Pi Trippa Dorka

There was never a question about my going to college. I was going. If I’d tried not to go, I’d have still gone. By my junior year of high school, I had grown serious about my grades. I was making As and only As. I was developing stars in my eyes in the shape of ivy league brick buildings. I wanted to go somewhere special and do something special. My parents wanted me to go to a small, private, Christian junior college.

I said UNC Chapel Hill, as if I would have been accepted.

They said Florida College, who accepts almost anyone.

They only required one semester there and said we could then discuss it. They said this knowing I’d stay longer than one semester. It was there that I met many of the lifelong friends I still have. It was there that I met Todd. I stayed until I’d earned every last credit they could hand me. And then I was off to Florida State for my junior year.

I was alone at Florida State. Alone with 14,000 other students just like me. I lived at home (highly UNrecommended, no offense, pops), parked my car at a friend’s home near campus and biked to all of my classes. Occasionally I would run into a friend from middle school. But most of the time, I walked into and out of my FSU classes by myself.

It sounds like a sad story, but I loved my final two years of college. I hadn’t gotten my way on where I went to school, but I totally got my way on the classes I took. I was an English Major with emphasis in Creative Writing. I took workshops where all we did was write stories and critique each other’s work. I learned specific writing techniques from studying the likes of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I couldn’t think of anything much better than this.

In the Maymester of 1991, I took Beginner’s Fiction Workshop: Art and Imitation taught by Ralph Berry. It met from 6-9 on Tuesday and Thursday nights. I had spent the day before lining up my texts for the class, one of which was At Swim, Two Birds by Flann O’Brien. The book cover was every bit as weird as the title. I was intrigued. Because the class started when I would normally be eating dinner with my parents, I had to wolf down a sandwich and head toward campus by 5:15. Parking was almost always a bad day in Vegas. I had my tricks, though. My best parking trick was the back 40 clay parking lot behind the Tri Delta sorority house.

These classes with Dr. Berry were the highlight of my summer. That makes me pathetic. I know it now and I knew it then. I loved sneaking through the Tri Delt property and walking up Park Avenue. The walk led me past Ruby Diamond Auditorium and to the Williams building, a grand old structure with brick and tile from 1926. Every class I took that summer was inside these ancient, ivy-covered walls. I entered the building through an arch. Every time I did, I felt I could hear whispered stories from 80 years before. That building was an audience and a cheerleader for every writer that stepped inside. In my second story classroom, the north-facing wall was entirely windows, overlooking the fountain in front of Ruby Diamond. As Dr. Berry laughed about the absurdities of Flann O’Brien, his face became a deep, neon pink. Some nights, when everything was flowing just right, his laughing face would flush pink as the sun was dropping across campus. For a brief few minutes, everything was the same shade of red.

One night, I had pushed my departure from home too late. I left at 5:30. Tennessee Street was snarled with traffic. I didn’t have time to even consider my other parking options. I had to drive the absolute shortest route to Delta Delta Delta, park quickly, and then sprint all the way to room 229. I whipped in the back entrance to the back lot and parked as far back as I possibly could. But instead of sitting in my car for a few minutes as an incognito sorority girl, I had to exit my car immediately and risk whomever might cross my path.

This would be okay. I mean, all I had to do was move with purpose, blend with girls that looked like Cameron Diaz, and not draw attention to myself. I did not need to worry about getting towed while I was sitting in a 3-hour class. I could totally pull off the Tri Delta look. I pulled into the parking lot at 5:53. That gave me 45 seconds to cross the Tri Delt property and 6:15 to make the rest of the trek. I gave myself a glance in the rearview mirror of my dad’s copper colored 1983 Datsun 280ZX. My hair was going to give me away before I cleared the sidewalk. It was wearing the humidity like a badge of honor and sticking off my head like a frayed rope. I patted it and wished it well and shoved the heavy metal car door shut with my hip. Then I tucked At Swim, Two Birds and my notebook under my right arm and took off.

