TW: Suicidal thoughts
We were coming back from a day trip to Fallingwater and stopped to swim in a river that cut through the low-slung hills. After an hour of driving, our stepdad, Mark, a native to the general area, pointed out the windscreen. “Here! We can picnic just on the side.”
Mom dropped her feet, from where they'd been sunning on the dashboard. She offered one of her signature, premeditated smiles. “How nice.”
Beth, my sister, drab and dreary, huffed. Lately, she spent her mornings expertly patting her face ghostly with pale creams and taking over half an hour detailing her eyeliner. She often matched an assortment of striped, fingerless gloves to her Converse high-tops and JNCO jeans. Today, however, she'd been forced to subject herself to khakis and a blue sleeve capped shirt with sunflowers stitched on one side. This was because mom started the morning off wrong by tossing the 'dreadful Gothic trash' out the bedroom window.
With nothing else but a cotton nightgown packed in the suitcase, my sister rolled curled into her knees, refusing to cry or leave the room. When I told her that she could wear anything of mine, she spit. A massive, green loogie landed in my stringy pigtail braids. I was saved from another flying gob by our Step-brother, Penn. He tossed his blue corduroy bear at her face, shouted, “GANGWAY!” and yanked me out by the wrist.
He and I waited outside of the apartment, the summer morning was fusty and damp. Penn gave me a tissue for my hair and laughed at me, but I didn't mind so much. We both knew his bear was now at risk in Beth's hands. We made tiny fairy huts in the neighbor's flower box, waiting for retaliation or for the day to proceed according to Mom's meticulous itinerary. In the end, Mark and his mother silently went up to the attic to find clothes that had once fit his sister, back in 1977. With that, the issue was declared settled.
Mom was the first to appear at the threshold. She clutched her new grass woven handbag, and stared at us, but spoke to me. “Look at you. Nasty and getting dirty when you knew we had plans today. I expected better from you.” Her spiky eyelashes fluttered so wide, they left pockmarks of mascara in her orange skin. Her long, pink nails plucked a bit of tissue that had stuck to my braid. “What have you done with yourself?”
She didn't wait for an answer but marched toward the rental van with a huff and became agitated when Penn and I didn't immediately follow. After that, much of the morning passed by in stilted silence. Occasionally, Mom attempted to force games on us. “I spy with my little eye –”
Penn spent the journey to and from Fallingwater, with his face pressed against the window. The ends of his bright red hair stood damp from the failed attempts to brush it into place. He wanted to see an Amish person.
Mom kept snapping, “It's inappropriate to sit in your seat like that! You look like a gorilla-ape! Sit proper!”
He would, but, inevitably like a puppy too wound up with expectations of the day, Penn's nose would find itself smudging the window once more.
During the Frank Lloyd Wright tour, we managed to behave. Penn and I both taking interest in the architecture and the story of how the house was built. I was enamored with the iron gray water as it ran through the floors and how the windows opened into the hills. I wanted to point out that the trees claimed every inch of the sky and rooted deep into the slopes and curved over exposed stone like lazy snakes. But I didn't know the words.
Instead, I tugged on mom's silk sleeves. She was preoccupied by Beth's movements, how she swanned like an anemic Victorian, around the house. For some reason, I'd thought if I could grab Mom's attention, Beth would have some breathing room and might actually start to like me. Or, at least, she would appreciate my sacrifice.
“Mom, look at the robin!” Again. “Hey! Mom!”
“Shhh,” she shook her arm free and moved away, closer to the attractive tour guide. “Don't interrupt. You're too loud.”
I imagined myself with a considerable amount of wealth to afford such a place, so far up that a draw bridge would be needed to get to the front door. I decided I would close the bridge to everyone but Penn. Maybe Mark could visit, too, but he'd have to learn to get a spine around Mom. Otherwise, it'd be as good as inviting an enemy to dinner.
Mark's decision to picnic by the river must have been inspired by the house, with its dining room hanging off the cliff and seamless windows to give the appearance of living in the canopy. “Like Robinson Crusoe!” he'd said. “But with the modern conveniences.”
