girl

“Guys”: In Which I Unpack a Small Linguistic Pet Peeve

It came to my attention a bit ago that there is no female equivalent for the word “guy.” Hear me out, quick. If you are a young male, you are a “boy.” If you are an adult male, you are a “man.” The word “guy,” used chummily, could be a way to refer to a boy to make him feel older or to refer to a man and make him feel younger, but generally is used to describe or address males in the age limbo between being a “boy” and a “man.” Case in point: “twenty-year-old-guy” seems more suitable than “twenty-year-old man,” and definitely more suitable than “twenty-year-old boy.”

If you are a young female, you are a “girl.” If you are an adult girl, you are a “woman.” A woman can also be referred to as a “lady,” but this word seems to be less of an equivalent for “guy” and more of a pairing for “gentleman.” Though there are people who can use the word “Lady” in a relaxed but dignified way, it usually carries the general feeling of being addressed by someone elderly, or being lectured by your parents. (“Young lady…”)

It’s funny to me when straight male friends seem a little surprised or ruffled when they hear a female friend and I talking about or referring to “boys,” using that word as the descriptor. (What, you’re not all “Men”? Is this not an Old Spice ad?) The most obvious layer to this is that “talking about boys” is a cliché and is therefore pretty funny to use as a phrase. It gains a bit of salty irony stemming from the false notion presented by some media that all girls do is sit around and braid each other’s hair and “talk about boys.” By “talking about boys,” we seem to be intentionally failing our own Bechdel tests: separating ourselves from males only to talk about them, rather than our own jobs, hobbies, talents, or interests. But how do straight men refer to “dateable women”? I can’t say for sure, partially because I am not male, or a serious confidante for male friends about girls. But, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard guys use the phrase “girls,” at least some of the time.

In my recent memory, I can’t remember being upset about being called a girl, by anyone, in any context. It’s societal convention, and I’m pretty young. However, there are ways that I, and girls in general, can feel different depending on how we’re referred to. Like most women I know, I don’t walk around in constant meditation about the fact that I am female—I have cool things that people of all genders have like jobs, classes, interests, hobbies, and friends, and it’s always possible to daydream about what I’m going to do later or what’s for dinner.

The fact that my personality is defined by so many factors besides my gender, though, makes it so that most of my thoughts about my gender-times-age identity are caused by external stimuli. Some of these are nice: I feel a positive sort of ‘womanly’ from most compliments on my appearance, for example. Often, though, being called out as a woman can be a negative experience. When I am on a run and get catcalled, I am not looking for a stranger’s reminder that I am a woman, and I definitely don’t want to know that I am a desirable and physically mature woman to any grimy stranger.

Girls/women also lack the linguistic cushion between childhood and adulthood that the word “guy” provides for males. You’re a woman, mature and ready for the world, or you’re not: you’re just a girl. A “guy,” by connotation, is older and mellower than a “boy,” but still makes mistakes. He goes out with “the guys,” and they get to do vague and unrestricted “guy things.” A “girl” is young and needs to be sheltered and protected, but a “woman” needs to be mature and composed, and fully capable.

I don’t know if I’m a “girl” or a “woman.” As I’ve grown older (take this with a grain of salt, I’m twenty), I’ve realized increasingly that adulthood is not a state of having all the answers. Instead, it seems to be mostly built from making your own decisions, to the best of your ethical and rational abilities, and with composure. Even that definition is a bit idealistic—we all have days in which we are tired, or frustrated, or overly emotionally invested in something to the point where it clouds rational judgment. But even in light of this abridged definition of adulthood, I still can’t say that I’m fully “woman” or “girl.” I usually just let whoever is addressing or describing me choose their own adjective, and leave indicators of gender-plus-age out of short bios of myself. I prefer to be identified on paper for my ideas than for my gender identity, though I happily identify as female. In the limbo between girlhood and womanhood, perhaps the best thing to do is focusing on being “me.”

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Estate

cacti
It was impossible for me to get comfortable in Tucson. My mouth had become a dry, hollow pocket since I’d left the airport and the buckle of the seatbelt had seared my fingers when I’d picked it up. I could feel the sweat evaporating off my skin and being swallowed up by the thirsty, dry air that streamed through the window in a cruel imitation of a cool breeze. The strip-lawns out the window in front of rows of low-rise buildings were tan, with dry dirt and rock lawns rather than grass, and staccato intervals of short, bushy plants. Interspersed were ample cacti, which I remembered from my visits as a child. Though I felt kind of kitschy as I stared at their scrubby little figures, the wide-eyed awe I’d felt while gazing at them as a child, wondering if I dared to touch one, was still there. Their shapes were a stark contrast to the pine trees with ample thick boughs and crooked silhouettes that I saw every day in my Minnesota home.

