The brown blanket scratched into my
shoulders and neck and kept slipping off as I negotiated drags of my cigarette
in the parking lot of a mom-and-pop convenience store somewhere on an empty
stretch of I-24, just past Paducah. It was dusk and there was no neon in the
dirt-caked windows. I didn't want to stay too close to Bambi's silver station
wagon, but there wasn't much room to pace between the small gravel lot and
menacing pine forest. The three inches of snow on the ground was just enough to
soak through my leather skate shoes. I paced, asking myself why I'd agreed to
come down, incredulous she would make me stand outside in the middle of
nowhere. There could be rapists in the woods. Chainsaw serial killers.
Sawed-off-shotgun rednecks. If someone threw a potato sack over my head, she
probably wouldn't notice.
All I'd needed to
do was cough, and I could have stayed in the heated car. If Verissimo had known
I was with Bambi, he would have gotten off the phone. I hadn't realized my vow
of silence if Verissimo called included a tacit agreement to get out of the
car. But with what I know about my mom, I should have guessed.
I wasn't surprised
when her phone rang and she snapped, "Don't make a sound," before answering.
Happy for a chance to not be engaged with her myself, I watched the icicles
hanging from the evergreens as we sped by. I was surprised when she veered onto
the next off ramp, which had no signs for gas stations or restaurants, pulled
into a poorly lit parking lot, and violently motioned me out of the car with a
death glare when I dared part my lips. I almost spoke anyway, then didn't,
grabbing the blanket from the backseat, returning my own death glare, which she
ignored. I gave the passenger door a good slam.
concrete crews that do work for places like Disney, Universal Studios, and
fancy resorts across Florida. He works eighty-plus hours a week and is
available strange hours, since Disney cannot have people pouring and shaping
concrete while the parks are open, since everything Disney is always magical
and never mundane.
Verissimo. When his special ring tone sounds, the world stops. Waiters are told
to come back later, movie theaters are evacuated, body parts are left unwashed
and dripping. She wakes while pretending she wasn't asleep. I can only imagine
the lies her groggy mind must concoct to explain the confusion in her voice, "Hello? Huh? What? Oh... no... no. I wasn't asleep. No, don't go. No. I'm not
sleeping. I was just... trying to figure out this crossword puzzle. Do you know a
four-letter word for 'gastropod'? No? Ok. So, how are you?"
cigarettes, I was finally allowed back in the car.
spent the trip looking out the passenger window or gripping the steering wheel,
listening to Bambi talk. She's a talker. My ex-fiancé once described it as "no
unexpressed thought." Perhaps this is what being an elementary school teacher
turns you into: a babbling machine. The data suggest that you can't just tell
students to do something, you must explain how you do things, how you reach
conclusions, your own thought process.
She mostly talked
about Verissimo and how he worked too much and how much she loved him and his name
because Verissimo means "truth" and my father was such a horrible liar. I gave
small pieces of advice where I could, but mostly muttered "uh huh," "yeah," "for real?" and "right?"
When we reached Bambi's triple-wide
trailer in the retirement community where I'd once spent the uncomfortable
summer before college, when I wasn't even sure I wanted to go to college, the
house was as I remembered it: sand yard patchy with weeds and fire ants, sink
hole that had been filled in with trees that were now rotting and caving in,
cigarette butts and miscellaneous trash peppering the sand, mildew breeding on
the brown siding, creaking wooden steps leading into crumb-and hair-covered
carpets you should not tread on without shoes, yellowed wallpaper from years of
my father, brother, and me smoking inside, kitchen floor coated in dirt and
crumbs and sticky splotches. My grandmother was watching movies and playing
Super Nintendo in her room at the back of the house, only coming out to make
salads and refill her 42-oz insulated Coke mug that surely had mold growing
under the lid and in the straw. My younger brother was cocooned in his room,
talking to people online, smoking cigarettes and pot. My great grandfather was
lying on his side on the living room couch, holding my beat-up baby doll,
waiting to die, with his wife in a blue faux marble urn on a table behind his
back. Bambi's master bedroom was
decorated in burgundies and pinks, with dusty candles, knickknacks, and photos
of her parasailing, snorkeling, and riding rollercoasters at theme parks lining
every smooth surface.
