longing

child in a red apron

Didn’t it – for a time – seem like it might never stop raining?

Someone jokes: “We live in rain now,” and the phrase stays with me, a way to think about one day running through the office parking lot in the downpour and then the next, walking briskly, and then the next, not rushing at all, but letting the cool water run down my face, my hair, soak my work clothes. No longer: It is raining as if it were something that happens, an occurrence that interrupts a state of being, but rather we live in rain, a new state of being.

Eventually, it stops. Blue reasserts itself and a double rainbow arcs across the sky, so vivid, so perfectly rendered, as though it is projected directly from a child’s imagination. This tiny corner of earth gasps and scrambles to take photographs. We gaze skyward, holding our breath, hearts quickening. A collective sigh.

And when the light returns the next day and the sun is high in the patchy blue sky, doesn’t it seem like it has always been thus? A gift and a curse that we can forget darkness. That it can drift past us and through us. Clouds moving across the gray sky, obscuring then revealing the vault of blue.

I have taken to walking, midday, across the river to the museum or to the library, for a bit of quiet solitude amid the meetings and the chatter of my days. There are some students still in town, carrying portfolios and cardboard models wrapped in plastic. Suited men make their way between office building and restaurant. Occasionally, I will see someone I know and we will nod at each other or wave our hands in acknowledgement but we don’t linger. This time – untethered from screen and phone – is rare; we allow each other wide berth.

A protracted end to the school year (to accommodate snow days in one case, an excess of social activity in another) and the odd weather has lent a strange unreal quality to this season of transitions. Work in the garden has been sporadic. There has been some unexpected travel. Meandering through these days, wandering through the museum galleries without pattern or order. From one time period to the next without attention to history or chronology. In the galleries, some people take notes. I sometimes feel like I am floating. I sometimes feel like I am watching myself float.

The people who live next door to us argue in the middle of the night. They are out on the sidewalk in front of the house shouting. Someone has been injured in a fight. They are awaiting help. Somewhere there is a child. A woman’s voice: “Do you see what I am dealing with here? Do you see?”

M. stands by the window, peering through the curtains in the dark. I stay in bed, stare up at the ceiling fan, its blades spinning. The flashing lights of the rescue truck glow red through the curtains. And then it is quiet.

I read about other people’s struggles through mid-life and it makes me feel both less alone and then more. I take fleeting comfort  in knowing that my sadness, my confusion, my frustrations are not unique. There is, after all, relief in recognition. But relief yields then to a kind of shame, blurs into it. How small I am, how insignificant my inarticulate grief. One more voice calling out into the vastness, one cry in the cacophony of this human drama repeated through centuries. One life, finite; the struggle, eternal.

Grief changes nothing. It is wearying. I tell my friend that my heart is tired all the time and he says: “Think instead about all that you are able to give.”

I try to, but cannot. I feel greedy. Stingy and petty. “Think about your capacity to love,” he says, but what I feel is the opposite of capacity. I give nothing without expectation. I am disappointed all the time. All the joys of this life, the love, the light in it will never be sufficient.

“Acceptance is a small, dark room,” I remember reading.

Well ok, I think, I will enter, but you cannot make me stay.

At the museum, there is a painting by Berthe Morisot called Child in a Red Apron. A young girl, the painter’s daughter stands by the window of her home, peering out onto the wintry landscape of Paris. It is a personal painting, a quiet domestic moment, the lines and brush strokes of it suggest haste. It has the quality of a sketch. It is full of motion and light.

I stand in front of it for a while, linger there before I have to leave. There is another woman at the opposite end of the small space. The afternoon light is gentle, illuminating the white-walled room and the painting and both of us standing there.

I think of this painter in her studio. How she happened upon this scene, her young daughter, so beautiful, so still. How she was moved to capture it, to layer it down on canvas. Her urgent, quick strokes. A breathlessness. A gesture toward immortality.

This painter, now gone, and her daughter too. How fragile, how fleeting these lives. Our lives. How we build these tiny monuments to what we have seen here in our time, what we have done, how we have spent our days. Who we have loved and how well we have tried to love them.

All we have tried to do and failed. That we have tried. 

