Authors: Jodi Picoult
In 2014, one of the plaster rosettes fell from the ceiling of the Rose Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library and shattered on the floor. When the city decided to inspect it, they also inspected the ceiling in the adjacent Blass Catalog Room. The ornate plasterwork of that ceiling was touched up and tested for weight and strength. The 1911 James Wall Finn trompe l’oeil mural of the sky on canvas, however, couldn’t be restored because it was too fragile. Instead, my father spent nearly a year re-creating the image on canvas that would be set in place on the ceiling, and could be easily removed for touch-ups in the future.
When the canvases were being installed in 2016, he was there directing the operation. Because he was a perfectionist, he insisted on climbing up a ladder to illustrate how the edge of the canvas had to align, flush, with the gilded satyrs and cherubs of the carving that framed it.
That same day, I was in East Hampton, at the second home of a woman who was auctioning off a Matisse with Sotheby’s. Our protocol required someone from the auction house to be present when a piece was transported, and since I had just been promoted to a junior specialist in Imp Mod, I was given the assignment. It was mindless work. I would take a company car to the site, meet the shipping company there, and before it was packed up I’d use a printed copy of the painting to mark down any scratches or peels or imperfections. I’d oversee the careful packing of the piece, watch it get loaded into a truck, and then I would get back into my company car and return to the office.
The job, however, was not going according to plan. Although our client had said her housekeeper would be expecting us, her husband was also home. He’d had no idea that his wife was selling the Matisse, and he didn’t want to. He kept insisting that I show him the contract, and when I did, he told me he was going to call his lawyer, and I suggested he should maybe call his wife instead.
The whole time, my phone was buzzing in my pocket.
When I finally answered, the number was not one I recognized.
Is this Diana O’Toole?
I’m Margaret Wu, I’m a doctor at Mount Sinai…
I’m afraid your father’s been in an accident.
I walked out of the house in the Hamptons, dazed, completely oblivious to the man still on the phone with his lawyer and the movers awaiting my approval to wrap up the painting. I got into the company car and directed the driver to take me to Mount Sinai. I called Finn, whom I’d been dating for several months, and he said he’d meet me there.
My father had fallen off a ladder and struck his head. He was hemorrhaging in his brain, and had been taken directly into surgery. I wanted to be there holding his hand; I wanted to tell him it was going to be all right. I wanted my face to be the first thing he saw in the recovery room.
The traffic on Long Island was, as usual, a disaster. As I cried in the backseat of the company car, I bargained with a higher power.
I will give You anything,
if You get me to the hospital before my father wakes up.
Finn stood up as soon as I walked through the sliding glass doors, and I
. I could tell from the look on his face and the speed with which he wrapped his arms around me.
There was nothing you could have done,
That was how I learned that the world changes between heartbeats; that life is never an absolute, but always a wager.
I was allowed to see my father’s body. Some kind soul had wrapped gauze around his head. He looked like he was asleep, but when I touched his hand, it was cold, like a marble bench in winter that you will not linger on, no matter how weary you might be. I thought of how his heart must have caught when he lost his footing. I wondered if the last thing he saw was his own sky.
Finn held my hand tight as I signed paperwork, blinked at questions about funeral homes, answered in a daze. Finally, a nurse gave me a plastic bag with the hospital logo on it. Inside was my father’s wallet, his reading glasses, his wedding ring. Identity, insight, heart: the only things we leave behind.
In the taxi on the way home, Finn kept one arm anchored around me while I clutched the bag to my chest. I reached into my purse for my phone and scrolled to the last text my father had sent me, two days ago.
Are you busy?
I had not answered. Because I
busy. Because I was going to his place for dinner that weekend. Because he often decided he wanted to chat in the middle of business hours, when I couldn’t. Because there were any number of items on my to-do list that took precedence.
Because I never thought that I’d run out of time to respond. The story of our life was a run-on sentence, not a parenthetical.
Are you busy?
I typed in, and when I pushed send, I started sobbing.
Finn reached into his jacket, looking for a tissue, but he didn’t have one. I scrabbled inside my own coat pocket and came up with the rectangular printout of the painting I had gone to pack up just that morning, a thousand years ago. I looked at the red circles and arrows meant to signify the marks and chips on the frame, the nick on the canvas, as if they meant anything.
As if we don’t all have scars that can’t be seen.
Well, it’s still beautiful here, and I’m still the only tourist on this island. In the mornings, I go out for runs or hikes, but in the afternoon the whole place is locked down. Which feels redundant, when you’re this isolated.