I looked over at my dad in the driver’s seat. At first I thought he was frowning, but I realized he just looked tired. His skin had wrinkled out a little since last Christmas and his hair was steadily graying itself towards white, but he still had the lanky, boyish figure and slouch that had been immortalized in my baby pictures, glossy and fading images of him tenderly cradling me.
He must have noticed me looking at him. He adjusted his head and tapped a finger on the steering wheel absently. Unable to think of a conversation to start, he said, “You can turn on the music to whatever you want.”

I didn’t remember any Tucson stations, and, frankly, my early-onset heat exhaustion was far more crushing than any sort of boredom. I popped the button to turn the radio on and began clicking the scanner, hanging in the limbo between scratch-fuzz feedback and unintelligibly nimble Spanish talk radio. I left the radio on an Oldies station that was playing Beat It by Michael Jackson.

To be honest, I had no idea if my dad liked Michael Jackson. When he visited for my twelfth birthday, a 75-degree Minnesotan midsummer day, he presented me with an iPod pre-loaded with every Bob Dylan album ever made. I fought to mask my deep internal disappointment until he proceeded to show me how to load my own music on using my mom’s computer. It took me until I was about sixteen to actually click on Bobby D, to make his songs worth their space. Bob had played in the background of my childhood as my parents picked me up and spun me in circles in the living room, chased me around the hardwood floors in wool socks, sliding, and made me pancakes shaped like stars and mouse ears. It took years of spacing and aging, though, for me to parse out and appreciate Dylan’s virtuosic shaping of words, starting with the lingering embrace laced with sorrow of Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right and the vitriolic assertion of Positively Fourth Street. Intrigued, I moved on to deeper cuts, and freshman fall, I enrolled in the Bob Dylan course at the University of Minnesota. The CD in my dad’s center console today was by some folk-looking group I’d never heard of.

“I was thinking we could just stay at Grandma’s old place instead of mine, is that alright?” he asked. I said yes; I didn’t have any attachment to the physical space of my dad’s. My visits to Arizona had dwindled over the years from about four visits a year; Christmases, Easters, and weeks in the summer; to a single annual trip as I got older. I honestly didn’t recall the last time I’d set foot in his house. Middle school? He’d started coming up to visit me in Minnesota more often, staying in the dumpy Super 8 Motel in the shipping district to spare us all the discomfort of his post-divorce interactions with my mom: sometimes just stagnant and uncomfortable, sometimes more caustic. He’d flown up to help me move into my dorm at the University of Minnesota two falls ago. I felt like I was re-entering his corner of the States too late, the way I let many of his letters and emails sit unopened as I turned on Netflix or cooked scrambled eggs after a morning run with my mom.

As my dad had separated from me, he had only grown closer to my grandma. The two lived very near to one another, and I pieced it together that my dad had started visiting her on a daily basis long before she needed his aid to take baths or prepare meals. As we pulled into her driveway, I looked up at her house. The stumpy single-story home had those red, curved shingles that Northerners like myself tie by stereotype to Southwest culture, the kind that we see pictured on tortilla packages. The building itself, though, was brick, creating a funny clash of reds and off-reds verging from gray-tinged to pink. A lone cactus stood sentinel in the front lawn, and some brushes and trees were tucked off to each of the house’s sides.

“Can I help you carry your bags?” My dad asked me, looking back as he opened his door.

“No thanks, I’ve got it,” I said, pulling my duffel up from the backseat by its strap.

He led me to the door at a trudging pace, unlocked and opened it, and ushered me in. Eight or ten sets of themed salt-and-pepper shakers sat on the first counter, windmills intermingling with frogs and snowmen and ears of corn. Their gaudy colors taunted me. This was exactly what I’d been afraid of. Ceramic children in overalls with maudlin big blue eyes and eerie pudgy bodies played baseball and did schoolwork on cheap china plates in display cases on the walls. Stacks of themed napkins covered the kitchen table, and boxes heaping with Matchbox cars and Lincoln Logs filled the room’s corner. I felt myself wince when I saw an exercise bike obstructing the entrance to the living room, flanked by filing boxes overflowing with stacks of papers.

