In the days between soccer games, we decide to do some sight-seeing in the Old City of Jerusalem. RHJ has done this many times before – most recently, just before I arrived in town – but he arranges a tour without complaint.

We visit the City’s different quarters; we make our way towards the Western Wall; I am there to place prayers in the cracks for the friends who have sent them on to me but I am hesitant in offering up my own written prayer. This feels too familiar; too much like the Tibetan Bells at that Monastery in China nine years ago. There, you could tell your prayer to the monk and he’d write it on the clapper of a clay bell, then the freshly made ornament would be hung in the temple’s gazebo until it disintegrated or was smashed. That was how your wish was supposed to come true – in the breaking down part.

Back then, I had gone to the Far East to rid myself of my longing for Frederic and I prayed on the bells that he and I would be happy together, ever after. Not since my high school sweetheart had I wanted anyone as much as I wanted Freddy; never had I loved any complicated, complete man the way I adored him. But we were both flawed people in the middle of messy divorces and I’m not sure we could help ourselves, even if we could have seen what we were doing to each other. So now I make it a point not to wish or pray with that kind of specificity.

As I am lost in thought about wishes and prayers, our tour guide takes us around the Old City’s sights, and eventually we reach the plaza where the Western Wall is located. By this point in our trip, I have come from the camino in Spain; through the portal of the Cathedral of Santiago; by way of a late night argument at the Old Train Station in Jerusalem; up, down, over, around, and through the football fields at Bayit Vegan. I am an exhausted and unlikely pilgrim who is Just Hanging On; trying to rid herself of longing for certainty and stability and embrace the mess of the moment. I am trying to Become Whole; I am trying not to lose my head, and yet, at the same time, do exactly that.

Men’s and women’s prayers are separate at the Wall, and our tour guide waits with me as I approach on the women’s side – first, to write out the few words I want to say; and then to place them inside the cracks. After I am done, we retreat back into the plaza where men and women can mingle.

We leave the square, and we finish walking around the Old City. We start to head out towards the Tower of David and Jaffa Gate. It is then that I realise where we are; where I am. We had entered the City just down the hill a bit, in the Armenian quarter. And now, we are walking past the Cathedral of Saint James – the site of the Martyrdom of James the Greater – where inside the Sanctuary, Saint James’s head is buried under the altar beneath a red marble slab.

In a flash, I see that I have traced the steps of the body in reverse – I have come from the Cathedral of Santiago in Spain where the body is entombed, to the Cathedral of Saint James in Jerusalem, where everything happened. I found the heart before the head; I found Santiago before Saint James – the vulgar before the Greater; the remote mission before the home base.

I am so obsessed with doing things perfectly; in order – in things making sense. But here I am, having completed this voyage so messily; so haphazardly. I have begun at the end and ended at the scene of the crime. How did I get here?

We do not enter the Cathedral; I do not even make mention of the thing I have just discovered. We part ways with our tour guide just outside Jaffa Gate, where a group of young soldiers are unstrapping their guns, which they cannot bring inside the City on their cultural day off. And we walk away from the Old City; away from the walls, to our lunch in Mamilla in a modern shopping plaza, where I eat salmon and soba noodles for the third time that week

The thing I do not realise at the time is the utility of brokenness. I am too arrogant; too dense to understand that we pray at the Wall because of the cracks in it; that we wish on the bells because they break down. I cannot fully fathom that I have just traced the broken pieces of a saint – finding his body in the land of my family and his head in the homeland of the man I love. I have perhaps been on the wrong pilgrimage all this time – I have travelled these different paths to try to make myself whole again, and I do not understand that first, I need to find the beauty in being broken.

The truth is: I am here in Jerusalem to watch RHJ play soccer. He is good at it; is co-captain of his team. And I complain about it sometimes, because complaining is de rigeur for someone like me whose stock in trade is her Sahara dryness. But I love watching him play. I actually like the game itself, and also it is fun for me to listen to the other players’ families talk about how talented he is; I love watching his power and prowess on the field. Mostly, I enjoy much he enjoys it.

