Are We Almost There
I met you first when I was six and you
were in utero. You weren't there yet. I was six and a half and in Florida
on my first vacation by plane. In O'Hare Airport my mother gave me a spoonful of
bitter yellow Dramamine and then held me up to the drinking fountain, and the
icy metallic water got that bad taste out of my mouth. The medicine made me
drowsy, but still I was scared. How will the plane stay in the air, I asked. How
will they understand us in Florida—do they speak another language there. My
father, a kind and peaceful man, talked with great faith about engineering
matters. He talked as though he personally knew lots of engineers and liked and
admired all of them. Engineers were great men, he seemed to be saying. My
mother, who tended to scorn things, laughed at my other question. Of course they
speak English, it's not another country, she said. Everyone knows that.
These answers were pleasant, relieving—like that mouthful of cold water after
the Dramamine—but fleeting. Everything was fleeting.
We took two planes. The first plane was big, and to be in it felt like being
in a house. It was not really moving, apparently. I sat between my mother and
father in a row of three orange seats and was given a strange pillow that seemed
to be made out of paper. We got blue rubber headphones that felt like Gumby and
we listened to Bill Cosby. It was odd. Bill Cosby was not talking out loud into
the air, but separately to each one of us, only he was saying the same things.
We weren't hearing him together and yet we were. We laughed into each other's
faces at the same moments.
After that plane we took a very small plane that roared beneath us and seemed
to be going terribly fast, just faster and faster, over water. I felt that I was
trying to hold on to something, though I couldn't say what. It was getting
harder and harder to hold on, the faster and faster we went. We're almost
there, we're almost there, the grown-ups kept telling me, not only my
parents but also other adults on the plane, their kind faces leaning in as we
went faster and faster, We're almost there, we're almost there, and I
tried to hold on but finally couldn't anymore, and as we rushed in and down to
the runway, I threw up into a white bag someone held for me, and everyone
forgave me, and I was given more water and everything went back to normal.
The motel overlooked a beach of seashells, and at the end of the shells was
the water. No sand could be seen on the beach, only shells. This was rare, it
was explained to me, something to be appreciated. Not too many people knew about
this place, but we knew about it. Behind the motel was an endless hilly park
with winding paths and regularly spaced white cinder-block structures that
looked like identical, fierce little houses but which actually contained only
pipes, my father explained; I was happy to hear that, because I wouldn't have
wanted to live in one of those little houses. In the evenings, right after
dinner, sprays of water appeared everywhere, crisscrossing and arching over one
another, some tall and fine and waving like the tails of exotic birds, and some
shooting relentlessly in one direction, feeding the green dips and rises. From
our room's patio I looked, but it hurt a little—my eyes or chest or something.
The color was so deep, so wet, the hills like mounds of wet green cake. I felt
you out there somewhere, amidst all that green, but I couldn't see you, no
matter how I concentrated. If I looked away, something would move in the corner
of my eye, but when I looked back, you were never there.
But when I turned around to go back into the room there was a decal of a
diving woman on the sliding glass door, right there at my eye level, strangely,
as though someone had known I would be there to see it, and it let me know the
door was closed and I had better open it or I would bump my head. The woman wore
a pink bathing suit exactly like my mother's and the ugly white kind of bathing
cap that strapped under her chin and covered practically her whole head. She was
a little faded, peeling a little, as if she had been stuck on there for years,
though she did not appear to be an old woman. Her back arched gracefully and her
toes were pointed, still, after all this time.
After breakfast our first morning I couldn't wait to get to the beach; I must
have believed you would be there, for I'd heard the way people talked about it
all the time, the ocean, the ocean, as though it were the point of
everything. But two men were playing jarts in the gravel parking lot of the
Pancake Shack, which we had to cross to reach the path down to the water. Be
careful, those are young men, my father said, as though that alone made the
men suspicious, but they didn't look young to me—they were big men with long
hair, far away and barely moving, and I had to get to you. Watch it, don't
run across there, my mother said, jerking her arm out, but some kind of dark
light shot through me and I got under it and ran. For a moment everything
whirled whitely around me—I won!—but then something hit my head, hard,
knocked me down.
