Issue 173 – February 2021

4160 words, short story

The Failed Dianas


The hostess adjusts her glasses when I repeat my name and reservation time.

“Of course,” she says. “We’ve switched you from the balcony seating to the chef’s table. We hope you don’t mind.”

I follow her past the bar and four-tops to the back of the restaurant, where a row of line cooks mince parsley and knead dough. Beyond the dough’s malty sweetness, I take in the rich smell of roast geese as they’re basted by the sous chef and bananas caramelizing deeper into the kitchen. I cover my nose to keep myself from getting nauseous once I’m seated at the end of the counter, away from the other customers. When a waiter slips a basket of rolls at my elbow, I break one open and let the steam wash over my face.

The internship supervisor warned me that eighteen hours is the standard length of time I should wait once back on Earth before exposing myself to strong aromas and tastes. It’s the second time I’ve broken that rule in as many trips back from the C. P. Menlo Cosmocurrencies Division. Nothing happened the first time, but I don’t want to risk throwing up tonight. The line cooks stare like the hostess did, tighten their smiles, and make a show of complimenting each other on their prep work. The sommelier pops by to ask if I’d like their house recommendation. It occurs to me that this may be the only spot in Pittsburgh that won’t card me.

“Whatever pairs well with bread rolls,” I say.

“Excellent choice,” says the sommelier.

With half an hour left before closing time, I had expected the restaurant to clear out so that I could have more privacy with the original Diana, but the bar is full and several booths are celebrating various occasions. I look for Diana when a holographic birthday dessert bursts open at a long table, and again when waitstaff claps for a woman proposing to her longtime partner, and a third time when the hostess and the sous argue over a customer’s order.

When I finish my fourth helping of bread rolls, I focus on the line cooks instead, sipping white wine to block my sinuses and dull my sense of smell. I watch them as their knives flutter onions into ribbons, dash cognac into flames over steel pans. I catch a whiff of hickory smoke and search for the dish that wafts it.

“Mom and Dad never taught you how to cook, did they?” asks someone next to me. It’s my voice, but huskier. I turn and see myself at twice my age.

I hate Original Diana immediately, or at least I want to hate her. Nothing should surprise me about her appearance, yet I’m embarrassed to be excited to look like her when I’m in my forties. My cheeks get hot when I think about how I held out a shred of hope that she would look, at best, like a shoddy beta version of me. Instead, her black jumpsuit and moonrock jewelry make her striking against my postflight black curls and simple skater dress. The restaurant website’s proud newspaper reviews had the same glowing face, surrounded by the same chic mid-century interior and tantalizing food. I tried to convince myself that it was makeup, surgery, Photoshop, or some other conflation of the truth. But I’m here now, in her domain. Original Diana smiles at me.

“Nope,” I say. “They didn’t want me becoming another restaurateur.”

“I figured,” she responds.

Original Diana chuckles, takes a seat, and waves at the line cooks, who stand there with grins on their faces like they’re the hungry ones, waiting for her to explain what the hell is going on. No two people would have looked this similar unless they were identical twins, and our age difference is clear. Diana ignores them. She reaches her hand out like a question, and I nod. She takes my chin in with the tips of her fingers and tilts my head around.

“So Mom and Dad advanced the replication technique once they got the hang of perfecting simple body parts for their hospital patients,” she starts. “I’m sure they never wanted an exact duplicate of me anyway.”

She notes how my nose is narrower and how I’m skinnier than she was at my age. She gasps when she realizes I don’t wear contacts.

“Noticeably lighter skin, too, than either me or them. Perhaps they thought you’d be safer that way,” Diana says. “Amazing what someone can do when they don’t adhere to legal restrictions on cloning. What did they use?”

