Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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The first portal that appeared in town belonged to Mr. Hogan. It showed up in one of his bathrooms above the sink, blocking a good deal of his vanity mirror and causing several shaving accidents. I don’t know why the portal appeared to him. It’s not like he was the type to attract otherworldly things. A few days after the rumors began, my husband, Bernie, and I walked over to the Hogans’ house carrying a zip-lock baggie of homemade ginger snaps. We intended to drop by to chat, and then, before leaving, I would ask to use their bathroom, the one with the portal in it. I assumed they wouldn’t offer to show it to us; having a portal seemed a private matter, like trouble with one’s digestion. We would have brought along our son and daughter, but it was Saturday, so Billy had basketball and Jeanie had figure skating.
The Hogans lived on the other side of the park in an older, tree-lined neighborhood. When I saw the crowd, I thought there must have been some kind of festival that day. But there was no festival. Neighbors, some I recognized and others I didn’t, had formed a line at the Hogans’ driveway. Behind a card table at the front of the line sat Mrs. Hogan, collecting money. The admission prices were posted on the garage door. We could have chosen a one-day ticket or a season pass that lasted through the end of October. I hadn’t brought my wallet with me. Neither had Bernie. When we reached the folding table, Mrs. Hogan said we could drop off the cash later that day; she trusted us. As she wrote our receipt, she assured us it would be worth the cost. By this point Bernie and I had eaten most of the ginger snaps. We offered the final cookie to Mrs. Hogan, who said she wasn’t hungry.
The Hogans’ master bathroom was neither spacious nor modern and was in desperate need of updating. They should have at least taken down the gold wallpaper. A dozen people were crammed inside that tiny room. The atmosphere felt festive and also uncomfortable. Everyone was taking pictures, not only of the portal but also of the contents of Mr. Hogan’s medicine cabinet and the pair of identical toothbrushes on the vanity and Mr. Hogan himself, who sat on the closed toilet lid in an ill-fitting blazer and tie, a couple of fresh scabs on his chin. Every few minutes he recited a prepared speech. “I think each of us might belong to a different world,” he said.
The portal itself looked spectacular, hovering there above the sink. I still have a picture of it on my phone: a luminescent sheet that wavered as if caught in a crosswind. It smelled of lavender. Through Mr. Hogan’s portal I saw a sky like ours, only filled with an impractical number of suns. Mr. Hogan said he saw something very different; he wouldn’t tell me what. He demonstrated how he could push his fingers through the portal. Once, to much applause and hooting, he shoved through his entire arm. It must have hurt, judging from the way he cradled his elbow afterward. He had no plans to enter the portal completely. “I don’t think I’d fit,” he said, laughing. He seemed to be suggesting the portal might not want him to pass through it. I now know this wasn’t true, as portals appear only to the people they want. We didn’t know much about portals back then, and what we thought we knew was mostly wrong.
Bernie and I left the Hogans’ bathroom after ten minutes. A certain queasiness had come over me, a discomfort that evaporated once we emerged from the house.
“Lucky guy,” Bernie said on the way home.
The following week Ms. Bauer found a portal under her basement stairs. Hers looked different from Mr. Hogan’s. This came as a surprise to a lot of people, myself included. I had assumed portals could look only one way: a shining rectangle, like in the movies. But Ms. Bauer’s was an odd shape with thirty-two sides — what’s that even called? — and it was short and squat. If you wanted to peer through it, you had to get down on your knees on the basement floor, which I don’t think had ever been swept.
Ms. Bauer charged an entrance fee, too. This time we brought Billy and Jeanie, so we chose the family admission. There were only three others in line when we arrived. As we waited our turn, my children acted uninterested. They said they had already seen numerous portals on their screens, where they were always watching videos and movies and who knew what else.
“But this portal is real,” I told them. “Those other portals you saw were made with computers.”
“No,” Billy said, “they were real.”
“They weren’t real,” I said.
“They were,” Billy said.
“Let’s go into the basement,” I said.