Then the grown-ups were around me again, this time less sympathetic than
they'd been on the small plane, saying Stop screaming, stop screaming,
and my hands were pried away from my eyes, and the first thing I saw was my
mother comforting the young men, who appeared devastated. I'm sorry, I'm
sorry, they kept saying, kicking at the ground as though they were angry at
the rocks and pebbles. What were they so upset about? I wondered. They didn't
even know me. My father had me by the shoulder, his face larger and closer than
I'd ever seen it before as he poked at the place between my eyes with the tip of
his index finger. It hurts! I cried. Then stand still for once! he
snapped. I couldn't believe he was so angry—either angry or sad, I thought. My
mother was just angry; she had her back turned and would talk only to the young
men, not to us. She's lucky she's not blind, everyone was saying. Close
call, they said. We returned to our room without speaking, as though we had
been watching a play and now the play was over.
That afternoon we went not to the beach but to the motel pool, where they
could watch me. I wore a butterfly-closure Band-Aid over the bridge of my nose,
importantly, though I was disappointed that the closure in no way resembled a
butterfly. Some other children were playing in the shallow end, fighting over an
inflated purple sea monster, but they were of no concern to me—some of them
were fat and looked as if they smelled, even in the clean blue water, and the
sea monster didn't even look real. It was smiling. So I took my raft to
the deep end and played alone, whispering to myself as usual, and when the wave
or whatever it was came up, I went under silently. One moment I was on top, the
canvas firm and bouncy beneath me, the world around me hot and dry and sparkly
with noise and light, and the next moment the ropes were sliding through my
fingers, leaving me, everything fleeting again, and I grabbed but there was
nothing to grab, no raft, no ropes, only the warm shapeless air—you weren't
there yet. Then I hit the wall of cold and everything went blue, time and noise
stopped, and I knew to hold my breath, but something was getting inside me, and
this time I really couldn't hold on, couldn't hold on another second.
The grown-ups got me out, tugged me up by my arms, gasping, back into the
world of sun and solid concrete. I wept but wasn't yelled at, I was a celebrity.
She knew what to do, she knew exactly what to do, they said. I was
wrapped in a white terry cloth robe and placed on a full-length lounge and given
handfuls of Kleenex and a necklace of yellow candy beads which I was suddenly
too sleepy to care about. My whole body felt pleasantly heavy, my eyes were
closing by themselves, and my palms and the soles of my feet tickled, as if
something were leaking out through them. She knew exactly what to do, the
grown-ups kept repeating, surrounding me in a circle with their lounge chairs,
and they sounded oddly proud, as though I had passed an important test. I tried
to stay awake to hear what else they would say, but the sun kept pressing me
further down and away from their voices, the distant splashes and shouts and the
scrapes of chairs playing faintly on in my ears, a reassuring soundtrack to a
dream I was starting to have, perhaps an early dream of you.
You couldn't have been far from me that day. I imagine you down near Cape
Canaveral, still underwater yourself, the rushing of rocket engines echoing in
your unformed ears, the anticipation of countdowns crackling invisibly all
around you as you waited to be born. But yours is a peaceful generation, more
patient and careful than mine, and you were probably just floating, hanging out,
probably holding so still even then that your mother had begun to doubt her own
senses, to wonder if she had imagined your very existence inside of her. And
even if you did hear me go under, somehow, by radar or however babies know what
they know before they're born, even if you made some heroic kick or twist to try
to get to me, it's probably just as well that we didn't meet at that particular
time, for I was an only child, and babies gave me the creeps, reminded me of
mushy little aliens.
