All year we froze the heels from our bread. When Labor Day came, we pulled the Ziploc bags from the freezer and put them in the cooler, loaded with cans of Lipton Brisk iced tea, bricks of pepper jack cheese and the stout rolls of summer sausage.
Summer folded up, that last weekend. Every year we drove up to Duluth when the sun was still warm and the trees, still green, through the corn fields and the power lines, the exit signs for a dozen small towns and every hundred miles my mother handed me a brown bag with a juice box or new crayons in plastic wrapping,
filched from the basket at the Green Mill bar. From the outlook on the hill at the last rest stop we stared out at Lake Superior and the bridges, girdling the water where it thinned. Excitement rose up in me and swelled as the highway split off into a tangle of exit ramps and street signs, one for the hospital, one concrete and grey.
Another hundred miles up to a beach of rocks. My mother hunched, hunting for agates. She rolled her pants up and waded in to dig for a sparkle under the water. I followed and a cold shock made me bite my lip until it bled.
In the harbor, I stood on the last green field of summer feeding the gulls hunks of hardened bread. Standing in a parking lot, they swarmed around me.
I swam in the harbor, watching the iron ore tankers come in. I shook and my skin was pale under the blue-grey water.
Grey sky, water on the highway, rain Saturday, my parents and I crossed the highway, climbed through the brush and down the cliffs. I hopped the rocks out into the lake.
And the bridges – those endless bridges – over into Wisconsin, that long suspension that gave me nightmares
of driving into nothing and falling, circling down into the water. Or the suspension bridge, south of Little Rock Lighthouse where my father began trembling and couldn’t come down. North of the city, we stayed in a plaster castle across the highway from the coast. Saturday morning, we crossed the highway, slick with rain, through a tangle of trees and down the crags to the short cliffs along the shore. I climbed along the rocks and my father took my photograph: cheeks red, nose wet, jacket sleeves balled up in my fists.
The next summer, we went to the Wisconsin Dells to Noah’s Ark, “The World’s Largest Water Park.” My mother and I climbed a dozen flights of stairs in our swimsuits, past the signs that said “You are terrified” to ride “The Point of No Return,” a waterslide with a ninety-foot drop, straight down. Side by side, my mother held my hand, sitting in the plastic tunnel. She went down but I stayed. I started crying. “Push me,” I told the lifeguard, but she couldn’t so I bit my lip and funneled down the chute.
We ate summer sausage from my father’s camera bag. I begged him to let me buy Dipping Dots and he made me promise I wouldn’t spend any more of my allowance that week. That night, my mother and I walked from our motel down to an Indian Store.
She looked at mugs printed with “Sweet Home, Wisconsin” while I stared wide-eyed at fireworks and beads.
On the way back, the sidewalk sprawled out into darkness. Light fell from the streetlamps and pooled into circles, puddles, teaspoons knowing that infinite lake.
I hovered on the surface of that body, imagining its bottoms.
Mere ripples that ripped through me with the force of an ocean whose bottoms I had only fathomed.
We sat on the hotel terrace, the pool swaying in the cold night breeze. We drank the free coffee from Styrofoam cups, mine bleached with creamer and aspartame. A quartet played pool side and the cello plucked out its handful of notes. My father put his hand on my mothers and I stared back at the floodlights, wanting to swim but knowing the cold.
I like to pretend I was radiant-cool eyed, but I was no better than the kids staring out the window, screaming, “It’s like we’re in heaven, we’re above the clouds.” I am the baby sitter of terror, unleashing my nightmares to quell young wonder … always fascinated by the black holes, by centripetal force and condensation, the way the body can become a pellet, compacted like a brick of frozen airliner waste. They, too, seem perceptive to disaster: as Detroit comes into view, they ask “Is that a foreign country? The roads seem different, there is no one on the highway.” The mother says, “It’s Sunday, everyone’s at church. Besides, it’s only 5 hours till we get to Disneyland.
I want to go to Disney World, if only to mock Mickey Mouse and make faces at Cinderella, Pocahontas. I want my breath taken away by something other than pain, to see palm trees for the first time again, to watch the sky split open in the morning without a headache. We’re stuck on the tarmac for an hour, waiting for a gate. The kids go off to Disney World and I’ve missed my next flight. I ask the man at the AmEx booth if there’s a smoking deck, I just want to go outside and taste the air. Instead I sit in the Westin lobby, windows facing the gates. Where the planes turn and taxi, waddling off like gulls towards Disney World or Bogotá.
Every time I’m in an airport, I call my mother and tell her I’m in Newark or in Dulles – places that even when I’m there I can’t pronounce. Every time my mother sees an airplane she says “Someone is going home,” but staring at the tarmac, all I see are planes. They turn and taxi, waddling off like gulls, towards Disneyland or Bogotá, while a flight goes black on the “Arrivals” screen.
