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PauseTime

Twenty minutes into the transatlantic flight, Connor started wailing. Pauline cradled him in her arms. Then she rocked him, she offered him her breast, she sang to him; Connor continued to cry.

The man sitting on her right gave her a thin smile. “Did you forget the baby’s pauser code?”

“No,” Pauline mumbled, wishing she could sink through the floor into the cargo hold. “I’ve never used the pauser.”

Connor quieted just long enough for her words to carry to the neighbouring rows. Indignant heads swivelled to glare at her.

“Unbelievable,” said a woman with a Bronx accent, pretending to talk to her husband, but making sure Pauline heard. “Travelling with an unpaused infant should be illegal.”

Her cheeks burning, Pauline stood up with Connor. She contorted her way along the aisle to the restroom. Inside, she checked Connor’s forehead. He didn’t feel warm, but maybe the pressure change had affected his ears, even though she had inserted AirEase discs before take-off.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” she told Connor, trying to sway him from side to side without touching the sink or the toilet. He was eight weeks old, and she’d managed not to pause him once, not even when she was exhausted after the delivery. As soon as she had learned she was pregnant, she had resolved never to use the pauser except in a medical emergency. She knew that most parents used PauseTime without a second thought, but she couldn’t persuade herself to join them. Not after how she had grown up.

But Connor looked so devastated, she couldn’t bear it. She cuddled him a minute longer, then pulled down his blanket, and tapped the four-digit code into the pauser-belt round his waist. He vanished, replaced by a baby-shaped darkness, neither cold nor warm, that she couldn’t press her finger into. His little outfit clung to the edge of the darkness.

Pauline stepped out of the restroom, telling herself she had made the right decision. A stewardess whisked the paused bundle from her before she could say anything, and stowed it in the rack with the other infants.

***

Pauline found Connor’s third month the hardest yet. She had paid for a nurse to stay with her the first week, and then she had hired a home help to come three hours a day. Unfortunately she couldn’t afford long-term help, so now she and Connor were entirely on their own. Whenever Connor napped, she struggled with chores and a huge backlog of work.

Pauline worked mainly from her two-room flat, designing reactive pictures for people with digital walls. During her pregnancy, she had imagined Connor playing happily in the corner while she sat at the computer. Connor had other ideas. He liked to be held. Unless he was sound asleep, he roused when she laid him in his crib.

On good days, he snoozed in her lap as she programmed. On bad days, he craved motion. She switched to data-shades and a voice interface so that she could walk around as she worked, carrying Connor in a sling. But it took twice as long to design even simple animates, and after she tripped over a trash can—too absorbed by the digital overlay to notice where she was actually walking—she abandoned that idea.

Laundry piled up everywhere: Connor spat up on his clothes, on her clothes, on the sheets, on the sofa; his self-cleaning nappies leaked.

A dozen times a day, Pauline was tempted to use the pauser for the second time. But the nights, which she had dreaded, proved easier. When Connor woke up in his crib, she lifted him into the bed beside her. His mouth would open and close in a blind search for her nipple before he latched on, his body a warm snuggle against hers.

It took her brother’s visit to break Pauline’s resolve. Harold phoned up one afternoon to say he was in London for a business meeting, and planned to drop by for breakfast at nine the next morning.

Pauline panicked. She called every cleaning service in the city, but none could come at such short notice. She carried Connor around the flat while she bagged the dirty laundry. She walked him to the baker’s where she paid a ridiculous sum to have fresh croissants delivered by seven the next day. But when she started vacuuming the floor, Connor howled—and she reached for the pauser-belt and tapped in the code.

Furious with herself, she tidied up in a frenzy, while Connor’s silent silhouette lay motionless on the sofa. She barely saw her brother anymore. All her life, she’d been trying to catch up with Harold, to be even half as witty, half as successful, half as confident as he. But Harold lived in a mansion in an exclusive suburb of Paris with three children, a devoted wife, and a team of top-of-the-line robot servitors. However clean her rented flat, she’d hardly manage to impress him.

