Most of Stephanie Carpenter’s stories have photographs in them somewhere. She currently teaches creative writing and American literature at Michigan Tech University. Her work has appeared in Big Fiction, Crab Orchard Review, Avery, and elsewhere.
“A museum is a sign of resistance,” says X, an effort at “cultural preservation.” But what’s left to preserve? Every actual museum, library, school, church, hospital, laboratory, power plant is gone. They were obliterated in seconds, targets of a strike we couldn’t have fathomed.
Still, I let X persuade me that “any rebuilding has value.” We set out to find this underground museum he’s heard about, looking for a tenement with green earthquake braces. Such braces went up after the quake of ’13, as retrofitting against “the next big one.” I never expected to be nostalgic for that fear.
X calls our new world a “habitat;” he terms us not survivors, but experimental subjects. The other survivors we’ve met are like us: young, fit, male. Always male. In three months, we have neither seen nor heard of a living female. How long will it take the species to die out, if we can no longer reproduce? Is this the experimental question? We can only speculate; we receive no communications from the experimenters.
Now X and I scale a brace, clambering, as X was directed, through a second-story window and into what was formerly an apartment.
Welcome—to the Museum of Impossible Desires! The greeting is graffitied across the room’s far wall. Every other surface is plastered in advertisements, for automobiles, cell phones, cameras, e-readers. A coffee table, the room’s only furnishing, holds tattered magazines, paste jars. Display your desire, urges a tented sign. I’d been shopping for a treadmill when the change came. I’d wanted to run miles in my basement. There’s no use recollecting that. X keeps moving; I follow.
The corridor’s walls are densely studded with Illuminations. Lightbulbs of every size—grey now, dead. False suns, explains a sign, devices to defy circadian rhythms. The dining room is mirrored with Distractions, the blank screens of televisions, computers, tablets. Substitute realities, for when ours became too stifling. An igloo made of ice cube trays fills the former kitchen. X crawls inside, but I don’t play along. I’m exasperated already with this “museum.” We were decadent, yes—did we deserve decimation?
Self-aggrandizements await us in a bedroom: framed boxes of Viagra, prenatal vitamins, ovulation kits. The curator grows voluble. Once humans were able to breed—sometimes. They existed in two forms, male and female. From the conjoined agitation of their sex organs, new humans were engendered. A mattress, recovered in maxi pads, is positioned beneath a mobile strung from tampons. The female periodically shed the lining of her uterus onto products designed for that purpose. Those products were collected in museums called landfills. To imagine the uterus, imagine a pocket inside yourself, in which another person could grow to 1/15 scale. That person would be extracted surgically, through your stomach, or—rarely—through a specially-designed opening between your legs. Relax, the notes advise, it’s over now.
X tests the mattress with his palm. “When you were a kid, did you think that menstrual blood was blue?” “I had older sisters,” I remind him. Janie and Lora. Our shared bathroom taught me the color of menstrual blood, the odors of teenage girls. My sisters lived in Cincinnati and Santa Fe when things changed. For all this curator knows, they do, still. Our communication systems are primitive. A loose web of couriers, through which it must be possible that all surviving woman have slipped. Anything, we know now, is possible.
Greeting cards are collaged in the apartment’s foyer, above a midcentury vanity. Here, the curator’s notes are written backwards and hung beside the doorframe, opposite the vanity mirror. We must sit to read their reflection. “Love” and “monogamy” were adaptations encouraged by social groups to control disease and increase the species. Such behaviors persist between males, sans propagation. Due to the collapsed birthrate, Homo sapiens are now classified as critically endangered.
How has irony survived, when so much else is lost? I focus on the curator’s penmanship, the feat of having printed backward. I try to ignore everything else—like the brush set, laid out before me, threaded with some woman’s hair. But X grabs my arm. In the mirror, his wide eyes point to the space between our shoulders. The museum’s front door stands ajar. Across the hall, another door is cracked. I see then what he does: figures. Slight and still. Women.
We rise together, overturning the vanity bench. We fall through those open doors, into the other apartment—the bunker, maybe, to which they have fled. They are hairless, we see, like cancer victims. Are they ashamed—so ashamed that they’ve hidden? No . . . they don’t cover themselves. They don’t move away from us, or toward. And I understand before X does—maybe because of Janie and Lora and our too-small bathroom—that these women aren’t real. No nipples on their molded breasts, no vaginas between their hard legs. No lids to cover their painted eyes. They stand with cocked hips and bent elbows, as cold as marble statues.
X stretches out his hands—to clutch me, not a mannequin. He’s weeping. I am dry. Someone dragged these figures here, from department stores. Some sadist placed them in their unnatural positions, as though still in the business of selling clothes. More irony, and it will be lost on those that come after us. How would someone who’d never seen a living woman interpret these identical beige forms, their arched feet? Maybe the curator also felt this futility; he’s left one seated mannequin unfinished.
I shake myself from X’s grip. Parts are scattered on the floor. A hand. Of all the women’s hands I’ve held, nothing left but this. I bring the screw of the hand to the socket of the wrist—but I can’t twist. I place the hand beside her cold hip, back away. Someday, maybe, the world will be complete again. For some other species, not ours. This is “cultural preservation”—leaving the mannequins as we found them; leaving this brokenness as relic.