And this one is about 500 “words” longer than my daily quota requires.. so to compensate (and to accommodate my lazy-weekend loving self), tomorrow’s update might be a little on the short side.
We were visiting Grammy and Grampy in Florida one summer when I was maybe three or four years old. Their little house stood on a grassy plot with leagues of stately, looming trees and clumps of gray Spanish moss dangling from skeletal, and otherwise bare, branches. There were so many trees – Evergreens, Pines, Palms – that the property was perpetually dark, and the gray Spanish moss, with its thick, long, lacy strands that resembled an old man’s beard, made everything look ancient, decrepit and creepy. The house itself belonged to my Aunt Frances, the oldest-looking woman I’ve ever seen. Her hair was a dull, grayish white and remarkably wiry. Her teeth were stained a soft yellow and she stood in such a way that it appeared her shoulders supported her head more than her neck did. She wore soft cotton pants and floral, loosely buttoned shirts, and she may have changed her outfit once every week or two. Her hands were prune-like, wrinkled in the same way a small child’s hands are when submersed in water for too long.
She owned multiple properties, choosing for herself a small, weathered house in the very backyard of the house my grandparents were renting. I remember how I would wake up early in the morning, tiptoe my way out the back door of Grammy’s house, carefully move around the porch’s creaky screen door and run across the yard into the dusty, smelly, wobbly house of Aunt Frances. Often, my brother Bobby would come with me. We would knock on her door and it felt like Aunt Frances took centuries making her way to the back of the house. We watched her curiously through the hazy screen door until it opened. Her voice would greet us in a high-pitched tone, and she rarely called us by name. I wonder, now, if she was so old that she couldn’t remember our names.
She always had Cokes in the fridge and gave them out generously. Bobby invariably accepted them and I, too, rarely said no. I still question if Cokes were the only item in her kitchen that hadn’t gone bad.
The house itself was dark and musty, and with each breath I inhaled it felt like another thick layer of dust had settled into my lungs. The curtains that dressed the windows were a pastel pink color and made of heavy material. They were never closed all the way or opened fully. They allowed just enough room for the sun to peek into the house for a few hours during the day and maintained enough dark corners for Aunt Frances to hide in and peer outside, unknown.
Aunt Frances had, like most stereotypical, creepy aunts, lots of cats. I most vividly remember the orange cats, with streaks of white running down their furry foreheads and dripping from their tails. I remember walking through mulberry bushes off to the side of her house, screaming when bees or wasps would cluster around the berries I wanted and picking berries to eat them as I explored further into the tall bushes. I would often see cats creep into the bushes early on in the day and stalk out from them late into the evening.
Aunt Frances (she’s actually our great aunt) also had a son, Frankie. His most outstanding characteristic was being the biggest cheap skate you’d ever meet. For our birthdays, Uncle Frankie would direct his mother to give us strange presents: an opened box of crayons, an individual packet of pizza sauce, a dingy clothe. Aunt Frances let Uncle Frankie control her budget entirely. She died a millionaire; he inherited it. Now, he is in a nursing home, living as though he were penniless.
One sunny afternoon, Grammy took Bobby and I out into the backyard. I still remember the details; what it felt like, what it looked like. There was a deep blue sky, and a slight breeze that wasn’t necessarily cool or warm… just pleasant. The trees were very green and crowded themselves around the edge of the yard, leaving one circle of yellow-tinted grass open in the middle. In this flat area, scorched by the sun, Grammy placed our “kiddy pool.” We had the time of our lives in that pool. Girlfriends would come over and we were mermaids. Bobby and I would play in the pool together and we would become sharks or, occasionally, pirates. The pool got dirty quickly (with the frequent trips from the pool to the house and back muddying our feet), and on this particular afternoon, after the pleasure of emptying the pool out by crushing its bendy walls to the ground, Grammy gave me permission to re-fill the pool with nice, clean water. It was a special honor, and a token that I was growing up into being a responsible, trustworthy toddler.
I held the forest-green hose between my small hands, directing its forceful flow first into the middle of the pool and then the outer edges of the pool, making zigzags and splashes that caused Bobby to squeal with delight. Suddenly, we both heard a door slam and watched, frozen and wide-eyed, as Frankie came storming towards us from Aunt Frances’ house. “You kids better stop running that water!” He hollered, spitting “that” and “water” out so quickly that it sounded like one word. Thawater.
“We can use as much water as we want, FRANKIE!” I shouted back at him, the indignation apparent in my three-year-old voice. My grandmother flew out of her seat and hurried over to hush me, quickly pulling the hose from my hands and whispering to Bobby and me that we could still play in the shallow water… the half-way filled up pool. She turned the faucet off quietly and compliantly and set the hose onto the ground.
Frankie shook his head, glaring at me. He gave Grammy a cool look, too, and then he retreated. I turned my eyes to Grammy who had resumed sitting in the foldout lawn chair. She had her hand strapped to her mouth, and although she was trying desperately not to, she was laughing hysterically. I sensed her amusement and understood it as an approval of what I had said to Frankie. I smiled and turned my head to look at Bobby. He was sitting in the grass now, legs crossed, crying – his favorite floatie turned upside down and thrown behind him.