My horror must have been evident to my dad; he looked embarrassed as he kicked his shoes off. He checked his phone.

Finally, he sighed, gathering the courage to say, “Shall we just walk around for a look-see first?”

“Yeah,” I said, nodding too quickly and letting him lead.

The house was a scene out of a cable show about hoarding. My grandmother had filled a room entirely with toys she must have assumed would gain value as they became rare, from stuffed animals to action figures, all still in their packages, collecting dust. Board games never opened and stuffed bears never hugged. Each of the two tiny bedrooms was cluttered with shirts hung from makeshift clotheslines, stacks of filing boxes, small tables, and, in one, an ironing board kept unfolded in the room’s exact center, topped with an iron standing up as if waiting at the ready for its next shirt. Kitschy artifacts were a recurring theme through each room—paintings of horses and crosses and rocks, hearts and stars made of horseshoes, Día de los Muertos shot glasses filled with browning toothpicks, ceramic bowls in pseudo-Navajo patterns, gathering dust over the Wint-O-Green lifesavers they still held.

The smell of decomposing cardboard in the living room was downright pungent. There was no floor. Stacks of boxes, empty cans and bottles, mugs and tools still in their packaging, board game boxes, an unplugged refrigerator, and piles of Arizona Daily Stars and Minnesota Star Tribunes with newsprint fading surrounded my feet as I took a desperate peek out a window to see light. “Oh, Dad,” I whispered aloud.

I had made the journey Southwest on a mission to clean. My grandma had passed away last summer, and my dad wanted me to help pick up her house and organize the estate sale. He hadn’t told me about her passing right away because I’d been on a canoe trip with my friends on the day itself, and he’d waited awhile to Skype me and tell me when I returned. Even on my grainy laptop screen, I could see the shock and pity on his face when I’d erupted into tears upon hearing the news. “How could you not tell me?” I remembered croaking through tear-choked breaths. He stared back, surprised and helpless.

My grandma was likely the main reason my dad returned to Arizona after calling it splits with my mom. For this reason, though, I used to see her only a few times a year, and at the time of her passing, had been in far less contact with her than the occasional calls I gave to my dad. She sent me well-meaning teddybear cards with enclosed five-dollar bills for my birthdays and holidays, and when I’d visited her as a child, she’d brushed my hair in long, smooth strokes. She’d always wanted a daughter, my dad had told me. He was her only son. Looking back, I see that perhaps I felt excluded. Betrayed when he left my side almost instantly upon splitting with my mom, ignored because it didn’t seem important to inform me of her death nearer to its time of occurrence. And now, I realized, I’d been excluded from eight years of telling him to get the junk off the living room floor, from helping him cure his middle-aged solitude and help his mother maintain composure in her old age.

I looked into one of the boxes on the utterly unsittable couch. It was full of purple envelopes, each with my name written in my own childish scrawl in the return address corner. The recipient’s name was simply Dad.

“Leah, you should put your stuff in the room so we can get started on some cleaning,” my dad said, swooping to hand me a glass of water. Was my presence next to the stuff making him uncomfortable? I paced down the home’s lone small, carpeted corridor and into the back bedroom. The bed was clear, but every other flat surface, from the dresser and bedside table to the edges of the floor, was lined in the most gauche assortment of figurines imaginable. I set down my bags next to the bed and made eye contact with a porcelain-skinned Virgin Mary, draped in blue cloth and cradling her sleeping blonde boy. Next to Our Lady stood a Joe Mauer bobblehead, proudly bearing one of the premier logos of athletic mediocrity, the Minnesota Twins, across his jerseyed chest. To Mauer’s left stood a figurine of Ringo from the Beatles. I could feel tiny bits of dust in my nostrils every time I breathed. I kept suppressing the urge to gag.

As I paced back down the hallway, I was confronted with the simultaneous need to say something and the overwhelming truth that, in all of human vocabulary, there was no good way to say it. My dad hung onto things. In kitchen, I saw the paper hand-turkey I had made in second or third grade with a picture of my dad, Grandma, and myself taped in the middle, still hanging from the fridge, faded and wilted. Tiny Me had smiled up at Grandma every time she came to get milk or jam or fruit for over a decade.

