“I can’t find Luke.”
“Which Luke? What’s he wearing?”
Owen sighed and leaned against the frame of my bedroom door, picking at the wood grain with his fingernail. “All black with a blue lightsaber.”
I was in bed, trying to work beneath paperbacks, notebooks, and a laptop. I pushed my reading glasses onto my head. “Are you sure he’s here and not at Daddy’s?”
“I’m sure. I had him here last night. In the kitchen.” His voice was low and miserable.
Owen’s Star Wars Lego figures, sets, and pieces had been a constant moving currency between my house and my ex-husband’s across the four years since our divorce. Owen and his sister, Abby, spent equal time with both parents, and he always traveled with Legos packed in gallon-sized Ziploc bags, sealed at the top. No matter how meticulous we were, parts always got lost. Little round pieces of various colors and translucencies, specialty pieces that formed the impossible shapes of fighter ship wings or cockpits, flat pieces with blank spots for stickers depicting the intricate workings of control panels. These things made their way under furniture and between seat cushions with incredible regularity.
“I’ll help you look,” I said.
Owen pushed his lip out, and looked down at his socks. “The set isn’t any fun without a good guy.”
I tried to be the good guy in these search-and-rescue efforts, but had learned not to guarantee success. Often, I would find the missing piece by looking someplace obvious – on the table next to Owen’s elbow or under the edge of the instruction booklet. Other times, pieces vanished entirely, leaving no explanation, no note. Dobby, the little brown house elf from Harry Potter, had been on the coffee table one day with all the other parts, and then gone. Owen and I had moved all the living room furniture to find that misshapen little creature, but he had simply disappeared. It challenged our notions of object permanence.
Lego pieces, so I had heard, did not get lost at my ex-husband’s house. In that house, Lego sets stayed together. Owen’s dad counted, sorted, and stored the pieces in undented, unblemished original boxes before putting them away. I imagined them lined up in order of size on a shelf in my old house, like the books in the library where my ex-husband worked. He also still had every comic book he had owned as a child, the pages unwrinkled and stored for decades in acid-free plastic sleeves in a file box.
At my house, Lego sets were stored in a variety of recycled plastic bags, some from the produce department of the grocery store. These bags came into our house full of broccoli or red peppers, and were put into service as something else. They held rubber bands, paper clips, recipe cards, and sometimes Lego sets. The original boxes had been flattened and taken away with the recycling.
I took Owen’s hand, peeling him away from the door frame, and said, “Let’s find Luke.”
* * *
Abby spent the youngest days of her childhood terrified of balloons. Not all balloons. Not the big, translucent, round ones, hanging from wooden sticks, purchased at the circus. And not the long, skinny kind clowns twisted into wiener dogs and crowns or swords. She was afraid only of helium balloons: all varieties. Shiny Mylar, opaque rubber, tugging upward at the top ends of ribbons or strings. It’s not even the balloons themselves she was afraid of, but their inevitable loss. She was terrorized by the idea that the string might escape her fist and the blue or yellow or metallic orb would float forever away.
She couldn’t have helium balloons herself, and she couldn’t be around them. We couldn’t attend festivals or parades. Every time, in the midst of celebrating the 4th of July or the Annual Blueberry Festival with its crowds, parades, and craft shows, some other kid would lose their balloon, and the sight of it drifting away reduced her to quivering and tears.
I blamed my divorce.
I imagined both of my children, decades into the future, telling therapists that one day they lived in a perfectly intact household, and the next memory is of their mom’s Saab packed and driving away. Owen will say, I am sure, during some future 50-minute session on the couch, “Mom kept asking, ‘Won’t it be fun to live in two houses?’ but it was more like she was telling me.” He will be right.
* * *
The room started as just Abby’s room – before Owen was born, before Owen (for whom we did not plan and were not prepared) also needed a room. Our funky, old house had three downstairs rooms that could be considered living rooms, but only two upstairs rooms meant for sleeping. It was partially restored and re-designed by a retired man who had no children or a need for more than one guest at a time. Our babies, just 23 months apart, could share the room. At least for a while, we reasoned.
But before it was their room, it was her room. Abby’s room. My first, long-awaited, much-wanted daughter’s room. The daughter I would raise to be a feminist. The daughter who would be whatever she wanted. The daughter who would lead a charmed life in my funky, charmed house, with a writer mother and an artist father. I chose two non-gendered colors for her room, the room I decorated while she grew inside my body: bright yellow and green. I created a sunflower theme. Those bobbing, nodding flowers were my favorite for their boldness and height, their thick stems that I could sometimes not get a hand around. I was hopeless when it came to operating a sewing machine: it seemed that the thread would snarl itself into a knot if I merely looked at it or walked by. John’s mother took the fabric and sewed curtains in alternating vertical stripes, yellow and green.
