Imagine a darkened stage. Here is an everywoman—thirties, dark hair, glasses—sitting on a plain wooden chair. This is Claire. Her eyes are closed. A heaping pile of gray- and dun-colored objects cover her lap. They are nondescript, possibly pebbles or balls of lint, but from our imagined sightline it’s hard to tell. This pile is simultaneously real and not real, representational and actual: it is Schrödinger’s memory of old loss, both alive and dead, at once happening and carried into eternity. In the scenes ahead, Claire will pick up each object and describe it by touch before dropping it into one of the thirteen shining metal bowls on the floor surrounding her. One bowl for each scene. One scene for each epoch of her life. We join her on the bridge from one place to the next, looking back at all the things she left behind and the commensurate emptiness that she carries still.
Lift your eyes now and behold the Chorus hovering over us like a great pillar of cloud; it is the bodiless groans of airplanes and tightly packed suitcases and rusty boats and empty houses. Imagine they have voices to speak.
ACT 1: Elegy
Her eyes are closed. She imagines the airplane that transported her, at not quite a year old, from the United States to Indonesia. She whispers: Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. The country of my birth. As she drops three pebbles into the nearest bowl, vivid images flash behind her, briefly projected into the darkness: a balding man wearing ’80s glasses, his arm around a round, beaming woman with permed gray hair; a smiling group of young men and women in matching windbreakers; a blue stucco house with ironwork supporting the front patio. We understand that these intangible memoryflashes represent the tangibles she left behind when the departure gate closed.
Her fingers move carefully over the pile, choosing. Few memories of this era remain. She was just four when the airplane took her from one life to another. To California, now. A rainbow bellied Care Bear. Two Little Golden Books thrown out the porthole of a boat when my parents’ backs were turned. The friends I was supposed to grow up with. The ability to speak a second language.
A handful, now, the ’90s neons flashing behind her closed eyes. Another airplane. This time she is six, on her way to the Solomon Islands. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles and cousins. A school where I would be taught by someone who was not my mother. The monkey bars I had learned to pretzel my body through to come up sitting on top of the world.
She is nine when the airplane takes her back to California. The pebbles are larger. She lifts them to her nose, her mouth, sniffing and tasting. A stuffed dolphin that would be gutted by rats. The sweat from three malarial fevers. The thick calluses of feet unaccustomed to shoes. Pails of vomit left on rusted ferries repurposed for ocean voyages, on twin engine Cessnas, puked out cab windows of flatbed market trucks spewing exhaust as they lumbered through potholes the size of large mammals. The opportunity to learn a third language. The unselfconsciousness of living in a place I loved and feeling that I belonged. The ability to cry when I was sad. Friends, so many friends.
The pebbles from the next move are darker, heavier. She is ten years old, and she is leaving California, returning to the Solomon Islands. She does not sniff these pebbles; they drop with a loud chunk into the bowl. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles and cousins. White platform sneakers with soles worn down to expose a honeycombed rubber interior. A burgundy velvet choral performance dress. A yearbook in which my classmates had written such choice sentiments as, “It was cool to meet a real missionary kid.” The bewildering feeling of being a spectacle.
She is twelve and it is too soon to be back in the belly of this metal bird. She is dazed. She is leaving her childhood home for a safer continent, Australia. We see now that underneath the pebbles in her lap sits something large. It is black and nodulated like a tumor. She heaves it painfully into the bowl with a dead thunk. Everything but my denim Winnie-the-Pooh backpack, the one item of luggage allowed by New Zealand Air Force officials evacuating us, American expatriates, from the post-coup d’état chaos of our surrogate home. Everything, everything, everything, though I didn’t know it yet.
The Chorus descends. Their uncanny voices groan and boom. We wonder if their speech is audible or if it is piped directly into our brains. They rumble: Picture here, a rift, the dividing line of before and after that will forever bifurcate her life. If this sounds a touch dramatic, we invite you to ask the twelve-year-old Claire about how she concluded The Evacuation and subsequent displacement was her fault. She had invited mischief by writing a journal entry about how she wished something exciting would happen to her. Ask her about the years of guilt she would carry from being eager to board that airplane. She didn’t know yet that the year ahead of wandering and waiting would crumble and then reshape her, and that the promised land she’d return to would bear little resemblance to the one she’d left. She was a kid, and she didn’t know, but she would figure it out soon enough: when life goes belly up, you don’t get to be a kid anymore.
Still twelve years old, she boards another airplane for yet another unplanned destination, Papua New Guinea. A grainy newspaper photo of my family, the not-quite refugees, freshly deplaned and standing wearily beside the Good Samaritans who would shelter us for a night. The food I couldn’t eat after some viral infection coaxed up a blanket of sores to cover my tongue, because yes, even as we were fleeing the threat of violence in our island paradise, my own body was waging actual violence against me.