Sometimes I find myself eye to eye with a sea lion or sharing a bench with an iguana and I’m just blown away by the fact that I’m that close, and there’s no wall or fence between us, and that I don’t feel threatened. The fauna was here first, and in a way they still lord it over the humans who now share the space. I wonder what it would be like if I wasn’t the only one marveling over them. I mean, the locals are all used to it. I’m a one-woman audience.
The great-granddaughter of the woman who is renting me a room speaks English. She’s a teenager. Talking to her makes me feel less lonely. I hope I do the same for her.
Every now and then I get a hiccup of cell service and one of your emails arrives in my inbox. It feels like Christmas.
Are you getting any of these postcards?
The next morning, when Beatriz rounds the corner with her trash bag—a one-girl recycling crew—I am sitting at the shoreline, making a drip castle.
From the corner of my eye, I see her, but I don’t turn. I can feel her watching me as I scoop up a handful of wet sand, and let it sift through my fingers, creating a craggy turret.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“What does it look like I’m doing?” I say.
“It doesn’t even look like a castle,” she scoffs.
I lean back. “You’re right.” I hold out my hand for her plastic bag. “Do you mind?”
She hands it to me. Mixed in with the same plastic water bottles from the Chinese fishing fleets are twist ties, burlap curled with seaweed, scraps of foil. There’s a broken flip-flop, green plastic soda bottles, red Solo cups. There’s electric-blue netting from a bag of oranges, and a tongue of rubber tire. I pull all of these out and use them to fashion flags on my castle turret, a moat, a drawbridge.
“That’s trash,” Beatriz says, but she sinks down cross-legged beside me.
I shrug. “One person’s trash is another person’s art. There’s a Korean artist—Choi Jeong Hwa—who uses recycled waste for his installations. He made a massive fish puppet out of plastic bags…and a whole building out of discarded doors. And there’s a German guy, HA Schult, who makes life-size people entirely out of garbage.”
“I’ve never heard of either of them,” Beatriz says.
I take the thong off the flip-flop and create an archway. “How about Joan Miró?” I offer. “He spent the end of his life on Mallorca, and he’d walk the beach every morning like you, but he’d turn the trash he collected into sculptures.”
“How do you even
this?” she asks.
“It’s my job,” I tell her. “Art.”
“You mean, like, you paint?”
“Not anymore,” I admit. “I work for an auction house. I help people sell their art collections.”
Her face lights up. “You’re the person who says
I have one dollar, one dollar, do I hear two…
I grin; she does a credible job of imitating an auctioneer. “I’m more behind the scenes. The auctioneers are kind of the rock stars of the industry.” I watch Beatriz take a handful of tiny shells and line the moat with them. “There was this one British auctioneer we all had a crush on—Niles Barclay. During auctions, I was usually assigned to be on the phone with a collector who wasn’t physically present and make bids on his or her behalf. But once, I was pulled to be Niles Barclay’s assistant. I had to stand on the podium with him and mark down the sales price of the item on the information sheet when the bidding closed, and hand him the next information sheet to read out loud. Once, our hands touched when I was passing him the paper.” I laugh. “He said,
Thank you, Donna,
in his amazing British accent, and even though he got my name wrong I thought:
Oh my God, close enough
“You said you had a boyfriend,” Beatriz says.
“I did. I do,” I correct. “We gave each other one free pass. Mine was Niles Barclay; his was Jessica Alba. Neither one of us has cashed in on our pass.” I look at her. “How about you?”
“How about me what?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
She flushes and shakes her head, patting the sand. “I mailed your postcard,” she tells me.
“I could stop by, if you want,” Beatriz says. “Like, I could come to your place every now and then and pick them up, if you’re sending any more.”
I look at her, wondering if this is an offer of help, or a need for it. “That would be great,” I say carefully.
For a few moments, we work in companionable silence, forming crenellated walkways and buttresses and outbuildings. As Beatriz stretches, reaching into the trash bag, her sleeve inches higher. It’s been a few days now since I saw her cutting herself. The thin red lines are fading, like high-water marks from a flood that’s receded.
“Why do you do it?” I ask softly.
I expect her to get up and run away, again. Instead, she digs a groove into the sand with her thumb. “Because it’s the kind of hurt that makes sense,” she says. She angles her body away from mine and busies herself by connecting some twist ties.
“Beatriz,” I say, “if you want—”
“If I were making things from trash,” she interrupts, shutting down the previous line of conversation, “I’d make something useful.”
I look at her.
We’re not done talking about the cutting,
I say with my eyes. But I keep my voice casual. “Like what?”
“A raft,” she says. She sets a leaf on the water of the moat, which keeps seeping into the sand until one of us refills it.
“Where would you sail?”
