Summer of Lost and Found
You don’t expect your life to change because of a toothbrush. But that’s really how my summer of lost and found started, with one missing object.
My mom had let me stay up late watching TV. My dad was out at a book signing—or so I thought. After a rerun of a detective show started, I shuffled into the bathroom to brush my teeth. But when I pulled open the medicine cabinet, my hand reached toward only two toothbrushes in the tree-shaped holder. The third, my dad’s, was missing. I checked to see if it had fallen behind the sink, but it wasn’t anywhere. It was gone on purpose.
Wasn’t it late for my dad to not be home?
And who brings a toothbrush to a bookstore?
I marched down the hall and knocked on my parents’ bedroom door. Pushing it open, I found Mom lying on her back on the floor, one hand over her eyes. Scanning the room, I noticed that the big suitcase, which usually has their laundry piled on top of it, was also missing.
“Where’s Dad? And why did he take the suitcase?” He’d been home at breakfast, reading the paper and asking me about school. Now he was gone overnight? I chewed at a hangnail.
“Everything’s fine, Nell. But something came up . . . and he had to go out of town for a little while.”
She pursed her lips, like she was about to tell me something important. But then she yawned and said, “It’s getting late. I promise we’ll talk more about this tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay.” I noticed how much her shoulders slumped after hugging me good night. I went to bed, but my mom stayed up late tapping the keys of her laptop and puttering around the kitchen making buttered toast. She only nibbled at the slices, which I know because I found them, minus a few dainty bites, on the top of the trash can in the morning.
Her sleeplessness was contagious. It’s hard to conk out when you can sense someone else being restless in the space you share. The street noises, like a wheezing garbage truck and the trill of a siren, startled me. I swore our apartment was echoier, and there were all these sounds that never bothered me before: air-conditioner hisses and floorboard sighs. Apartment 5A is the perfect size for three people. With only two, there is a strange emptiness. I kept listening for the scrape of a key in the lock.
I woke up to a message from my dad. He said he was sorry about leaving so suddenly, that everything was fine, but an opportunity came up and blah, blah, blah. Whenever my dad e-mails or texts me, he tries to include a quote from Shakespeare, his favorite writer. It’s our thing. The cryptic one in that message was: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” I think he was trying to help me stop worrying, but I know that the play it was from, Hamlet, is not exactly a feel-good story. We saw it performed in the park last summer.
That’s when I started to second-guess what this was all about. Sometimes Dad travels for work, but it wouldn’t happen so suddenly, in between breakfast and dinner. Also, if he had sold another book, I would know about it because that is a Big Deal in our household. Whenever my dad gets a contract, he always comes home with cupcakes or cake pops or whoopie pies or whatever the latest dessert craze is. Then for days we find him sprawled around the apartment, pecking at his laptop. Always smiling. He loves getting work, even if it’s only to write a little article in some magazine so obscure they don’t sell it at News & Lotto. The time he finally sold his novel about a spy mystery on the Titanic, we went out for a dinner cruise. Ironically, I guess.
The disappearance of the toothbrush happened right before my mom was supposed to go to Roanoke Island for a month, to study some kind of special vine. The plan was for me to stay in the city with Dad. But while she was making dinner the next night, all that changed. Wandering into the kitchen, a half hour past our normal dinnertime, I found my mom hunched over the stovetop, haphazardly heating up a bag of frozen tortellini. She straightened and forced a big smile.
“Dinner’s almost ready.”
I sauntered over to the cupboard and pulled out the place mats, then started to set the table. “Three place mats? Or . . . two?”
Mom clattered the pan, turning some of the tortellini into hot little missiles. “ Two, tonight.”
I put one back before plopping into my worn wooden seat. “So where’d Dad go?”
Mom squeezed her eyes shut for just a moment, which is her tell. “Well, he’s— Ow!” She cursed the size of our tiny New York City kitchen and ran her hand under cold water, having accidentally brushed the burner. I grabbed her some frozen peas from the freezer and forgot that she was in the middle of an explanation. Once we were seated at the table, she delivered the news: I was going with her to Roanoke, and we would leave a week from Thursday.
