We left San Francisco that morning even though your mother was sick. It was a pretty day, the sun shimmering like a gypsy girl’s tambourine. I thought it would be good for her to get out into the sunshine because it had been a long few weeks of rain and her skin had gone gray as oatmeal and she had this dull look flaming up in her eyes. You were sleeping in your little rocking seat and I had your things all packed. We didn’t have much. It was time to go, but Cat wanted me to wash her hair first, said she couldn’t go out looking like that. Holding her head in my hands I could feel her bright with fever. From behind, she looked like a healthy schoolgirl, just her sweet body and that long yellow hair. Then she’d turn around and you’d get pins in your heart. I wrapped her head in a towel and said, you take your meds today, Kitty Cat, and she nodded with her long face, the kind of woman you see in the museum up on the old canvases, a woman washing clothes or out in the fields, a strong body with large capable hands and this wisdom in her eyes because she knows more than you. She hated the idea that she was sick, and even with you so small she was still shooting drugs. Dope kept her comfortable. It had always been her favorite thing to do and that’s the truth. You could see it just after she’d put the needle in, like an angel her face would go hazy and beautiful like so much fog. She dreamed of horses, she said. She told me she’d come into the world wanting to ride, wanting to be near the big dark creatures. Horses understood her, people made her nervous. This was your mother; this was the woman I loved.
We made you one night in a broken house, your mother riding my hips and howling with pleasure, and then six weeks later she’s throwing up and wanting strange foods from the Iranian down on Willard Avenue. Months passed and her belly went round and tight. At the clinic they said she had a weak heart and HIV. Maybe her baby wouldn’t get it. They didn’t know. They gave her some pills and told her to come back every three weeks. She quit dope that afternoon, and took the pills and started going to church. She told me she had begged Jesus for a miracle. She believed in miracles, she said; she believed in Jesus. She liked to light the candles and sit in the darkness and think and then she’d get down on her knees and press her palms together. I’d watch her sometimes in the trembling blue light, among the other whispering strangers.
This one day we were walking through the park, leaning and kissing, that smell at the nape of her neck, the nape, like vanilla, like I don’t know what, heaven, and then she’s down on all fours in labor and this crowd comes around and she’s white as fucking God and the next thing I know we’re in a taxi with this Pakistani barking orders and I’m just wondering how we’re going to pay for it. At the hospital they gave Cat a C-section on account of the HIV. They let me stand there and hold her hand and when I saw you for the first time I started to cry, I couldn’t help it. You were bundled in a little blanket and you had on a little hat and you were the most amazing thing I had ever seen. I handed you to your mother and she was trembling and a little frightened and it made me want to crawl up next to her and hide my face in her heart. The nurse explained that there was a chance you’d be all right; they wouldn’t know for a few months, we’d just have to be patient. I promised Cat that everything would be okay, I’d make sure of it, but she shook her head. “I’m sick,” she said.
They made her talk to a shrink. I waited out in the hall and I could hear her crying. I didn’t know what to do. I went down to the waiting room and bought a candy bar and sat there. There were some old books on the table, old paperbacks. One had a girl on the cover who looked like your mother. The book was My Antonia and I vaguely remembered reading it in high school. Later, I gave it to her, and she snapped it out of my hands and told me to leave her alone. We had this thing between us; she didn’t think she was smart enough for me, which of course wasn’t true; she was the smartest person I ever knew, the kind of smart you don’t get in school. I’d gone to a fancy prep school where my father was a teacher. I’d grown up in a crummy faculty house with people coming and going, writers mostly, nasty drunken poets who always ended up sleeping on the couch. It was one of those poets who turned me onto dope, among other things. “We’re calling her Willa,” your mother declared when I walked in that night. She was sitting up in bed, her eyes shining, holding the book in her shaking hand. I could tell she’d liked it, and we named you after its author. We brought you home and the very next day they sent someone over from Child Services and it was that same woman who suggested we give you up. She brought two cases of formula and some diapers. She looked around our apartment, her eyes grim. Cat served the woman tea in one of her mother’s old china teacups, it had little rosebuds on it, and your mother had saved it for a long time, keeping it carefully wrapped in newspaper so it wouldn’t get broken, but the woman wouldn’t even touch it. She kept on us, trying to convince us to let you go, to give you a better life, but we put her off.