I myself was an early baby, but not early enough. Four days earlier and I
would have made it. As it was, I arrived in a bad year, a year of the Fire
Horse. (I learned this decades later from a placemat at Happi Sushi.) I imagine
myself trying to kick or dig my way out in time, get myself out of the fire, so
to speak, and almost making it, but my mother, a no-nonsense woman with strong
stomach muscles, was probably as usual doing everything she could to hold me
back. But she couldn't have known about the Fire Horse. People born under the
sign of the Fire Horse were basically doomed, the placemat said. Illness,
unhappiness, and bad luck follow these individuals and all those close to them,
it said. Women in Asia born under this sign used to find it simply impossible
to find mates. (I've taken great strength from that "used to"—stored
it away and carried it around like a roll of Lifesavers in my brain.) At any
rate, once I was born there was no turning back—only forward to go, always
forward, and with only the ghost of a promise that you or some version of you
might eventually catch up with me.
But you were running behind right from the start, a late baby, I'll bet,
refusing to budge or show your face for weeks past your due date and driving
your poor mother nearly insane. So it's no surprise that the second time we met
we were still out of sync; really, it's a miracle we met at all. I was on
vacation again, always on vacation when I ran into you, always somewhere hot and
tropical, never in the cold dirty city back home.
Actually, now that I think about it, there was a boy I met once for five
seconds at a Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music Winter Singalong that might
have been you. I hated those events: crowded, steamy, smelly affairs where we
were given the sheet music to songs no one ever heard of about children in other
countries doing humorless, inexplicable things. And what was the point of
singing if we had to read the words as we went? All I cared about was the juice
and cookies afterwards, but I was allowed only two when I could easily have
eaten many more—I was like the Cookie Monster when I was supposed to be more
like Grover, who was sensitive and worried about things, but Grover got on my
This time, I was wearing a new necklace I had begged for and actually
received, an extremely realistic-looking plastic squirrel that fit perfectly in
the palm of my hand, strung on a genuine rawhide cord. The squirrel was
clutching an acorn the size of his head, but he wasn't eating the acorn, just
holding it against his white chest. His enormous brown-black eyes were wide
open, and he had just a tiny smile, as though he was very satisfied. I was stuck
in the damp noisy crush of grown-ups and children trying to get close to the
cookie table, but I was occupying myself with my squirrel, when I sensed someone
watching, breath against my skin. A little brown-haired boy was standing right
there, nearly on the toes of my sneakers. He was staring at my squirrel, and he
did not appear satisfied at all. He looked as if he was about to cry. His eyes
were as big as the squirrel's, but darker, much darker, just impossibly dark. I
gasped and grabbed automatically at my chest, but my hand hit the squirrel
instead. And then it was as if I had no choice. I had to give it to him. It was
going to kill me to give it to him, but I had to give it to him. I pulled it off
fast, as I would with a Band-Aid so it wouldn't hurt as much or for as long, and
pushed it into his hands. He looked startled, even terrified, but his hands were
holding onto it tightly and he didn't say anything, and then my mother was
suddenly there and I was led away. She did not seem to have seen the boy, and
she never asked about the squirrel, so I wondered later if I had imagined the
whole episode. I'm still not sure. But maybe that wasn't even you—I really
didn't see him long enough to know.
I'm positive about the other time, though, the tropical vacation. It was
Easter, and I was with my parents in Cancún, Mexico, before people knew about
it; we were always going places that were going to be big someday but only we
knew about them. The island was just a strip then, hotels and discos on one
side, wild land and water reservoir on the other where my parents could go look
at birds through binoculars. I was twelve and found that hobby boring, pathetic,
embarrassing, and pitiable. Nature had become slightly disgusting, unnatural.
Our room at the El Presidente filled with appalling bugs each night, some the
size of small animals. I did not think it unreasonable to scream at the sight of
these, but the third or fourth time I did it my father actually began shaking
me, gripping my skinny shoulders and yelling, "Do you need a psychiatrist!"
