When I was seven years old, we moved from Cleveland to New York City. I remember when my parents announced the decision to me and my two sisters. We were eating dinner at the aluminum kitchen table of our suburban home. Their tone was excitingly conspiratorial. They told us not to tell anyone just yet, not until plans were settled. The aspects of the move that might have troubled me—leaving relatives, friends, my bedroom, and my school—paled in comparison to the fact that I had been entrusted with a secret.
During that summer, after we had sold our house and before the New York house was ready, we rented another home in Cleveland. This home was furnished, so my parents put all our belongings in a storage facility. At the end of the summer, everything would be loaded onto a moving van and driven east. We would follow in our yellow Oldsmobile station wagon. I remember only very normal things about my time in this intermediary house: learning to ride my bike no-handed, putting on plays in a neighbor’s basement, the jealousy I felt when my sister got her first training bra.
One day, I walked upstairs and saw that my parents’ bedroom door was open and that my mother was sitting quietly on the edge of the bed. In the same way you know that the thing on the side of the road is not garbage but a dead raccoon, or that the person approaching you on the street at a slightly odd angle means you harm, I knew something was wrong. When I reached the doorway, I saw that my mother was sobbing. The storage building had burned down. Everything we owned in the world was gone.
I don’t think I understood the ramifications of this any more than I did the idea of moving to an entirely new city and state. Or maybe the idea of moving was an eradication so total that the fact that none of our possessions would follow us from Ohio to New York seemed irrelevant. I don’t remember mourning any particular losses—no special dolls or toys. I had my beloved purple Schwinn; we’d kept our bikes out of storage so my sisters and I could ride during the summer. My parents must have been very good about keeping our lives on track, because I don’t remember much trauma beyond that image of my normally calm mother in tears.
It was only as an adult that I began to understand the enormity of the loss. Although we often boast that we could live without material possessions, or at least the numbers that we accumulate, this idealism ignores the fact that objects are emotional things. They are memories. They are whole events reduced to a keepsake, a singular object somehow managing to contain time and place, joy and sadness. They are markers in the geographies of our lives. I will always remember the African statue that greeted whoever walked into our Cleveland house, a big-headed, short-limbed figure with an arrow through its middle. I will never forget the wonderful flamenco dress my grandmother made me one year, when I wanted to dress up as a Spanish dancer for Halloween. The objects we possess are tangible evidence of our predilections and desires, of our follies and humor. Once I was a girl who wanted nothing more than to stamp my Mary Janes on the floor and pretend to know how to play the castanets. Once, my parents wanted the first thing visitors saw about their home to be that squat, unnerving-looking wooden man.
Our family photographs burned up along with everything else. We have no record of who we were before 1967. No pictures of the house my father built, which we were leaving; none of the trip we took to D.C. where he and I climbed up all the steps of the Washington Monument; none of any birthday parties. I have no picture to remind me what my first best friend, Jeannie, looked like, or of Marylou, the hospital nurse who lived with us one year and made the weekly finger pricks I had to endure as a result of a blood disorder much more tolerable because she always made sure she was the one to administer them. We have no images of our smiles or frowns, of playful goofiness or distracted moments, of the way we touched or hugged or kissed that might allow us access to who we were and how we loved.
The pictures that we have of me before age seven are few—relatives must have sent some to make up for what we lost in the fire—and so there are no pictures of me crawling or taking my first steps or sitting in a highchair with mashed carrots spread over my cheeks. Of course these photographs existed—they are the generic tourist shots of early childhood, and every parent with a camera takes them. I can imagine them, but there is something troubling about not actually being able to see who I was before I can remember who I was.
A year ago, my father passed away suddenly. He was in an accident. There was no preparation. I got a call. I got on an airplane. I stood by his hospital bed where he lay in a coma he would not emerge from. After he drew his final breath, the doctors announced the time. Everyone dies in a moment. They are alive one second, dead the next. For those left behind, the transition from being to nothingness cannot be so exactly fixed. It takes a long time for the living to figure out what it means for the dead to be gone.
