Are We Almost There
I met you first when I was six and you were in utero. You weren't there yet. I was six and a half and in Florida on my first vacation by plane. In O'Hare Airport my mother gave me a spoonful of bitter yellow Dramamine and then held me up to the drinking fountain, and the icy metallic water got that bad taste out of my mouth. The medicine made me drowsy, but still I was scared. How will the plane stay in the air, I asked. How will they understand us in Florida—do they speak another language there. My father, a kind and peaceful man, talked with great faith about engineering matters. He talked as though he personally knew lots of engineers and liked and admired all of them. Engineers were great men, he seemed to be saying. My mother, who tended to scorn things, laughed at my other question. Of course they speak English, it's not another country, she said. Everyone knows that. These answers were pleasant, relieving—like that mouthful of cold water after
the Dramamine—but fleeting. Everything was fleeting.
We took two planes. The first plane was big, and to be in it felt like being in a house. It was not really moving, apparently. I sat between my mother and father in a row of three orange seats and was given a strange pillow that seemed to be made out of paper. We got blue rubber headphones that felt like Gumby and we listened to Bill Cosby. It was odd. Bill Cosby was not talking out loud into the air, but separately to each one of us, only he was saying the same things. We weren't hearing him together and yet we were. We laughed into each other's faces at the same moments.
After that plane we took a very small plane that roared beneath us and seemed to be going terribly fast, just faster and faster, over water. I felt that I was trying to hold on to something, though I couldn't say what. It was getting harder and harder to hold on, the faster and faster we went. We're almost there, we're almost there, the grown-ups kept telling me, not only my parents but also other adults on the plane, their kind faces leaning in as we went faster and faster, We're almost there, we're almost there, and I tried to hold on but finally couldn't anymore, and as we rushed in and down to the runway, I threw up
into a white bag someone held for me, and everyone forgave me, and I was given more water and everything went back to normal.
The motel overlooked a beach of seashells, and at the end of the shells was the water. No sand could be seen on the beach, only shells. This was rare, it was explained to me, something to be appreciated. Not too many people knew about this place, but we knew about it. Behind the motel was an endless hilly park with winding paths and regularly spaced white cinder-block structures that looked like identical, fierce little houses but which actually contained only pipes, my father explained; I was happy to hear that, because I wouldn't have wanted to live in one of those little houses. In the evenings, right after dinner, sprays of water appeared everywhere, crisscrossing and arching over one another, some tall and fine and waving like the tails of exotic birds, and some shooting relentlessly in one direction, feeding the green dips and rises. From our room's patio I looked, but it hurt a little—my eyes or chest or something. The color was so deep, so wet, the hills like mounds of wet green cake. I felt you out there somewhere, amidst all that green, but I couldn't see you, no matter how I concentrated. If I looked away, something would move in the corner of my eye, but when I looked back, you were never there. But when I turned around to go back into the room there was a decal of a diving woman on the sliding glass door, right there at my eye level, strangely, as though someone had known I would be there to see it, and it let me know the door was closed and I had better open it or I would bump my head. The woman wore a pink bathing suit exactly like my mother's and the ugly white kind of bathing cap that strapped under her chin and covered practically her whole head. She was a little faded, peeling a little, as if she had been stuck on there for years, though she did not appear to be an old woman. Her back arched gracefully and her toes were pointed, still, after all this time.
After breakfast our first morning I couldn't wait to get to the beach; I must have believed you would be there, for I'd heard the way people talked about it all the time, the ocean, the ocean, as though it were the point of everything. But two men were playing jarts in the gravel parking lot of the Pancake Shack, which we had to cross to reach the path down to the water. Be careful, those are young men, my father said, as though that alone made the men suspicious, but they didn't look young to me—they were big men with long hair,
far away and barely moving, and I had to get to you. Watch it, don't run across there, my mother said, jerking her arm out, but some kind of dark light shot through me and I got under it and ran. For a moment everything whirled whitely around me—I won!—but then
something hit my head, hard, knocked me down.