I tried to find work. I could get work here and there. For a little while things were good between us, and Cat was all right and I sometimes forgot that her blood was tainted. She would do things, buy peaches, and there they’d be, fat and round on the counter, or she’d make a meal and set the table, like we were a real family. I don’t know; I couldn’t deal with it. It was a time in my life when I didn’t know any better; I didn’t know who I was. Sometimes I wouldn’t come home for a few days and it would be just her and you and she’d know when I walked in stinking of dope, the whole thing, the cigarettes, sometimes women, and she’d just hold me because there was nothing else to do. I know it sounds pathetic to you, who we were, but it’s the truth and I can’t change it. There’s a vivid transition when you come in from being high, and the walls have this mustard tint like old tapestries, and your body feels drained, beat up from the inside, and everything feels like a déjà vu, like you’ve made this big circle and instead of moving on you’re right back where you started. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain, and I’m not good with words even though they shoved Tolstoy down my throat at Choate and fucking Whitman – I have a box of quotes some place – I’d even memorized some of it – fucking useless information. Anyway, later on, weeks, maybe months, she started feeling sick and it was like crashing into a wall of bricks, and for a long while you see the pieces of your life floating all around you, the burning embers of your totally fucked-up world, and it comes to you that you haven’t made much of your time, and you haven’t done all that much and it’s almost over. It’s like you can hear them cackling about you up in heaven, the big mistake you’ve turned into.
By then I had found a job working construction. I’ve been up on rooftops, looking down on the clay-colored buildings, the dark alleys where you see things you shouldn’t, people pissing in the gutter or puking or sharing secrets. You can see the steep hills and the trolleys with their little bells. I’ve been up on buildings in the pouring rain. Sometimes it comes down so hard you get the feeling it is God Himself drumming upon your back. When you work on buildings, you see things. I have looked into the rooms of strangers. I have touched their things, unfolded their letters. I have run my hands across their glistening tabletops, their ivory piano keys. I have changed the hands on their clocks just enough to alter the passing hours of their days. I have lain down on unmade beds, breathing in the dank sweat of a stranger’s dreams, and I have used their toilets, read their magazines, and sipped from their open bottles of wine. I have been on bridges; I have hung from cables like a paratrooper, like a secret agent in some espionage movie. I have danced in the sky like a marionette, swinging from cables over the dark water of the bay.
I have been lucky in my life to know freedom, unlike your mother who was a prisoner of her fate. Simple things didn’t interest her, whereas just the sunshine could keep me happy for days on end, just a walk on the street, out in the air with the smell of the wharf, the fish smell that is life in my nostrils. The sun on the crown of your head like a father’s hand, this is what I want you to remember about me, that no matter what, my hand is there with the sun in your hair, heavy on your head, guiding you. There is pleasure, for me, in cupping water from my hands, the cool water bringing life. Like when you are trembling over something or feeling dead inside and you end up in a gas station bathroom that stinks of the body and maybe you are so doped you can hardly see and all the dirty blue tiles smear together and then you put your dirty hands under the running water and you marvel at its clarity and it stops you there, it stops everything, and for a moment you can’t move. It’s a small thing, something that has occurred to me over time. The sense a man will have of being a small part of things. There is freedom in knowing your place in this world. Your mother never really knew where she stood and it was like a net over her head and she could not wriggle free of it.
You’re probably wondering how we met. I like to think of it this way: we first met hundreds of years ago when I was a boy in the deep fields of Ireland and she was yet a young lass with flower petals in her hair. I swept her up on my horse and we rode away like that. I had her for the first time in the cold open space of a castle. I knew her, like some princess of the wild. I grew up in this world with her stuck in my head from another time. She was my phantom limb. I could sometimes see her in dreams, opaque, violet, but I could never reach her. I searched for her. I waited three centuries. And then, finally, she was there.
