What Now?

Yesterday, while trying to fit laundry into a piano lesson I forgot about, a meeting with a decorator, 2 pick-ups, and the 4th dental appointment of the week, the question of fertility–and infertility–came up to me. Out of the blue. Twice.

That was oddly coincidental. Or not. Because as severely as I struggled with this issue, those struggles are so far in my rearview mirror now that I almost can’t make out shape or color anymore.

But I remember. Oh, I remember. A person doesn’t forget a thing like that.

One person asked me if I had ever written about my struggles. I actually had to search my blog to see if I had. I searched on “infert” to cover all forms of the word and came up with 3 or 4 posts that were Mother’s Day related. All of them were good for me to read again. All of them began at infertility and ended at adoption. None of them really talked about what we’d been through. And it occurred to me that people don’t really talk about it enough.

There were a few people I talked to about everything and a few reasons I didn’t want to talk about it with anyone else.

  • Everyone’s a critic. Even people who don’t mean to be sometimes are. Every single treatment I pursued was something that I first grappled with inside my mind. Todd and I both agonized over the expense and the decisions. We didn’t need a panel of self-proclaimed experts pointing out our mistakes as they saw them.
  • Everyone’s got an opinion. I heard most of them over the course of 4 years.
  • Everyone’s got a story. You may have been through some stuff, too. Maybe infertility. Maybe miscarriages. Maybe anxiety. But you have never been me and I have never been anyone else. Your story is your story. Mine is mine. We can understand each other, but we are not the same. I try to remember this as I go forward also. I’ve been through a LOT in my journey to my family. But I can’t know exactly what you are facing in yours. And I can’t tell you what you should do with yours or what’s right for you. Only you can do that. I certainly can’t tell you to do as I did.

I think what bothered me the most during those years was not knowing how my story would end. I didn’t want or need to hear “Your day is coming. Things are going to work out.” I knew that. But how were they going to work out? And more desperately critical, when? When?

But the one question I asked that was harder than the how or the when and 100% unanswerable was why? Why was the woman at the edge of my neighborhood who was strung out on drugs 8 months pregnant, but I wasn’t? Why were there girls sitting in waiting rooms considering abortions for a pregnancy they didn’t want but I could not find my way to one I desperately wanted? Why were there couples getting pregnant after 5 minutes of marriage and I couldn’t manage it after 5 years?

The why question is unanswerable. Always. Why is there cancer? Or autoimmune disorders? Or mental illness? Or accidents? These things just are. And sometimes they fall on us.

Over the course of 4 years, I transitioned from a girl who cried in bathroom stalls when my monthly cycle ended another few weeks of hoping to a girl who was ready to ask the real question:

What now?

It isn’t why or when. It simply is what now.

Anyone can do the what now. Anyone.

So since I’ve been asked, and since I’ve been around the block 78 times, and since I’ve emerged on the other side with 4 children, and since I’ve done therapy, and surgeries, and IVF, and medicines, and adoption, and pregnancy, and C-sections, I’m going to write it all down. Maybe it will help someone. Maybe it will only help me as my oldest boy prepares for his senior year of high school and I prepare to watch him leave.

It has been a journey. And it was often a dark and difficult one. But I wouldn’t change a second of it. Not one second. I wouldn’t reverse the tears or the breakdowns or even the months and months upon years and years of waiting. Because those things prepared me to be a mom. And those things brought me here.

Right here.

And right here feels pretty good.

Small Things

Small things are cute. The smaller they are, the cuter they appear. There are plenty of unattractive adults that were adorable as babies. A slimy wriggly puppy, who will grow up into a smash-faced dog breed, is worth cooing over as a puppy. And a super fat baby thigh, enlarged and placed on an adult, aged 25-80, is the grossest thing ever. But we squish and croon about fat baby thighs.

As a kid, I was obsessed with small things. Tiny stuffed animals. Little action figures. And miniature 1970s wooden Christmas ornaments. When I was 8 years old, while decorating our Christmas tree, I found my best friend. It was a 2″ wooden angel, tossed into my mom’s collection of non-special ornaments. Because it was nothing special. To anyone else. But when I picked it up and made eye-contact with her black dots, she became special to me immediately.

“Can I keep this one?” I asked my mom. she agreed dismissively. Nobody cared that I was keeping her. I named her Baby. And she became my baby.

I carried Baby with me everywhere. Literally everywhere. To school. To church. On vacations. To my parents’ office. Down the street to play with my human friends. Everywhere. When she wasn’t in my hand or set up in some elaborate diorama, she was in the pocket of my jeans. There is one picture in some album somewhere that I took of Baby. It is only her right half, because I was shooting with a 110 point and shoot camera that is worse than drawing a picture with Crayons. I can’t locate the picture right now.

When the unfortunate fire of 1981 happened, we scrambled to pack our things and move out. Our insurance company sprung for a Howard Johnson’s in a bad section of town. My parents were not that excited about the hotel or our location in town; our new residence backed up to the parking lot of a honkytonk bar. I thought it was the most exciting place ever. All I had to do to enter a foreign world was to slide up in my bed ever so slightly and part the linen curtains behind my bed. The music went on all night.

