I breeze through the automated doors of the hospital and find my usual seat by the seashell lamp and the television. I like the lamp because it provides just enough light for me to read my National Geographic. I’ve run the gamut of hospital magazines already, and so bring my own. It’s better this way. All the hospital has to offer is RedBook for the women, Car and Driver for the men, and Highlights for the children—the majority of which are dated. Why is it that hospitals are never current on their subscriptions? Did they all get together at a conference one day and say “that’s it, no more, we don’t owe the people anything for their time”? They really don’t owe me anything for my time. There is nothing wrong with me, or with anyone I know. Not anymore. I come to sit by myself.
When Albert was alive, it wasn’t as if he was home every night. He worked long hours in the shipping industry. Often I wouldn’t feel him slip into bed until midnight or two in the morning, but there is something so lonely now about not expecting anyone to come home. Since Albert died, the house has been too empty. I can’t stay there. I’ve thought about visiting the tiki bar around the corner. It’s open all hours of the night, and I sometimes hear people stumbling down my street as the sun is breaking. Only I don’t drink. I like to keep my head, and I’m on antidepressants now anyway––Lexapro to be specific. Besides, people in bars like to talk to you, and though I am feeling lonely, I don’t want to talk to anyone but Albert. Well, Albert and our son, Donald (but he’s moved to Kansas City to find his roots).
The hospital is a good place to sit and be by yourself. Nobody bothers you. There is one nurse who gives me dirty looks. She knows I am here for nothing, but she doesn’t approach me. Who would tell a poor old woman to leave a hospital? I like being an old woman. You get away with things like that.
I settle into my living room away from my living room. Even if the hospital is stingy with its subscriptions, it does offer some pretty comfortable seating. Stains aside, the cushions have a good bounce to them. I lean back and let the television take me in. I often watch the news for a while until it begins to loop. One cannot continue watching footage of the same fire, shark attack, or car accident and stay entertained. I’ll zone out for an hour or so, and then I’ll turn to my magazine for articles and pictures of far off places. For now, though, the television.
7-Up has this new ad campaign that I just love. Their spokesman is hilarious. My son tells me his name is Orlando Jones, and he’s been on SNL, though I know nothing of SNL and at first thought he was talking about some kind of association. In the ads, this Orlando Jones is the Amelia Bedelia of marketing. He puts the product where the “traffic” is—in the center of the highway. He wears a shirt with bold printed “Make 7” on the front and “Up Yours” on the back, completely oblivious to how people react to him. One of my favorites is when he asks people to take a picture of their can, and they send him pictures of their own behinds. Currently, he’s on the screen enacting a taste test. 7-Up vs chum. 7-Up vs bile. 7-Up vs dishwater. I chuckle and shake my head.
“Not as refreshing as 7-Up, is it?” he says. And then he looks out at the camera, toward me. “What’s with the laughter?” He shoves aside the man who previously stood beside him at the taste-test table. He leans forward. “Don’t you believe 7-Up can kick chum’s ass?”
The language of the commercial surprises me. I look around to see if anyone else notices. No one does. The lady holding her head in the corner continues to rock back and forth in pain. The child continues to cry on his father’s lap. The woman in Dior sunglasses (I know they’re Dior because I have the same pair) dabs underneath the lenses with her handkerchief. Orlando is standing there on the screen, staring at me, as if this isn’t a commercial at all.
“Are you addressing me?” I pull my hand to my chest, both shocked and interested.
“Lady, who else would I be talking to?” I look around again. Still the rocking, still the crying, still the dabbing. No one looks up to watch the woman talk to the man in the commercial. I wonder if I’m hallucinating. I wonder if it’s the depression. Or the Lexapro. Or the loneliness. Or if it’s just one of those things, an unexplainable occurrence. I wasn’t really looking for company. That’s why I’m here in the first place, but when someone in the television asks you a question, point blank, it seems rude not to answer.
“Of course, 7-Up tastes better than chum. It’s not much of a test. Who is going to pour themselves a large glass of chum? Is chum your big competitor?” I am, admittedly, a little snarky. But Orlando has disturbed this time to myself, and so I feel I have a right.
