Sport 42: 2014
Melissa Day Reid — We Take Vacations
Melissa Day Reid
We Take Vacations
This dress is green velvet, trimmed everywhere with lace. Its hem must fall to the knees of the girl who owns it (the little ceramic rectangle on her bedroom door says her name is Brandi), but on me at sits at mid thigh and so does the crotch of the white tights I found to go with it. I found the dress hanging on a satiny padded hanger in Brandi’s closet. The tights I found in a drawer jumbled in with underwear and nightgowns. The nightgowns are all really pretty and expensive-looking, earnestly exquisite like everything else in this house my parents have swapped for ours for ten days. Mom was a little embarrassed when we turned up here, worried that this house’s family would be disappointed by our house.
‘It’s okay,’ Dad told her. ‘They wanted a cabin in the woods. That’s what they got.’
Our house has one bathroom. I thought this place had five but yesterday I discovered a sixth. This house’s family is rich and big. A mom and a dad, two girls and two boys. One girl and one boy appear to be my age-ish, based on their bedroom decor. I chose the bedroom that looked like it belonged to the youngest kid just to be perverse and I was prepared to suffer in Brandi’s pink bedroom, but at night with the coloured fairy lights glowing at me through the pink mist of her silky bed curtains I actually really love it.
With Brandi’s dress and tights on it’s hard for me to climb out the window onto her little balcony (the kid has her own balcony, her own balcony furniture and flowerpots), but I manage. I stole a pack of clove cigarettes from her older sister’s room yesterday afternoon. I stole a book of matches, too. Plain, shiny white with Haywood Hotel printed on it in tiny black letters, also an address in San Diego and a phone number. My mild curiosity about the sister’s shadow life taking her to a hotel only forty-five minutes south of here is eclipsed by my incompetence with the matches themselves. I fold the flap of the page 112 matchbook back and pull match after match through the tight tunnel, running them against the scratchy strip that will eventually ignite one of them I’m sure, and then when I have a flame I will have to figure out how to light this clove with it. There. Nothing to it.
When we left White Sulphur Springs for Rancho Santa Fe, fat October snowflakes were falling through the still air and piling up in little puffs on everything. The snow hushed the tyres of our car all the way to southern Idaho. Now I am looking at rows of lemon trees growing where a lawn might be, and the air is so perfectly warm I can’t even feel it. Hummingbirds are as common as magpies here. They’re darting around in the dusk sucking up the last of today’s nectar. I really like those little hummingbirds, and the lemons, the unnoticeable air. I like it here in Southern California, because you’d have to work pretty hard not to.
This clove is totally disgusting. I’m nauseous and the nausea makes me feel embarrassed for polluting the hummingbird-filled, lemon- scented, perfectly warm air and stinking out Brandi’s dress. It’s almost time to leave for the restaurant. I need to deodorise.
In Brandi’s bathroom I wash my hands and face, spray some of her Love’s Baby Soft into the air and walk through it a couple of times. I smooth my hair with my hands, feel the look of it, twist the longest hanks into curls just below my ears while I stare at Brandi’s hair accessory apartment building, lots and lots of little drawers twenty storeys high.
Someone knocks on the bathroom door. Mom. She’s sneaky. Dad I would’ve heard bumbling through the bedroom way before he knocked.
‘I know you’re in there, sweet sixteen,’ Mom says. ‘Open up.’
I make her wait a little. She’s an impatient person and she’ll be out there tapping and buzzing while she waits. Finally I twist the doorknob and let the door swing itself open an inch or two. I peek out at her with one eye through the very small gap.
‘What?’ I say.
Mom makes a good-humoured noise and forces her way into the bathroom.
‘Privacy!’ I cry. ‘Jesus!’
Mom has a big shopping bag in one hand. The bag is creased and page 113 tattered. She holds it out to me and then her arm drops and her free hand fingers the right corner of her glasses.
‘What are you wearing?’ she says.
I could ask her the same thing about that droopy old dress that she’s had for a thousand years. I do a little twirl. ‘Like it?’ I say.
Mom swats the air with the back of her hand, a queen dismissing someone. ‘Off,’ she says, ‘now.’
‘Why?’ I twist at the waist and neck pretending to examine myself. ‘Too short?’
Mom drops the shopping bag, places a firm hand on my shoulder and turns me around. ‘Too not-yours,’ she says and tugs the zipper tab. The zipper teeth jerk apart down my back. ‘I can’t believe you. These people have welcomed us into their home.’
‘And you’ve welcomed them into ours.’
‘And I highly doubt their daughters are helping themselves to your clothes.’
‘What, my clothes aren’t good enough?’
Mom closes her eyes for a second. Her breath comes out in a long loud blow. She opens her eyes and smiles with dimples, which means it’s a fake smile, and picks up the shopping bag. She holds it out to me again.
‘Looks like you could really use this,’ she says. ‘It’s from your grandmother. And just in case you need coaching on this matter you are now of an age to be excited by clothes as presents.’
I take the bag by its twisted paper handles and spread them apart so I can see inside. A shoebox and lots of tissue paper, slippery looking fabric in a dark color, blue maybe. I actually feel a little excited.
‘Whoopee,’ I say.
Mom turns and walks out of the bathroom. ‘Get dressed,’ she says, her back to me. ‘We’re leaving for the restaurant in fifteen minutes. Whoopee.’
‘Yes mother,’ I intone, an obedient robot.
‘Good girl,’ she says, because really I am one of those.
She sticks her head back into the bathroom just as I’m wiggling out of the velvet dress. I wiggle back into it.
‘Here.’ She hands me a small, unwrapped box.
We don’t really do presents in my family. We take vacations. I take page 114 the box and turn it in my hands. ‘What is it?’
‘Why do people always say that before they open unexpected presents?’ she says. ‘Why don’t they just open the darn box and find out?’
On a bed of orange silk there’s a pair of intricate earrings. Gold filigree with tiny opals.
‘They’re opals,’ Mom says. ‘Your birthstone.’
‘Really?’ I say, even though I recognise the stones and know their connection to my date of birth. ‘I love them.’ This is true. I touch one of Mom’s hands. ‘Thank you.’
‘Oh, honey, you’re welcome. Now, these are antiques but don’t let that bother you. They want to be worn every day.’
I thread the thin gold hooks through the holes some woman at the Bozeman mall punched into my earlobes three years ago today while the four my-aged girls from school watched. They were there more for Mom, our beloved teacher, than for me. They made it seem like it was a big deal, my purchase of these two tiny scars. Afterwards we went out to lunch. We all wanted McDonald’s but Mom said we should go to Charlie’s instead and then the girls all acted like they would never go anywhere but Charlie’s and so that’s where we went.
I pull my hair back from my face and tilt my head from side to side to show Mom what her present looks like when it’s attached to me. The earrings are light and swing gently.
‘Very nice,’ Mom says. ‘They give that silly get-up of yours a real air of intent.’
‘Well, thanks. I think.’
‘You’ll need help getting zipped up.’ ‘I guess.’
Mom makes a discreet face and gesture like my privacy matters to her and ducks out into the bedroom. When I’m half-zipped into the (sleeveless, midi, deep blue) dress and up to my elbows in black satin gloves and up to my bellybutton in black silk pantyhose, I open the bathroom door and jeté out into the bedroom in my new embroidered satin slippers to make a grand entrance for Mom, who’s sitting on the bed entranced by the fairy lights. When she looks at me she smiles without dimples.
‘Oh, look,’ she says. She reaches out her hand and I turn and walk page 115 backwards to her so she can zip me. The zipper’s teeth meet smoothly up my back. My breathing threatens the dress’s seams. I’m supposed to eat dinner in this? ‘Turn around, sweetheart.’ I reprise the green velvet twirl. ‘Oh, just look at you!’ Mom’s going nuts on this dress.
