I used to read a lot. This was so long ago I can’t honestly say now I’m a “reader.” But back when I did, back when I read, I used any scrap of paper as a bookmark. Magazine corners, post-its, some businessperson’s business card. I flagged the place I stopped reading, but I also flagged what stopped me—words, lines, whole pages I wanted to bring along. I thought I was being dogged, crafting an encyclopedia of lifelines for later. Later, when I was writing my vows, when I was writing someone’s eulogy. Later, when I had kids.
At one time, I had a lot of time. I moved to Vermont nine years ago, after graduate school, to set up a nun’s life. No roommates, no television, no internet, spotty cell service; I figured most Vermonters lived like this. (They don’t.) I worked. I read. Little slips of paper made shadows on the floor. They got lost in the folds of a fleece blanket my grandmother sent me, worried. My cat gagged on them.
The books and the slips came with me when I bought my house two years later, when I moved to St. Louis to write, when I finally tired of asceticism (read: singlehood) and moved to Brooklyn a few years after that. I don’t remember using the bookmarks then. I don’t remember using the bookmarks ever. But they were there, little flags on the ships that chased me.
When you’re a mother, you learn what too quiet means. It’s too quiet, what’s he doing? It’s too quiet, something bad. And without fail, there he is, eating the plug, eating the rug, investigating the bike gears. Yesterday, quiet got interrupted by dull thuds, and I found Robin methodically pulling each book off our white bookshelf. Yesterday, quiet got interrupted by too quiet, I found Robin methodically pulling each piece of paper out of each book on our white bookshelf and studying it, like a miniature scientist.
He fingered each wrinkled edge with a furrowed brow. I imagined he wondered what a wrinkle was as he made one, unwittingly, with his own face. Next, he used his thumb and forefinger to pinch the part that peaked just over the edge—the part that was meant to wave, like a friend, to mom-Kerin, wife-Kerin, signaling some past life full of intention and a different kind of silence. After a while, he’d work the slip from its nest, all two inches of it suddenly exposed to daylight. And he’d hold it, stunned almost, like a bird with a worm he won from the dirt.
I watched from my place on the carpet ten feet away. I like watching him from here. Early on, I asked my mother-in-law about my interactions with him, if I engaged him enough, played with him enough, interfered enough. She said, “He’s discovering his world.” And I thought, Right. His world. Full of unexpected movements, sudden light, and books bigger than his head. Robin’s world.
In reality, there was no No! that rose up in my chest while I watched his experiment. There was no instinctual lurch forward. I leaned against our brick wall, hollowing my breath. It was too right, what was happening over by the bookshelf, I couldn’t interrupt it. In the growing heat of another March afternoon, another spring-winter, Robin played. With the least fanfare, with a few shallow sighs, all the markers lost their place. All the words, slowly erased. I sat, tickled. How right that all my white flags would be surrendered in the late afternoon game of my only son, oblivious, and so infinitely better for it.