14 dreams

Dream: You call me from the hospital, but by the time I get there, you are gone. 

Dream: You are standing in a field of poppies. You rise up from a sea of red.

Dream: You are sitting on the concrete steps beneath the tunnel. I am standing there but you cannot see me. I say: Look at me, here I am. I am here. 

Dream: It is night. You are on your knees holding your head in your hands. It is raining.

Dream: You read to me from the dictionary, the words without their meanings. Compulsory, you say. Compunction. Computation. Compute

Dream: It is raining. You are on your knees in the middle of the open highway. I am standing there but you cannot see me. 

Dream: You say: Come to me and so I am running. 

Dream: Again, the dictionary. Again without meanings: Longhand. Longhouse. Longing.

Dream: You call me from the hospital parking lot. You call me from the highway. You call me from the train station. You call me from a field of poppies. 

Dream: You are lying on the grass. The sun is high and bright. The sun warms your skin. You are sleeping. 

Dream: You are sleeping in a field of poppies. I call out to you but you do not answer. I say Longhand. I say Longhouse. I say: Look at me. It is raining

Dream: I am chasing you through the streets of the city. Past the bus stop. Past the abandoned lot. I follow you through the tunnel, up the concrete steps. I follow you across the highway.

Dream: You are lying on the highway. You are lying in a field of poppies. You say: Come to me. You say: Longing.  

Dream: You are waiting for me on the bridge, down by the river that runs through the city. I run to you, through the tunnel, past the bus stop, the abandoned lot. I run to you past the field of wildflowers. Past the empty storefronts, the walls of graffiti. I run to you past the fountain beneath the concrete steps leading up. I run to you on the cracked pavement. I run to you through the empty streets. I run to you across the holes in the earth. I will never stop running. 

the price you pay

We drive to the beach in the late afternoon. The skies are overcast, but we are cheerful. In the car, one minute I am chattering and the next, I am dreaming of fields of lavender in bloom. When I awake, we are nearly there. 

At the water’s edge, the air is cool and damp and there is a light gray mist hanging over us. The boys dig wide, deep holes in the sand, bury themselves. I sit watching, wrapped in a towel. 

In the distance the lighthouse pulses. Near me, a man lies on his back on a towel, while his daughter stands by in her bikini, staring out to the sea. She is young, the age of my own daughter perhaps, her body on the brink of womanhood. How we are all so beautiful in this soft, gray light. 

Sailboats drift by. Gray sails, white ones. 

Now matter how long we have stayed, no matter how dark the sky or how late the hour. No matter that rain has begun to fall. No matter that we are light-headed with hunger, I am always reluctant to leave. To shake out our sandals, our towels. To fold our chairs. To trudge through the soft sand and on to the concrete of the street, the gravel cruel to our tender flesh. The recognition,  in those moments, that the best of the day is behind us. 

M. leaves once again for his parents’ house, but the house has now been sold. He will arrange the last details, ensure that everything is in order. They are moving, once again. Leaving their apartment for an assisted living facility. They will each have a room on a shared hall. 

“I don’t know how it will be,” he says of his trip. “It will be difficult in ways I cannot anticipate.” 

“Yes,” I say, and it is all that I know to be true. 

My friend misses someone far away and in the morning, he writes to me about longing. “I feel underneath it,” he says. I say, “Yes, underneath - that is exactly what it feels like, isn’t it?”

At night, after the boy is in bed, I slip out onto the back patio and watch the day’s last light as it fades. The sound of fireworks from the stadium. I cannot see the highway from here, but I can hear the traffic rush by. It is too warm for the jacket I am wearing but too cool for me to take it off. I feel hot and dizzy: a sickness that I cannot quite explain. 

I am scanning the sky for signs. I am watching for signal flares.

The house next door is for sale now and the cars pass slowly on the street, their windows rolled down. When I return from my morning’s errands, there is a group of people standing around in the backyard. They smoke cigarettes and they talk loudly. They are staring into my own yard, and I linger near my front steps for a moment, watching. There are three men and a woman. The men point up at the roof. At the second floor windows. At the chimney. They make their comments, write things down. They level their judgements and shake their heads, as if a woman had not lived and died there. 

