As the credits played out at the end of Avatar: The Way of Water, my boyfriend Ethan took off his 3D glasses and looked at me. “Are you crying?” he asked.
I nodded and wiped my cheeks.
“Aw,” he said, “You liked the movie, huh?”
“Yes,” I sniffed.
Then a fresh wave of tears ran down my face.
Ethan immediately stood up and came over to me. “Oh baby, I’m so sorry, I understand why you’re crying now.”
He tried to sit in the same theater chair as me, to hold me and soothe me, but instead he accidentally sat on the large Pepsi in my cup holder, knocked it backwards, and got soda all over his butt. He pulled me to my feet, away from the mess, and held me in the aisle.
I hugged him and giggled a little—both at the situation and because I loved him so much.
In a matter of like ten seconds, he had already comforted me immensely, for two reasons. The first, because he didn’t let the awkwardness of soda-soaked pants distract him from his mission. And the second, because he knew that I was crying over my brother Zach, the heartbreaking scene in the movie that had triggered my tears.
It’s awful to admit this, but I initially never expected Ethan to play this role in my life. I never thought that my boyfriend would see me crying and automatically assume it was because of Zach.
We met at an interesting time in my life—just one day after the one year anniversary of Zach’s death. Once you get past the one year mark, it’s kind of an awkward and terrible season of life to be in. It’s like you have an expiration date on how long you can be grieving, on how long you can hold the identity of “sad sister of dead brother.” Most people stop asking how I’m doing in regards to that and don’t think to bring him up anymore.
The shock and raw grief is gone, but the ever-present pain of having to live the rest of my life without my sweet little brother constantly bubbles under the surface.
Ethan is very simple and straightforward in his comfort for me: I know you miss your brother. I’m here for you. Let me hold you.
“I love you,” he says, and Addie wonders if this is love, this gentle thing.
—V.E. Schwab, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue
After the movie, later that evening, I accidentally spilled red wine on Zach’s white hoodie, which I wear almost every day.
Ethan immediately looked up how to get red wine stains out of white fabric and went to work. Soaking the stain in white vinegar (“not red vine vinegar?” I weakly joked). Scrubbing laundry detergent into the spot. Rinsing it out in hot water.
The stain was gone.
I clutched the warm, wet sweatshirt in my hands and thanked him and hung it on his desk chair to dry overnight.
The next day, back at my parents’ house, I examined the spot outside in the late afternoon sun, in better lighting. The wine stain truly was gone, but I noticed that the area was a bit frayed now. Threads popped out where Ethan had vigorously scrubbed the sweatshirt.
My heart melted. I sunk into this little patch of white fabric and pinned the moment and the feeling into my memory.
This is what it feels like to be safe and loved.
After he had cleaned my sweatshirt for me, Ethan was a little bit restless. It was getting late, I was cozy in bed, and we had planned to watch something together on his phone until we fell asleep. But he was unable to sit back and relax.
“Why aren’t you getting comfortable?” I asked. He was sitting on the edge of the bed, hunched and cross-legged.
He stood up and paced a bit. “Because you were crying earlier over your brother and then you stained his sweatshirt, and now I’m just in full on protection mode.”
. . . we were home, we had drawn the circle, we were safe for the night.
—Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
It was a place where I knew I was loved.
—Claire Oshetsky, Chouette
Author: Claire Oshetsky
Read in: 2022
Quoted In: Wine stains and heart mends
Description: A magic realism, fictionalized memoir about motherhood as the author experienced it, the struggle she had raising “non-conforming” children, as told through the story of Tiny and her owl baby named Chouette.
I dream I’m making tender love with an owl.
Your owlness is with you from the very beginning.
I think about the way housekeeping nothing more than a losing encounter with entropy.
The wind in the trees sounded like the voices of women singing in chorus, and their voices were filled with glottal embellishments, as if sung by throats made of wood. The music urged me forward. And so I left my mother, and went on without her. I wasn’t afraid because the trees took care of me, and brooded and bent over me, and sang to me their melancholy songs, and fed me, and gave me succor, until the Bird of the Wood found me and took me home with her and taught me to trust the sound of my own voice.
Now and then the other wives try to engage me in conversation. But these other wives speak in concrete word bricks, whereas I prefer to speak in metaphor: That way, no logic can trap me, and no rule can bind me, and no fact can limit me or decide for me what’s possible. The downside of my communication approach is that it makes the yabber-yabber of everyday conversation a challenge for me, and so I tend to be quiet, mostly, at these family gatherings.
I suspect that these thoughts are possibly not my own thoughts, but instead are the thoughts of the owl-baby, superimposed on mine. I wonder how long I’ve been the victim of subliminal messaging from a fetus. I wonder if it goes this way for all pregnant mothers: At first we fully recognize the existential threat that is growing inside us, but gradually evolutionary imperatives overcome the conscious mind’s objection, and the will to reproduce overcomes the will to survive, and the needs of the baby overcome the needs of the host, until the only choice left for us women is to be willing, happy participants in our own destruction.
I see our true selves flying right out of our bodies,
As for me, I’ve fallen into a silent loving daily inertia of caring for you. Each gesture I make, whether to bathe, or to clothe, or to feed, feels like a daily sacrificial prayer, and the prayer never changes. I imagine myself in kinship with those monks in distant monasteries who are willing members of the Holy Order of Flagellants.