“I think you’re chum.” He pushes off the counter as he says this, in a very self-satisfied way, which annoys me because it isn’t even a witty comeback.
“I’ll have you know I was almost chum once. And that’s not something you should go around calling people in the Keys.” At this, I slam my National Geographic onto my thighs and thoroughly intend on getting right to my reading.
But then he says, “You and your National Geographic. You think you’re so sophisticated, but you’re just a coward. I’ll bet you’ve never even been on a boat. I’ll bet you just read about it in your fucking articles.”
Absolutely ridiculous. This accusation is something I cannot tolerate. I have been brave at times. I’ve put myself in precarious situations. I didn’t want to, but I did. This 7-Up man knows nothing of me and my life. And so, reluctantly, I begin to tell him.
My husband, Albert, and I went out to sea. This was many years ago. Albert always wanted the newest and latest in ocean technology. My God, by the end of his life we had two boats, thirty fishing rods, the best waterproof sound system money could buy, scuba gear for every type of occasion (deep sea, night diving, extreme temperatures, you name it), eight ropes, skis, and even a kneeboard. These toys, mind you, were all for him. Anyway, this must have been in the fifties. We didn’t have our Donald yet. Albert said we ought to try this new fad that was on the up and up called snorkeling. I wasn’t really for it. Being a girl from middle America, I preferred the pool to the boat. There was something very unsettling about being in the middle of the ocean with only a scrap of material between you and the sea creatures of the deep. Albert was excited about it, though. In those days you did what you could to make your husband happy.
When we finally anchored, he tossed me a mask and a snorkel. I know that doesn’t seem like anything to you, but people didn’t just breathe underwater then. I mean, you heard some things in the newspaper, but it wasn’t something your neighbor was doing. He put one of those orange flotation devices around my waist and instructed me to hold up my hair—it was long then, long and blond, and I was, frankly, gorgeous. I scooped up my locks, and he put this giant bubble on my face. It wasn’t like it is now—not that I’m much for water sports at 70. But this mask wasn’t split up into sections and contoured to the face like you see. It was this oblong catastrophe that my entire head, nose and all, stuffed into.
Albert dove in, did a lap around the boat, and waved me over. He looked so handsome in that water. In the Keys, men have gorgeous skin, like burnt gold. The water beaded over his strong arms, streaming down over his shoulder blades. Have I told you that Albert had the broadest shoulders? Anyway, he made it look so thrilling, and I always had a hard time saying no when he beckoned. Still fearful of sharks and barracudas and whatever else might be down there, I jumped in after him with a shriek.
As soon as my body hit the water, I forgot all about the snorkel. The float smacked me in the ribs, and I, not the most athletic woman in the world, flopped forward. My face struck water, and I tried to breath through my nose. Of course, that fogged up the mask, and lost whatever suction it did have, so salt water trickled in and stung my eyes. Through the haze I saw a dark figure flash across the lens. That’s when I really lost it. I was convinced that a shark had been attracted by our collective splashing and had come to eat us. I thrashed my hands and feet, trying to kick it, desperate to ward it off. I felt I’d made several connections, too, though I now realize it was probably just poor Albert. As I wiggled around in the ocean, I somehow came loose from my orange lifeline. All reasoning plunged to the depths. My mind seized up and my body could no longer move. I stopped thrashing but my mouth would not close, and water collected on my tongue and then in the back of my throat. The mask was off now. My head bobbed in the water, face-down. All I could see was the grainy salt-filtered sea. The bright blue I’d witnessed from above turned smokier, darker. I decided to let go. I awoke on the floor of the boat, my poor husband leaning over me, hands clamped to my chest, performing CPR. To this day I maintain that he saved me, and he maintains, well he used to say, that he nearly killed me. The man was so scared for me, he never pushed me to do anything again. I had too precious a constitution, he said.
“That’s it?” asks Orlando. He sits on the taste-test table, flipping a soda can in the air in a nonchalant way that I feel is condescending, as I have just divulged a harrowing experience in my life. “You were afraid of your husband in the water? You’re lamer than I thought.”
