By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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I ’m sorry I gave it away, that nightstand you made for me so many years ago. Well, you didn’t really make it; you revised it. You found the battered table at a garage sale, saw its potential (its “good bones,” as you often said of imperfect things), and somehow — in secret, in the basement — sanded down the wood, puttied every hole, fixed the drawer, and added a shim to make it level. You painted it all a deep black, with a coat of shellac on top, then attached an unusual drawer pull: a flying wooden goddess from Thailand.
In those days, more than twenty years ago, such ornaments crowded the import stores in Seattle: multicolored women with finely cut wings, their chests bowed up, like figureheads on ships. Their faces were tiny and exquisite, chins cleft like espresso beans. Some steady hand had painted them, drawing lines of vermilion, emerald, and gold flake across those stiff yet supple-looking bodies. Their eyes were always closed, their full lips slightly parted: an expression that could be either saintly or hinting at sin.
You must have gone into that store we liked in Wallingford, the one that smelled of rosewood and jasmine, its shelves full of wool serapes, tie-dyed scarves, dolls made of coconut shell. The goddesses must have flocked above you, slowly turning on their strings. I imagine you stood for several moments in their sway, surrounded by this horde of outlandish women. How could you pick just one?
Then this angel drew your eye: A woman who seemed to arc up from the sea, her back morphing into a mermaid’s tail. A woman half wild. A woman so different from me. Me, in my turtleneck shirts and my rumpled khakis that never fit quite right. Me, who blushed whenever you studied me in that appraising way.
You took this chosen one home, performed your secret work, then wrapped the finished nightstand in Christmas paper and presented it with the glee one takes in giving the perfect gift: your eyes eagerly watching mine to see them light up when I discovered the hidden woman inside. I must have disappointed you, my face showing a flicker of doubt before putting on the expected delight. The nightstand was beautiful, amazing even, and I exclaimed at how you’d created such a thing without my knowing it.
But that woman. There was something about her that seemed a reproach rather than a blessing: her turquoise breasts so perfect, so proud; the body curved like an offering; the way that every time I opened the drawer I would need to encircle her tiny waist with my index finger. Something in her pose seemed to be saying to me yet again, Be more. More sexy, more beautiful, more wild. Bare your breasts. Wisecrack at the moon. And this woman would now hover like a hummingbird next to our bed every night, her breasts catching your eye as you spooned against the same old me.
It wasn’t long before we sat on that bed, a foot apart, the angel a silent witness while we spoke the sad truth that had finally grown impossible to ignore. I turned toward the angel, covered my eyes with one hand. I wished I were someone else then, someone who could move through the world with her heart splendidly forward.
For years after we split up, I kept that nightstand by my bed. You’d made it well: the finish stayed smooth, and the goddess never loosened her grip. It moved with me from house to house, state to state. I wrapped the goddess carefully in bubble wrap, and in each new location she took up her post next to me in my sleep. Once, her nose got chipped, making her a little less lovely, slightly awkward and out of joint, but still she kept that smug, sexy look on her face. She never had a backache or a headache. She just kept bending upward. And those breasts — God, those breasts! They just never quit. I passed them every night on my way to sleep, saw them when I closed my eyes, and always I got a flash of you, your face etched with disappointment and love.
Until one day I stroked the angel’s tiny head, tapped an index finger to her full lips, and said, Be quiet. I transplanted her to a corner upstairs, out of sight, where I glimpsed her less frequently. She became a nightstand for overnight guests, who always admired her beauty, her cleverness. Sometimes I told them the story of how she’d come to me, and sometimes I didn’t.
After a while it became obvious that she needed to go. Maybe it was a book I’d read about feng shui, the experts telling me that we should never hold on to relics that remind us of a flawed past. We must clear out, they say, de-clutter, make way for whatever will come to us next. And, even when she was out of sight, this angel’s reproach pulsed through the house. I stood at the foot of the stairs and imagined my life without her.
I couldn’t bear to sell her, so one morning I put her out on the curb with a FREE sign. I watched from my front window, and in the early light I could see her colors had faded, and the nightstand listed. Scratches dulled the black varnish, and one leg had been damaged, splintering to bare wood at the base. I turned away for just a moment, and when I turned back, she was vanishing into the back seat of a stranger’s car. I’d known she wouldn’t last long out there — such a find, a treasure — but still it made me gasp, the speed of it, as if I’d witnessed an abduction.
My house didn’t feel much different. There were, after all, so many other reminders if I looked for them: the hand-embroidered Turkish rug you and I had bought — after a dozen tiny glasses of tea — from that slick rug merchant in Istanbul; the mirror you’d made for me, framed in varnished oak. Even having coffee in the morning, with that little sprinkle of cinnamon on top, was a gesture you’d left behind.
Years passed, and I didn’t think about the Thai goddess too much. I bought a bed and twin nightstands from an online import store. The tables are simple and lovely in their own way: blond teak, with drawers that slide smoothly. They hold no history. This furniture is blank faced, innocent; it all matches too well.
What I now know — and what I wish I’d known then — is that we really can’t toss away evidence of our past; it’s like putting yourself out on the curb and taping a FREE sign to your chest. And we are not rubbish, not one part of us. I’d been the one wagging my own finger in reproach. The goddess — she’d meant no harm.
If I had her back to keep me company, I might turn on my side and gaze at that injured woman, reach out a finger to stroke her aging body. If I could reclaim her, I’d touch the goddess’s closed eyes, her chapped lips, her craggy wings. I’d feel every ridge and indentation against my fingertips. I’d be able to say, and mean it: You’re beautiful. I’d murmur, Thank you for the gift, as I drifted off to sleep.