in other lifetimes all I've lost comes back to me
BY COURTNEY SENDER
Yes, all of them.
B the businessman and C the economist and D the poet—and smaller stories too, minor loves, Y the novelist and X the scholar and W the activist and V the painter, they all come back and I am the biggest regret of their lives. I was the love of their life that they let get away. Anywhere from thirty-eight to eighteen years ago.
In the meantime they had families. They had wives, they had children, they had furniture they bought and jobs that progressed and soccer teams they coached.
In the meantime I waited. I sat here in my wooden house in my wooden chair and I looked out my wood-framed window at the wooden swing hanging from the tree in my front yard and I thought: Please. Just one of you, any one of you, please change your mind and turn around and please come back to me.
My loves, I will give anything.
Anything, I used to think. I would have given up my arm, my house, my heating. I would have groveled at their feet or tithed to their church. I would have had no sex or sex every hour, I would have fought off armies, I would have lost my name, if just one of them came back in time for the life I’d wanted, which was simple, and unambitious, and looked like my parents’ lives: a life where somebody cooks dinner for somebody else. A life where, if no one buys groceries, it’s some kind of failure. A life where, your train’s delayed two hours, it’s someone’s job to pick you up. A life where, someone’s flying cross-country, your stomach never settles until they’re on the ground again. A life where you’re praying the whole time they’re in the air. A life where when the wheels lift off you think, if you come home to me again then I will thank my God and bless those wings and love I will give anything.
Just one of them. I’d been willing to become the woman I would have been with any of the seven—different women all, and all different from who I became, which is a woman unformed, staring out a window, watching my swing rot year by year. With B I’d have become playful, with C quiet, with D unstoppered; with Y edgy, X snobbish, W poor, with V addicted. Each of them had their perks and their downfalls. With B and C I’d have lived in a house we owned in the suburbs, with a finished basement and two cars we drove and one that just sat in the driveway; with D and W and V I’d have lived in a city apartment complex that was half public housing; with X and Y I’d have traveled, I’d have rented, I’d have been always going somewhere new.
For twenty years I was ready. I would have lived any of those lives. I would have
packed my bags or planted gardens. I would have straddled their waist or been tied to their
bedpost. I would have frozen in Chicago or burned in Miami. I would have gone camping in
the woods or skiing in a chateau. I would have cooked every meal or put takeout on speed
In all worlds I’d have stayed Jewish, and a daughter, and a writer. I’d have sung
showtunes in the car and in the shower. That’s it. Those were the only constants I required
to remain identifiably my self.
They never came. I lived in a rented one-story house on the far edge of a city, I
traveled rarely and for one day at a time, I waited and waited and my heart became harder
and my life became smaller and I looked out that window hopeful every morning and I
looked out that window hopeless every night and sometimes I grimaced and sometimes I doubled over and one day I noticed that I never went outside. Out the window was a porch
and a set of stairs that no one climbed, and beyond that a swing on a stretch of grass that
ended in a fence I couldn’t see. My singing sounded strange to my own ears.
And now: here they are, at last, at my doorstep. Now:
“Here we are,” they say. “You are our great missed chance. We didn’t know it, but we’ve missed you all our lives. Somewhere in the pit of us we have been always screaming.”
Several, seeing me, wipe tears. They are old now, they are bald in ways I anticipated and ways I didn’t, in aggregate I love them more than it is possible to love, I want to check all their foreheads for fever. The ones I’d expect to be holding flowers are holding flowers; the ones I’d expect to be empty-handed are empty-handed; D of course has a book wrapped in newspaper, V a small canvas he painted himself. In aggregate they are my most intimate body of knowledge.
Yet the longer I stare at them, filling my stairway, the more in aggregate I am sadder than it is possible to be sad, because if only from this gray-headed mass a single one had peeled off like a rogue grape from a cluster then my whole life would have been set. I’d have been a person too, like them, instead of a stiffening window-gazing wasted lump of wood. I’d have loved them. Each one, for different reasons and in different ways. For B and Y I would have learned Spanish, for C Urdu, for W Hebrew, for V art history and for D black history and for X history of western thought. D and V and Y would have had tattoos, X would have had psoriasis, B would have had strong calves from soccer, W and C strong arms from squash. D would be dry, B wet, V an alcoholic. X would have stayed skin-and-bones even as the rest of them grew paunches. With C and W I’d have had laughing kids who loved their grandparents, with B and Y kids who hated them, with D kids who looked down on them. With V and X, no children. B and Y and V would have protected me, walking down dark alleyways, B with an arm around my shoulder, Y always half a step ahead, V with a knife in his pocket; X and W and C I’d have protected. D, whom I’d loved best—for him I would have killed.