We left for the Keys the next
afternoon, but not before Bambi had packed her station wagon full of beach
chairs, umbrellas, towels, water shoes, coolers, sun block, bottled water,
snorkeling gear, and her six-person tent (even though we planned to stay in a
motel). I crammed one bathing suit, a couple changes of clothes, cigarettes,
and a few books I knew I wouldn't get to read into my backpack. It was
Christmas Day, but that's really beside the point.
a four-to-six-hour drive from Lake Wales to Key Largo, depending on traffic. There isn't much of anything from
Highway 60 to Yeehaw Junction, just the usual expanses of dirt grass and
evergreen forests, with occasional trailer parks visible from the highway. Once
you hit I-95, billboards sprout up, mostly pro-life admonishments and ads for
outlet malls and trucker strip bars. You skirt Miami, a baffling city with
crud-encrusted palm trees, then you're stuck on US-1, a sad, one-lane highway
with occasional passing zones, hoping no one in front of you breaks down or
causes an accident.
crawled down US-1 while Bambi mourned the inevitable. I finally asked. "What
are you so afraid of? Do you really think people will know the difference? What
do you expect? Little men in fanciful hats to run out of the bushes, pointing and
laughing when it hits midnight?" She laughed and agreed that wasn't likely.
I woke up the next morning sweating
under a scratchy, cigarette-burned comforter in a crappy motel near Key Largo,
woozy from too much driving and fast food. It was D-Day, and I needed to put on
a good face. We were scheduled for a scuba-diving course at John Pennekamp
State Park the next day, something I had no predilection for whatsoever, but
had to take, like rabies series. Bambi decided on breakfast then kayaking in
the Gulf of Mexico at Bahia Honda State Park since it was only a ninety-minute
When we reached
Bahia Honda, the palm trees were all curving down, fronds flapping wildly. A
construction paper notice greeted us outside the weather-stripped grey wood rental/concession
stand: "Due to weather conditions, only experienced kayakers may rent boats
today." I pointed out the sign to Bambi, who smirked and shrugged. Inside, the
woman repeated the sign's assertion, and my mother assured her we were
experienced. The woman looked at me, so I grimaced and shook my head, tempted
to verbally confirm, no, we're not experienced, I've never been in a kayak,
haven't been in a canoe in a decade, who knows when she was in one last, and I don't want to go out into an angry sea
with a madwoman.
I kept my mouth
carried the kayak to the beach, but then my mother remembered something
important she'd left in the car, though it's more likely she went to call
Verissimo. I sat down on a splintering wood parking block to smoke a cigarette,
bright red kayak next to me, feet in the white sand. A wetsuited Frenchman,
who'd been windsurfing, pulled into shore and carried his board over to where I
sat. He wanted to know if we were experienced. I assured him we were not.
"Well, if you're going to go out, paddle
south, against the wind. That way, when you get tired, you can let the wind and
tide bring you back in."
I was embarrassed,
but had to ask the crucial question. "Which direction is south?" I never
learned north, south, east, and west. If I think really hard, I can sometimes
figure it out, provided the sun is highly visible. My ex-fiancé tried to teach
me once. He put "N" "S" "E" "W" on post-it notes on the walls in my office.
Before the day was out, I'd quit noticing the squares.
"That way, away
from the island. Paddle out that way, against the wind."
He skipped towards
the concession stand, and I shoved my cigarette butt into the sand. Maybe I
wouldn't die on my mother's fortieth birthday after all.
Bambi returned four cigarettes later, I told her what the Frenchman had said,
and she agreed with the plan. But as soon as we got out a ways from the beach,
she spotted the island due north and wanted to go explore.
I squinted at the
island, "No way, dude, that ain't what the Frenchman said."
"Come on, it's not
too far away. We can make it." She tried to point the kayak towards the island.
I paddled against her.
"Come on. It's my
birthday. I'm telling you, we can make it over there in no time. What're you afraid of?" Was she
"Getting too far
out and being too tired to get back in. Look at us. Besides being
inexperienced, we're both a good thirty pounds overweight. It's a terrible
idea." She pulled her oars out of the water and pouted.
I looked at the island,
looked at her, looked at the shore, and decided that if your mom wants to jump
off a bridge, you might as well. I sighed. "Fine." She immediately perked up
and placed her oars back in the water. I couldn't let her off that easy, "But
if we get too far out, you're
bringing us in."
"No problem at
all. I'm not afraid."
Maybe my mother wasn't afraid of
kayaking, but she sure was scared of a number. Forty, forty, big bad forty.