I close the front door behind me, will them to leave, but I can still hear them talking about roofing and shingles. 

“Once that goes,” I hear one say, “you can kiss the whole goddamn mess goodbye.”

Someone responds: “That’s the price you pay.” 

My friend writes: Today I wake up filled - overcome - with longing. Says: I want everything. I want it all.

Once I am sure the group next door is gone, I drag out the shovel and the rake from the basement. I dig holes. 

I have bought some new plants - pink gaura and bee balm and sweet woodruff. I will move the hydrangea and the false indigo. 

I have two flats of annuals - white begonias - to border the bed closest to the house, but first I have to redefine its boundary. 

The boy comes outside to sit in the shade and watches me while I dig a narrow trench on my knees. It is hot, the air is so still. I use a hand trowel and inch along toward the driveway. My shoulders and elbows ache. The earth is tightly packed and the digging is hard on my hands. I go deep. There are old roots and branches too and I have to keep stopping to tug at them, then to wipe off the dirt that flies up at my face from all the tugging.

I am thinking of my friend. Of his longing. Of all the things that tether him here, so far from what he desires. Of the choices we all make, keep making. To go. To stay. To wait for signs. 

How whatever grand plans we have for ourselves, it is these choices, that we make and re-make each day that define the path our lives will take. No matter who we think we are. No matter what we think we know or want or love. 

M. spends the night in a hotel in the town he grew up in. “I woke up and I didn’t know where I was,” he says. “I feel like I am here for a conference,” he says. “Like I’m here to give a presentation on aging and mortality.”

I get messages from him throughout the day. I am picking up my parents for breakfast. I am standing in line at the store. I am packing boxes because there are boxes that still need to be packed. He sounds weary and sad. He is hundreds of miles away. 

I go back to digging. There is a small hole in my glove and I can feel the dirt seeping in. I taste dirt on my lip. I can feel it streaked with sweat across my face. I am tired and hot, but there is still so much more to be done. 

I come inside. My son is lying on the floor, the pieces of a puzzle spread out in front of him. He says hi without looking up. At the sink, I wash my hands and arms and face. The skin on my shoulders feels hot and tight and I realize I have been in the sun too long. There will be a price to pay for that, too. 

one long argument

Another gray morning. The boy is up early and from the kitchen, we can hear the sound of his footsteps on the stairs. He is scowling. He announces his grievances – the difficulty he had putting on his shirt, how the cat ruined the game he was trying to play, his too-small socks. M. attempts to redirect his attention by ushering him over to the doorway, where we have marked, over the years, his height. “Look how tall you are,” we say. His mood brightens as he adjusts himself against the wall, holds his head still. He steps away to see the pencil mark, several inches above the last. “I’m pretty big,” he says, grinning, the memory of his morning’s struggles receding, “Yep.”

“The thing with married men,” C. says, as we are getting ready to leave the café, “is that they already know how to play you.”

We stand out on the sidewalk for a few minutes on the corner as the busses rush past. “When you’re single, you’re pretty much hungry all the time. But they can afford to be patient. They can wait out your resolve.”

We embrace. She feels slighter, smaller than I remember. She pulls her car keys from her bag, holds them. “And then,” she says as she takes a few steps backward, “when they see any signs of weakness, they pounce.” She holds her hands up with her fingers curled to pantomime paws.

We laugh and wave, and I watch her walk away.

By the time we get to the car, the boy has found a new complaint to register. He pouts as I buckle him into his car seat. “I wanted stars for lunch,” he says. He is talking about pasta. It has started to rain, and I can feel a few drops on my back as I lean into the car. I don’t respond immediately. Instead, as I slip into the driver’s seat, unwrap a granola bar and hand it to him, I say, “Well, here’s a little tip for you to remember. Sometimes, we all want things that we can’t have.” His lips are set in a tight frown. “That’s the truth, my friend. Deal with it.”

He is quiet as we pull out into the street. I turn the radio up.

G., too was once in love with a married man and on the night that she ends it, we meet up at a run-down, divey bar by the water. It is late in the summer and we sit out on the back patio as evening descends.