One night, a couple of weeks into our stay at the HoJo, when I had seen enough and couldn’t seem to settle into sleep, I realized I didn’t have Baby. I looked for her in my covers and then in the drawers where I was keeping my clothes. She wasn’t there. In a panic, I called to my Dad.

“Dad,” I said. “I don’t have Baby.”

“It’s ok. We’ll find her in the morning,” he replied. Unlike me, he was settled in for the night. Now that I’m firmly entrenched in middle age and parenting, I get it. There’s nothing a parent wants to do less than to hike to the car for a forgotten item when you are already wearing your PJs.

“Dad, that won’t work,” I whispered across the dark hotel room. “I need her to sleep.” I paused. “And she needs me.” Now I was Grade A Crazy, but I didn’t care.

My dad swung his legs over the side of the bed and I sucked a breath of hope into my lungs. He was going to get Baby! But instead, I watched him fumble across the room to his stuff that was laying over a vinyl chair and reach into his pants pocket. Did he have Baby? He then found his way over to me and knelt beside my bed.

“Here,” he said. “Sleep with this.” I opened my hand hopefully and in it he placed a penny. A penny. Like a 1 cent dirty piece of copper. I closed my fingers over the penny as I narrowed my eyes in disgust and rolled over. The edges of the penny dug into my palm as I tried to pretend it was Baby. With my hand under my chin, I could smell the metal. This was not going to work.

“Dad,” I whispered again. “I can’t do this. I have to have Baby. Could you please go down to the car and get her?” I think people at the bar next door could hear him sigh as he stood up to face his mission. He threw on a pair of real pants and quietly slipped out of the room, along the outdoor corridor, and down the stairs to our car. A few minutes later, the door opened, letting a long shard of light into the room before it all went dark again. He padded over to my bed and placed the familiar shape of Baby into my palm. I smiled and hugged her to me and we sunk into a slumber on the faint notes of an Alabama lullaby that was drifting out from the doors of the bar behind me.

Within a couple of years, I lost Baby. I looked for her everywhere and was heartbroken when I couldn’t find her. I wondered what she was doing in her spare time. Was she missing me as much as I missed her? Had she found new friends? Would she ever show up again?

I never saw her after 1983, but there’s this lovely site called eBay, where a person who is a little off in the head can reconnect with their past in off-in-the-head kinds of ways. eBay is where I found the beach curtains of my childhood. And while it’s not where I found THE BABY, I did find A Baby. And I bought her. There is a familiar sweetness in her black dotted eyes and little round mouth that reminds me of a faithful friend I once had. A friend I like to imagine on a honkytonk stage somewhere, listening to our songs, and nestled into the palm of a kid who loves her.

the night of the tiny turtles

There’s a strong case to be made for wearing pants, at all times and in some form, whether it be leggings or jeans or pajama pants or even something as cringy as Daisy Dukes. But nobody ever makes that case, because it seems to be a superfluous argument. The world is largely on board with the pants-wearing tradition. I’m on board, too, most of the time. But a couple of nights ago, I decided to live on the edge. It was hot. I was the only one awake in a shared bedroom with my 11-year-old daughter. I needed to take my core temperature down and I wasn’t going to need the pants.

So I thought.

I got fully settled about midnight but was only in and out of a fitful sleep when a light came through the slats of the vertical blinds that separated my bedroom from the coastline. It was enough light to make me wonder what was causing it, so I got up to check. From a thin space between slats, I saw a police SUV driving along the beach out front. I knew what he was there for. He was there to confiscate property left behind by lazy sunbathers. He was mostly there for the canopies. He pulled up to one and got out of his truck when my eye was drawn to two women just below me on the pavement. They had flashlights and were moving with purpose. I didn’t understand what that purpose could be, because by now it was past 1 a.m. but they appeared to be mildly frantic. One of the women immediately took off toward the cop on the beach.

Ah, it’s her canopy. She wants to talk him out of taking the canopy. That made sense in my mind but didn’t explain the lateness of the hour or the other woman wielding a flashlight. After a few seconds of imagined conversation about the canopy, the woman jogged back toward the paved parking area in front of our condo and the cop hopped into his vehicle and moved it closer to the women.
Then they all started scrambling.

I watched the chaotic dance of the flashlights with confused fascination. At this point, I was fully awake, fully out on my balcony in the dark, and fully aware that I was mostly pantsless. I was safe in my lack of pants because it was so dark and because, with a cop and two women running willy nilly on the beach below, no one was going to be looking at me. I pressed myself up against the balcony railing, forgetting the pants entirely, and followed the flashlight beams with my eyes. Something was all over the ground. The ground was practically moving because of it. It was crabs. These were crabs. Wait a second. Those aren’t crabs. Crabs are faster than that and no one cares about crabs. Dozens of little darkened shapes were flopping around on the sand and crossing under the fence into the parking lot.

I gasped as I figured out what it was. It was a group of little hatchlings from a nearby turtle nest. These were baby sea turtles. And they were lost. Going away from the ocean instead of into it. I watched as the cop and the women scooped up turtle after turtle, turning on their heels and then running with them to the water’s edge. But the numbers were against them, so they grabbed an empty trashcan and began to set the turtle escapees into the can, one after the next.

I wish I could help them, I thought. But I’m not wearing pants. I ran back inside the condo for a moment and noticed the lights on in Brady’s and Lucy’s room. They were both still awake. So I ran down the hall to grab them out.

“Hey, come with me. I have something to show you.” They followed me back to the balcony and were just as intrigued as I was with the process going on down below. On my way back through the family room, I grabbed a blanket to serve the role of the pants. It did its job as well as it could.

Over the next half hour, we witnessed a small group of beach combers saving a larger group of tiny, helpless turtles. If the women hadn’t been out there with lights–which still baffles me because of the lateness–and the cop hadn’t showed up to take someone’s canopy, there would have been a crop of dead turtles in a parking lot the next morning.

“That cop was on the night shift, working the canopy confiscation beat. I bet this is a much more exciting night than he had planned,” I said to the kids, resting my chin on the railing as the activity began to wane.

“You know what they say,” Brady replied. “Not all heroes wear capes.” Lucy began chuckling at that and they started a whole routine as if they were turtle wrangling cops. At noon the next day, none of it would have been funny. But at 2 a.m. it doesn’t take a lot to get a punchy reaction.

I’ve been at this beach in this condo every summer for 20 years now. I’ve seen a lot of turtle nests get roped off. I’ve even seen some turtle tracks. But until Monday night, I had never seen the actual turtles. It was pretty spectacular. I do wonder how much more spectacular it might have been if I’d been wearing pants and had run down to join the rescue operation with the flashlight I had brought from home. This might have been a much different post.

Not all heroes wear capes.
But they do all wear pants.

The Summer of the Purse

It is summer.
Summer is my favorite. Though it isn’t all perfect–the air is hot and thick and heavy and crawls down my throat every time I walk out the back door with the dog—it is perfect enough. It is all my children home without the pressures of exams and projects. It is turning off of the alarm clocks and letting the rising light along the river or the hungry snorts of the dog wake me up. It is trips to summer camps and grandparents’ houses and the beach. It is skating every Monday night with friends. It is the anti-May.

This summer has been everything I had dreamed it would be in May when I was pushing around a popcorn machine and occasionally trapping myself under its weight. It has been more than I had dreamed, actually. Because on top of the things I already loved about most summers, in this summer, we have all grown up a little bit.

Andrew got a job. He works at a place that takes much of his money anyway, Smoothie King. It doesn’t pay a lot, but he loves it, and it does pay more than watching Netflix while eating ramen in bed. Brady got his learner’s permit. That experience deserves its own post. He changed shirts twice before heading to the DMV, posed more than once for his picture, and re-did his signature 5 times before finally accepting that he has the worst autograph of any 15-year-old ever. He has yet to drive a car. Lucy, who has been 13 for a decade, will actually turn 13 in less than 2 weeks. She is almost 5’8” and her look of maturity bites us at all the wrong times and never comes in handy when she hopes to work out in a gym. Soon, all things will be right and she will be as 13 in reality as she’s been in every other way. Jenna is still my little nugget, but she can beat me at Wordscapes, and sometimes I ask her to help me when I’m stumped.

But then there’s me. I’m pretty old now. The only growth I seem to experience lately is the kind that comes from too many trips to Kilwin’s when I’m staying in a town that has one. But not this summer. This summer, I’m making some changes myself. There are some significant ones that I don’t particularly want to detail. If I change, people will know. If I don’t, I don’t have to skulk away like the loser I have become. No one will know. What people will know, and what some already do, is that I now carry a purse. Bam. Did that.

For 10 years, I’ve been carrying around my wallet, my keys, my sunglasses, whatever book I’m reading, and my planner like a woman who escaped from a Memory Care facility. For awhile there, I had a diaper bag and I could shove my belongings into that or the nooks and crannies of a stroller. But when the diaper bag went away, so did my organization. And it isn’t pretty.

After dropping my boys at a summer camp in North Carolina, I parked myself at a rented Airbnb with the 2 friends to spend the week tubing, rock sliding, visiting Kilwin’s, and trying to find a cable to link together my wallet, keys, sunglasses, and holocaust literature that I picked up for some light reading. I was thinking through this when I made my announcement.

“I think it’s time for me to buy a purse.”

“Ok,” the Informinator responded. “Whatever.” We had some time to kill on Sunday night and there was only one place still open. TJ Maxx. Once inside, there were plenty of purses, but that didn’t guarantee a successful mission. The first one I gravitated to was a mustard yellow. I held it up to Elaine and parted my lips to speak. She beat me to it.

“That’s a no,” she said firmly. “A hard no.”

I continued to comb the aisles, looking for the right fit. The next selection came to me through my fingers, not my eyes. I was sifting through the bags with one hand as I wandered and my hand rested on the softest leather I’ve ever been in the same room with. It was like the butt of a living horse. It was beautiful. I held this one up to Elaine.