In the basement Billy asked, “Can we touch it?” reaching out his arm.
“No, you may not,” snapped Ms. Bauer. She had strung a nylon rope in front of her portal and ordered us to stay behind it. To be honest, the unfinished basement was not a pleasant place. The portal, trapped under the stairs, resembled a dreary, many-sided rain cloud and produced its own atmosphere of dread. Bernie was already on his knees. I made the children get down on the floor with me. “What do you see?” I asked them, struggling to breathe deeply, as if something were pushing against my chest. This was what it felt like if you stood too close to a portal that wasn’t yours: like it shoved you back.
“I see a little hill,” Jeanie said.
“Is this all it does?” Billy asked.
I stood up and dusted off my knees.
“Too bad it’s not busier today,” I told Ms. Bauer.
“Oh, don’t you worry. They’ll come running later on,” she said, so confident that her portal would remain an attraction.
Our town’s third portal appeared to Juliet Luna, who lived with her wife, Ada, in a two-story bungalow across the street from us. They never shut their blinds, so I always knew what they were up to in the evenings. A week after Mr. Hogan’s portal appeared, I began to see them searching the house as if looking for portals of their own. Every evening I watched them explore a new room. Usually they were together, but for some reason Ada was upstairs when Juliet peeked into the linen closet and found her portal: a circle the color of sapphire and infused with light, pulsating beside a pile of folded towels. For a long while she stared at it. Then she shut the closet door and didn’t show the portal to Ada until the following day.
After Juliet Luna’s discovery many people, including some of my children’s friends, began searching for their own portals.
“Are we getting portals, too?” Jeanie asked me.
“I thought you weren’t interested in portals,” I reminded her.
“I like them now.”
“We aren’t getting a portal,” I said, though I didn’t know what I was talking about. Back then it seemed to me that portals appeared only to unhappy people. It was well known that Mrs. Hogan desired to have sex, while Mr. Hogan didn’t. His wife thought something was medically wrong with him. She kept dragging Mr. Hogan to specialists and complaining publicly about her “dead bedroom.” And Ms. Bauer had needed to have her stomach pumped twice in the emergency room. And Juliet Luna could not find employment. I see now how I was simplifying the situation. I wished to find a pattern because I wished for the portals to make rational sense. I believed my family was different from our unhappy neighbors. I believed that children as loved as mine would want to stay where they were, as if rooted in place by parental love. And I loved my husband, too. He was so familiar to me. We were experiencing our share of difficulties, sure, but nothing that didn’t fall within the normal cycles of a marriage. I still believe this. I have always considered familiarity to be the most stable form of love.
Portals began turning up all over town after that. Evidently they could appear anywhere: in the upper branches of a tree, in the children’s section of the library where I worked. Many of the newer portals materialized to children, and not all of them were unhappy. It was becoming more difficult to distinguish the rules, if there were any, though I was still able to make observations. Here’s one: People’s portals generally reflected some aspect of their personality.
“Did you hear about Mrs. Sikora’s portal?” I asked Bernie. Mrs. Sikora was a frequent visitor to the library where I worked and did not allow her children to read fairy tales or check out DVDs, even the educational ones. I found her overbearing and small-minded. She had once campaigned to remove computers from the elementary school. “Her portal is the size of a quarter,” I told my husband. “I hear you can barely see anything through it, and what you can see looks like a dead end — which is just about what I’d expect from her.” It still seemed, at the time, like everything was going to be OK, like the appearance of portals in our town might help us to understand each other. Also it gave Bernie and me something to talk about in the evenings. But in all the excitement, I forgot that portals are a gateway to another place — an exit. Do you get what I’m saying? It’s like I thought they were harmless works of art, fascinating compositions that would not take people away.
