good girls

among the reeds and the bullrushes

I am hosting a work dinner at my office and as the discussion winds down, I take the tray of dessert pastries from the side table and walk it around the room, offering it to each attendee in turn. One of the men, older, but not – in my assessment of it – old enough to get away with this takes a petit four and says to me: “Ah, yes. Good girl.”

I laugh it off, keep moving, but when I sit back down I can feel myself trembling with rage. In a moment it seems he has dismissed my eighteen years of education and fifteen years of work experience. My face is hot and I feel small, like a child who has been sent to her room. I imagine jumping up in the middle of whatever they are now discussing, upending the conference table, hurling the pastries across the room at his face, all the while shrieking, “Am I a good girl now? Am I a good girl now?”

I spend most of the summer after my first year in college in the café where the theatre majors and art students nurse single mugs of coffee and scribble in black sketchbooks while Patsy Cline records play on continuous repeat. I’m approached by a man who gestures toward the book I am reading (Swann’s Way, if you must know) and says: “Oh, you’re reading Proust?” He has the slightest accent, or affectation of one, and nineteen-year-old me requires little more than that. I invite him to sit down and we talk for a while. He’s an art student, of course (I was, at the time, a theatre major) and we meander through the expected pleasantries of a budding flirtation until he suddenly checks his watch, says he has to go. “I want to see you again,” he says, and takes a piece of paper from the pocket of his pants. He writes something on it, slides it across the table to me. “Oh, and wear something red,” he says, as he walks toward the door, “I like girls in red.”

On the slip of paper, an address – or rather, an intersection of two streets – and a date and a time. It’s like a game. I’m nineteen, in love with the idea of drama, of romance, and I’m all in.

I buy a red wrap dress at the second-hand store and on the appointed date, I show up at the designated time. He is already at the intersection when I arrive. He has a giant pack on his back that is made of silver fabric that seems suitable for space flight. A kiss on each cheek by way of greeting (how European, I think) and then I follow him on a winding path that leads behind one of the college buildings and opens out to a grassy courtyard bordered by trees. He takes a fringed blanket from his pack and spreads it on the grass. He lays out crusty bread and soft cheeses on small white plates. Strawberries.

My memory of the evening is imperfect, probably because in the end, it was unimportant. We drank vodka from chilled glasses and ate bread and cheese and strawberries on a fringed blanket in a tree-lined courtyard on a summer evening. There is, I think, a kind of beauty in the simple fact of this. Of being nineteen and following the directions scribbled on a scrap of paper by a stranger in a café. I never saw him again.

My mother was an optimist. So says my wise friend L., although I am not convinced.

“Think about Moses,” she says. “Relinquishing a child is a sign of hope. It’s about imagining a future.” We are sitting across the table from each other, over plates of fried eggs and corn muffins. I imagine fat baby Moses floating in his basket down the Nile, through the reeds and the bullrushes. Was he frightened? What did he remember of his journey?

When I tell her that I think about searching, but then cannot bring myself to take any real action toward it, she asks: “What do you think is holding you back?”

This is an easy one. There is one single thought that stops me cold. That immobilizes me. That stops the hand as it hovers over the phone. The single thought is this: In the best possible outcome, the one in which my mother wants to be found, wants me in her life, what kind of relationship can I have with her, halfway across the world?

L. remains undaunted. “Well, what kind of relationship would you want?”

I think for a moment before speaking aloud the answer that I already know – have known it in my heart for as long as I can remember knowing anything. I don’t want this to be the answer, don’t want it to be true even as I am saying it, but I say it anyway: “I would want to completely integrate her into every part of my life. To make up for all the time. To start at the beginning. To tell her everything. To know everything. I would want her completely and entirely and all to myself. For the rest of her life.

She looks at me, as if considering how to say what she wants to say. As if assessing whether or not she should say it. “You realize,” she begins slowly, as if speaking to a child, “that you’re talking about a woman, probably in her sixties, who may have a family and maybe even grandchildren, friends, relatives – obligations that she couldn’t possibly leave…”

Of course. I know this. Of course. But this is my search. And my fantasy. And here are my terms: That she recognizes that I’ve become all that she had hoped for. More. That she sees this life that I have made for myself – that I have struggled to make for myself – and she is so filled with pride and love and gratitude that she wants to hold me close to herself and never let me go.

And also, there is this: If I get her back – this woman I have spent my entire life missing – if I get her back – if I can look into her face and see myself. If I can hold her hands and see what my own hands will become. If I can press my palms to her face and to her hair and if I can enfold her in my arms and feel the shape of her bones and if I can bring her close and inhale the scent of her skin – if I do all that, and then have to say goodbye, I just don’t think I could survive it. 

What I say aloud is this: “Well, I don’t think that I could bear her sending me away again.”

“Again. You said again?”

I nod. “Yes.”

Our eggs are cold. She looks down at her plate, pokes at them with her fork. She holds her head down for a long time.

When she looks up at me, she has tears in her eyes. “You remember it,” she says. “You must remember it – in your body somehow. You remember being sent away.” She reaches across the table to put her hand on my arm. We are both crying now.

“My god, you were old enough to remember it. Being sent away. And of course, you can’t bear to go through that again. You remember it all – all of it.”

Yes. I suppose I do.