“That’s not a purse, it’s a backpack,” she stated the obvious. “And it’s a big backpack.” She was right. It was the kind of leather backpack you’d put all your electronics in to travel to a business meeting in another state. It was also not a cheap backpack. I turned the price tag over and saw that it was $99. At TJ Maxx. Yikers. I put it back on its hook, but with a darkness in my heart that comes from being told no by a parent or some person that wants to give you raisins on Halloween. I kept coming back to that $99 oversized airport backpack that wasn’t a purse at all. But eventually, I walked away and bought 4 shirts for less than the price of the one backpack.

If I had a purse, I could have put the shirts in it. I walked away without a purse.

Days went by, with the wallet and the keys and the sunglasses and the reading glasses and the book about the son and his dying mother. I was picking up receipts along the way. I had become quite a spectacle. But on Tuesday afternoon, while wandering in the Mast General Store, which might be the best store ever built with bricks and mortar, my gaze landed on a couple of little llamas. One of them was buck-toothed and up to no good. The other one looked like it wanted to run away. They weren’t real llamas. They were fabric. On a purse. I loved it. And I bought it. For $32. I put my wallet in it. And my keys. And my sunglasses. And I bought some reading glasses, just to put them in the purse. Peepers brand, no less. And a self-help book. And some year-old double bubble that was way overpriced.

I didn’t know that a llama purse would change my life, but it has. Not once in the last week have I gotten into my car without the car key. Because the key is in the purse. Not once have I wondered where the phone is. (It’s in the purse.) Today, all the way out in Austin, Texas, in the middle of Lake Travis, not far from the homes of Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock, I had my purse. And by George, even in the middle of a lake, it came in handy. Need a waterproof phone pouch? It’s in the purse. Trash bag? Purse.

So it’s been a great summer so far and I’m calling it the summer of the purse.

I’ve only been let down once and it was today. Today I rifled around in that bag for some sunscreen. There was none.

That little oversight is going to hurt for about a week. But then I’ll peel off my little mistake, put some sunscreen into the llama bag and walk on.

With my purse.

Samson and Bernie

Storm Prep

Rain thrashes against a small, wooden bungalow where the floors slope at strange angles. At unpredictable intervals, the neighborhood hills light up with strobe-like flare and the thunder drops like artillery.

I am well accustomed to thunderstorms. Especially lately. But there is something about navigating one in a new place that intensifies the experience. The terrain that lights up is unfamiliar. The shadows are foreign. The echoes of thunder are bouncing off of trees and houses you’ve never seen before. As I listen to the sounds of the weather outside and the alerts about the weather on my phone, I half expect the storm to come inside. I don’t know this house. How do I know it won’t?

Maybe it is this storm or maybe it’s this morning’s walk in the Oakdale Cemetery, but I got to thinking. And it’s long past time to sleep, but I can’t stop myself from thinking. About storms. And storm prep.

I have been sitting here considering what makes one storm more frightening than the next and what makes a storm scary in the first place. I came up with a few things.

Where you are matters. When I was on a 35 foot sailboat with my friend and her dad, I was on the storm’s turf and in the most volatile spot on earth at that moment in time. I felt a little differently about that approaching storm versus the one I watched hit the rented bungalow tonight.

How you prepare matters. When you build a house in Tornado Alley, you can prepare by building a storm cellar. In hurricane season along any coastline, you can prepare by building a hurricane kit and by sandbagging. When there is no weathering the storm, sometimes all you can do is run. I once sandbagged my house for a hurricane that dropped less rain than I bathed my babies in. I was real mad when I had to dispose of 300 filled sandbags. What I wasn’t was scared. I was prepared for that storm.

The intensity of the storm matters. Some storms are worse than others. Some storms are bigger than I am, or bigger than my house or my hurricane kit.

Your focus matters. Where I’m trying to go as a storm approaches is my focus. If I have an outdoor concert, or a ballgame, or a flight to take, I don’t want to see an ominous forecast. A black cloud becomes the worst kind of news. But if I have nowhere to be, a solid roof over my head, a book, a dog, and a content kid around, I would gladly order a storm from a weather vending machine and turn it all the way up.

As I lie here, I can still hear the rain, though the thunder has faded to a rumble. My low rumble is another guy’s artillery. The storm has moved away.

I am not thinking about physical storms this moment. I’m making connections in my mind; thinking about the things that upend me in my life. Thinking about the things I could have done to change my location or my prep so that those things might have been a drizzle and not a devastating flash flood.

I can’t do anything about the fact that I sandbagged my house for Hurricane Georges, which did not even wink at us, and did nothing to prepare for Irma, which did. And I can’t change that I allowed a free PlayStation into my house when Andrew was 10., or that I was bad at chore assignments and enforcement when my kids were tiny. But I can do today. And the future is still out there. It’s summer and the school year will be sitting in my ill-prepared lap before I am ready to acknowledge it. I will have kids in grades 6,8,10, and 12 this year. There will be storms all along the way and life is going to change dramatically in the next year or two. It will take 5 friends, a husband, and a very, very good guidance counselor to lead me through the Senior Year Labyrinth and a therapist to get me over it when it is past. And then I’ll be on to the next thing. Don’t regret, Missy. Do. Put on your rubber shoes and start walking.

