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Authors: Jodi Picoult

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BOOK: Wish You Were Here
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When I start to feel like I’m going stir-crazy, I remind myself of how lucky I am. I scour forums of long-haul Covid survivors, who are still suffering weeks later with symptoms no one understands and no doctors have the bandwidth or knowledge to address. I read articles about women who are balancing work and online education for their kids; and profiles of frontline workers who get paid scandalously little to risk their exposure to the virus. I see Finn stagger in after his long shifts, haunted by what he’s seen. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is holding its breath. If we don’t gasp, soon, we will all pass out.

One Saturday when Finn has the day off, we spend the afternoon getting back to ground zero: cleaning the apartment, doing laundry, sorting through the mail that has piled up. We play Rock Paper Scissors to choose chores, which leaves me scrubbing toilets while Finn fishes through piles of envelopes and junk mail for the cable bill and the bank statements. Every time I pass by him at the kitchen table, I feel ashamed. Usually we split the cost of utilities and rent, but with my contributions reduced to a trickle, he’s paying the lion’s share.

He picks up a stack of glossy catalogs he has separated out from the bills and tosses them into the milk crate we use as a recycling bin. “I don’t know why we keep getting these,” he says. “College brochures.”

“No, wait.” I put down my dustrag and sift through them, pulling a bunch back out and cradling them in one arm. “They’re for me.” I meet his gaze. “I’m thinking of going back to school.”

He blinks at me. “For
what
? You already have a master’s in art business.”

“I might change careers,” I tell him. “I want to find out more about art therapy.”

“How are you paying for tuition?” Finn asks.

It stings. “I have some savings.”

He doesn’t respond, but implicit in his look is:
You may not by the time this is over
.

It makes me feel equally guilty—for wanting to spend money on myself when I haven’t been carrying my own weight on household expenses, and angry—because he’s right. “I just feel like this could be…a wake-up call.”

“You’re not the only one who lost a job, Di.”

I shake my head. “Not only getting furloughed.
Everything
. There has to be a reason that I got sick.”

Finn suddenly looks very, very tired. “There doesn’t have to be a reason. Viruses don’t need reasons. They strike. Randomly.”

“Well, I can’t believe that.” I lift my chin. “I can’t believe I’m alive because of the luck of the draw.”

He stares at me for another moment, and then shakes his head and mutters something I don’t hear. He rips open another envelope and eviscerates its contents.

“Why are you mad?” I ask.

Finn pushes his chair away from the table. “I’m not mad,” he says. “But, I mean—going back to school? Changing
careers
? I can’t believe you didn’t happen to mention this anytime over the last month.”

I blurt out, “I’ve been visiting my mother.”

“Wow,” Finn says quietly. Betrayal is written all over the margins of his face.

“I didn’t say anything because…I thought you’d tell me not to go.”

His eyes narrow, as if he is searching to find me. “I would have gone with you,” he says. “You have to be careful.”

“You think I could get hurt taking the trash into the hallway to dump it.”

“My point exactly. You shouldn’t be doing that, either. You’re only a month out of rehab—”

“You treat me like I’m on the verge of dying,” I snap.

“Because you
were,
” Finn counters, rising from his chair.

We are standing a foot apart, both of us crackling with frustration.

He wants to gently set me down exactly where I was before this happened, like he’s been holding that place for me in a board game, and we are going to pick up where we left off. The problem is that I’m not the same player.

“When I thought you were going to die,” Finn says, “I didn’t believe there could be anything more awful than a world you weren’t in. But this is worse, Diana. This is you, in the world, not letting me be a part of it.” His eyes are dark, desperate. “I don’t know what I did wrong.”

Immediately, I reach out, my hands catching his. “You’ve done nothing wrong,” I say, because it is true.

The relief in his eyes nearly breaks me. Finn’s arms come around my waist. “You want to go back to school?” he says. “We’ll figure out how. You want a PhD? I’ll be in the front row at your dissertation defense. We’ve always wanted the same things, Di. If this is a detour on the way to everything we’ve dreamed about, that’s okay.”

A detour
. Inside, where he cannot see, I flinch.