The first match of the tournament is one I am meant to attend with RHJ’s parents, and we are set to watch USA Masters vs. Australia Masters at the Israeli National Team’s practice field for an 11am game in the mid-day sun. I am happy to attend with RHJ’s parents, whom I have come to adore, but we are all less than thrilled about the mid-day game. Regardless, I dutifully meet them at their hotel and we take a taxi to the field.

Getting to the field is confusing, RHJ warns before he leaves for his game, Here is a screenshot of the google map and additional directions. Make sure they know where they are going. I sent these to my dad as well.

I do not heed his warning as thoroughly as I should, and this is the first of many mistakes I will make today.

The directions themselves and also the screenshot prove useless because the taxi driver speaks only Arabic, and also it is Israel, where everything is menacingly ambiguous. So we are dropped off at the top of a long drive, on a high hill, at precisely the wrong field at the athletic complex, which was what RHJ had tried to prevent.

So here I am, on a high hill, in the middle of Jerusalem in the blazing sun, with RHJ’s parents who are inexplicably toting two lawn chairs (where and why did they even get these things?!)with no easy way to get down to the correct field (and no clear idea of which one even IS the right field); with no way to contact anyone who would know which field is the right one; and absolutely no Plan B.

I am a lawyer; I am a problem solver. I have no choice but to figure this one out. This is on me: Think, Mouse. Think. 

I decide to leave RHJ’s parents in a tiny patch of parking lot shade at the top of the hill, sitting in the aforementioned Inexplicable Lawn Chairs which have suddenly, magically become useful and I run down the hill, where I think I spot men in the uniforms of RHJ’s team. The challenge here is that most teams are in some combination of red, white, and blue, and all the teams are composed of middle-aged Jewish men.

How the hell am I supposed to find these guys?

I get lucky – the team at the bottom of the hill is their team. So I pick my way back up and retrieve the parents. We fold the lawn chairs and we use them as climbing poles to thread our way down to the lower field.

Upon arrival at the correct field, we discover that the Australians have taken all the seats in the shade. RHJ’s mother tells an Australian woman that her child probably does not need a seat, but she does not realise that Aussies are impervious to suggestion. The woman does not budge. Defeated, we sit separately and I wind up next to a woman who has two kids who hit each other and me for the duration of the match.

The mother of the little ones has also not brought them any water, and they are complaining about it. Should I give them mine? RHJ’s mother asks me. I want to tell her that we should let them go thirsty, as they knock me for the millionth time, but I smile, and she magnanimously hands them her unopened water bottle. She is a better woman than I am.

Once the children have slaked their thirst, they resume their game of beating the shit out of each other.

At the conclusion of the match (we win 2-1), RHJ takes the bus with his team back to the Mount Zion Boutique Hotel and Mental Hospital, and I am left to a) find the driver, and b) get RHJ’s parents back up the hill. Through some combination of sheer force of will, magical lawn chairs, and a merciful God, the taxi driver is located and RHJ’s parents and I make our way back to their hotel without any further incident.

It is then that I fully discover that being a WAG at the Jewish Olympics is really a trip and not a vacation. 

It is the Sabbath in Jerusalem, which is a religious city, and because we are not religious, for us it means that absolutely nothing is open.

We decide to go to the Israel Museum, which is a mixed bag of ancient and contemporary; religious and non-religious art. There is also a giant model of the Second Temple there, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. I do not admit that I know very little about religious history except for what I had to learn to be confirmed as a Catholic in order to marry my first husband, and what I have picked up from the ad hoc Hebrew School lessons my first husband’s second wife – a professor of Jewish Studies – has given me during the downtime at funerals.

After our tour of the model, we fight several Birthright trips in order to descend into the cavern that contains the Scrolls, then we make our way into the Museum’s main building. We are hungry; we are tired, but there is an element of Just Needing Things to Do on a Saturday, so we stay and wander.