Either that or he wanted to free himself of the static prickling around all of us.
Penn kept moaning about the lack of horse drawn carriages. Beth only responded to direct questions by quoting ICP lyrics. Anytime I tried to say something, I was far too loud and causing Mom to develop one of her headaches.
We found a decent parking spot, nosed in toward an overlook, where we could see a handful of other families wading into the mossy green water. Beth and I were instructed to use the far back of the van to change into our swimsuits. Three times she angled her knee or elbow into my floating ribs, all the while announcing it was an accident. Then, it was Penn's turn and Beth pushed me out, declaring that I was always in the way. I spread my arms out for Mark to spray me down with sunscreen and he made sure to get the wide part in my hair.
I was all fat and gangling legs and arms that struck at awkward angles from my swimsuit. Beth, in her spotted bikini, looked like Jhonen Vasquez's interpretation of Twiggy, and she made a point to walk ahead of us. She stared at the group of teenage boys but when they looked back, she rolled her shoulders in catly disinterest.
“Want to look for frogs?” Penn asked, grabbing my hand. “Or a tide pool?”
“I think that's just for salt water,” I said.
He shrugged. “We can still look.”
Mom flicked open a thin, cotton blanket and stationed herself on it with her coltish legs gently curved. Her large brown sunhat concealed the better parts of her face so that she was only a demure smile. She knew people liked to look at her and posed herself to be featured, however briefly, in strangers' thoughts. Mark had his camera out and his attention turned to a fraction of sunlight gathered in a dipping part of the stream. He smiled and waved at us, lifting his camera. Penn and I wrapped ourselves together and stood for pictures, before growing restless and darting off to explore.
Our plastic sandals slapped against the shards of honey-brown rock, rising above the bubbling river like the scales of fish darting between the sunspots. We picked up flat stones, attempted to skip them, but didn't talk to each other. Sometimes, I didn't know what to say to Penn. He was half my age, but I felt so dumb and incapable of keeping up with his interests. I liked him and I figured he must have known that, even though there were times when he found himself tangled in a stiff sadness that I carried around. A sadness I was unable to name until well into my adulthood.
I followed him, nodding as he pointed out different plants and types of rock, naming them with authority.
I wished the water was strong enough to carry me away.
I didn't want to die, or drown, or maim myself unrecognizable. I just wanted to be gone.
We found a patch of river that was knee deep and sat in it. The current meandered like the southern heat we aimed to escape. Penn spread his fingers, watching the green water bounce and cap white ahead of us. “Am I red?”
“No,” I squinted and cupped a hand around my eyes. “Not anywhere. Me?”
“On your shoulders but just pink.”
I shrugged. It didn't matter. I was always getting burned, despite the layers of sunscreen sprayed on me, and somehow, I survived. I lifted my hips, pushing my hands down into the silt, just to see how far I could go before the lip of rock trapped me. I wished I wasn't fat, then maybe I could swim or be carried.
I was floating down river, unshackled from the rocks and the slow turn of the waves. The current became faster and the bright red plastic balls the marked the drop off were framed by my legs. My mind cleared and the sun was warm on my already burnt skin. Oh bliss! Oh God in heaven wrap me into your arms! Take me from this unnamed pain!
My plastic sandals disappeared over the edge, and I waited patiently for my turn. I nearly made it, too, but the rocks came up again, smooth and mossy, shredding the water into separate trunks before it dipped below the plastic barrier.
Now, no more than a speck upstream, Mom let loose a horned owl screech and flung her arms into the sky. “SOMEBODY HELP MY BABY!”
“Mom!” I shouted back and rolled my eyes. “There's a path right here.” To make a point I stood and began to shuffle forward, mindful of the tender points that were slick and precarious.
“DON'T MOVE! YOU STAY RIGHT THERE!”
I did not imagine the knife edge of danger in her tone. I looked at Penn, twelve feet away from me, and shrugged. He offered half a smile and began walking parallel to me, reaching the shore, where Mark stood, peeling off his socks.
