Lost Mittens
Heidi Julavits

Lost Mittens

Heidi Julavits
I cannot bear to lose clothing. I refuse to accept as fact its loss. A misplaced sweater turns me into an obsessive, a paranoid, a believer. I fixate. I sleuth and accuse. I experience flights of ingenuity or madness (the categories, when a missing sock is on the line, so often blur) as I try and try to find it.
The other day I lost my mittens. The disappearance of a full pair seemed against the mitten odds. Initially I blamed my parents. They’d been in town for a woman’s funeral. I thought, Maybe they accidentally packed them. I sent my parents an email. I padded my mitten query with heartfelt things I would have said, that I’d wanted to say, about the woman who died. I did not want to appear insensitive or accusatory. I wasn’t implying that my parents had stolen them.
Unless they had. I’d snapped at my father that morning when he asked (I was trying to get to the library) if I might quickly speak on the phone to my ninety-two-year-old grandmother. Maybe my parents were angry and, no longer having any jurisdiction over me, decided to punish me the only way they could. Also my parents had been spending time in a Gullah community in South Carolina that sold bone jewelry and believed in voodoo. And my brother had told me that weekend at the funeral that I talked too much. Maybe my parents also thought I talked too much (though not enough to my grandmother). Maybe they were taking the mittens to a Gullah witch doctor. Soon I’d been unable to speak at all.
I returned to the library. Maybe my parents hadn’t packed my mittens. Maybe I’d left them here. They were not under the desk where I’d been working. Perhaps someone had stolen them? They were quite worth stealing. I’d bought them at a flea market in Berlin; they were bright yellow and brown, hand knit by the market stall owner’s Polish grandmother. A German woman advised me to buy this pair over the red pair. She’d said, “If you buy the yellow all the women on the street will look at you and wonder, Who is she?” Maybe another woman wanted people on the street to wonder who she was. I imagined spotting the thief wearing my mittens along Broadway. I ran through a few confrontation scenarios. I needed to be prepared in the event.
I returned home. I dug through my kitchen trash (digging through trash is the highest form of cosmic due diligence – when I want something to reappear in my life, I dig through my trash.) No mittens. They were not in the laundry or between the sweaters or trapped under the blanket that hides the stains on the couch or in the Dutch oven. They were not, clearly not, in the apartment. But they were in the building. Somebody had them.
I asked one of the building porters. He said, as though in a trance, “I seem to have a memory of maybe seeing some mittens like that.” I made “Lost Mittens” signs. I posted them around the building. I offered a reward. Then I walked in and out of my building, reenacting the loss of the mittens. I narrowed the viable loss sites to three – the lobby, the elevator, the third-floor hallway.
But why, if they’d been found in the lobby or the hall, hadn’t they been put on the doorman’s desk? Or pinned to the tenant bulletin board? Why were they being withheld?
I suspected the third-floor neighbour who fried fish for breakfast. I was often vocally (because I talked too much) expressing my unhappiness with the Fish Weather System that hovered in our hallway. Perhaps this neighbour heard me complaining about the greasy low-tide smell coming from her apartment; maybe she had kidnapped my mittens and intended to sell them on eBay (because I’d said on my sign “VERY VALUABLE”). I imagined finding the mittens for sale and bidding two million dollars for them (just to make sure I won). I would walk across the hall and tell my neighbour – luckily for her, she didn’t have to pay for shipping.
It was also conceivable that a busy, tired person had taken his dog for a walk, and the dog had snagged the mittens off the lobby floor, and the person hadn’t realized until they were already at the park, and the mittens were already filthy and saliva-covered, at which point the tired person had, not without a little guilt, pried them out of the dog’s mouth and thrown them in the trash. I forgave this person. I was tired, too. But not so tired that I did not plan, after work, to walk to the park, poke through the wire rubbage bins with a stick.
(My finding mania at this point was so primal and intensely preoccupying that I’d begun to confuse myself. It was as if I were the thing that had been lost. I had a friend who lost himself in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for three days. He built snow caves and made SOS signs from old railway ties. He survived, he said, by always having a plan. This was me, always having a plan.)
While I was at work, the porter has a memory breakthrough. I returned home to find one mitten on my doorstep.
One mitten! One mitten found! Normally this would have provoked even greater regret – what is more heartbreaking than one mitten, one sock, one earring? It is not a glass half-full, it is a broken fucking glass. It is a nagging reminder of loss. Except that I had just been to the funeral of this woman. I had spent time with her husband. He was what remained of a pair. He wasn’t a painful reminder of her disappearance, he was such a welcome human symbol that she once, also in human form, existed. Because of him, I did not worry about her as I occasionally worried about my mittens when both were still missing – that maybe they’d never existed at all.
I decided (cosmic due diligence) to “move on.” I emailed a friend in Berlin to arrange for a replacement pair of mittens. I described the mittens as yellow and chestnut brown, wool, with what looks to be an Icelandic/Norwegian design all over. I described where the mitten stall was located (near goltzstrasse, in front of the church). I made a joke to distract my friend from my potential crazy-seemingness over the loss of my mitten. I said of the stall guy, he also sells wool socks. apparently all were made by his polish grandmother. who is locked in a room in his apartment. churning out these socks and those mittens. After sending, I worried if my joke was in poor taste. Implying that a German man might capture a Polish woman and force her to do manual labor. With the Germans, with everyone, I am always worrying that I have said the wrong thing while trying to trick them from noticing that I am, for reasons that cannot be explained (especially when discussing a lost mitten), distressed on a molecular level.
Immediately after arranging for its replacement, I deduced the location of the missing mitten. It was at the bottom of my building’s elevator shaft. This was less a clairvoyant experience than it was a hunch so unlikely that it did, true, carry the whiff of a psychic revelation. I know where the body is hidden.
I gathered recruits for the mission. Two children held the elevator doors open while I, on my knees, peered through the crack between the car and the floor. I saw nothing but paint chips. The mitten might (as it fell) have slipped beneath the elevator and out of view. I remained convinced it was there, possibly because it eased my mind to think that, even if it remained forever inaccessible to me, at least I knew where it was.
On my way to teach the next day – I wore my one found mitten with a mismatched mate (on the street I saw more than one person look at my hand and wonder Who is she?) – I mentioned to the porter my suspicions about the mitten and the elevator shaft. He promised that the next time the elevators were inspected, he’d make sure to look for it.
Obviously his curiosity was piqued. Or maybe he saw my sign advertising the reward.
In the middle of my class, during which I spoke the phrase, “You don’t want to institutionalize the hurt,” my husband texted me. Your other mitten was found! Under the elevator, just as you suspected! I tried to create a teaching moment from my astonishment and happiness. This is what it’s like when your writing a novel and – oh, fuck it. I bragged. I told my students the story of losing and recovering my mittens. I touted my master sleuthing skills. I vowed to quit the immaterial joys of the writing life and follow my true calling, retrieving through invincible logic and willpower objects that appear irretrievably lost. I find things that should never be found. I force a reckoning. I oblige them back from the abyss to rejoin the world and me.
After my elation waned, however, I worried about the implicit downside to my gift. I worried about my ability, in the future, to accept that sometimes things or people are simply gone. It cannot be healthy, can it? It cannot be. To so confidently believe: I can conquer loss. I can love a thing so hard it must always come back to me.


Images © Hildur Bjarnadóttir : Re-give (2007-2009)


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