Then the grown-ups were around me again, this time less sympathetic than they'd been on the small plane, saying Stop screaming, stop screaming, and my hands were pried away from my eyes, and the first thing I saw was my mother comforting the young men,
who appeared devastated. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, they kept saying, kicking at the ground as though they were angry at the rocks and pebbles. What were they so upset about? I wondered. They didn't even know me. My father had me by the shoulder, his face larger and closer than I'd ever seen it before as he poked at the place between my eyes with the tip of his index finger. It hurts! I cried. Then stand still for once! he snapped. I couldn't believe he was so angry—either angry or sad, I thought. My mother was just angry; she had her back turned and would talk only to the young men, not to us. She's lucky she's not blind, everyone was saying. Close call, they said. We returned to our room without speaking, as though we had been watching a play and now the play was over. That afternoon we went not to the beach but to the motel pool, where they could watch me. I wore a butterfly-closure Band-Aid over the bridge of my nose, importantly, though I was disappointed that the closure in no way resembled a butterfly. Some other children were playing in the shallow end, fighting over an inflated purple sea monster, but they were of no concern to me—some of them were fat and looked as if they smelled, even in the clean blue water, and the sea monster didn't even look real. It was smiling. So I took my raft to the deep end and played alone, whispering to myself as usual, and when the wave or whatever it was came up, I went under silently. One moment I was on top, the canvas firm and bouncy beneath me, the world around me hot and dry and sparkly with noise and light, and the next moment the ropes were sliding through my fingers, leaving me, everything fleeting again, and I grabbed but there was nothing to grab, no raft, no ropes, only the warm shapeless air—you weren't there yet. Then I hit the wall of cold and everything went blue, time and noise stopped, and I knew to hold my breath, but something was getting inside me, and this time I really couldn't hold on, couldn't hold on another second. The grown-ups got me out, tugged me up by my arms, gasping, back into the world of sun and solid concrete. I wept but wasn't yelled at, I was a celebrity. She knew what to do, she knew exactly what to do, they said. I was wrapped in a white terry cloth robe and placed on a full-length lounge and given handfuls of Kleenex and a necklace of yellow candy beads which I was suddenly too sleepy to care about. My whole body felt pleasantly heavy, my eyes were closing by themselves, and my palms and the soles of my feet tickled, as if something were leaking out through them. She knew exactly what to do, the grown-ups kept repeating, surrounding me in a circle with their lounge chairs, and they sounded oddly proud, as though I had passed an important test. I tried to stay awake to hear what else they would say, but the sun kept pressing me further down and away from their voices, the distant splashes and shouts and the scrapes of chairs playing faintly on in my ears, a reassuring soundtrack to a dream I was starting to have, perhaps an early dream of you.
You couldn't have been far from me that day. I imagine you down near Cape Canaveral, still underwater yourself, the rushing of rocket engines echoing in your unformed ears, the
anticipation of countdowns crackling invisibly all around you as you waited to be born. But yours is a peaceful generation, more patient and careful than mine, and you were probably just floating, hanging out, probably holding so still even then that your mother had begun to doubt her own senses, to wonder if she had imagined your very existence inside of her. And even if you did hear me go under, somehow, by radar or however babies know what they know before they're born, even if you made some heroic kick or twist to try to get to me, it's probably just as well that we didn't meet at that particular time, for I was an only child, and babies gave me the creeps, reminded me of mushy little aliens.
I myself was an early baby, but not early enough. Four days earlier and I would have made it. As it was, I arrived in a bad year, a year of the Fire Horse. (I learned this decades later from a placemat at Happi Sushi.) I imagine myself trying to kick or dig my way out in time, get myself out of the fire, so to speak, and almost making it, but my mother, a no-nonsense woman with strong stomach muscles, was probably as usual doing everything she could to hold me back. But she couldn't have known about the Fire Horse. People born under the sign of the Fire Horse were basically doomed, the placemat said. Illness, unhappiness, and bad luck follow these individuals and all those close to them, it said. Women in Asia born under this sign used to find it simply impossible to find mates. (I've taken great strength from that "used to"—stored it away and carried it around like a
roll of Lifesavers in my brain.) At any rate, once I was born there was no turning back—only forward to go, always forward, and with only the ghost of a promise that you or some version of you might eventually catch up with me.
But you were running behind right from the start, a late baby, I'll bet, refusing to budge or show your face for weeks past your due date and driving your poor mother nearly insane. So it's no surprise that the second time we met we were still out of sync; really, it's a miracle we met at all. I was on vacation again, always on vacation when I ran into you, always somewhere hot and tropical, never in the cold dirty city back home. Actually, now that I think about it, there was a boy I met once for five seconds at a Chicago Old Town School of Folk Music Winter Singalong that might have been you. I hated those events: crowded, steamy, smelly affairs where we were given the sheet music to songs no one ever heard of about children in other countries doing humorless, inexplicable things. And what was the point of singing if we had to read the words as we went? All I cared about was the juice and cookies afterwards, but I was allowed only two when I could easily have eaten many more—I was like the Cookie Monster when I was supposed to be
more like Grover, who was sensitive and worried about things, but Grover got on my nerves.