Don’t make eye contact. Look ahead. Think like a Greek. Practice your bible Greek. Low profile. It was going pretty well on my speed walk from the clay back lot to the side yard of the fancy main house. I was within view of total freedom. The brick, colonial style house stood dignified, pressure washed, unblemished. It kept its stern and stoic face to Park Avenue like a member of the royal guard. The porch was dotted with Delta Delta Delta girls. I pictured them in my mind, but could not make eye contact. Maybe they’d think I was here to see someone. As if.

I took a deep breath. Focus. Be the Delta. Put a little swag in your step.

That last one was the game changer for me. Not only did I decide to make a last-minute change in my gait in hopes that I might blend better, but I sped up. To a run. Somewhere between the transition between normal stride, sorority girl stride, and sorority girl running, I kicked a rock. The rock was camouflaged by nothing. It was in plain view, but I had too much going on. Turns out it’s not easy to rush to class while pretending to be someone else and also trying to avoid detection.

When my foot encountered that rock in plain sight, my leg was already in some unsightly position. I was off balance. There was no recovering. I kicked the rock. Hard. My foot stayed back, as if being held by a defensive end. The rest of my body lurched forward. I threw my books like a forward lateral and went down on my face. Right there. Twenty short paces from the Tri Delt girls who had nothing but time for the show I put on. I hit ground with three different body parts. The one I felt the most was my right knee, which was bleeding pretty freely when I stood back up. Now I was going to have to add a 2-minute restroom visit to clean up my knee.

As I hobbled up the hill toward the Williams building, I never looked back at my audience. I heard my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Haste makes waste.” How could I argue with her now? I had wasted time. I had wasted my knee. And worst of all, I had wasted my chances to ever get in tight with the Tri Delta girls. I had also wasted a perfectly exceptional parking solution.

But I don’t worry. There are sororities for girls like me, too. They’re called Honor Societies. I started one of my own in my mind that accepts school-loving, old-car-driving, clumsy, fluffy-headed readers and writers. The parking lot is paved and smooth and the porch is screened with a swinging bed and Amish rocking chairs. There is a fountain out front with two birds at swim.

I’m a charter member of Pi Trippa Dorka.
And there’s something to be said for that.

The Marriage and the Mint

It was a sultry, sunny day in the middle of May. The kind of day that could land beads of sweat along my hairline as a reward for simply walking to the mailbox in north Florida. It was the kind of day that made me pine for February. But none of that mattered now, because I was above the clouds, inside a climate-controlled cabin, on my way to 2% humidity. We were flying to San Francisco for our honeymoon. I had been married now for 19 hours. For some people, marriages are interchangeable. They turn spouses in like library books over the course of their life until they find the one they like well enough to keep. For others, a honeymoon is a vacation with the person they’ve been vacationing with for quite some time.

Neither of those was true for me.

For me, marriage was forever—permanently permanent– and the honeymoon was the beginning of some things I didn’t know a whole lot about. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

I was nervous. I was as nervous as Jezebel on Judgment Day. I had been nervous since the pizza guy arrived at our Marriott the night before because we had both forgotten to eat at our reception. I almost invited him in as a chaperone, but Todd tipped him and pushed him back out into the hallway.

And so there we were now, over Oklahoma somewhere, with Todd happily partaking in the in-flight entertainment and me sitting in my seat overthinking every single moment of my life that had led to these seats on this airplane with the young fella to my left.

This is why only adults get married.
I was 22.
That is not an adult.

I’m a textbook overthinker. I’m not good at it or creative about it. But I’ve been doing it since I was 9, so I’m well-practiced if nothing else. There in 23A, with nothing but wispy white clouds within view, I tried to figure out where we were going to be as a couple in 30 years, or 50. And what I decided was that Todd had made a terrible mistake.

Poor Todd. He didn’t know what he was taking to San Francisco. He didn’t know what he was chained to for life. I was crazy. I was a crazy person who had finally learned to wear a little make-up more subtle than my 1980s rouge racing stripes and who finally had a head of hair that didn’t cast the shadow of a dinosaur-sized Q-tip. He had fallen for a person who looked like she had it all together. But he didn’t know. My crazy was going to spill out like the contents of my suitcase and he’d soon know that he’d married the horse head from the Godfather.