“These are John Deere colors,” she said when she thrust them at me, but then went with me to the discount warehouse store to buy the perfect rug. A brown stripe wandered across the yellow field of rug like a ribbon.
At the same discount store, I bought a selection of quarter yards of yellow and brown calico fabrics. At home, with my mother-in-law gone back downstate, I sewed small petal-shaped pouches, turned them inside out and stuffed them with soft, white cotton batting. The openings I had left were so tiny I had to use a pencil to coax the stuffing inside. Then I handstitched a vein down the middle of each petal. When I had what I thought was enough, I quilted a brown disc for the center, and stitched the petals side by side around its perimeter. I mounted the fabric sculpture high on the yellow wall above the window in Abby’s room. Thirteen years later, it is still there though I am not. The yellow and brown rug is still covers the floor. The John Deere curtains hang over the same windows.
I also inexpertly sewed pillow covers from sage fabric with a slightly nappy surface and a pattern of gold spirals. They mixed nicely into the green, striped fabric of the throw pillows on the futon couch I bought for my third apartment. Or maybe my fourth. Before I was married. When I lived with just my dog. And while I was pregnant with Abby, I splurged on a thing we came to call “the big green chair.” Too large to be a chair and too small to be a loveseat, I adored it for its willowy color and big, soft backrest and huge, rounded arms. It was where I sat in front of the woodstove when, deep in so many nights, I nursed my babies back to sleep, then fell asleep under their warm weight.
The pillows and the big green chair now lived in my new life, my new house with Kara. So did the old futon couch from that apartment. They caught my attention sometimes, and I was amazed to find them there, even though years had passed. The wide, soft corduroy of the chair, the stitches on the spiral-patterned pillows coming loose (because I am a lousy seamstress), the khaki and black stripes on the futon cover: these fabrics glowed brighter in the sun of this new house then they ever did before. I knew it was because this house had more south-facing windows than my house with John. The windows were great for passive heat gain, and great for illumination, and great for the view of the field that surrounded our house, and I knew this is the only reason the colors were brighter, but sometimes I wondered if maybe my eyes were wider open now in all this light.
In the old house, in the room that Abby and Owen still shared when they were not with me, they slept surrounded by green and yellow curtains, the ribboned rug from the discount store, and the fabric sunflower sculpture now sagging and dusty above the window.
* * *
The house needed a good cleaning anyway. Owen had built Lego sets on almost every surface. The table in the playroom. The dining room table. The coffee table in the living room. The boxy table in his own room designed for train sets. This acreage was alive with battling aliens, wizards, and werewolves. They drove vehicles and space ships ranging in appearance from insect-like to the more familiar, conical shape of the space shuttle. Everyone’s weapons were drawn. A particularly tough-looking thuggish guy with five o’clock shadow on his yellow plastic face was seated on an all-terrain vehicle. He drove with one hand, and with the other held what looked like Han Solo’s blaster. A grey Ewok rode on his back.
My new spouse, Kara – I had shifted from having a husband to having a wife – likely would also have preferred that Lego pieces live in neatly stacked, original boxes. It was only because she was traveling and not due back for days that I had allowed Owen to spread his Legos across so many rooms. Perhaps, had she been home, Luke never would have been allowed to wander off.
Kara imposed a different sort of order than that of my ex. Kara had not intended to have kids, but now shared her life with me, Abby and Owen, and all the Legos and stuffed animals and plastic creatures with huge eyes called Pet Shops and dozens of little, mismatched socks, along with tilting stacks of Pokemon cards, and two leopard geckos that required live crickets for food. “We all have to let go of what we thought our lives would be like,” I told her one day in the pet store while I shelled out cash for a container of live insects. Years earlier, I had lost my erroneous belief that only being with men for most of my adult life meant that I was straight. Things change.
Kara had an encyclopedic knowledge of things that were in the house, and could tell you where they were and how and when we had obtained them. I found, over the years, that I could not move anything without her notice, and that sneaking items in or out was impossible. I had to hide her birthday and Christmas presents at the neighbors’ house; even if I hid something on the back of a top shelf in a closet that nobody ever used, she would ask me about it within the hour. “What’s in that bag?”
