IF IT WERE NOT FOR THAT — at the time, damned — DEUS EX MACHINA.
If not for that,I could have stayed stranded in the half-mile bend-in-the-road, letting the bugs and mosquitoes pick me dry as the firesome sun set. It was sticky, and I felt like a warm popsicle. But, as it was, I listened, and by sheer chance decided I’d really listen, while Laura and I walked around and around.
Despite narrowly escaping the bugs, I noticed my skin turned diseased anyway–leprous-like, lumpy, and itched all night. Back, arms, and legs, and I frightfully showed Mom the next morning. Big lumps. Not itty bites.She stared, turned my arms over and over, white forearms, usually smooth, now pasty like dumplings. I rubbed saltwater on them. On the beach, in the middle of the day, I pulled out the first book I could actually read — It was, by the way, a history of Yellow Fever–and became more like myself. Resumed a quieter air, and considered leaving the airy obnoxious husk that I had built as a cocoon around myself. After all, even if I lived in a different shell, I was still the same. And the open book, the knowledge I was drinking, and the toes in the sand were oddly comforting, reminding me I could always destroy what I’d built. However, the cocoon was magnificent.
If you think I didn’t talk much, you’re right–I probably hardly said a single word in the course of several days.
The water was cold, and the sun made freckles on my nose. My face, mom said, was splotchy. Allergic. Considerably aggravated by something. Consider again the cocoon husk, or mansion: colorful, vibrant, sultry and animated. The other option was leaving it to be bare, stoic, reading on a beach. Do they have to be in competition? The deus ex machina, in the form, of course, of a friend, warned that one was not the other. I resisted the urge to pick at my skin. However, I was content by the end of the day that I would not have sun poisoning, unlike the past few summers. And I had learned a considerable amount about yellow fever while on the beach. Coincidentally, it started its deathly track on the beaches and docks of Philadelphia, where travelers were passing in and out, and spread via the bugs there, was the theory. The fever was a virus, not a germ. It was not contagious.
I enjoyed my spot on the firm stretch of sand, swathed in a towel and sunglasses and a collection of BOOK. I was truly, truly content to leave that other side aside. For a moment.
In the car, I took a picture of myself: pink cheeks, freckled, and a first real smile since December 12, 2012. My eyes were light, and green–pure joy, not mischief, not drunkenness. My hair was light and waved down across my shoulders. For the time being, I could be content, and be myself, and not think about what I should do.
Shamefully packed my things and moped. The next day, after a speedy drive out of work, run through the grocery store and seizure of liquor bottles, I bitched and grumbled, because I was in a rush, while slapping together a favorite dip — picking the bones out of the soft chicken flesh, slathering hot sauce on it and stirring the cream cheese to softness, adding gobs of bleu cheese (god, it stinks) and stirring it together. I promise, it tastes good. Just has to be baked.
The doorbell was ringing, my bag was haphazardly slung somewhere, and of course I wasn’t ready.
“Hell-ooo?” Bonnie called through the house.
“I don’t have time to bake this.” I was harried.
“Relax! It’s fine.” I was grateful that, though I was a chaotic force of tourbillon, that Bonnie was able to find all my shit and help me get it together. I put the tin in the car with us and we went.
Yeah, I’m always late, but luckily we were still early–the sun was high on the drive down, and I whined majorly, about this sudden turn of events, which I somewhat expected but still didn’t.
Why say “yes” when I have to say “no?” Why apologize at all, when I did nothing wrong? Why force myself to feel, when I don’t? I had been given clear directions, two days earlier, but didn’t know how to follow them. When in the driver’s seat, it’s always Full Speed Ahead. And that goes for lots of other things, too, but I wasn’t driving. Not in control this time.
Naturally, she didn’t know how to respond. We peeled down the highway between cliffs of bright green trees.
“Some Nights” came on the radio and in an effort to change the subject, we turned up the music, and I imagined the Civil War–another step out of the husk. Again, there was the dilemma: Shall I live in this world I inhabited, built, or destroy it? I belonged There, Somewhere Else but I left. I didn’t think I could go back once I’d left. Same thing now: Shall I leave again? I don’t think I could go back. But I had anticipated building the husk as an armor, and it had done a shoddy job of protecting me, truthfully.
The other question, and it was the major one — was I doing this to myself? Or was it the way it always was? Was my persona really so different now? I had already been given the answer and I was trying to understand it. I had listened, but not really to accept. Not yet.
