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Things You Dreamed of and Things You Didn't

What's hard to understand is how life slips past like a river, like the great Ganges carrying dead bodies to the sea. She took her son to Varanasi once, when he was twelve. The two of them went to the river at dawn and, wrapped in heavy shawls, watched an old man in a wooden boat drift into the mist. What happens to people when they die? her son had asked.

They say that when you think about someone you've loved, the years distill down to one or two moments, everything else falling away. With her son, it's that morning by the Ganges. The years have passed too quickly, her son now grown, carried away as inexorably as the old man in the boat. The boy she held for nine months under her heart now somewhere out in the world, his face in sleep the face she knew like her own. How full of promise life had seemed when she was young, as if some lasting truth or happiness were always just around the next bend. But life had only flowed from thing to thing: moving to Tokyo, working as a translator, falling in love, their son's birth, her husband's death. She'd held on to her son, too much maybe, as the one constant in a world devised to sadden.

She's left New York and moved back to the Tokyo neighborhood where she and her husband lived, where she raised their son alone. The house she's found isn't really a house, just a converted rickety wooden teahouse off an alleyway. Though it's winter, she doesn't use a heater, wanting to be only another element in the landscape of bare trees and frozen ground. She sleeps on an old futon under the window, waking to gaze at the pinpricks of starlight, tiny rips in the velvety firmament. Snow falls, seems to be falling all the time, and the stars too, blanketing the scarred roof tiles, the stones around the pond in the garden.

One morning she wakes and eats a few bites of grilled fish, feeding the rest to a gray cat whose paw prints mark trails through the snow. Icicles hang from the eaves. Something a holy man told her in Varanasi pushes at the edges of her memory. Housekeeping in a dream. Most of us, he'd said, keep house in a dream, borne along by everyday tasks and preoccupations, never understanding what really brings happiness. Is this what her life has been?

She dresses and hurries to the train station...