“What finally did it for me,” she says, as we are waiting for our drinks to arrive, “is that he’d say these things to me – these sweet, lovely things – with all this tenderness in his voice, and I thought he was so romantic and in love with me, and then all of a sudden, I could hear him saying these things – these exact things – to his wife. To his actual wife.”

She uses the phrase “actual wife,” and the way she says it – drawn out and exaggerated – makes me want to laugh, but I dare not.

Our drinks arrive and we raise our glasses to each other, a toast to decisiveness.

She takes a sip, then goes on, “And I figured, I may not have much self-esteem, but I think I should have more than this. I mean, at least someone who has to make up a few new lines for me.”

As I pull into the gas station, there is a white van pulling in from the opposite direction. I move slowly, assessing the distance between the van and the little concrete island with the gas pumps and the guard rails. I inch forward, turning hard to avoid the van, but instead hit the guard rails. I hear the hollow crunching sound of impact as I approach the pump.

I inspect the damage as I pump gas. The paint is chipped, flaking. A long dent. I have owned this car barely seven months. The owner before me kept it pristinely for three years and sixty-seven thousand miles.

For the rest of my morning commute, I drive gingerly, like I am coaxing the car forward with only the force of good wishes.

I arrive early to an appointment, so I sit in my car for a few minutes to wait. I’m near the park so I can watch the joggers and walkers along the boulevard. A woman in a brown sweatshirt runs behind her stroller. A man in a knit cap saunters by.

On the other side of the park, a cemetery. If you follow the road around the curve of the cemetery, along where the stone wall marks its border, you come to a shady area, a little shrouded by trees, where you can pull off the road and park.

“There,” G. had pointed out the spot as we drove past one afternoon. “Right there.” She is telling me where she and the man had first affirmed their affections.

“Really? There? In the car?”

She nods, says: “It was ridiculous. Like high school.”

We drive on. We are on our way to meet some friends for dinner.

“Is it weird to say it was strangely charming? I mean, completely awkward and ultimately not very satisfying.”

I interrupt her: “Sounds amazing.”

She goes on, “But it wasn’t really about sex, you know? Like it was never really about sex.”

At physical therapy, I say that I am regressing, but the therapist – a new one today – cheerfully explains that “flare-ups” can happen, and we should be vigilant, but not overly concerned. I am lying flat on my back while she works at my knee and along the outside of my leg. Later, she slips a pillow beneath my legs to lift them, wraps my knee in ice and turns out the overhead light. “Take a little nap,” she says. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

I briefly consider napping, but the office is noisy today. I can hear my usual therapist in the next room, lecturing about posture and the importance of balance. I stare at the ceiling. I bring my hands to my hips, poke my fingers around the bones.

I close my eyes, concentrate on the breath moving through my body – feel my chest expanding, collapsing. I slow my breathing, think of floating. Of my body, weightless – drifting.

better now than later

On the night before her wedding, my mother doubted. She had drawn a bath. “I remember sitting there in the tub,” she tells me once, “and I couldn’t explain it, but I just felt tears running down my face. I didn’t feel sad really,“ she says. "I didn’t really feel much of anything.”

We are sitting at the round table in the kitchen, the fake tiffany lampshade over our heads. There is a layer of dust that clings to the chain suspending it from the ceiling. She has found an old photograph from their wedding and she is holding it in her hands as she speaks.

“Maybe that was it,” she says. “Just that I expected to feel something.”

She leaves the photo on the table as she pushes her chair back, gets up, walks over to the sink. She takes a glass from the cabinet above the stove, runs the faucet. She lets it run.

In the photo, they are smiling. My mother is still wearing her veil, although it sits askew on her head. They are both facing the photographer, but neither looks directly at the camera. They are focused on a point just beyond.

It’s been over for months now, the thing with C. and her married man. We haven’t spoken of it in some time. “I cry every day,” she says, “but at least it’s over. Such a relief to be free of all that…” she waves her hand in the air like she is grasping for something, like she is going to pull down the shade in a window. “…shame, I guess. I guess it was shame.”

We are sitting in a café, at a table by the window. The white lace curtains are open and through them, we can watch people walking by on the street. We see someone we both know, but do not wave. He is not looking at us.