He let go after a moment, not seeming to expect an answer, and I sank into
tearful, rattled silence. No one had ever talked about psychiatrists before. I
did not want a psychiatrist. I wanted a tan, a true, sinister tan and all that
went with it, all they could not begin to comprehend, all that would bring me
closer to you.
Don't overdo it on the first day, my mother warned, but I ignored her
and took my raft—not the same raft I'd had in Florida but a silvery rubber
reflector one designed to tan my hidden crevices without my having to expose
them—out into the Caribbean. The day was brilliant, the sun larger and hotter
than it had been in Florida or ever was up north, the waves small and salty and
easy to negotiate, and the further out I got the shinier and more beautiful
everything became. Nothing was required of me, nothing scrutinized. I slept out
there for hours, dreaming of nothing at all.
When I came in that evening I was full of forgiveness: My father, mother,
even the bugs, were no longer a problem. I was finally, thoroughly warm. My eyes
were warm. My body was perfect. I was a gift, a free-floating charm, gold and
silver and ready to go. I floated through dinner at the hotel restaurant,
smiling at the Spanish-speaking waiters and busboys, who smiled back as though
we shared a secret, and I smiled at my shiny face and hair in our bathroom
mirror over a sink full of beautiful glittery slow-moving gnats, and I fell into
sleep between starched white sheets, still smiling.
I dreamed that a train was trying to run over my finger, and I woke up
vomiting. She overdid it, my mother said, somewhere behind me, and I let
loose again and was wiped with clean towels and wrapped in clean sheets and when
I woke up later the first thing I saw was a small green bottle of Wink soda,
which I had never heard of but which I drank and which was so alarmingly good
that tears came to my eyes. I was freezing cold and dying of thirst. "You
overdid it," my mother said from the doorway. "We're going
birdwatching, see you later."
I ate a salty ham sandwich which had been left on a paper plate beside the
Wink and decided to be gone when my parents returned. I was shaky getting into
my clothes, but I looked great. My face gave off an unearthly pink glow, making
my eyes appear greener in contrast, and my legs, coming out of white cutoffs,
while not as brown as I'd hoped, seemed animated from within. They moved
friskily against one another in the elevator as though of their own accord.
The lobby shocked me. The elevator doors opened, and it was as though I'd
been sleepwalking and was now shaken awake, the way people aren't supposed to
be, mid-stride. Pillars I hadn't noticed before rose up whitely around me,
larger than any pillars I'd ever seen, leading up to the stucco ceiling a
hundred miles away. Tinted glass walls let in the blue glare of ocean and sky
and the painful silvery flash of cars parked in the lot. But I'd been through
here a dozen times already, so why were my ears ringing, my stomach dropping, at
the sight of these things? The elevator, I thought desperately, the
sunstroke, but neither was it. Mexican people moved around me at a regular
pace, wearing pants and shirts and speaking Spanish to one another in ordinary
tones, as though nothing unusual were happening. No one glanced at me, which
made the sensation worse.
I was having a flashback of a dream I'd had the year before, perhaps even
precisely one year ago, I thought, and my stomach dropped deeper. In the dream
I'd been in the white-and-glass lobby of a hotel, this lobby or one exactly like
it, my mother and father somewhere in the background, and it had been a bright,
still day just like this one, with crowds of people milling around, guests of
the hotel and workers carrying stacks of clean white towels, and then word came
that the nuclear bomb had been dropped. The news did not come over a radio or by
anyone announcing it, it just came, as things do in dreams, and although the day
was continuing brightly and evenly on without smoke or noise, the people began
quietly dying all around me, guests and workers alike lying down on the carpeted
platforms near the check-in desk or sinking into the bland lobby armchairs,
giving in to the invisible radiation or poison that was everywhere. Nobody
screamed or reached out to each other, they just lay down, one by one,
everywhere I looked, and just as it occurred to me that I was still alive, my
stomach began to ache, and I knew that meant the end. I got down on the floor on
my back and closed my eyes, hoping the end would come quickly or miss me
altogether, thinking I was already dead, but there was no tricking the end, no
getting around it. It was not a person or even in any way personal. A siren of
two alternating tones came on in my head, my hands and feet began to tingle and
burn, and I felt myself shrunken and translucent, moving upward through my body,
then coming up like a sweater over my own head. Then there was just darkness,
and the siren over and over for what seemed like forever.
It had taken me weeks to recover from that dream, my stomach clenching and my
hands and feet burning whenever I heard a police siren, and now it was finally
upon me. My head filled with an awful rushing pressure, some enormous wave
rising and breaking before my eyes, but then, just as I surrendered to it, a
voice off to my left said, "Hey." I blinked and opened my eyes and
there you were.
A skinny brown-haired boy about my size was sitting in one of the armchairs.
He was very dark—might have been Mexican but his eyes were blue—and he was
staring directly at me. But unlike the boy at the singalong, this boy didn't
appear needy. He appeared unalarmed, expectant. He was just looking at me,
expecting me to say something.
"You know that song, `The Tide Is High?'" I said.
"Yeah," he said. His voice was deep, like a teenager's, though he
looked no older than me.
"I love that song," I said and immediately felt my face
burn, though he did not seem taken aback. "I mean I like it, it's
cool," I said quickly.
"Yeah," he said. He turned and gazed out the window at a family
with several children getting out of a station wagon, but he didn't seem to be
in any hurry to leave. His skinny arms rested on the fat arms of the chair.
"Is that your family?" I asked. "Do you have to go?"
He shook his head. "I'm here with my high school. We have chaperones,
but they don't care what we do. They let us party in their room. We went to a
disco, and they were dancing on the tables."
"Chaperones?" I said. "What is that, is that Spanish?"
"No, they're just teachers," he said. "From my school. But
it's not illegal or anything, there's no drinking age here, you know? So they
can't get in trouble. It's cool, I guess." He looked tired, suddenly,
almost sad. "You take one of those motorbikes yet?"
"Motorbikes, no," I said.
"We can rent one," he said and seemed to perk up a bit. He sat up
in the armchair and leaned forward, wringing his hands together between his
knees, his eyes fixed on mine. "It only costs a dollar for the whole day,
and you can ride to the end of the island."
"We're allowed to just go and rent one?" I said. "How long
does it take to get to the end of the island? This is like a motorcycle?"
"No, motorbike," he said. "It's smaller than a
motorcycle. It's fun. Let's go, come on." He jumped up and stood there,
waiting, apparently only for me.
"They just let kids rent them?" I said. I wanted him to give me a
sign, though I could not have said what kind.
"Yeah, it's safe and everything," he said. "I'm
fourteen," he added uncertainly.
"Really?" I said. It was amazing. Fourteen was so old, but he
didn't look old at all. It was as if he had just been sitting there waiting,
perhaps refusing to move or get any bigger until I got there, but how could he
have known me, or known that I would arrive at that moment? I wanted to ask, but
he had turned and was already heading for the sliding glass doors.
I hurried up behind him. Already I couldn't picture his face. "Where are
you from?" I asked.
"New Jersey," he said. "My name's Jamie."
"New Jersey," I repeated tonelessly. I didn't know anyone from New
Jersey, New Jersey meant nothing to me, I got no mental picture whatsoever. I
felt fine, though, oddly. The day held still all around us, silent and almost
unbearably bright as we stepped out into it.
But the ride was loud and fleeting; we could not speak over the motor, and I
had to concentrate on too many things at once. Jamie seemed happy steering us
along, his hair blowing back against my cheek, but I was kept busy hanging onto
his wiry torso and holding my feet up and figuring out where to position my
head. Scenery whipped greenly, gloriously by around us, but I was missing most
of it. At one point something large and white tumbled suddenly into our path,
and I shut my eyes, waiting for the crash, but there was just a hollow thumping
sound and we kept going. "What was that?" I screamed. "Lamp
shade!" Jamie yelled, in his deep voice. Then he said something else, but I
couldn't hear him.