“They grew me from an eyelash on your pillow,” I say. Her hand leaves my face, and she sips from a glass of water that the hostess has placed for her. I inhale and begin the speech I had planned. “At first, they tried fingernails, then blood, then hair. None worked and they were running out of your DNA, but they lucked out. They speed-incubated the cells from the eyelash up to when you were thirteen, so I would have a wide memory base and they would only have to worry about raising me through high school and college. It’s a method that took them—”

“Thirteen years to perfect and eight years to raise you,” Original Diana finishes. The calm with which she intuits the line feels like a violation, as if I’m the one who hasn’t realized there’s a second iteration of myself. Original Diana swivels in the barstool so that she can lean against the counter. Behind her, another birthday dessert arrives to a small family. The bartender announces last call. “They raised me for a bit longer than that, Diana. The full twenty-one years.”

“But I wasn’t—” I start.

“A disappointment?” Original Diana says, her lips tugging at the seams. “Yes, you’re now the same age I was when I ruined things for everyone and drove my life down the gutter. I was a selfish brat who got into Pitt instead of Carnegie Mellon, switched my major from galactic finance to art history, dropped out when I was twenty-one, and haven’t been seen since the screaming match with my parents about wanting to be a chef. All they ever wanted to do was look out for me when I had myopic dreams that would never take off. I was just some spoiled brat like all the white children whose parents didn’t know how to raise them.”

Original Diana keeps going and matches what Mom and Dad have said word for word. My mind goes blank. It’s the story that my . . . our parents told me when they woke me at thirteen. I’ve heard it every birthday since.

The Original Diana never amounted to anything. Grabe naman. If only she had listened to us and gone into interstellar futures projection, like cosmocurrencies, once the cryptocurrency boom went bust. She’d have been a happy daughter rather than a hopeless ingrate with no future. Her life has been in shambles ever since she left home, a black hole sucking in the promise of a secure career.

Ruined, selfish, spoiled. When Original Diana gets to the “hopeless ingrate” part, the unnerving precision makes my throat run dry.

Don’t be those things, Diana. Don’t leave us like she did. We love you and want what’s best for you. Please let us know if you need anything, anak. Family always stays together.

“I’m clearly doing poorly with my Michelin-starred city restaurant,” Original Diana says. She leans in and whispers into my face. “I was a wild, unreasonable monster. Obviously, they should have punished me more while I was growing up.”

There had always been a small fear in the back of my mind that my parents had kept something from me, but Original Diana’s intent repetition of what she went through over twenty years ago confirms what I didn’t want to believe was true: if they wanted to, or if I ever crossed them, Mom and Dad could be unspeakably cruel.

Original Diana’s full lips spread into a broad smile, and the hush as she waits for me to react lingers until I notice that the line cooks have cleaned up their stations and the waitstaff are clustered by the bar. The last customers pay their checks and leave. Diana turns away from me for a moment to announce to her staff that she’ll close up for the night. They holler back thank-yous that find middle ground between her and me.

While she has her back to me, I leap from my barstool and bolt to the emergency exit behind us. None of this is going as planned. The door leads out to a crowded alley of more staff smoking with burly strangers in employee uniforms that I recognize from the neighboring shops. They greet me as “boss” and try to pass me a cigarette. This isn’t going as planned either. I excuse myself, step back into the restaurant, and shut the door.

“You forgot your bag, Diana,” Original Diana calls after me. “We always forget our bag, don’t we?”

I whip around.

“I had a speech,” I yell at her. “I waited for the crappy bus for forty minutes to get from Carnegie Mellon to the South Side in an hour.”

“Was that speech literally what I said, but with our roles reversed?” Diana states more than asks. “Remember, I know you. And no, saying it to my face is not going to make you feel better about yourself. You will always feel like a disappointment, and that’s not my fault.”

The shock spreads over me. We always forget our bag. She’s done this before.

“Diana, I’ve gone through this with three other clones,” she says. Each word scrapes at the floor of my gut. “Those thirteen years of modifying the replication process? Mom and Dad created a clone the same year I stopped contact with them. And another four years after that. And again six years after that. Each one left Mom and Dad when they were twenty-one. You’re the fourth clone. The fifth Diana.”

