Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Artwork by Anselmo Alliegro
    by Stephanie Dray

She wants me to steal the salt.

Just this afternoon, I let her grab a fistful of mustard packets from McDonald's. That should have been enough for her. But now I'm on a date in a fancy restaurant, and she won't shut up about the salt.

My date's name is Chang. He is a doctor; I'm a medical researcher. We met at a pharmaceutical conference.

Very romantic.

He has boyish dimples. If Peter Pan were Chinese, he'd look like my date.

"Am I boring you, Adrienne?" he asks.

"No, I'm just distracted," I say.

I knew it would come up, but it's something you wait until dessert to mention. We've only had bread and butter. But I gulp down my wine, and murmur, "My DSA won't behave."

"Your what?" He clearly thinks he misheard.

I feign nonchalance. "My DSA . . . my Displaced Spiritual Ancestor."

Cue the tension. It's like I've told him I have the clap. He quietly sips his water, probably praying that his pager will go off.

"Chinese call our spirits Gui," he finally says. He's trying to be gracious.

"Well, mine is Italian and she wants me to steal the salt. Actually, now she's more interested in the pepper-mill."

"Was she a kleptomaniac? Is that how she ended up . . . you know, in Limbo?" He gives me a lopsided smile.

I like that Chang says Limbo instead of Purgatory, and I like his lopsided smile. It gives me hope this date isn't going to end in disaster. "No. It's just -- Big Ma lived through the Depression. She thinks that if the economy collapses, we'll survive by selling stolen condiments on the black market."

Chang laughs. This is a good sign. "Big Ma?"

"She was my great grandmother. Big Ma is her translation."

Chang makes a face before he can stop himself. Most people imagine that when you open your life to a DSA, you'll get an exotic spirit from a thousand years ago -- some beautiful young woman who met tragedy on a lonely road. That was the fantasy.

The reality was that I shared my body with a ninety-four year old woman who spent her girlhood herding goats in the old country. Worse, Big Ma is not a stranger. I knew Big Ma when she was still alive. I still remember her sitting on the porch with her stockings rolled down around those elephantine ankles, drinking from the mini-liquor bottles she always snatched from airliner bars. Her house smelled like salami, and she used to smack my sister and me with her over-stuffed purse to make us behave.

I want to smack her right now because she is calling my date a chink and she wants to know how well-off he is. Ever since Big Ma returned from the dead she's done nothing but nag me to marry a doctor. Now I find one, and she's making racist comments.

"I admire that you're willing to take her on," Chang says. His unmistakable tone is that he thinks I'm crazy. "I couldn't do it. I've got my residency. I guess it's not very Chinese of me to say, but there's no room in my life for an ancestor."

"You don't really know what you'll do until an ancestor comes knocking," I tell him. I'm feeling defensive now.

"But how is it your problem?" he asks. "If an ancestor is displaced, well, they should have planned better for the afterlife."

I try not to snap at Chang. How exactly Big Ma could have planned for overcrowding in the afterlife, I don't know. DSAs can either wait in Hell until new space is available, or live with a descendant. And I'm not about to let Big Ma live in an inferno with the condemned.

A white-coated waiter arrives with our entrees. Big Ma complains before I even pick up my fork. She thinks I should have ordered the chicken parmesan. But I know better; she'd have just bitched all night about how American restaurants serve ketchup and call it red sauce.

"So, your Big Ma lives inside you? She has to go everywhere with you?" Chang asks. "When you go out, you can't leave her with a relative?"

I would like to leave her on the street corner, but I say, "There's just me and my sister, and my sister has her own dead ancestor to deal with, so I really can't saddle her with mine for the night."

My sister's DSA is named Henri. He's a monk. A few weeks ago, while my sister took an afternoon nap, Henri tore strips from her leather sofa to make a whip, then scourged himself with it. My sister woke up to a bloody back and a titillated boyfriend who wanted to know if she was into S&M. She hasn't forgiven him yet -- not Henri and not the boyfriend.

So, as much as Big Ma irritates me, I could have it worse.

"Your Big Ma must have some great stories," Chang says. He's really trying. Then Big Ma catches him stealing a glance at my cleavage, and she forces me to frown at him.

"So, she's always with you? Like, always?" Chang asks.

I blush. "Big Ma goes to bed early. She's already drowsy, so soon we'll have the rest of the night to ourselves."

Chang and I talk about our work. He seems genuinely interested. Big Ma is not interested. Medical talk puts her to sleep. Finally, Chang and I are alone and the mood changes.

We share a cup of chocolate mousse and he winks at me. A perfectly timed wink seems to be a lost art these days, so when Chang walks me back to my apartment, I ask him to come up.

We kiss in the doorway. We keep kissing as we make our way down the hall, stepping over my unpacked boxes and piles of research books as we go. Chang yanks on the first doorknob.

I stop him. "No, the other door. This is her room."

"Big Ma gets her own room? I thought she lived in your head."

"It's for her junk. If you open that door, you'll be buried under an avalanche of salt shakers and gilded angels."

Chang and I go to my room. We trip over an old rug Big Ma bought at a flea market and land hard on my bed. I don't even have time to put down my purse. Chang has nimble surgeon's fingers. He has my dress unzipped before I pull down the covers.

I think about drawing limits, about telling him he can only go so far. But I haven't had a date in six months. I haven't had sex for more than a year. And with Big Ma around, who knows when I'll have the opportunity again.

So when Chang gets his pants half -ff, I reach for my purse to get a condom. But when I grab the purse, I find myself swinging it, full force, into Chang's face. It hits him so hard he topples off the side of the bed.

On the floor, he holds his nose and curses in Chinese. Inside my head, Big Ma curses in Italian. Cacophony.

She hits him with my purse again.

"Adrienne, stop!" Chang shields himself with his arms.

I wrestle Big Ma for control of my purse -- and my hands. "I'm trying, but she's strong for an old woman."

"Putana!" Big Ma screams at me. I don't have to speak Italian to know she's calling me a whore.

"Get away, Gui!" Chang tries to knock the purse out of my hands. Sugar and creamer packets spill everywhere.

He hops around my room, one leg in his pants, one out.

"I'm so sorry; she's just really old-fashioned!"

Chang is putting his pants back on. His nose is bleeding. And Big Ma is still shouting when Chang slams out the front door.

"Are you happy now?" I shout back. "You want me to get married, but you just scared another man away."

When she was alive, it was hard to understand Big Ma's broken English. Now, I understand her perfectly. "Why would that Chinaman marry you, Adrienne? You can't cook. You can't sew. You can't even milk a goat!"

Big Ma wants to decorate my apartment; I don't see the point. Some day, I'm going to own a house with built-in shelves. I'll decorate them with souvenirs from all the trips I'm going to take around the world. This apartment is just a way station. I haven't even unpacked my boxes from the last move.

Big Ma says I pay for the place, so I should make it a home. "Why can't you live where you are?" she wants to know.

We argue about it on our way home from work.

When we get to my apartment, my sister is there. She has every CD I own in a pile. "Where the hell is your Enigma album?" she asks by way of greeting.

I shrug, throw my books on the sofa, and go to the fridge for a diet soda. I hate diet soda, but I've gained ten pounds since Big Ma took up residence. I've woken up with cannoli crumbs on my lips, so I know how it happened. "Since when do you like Enigma?"

"I don't. It's for Henri. Whenever he hears Gregorian chants, he zones out and leaves me alone." She waves a receipt in front of me. "Six hundred bucks for a damned new leather couch!"

"Big Ma says not to blaspheme," I say.

"Screw that. I get that religious crap from Henri day in, day out. The bastard used my email account to log into a clerical chat board and started a flame-war between the Franciscans and the Dominicans."

Things are obviously not better between my sister and Henri. Things aren't much better between me and Big Ma. I tell my sister how she drove my date off with a bloody nose.