“Anywhere,” she says.
“Back to school?”
“Most kids would be thrilled with an unscheduled break.”
“I’m not like other kids,” Beatriz replies. She adds a bit of yellow plastic hair to her twist tie creation, which is a stick figure with arms and legs. “Being here…feels like moving backward.”
I know that feeling. I hate that feeling. But then again, these are circumstances beyond normal control. “Maybe…try to embrace that?”
She glances at me. “How long are
going to stay?”
“Until I’m allowed to leave.”
“Exactly,” Beatriz answers.
When she says it, I realize how important it is to have an
. To know that this is an interlude, and that I’m going home to Finn, to my job, to that plan I set in place when I was her age. There is a profound difference between knowing your situation is temporary and not knowing what’s coming next.
It’s all about control, or at least the illusion of it.
The kind of pain that makes sense.
Beatriz sets her little figure atop the castle: a person in a building without doors or windows or ladders, a structure surrounded by a deep moat.
“Princess in a tower?” I guess. “Waiting to be rescued?”
She shakes her head. “Fairy tales are bullshit,” Beatriz says. “She’s literally made out of trash and she’s stuck there alone.”
With my fingernail, I carve out a back door to the castle. Then I wind some seaweed around a plastic spoon, dress it in a candy wrapper, and set my figure down beside hers—a visitor, an accomplice, a friend. I look up at Beatriz. “Not anymore,” I say.
From: [email protected]
The hardest hit are Hispanics and Blacks. They’re the essential workers, the ones who are in the grocery stores and mailrooms and fuck, even cleaning the hospital rooms we’re using. They take public transportation and they’re exposed to the virus more frequently and there are often multiple generations living under one roof, so even if a teenage Uber Eats driver contracts Covid and doesn’t show symptoms, he might be the one who kills his grandfather. But what’s even worse is—we’re not seeing these patients until it’s too late. They don’t come to the hospital, because they’re afraid ICE is hanging out here, waiting to deport them, and by the time they can’t breathe anymore and they call an ambulance, there’s nothing we can do.
Today I watched a Hispanic lady who’s part of the cleaning crew at the hospital wipe down a room. I wondered if anyone’s bothered to tell her to strip in her entryway when she gets home and shower before she lets her kids hug her.
We finally got a new shipment of PPE. But it turns out that instead of N95 masks, which is what we really need, they sent gloves. Thousands and thousands of gloves. The guy who accepted the delivery is the chief of surgery and every resident I know is terrified of him because he is so intimidating, but today, I saw him break down and cry like a baby.
We have a new trick: proning. It’s tummy time, for adults. Its mortality benefit has been around in studies since 2013, but it’s never been used as much as it is now. We do it for hours, if the patient can take it. The way your lungs work, when you’re on your belly they have more room to expand and the blood flow and airflow are equilibrated enough to hold off intubation for a while. We’ve learned that patients can seem to tolerate a huge decrease in air exchange so now instead of only looking at the numbers for gas exchange, we look to see which patients are worn out from breathing, and they’re the ones who get intubated. That’s the good thing. The bad thing is that if someone decompensates, and needs intubation after a trial of no intubation, they will certainly die, because when lungs are already damaged by quick breathing, by the time they’re ventilated, it’s too late. We are basically playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.
One of the three patients of mine that died today was a nun. She wanted last rites and we couldn’t find a priest who was willing to come into the room and administer them.
Sorry if there are typos—I keep my phone in a Ziploc bag when I’m at the hospital. I’m wiping down the bills that come in the mail. A nurse told me she washed her broccoli with soap and hot water. I can’t remember the last time I ate a cooked meal.
I wish I knew for sure that this was getting through to you.
And I wish you’d answer back.
I wish I could tell you how badly I’m trying to reach you, although the fact that I can’t is sort of the point. Remember how we thought it would be so romantic to be shut away from the outside world? It doesn’t feel that way when I’m alone on the outside, banging to be let back in.
It makes for some pretty weird self-reflection. It’s like I am in some parallel universe where I am aware of other things going on, but I can’t respond or comment or even be affected by them. LOL, is the world even turning, if I’m not really a part of it?
The girl I told you about, she says that being here feels like moving backward. I know I should be grateful to be safe and healthy and in a gorgeous bucket list destination. I know this was the perfect time for this to happen, with my job in limbo and you stuck at the hospital. I also know that when you’re in the thick of living your life, you don’t often get to push pause and reflect on it. It’s just really hard to sit in the moment, and not worry if pause is going to turn into stop.
Jesus, I am bad at having downtime. I need to find a way to keep myself occupied.
Or I need to find a plane. A plane would be good, too.