It was a crack house on Washington Avenue in Chinatown. I don’t exactly know how I got there, but I was on the floor to my best recollection and I looked up through the intense smoke and there was this girl, this sea urchin, this exotic flower, this ghost. She didn’t have any tits, so skinny you could push her over with one finger, and her nose running snot and the woozy yellow eyes of an addict. But lips warm like a good supper somebody makes you out of kindness, when you haven’t eaten for days, and you’ve never tasted food so good, and the feeling in your belly of being full, like when you were a kid.
This was Catherine – Cat. This was my woman coming towards me through the smoke. We fell in love over the broken streets and in and out of the rain and sunlight and the music pouring out through people’s windows. We lived in this condemned building with rats and black slippery birds and we just kept shooting drugs and fucking and drifting down the streets and boulevards and finding things in the trash and kissing in the hollow corners of the city or standing in somebody’s doorway behind the falling rain.
I knew her love for the drugs was stronger than her love for me, and I knew it would catch up someday and I knew it would destroy her. She couldn’t help it, she couldn’t control it. Then she’d cry over her guilt. She’d put her hands over her ears on account it got so loud in her head, like horses stomping on her brain, she said, and I’d have to hold her. I’d just have to hold her.
Let me tell you about love. Love is a kind of madness and you would follow it anywhere, you don’t care. We fucked, that was me and Cat, fucking, not the lame pretense of making love. And she had this beautiful yellow hair, and she smelled earthy, you know, like geraniums when you get down close to the stems, and she tasted like sunlight, hot in your mouth and a little bitter, and the rest of her like seawater. You fuck because it’s your freedom, and that’s what we did, and that’s how we began. Cat with her pretty knees and those little skirts she used to wear when we first met, from school, those creamy yellow skirts, button-down shirts with collars, St. fucking Brigid’s, and her underpants – that’s what I remember from the beginning – the butterscotch smell of those underpants. When we met in that house, it was the Inferno, all the animals swarming and lurking and sniffing, and you couldn’t get up, you’d be sitting there in the smoke and you’d say to yourself, come on, man, get up, get the fuck out of here, but you’d ignore it and just stay and have more and do more and then you’d find yourself rolling through somebody’s shit, with their fucking pubes in your teeth and lice up your neck. But you couldn’t walk away, you couldn’t give it up. It still had you by the balls.
But this is not a story about drugs. And it’s not a story about me and Cat, because Cat is on her way out of this story. Cat is going to die; I think we both know that. You can smell death on your woman, like grease – not the kind you eat – the murky black oil that drips out of your car and makes a puddle on the ground. The black oil that stains your fingertips. She started to have that smell all the time. She went back to dope like a repentant lover, unraveling the tinfoil like some priceless gift, the apartment smelling of burning wax, of scorched pewter. She had crawled back into its warm lap on her hands and knees. One afternoon I came home from work and found her sprawled on the bed like a dead woman, with you on the other side of the room, screaming, your tiny hands brittle with rage. She’d put you in the laundry basket atop a soft pile of clothes. There were notes from the neighbors shoved under the door, threatening to call the police. I found the lawyer’s card on the table. Under his name in fancy script it said Private Adoptions. I woke her up and held her in my arms and she wept. “I just wanted to do something right,” she confessed. “For once.”
The lawyer had told her a week, maybe two. And maybe the waiting was the worst part. Cat wrapped herself up in death. She was ready for it. She’d sit in the chair by the window, looking down at the people on the street. You could hear their voices rising up. Laughter or somebody shouting. Her skin had gone yellow. Sometimes I could get her to go down to the wharf and we’d walk around and I’d hold you up on my chest like a little kitten and even the wind could make you cry, even just the wind. She’d have this blank, frightened-foal look that made my heart weary. I’d have to take her to the clinic sometimes, rows of orange seats, and I’d make a cradle for you on my legs and people would hunch over and look at you out of their ruined faces. A week later the lawyer called to say arrangements had been made. I thought I’d made my peace with it, but I went into the bathroom and threw up my supper.
We left that place, that awful apartment, and we owed the bastard landlord plenty. I helped Cat into the car and buckled your little car seat in the back. I remember the sunlight, bright as Dunkin Donuts at three o’clock in the morning, when the smell lures you in off the street and you sit down at the counter and they put the coffee in front of you and you think to yourself: There is nothing better than this. The heavy white cup in your hand.
