payphone where she called my dad to say I was having a freak attack and the trip was canceled. I had to respect their rough and tumble communication.

In my defense, I was only eight and didn’t think to be afraid of dying until I was immediately confronted with it. As much as those so-called readers tried to tell you otherwise, you could only really feel things you had felt before. Occasionally, you could come up with an idea that was entirely novel all on your own, like keeping a baby even though you only got a B in biology even with grade inflation, but then you had a whole life on your hands and take-backs stopped working after kindergarten.

My mother had tried to warn me. She was always trying to get me to see things from her perspective. Pretty soon after I found out I was pregnant, I showed up at her office with my plus sign and delicately explained what had happened to me, minus all the cinematic references. She was quiet for a while. One thing I appreciated: she didn’t even ask who was responsible because she knew it wasn’t about him. Then she closed her notebook, looked me in the eye, and told me I should have an abortion because it was the only way to save the rest of my life. The way she said it made motherhood sound like a death sentence, and I even said that out loud, haha you make being a mom sound like the worst thing that could happen to a woman, but then she was all apologies so I knew she actually meant it. Then she launched a long speech about how hard my life would be if I kept this baby, and how even if I went for adoption my body would still shift out of focus forever.

“Your vagina no longer belongs to you,” she said gravely. She had no hang ups about saying the word vagina to me, obviously.

“Who does it belong to then?”

“Your child.”

“I don’t want your vagina. You can have it back.” I said, mildly disgusted. It was actually better to be disappointed by life at sixteen than forty-three, I said, drawing the obvious comparison. I’ll admit this was a low blow but it was better to know what was out there waiting for me, so the remaining years would be like flatlining instead of falling infinite. She was silent. So there we both were, waiting for the words to come. There was a long time where I tried to make myself understood before I realized how childish and useless this project was. “It’s your life,” my mother had said finally, even though up until that point it hadn’t been.

I’m sure it’s hard to believe, but I really didn’t mind being pregnant. I was too young to have developed all those vices you weren’t supposed to taint the unborn with and my mood swings were almost indistinguishable from teenage hormones. The only trouble was I had to stop working at the video store, at least for the time being, because babies couldn’t appreciate mass media. In addition to getting me pregnant, the job had the perk of letting me watch a lot of movies for free. I don’t know if this was officially allowed because my manager was just some other, slightly-older high schooler named Alex who was always on a smoke break and mostly let me do what I wanted. I always thought when I was in charge, I would try to be like Alex, to assume responsibility in a relaxed way that made people automatically respect me. As it stood no one automatically respected me, ever.

 Sometimes I would freak out about not being a natural leader. When you’re on the verge of a great big change, it is not unreasonable to become neurotic about it. I tried to study how to be a mother but often gave up after twenty pages, and left my library books scattered about my room somewhere around breastfeeding.

“It looks like a bomb went off in here,” said my mother who’d never seen a bomb go off in anywhere.

I still hadn’t heard back from the starlet and decided the problem was that I was grasping at too far a distance. I could never be understood like that, even if I was eternally elusive. So my next letter was to my former ballet teacher, who in my head had become a professional back in Kraków. It was anti the American dream for her to go back because the setting was all wrong, but pro the American dream because in the United States you’re supposed to want to be famous. When she stopped teaching ballet classes, they told us she’d been discovered, even though she’d been right there in front of us only last week. It didn’t occur to me until I was balancing my notebook on my belly that maybe they’d discovered she was like me and that’s why they disappeared her. I guess it’s hard to anticipate these things because getting pregnant doesn’t necessarily correspond with raw sexual energy, which we were both clearly lacking.

I had no idea how to reach her directly, so I just sent it to the dance studio and hoped they’d forward it to Poland. I even paper clipped extra postage before shoving it in our mailbox just in case they needed it. We didn’t live in a place where people usually went abroad, so I didn’t really know the protocol for communicating over so far a distance. I dug a paper clip out of the junk drawer by the entrance and hoped four stamps would suffice. Any more and my mother would wonder who I was having all these tête-a-têtes with.

