the nature of the panic, 3

I am circling the hole where my mother used to be – first mother, second, it doesn’t much matter. The point is there is a hole that is wide and dark and I circle it, peer into its depths and the circling itself offers a kind of comfort – a repeated act of preoccupation, like the worrying of a scab or the drumming of anxious fingertips on the kitchen table. 

Every act of love or impulse toward it is like throwing pebbles into this (mother)hole, this gaping wound in the earth where once, if only briefly, there was solid ground. Perhaps a grove of trees in which foxes made their dens. Perhaps a fertile acre from which wildflowers bloomed. 

I meet my friend at the bar I love that she dislikes, but she suggests it anyway knowing it will please me. I do not protest. I am running late, but when I arrive, I pull up a wooden stool next to her, lean in for a quick embrace. Her hair smells faintly of coconut milk and pencil shavings. 

There is a new love in her life and she is effervescent. We share a salad of sliced apples and sharp cheddar. We spent the weekend in the mountains, she tells me. We went hiking. We slept late. She doesn’t mention his wife and so neither do I. 

I rise before dawn and across the street on the bridge, sheets of newspaper twist in the wind. I sit on the porch steps to tie my sneakers and watch the morning commuters speed past on the highway. 

The first home I can remember is a red brick building across the street from a sprawling park, where I spent many afternoons throwing stones into the shallow pond at its center. The second, a squat, white-shingled house with a gray roof. I remember pink azalea bushes and a slate walkway that led to the front door. 

After my mother died, we sold the white house and dispersed. In the early years, I would drive back there sometimes. On one such occasion, the azalea bushes were gone. A wooden deck had been built in the back. The house had been painted blue.

There is a hole in the ceiling of my daughter’s room and when it rains, the water runs down the walls and soaks the bedsheets. M. climbs out on the roof to assess it. It is difficult to locate the site of the leak and so he buys a tarp and some fasteners as a temporary solution. 

Poised on the steeply-pitched roof, he removes the folded tarp from its bag. He says when I unfold it, I immediately recognize the folly of buying a tarp for a roof this vast. He steadies himself against the wind. He shakes the tarp loose. It flutters down like a napkin on a banquet table. 

The ocean calms me. For a time in the cool saltwater, I feel like a better version of myself. I am carefree, I throw myself around. I laugh; I dive deep then come up again, sputtering and open-mouthed. Arms wide with delight. And the water, obliging, treats me as lover might: gently, firmly, open to my play. I face the shore and it comes up behind me, startling and sharp on my skin. For a time it is just water and salt and endless sky. 

What are we looking for when we return to a place we used to live? What are we expecting to find? I board planes and trains expecting a kind of redemption, envisioning at my destination, someone holding up a sign with my name. Perhaps a woman who looks like me, a woman I recognize with a wide face and a pointed chin. A scattering of freckles across a flat-bridged nose. I scan the clusters of people at the baggage carousels, recognize no one. I collect my baggage alone. I ride the shuttle bus alone, or the taxi. There is no woman. There is no sign. In my hand I am clutching a worn, creased map of a landscape that no longer exists. 

In the water, it is quiet except for the soft lapping sounds of the sea. Facing out, my back to the shore, there is nothing but the vastness of green as it blurs into the blue-gray sky. This ocean, like the earth’s hungry open mouth. The insistent pull of out as I wade further away from the sand. The lure of it. The siren call of drifting. The promise of redemption on some distant shore. I turn away. Let the waves break on my back. I wade back to shore thinking, Show some humility, narcissistic sea: Yours is not the only love I have known.