‘Okay, okay,’ I say. I head for the door. ‘We going or what?’
The owners of the house recommended this restaurant for my birthday dinner. Sadists! It’s Homecoming or something and the place is packed with girls in gowns and $100 hairdos, with boys in rented suits and running shoes. There was a party bus in the parking lot. I should have insisted when I saw it that we go somewhere else, but the restaurant’s exterior tricked me into thinking the party bus would belong to people my parents’ age.
Mom is parking the car because Dad had the first epileptic fit of his adult life three months ago and he can’t drive for a year, so it’s just me and my dad standing here, him in his dressy outfit: spit-polished cowboy boots, brown polyester pants, a brown tie with tan stripes, and a tan corduroy sports coat. I never looked so closely at this outfit before. And me in this dress and everything. God, what if people think Dad is my date. We should never have come to California. Jesus, Mom. Hurry up.
I try focusing on the restaurant instead of the customers. It’s brand- new and black, red and white. Black booths, black tiles, waiters in black with long red aprons, red tablecloths and napkins, white dishes and lightshades. It looks like a deck of cards. I’m wondering if this is on purpose when the maître d’ comes to his podium and asks if we would like a table for two.
‘God, no!’ I kind of shout.
‘We have a reservation,’ Dad says. ‘Ford, like the automobile.’ ‘Party of three,’ I say.
The maître d’ draws a line in his book. ‘Here you are. Ford-like- the-automobile, party of three.’ I’m pretty sure he smirks while he collects the menus. ‘If you’d like to follow me.’
Follow you? I’d like to hide behind you, if that’s okay, while we parade through this crowd. I stare at the back of the maître d’s head. His haircut is cool. We arrive at our booth and I dive into my side of it. Really. I dive. My hands and knees go on the seat before my ass.page 116
The light over the booth is so dim I can hardly read my menu, but that’s good, we are in shadow now and I don’t have to feel like the biggest hick reject in SoCal sitting here on Homecoming or whatever with my brown and tan Dad.
‘Since when are we Ford “like the automobile”?’ I say. Dad shrugs. ‘Just popped into my head, I guess.’
I see Mom come in. She spots me and waves and then goes to the bar.
‘You look nice, sweetheart,’ Dad says. ‘Gran got you all,’ he waves a hand around with the fingers pointed at me, ‘of that?’
I nod and start to pick off my gloves. ‘Thanks, Dad,’ I say.
That’s us all talked out. Dad writes non-bestsellers about the military history of the western United States, and so he and I don’t have a whole lot of what he once called conversational overlap. He’s why we live in the middle of nowhere. It’s cheaper there.
We study our menus. Finally Mom heads our way. She’s kind of swinging this wine bottle as she walks and when she gets to the table she swings it up so that the butt of the bottle rests on her palm. I can make out curly writing, a silvery label.
‘Champagne,’ she announces, and hands the bottle to the waiter who followed her over here with a steel bucket on a stand and three glasses. He sets the glasses on the table, peels foil and twists wire and eases the cork out of the bottle and the bottle says Pop!
I don’t look to see if anyone is looking but I have a sneaky hope that they are looking as the waiter pours me my first ever glass of champagne.
‘Just sip it,’ says Mom. ‘This isn’t some mere method of ethanol conveyance. This is champagne.’
I sip. The bubbles tickle my nose, I shit you not.
‘Mmmm,’ says Dad. He regards his glass and smacks his lips a little.
Mom raises his free hand to her lips ‘I get no kick from champagne,’ she croons.
‘Not in front of the girl!’ I cry.
We laugh. It’s the champagne laughing. If we aren’t careful we’ll end up under the table, or on top of it, with the restaurant’s huge white lampshades on our heads.page 117
‘She looks just like you when she laughs,’ Dad says to Mom. He has killed my laugh. ‘Hahahahahaha,’ I say.
‘She has your eyes,’ Mom says to Dad. She proposes a toast. ‘Happy birthday, my beautiful darling daughter,’ she says, but the waiter arrives then and he wants to put our napkins on our laps which is always just so awkward and his interruption kills the toast’s momentum. We wait until he’s finished napkining us to do cheers.