The ownership of a portal wasn’t determined by where it appeared. Mrs. Roszak found a portal one afternoon on our porch, and she knew right away it was hers. This portal was thicker than most and as tall as a person. It blocked our front door. To enter our home now, we had to use either the back door or the garage. Also her portal smelled like dying roses, so our house smelled like that, too. And at night the portal moaned. Despite the moaning and the funereal scent, this particular portal interested my children more than any other. They wanted to poke their fingers into it or toss stones through it. When the portal flashed a strange yellow light in protest, they laughed. Both Billy and Jeanie seemed to have become immune to the discomfort one felt when standing too near someone else’s portal, or else they didn’t care anymore about such discomfort.
I asked Mrs. Roszak if she could move her portal, please, as it was becoming a distraction to my family.
“I can’t,” she claimed.
I had never thought of her as miserable before. She was married to a self-sufficient husband and had a grown daughter who made a lot of money in banking. Her two grandchildren were cared for by a professional nanny. Maybe nobody needed her, and that’s why she got a portal. There I go again, trying to make up a rule.
Mrs. Roszak brought a lawn chair over and sat in the center of our front lawn. Here’s another observation: People like to stare at their own portals. At first they might show some restraint — an hour or two of watching a day — but such restraint always vanishes.
Soon Mrs. Roszak stopped showing up for work. She stopped sleeping in her bed. Instead she sat in her lawn chair all night in front of our house and looked at her portal. Even I could see how her actual life was becoming boring compared to the potential other world that the portal offered.
A week after Mrs. Roszak’s portal appeared, my daughter stumbled into our bedroom in the middle of the night, crying so hard I couldn’t understand her. It took me a while to calm her down.
“Why don’t I have a portal?” she sobbed. My husband, a deep sleeper, remained curled up on the far side of the bed. Several of Jeanie’s friends had discovered their portals within the past week. “What’s wrong with me?”
Jeanie lay between my husband and me, and I stroked her hair until she stopped crying. I could hear Mrs. Roszak’s portal moaning softly outside our house, as if it was trying to tell me something.
“Not everybody needs a portal,” I whispered.
“You’re only saying that because you hate portals. You hate them, and that’s why they won’t come here. I need one. I need one right now.”
“You don’t,” I whispered back, but what I did know? I think it’s parental instinct to try to keep our children away from things that might take them to other worlds where we aren’t allowed to follow.
The gawkers arrived at the beginning of August, after hearing about our town’s portals on some TV news special. They came by car or on tour buses and wandered in packs downtown, peeking under benches or into garbage cans and chewing a lot of gum. I felt sorry for them. They would not find what they were looking for.
Mr. Roszak drew up a map of portal locations, which he sold to gawkers at his gas station for ten dollars. Updated weekly, then daily, the map included every known portal in the area, as well as spots where visitors could find a clean restroom or a good cup of coffee. Later, for twenty dollars, he sold a keepsake version, which he laminated so people could take it home with them.
The gawkers constructed shrines in front of the more public portals, leaving fruit and stuffed animals and photographs of themselves. On front lawns, including ours, they tossed wildflowers and notes that read like unanswered prayers. They wanted to know how it felt to live among so many gateways to other worlds. “It’s not as exciting as you think,” I told anyone who asked. I didn’t want them to get the idea that just because a portal appears near you, your life becomes a fairy tale. “Life is still filled with hard work,” I reminded them.
Around this time my husband told me that he wanted to start having sex with other people. He was tired of having sex only with me. I asked if he had felt this way for a while or if he had started to feel this way only after the portals appeared. He claimed his feelings had nothing to do with openings to other worlds. He still loved me, he said, though he labeled my reverence for monogamy as outdated and sad. “I can love you and love other people. I promise,” he said, his face flushed, as if he got aroused just talking about it.
I had always considered our sex life to be sufficient. To be honest, I was never particularly interested in sex. It wasn’t something I needed — all that mess — yet it was a requirement. So, twice a week, after the kids fell asleep, I got into bed and let Bernie take off my clothes.
“I mean, God, I’ve known you for more than two decades,” he said. “You’re the person I know best. It’s like we might as well be the same person — do you know what I mean?” He paused, then added, “I’m not asking for a divorce.”