You probably don’t remember me. For you, I was one of many. But for me, you hollowed the body into pure gesture. This was personal in the way everything is and isn’t. You taught me how to occupy time not space and I will always applaud politely.

Inspecting my handiwork, I was sure she would think I was in love with her even though I was clearly expressing pure awe. In order to love someone you have to have some personal stake in them. Your fate has to be tied to theirs or, at least, you need to convince yourself that this was the situation. Loving someone was actually an extreme circumstance, which people often didn’t realize with their greeting cards and lazy declarations. At a certain point, your life became about only one person, and every action was actually just a radio wave launched into space to reach them. Usually this person was your soulmate, and your relationship was a game where you tried to decipher their signals. My mother was not in a couple and didn’t know any other couples so I’d never seen her do it, but it seemed like well-adjusted people were always pantomiming the title of something. Eventually, you stopped playing charades because you finally understood your partner or just threw in the towel, and then you had a midlife crisis. Because I had selected my person so early on, not by falling in love but just by being born, I either had to draw out or accelerate this process, so it would happen immediately or unfold infinitely over my lifetime, Fibonacci sequence.

Having a baby felt kind of like having an affair, or at least how I imagined that to be. My favorite movies often featured couples that were both committing adultery but somehow redirected all this passion back into their relationship. Energy couldn’t be created or destroyed, so we learned in physics. I guess on some subconscious level, I hoped having a baby would bring me closer to my mother, who often wailed on the phone about being alone in central New Jersey. She used to talk to me about this every evening until we had a blow up fight about me being such a burden. She kept saying “I never said that” until it felt like I was accusing myself of ruining her life. I was my own worst enemy.

“You’ll never understand until you have your own child,” she said tearfully.

Even though I was almost one hundred percent bedridden, it was nice to know I was only days from understanding her. All afternoon I pruned in the bath like Archimedes, on the cusp of revelation.

“Who are you always writing to?” my mother asked five days before it was supposed to be over. “I didn’t know you had so many friends.” She was rude because I hurt her, abandoning our unspoken pact to be lonely together.

“Just people,” I said dismissively, turning the card away from her. I was rude because I was pregnant and not a fountain of forgiveness.

I was working on fan mail to a girl I knew from grade school who, when the mood was right, would mimic the most excellent horse with her mouth. I tried to reproduce the syllables on the page (clip-clop clip-clop clip-clop (inhale) neighhhhhhhh) but words were a lazy approximation. To say we’ve been out of touch would be a misstatement. We’d never been in touch. I’d watched her in class with a goldfish-drawn gaze and listened when she made that sound. I knew she wouldn’t remember me. I even wrote that in the letter, careful not to overstate my importance. I simply reminded her of the time she asked for a stick of gum and I produced four and she swiped them all without so much as a clip-clop in response. I didn’t say this with the intention of making her feel bad. I just wanted to demonstrate that I understood the terms of exchange and try to barter for one last performance.

“You never write me anymore,” my mother said. She was talking about her collage of my scribbles, a set constellation of stickers and sorries. This she took as evidence of my misdeeds, my early onset failures. Before the pregnancy fiasco, she pulled it out often, and would laugh at my looping apologies. I’m sorry for eating the extra Halloween candy and hiding the wrappers under my bed. I’m sorry for wearing your makeup to school — I hope I don’t give you an eye infection. It’s true that she humbled me and that I needed it, and that I was lucky to be loved so much that someone would save an altar to my faults.

“These are different. There’s no culpability.”

At this point, I was scribbling two a day on the verge of contractions. Everything felt urgent. Who knew how many letters I could write once my hands were covered in runny poop and diapers? My mother kept warning me about that, how liquid everything would be for so long. Lucky for me, I never really prioritized stability. I wrote to Amy Irving. To Barbara Drew. To Carrie Hamilton. In the background I kept playing Misery on VHS, one of the few tapes I owned personally.