"What did you say?" I shouted. "It made you nervous?"
"No, I said I ran over it on purpose!" he yelled.
When we got to the tip of the island we just turned around, unceremoniously,
and started back. The wooden heel of my platform sandal nicked the ground on our
turnaround and got a chip taken out of it, my fault for not lifting my foot in
"Some of the other kids are going swimming tonight," Jamie said,
back at the El Presidente. We were idling in the parking lot. I got off the
bike, my legs vibrating.
"You're inviting me," I said. "When?"
"Later," he said vaguely, looking off at something across the road.
His eyelashes were the longest I'd ever seen on a boy, black and perfectly
straight, and I suddenly remembered the squirrel boy but thought, No,
couldn't be, his eyes were brown. I looked where he was looking, following
an imaginary line in the air that started with his eyelashes, but I didn't see
anything out there in the brush. When I looked back at him, he had already
turned around and was pushing off with his foot, wobbling a little as he pulled
Everything I touched back in our room—the light switch, dresser handles,
even a glass—gave me a small, audible shock, though the room was too humid for
static. The vibrating in my legs had not stopped. I tried to imagine his face
again, but already it was fading, and the more I tried, the more elusive it
became, like trying to picture infinity. Yet I sensed more strongly than ever
that we were almost there, I only had to wait a little longer. I put on my
bikini and sat on the edge of the bed, shivering with sunburn. There were only a
few more hours to go. The room hummed; I was ready.
"Are you ready to go to Chichén Itzá?" my mother asked. We were
at dinner; I'd had to get dressed again. She took a large bite of mole chicken,
her cheek bulging out as she chewed it. I watched the bulge, disgusted,
uncomprehending. Chichén Itzá. What was she saying, was she speaking
another language? But then I remembered. We were going to see the Mayan ruins—
important rocks. We were leaving that evening, renting a car.
"I don't want to go," I said.
"You have no choice," my father said. He had already finished and
was pushed back a few inches from the table, his eyes half-closed, his napkin
wadded on his empty plate. You have no choice.
I've often wondered if what I did at the ruins was in some way responsible
for how things turned out between you and me, but there doesn't seem to be any
logical, scientific way of proving it. I stole a rock. Not a regular rock from
the ground, but a reddish, gumball-sized fragment of the ruins themselves. I
picked it up for no reason and put it in my jean-jacket pocket, where it rode,
forgotten, back home with me, and I saved it for years, though it was not
impressive or even significant-looking. Still, taking it had definitely been
against the rules. Signs had been posted everywhere, in Spanish and English, but
I had paid no attention to the signs. The ruins were so enormous, after all,
unfathomably large, and the red stones and pebbles covered everything as far as
a person could walk or see, like snow. And the piece I took was so tiny, I could
not see how it could be considered stealing. What were they worried about,
anyway, I wondered—whoever "they" were. That eventually, stone by
stone, the entire Mayan ruins would be taken away? That was simply not rational.
Nevertheless, I didn't mention what I'd done to anyone until college, when,
drunk one night, I confessed to a guy I knew who majored in anthropology and
kept his deceased Border collie's skull, which he'd boiled and cleaned himself,
in his truck's glove compartment—he seemed like someone who might not be
bothered by certain things. "That's it?" he said when I told him.
"Everyone does that."
"Really?" I said. I felt suddenly and inexplicably relieved.
I had not believed myself to be genuinely concerned.
"Absolutely," he said. "Every single person I know who's been
there has done that." He stared at me then, considering. "You are the
only person I know who took it so seriously, though," he said.