She told herself Connor wasn’t suffering, wasn’t feeling anything at all. She remembered being paused herself: the brief dislocation as the world flicked ahead—seeing her father wearing a different suit, or finding the lights on and the curtains drawn instead of morning sunlight—nothing more than that. PauseTime itself hadn’t hurt at all, her body skipping past the intervening minutes without a single breath, heartbeat, thought. And surely Connor was too young to understand or mind that he had been paused.

She had no reason to feel guilty, no reason at all. Many parents used pausers regularly, some of them only unpausing their children at the weekends. Maybe people like that should join a Pauser Help Circle or seek professional counselling, but she had only used the pauser twice. It was ridiculous to fret about it.

Harold phoned at eight thirty in the morning. “I’m so sorry, Paulie, something came up. I promise I’ll see you and . . .” a hesitation while he must have checked his wrist-computer “. . . Connor next time I’m passing through. Must dash.”

He hung up before she could say anything.

***

Pauline delayed as long as she could before resuming client visits. But the day Connor turned five months old, she got an email from a colleague at Cambridge University. Trinity Hall wanted to commission a coordinated suite of seventy reactive murals: Would she be willing to consider the assignment?

She danced around the flat, a puzzled Connor in her arms. Most of her clients were rich individuals, able to afford one or two personalized murals—but to get a chance to design a suite of seventy? She couldn’t wait. She phoned Trinity Hall and arranged to visit the day after next.

The sprinter train from London to Cambridge ran underground in one perfectly straight tunnel, taking just under twenty minutes. Connor’s stroller followed Pauline closely as she walked up out of the station and west through Market Square, a shopping centre crowded with pedestrians and speeding cyclists.

Puffs of scent billowed at her as she hurried past the shops: roses from a florist, citron from a jeweller, leather from a shoemaker. Advertizing jingles accompanied the scents, most of them self-tuning to match her profile, annoying variants on nursery rhymes being especially popular.

Past Market Square the twenty-second century disappeared. Stone walls and wrought-iron fences replaced the rows of shops, and she noticed several students carrying paper books. A narrow alley called Senate House Passage led down to Trinity Hall. She stepped through a stone archway into the college itself. Before her a grassy courtyard opened, bathed in sunlight.

She still had a few minutes before her appointment, so she took Connor out of the stroller for a quick cuddle.

“Ahem.” A tubby man in a black hat, black jacket, black pants, and crisp white shirt stepped out of a room next to the college entrance. “Can I help you?”

“I’m Pauline Foster, I’ve an appointment to see the bursar at eleven.”

“Ah.” The tubby man waggled his fingers at Connor. “The bursar’s not very keen on children. If you like, I could keep your baby with me in the porter’s lodge.”

“Really? Thank you.” She didn’t want to leave Connor, but she didn’t know how to refuse without offending the man. “It’s very kind of you to offer—”

“No trouble. I’ve a grandson looks about the same age.”

The porter reached over and tickled Connor’s tummy. Connor stared up at the man’s face, then his bottom lip quivered, and he started sobbing.

“I’m sorry. He’s not used to other people. I’d better keep him with me.” Pauline rocked Connor in her arms, trying to quiet him. If Connor fussed during her interview, the bursar might have second thoughts about hiring her. Surely it wouldn’t matter if she paused him this once. She kissed Connor on the forehead, then tapped in the pause code.

***

The interview with the bursar went very well. Trinity Hall would not only pay generously, they were offering her a great deal of freedom in the design. They had reviewed her earlier work, and trusted her to produce an understated collection of murals in keeping with the ambience of the eight-hundred-year-old college.

After signing the contract, Pauline estimated that she would need to work an average of six hours a day to finish within the eight months the agreement specified. The money from Trinity Hall would enable her to hire babysitters, but she didn’t want someone else to watch Connor, she wanted to do it herself.

For a week, she stopped work every time Connor woke up, trying not to think about how far behind she was falling. Finally she admitted that she either had to get babysitters or to use the pauser on a regular basis.