I cross my arms at Orlando, and give him a look that I used to give Donald, a look that would scare him so bad, I never need punish him. “I don’t care what you think.”
“Yes, you do.” God, he’s so smug.
“Anyway, I had a fairly entertaining girlhood. I did things with my friend that you would probably think were outrageous.” I pause. “Outrageous,” I say again for emphasis. Then I pick up my magazine as a threat.
“I’ll bet you were wild,” he says. But I can tell he doesn’t mean it. He’s making fun of me. I dislike him, but I also feel I have to prove myself to him. It’s all very unsettling, this mixture of feelings. I tell him of Irene.
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My friend Irene, we were friends since the womb. Our pregnant mothers would sit on the verandah and talk about how we would one day be best friends, and they were right. I miss her nearly every day. She lives in North Dakota now. There are sparing phone conversations on holidays and birthdays, but our real correspondence is through letters. I know it is fashionable these days to use email, but there’s something about the hand looping across the paper that is more intimate. She tried writing me electronically for a while before giving up. She’s always been that way. Do you know she became a business woman? I mean, she had no reason to. She came from the same life I did, she had a handsome husband—both in looks and in the wallet. She wanted to control her money, she said. She wanted to be a part of the process. Now she’s some hotshot in shoulder pads with a briefcase. Not that I begrudge her the freedom to do as she wishes. To me, though, it’s like someone prepared a lovely meal for her, the table set with gold utensils and cloth spun of the finest silk, and she just gets up, heads back to the kitchen, and demands to know the nuts and bolts of it.
Her and I were connected by one thing, though—our need to flee Kansas City. I don’t think it was Kansas City itself that we reviled. It was just the feeling of all the generations compounding on top of one another. I felt like by the time I’d come along, the history I had to hold up had become too heavy. I wanted a fresh start. Irene and I would daydream about adventuring to new lands. We were both thinking California at the time. The coast of opportunity. I imagined all the magnificent men there. I was much braver then. This one girl, Mary, had told us if we passed out, we would see an image of our future husband. That our mind’s eye already knew what he looked like, and all we had to do was get to that mental state where we could find him. Irene and I became dizzy with this idea.
I had a fabulous plan for how we might accomplish this. I’d seen a movie where the hero tried to kill a crook by choking him. The crook fell to the floor, and thinking everything was dandy, the hero tried to free his lady friend, but the crook had only fainted and caught up with the hero before he could get out the door. We ought to choke each other, I told Irene. She flipped her black curls over her shoulder and gave a laugh. It was a mean laugh, truthfully. Kind of condescending. I laughed too, as if I had been joking the whole time. But then she jumped onto the floor, held her arms out to me, and said we should do it. I plucked the pillows off her bed and created a safety mat. I stood her in front of me, the mat behind, and placed my hands around her neck. She looked so gorgeous in her satin nightgown with the pale pink lace collar. I felt as if I were in a movie. I tightened my grip and smelled the floral powder mixed with the musky scent of her sweat, for she was perspiring with nerves. She held her breath, though I didn’t think there was any need for that. And in a couple of seconds, she just fell back with a small smile across her face. I thought she was faking, but when she came to, only a few seconds later, she swore she was not. She also swore she’d seen her husband. He looked the spitting image of Clark Gable.
When I didn’t believe her, she insisted it was true, and that I should have a go at it. I remember her being as vicious with her grip as I was cautious. I thought for a moment that she really was out to kill me, I did. I was about to break loose when my head felt a little lighter. I was out. Then I started awake in a sea of pillows with Irene on top of me, smacking my face. “I thought you were a goner,” she said. She held me so tight, I nearly passed out again. I told her my husband would have the sublime bone structure of Cary Grant.
You’d think we would have stopped there. The near-death scare and all, but we didn’t. We choked each other just about every week for a year. Sometimes we would leave big bruises. I was thankful I’d kept so many scarves, though it’s true I had to lie a time or two. We had so much fun together.
When I finish my story, Orlando’s mouth is slightly ajar, and it takes him a second to speak, which fills me with glee.