Either way, cursed or not, when we returned to Cancún, Jamie was gone. We'd
been away only three days, but it seemed like centuries. I looked for him
everywhere—by the pool, in the lobby, up and down corridors on every floor, my
heart pounding and my hands sweating so badly I had to keep going back to the
room and washing them, but there was no evidence of him anywhere. Nothing even
looked familiar. After a while, I wasn't sure whether it would be more of a
relief to see him or not to see him. I couldn't imagine how I would act if I
finally found him, what I would say. The motorbike ride now seemed a brief, hazy
dream. I was working myself up into a tizzy, my mother would have said. Yet I
couldn't believe it was over so quickly, that he hadn't left some sign.
Finally, I remembered the high school, the chaperones—they had to be
real. But the clerk at the front desk was Mexican, and it would be difficult to
communicate with him; I hadn't paid attention when my father had checked us in,
and now I was sorry. I didn't know Spanish but was prepared to use a kind of
sign language: I would hold my hair up and away from my face so I resembled a
boy, Jamie. He was writing something in Spanish in a ledger as I stepped up.
I spoke loudly, clearly, and slowly. "I'm trying to find someone I
know," I said.
"Yes, can I help you," he said, snapping his head up. He spoke
perfect English; it was my own voice that sounded broken, unfamiliar. It was
hard to get the words out.
"Those kids from New Jersey. . ." I said.
"They left," he said. He scratched his head and glanced around as
though he expected to see them floating past in the air. I waited, not
breathing. "They were good kids," he said finally. He smiled quickly,
almost wistfully, and looked back down at his ledger, nodding after a moment as
though confirming something. I backed away and stumbled over to the armchair and
sat, lining my arms up evenly on the chair's arms as Jamie had done. I looked
out the window, trying again to see whatever it was he saw, but there was
nothing to see, only the green land around the reservoir across the street, and
the blue sky over that, stretching endlessly away behind the water. I thought of
the last thing he'd said to me: Later. When? I thought, but no answer was
After that I was in high school and took no more tropical vacations with my
parents—I fought to be allowed to stay home, in fact, the fights sometimes
ending with my mother and me literally chasing each other around the house. She
was beginning to drive me crazy. "We're going to the Kakamega Forest, don't
you want to go to the Kakamega Forest?" she would scream, and I would think
the rip-your-face-off forest and slam my bedroom door in the nick of time
as she rushed up the stairs behind me. As if to placate both of us, the Chicago
winters grew preternaturally warm, apparently a result of El Niño, which I had
never heard of. The TV newscasters loved it. "Birds don't know which way to
fly, flowers are fooled into blooming," they announced. "Blame it on
`The Child'!" I took melancholy walks in December through melting snow
under a sun that seemed weary, but I never ran into you. I had begun having a
recurring nightmare in which I could not turn off the clock radio by my bed. The
knob would come off in my hand, and then I'd pull the plug out and hurl the
radio onto the floor, but the cord would rise up like a cobra and wave
menacingly in my face. The radio would be playing some stupid song, something by
Elton John, or "Listen to the Music" by the Doobie Brothers, a song
which was not in itself scary, though it was scary that I couldn't make it stop.
By college I had given up on you altogether and occupied myself with
substitutes—poor substitutes, and I'm sorry for what I did with some of them,
but I'm only human. Everyone was as lost as I, it seemed. "You know, you
have a kind of sly dignity," a guy I dated once commented. "You know
what I like about you?" another said. "You walk loudly and carry no
stick whatsoever." I liked that guy, actually, but he didn't want to date
me, it turned out; he was just amusing himself before going off on an Alaskan
fishing boat with his real girlfriend, a basketball player named Hikmet, which
was Turkish for "all things come from God." It seemed hopeless.
"When is someone going to take care of me?" I asked the dog skull
guy one night, but all he said was, "Maybe you should let them."
"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard," I told him. "Would
you tell the starving children in Africa to let someone feed them?"
"Well, maybe someone is taking care of you," he said.
"What does that mean?" I said. But he just shrugged and would say
no more. He had his skull, all he seemed to need.
