I once believed that I was physiologically incapable of being unhappy while submerged in water. Sunk in a bathtub up to my eyeballs, I was as free of earthly cares as a turtle sunning herself.
Yet here I am, wallowing through my tenth lap, feeling prickly and unsettled rather than weightless and dolphin-sleek. Instead of soaring into silent galaxies, I am snarled up in annoyance that my right eye is stinging because these crappy goggles are leaking and that the ladies’ aqua-cardio class in the shallow end is blaring “It’s Raining Men” and that the flip-turning jerk I’m sharing a lane with drowns me every time he powers past and that because I didn’t expose my only child to enough dirt, Aubrey will hit the germ factory that is a college dorm with a weak immune system and that she will die of spinal meningitis.
Although I am a slob and raised Aubrey with plenty of messiness, my worst enemy—Recent Studies—now tells me that I should have gone the extra step and provided actual squalor. Recent Studies says that the absolute best thing for building antibodies is close contact with livestock. If I’d only put a goat in the playpen with my baby she probably wouldn’t have asthma today.
I speed up my stroke, pushing my hands beneath me like a Mississippi paddle wheeler, annoyances scattering in my mighty wake.
But, persistent as a school of piranhas, the worries and regrets stay right with me and continue nibbling. They have massed for this attack because Aubrey turns eighteen tomorrow. The day before she leaves for college. Not that we’ll be doing any celebrating together. She’s already made it clear that she plans to spend every second until she gets on the plane with Tyler.
I force myself to ignore the “Hallelujah, it’s rainin’ men!” chorus and concentrate on the comforting slurp and slap of my hands cutting into the water. I tune in to the stretch of muscles and tendons pulleying in harmony. I pay conscious attention to the shifting mosaic of wobbling squares of late-afternoon sunlight sliding across the turquoise pool bottom. I plan out where I will install the wheelchair ramp after meningitis renders my only child a vegetable.
Is it too late for the goat?
Hydrotherapy is not working. I yank off the leaky goggles just in time to see that my best friend, Dori Chotzinoff, has finally emerged from the dressing room. Dori always says that her last name is pronounced like you’re saying, “One shot’s enough” even though, for Dori, one shot is never enough. She sashays over with her head cocked to the side, tucking her hair into the retro flowered cap with chin strap that she wears to look Mad Men
–ish and to save her expensive dye jobs. Her vampire-pale skin is coated with a layer of sunscreen thick enough to mute her many tattoos to pastel smudges of blue and green.
I squint into the sun. “I almost gave up on you.”
She gives me a little Mae West pinup pose, one hand on her cocked hip, the other pretending to puff up her hair, and says, “Sorry, Cam, had to gild the lily.” Dori kneels down and waits for the guy in the lane with me heaving and whipping himself through the
water with a butterfly stroke to reach us. When he’s close enough to hear her, she yells out, “Excuse me, sir!”
Ignoring her, he barrels into a flip turn, and for a split second we are treated to the sight of his upturned ass with its black censor bar of Speedo. He is about to push off and blast away when Dori grabs his ankle.
The butterflier—middle-aged once you see his face—pops out of the water. “What the . . . !” He punches a button on his waterproof
watch and snarls, “I’m timing my splits.”
Alert as a herd of gazelle scenting danger on the Serengeti, all heads—the moms rubbing sunscreen on skinny shoulders, the just-turned-teen girls tanning on lounge chairs, the boys waiting in line at the diving board to show off for the girls—swivel in our direction.
Dori jumps in and informs Flip Turn, “We’re sharing this lane.”
“What is your problem?” Flip gestures to the lane next to us. “There’s only one person in that lane.”
Dori puts her arm over my shoulder. “Yeah, but that one person is not my BFF, Cam Lightsey.”
Flip starts to argue so I lean my head on Dori’s shoulder and say, “Plus, we’re lesbians. Sorry.” We’re not. But it’s fun to say. And it
ends the discussion.
Flip shakes his head, dunks under the white floats of the lane rope, jerks a thumb in our direction, and announces loudly to the woman in the next lane, “They’re making me move.”