My face turns to ice and sinks along with the rest of my numb body. Original Diana stands up from her stool and wraps me in a bear hug, then leads me to a booth to sit down. The restaurant has emptied, so her voice echoes against every wall when she speaks.

“There is no version of us that will ever make our parents completely happy,” she says. “There are only versions of us that have done our best to make ourselves happy.”

The other Dianas arrive in their own time. Once Original Diana caught my dinner reservation, she called the others to make sure they could make it to the city by nightfall—a tradition, she explained. DeeDee, the first clone that awoke the year Original Diana left, arrives five minutes after Original Diana texts her. A crown of leaves decorates her shaved scalp in black ink.

“My tattoo shop’s down the street,” DeeDee says after she greets me with a high-five. She turns to Original Diana. “Remember when I first found you? I went all the way up to your fancy New York culinary school and I beat you up all cliché clone battle-style.”

“You mean when you punched a tooth loose and I had to protect myself with my favorite Santoku knife?” Original Diana says. She rolls her eyes. “Nope, it never crosses my mind.”

The two break into laughter and Original Diana punches DeeDee on the shoulder. DeeDee smirks and turns to me.

“I was so mad. All the time. There was so much rage in the eighteen-year-old memory Original Diana held, and I blamed it all on her. And our parents. And, well, everything. There was no way Mom and Dad would’ve made me be a financial analyst in the Milky Way. Not right then after they had put her through eighteen years of shit. I knew I had to escape.”

The next clone, 3D, lugs in a carry-on from the red-eye transport hypertube from California, where she owns her own gym and dance studio.

“I was seventeen when I woke up and not much happier than either of them,” 3D says, smoothing out her post-transport blonde hair. She asks Original Diana for any Sonoma County wines and pours us each a glass. “DeeDee was so close in age to Original Diana that all our parents had to do was accuse people of playing into the racist stereotype of all Asians looking the same if anyone got suspicious about illegal replication and advanced incubation. For me, though, Mom and Dad decided to move out west to make sure no one would figure out what they were up to. I tried to get along with them when we moved to California, but it was stressful for us all to adjust to a new place. On top of that, I had to deal with their usual manipulation and abuse.”

I flinch at the word “abuse.” It’s a word for other people, never one that I feel ever applied to me. It still doesn’t, but there are three other versions of me who look down when it’s mentioned.

“3D was the first Diana to make it to space,” Original Diana says. “It broke our parents’ hearts that she never wanted to go back up again. She got tons of funding to study abroad in the lunar colony, and she couldn’t stand it.”

“Hypertubes are the only way I travel now,” 3D continues. “I did Pilates constantly when I was on the moon, and even then, I came back so sore and claustrophobic from the compact housing that I begged Mom and Dad to compromise. Leave behind my interstellar economics major with an MLS degree so I could be lab techs like them and actually help people for a living.”

My shoulders tighten thinking about those cramped hallways at the Cosmocurrencies Division and their dim gray lights. Their vacuum-packed blankness, their shrink-wrap surfaces. 3D slides next to me and kneads the base of my neck until my shoulders relax.

“Obviously, I wasn’t allowed to switch majors since—”

“You can help whoever and do whatever you want wherever you want once you have a seven-figure interstellar trader salary,” Original Diana and DeeDee finish in unison.

Dr. Diana, the fourth one, arrives an hour after we’re halfway through our second glasses of wine. Doc was awakened at age fifteen and now lives in Brooklyn, where she teaches animation at the School of Visual Arts.

“Space was absolutely colorless,” Doc mentions. “I spent so much time up there reading comic books and doodling all over my antigravity pod in dry erase markers for fun. I failed my basic interstellar upkeep class on purpose so that Mom and Dad would worry that I wouldn’t even be able to survive up there.”