Do you understand, I want to ask them, what it is to wait?
But I know they don’t. They have been busy. They have had wives to buy groceries for and children to put onto airplanes and airplanes to will safely across continents. They have lived in cities and countries and Chicago and Miami and places I never thought to imagine, probably, Chile and South Africa and the town where I grew up.
I do not let them in. I open the window and lean out. The wooden frame is hard in the flesh of my stomach.
“Well,” I say, “which of you is it?”
They murmur to themselves. A bouquet gets dropped and picked up again.
“It’s all of us,” says B.
“All of you.”
“All of us or none,” he clarifies.
He had always been the one to set the rules the way he wanted.
I think of what it would be to have all of them. How we would fit in my bed. The sex had been different with each one: with B absent, C formal, Y slow, X awkward, W sweet, V rough. With D alone it felt like making love.
“And how,” I call, “would you expect to get along?”
Murmuring, again. Such bafflement before me, always, on the part my boys. My men. I look into the mass of them on my porch. In all these years I’ve tried to fill in what has happened to them. B and C had office lives already fully formed, clear-pathed; D and V were strivers, the artists were strivers of course, their lives hard to picture, but so was X the scholar and so in his way was W the activist; Y though a writer had little ambition, seemed likely to go farther than the others anyway because he was handsomer, somewhere within himself he was sure of this. I try to verify. Who looks shabby, who looks neat; who looks healthy, who looks sick. They all look low, dissatisfied. On every face a look of hunger.
“We would get along,” says B, “in honor of you.”
“Of missing you,” says C.
“Of loving you,” says D.
Then yes, say the words in my heart. Come in. What are you waiting for?
“And how would you repent?” I say.
They each left me in their different ways: B never felt attracted to me, D felt too attracted to me, W had a girlfriend, C had a wife, V lived far away, Y was busy and X wasn’t ready. Maybe, they all said, to the last. Maybe someday.
So I waited. So as not to hate them, I remembered: B was my best friend. D was my best art-partner. Y was best looking, X the best listener, C was smartest, W kindest, V was saddest. So as to still say yes when they came back, I forgot: the way their backs looked. The sound of the car door closing. The precise way each one said the word goodbye.
They move up toward my front door.
“My loves,” I say. “I have to think.”
They’d each have hurt me in their different ways. B never would have compromised, with him I could have cheered on Messi’s millionth goal and still if I asked him to come to a play he would have said it’s boring baby go alone; with C if I wanted a purple quilt for our bedroom and his mother wanted yellow I’d have slept in marigold duvets until I died; with D I would never have had him completely, he would go away to readings and there he would bat his eyelashes and miss his train and girls like I was would fall in love like I did and he would not say no. The minor loves, too, would have found their way toward harm. With Y there would have been comments sometimes, about the unmarked whiteness of my skin or that my parents had paid for my college or that I always fed the parking meter; with V I would have known every last detail of his college girlfriend, I could have spotted her from the middle of Times Square, would see her face repeated endlessly in his portraits; with X I’d have watched him watching how large a slice of cake I cut for my plate; with W even on vacations we had saved for he would have snuck into his briefcase yet another petition he just had to read tonight.
Still. Even still. Even knowing what I know I’ve lived my whole life waiting for a single one to look behind him and say, Oops.
They rattle my doorknob. They strain the bolt. It’s clear they believe I’m still human. I’d thought so too, with my everyday waiting, but now in the face of them all I understand I’ve become something else. I try to tell them: Do you know what so much unused hoping does to you? It drives you crazy. It burrows into your heart and rots you like a piece of wood. It coils in the pit of you and it is always howling. It breaks you like a toaster is broken. Not pain. Function. You don’t work anymore. You hiss and spark except when you are cold. Inside yourself you have spent a lifetime on your knees.
Yes, say the words in my heart. Come in. What are you waiting for?