That’s a lot of hooey that came up because I am watching the lightning signal threateningly outside a North Carolina window. It’s like the devil doing morse code with a flashlight. Sinister. As the storm fades and a soft rain continues, I think about this specific storm and how I prepared for it. I have only one regret and it’s a big one:

I left my shoes on the porch to dry out.

Downtown Hendersonville, before the storm

Travel Psychosis

I am staying in a rented house in North Carolina this week, waiting for my boys to finish having the times of their lives at a summer camp just up the mountain. I’m aware that it’s stupid to drive 10 hours for a summer camp when there are plenty of summer camps within an hour of my house. But this one is special. And Florida is more hot and flat and buggy than driving 10 hours was stupid, so we decided to do it.

Getting here wasn’t easy. It involved late night trips to CVS, googling quick fixes for severe constipation while also roadtripping (do not attempt to google this yourself. It only brings up ads for Dulcolax), fixing the constipation (not my own), driving on 3.5 hours of sleep with a car full of smelly boys who discuss their underwear far more than I expected, and then safely dropping them to some people who are willing to parent them in the woods for a week. It was something. Everything that went along with the constipation and its correction truly deserves a blog of its own, but the person in pain those days is a teen boy whom I love and would like to maintain a relationship with. So for now, just picture it and then let it go. I have.

After my friend and I got our respective kids settled at camp, we settled ourselves into the couch of our rented house and sighed with satisfaction. The world was our oyster. What would we do with ourselves for 5 more days? After sitting on our haunches for an hour, we decided to go to dinner. And we carefully selected who would take our money for this first meal without kids.

The first restaurant I came into contact with upon pulling into town Saturday night was Binion’s Roadhouse. I saw the sign, immediately leaped to bunions, pictured my grandmother’s 92 year old feet, and declared we would not be eating at that place.

That all changed after we walked into the posh, trendy, fairly-well-reviewed-on-Yelp Flat Rock Wood Room. Don’t ask me what a wood room is, because I don’t know. I didn’t get to find out. There were a lot of people standing around outside, making me think we might not get seated right away. But there were only two of us. So we did. Get seated. Right away. With menus. And that’s the last good thing that happened to me in the wood room.

Time passed.
So much time.
More than 15 minutes and not a single employee had made eye contact, told us they’d be right over, smiled. Nothing. So, finally–feeling existential and invisible–we walked out. No one saw us leave. We didn’t get to shake the gravel dust of that awful place off our feet in their direction because there was nobody to shake it on.

We didn’t have a plan B. Half the restaurants in Hendersonville are closed on Sundays. That’s a real thing. So our choices were limited. After driving around and searching our phones for a few minutes, you can guess where we ended up.

Binion’s Roadhouse.

Binion’s was the place I’ve looked for all my life, but didn’t know existed. It was homemade squash casserole and buttery yeast rolls and crispy bacon on my Bacon Grilled Cheese sandwich. It was friendly service. It was perfection. It was SO perfect on the heels of the SO terrible Flat Rock, that I came home, picked up my computer, and reviewed Binion’s on Trip Advisor, which our server had said would give her a nice bonus. It is the first review I’ve ever written on a restaurant. I closed the lid of my laptop and the Informinator said, “You’re going to stop there? You’re not going to review Flat Rock?”

She had a point. So I opened my laptop back up and wrote the following.

NOBODY CARED

We were really in the mood to try this place. We were even willing to be patient on a busy Sunday evening. But besides being spoken to and seated by the hostess, who pretty much couldn’t ignore us, not a single other employee looked our direction. We sat at a table with our menus for 15 minutes without a word or even a glance from any passing server. I began to wonder if I was actually there. Maybe no one could see me. We finally walked out because we couldn’t flag anyone down who wanted to feed us or take our money. We then drove across town to Binion’s Roadhouse, where we were served immediately and treated like royalty. Apparently we weren’t invisible after all. Flat Rock, you might be good to some people on some nights, but you stunk like old cheese to us tonight. But thanks for stinking, because we found Binion’s and that was a WIN.

So if you’re ever in Hendersonville, remember that I told you about Binion’s and schedule it into your week. You won’t be disappointed. You know what they say: never judge a restaurant by the bunions on your grandma’s feet.

Not pictured: a delicious diet Coke

The Storm

On a sultry June day in 1984, I made a deal with God. Or at least I thought I did. I tried to. It wasn’t much of a deal, really. I got everything and offered very little in return. That day I asked Him to save my life in exchange for a 13-year-old’s version of devotion. He’d save me and my offering would be me. But I was a wreck, not a prize.

He did save me. I’m still alive. But it was not without some effort. It was quite a day.

I had just finished 7th grade and managed to coast into summer break with a couple of friends that I actually had phone numbers for. One of those friends was Meredith. We had spent most of our 7th grade year in the same classes and had cultivated a close friendship. We had promised each other on the last day of school that we’d get together soon.