Already he had opened accounts on several dating sites. So far no one had responded to him. He wasn’t yet lying in his profile about being married.
My husband began growing his hair long and wearing contacts, which made him blink a lot. I missed his glasses. He had worn glasses ever since I’d met him. He was very near-sighted. Without his glasses his eyes looked enormous, like they might swallow me up. Because of his longer hair, one of the gawkers mistook him for a soap-opera star and stopped him on the sidewalk to ask for his autograph.
“What if I tried other things in bed?” I asked.
“What kinds of things?” Bernie replied. “Could you become another person? Could you become several people at once?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
He said his wanting something different did not have to be this huge deal.
I hated his long hair. It never looked clean anymore, no matter how much he washed it. It was like he was trying to become attractive to a group of people that didn’t include me, a group in which everyone had long hair. I couldn’t stand to watch him comb it in front of the mirror every day. He used a thin, hard comb, and a lot of strands came out. Some dropped onto the floor. After he left in the morning, I had to sweep up his hair.
I found a condom in the suitcase he used for work trips. It was still in its package.
My husband’s portal appeared in our laundry room, in the dusty space between the washer and the dryer. “It sure is an attractive one, isn’t it?” said Bernie proudly. Even though he was right — his portal was, in fact, attractive-looking — I did not want anyone in my family to have a portal. “Other people might need portals, but we don’t,” I reminded him. He asked what I was afraid of. Why was I so scared of new possibilities in our lives? These weren’t the kinds of questions a person could really answer. I felt ill at ease around his portal, unsteady, as if the floor were shifting under me. “Look at me,” I said to Bernie.
He dragged a chair into the laundry room so he could sit down. There really wasn’t space in that room for a chair.
His portal was made out of a fine peach-colored sand and kept crumpling and then rebuilding itself. It wasn’t the portal I would have imagined for my husband. I would have imagined his being more utilitarian, like something carved out of gray rock.
I asked my husband if he thought he didn’t belong in our family, in our marriage, anymore; if that was why he had a portal now. “Do you think there isn’t a place for you here?” I asked. I was just guessing. I really didn’t know.
Bernie began spending an excessive amount of time in our laundry room. So did our son and daughter. Jeanie scrunched onto Bernie’s lap every morning before school, and Billy crammed himself into a corner. I stood in the doorway. The portal collapsed in front of them, then formed a whirlwind. It collapsed. It formed a whirlwind. It collapsed. “It’s doing the exact same thing over and over,” I pointed out. Our clean clothes now smelled like oysters, as did the entire first floor of our house. It was not a great smell. At night I had to drag the children upstairs to bed. Sometimes I held their doors shut as they banged against them, trying to get out. I had less success in drawing my husband away from his portal. He preferred to sleep on the couch, closer to the laundry room than to our bedroom. He slept without a sheet and left drool marks on the cushion.
“Tell me what your other world looks like,” I begged Bernie. So far I had avoided looking through his portal. I was waiting for an invitation from him, a sign of intimacy. Instead, for the first time, he shut the laundry-room door. The door had no lock, so Bernie posted a sign: Keep Out Please. Jeanie cried when she saw it. “I don’t think he means you,” I said. But he did. He meant all of us.
That evening I found Jeanie in the upstairs bathroom looking for her own portal. She was peering into the toilet. “Get your head out of there,” I said. Later I saw her checking the oven and around the hostas in the yard. “You aren’t getting a portal,” I told her. She looked under our basement sink and behind the boxes that contained my husband’s record collection.
One night, when Bernie was snoring deeply on the couch, I crept past him into the laundry room. I hadn’t been in there for a week; I had been bringing our dirty clothes to the laundromat in town. An old, stained towel hung in midair in front of the washing machine. I pulled the towel down, and there was my husband’s portal, pale and gleaming. Previously I had only glimpsed it from several feet away, and often he was blocking my view. Looking at it now was like watching someone I loved sleep. It was like listening to my husband’s heart while he dreamed. If I leaned close enough to the portal, I could make out the world on the other side: dark cliffs, wind, a river. Was this what was inside him? It looked like a place where I might not belong. I couldn’t stay in that room for much longer. I could barely breathe. There was a lack of air.