“I’ve taken up knitting,” she says with a laugh. “Keeps my hands busy.” I imagine her sitting in her meticulous apartment with its spartan décor – the only point of color and chaos the baskets overflowing with yarn all around her. And C., in the middle of it all – frenetically knitting the longest scarf in the world.

An insistently gray morning breaks and a bit of yellow sun peeks through the cloud cover for a short time. Its warmth is fleeting.

I drive past the playground, empty at this time of day. A forgotten jacket hangs by its hood on the gate post. Just past the entrance, there are men working on the roof of a house. They are sitting on its steep pitch, the wide gray sky behind them. With spades, they loosen long strips of black tar paper from the roof’s sloping sides. The paper flutters away and drifts to the ground, like the flapping wings of some large, falling birds.

The office is quiet. I spend the morning making notes, lists. I eat cold beets and toast at my desk. I sign checks. Outside, rain has started to fall and I can hear the slickness of it beneath the tires of passing cars.

I meet my friend after work at our usual spot and we sit at the corner bar stools, as we usually do. We order salads and pick at them. She tells me about her mother, who hovers in a dream state. “Who is taking care of the baby?” she will sometimes ask.

She tells me about the man she loved through decades, across the borders of several states and I think about adjusting to the changing rhythms of living together and apart in the ways that they did. I have always found separation nearly unbearable in love – my impulse instead to suffocate, to envelop. We learn these behaviors early, I am sure, and for me, to love has always meant to hold fast.

I tell my son that when he was born, he was so small that I carried him tucked into my shirt pocket. “Right here,” I say, with my hand to my chest. “Right next to my heart.” He looks at me with wide eyes and laughs. “You’re just fooling me, Momma.”

I tell him, “Yes, you are right, of course,” but the image is one I find myself returning to. I want a pocket big enough to crawl into – near a heart that beats loud and hot.

Time passes. The hours, the days, the years. I see fine lines on my hands that I do not recognize. My body aches in unfamiliar places.

I tell a mutual friend about C., say I am concerned that she is crying all the time, and she says, “Better now than later.” I don’t ask her to elaborate but the phrase stays with me, and as I go about my day, I find her words stuck in my head, like a bit of singsong, a nursery rhyme: Better now than later. Better now than later.

By the late afternoon, I find myself irritated – this phrase meaningless, empty. What, I wonder, is better now?

After my mother gets up, she fills her glass with water from the tap, takes it into her bedroom with her, places it on the table beside her bed. I follow her, stand in the doorway, holding the photograph. “You left this on the table,” I tell her, hold it out to her. She is sitting on the edge of her bed now, her hands on her knees. “Just leave it there,” she says, gesturing toward her dresser. “Or you can have it. You take it, I don’t want it.” I stand there for a moment longer, say goodnight, leave the photo behind.

Early the next morning, while she is in the shower, I slip into her room for the photo. I have so few of them together. It is not where I left it. I find it instead on her bedside table, near the empty water glass, beneath her reading glasses. I leave it there. 

I miss that person

I take my son to the playground on another unseasonably warm afternoon and as we cross the parking lot, he takes my hand, pulls at me, says, “Let’s run.” When we are at the sidewalk, I tell him, “Go ahead, you run,” and he takes off. I follow him – his red coat – for only a moment or two and then he is lost to the swirl of jackets and hats and sweatshirts clustered and clamoring – around the rock wall, the steps to the slide, the tall rope structure with the coveted high platform that one child at a time can sit atop and from there, gaze down on all the goings on below.

When I find him, he is standing still, waiting for his turn on the covered slide. I walk around the other side of it so I can watch him come down. I catch a glimpse of the top of his head before it disappears into the plastic tube, and then he pops out the bottom, his cheeks flushed, his coat hanging open.

He is fascinated by the rope web. Slowly, he climbs up onto it and makes his way across to the center, where several older boys are circling the ropes leading up to the platform. He freezes in position whenever someone moves past him, which causes the web to shake. When it is still again, he creeps along on all fours until he arrives at the farthest point from where he began. Then, he lowers himself one leg at a time so that he is clutching the rope at his chest, legs dangling, his shirt rising up so that a narrow band of his round belly is visible. He holds this position for as long as he can, then drops to the ground. He scans for me. I am sitting up against the wooden fence in full view. He runs over. “Did you see what I did Mama?” he asks grinning, breathlessly. I pull him into my arms, squeeze him. “I sure did. You were amazing.”