“And did your husband look like Cary Grant?” I’m surprised he would believe such an obviously false theory. I had an excuse—I was a teenager. Amelia Bedelia, I remind myself.
“No,” I say. “My father did. He was so handsome. He’s the one that first brought me to Florida.”
“And you just never left?” asks Orlando, abandoning his attitude for a moment. I haven’t been in the spotlight for a long time. It actually feels somewhat nice.
“I was only a child,” I say. “I didn’t come back to Florida again until I was 18 and married.”
Orlando gives a half-cocked grin. “Isn’t 18 a child?”
“No,” I say. “A child is a child, and do you want to know about my father or not?” I smooth my magazine out on my lap in a way that says: I have other things to do, but I am graciously paying you mind.
He nods and I proceed.
My father and I were lovingly distant, though we did share this one moment the summer I turned ten. It’s the only one I can remember. We were on vacation in Miami—my father, my mother, my nannie, and me. Father woke me early in the morning. There was the faintest gray light illuminating the bedroom. I remember the rough feel of his fingers on my forehead as he stroked my bangs to the side. At first, I thought something must be wrong, since he’d never woken me up before. But he shushed me and handed me a thick terrycloth robe.
“Let’s go see a beautiful birthday sunrise, huh?” His breath still smelled of sleep. It felt so strange and yet so comfortable to be with him this way. I shrugged on the robe and followed him outside.
The sea glinted silver, the waves sparkling white lines shooting across the liquid plains. It’s no wonder I would eventually marry a Florida man. Father set me down on the damp sand near the water’s edge and held my hand. We walked. The robe dragged behind me, but I didn’t mind. I felt like a queen in her royal garb. I saw something dazzle in the sand ahead. Caught up in my imaginings of royalty, I had it in my mind that it was a beautiful jewel, perhaps an artifact from a pirate ship. I pulled Father’s hand and ran toward it.
When we arrived at my treasure, I found it was not a jewel at all, but a beached man-of-war. I let a tear slip down my nose and fall onto the beast. It was a horrific looking creature. Two veins, one red and one blue, ran through its translucent interior, and it had a shriveled purple seam-line over the top that looked as if God had melted its two sides together. Father crouched and gave the monster a good examining.
“What we have in front of us is a great mystery waiting to unfold.” Father grabbed two sticks that lay nearby and handed me the smaller of the two.
“Be wary of those.” He motioned to the tentacles. “Use your instrument for them. A true heroine knows to beware of what lies beneath.” Then he pulled my free hand toward the head of the beast. I was so frightened that my fingers trembled, and my whole body jerked when they touched the slimy exterior. Amazingly, it did not hurt. Father laughed. “Stick to the surface. It’s safest there.”
After that, he couldn’t keep me from touching it. I ran my hands over it again and again. He smelled my fishy fingers and made gagging noises. Then he showed me how I could use the stick to separate the tentacles to look at them more closely. The color was an electric fuchsia, and the way they ringed around and around made it look as if someone had taken a large scissors and stroked them from top to bottom, the way one might curl a ribbon. Finally, Father and I poked the creature’s belly until it deflated, and we ran around in circles (at a safe distance) proclaiming to the ever-rising sun that we, father and daughter, had killed the beast.
As we walked back to the hotel room our story became wilder and wilder. We had now actually gone into the ocean, battled the animal, and offered it up to the oceanic Gods. My nannie made sure to keep scarce, as Mother was not amused. She had been worried sick, she said. I remember my father looking confused—his bushy Cary Grant eyebrows curving toward the center of his forehead.
“But she was with me.”
“Exactly,” said Mother.
I reminded my father of that morning over the phone once when he was old, and his voice and mind were shaky. He didn’t remember it.
Orlando smiles. He likes my story. I can tell. I feel a bit bad about monopolizing the conversation. It really isn’t me to monopolize. So I ask him about his father, but he shakes his head and declines.
“You seem to be enjoying yourself.”