She laughs. My suffering improves her mood. "Adrienne, don't feel bad. The guy probably didn't even give you his real name. What kind of name is Chang? Did she actually break his nose?"

"I'll never find out. Dating is hard enough without ancestor baggage. I just want to get married so I can have a real life, but at this rate, I'll be single forever."

I realize I'm whining. I don't care.

Big Ma tells me to meet a nice boy at church. I remind her about the Catholic boy who took me to lunch at 7-11. He told me, between slurps of his Big Gulp, that I was lucky he was so open-minded. Most religious folk don't want to date people with DSAs for fear that the moral taint might be hereditary. After all, if Big Ma had been a good Catholic, she wouldn't have ended up in Limbo. That was his feeling.

I now avoid Church.

"Have you thought about trying one of those dating services?" my sister asks. "The ones where everyone has a DSA?"

I groan. I never thought I would need a dating service, but I also never thought I'd be sharing my body with a geriatric shoplifter.

"Found it," my sister says, holding up the Enigma jewel case in triumph. She runs around my kitchen with her hands over her head like Rocky. "Yo, Adrienne!"

I try to get her attention. "Listen, if I go to a dating service, will you go with me? You're not getting back together with the S&M guy, so why not?"

"I'm done with men."

"Right," I say. "Henri, help me out here."

"Henri is a monk. He thinks I should enter a nunnery. You're on your own, sis."

I flip through the phone book. Dharmic Dating. Kindred Spirits. Past Life Passions. I let Big Ma choose. She picks a service called Spiritual Connections. The lady at the office asks a lot of intrusive questions, like whether or not Big Ma killed anyone while she was alive.

Liability issues, apparently.

Big Ma's answer isn't something I can politely translate.

I sign forms, write a flirtatious blurb, and allow myself to be interviewed on video. Within a week, I have a date with a nice-looking policeman named Kevin O'Brien.

I meet Kevin for a picnic. I am thrilled with his choice of venue, because there's nothing in the park for Big Ma to steal.

Big Ma doesn't like that Kevin is Irish. She doesn't like that he is a policeman either. And though he impresses me by telling me that his father was a policeman and his father's father was a policeman, Big Ma calls them a family of jackboots.

Kevin unwraps a ham sandwich for me, and puts it on a plastic plate. The only kind of ham Big Ma can stand is cappicola, but I force her to eat it anyway. It's pretty bland, but Kevin made it himself, and that's nice.

"I've never met anyone through a service before," I confess.

"Me neither. But it's hard to find a girl who understands this spiritual shit if she isn't going through it herself."

I like that Kevin uses the word shit on a first date. It makes him more real. Big Ma thinks he's crass.

Kevin's DSA is his Uncle Pat. Uncle Pat died when Kevin was little, but he grew up with the pictures. "My mother and Uncle Pat were close. It was his liver that went."

Kevin laughs as he pops the top off two beers.

Inside, Big Ma nods knowingly, as if her every stereotype about the Irish is now confirmed. I sip from my beer and bask in the sunshine. "Was your Uncle Pat the religious sort? Big Ma loves angels. And my sister's DSA is a monk  . . ."

"Uncle Pat wasn't religious while he was alive," Kevin says. "But now he drags me to every church, synagogue, and mosque he can find, looking for the answer. I guess nobody in Limbo knows what the right religion is, otherwise they'd know how to get out," Kevin says. "Maybe none of them have the right religion."

Big Ma starts getting agitated at this possibility, so I remind her about our deal. If she behaves, I'll let her decorate my apartment. "Maybe the afterlife isn't about what you believed, but what you did," I say.

"Of course it is," Kevin says with certainty. Amazingly, he's already on his second beer. "Like I tell Uncle Pat, you gotta serve your time until you get paroled."

It's nice to be able to talk about our DSAs so naturally. No awkward silences. No lectures. Kevin wouldn't normally be my type, but a girl in my position can't be too choosy.

My sister is standing in front of my fridge eating yogurt. "Let's order pizza. Henri keeps throwing out my food. He's become an ascetic."