I grab my kickboard, hand Dori hers, and decree our favorite cardiovascular activity, “Kick and kvetch!”
As we chug past Flip, busily resetting his watch, Dori yells out for his benefit, “Hey, Cam! Sorry for breaking up your romance with
Mr. Banana Hammock!”
Dori is like my grandmother Bobbi Mac. Not the piercings or tattoos or broken marriage to the lead singer in an Aerosmith tribute band, but her take-no-shit, get-the-party-started vibe. Spunk—Bobbi Mac was big on spunk, something she didn’t think her own
daughter, my mom, Rose, had had in sufficient quantity. Spunk is Dori’s middle name. Single-handedly, she almost made being a Parkhaven outcast fun. Dori loved to laugh over which mom had “shit the biggest brick” when she dropped casual asides about her
years as a member of the all-girl band Tampaxxx. “Triple-X,” she’d clarify with a lascivious wink. “I guess you know why.”
“So,” Dori asks as we stretch out and churn the water behind us with our fluttering feet. “What are we obsessing about today?”
I share my thoughts on brain infections and barnyard animals.
“Yes? And? So? Aubrey gets a shot.”
“They have a shot for meningitis?”
“Der. Cam, you’re a medico.”
“I’m a lactation consultant.”
“Medico enough for me. You’re supposed to get the shot before you ship your kid off to college. Twyla’s pediatrician told me that.”
At the mention of her daughter’s name, the blotches Dori gets when she’s trying not to cry appear like scarlet storm clouds around
her overplucked eyebrows. The white sunscreen lightens them to a pretty pink. Her grip on the kickboard tightens until the spongy material dents beneath her clenched fingers and her flutter-kick turns into an exercise in grim determination that propels her ahead
of me. I let her surge forward; Dori always needs a few seconds after her daughter’s name comes up to put her tough-girl front back on.
Twyla moved out over a year ago to “tour” with Dori’s ex and his band, and the only contact they have now is a phone call every few months in which Twyla details all the ways in which Dori was a horrible mother and ruined her life. Then tells her where to send
Meanwhile, the inoculation news lets me relax and I frolic through the water, happy as an otter. This carefree state lasts for a lap and a half before the real problem surfaces again and it’s not meningitis. My kicking slows to a near halt.
Dori, recovered, her face again uniformly pale, waits for me to catch up, then, commenting on my look of brooding worry, demands, “What? Tyler Moldenhauer?”
At the mention of Aubrey’s boyfriend’s name, I moan, “A suburban white boy, redneck football hero with no plans for college. If
Aubrey’s first serious boyfriend had been Glenn Beck, I could not have been more surprised.”
“Surprises,” Dori repeats wistfully. “So many surprises.”
“When did he take over Aubrey’s life so completely?” I ask, even as I try to figure out when my daughter turned into a stranger. Six months ago? No, it’s been longer than that. In that time, she’s become like a guest forced against her will to live in my house. A guest who would happily pack up and leave and move in with said boyfriend if I pushed her even the tiniest bit. I keep waiting for this evil spell to be broken. That it will be like the flu and one morning she’ll wake up smiling and help me make pancakes and tell me she’ll set the table as soon as she finishes this chapter. That she’ll be my little nine-year-old again, the one who saved up her allowance to make me a memory bracelet for my birthday then snuggled up next to me and told me what each bead strung onto the wire coiled around my wrist meant.
“The turquoise one?”
“That’s for your favorite color and because you love to swim. This little microphone is for you being such a bad singer.”
“I’m a bad singer!?”
“This one is beautiful. Is it ivory?”
“No! Do you know where ivory comes from? Elephants! Poachers!
It’s just the color of ivory.”
“Right. Oh, look, it’s a tiny baby curled into a ball.”
“That’s for your job and also for me. Inside of you.”
“Aubrey, I love it. I love it so much.”
“So,” Dori continues. “Aubrey’s boyfriend is not who you would have picked out of a catalog.”