Almost by accident, we make our way into an exhibition called No Place Like Home, where the signage promises it will restore a transformed object to its natural place within the…home. This is right up my alley. We pass Duchamps; Warhols; etc. – the masters of pop and contemporary art – giant, absurd spoons; the Brillo boxes; exactly everything you’d expect.

And then, in the Utility Room, I see Yayoi Kusama’s (Untitled) Ironing Board under a spotlight, and instantly, am the one transformed.

In that moment, the gallery becomes twenty years ago at Christmastime in my Hometown. My high school sweetheart has come home from college. We have arrived at a party together, and everyone assumes I am there as his date, but instead, he takes the opportunity of the gathering to tell all our friends he is gay. In one horrible instant, it is the first time in my life I understand what it means to be a woman; what it means to be sexless; what it means to feel the light and air be sucked out of the room. It is the moment I learn to be hard to read.

We have come in one car. I find another ride home.

I am still obligated, after this, to go to a Hanukkah party at a mutual family friend’s house and my high school sweetheart will be there. Mums and Daddy send me with wine for the hosts and for the rabbi and his wife. I arrive at the party, and in a final fit of pique over my circumstances before I enter, I smash one of the bottles of wine on the front walk. I walk into the party with my head held high – no longer the beloved girlfriend of the favourite son. Now, I am a woman scorned.

My recollection of the scene is a little hazy from this point, but what ensues is me running through the house, yelling at my high school sweetheart, and his mother not far behind. I am so helpless; so angry. But I do know that memory is fallible – my recall is probably incorrect. It may have never happened this way at all. But everything from that night feels fraught; chaotic; tense; horrible – like a running, screaming match that definitely happened in real time.

But mostly, I remember that it is the last time I ever really lose my head.

I retreat, defeated, into the rainy El Nino night, and a few weeks later, start making out with the rabbi’s son as if to send a threat to these nice people to refrain from inviting red-haired shiksas to any more of their holidays. But behind my back, the rabbi’s son makes out with one of my friends. With the last of my sexual power, I scream and shout about it, but it does not matter anymore.

A few months pass, and the furore from Christmastime dies down. Eventually, no one remembers anything ever happened, except for me and the teachers at my conservative school who keep reminding me to hate the sin and love the sinner. The rabbi’s son, too, forgets about our angst, and and gets a new girlfriend, and the three of us go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see the opening of Yayoi Kusama’s Love Forever, because they are artists, and I am not, but I am always game for a museum.

The Love Forever exhibit is a series of white rooms full of stitched and painted protrusions; objects covered in canvas phalluses, representing Kusama’s fear of male domination. I am floored. It is the first time I have felt anything in months; the first time I have felt swept away by art. My heart aches all day.

And then in another flash, I am back here in Jerusalem, with that Christmas twenty years ago feeling very present tense as I stare at the Kusama Ironing Board under the spotlight. How did this get here? I want to rip the protrusions from their roots; I want to smash the board like I did that bottle of wine; I want to crush the steam iron and scream: Why are you doing this to me?

You okay? RHJ asks.

Yes, yes, I say, moving on to look at a shower enclosed in a plexiglass case, dripping honey into a waiting drain.

The drip is soothing; it calms me. I am trying not to lose my head. But the fear is so present, still – of loving, of following, of being humiliated, abandoned. I am trying so hard not to lose my head.

I leave Santiago de Compostela the next morning. I am headed next to Israel via London, which is maybe a weird summer holiday destination for the waspiest WASP in Waspdom, but some friends have invited me, and off I go.

The flight from London to Tel Aviv is about the same as flying from New York to Los Angeles. It is uneventful until an older gentleman picks a fight with a flight attendant; hits him. After some screaming, they zip-tie the man’s hands together in the aisle and he quiets. A few hours later, and without further incident, we land at Ben Gurion Airport. It is already very late, and but we wait on the tarmac for the police to come escort the old man and his wife off and into the terminal.