What if I don’t want what I used to?

“What did you want to be when you grew up?” I murmur.

A laugh startles out of Finn. “A magician.”

I’m charmed. “Really? Why?”

“Because they made things appear out of thin air,” Finn says, with a shrug. “Something from nothing. How cool is that?”

I nestle close to him. “I would have come to all your shows. I would have been that annoying superfan.”

“I would have promoted you to magician’s assistant.” He grins. “Would you have let me saw you in half?”

“Anytime,” I tell him.

But I think:
That is the easy part. The trick is in putting me back together
.


The next morning, I video-call Rodney and tell him that Finn doesn’t want me to go back to school. “Remind me why you need his permission?” he says.

“Because it changes things, when you’re a couple. Like how much we can pay in rent, if I’m not making a salary. Or how much time we’ll actually spend together.”

“You hardly spend any time together now. He’s a resident.”

“Well, anyway, I didn’t call to talk to you. Is Rayanne there?”

Rodney frowns. “No, she’s working.”

“Like…doing a reading for someone?”

“Nursing home,” he says. “The only thing that pays worse than a career in art is being a psychic.” His eyes widen. “
That’s
why you want to talk to her.”

“What if I’m being an idiot, thinking about starting over now? Finn could be right. This could be some weird reaction to having a second chance, or something.”

Rodney slowly puts it all together. “So you want Rayanne to take a peek a few years out and tell you if you’re gluing pom-poms together with kids who have anxiety from gluten allergies—”

“—That is
not
art therapy—”

“—or if you’re wearing stilettos and in Eva’s old office? Mmnope. It doesn’t work that way.”

“Easy for you to say,” I tell him, pressing my hand to my forehead. “Nothing makes sense, Rodney.
Nothing
. I know Finn thinks that I shouldn’t make any radical changes, because I’ve been through so much. Instead of trying new things, I should find the stuff that feels comfortable.”

Rodney looks at me. “Oh my God. Nothing bad’s ever happened to you before.”

I scowl at him. “That’s not true.”

“Okay, sure, you had a mother who didn’t know you existed, but your daddy still doted on you. Maybe you had to go to your second-choice college. You had a share of white lady problems, but nothing that’s knocked the ground out from under your feet. Until you caught Covid, and now you understand that sometimes shit happens you can’t control.”

I feel anger bubbling inside me. “What is your point?”

“You know I’m from Louisiana,” Rodney says. “And that I’m Black and gay.”

My lips twitch. “I’d noticed.”

“I have spent a great deal of time pretending to be someone that other people want me to be,” he says. “You don’t need a crystal ball, honey. You need a good hard look at
right now
.”

My jaw drops open.

Rodney scoffs. “Rayanne’s got nothing on me,” he says.


In late May, the strict lockdown of the city is eased. As the weather improves, the streets become busier. It’s still different—everyone is masked; restaurant service is solely outdoors—but it feels a little less like a demilitarized zone.

I get stronger, able to go up and down stairs without having to stop halfway. When Finn is at the hospital, I take walks from our place on the Upper East Side through Central Park, going further south and west every day. The more people venture outside, the more I tailor my outings to odd times of the day—just before dawn, or when everyone else is home eating dinner. There are still people out, but it’s easier to social-distance from them.

Early one morning I put on my leggings and sneakers and strike off for the reservoir in Central Park. It’s my favorite walk, and I know it is because it makes me remember another static body of water and a thicket of brush. If I close my eyes and listen to the woodcock and the sparrows, I can pretend they are finches and mockingbirds.

This is exactly what I’m doing when I hear someone call my name. “Diana? Is that you?”

On the running path, wearing a black tracksuit and a paisley mask and her trademark purple glasses, is Kitomi Ito.

“Yes!” I say, stepping forward before I remember that we are not allowed to touch, to hug. “You’re still here.”

She laughs. “Haven’t shuffled off the mortal coil yet, no.”

“I mean, you haven’t moved.”

“That, too,” Kitomi says. She nods toward the path. “Walk a bit?”

I fall into step, six feet away.

“I admit I thought I would have heard from you by now,” she says.