“Dori, he’s got her slaving away in a damn roach coach. She’s supposed to leave for college in two days and she absolutely refuses to come with me to claim her trust money. That damn trust was the reason I signed off on Martin’s—”
“Tsoo! Tsoo! Tsoo!” Dori pretends to spit three times in my direction to ward off the evil eye cast when I invoked the cursed name of my ex. Joking about our exes and being single mom outcasts in the suburbs is how we’ve survived.
“—screw job of a divorce settlement. I mean, how hard could it be to claim your college tuition? Aubrey knows I can’t do it without her. We both have to be present. We could have gotten it anytime in the past two weeks, but will she take a few hours to do this one simple thing? No. She keeps putting me off.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to take anything from Martin.”
“Who knows? She doesn’t bring him up much. Like, ever.”
“Can you blame her? Given that the school board is in an uproar over evolution, being the daughter of a cardinal or bishop or grand
wizard or whatever of a church that believes we all descended from a race of space travelers isn’t exactly the magic ticket to becoming homecoming queen at Parkhaven High.”
I glance over at Dori so that she knows I am not amused. “Believe it or not, Dori, something as ridiculous as having your husband leave you for a . . .” I stutter, trying to come up with an epithet strong enough to contain my hatred for Next and have to settle for, “. . . a nutball religion actually makes it more painful, not less.”
“Oops. Sorry. Sixteen years. Too soon, huh?”
I splash Dori.
“Hey, at least you lost your husband to something kind of spiritual. Mine ditched me so he could wear scarves and tights and rat
his hair up and sing ‘Walk This Way.’ ” I don’t laugh.
“Cam, don’t stress. Aubrey is a good kid. Too good, really. She is going to be fine.”
Our relationship is built on Dori telling me that Aubrey is going to be fine and me not
telling Dori anything about how unfine Twyla
is. Dori might actually be the only mother in Parkhaven for whom “fine” really is fine. The only one who doesn’t want super
fine. Superior. Sublime. A five-point GPA and a full ride to Harvard. I know Aubrey is going to be fine
. Eventually. But I want so much more than fine
. And I want it to start in two days when she leaves for Peninsula State College.
“What can I do? Drag her to the bank bodily?”
“We all know how the dragging bodily ends.”
Dori is referring to the night last December when the roads turned into chutes of black ice and I tried and failed to keep Aubrey
from going off with Tyler. That was the first night she didn’t come home. But not the last. Ever since Black Ice Night, Aubrey and I have both known that habit, manners, and whatever residual love she still has for me are the only things keeping her under my roof. We know that Tyler Moldenhauer would welcome her with open arms anytime she wanted. So I walk on eggshells with my child and will until the second I shove her onto that plane the day after tomorrow.
Dori splashes along beside me, a living reminder that a child can simply get up and walk out your door and not come back. I turn to
her and say, “God, if only I hadn’t made those stupid comments about—”
“Do not say ‘hat,’ ” Dori cuts me off. “Cam. I am warning you. You can say ‘solar protection apparel.’ Or you can say ‘brimmed
headgear.’ But one more time with the damn hat and I will . . .” She circles her raised fist like Popeye warming up to clobber Bluto.
I clamp my lips into a tight seam and press my crossed index fingers against them, X-ing out the forbidden topic.
But as I flutter-kick away, all I can think about is Aubrey and that damn hat. That hat was where it all started four years ago. She was a skinny freshman in baggy cotton shorts and a T-shirt, heading off to the first day of band camp, when the hat made its debut. Since the name of the landlocked team playing for her landlocked high school in our landlocked state is the Pirates, the hat was a goofy tricornered number with a giant white plume curling off it.
This had caused me to greet my skinny freshman with an “Ahoy, matey, did your parrot die?”
Aubrey, who’d recently discovered how funny talking like a pirate was, answered, “Aye, me hearty. ’Twas a burial at sea.”
Pirates became a running joke between us. When she was a sophomore, I once served her artichokes, arugula, and arroz con pollo for dinner, and we “arred” our way through the entire meal. Sometime during her junior year, though, she stopped laughing when I called her a scurvy bilge rat and threatened to shiver her timbers. I should have noticed and dropped the pirate teasing then.