Poor Todd.

I set my thoughts aside because a flight attendant was two rows ahead of mine, handing out headphones for the in-flight movie.

“Would you two kids like to watch Groundhog Day?” she asked, pulling two plastic covered headphones from a weird little basket. I looked at Todd. He was smiling and nodding, so I smiled and nodded, too. What a nice man I married. The flight attendant called us kids.

My fear that I wasn’t marriage material had formed in my stomach and was swelling toward my throat like a gas bubble. What if it was an actual gas bubble? What if I start burping like a frat boy in the middle of Groundhog Day? If I do, then Todd will know. He will know that he has married a fraud. And a burper.

The fears died down a little as I chuckled through Bill Murray’s predicaments on the screen in front of me. I was being ridiculous. Everything was just as it should be. We knew what we were doing. We did this on purpose. Our parents approved of it. My mother had actually begged me not to mess it up. She knew I had some crazy in me. It was all good. All good. I exhaled, as if to clear the last of my emotional toxins out of my lungs and looked over at my partner for life. He was wearing his headphones. His face was relaxed and happy. And behind the round, tinted lenses of his glasses, his eyes were closed. He was asleep. He was going to miss some critical transformations in the movie.

I looked back at my movie screen and saw the flight attendant coming back down the aisle with her little basket. She leaned in and dropped an Andes mint on my tray table and without a word placed a mint on the tray of my sleeping husband. Bill Murray’s alarm was going off again in my ears as I gingerly unwrapped my heavenly patty from its shimmering green bathrobe. Wow, that’s good. It’s like having Olive Garden in my mouth.

It was over so fast. I wondered if the flight attendant would bring me another when my eyes wandered to my left and settled on Todd’s tray table. His mint was just sitting there. He hadn’t flinched. I looked back to the movie and tried to get on board with the crazy hijinx, but I could no longer concentrate. That mint looked so isolated. So vulnerable. I began to hear persuasive debating in my ears. He doesn’t like chocolate. You’ve never seen him eat an Andes. It’s going to go stale while he sleeps. He’ll never know.

That was the worst one. He’ll never know.

It was all too much. I needed the mint.

I reached over and silently swiped his mint, unwrapped it, and ate it.

Funny. His didn’t taste nearly as good as mine had. Maybe that’s because I had stolen it straight out. In that split second, I had become a conniving, thieving Wife Bandit and nothing would ever taste sweet again.

Less than 20 minutes later, with the movie still playing into my deaf ears, Todd woke up. He looked over at me and smiled sleepily. Then he looked to his left at the stranger in the window seat. That man had a mint on his tray. Oh no. Todd looked across into the middle section of seats. There were mints there, too. Then he looked back at me.

“Hey. Where’s my mint?” he asked, innocently. “Did I get one?” Right then I had a decision to make. I was a thieving Wife Bandit, but I wasn’t yet a liar. I didn’t have to be a liar.

“Yes,” I said and contorted my face into something that I’m sure scared him as bad as what I said next. “I ate yours.”

“What? Why?” he asked in shock. He wasn’t mad. I could tell he wasn’t mad. But he’d had his first tiny little glimpse into my “for worse” and it was uglier than he’d imagined and sooner than he’d expected. After all, we were still inside 24 hours from saying those vows. How quickly I sold his love for an Andes.

“I was hungry. You were sleeping. I’m sorry.” And I was sorry.

“Man. I can’t believe you ate my mint,” he said, staring at the seat back in front of him.

It was the first wrong thing I did as a married woman. Almost 27 years, 4 kids, and 6 houses later, it’s still one of the more terrible infractions of my life. That mint still sits on a tray table in my mind as a reminder of what I’m capable of.

Poor Todd.

On the coast near Half Moon Bay.
This is on the plane to San Francisco. A selfie before the digital age. In a true twist of irony, Todd is the one who looks scared.

