I can tell you the story but it won’t be true.
It won’t be the facts as they happened exactly, each day, each footstep, each breath. Time elides, events shift; sometimes we shift them on purpose and forget that we did. Memory is just how we choose to remember.
It begins in our house, on the top floors of a 19th century brownstone. I’m sitting at our long dining room table across from my husband Brian, my two, brightly-pajamaed sons asleep – finally – after slipping downstairs for water, and then just one more kiss between the banisters. The year is 2001, the place New York City, and in the quiet of the last, warming days of May, I am making a list.
I am a list maker, a super-organizer who measures her success in life by how many of the items she’s checked off. This is who I’ve always been, and it’s never occurred to me to question it. It occurs to me only that I have a goodbye party to throw for myself, which will involve a 25-pound pork butt, Hawaiian rock salt, and ten yards of purple plumeria-patterned fabric that I’ve ordered on the internet but has yet to arrive. If I think about plates, about feeding fifty of my dearest friends who will come to wish me well, I will not have to think of this trip of mine – my first trip away, my first trip alone, my six-month long “trip” to the other side of the world.
Brian watches me busy myself. And then the question: “Why are you going to Japan?”
I lift my eyes – the answer so obvious that it hardly seems possible his question is real. It is, in fact, impossible to consider his question, to glimpse just the broad shoulders of his doubt before it escapes into the shadows, to hear the bass notes of sadness in his voice. Impossible because these things would trap me.
Even looking around my home would hold me here.
I will come to believe, months from now, that life is a narrative. That who we are, what roles we choose – that these are deliberate characters we create to explain what we did and find a way to face tomorrow. That memory is not history. That we rewrite ourselves with every heart beat. At this moment, though, my life is still a given. It does not – despite the contradiction of reality – change. My life is what surrounds me; I subsist on it so entirely that I can’t begin to see it. The air I breathe is the air that still shimmers in the spot, just above me, where my enormous belly and I once stood on a scaffold, in a bikini top and a pair of baggy sweatpants, spackling the ceiling three weeks before my oldest son was born. I still draw sustenance from the echoes over the kitchen floor where my children love to dance during dinner; echoes that shrink, cool, fade but do not, even over lifetimes, completely disappear. I am more than anchored to my world, I am tied tight like Gulliver by the tangle of past poses and years – mine, Brian’s, my children’s – toe here, breast, belly button, wedding ring. In the room, in the trophies from every trip Brian and I have taken since we were teenagers, there are so many flags that say we were there, and there, and there; there are decades of a life that’s far more tangible than I am. And it’s not just the there, the good life, that I am dangerously, paradoxically blind to – it’s the lack of my own identity, the utter, unqualified we.
Instead, I take inventory: I have stocked the freezer with food, put all the “to do” papers together for my sons’ upcoming school year; I have rearranged our babysitter’s schedule so Brian will be able to get to work on time and won’t have to race home in the evening. He was there when I did these things; when I found the ad for the fellowship, he was the one who urged me to apply. I had rejected the idea: it was too unplanned for, this grant that would not be awarded for a year and then could be postponed for another; it was not absolutely essential. Six months to live in Japan, to do whatever I wanted, when I only needed three weeks, a month at most to do some research for my book. And yet. How else would I get to Hiroshima? The thought kept sneaking back, tangling my feet. There was an urgency growing – inexorable and obscure – even though I had no visual, of Japan, of absence, of myself, to guide my journey. I was the one who raised the idea in the first place, and though I could not picture myself leaving, still, I filled out the paperwork.
And then I won.
Brian had plenty of help with the children. And, he himself pointed this out, he had always promised to be their primary caretaker, so he owed me a chunk of time. Once the decision was made – the lying on the couch together, the press of flank to flank and Brian’s assurances, not even whispered, that everything would be fine, he could handle it, they would come visit, maybe even for half the time – it became oddly easy to forget the fact that I’d never lived on my own, for six days let alone six months. That I had never lived in a foreign country, spoken another language; I’d never set off without a plan tucked carefully in my pocket and an extra copy posted on the fridge. Something about this opportunity had exploded all my patterns of behavior: I, the domestic center – the mother of babies, really, of small boys age three and five – came to see no portent in leaving my family with four telephone numbers in my backpack and not many more Japanese words in my head. But in my own rush to manage, and his inclination to ignore what’s in front of him and hope for the best – ‘how’ had been the only question until this moment.
“Because I got the grant,” I replied.
In Brooklyn, in 2001, I was making a list. I knew I was leaving, but if I had known how thoroughly my life would shatter over the next six months, into gains just as astonishing as the losses; if I knew I was saying goodbye to the person I was that night, that decade, that lifetime; if I understood I was about to become someone new, too new, someone I was proud of, who I loved, but who was too different to fit here, in this particular, invisible narrative that I was sitting in but couldn’t feel, would I still have gotten on the airplane?
This is the question people will ask me. The question that curls, now, in the dark of the night.
How do any of us decide to leave the people we love?