She hated the idea of pausing Connor every day, but that was her own personal hang-up, a legacy of being paused herself as a child—paused for a total of ten years, during which time her “little” brother had barely been paused at all. She dimly remembered the time when Harold was smaller than herself, a chubby Buddha-baby gurgling and spitting up. After that he rapidly overtook her, growing taller, stronger, starting school before her, treating her as a baby when she should have been his big sister. She used to check the readout on her pauser-belt every morning to see if her parents had paused her overnight. Days, sometimes weeks, disappeared at one gulp.

When she was five, she had asked her parents “Why do you pause me? Don’t you like me?”

“Of course we like you, Paulie,” her mother had said, smiling but somehow still looking sad. Her mother picked her up to give her a rare hug, and Pauline held on tight, so tight to her mother’s shoulder, breathing in traces of honeysuckle perfume. “It’s one of those things you’ll understand when you’re older. We want you and Harold to be very, very happy, but it’s complicated.”

“Explain me why,” Pauline had said.

“Later,” her mother told her, loosening Pauline’s grip and setting her down on the floor.

***

As Pauline had grown older, her parents had come up with an ingenious flotilla of rationalizations for her mounting PauseTime, anything from the importance of Harold getting piano lessons while Monsieur Hubert was available, to the necessity of pausing Pauline until the boarding school had a vacancy for her. Even as a young child, Pauline had understood on some level that they were only excuses. Whether or not they admitted it to themselves, her parents preferred spending time with Harold. Harold was funny, charming, clever. Pauline was a shy, awkward, resentful child.

But she wasn’t her parents. Pausing Connor for a few hours a day would be easier on him than having to adjust to babysitters.

On the eighth morning after signing the Trinity Hall contract, Pauline paused Connor. She unpaused him each time she made herself a cup of tea. She unpaused him for lunch. She stopped work an hour earlier than she had planned.

The next day she only unpaused him for lunch.

A week later, she paused him for a twelve-hour stretch, caught up in a recreation of Trinity Hall through the centuries. When she unpaused him that night, Connor rolled over and smiled at her, unaware that anything odd had happened.

Pauline tickled his toes, so full of happiness she felt as if it were spilling out of her. She had been such a fool, letting her past distort her objectivity. Connor was too young to know that anything strange had happened. And this way she could give him her undivided attention every waking moment of his infancy. That must surely be the best possible upbringing, whether or not she used the pauser to achieve it.

***

For Connor’s first birthday, Pauline took him to central London. He crawled over the grass in Hyde Park, spending a minute trying to grasp a twig between his thumb and forefinger, then diving down to bite the stick instead. In Trafalgar Square, he buried his face in Pauline’s sweater when a host of rainbow-colored tourist pigeons lifted into the air beside them.

At lunchtime, the smell of curry lured Pauline into an Indian restaurant.

“Paused or Unpaused section?” asked the hostess, a slim young woman in a sari that sang softly whenever she stopped speaking.

“Unpaused.”

The hostess led her past a couple who were presumably waiting for the Paused section. At the rear of the restaurant, two empty tables with high chairs stood in a dimly lit roped-off area. As Pauline settled Connor into his high chair, a customer at a neighbouring table waved for a waiter. “Have you any other tables available?” he asked loudly, looking over his shoulder at Connor as he spoke.

“Sorry, sir.” The waiter bowed his head regretfully.

“Guh!” Connor said, pulling the silverware onto the floor. He beamed at Pauline as she picked up a spoon and two forks, and set them down further away from him. “Guh!”

“Happy birthday,” said Pauline. She pulled a stuffed bunny out of her pocket, hoping Connor would chew on it quietly.

“Guh-buh!” said Connor at full volume. He dropped the bunny on the floor, and looked over the edge of his high chair at where it had fallen.

Pauline reached for his pauser-belt, and tapped in the code. The readout on the belt said PauseTime: 59 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes. It was Connor’s first birthday by the calendar, but she had paused him for nearly two months of that time.