The coach in the clinic

DISCLAIMER: NSFMP

Not Safe For Missy’s Preacher.
-or-
Not Safe For Male Persuasion.

The following tale is one that needed to be told, which likely makes sense only to me at the moment. It is handled somewhat delicately. I wasn’t going for shock value. But it might be just the topic a dude would walk away from at the water cooler. Consider yourself warned if you are either of the above.

One night last week I exchanged a rather negatively passionate discussion with a daughter about feminine hygiene supplies and the fact that she was absolutely, desperately out of them. I don’t mean a little bit out. I mean she couldn’t go another hour. It was 9:36 p.m. I know this because I looked at the digital clock in my bedroom, exasperated, and said, “It’s 9:36 p.m.!” The children know not to bring me any form of crisis after 9. They’ve been warned. For years.

About this time, Brady stepped out into the hallway looking like a resurrected Patrick Swayze and said nonchalantly, “What was that whole thing about?”

I paused, looked at him, and carefully weighed my answer.

“Maxi pads. What else do you want to know?”

He stepped back into his room wordlessly and shut the door behind him. He hadn’t wanted to know that much. And, of course, I knew that.

I stood in the hallway between the bedrooms of my house and thought through the potential resolutions to our problem. There wasn’t an array of them. There was only one: go to CVS right then. But before I sent Todd (he’s a good man), I took the scenic route to a middle school clinic in Tallahassee, Florida in 1983. It was spring. I was in the 6th grade.

Periods were a bigger deal in 1983, mostly because the solutions hadn’t caught up to the severity of the problems. For my pain, I was handed an aspirin. I might as well have swallowed a bay leaf, for all the good it did me. And for the other obvious problems that went along with a girl’s administration, all the hygiene hunting in the world could only take you so far.

How a 12-year-old girl navigated these waters depended largely upon the information and supplies at her disposal. For all my mother did right for me in the world, and she did a lot right, she got this one wrong. I knew periods were a thing. I knew Eve was to blame for them. And my dad had told my brother on the way to church one Wednesday night that someday I would yell at him a lot when all he wanted to do was play Monopoly with me. That was the extent of my knowledge about women and their cycles. When it finally happened to me, in the food court of a mall in Lakeland, I had no idea what it was. I thought I was coming down with something. Like Mumps. Or rabies.  It took a good 8 hours to diagnose puberty. When my mom finally clued in to what was happening with me, she explained it in brief and inadequate detail. It wasn’t enough. A girl doesn’t need the Cliff’s Notes version when she’s crawling out from under a rock.

Two and a half hours in to my new grown-up world, I went to my mother privately and whispered, “Mom, why is it still happening?” She looked at me with a mix of shock and amusement in her dark eyes and said, “Honey it’s going to go on for about 5-7 days, once a month, for the rest of your life.” What in the world? That would have been pertinent information from the get-go, I’m thinking.  I handled it like a girl on her period. I closed myself into my uncle’s old bedroom with the red shag carpet and bawled. For the rest of the night. My uncle didn’t still live there, just in case you were thinking the story was about to get really strange.

And that’s how I started my period: completely ignorant, 100% unprepared, and while staying at my grandparents’ 1 bathroom house with every member of my family.

Preparation wasn’t our strong suit.

That being the case, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I eventually found myself unprepared at school, which is a world-ending scenario for a 6th grade girl whose hair already has its own twitter account for all the wrong reasons. I was sitting in Language Arts learning about Hyperbole when my eyes went from bored to saucers faster than I could mispronounce the word hyperbole. My eyes glazed over the words, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” written on the white board at the front of the room. I knew I had a problem. I did not know how to communicate to Mrs. E Jones that I had a problem or get out of the classroom without everyone else knowing I had a problem. I thought about trying to use my newfound knowledge of hyperbole to ask a covert and exaggerated question, but the chances of that blowing up in my face were 100%.

This was a conundrum.

I ended up mouthing the word ‘bathroom’ while swathed in full-on panic and she waved me out the door. Ah, good. That part was successful enough. I trotted down the long hallway between rows of orange lockers, feeling almost happy that I escaped humiliation, when it hit me. The bathroom wasn’t what I needed. That would be skipping a step.