It also made her happy to organize the laundry room, to sort the recycling, to stack our firewood. She folded her underwear, and until I made her stop, she folded mine too. And her abilities extended into realms that mattered as well. Master’s degree. Steady job in her field. Car paid off. All credentials in place. She was always fast to remind me that the phone bill or the mortgage were due. I tried to edge her out sometimes by being chief errand-runner or by being first to notice we were almost out of coffee. In my previous home, all of those things were my job and I was good at it. I had resented it anyway. Not naturally an organized person, I knew enough to realize that someone had to make sure we had wrapping paper and tape for the holidays and even marshaled us both through a re-financing of our house to pay down some ugly Visa bills, but I hated every moment of it. And while I was glowering at him and grudgingly willing him to be the kind of person who would think, once in a while, about interest rates or holiday airfares, I never stopped to wonder if what I felt was more envy than anger. If I stopped paying the bills or getting the car insurance reinstated because neither of us noticed the cancellation notices accumulating in the mail box, things might fall apart forever. Like Luke, our fragile security might vanish. Like Dobby, it might never be found. So I kept on. Kept buying stamps and writing checks and trying to keep track of which bills were due on the first and which on the fifteenth but I did it badly: missing due dates, accruing late fees, sliding our credit cards into higher interest rates by screwing up as often as I didn’t. But we never lost the house, we never went without insurance for long, and the cars were usually registered within three months of when they should have been.
* * *
I must have been about five years old. My mother and I were walking home from an event at my elementary school. I had a blue balloon with the name of my school “Stevens” on it in blocky black letters. We stopped at a neighbor’s house so my mother could talk with a friend. We stood there on the concrete of the neighbor’s walkway, warm under our feet from the sun, and I tugged sharply on the ribbon that tethered the balloon to my fist. The balloon responded by jerking downward, then popping up again. My mother and her friend talked about something I wasn’t interested in, and I played with the balloon. My head was as tall as their hips, and I had to crane my neck to see the balloon floating next to my mother’s face.
Something happened, and the ribbon got out of my hand. It was a long ribbon, and I tried to get my fingers around it as it drifted up toward my mother’s shoulder, but I couldn’t. It brushed my knuckles and kept moving. I tugged frantically on my mother’s hand, but she was talking, and gestured for me to wait. The ribbon wended up above her head, and I jumped up and down. She finally broke from the conversation and saw.
She made one desperate grab, made a jump for it – and took a swipe at the end of the ribbon, but missed. The word “Stevens” looked down at me as the balloon rose past the roof of the house.
This memory, unlike thousands of memories that were, no doubt, more important, is stamped onto my brain as a significant loss. As we walked home, I was aware that mothers could fail.
* * *
On the dining room table, where Luke was last seen, Owen had built a complicated fortress. Walls were a mix of all the primary colors, doors and windows stood in seemingly random places, and the stubbly floor of every room was the color of grass. A headless police officer leaned out a window. We took it apart, just to be sure Luke wasn’t inside, putting the pieces in a large Tupperware with a snap-on lid. Though we looked behind every fortress door and raked our fingers through the pile of spare parts, we did not find Luke.
Owen thought out loud. “I remember having him here at this table last night.”
As we moved through the house, cleaning one Lego-covered surface after the other, that became the refrain. “I remember having Luke here last night.” He said it at the train table. He put his finger on top of the dresser. “And here.” He said it again in the play room. “And here.” By the fish tank. “And here.” Once more in the living room. “On this table here.”
Luke had apparently done some traveling.
* * *
John and I had brought the spirit of democracy to our split-up. We decided to share the house, and invited a carpenter friend over for coffee. He sketched drawings of a two-story, one-bedroom addition off the kitchen. We paced the terrain, measuring distances and imagined an extension to the foundation – something that could support all these ideas.
We shopped for other houses: two-apartment structures, large, sprawling old farmhouses with bedrooms and half-baths down narrow hallways and up spiny staircases where people could live for years without running into each other. We imagined ourselves as being beyond the need for entirely separate living quarters. We were so over all that, so much more evolved than other divorcing couples. Our marriage had been over for so long, we didn’t even need separate spaces.
There was work to do before we could move ahead with even this incremental plan. First, we needed to create democratic sleeping quarters: one of us needed to move out of the queen-sized bed in our bedroom. Before it was determined who that would be, it was the kids that needed to move out. Somehow it had evolved that all four of us shared that bed. This arrangement had not arisen out of any deeply held beliefs in the tenets of attachment parenting. It had arisen out of our need for sleep. It’s easier to nurse a baby who’s next to you than it is to cross the hall. And once a baby is used to sleeping next to you, it’s just easier to keep him or her there, and so we had made this mistake, twice, of never teaching our kids to sleep in their own beds. The four of us were crowded in there together, arms and legs tangled, knees and elbows bumping and pushing into backs, heads sharing pillows.