I make it through passport control easily and into a waiting car, and we drive the hour to Jerusalem in the slightly sticky Mediterranean night. RHJ is waiting for me on the other side.

I have come to Israel to watch RHJ and Tony compete in the Maccabi Games – the Jewish Olympics – which happen every four years. I have come to sight-see, too, but mostly to watch sport. I feel conspicuous in my non-Jewishness, which is maybe the point, but sometimes I feel that way on the Upper East Side; in Scarsdale so I don’t exactly find Israelis any more intimidating than New Yorkers. But I also realise that if we were playing a game of Spot the Shiksa, I would be a low-value target, because I am so obvious.

How was the flight? RHJ asks me as I arrive at the Mount Zion Boutique Hotel, which is neither boutique nor hotel, but seemingly a former mental hospital cum motel built into a hillside.

They took some guy off in handcuffs, I say nonchalantly, pulling on my monogrammed PJs – final confirmation that the WASP has landed. He stares at me for a moment, simultaneously believing and disbelieving that we are here, together in this place. Then we shut out the lights and retreat to our pushed-together twin beds.

The next day, we are meant to go to the Opening Ceremonies of the 20th Maccabiah; the 2017 Maccabi Games. RHJ is marching in with the American delegation (which includes former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers on the over-60 ping pong team, because senior citizen table tennis is apparently A Thing at this thing) and I am meant to attend as a spectator with RHJ’s parents.

In the early evening, I get myself to Mamilla to meet RHJ’s parents and their Israeli friends in the lobby of their hotel (RHJ has left hours earlier with his team) only to find that a party bus – replete with sparkles, spangles, and poles – has been arranged for the five of us: Four septuagenarians and me. I am introduced to the parents’ friends by my name, and discover that Meredith is not a name that rolls easily off the Israeli tongue and the friends have begun calling me something that sounds very much like Murder.

We take our party bus into the stadium, where I learn that in Israel, rules are merely suggestions around which one negotiates; the loudest voice or biggest wallet wins. And once inside Teddy Stadium, we sit in the stunning summer night and we wait. And wait. There will be hours of this. I am seated between RHJ’s parents, like a naughty schoolgirl between mummy and daddy, cheering intermittently as two sexy Israeli women in black announce each country’s delegation.  So this is the Jewish Olympics.

Eventually, the tune changes and the American flag flashes on the screens and the Americans begin walking in, so we have to stand and clap and shout. But the Americans head the direction opposite of where we are sitting, so we do not get to make eye contact with RHJ and are disappointed.

By 11pm, after nearly five hours of this fanfare, the parents, the Murder Friends (whom RHJ assures me are spies) and I all want to leave the stadium. I text RHJ, who begs me to wait for him; escapes the team crush and finds us on retreat in the parking lot.

The bus drops RHJ and me off back at our hotel and we sneak out to a late dinner at the old Jerusalem train station, which has been converted into a marketplace of shops and restaurants.

You know, I say, as I tuck into my salmon with soba noodles, It’s weird that you’re so weird with me. 

What?

It’s like, we stand there, and you greet everyone else first and you treat me like a stranger.

I see his face fall, and I am having one of those moments of watching myself in slow-motion being a complete idiot, and I cannot stop myself.

I have spent twenty years, personally and professionally, separating my heart from my head – it has been self-preservation, mostly. But I don’t need to do that now. I want to feel this. And yet here I am, at midnight, in Jerusalem, beating the shit out of this wonderful man because he kissed his mother before he kissed me. How did I get here?

This is not the time for this discussion, he says, diplomatically.

He is right; I am wrong. I know I am wrong. I am fresh from this walk – this twenty year long pilgrimage – to figure out how to be a whole person; and I felt slightly estranged in that one weird moment in the parking lot so I saw something and said something just like has been ingrained in every New Yorker, and sometimes, saying something is the wrong thing (which the signs in the subway DO NOT tell you, by the way). As we walk back to the Mount Zion Boutique Hotel and Mental Hospital in furious silence, I realise that despite my walk, my idiot head still hasn’t caught up with my heart.