I stopped at the end of the language arts hall to think through my options. I could go to the office to call home. Or I could handle it myself in the clinic. The clinic seemed the faster way to solve my problem so I turned left and walked the length of the admin hallway, passing the main office, on my way to the clinic door. I paused to breathe, closed my eyes for silent strength, and then swung open the door. The clinic was a narrow room that opened up into a spacious square of papered patient beds and mismatched wooden chairs. The first thing I noticed upon entering was that I was going to have to step around people to even get to Coach Rollins, who was sitting at a 1960s too-small desk writing a hall pass for one of the sick kids when she glanced up at me.

Sick people.
Why hadn’t it occurred to me that I was going to encounter actual non-pubescent sick people in a clinic for sick people? There were 4 in there. Two were lying down.

“What you need, baby?” She said, looking back down at her work. There was no place I wanted to be somebody’s baby any less than my school clinic. Mrs. Rollins was one of two P.E. coaches at our school. When she wasn’t running delinquent-style games of four square in the gym, she was practicing bad medicine in the clinic. I didn’t like her in either role. She terrified me. She had smooth skin the color of a medium roast coffee bean, hair that looked like there had been an incident with her rollers that morning, and teeth that curled over her bottom lip like a garden rake. She couldn’t close her mouth over those teeth. It gave her a deceptive look that she was perpetually smiling. Most of us knew she wasn’t.

“Um,” I replied, inching closer. Half of her current patient load were boys. Goodness. I leaned in as close as I reasonably could. “I need supplies.” She halted her pen mid signature and looked toward the concrete block wall behind her desk. What’s she looking at? What was she doing? Was she thinking? Had she heard me?

“Supplies for what?” She asked finally. For the love of Gordon Sumners, she was going to make me spell it out in front of a boy. I began to think about death.

I narrowed my eyes and thought about tensing up my arms and legs to try and pass out.

“Monthly supplies,” I said again, through pursed lips. Please understand what I am saying. Please.

“Oh,” she said in full voice. “You need a maxi pad.”

I dropped my chin to my chest  and sighed what felt like all the air in my body. Yes, ma’am. I do appreciate your sensitivity. She pulled open a metal drawer, with the brash scraping of bad news, and pulled out a cloth monstrosity with a flapping tail on each end.

“Here you go,” she said, extending it toward me. I shrunk back in terror. What even was that thing? It was 2 feet long and in the shape of a life boat. I took it out of her hand and just held at arm’s length like it was a venomous snake. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Neither could anyone else in the room.

“Well, go on,” she said, shooing me toward the bathroom that was just inside the entrance door. I slowly shifted my gaze to Coach Rollins and then back to the flapping pieces at the end of this crib mattress. She sensed my unanswered questions. “It’s supposed to have safety pins but I don’t have any o’ those. You just do the best you can. Tuck it. Into your pants.” My eyes became little slits across my face and I blinked back the sting of shame that was trying to cry itself forward. No way was I going to cry. The heat in my cheeks could have fried bacon. I took one final look at the pad and offered it back to her.

“No, thanks,” I said resolutely. That thing was an inflatable kayak. The coach’s eyes went dark and her teeth formed more of a snarl than a smile. She was offended. As if she had designed this thing. Like it was her personal kayak I was refusing to row.

“Well, honey, you ain’t gonna drip dry.”

“Got it,” I said over my shoulder as I walked out like I owned the joint. “Thank you for the valuable information.”

When the door slammed behind me, I scrunched up my face and stood there in defeat. Shoot. I wasn’t going to drip dry. But I also wasn’t going to let that drawer of Kmart clearance from my mother’s childhood have any stake in my current crisis. So I turned back the way I came and entered the main office where a phone was sitting just out of reach from the chest-high counter. The school secretary glanced at me and raised her eyebrows, inviting me to speak.

“May I use the phone please?” I asked, setting my clinic attitude aside very briefly. She reached for the phone dubiously, looking me square in the eyes like the suspect I wasn’t.