Some months later, I went to an exhibition about the work of Charles and Ray Eames. The show was a partial reconstruction of their 1961 exhibition Mathematica: A World of Numbers…and Beyond. I’ve never, on a very fundamental level, grasped math. I accept it. I even learned to do it, to a degree. But I have an associative brain that makes meaning by saying one thing is like or unlike another. I look for how feelings and experiences that are disparate and seemingly unrelated rub up against one another and form a new kind of consonance. Absolutes are hard for me to comprehend. That two is like and only like two is an impossible equation to me.
One of the images at the Eames exhibit was a framed print of the number 0 set against a blank background. I stared at that 0 for a very long time. I tried to wrap my mind around this graphic representation of nothing. I thought about the number line—how zero was a fulcrum between the negative and positive numbers; how if you added or subtracted zero from anything, nothing changed, but how if you multiplied or divided a number by zero, that number and whatever it stood for would be obliterated. How could something that was nothing be both so ineffectual and so powerful? And how, for that matter, could something that was nothing be represented? How could it occupy space, as it did at the gallery? There it was, right in front of me, hanging on the wall: this closed loop of emptiness that was also a thing. I grew sad. I thought about my father. He was now zero. A nothingness. And his nothingness had two dangerous powers. It had no ultimate effect on the universe, and it could obliterate me. I remembered my father’s final breath. There. Not there. Something. Nothing. Whenever I can- not make sense of the fact that he is gone, I go back to that moment in the hospital. It is as if I have to see it again in order to convince myself of what happened. Nothingness is a concept that won’t hold. It has nothing to hold onto. It holds nothing.
I have never seen a photograph of myself as a newborn. I don’t so much miss seeing what I looked like—I’m sure the wrinkled raisin face is not revelatory. But I miss those shots that must surely have existed: the ones of my mother in the hospital bed, looking exhausted but elated, my face pressed up against her breast. The ones of my father, excited, a bit panicked, holding me in his arms as if I were something breakable. What did I look like when I went from nothing to something? I have no image to look at in order to convince me that it happened. I am here, of course. So, by extension, I was born. But life is as difficult a thing to grasp as death. You think that you have it, that you feel connection and joy and sorrow and, well, aliveness. And then you don’t. And you have to convince yourself again that you are here.
We arrived in New York at the end of August. The station wagon was bursting with the five of us, our suitcases, and the detritus of two days of cross-country travel. My purple bike and my older sister’s matching blue one were hitched to the roof. While my parents unloaded, my sisters and I bounded into our new, empty house, running up and down the stairs, claiming bedrooms, investigating what lay behind doors, beginning to notice all the peculiarities that would make this home indelible to us. We went back outside just as my father lifted the bikes off the roof rack and leaned them up against the fence that surrounded our garbage cans. No sooner had he done this then two young men appeared and snatched the bikes, swung their legs over the seats, and raced off. My father, instantly enraged and hollering, gave chase. While my mother called after him, pleading with him to come back, he disappeared around a corner.
I had no sense of the city, and as far as I was concerned, my father had fallen off any known map. We waited and waited. My mother grew more agitated. And then, finally, there he was, a small, blurry figure at the end of our new street. As he drew closer, we saw that he was wobbling astride the blue bike, pedaling slowly, one hand on the handlebar, all the while wheeling my purple bike alongside him with his free hand. His face was red and swollen from exertion. He was heaving. My sister and I took the bikes into the house while my mother helped him into their new bedroom. The room was empty; we had no beds yet. My father slid down the wall onto the floor, still trying to catch his breath, unable to talk. My mother brought him water, worrying aloud that he would have a heart attack. I’d never seen my father so beat-up.
The stolen and recovered bikes became family lore, a story brought out when we needed to remind ourselves of our collective history and revel in our misadventures. My father was proud that he’d chased down those thieves. It proved something to him about his youth, and about the lifelong pride he took in being able to find his way around seemingly insurmountable problems. He’d be damned if he was going to lose those bikes, he used to say, as though those two objects stood for our family and our dignity and our ability to succeed against the daunting odds of making a life in a harsh and strange city, when all we had was nothing.
Marisa Silver is the author of the novels Mary Coin, a New York Times Bestseller, as well as No Direction Home and The God of War, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction.