Month: June 2014

Ignition

My aunt doesn’t dye her hair—she lets it gleam silver like a minnow in a thick, shimmering braid down her back. I never think about this unless she’s in a crowd of Other Moms at a parents meeting. Other Moms who bleach their hair blonde or stain it dark black so it ‘looks normal,’ a funny contrast up-close to the crow’s feet gently appearing at the corners of their eyes. My aunt is not afraid to be old. Her skin smells old and her silver hair matches her wrinkles and crow’s feet and she wears sweaters that look like the Ojibwe blankets on our couch and walls. It’s perfect. A tiny, silent part of me sometimes wishes I wasn’t too big to sit in her lap, that I wasn’t growing into new and confusing curvier hips.

My aunt was standing out on the dock, looking out at the bay. I could just barely see her over the sand-grass that’s right out the kitchen window. I was sitting at the counter, browsing aimlessly on the computer. I reached across to my aunt’s vacant seat to take her coffee mug, stealing a sip of what I forget always ends up being cold and bitter. I was warm in my plaid flannel pajama shorts, but outside, the water was angry. Black, churning waves, with whitecaps rather than twinkling tips. Aggravated by a wind we can’t see. Those who don’t live by a large body of water forget that it has a life of its own, and a human—no, beyond human—range of moods. My aunt just stood and surveyed.

I looked back at the screen for awhile, and when I glanced up next, my aunt is looking out at the water still but waving an arm towards our dock in a broad, sweeping gesture. I squinted to see that what I thought was a large whitecap was actually a tiny, white rowing shell, hull swaying and oars flailing. Though I couldn’t hear, I knew my aunt was yelling, “Come in! Use our dock!” We’d caught wayside rowers and kayaks before, innocents who found themselves in surprise storms. Our own plastic kayaks sat onshore by the dock.

The rower had drifted past the window’s view, out of my line of sight, but I saw my aunt rip off her sweater and kick off her shoes. She sat down on the dock and slid into the water. The rower must have gone down. I stood up and shut the lid of the laptop, and ran barefoot out of the house onto the lawn.

My body shuddered to acknowledge the cold wind and slanted rain. I stopped in the middle of the yard and looked out. My aunt was wading out into the water, but appeared to be almost to the end of the shallow sand and near where the sand-shelf drops off below the water’s surface, leaving bathers with no choice but to swim. The rower’s shell had flipped, and he treaded water near the hull, which was being tossed with each dark wave. I saw an oar getting carried away in a current. My aunt was pulling in a steady breaststroke, but every couple of strokes, a wave washed over the top of her head.

I was paralyzed with no idea what to do. If I took a kayak, I’d get tossed over as well. If I swam and got tired, my aunt would have to drag me back and do more work. I could tell she was slowing down on the way to the man. I ran out to the end of the dock. It sounded like my aunt was trying to yell something as she swam. I couldn’t quite make out her words, but when I looked back out at the man it occurred to me. “Grab the shell!” I yelled to the man. He turned in my direction, but must not have been able to hear. “Grab the shell!” I held my arms forward in two limp rainbows, like they were draped over the capsized boat. If you ever flip in a boat, grab the boat first, my aunt had told me. The boat will keep you afloat, and if you hold onto it you won’t lose it.

I watched the man struggling to kick towards the shell as it kept floating further away. Finally, I saw him grab the gunnel and drape his long, dark arms over the boat’s hull. He had drifted very far out, though, and my aunt didn’t appear to be making much progress. The motorboat was thumping hard on our dock, making it lurch under my feet with each wave.

The motorboat. I bolted inside to the counter, grabbing the red bungee lanyard marked ‘Yamaha.’ Grabbing the gas can from the back porch but not bothering with a life jacket, I sprinted to the boat, hurled the can into the backseat, and plugged it into the motor just like I’d watched my aunt do. Good so far. I untied the boat from the dock and pushed it away instead of backing it out like a car, like my aunt always did. This was an emergency. Whipping around into the cracked driver’s seat with its yellow foam exposed, I sat down in front of the steering wheel. I plugged the key into the ignition and turned it. The boat whinnied, then wheezed, but didn’t turn to a steady hum like when my aunt drove. I tried again, with the same result. Growling with frustration, I tried a third time. I roared with anger, but it was a pathetic roar with a squeaky voice crack in the middle. A pitiful squeak from a thirteen-year-old voice whose owner didn’t know how to start a car.

I ripped the keys out of the ignition and threw them down into the small pool of rainwater accumulating in the bottom of the boat, swimming with bits of dead leaves and sand. Not looking behind me to check my aunt’s progress, I jumped right out of the drifting boat and into the water, which, surprisingly, was very warm. A wave caught my face and I gagged on a mouthful of silt—the swells had tossed up sand and clay from the bay floor. I gagged, and pulled forwards. I’d forgotten how hard it was to swim in clothing—my T-shirt billowed out around me below the surface, catching water and thrashing me back and forth with each wave. My flannel shorts were getting dragged down by the water—I could feel the waistband sliding down my underwear. With all the might in my wiry arms, I took a pull and reached my face for the surface, craning my neck, and gasped. I got half a breath of air before a wave hit my face and sent me plunging under.

Anyone who has ever thought drowning would be a peaceful way to die is horribly wrong. I tried conserving my air by letting it slowly out my nose, a couple bubbles at a time, as I struggled to get out of my ballooning medium T-shirt. First, individual pockets of my brain started screaming out, “Air! Air,” before being joined in chorus by my arms, thighs, and, rippingly, wrenchingly, my chest cavity. I needed to give up on my shirt and get to the surface. It was still mostly on, but half was bunched around my left arm, restricting the arm’s motion. Counterproductive. With my right, I reached upward, found air, and, whip kicking my screaming legs, got to the surface and got half a gasp in before the next wave hit the back of my head and washed over.

It felt like my shirt was wrapping tighter around my waist, but I realized it was an arm. My face was brought above water and I felt myself being pulled to the right.

Grab the boat,” it was my aunt’s voice. I opened half a water-stung eye and felt in front of me. It was the rowing shell. I dragged an arm over its surface. I thought the shell had started moving of its own accord, but realized that my aunt and the man were kicking. When we’d brought the boat up to wading-deep water, I tried to stand but my legs were wobbly. Stabilizing myself on the boat with my arm, I got myself semi-standing. I coughed and gasped. We walked the boat right up to shore instead of using the dock.

The man, who was pulling in front of me, turned around and said, “Thanks for helping, missy.” I sheepishly looked away, knowing full well that I’d created more work for him, not the other way around. I looked behind me, expecting my aunt’s familiar tan wrinkles. Instead, I saw her tiny figure back out in the waves. The motorboat. She had to get the motorboat and drive it back.

“Do you think you could help me lift my boat?” the man asked. I must have given him a doubtful stare, because he added, “Don’t be fooled, it’s actually really light.”

He directed me almost to the end of the hull, past the seat but before the boat’s tip, and asked me to lift as hard as I could “in three.” We were parallel to shore, and just a few steps would bring it up. “One, two, THREE.” The man had been right—the boat was much lighter than my red plastic kayak. We set it upside-down on shore, and I strained my neck to look out for my aunt. She had climbed into the boat and appeared to be starting the engine. Though I wanted to be sure she made it in, the tiny screams in my head that had been calling for air before told me to leave. Saying nothing to the man, I ran across the yard, and, not wiping my feet stuck with sand and grass cuttings, sprinted to the bathroom, slammed the door, and hopped into the bathtub, turning the shower on.

I sat on the tub floor under the pellet-shape, unnatural rain, fully clothed, not caring that the water was just starting to get warm. You fucked that one up, kid, I thought, pulling out a sharp word my aunt saved for rare frustrations. I laid down on the tub floor and let the water wash over my face, alone and humiliated.

Then, I heard her voice above me. “Want to see how to start the boat?” Tears hotter than the shower water started trickling out of my eyes. This was my punishment. Not looking at my aunt, I sat up, and, grabbing the tub’s edge, brought myself to my feet.

I kept several paces ahead of her the whole way to the dock so I didn’t have to meet her eyes. “You take the seat,” she said. I sat down. She pressed the key into my hand with her own, its loose, wrinkled skin soggy and cold.

“Key in the ignition, and turn,” she said. I turned the key, heard the motor whinny behind me, and turned it right off. I looked up at my aunt. She was shivering and her braid was dripping, but she watched me patiently. “Try again, but this time, be patient. Keep the key turned at the top for a minute.” I did. The engine started. I realized I had no idea how to drive it.

This time I looked up at her fully, expectantly. “I don’t know how to drive it.”

“You don’t have to. And you shouldn’t, not yet,” she replied.

Rage churned my stomach. “But how am I supposed to help you,” I sputtered angrily. “There’s no reason you even have me! I’m not your kid! All I do is take from you and I can never give you anything, you won’t even teach me how!”

I was shaking with rage, and her hand on my shoulder calmed me in spite of my words. She didn’t say anything, which I preferred. She leaned into me, and her warmth radiated through her soggy clothes. She loved me but I didn’t know why.

With a hand still on my shoulder, she reached over, took the key from the ignition, and went inside. I sat for a minute, letting the rain pelt my left cheek, and then came in through the back door. I heard the shower running, and turned into the kitchenette. Two steaming mugs of tea sat on the counter, clay-red and blue. I picked up the red one and let the heat seep into my fingers, let the steam rise up and warm my nose. The shower turned off, and my aunt left the bathroom in the fleece pants she saved for winter and a fresh sweater. She lifted her mug from the counter, leaned across from me on the refrigerator, took a sip, and said, “You’re going to spend every day of your life interacting with things you don’t understand, so get used to it. And I will never need a reason to love you. Go shower while the pipes are still hot.” And I did. The pellets of water were soothing this time.

Scabs

Your scabs are elegant because they are outward signs of you mending and regenerating, creating soft new skin without even thinking about it. While you’re busy being angry about your inability to finish a task for work or dreading calling someone back, while you’re regretting the choice you made last month, without even knowing it, you’re subconsciously reconstructing yourself, and your ‘big’ worries are trivialities compared to your body’s own constant maintenance of what is vital, what keeps you alive.

 

I’m not going to tell you to find someone to hold your hand even when it’s callused or scabbed. You’ve already been told that, and that doesn’t mean it always goes well, or will provide what you need.

 

Instead, I’m going to tell you to learn to respect your own scabs, to find elegance and utility in the way your calluses grip a pull-up bar or coffee mug. To not think twice before wearing shorts when there are chain grease stripes, scabs and bruises on your legs. It’s far too easy to fear someone else’s split-second judgment about your scars or calluses or the shape of your muscles. But, while someone else may shake your hand for five seconds, you wear and carry it always. You are the one who watches your fingers nimbly hop the keys of your keyboard as you type, lift the spoon in your breakfast each morning, and gently comb out your hair each night. As you work to modify yourself with your mind, recall that your body is doing the same, and respect your scabs.

The Cats Have to Eat

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The heels of her plastic flip-flops dragged on the ground as she crossed the cement bridge, pausing for a second to look out at the river below. It’s root-beer-colored, she thought. The brown water offset the lush green clovers and weeds that grew in tufts around it. On TV or in a YA novel, she’d be flanked by other girls or some boy would be trying to pull her back or she’d be about to wreak havoc by trying to jump off the bridge after trying alcohol for the first time or something. Standing alone and trying to fit her hands in her tiny shorts pockets, she mulled through each of these scenarios while edging pebbles off the bridge’s edge with her toes and watching them fall. Ridiculous.

 

The bridge was called “Memorial Bridge,” but she had no idea what it was a memorial for. She thought of how many times she’d driven past one “Memorial School” or other, especially in small towns. The subject of the ‘memorial’ was easier to track if the landmark was named for the individual, like “Smith High School” or something, but the name still loses its meaning to most. Kids in the area would eventually shudder at the name of “Smith,” associating it with their middle-school years rather than the dedicated school board member or poet or whoever lived the life deemed worthy of an etching in the city’s brick.

 

On the other side of the bridge, she looked up at the sun to try to estimate the time. It was almost near the top of the sky. She’d already had lunch, and there was a long time until dinner. She figured she’d go to the lake for awhile. Maybe run into a friend. Hopefully not run into anyone from school.

 

The city had just installed a tunnel under the highway to the bridge. She took the service road town from the bridge to the tunnel, and rubbed her arms a bit, as for some reason tunnels remain distinctly colder than even the shade-patches outside. Also, the ground in tunnels stays wetter. Tiny droplets of water flew up from her flip-flops as she walked and stuck to her calves. Her nose wrinkled with mild disgust as it landed.

 

It was warmer out the tunnel’s other side, and the lake twinkled and lapped to greet her. She shoved her hands in her pockets again and made sure her quarters were still there. She watched a Porsche roll by, like a double rainbow around here, and wished she was a few years older and had her license.

 

As usual, clusters of young families dappled the beach in a sort of pastel cowspot pattern, with towels and t-shirts and floppy hats and coolers and inevitably some mom or older sibling yelling for the diaper-clad toddler trying to make a break for the water on his or her own. Nobody looked familiar.

 

She didn’t have her swimsuit or anything but didn’t really feel like swimming, anyway, she’d dipped her toes in the water and it was probably way too cold, so she decided to go sit out on a rock. Maybe get some sun on her legs. Relax, y’know, she said, suggesting the idea to herself as if talking to a friend. Yeah, sounds good.

 

She lasted all of eight minutes on the rock before deciding to hit the gas station. The walk was uphill, and she felt herself perspiring a little extra. Her forehead, neck, and underarms were already filmy from the heat. On the sidewalk next to the station, a small girl stood hunched over, staring at something on the ground. As she walked at as far a radius as possible from the girl, she craned to see what the girl was looking at. Some kind of crumpled-up bird, she observed, quickly looking away.

 

The bells that rang on most convenience-store doors made her feel alternately welcomed, distrusted, and livestock-like. The air-conditioning gave her an instant, involuntary shiver, like it had grabbed her and made her shudder. She wove her way around a man in the aisle with Pop-Tarts to make a beeline for the fridges, picked a cream soda from the back of the shelf, and proceeded to the checkout.

 

The door rang (clanged) again. “Daddy!” came a small voice. The small girl from outside ran to the man in the aisle.

 

“Yeah?” He replied.

 

“Daddy, come outside!” The girl was probably tugging at his clothes and stuff, too, she thought at the checkout while digging the coins out of her pocket. She watched the girl and her dad leave, opened the top of her bottle, and stepped out of the cool air, not letting the door finish jangling goodbye.

 

“Dad, we have to save it! Dad, you’re not doing anything, what are we going to do?” The girl sounded panicked.

 

She rounded the corner to head home, but paused a few steps behind the girl and her dad. Though he wasn’t talking, he was bent over as well.

 

“Daddy, it’s gonna die,” she whimpered.

 

He knelt on the ground. For the first time, she looked at the bird and focused. She hadn’t really looked at a bird for more than a passing second in awhile. From her vantage point, the bird looked pretty far gone. “Sarah, the bird lived its life. But now, the cats have to eat too. Think of all the cats who live around here and don’t have a home, or anyone to feed them.”

 

She watched the girl stand up and sniffle. Pulling her free hand out of her pocket, she thought of her own cat at home, and the turkey slices that had been in her sandwich at lunch. Letting the cold bottle hang at her side between two fingers, bumping her leg as she walked, she walked home, choosing to pass through the gas pumps and round the block on the other side rather than directly pass bird, girl, and father.

 

She trained her eyes to the cement sidewalk right before her feet the whole way home. It had never been alive. She wondered if it was necessary. She wondered if it was tiny rocks, or some kind of paste solidified, or something else entirely. She let herself into the house with the key under the garden rock to the left of the porch. Neither of her parents had drawn the curtains in the living room before going to work. The cat was basking in the single strip of light across the floor, orange fur glowing. She picked him up and flopped back onto the couch, letting her bottle fall to the floor as she buried her face in his downy-soft fur.

 

She had no idea how she and this obese cat had reached the top of some sterilized, plastic-wrapped food chain stamped with red-and-blue logos. She had no idea why she was pressing her face into a cat instead of a turkey, even though she decided the cat must be considerably softer. She was still on the couch by the time her dad got home. After contemplating asking him, she figured he wouldn’t have an answer like the man from the Pop-Tart aisle. She rolled the cat off her lap, ran to her father, and hugged him, burying her face in his stomach. Her mom and brother received similar hugs when they arrived home. When the dish of chicken got sent around the dinner table, she took it in her thin, youth-spindly fingers, picked up the serving fork, and looked down into it.