I made an appointment with a family therapist who advertised on the radio. We could afford only one session. The therapist’s office was blazingly bright: lights on, blinds up. I explained our situation as hastily as I could, conscious of the oversized, ticking clock on the wall. The therapist smiled as she promised we would get through this. “You’ll weather the storm,” she said. “You’ll find the middle ground.”
I asked her to define middle ground.
“An island made of compromise,” she said.
Eventually people began stepping through their portals. Children, too. This was inevitable. Still, the disappearances took me by surprise. After Mr. Hogan went through, the portal in his bathroom became difficult to see. Within a day it was gone. A new observation: Portals can go away.
Pretty soon a lot of people had left. They did not tell anyone they were going. They did not leave notes. Mrs. Roszak walked through the portal on our porch while I was working at the library. By the afternoon her portal had faded to a shadow. It soon vanished, and we could enter our house by the front door again. This was neither as exciting nor as convenient as I remembered. For weeks I left Mrs. Roszak’s lawn chair in our front yard, thinking it might help her find her way back. Then Mr. Roszak came by and retrieved the chair.
We had no idea where our neighbors were going. People assumed the best for stupid reasons. “Come on, her portal smelled like oranges!” Bernie said of Mrs. Tamm. But an orange-smelling portal is not proof there will be a bounty of citrus in the other world. I decided that portals had personalities all their own. They could be crafty and deceptive and full of inappropriate longings, like us. I was sure of it. Before long most of my children’s friends were gone as well. My own kids, feeling abandoned (because they were, in a way), wasted many hours looking for portals under their beds, and in the woods behind our house, and in our cellar, and under my bed, and in the garage. “Why don’t you go do something childlike,” I told them. It was a brisk fall day: blue sky, orange leaves; the kind of day in which children used to play ball outside. Billy remembered he hadn’t checked one of the second-floor closets. He raced past me and up the stairs.
Later that evening I pulled Bernie aside and told him I didn’t want his portal in our house anymore.
“Well, I don’t know how to get rid of it,” he said, chewing his thumbnail the way he did when he was lying. We had been married for twenty-one years — long enough that neither of us should have considered leaving the other by stepping into a different world. I told him this. I told him, “Let’s weather this storm.”
“I want an open marriage,” he said.
Whenever someone — a gawker, or one of my children — asked what I thought my portal would look like, I told them it would look exactly like this world: a series of ordinary moments in time — which was probably why I didn’t have a portal yet, because what’s the point of walking through a magical doorway and ending up with the same exact body, the same exact family, the same exact house? It had always been important to me to know that, if I could do it all over again, I’d choose the life I already had. I’d hoped my family would say the same in return: that this was the life they wanted, the one I had helped make for them.
The following week my children found their portals.
My daughter’s seemed spun from glass. I’m not sure how long she had known about it. I was emptying her hamper when I spotted something glinting behind her desk and felt a humming in the air. Jeanie had thrown a pillowcase over the portal to hide it from me, but the pillowcase wasn’t large enough. Through her portal I saw a marshy world of water and trees that looked like oaks. It didn’t make sense. We had plenty of trees in this world. Why would a child need more trees?
My son did not bother trying to hide his. It appeared a few days later in the yard, billowing beside the fence. His portal was made of slender brown feathers and was too large to hide. When the feathers lifted in the breeze, I saw slivers of cold blue light.
“You know,” I lectured both children, “when people go through portals, they have to do it alone. Your dad and I can’t go with you.”
“Fine,” Billy said.
“It’s OK, Mom,” said Jeanie.
Over a family dinner of spaghetti topped with tomato sauce from a jar, I suggested to Bernie that maybe portals for children were understandable, given that children are so prone to fantasy, but something was probably lacking in adults with portals of their own — the ability to grow up, perhaps, or to give things up.