This time, I was wearing a new necklace I had begged for and actually received, an extremely realistic-looking plastic squirrel that fit perfectly in the palm of my hand, strung on a genuine rawhide cord. The squirrel was clutching an acorn the size of his head, but he wasn't eating the acorn, just holding it against his white chest. His enormous brown-black eyes were wide open, and he had just a tiny smile, as though he was very satisfied. I was stuck in the damp noisy crush of grown-ups and children trying to get close to the cookie table, but I was occupying myself with my squirrel, when I sensed someone watching, breath against my skin. A little brown-haired boy was standing right there, nearly on the toes of my sneakers. He was staring at my squirrel, and he did not appear satisfied at all. He looked as if he was about to cry. His eyes were as big as the squirrel's, but darker, much darker, just impossibly dark. I gasped and grabbed automatically at my chest, but my hand hit the squirrel instead. And then it was as if I had no choice. I had to give it to him. It was going to kill me to give it to him, but I had to give it to him. I pulled it off fast, as I would with a Band-Aid so it wouldn't hurt as much or for as long, and pushed it into his hands. He looked startled, even terrified, but his hands were holding onto it tightly and he didn't say anything, and then my mother was suddenly there and I was led away. She did not seem to have seen the boy, and she never asked about the squirrel, so I wondered later if I had imagined the whole episode. I'm still not sure. But maybe that wasn't even you—I really didn't see him long enough to know.
I'm positive about the other time, though, the tropical vacation. It was Easter, and I was with my parents in Cancún, Mexico, before people knew about it; we were always going places that were going to be big someday but only we knew about them. The island was just a strip then, hotels and discos on one side, wild land and water reservoir on the other where my parents could go look at birds through binoculars. I was twelve and found that hobby boring, pathetic, embarrassing, and pitiable. Nature had become slightly disgusting, unnatural. Our room at the El Presidente filled with appalling bugs each night, some the size of small animals. I did not think it unreasonable to scream at the sight of these, but the third or fourth time I did it my father actually began shaking me, gripping my skinny shoulders and yelling, "Do you need a psychiatrist!" He let go after a moment, not seeming to expect an answer, and I sank into tearful, rattled silence. No one had ever talked about psychiatrists before. I did not want a psychiatrist. I wanted a tan, a true, sinister tan and all that went with it, all they could not begin to comprehend, all that would bring me closer to you.
Don't overdo it on the first day, my mother warned, but I ignored her and took my raft—not
the same raft I'd had in Florida but a silvery rubber reflector one designed to tan my hidden crevices without my having to expose them—out into the Caribbean. The day was
brilliant, the sun larger and hotter than it had been in Florida or ever was up north, the waves small and salty and easy to negotiate, and the further out I got the shinier and more
beautiful everything became. Nothing was required of me, nothing scrutinized. I slept out there for hours, dreaming of nothing at all.
When I came in that evening I was full of forgiveness: My father, mother, even the bugs, were no longer a problem. I was finally, thoroughly warm. My eyes were warm. My body was perfect. I was a gift, a free-floating charm, gold and silver and ready to go. I floated through dinner at the hotel restaurant, smiling at the Spanish-speaking waiters and busboys, who smiled back as though we shared a secret, and I smiled at my shiny face and hair in our bathroom mirror over a sink full of beautiful glittery slow-moving gnats, and I fell into sleep between starched white sheets, still smiling.
I dreamed that a train was trying to run over my finger, and I woke up vomiting. She overdid it, my mother said, somewhere behind me, and I let loose again and was wiped with clean towels and wrapped in clean sheets and when I woke up later the first thing I saw was a small green bottle of Wink soda, which I had never heard of but which I drank and which was so alarmingly good that tears came to my eyes. I was freezing cold and dying of thirst. "You overdid it," my mother said from the doorway. "We're going birdwatching, see you later."
I ate a salty ham sandwich which had been left on a paper plate beside the Wink and decided to be gone when my parents returned. I was shaky getting into my clothes, but I looked great. My face gave off an unearthly pink glow, making my eyes appear greener in contrast, and my legs, coming out of white cutoffs, while not as brown as I'd hoped, seemed animated from within. They moved friskily against one another in the elevator as though of their own accord.