I approach the Cathedral in the afternoon, practically delirious with thirst. I have been crying all day and I brought very little water, and for someone who is always prepared, I turned out to be Very Unprepared for something I should have seen coming for nearly two decades.

The old town at the foot of the Cathedral is charming – the streets are lined with shops and cafes. But this is Traditional Spain, so most places are still closed until after 16:00h for siesta. I trek down the cobblestoned streets like I have done in so many medieval towns through Europe and I wonder, even in my humbled state, when I became so jaded. When one UNESCO World Heritage Site after another began to blend together in my head. These are First World Problems of the First Order, I think.

As I round the final corner of the Camino and enter the plaza in front of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, I am struck by the sound of a solo bagpipe being played. I have forgotten, somehow, that Galicia is considered a Celtic Country – it is not clear to me from my cursory research whether the Celts originated on the Continent and scattered to the Isles, or if the Vikings brought their culture to Northern Spain through trade. All I know is that my red hair hidden under the blonde that I dye it and my inability to stop chasing men from the British Isles is perhaps the best modern evidence of this secret, historic exchange.

Then, there it is: the Cathedral. Papa has promised me that the building will be a wonder of Romanesque and Gothic architecture, and he is not wrong. It stands tall and imposing over the square; its stature undiminished by two of its towers covered in scaffolding and netting for repairs. Inside, in the crypt, lies the body of Saint James the Greater. Outside, stands a single piper; a dozen tourists willing to brave the heat; and me. I have no tears left, so I take it all in then I stand silent in the plaza, wondering what to do next.

It is a profoundly lovely but lonely moment – one of the loneliest I have experienced. To come to the end of a journey like this and have no one to call; no one to share it with; no one who will understand that it was only ten miles – but ten miles that took twenty years to understand – is a hard thing to swallow. So I sit off to the side in the square, and I say a prayer, and then I get up to find a café.

As the old town of Santiago is coming to life after its siesta, I find a café and I order tortilla Espanola and a beer, and it is the best tortilla and the best Estrella I have ever had. The beer goes to my head immediately.

In my compromised state, I am thinking about the head and the heart – about how, after twenty years, I should be better about connecting what I am thinking and how I am feeling; about what a martyr I can be; about the headless body in the crypt. I am thinking about Saint James; I am thinking about what it means to Follow.

If you know your New Testament, you know that Jesus calls to James and John to follow him, and they do – immediately. (Matt. 4:21-22). I am wondering what it is like to have faith that strong; to believe so ferociously in the future; to trust someone so deeply. I wonder how Saint James felt when he watched all those miracles being performed – demons cast out; people walking on water; folks raised from the dead. James gave it all up; he followed some crazy-talking dude around on the strength of a mere come-on; he blew up his own comfortable life as the first-born son of a middle-class tradesman and he just…went.

And where did it get poor James? Murdered. Martyred. Beheaded. His body brought back to the site of his Iberian mission; entombed with two others in the belly of a Gothic stone heap with a nice view. And I think he’d probably do it all again, too, just for the chance to take that first leap of faith; to follow.

I order another Estrella, and fiddle with the scallop shell on the red cord attached to my backpack, and a sinking feeling fills my stomach. I am so afraid of following; of losing control. I want the connection, but not the responsibility; I want the benefits, but I don’t want to watch the messy demons exorcised. I want to think I am the James, but actually, I’m the Thomas, or the Peter.

I want ferocious love, but I don’t want to lose my head over it.

I sip my second, ill-advised beer in contemplative silence, realising it has taken me fully twenty years to understand that I have spent all this time chasing something, trying not give up control, not knowing until now that the only way to become a Whole Person again is to lose my head.

I leave Madrid for Santiago de Compostela on a sunny Sunday morning. The evening before, at a Spanish friend’s house, I had admitted that my family was from Galicia, and Lady of the House’s son immediately piped up, But you do not seem crazy! You know that all Gallegos boast they are 10% crazy, right? He shook his head, confused at the idea that anyone could be proud of that. I did not tell him that if what he said were true it would explain Quite A Lot about one side of my family.