That is perhaps one of the biggest differences between us. I'm afraid of practical
things like being an inexperienced kayaker who blatantly disregards the advice
and warnings given to us by people who know better. My mother is afraid of
intangibles like being forty. I don't see forty today being all that different
from thirty-nine yesterday. I suppose I can almost understand the distaste for
forty when one is forty going on fifteen, but still, a number doesn't really
affect anything other than mammograms and colonoscopies.
Growing up, I
thought my mother knew everything about everything, since that was how she
presented herself: no arguments. She had me in church at least three days a
week, and there were a few nonsequential years she home-schooled me and my
brother because the public schools were ruining our good Christian souls. But
over time, all of that changed. By high school, I refused to go to church. I
knew my father was an alcoholic. I knew my mother had painted a false reality
to live in. I knew more than I wanted to know.
Then came the
years of insufferability. I couldn't stand the sight of my mother and her
delusions or my drunk, failing father. I hung out with friends and listened to
alternative music and cursed. I skipped school. I drank. I pondered the meaning
of life in the way only a teenager can do. I did drugs. I tried meditation,
then ditched it; existentialism, then ditched it. I never joined a school of
thought, terrified of blindly repeating someone else's bullshit like my
After high school,
my family moved from Southern Illinois to Florida. I hated everything Florida.
I hated how the buildings, roads, and land looked dirty and dry. I hated the
endless processions of retirement communities, particularly the one where I had
to live. I hated that I never once saw anyone but me and my grandmother reading
I went to college
to get away from my family and Florida.
My parents split.
My mother started clubbing all the time. Five nights a week she was at Downtown
Disney, shaking her groove thing at 8-Trax in Pleasure Island. She didn't
drink. She just danced all night. She lost weight. She started seeing
Verissimo. She stopped talking
about God. My perceptions of her changed. Instead of a holier-than-thou,
born-again, I'm-always-right and you're-always-wrong asshole, she was a woman
whose life had never been what she wanted. A young girl who'd never had
structure in her life, bounced back and forth between an alcoholic mom and
spoiling grandparents. A girl who foolishly married a drug person, who felt
compelled by God to make her marriage work. A girl who somewhere along the way
got the idea that marriage meant a house and car appeared overnight, who
thought she could protect her babies from the harsh realities of life by
sequestering them from the rest of humanity and only letting them out for
religious functions. A woman who at 40 was finally coming into her own, trying
to learn about relationships and how to be happy.
I was trying to be
I try to keep a
lid on things, try not to say when I'm annoyed, when someone is asking too
much. I give until I'm dirty and
dry, but once the scales tip--
After twenty minutes of paddling, I
turned back to my mom who was squinting in the sun, a goofy smile on her face. "Bambi, that island is as far away as it was when we started." There was no
break in her smile, no sign of recognition. I looked around her toward shore.
Now it seemed far away, the people two inches tall. How could the shore be so
far and the island still equally far?
"Bambi!" She looked at me. "We're not getting
She put on her Mommy/schoolteacher
voice. "Just keep paddling, we'll get there soon enough."
I sighed. The
whole thing was a stupid idea, but it was her birthday, and I'd come down from
Illinois to spend her birthday with her how she saw fit. I'd been relieved she
wanted to go to the Keys and not do another Disney vacation.
I paddled and
paddled. Pity turned into annoyance. It was my last year in college. I'd
planned to spend winter break lying around my apartment, reading books and
maybe working on my honors project. That chance was gone.
I hadn't read more
than three chapters of a book since leaving Illinois because opening a book and
placing it squarely in front of your face is not a cue my mother can pick up.
She'll talk anyway, beat on your eardrums until you give.
The best part of
kayaking was that my mother lacked coordination to the point that if she tried
to carry on a conversation while paddling, she'd probably fall overboard. After days trapped in earshot of my mother's
incessant musings, the silence was beautiful. The vast and salty Gulf of Mexico
quieted my mundane thoughts, made me peaceful and small.
Peacefulness gave way to achy
limbs. The intelligent thing would have been to turn around before getting
tired, but that didn't occur to me before my biceps started to burn. Bambi
wasn't smiling anymore. Her eyes focused on the distant island while her breath
came in short pants that synched with the rotations of her oars.