“Is this an emergency?” she asked.

One hundred and seventeen different answers to that question flooded my mind. I almost drowned in them. I settled on just one.

“Yep.”

Youthful Nevermore

Last night, I found a poem I wrote in my 20s for someone’s 50th birthday. I had so much time on my hands. I wrote it to the style and meter of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. It’s funny to me for a couple of reasons. The first reason is that I am almost 50 myself. What I used as old age benchmarks are a bit antiquated now that I’m almost there. It’s also quirky because of my references to pop culture at the time.

And because we’ve established that I didn’t have much to say, I’ll post it. If you know anyone turning 50, feel free to cheer them up with this in a greeting card.

Youthful Nevermore

Once upon a midnight dreay
Muscles cramped and vision bleary
Lawrence Welk upon the tube
I used to think he was a bore.
Dentures soaking in the restroom
sending forth a sterile crest fume,
Having reached the end of Welk,
I took the “flipper” from the drawer.
Flipping with a steady hand,
60 shows at my command.
To sleep is all that I have planned,
Because I’m youthful, nevermore.

Is this some occult illusion?
Some maniacal intrusion?
MTV and VH1?
This trash was never here before.
Carefully I weighed my choices,
Thinking I might hear some voices.
Could it be just “old age” noises,
Beating down my bedroom door?

I tried to think what I could do
To bring my youth back into view.
But as of yet I have no clue.
I’ve never been this old before.
I racked my brain in desperation,
thinking up wild combinations
Extinction and annihilation –
words that haunt me to the core.

There I sat, distraught, exhausted,
by my own insight accosted
I raised myself up off the bed
And paced across my bedroom’s floor.
Memories of my prime are nifty.
Days when birthdays never miffed me.
Now, alas, I’m turning FIFTY!
Oh, what with this year have in store?
I leaned against the bed to rest,
a hanky to my forehead pressed,
Still feeling overwhelmed and stressed…
I’ll see my childhood nevermore.

“Oh well, I’ll soon be fifty five.
The discounts will keep me alive.
I think seniors aren’t so bad
And I still think I know the score.
And when this milestone day is done,
I’ll push ahead to Fifty-One,
With every rise and set of sun,
My youth is with me evermore.

Tuesday Boos and Coos

This is my version of Cheers and Jeers. I don’t have much to say, but there were a few notable things, especially in the Coos category.

Boos

  • April 1. Boo. Every year my kids try to pull things on me. They stink at it but I’m still on edge all day. They love April 1. I am not a fan. BOO.
  • Stuffing 800 flyers into PTA teacher boxes. I don’t like counting. I especially don’t like dividing 800 into little groups of 22. BOO.
  • Spreadsheets. Enough said. BOO.
  • Trying to write a blog on a Monday and having nothing to say. If I am bored by it, I stop writing. If I don’t like the paragraph, why would anyone else? I started the year with the goal of writing Monday-Friday, taking the weekends off. That’s a good goal and I like that goal. The problem is, my typical style of post is essay or story-esque. I don’t know that I can keep up a standard pace of 5 of those a week. Well, clearly I can’t, because I haven’t. Little things like 104-page elementary school yearbooks and 5th grade banquets get in the way. So, boo to slacking. But coos to trying.
  • Pretending that it’s normal to say boos and coos. Boo to that.