Big Ma complains about wasting money on take-out and insists on whipping up some pasta faggioli. She's a great cook and watching her use my hands, I learn the tricks she'd forgotten or wasn't willing to teach me while she was alive.

"You look awful," I tell my sister as I peel the garlic.

Her eyes are bloodshot. She's paler than usual. "Effing Henri had a midnight confessional."

"What did he confess?"

Big Ma wants to know too, but she pretends to be absorbed in bringing the pasta water to a rolling boil.

"Well," my sister says. "Didn't you ever wonder how we could possibly be descendants of an 19th Century monk?"

I gasp. "I always thought Henri was an uncle or something."

"No," my sister says. "He ran away from the monastery. He literally ripped up his bed sheet, made a rope, and climbed out the window to take up with a village seamstress. He's sure that's why he was sent to Limbo. Now he's scourging and starving me to atone for his sins."

"What did you tell him?" I asked.

"I told him the whole religion thing is bogus," my sister says, hovering over the skillet where we're frying up beans, garlic, onion, and basil. The scent is mouthwatering.

"How can you possibly think religion is bogus?" One would think that our undeniable proof of spiritual manifestations would have put that matter to rest.

"How can you not think it's bogus? Shouldn't an omniscient God have anticipated a shortage of space in the afterlife?"

My sister has a point. I'm curious about what Big Ma might have done to get sent to Limbo. I try to get her to tell me while we test the pasta for firmness, but my question makes her so belligerent that she throws the pot of boiling water and pasta into the colander.

The steam nearly scalds my hands and Big Ma feels guilty for burning me, so she murmurs something about problems in her marriage. I know she's holding out on me, but talking to Big Ma as a spirit is different than talking to my great grandmother. At least my sister never knew Henri, so she doesn't have to make the adjustment. I figure Big Ma will tell me in her own time, and in any case, I'm not sure I want to know her secrets.

On our second date, Kevin takes me to a baseball game. Baseball bores Big Ma even more than it bores me, and once we've had our hotdog, she's out for the count.

I tell Kevin about the monk's confession while he gulps down his fourth beer. I think Kevin drinks too much. Or maybe it's Uncle Pat that's doing the drinking. It's hard to tell.

"You know what I think?" Kevin asks. "Our DSAs have to get our forgiveness. That's why they've been sent back here. So, did you hear that, Uncle Pat? You'd better suck up to me."

"I'd forgive Big Ma if she were a serial killer, just to get her out of my head," I say. "I think maybe they have to forgive themselves."

"That's your book-learning talking, Adrienne. Self-forgiveness is just pop-psychology shit," Kevin says.

I don't like that Kevin uses the word shit on the second date. I don't like that every time he cheers for his team, his hand shoots out and I have to duck out of the way. I don't like that when his team loses it makes him so angry that he almost gets into a fistfight with the man in front of us.

I shouldn't find fault. Kevin is the first guy that's wanted to take me on a second date in forever. A person in my situation has to compromise. I realize that.

I have the day off, so Big Ma and I paint my living room. The color is Soft Fleece. At the hardware store, it was grouped with whites, but as we put it on the wall, Big Ma is pleased by the unmistakable pink undertones. She informs me that in her day, pink and gold décor was all the rage. She tells me they were Eleanor Roosevelt's favorite colors. I have no way of disputing this, so I allow her to mount four gilded angels on the wall.

While we paint, we have the television on. We're watching soap operas together. Somehow, in spite of the language barrier, Big Ma has always enjoyed General Hospital. She missed a bunch of episodes after she died, but now that she's back, it isn't hard to catch up with the storyline.

Three hours later, the paint is up on the wall and Big Ma is emotional. She won't tell me what's wrong, but I keep hearing a keening noise in my head. She puts Pavarotti on the stereo. We go through fifteen cycles of Ave Maria before she tells me that she once got divorced.

"From Great Grandpa August?"