Neither of us was willing to be the one to move out of that arrangement, leaving the other parent snugly in bed with the kids. And yet, since we could no longer sleep in the same bed, it all needed to change. Now I see that cleaving for what it was: the first step of a separation that would unfold for years. The family unit, split like an atom, dispersing throughout the upstairs, then through the whole house, then across two houses. It felt like a mushroom cloud silently unfolding, after we turned two red keys.
We decided that we would take turns sleeping on the floor of their shared bedroom until they were comfortable and sleeping soundly through the night. I went first, because I am their mother and owed it to them. I made a bed for myself on the floor out of camping gear and tried to make it feel like some grand adventure. “It’s like we’re camping,” I said. Owen was only two, and his sister was four. I wanted them to feel like this was something fun, something new, something that big kids did.
The first night, I tucked Abby into her big girl bed. She had bought into the adventure, and was pleased that her mommy was camping out on the floor. From under her yellow, sunflower-patterned comforter, she peeked down at my sleeping bag and pillow and giggled.
But when I plunked Owen in his crib, he stood in his footed jammies, clutching the railing, his small arms reaching out for me, and screamed. I lay down on my camping pad, just about two feet away from his crib. “Owen, baby, it’s okay,” I cooed, trying to convince us both. “I’m right here, sweetie. Just lie down.” He shifted from one jammied foot to the other, reaching out for me with both arms, his face red. He screamed for me. His cries were dramatic and insistent. The crib railing pressed into his ribs, and he reached harder and harder in my direction, his chubby little legs working hard to stay standing.
In those cries, I heard every mistake I was making, those I had already made, and all the mistakes sure to come. I heard him come up against my impending divorce, of holidays spent away from one parent or the other, of split summer vacations, of watching someone move out, of living in a small town with a gay parent. I curled into a ball, and whispered to him through my own crying while Abby drifted off to sleep amidst the noise. I don’t know how she did it. In my mind, that sound is the loudest in the history of sound – it was horror-movie-loud. It was all-pervasive, taking-all-the-air-out-of-the-house loud.
To my ears, the screaming sound never stopped, even six years later while Owen and I looked for Luke Skywalker. The sound followed me across every surface, behind every chair, under every stray sock. I could not find this thing that, maybe, could make it finally stop.
* * *
It wasn’t a contest. My ex-husband and I were not in a race to see who was the better or more fun parent. I told myself this, even as I made damned sure our kids knew I was the one who took them places – to the children’s museum, on road trips to Cape Breton, to the beach and their favorite restaurant for fettuccine Alfredo and sweet potato fries. I reminded myself that it wasn’t a contest when their dad took them to the playground, but I felt like he infringed on my turf. They told me, breathless, on the phone at night, “Daddy took us to that great playground with the wooden swings.” It took more maturity than I thought I had to unclench my jaw and say, “That’s great! Tell me about it.”
So in our search for Luke Skywalker, I was competing in his event. I tried never to do this. For example, I ceded defeat in the contest for who is better at playing pretend. He kept a running game with action figures, Lego guys, Playmobil parts (fences, horses, a guinea pig, carrots) on the coffee table in his living room, and he could sit on the couch and make different voices for the characters. I was not good at that. My head interfered, and I felt ridiculous trying to change the timbre of my voice to sound like what a baby horse’s voice would sound like if it could talk. It couldn’t talk, and I couldn’t get past that. There weren’t many arenas in which he got to enjoy the victory lap, and I tried to be just big enough not to stick a foot out in front of him as he went by.
It was a skill that served me well with Kara. I felt most days like my view was of her back, crossing the finish line a full lap ahead of me. I had transformed into the one in my own marriage who forgot to mail the phone bill or didn’t remember the plans we made for the weekend – and I sometimes fell into the trap of resenting my new status as the boneheaded one. After all, I also had the credentials. Two master’s degrees. A job in my field. Two kids. Decent enough car. But she always seemed to edge in front. She remembered stuff better. She always had solutions that were slightly craftier. I was a forward thinker; she was just farther forward, somehow. Sometimes I remembered to be grateful. Sometimes, instead, I missed the days when I was the one in the lead.
