I’m standing in my mother’s guest room, having just arrived for Memorial Day, when she says, Norman found these and they’re yours.
Norman is my mother’s second husband, a man with an enormous capacity for helping. He’s often doing things I never thought of asking anyone to do, ever. When he suggests that I could clean out my car, for example, he runs to the door of the garage for a garbage bag.
My mom holds out a black messenger bag that looks like mine, the one I brought, that is on the floor of the guest room. It looks a little like something I would own but I don’t remember it right away, and so it makes me suspicious, as if they’ve made a mistake. This bag she holds towards me looks sort of funny and sad, and not quite right, like it wants to be the bag I have now, the bag I packed to come here, so I could visit my father’s grave with her. Inside are copies of The New Yorker and Outside, from April and June of 2005, respectively, and a hardcover of Alice Munro’s Runaways, with what looks like a small bloodstain on it. There are boarding passes for air travel to Atlanta, from Boston, and printed emails, two for reservations and then two from a boyfriend. Emails of love. I turn these so I can’t read them, and do it quickly. There’s also a drawing of a feng shui map for an apartment I wanted up here, near my mom, in Maine, when for a brief period I was intent on moving back up here, and under that is an application for an apartment in Rochester, NY, where I ended up instead, for a year, with the person the emails came from.
Also, there is a picture from a magazine, of Freddie Ljungberg in his underwear.
Oh, thanks, I say. My mother has already moved on and is doing something else. In the guest bathroom, I throw away the emails and the boarding pass stubs, the hand-drawn map to the apartment I never took and the application to the apartment I did take.
The blood on the book, the size of a penny, almost looks like part of the design of the cover, and is from a nosebleed I had, in a hotel. I never noticed the stain until now, but I also don’t remember reading the book. A boarding pass is tucked inside it. The bag, over the next few days, like much of it’s contents, represents a life that wasn’t ever really going to be mine. On the cover of this issue of Outside reads the subhead, Where To Go, What To Do, & How To Have Your Best Summer Ever. I didn’t do any of those things. And the summer was terrible.
The one thing I did do from the list, when I sit down and check it later, a glass of Crown Royal in my hand, was to go to the Lobster Shack, on the Outside Hot 50 places that summer, a place I grew up with, in Cape Elizabeth, ME. I took the boyfriend there, I recall. And on Monday, I go again with my mother. Her car’s back seat is full of flowers we chose to put at my dad’s grave. We stand in long wind-whipped lines for the meal of a crab roll (her) and a lobster (me). We arrive at 2 and the line is out the door still for lunch.
My summer was better described in the issue of the New Yorker, inside the bag, which contains reminiscences of Paris that Saul Bellow gave to Phillip Roth. Bellow had gone to Paris with several hundred pages of a novel that was not Augie March, his wife and a Guggenheim, and the interview, I remember, as I read it, felt lucky, because I had already decided to go to Paris with the boyfriend. I wished for it to be like a premonition. He talked about how Augie March had leaped on him there, how it came in a torrent, and I thought of the months preceding the planning of the trip, in Los Angeles and then Maine, during which I’d finally hit the center of my new novel.
Unlike Bellow, I was going to Paris for just a few weeks of research— for the novel. I’d rented an apartment there from a scholar who was headed to South America to visit family. I remember avoiding his Portuguese concierge, a woman who disliked me intensely for being a subletter, and watching the zinc rooftops outside in the 19th lighten in the mornings as I cooked in his small kitchen. But my magical moments, just for me, were few; the boyfriend was anxious, and was completing his doctoral thesis, due to arrive after me. I bought wallets of phone cards and spent too much time in the coffin-like, airless glass phone booths of Paris, talking him through his anxiety. By the time he arrived, I was exhausted and our reunion was anti-climactic. We never quite got our footing back but we stayed together for a little over a year. I got what I needed for my book, for sure, in ways I didn’t expect. But by then, this odd little bag that just returned to me was forgotten, in my mother’s basement. Waiting to be a metaphor.
I think we get in trouble when we choose our premonitions. Much as Bellow had described, I had felt annealed inside the French language around me, which I spoke crudely, but this, I eventually understood, the situation of my character–I hadn’t expected that, somehow. I walked the neighborhoods she would have, looking for signs of the Paris that was there when she was there. And trying to find the details, constantly. I felt it was important to go into the buildings and sit there and listen, even if they were now museums.
A few days after arriving, I spoke to my then-2-year-old nephew, Benjamin, my sister’s first son, on the phone. He was with my mother in Maine and a little lonely, as our large family had gathered there and then dispersed, except for him and mom and Norman. He was to be with them for a week, while my sister went on a retreat for work.
Say hi to your uncle, my mother said, and handed him the phone.
Uncle? he asked. I laughed and said hello, and told him I loved him. Come home, he said, sounding both a little angry and sad. And I felt a sharp pang, at how I’d thought I wasn’t so important to him as that–how could I have been so stupid?–and also, amazed at being loved.
They had to put down Pepper, says my mother, of my aunt’s cat. We’re walking on the beach near her house, bent against a fierce wind. It’s Tuesday. There’s white-caps on the water and Norman is back at the house, reading. It’s almost evening and my mother took me up on my offer to take a walk. I think about how I like this part of Maine, the hard weather and cold.
That’s terrible, I say. Pepper was a mix of Maine Coon cat and money cat, a small, funny cat, one of three Coon cats my aunt had, and best friends with my aunt’s now-deceased dog, Roma. Pepper as a kitten had the habit of attaching herself to the pants of customers, who didn’t notice her hanging on them, and as they got near the door to my aunt’s road-side flower shop, Roma would pluck her off their leg with her mouth, by the scruff. The person would laugh in surprise that the cat was there, and then that the cat looked both content and chastened, as it hung in the mouth of the giant golden retriever.
Roma was killed a few years back, hit by a careless driver in what we think of as a preventable accident. We think of her as killed, not dead. Her life taken, not ended. We bear a grudge, as a family, against the driver.
What happened, I ask. Prepared to be angry at someone else.
Pets are getting diseases humans get, my mother says, from living indoors so much. Who knows? We walk, head down, into the fierce wind, the sand biting. Pepper lived much of her life outdoors on the 40-some acres around my aunt’s house in Rangeley, so I know it’s not that. The Coon cats were barely tame, skinny from running the woods for game. One of them, Marco, famously choked up a whole bird on the kitchen floor as they ate dinner. It had not even bothered to take the head off. But sometimes my mother just wants to say something to me and the connection is indirect, and I don’t notice the lack of connection until the next day, when I’ve spent part of it doing things outside that I would otherwise do indoors. I read a book outdoors, I run windsprints at the beach along top of the sea-wall. I talk to my sister on the phone.
I want to have a family, I say to her. As I think about the next five years of my life. In the background, I can hear her daughter Lucia doing her sort of sing-shout-yell voice practice. She’s 6 months old and has begun learning to use her voice at the top of her lungs. I listen carefully, because I want to remember it. I think the sound of it is amazing. It’s free of grammar and yet it’s structured by what she hears, her beginning to imitate the sounds around her. It’s like a 6-month old version of the problem Bellow describes in that interview, when he talks about wanting a whole new language back before he wrote Augie March.
Well, sure, my sister says.