“They’re not so bad anymore,” I say, and Doc nods. The other three Dianas don’t. Doc reaches across the table and holds my hand.

“Honestly, it seems that they’ve chilled out quite a bit,” Doc says. “Sure, they still screamed at me and called me a failure every now and then, but from fifteen to twenty-one it was as if they were more worried about losing another daughter.”

“And all they had to do was go back far enough into their own kid’s memory to make sure they hadn’t messed her up at whatever age yet, it’s totally fine,” DeeDee mocks. “Way easier than, say, not punishing their kid for wanting to live her own life.”

“They’re in their seventies now,” I argue. “They were hoping to have retired a few years back. They don’t raise their voices at me, only when Original Diana is brought up. I could be their last chance for them to have a daughter who provides financial and emotional stability for them.”

None of the Dianas nod this time. Instead, Original Diana reminds me that it was because of her that our parents barred me from the kitchen when they prepared meals. She sent them the nail from her middle finger, a sprig of mint from one of her early dishes stuck in its arc.

DeeDee sent a bandage covered in the blood that seeped out of her first sleeve, and her attitude meant that our parents took me to therapy as soon as I woke up at thirteen. 3D’s hair had been covered with sweat from a wellness retreat she hosted, and our parents had kept me from enrolling in athletics and dance classes when they found such a strong affection for it in my memory. Doc’s eyelash fell on one of her storyboards, not a pillowcase, and still had ink stuck on it when she mailed it to our parents. They kept me from watching cartoons and reading comic books under the reasoning that I was “too old” for them at thirteen. I hadn’t come from one Diana. I had come from a line of them, each replicated from the previous version.

“Each time we mail a piece of ourselves to Mom and Dad to give them a chance to repeat the replication process, we also add a letter and a check,” Original Diana says. “The letter explains that they can use our DNA, or they can process the check. Not both. We all pool however much we can live without into the check, and the amount reflects how successful we’ve been. They can treat the money as an acceptance of how we live our lives, and we’ll know we can start contact again. Last time, eight years ago, that amount hit over half a million dollars. We’re doing pretty well.”

All the other Dianas stare at me as Original Diana continues.

“In the three times we’ve done this, Mom and Dad have never once processed the check,” she says. She shifts in her seat and rests her head in her hand. The other Dianas see this as a cue to lean back. “But all that aside, let’s get to know you, Diana. How do you feel about your internship in cosmocurrencies? Or we can cut to the point. Why did you come here, now?”

I’m a solid seventeen hours postflight, but it’s as if my throat and my head have decided to battle each other with nausea and fear. I tell them about my first week of orientation, how C. P. Menlo expects its interns to abide by ten-hour days, and how easily those ten hours turned into eleven, twelve, fourteen. The competitive nature of the interns who wanted to be hired at the end of the trial program meant I often didn’t socialize. I kept to myself to prevent them from sabotaging me like they did to each other. The whole Division was largely devoid of any sensory stimuli. It kept us focused on its endless spreadsheets and formulae, but it couldn’t keep the smell of space out.

“It was like seared steak and diesel fumes wherever I went,” I say when DeeDee asks. 3D and Doc chew on their lips. “It’s not something that anyone else picked up on. No one could do anything about it anyway, even if I complained to HR. I couldn’t get away from the stench. I ran into the nearest Sephora as soon as orientation was over and I was back on Earth.”

I dropped a third of my intern wages on the bottles of perfume I could carry in my luggage back to campus, where I sat in my dorm in an oakmoss and bergamot and tonka bean haze, layering one after another until I forgot about that steak-and-diesel smell, that internship, and the career that I would be stuck in for the rest of my working life.

The next time I went back up, I brought sample vials from a specialty boutique that the owner recommended. The first turned out to be a ripe rose mixed with citrus and labdanum. I let it be a surprise and spent the morning searching the Division for a rose garden. I cried at my desk once I realized the scent came from me, having warmed the fragrance on my skin with all my running around. The same thing happened when I wore a jammy spruce tree sample the following day. Every department head noticed and complimented me on the scent, earning me dirty looks from the other interns.

