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Authors: Jodi Picoult

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BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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“Is it true?” Rodney asks. “Did you lose the Nightjars’ painting?”

“First, it’s not the Nightjars’ painting. It’s Kitomi Ito’s. Second, how the
hell
did you find out so fast?”

“Honey, rumor is the lifeblood of this entire industry,” Rodney says. “And it spreads through these halls faster than the flu.” He hesitates. “Or coronavirus, as it may be.”

“Well, I didn’t
lose
the Toulouse-Lautrec. Kitomi just wants things to settle down first.”

Rodney folds his arms. “You think that’s happening anytime soon? The mayor declared a state of emergency yesterday.”

“Finn said there are only nineteen cases in the city,” I tell him.

Rodney looks at me like I’ve just said I still believe in Santa, with a mixture of disbelief and pity. “You can have one of my rolls of toilet paper,” he says.

For the first time, I look behind him. There are six different shades of gold paint rolled onto the walls. “Which do you like?” he asks.

I point to one stripe in the middle. “Really?” he says, squinting.

“What’s it for?”

“A display of medieval manuscripts. Private sale.”

“Then that one,” I say, nodding at the stripe beside it. Which looks exactly the same. “Come up to Sant Ambroeus with me,” I beg. It’s the café at the top of Sotheby’s, and there is a prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich there that might erase the look on Eva’s face from my mind.

“Can’t. It’s popcorn for me today.”

The break room has free microwave popcorn, and on busy days, that’s lunch. “Rodney,” I hear myself say, “I’m screwed.”

He settles his hands on my shoulders, spinning me and walking me toward the opposite wall, where a mirrored panel is left over from the previous installation. “What do you see?”

I look at my hair, which has always been too red for my taste, and my eyes, steel blue. My lipstick has worn off. My skin is a ghostly winter white. And there’s a weird stain on the collar of my blouse. “I see someone who can kiss her promotion goodbye.”

“Funny,” Rodney says, “because I see someone who is going on vacation tomorrow and who should have zero fucks left to give about Kitomi Ito or Eva St. Clerck or Sotheby’s. Think about tropical drinks and paradise and playing doctor with your boyfriend—”

“Real doctors don’t do that—”

“—and snorkeling with Gila monsters—”

“Marine iguanas.”

“Whatever.” Rodney squeezes me from behind, meeting my gaze in the mirror. “Diana, by the time you get back here in two weeks, everyone will have moved on to another scandal.” He smirks at me. “Now go buy some SPF 50 and get out of here.”

I laugh as Rodney picks up a paint roller and smoothly covers all the gold stripes with the one I picked. Once, he told me that an auction house wall can have a foot of paint on it, because they are repainted constantly.

As I close the door behind me, I wonder what color this room first was, and if anyone here even remembers.


To get to Hastings-on-Hudson, a commuter town north of the city, you can take Metro-North from Grand Central. So for the second time today, I head to Midtown.

This time, though, I visit the main concourse of the building and position myself directly underneath the piece of sky I painted with my father, letting my gaze run over the backward zodiac and the freckles of stars that blush across the arch of the ceiling. Craning my neck back, I stare until I’m dizzy, until I can almost hear my father’s voice again.

It’s been four years since he died, and the only way I can garner the courage to visit my mother is to come here first, as if his memory gives me protective immunity.

I am not entirely sure why I’m going to see her. It’s not like she asked for me. And it’s not like this is part of any routine. I haven’t been to visit in three months, actually.

Maybe
that’s
why I’m going.

The Greens is an assisted living facility walkable from the train station in Hastings-on-Hudson—which is one of the reasons I picked it, when my mother reappeared out of the blue after years of radio silence. And, naturally, she didn’t show up oozing maternal warmth. She was a problem that needed to be solved.

The building is made out of brick and fits into a community that looks like it was cut and pasted from New England. Trees line the street, and there’s a library next door. Cobblestones arch in a widening circle from the front door. It isn’t until you are buzzed in through the locked door and see the color-coded hallways and the photographs on the residents’ apartment doors that you realize it’s a memory care facility.

I sign in and walk past a woman shuffling into the bright art room, filled with all sorts of paints and clay and crafts. As far as I know, my mother has never participated.

They do all kinds of things here to make it easier for the occupants. Doorways meant to be entered by the residents have bright yellow frames they cannot miss; rooms for staff or storage blend into the walls, painted over with murals of bookshelves or greenery. Since all the apartment doors look similar, there’s a large photo on each one that has meaning to the person who lives there: a family member, a special location, a beloved pet. In my mother’s case, it’s one of her own most famous photographs—a refugee who’s come by raft from Cuba, carrying the limp body of his dehydrated son in his arms. It’s grotesque and grim and the pain radiates from the image. In other words, exactly the kind of photo for which Hannah O’Toole was known.

There is a punch code that opens the secure unit on both sides of the door. (The keypad on the inside is always surrounded by a small zombie clot of residents trying to peer over your shoulder to see the numbers and presumably the path to freedom.) The individual rooms aren’t locked. When I let myself into my mother’s room, the space is neat and uncluttered. The television is on—the television is
always
on—tuned to a game show. My mother sits on the couch with her hands in her lap, like she’s at a cotillion waiting to be asked to dance.

She is younger than most of the residents here. There’s one skunk streak of white in her black hair, but it’s been there since I was little. She doesn’t really look much different from the way she did when I was a girl, except for her stillness. My mother was always in motion—talking animatedly with her hands, turning at the next question, adjusting the lens of a camera, hieing away from us to some corner of the globe to capture a revolution or a natural disaster.

Beyond her is the screened porch, the reason that I picked The Greens. I thought that someone who’d spent so much of her life outdoors would hate the confinement of a memory care facility. The screened porch was safe, because there was no egress from it, but it allowed a view. Granted, it was only a strip of lawn and beyond that a parking lot, but it was something.

It costs a shitload of money to keep my mother here. When she showed up on my doorstep, in the company of two police officers who found her wandering around Central Park in a bathrobe, I hadn’t even known she was back in the city. They found my address in her wallet, torn from the corner of an old Christmas card envelope.
Ma’am,
one of the officers had asked me,
do you know this woman?

I recognized her, of course. But I didn’t
know
her at all.

When it became clear that my mother had dementia, Finn asked me what I was going to do.
Nothing,
I told him. She had barely been involved in taking care of me when I was young; why was I obligated to take care of her now? I remember seeing the look on his face when he realized that for me, maybe, love was a quid pro quo. I didn’t want to ever see that expression again on Finn, but I also knew my limitations, and I didn’t have the resources to become the caretaker for someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s. So I did my due diligence, talking to her neurologist and getting pamphlets from different facilities. The Greens was the best of the lot, but it was expensive. In the end, I packed up my mother’s apartment, Sotheby’s auctioned off the photographs from her walls, and the result was an annuity that could pay for her new residence.

I did not miss the irony of the fact that the parent I missed desperately was the one who was no longer in the world, while the parent I could take or leave was inextricably tied to me for the long haul.

Now, I paste a smile on my face and sit down next to my mother on the couch. I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve come to visit since installing her here, but I very clearly remember the directions of the staff: act like she knows you, and even if she doesn’t remember, she will likely follow the social cues and treat you like a friend. The first time I’d come, when she asked who I was and I said
Your daughter,
she had become so agitated that she’d bolted away, fallen over a chair, and cut her forehead.

“Who’s winning
Wheel of Fortune
?” I ask, settling in as if I’m a regular visitor.

Her eyes dart toward me. There’s a flicker of confusion, like a sputtering pilot light, before she smooths it away. “The lady in the pink shirt,” my mother says. Her brows draw together, as she tries to place me. “Are you—”

“The last time I was here, it was warm outside,” I interrupt, offering the clue that this isn’t the first time I’ve visited. “It’s pretty warm out today. Should we open the slider?”

She nods, and I walk toward the entrance to the screened porch. The latch that locks it from the inside is open. “You’re supposed to keep this fastened,” I remind her. I don’t have to worry about her wandering off—but it still makes me nervous to have the sliding door unlocked.

