Carrying boxes across the yard; sweat crawling into my eyes. I always seem to end up moving in the summer. Just a few more rounds of sweeping and sorting and throwing away.
I put aside some things I think the little girls next door might like: an empty china salt-cellar shaped like a dancing pig, a small stuffed donkey, a rubber frog, a lizard carved out of wood. Things just pile up on you if you live in a place too long, things you never wanted. Things people give you, or leave with you, things you just find somewhere and hang onto for no reason.
I take the little box of things across the yard to the neighbors' house and knock on the door. Mary waves me in from the kitchen. The girls are falling all over the floor in their little flowered dresses and I sit down with my back against the cabinets to show them what I brought. I give Sophie, the oldest, the china pig. She holds it against her chest and then runs off. Penny and I play with the rubber frog.
"We can't believe you're leaving," Mary says. "I don't think the girls even know what that means. You've been here their whole lives."
"Sophie wasn't even born yet. I remember you out in the yard, pregnant as the day is long."
"I was up on my porch drinking red wine and thinking, do I really want to have a kid?"
Mary's hair is long and dark, with lovely lines of gray. She was 43 when Sophie was born and had lived a rich life. I like to think of this. When I was living on my own in the leaky west side of the house I used to watch their lit windows at night, catching glimpses of the children's round, smooth heads at the dinner table, what seemed to me like the perfect rhythm of life contained and safe.
Sophie comes back in the kitchen with a small stuffed cat. "This is for you," she says. "This is your goodbye present."
I hold the bubble of a laugh in my throat. A gift for me when I am getting rid of things -- please god, no more things to remind me of people I won't see again -- but of course I take it. I say thank you, and the bubble of laughing turns into crying. I knew it would.
Mary sees my face knot up. "Look girls," she says. "Our neighbor is leaving." She sits down on the floor next to me. Penny crawls into my lap.
When we moved off the farm when I was twelve I felt like this, like I'd never really loved anything or anyone enough. There are the people you say goodbye to and the people who you never say goodbye to, who were part of your life and never even knew it.
"You're going good places," Mary says. "I'm almost jealous in a way. I've been watching you pack, thinking about the last time I packed up and left a place. It's great to see people move on when they're moving on to something good."
I think so, too, and I'm not unhappy, just sad.
So goodbye, people I never knew, you intimate, reoccurring strangers. We went to the same bars and the same coffee houses and the same shows, we rode the bus together and watched each other get older, never speaking. You cut your hair and you look like a lawyer now, and you, you still walk around with your hands in your pockets, getting wilder and wilder.
Goodbye to things that never happened. Goodbye, nostalgia for a perfect future imagined in the past. Sometimes I still catch a whiff of you, unplaceable and unmistakable, like a perfume bringing back the skin of someone whose face you don't remember.
Goodbye, mistakes I never fixed, quarrels I never righted, opportunities I never exploited, places I never went. Some failure is to be expected.
I don't stay too long. You can't sit on the floor in someone else's kitchen and cry too long, and besides there's the last rounds of packing left to do. I stand up and lift the girls up in the air one at a time and hug and kiss them and say goodbye forever to the idea that they are somehow mine, my secret, imaginary daughters. I say goodbye to their first days of schools and their first loves and everything of theirs I'll never know about.
I know that when the last boxes are in the truck and the door is locked for the last time with the key left underneath the mat, I know the road will wind out as smooth as thread off a spool and the crest of every hill will open up the sky into endless horizons. It's time, anyway. It's been too long since I left everything behind. Which you can never do, of course, but you can try.