* * *
At the Blueberry Festival one year, I bought Abby an ugly cat figurine. It was made of plastic and covered in something that looked like real fur but wasn’t. It was white with plastic amber eyeballs. She loved it and held it in her lap all the way home. Sometimes, childhood is made up of balloons and Legos and ugly cat figurines, and I was happy to plunk down ten bucks so she could have this stupid thing.
During the night, our dog misunderstood the figurine’s purpose and reduced it to a sad collection of shredded plastic and fur spread across the living room rug. Abby awoke before me, found the crime scene, and was sad beyond anything that felt reasonable to me. I held her while she leaned into me on the couch and grieved.
Meanwhile, 25 miles away, I knew Blueberry Festival vendors would soon re-open for the day. Within an hour, Abby and I were in the car. We had to park on the outskirts of the festival, walk half a mile, make a stop at the ATM, and hike all the way to the cat figurine booth to replace it. We did that. All of it.
On the drive home, she sat with the new white cat in her lap, stroking its fake fur. “Thank you, Mama,” she said softly, looking into its frozen amber stare. “You’re a good Mama.”
* * *
The search for Luke Skywalker widened. We searched the cargo bay of the space shuttle, the cockpits of all the Alien Conquest vehicles, including the one that looks like a neon green dragonfly, and we looked in the mouth of the Sarlac, the inside of the Wampa cave (nothing there but the wrong, upside-down Luke), and the bay of the yellow ambulance hailing from Lego city. We even took the top off the turret of the Lego castle.
“Owen,” I said, trying to lift his spirits by being goofy, “did you put Luke in the fish tank?”
Owen pressed his little face against the outside of our 10-gallon tank of tropical fish and peered into the bubbles. “No,” he said miserably. He watched as three neon tetras schooled past his nose. Their always-open eyes seemed to meet his as they drifted past.
As we traversed the terrain of the house, over and over, backtracking and rethinking, strategizing and trying again, I thought of the young Jedi Luke and his training at the hands of so many masters. Should he be good like Yoda or turn to the dark side like his father or follow the roguish, self-absorbed ways of Han Solo? Who would the future Owen, stretched the length of a therapy couch, turn out to be? Would I be a ghostly apparition telling him to use the Force? Was I his Obi Wan? His only hope? For his sake, I hoped there was another.
Owen was like his dad in many ways – always lost in thought, talking to himself, absentmindedly wandering the house. Sometimes he sang softly. And he didn’t pay attention to where he put things down. Sometimes, I was like this too. I lost my coffee cup every morning while chasing the kids around the house, coaxing them into clothes, then socks, then shoes, then jackets and backpacks. These chores took me up and down the stairs and out to the car twice every morning. Somewhere along the route, my coffee cup disappeared, and amount of retracing my steps reunited me with this life-giving substance. Inevitably, I poured another cup. This didn’t happen to Kara, and sometimes I grumbled because I thought, perhaps, if she was trying to find two sets of matching shoes and socks for feet that weren’t even hers while also packing lunches and remembering to sign permission slips, she would lose track of more stuff. Instead, she simply got herself ready in the morning, and left the rest in my hands.
* * *
We did not find Luke. We found his lightsaber and we found many other toys that were missing along with one set of car keys and several single socks, but no Luke. Eventually, we gave up and resigned ourselves to the fact that Luke had gone to the same place that had beckoned to Dobby.
When Kara had been home from her trip for just two days, Owen and I entered the living room where Kara sat reading a book. There, on the coffee table, in plain sight, was Luke.
Owen’s face lit up. “Luke!” he exclaimed. “Where was he?”
Kara lifted her head from her reading. “On the floor. Behind the orange chair.”
I frowned a little. Owen plucked the small figure, wearing his black costume from the third movie, from the table and turned immediately to put him back with the set he belonged in – reuniting him with Lando and the others on Jabba’s floating barge.
The significance of the moment seemed to pass right through my wife. She went back to her reading. My sight felt Cubist for just that moment, like she unfolded right in front of me like a box, showing every surface of herself. I saw her there in that moment, reading in the easy chair with her long, dark hair falling over her shoulders and onto the pages of her book, but also as if in a contortion of time, I saw her – miles ahead of me – crossing the finish line, the missing Luke clutched above her head in victory. I thought then of the blue balloon and the shredded plastic cat and all the various failures, including the day I drove away in my Saab, and I wondered if all this doubt and all the mistakes could somehow be made to fit in the small space behind the orange chair – that place where things were hidden from me, but obvious to her. I wondered if I could also fit back there with these things and let myself be found too.