glowing, but not burning

Even early, even before the light, there is birdsong. 

Morning breaks. 

M. spends the weekend at his childhood home, readying it to be sold. The enormity of the project overwhelms. He spends the day with his siblings, sifting through the stuff of a fifty-year marriage and a family of nine. They work first on the barn behind the house. They fill dumpsters. They are at it for hours. He sends me photos through the day. In one, sunlight floods through a small opening in the wooden structure, the floor of which is obscured by decades of abandoned playthings, scraps of wood and metal, and trash. 

We speak by phone at the end of the day and he sounds weary, drained. 

“I miss you,” he says. 

I say, “Yes, I miss you, too.” 

My friend comes over late one evening and we talk about the choices we have made. The things that still, we want. 

“What is it that you want?” she asks. 

“I have everything I ever thought I wanted,” I say. 

She presses. “But what about now? What about for the future?”

I tell her about the house in France - my dream of it. To buy a little run down cottage that I can restore, bit by bit, over years. Down by the Spanish border, near the sea. “I need a project,” I say, “to get me through this decade.” 

At this point, it is still just a wish. There is no real plan, there are no steps yet taken. But I have started saying it aloud, to hear the sound of it, to send the reverberations of it out into space.

“Tell the universe what you want,” I read somewhere once, in some self-help book or magazine. “Send your wishes out to the universe and the universe will provide.”

In high school, I spend a semester abroad in England, in a town called Solihull. I live with a family where the father’s silence dominates - his attentions doled out among his daughters carefully and in small portions, like after-dinner sweets. I have never known a house to be so steeped in longing, hearts to be so tightly coiled. 

Days before I leave, I meet a boy and we spend some time together. I remember an afternoon in a rowboat on a lake. 

“I will come back,” I tell him. “Some day, I will come back.”

“I will wait for you,” he says. We are sitting on a bench on a tree-lined street as the sun sets. “I will wait for you.”

But we don’t wait - any of us - do we? 

We go on. We stumble through the days, thinking perhaps, “What if?” until the day that we don’t.

And we forget. 

Mercifully, perhaps - we forget. 

“As long as it takes,” is how he signed the letter he sent to me after I left: “I will wait for as long as it takes.”

I wait at the train station for my daughter as the light fades, the sky a multiplicity of blue. I can see the dome of the capitol building in the distance. The flags are at half-mast, although why we are mourning, I cannot say that I know. Nor can I remember the last time the flags flew at their summits. We are in a state of constant mourning, it seems. 

A car pulls up behind me, and then another behind it. We idle there in a row opposite the entrance to the station. There are bicycles locked to the stair railings. Tree branches shiver in the wind. 

A group of motorcyclists circle the station, their engines angry and loud. They loop around once, twice, and then a third time before speeding off into the distance. Then, silence. 

And waiting. 

I spend an afternoon in the garden. It is windy but the sun is warm. I pull weeds from the front bed on my knees. The earth is cool to the touch. The dirt smells like rust and iron.

Last year, I planted two new rose bushes along the side of the house. They did not make it through the winter. I pull their dry brown branches from the soil, toss them on the pile of weeds. They are long, crooked fingers pointing up at me in reproach. 

I rake out all the beds. Line the paper bags up along the back gate. The irises are in full bloom and in desperate need of thinning. This may be the last season for the old tired clematis. 

M. returns with a few items - a framed mirror, a fireplace screen that had been his mother’s, and her mother’s before that. It is beautiful, ornate. 

A silver tea service. A few records, a dusty box of items from his childhood. 

The train is late. 

My friend says we are not supposed to speak our wishes aloud. Don’t you know the stories, she asks, of the people who make their wishes - for wealth or fame - but they don’t get what they really want because they can’t articulate what is in their hearts? 

“We don’t know how to,” she says. “As soon as we say something out loud, it flattens it, deadens in. Sucks the life force out of it.”

We are sitting on my couch, stretched out, our heads back against opposite ends. It is late. We are warm and flush with wine. We are a little giddy with it. 

“Wishes are magic,” she says. Her hands flutter up for emphasis. “And you can’t put language around magic.”

For a moment, it is quiet. 

She sits up. Reaches for her glass, takes one last sip. “And that is why,” she says, setting the glass back down on the table, “you always have to wish for more wishes.”

We laugh. “Good to know,” I say. “For when the genie comes.”

When the train finally arrives, I watch for my daughter. It is dark now, but the station doors are illuminated by track lighting above them. A woman stands by the doors and as a man approaches her, she reaches out. They embrace. They hold each other there, standing still, like people reunited after long separation. I imagine they are former lovers. It seems a kind, generous embrace. Loving, but without hunger, without expectation. Glowing, but not burning.

I see Z. walking toward the car. I wave and she waves back. She slides in and tells me about her trip. About the museums and the galleries. The things she saw. 

We drive back in the dark and I think about the couple at the train station and wonder whether it is possible to love without expectation.

After we take take our glasses to the kitchen, we step outside into the cold dark night. My friend says, “I want everything that you have. But you have it, and you want more.” 

“You should not look to me for anything,” I say, “I have no idea what I want.”

“Maybe you do, but you are just afraid of it.”

“Maybe I am done having this conversation.”

She laughs, and we hug as I walk her down the driveway. 

“Anyway,” I call after her, “I thought we are not supposed to speak about it. You know, magic and all that?”

She waves her hand at me dismissively. “You have to know it here,” she says, patting her chest. “You don’t ever have to speak of it, but you have to know it here.”

I watch her as she backs out of the driveway. I head toward the house. The wooden steps creak as I ascend them. I close the door behind me. I stare out through the beveled glass of my front door. The street is silent and dark. I turn the porch light out.