And I am. It’s strange. I don’t know why, but he’s easy to talk to. There’s something about the way his forehead wrinkles when he’s listening, about how he leans in and cups his hand under his chin without noticing that makes me want to put away my National Geographic. I feel more comfortable with him than I do my psychiatrist. I don’t like my psychiatrist. He’s pompous, and I only go because my son made the first appointment, and now I’m on serial appointments and I don’t know how to tell them “no,” and also I like the drugs. So I stay, even if he does remind me of Frasier in a bad way. I do not like Frasier. Why do people find him endearing?
Now, because I am thinking of my son, and I feel I ought to just go with the flow on this, I tell Orlando about Donald.
Albert used to travel often and Donald and I became close that way. We would spend the weekends together on the beach. I loved basking in the heat on the shore while Donald dunked in and out of the Atlantic. His hair was straw-colored then—not that ashen hue it would be once he’d grown—and would catch the sun so it looked as if he were made of precious metal. I constantly fretted over him. You can’t raise a child by the water and expect him to save his skin. I told him so many times to put zinc on his nose. He never listened, and do you know that he ended up with skin cancer? We caught it quickly, but I think that’s a testament to why sons ought to listen to their mothers.
When Donald was around eight, I showed him a marvelous trick. After I’d rubbed “muck” over his face, I told him to gather seaweed. I would show him a secret world. He groaned (already mothers were becoming uncool), but braved the waves anyway. I held my wrap skirt up and let my legs feel the cold refresh of the sea as I watched for him over the frothy crests. Donald raised his arms to show me all he plundered. He was much more like his father than he was me, always such a strong swimmer. I dunked a bucket into the shallows and waved him ashore.
“Seaweed is so scratchy,” he said, dropping his collection at my feet. “Just a bunch of dead junk.”
I placed the full bucket next to his pile, out of the tide’s reach. “This may change your mind.”
I grabbed a large clump of the tangled seaweed and shook it furiously over the bucket. Tiny shrimp flew down into the water and even a small, sand-colored crab. Donald immediately grabbed his own chunk of seaweed to do the same. I think he thought I was playing a trick on him. But lo and behold it worked. A whole fish and a half dozen more shrimp rained over our man-made oasis. We stood there, mother and son, peering into this bucket of life we’d created. The crab snapped at the fish. The fish darted at the shrimp. The shrimp skirted around in bewildered circles looking for a place to hide, but we’d provided them with no haven. We were not saviors, we were lords. Donald forgot his tough age, and giggled like a toddler.
He was out there all day. I had to pull him from the waves every couple of hours to lotion him down. He succeeded in wriggling out of my grip most of the time. The lotion was so greasy then. Donald had a famously bad burn that night, one we would talk about for ages to come. I even filled the bathtub with tomato juice. A girlfriend had told me an old wives’ tale about miraculous improvements to the skin as a result of the acidity. I have no idea if it soothed him or not, but even as he lay in the tub, his salty head on a pillow of fresh towels, he talked about the creatures he found that day. He was convinced a needlefish he’d captured was an eel, and I let him think it. It’s a wonderful thing when one discovers life where one does not expect it—to have it, to know that it is yours. I love that memory. I wish I could preserve it in a box. Make it a physical thing I could take out and hold in my hand.
Orlando is very excited about the seaweed. He wants to know who taught that to me. Was it my mother? I laugh at him.
“Mother wouldn’t be caught dead near seaweed. The closest we ever got to nature was the state fair. Even then, she skipped most of the events that involved animals. She was a different sort.”
Orlando wants to know of what sort my mother was. She is hard to describe, I think.
“Please,” Orlando begs.
I tell him it is too difficult.
“Please” he begs again.
I give him my angry look, but he is impervious. I am his National Geographic.
My home was the social epicenter of Kansas City. My father’s early appreciation of jazz brought out the wild side of the elite, and my mother was an experienced hostess. She had a marvelous memory and could equally recall the smallest details of a conversation from last week or ten years ago. She was exceptionally good at maintaining relationships, which was an important trait to have for a woman of such social standing. Many eligible men look at a woman’s dowry, beauty, or familial status when they are canvasing for partners, but they overlook the true virtue of personality. These men are not shallow, they are just missing opportunity. A man who banks on personality is no deeper than one who banks on looks—he is just smarter. If a man has a woman who is friendly (though not in a desperate way), who is poised, who has an educated mind, who knows humor and tact, he has found someone to pave the way for his future. A wife can charm a crowd. A wife can throw the right social functions. A wife can be a man’s crane, hoisting him up the social mount. My mother was that woman.
