There were many ways of wanting. There was asking, all those heartfelt lists we left strewn around the house for someone to find: trampoline, rock tumbler, tea set. There were offerings, promises made to be good, or better, or altogether different if Dad came home, as long as the girl loved us back, and only if the lump on the left side of the dog’s belly turned out to be nothing more than a bee sting. When these didn’t work, we dreamed, invented worlds so beautiful we hardly ever wanted to come out. And in the dreams, we were never shy or ashamed of our teeth or our skin or our voices: never too low or too loud. Sometimes we held the warm hand of a beloved, and it was full of a kind of thrill and ease that we thought might be the most real thing, that we knew transcended anything that would ever happen to us here, in the house. When none of these worked, we prayed—we weren’t sure to who—please, just this.
The wanting-place was the roof: flat and slate as a chalkboard, sloping and uninhabited, an expanse of emptiness on which we could list and name them, these desires that drew us out, onto our backs, toward the unobstructed view of the sky.
Izzy prayed for please, just twenty pounds, just one boy, just a single miracle that would make everyone look. What she wanted was beauty, or just a little more of it; she thought this was the way to get everything you ever wanted.
Gwen never knelt for anything—except once, when the dog swallowed a wad of tinfoil and we couldn’t afford to go to the vet, she dropped to her knees in the bathroom and threw her hands up on the toilet bowl in a halfhearted pose of submission: please. Gwen wanted her plants to grow, and capitalism to perish, and our animals to roam the fields unleashed.
And who could know what Taylor wanted? Taylor who never asked for anything, who must have felt swallowed up in the bottomless pit of our wanting. If we had to guess, it would be one perfect afternoon where no one shouted, and the dog didn’t get loose, and nothing got burned, or broken, and nobody was in trouble, or danger, or sleeping all day because they were sad. Just one day where no one said they were giving up, or taking off, where no one raised a hand, or a voice, except to laugh.
I think now that what I wanted most of all was one perfect sentence, or some pure word I could say to make you understand everything: all that we had, and all that we wanted.
. . .
Dad sometimes said that if we kept living this way—so ravenously, so longingly—he could not keep a roof over our heads. He would have liked to give us everything we ever wanted, to trade scarcity for abundance, to patch every hole in the roof overhead so we could stop staggering buckets. His own life had been full of crowded bedrooms, and hand-me-down blue jeans, and hunger: the kind that can swallow dreams or drown them.
When we were young, our yearning was a kind of assurance: that our futures were limitless, that our lives would be better than the ones our parents had suffered. We wanted to live in cities, keep strange pets, become lawyers, or animal trainers, or lead singers. Mom and Dad were pleased by our abandon, proud to have created the conditions in which our dreams could grow unreasonable.
. . .
I remember the first evening of my independence in the detail of a photograph: the windowless basement apartment, the good fortune I attributed to an armful of wire hangers, how I hung all my dresses and arranged trinkets around the room: a silver horse in full gallop, a pillbox lacquered with wings, a horseshoe hung over the door frame. It was the end of summer and I had arrived in New York City certain that this was a place of answered prayers and abundance.
I rode the subway from my block in Brooklyn to 42nd Street, because where else would a girl who knew almost nothing of the world go? I sat on the outer edge of a fountain in Bryant Park—elated, restless, full of the kind of naive voracity that’ll make you say yes to almost anything. A man came and sat next to me. Did I want this flower he was holding? Could he buy me a drink? Would I like to take a ride on the back of his motorcycle? I threw a coin in the fountain but didn’t bother to make a wish. I said yes, and yes, and wrapped my hands around his waist and went.
. . .
It turned out that not everything we wanted was good, or sensible, or sane. When we grew into women, our longing became an unruly, untrustworthy thing. Sometimes it was this difficulty with desire that we wanted to flee: both the empty and the appetite. Sometimes we tasted contentment, but it was the kind that fortifies you for only an instant and then collapses into new desire, more urgent than the last.
. . .
If I could deliver a missive to that rooftop of the past, I think it is these words that I would drop into your hands. Maybe every essay is a letter to the younger self, the one whose desires were as clear and boundless as the world glimpsed from a rooftop.
Isn’t every girlhood marked by the pull between the bounded tedium of the house and the immeasurable infinite? Every girl, something between stone and star? When we are older, I think it is this that we long for. That bygone belief that the world was vast and bright, that getting everything you ever wanted was just a matter of a rooftop, the night sky, your open hands: how you held them when you asked: like this.