At the beginning of 2013, I sat down with a psychic — fine, my psychic — and she foretold of the coming months. She revealed that spring was going to be horrific, summer would be better, and that fall would the beginning of a far improved epoch. She was largely wrong about that timeline, but she is forgiven because the rest of her prophecies were spot on.
Spring wasn’t as bad as I — or she — had predicted. My husband and I were in the midst of divorce, but because we both remained in our home, putting up an impregnable facade for our children, the levers and pulleys of our lives kept on sliding and firing as they always had. The jointly managed mechanics of our household chugged on — birthdays, and Wednesdays, and everything in between. Despite the harbingers of change that hid within the cardboard boxes, we retired each night to bedrooms that harbored the same familiar smells and awoke each day to the same bowls of cereal.
Summer was worse than she or I had imagined. I moved out of our home, but not into my new home as it was not yet ready. Instead the children and I landed in a friend’s basement. There are endless jokes about the indignity of moving into your parent’s basement. It’s worse when you have to move into a basement that doesn’t belong to your parents. You can delude yourself into believing your parents basement is, by extension, your basement. And if you were the sort of person who feared bad times would slam you, you probably always half-looked at your parent’s basement as your future domicile. But a basement that is not your parents represents a regression, a depression, like no other.
The waning days of summer were rescued by a friend who offered up her apartment in Portland. It was just for a week, but the respite from bills, from moving, from the question, “How are you?” was what I needed. I packed the kids, our belongings, and the turtle into the car and we headed along the beaten route to Portland. We began the trip in the usual way with stops at Trader Joe’s and the Children’s Museum. It was only as I reflexively steered the car toward the north-running highway that I felt the poke of the apartment keys in my pocket and remembered that we were staying.
While Portland is no pulsing metropolis compared to the cities where I once lived, it is an urban nerve center compared to the trickling tempo in the midcoast of Maine where major happenings about town are limited to extended hours at the video store and the new flavor of fudge at the corner shop. The urbanite in me thrilled at trolling the blocks until a metered spot opened up. It flared bigger as we rolled our suitcases over gum-studded sidewalks and past coffee shops, tattoo parlors and buskers. It was snuffed out entirely upon learning that the kids buzzed every single resident within the building while I tried to fish the key to the external door from my pockets.
“No matter,” I reassured myself. “We don’t know anyone here. And they don’t know us.”
Our days in Portland were spent indulging in the freedom of that credo. Ordering dessert for dinner at restaurants, playing without proper outerwear at playgrounds, climbing public installations meant for admiring only. It was only after nightfall, after the kids had passed into sleep in a limb-twisted heap on the one bed we shared, that I would allow my focus to drift to the borderlands, a shadowed place where the thorny answers lay. My life had become different, which I had wanted, but it hadn’t become better. And wasn’t that the point? Everyone from my mother, to my mailman, to my psychic had assured me that things would be better by now.
The final day of our stay washed ashore too quickly. Apprehensive about leaving the blithely anonymous and distracting mode of city life, I compelled the kids to go for one more walk through the Old Port. A peaceful amble peppered with adventure as they skinned knees on the cobblestones and inquired too loudly about the life circumstances of each corner’s vagrant. As we approached the northern slips of the harbor, I saw a line of people standing shoulder to shoulder before an ominous black wall. From our removed vantage point, I could make out that they were writing. We pressed closer, curiosity aroused by whatever not-so-secret intentions they were declaring. We stepped in line with the others and only then could I see that the wall had been emblazoned countless times in neat columns with the prompt:
“Before I die I want to…”
I couldn’t help but ogle each stranger’s proclamation. Written in colored chalk were sexy answers such as “play in the World Series” and “see the Seven Wonders of the World.” Checkered among the conquests were romantic notions that would bring a smile to the mouths of even the most hard-hearted person, such as “marry Emma Johnson because I really love her.” There were childlike responses in the vein of “catch Santa” and “build the tallest Lego tower.”
The kids asked me to transcribe their own wishes to the wall, which ran the gamut of becoming royalty to catching the most sand crabs ever caught. I dropped the chalk into the bucket and began to turn when my oldest said, “You didn’t write one.”
I took the chalk gingerly from his curled hand. I stared long at the empty lines, which no longer seemed straight and inanimate. I leaned in close to the wall as though it might whisper the proper course to me. I let my forehead rest against it while I thought about what I needed to do — and now needed to write — to jump-start all the improvements psychics and nonpsychics had been promising me by now. I directed my eyes downward, expecting to see grey sidewalk and the tops of my feet. Instead I saw three sets of wide eyes staring up at me, breathlessly waiting to see what I would write as though they could have guessed it or even read it.
I lifted my gaze and scrawled a word.
By memorializing that one word, I felt a little air blow through the tightly shuttered windows inside of me. I smiled at the kids as they scratched their heads and goaded me with practical and biological proof that I was already living. I grabbed their hands, outnumbering my own, and turned us all away from the wall. Before we could take a step, my attention was nabbed by a leaf, brittle and quivering on the tip of its branch. As I watched, the leaf detached and hung in the nothingness for a moment before plummeting to our feet.
Fall had begun, and I could feel it. Things were getting better.