“Tell me,” Bernie replied, “what exactly is lacking in my life?”
I told him I was speaking theoretically, in general terms. I said I was angry about the portals, that they were an insult to all the work I had done to create a stable home for us and the kids. In return Bernie suggested that certain adults would never have a portal because of who they were. If they wanted a portal, they would need to become someone different.
“And who should I become exactly?” I asked. I really wanted to know.
“Someone who doesn’t try to control my life,” he said.
The kids picked miserably at their pasta, which refused to stay twirled around their forks. When Bernie left the table, I followed him to the garage, where he was loading his backpack with camping gear. Here’s an observation: When a husband plans to go through a portal, he will want to bring along many supplies. It’s not like we can count on other worlds to be stocked with practical provisions, I guess. In his pack he may put matches, a small blue tarp, a water bottle, an inflatable pillow, a rain jacket, binoculars, and a field guide to birds.
I had already imagined what the rest of my life would look like. I did not have the energy to reimagine it.
I planned to load each of their portals into my car somehow, tugging or dragging them by a rope if necessary. Then I would drive them all to the dump and bury them beneath the car seats and old tires, and when I returned, our home would be a safe and secure place where my children would act like children and my husband would act like the man I’d married.
There had once been a trajectory to my life, a form. I’d known who I was, who my family was.
Because Jeanie was the youngest, I assumed her portal would be the weakest. I tried to get rid of it first, while she was sleeping over at a friend’s house. But her portal was impossible to move. So I took a hammer to it. Its surface shone orange, then reverted back to glass. I hammered for a long time with no results. Nor did I have any luck with Billy’s portal, on which I tried using a handsaw from the shed. His portal shuddered once, after which I vomited on the compost pile. Several feathers fluttered to the ground. Two feathers or maybe three. That was all.
I’d thought having a family meant I would never be alone.
I did not bring the hammer or saw into the laundry room. I wanted to use my hands. It must have been 2 AM. My husband’s portal lit up with a welcoming glow. Perhaps it mistook me for Bernie. Perhaps it thought I was my husband, finally ready to go through.
The glow faltered.
All I did was touch it. I put a finger on a small part of it, and, despite its sandy appearance, it shattered like glass, but silently. Yes, it hurt — like grabbing the edge of a straight razor. My hand bled and needed to be bandaged. Afterward I swept up the pieces and dumped them in the garbage can outside.
Bernie burst into our bedroom early the next morning and yanked the covers off me. He must have intended to go through his portal before I awoke. I said, “We will get through this.” He stomped downstairs, screaming, and out into the yard. I watched from our bedroom window as he threw himself upon our son’s portal, which would not accept him no matter how hard he charged. Each time, he bounced back, stumbling. It was hard to watch. I imagined his body becoming bruised. Here’s something about portals: When you attempt to go through someone else’s, it is like trying to push your way through a muscle. At least, that’s how it felt to me just before my husband’s portal broke. I was able to get only the tip of my fingernail through.
After half an hour of this, a neighbor called. “I think somebody is dying in your backyard,” she said. “Should I alert the authorities?”
I went outside and grabbed Bernie’s arms, or tried to. He was flailing. He hit me in the neck, on my right ear. I was glad Jeanie wasn’t home. I hoped Billy wasn’t watching. His blinds were open. Eventually my husband settled down. I led him into the house, back to our bedroom, where I put him to bed and pulled the sheet over his shoulders. He was shaking. I went to make him a cup of chamomile tea, and when I returned, he was either asleep or pretending to sleep. I set the mug on the nightstand. “I love you,” I whispered. His backpack had been tossed into the corner. I emptied it.
My children became nervous around me after that. When I was home, Jeanie refused to leave her room. Billy slept in the backyard beneath his portal, keeping guard with a flashlight and his clarinet. Without my children or my husband to hold on to, I felt as if I might float away, though of course that was just a feeling I had. I didn’t actually go anywhere or leave anyone behind.
