I used to travel for work. I used to get in a car on the weekend and drive, away from the woods, to the airport in New York. On the way, trees stopped as the city started, and I spoke to no one, save a flight attendant, for about a day. Before I left the airport, I bought a disposable camera, unwrapping it from its metallic shell. I tucked it in my bag. I sat on a plane, I slept on a plane, and I arrived, awake in another country, at an hour I never remembered.
One time in Paris I missed my flight. I stayed at an airport hotel and used vouchers to eat at the bad café downstairs. There were others like me, and we conspired to share a cab through the city at night. Re-routed, lost, we snapped photos of the strangers we were—backlit against the Eiffel Tower, a glassy Louvre, some crêpe shop. In one, I stand like an empty window in front of a church, steeples as friends.
Before night brought us back, we stood on the crest of Sacré-Cœur, separating by instinct. Gold glinted around us. As I watched the city consume the day, I remembered no one knew my name. Back home, no one knew I missed the plane. And for a night, for minutes, I stood on some city hill—unreachable traveler, country of light.
I brought things back: postcards and magnets from museums, books and tea from shops. I bought shoes in Berlin, a coat in Moscow. There’s a gemmed crucifix from a street vendor in Rome. And photos, so many photos: another church, some bridge, a patterned piazza broken at my knee, some other woman’s foreign-speaking kid. There’s a hotel door, a volcano, a sign in French that read, “Don’t be afraid.” And one of me. One of me. One of me. One of me seeing things—just shocked light on disposable film.
When I came back, the customs agent and I did a dance.
“What did you do?” he’d ask.
And I’d try to explain.
I saw a tomb. I grew an inch. I missed my plane.
“I work for an artist,” I said.
And he’d blink.
I moved a painting. I got a call. I lost my pen.
“What does she do?”
We’d go on, circling each other until both of us tired, and I left. Behind me, a suitcase trailed full of some cheap wine, colored magnets and film.
I can’t think of any photos of just me since my son was born. I can’t think of any at all. I take pictures of Robin and I together, a duo framed. We look straight into the sun. We show our hands to the open shutter. And in all of them, I’m cut—one eye surrendered to a field, another limb abandoned by an ocean.
On the weekends, I wake up and go to the kitchen. Robin is the sun in another room. I wash last night’s mess as morning enters through a scrim. I put each dish in a slat on the drying rack, and I count the openings left. One of me. One of me. One of me. One of me listening, imagining things.
When Robin gets up, I put him in front of the bay window, and we look out onto our suburban lawn. He watches the birds as I watch him—little animated painting. His grey eye shifts. His hair falls on a skull I remember touching through skin. And he blinks, despite himself. He breathes, despite himself. The light finds him. Light finds his bottom lip. And I’m the watcher, the museum-goer admiring the depicted’s skin.
Every day, we meet my husband on the path after work.
Every day, he asks, “What did you do?”
And I look at him across the long country of our day. I look at him as I try to explain.
I washed his hands. I closed my eyes. I took him with me.
“I washed the dishes,” I say.
I pointed to a bird. I said a name. I carried another.
“I don’t know.” I don’t know how to explain.
Back home, the lilac blooms in our yard for two weeks. Two weeks of lilac bushes, I think. Two weeks. And another kid kicks me. Our soon-to-be-kid kicks me, and I consider how to explain—how a child makes sound in your body and it stays.
We go on, living a night. I stand on a hill in the kitchen washing dishes. Let me explain. I am standing on a hill. It’s evening. Robin is the sun in another room. There is a smell that lingers on the lawn for two weeks. Two weeks, I think. And in the glass, I get my picture back—just shocked light on transparent film. For a night, for minutes, I stand on a hill washing dishes—unreachable mother, country of kid.