always hoped to stumble on magic in dark places a mad (but lovable)
aunt locked away in the attic, or a beast with a heart of gold lurking
in the basement. The flames were fanned, no doubt, by my youthful
surfeit of gothic romance novels, and my fantasies bore no relationship
to reality: my aunt lived quite sanely in her own apartment, the only
beast in the basement was the ancient washing machine moldering away in
the corner, and, in fact, I have not lived in a home with an attic
since leaving my parents' house for college almost twenty years ago.
I'm an urban creature, a New York City apartment dweller who fancies
herself one tough cookie. I share street space with the crazy
preacher-man on the corner and building space with loud neighbors and
living space with several large cockroaches; there's no magic here.
Until I unpacked my closet. I
was newly pregnant, and in full nesting mode. Cleaning the closet
seemed the perfect ritual, both emotionally and practically, as if
clearing the dark spaces without would help to cleanse the psychic
realm within. I parked myself on a low stool and set to work
excavating, digging through strata of books and magazines and old
At the back of the closet,
wedged in behind a crate of dusty cassette tapes, was a ragged Thom
McAn shoebox. It was my "special stuff" box that I had toted with me
through the years, and I opened it with anticipation; I hadn't looked
inside in years. I found an olio of my life: photographs of me and my
best friend in high school, a ticket stub from a Little Feat concert, a
woven leather keychain I'd bought on a college trip to Mexico, more
At the bottom of the box was a
baggie. So that's where I'd hidden that pot! But no -- I unzipped the
baggie and extracted what looked like an ancient strand of fettuccine,
encrusted with brown and age and curled in on itself in rigor mortis.
What geologic era had spawned this creature? I looked at it blankly,
willing it to divulge its identity. No go; the noodle lay, inert and
silent, offering up no information. At a loss, I unbent one of the
ends; it had a tiny plastic sheath on it, covered in dried mud. I wet
my finger and rubbed, and a smudge of color emerged like the under
layer of a palimpsest. I unfolded the noodle and rubbed further. More
colors. I was holding a shoelace: a late-1970s model, (formerly) white
and emblazoned with tiny rainbows.
An unreasonable joy flooded me.
I knew the lace as surely as I would have recognized, after a few
confused moments, a childhood friend encountered on the street. It was
the shoelace from my Tretorn tennis sneakers, the sneakers I wore when
I became, for one glorious summer, an athlete: it was the shoelace of
the unofficial Camp Golden Arrow Tetherball Champion, aka me.
Staring at the shoelace, I
could practically smell the grassy field where the tetherball post had
been set up. I was eleven. I had a small fan base -- about forty
campers. My sport was not about to attain Olympic status any time soon.
Nonetheless, I loved the game. I loved its simplicity: a
basketball-sized ball, tethered to a rope, tethered to a wooden post. I
loved its physicality -- the pummeling and bunting of the ball, the
dramatic dives into the sand around the post. And I loved that finally,
after years of being class klutz, I was good at something. More than
good; I was graceful, ferocious. I would hit the winning shot, the ball
would sneak past my foe's fingers, and the rope would entwine the post
like a garland around a maypole. I would whoop in triumph. I was not a
This was the summer I wandered
through the woods behind my cabin and encountered, for the first time,
a raspberry bush. The summer my best friend taught me how to make
macramé bracelets. And the summer Paul Solomon approached me at
the Friday night square dance on the tennis courts and asked me to go
out with him. I was wearing a peasant skirt, a tie-dye tank top, and,
of course, my Tretorns with the rainbow laces; I felt radiant, and I
was grateful to Paul for appreciating my beauty. I wasn't sure what
"going out" entailed, especially at camp, but I liked Paul and
respected his request. I said yes and he planted a timid kiss on my
cheek. Later that night, after much agonizing and discussion with my
bunkmates, I decided I had to listen to my heart: I wasn't ready for
that kind of commitment. And so at seven the next morning, at the
dining hall, we broke up. We had gone out for ten hours, eight of them
spent in separate cabins. He was disappointed, and I was sorrowful and
relieved. I had done the right thing. Nothing has ever felt as of a
piece as that summer. The prevarications and evasions and tangled
motives that choke the life out of mature relationships had not yet
begun to ripen. Nor had ambivalence about competition, about winning,
about getting down in the dirt and taking 'em on. These began to sprout
that autumn, when I entered a girls' school. In place of the ungainly
abandon of tetherball, girls rode horses and played field hockey on
manicured lawns. What had seemed so pure -- sport for the joyful sake
of inhabiting one's body, of mastering a skill -- was not so simple
after all; issues of popularity and class muddied the green as
thoroughly as the mud itself. Anxiously, I watched my body change, and
as boys morphed into BOYS!, I slipped down the rabbit-hole of
confusion. What was a girl, anyway? In my effort to fulfill that
impossible mission, Fitting In, I corked the fizz of that summer and
shoved the bottle to the back of a shelf.
And here was the bottle -- or,
rather, baggie. I rolled the shoelace back and forth between my fingers
and dithered. Stay or go? I was getting rid of so much other junk, and
it seemed silly, saving this muddy relic. Be ruthless, I told myself.
Out with the old! I placed the shoelace in the "get-rid-of" pile and
went to bed.
Where I slept soundly until two
a.m., when I sat bold upright, my heart pounding. What was I thinking?
Of course I had to keep the shoelace. I tiptoed out of bed and
retrieved the baggie. Life was marked by such an accumulation of
unhappy mementoes – angst-filled diaries, photographs of former
friends, mixed tapes made by boyfriends who subsequently dumped you. It
was a gift, finding a talisman from a truly happy time. I replaced the
baggie in the shoebox, where, undoubtedly, it would live for the next
umpteen years until I cleaned out the closet again. No matter; I would
be just as excited to see it the next time around. I tiptoed back to
bed and lay, massaging my belly and thinking about the tiny creature
growing inside me. I prayed that she would feel as I had that summer:
so rich, blessed with a body that worked and a sense of joy in the
bounteous world around me. I prayed that she would have the foresight
to save a memento from that time, so that she, too, would be ambushed
by joy when she stumbled on it years later.
Poof! My belly pooched outward.
My baby had let loose a tiny karate chop from within. I took it as a
sign that my message had been transmitted and received. I closed my
eyes and slept.