Fifty-Eight Degrees

Her sister drove her to the beach and helped her out of the car and rolled out a towel, where the pair sat down.

 

“It’s like I’m an old person and you wheeled me out of the nursing home to come sit here and feel like I have some kind of real connection to the world,” she said, projecting a scowl out over the twinkling, playfully lapping waves. She batted down her ferociously messy hair as a small gust of wind passed through.

 

“Come on, you have a broken leg,” her sister responded. “I’m just trying to get you out of the house. Like, stop you from always being in bed on your computer.”

 

Pulling her wild hair back into a knot, she let out a loud snort. She watched a seagull bobbing on the water and marveled at the way they tuck in their wings and turn their torsos (are bird bodies called torsos?) into little perfect boat-hulls, then just bob along, staying afloat not because of the resistance they put up against the water’s swells and waves but just by tucking in and letting the waves carry their little white-and-grey bodies.

 

She sighed. “Yeah, I guess.” Twisting the ring on her index finger, she looked back at the road, then forward to the water, and said, “You know how you feel so much more connected to a place when you’re actually in it, like, with your feet and your hands and you’re breathing its air, instead of being in a car, or a bus or something?”

 

Her sister nodded. “Yeah.” She hoped her sister actually felt it.

 

“I think I just feel like I’m here but I can’t fully be here, you know, like, to be able to run in the woods and have the air smell like pine and lake and taste cold and to feel the ground being soft and things like that. It’s so much harder to connect to a place with the windows shut.

 

“And, to be honest, I think most of the problem is that it’s hard to not feel a little closed off all the time. Some people complain about the fact that taking a picture of a moment ruins the moment, but I think sometimes I feel like I’m trying to take a picture of everything I see or feel, like I’ll be out with friends and think about how I’m going to remember the night later, or I’ll be looking at a skyline or an ocean and just be trying to think of how I’ll tell people about the experience later or how it’s gonna, like, expand me as a person or something. And that’s not even to mention the times I’ve been looking at something incredible and thinking, ‘Hmm, what’s for dinner?’ or deciding what I’m gonna say when I text someone back or stupid things like that. Somehow it’s hardto actually just be somewhere, a lot of the time.”

 

Her sister didn’t say anything at first. They both watched a seagull take off from the surface of the water. Finally, her sister spoke. “Why is it always so cold when we go to the beach?” It was true. Both girls were wearing sweatpants and burrowed in sweatshirts as they sat and looked out at a clear sky and shining, bouncing waves that could have well been on a California postcard. Alas, these were the Great Lakes. Her sister’s fingertips peeked out of their sweatshirt-sleeve burrows to check the temperature on her phone. “It’s fifty-eight,” she announced.

 

“We’ve been doing this forever, though,” she said, “going to the beach when it’s cold out, I mean. Like when we were little kids and literally didn’t know any better, like, what warm beaches were or anything. Fifty-degree water on a seventy-degree day was some kind of paradise oasis we could float in all day while Mom or Dad sat onshore and marveled at our complete inability to notice our own blue lips and shivering. I guess I never even realized it until I went to school in New York that my internal thermometer is a messed up piece of shit.” She was laughing a little now. Her sister chuckled too.

 

“Remember the day we swam behind the Pancake House for like, four hours because we found that giant stick, but came home and had no idea why we were so itchy, and it must have been something about the water near all the industry and shops or some sort of bug or something but we kept pleading to go back because we left that big stick, and he, or it or whatever, needed us?”

 

“Remember trying to get the sand off of our butts when we got out of swimsuits at night?”

 

“Yeah, man, those were the worst times, oof…”

 

That night, the sisters sat in front of the TV at home and tried to pick the sand out of the toe of her cast. When the cast got cut off, though, several months later, little grains of that afternoon were still pressed into her foot under the wrap and plaster, dark and solid amidst the white, soggy dead skin peeling off her foot. She remembered that afternoon on the beach.