I said to Bernie, “Go ahead and have sex with other people. It’s OK.” I said, “This is only one part of our much longer story.”
My husband avoided looking in my direction, but I knew eventually he would look at me. You can’t not look at somebody forever.
Portals can appear to be made out of feathers, or sand, or clouds, or glass, or cobwebs, or ice, or velvet. Once, I saw a portal that appeared to be made from butterfly wings.
When sweeping up my husband’s portal, I’d held a piece of it. It was like holding a bullet. I hid that piece in my sock drawer, and a few days later it was gone. I don’t know whether it faded away or Bernie found it. He’d once told me he thought portals were made out of stars, which was a surprisingly poetic image coming from him.
My children left within minutes of each other. They must have been planning it for a while, whispering in the hallways, in the dark.
On the day they disappeared, a colossal wind blew through our house. It knocked over a vase of daisies I was arranging in the kitchen and tore the calendar off the wall. The gust lasted only a few seconds, after which a profound quiet settled over our home. Was it a shift in the weather? A sudden drop in pressure? I felt as if something had begun to tiptoe around the rooms. I left the pieces of the smashed vase on the floor and hurried into the yard to check on my son.
Perhaps I should have gone upstairs instead.
It was too late. Billy was standing so close to his portal, closer than I had ever seen him get to it, bracing himself against the portal’s frame. I couldn’t catch his attention. There’s a chance he didn’t hear me. I saw his portal brighten, then widen, the feathers multiplying and lifting. He walked into it casually, as if headed off to school. That cold blue light swallowed him up. I rushed to the garden shed, grabbed a crowbar, and tried to break open his portal. I tried until my arms were exhausted and useless. Then I went upstairs to my daughter’s room. I did not run. I should have.
My daughter appeared to be wading into a lake, delicate ripples radiating from where her body intersected with the portal’s surface. On the other side, the tree branches curled gently around her legs. I yelled her name. She turned and held out her arm toward me. I reached for her, but it was like reaching for a picture on TV: there was nothing to hold on to. She smiled the way she did when somebody was taking her photo. I had assumed Jeanie was too attached to me to leave. “Please,” I said. This may have been the wrong thing to say. What should I have said? The rest of her passed through, her orange elephant backpack hanging off one shoulder.
Eventually Bernie came home from work and heard me thrashing around in Jeanie’s room. I guess I was hysterical. I was destroying things, furniture. He held me until I quieted down.
“What did you think was going to happen?” he asked.
So. We were talking again. We began trading facts. Here’s one: All children must leave their parents someday. It’s only a matter of time. Here’s another: There are a lot of ways to leave somebody. It’s not like there is only one correct way or time. Here’s one more: Two people can still be in love even if it feels like they aren’t.
Portals do not disappear instantly after your children go through them, but they do become less vibrant, as if any light and mystery they contained has drained away. It is like looking at a closed door. I sat in front of my children’s portals for days, in the yard or in my daughter’s bedroom, sometimes nibbling on saltines to relieve the nausea that washed over me. Bernie drank mugs of warm ginger tea beside me. We held each other’s hands. His were rougher than I remembered. Occasionally, through a crack that flickered into being, we caught glimpses of them. My daughter appeared to be skipping through the shade (she had never skipped, as far as I knew, in this world), while my son, in his separate universe, was singing about a bird of prey.
Here’s something else I know: People who go through portals do not send messages home. They also do not come back.
Bernie took up golf and crossword puzzles. It turned out he had a talent for deciphering esoteric clues. Occasionally he asked me for help: “What’s a five-letter word for annuli?”
“I don’t care,” I told him.
On certain evenings he went out with a friend, while I enjoyed my alone time in the kitchen, cooking complicated dishes from countries not known for their cuisine — the kind of food we hadn’t eaten for years because of the kids. After the disappearance of so many people, our neighborhood grocery store had been boarded up, along with most of the businesses downtown, but a QuikMart with an extensive ethnic-foods aisle was open late in the next town over.