When I ask about Great Grandpa it upsets her even more. She is crying, actually crying, and her tears are slipping over my cheeks in big fat droplets that splash on my hardwood floors. It's hard to comfort her when my own hands are shaking.

There was another man, before Grandpa August, she tells me. She got married very young, and she divorced him and moved away so no one would know; so the Church would not excommunicate her. She's so ashamed of having left her first husband that my skin turns bright red as she tells me about it.

I'm bewildered that this is what she thinks kept her out of Heaven. People in other religions get divorced all the time. But I can't comfort her by telling her that her worries are outdated sins. So, instead, I ask her why she left her first husband. She tells me she just didn't love him.

And then she cries again and refuses to say more.

When Kevin arrives at my apartment for dinner, I'm a wreck. My eyes are red-rimmed from all Big Ma's crying. I haven't had enough sleep because she tossed and turned.

Kevin is grouchy that I don't have any beer in the fridge. He teases me about Big Ma being a teetotaler. This bends her all out of shape. She demands that I inform him that she brewed hooch in her bathtub during Prohibition.

Kevin whistles. "You got a lot of books, Adrienne."

"Someday I'm going to build my own little research library," I say while tossing the salad. I'm proud of my books. Big Ma is not so proud. She says that my books are all about ideas. She wants to know where my travel and picture books are.

Unlike me, Big Ma has been everywhere. In spite of bad knees, worse English and no formal education, she used her flea market savings to travel the world after Grandpa August died. She reminds me that the farthest I've ever been is to college in New Jersey.

"Mind if I switch on the game?" Kevin asks.

"Go ahead," I say. But I brood because I want Kevin to be the sort of guy who asks me if I need help in the kitchen. I don't need help, but it bothers me that he doesn't ask.

Big Ma thinks I'm being unreasonable. She points out that he hasn't tried to get me in bed yet and he holds down a steady job. She says that even during hard times, there's a need for cops.

Kevin grabs his keys. "Uncle Pat and I are gonna run down to the corner store and grab a six pack."

I think about telling Kevin he drinks too much, but Big Ma informs me there's no way to bring this up to an Irishman without causing a fight.

When he gets back, dinner is cold, and his team is losing. I read while he watches television, and imagine what it would be like to live with Kevin and Uncle Pat. It would be tolerable, I guess.

Then the game ends and my TIVO switches to the History Channel. "Hannibal Invades Italy?" Kevin asks. "People actually watch this?"

"They use computer animation to reproduce the battle strategies," I tell him. "It's actually kinda cool."

"I learn enough history from Uncle Pat," Kevin says. "More than I'd get from your book-learning."

There's that word again. Book-learning.

Kevin switches off the television. Big Ma has gone to sleep, but I'm not entirely sure about Uncle Pat. When Kevin kisses me, I can't get over the feeling that I'm being leered at by some drunken old man.

"I really like you, Adrienne," Kevin whispers.

My sister, the artist, is horrified.

"You painted your living room pink?" she asks, shielding her eyes from the gilded angels.

Big Ma and I are defensive. "We like it."

"Sure. I get it. It's Brothel Chic," my sister says. She knows this will irk me, Big Ma, and Henri all at once.

I tell my sister about my most recent date with Kevin.

She snorts. "The History Channel can't be book-learning. It's not a book!"

"Who even says that anymore?" I ask. "Book-learning."

My sister rolls her eyes. "Adrienne, try using book-learning in a sentence without sounding like a knuckle-dragger."

"Try saying knuckle-dragger in a sentence without sounding like an uppity snob. We don't come from fancy roots," I reply.

"True enough, but look, Kevin O'Brien is just one guy."

"But he's really into me. And he's one of those responsible guys," I say. "And some day, that's going to be important."

"What about now?" my sister asks.

Kevin is on the phone inviting me to another baseball game. "You should go with your friends," I say. "But I'd love to meet you for dinner after."

"You don't like baseball?" he asks.