“But, Mom, I have plans for the summer! I’m going to the Junior Keeper Camp at the zoo. And Jade and I were supposed to take tennis lessons.” Summer is my favorite time in the city, full of frozen treats and street fairs and fireworks sparkling over the river. I didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
My mom made a valiant attempt at faking enthusiasm, but her eyes suggested she also felt this situation was not ideal. “ You’ll have plenty to do there—Roanoke’s a vacation place—and you can help me. Think of it as a summer job. I’ll even pay you a stipend.”
I begged her to reconsider and let me stay in Manhattan. “What about all our plants?” I feared for their lives. Dad was horrible at remembering to water them. We call him the Plant Killer. And because my mom is a botanist, we have a lot of really cool ones—a sensitive plant whose leaves curl up if you touch them; a big, hardy Venus flytrap; four different types of orchids; ficus and mini palm trees. We live on the top floor of a brownstone, and our apartment has roof rights. Mom babies her flower beds, succulent plantings, and little vegetable garden so much that they are practically my siblings. In fact, her term of endearment for me has always been “sprout” because I’m her little plant. Anyway, we couldn’t just give the super the keys and ask him to water the plant members of our family while we were away.
Mom shook her head. “Sorry, sprout, but you have to come with me.” I would be spending my summer in North Carolina; my plant sibs would have to fend for themselves. Mom assured me that her colleagues were excellent, responsible plant-sitters.
I went into my bedroom and called Dad’s cell, but it went straight to voice mail. So I did some snooping in our living room, which doubles as his office. Rummaging in the desk drawers, I found that in addition to taking everything essential with him, like his notebooks, he’d also taken his passport. Something very strange was going on. I was ready to call the cops and turn this into a true-life detective-show episode. But when I stormed back into the kitchen, I found my mom’s laptop open. In the blur of type, I saw the word “separation.” Suddenly I didn’t want to read any more.
• • •
Thursday afternoon, I broke the news to my best friend, Jade Brathwaite. It was hot outside, the kind of sticky-sweaty, humid-like-the-locker-room hot that means New York summer has finally started. Jade and I were dragging ourselves to the frozen-custard place on Columbus. I texted my mom on our way, to see if there was a line—sometimes it snakes out of the store and stretches down the block. Mom’s office window in the Natural History Museum faces the shop, so we have a system: She looks up from her plant samples to see whether people are crowded on the sidewalk across the street; if she reports that there isn’t a custard-waiting clump, I get her a to-go dish and pop it into the freezer for an after-work treat. Despite the heat that day, Jade and I were in the clear.
“That’s probably because nobody wants to get custard when it’s this hot out. It’s too thick and milky. This is Popsicle weather,” Jade said.
We shuffled inside the store and got in line to order. I went with heirloom-tomato custard because I love their weird flavors. My mom does too, so that’s what I got for her. Jade got chocolate with cookie crumbles. “Did you get the e-mail about tennis racquets?” she asked.
“Um, about that,” I started.
“About what?” Jade grabbed a couple of napkins. “You’re still signing up for the lessons, right? You know”—she leaned toward me—“Sofia told me there are always lots of cute boys at the tennis place. This might be the summer we finally meet some.” Sofia was Jade’s friend who lived in the same building. I didn’t know her well because she went to private school.
We grabbed our custard and headed back into the heat, slowly making our way down the block toward my apartment. I couldn’t wait any longer. “I have to tell you something, actually.” I paused to slip the handles of the bag with my mom’s cup around my wrist, so I could take a bite of mine. The custard would give me strength to break the news to Jade. “I’m going away for the summer.”
“What?” Jade flailed her arms up in the air and lost a spoonful of chocolate in the process. “Are you kidding me?”
“Nope.” I shook my head and spun my spoon around the fast-melting scoop. Custard soup already. “I have to help my mom on her research trip to North Carolina. Roanoke Island. She told me last night.”