“Sotheby’s furloughed me,” I tell her. “They furloughed almost everyone.”

“Ah, well, that explains why no one’s been beating down the door asking for the painting.” She tilts her head. “Isn’t the big sale this month?”

It is, but it has never crossed my mind.

“I must say, I’ve never been more grateful for a decision than I was to not auction the Toulouse-Lautrec. For weeks now, it’s just been the two of us in the apartment. I would have been quite lonely, without it.”

I understand what she’s talking about. I was just staring at a man-made reservoir, after all, and pretending it was a lagoon in the Galápagos. I could close my eyes and hear Beatriz splashing and Gabriel teasing me to dive in.

I remember, again, that the last normal thing I did before getting sick was go to Kitomi’s penthouse. “Did you get the virus?” I ask, and then blush beneath my mask. “I don’t mean to intrude. It’s just—I had it. I went to the hospital the day after our meeting. I worried that I might have given it to you.”

She stops walking. “I lost taste and smell for about a week,” Kitomi says. “But it was so early that nobody knew that was a symptom. No fever, no aches, nothing else. I’ve been tested for antibodies, though, and I have them. So maybe I should be thanking you.”

“I’m just glad it was mild.”

She tilts her head. “But for you…it wasn’t?”

I tell her about being on the ventilator, and how I almost died. I talk about rehab, and explain that’s why I am trying to walk further and further each day. I tell her about my mother, who was dead to me, and then wasn’t. She doesn’t ask questions, she just lets me speak into the gap between us and fill it. I remember, then, that before she was married to Sam Pride, she was a psychologist.

“I’m sorry,” I say after a moment. “You should probably bill me for this.”

She laughs. “I haven’t been a therapist for a very long time. Maybe it’s a muscle memory.”

I hesitate. “Do you think that’s the only way memories work?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“What if your body or your brain remembers something you
haven’t
done before?”

She looks at me. “You know, I used to study different states of consciousness. It’s how I met Sam, as a matter of fact. That was during the hard drug years of the Nightjars, and after all, what’s an acid trip but an altered state?”

“I think I was in two places at one time,” I say slowly. “In the hospital, on a ventilator. And in my head, somewhere completely different.” I do not look at her as I sketch the story of my arrival on Isabela, my adoption by Abuela, my conversations with Beatriz.

My time with Gabriel.

Including the moment I let myself drown.

“I used to do past life regressions for clients,” Kitomi says. “But this isn’t a past life, is it? It’s a simultaneous one.”

She says this mildly, like she’s pointing out that there’s a lot of humidity today. “Have you returned there?” she asks.

“Once,” I admit.

“Do you want to go back?”

“I feel…” I begin, trying to choose the right words. “I feel like I’m on loan here.”

“You could go to the Galápagos,” Kitomi points out.

“Not now,” I say wryly.

“One day.”

I don’t have a response. Kitomi and I walk a little further. We are passed by a jogger with a headlamp. “I could have moved to Montana during any of the past thirty-five years,” Kitomi says. “But I wasn’t ready yet.” She tilts her head to the sky, and the rising sun glints off the lenses of her glasses. “When I lost Sam, I lost all my joy. I tried to find it—through music and art and therapy and writing and Prozac. Then I realized I’d been looking in the wrong place all along. I was trying to find meaning in his death—and I couldn’t. It was violent and tragic and random and wrong. It always
will
be. The truth is, it doesn’t matter how or why Sam died. It never will.”

Just then, the sun breaks over the tree line, setting the trees aflame. It is the kind of art that no master could ever capture on canvas, but it’s here for the viewing every single day.

I understand what Kitomi is telling me: Trying to figure out what happened to me isn’t important. It’s what I do with what I’ve learned that counts.

There are more people on the reservoir trail now.

All of us are grieving
something
.

But while we are, we’re putting one foot in front of the other. We’re waking up to see another day. We’re pushing through uncertainty, even if we can’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We are battered and broken, but we’re all small miracles.

“I’m here most days before the sun comes up,” Kitomi says. “If you want to join me.”

I nod, and we walk a little further. Just after we part ways, my phone dings with a notification.

BOOK: Wish You Were Here
2.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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