Chapter 4 The Buzz
I took another swig from the glass and nestled my head into the back of my seat. The cool liquid bathed my throat with a citrus flavor and funneled down into the oblivion of my body. A warm, tingling sensation played around my heart and I was enjoying the feeling. The flight attendants hadn’t made any follow-up visits to ask how I had enjoyed my pretzels or to see how the wine was taking its effect. I was glad to be left alone. A woman had been assigned to the seat next to mine, and I found her to be quite extravagant and boring. She wore (from head to toe) a costly looking headband with little white pearls arranged along the length of it, a beautiful, multi-colored scarf, a red, wool sweater, tight-fitting blue jeans and black stilettos. What idiot wants to sprint through the airport wearing heels? I thought inwardly. I had glanced over at her when she first sat down and had noticed her painted face smiling at mine. I hadn’t paid any attention to her since, preferring to be left to my own thoughts.
I had my head leaned back to rest against the seat and my glass of Moscato D’Asti gripped firmly in my right hand when I felt a nudge on my shoulder. I raised my head to look over; the woman with the painted face was staring at me as though she had seen a ghost.
“I’m very, very sorry to bother you,” she said in a low tone, “but I’ve never flown before and I am absolutely terrified.”
That explains the heels, I mused to myself. “Okay?” I gave her a quizzical look. “I’m sorry. Is there some way I can help-?”
“Yes,” she breathed, “would you please pour some of that wine into my glass? I think it will help calm me down a little.”
She held up an empty, white, cellophane cup that must have been filled with tap water moments before. She looked at me expectantly.
I was baffled; did she really want me to just give her half of my overly priced airplane Moscato?
“Sure.” I shrugged, too surprised by her audacity to say no. She smiled brightly and raised her hand higher as I tipped my glass and we both watched as the sparkling, gold-hued juice spilled into her cellophane cup.
“Thank you very much!” she chirped, and her demeanor toward me changed instantly. She turned her body away from mine, withdrew her smile, and sipped leisurely on the wine. My wine. She looked as complacent as every other passenger on the plane, and as calm as I had seen her when she first sat down, before I ordered my drink.
I thought a word and didn’t say it out loud.
In the late spring of 1994, my family went to the beach. It was a profound experience for me; I had never seen the ocean and was about to meet it, face-to-face. Aunt Debbie, my father’s sister from Ohio, was visiting with us at the time. Bobby had been having headaches for weeks, ones that even Excedrin couldn’t ward off, and my family predicted that the fresh beach air and happy beach sunshine would be good for both of us. We had piled into the car to drive to St. Pete Beach, located on the western coast of Florida. We began noticing seagulls circling in the air above us as we neared the beach. We gazed outside of our windows and watched pine trees swaying and bending under the powerful, sensual influence of a coastal breeze. The drive was pleasant enough, but as soon as dad had the car in park, we had already unstrapped our seatbelts and were using our hands to tug on the doors. Everyone was excited.
The sand was a beige color, hot on my bare feet. I looked around at the other boys and girls near me, the boys with footballs and Frisbees,
the girls with bright red buckets and mini-sized shovels, building castles just to crush them, carving their names in the sand just for them to be washed away later on in the day.
I took another step forward and let out a shriek. I peered down and saw what had injured me: all along the ground were seashells. Some were beautifully colored, and all of them had their own definite shape and peculiar features. These were perfect seashells. I plopped onto the ground and examined the bottom of my foot; a sharp piece of a broken seashell had become lodged into the skin. The area looked swollen and blood trickled out of it slowly. I began crying and was too afraid to pluck it out. My Aunt Debbie had been following behind me, chatting casually with my mom. She came running over when she heard me cry and, understanding the situation immediately, hugged me as she tore the shard out of my foot. “That one must have been hiding under the sand!” she made an angry face. “Do you want me to beat it up, Rose?” I stopped crying and shook my head. “Are you sure?” her voice was squeaky and sounded uncertain, like she thought the right thing to do would be to break the broken shard into millions of pieces. I nodded my head again and started to laugh.
“You can’t break it, Aunt Debbie! It’s already broke.”
She smiled back at me.
“ ‘sides,” I looked down at the instrument of pain lying in my hand,
“I don’t want it to hurt.”
She nodded her head, like she, too, had already changed her mind about getting even with the broken seashell.
I continued walking, more carefully now, of course, towards the ocean. I passed a white net, stretched out between two poles, and a group of young teenagers shouting and hitting a ball back and forth over it. I saw lots of women lying in chairs, wearing sunglasses, staring up at the sky. I looked up with them, but didn’t see anything unusual or interesting. I watched a brown dog, with wet fur and sandy paws, lapping up ocean water and giggled to myself. Continuing my march forward, the overflowing pool of water, called the ocean, came directly into my view. I ran towards it, my wobbly legs making barely audible thuds on the beach’s sand carpet; I threw myself into the water and I felt its coldness splash all over my legs. I walked against the resistance, hurling myself into its cold body, laughing, and felt the chill spread up to my chest. I plunged forward, into a wave, and became wet all over. And then I couldn’t breathe.
The next thing I knew, my Aunt Debbie was carrying me out of the water, laughing at me and scolding my parents at the same time. “You guys have never let this girl near the water, have you? Goodness! She’s lived here long enough.”