I fall asleep, and I lose you. This time Dad and I have driven to the city for a show, and I’ve forgotten that you’re being dropped off at home after a night out with friends. We’re hours away, and you’re standing outside the locked house, in the cold midnight air, with no way to get in, no way to reach us. I wake up in a panic. Even when I realize I’ve been dreaming, there’s no rush of relief. My heart is pounding too hard for me to fall back asleep.
I flick on your light in the morning. You’re burrowed under the covers. The rule is that I’m not supposed to make noise when I wake you up for school. You’re keeping a dream journal, and if you’re jarred awake your dreams will evaporate before you can write them down. I slip out of the room and gently close the door. Soon you’ll appear in the kitchen, dressed for school, and you’ll eat your cereal without talking to me. I think about the dream journal, which has PRIVATE written in big letters on the cover. I think about the dreams you’ve written down, which I will never read.
When I lose you, it’s always my fault. You never run away; there’s never a tornado that buries the school in rubble or a sinkhole that swallows the mall. It’s always something I’ve done, something I’ve forgotten to do. I leave your infant car seat in the hall while I carry luggage into my hotel room and when I return, the car seat is there but you are not. I’m running errands and I’m not home in time to meet you at the bus after school. You’ve been outside swinging for hours and by the time I remember to check on you the swing is empty and still. I lose you. Over and over again.
In my dreams you’re younger than you are now, everything about you soft and vulnerable. Now you stiffen when I reach for you, your face clenched and brittle, your eyes shuttered. You walk yourself home from the bus stop and head straight to your room, where you close and lock the door. You do homework that I can’t help you with; you text friends I don’t know. I won’t see you until dinner. You can’t know that I still have the urge to grab your hand when we’re crossing a busy street, that I sometimes have visions of a crowd swallowing you up, your small bobbing head lost in a sea of baseball hats and ponytails.
In my dreams I lose you suddenly, in a moment of panic and drama. When I wake up, I remember that I’ve been losing you for days, months, years. Every time I look at you you’re harder to read, your edges shifting, lengthening, and stretching. You’re unfixed, a pixilated image, a radio station fuzzed in static. You dart away like a fish when I try to hold you, slipping through my fingers.
I’ve been told that in four or five years, I’ll find you again, or you’ll find yourself, or we’ll find each other. I’ve been told that it’s normal for a teenage girl to turn into a poltergeist, slamming doors and shrieking and then disappearing in a puff of smoke before you can envelop her in a hug. I look around the house at the absence of you: your place at the dinner table, your backpack yawning open on the floor. I set your clean laundry in a basket outside your door, and the next time I walk down the hall the basket is empty. You leave for school when it’s still dark in the morning. I peer out of the kitchen window and see your silhouette walking down the street toward the bus stop. I sip my coffee and wait by the window for the sun to rise. I wait for you to come home.