I had a boyfriend with a Mormon mother who drove him into Minneapolis on Saturdays that summer. It was like day camp: cruel calisthenics (he mowed our lawn,) field trips to Pizza Hut and tennis at Windom Park where I beat him in singles then kissed him in the grass.
Someone said poverty is only sexy when accompanied by a sweet sort of sluttiness. Sipping a can of Coke, I had perfected the cold-eyed stare when I said, “I prefer Taco Bell to thirty-dollar pasta.” That time tasted like so much sugar and freedom, sitting on the tar roof or walking down the alley.
Once he said, “I could see myself with you when I’m old.” And I laughed: I couldn’t imagine my thirteenth birthday. And Marc was old already – sixteen – and a fool who owned bowling shoes and a classical guitar he couldn’t play. The fact that he dated me killed his credibility: who was I but a twelve year old, kissing a bourgeois boy in the yellow light of a stairwell?
Inspired by “A Photographer’s Life” by Annie Leibovitz
The first time I caught your stare across the terrace you had one hand caught in your hair, the other pressed against the windowpane.
Then we passed through a thousand hotel rooms, summers of clammy-backed insomnia and legal pads with notes for The Volcano Lover.
Locked in the underground Sarajevo paper, you read Kafka on a cot. In the afternoon they let us out, and we found a Serb, a boy, shot dead off his bike. You rode back with the body to be counted while I went to the Hilton to shoot a Croatian beauty queen.
And you, the philosopher of illness, slept limbs akimbo on the sofa. You left your sneakers on and sprawled out on the bed in Berlin under Tungsten light. Death lay dormant in your veins, painting every day prophetic.
The cancer came and we left, for the Nile anyway.
Standing on deck, you glowed orange in the sunset and like oil on the water, your absence hung over your presence.
After weeks of chemo and flat Coca-cola, I saw you in a double mirror: you watched yourself watch yourself split off into infinity.
When I got the call, I was on the road. I curled up in the backseat and I cried for the moments I couldn’t fix and for the constant fixing, for the thousand pictures in lieu of you. I want to build a monument to this life: to your pens, to your hair, to the songs on the radio to your lit window in the New York night.
McDonald’s at the Quarry, Northeast Minneapolis, sold 99-cent happy meals on Tuesday nights. My mother and I bought six and sat at the high-legged tables, a mound of apple dippers between us. I gnawed on child-size fries and sipped a kiddy cup of Diet Coke. In the AC, we watched Hillary give campaign speeches and lose.
The August heat clawed me and the need for caffeine left me sweating and sick in the empty apartment upstairs where I slept on a foam pad made for aerobics. A little fan blew on my face. I dragged myself to the kitchen, to that fridge, empty except for elixirs – Diet Mountain Dew and Gatorade – and leftover Apple Dippers.
Then out, into the bright-hot world, down Central Avenue where I caught the number 10 bus downtown and transferred at Nicolette Mall to a bus for Columbia Heights. I got off at a strip mall, between Taco John’s and a shipping plant and went into the storefront where I went to Driver’s Ed.
All the acne-pocked boys and the sunburned girls learned to park twelve inches from the curve, acronyms to maneuver minor stunts, to “watch out for retards at every stop sign.” The instructor popped in a VHS of death. I laughed at all the mock collisions, at the crying mothers in faded green spandex, at the accidental killers and their guilt.
Then we scattered for break, wandering into Taco John’s or down to the gas station. I bought a banana one day, came back to class and puked into a potted plant. The AC huffed and blew and the Olympics played on the TV wedged between two vending machines. Sprawled out on the tables, curled in plastic folding chairs, we watched the water shimmer with the blood red torsos of the Chinese divers.
At Home Depot we bought a twenty-foot tarp and laid it out over the patch of grass between the back porch, the burning bush and the woodpile draped with a raft that wouldn’t float.
My mother went in to gather the comforters – which I laid out flat over the plastic – then armfuls of pillows. “Just don’t use my buckwheat one,” my mother said. She’d be back after her “bedtime routine” of one hundred vitamins, sitting on the toilet.
I pulled the covers over me and stared up at the sky – at that tangle of grey and the telephone lines. Head on my mother’s buckwheat pillow, The sent of mice and mold and mildew, that familiar smell of home.
For more than 20 years, Exposé has annually showcased outstanding essays written by students in Harvard’s first-year course in the Harvard College Writing Program. All students are required to take “Expos,” a tradition since 1872. Expos asks students to work intensively with their teachers on the skill of writing thoughtful arguments that respond to challenging ideas, complex debates, and puzzling social phenomena.