L. comes over for dinner and we catch up on her on-again, off-again, not-quite-available boyfriend. “He’s calling it a relationship,” she says, her voice dropping as she leans in closer across the table. I don’t ask about the status of his divorce. She says, “I think it’s ok – I mean, it’s good.”

I ask whether they’ve seen each other since the weekend at the hotel. She says no, but they’ve spoken on the phone a few times. “I thought the connection was just physical,” she says, “but it turns out we have a lot to talk about.” We laugh.

She tells me about the man she lived with for a while, who wanted his own bedroom and only told her he loved her when he was traveling and they were far apart. “And how long did this go on?” I ask. “About a year,” she says, “and almost all of it was terrible.”

She’s talking about the boyfriend again now, says he’s trying so hard to get his life together, not drinking so much. She shows me a photo. It’s dark and there are shadows falling across him. He’s wearing a knit hat pulled down. It’s not easy to see his face. “He’s sad, though,” she says. “He seems so sad and alone.”

“And that is what they do,” I say as I get up to clear the plates from the table. “That is how they pull us in.”

She gathers her things to leave. Inexplicably, she’s meeting up with the man she once lived with. “Well, he called and asked if I wanted to have a drink,” she explains, as she puts on her coat. “I’m trying to make it clear that I am not interested in starting anything up again.”

“No better way to communicate disinterest than to meet up for drinks,” I say. We laugh, but she does not respond. We hug and I walk her to the door. “Your house is so cold,” she calls as she walks down the front steps. She’s waving her hand in the air, but doesn’t turn around. “Don’t you feel the cold?”

There’s a note from Shinhye, my social worker in Korea. She reminds me that I had written to them in 2001. Says there is no information about my family, but that I can appear on a television show if I’d like, tell my story. Many people have been reunited with their families this way, she says. “Let me know if you are interested in the television show.”

I follow the link she’s embedded to the show, which is called “I Miss That Person.” There is a video still – presumably from the show – on a bright, garish set. Two hosts holding microphones lean in toward a video screen showing a man’s face. On the other side of the screen, another man holds his hands behind his back, his eyes cast down. The scene makes my stomach ache.

I tell M. about it, show him the site. “I don’t think I can do it,” I tell him, as I scroll down to the description of the various ways in which they attempt to reunite people. There is a program dedicated specifically to Korean adoptees called “Mom, I Miss You.” The description reads:

This service is for the 200,000 Korean adoptees worldwide wishing to find their Korean roots. Raised as foreigners, the only Korean they can typically say is “Mom, I miss you.” In the past, they had to visit Korea but now, through UCC and video calls, they can participate in the show airing in Korea real-time.

“You should totally do it,” he says.

“But I can’t say ‘Mom I miss you’ in Korean,” I tell him.

“Why wouldn’t you want to do it?”

I close my laptop. Put it down on the rug. I let him embrace me, pull me close. I mumble my answer into his chest: “I guess I just don’t want to seem like I want it that much.”

This morning, I wake to snow. Big, fat flakes that seem to melt on contact with the pavement. I stand at the stove, stirring oatmeal. My son comes into the kitchen with his feet bare. My daughter, from the doorway, asks to borrow a sweater. “The perfect soundtrack for snow,” M. says at the record player and I listen for the first few strains of what he has chosen. Familiar, melancholy, haunting. “Yes,” I tell him. Yes it is.

lottery

A longtime family friend sends scratch-off lottery tickets in the mail and my aunt uses the blade of a knife to scrape away at them while I peel carrots. She narrates:

“Match two amounts and uncover the dollar sign to win the amount shown. There’s fifty. There’s five hundred. And there’s one hundred. Nope. Didn’t win that one!”

I dice a few carrots, move on to the celery.

“Oh on this one, I could win five thousand dollars. That would be nice. Five thousand. I never win anything. I don’t know why she keeps sending these. I won forty dollars once. That was it.”