I even tried an Eagle Scout, thinking those regimented types might be onto
something, after all: service, steadfastness, and mundane but integral survival
tricks—starting fires, tying knots, recognizing important constellations.
"You know, `Smoke on the Water' is my favorite song to get a blow job
to," the Eagle Scout told me, as though he were sharing a wildly exciting
secret. And even he was a good soul, always patting me nicely on the head before
I left to go back to my dorm; certainly he meant me no harm. We were all
muddling through, doing the best we could, supposedly. I comforted myself with
the words to that old song: If you can't be with the one you love, honey . .
But now it seems to be getting later and later, the memory of you more and
more distant, and I'm finding it hard to recall what you even look like, if I
ever knew. Sometimes when I'm in some waiting room, at the doctor's or the
Department of Motor Vehicles, I'll think I see you suddenly out of the corner of
my eye—the toe of someone's loafer or cuff of their pants, an arm or leg
flashing by in the doorway—and I jump up, knocking ashtrays and magazines to
the floor, making people stare. But it's never you, and sometimes no one is
there at all.
Where are you, and why haven't you given me some sign? I imagine you still a
child, a boy sleeping somewhere on pale sand, desert or beach, camped out in a
faded sleeping bag beneath your favorite star (it kills me that I don't even
know which one it is), unaware that you're late for someone else's life, or even
that someone else is waiting, always waiting, still waiting for you after all
these years. But nothing will wake you, no nightmares trouble that kind of
sleep, the honest sleep of children or those in time with their own lives.
The other night, I dreamed you ran over me with your skateboard. I heard you
coming up the street but I couldn't move, I was just lying there on the sidewalk
under the orange tree outside my apartment, the gravelly roar of your wheels
growing louder and louder in my ears, the night sky black and still and starry
between the branches of the tree, and though I kept trying, I couldn't turn my
head to see you finally coming, to let you know I knew, so I just tilted it back
as far as I could, exposing my throat, and shut my eyes, waiting for your wheels
to hit my jugular vein. I surrender, I thought, but I was not scared,
only weak and exhilarated, your grinding, crescendoing roar rattling my whole
body—and then I woke up, and you still weren't there.
I couldn't bear to open my eyes, so I thought of something totally unrelated,
a mental trick I've learned. I thought of a movie I hadn't seen in years, Snoopy,
Come Home, the one where Snoopy runs away from home and stays with a sick
girl in the hospital, cheering her up. She was his original owner, or maybe she
just thinks she was, I don't remember exactly. Maybe she just wants to adopt
him. She may be the same person as the little red-haired girl, or a character
later known as Lila—it's unclear. Anyway, the whole time Charlie Brown is
going out of his mind looking for Snoopy, Snoopy and this girl are sitting
around on her hospital bed feeling sorry for each other, eating candy and
listening to sad music. The girl is pretty, of course, and very nice to Snoopy,
but she's slightly annoying. She has no sense of humor, she's just kind of
sugary sweet. In the end, Snoopy makes the right decision and goes home with
Charlie Brown. The girl only wanted him for consolation, the movie implies,
because she was so weak. Still, she behaves well when Charlie Brown comes to
pick Snoopy up, and all three of them are weeping by the time they say their
good-byes. When I saw this as a child, I remember, I too was weeping, but I
couldn't seem to get up and turn off the TV, my body was stuck.
And now, lying in bed with you not there yet, I began to cry like that again,
only angrier. Snoopy, Come Home, I thought. Who had come up with such a
concept, and what in the world were they thinking? At least an hour and a half,
which would seem like years to a child, of Charlie Brown waiting for that dog,
trying to find him, giving up, trying harder, giving up again, nearly going
insane. If I don't find that dog soon, he kept saying, I'll go crazy! We
were just children, you and I, just little kids in the seventies, sitting around
in our flannel pajamas, eating our bowls of Honeycombs or Lucky Charms, digging
through the box for the hidden prize—just kids. The people who made that
movie, I thought, my God, what were they trying to do? Kill us?