It happened again. I have settled into a cradle I once thought was strange and prickly. Now I don’t want to leave.
Last Monday the chancellor of schools made an unexpected announcement that some elementary school kids could start going back on November 9. I immediately thought of how I would miss walking down the hall and seeing Diana working at her desk, lamplight outlining her pug nose, pixie hair slanting forward, feet dangling from the swivel chair.
How I’d miss seeing my pre-teen son Mark reading on the couch on a Wednesday morning, looking at me with wonder when, for the first time, the cat had lain purring on his lap.
I’ll miss waking from a nap to the sound of feet pounding down the stairs, when dad’s car rolling onto the gravel driveway signals the end of quiet time.
Last week for a schoolday screen break, Luke, 10, and Diana, 7, were bored of everything — bike riding, soccer, scootering — so we took a walk around the block. “This is so boring,” Luke said. I know, I said, but this is what we can do. And that was when we heard meowing in our neighbor’s yard. A black cat looked stuck, but when he jumped the fence like a horse over a hogsback, I realized he was probably Nick, the cat that is occasionally discussed on the neighborhood listserv — is he lost? Do his owners know where he is?
We watched him trot across the street, slide under a fence to another yard, and another, places we couldn’t go. Watching him from the sidewalk, wondering what he’d do next, hoping we could be friends.
He jumped on pillars, he chewed on grass, he crawled under bushes, he let me pick him up, purring and spreading his paw-toes and eating the cat treats out of our hands that Diana ran home to get. Before he wanted to get down, and we followed him across the alley to a parked car where he retired, I felt the muscles in his back and pondered his adventurous days, his lone strength.
This Saturday I helped clean up the city park on the corner. The kids wanted to go with me. We put on blue plastic gloves and picked up candy wrappers and plastic forks. The homeless man who had made an exuberant living space here was gone. All that seemed to be left of his decorations were paint swirls on the tree trunk and zig-zag flourishes along the benches.
“Look what I found!” Diana said. She held a gold and teal iridescent pom-pom the size of a pea between her thumb and forefinger. I didn’t know how to tell her whose it was; I didn’t know how to express both relief to not see him here and sadness that he was gone.
He was caught on neighborhood security cameras draped with plastic necklaces and pushing around a baby buggy and it was debated whether he was a thief or a charity case. He must be mentally ill, people said, but it seemed perfectly sane to me to scatter glitter everywhere when the world you inhabit feels bleak and forbidding.
When I was depressed in my mid-20s, I would collect ordinary things at thrift stores and bedazzle them with jewels and sequins until nothing dull was left. I gave them out as gifts, thinking I was spreading sparks of light.
When I thought I had found all the trash, even skinny little glucose test strips, vape pens, and cigarette butts, I kept seeing copper-colored confetti disks and assorted beads among the October leaves, and I wondered, where did he go? Is he happy now? Is he safe, is he warm? Does he have a place where he can spread sparkle? A place of his own.
On schoolday screen breaks, our new activity became looking for Nick. In a high voice I would call, “Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty!” the same way I called my childhood pet Pepper, when most cats were outdoor cats. To adopt a cat these days, you have to promise that you won’t let it out. The out of doors is like a deathwish — vicious dogs and tomcat fights, ticks and fleas, fast cars and feline AIDS.
We couldn’t find Nick anywhere. We wandered the streets, thinking there would be nothing else worth seeing, but at the Armenian church we stopped to admire zinnias in shades of coral and hot pink and persimmon. Then we noticed the bees. Dozens of carpenter bees climbing over mounds of Durango red marigolds. There were big bees and “little kid” bees, as Diana called them, with one black dot on their fuzzy yellow backs, plates of black armor covering their abdomens. They let us watch and watch them, not minding how close we got, not caring about us at all.
Diana lay in bed with me today, touching my face, massaging my scalp, patting my nose, gazing at my eyes until I opened them.
She kissed me three times — left cheek, right cheek, left cheek. “That’s the Italian way of greeting,” she said. “And mama, elephants greet each other by holding their trunks like this,” showing me her arms intertwined at the elbows.
How rich I am — even in this poverty of human contact and touch — I have all these human beings around me, hugging me, lying on me, kissing me and looking into my eyes. I think about how I need this touch to survive, and then I think about the man who used to live in the park. Does anyone touch his arm, his face? Does anyone touch him at all?
“It’s Nick!” Luke yelled one morning after having gone out on the porch to eat his bowl of breakfast cereal.
Diana and Mark ran outside too. When they came back, I asked, “What was he doing?” wanting to picture a cat with no collar or curfews. He meowed and liked to be scratched, they said, and he walked around everyone’s yard and smelled things.
In our old life, this cat would have offered nothing more than a passing curiosity. Now that we are confined to a restricted radius and barred from our normal diversions, finding him has been like discovering a wild pony.
But were we really free when we had everything? Were we really free with all those parties and meetings, appointments and dinners, ceremonies and plays and sports?
Maybe it is not he who we are really looking for, but a part of ourselves. A part that is forever roaming. A part that is strong and lean, that doesn’t need a collar or a tag, doesn’t need doors or fences. That knows where to go and how to get back home. A part of ourselves that is, and always has been, free.