She tried her hardest to educate me. I learned three songs on the piano: “Revolutionary Etude” (Chopin), “Moonlight Sonata” (Beethoven), and “Clair de Lune” (Debussy). All three by impressive composers, and all three easy to play. When the band would break, my mother would herd the party into the sitting room, where white light fell on the piano in an angelic way. It was a light that highlighted dust particles that floated like fairy dust. I would sit on the satin cushioned bench in mock embarrassment (luckily, I had naturally pink cheeks, so it always seemed I was blushing). As I played, I would let my chest relax and lean over the keys in a way that isn’t flattering for a serious piano player, but which is lovely for a young woman almost at the age of cotillion. I was very aware of how my hair would fall, just one or two curls, over my shoulder, and how, when finished, I would shake my head from side to side, as if I was just waking from a dream, so entranced I was with the lust of music. It was a tight rope to walk between sensuality and innocence. I played it well. As I said before, Mother was a wonderful teacher.
It was after one of these performances that I found myself seeking sanctuary in the foyer. The night was nearing an end, and no one else was expected to arrive. The jazz band started up their final round in the ballroom, and I heard the drunken rabble of dancing men and women. I relaxed away from the crowd on the velvet chaise lounge. I kicked my feet over the top of the couch and lay backward, my head dipping off the edge and my fingertips skimming the ground. It had been a busy night. My mother had introduced me to some new men in the area, and they’d wanted to chat endlessly. I was good at being on stage, but I did not enjoy the conversation. I think that’s why I was so drawn to Albert. He let me be silent. So, I let my eyelids fall. I focused on the breath in my chest. A fog rolled over my mind, and I felt the first traces of sleep.
I started at a tap on my shoulder. Not my shoulder, technically, but a spot slightly lower. I sat up immediately, which led to my dress knotting up, and my thigh was revealed in an especially humiliating moment. I swear it took a whole five minutes before I’d gathered myself and fixed my garments sufficiently. I looked up to find Mr. Thomas, a man who had grown up with my father and was recently widowed. I’d always loved his wife. Whenever I saw her, she’d come prepared with a handful of sweets for me. It was less the sweets themselves (I’ve always leaned toward savory), but the fact that she’d thought to bring them that endeared me to her. Mr. Thomas never thought of me. I could tell he hated constraining “adult conversation” to account for my presence. He never had children, and so did not like making allowances for me.
On this night he stood in front of me, so that my head was level with his pelvis, and I had to crane my neck to look up at him. He smiled and showed his tobacco-stained teeth. He touched my necklace.
“I see your father is keeping you in the finest attire.”
I instinctively lifted my hand to my neck, and our hands touched. He did not remove his. I played that there was a fly around my head and waved and wiggled in a way that released me from his fingertips. He sat down next to me, so that our legs grazed each other. He draped his hand on the fabric of my skirt.
“You remind me of Meredith,” he said.
I should have relished in the statement, since his wife was one of the few adults I enjoyed being with. Instead, I thanked him and stood up on the pretense of visiting the ladies’ room. He stood as well and took a couple of strides toward me so that I was made to walk backward and my spine hit the door handle. The only way out, aside from charging him, would be to walk through the front door, which would have been a silly thing to do, being that this was my own house.
“Before you leave me,” he said, his hand rising to my waist.
It was then that my mother found us. Him with his hand on me. Me looking flushed, as I always did, pressed into the door like a hussy. She barely blinked. She needed no moment to collect herself.
She simply said, “Clara, some folks are dying to talk to you about your piano skills. They look forward to your performance at cotillion in two years.” She emphasized the “two” in a discrete way, so as not to blatantly admonish Mr. Thomas, but to remind him that I was, according to societal rules, still a child. I rushed away with her, happy to talk to strangers, happy to have a buffer of many. We never spoke of that night. In future parties, I took care to lean less when I played the piano.