We took the winding road off the exit, narrow, looping through the woods and past the horse farms, crossed the bridge over the lake and there it was. We parked on the lawn, and I got out my bags.
The volleyball net was up, plus some newly-painted lines. We’d discovered the last time we were here that it was tough to make boundaries without true visible lines. The boats were out in the water. Jetskis. Grill going. The light that got broken a couple weeks earlier was still on the ground, broken. The Fourth of July decorations were out. The hammock was still there. The flag was waving, and the statue was still wearing its hat.
Ah. The Deus ex Machina was greeting us. Long, flowing maxidress — tube top. Smiling, drinks in hand, ready to go…I was still embarrassed from our last encounter, since it had been a pick-apart kind of thing. All the things that went (read: what I did) wrong, and what needed to change. I awkwardly hugged. I give hugs like I’m an automaton, actually, because it’s uncomfortable. Our liquor went in the freezer– a gracious wash of fresh cold air. Our bags went flinging into the bedroom with the bunk beds. Okay. I can handle that. It was homey. A little cottage with the stale smell of beach, memories, family and, oh my god, I think every sign in this house says “LAKE” or your name on it. Cannot escape. But it’s cute. Your carpets are green, and your coffee machine–ancient.
The last time I was here?
It was June. We played volleyball, and you’d been teasing me, singling me out for torture. I threw a volleyball at your head, but you caught it, laughing, “why do you hate me so much?”
“Why is he so mean to me?” I had asked your friends around the fire. I wanted to slam a hand over my mouth after I said that. What had gotten into me? “He’s always…you know.”
The guys had looked at one another and grinned. “You know why,” they’d said. “Helga Pataki syndrome.”
Translation: the boy has a crush. Which I already figured. Six months later, same answer.
In my hand was my cell phone, where I hopefully tried to start conversation with a couple of prospects. As usual, it went nowhere. And I was crestfallen.
Plus, you were seeing someone. Dating, even…or something. I had given you my expert opinion on THAT situation several times over the course of a few weeks, when you sought me.
I went to sleep grudgingly in your hammock, and you draped a blanket over me because you thought I’d be cold. Even though I chucked a volleyball, hoping to hit you in your smug face.
In the present: my dip, taken from me by you personally, went in the oven.
Then, you turned around. Your very soft blackish hair was tousled, per usual, and you were tanned and shirtless GAWD. UNF. Oh my gosh–good-looking. You stood up and looked happy. You really looked happy.
It was an oven-esque day. The sun was high and hot, and every surface was touched somehow by the scalding rays. The shadows were full of light. The summer sun had a way of making things brighter, unfiltered even: the grass had touches of white-hot light; the water was tropical warm and sparkled not with icy diamonds but with the scorching blue heat of the furnace. The sun washed out the colors and turned up the white light. Jamaican reggae rumbled in the background.
I wanted to close my eyes and hum. I felt at home, was that so odd? I felt it was odd. I wanted to stand in the sunlight between the screen door and the house, where one door led out to the deck and the others led to the sprawling lake, and photosynthesize in peace. I felt the light-headedness of something Important about to happen. I suddenly decided, when I saw you, what I had to do. I didn’t even feel, oddly, that it was a choice.
You came over and we hugged for a few long moments in the middle of the room, between the kitchen table and the counter. Your skin was warm and smooth and gently baked.
And then I said, “I’m sorry.”
You looked bemused, and later, I figured out, totally pleased and expectant. You grinned. “For what?”
“You know. For being a jerk. I am really, really sorry. You didn’t deserve it.”
The words came out before I expected them to. I had the urge to clap a hand over my mouth. What was I even saying? Hadn’t I just been complaining that I shouldn’t have to apologize? I guess my unconscious, probably, decided to step in and say what I was feeling. Not what I thought I was feeling. But feeling for real. I guess I was going to shrug off that cocoon and molt a little more quickly than I thought.
You grinned widely with a look of complete knowing. You were always grinning in my general direction, but now it was especially.
“Don’t worry about it,” you said.
Our friends were waiting. Rob had drinks ready as gifts, and the speedboat was getting ready to go out, and everyone was getting jetski rides. The lake was a comfortable, warm 80 degrees. The sun was, as I said, was high and hot. Perfect.
I think you said something else, too. For Reassurance. About keeping the past in the past and looking forwards. Probably put your arm around me and led me outside or something. To be honest, that moment was so important to me that I don’t even remember it.
And the sun was white, and the boats were rumbling and churning the lake water, and the strawberry margaritas were flowing, and we went out, and I didn’t question it, that this was the beginning of everything.