Back in 2004, the cycling season that became the basis for my memoir, Ten Points, Natalie was 5 and on a family vacation we had stopped in a cheesy souvenir shop and she’d picked up “An Authentic Native American Dream Box” that was, the tag informed us, capable of making any written wish stored within it come true. After the purchase, Natalie divulged why she’d gotten the box: “I want a real kitty, an alive one, but that always plays and never grows up.” Somehow, her impossible wish — and Beth’s determination to fulfill it — became wrapped up with my impossible quest of scoring ten points against a pack of real bike racers in a local training series. This is part of the story of how we got Bella the magic cat, a Singapura who never grew much bigger than the three pounds she weighed when Beth found her, and who took her last breath, in Natalie’s lap, in our living room, on Sunday, September 7. She always played.
“Look at this,” Beth said, walking up behind me and putting a color picture from a laser printer in front of me as I sat at the kitchen table one evening near the end of July. Nat was in the bathtub. “Adorable, huh?”
The kitten’s huge eyes dominated its head, as if it had been drawn by a Disney artist or a child. There was something in its stance, in the curve of its coiled hind legs and tilt of its ears, that conveyed mischief and a kind of consternation to be among people who didn’t share its sense of humor.
As I absorbed both the image of the Singapura kitten and the significance of the fact that Beth was walking around with pictures of it, I asked, “Have we already bought this cat?”
“Not technically,” Beth said.
“Which means that—”
“It means we can make a dream come true for Natalie.”
“It means, Mr. Ten Points, that we can instill in her the idea that it’s okay to wish for much from life and ask much—”
“I know,” I said, holding up a hand in surrender to my own ridiculously high-minded statements about a bicycle race that were now being repeated back to me. “By the way, I really believe all that garbage.”
“Me, too.” Beth put her arm around my shoulders and brought her head next to mine.
Hearing her speak of dreams, I’d been struck by how I must have sounded all these months. Boisterous, pretentious, unsophisticated. Unmoored. Speaking that way to a child was one thing. But being in the presence of an adult who talked to another adult about wishes, innocence, belief—it made me feel full of possibility and wonder, and a little fear, as if the world I looked out at from inside my body were still unfathomable and full of mysterious rules, the way it must feel when we are newborn. Beth and I and everyone we knew worked long hours, then talked too much about our jobs when we got together at parties. We watched the news on TV and surfed the web to stay abreast of the planet’s ongoing dramas, from celebrity heartbreak to war, as if the Earth were a troubled old friend we all had in common. Great books and movies could still shift our hearts within our bodies, but in a few hours the tide of our day would settle everything back into its place and the art that once might have changed our lives was just one more thing to talk about when we ran out of news. We all monitored mortgage rates and invested time in trying to puzzle out the best insurance plans, deals on new gutters, or which hours the grocery store would be least crowded. It seemed as if Beth and I sometimes went, like every couple I knew, long weeks without remembering in a conscious way that we were married to someone we loved, or that chicken vindaloo was our favorite Indian dish not because it was our favorite but because if you really paid attention when that taste washed over your tongue, that was as good as anything every got.
None of us were without taste buds or desires so powerful and primal they should frighten us as much as they thrilled us. But we got through our lives by insulating our emotions and sensory perceptions, and of course it was the right thing to do. How the hell could you clear your email in the morning if you succumbed to the infinite pleasure to be found within a banana muffin? We would not be able to function as adults if we followed the lush and twisted pathways of our longings, or even spent too much time gazing down them. We might trail a finger across our dreams when we got boozy, or when someone we knew got fired or died, or when a song we once loved came on the radio. Then it was back to life.
A family curse that could be broken with a bicycle. A kitten that never grew up—and a wife who believed in such a thing. To speak aloud of such totems risked robbing them of their power, rendering them into something cute, perhaps even touching, but ultimately meaningless, a child’s crayon drawing you threw away after a few days of display on the refrigerator. Sharing our dreams so openly with each other felt as intimate as making love.
On a Sunday night around 8, I took our unsuspecting daughter into our bedroom to read books before bedtime. Nat was allowed to sleep with Beth and me once a week, what she’d designated her “big-bed night.” As she clambered up onto the bed with a stack of literature, from Where the Sidewalk Ends to one of those fat-cat-sat beginner books, I closed our bedroom door. While we read, Beth drove to the airport.
I was reciting a poem about a hairy, scary giant when I heard Beth pull into the garage. Far off, the door to our mudroom opened and closed. Steps came down the hall. I finished the poem and began examining its picture, pointing out the creature’s frightening details to cover the sound of Beth creeping into Natalie’s room, releasing the kitten onto her bed and, as planned, removing the paper wish from the dream box, then turning the container on its side with the lid off.
Beth opened the door to our room.
Nat cried, “Mommy!” and jumped to her feet. She trampolined on the bed twice then into Beth, who took a step backward, bracing herself and absorbing Nat’s momentum. Beth had left the light on in Natalie’s room, and across the dark hallway we could see it limning the edges of her door. Natalie, who had inherited her mother’s obsessive caretaker gene, noticed it, as Beth had predicted she would.
“Hey,” Natalie announced. “My light is on.” She clambered down out of Beth’s arms and stomped toward her room.
I rose from the bed and Beth and I stood in the frame of our door, watching our daughter walk toward her dream. She grasped the doorknob and swung the door open, then turned left to switch her light out.
Her jaw dropped. I’d never seen that happen in real life, had always assumed that was just an expression. But as Natalie stood there, her jaw literally fell open, as if it had come unhinged. That was her only movement. She didn’t even blink.
She closed her mouth.
Her jaw dropped again.
Then she screamed.
“My kitten’s here! She came!”
Natalie disappeared from the frame of the door and a few seconds later reappeared, running to our room with her arms clutched around a kitten that would never grow up and would always remain playful.
My breath caught and life stopped, granting us time to savor the moment and etch it into ourselves: Natalie, arms basketed in front of her with the kitten upright in them and gazing serenely out at us, our daughter’s mouth open in a big O that raised her cheekbones up into half-circles under her rounded, popping blue eyes. Then there was an overwhelming flurry of motion and tears and trembling shouts of affirmation masquerading as disbelief, of kitten being shoved into and out of our arms, the moment a big, wild scribbling of crayon that we would never, none of us, throw away.
Later, after the pandemonium and the hundred recountings of how she’d seen the kitten stalking across her bedsheets, and after we’d examined the dream box for clues, and after Natalie had fallen asleep with the kitten curled up and purring against her under the covers—and for weeks and months and years after that night, Natalie would tell anyone who’d listen that her kitten Bella had leapt out of a dream box.
But that first night, as Natalie and the dream kitten lay sleeping between us, Beth whispered, “What do you think will happen when she finds out?” I could see, for the first time, doubt in my wife’s eyes about the way we’d brought the kitten into our lives. “Will she think dreams are a fraud?”
I wasn’t worried at all. I’d already thought long and hard about the day when Natalie was old enough to look at the score sheets from my magical season of bike racing and see that her father’s impossible ten points were surpassed in a single race by a number of cyclists.
“She’ll stop believing in dream boxes,” I said. “She’ll start believing in the people who fill them.”
This is an excerpt from Chapter 18 of Ten Points