We didn’t open the small hatch to the crawl-in attic to end our tour. Rather, we each sunk into a La-Z-Boy draped with too many blankets in the living room and stared blankly at the dark television surrounded by caramel-corn cans and soda crates.
I glanced in my dad’s direction, nonchalantly raising a corncob pipe from the floor to my dry, heat-cracked lips. “So, are we gonna… start in the living room?”

“Is the living room that bad?” He asked. He looked genuinely curious. “No smoking in the house,” he added. I bit the edge of my lip and stared at the giant popcorn tin supporting a phone and an ashtray of toothpicks nestled beside my chair. Clydesdale horses paraded through snow around the tin’s exterior under a dark, starry painted sky.

Fortunately, my dad spoke up again. “So, I was thinking that since you’re only here for the three-day weekend, we could get started in the basement tonight, and work our way up in the morning. You’re still an early riser, right?”

I nodded, my mouth cottony from the heat. “Has the water gotten shut off here yet?”

“Oh, shoot, yeah,” he replied. “I’ll grab you a cup from the kitchen.” Moments later, there was an Arizona Wildcats commemorative plastic cup proudly emblazoned with the year “1987” in my hands. I downed it quickly, terrified by this new dimension of belongings I had just unlocked: I’d forgotten that every cabinet and chest was full of stuff, too.

“Let’s go down to the basement,” I said, plunking my cup on the Clydesdale popcorn tin and standing with manufactured gusto. To my great relief, my dad followed without question when I bounced towards the stairs.

Standing at the mouth of the basement on the bottom step was like staring out into a choppy sea of wood and plastic. We stood side-by-side, our shadows stretching forwards in the light that poured down from upstairs, both of us unsure of what move it would be possible to make without drowning in junk.

My dad took the initiative, pulling the string on the ceiling to turn on the light and descending the bottom step. “How about we put stuff we’re getting rid of by the base of the stairs, and leave everything else where it is, to get arranged later?”

“Sounds great,” I said, optimistic. “Should we start on the same pile, or different ones?”

“Different. It’ll save time. We can work our way out from the center here.” My dad knelt down by a box of faded children’s books that sat at his feet. The box nearest to me held several maroon-and-black plastic photo albums. I opened the top one to see a sepia print of tiny blonde boy in a plaid cowboy shirt on a wooden tricycle, erupting in peals of childish laughter. Missing a tooth.

“Dad, you were so cute! Look at this picture,” I said, looking up towards the book boxes I’d seen him beside earlier. He was no longer there; he’d already progressed about five boxes back.

“What do you mean, was cute?” he asked. “Never mind. I’d prefer to think of myself as a buff sort of dad-handsome.”

I wasn’t going to humor him with an answer. “Whoa there, we’re keeping all that stuff?”

“What stuff?” he asked, face blank like a small child found with forbidden chocolate smeared on his cheeks.

“You’ve gone through a lot of boxes pretty fast,” I said, standing up to survey. “Like, what’s with those Coke cans?” I pointed to the second box back.

“Limited edition, Christmas 1999,” he said, as if it was an obvious oversight on my part.

“And why… did you guys… keep them?”

“They’re nice, and what if they’re worth something someday?”

“Dad, they’re Coke cans. Used. Who’s going to want to buy Grandma’s used Coke cans? Because they’re from 1999? Do you want to buy my used nail clippers? I think they’re worth a lot, you know, they’re pretty old—“

“Excuse me, young lady, but you need to watch it. This is NOT your house. You’re going through boxes of someone else’s experiences. This is your family’s life you’re sorting through. This is all your mom, thinking that just because her parents had nice office jobs and everything she wanted came to her so easy, that you can just throw it all out and buy new stuff if you need it, it’s just stuff… Like it’s all disposable, everything’s disposable nowadays.”

He saw me looking at the light at the top of the stairs. “Hold up, do you think you’re gonna get out of cleaning this stuff? Okay. New approach. We’ll go through the same box at the same time.” He looked down at the Coke cans. “Maybe those don’t have to stay.” Eager for something to fidget with, I leapt over the photo-album boxes and retrieved the cans, placing them at the foot of the stairs. He pursed his lips and looked at the box, as if he itched to hold it in his own hands.