I don’t know what to expect in Galicia, other than 10% of the people being nuts. Nearly twenty years prior, my high school sweetheart had studied abroad in London, and capped off the adventure by travelling the Camino de Santiago before joining the Peace Corps in Mauritania after graduation. His trek down the Camino had been fruitful for him, creatively speaking, and it had resulted in a play – a musical – which he’d sent to a select group of readers via his mother. It was the first in a series of many musicals he wrote, and he’d ultimately grown up to be a Broadway composer.

The envelope containing That Particular Play had arrived at my college apartment in a manila envelope with the soundtrack on CD or a cassette tape – I don’t remember which it was and given the era, either was plausible. He’d also sent word that a single bird flying overhead seemed like a sign, and when he reached the church at the end of the trek, the floodgates opened, and he cried, because then he felt like he had found God.

I ripped the manuscript up without reading it; I listened to the tape once, because I loved the sound of his voice more than I hated him; and I burned the postcard where he described the bird, the sky, the church, and God. He had broken my heart – broken me – so profoundly that I didn’t think I’d ever feel whole again. After losing my first love in such a public and humiliating way, I didn’t think that my head and my heart would be part of the same complete person again.

At the time, I didn’t know he was travelling the roads that my family had lived on; that he was exploring the places I was From. Back then, I had no idea how we would both grow, and more importantly, how much work time actually does. I was just angry in the way that Hurting Young People often are.

Before I left for Spain, this past June, I had bumped into him in California. Someone snapped a photo of us, arms around each other, smirking into the camera like we might have done Way Back When, and it reminded me of being on the cusp of all the things we could not contain twenty years ago: Our love; our anger; our fear; our knowing that This Was A Finite Thing.

That’s heavy stuff for teenage hearts.

I am thinking of him again as I land in Santiago de Compostela, in their modern airport nestled amongst the greenery that makes the approach look like I am landing in Norway or Ireland. My heart aches with old fury; untapped grief; with feelings I cannot identify but that feel vaguely familiar.

Is this what it feels like to be a pilgrim? 

I am only in Santiago for two days, so I am only planning to walk the last ten miles or so of The Way of Saint James; of the Camino de Santiago. The pilgrimage derives its name from the patron saint of Spain – Saint James the Greater – whose body is entombed in the grand cathedral at the Camino’s end. The name Santiago itself comes from the Spanish derivation of James from Latin – Sanctu Iacobu – which, translated from Vulgar Latin to local Galician, became sant iago, hence Santiago.

The story goes that after James was martyred at the hands of King Herod in Jerusalem (Acts 12:1-2), his body was returned to Galicia, but was thrown into the sea – emerging covered in scallop shells. As a result, travellers come to Santiago and carry bleached shells on red cords, emblazoned with the shield of Saint James as evidence they are pilgrims who should be granted a safe passage. 

I pick up my red lanyard and hit the trail mid-morning on my first full day in town, the sun bright overhead. When I reach the first scallop-shaped trail marker, a bird flies across the perfect blue sky, and the floodgates open, and the tears come in a tidal wave that I did not know was contained behind my eyes. I snap a photo of the trail marker and I send it to my high school sweetheart, without any text, because I know that in this moment, almost twenty years after his own journey, he is the only person who will understand my heart.

Then I walk for ten miles, crying. I am crying because these are the roads my people have walked for generations and this is the first time, ever, I have been in a place that I know I am From. I am crying because I came all this way, and did all this work, and married all these men, and at the end of it, it is just me here, alone, with nothing to show all these dead ancestors for it. I’m also crying because I’m probably at least 10% crazy, just like the rest of them. 

How did I get here?

As I emerge from the Spanish woods and near the cathedral at the Camino’s end, my phone buzzes with a text message from my high school sweetheart. He has received my picture of the trail marker.