Coos

  • Really cool doorways that I stumble upon while biking and then risk arrest or death as I creep close enough to get a decent picture. I suppose if I’d been shot while taking the picture, this might go in the Boo category. But as it stands, it was just a really cool doorway.
  • Heres a big one. I’m 48 and just learned to use a bike pump effectively. I’ve never had any luck pumping up bike tires before right now. I even had to purchase a small compressor that I plugged into the cigarette lighter of my car that would pump the tires automatically. I did have to look up a YouTube video to pump the tires of my road bike because it had a Presta valve, which is smaller and trickier. After that, nothing could stop me. I carry the sucker like a 38 magnum now. Is that a real gun?
  • Yesterday something amazing happened. More amazing that learning to use a bike pump and actually using it. Yesterday I witnessed harmony at the Temple Terrace roundabout by the country club. I’ve never seen anything like it. Prior to this, all I ever saw was people stopping like a 4-way stop. People hedging. Hesitating. People with a look of abject terror in their eyes. But not yesterday. Yesterday, on TWO DIFFERENT OCCASIONS, I saw people jumping in when they saw an opening, waiting their turn and merging into traffic, and then exiting like an Olympic dismount. It was beautiful. It created this whirly swirl of car colors and body styles, spinning around an island of flowers and grass. It was like people from all nations and cultures were holding hands and singing a remix mashup of Kumbaya and We are the World. It’s possible this was just an April Fool’s joke played by the universe. But it’s also possible people in this community are finally learning the ways of the mysterious, mythical roundabout.

Have a great April 2. Here’s hoping you have excellent experiences on the roundabout of life and that you don’t suffer trauma from anything that occurred on April 1.

When Adults Laugh

To be a kid who grew up around water, I was a little slow to the pool party. And when I arrived to the pool party, I was always looking for a floatation device. My little friends all had inflatable floaties on their arms. That was like having their own personal swim instructor attached to them in tandem. They would move through the water fluidly and without fear, albeit vertically, while I was trying to wedge myself into a half-deflated donut on the shoreline.

Oh, I wish I had me some floaties.

The summer I was 4, prior to taking any formal swim lessons, we found ourselves spending a lot of time at St. Teresa in the old cottage. In the storage room between the scary outhouse showers was a black tire float made of hard plastic. It was not inflatable. It was hard, hollow, lightweight plastic. My mother handed that to me as a method of staying alive in the Gulf of Mexico. I gave it a squint, checked it for parasites, and then propped it against the screen door while I ran in to put on my suit.

When I returned to my tire float, no one else was ready to swim yet. Adults could be so slow sometimes. I had a few minutes to myself so I sat down on the edge of the stairs that led through the sea oats and bramble to the gulf. My short blonde scruff blew in the sea breeze like a dandelion that wouldn’t let go of its stem. The air was a gift. The concrete was warm under my bare toes and I looked down at them to avoid squinting in the afternoon glare.

I was almost asleep against my own knees when I heard the screen door slap behind me. My mother and grandmother were standing behind me, smiling and dressed to swim. I grabbed my plastic tire and took off, skipping steps as I went. I was the first one in the water. I don’t know why that mattered growing up. It was important to be the first one in. Somehow I felt it made me the guardian of the sea. The guardian in the plastic tire.

My memories of swimming are scant because there wasn’t much to it. It usually consisted of dragging my toes along in the sand to find sand dollars and star fish. Sometimes I would plop down on the wet sand at the shoreline as the waves lolled leisurely in and make drip castles. I liked the drip castle because the lack of precision was what made them so beautiful. I could never master a sand castle with corners and lines. But usually these little sessions in the water were just like any other. There was water. There were people. It was pleasant.

This particular day was not like the others.
Not to me.
We got out over my head, which was easy to do because I was 4. It wasn’t deep. But it was deeper than I was tall. My mom and my Mama were comfortably lounging in water that was chest deep to them. The tire was working pretty well until it didn’t. I don’t know how I got moving fast or erratically enough to flip the tire over, but I did. I flipped that sucker on its head. And on my head. And in those moments I was upside down, still holding onto the tire, with my feet flopping like a wind sock outside a Ford dealership.

It wasn’t a great situation to be in, but I was only marginally panicked at first. They would see my flopping legs and flip me back over. Right away. In truth, that’s probably what they did. This life and death situation probably lasted all of 30 seconds. But I was seeing the tunnel with the light at the end. I had time in my mind to write my own obituary and bequeath my Curious George to my brother before anyone grabbed my feet to flip me back upright.

Someone finally did and that tire rotated like a Marriott waffle iron, tossing me back into some air I could breathe. I was soaked and upset, crying in spite of myself. The Guardian of the Sea should not cry, but I had to make the occasional exception. I spit as much salt water from my mouth as I could, wiped my eyes, and then managed to sputter, “Did I drowned?”

