my own mind is a tenement

A woman who lived in the house next door has passed away. We learn this - rather, we deduce it - from a few strange happenings. First, wooden boards are nailed to the windows on the first floor. On the concrete beneath the kitchen window, now boarded shut, someone has written in “R.I.P.” in green chalk. The woman’s mail - a few utility bills, a catalog from the community college, a postcard from the pet supply store - starts showing up, mixed with ours. We find it on the floor of the entry way, where it has been pushed through the slot. By whom? Surely not the mail carrier? And then this morning, I come outside to see moving boxes packed with trash lined up on the sidewalk in front of our house. 

“Who would put trash in front of our house?” M. asks when I tell him about it, later. I say I think it’s all from the woman next door. “I’ll call the sanitation department,” he says. We are advised to leave it there until trash pick-up day. If it is still there after that, call them back, we are told. When I return home, I inspect the trash more closely. Someone has opened one of the boxes, rifled through its contents. There is a paperback book - on how to use Photoshop - on the ground. The cover is bent backward and on the first page, I see the woman’s name written in green ink. The empty box from a video game console. A black plastic trash bag has been ripped open to reveal its contents - a set of old, cloth-bound encyclopedias, the pages brittle and yellow. I am hesitant to move anything. I pile a few small bags that have started to spill out on the sidewalk past the row of boxes. As I take my son’s hand to walk toward the front door, I see the corner of a baking sheet sticking out of one of the boxes. It is bent and rusted. Unusable. The sight of these objects, lying out on the sidewalk, exposed, picked through, makes my stomach hurt.

Question #3: What do you know about the circumstances of your adoption?

“Imagine this,” she says. 

I am sitting in a deep armchair across from a woman in another deep armchair. She smiles at me. 

“Imagine this: she can’t take care of you in the way you need to be taken care of, so she says I love you, but I have to let you go.”

“She doesn’t love me enough,” I say. “If she did, she’d find a way to keep me.”

“So it’s not possible that she simply does not have the capacity, the ability to care for you?”

I shake my head. “She won’t try hard enough. If she loved me enough, she would try.”

“So there are no circumstances under which letting you go would be better?”


“And there’s no room, in your view, for her to be herself - flawed, limited, human? It’s just all or nothing for you?”

“Yes,” I say, “exactly.”

I sit in the cafe and try to read, but it is too loud to concentrate. I read the same passage over and over again: “My own mind is a tenement. Some elevators work. There are orange peels and muggings in the hall.”

I gather my things to leave. The afternoon is gray and cool. I walk down the block, feeling dizzy. I hold my arms out a bit to steady myself. At the corner, I turn around and walk back. Then, I sit in my car, stare out the window for several long minutes before heading to my next obligation. 

Question #9: If you had any difficulties that you faced in life, please tell us in details. 

1. When I was ten years old, my father took us to a low-budget, ranch-themed resort. Meals were served in a vast dining room at long tables. It was hot and noisy and everywhere you went, the smell of horse manure and hay lingered. The horse I rode spooked on the trail and ran off ahead. Not far. Not for too long. Just enough to frighten a ten-year-old girl already fearful of her body, hurtling through space. I cried. I clung to the strap of the reins. The palms of my hands smelled like leather, no matter how many times I washed them. 

2. With the money I have saved, I pick out pink-framed sunglasses from the discount store near the beach. There are tiny rhinestones glued across the frames. My mother asks do I want to spend all my money on just that one thing, wouldn’t I like to get something else - a coloring book and crayons? A doll whose eyes open and close? But my mind is made up. I take them to the counter, empty the contents of my tan change purse out onto it. I get a few coins back, put them back in the purse. At the beach, we walk down to the edge, where the sand is wet and warm. Where the waves break on your ankles then pull you back toward the sea. I am in the water up to my knees. I am looking behind me, toward the sand, at my mother, who is approaching. When I turn back to the ocean, I see the wave coming at me, high and fast. It knocks me down. I am sitting in the sand with salt water in my nose, seaweed on my arms. My sunglasses are gone. 

3. As a gift one year, I receive the doll with the eyes that open and close. She has jet black hair. “She looks like you,” the woman - a friend of my mother’s - says, beaming. Hold the doll upright, its eyes are wide open, revealing its blue (“not like you”) eyes. Lay it back and the eyes close. “Shh. She’s sleeping,” the woman whispers, holding a finger to her lips. After a few days of opening and closing, doesn’t one eye start hovering in the half-lidded position, no matter how hard I shake it? I turn it upside to see whether the lid will fall open. It does not. I hide it in my closet, way back in the darkest corner, where at night, in my bed, I imagine it staring out at me through the closed door, one eye open, unblinking, the other in eerie half-sleep. 

In the evening, my friend comes over and we sit at my kitchen table, drinking wine and playing records. I put out some cheese and crackers and we eat and laugh and re-fill our glasses. She tells me a story about a man she once thought she loved that makes me cry. Then another one that makes me laugh. My daughter walks in and we chat with her. She humors us for a time, then goes back to her projects. 

And this is the way we pass the hours - turning over the records when one side ends, pouring wine until the bottle is empty.