I've read all the magazines. I know I'm supposed to say that I just don't understand baseball yet, but that I'd love to learn. The truth is that I don't like baseball and I don't want to learn, and Kevin seems like the kind of man who appreciates honesty. "I'm not a fan, no."


"But I did have fun last time," I chirp like a coward.

"Uncle Pat isn't sure he can abide a girl who doesn't like baseball," Kevin says.

He's breaking up with me! I try not to sound as relieved as I feel. "Well, I hope we can still be friends."

"That was a joke, Adrienne," Kevin says.


Then there's more silence. This is really awkward.

"Are you ending it?" Kevin's tone is bitter.

"I just can't see us going the next step," I say.

We have the fight.

I try to be nice, but Kevin is drunk and he's taking it much worse than expected. "What is it? You don't want Uncle Pat to see you naked? You think you're too uptown for me, Adrienne? Well, good luck finding someone to date you and the old guinea bat. You're stuck-up and your Big Ma is a judgmental bitch."

It's really his attack on Big Ma that makes me petty. "And your Uncle Pat is probably not really your uncle. Ask your mother about that."

Kevin hangs up on me. I stand there holding the phone.

I expect Big Ma to berate me, but instead, she offers to make me some risotto. Comfort food. But I'm too upset to eat. Big Ma tells me that I should take a vacation. Italy is beautiful this time of year, she says. But Italy is a romantic place -- the kind of place I thought I'd wait to see with someone special.

I must look as pathetic as I feel, because Big Ma doesn't even rant about how I just threw away my future. I'm sure that will come tomorrow. For now, she is suspiciously quiet.

I wake up in my bed, alone. Like, really alone. On weekends, I sleep in late and Big Ma wakes up early, but it's silent in my head. Big Ma's gone.

I trip over the damned flea-market rug again, open the door to my bedroom, and find the apartment tidied. Big Ma has stored meals in Tupperware, and labeled them with instructions on how to heat them up.

I call my sister and she comes right over.

"She can't be gone," my sister says. "Henri's Limbo Lottery number is before hers; if room had opened up, he'd know."

I sit down in front of the garage-sale-special coffee table and start to cry. "Big Ma bought this for fifty bucks. I told her to stop bringing crap into my apartment. She was driving me crazy. What if I drove her crazy too? What if I drove her so crazy she decided she'd rather wait her time out in Hell?"

"Or . . ." My sister's eyes encourage me to look up at the angels on the wall. One of them looks like Big Ma. Has it always? "Maybe she found some way to get into Heaven."

Inside, I believe that's true, but it doesn't make me miss her less. I curl up on the couch with my sister, Henri, and a box of tissues. We tune into the History channel and watch Hannibal kick ass. Henri enjoys it. He tells me that monks have a thing for book-learning.

"At least you have your place to yourself again," my sister says after a while.

"I'm going to build bookshelves," I say.

"And you can repaint."

"Why? Pink and gold were Eleanor Roosevelt's favorite colors."

My sister has no easy way of disproving this.

When I go to bed, I find a note on the nightstand. My handwriting. Big Ma's words. "You didn't love him Adrienne, and that's alright. I see now, it really is alright."

As it turns out, Chang's name is actually Chang.

He's helping me pack salt and pepper shakers into boxes for the donation center. "I'm sorry she's gone," Chang says, and he really means it. "Not that she liked me much."

We both laugh. I still like Chang's lopsided smile. Now he has a lopsided nose to match and I like that too.

Chang and I are clearing out Big Ma's junk so that I can build more bookshelves in the spare bedroom -- half for his stuff, and half for his new DSA, Lady Ling.

Lady Ling says she used to be an Emperor's concubine. She brews the best tea ever and thinks pink and gold are beautiful together -- especially with all the souvenirs I collected on my trip to Italy.

Lady Ling would prefer I was Chinese, but otherwise thinks I'm a nice girl. I think Big Ma would have liked her.

Chang has changed. So have I. He wants to get married, but I'm in no hurry. We have even talked about buying a house somewhere.

But for now, we're going to live where we are.

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