The lobby shocked me. The elevator doors opened, and it was as though I'd been sleepwalking and was now shaken awake, the way people aren't supposed to be, mid-stride. Pillars I hadn't noticed before rose up whitely around me, larger than any pillars I'd ever seen, leading up to the stucco ceiling a hundred miles away. Tinted glass walls let in the blue glare of ocean and sky and the painful silvery flash of cars parked in the lot. But I'd been through here a dozen times already, so why were my ears ringing, my stomach dropping, at the sight of these things? The elevator, I thought desperately, the sunstroke, but neither was it. Mexican people moved around me at a regular pace, wearing pants and shirts and speaking Spanish to one another in ordinary tones, as though nothing unusual were happening. No one glanced at me, which made the sensation worse.
I was having a flashback of a dream I'd had the year before, perhaps even precisely one year ago, I thought, and my stomach dropped deeper. In the dream I'd been in the white-and-glass lobby of a hotel, this lobby or one exactly like it, my mother and father somewhere in the background, and it had been a bright, still day just like this one, with
crowds of people milling around, guests of the hotel and workers carrying stacks of clean white towels, and then word came that the nuclear bomb had been dropped. The news did not come over a radio or by anyone announcing it, it just came, as things do in dreams, and although the day was continuing brightly and evenly on without smoke or noise, the people began quietly dying all around me, guests and workers alike lying down on the carpeted platforms near the check-in desk or sinking into the bland lobby armchairs, giving in to the invisible radiation or poison that was everywhere. Nobody screamed or reached out to each other, they just lay down, one by one, everywhere I looked, and just as it occurred to me that I was still alive, my stomach began to ache, and I knew that meant the end. I got down on the floor on my back and closed my eyes, hoping the end would come quickly or miss me altogether, thinking I was already dead, but there was no tricking the end, no getting around it. It was not a person or even in any way personal. A siren of two alternating tones came on in my head, my hands and feet began to tingle and burn, and I felt myself shrunken and translucent, moving upward through my body, then coming up like a sweater over my own head. Then there was just darkness, and the siren over and over for what seemed like forever.
It had taken me weeks to recover from that dream, my stomach clenching and my hands and feet burning whenever I heard a police siren, and now it was finally upon me. My head filled with an awful rushing pressure, some enormous wave rising and breaking before my eyes, but then, just as I surrendered to it, a voice off to my left said, "Hey." I blinked and opened my eyes and there you were.
A skinny brown-haired boy about my size was sitting in one of the armchairs. He was very dark—might have been Mexican but his eyes were blue—and he was staring directly at
me. But unlike the boy at the singalong, this boy didn't appear needy. He appeared unalarmed, expectant. He was just looking at me, expecting me to say something. "You know that song, `The Tide Is High?'" I said.
"Yeah," he said. His voice was deep, like a teenager's, though he looked no older than me.
"I love that song," I said and immediately felt my face burn, though he did not seem taken aback. "I mean I like it, it's cool," I said quickly.
"Yeah," he said. He turned and gazed out the window at a family with several children getting out of a station wagon, but he didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave. His skinny arms rested on the fat arms of the chair.
"Is that your family?" I asked. "Do you have to go?"
He shook his head. "I'm here with my high school. We have chaperones, but they don't care what we do. They let us party in their room. We went to a disco, and they were dancing on the tables."
"Chaperones?" I said. "What is that, is that Spanish?"
"No, they're just teachers," he said. "From my school. But it's not illegal or anything, there's no drinking age here, you know? So they can't get in trouble. It's cool, I guess." He looked tired, suddenly, almost sad. "You take one of those motorbikes yet?" "Motorbikes, no," I said.
"We can rent one," he said and seemed to perk up a bit. He sat up in the armchair and leaned forward, wringing his hands together between his knees, his eyes fixed on mine. "It only costs a dollar for the whole day, and you can ride to the end of the island." "We're allowed to just go and rent one?" I said. "How long does it take to get to the end of the island? This is like a motorcycle?"
"No, motorbike," he said. "It's smaller than a motorcycle. It's fun. Let's go, come on." He jumped up and stood there, waiting, apparently only for me.
"They just let kids rent them?" I said. I wanted him to give me a sign, though I could not have said what kind.
"Yeah, it's safe and everything," he said. "I'm fourteen," he added uncertainly. "Really?" I said. It was amazing. Fourteen was so old, but he didn't look old at all. It was as if he had just been sitting there waiting, perhaps refusing to move or get any bigger until I got there, but how could he have known me, or known that I would arrive at that moment? I wanted to ask, but he had turned and was already heading for the sliding glass doors.
I hurried up behind him. Already I couldn't picture his face. "Where are you from?" I asked. "New Jersey," he said. "My name's Jamie."