The start of everything, he says.

And I understand, suddenly, in this hot, stark moment in the north of Spain, that who I am is not just a disappointment; not only a litany of failures or a sum-total of endings. I am just at the start.

At the end of June, I fly to Madrid to be with JRA and Lady H; Grandma and Papa. We are celebrating and mourning; vacationing and working. Both Grandma and Papa have worked in and across Spain for many years; JRA is fluent in the language; only Lady H and I have some catching up to do. We eat late-night dinners and drink late-night wine, and generally, things are Okay, even as we approach the Anniversary of the Last Day of the World.

The Last Day of the World happened last July. Pete had messaged me that June, asking if Paul and I wanted to go out to dinner for JRA’s birthday – the date was set for an early-July Saturday night between his birthday and hers. We had met – two couples – at a wheelchair-friendly restaurant, and had taken a long, leisurely summer dinner. Paul and I had gone on holiday for the two weeks after – first to California; then to Newport. It was nice – it was the last, pleasant dinner out I could remember having with Paul – no fighting; no drama. But within two weeks, Pete’s younger brother Tommy had died suddenly. Within six months, Paul and I were separated, and Pete himself died shortly thereafter.

Nothing was ever the same again after that one, specific night.

We spend our time in Madrid visiting friends; wandering the city; exploring the Prado. We stand in front of the Bosch paintings; Velasquez’s works and JRA leans over and begins to say something about the little people in one of the Velasquezs but thinks better of it. It was a joke for many years – how much I hated all those exploitative little people shows on TV; how angry I’d get about them – until I found out that I had a bad, probably Spanish, gene. Then all bets were off; then, maybe my revulsion was just some kind of genetic fear.

Later that day, we are changing clothes before dinner, and Lady H asks me about RHJ. How IS RHJ? she asks, like a chatty girlfriend.

(She is six years old.)

He’s fine, I deadpan.

You know what I think? she says, I think “third time’s the charm.”

She says the words thoughtfully, like she is considering this as a viable possibility as the words tumble from her adorable mouth. Two nights before, the second of her two front teeth had come out over dinner. She had spent the day wiggling the hell out of it, and I, in my role as Tia Fearless, I had gripped it a few times and twisted; yanked; done the dirty-work of a much older sister or maiden aunt. I’d rubbed my icy fingers on her gums and passed the precious few ice cubes from my drink across the table to her – over Grandma’s furrowed brow, and JRA’s disgust at the whole affair. It was then that Papa had told us, as I sipped my umpteenth Abarino of the night, that there was no Spanish tooth fairy. Instead Ratoncito Perez visited you in the night and swapped a gift for your tooth.

Forgetting my Spanish, and my manners, I immediately exclaimed, We’re letting a rat come into the house in the night? What does he bring you – jamon iberico?!

Papa, in his calm, pedantic manner, replied, Technically it’s a mouse.

Lady H said, I think he brings manchego.

Grandma, for her part, quickly realising that obtaining a hunk of manchego at that hour would be nearly impossible, chimed in, I think he brings you an IOU for whatever you want. JRA began laughing so hard she was unable to contribute to the conversation.

Moments later, Lady H spat the tooth into her hand and then handed it to me.

So I listen to Lady H tell me Third Time’s The Charm through her adorable gap, like she is both a woman and a child, and it makes me laugh, and it breaks my heart into a million pieces; into dust – because she is older than she should be but she is exactly who she needs to be; because I may never stare into the face of my own gap-toothed elf, mise-en-abyme, because of genes or circumstance; because this is exactly how things happened and it wasn’t what I expected when I married Andrew, or I married Paul, or when we all went out to dinner for JRA’s birthday on that fateful double date.

If you had asked me a year ago, on the last night everything was normal, if I thought we would be sitting in Madrid, taking stock of the damage one year later, I would have thought you were nuts. But looking back now, through gapped teeth, and the streaky rearview of grief, it is actually that last, perfect night in Hell’s Kitchen that seems much more far-fetched.