“Sick,” says Orlando, shaking his head.
“No,” I say. “Just sad.” I look around me. The rocker, dabber, and cryer are gone and replaced with new people. Still, no one pays us any mind. “People do strange things when they grieve.”
“You are a very understanding person,” he says. I know he is not making fun of me. I agree. I am a very understanding person.
“Still, no wonder you left Kanas City.”
“I wanted to feel like I’d done something with my life. I craved change.”
“And wildness,” Orlando says. He roars and lifts his hands as if they’re claws. This is why Orlando is so lovely to talk to. He can cut the air.
“Yes, the wildness. Do you want to hear about the swamp?”
He does. Of course, he does.
When Donald was a teenager, we went on a family airboat ride to try to recapture that magical feeling of first experiences you get so much of when a child is young. In the beginning you own the firsts. You are there for every one of them: first laugh, first time they sleep through an entire night, first steps, first words. Then, in their teenage years, the parent-son relationship fades. All new enterprises occur out of your sight—first kisses, first cocktails, first many adult activities he’s probably too young for. To combat this, Albert and I decided to embark on a series of weekend trips to bring the family closer together. Donald wasn’t pleased with the idea, but he had little say.
The first was a trip to the Everglades. We’d heard stories of epic alligator adventures. Some of our friends had even gone on night boat rides with hunting guides. They would travel quietly through the murky swamp water, searching for a kill. Those twinkling eyes would catch the glint of a flashlight, and before our friends knew it, the gator was killed, skinned, and made into a marvelous handbag and belt. I didn’t want to encourage such violence in a teenager—I wouldn’t even let Donald sign up for football, but I did let Albert talk me into a daytime airboat ride. He promised it would be nothing like my snorkeling escapade. I would be above the water at all times.
The sound of the boat was all-encompassing. We were given headphones to block it out, which I was much put out by. I had picked a perfect outdoorsy outfit, complete with khaki capri pants, a pressed white Oxford shirt, and an olive green scarf to hold back my hair. The headphones did not compliment the style (who on earth would mix black with an outfit like that?), but they were necessary and so I wore them. By contrast, Albert and Donald put them over their ears as if they were a badge of honor. Donald, forgetting his teenage smirk in the wake of a fresh and dangerous exploit, laughed with real enthusiasm.
Our guide was a bulky man, kind of hefty, not someone I would trust to save me if anything were to go wrong. He had an easy smile, though, and the boys seemed to like him. He held my hand as I boarded the boat, and I had to wipe it on my handkerchief it was so dirty. Nevertheless, I was back on a boat, feeling brave. The guide shouted at us to steady our balance, and we shot off into the wild. The water was so blue and mirrored. I was surprised. I’d always thought the swap would be entirely green. There were mosquitos buzzing around, but we whipped through the swamp at such speeds they could never get their full bearing, and so I came out of the day with remarkably bite-free arms. The sawgrass was vibrantly lush (as I expected it would be) and I leaned with my hand out to touch it, which is very unlike me. It looked so beautiful, like it would feel like feathers if I grazed it. I knew, of course, that it probably would not feel so soft as it did in my head. The name was, after all, sawgrass. But I wanted to just the same. I reached out farther and farther, first just my hand, then my elbow, then my shoulder, until my whole torso was sticking out of the boat. We never did get close enough. My efforts were never met with success. Unless you count the look I got from my husband. He smiled so largely at my reaching that I felt my face go hot and pulled back into the boat. He would remind me of that moment throughout the rest of our years.
We traced our way through the clear paths until we came to a sudden stop. Our guide motioned to the right with his arm, and there, sitting on a disregarded log, was that monster of murk. Albert and Donald practically leapt toward it, their eyes wide with the sight. They reached their bodies over the edge of the boat as I had for the grass. I clamped my teeth as they persuaded the guide to let us close in on the gator. I did not like this potential peril. Sucking in my breath, I watched my husband and son. I felt as if I were a galaxy apart, as if I were observing them through some portal. It was a clue into this world of men that I would never understand. Donald gave a little hop in excitement as we neared the beast, and it reminded me of the time he found the needlefish and mistook it for an eel. I smiled then, despite myself. This young man that had come out of me, there was still a child within him. I’m not sure that child exists anymore, but it was in his father until the day he died.