"New Jersey," I repeated tonelessly. I didn't know anyone from New Jersey, New Jersey meant nothing to me, I got no mental picture whatsoever. I felt fine, though, oddly. The day held still all around us, silent and almost unbearably bright as we stepped out into it.
But the ride was loud and fleeting; we could not speak over the motor, and I had to concentrate on too many things at once. Jamie seemed happy steering us along, his hair blowing back against my cheek, but I was kept busy hanging onto his wiry torso and holding my feet up and figuring out where to position my head. Scenery whipped greenly, gloriously by around us, but I was missing most of it. At one point something large and white tumbled suddenly into our path, and I shut my eyes, waiting for the crash, but there was just a hollow thumping sound and we kept going. "What was that?" I screamed. "Lamp shade!" Jamie yelled, in his deep voice. Then he said something else, but I couldn't hear him.
"What did you say?" I shouted. "It made you nervous?"
"No, I said I ran over it on purpose!" he yelled.
When we got to the tip of the island we just turned around, unceremoniously, and started back. The wooden heel of my platform sandal nicked the ground on our turnaround and got a chip taken out of it, my fault for not lifting my foot in time.
"Some of the other kids are going swimming tonight," Jamie said, back at the El Presidente. We were idling in the parking lot. I got off the bike, my legs vibrating. "You're inviting me," I said. "When?"
"Later," he said vaguely, looking off at something across the road. His eyelashes were the longest I'd ever seen on a boy, black and perfectly straight, and I suddenly remembered the squirrel boy but thought, No, couldn't be, his eyes were brown. I looked where he was looking, following an imaginary line in the air that started with his eyelashes, but I didn't see anything out there in the brush. When I looked back at him, he had already turned around and was pushing off with his foot, wobbling a little as he pulled away. Everything I touched back in our room—the light switch, dresser handles, even a
glass—gave me a small, audible shock, though the room was too humid for static. The vibrating in my legs had not stopped. I tried to imagine his face again, but already it was fading, and the more I tried, the more elusive it became, like trying to picture infinity. Yet I sensed more strongly than ever that we were almost there, I only had to wait a little longer. I put on my bikini and sat on the edge of the bed, shivering with sunburn. There were only a few more hours to go. The room hummed; I was ready.
"Are you ready to go to Chichén Itzá?" my mother asked. We were at dinner; I'd had to get dressed again. She took a large bite of mole chicken, her cheek bulging out as she chewed it. I watched the bulge, disgusted, uncomprehending. Chichén Itzá. What was she
saying, was she speaking another language? But then I remembered. We were going to see the Mayan ruins— important rocks. We were leaving that evening, renting a car. "I don't want to go," I said.
"You have no choice," my father said. He had already finished and was pushed back a few inches from the table, his eyes half-closed, his napkin wadded on his empty plate. You have no choice.
I've often wondered if what I did at the ruins was in some way responsible for how things turned out between you and me, but there doesn't seem to be any logical, scientific way of proving it. I stole a rock. Not a regular rock from the ground, but a reddish, gumball-sized fragment of the ruins themselves. I picked it up for no reason and put it in my jean-jacket pocket, where it rode, forgotten, back home with me, and I saved it for years, though it was not impressive or even significant-looking. Still, taking it had definitely been against the rules. Signs had been posted everywhere, in Spanish and English, but I had paid no attention to the signs. The ruins were so enormous, after all, unfathomably large, and the red stones and pebbles covered everything as far as a person could walk or see, like snow. And the piece I took was so tiny, I could not see how it could be considered stealing. What were they worried about, anyway, I wondered—whoever "they" were. That
eventually, stone by stone, the entire Mayan ruins would be taken away? That was simply not rational.
Nevertheless, I didn't mention what I'd done to anyone until college, when, drunk one night, I confessed to a guy I knew who majored in anthropology and kept his deceased Border collie's skull, which he'd boiled and cleaned himself, in his truck's glove compartment—he seemed like someone who might not be bothered by certain things. "That's it?" he said when I told him. "Everyone does that."
"Really?" I said. I felt suddenly and inexplicably relieved. I had not believed myself to be genuinely concerned.
"Absolutely," he said. "Every single person I know who's been there has done that." He stared at me then, considering. "You are the only person I know who took it so seriously, though," he said.
Either way, cursed or not, when we returned to Cancún, Jamie was gone. We'd been away only three days, but it seemed like centuries. I looked for him everywhere—by the
pool, in the lobby, up and down corridors on every floor, my heart pounding and my hands sweating so badly I had to keep going back to the room and washing them, but there was no evidence of him anywhere. Nothing even looked familiar. After a while, I wasn't sure