At midnight, I sat, thirteen years old, curled into a ball inside the front door, waiting for the sound of Dad’s car in the driveway. I hated being alone with the house’s silence. All that had once clattered, cluttered, sprawled, prettied had now disappeared: the potpourri, candles, music boxes, ornate table lamps, and curtains. The house seemed to die with Mom. Dad stripped the wallpaper from the walls and painted them white, took down the family pictures and replaced them with Escher and Dali prints.
“That was our old life,” he told me once as he peeked in my bedroom and noticed the pictures of Mom that remained on my dresser and desk. I shook my head. Mom’s absence was made stark after Dad purged the house of her. Nothing was left for the corners, to absorb sound. Dad managed his grief in his own way, staying away much of the time, engrossed in his work and occasional romantic relationships. When he did come home, Mom’s grandmother clock would stand silently in the dining room, unmoving, and he would sigh as he opened and restarted it, reincarnating its sound so that for an hour or a couple days, it would again echo hauntingly against our cold hard floors. Sometimes, tiptoeing through the dining room, I would suddenly notice its silence, and it would overwhelm the volume of my memory. I’d curl in a ball over the floor vent in the corner and cry, waiting for the hum of the heater, for anything at all.
Three years later, in June of 1996, when I was sixteen, I shut myself in my bedroom, away from the quiet of the house, to study for a history final with Malik, the Pakistani boy I fell in love with that year. We left our notebooks sprawled on the floor, and I lay next to him on my white-brass daybed and studied his arm, ran my finger from his elbow to his wrist. He smelled spicy and sweet, a strange mixture of curry and Tide.
“It’s so quiet in your house,” he whispered.
I nodded, filled the spaces between my fingers with his. He kissed me, and we made noisy love.
Together we created a heartbeat I heard over an ultrasound microphone nine weeks later. Like bounding feet or a fast and furious clock, the 150 beats per minute surprised and exhilarated me. I watched the pulse on the screen, longing to stay where I could hear it. That night, I went to bed in the quiet of the house on Carhart, my hand on my abdomen, imagining feet had returned to the house.
Seven months later, when my stomach had grown round and wide, my father, desperate to save me from adolescent motherhood, met with Malik’s parents in their living room. “Stephanie wants to go to college,” he said, forearms resting on his knees, thick brown beard moving with his mouth, his eyelids heavy over his blue eyes.
We sat together on Malik’s family’s couch. His parents, who had just discovered Malik had a pregnant, American girlfriend, sat on the loveseat across from us, gripped each other’s hands, nodded nervously. Above them on the walls hung family photos in which the edges of individuals faded into one another. They sat so close together that from where I sat, I couldn’t tell where one set of shoulders stopped and the next set began. Behind the photographs was a papered wall, and in the kitchen, water boiled on the stove. The house smelled of sweet earthiness, cardamom and coriander that drifted in soft waves through the room as we spoke.
Malik’s parents had wanted something different than this for their only son: a good education, a Muslim wife, a successful career. But now, none of that seemed to matter. The sharpness of his father’s face had softened into something round and desperate. One lone tear slid down his mother’s face. Malik, tugging at his wind pants and pushing his high-top Nikes against the wood floor, sat on the other side of my father. I wanted to reach for him, grab his hand, find his eyes, but I did not have the courage.
“Well, Steve,” said Malik’s father gruffly, with a thick accent, “Noor and I would like to invite Stephanie to live here with us. We have an apartment over the garage. We’d help them.” His mother lifted the back of her hand to her mouth and cleared her throat. “I could teach you about Islam,” she said softly.
Dad nodded, turned to Malik then back to me. “Is that what you want? A new religion? A baby? A family? Now? Like this?”
I wanted a family, someone to love and someone to love me. I wanted the sounds and smells of life. Yes, I thought. It was exactly what I wanted.