She ordered chicken tikka masala, and downloaded the Arts News to her digitizer. The food tasted delicious: the chicken tender and succulent; the sauce hot, creamy, and savory. But she couldn’t finish her meal, couldn’t concentrate on the review of the Tate Gallery’s new exhibition.

The black, baby-shaped shadow in the high chair waited in perfect silence, distracting no one in the restaurant except for Pauline.

***

A few days after Connor’s birthday, Pauline completed the murals for Trinity Hall. Her brother still hadn’t seen Connor, and she had earned a holiday, so she decided to visit him in Paris.

Paris was beautiful in the early summer, the trees and the lawns a vibrant green. Occasional trams hummed along the streets, but otherwise the city sounded like an idyllic country village: birds, the chatter of school children, the chirp of crickets. Within the city limits ads were limited to visuals only, and Pauline relished the quiet.

But the visit to her brother was a disaster.

When Pauline arrived, Annette, Harold’s wife, pecked her on each cheek, and apologized that Harold wouldn’t be back until supper. “But he will be home by seven,” said Annette. “He never fails when he is in town—he is such a good father, so aware of the importance of a family environment.”

Pauline nodded as if she’d known this. She couldn’t work out why Annette grated on her nerves. Was it her fluent, but prettily accented English? Her impeccable appearance?

“And you and Connor?” continued Annette. “You are here alone?”

Oui,” said Pauline. “I mean, yes.” She couldn’t possibly use her high school French with Annette.

“Such a shame,” said Annette. “I wish I could introduce you to your nephew and nieces immediately, but Nanny has taken them to their gym class.”

“How nice for them,” said Pauline.

Annette led her to one of the many reception rooms. They had a polite conversation, filled with awkward pauses while Pauline chased after Connor as he tried to destroy the elegant furnishings.

Connor’s cousins returned late in the afternoon. They were pretty children, the boy six years old, his twin sisters four. Well-behaved, neat, bilingual, already able to swim, ride ponies, and play the piano, the children smiled almost constantly, but never laughed or shouted.

At dinner that evening, Harold thanked Pauline for coming to see them, then quizzed his children about their day. They answered him seriously, intelligently, respectfully. The boy even joined in a discussion of the coming elections.

Connor threw his food onto the floor, then cried when a robot mole scurried across to clean it up.

“Maybe I should go to bed with him now. He’s probably overexcited,” said Pauline.

“The baby sleeps in the same room as you?” Annette’s pencil-thin eyebrows arched.

“Yes,” said Pauline.

Her brother and his wife said nothing for a long moment, then “I’ll have the crib moved—” said Annette, as Harold chimed in with “Of course, you’re on your own, so it’s different.”

Pauline wanted to say that she liked having Connor close to her at night, but she couldn’t think of a way to do so that didn’t sound critical of other arrangements. And she couldn’t criticize Harold, the textbook-perfect father with his textbook-perfect children. “There’s only one bedroom in our flat, so Connor and I share it,” she mumbled.

“How cosy,” said Annette without conviction.

“Guh-buh!” shouted Connor, leaning forward to tug the edge of the tablecloth. The wine glasses wobbled.

Pauline hoisted him up. “I’m sorry to cut the evening short. But we’re going to bed now.” She waited while Annette gave instructions for moving the crib, too embarrassed to admit that Connor shared her bed.

But even when the two of them were alone in their room, with Connor giggling as Pauline pretended to eat his hat, Harold’s casual “You’re on your own,” still rankled, together with Annette’s earlier remark about the value of a family environment.

How much did it matter that she couldn’t afford riding lessons for Connor, or gym classes, or a garden the size of a football field? How much did it matter that she didn’t have a partner? Long after Connor had fallen asleep beside her, Pauline lay awake, wishing she’d known Connor’s father better, wishing he’d wanted even a little involvement in his son’s life.

***

Bit by bit, Pauline increased the amount of time she used the pauser. She used it when she worked at home, when she visited clients, when she showered, when she needed to nap. Then she used it when she felt too depressed to play with Connor, then when she felt guilty because he only had the cheapest AI edubot on the market.