I’m your number one fan, I repeated over and over again. There is nothing to worry about.

You’re going to be just fine.

I’m your number one fan.

My mother was just waiting for it to hit me, convinced I hadn’t processed it yet. How could anyone be so unaffected by pure life like this? Once, she took me to another doctor just to talk about it, to coax a true feeling out of me. He told me it was especially tragic because this was likely happening to other people. I agreed. It was especially sad that this was likely happening to other people, that my pregnancy did not affect some metaphysical weight somewhere and alleviate the burden of living from anyone else. This completely contradicted everything I had learned about physics or recycling. The doctor did not like this so I never talked to another professional about my feelings.

Instead, every night I lathered lotion all over my body because my magazines told me to fear stretch marks. Although I was not vain I was certainly persuadable. My mother retreated to her own bedroom and did not speak to me. These days, I didn’t mind being alone because I was going to have company for the next eighteen years of my life, if my own experience of being a child was any metric. Some people liked being alone with their thoughts, even if they didn’t know what to do with them. My mother always fantasized about that moment she got home before everyone else and could finally do whatever she couldn’t do all day, like masturbate to 24-hour infomercials or crawl around like a spider with four arms instead of eight. When we were together she was never free to be herself, she often told me.

As if herself was somewhere else, waiting for her to come and get it.

I couldn’t imagine giving birth but I kept having dreams about dying. Somewhere tropical, like a honeymoon where I am both the bride and the groom and the very celebration.

In my head, I am seated in an emergency exit, about halfway through coach. My sides are crammed but my legs can stretch long to accommodate the door. I feel like a supermodel for fitting and a superhuman for agreeing, at the glittering flight attendant’s behest, to remove my bag and clear the aisle. I don’t need anything, ever. She asks if I am willing and able to open the door in the event of an emergency. Everyone I have ever admired is on this plane. They are fumbling with the overhead compartment, ordering Bloody Marys, waiting in line for the bathroom. They are resting their heads against the wall, bumping towards concussion with every turbulent node. If there are flames outside, I’m not to open it. If the plane lands on water, I’m to pull down on the red handle and the door will fly away. My responsibility is bookended by catastrophe.

I know from the moment I sit down that the plane will nosedive, masks will fall from the sky, the captain will say don’t worry but of course everyone screams. As we descend towards civilization everyone is frantic to reach their loved ones, a last ditch effort up and up in flames. Beside me there is a baby and I admire her for admitting her fear so readily. She does not dress up her feelings in language. Oh hello baby, I say. She wails in response. Will you help me open the emergency exit? Everything floats like in 2001, future-past, and I am rising from my seat next to a juice blob. Cranapple? Orange? It’s a stain you can’t get out of the air. Out of anything.

When I first heard about the big bang, I was for sure skeptical, but as we’re hurling towards the earth I realize it can’t begin with anything but an explosion. Even though it’s only the end of a dream, I’m still expecting to be inundated by memory, a montage that evidences I was here. But, as I said, I am new to experience, so there’s nothing for me to grasp in my panicked delirium. I try to collage scenes from my favorite movies like when the Eraserhead baby sprouts pox or the cult hails Satan and at least Rosemary isn’t crazy, so the plane has erupted in sacrilegious ritual and everywhere aliens wail. I guess this is a nightmare but at least it is mine alone. I didn’t tell my mother about these dreams because she would try to diagnose them and I was getting kind of sick of her telling me like it is. Instead I woke up and scribbled but never sent them, because I was pretty sure that would be hate mail or at least frowned upon. I had to be on my best behavior, especially after what happened.

Oh, I also knew what I wanted when someone told me I couldn’t have it, like writing the former child star another letter. Everyday I shuffled through my mail, hoping someone had something real to say to me. And there it was, spelled out beneath God Save America.

Return to sender.

Anabelle Johnston is a writer and founding editor of Syntax Magazine. She is originally from New York and currently lives in Gumi, South Korea.