"Mom, I'm getting
tired, and that island is as far away as ever. I bet the damn thing is an easy
twenty miles from here." Having no real sense of distance, I was being
decidedly hyperbolic while staying within the realm of what I imagined to be
possible. The island could have been two, twelve, twenty, or two hundred miles
right, it really doesn't seem to be getting any closer." Finally. We could turn
around and call it a day. I wanted to be dry and alone.
the wind at our backs, I hadn't noticed how ineffectual my mother's paddling
was, but as soon as we turned, I sensed that my paddling was propelling us and
hers was doing little more than making small eddies in the waves. We weren't
making much progress. I paddled harder for a few minutes, then paused to rest
my arms. We immediately lost ground. Shore was at least a half-mile away, by my
very sincere estimate. I pushed down a panic attack. Lifting weights every day
had to be good for something. I could get us in. After a frantic burst of my
oars, we were still far from shore.
turned to my mother, who was happily dipping her oars in the sea, perfectly
unaware that she wasn't contributing to our forward motion. "Damn it Bambi,
we're a half mile out from shore. I have to paddle my hardest just to keep from
losing ground. I'm worn out, and you're not helping." She laughed. An
open-mouthed, full-throated ha ha ha ha
I snapped. "You
think this is funny? We could die out here. Why the fuck didn't you listen to
again, rolled her eyes. "Calm down. You always exaggerate. We'll be fine, just
So I paddled. I
paddled and paddled and paddled, then turned to look at the island, which
finally seemed closer. I looked back at the people on shore, inch-tall blurs
lying in the sand or playing volleyball, oblivious to the plight of two idiots
out at sea. Behind us loomed the great expanse of nothing that was the Gulf of
Mexico. If the current took us out, we wouldn't even hit the island, we'd glide
right by on our way to die thirsty deaths.
my oars, I turned half around, straining to keep my voice at a reasonable level
and pitch. "We're going to die, and it's all your fault, with your stupid
turning forty, and stupid wanting to kayak when we are totally inexperienced,
and stupid wanting to see the fucking island after the experienced
Frenchman told us not to. We are going to
die. Who knows how long it'll take anyone to notice we're gone? It's still
hours before the kayak has to be back. We could be in the middle of the Gulf by
She laughed once
more, and I wanted to smack her with my oar. "Calm down, Harmony. We'll be fine."
"We're not making
"If we can't get in
ourselves, they'll send someone after us. We're not in danger."
I shoved my hand
into my wet shorts pocket and pulled out a soaked lump of thin cardboard and
tobacco bubbling out of cellophane. "FUCK." I allowed my voice to slip nasty
and snide, but I would not allow it to grow unreasonably loud or high-pitched. "Yeah, you sit there all smug and sure. Are you nuts? Are you totally crazy?
What makes you think someone will necessarily come and get us? Who knows
how far away we'll be before someone notices we're gone? Why assume anyone will
notice at all? All it would take is one idiot employee to not notice a kayak
hasn't been returned. And even if they did notice, how long would it take
someone to find us? Will they send helicopters? How easy will we be to spot?
Idiot tourists die, mom, they die
During my tirade,
I hadn't been paddling, and we'd lost ground.
stupid. Of course someone will come help us, but I don't think we need any
help." She resumed paddling. With her solo efforts, we didn't even tread water,
but instead drifted incrementally back toward the island.
She was totally
nuts. I lost control and yelled, "Oh no no no! It is you who are stupid. If we don't do something, we really could die. I'm not saying there is a good
chance of death, but at this point, there definitely is a chance. Goddamnit."
I waved my oars at
the three-quarter inch people on shore, hoping someone would note my distress.
I screamed for help, but the words violently rammed back down my throat in the
I had an
"Look, my arms are
too tired to paddle anymore, but I've always been a strong swimmer. I'm going
to jump out of the boat and pull it back to shore."
serious, nostrils pumping double air, Mommy-speak turned to high. "No. Don't
get in the water. If you get out, you might not be able to get back in."
"Whatever. I'm the
only one here who can do a damn thing." I jumped from the kayak, toppling Bambi
into the water with me.
Okay, it was a
stupid idea. It took me a minute to get the boat righted, and I tried to get my
mom to climb back in, but she didn't think she could. She couldn't
balance. She tried again and
again. She'd get her waist onto the edge of the boat, then slip back into the
water. I held the boat steady and went around to her side.
"Here, I'm going
to help you get in."
"No, I'm getting
"Just try again,
I'll help you."
When her ass hit
the air, I held the boat with one hand and shoved her as hard as I could with
the other. She made it into the boat. I swam to the front, grabbed the point,
and started swimming furiously.
I angrily treaded
water with the boat, my swimming as ineffective as my mother's paddling. After
five minutes of futility, I heard my mother's tired voice behind me, "Give it
up, Harmony. Get back in the boat."