There are five tickets, none of them a winner and she uses a paper towel to dust off the little bits of silver latex that have collected on the kitchen counter.

“I never win anything, but I keep on trying.” She pauses for a moment and watches me peel an onion. “What do you think, are you someone who wins things?”

In the living room, the boy is playing with trucks. The television has been left on to hum and flicker in the background. I stand there for a moment to watch him. On the screen, a woman stands behind a clear plastic lottery machine and a fan beneath the machine forces white balls through tubes. The woman calls off the winning numbers. One can imagine the groans of disappointment rippling through the station’s viewing region.

For a time, my father worked as a security guard at a hospital. On weekends, he worked a late shift, leaving home after midnight. Before he went to bed – which was usually just after dinner – he would ask us to make sure we watched the lottery drawing and wrote down the week’s winning numbers. Often, he had bought a ticket – sometimes more than one – but even when he had not, he wanted the numbers so that he could record them in his notebook.

Spiral bound with a worn green cover, his notebook documented years of winning lottery numbers. Each row of numbers was carefully rendered in blue ink by his cramped hand. Some combinations circled, some underlined. “I’m going to crack the code,” he told me once, while he transferred numbers from a scrap of paper into his notebook. “There is only a certain number of possible combinations, you know. But you have to know what you’re looking for.”


“What would you do if you won a million dollars?” It was not an uncommon question to be heard around the dinner table of my childhood. We dreamed aloud of trips – to Europe and Asia. Of houses by the ocean. The parents promised loan-free college years to the children and we, in turn vowed to take care of them: “You would be set for life,” we said. “You would never have to worry about money.”

On occasion, my father would interject an observation about taxes or how, exactly, the money was paid out over time, and gradually the amount was increased – a kind of cost of living adjustment: “What would you do with five million?” And sometimes, just to hear the gasps elicited around the table, I would say, my voice all whispery: “Why not a hundred million?”

We are always waiting for something to happen. Some stroke of fortune, some divine intervention, some sign that will draw us up and out of our daily lives – some bright spot on the horizon to which we can yearn, toward which we can orient our longing.

We buy our lottery tickets. Work out our formulas, our calculations. We try to imagine the future we might have one day, if only…

I recall my father winning once – a couple hundred dollars – the result of having chosen two or three of the six winning numbers. This was nowhere near the jackpot of several million dollars of course, but it was enough to keep him in the game: standing in line at the delicatessen to buy tickets week after week; sitting hunched at the kitchen table and filling in the forms in pencil; choosing the numbers that had been divined for him by the formulas and calculations in his spiral notebook.

He was methodical, but also it seemed to me, a bit superstitious: “You can’t keep changing your numbers all the time. You have to be willing to play the same ones for a while – maybe a long while – so you have to get ones you feel good about. And stay with them. At least for as long as they feel right.”

My mother: “If I won a million dollars, I would walk into the office tomorrow and tell them that I’m not coming back. I would get on a plane to Portugal and stay there for a month. I would finally go to DC in the spring, just to see the cherry blossoms. Do you know I have never seen the cherry blossoms in the spring?”

We all take our chances, don’t we? We pick our numbers. Play them for a while, for as long as it feels right. And when we start to doubt them, we turn back to our notebooks, scour the long rows and columns for what we may have missed. Then, with our adjustments made, don’t we just find ourselves back at the end of that line, waiting our turn to have another go? And when the fan starts whirring beneath the clear plastic drum, don’t we all stand around there watching, holding our breath, to see what pops up?

all that our arms can carry

This morning there was rain. I rose in the dark to run and was surprised to be greeted by the sound of rainfall on the brick patio outside the hotel lobby. Lovely, but not inviting this particular morning. I took refuge indoors to the sprawling fitness center where, on the treadmill facing the walkway, I let Apex Manor’s “The Year of Magical Drinking” distract me from the muted talking heads of mindless morning television. Across the bottom of the screen the headlines are absurd and without context: “Bleak portrait of poverty is off the mark, experts say.” How exactly, I wonder, might the real portrait of poverty be a cheerful one?