“Alright, next box,” I said. “I think we should keep the photo albums, because they’re cute, and they actually have to do with our family’s life. Moving along?”

“Alright, now you’re just being patronizing,” he said, irritably. “Come over here.” The next few boxes all appeared to pertain to Bob Dylan. The first was a milk crate holding an assortment of records. Its neighbor was draped with a T-shirt of the Highway 61 Revisited album cover.

“Hey, can I keep this?” I lifted the shirt and checked the tag. “Men’s small. This would definitely fit me.”

“Alright, so you can keep things.”

I felt my cheeks turn hot, but wasn’t sure if it was obvious in the dim, yellow light. When my hair was greying like my dad’s, would I too be in a basement of dusty crates, snarling about a set of Coke cans?

I shifted my weight. “I’m actually going to use this, though. I’m gonna wear this.” I was justifying the repossession to myself just as I was to him. Would I wear it to class? Out? How many shirts does somebody need? My dad reached out a hand for the shirt, and I gave it over. “It is pretty cool,” he said. “Yeah, you should keep it.” He handed it back, and I threw it to the base of the stairs.

Emboldened, I asked, “Do you have a record player for all those records? If so, you could bring them to your house, and if not, we should sell them. Is there a used place downtown?”

“Yeah, I have a record player,” my dad replied. He lifted the crate and hurried to the base of the stairs. “Let’s make the pile on the left be for stuff we’re keeping, and the pile on the right be for stuff we’re getting rid of.”

“Sounds good,” I said warily. He had left a lot of Dylan albums with my mom and me, but something told me he’d listened to some serious Bob in the last fifteen years, and the dust atop these records was as thick as a flannel bedsheet.

“Look at these GI Joes! I played with these all the time as a kid!” With each hand, he lifted a camo-clad, stiff little man brandishing a weapon from a nearby box.

“Yuck, NRA Barbies,” I mumbled.

“Well, then, I do recall buying you quite a few Miss America GI Joes. Look at how great these are,” he said. The nostalgic wonder flooding his face was obvious even in the dim light of the basement. “Look, this one even has soft hair! Feel!”

I reached out a hesitant lone finger to touch the doll’s head. “Lil felt cap.” My frown unravelled into a lopsided smile. “Wow, it’s just like real hair.” I snorted a laugh.

“Hey, this stuff is cool,” he said, chuckling along. “Wait ‘til you see my Cowboy and Indian stuff.”

“Good heavens don’t say that in public,” I said, but barely hesitated before asking, “Where is it? I want to see.”

My dad stood up and surveyed the cluttered landscape. “Back here.” He pointed to a stick pony. He had to lift his knees like he was wading through a swamp to make it through the boxes and reach his trusty steed of old. Watching him move, I was awash with how much work we had left to do.

I let out a massive snort, though, when he tried to squeeze into a tiny, fringed vest from the top of a nearby box, and placed a stiff brown hat barely the size of his face atop his head.

“Okay, but what about these boxes, though,” I said, realizing I had sat down.

My dad threw down the vest and made his way back over. “Actually, I’m pretty hungry.” He looked down at his watch. “Six-thirty already. Wanna re-focus after some tuna melts, and then hunker down for the evening?”

Though my stomach, raised in staunch Central Time, still thought it was 4:30, I agreed and followed him upstairs.

“So, you’re still liking school this year? Classes going well?” He asked, flipping the sandwiches on the pan with a spatula. The buttered bread sizzled merrily and I could see some tuna and cheese drip out the side of the front-burner sandwich. The counter by the stovetop was populated by a mob of stacked vegetable and tuna cans, plus a blue-and-white china cat that stood sentinel next to my dad’s right elbow.

“I love it so much,” I gushed, going on to tell him about the spring internship I’d landed in the school’s art museum. We’d occasionally Skype or talk on the phone during the school year, but for the most part, it was my mom who heard my tiny success stories, my weekend outings with friends, and my sleep-deprived croaks as I struggled through papers. My dad had fielded one stress-call to me, at four in the morning during freshman year. I knew his time zone lent to him being up long before myself, and, with a tear-streaked face, I’d called him at (my) four AM, six hours before my first calculus exam. He’d seemed surprised, stuttering his first responses to my phone-muffled sniffles, but talked me calmly through a snack and a study strategy before hanging up. He texted me a half-hour later to see if I was alright, and to remind me to get some sleep. I don’t think I replied. Fortunately, this was not his full image of me in college. He and my mom had both been initially wary when I’d decided to change my major from biology to studio art, but my dad had warmed up to the news pretty well. He’d asked me for prints of some of my drawings to hang in his home.

