I ’m awake. Beside me in bed, Bill is wheezing oddly. They say it’s the white-pine pollen making a lot of people miserable this spring. There is a gold dusting of it on every surface in the house, as fine as the talc I patted on my kids’ bodies ages ago.
I can’t get back to sleep. My husband’s breathing has conjured up memories of my asthmatic sister lying in the bed beside mine, her small dome of a chest rising and falling with effort. I get up, go downstairs, and pull the hassock of my father’s old club chair over to the window to sit. The moon is rising in the east behind a pattern of clouds that looks like the sea, just above the dark, whalelike shape of the house next door. We rarely see these neighbors, but we know that Jean has some kind of cancer, and Dick, a retired state trooper, raises vegetables and beagles: he’s recently been sighted naked in his garden, hoe in hand. When Jean is in remission, they take trips, packing their belongings into the huge RV hunched in their driveway, its ungainly beige body a constant reminder that there are significant places on earth beyond our hill, with its quiet beauty.
I’ve been swimming in another neighbor’s pond lately, taking quick plunges into cold water as an act of resistance against advancing middle age. The pond is part of a small Eden that the owners visit on weekends: all solitude and trees and still water (in which I swim with my mouth clamped shut, afraid I might get infected with giardia, as happened ten years ago in Ireland). As I knifed into the pond the other day, thousands of tadpoles scattered on all sides; the cold was delicious on my naked skin.
The night sky outside my window is so watery I want to backstroke into it, sink beneath its silver-flecked surface. I am sad and it is beautiful; in this, we make a good marriage. I imagine my parents up there now. Sometimes I miss them so much I’d do anything to have them back. I keep a large color photo of them on my bureau so they can watch me dress and undress every day. I no longer care if my father sees me naked.
As I stare hungrily at the sky, my daughter is asleep on a mattress on the floor of her apartment in a nearby town. I picture her brown curls on an off-white pillow. Tomorrow she will take a boat down the Connecticut River to study the habitat of bank swallows. My son is asleep beside his fiancée in a fancy townhouse in Washington, D.C. In the morning, he will try to raise more money for the Smithsonian’s folk-life center. We are spread out, this family of mine, scattered, no longer under each other’s thumbs, although in my mind’s eye I can still see the distinctive shape of each of my kids’ fingers, how their nails are curved, their particular skin tone, how sunlight colors their hair. I see my daughter, at the age of three, sitting on the toilet in the bathroom of our first house, her legs tight against the sides of the porcelain bowl, as if it were a great white horse. I can see the blond hairs on my dad’s fingers, in the spaces between the knuckles and the joints. I remember the exact shape of my mother’s ring finger, and the thick gold band she wore there.
When I was young, I stood at my bedroom window and gazed at the highway outside our apartment building, praying to get away from the parents I now want so badly to see. I wanted out of our small, tidy apartment with the rattling mahogany breakfront and its silly cup-and-saucer sets; with the neighbors above and below and on either side; with my tiny room and its brown bedspread, Formica desk, and gooseneck lamp. Life was elsewhere, and I was so hungry for it I sometimes cried. I especially wanted Ricky Flaster to look at me as we rode the bus home from school, to study me as carefully as I studied every night the hundreds of car lights moving below my window, red to the left, white to the right. My skin was too tight, my face too clean, the room behind me too small, my parents too small-minded, my desire too monstrous.
For years, I’ve collected two things: small stones, some of which sit in a little circle on my desk; and postcards with pictures of roads moving toward the horizon, upon which sits a mountain, a body of water, a house. I tidy up my own home, as if the removal and ordering of everyday objects — papers, shoes, clothing, plates, books — were an act of sanctification, a clearing of some original road home.
Home. The word is home: a little exhalation for the h, then the open o and the yummy m. So like the sacred om believed by some to be the sound of God’s name, but that initial h humanizes it, graces it with a mild sadness that makes it my own.
When I was nineteen and newly married, I went to Israel. It was summer, and we were to live on a kibbutz for a month. As I descended the metal ramp from the plane into the hot Middle Eastern sun, I found myself pulled by spirit to the hot tarmac. Shy though I was, I got down on my knees, my lips almost pressed to the ground. It wasn’t that I was religious — I was not — but rather I was overcome by an inexpressible sense of belonging. This was holy ground, the cause of so much trouble. The tangled blood knot of my soul’s yearning unraveled then, and I briefly fit into that alien landscape like the missing piece of a puzzle at last found and set in place.
The clouds have thickened, but I still see their edges rippling. I’m tired, my eyes burn, and I have a lot to do tomorrow. I hear Bill’s cough, the sound of his footsteps, the flush of the toilet, then more coughing. Here we are, in this house on a hill, and I have no idea why. At the beginning of this century, my four grandparents crossed the Atlantic to get here from Russia, Poland, and Austria. My parents grew up in New York City, and so did I. Then I moved to the country when I had kids, and that’s as far as logic gets me. One of my grandfathers, a good man, was a devout Jew. I doubt he felt this sort of yearning. I imagine his devotion confined his desires.
Now I am here with the sky and less and less time. I hold the world like a glass marble, the kind another neighbor of mine is known for making: a spiral of indigo, a bit or two of red, gold flecks floating in a ball of glass. I want to put this small world, this replica of home, into my mouth, swallow it, die, and be reborn for more. Sometimes I want God so badly I can almost cry, and I confuse God with the parents I loved, then found small and dull, then lost. And so I carry the sea-sky back into bed with me, in the darkness behind my eyes. I slip under the covers beside Bill and touch his back. Then I roll over, away from him, and curl into a ball, a small world that always wants.