Now she is thirteen and glad to be boarding a flight back to the Solomon Islands. The pebbles in her hands look as though they burn her. She drops them quickly. Eight houses, each lived in for a number of days: the shortest being two and the longest, eighty-five. A handful of fledgling friendships easily shucked off. The pus from eight months of recurrent, flesh-pitting boils on my shins, in my armpits and (the godawful injustice of it) inside my nose, the violence of my body going fully Old Testament against a backdrop of constant moves and uncertainty. She looks up. Nothing. What I really left was nothing. There was no loss in leaving this time. I was glad to shake the dust of that year off my feet.
The Chorus interjects with their voices of soot. She was crumbled and rebuilt, and she left nothing behind because she took it all with her, packed tight in the cracks and crannies of her reassembled form.
Her fingers move slowly now, caressing this set of objects carefully. She is fourteen years old and knows she is leaving her adoptive home for the last time. This airplane is taking her to Texas. She raises each pebble to her lips before placing it gently in the bowl. A small white house with forest green trim, built on twelve-foot stilts just a stone’s throw from the ocean. A black sand beach plagued by sand flies. The furtive skitter of geckos racing across the silver insulation of our exposed roof. The sudden roar of a tropical deluge pocking the corrugated tin overhead, and the scramble to lower shutters against rain driven sideways through open windows. The constant assault of moisture and mold, the envelope flaps that sealed themselves, the pinheads of rust ever multiplying on screens, the gentle arc of taper candles drooped from heat. The pleasantly scabby alchemy of skin coated with a scrim of sand and salt and sweat and equatorial sun. The sweet putrescence of rotting garbage. Razor wire-topped fences that had never been required before. The sound of gunshots tattooing the thick night air as we slept on the floor, just in case. My tender heart, mourning the loss of a place that no longer was and people who would never return, the promise of a childhood that would continue as I had known it.
Another year has passed. She is fifteen, setting off for another new home. Papua New Guinea this time. She is tired. Her voice is cracked and scratchy. Two teeth pulled to make room in my overcrowded mouth. Braces. A newborn acclimation to the strange land of shopping malls and cursing teenagers and school dress codes and standardized tests. The creeping anxiety bred from navigating swarming high school hallways and loud classrooms, clothing styles and slang and pop culture, all without a cipher key.
The pile in her lap has shrunk and the remaining objects are dark in color. She is hesitant about these next memories; they represent the last of their kind. She is seventeen now and on her last transpacific flight. She is launching out of childhood and into the unknown: California. A boyfriend. An eating disorder. High school, childhood, the necessity of passport renewals. Some bad friends and some good friends. The comfort and vexation of living in a place so tiny you knew everyone’s names. An entire life that I was afraid of revealing to my new college acquaintances, lest I become a spectacle again. Everything that I had ever known or loved or treasured, I laid it carefully away and gamely made space for the new: conscious of the tension, conscious of the cost, but with no better option available to me.
The Chorus chimes in: It was an impossible task.
She takes a deep breath, clears her throat. She is in a moving van, driving from California to Montana. She is twenty-two years old. This handful of objects drifts lightly when she drops them, not quite subject to the usual gravitational pull. An art degree. Friends who had pulled me through the awkward and painful rebirth of college. A too good to be true historic and affordable apartment. A crappy job. My first car, crumpled up in a crash that was my fault. The sunny nonchalance of California skies, every day bright as a newly minted coin, the future a promise made just for you. An alternate self still full up with potential, a tightly wrapped bud unfurling with possibility. The bubbling fizz of youth and certainty and belonging. The naivety of thinking the worst was behind me.
She raises her head and looks directly at us, eyes wide and unwavering. Her neck and shoulders are ramrod straight. She is twenty-eight years old. She does not understand how she can be in another airplane, moving again, how it can be that she is leaving the home of her choice for a state she swore never to live in. She is moving to Texas. Her fingers sift and twitch through the small pile left on her lap as she lifts her voice: Everything but the baby on my lap in the airplane window seat, and the clothes and vital records stuffed into the Prius C driven by my dad.
The Chorus joins in with a groan so loud we wonder if the stage is cracking: Everything, everything, everything.
Her throat is raw. She gathers the remaining objects into the basket of her cupped hands, and gently places them in the last metal bowl. A job I was good at. A cross-eyed Siamese cat. The pleasure of watching distinct seasons mark the passage of time. The breathless gratification of shoveling snow. A community I gathered around me like a cozy shawl. Houseplants as old as my marriage. A rusting fire pit and the ashes of a thousand hours of friendship and laughter and conversation. The slender hardwood floorboards of a home I lived in for five years, still the longest I’ve lived anywhere. The kitchen where I learned to cook. The bed where I spent 500 sleepless nights cradling my restless baby. The sighs and sobs and whimpers and shouts of a hundred savage arguments. A landfill overflowing with empty beer bottles and wine bottles and gin bottles and vodka bottles and rum bottles and whisky bottles. Dents and divots scattered over the walls, left by punches aimed to just miss my head. A black bruise the size of a grapefruit on my left hip, the blackest bruise I have ever seen. The blood from a smashed nose. Tears and tears and tears and snot, oceans of it. A whole life. A husband.