I am at something of a crossroads. This year leading up to forty has presented me with challenges to which I have not always felt adequate to rise. And yet mercifully, time goes on. Morning follows night, ceaselessly, and now that the date itself – with all its attendant expectations and fears – has passed, I am left feeling a bit bewildered. A bit bereft, even. I have expended so much energy in tending these anxieties, in carrying these specific burdens, that putting them down now introduces new fears. My arms are so empty now. What, then, shall I carry?

A few months after my daughter was born, we moved from Providence to New York City. I took leave from the graduate program in writing that I was in, and followed the job opportunity that presented itself to Z.’s father. It was a great offer, one he was fortunate to have, one that it would have been difficult to refuse.

We lived on the upper east side, a few blocks from the 92nd Street Y. I was at home with Z., full time. B. was gone a lot. He worked long days, traveled quite a bit – the west coast, Asia.

After the first couple months, I hired a babysitter for a couple afternoons a week, just for a few hours, and I would use that time to run errands, or to see a film or a museum exhibit, or wander aimlessly in the park. A little escape from the routine of baby care.

Eventually, I started using the time to write again. I sat on the great wide steps of the Met and wrote sketches of the tourists walking by. I imagined myself in their lives or in any number of other lives. Although I didn’t consider myself unhappy, I wanted to write my way out of the life I found myself in. I imagined all the paths I had not taken. Decisions I had made long ago – I turned these over and over in my mind, tried to carry them out to other conclusions. I was lonely, I think. I was beginning to realize that perhaps we did not have the same dreams, my then-husband and me. I was restless. Adrift.

The adoption literature will sometimes reference a sense that adoptees may have of feeling like they are not where they are supposed to be. Like they are lost, like they are wandering in a place without maps. Significant moments in the life of a family – celebrations, anniversaries, birthdays, reunions, vacations – all of these can feel particularly alienating precisely because they are supposed to feel reassuring, comforting. But these markers only serve to heighten the sense of difference. Why am I not happy when I am supposed to be, we wonder. What is so wrong, then, with me?

There are times when my friends grow impatient with me, and who can blame them. I look around and try to see my life as others might view it – the richness of it. Its considerable gifts and charms. And I want – so desperately do I want – to love it all, to be ecstatic with it, to embrace it with a joyful heart, a buoyant heart. But this sense that there is somewhere else I should be, that there is something not quite right, that a part of me – something deep and old and inexplicable – is not where it is supposed to be – is unshakeable: a phantom limb.

In the daydream life I sometimes imagine, my mother comes to visit me. I show her around my garden. It is the height of the summer – hot and dry – and the lavender is in full bloom. I have rows and rows of it, and it comes up to our knees, spills out over the borders of its beds in great purple profusion. I kneel down and cut a bunch for her – its perfume so fragrant and heady. She takes it from me, smiles, reaches her hand out to touch my cheek. Already, I can smell the lavender on her hands.

I gather up more of it – great armfuls of it to bring inside to dry, to tie with ribbons. She tells me how beautiful my house is. How beautiful the garden – how much she loves the white roses that climb up the makeshift trellis I’ve built against the neighbor’s garage. And the purple clematis entwined with it. How the irises along the back fence remind her of the house she grew up in, a house I never got to see. How the way the sunlight falls on the brick patio, dappled through the branches of the holly tree, and the patches of green and gray moss that grow along the stone wall, and the gentle splashing of the fountain that burbles in the tiny pond that we dug ourselves – how all of this – is like a dream. What beauty you have gathered around you, have tended here, she says. How all that you’ve touched seems filled with light.

How you, my daughter, are filled with light. How I love you, my daughter. My beautiful daughter.

We take the lavender in to the kitchen, lay it out across the counter. Wait, she says, I have an idea. She takes a handful of blossoms, crushes them between her palms, releasing and warming their fragrant oils. Bring me your coat – your winter coat, she says. She is excited, her cheeks flushed. I run upstairs and come back with it – an old navy wool jacket, its sleeves worn at the elbows. Here, she says, tucking crushed blossoms in each pocket. So even in winter, when it is so cold, you will remember this.

Imagine: filling your pockets with lavender.