Soon was today.

Meredith had invited me to go sailing overnight with her and her father. I hardly took a breath before shouting yes. I was always up for an adventure. They kept their 35-foot sailboat in a boat slip at Alligator point, named for the gangly pine trees that towered at the end of the strand in the formation of an alligator’s open mouth. If you happened to be standing directly at the pines and looking up, you would never know you were looking into the mouth of an alligator. But standing on the beach in front of my cottage on St. Teresa across the reef, it was an alligator, clear as day.

The back side of the point had the marina and a cute little store ideal for two girls who were not contributing to the sailing preparation one bit. We ran up and down the docks, shopped in the store, and then wound our way carefully onto her boat deck. Her dad was checking his lines and loading supplies. I don’t remember him asking us to do anything to help. He must have known that it was easier to do it himself than it was to herd two teen girls into working for him.

I leaned against the cabin and pulled the Eurythmics into my ears by adjusting my headphones. I watched Meredith as she gazed across the marina. Her blonde hair and green eyes looked like they were made for a day like this one. The sky was the color of Easter and dotted with a just enough wispy white clouds to keep it from looking like eternity. It was perfect.

“Whatcha listening to?” she asked me as her dad began to back the boat out of the slip with the motor.

“Here Comes the Rain Again,” I answered without pausing the song. I flashed the cassette cover. “Eurythmics!”

“You’re shouting,” she chuckled. “Turn it down!”

“Oh,” I whispered back. “Sorry!”

“Come on,” she beckoned. “Let’s go get settled up front.”

We climbed over the cabin and scooted our way up to the deck that was plenty wide enough for both of us to stretch out. I gazed out over the dignified point of the bow that sliced through dark green waters as we cleared the last of the slips and left the marina in our wake. We each put a rolled-up beach towel behind our head and laid down like royalty.

“Man, this is great,” I said, looking over.

“Isn’t it?” she said.

“Thanks for inviting me.”

“Oh, sure,” she smiled. “I’m glad the timing worked out.”

I thought about my parents back in town and wondered if they were thinking of me with envy. I knew my dad was. He would rather be out on the water than almost anywhere else. My mother was happy to wave at anyone from shore. She loved the beach, but was happier to be on the actual beach. She wasn’t a strong swimmer and preferred to be within an oar’s length of land.

“So,” I said, tugging my headphones off and resting them around my neck while Annie Lennox continued to sing.

“Yes?” She looked over. I had her full attention.

“We’ve been out of school a couple of weeks now. I’m sure we’re both way more mature.” She turned and propped up on her right elbow. “Nick Rhodes? Where do you stand on him?”

“Oh, brother!” She pulled her towel out from under her head to smack me with it. “He’s still hot. Maybe THE hottest.”

I shook my head in disbelief. Nothing had changed. During the school year, several of us had this same conversation about every other day in the cafeteria at lunch. Who was the best looking member of Duran Duran? Simon LeBon, clearly and scientifically the cutest one, was always my choice. He was the winner in the cafeteria poll. He’s since gotten fat and weird looking. 35 years has a way of twisting those leather pants into the grotesque. John Taylor was a sometimes choice for Meredith. He was the tall, lean bass player of the group. He wasn’t my thing, but I readily admitted that he had a lovely jaw structure. He was otherwise too skinny. But Nick Rhodes– Nick Rhodes was a choice I never understood. She had a button with his picture on it. He was the make-up wearing keyboard player.

“He wears lipstick the shade of my grandmother’s couch. It’s a tiny bit creepy.”

“Oh, Missy, be a little progressive. We’ve had this same conversation 400 times. When will you agree to disagree?” She stuffed her towel back under her neck and flipped onto her back again. I couldn’t see her eyes behind her mirrored sunglasses, as she struggled to get as cozy as she had been before.

“Probably never,” I answered truthfully. “But not today, for sure. Simon, always Simon.”

The boat glided along through the emerald gulf waters as we closed our eyes and let the sun drip down on us like melted butter. We saw a couple of porpoises that were happy to race us until they got bored and moved on.

The day went on like that for an hour.

But in the time it took for the second hand of my watch to tick from one number to the next, we both sat up.

Something had changed.

The wind had been filling the main sail till it was round and full like the too-tight dress shirt on a chubby waiter. Now the sail seemed empty and limp, flapping against the mast like the wedding dress of a runaway bride.

The wind was gone.

The skies were flanked with white puffy clouds that seemed to have thickened and matured as we sat there still in the water.

“This is weird,” I said. “Is this weird?” I looked around us. We were swaying in the waves in one spot like we were anchored. Like a plastic bobber on the end of a cane pole. “It’s totally beautiful out. But we aren’t moving.”

“Have you ever heard of ‘the calm before the storm?’” She gave me a sideways glance. “Well, there’s a reason it’s a cliché,” Meredith replied. “I think this is the calm before the storm.”

I had heard that expression.
I had never experienced it.

Meredith got up and grabbed her towel pillow and stooped under the boom. The mainsail was fluttering and slapping loudly against the mast. She shuffled back to the stern of the boat where her dad was 100% focused. His eyes were the color of a bad omen and he was fixed on the sea ahead. She was talking to him, but I stayed where I was. I was not a co-pilot. They didn’t need me trying to hone in on the sailor talk. My stomach rolled with the lapping waves as we seemed to halt between worlds.

I pushed stop on Annie Lennox, because the more still it became, the more I felt I needed to see and hear what was around me. Even the lapping waves had slowed to ripples that looked like small buckles in an endless sapphire carpet.

I looked over my shoulder again and Meredith was climbing her way back to me. She didn’t lie down as before. She leaned against the cabin and held her towel in her lap.

“Well?” I asked.

“A storm is coming,” she said. “Hopefully not too bad. But we should probably put our stuff in the cabin and do a little prep work.” She turned and crawled under the boom again and this time I followed her. In the amount of time it took me to maneuver to the back of the boat like her clumsy shadow, the buttery sunlight that had set such a cheerful tone succumbed to a much darker affair. Vengeful clouds, flinty and thick, dropped down from the wide open and boxed us in. “Come on,” Meredith urged, stepping down the three steps into the cabin below deck.

When we got down there, Meredith opened an overhead cabinet and pulled out two life jackets and shoved our towels into the space she had emptied.

“Here,” she said. “Buckle top and bottom and pull it snug.” I took the life vest from her and tried to read in her eyes something more than the basic instructions she had given me. She didn’t lock eyes with me. She was concentrating on her own vest. Her dad gripped the helm at 10 and 2 and whistled lightly as he navigated an entirely different sea.

“I think it’s okay,” I said, looking away from our captain and back at my friend. “He’s whistling.” I had announced it like it was a telegram of good news.

“That’s not a good sign,” she said, still fiddling with her own life jacket. “That’s what he does when he’s nervous.”

Oh. I looked back at him with that new filter applied and saw a different captain at the helm. He had squeezed the color from his knuckles and the skin of his face was the color of ash. He was nervous. Suddenly the boat lurched and I jounced awkwardly into the cabinets we had just pulled our life vests from. Meredith was still upright, but agitated.

“What’s the matter?” I asked. She didn’t look up.

“I can’t get my lower buckle to work. It won’t stay clasped.” She kept pushing one side of the plastic into the other, hoping to hear the satisfying click of safety.

“I’m sure the top buckle is fine,” I reassured her. I tried to assist but couldn’t get it to lock either. “You want to trade?”

“No, you’ll need it worse than me if it comes to that,” she chuckled.  If it comes to that. If it comes to what?

I didn’t have time to further process the heinous possibilities because I was having to flex my quads like Arnold Schwartzenegger just to stay upright. Meredith and I sat down on the padded bench seats on either side of the boat, facing each other. We each had a small 10” window to the outside world that was like a movie trailer for the apocalypse. I swayed dramatically to the rhythm of the boat as she fought the swells. I kept my eyes glued to that porthole. Because I never took my eyes off of it, I knew the moment that it changed. Where I had been seeing a dark sky and a darker sea, I was now seeing only water. It was the view of a person on a submarine. I sucked in a breath and whispered, “The waves. Over.” I pointed and she nodded. The swells were now higher than the top of the cabin and were crashing over, making it appear that we were submerged.

“Girls, come up here for a minute, please,” Meredith’s dad called to us between his perky little whistles. We both came to the doorway but didn’t climb all the way out. The rain was pelting us sideways, finding devious ways to infiltrate the corners that should have been cozy and dry. “I need you to listen to me carefully.” My stomach became the churning barrel of a concrete mixer.

“This is a bad storm and anything could happen,” he said, prying his gaze from the waves long enough to make intense eye contact with both of us. I tried hard to hear his words, but I felt woozy and small and wondered if I looked as strange as I felt.

“We’ll stay below,” I volunteered. Why are you talking, Missy? Goodness. You know literally nothing about boat safety.

“No,” he countered, with a kind but firm tone. “If this boat capsizes, being in the cabin is the worst place you can be. I need you by the door, ready to come up if I tell you to. If we capsize, we will jump from the high side. Do you understand? You have life vests on and everything will be okay. Hopefully we won’t have to act on any of this. Do you understand?”

He was finished. Meredith was nodding vigorously but saying nothing, her voice swallowed by a harsh swirl of salt air. I understood. I understood I wasn’t safe. I understood we had just been instructed on how to jump from a sinking ship into a lashing, hostile sea. I understood that I wanted to be home, in my family room, watching Hee Haw with my grandmother or scrubbing dirty pots with steel wool or cleaning rain gutters. Vacuuming. Talking to telemarketers. Anything but dying on a boat with my best friend and her dad. I understood that sometimes I was a jerk. I needed more time to not be a jerk. At least to my parents. My brother had it coming.

I understood.