“What were you planning on doing over there?” I asked my husband during a quiet dinner featuring rice noodles from Burma and pickled tea leaves. “Were you going to ride horses all over the land on a quest? Did you plan on starting a new family?”
Some nights we scavenged in our neighbors’ empty homes, whose back doors were generally unlocked or smashed in. It’s not the worst thing to live in an almost deserted town. Our neighbors’ pantries were surprisingly well stocked. Who would have thought that Mrs. Roszak would keep jimbu in her spice drawer? I believe these evenings brought us closer. My husband and I ripped the walnut doors off Mrs. Sikora’s custom cabinets and set them on fire in her backyard. The mail was delivered infrequently by substitute carriers. A team of county workers drove a truck in every third week to pick up our trash. There was talk of our town eventually shutting down for good, but it was only talk for now.
Bernie and I took long walks together. We claimed to be looking for birds, though neither of us had expressed interest in bird-watching before. “What a nice evening,” I told him on one such walk. It was cold for that time of year, and I was underdressed. Honestly I think we were both looking for portals. I told myself I was searching for my husband’s portal, but really I was searching for my own. I thought it might appear as a gold bracelet I could fasten around my ankle, or a piece of frosted glass. I wanted to prove that I was capable of having one, that I wasn’t one of the few people in our town without a portal. There weren’t many of us left. Ada Luna had hanged herself in her garage. Others had gotten into their cars and driven out of state. Only a dozen of us remained. Occasionally, on our walks, I spotted the others, their panicked, embarrassed faces.
It would have been easier for us — OK, for me — if there had been a clear reason why we never got a portal. Sometimes we just don’t get what other people have, I guess. I wish those of us without portals could be viewed as heroes. It takes a certain courage to stay behind.
“I’ve been thinking about moving to a big city soon,” Bernie told me on our walk. We cut across the main thoroughfare without bothering to look both ways. “Someplace with more people in it.” The roads were vacant and clean. We held hands. We hadn’t had sex since the children had left. How long had it been before then? I was no longer keeping track. Perhaps intercourse wasn’t as much of a requirement as I’d once thought. Lately, before bed, I might lay my head on my husband’s chest and listen to his heart. He might stroke my hair before easing out of bed, turning the shower on as hot as it would go, and jacking off violently in the bathroom. Then he would clean himself up and return to bed. Our island of compromise.
I reminded Bernie that if anyone — say, our children — came back, they would most likely emerge from the places their portals had been. But I knew no one was coming back.
The setting sun shone directly into our eyes, its light blinding yet devoid of warmth. “God, how peaceful this is,” I said, turning my face from that monstrous sun. Even the birds appeared to have left, disillusioned by so many empty feeders. This would have been a problem if we were still pretending to look for birds.
We found a fading portal behind Mr. Roszak’s boarded-up gas station, near the air pumps. It was faint and exhausted and full of unease. My husband tried to pick it up.
“You can’t pick portals up,” I reminded him.
“I know that,” he said.
“Then what are you doing?”
We continued to walk up the hill toward the vacant elementary school, which was our usual spot to turn around. To reach the school, we needed to cross beneath the highway, and it was there, below the overpass, that I saw another portal, a bright one, still functional — the last portal I would ever see, though I didn’t know this then. It cowered along the concrete wall near a pile of dirty rags. I felt my heart beating hard in my chest when I thought the portal was mine. We took a few steps forward. I knew it wasn’t mine. It was made out of sand, which was shifting in a desperate and unsettled fashion. In many ways it resembled my husband’s earlier portal, though smaller and less confident. I walked along as if I’d seen nothing, pointing out some broken glass on the road ahead in an attempt to divert my husband’s attention.
But there is the possibility that my husband looked away from that portal knowingly. What I mean is, there is the possibility that he chose me.
Rarely do I delight in anything as much as I did Debbie Urbanski’s fantastical, witty, subtle, and strange story “A Few Personal Observations on Portals” [November 2017].