She used the pauser for a whole week while she read up on child-rearing, then for another week while she brooded over what she had learned. Children benefited from a warm, caring, stimulus-rich environment. Pauline loved Connor, but her flat was too small, and Connor needed better toys, and he needed a family, not just a mother.

She went to a makeover shop, and the woman there drew up twenty different simulations of Pauline in fashionable new styles, before Pauline settled on the least horrible of the batch.

She had never had much luck with dating. At a scant two months, her affair with Connor’s father had been her longest so far. But she spent an hour on her computer, completing the questionnaire for the Londoners Partner-For-You service.

One night in October, she paused Connor to go on her first date since he was born. The readout on the belt said PauseTime: 124 days, 5 hours, 32 minutes. She had paused Connor for a quarter of his life, most of it in the last few months.

She left the flat, locked the door behind her, unlocked it again, ran back and kissed the solid unyielding blackness of Connor’s paused form, and left the flat for the second time.

Her date was an older man, maybe fifty. He smelled of lime. His skin had a lime-green tint; his contact lenses were lime-green; his hair formed a lime-green cone above his head.

“I love green,” he said. “My favourite color, one hundred percent. But I may have gone overboard tonight, too much of a good thing and all that.”

“I like green too,” said Pauline, though green skin didn’t appeal to her at all. But she could see the man was nervous, maybe even as nervous as she was. He talked rapidly, determinedly, resorting to a discussion of the weather rather than allowing a gap in the conversation.

Over dinner at a pricey Italian restaurant, he assured Pauline that he absolutely loved children, would have liked half-a-dozen, just never found the right woman. But when a family with two noisy toddlers sat down nearby, he shuddered theatrically. “I like children, I said that, and I meant it.”—he bent forward and continued in a low voice—“But to everything there is a season, so they say, and I agree, I absolutely agree. Bringing two brats like that into a restaurant—don’t they know what pausers are for?”

“Ummm,” said Pauline, stirring her linguine round and round on her plate. “I’ll be back in a moment.”

She went to the restroom and splashed her face with water. A printed sign on the mirror said, “Lost count of how long you pause your children? Maybe it’s time to join a Pauser Help Circle. Call 08000-PAUSERS. We’re here twenty-four hours a day.”

At least she wasn’t bad as that. Why, she only paused Connor for a few hours a day. Okay, maybe more than a few hours. Maybe quite a lot more. She rinsed her hands. But she’d only really depended on the pauser for the past few weeks, and that was just because she needed to earn more money and find a partner, so that Connor could be part of a family, and have the same chances as Harold’s children.

The water ran gurgling down the sink, and Pauline started to cry, and couldn’t stop, couldn’t stop, shaking with great gulping sobs.

Her parents had spent a small fortune raising her, buying her every toy under the sun, hiring a couturier to design her wardrobe. But they hadn’t even wanted to have her in the same house. She had begged and begged not to go to boarding school, but they sent her anyway, and kept Harold at home instead.

She turned off the tap. She blew her nose in a handful of toilet paper. She went back to her lime-green date and told him she was leaving.

As soon as Pauline got home, she unpaused Connor. He squirmed in her arms, babbling excitedly, smelling of baby shampoo. They played on the floor together for half an hour, and then she carried Connor over to the phone, a noisy armful, and she placed a call to that number from the restaurant mirror.

© 2000 by Mary Soon Lee.
Originally published in Spectrum SF.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Mary Soon Lee

Mary Soon Lee

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but became a naturalized US citizen in 2003, and now lives in Pittsburgh.  Her story collection “Ebb Tides and Other Tales” was published by Dark Regions Press in 2002.  She wrote “PauseTime” when her first child, William, was eleven months old, and time to write was scarce. Now that she has two children, she finds it easier to complete poems than short stories, and her poetry has appeared in American Scholar, Atlanta Review, Cider Press Review, Main Street Rag, and Rosebud.