It’s a funny thing about electric kettles. Irene always forgets about them. She clicks it on again and again, leaves the kitchen, and forgets to come back. The kettle is so quiet, boiling away, and by the time it shuts itself off with a little hiss, she’s already back at her desk, her head sucked back into the world of social media, her eyes glued to the screen and her neck craned forward in the way the doctor told her was bad.
Women like Irene don’t really exist. Women in their sixties aren’t suppose to understand blogging, tweeting, tumbling. They’re supposed to be scandalized by Reddit. Scared of Facebook. Simple emails are all they can do. Except women like Irene, who do exist, sort of, on the periphery of reality.
Irene smokes a pack a day. Still. She doesn’t have lung cancer. Yet. She measures things this way. What is she still doing, what hasn’t happened yet. She puts things into columns in her head, dividing the good habits from the bad, the desired future events from the ones to be avoided.
On her fourth smoking break of the day, Irene talks to the young assistants. They’re eager, tattooed, rainbow-haired. One of the boys – Irene can’t think of him as a man, even though he’s in his twenties – has grown his hair into an afro. Irene can tell he takes care of it. She admires him. Her granddaughters are all straightening their hair or keeping it short. She knows that she could grow her hair out too, but it would be such an awful lot of effort to dye the gray away. It isn’t worth the time.
She’s forgotten about the coffee she was trying to make again. A bottle of ice tea is what she needs. The kind with the wacky flavors that marketers invented to make the drinks seem trendy and healthy, which means the same thing, even though they’re infused with so much sugar they don’t taste like tea anymore. Irene loves them.
It’s always been this way. Irene loves everything and everybody that isn’t good for her.
“I saw you in the paper!” the cashier at the deli across the street says to Irene as she rings up her bottle of tea and the bag of pseudo-homemade chocolate chip cookies that Irene picked out on a whim and a sweet tooth. The cashier is shorter than Irene by a foot and has braces. She’s wrapped in a white smock that hides her pregnant belly. Irene feels sorry for her and knows she shouldn’t. People must look at Irene and feel sorry for her too, she knows, and she would resent it if they ever expressed it. Not that they would. After she’d punched that man on the train for touching her hair once, when it was longer and she was younger, she seemed to project a new air of fearlessness, of don’t-approach-me-don’t-talk-to-me. A street savvy she wishes other women would adopt.
“Yup. That’s me,” Irene says.
“You’re cool, abuela,” the cashier grins as she hands Irene her change.
“Yo no soy tu abuela,” Irene says. She doesn’t wait for the girl’s response. She leaves the deli and has one of the cookies on her way back up to the office. The man in the suit in the elevator stares at her, digging around in the crinkly plastic cookie-bag. She proffers it. “Want one?”
Nobody knew her age where it mattered, not until the stupid profile. Irene can’t get the word out of her mind. Abuela. She shouldn’t have been so rude to the girl. It was meant to be a compliment, an endearment. Irene had chatted to the girl before about her grandkids, congratulated the girl on her pregnancy. She was pretty sure she’d even joked about how since her own kids only want to see her when she can watch their children and fulfill her role as grandmother. Maybe that’s why the girl said it. Maybe it was all Irene’s fault.
She’d gotten nine hundred and twelve new followers on Twitter in the last twenty-four hours alone. Her Tumblr inbox was getting ridiculous. The profile had gone viral online. “Sixty-three, Irene, Social Media Queen.” It shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it had. She, who understood so much about what made people tick, what words drew people in, still knew that it was a crap shoot, what would get really popular and what wouldn’t. She didn’t expect to become a sensation on par with some minor walrus videos that got pretty big.
Irene put her tea in the kitchen fridge to get it colder and clicked the kettle on.