Certainly I should have ceased and desisted long before the start of her senior year last August. Exactly one year ago today, which was when everything started to spiral out of control. If only I had stopped my stupid teasing, she might have worn the damn hat and not
gotten heat exhaustion and not dropped out of band. Certainly that goofy feathered hat would have immunized her against Tyler Moldenhauer’s attention. If only I hadn’t persisted in making those moronic jokes. But like a hummingbird returning to an empty feeder, I kept going back for one more drop of nectar, one more shared joke.
The hat, though, that’s just a theory. I get frantic sometimes wishing I knew for certain. I think that if I had the whole story, I might be able to reverse the evil spell, cure her psychic flu, and send her off to college with a happy heart. Even if having all the details gave me no power at all, I would still give anything to know what really happened to my daughter on that day one year ago.
AUGUST 12, 2009
It’s the first day of my senior year. Well, unofficially, school isn’t really in session yet, but the whole band has to be here a week early for “camp.” The big marquee sign at the edge of the field where we march reads: AUGUST 12, 2009. 10:43 A.M. 92 DEGREES, WELCOME, BAND CAMP!!!! SCHOOL STARTS IN ONE WEEK! ! ! . . . WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 19!!!! SEE YOU THEN! GO, PIRATES!!!!
Rivers of sweat run down my back. It is way too hot for all those freaking exclamation points. And way, way too hot for Mr. Shupe, who is bellowing at me, “Clarinets, wake up!” I try to focus. “Lightsey, get your section under control! You’re a senior now! Start acting like one!”
Once Shupe finishes bullying me and the section I lead, he moves on to torture the freshman trombone players. “T-bones! Did they teach you the definition of ‘line’ in middle school?” Their section looks like an amoeba wobbling all over the field. Mr. Shupe does not do wobbly. Mr. Shupe does crisp.
Then he tells us what he tells us at the start of every school year about how we are “Shupe’s Troops” and the way they did things “in the Corps.”The Corps? Dude, you were in the Marine Corps
This fake military stuff makes the band boys feel like they’re Green Berets. They are as delusional as Mom, who is always telling me that I am “marching, both literally and figuratively, to the beat of a different drummer” and that “being uncool at Parkhaven is the coolest thing imaginable.”
Uh, right, Mom, hang on to that dream.
Shupe yells at the percussion section, “Drum line! It’s called a line, not a squiggle! What did you all spend your summer doing? Smoking crack?”
The freshman horn players laugh so hard they lose their em - bouchure. Wait until they’re seniors like us and have heard all of
Shupe’s lines often enough to recite them along with him.
I can almost remember when the first day of band was fun. When it was a thrill to be one of a hundred people all marching in perfect, straight lines. When I loved the neatness and crispness of it and felt like
I belonged. Now, though, it is like that moment when you discover that you’re too old to ride the Teacups. That they’re not the tiniest bit scary or fun and that even riding them as a joke, goofing on the whole thing, isn’t fun anymore.
My fingers drip sweat and slide around on the keys, which doesn’t really matter, because I’ve been faking it for the past hour anyway. My lips are barely touching the mouthpiece. The air is too hot to touch. Like I am really going to stick a piece of scorching metal in my mouth. I feel weirdly distant from everything. It is taking more and more energy just to ignore the monster headache squashing my head.
Oops. At first, I think Shupe has noticed that I am fake-fingering and fake-playing, but it is worse than that.
“Where’s your hat? Did you not read the three, count them, three e-mails I sent that specified that for today, and today only, everyone was required to wear their hats?”
Maybe it’s the weird distant feeling, but I shout back, “Sir, yes, sir! I was unable to find said hat! Sir!”
Anyone would have known that I was messing with him with that fake marine stuff. Not Shupe. He believes that this is how the entire world should
talk to him—like respectful recruits.
“You’re a senior, Lightsey! You have to set an example! It’s Semper Fi
“Not Semper I!” I shout along with him.