“Go away,” say the words in my mouth. “Go home.”
“We have pulled down our homes for you,” they say. “We have left our wives. We’ve wrecked our lives. You want us to come back. We’re here.”
“So come back thirty-eight to eighteen years ago,” I say. “Not now.”
Within my heart I have welcomed them in, I have taken their coats, I have found enough vases and enough chairs and enough cups for the water or wine or coffee or tea or beer or juice or whiskey each will want, I have let them pet me, I have let them cry, I have found a way to stack them lengthwise pillow to footboard and sleep horizontally across each one, I have kissed B’s forehead and D’s lips and C’s neck and Y’s chest and X’s navel and W’s hip and V’s thigh. Within my heart I’ve woken up.
Outside my heart, I say: “If you can swing me on that swing then yes.”
They turn around. They look at the scene I have been watching by myself through the window from the time I was twenty, then thirty, then forty and fifty and up and up. The green grass. The wooden swing. The fence beyond I cannot see.
“Courtney,” says W, “the swing is gone.”
It’s true the wood gave way a decade earlier.
“Courtney,” says X, “where is the tree?”
It’s true the great oak fell last spring.
“Courtney,” says Y, “where is the rope?”
There was a flood. Three years ago, or thirty.
“Didn’t one of you bring rope?” I say. “Aren’t any of you trees?”
“Maybe we can make a swing,” says V.
I let them look around. I let them see the nothing I have seen. I say, “From what?”
The minor loves go seeking. But the major loves stay on.
B, C, D: the funniest, the smartest, the dearest. They knew me best; they hurt me most.
“You never wanted to go to the park,” says B.
“You were afraid of heights,” says C.
“You didn’t like to swing,” says D.
“Of course I did,” I tell them all. “Of course I did.”
The minor loves return. They haven’t found anything. My rules are firm. They have to go. I watch them: I remember what I have made myself forget, so that I could say yes to them on an impossible longed-for day precisely like this one: the look of their backs. The sound of the car door closing. The precise way each one says the word goodbye.
I settle into my seat by the window. I am comfortable here. I will go back to the task of forgetting. I will go back to missing them forever, forever wishing please. Just one of you, any one of you, please change your mind and turn around and please come back to me. Forever thinking love, I will give anything.
It’s V who comes back.
V a minor love, the painter with whom I would have been an addict, the saddest. The one, therefore, I might have loved the best, with time. He’d been a little schmaltzy. He’d held my hand across tables, studied my knuckles like they reminded him of some sea-thing tossed out in a bottle years ago, pressed his lips to the knob at the back of my wrist. He’d been the most recent, the last. He is striding toward my front porch, holding his little canvas under his arm.
“Listen,” I say, “I’m sorry, I can’t make an exception, what will the others—”
He doesn’t climb the stairs. He walks right up to the window, leans inside, and pulls me out.
He is not gentle about it. His canvas falls, facedown, on the back are pencil sketches of heads that look like mine. I get a splinter in my side. He doesn’t seem to care. I have not touched any of my loves today, major or minor; to touch him is a furnace.
He has me in a fireman’s hold. I twist my neck and see the revelation on his face.
“You can tell,” I murmur. “I’m not human anymore.”
“You’ve turned to wood,” he says.
It’s D who comes back next, and with him I am afraid to touch, I pull away, I press myself into V’s shoulder, I can’t help it, but my majorest love puts a hand on my hand and like a dead man’s reflex I hold back.
Each of them takes a piece of me. They turn me faceup in their arms. V and X support my knees, Y and W my hips, B and C my shoulder blades. D cradles my head in both hands, like an egg. I am held, I am touched, I can feel each one like a lover in our bed. They start to rock me. Slowly at first. Back and forth and back they rock. I watch their faces, I see each one as he’d have been as a father over a crib. They move out to my extremities, Y and W take me by the ankles, B and C by the wrists, they are men pushing a grandchild at the playground, they are swinging harder now, higher and higher, their faces are blurry, sick and old, I can’t tell whether they intend to let me go or rock me, please, just one short second longer.
Courtney Sender’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, AGNI, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Tin House, the Mississippi Review, the Georgia Review, and others. A fellow of the Corporation of Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, she holds an MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars and an MTS in Religion & Literature from Harvard Divinity School. www.courtneysender.com.
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