But it’s not what I got. An hour later, Malik and I sat in my Ford Festiva. While parked atop Reynolds Road behind our high school, he shook his head. He told me we couldn’t do it. Cicadas called to each other from under rocks outside the car. I tried to call to Malik. I wanted to tell him I could . . . I would. But my courage faltered. And my maternal promise, simultaneously a prayer to him, stuck in my throat.
The adoption was planned. Arrangements were made. Still, I did not want to let go. “Don’t take her from me. Please don’t take my baby,” I cried in the delivery room, when my daughter descended from me, approaching the place where I stopped and the world began. But my words, meant for my father, the doctor, the nurses, perhaps myself, were too tentative, too quiet, too desperate, a breathless appeal they all ignored. I did not see the baby carried out of the room because my father kept his hand over my eyes, and I did not push it off in time. But I heard her gurgle as she was carried past the automatic doors out in the hallway that opened and closed and opened and then finally closed, leaving nothing but the uncomfortable shifting of bodies and breaths between tears. For a few seconds, I could not tell if I was crying. It was as if I struggled to know what place in the room was now mine to occupy. But some of the tears were mine. And they were hot and fast.
Two days later, I left the hospital with my father, went home to my bed and crawled under the covers, encasing myself, wanting to slip away from the cold emptiness that my body and the world had suddenly become.
It took me days to stand back up, and when I did, I went looking for the noise of life. But always the baby remained somewhere deep in the quiet of my mind. I could not imagine her separate from me, growing or becoming. She had remained, to me, some buried part of myself, a soft flutter in my womb. But ten years later, I could not deny that she existed entirely separately from me when she told her adoptive parents she needed to meet me.
They called to ask if I minded, if I wanted to meet her. By then, I had finished college, found a job teaching at a college. “We want her to know you,” her parents told me. And so I came, followed her, on the too-small bike she loaned me, to the shore of the Susquehanna, where she dropped her bike and stood, Eli, the little girl into which my baby had irrevocably transformed with another mother and father. She spun in a circle, there between the water and the grass, where a leaning willow’s roots pushed up out of the earth, reaching for the current while clinging to the steep slope of shore.
“This is my favorite place,” she told me. It was where she went to think, to play, to wade into the river that changed in the current that pushed against her as she clung tightly to the willow.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” I told her. I was a stranger to her but a woman in whom she recognized herself. And as I listened to the rhythm of the river and the timbre of her laugh, I knew that neither were mine.
She wasn’t mine when she asked to see me again, and then again after that, to meet in restaurants, at Chuck E. Cheese’s, at bookstores, at T.J. Maxx, and eventually for weekend visits at my home. These visits did not feel like the motherhood I had wanted and given up, but instead like the absurd circularity of one of the Escher prints in the old house on Carhart Avenue, where my mother was present in the ticking and chimes that measured how long she had been gone.
And then in the early spring of her seventeenth year, when her once loving and stable adoptive home was beginning to crumble, when a thick and silent rift had grown between her and her mother, she first called me “Mom.” We were driving to Bolivar, New York.
Over the years since I had known her, I had told her all my family’s tales as far back as I knew them. She’d needed to locate her ancestors, pin them on a mental map. She knew my mother’s ashes were scattered at a nature preserve in Johnson City, New York. My grandmother was in a mausoleum somewhere near St. Petersburg, Florida. But I did not know where my great-grandmother was, had never even wondered. Eli, however, had searched, online, cemeteries in three states until she’d located her. Now we were headed to Bolivar to stand at her grave: Carrie Guild, the fiery manic-depressive who had once, to her own delight, saved her daughter, my grandmother, from being engulfed in a pinafore of flames. When she saw her daughter catch on fire, she ripped the bottom of her own skirt with two swift kicks to allow herself to run, carried her daughter outside, and snuffed out the fire. It didn’t matter how flawed their relationship had been and would continue to be. She believed this one act of heroism made her a good mother.