I spent each lunch break searching for classes, programs, degrees, ateliers, and apprenticeships. I hit my max on lunar colony library books with anything they had on the science and history of perfume. I lost sleep on fragrance community forums over how we had discovered parts of our galaxy that smell entirely of raspberries and others that smell like rum, and how we’ll never venture far enough to sniff them. In spare moments in my pod, I found that not only do fragrances induce memories, but their inherent ability to replicate the things I wanted to see and feel and experience was the most alluring prospect of all, one that tipped perfume from a fascination to an obsession.

“I’m due to fly out there again next week, but I can’t see myself ever going back,” I say. I turn to Original Diana. “You were right when you asked if I was here to see if I could use your failure as leverage to let Mom and Dad know that I’d turn out better. I wanted to learn why you made them so miserable for not doing what they wanted. I’ve never disobeyed them.”

The rest of the Dianas are silent as the Original Diana takes my face in her hand again. They must know what I’ve been doing. They must know how this feels.

“You’ve been researching how to make perfume,” she says, and this is when my tears come. “You’ve kept this from them to protect yourself. Diana, no one gets to promise anyone else their life simply because of some pathetic attempt to justify having brought them into existence.”

I think back to my floating closet of an office and the colorless mornings when I walked mechanically to my desk, pretending to myself that I had engine fluid instead of blood in my veins so that I could trick myself into being nothing more than a number-crunching robot for the next ten hours or so.

There have been fewer perfumers in the history of the world than there had been astronauts in this year alone. I had been clinging to this fact like maybe it would soften our parents to my side, but I know, and the other Dianas know, that this will not save me. Perfume is the only thing I’ve wanted that hasn’t been tied to whether Mom and Dad wanted it, too.

“I have three semesters before graduation. It’s just enough time and overlapping credits to slip in a chemistry major to meet the minimum requirements for most master’s programs in scent design. I’ve been scheduling informational interviews with top perfume schools,” I say. “There’s nothing like it and I’ve never felt like I’ve used my time so meaningfully before.”

The other Dianas bow or tilt their heads in their own ways, the same grin on all their lips.

“There are so many versions of us in which we try our best to be happy,” Original Diana says. “We’ve found at least four ways to be happy. Looks like you’ve found one, too.”

“Let me teach you how to cook,” Original Diana says. “And you can show me how to smell.”

My phone keeps buzzing with emails from my internship supervisor and the C. P. Menlo human resources department to ask if I’m absolutely sure that I’m giving up my spot in the cosmocurrencies internship program. DeeDee giggles every time they send another reply just to make sure. Doc writes up the letter we’ll be mailing to our parents, only a check and no DNA this time. We will wait and see. 3D pulls out the veggies from the industrial fridge she wants Original Diana and I to work with for our late-night dinner party, but Original Diana tells her to hold off and walks me deeper into the kitchen. I overhear them talking about their children, their partners, the new friends they’ve made, the places they’ve traveled to, and everything in between that they’ve been up to since they all last saw each other. I can’t help but wonder what I’ll end up like at twenty-nine, thirty-five, thirty-nine, and forty-two.

Original Diana takes me to where the spices and loose-leaf teas are kept, then the rooftop herb garden, then the bags of wood chips the restaurant keeps for the smoker. When I choose a handful from each area she shows me, Original Diana and I bring them back to the others and tell them to breathe in deeply.

Our breaths all match for a few seconds, and in those moments, I feel no expectations, only trust.

Author profile

Monique Laban is a writer from New York. Her fiction has appeared in Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror. Her nonfiction has appeared in Catapult and Electric Literature. She can be summoned with comfortable midcentury furniture and particularly grisly tales of revenge.

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