And the adults laughed.
Hard.

I must have looked so cute there using my bad grammar with my almost dead self draped over that malfunctioning flotation device.

And you know what they said in response?

“No, Missy,” ha ha ha. “You didn’t almost drowned.”

They quoted me back to myself.
I didn’t like their tone.
So I kicked my feet back to the drip castle zone and marched myself right out of that water. They would have to do without me for now.

None of that would have happened if I’d had me a pair of floaties. I never did get a pair. What I did get was a mean swim teacher named Rose at the Tallahassee Y. She made me put my face in the water. She didn’t accept tire-shaped floats. I learned to swim.

I never drowned again.

Lost and Found

Today began the last 9 weeks of the school year for my kids. The spring season of every school year seems to bring with it a mix of ill-fitting pants, stomachaches, and nightmares. It’s stressful. And because I didn’t live my life right to this point, I’m in at least 2 different grades right now. I won’t tell you which grades or how it’s going. You already know.

I’m losing sleep.

Two nights ago, I fell into a nightmare that I could not shake out of.  I was in a museum, though it looked an awful lot like an aquarium combined with Wakulla Springs. There were boardwalks in some places, plexiglass in others. The glass had never been cleaned. The whole place was a disease just looking for a dirty community in 1818. My entire family was moving through the exhibits at different paces. My parents and Jenna were just up ahead of me and I was supposedly bringing up the rear. I don’t know what happened, but I lost Jenna. She vanished around a corner and was gone. I ran forward, running through room after room, but no Jenna. I ran backward, hoping to pass her along the way. Still no Jenna. I was completely panicked at this point. For some reason, my last hope of finding her was in the final room following a series of connected rooms. It was a long, narrow stretch with orange shag carpet and dirty windows. I zipped from one person to another, hoping to lay eyes on the kid who belonged to me. I was ready to give up in despair when my mom wandered up. She was walking on her own and carrying herself with confidence. It was the mom of Before. Not After. And though she didn’t know where Jenna was and hadn’t seen her, I felt instantly and infinitely better just having her stand there with me.

I hadn’t seen her in so long.

At this point in the dream, I was tied up in a knot thick enough to stow a tall ship. I wanted out of the dream. I was becoming aware that I was indeed dreaming and that if I would only wake up, Jenna would be asleep in her bed down the hall. Everything would be okay again.

Everything except one.

Waking up meant I had to stop talking to my mother. To get Jenna back, I had to let my mother go. I can’t tell you how hard this decision was. It is the first dream I’ve had of her where I could hear her voice. The first dream she was on her feet, advising me. Interacting with me. The first dream where she was really her.

She didn’t realize how torn I was or that she herself had been missing for such a long time. She was only interested in helping me find Jenna. Where had I looked already? When had I last seen her? What was she wearing? Did she have her ipod and did this place have wifi?

“You go forward and look that direction,” she offered. “I’ll backtrack and see if I can find her back there.”

OK. We made a plan. It was a workable plan. I turned to run in the direction my mother had laid out, but stopped and looked at her one last time.

“I have to go, Mom,” I said. I knew something she didn’t. “Thank you for helping.”

She nodded and retreated and I watched her go. In that instant, just as I found my daughter, I lost my mom again. And I woke up with that feeling burned into me like a scar that comes from grabbing something hot because you want it badly enough to take the risk.

All these months I have hoped I would eventually forget the mother that disease stripped away and twisted up and handed back to me as a person I didn’t recognize. I have hoped to see her again as she was. And though it wasn’t the stuff of a Ron Howard movie, it was something.

It was something.

Next time I hope to see her in a lush garden or on the banks of the Hillsborough. Or better yet, smack in the middle of Manhattan. And I hope there are no lost children or windows of germy plexiglass. But I’ll be honest—I’ll take her however she comes.

It was good to see her again.

For now, I gotta go. I have 2 homework assignments and an elementary school yearbook to finish.

P.S. Just kidding.
P.P.S. (mostly.)