Meredith continued to press the ends of her life vest’s buckle together, finally giving up when neither of us could make it work. We stood there together, at the foot of the tiny staircase, each holding a side and watching her father fight the storm. We were all silent. Only the sea was speaking and we didn’t like what it had to say. I tried not to watch the porthole as the waves broke over the top of the cabin and washed more weakly over the window on the opposite side. It gave me the nightmarish feeling that I was trapped in an aquarium with a great white.  I stood there, scared, wearing my fear like a rash. In the meantime, I began to pray. This is when I decided I should try to enter into an agreement with God. I prayed that God would spare us. That we wouldn’t have to jump. That I would see my family again. I bargained with collateral I didn’t have.

“If you just get me out of this one, Lord,” I thought, “I will do better. I will work harder. I’ll become a better version of myself. I’ll read my Bible more. I’ll be yours for life.”

Time passed. The storm did not. Through the opening to the stern, I saw a plane charge out from the gray wall of cloud and buzz overhead before disappearing.

“Wonder what that was all about,” I said. “Where was he going?”

“He was buzzing us to tell us to get out of the storm,” she replied. “That’s why he got so close.”

“Oh, that’s very helpful. If only we’d thought of that first,” I said.

“Yeah,” she chuckled weakly. “Too little, too late.”

When we had been standing at attention for what seemed like a generation, Meredith sat down on the edge of the bench seat and patted the seat beside her. I sat down next to her. We were determined not to get too comfortable.

My body was exhausted from remaining rigid for so long. About the time I felt I couldn’t maintain it any more, Meredith’s dad leaned in and said, “I think the worst is over.”

I closed my eyes and smiled.

Twenty minutes later it was if it had never happened. We were back in the world of sunshine and lollipops; back on the front deck thinking about reapplying sunscreen. I needed to sleep. We both nodded off a couple of times. When I opened my eyes and looked over, she was looking my direction.

“So, now we’ve been through a near-death experience,” I began.

“My answers will not change. Shut up about it.” She waved her wand in the air with fake authority. “Do you play Connect 4?”

“I never have,” I answered.

“Good,” she said, closing her eyes again. “I’m going to kick your butt.”

That evening, we putted into the cove of Dog Island where Meredith’s dad tied us up to a dock and attempted to hook us up to electricity. The storm had knocked it out. We settled into a dry and cozy cabin as the shadows of dusk retreated into the corners and our lantern light spilled across the table. Meredith pulled the Connect 4 game out of some secret compartment and began to set it up and explain it. Thirty-four years have passed since that night, and I still don’t know how to play Connect 4. All I know is that you are supposed to get 4 of something and nothing is supposed to fall. I never got 4 and my chips fell out of the casing like an overflowing slot machine.

She said she was going to kick my butt and she did. I usually hate to lose, but that night I didn’t mind so much. That night, losing at Connect 4, I had more fun than I could remember ever having. The electricity was restored around 10 p.m. Over the next 14 hours, Meredith continued to beat me at games, did not change her stance on Duran Duran member hotness, and almost got her head chomped off by a stingray with a 4 foot wingspan (I’m not sure I ever told her how close that creature got to her). We strolled the white sands of Dog Island most of the next day and when we sailed home Saturday afternoon, we did so without incident.

But I never forgot that storm. Not then. Not 6 months from then. Not 34 years later. When I walked into my house that Saturday night, frothing to tell my parents what I’d been through, I found a note telling me they were at my grandmother’s apartment having dinner. Well, that was an anticlimactic kick in the lederhosen.

Every step I took was fluid as I crossed the green shag carpet to the kitchen. My world was still rocking. I dialed 386-6262 and took in my grandmother’s “hello” like warm mug of cocoa.

“Hey, Mama,” I said. “Can I speak to my mom for a minute?”

“Hello?” My mother’s voice brought the sting of rising mist to my eyes that I blinked back.

“Mom,” I said.

“Hey, Missy,” she responded happily. “How was your trip?”

“We almost died, but pretty good overall,” I answered truthfully. She never quite knew how to take me and surely thought I was joking. “How long till you get home?”

“45 minutes,” she answered, without addressing my death reference. “You settle in and we’ll see you soon!”

I hung the green handset against the hook gently and leaned against the kitchen counter. Outside, my dog was roaming in the backyard. Dusk was settling and fireflies flashed along the edge of the tree line. Across town, my parents were sitting around a blond 1950s dining table with my Mama, scraping banana pudding off their plates. The world looked exactly the same as it had on Friday before I left. But nothing was the same, because I was not the same.

I wondered if what Meredith was doing right now. I wondered if I’d ever be invited to sail with them again. And if they did invite me, would I say yes? Would I want to go? I mean, deadly storms aside, it seemed a little tenuous to put my trust in a vessel where life and limb depended on the strength of a slip knot. A kid loses focus one Tuesday night in Cub Scouts and people die. But then, that was my mother’s voice in my head. Of course I’d go again if given the chance.

As I was wondering what to do to pass the time until they returned, I suddenly remembered my bargain. If I prayed unwaveringly, read my bible, and served food at a soup kitchen for the next 11 years, I might be able to fulfill my end. Without any further thought, I dug my bible out of the closet under the stairs and sunk into the couch to read.

It had been quite a day.