Yelling at Shupe is not worth the effort, because now not only is my head pounding insanely, but I don’t seem to have the energy to even sweat anymore. I am suddenly as dry as this dusty field I’ve been tramping back and forth on for the past three years. Then everything gets brighter and brighter. When it starts to seem like a flash has gone off in my face, I signal to Shupe that I am stepping out to get a drink of water.
“Make it fast, Lightsey! You need to tune up your section!”
The water station is on the side between our practice field and the football team’s. Since it is so hot, the football guys are practicing without pads, just the stretchy tees and shorts they wear under their uniforms, so they look like humans instead of the hulking video-game predators they resemble with their shoulder pads on.
It feels like I’ve been walking forever, but the big red-and-yellow Igloo cooler of water doesn’t get any closer. Then everything turns
bright. Really bright. The football players seem to be in a movie that has been overexposed. One player separates from the others and heads toward the water station. He looks like he is running in slow motion through a shimmery mirage. The number seven printed in black on his white jersey floats through space. His dark, shoulderlength hair rises and falls with each step. In the overexposed movie, he looks like an invading barbarian, some warrior from an ancient time.
Then the movie gets even slower and everything begins to float— players, Igloo cooler, goalposts. All the sounds—the tweets from the drum major’s whistle, tuba blats, football coaches yelling—they fade farther and farther away. Then I am looking at a pure white sky. Then yummy cool darkness.
Water dribbles across my cheeks and into my hair. I open my eyes and am staring at a black number seven. With some effort, I part my lips. The water funnels into my mouth and I swallow. Big mistake. It comes right back up, along with the Diet Cherry 7UP and half a bagel with strawberry cream cheese I had this morning. The barfing brings me around and I notice that I have just puked all over Tyler Moldenhauer.
Even though I’ve spent the past three years marching at every football game Parkhaven ever played in, I made it a point of honor to know as little as possible about the sport. But Tyler Moldenhauer is such a god at Parkhaven that he managed to penetrate even my footballophobic consciousness.
“Why? Did you puke on me on purpose? Keep sipping. You get overheated, you puke. Simple as that. I do it at the start of every season. Besides, I never saw anyone puke pink before. Is that a band thing or a girl thing?”
I attempt a smile, but it comes out as rubbery as I feel.
He looks up, searching for help. Someone to take me off his hands. “Your band director guy hasn’t even noticed yet. Is he blind or what?”
“It’s hard to see much when you’ve got your head shoved that far up your butt.”
He laughs and his abs bounce against my ear. When he yells at Shupe—“Uh, man down over here!”—I feel the rumble through my
Shupe looks over at me, holds his hands up to the sky in irritation, yells, “O’Dell! Acevedo! Get Lightsey to the nurse’s office!”
Tyler helps me up as the two girls run toward me. Everyone considers Wren and Amelia my best friends even though we’ve been drifting apart for a long time. When I am on my feet, he asks, “You OK?” Not wanting to release any more puke breath in his direction, I just nod. Wren and Amelia reach us. He lets me go, but keeps his arms out, ready to catch me. “You got her?”
I say I’m fine and wave Wren and Amelia away. But when I take a step forward, my knees buckle like Bambi learning to walk. Tyler grabs me. “A little help here,” he orders the girls, setting me between them. They feel like tiny pipe-cleaner people compared to Tyler. Like they would crumple if I put any weight on them. My arms around their skinny shoulders, I limp off the field.
The instant we are out of hearing range, Amelia loses it and squeals, “You had your head in Tyler Moldenhauer’s lap!”
“OK,” Wren blurts out, “that means that Amelia and I are now, officially, the only girls at Parkhaven who have not had their heads in Tyler Moldenhauer’s lap. Or their faces, at any rate.”
At that point, I am supposed to go, “Wren! You’re so bad!” and slap at her and get all giddy and hectic. But I can’t say anything. These two girls who I ate lunch with almost every day since freshman year, and sat with through endless band trips, and helped through endless crushes, seem like people I knew a long time ago. And never had that much in common with anyway except marching around in a really ridiculous hat.
Excerpted from The Gap Year by Sarah Bird. Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Bird. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.