Our lives were simple and good. We cleaned and swept, and we took care of our pet bandicoot, and we hunted for food, and every night we said our prayers. It was a place where I knew I was loved, Chouette. It was where I belonged.
And I would give anything to take you to place where you could feel the same about yourself.
But I’ve forgotten the way.
Quoted In: Wine stains and heart mends
But just when I began to share my true heart with him, he fell asleep. I realized that all of the loving words he’d said to me just after our lovemaking were nothing more than his self-reflective doubts about his manliness, triggered by his worry that he might not have satisfied me sexually. I wondered if I’d married a man who didn’t know that women have interior lives.
And it is in such small slips of thought, too short even to be called decisions, that our lives are hollowed out and take shape.
It’s a wonder that any woman ever agrees to be a mother, when the fruits of motherhood are inevitably conflict and remorse to be followed by death and disembowelment.
I could tell him that my thoughts are out of tune, and that the idea of music feels like an old forgotten memory in a drawer because my girl takes up every breath and every moment of my life.
I’m feeling pressed on all sides . . .
Is life nothing more than a continuous retreat from our own true selves, as we’re hammered into shape by special schools and social cues? Can I trust this thought I’m thinking now? Is it my thought? I begin to breathe very quickly. I calm myself by humming the second movement of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, the part where the chorus declares “Denn alles Fleisch, es ist wie Gras.” My breathing slows and deepens with the swell of music in my head, and I recover my equilibrium.
I feel so many feelings. The feelings grow and keep getting bigger until they’re so huge that I can’t keep them inside any longer. They don’t fit in me. They’re tearing me apart. They rip a hole right through my chest, and my heart comes a-tumble out, in the shape of my owl-lover.
I’ve chosen to live this other kind of life, where I’m a little wife, and a little mother, and all of the magic and music has been drained right out of me.
She climbs back into the hole she made in my chest and pulls herself inside, and after she pulls in every feather, she sews me shut again. from the inside, in small, neat stitches.
Let me tell you what’s going to happen next, my darling. I’ve seen it all unfold before in a dream so deep and true that it must have been a premonition. As soon as we climb out of this little window, we’ll see a woman painting daisies on her mailbox. There will be a little dog dancing on her lawn. The dog will show us the way. We’ll follow that dog forever and we’ll never get tired. We’ll leave the blocks and straight-edged streets behind us, and we’ll come to a wood, where the trees will grow more gnarled and frequent, and the thicket more tangled, and the sky more rainbow, and at long last we’ll come to the edge of all things, where the gleaming meets the gloaming. We’ll follow the dog right over to the other side. The trees will bend their branches toward us and make us welcome. We’ll feel at home right away. You’ll see. We’ll come to a small house, and after we knock, your other-mother will open the door, and she will embrace us both in her bright-dazzle wings. “Oh, come on in,” she’ll say, and all of our years of strife and regret will disappear in an instant. The Bird of the Wood will be there, too, a little older, and a little slower, but as full of love as ever. She’ll be knitting socks by the fire, and we’ll live as we were meant to live, before I made so many mistakes in life, and before I left my true love for a dog-man who couldn’t train me to obey his simplest commands. “I knew you’d come back to me one day,” my owl-lover will say; and she will look at you fondly, Chouette, and say: “What a strong, good woman must have raised you, kid! She has raised you up so well!”
Our joy will be complete.
Our story will be done.
Everyone has always thought of me as the weak one, as the quiet and compliant one, as the one they can tell what to do. No one thinks of me as having talons of my own.
As I look out the window in the natural course of our long journey, I come to a startling realization: that the world is populated not only by dog-people, but by all kinds of people, by cow-people and wolf-people, armadillo-people and cat-people, toad-people and nomads, and small-town librarians; and I can see them all out there being themselves, with no one in the world to tell them to be someone else instead. They’re waiting at bus stops, and peering out car windows, and crossing in crosswalks. They’re embracing in optimistic, joyful celebration of their love for one another. They’re selling melons and cabbages. They’re digging ditches. The wonder of the world outside my window plunges me into a feeling close to religious revelation. I wrestle with the bus window until I crack it open. I inhale and feel a profound and nearly erotic attraction to the scents coming through the window, which are mostly a mix of diesel and sage.
My chest constricts. I begin to run in some direction or another. I feel my toes lengthening and grabbing at the soil like long roots, trying to persuade me to give up and plant myself into the ground, to be a tree. “Oh, no you don’t!” I holler, and when I beat at the ground and stamp my feet and don’t surrender, the earth gives up on me and I run on. But where is Chouette? Where are you, my darling?
And then I see her, my big strong girl, as big as a jet plane and flying fast, and flying away, one pulse of wing-beat after the last. Her back is strong. Her soul is fierce. She knows where she’s going. When I hear her trill-call flying back over the wind, I still feel a tug at my center—we are still connected, this wild creature and I—and like a dog upon a leash, like an empty wagon behind a team of runaway horses, I’m forced to follow, running through muck and stone and over the rough fallow ground, until the final moment, when the mother-child bond between us finally snaps like a thunderclap, and I fall back on the ground, and my child flies free of me.
The rain stops.
The wind dies down until it’s no more than an afterthought.
The trees rattle and sigh.
“All right, then!” I shout out recklessly. “Let’s see if the world is ready for a creature like Chouette!”
And with these words, I give her up. I let her go. And maybe my heart lightens a little, and maybe not.