I drove straight to New England, only stopping to use the toilet or buy some food. Cat slept most of the way, waking only to feed or change you. I tried to get her to eat. I had some applesauce and peanut butter and I made her drink some milk. What she needed was a hospital, not some car ride across the country, but she wouldn’t let you go until she met them, your future parents. It was all arranged. It was the only way she would give you up.
I want to tell you about the drive, the way I felt. The hours passed slowly, unraveling in a blur, almost like a dream. Sometimes it rained and you and Cat were sleeping and I’d listen to it pounding the roof of the car. I knew I was losing you both. It was the end of something and it made me feel desperate. I remember driving through this town with its dark corners, looking to score. We lost a whole day with me fucked up out of my mind and you screaming in the back seat and Cat hardly moving.
They had a farm in Massachusetts and Cat liked the idea of you growing up someplace pretty, and they had horses, which clinched it. We pulled up this long driveway and my body began to shake a little. It was a mixture of feelings, both awful and good but mostly awful. The rain was coming down hard and I stopped for a moment and put the window down and just listened to it. There is nothing that compares to the sound of a hard rain.
We got up to the top of the driveway and this house appeared, this fucking mansion. They saw the car and came out with umbrellas. Cat wasn’t doing well. She started to wheeze like she couldn’t breathe right. She couldn’t bear it, the whole ordeal; she didn’t want to get out. We sat for a moment looking through the fogged up windshield with the wipers going back and forth, back and forth, and them standing out there in the rain under umbrellas, waiting, and Cat took my hand. She took my hand and she squeezed it. Then she said, “You take her.”
She couldn’t get out of the car. She just didn’t have the strength. And I could feel her slipping away from me. It worried me. It worried me so much. I got out and gave the people a little wave to let them know everything was on like we’d planned, and then I opened the back door and took you out. Cat wouldn’t turn around and I understood that she couldn’t. The woman who would become your mother ran over with the umbrella, her blue eyes filling with tears. I could see she wanted you like nothing she’d ever wanted before. I could see a lot of things about her in that single moment. I could tell she had suffered in her life and that you were a gift to her. She gasped out loud, putting her hand over her mouth, and touched your head. The rain fell harder, harder than I’d ever heard it before or ever would again, and we ran into the house. I could feel them wanting you so bad. I shook his hand. I don’t know what else to say about him. At that point I couldn’t really look at him. She smelled like lilacs I think. Anyway, I took you out of your seat and held you up like the prize that you were, and kissed you on your little forehead, soft as a flower petal, and then I handed you over to her.
They made me sign some papers, and I had to go out and get Cat’s signature. Cat said, “Are they all right? Are they good people?” And I told her that they were. And she signed. I left her there in the car to bring in the papers, and I remember feeling the distance between the car and the door was like a whole country, and I did not belong in either place anymore.
When it was all over, when everything had been signed, they walked me out. The woman was holding you close, her back curved like a shield around you. You had started to fuss and she took you inside to give you a bottle, but I didn’t think you were hungry. It was another kind of hunger, and you couldn’t satisfy it with milk or food, and I knew in my heart it would linger and I found myself wondering if you would eventually get used to it.
The rain had stopped and the sun started shining and the whole car dazzled with rain drops. The windows were all fogged up, and I couldn’t see Cat and I had a feeling, like I already knew – and then I thought maybe that’s why the sun had come out, that she had made it happen. Even so, I went along with the man, and brought him over to the car to meet her. I genuinely liked him and, even though my heart was busted open, I trusted he would be a good father to you. When I opened Cat’s door, I saw that she was gone. I guess I started to cry, I don’t know, I can’t remember, but I took her into my arms and held her there while he went in to call someone. My heart was busted apart. Once it had played music, but now it was smashed on the ground and all the springs had jumped out and were wobbling. Now it made a dull whine.
I held on to her, feeling her body go cold in my hands, and time passed, minutes, maybe hours, and I told her that I loved her, I adored her. Be patient, I whispered. It won’t be long before we meet again.