When he brought our plates over to the table, I had to move several stacks of seasonal napkins to the floor to accommodate for the simple fact of our meal. “Can I just throw these out?” I asked, placing turkey-and-fall-leaf napkins on top of ones punched in the shape of Valentine’s Day candy hearts.

“No, we can save them for their holidays, and then we won’t have to buy new ones,” he replied simply.

“No one lives in this house anymore. It goes on the market soon. That’s why we’re cleaning it. No one is going to use the napkins, unless you want them to be the bonus prize for buying the house or something, like it’s a cereal box.”

My dad dropped his sandwich. “That is enough attitude from you, Leah Rose. I see you two times a year, maybe, and this is how you behave, when you’re practically an adult? Walking into this house like you know what’s best for it, like you know better than me, when you haven’t been here for years?”

I shrank in my seat, unable to lift my sandwich or even look up, rose to my feet, and left. My hands shook by sides as I walked to my bed, and I had to grip hard to pick up the book I’d brought to read. Unable to focus, I fell asleep with my headphones over my ears, gentle chords unable to settle my uneasy stomach.

I awoke hours before my dad the next morning, bedsheets tossed onto the floor by my overheated, sleeping subconscious. Padding to the kitchen with feet sticking to the hot floor, I listened for my dad. Still asleep. I poured myself a glass of water and retreated to my bed, pulling my laptop and a notepad in beside me. Plastic Yoda and Jar-Jar Binks watched over my shoulders from atop the headboard.

The wailing harmonica and raspy voice of Bob Dylan drowned out the creaking of the door, so I was surprised to look up see my dad standing by my side. A glance at my laptop clock told me it was 10:30 already. Instinctively, I slammed the laptop lid shut and set it down on top of the notepad. I slid my legs out from under my sheets, sat up, and turned to say something, but my dad beat me to it. “Open that back up. I love this song.” He paused. “Hey, I’m sorry about last night. This old house just has a lot of memories for me, and I have some adjusting to do.”

I nodded and opened my laptop back up. I was listening to my musical security blanket, my musical hug, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. No matter how old I got, every softly ringing pluck of a string or jangling chord, every wavering vocal note, reminded me of being picked up and spun in the air by my dad, of flopping across the backseat on the way home from the lake with him driving me steadily home. I let the contents of the notepad and my Google Chrome become visible. I was looking at Estate Sale professionals in the Tucson area.

“Whatcha got there?” My dad said patiently, as if I was drawing something in crayon at the kitchen table. I watched him stiffen up and bristle as he saw the notepad’s heading, and the growing list of phone numbers below.

I looked up at him, being sure to make eye contact. “I don’t think we can do this alone. The house thing. Not even in more than three days.” He averted his eyes, staring instead at the Mickey and Minnie Mouse figurines at the foot of the bed. “I know everything there means something to you, and I don’t really know what, but I think you should go through, take the things that mean the most to you, like, a few things, and we hire someone to sell off the rest.” I stared down so I didn’t have to see him leave the room, but I heard the stomp in his steps.

I laid back and let Bob sing to me. For the first time since my preteen Top 40 rebellion, the music seemed grating, with searing harmonica slides and crunchy vocals. I shut my laptop with my foot, drank the last sip of water from my cup, and hurried to the kitchen to find my dad hunched over the stove, flipping pancakes, a plate of burnt-black ones on the counter at his elbow. When he heard my footsteps, he turned around, his face red. I couldn’t tell if he’d been fuming with anger or crying. There was a plastic shopping bag on the counter. He’d bought something. I silently prayed that it was just food.

Wordlessly, he flipped two browned cakes onto a clean plate and held it out to me. There were already two forks on the table, a bottle of that sugary plastic fake maple syrup, and a jar of peanut butter. He’d remembered that I like to eat pancakes like peanut butter toast. I hung my head as I accepted the plate and dragged my feet across the hardwood floor to the table. A minute or so later, he sat down across from me at the table. “Do you remember me singing Corinna to you as a baby?” he asked, not looking up as he speared a cake with his knife and began to slice.

“I think of you every time I hear it,” I replied.

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.