“Dad!” I pointed down. “it's a clear walkway!”
“Okay!” he called back, unhooking his camera and setting it in the pebbled shore.
“HELP MY BABY!” Mom shouted again and I watched, in horror, as she flung herself around one of the teenagers Beth was pretending to ignore.
“Deb, it's fine – ” Mark began. He was already in the water, coming to meet me halfway, but Mom shoved him aside. His bad knee buckled and he fell backward, water and mud splashing around him.
“GO SAVE MY BABY!” Mom kept screaming and the boy she'd abducted, took several startling steps out to me. I began to walk toward him but Mom let out a demonic bellow, “DON'T YOU DARE MOVE!”
It rooted me to the spot. The boy, too, seemed unsure about the safest course of action. What was more deadly? My mom, or the edge of a cliff?
I waited and eventually, he splashed toward me. “I'm sorry,” I whispered, then kept repeating it when he put his back to me to lead me to the shore. My sunburned legs chaffed. “I'm sorry. I'm sorry.”
For the inconvenience.
For wanting him to tell me that it was okay.
For not being cute enough that he'd want to brag to his friends.
For walking so slow.
For Mom's dramatics.
For wanting to die.
The boy escaped from us at the first opportunity. Mom had the decency to wait until all our things had been gathered, and we were in the shadow of the rental van, before she removed her sneaker and slapped it around my backside. “You ruined a perfectly good afternoon! How could you be so stupid?”
“I don't know,” I lied.
“It was an accident, Barb,” Mark grumbled, folding a towel in the driver's seat. His right knee was swollen. “She's safe. That's what matters.”
Mom huffed and flung herself into the van. “Well, it's the last time we listen to you about going for a swim anywhere that isn't a pool!”
On the drive back, I sat in the third row by myself, not permitted to change out of my swimsuit. Beth plugged in her yellow Walkman and pretended to sleep. Penn stared out the window. Silence, anger, disappointment, all bundled into the van as it made its way down the twisting back roads. Eventually, we came to the point in the river where the drop off had been. Fifteen feet, or a little less, where the green, glassy water turned into a tumble of white foam and mist. Mark whistled low and I wondered if hitting the base would have hurt.
At the next, sloping turn, Penn burst the tension I had unwittingly created. “Look!”
Ahead of us was a black, two wheeled wagon. The horse that pulled it was broad and dark.
“Don't stare,” Mom warned.
Penn ignored her and rolled down the window.
Mom tapped her knuckle against Mark's forearm. “Speed up. Let's get around him.”
“I like your horse!” Penn shouted, his words getting lost in the loud hum of our tires. Mom rolled up his window and put on the parental locks. Penn, ever resourceful, unbuckled his seat belt and spider crawled into the backseat with me. We pushed our faces against the rear window, eyes wide.
The bearded driver was weather-worn. He dressed for church: black pants and suspenders, shirt so crisp and white that it glowed in the sunset. His buggy whip snapped in the air and the horse's head bobbed, clopping its hooves in a dance along the shoulder of the uneven road. The man laughed and tilted his wide brimmed hat to us as we waved goodbye. A calm passed through me. I felt soothed like a damp cloth had been placed on my fevered forehead. Then, the man and his horse were gone, hidden behind the trees, as the van slipped downstream.
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Hey Abigail, I enjoyed reading your story. You made me feel a whole bunch of emotions in so few words. Thumbs up to you. girl!! You made it feel so . . . real. Like a genuine family vacation and the different personalities. Only critique is that you left me wanting to know what happens next. That's a good thing, right? Thank you for sharing.
Thank you so much for reading! I might have to expand on this family saga. There's a lot to pick through!
Hi Abigail, This is such a well written story! The characters just felt so real and alive, all with their distinct personalities and very realistic family dynamics... I really enjoyed reading this one, thanks for sharing!
Thank you for this kind words! That means a lot and I'm glad you enjoyed it!