ACT TWO: Immolation
The woman’s lap is empty. The bowls are full, arrayed around her like a constellation. She reaches under her chair and pulls out a box of matches. Imagine how carefully she strikes the matches and drops one into each bowl, the light from thirteen small fires flickering and circling her. The fires crackle hungrily for a long time; whatever those objects were made of, they burn like coal. The light fades to pitch and all we see are dancing shadows. Smoke is heavy in the air. We are choking. The stage has disappeared behind a curtain of smog, and we no longer see the woman in her chair, but we hear the sound of her coughing and retching.
Into this vista of desolation descends the Chorus, their voices clear and resonant:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
And naked shall I return there.
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away;
Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
ACT 3: Proclamation
An age has passed, and we awaken. There is the stage. The smoke has cleared, and our breath comes easily again. The single chair remains, and the metal bowls have been piled in a tidy stack and placed behind it. Claire sits on the chair, head raised, eyes open. Observe: her right hand is placed on her heart, the left on her stomach.
We hear the Chorus chanting softly: What remains? What remains? What remains?
Claire’s voice is like a struck gong. We shiver. Here is what remains. Look behind my left hand, can you see? Her left hand drops to her lap and reveals that her stomach is transparent. We can see right through her. Close your eyes, I will tell you. This is what remains: Memories, rice-paper thin, casting whispery shadows on my subconscious. The etching of 4000 days in the jungle on my bones. The dead twin of my childhood self who lived that strange life. Can you see her? She looks like me, smaller and sun kissed, a snaggle-toothed smile strung across her face like a peace offering. The place between my organs that houses loss: all this prodding and I still can’t discern if it’s a black hole or tumorous growth. Clearcut swathes of no memory at all, alarmingly blank and spacious. Vicious-tongued dust bunnies, scattered along the baseboards of my mind. They speak in the accusing voice of my ex-husband.
The Chorus chants again: Is it enough? The weight, can you bear it?
She is whispering now. The effort of speech is visible on her face; she is pale and shaking. There is more, look. Here, behind my right hand, where I was hollowed out. Can you see the hole? I left it open. I left it open and the smoke from those fires drifted in and festered at the emptiness, so I scooped in some forgetting and packed it tight, tamped it down around seeds of bitterness and loneliness and let it do its work. You laugh, I know. You think me ignorant. But can you blame me? I was weary, and I was angry. What do you expect from an empty girl? I didn’t know those seeds would root in the fecund slush of my pain and come up a bumper crop of despair.
Her voice rises. You think me too dramatic with my despair and my loss, I can tell. But is that not why I made this a drama? Is this not allowed in the drama I have written for the purpose of triaging my pain?
The Chorus is a tide sweeping over smooth ocean rocks: We allow it. It is allowed.
Look again, here, behind my right hand where I was hollowed out. Her hand still rests above her breast. From our distance we cannot see clearly, but her chest looks dark; we wonder if it is quite fully there. Can you see the hole? I left it open. I left it open, and the tendrils of despair wound all through my emptiness and filled me up. Filled me with emptiness. Emptied me of life. I thought forgetting would ease my weariness but those goddamn vines with their sticky aroma of self-pity just oozed their way down through the emptiness and into my organs and my blood and my bones, and only then did I really learn the meaning of exhaustion. I made a bed in my hopelessness and gave myself over to sleep. I slept and I slept and I woke up tired, tired of sleep, tired of despair, tired of aimlessness, tired of that sap green self-loathing coating my whole life. I hacked at the vines, thinking to clear it all back to emptiness again, to cultivate something new. But it was a hydra beast, growing more shoots wherever I cut. So I took up a shovel and began the thankless work of digging out the roots. Have you ever pulled on a dandelion? They don’t come up easy. I know that some fleshy white tap roots remain hidden in the untended parts of myself, but on the whole, I am proud of the work I’ve done.
Here, let me show you.
She moves her right hand to her lap where she clasps it loosely with the other. We see that her chest is empty. It is a great hole.
Can you see the hole? I left it open. I left it open so you could see the shiny pink flesh that has grown over my emptiness, where I was hollowed out.
She stands and approaches the edge of the stage. Look, this is where I was hollowed out. Can you see the hole? I left it open. I left it open, and I took a stone and set it up inside my emptiness, and I called its name Ebenezer.
She steps off the stage. Here, do you see?
Here I am,
Here I am,
Here I am.