Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Michelle Cacho-Negrete lives in Portland, Maine, where she works with writing students online and in person. Her essay “Stealing” appeared in the anthology Best of the Net 2011.
It was during a search for jeans for my sons that I saw the gray suit hanging by itself like a fine work of art. A prominent sign identified it: COCO CHANEL SUIT. Even in the midst of the store’s usual castoff opulence, a Chanel suit was an unexpected find.
You hang up the cellphone and think about how the surgeon cleared his throat again and again as he asked how you were, then said, “I have the best news of bad news,” and you think how you knew what he was going to say as soon as you heard his voice.
I strode impatiently over the drenched grass, rattling in my hand two rough stones that we’d brought from Maine, in keeping with the Jewish tradition of leaving stones on the grave to show that we had visited. They were striped rocks: white, gray, and black layers of prehistoric past.
Everything of my brother’s fits on a couple of shelves: boxes of records, books, a few photographs. When you’re killed at eighteen, you don’t leave much behind.
My mother, my stepfather, my five-year-old brother, and I lived in a sunny three-room tenement in Brooklyn, New York. The walls of our foyer were lined floor to ceiling with my mother’s books, and I read as many as possible, entering a trancelike state in which everything else floated on the edges of my awareness.
When I first heard that President George W. Bush would be making an Earth Day speech at Laudholm Farm, a sixteen-hundred-acre nature reserve near my home in Wells, Maine, it seemed as if a tainted bubble of exploitation had descended on the place, something especially unclean and dishonest.
There it is: I’m American. I flush a deep, hot red. Shame rises up in me so strongly I can barely breathe. How did this happen? How did it become shameful to be an American?
We’re marooned in a bowl of mountains on the road to Linzhi, Tibet. Unlike the mountains of home, which are settled, full-grown, and staid, the Himalayas are brazen, thrusting themselves into the sky. These mountains are an epic in the making. These mountains humble us: forty-four American and European scientists and their spouses, led by a Tibetan guide, Sangkar, who has lived here all his life.
Evenings, the boardwalk was crowded with refugees from the hot city. Neon blazed, and loud music exploded from every arcade. The aroma of hot dogs, hamburgers, beer, and knishes mingled with the salt-scented breeze. It was the first time I’d known the expansive luxury of the open sky curving to the horizon.
Her eyes were hard. I knew then that she was going to be relentless and wouldn’t give up until I acknowledged the truth.
She tries to catch her breath, takes tissue after tissue from my box. I give her a glass of water, and we do some deep-breathing exercises. I tell her to go slowly. I assure her that the past is over, although I know it is a lie. The past is alive. It is with us every moment, our lives slim transparencies between past and present.
The foyer was home to my mother’s books but a place of exile for my brother and me. Around the time I was eleven and he seven, my mother began banishing us, singly, to the foyer without dinner in fits of unpredictable, unfathomable rage.