The spring sky blazed as we followed the GPS’s directions to the cemetery. Somewhere in the last stretch of the drive, a big old brick building appeared out of nowhere on the edge of the country road. Perhaps because of the big gaping hole in its center, I pulled over. We were both captivated. Maybe that’s when she said it: “Mom, look,” or “Mom, wow.” The exact context escapes me. I had only been “Mom” via text but never aloud, never as if she’d been saying it for years, as if I had never left her, as if there was not a gaping hole in our center. I did not feel like her mother. But I wanted to.
Together, we climbed out of the car and peered through windows and doors. It was, we discovered, an old roller skating rink, way out here in the middle of nowhere where such a thing didn’t belong.
“A big 18-wheeler hit it years ago,” said an old man who drove up in his tractor, took his ball cap off and fanned himself. “Ain’t nobody ever thought to fix that hole or tear the whole thing down, so it’s just sat here like this. But they’re gonna tear it down soon.”
Eli shook her head sadly.
“I wish they wouldn’t,” I said.
The old man raised a brow and shrugged, and the three of us looked up into the hole that was larger than us all. We stared into the space where children had once spun in circles on skates and that was now overrun with weeds and saplings, the ceiling beginning to fall in coiled tendrils like streamers. Time had not stopped after the rink’s destruction. There were no white walls. It was all so hopeless yet awesome, even beautiful. I stepped closer to my daughter, afraid to take her hand, but willing to cast my shadow into hers. It was, maybe, a mother’s shadow.
“We need flowers,” said Eli as we both stood over Carrie’s grave down the road in Bolivar. In the earth next to her stone, a hole had been dug and filled with half a plastic soda bottle–a place for flowers.
We left and returned with potted daffodils, removed the soda bottle and pushed them and our spread fingers into Carrie’s earth, hoping roots would take hold.
“She’s going to have everything I never did,” Eli whispered, both of us looking down at my growing abdomen. That June, I would have another daughter.
I nodded, still afraid to reach out and take her hand, to hold her.
“I hate it,” she said, beginning to cry, her sound expansive. “You’re going to hold her. You’re going to nurse her. You’re going to be totally occupied by her. And what about me? I want to be your daughter. How can I ever let go of all the things I never got, that you’ll never give me?”
I froze, without answer.
“I can’t stand by and watch you love her and take care of her the way you should have taken care of me,” she said, shaking her head, pushing at tears with her long fingers like mine, like Malik’s, like my mother’s, perhaps like Carrie’s.
There we were, these incarnations of the woman we stood over, both of us feeling motherless and afraid that without gripping our origin, we would be lost somewhere in the deep silent black of time’s current. She had said what was deep inside of me. Her words felt like a version of what I had swallowed for years. But now we stood ablaze in them with no desire to put out the flame.
I had hoped that time’s passage would somehow reverse with my presence. I wanted to be her mother. But she was right. No going back. Time had ticked along, and life’s milestones had chimed without the clock’s voice.
What was left was the emptiness. And that was something.
“I know what I want,” she told me over the phone a month after she turned eighteen. “Grandpa helped me make my decision.”
While visiting my dad in Albany, she had been trying to decide between moving to Long Island to attend Hofstra University or moving in with me to attend the community college where I taught. She had spent eighteen years with another family, and now she was preparing to leave, to take the next step. I had family too – a husband, stepchildren, two small daughters, two dogs.
“He told me to stop thinking so hard,” she said. “To feel it instead. Like, he said I should pay attention to the way each choice feels…to my body, to my heart.”
“He said that?” The impact of my father’s years of therapy, reflection, and growth confounded but delighted me.
“And I mean…I think I want to live with you. I think it just…feels right.”
“But I’m scared….”
I went downstairs to my dining room when the house was quiet at night, and I stood before my mother’s old grandmother clock my father had given to me when I first moved into this house. It had stood silent for years. I didn’t yet know that Eli’s moving in wouldn’t work, that she’d feel like a stranger in my home and want to get away almost as soon as she moved her things in, and watched me make her bed like my mother had made mine. I still had hope that somehow time had stopped for us, that the clock’s silence had heralded all that Eli and I had when we lost each other. I opened the clock door with hope and fear, pulled on its weights, stepped back and listened to the sound of time moving forward.