“Did you remind her about our plans? We’re going to be Central Park zookeepers for a week! We might even get to feed the red pandas!”
I nodded. “I reminded her, but she’s not budging. We leave in a week.”
“Can’t you just stay at home? Your dad’s not going, right?”
Hearing Jade mention my dad made me feel something sharp in my stomach. My mom was still being cagey with information about where he went. Or when he was coming back. Or why he left. The specifics were a mystery, not unlike the ones he wrote. But I didn’t want to tell Jade what was going on—her parents are perfect, the type who always hold hands at school events and refer to each other as “darling” around the house. My parents like to squabble, and even when one of my friends is over, they’ll roll their eyes at each other and argue about whose turn it is to take out the recycling. It’s not like they have big dramatic fights all the time—just lots of little bickering ones. Maybe even more than usual lately, I thought.
“My dad’s away for a bit, for work.”
She narrowed her eyes slightly. “You haven’t mentioned anything about that before.” Jade knows me too well. But I didn’t want her nosing into this . . . whatever it was. Situation. Separation?
“It came up really fast. Tight deadline.”
“I’m bummed,” she said, leaning over to wrap her arm around my shoulder. “We were going to have so much fun this summer.”
“We totally were.” I ran upstairs to put Mom’s custard in the freezer, then came back down. Jade and I sat on the steps to my building, slurping up the dregs of our dessert. Her phone buzzed, and she smiled. “Well, now Sofia might get to do zoo camp too. She was on the waiting list. We’ll text you lots of pictures.”
I stuck my spoon in my dish like it was a white flag of surrender. My stomach was getting that awful stabby feeling again. Now my best friend and Sofia would bond all summer while feeding zoo animals, and they’d probably get tennis-player boyfriends, and meanwhile I’d be collecting leaves in the boonies of North Carolina.
• • •
The night before we left, in a last-ditch effort to salvage my plans, I e-mailed my dad. Maybe a list of the reasons why summer is the best time in New York City could convince him to hightail it back from wherever he was. I wrote about the joys of the ice-cream truck and outdoor film fests, listing all our favorite warm-weather activities and city traditions. I left out the negatives, like free-range cockroaches and the constant drizzle of air-conditioner water onto the sidewalks.
All I got back was this: Great list. You’re making me homesick, Nelly. We’ll take full advantage of the fun summer stuff when we’re both back in town. Because as you know: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” (That’s from a sonnet.) Love you, Dad. When I showed it to Mom while she was folding pretrip laundry, her mouth screwed up into a grimace. “I’m sorry that he’s homesick, but . . .” she started, leaving the sentence unfinished.
She cleared her throat. “Have you finished packing?”
In truth, I hadn’t started. Normally I love filling my suitcase for a trip, but there was too much weirdness surrounding this one. “What do I need to bring to North Carolina?”
“Clothes! Good shoes for walking! Swimsuit! Sunglasses! Bug spray!” Mom kept rattling off a list from the other room as I wandered back to mine. “Toothbrush! Toothpaste! Dental floss!”
“Okay!” I cringed, remembering when I first noticed what had gone missing in our medicine cabinet.
She called, “Plenty of books!” I thought about how the first time I went to sleepaway camp for two weeks, I’d packed six books. Dad had told me I’d be out having too much fun in the great outdoors or by the campfire to read, but I’d still insisted on bringing them all, just in case. “If you send us lots of letters about how many books you’ve read, we’ll take it as a sign that you need rescuing,” he’d added.
I really hadn’t liked that camp, so I’d sent four letters on stationery from my new personalized set. By the fourth letter, I had written to say that I’d finished all my books and was in desperate need of rescuing. Unfortunately for me, the letter hadn’t arrived until two days after I’d gotten back to the city.
So while packing for Roanoke, I swept the whole pile of books on my nightstand into my suitcase. The thing was, if I ended up reading them all in a miserable first week, who would come and rescue me?