Without turning my
head, I responded the only way that seemed appropriate under the circumstances,
each word crisp, low, and clearly enunciated:
"Go fuck your self."
There were other times I'd thought
I might die. Riding the rusted and electrical-taped Zipper as a preteen at the
county fair. The time I'd gone inner tubing in the Black River in Arkansas with
friends and got separated, my canvas shoes tied too tight and cutting into my
ankles-- I'd pulled my inner tube from the water and started walking along the
thorn bush shore, sure that was quicker. The winter when my best friend Bethany
and I got drenched playing in the snow and then only had a room heater to cramp
around, shivering, sure I'd never get warm again. But those times, I never really
thought I'd die.
different. This time my reason said death was a possibility. I agreed with my
mother that someone should notice we were gone and come save us. But I didn't
have blind faith they would.
wasn't even old enough to buy alcohol.
I finally agreed
to get back in the boat. Treading water in waves, even with the boat to cling
to was getting to be too much. The first time I tried to get back in, the boat
flipped and sent my mom toppling. The woman has no balance. After a few botched
attempts, I got back in the boat first and pulled her in after me. I was looking
for my oars to wave at the half-inch people on shore when I heard angels
singing. I knew it was angels because it sounded exactly like the buzzing of an
engine. A little fishing dinghy was heading our way. I waved just in case.
two men inside the boat suppressed their laughter. My mother took the rescue as
our due and refused to be embarrassed at all, insisting we could have made it
back ourselves. I shook my head, watching them tie the kayak to the boat, glad
I wasn't going to die. They gently towed us to shore while I let my muscles
relax. The boat's name was lettered in the back, but the beginning of the word
had worn off to only a faint outline. There it was: Serendipity.
still had to drag the kayak back to the rental stand, where I glared at the
woman who'd rented it to us. She cracked a joke about our rescue, so my mom
reiterated that we could have gotten back just fine ourselves. I dusted the sand off my shorts onto
their display of expensive lighthouse clocks. I was cold in the heat and the
gulf salt was drying out each of my pores. My mom was chipper, asking if I
wanted to eat at the concession stand or find a restaurant. I wanted to pop her
head, but it was her birthday, and I wasn't going to die, so I suggested
finding a nice place with fresh seafood, which she loves and I won't touch.
I announced there
was no way in fuck I was going scuba diving, but I'd be happy to take pictures
We pulled into an unpainted,
bleached board restaurant and perused the menu. Bambi ordered a lemonade, but I
only wanted water, and lots of it. I could see the worry creeping back into my
mom's face, the anxiety about being old. She ordered lobster and crab and clams
and other slimy things. I ate Caesar salad. The waitress was very nice, and
while my mom was "in the bathroom"-- outside trying to call Verissimo-- I explained
the 40th birthday fear and fun, so when Bambi returned, the waitress
brought her a slice of key lime pie: real
key lime pie, which is a faint yellow color, not green at all.
mom shared her pie with me, and winked: "Well, you're right. Unless the little
men in funny hats come out on the way back to the motel, I'd say no one knows
I'm forty, except you, me, and the waitress."
The next morning Bambi bustled
about the motel room, excited about scuba diving. I was sunburned and worn out.
She acted like I'd never said I wasn't going with her. I was firm: no way, no
"It's such a good
opportunity. Most people never get to go scuba diving."
"No. You already
tried to kill me yesterday."
"You're such a
drama queen. We didn't even come close to dying."
"I don't want to
have that conversation again. I'll read while you're under."
I took about thirty pictures of her
selecting and tugging on a wetsuit. I took a few pictures of the weathered
brown instructor with shoulder-length streaky blonde hair who was the epitome
of "surfer dude," and some of her classmates, who were mostly middle-aged,
pudgy tourists. I wondered why "Scuba Diving Instructor" was never on any
career aptitude test in high school. Maybe it is an option along the coast, but
it wasn't in Illinois. I tried to imagine all of the really cool jobs in the
world that most people have never even heard of. I couldn't think of any.
They rode in the
back of a truck to the water's edge. I followed in my mom's station wagon,
getting out of the car in time to snap photos of my mother being helped down
from the truck by her instructor. I couldn't imagine walking around in a
wetsuit and fins, lugging air tanks on my back, breathing through a tube. Nope,
I was a wuss in the first degree, but there went my mother, fearless. They
lined up to go down, and my mother was one of the first to go in. On her way
down the ramp, she turned for a moment and waved before disappearing into the water.