Orlando is so sad. He is almost crying. The camera does a closeup of his face, and I can see the tears welling up in his eyes.
“He’s dead,” Orlando says.
“He’s dead.” I say back.
“But how? Was he sick?” Orlando brings a hand up to his cheek. It is a very feminine gesture and I think of telling him to knock it off, but this doesn’t seem to be the time.
“Oh, he was sick in a variety of ways. He had the beginnings of a few serious illnesses. It was to be expected. Ever since I’d met him—he was a good deal older than me—I figured I’d be taking care of him in the end. I thought we would have several years where he’d be bedridden, and I’d hold his hand. I thought I’d read to him and give him his medicine and cook for a heart healthy diet. But it never came to that. He died in a car crash.”
Orlando is… a power plant in Johannesburg, an epic poem, a celebrity mask used as a marital aid. In this anthology of fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry, Orlando is anything but the Florida city so often associated with theme parks. In Other Orlandos, the city’s writers twist a familiar word into new contexts and connotations…. learn more.
Albert and I began every day at the breakfast table. It’s my favorite place in the house—all round and yellow by an alcove of windows. I’ve always loved the mornings and so has Albert. My favorite part of the day was sitting there with him at 7:00am before he went into work. I’d make coffee and heat up cream on the stove. He liked mango in the mornings, and so I’d toast some wheat bread, butter it, and top it with thick slices of the fruit. We never talked during our breakfast sessions, merely sat and enjoyed the cozy sounds of first light. The birds would sing with such fervor that you could hear them through the glass of the window. In Kansas City, as a girl, I hated closed windows, but in the Keys, closed windows were a necessity. January might be the only month when there was a hell’s chance of a comfortable breeze. So, we sat there in the air-conditioning, listening to the birds and sipping our coffees. I always read world news, and I’d pass the Lifestyle section to Albert. He was into art of all kinds.
On the morning of his death we both sat in our regular seats, reading the paper. That day, I’d set out some orange juice as well. It was fresh squeezed (or so it said on the container), and I thought we could use some substance since our dinner had been so light the night before. Otherwise, things were completely as usual. Albert wasn’t usual, though. He snapped his paper in that way that you do when you are trying to straighten it, but did not, as one usually would, continue reading. Instead, he lowered the paper, scrunched his nose as if something had run up it, tilted his head, and said, “Who are you?” This was perplexing. My husband had gone through some hip trouble, and his back wasn’t what it once was, and there were threats to his gallbladder, but there were never any signs of dementia.
“I’m Clara.” I put my paper on the table and leaned forward. “Are you feeling all right?”
At that, he jumped up, grabbed his bag, and said, to himself it seemed, “Who am I?”
Then he walked out the door, and that was the very last time I saw him alive.
“What do you think he meant by that?” I ask Orlando. I’ve been wanting to ask someone that question for a long time now.
“Do you really want to know what I think?”
I nod. Orlando jumps off of his table, and the camera zooms out. He stands as I imagine a professor would (I never went to college), with his arms folded in front of him. As if, when he unravels his limbs, he will be unraveling truth.
“It was because of the orange juice,” he says. “You think you can drop a bomb like that and expect no consequence? For years—coffee, cream, mango, toast, coffee, cream, mango, toast, coffee, cream, mango, toast. Then, bam! You shoot him with citrus. What a blow. What’s a wife after that? What’s work? What are colors? Green. Red. What could they possibly mean to him? He drove right on through. Twisted metal. Splintered glass. Bloody seats. Fuck. Citrus.”
Orlando leans back onto his table as if it were a podium. He is equal parts Amelia Bedelia, Frasier, and idiot.
“You have no idea what you are talking about,” I say, and then I grab the National Geographic magazine out of my purse and read an article on gray reef sharks.