“Are we going somewhere?” she asks, when a gust of fresh air blows into the living room.

“Not today,” I tell her. “But I’m taking a trip tomorrow. To the Galápagos.”

“I’ve been there,” my mother says, lighting up as a thread of memory catches. “There’s a tortoise. Lonesome George. He’s the last of his whole species. Imagine being the last of anything in the whole world.”

For some reason, my throat thickens with tears. “He died,” I say.

My mother tilts her head. “Who?”

“Lonesome George.”

“Who’s George?” she asks, and she narrows her eyes. “Who are
you
?”

That sentence, it wounds me.

I don’t know why it hurts so much when my mother forgets me these days, though, when she never actually knew me at all.


When Finn comes home from the hospital, I am in bed under the covers wearing my favorite flannel shirt and sweatpants, with my laptop balanced on my legs. Today has just
flattened
me. Finn sits down beside me, leaning against the headboard. His golden hair is wet, which means he’s showered before coming home from New York–Presbyterian, where he is a resident in the surgery department, but he’s wearing scrubs that show off the curves of his biceps and the constellation of freckles on his arms. He glances at the screen, and then at the empty pint of ice cream nestled beside me. “Wow,” he says. “
Out of Africa…and
butter pecan? That’s, like, the big guns.”

I lean my head on his shoulder. “I had the shittiest day.”

“No, I did,” Finn replies.

“I lost a painting,” I tell him.

“I lost a patient.”

I groan. “You win. You always win. No one ever dies of an art emergency.”

“No, I mean I
lost
a patient. Elderly woman with LBD wandered off before I could get her in for gallbladder surgery.”

“Little black dress?”

A smile tugs at Finn’s mouth. “Lewy body dementia.”

This makes me think, naturally, of my mother.

“Did you find her?”

“Security did,” Finn says. “She was on the labor and delivery floor.”

I wonder what it was that made her go
there—
some internal GPS error, or the kite tail of a memory so far in the clouds you can barely see it.

“Then I
do
win,” I say, and I give him an abbreviated version of my meeting with Kitomi Ito.

“Okay,” Finn says, “in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t a disaster. You can still get promoted to specialist, when she eventually decides to sell.”

What I love most about Finn (well, all right,
one
of the things I love most about Finn) is that he understands that I have a detailed design for my future. He does, too, for his own. Most important, mine and his overlap: successful careers, then two kids, then a restored farmhouse upstate. An Audi TT. A purebred English springer spaniel, but also a rescued mutt. A period where we live abroad for six months. A bank account with enough padding that we don’t have to worry if we need to get snow tires or pay for a new roof. A position on a board at a homeless shelter or a hospital or cancer charity, that in some way makes the world a better place. An accomplishment that makes someone remember my name.

(I had thought that Kitomi Ito’s auction might do that.)

If marriage is a yoke meant to keep two people moving in tandem, then my parents were oxen who each pulled in a different direction, and I was caught squarely in the middle. I never understood how you could march down an aisle with someone and not realize that you want totally different futures. My father dreamed of a family; to him art was a means of providing for me. My mother dreamed of art; to her a family was a distraction. I am all for love. But there is no passion so consuming that it can bridge a gap like that.

Life happens when you least expect it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a blueprint in your back pocket. To that end, while a good number of our friends are still racking up expensive degrees or swiping left or figuring out what sparks joy, Finn and I have
plans
. But we don’t only have the same general timeline for our lives, we also have the same dreams, as if we’re dipping into the same bucket list: Run a marathon. Know how to tell a good cabernet from a bad one. Watch every film in the IMDb top 250. Volunteer at the Iditarod. Hike part of the Appalachian Trail. See tulip fields in the Netherlands. Learn how to surf. See the northern lights. Retire by age fifty. Visit every UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We’re starting with the Galápagos. It’s a hellishly expensive trip for two millennials in New York; the cost of the flights alone is exorbitant. But we’ve been saving up for four years, and thanks to a deal I found online, we managed to fit a trip into our budget—one that has us based on a single island, rather than the more expensive island-hopping cruises.

BOOK: Wish You Were Here
11.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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