We’re going whale-watching tomorrow and so as soon as we are home from the restaurant I am sent to bed, to the pink mist. I don’t really mind. The champagne and ravioli and cheesecake have made me really tired. I’m too tired to protest. I’m too tired to brush my teeth even, and I never skip this step. Never.
I drape Gran’s presents over the little red velvet seat in the corner by the balcony door, switch off the fairy lights, and walk through the dark to the bed. I lie down. I yawn and yawn again, and then without detecting sleep, I wake up. The fairy lights are on again and Mom is sitting cross-legged on the end of my bed wearing the green velvet dress.
‘What the hell, Mom.’
Mom says nothing, but she smiles, no dimples. She rises onto her knees and then falls onto her hands and slides them along the bed, straightening out until she’s lying with her head beside mine on the pillow. ‘Come outside,’ she whispers.
‘It’s the middle of the night.’
Mom rolls off the bed onto her feet. The dress fits her just as badly as it fits me.
‘Why are you in that dress?’
‘Recapturing my youth,’ she whispers, still smiling. She bends down to kiss my cheek and I let her, and then she walks towards the door. In her wake the pink mist seems to vibrate.
‘Good night,’ I whisper.
She goes out and shuts the door. I spend the time it takes me to go back to sleep wishing I’d gone with her.
I imagined whale-watching would be like this:
A red zodiac captained by a one-legged, curly-haired man with long page 118 sideburns and a blond mustache. Waves slapping the boat, making hollow rubber pings. Huge lungs exhaling. A whale twisting out of the ocean, pirouetting on her tail, swinging water from her body.
Instead I am between Mom and Dad on a gangway. We are waiting in line to board a large black-and-white boat with an upper deck for viewing and lower deck for snacking. There is a scout troop already on board, little boys who just want to play war and hit each other. There are tons of families with little kids, and there are many retired people. When it’s our turn to board a photographer asks us to pose. She hands Mom a number and tells her our picture will be available to purchase when we return in three hours.
‘Excellent,’ says Dad, who hates souvenir pictures.
Seated on the upper deck, I notice there’s a third deck, an uppermost deck, where there’s a two-legged captain to man the helm and a doctoral student from the Scripps Institution to guide the trip. The student welcomes us whale-watchers aboard, introduces herself, gives us a safety briefing, and divides the boat into a clock face. She uses this device to point out the sights of San Diego Bay as the captain motors us out to sea. There are aircraft carriers and sea lions and mechanisms for studying the ocean, airstrips and hotels and marinas, neighbourhoods, monuments, lighthouses, and finally, just as the boat passes the tip of Point Loma, whales.
‘Oh, ten o’clock everyone,’ cries the doctoral student.
A tight crowd rushes and packs in against the railings on the port side. Stragglers like us Fords must watch the faster, more-motivated humans watch the whales. Dad holds his camera above his head and aims his lens along the noses and fingers that point at what he cannot see. The doctoral student gasps out a description of what Dad might be capturing: three gray whales breach and twirl and smack the water with their tails beside our big black-and-white boat. The whales are migrating to Baja together, two adults and a juvenile. They’ll drift apart when they arrive.
Back on land Mom and Dad decide they want more ocean, so we eat lunch at a seafood restaurant overlooking part of San Diego Bay, but still they want more. Our waiter suggests a walk on the beach by the Hotel Del Coronado but Dad says too many tourists! What does he page 119 think we are? But anyway, the waiter says maybe we should take a hike in Torrey Pines State Park. Locals go there, he assures Dad, to walk and run and visit the beach, and so we go there too.
The parking lot is black asphalt and then the trail to Razor Point is pale red hard-packed sand. The land is all points and spires, red rock on top of paler, harder stone. The sky holds a deep blue line against the deeper blue of the smooth, silent ocean. Gulls share the air with marine helicopters and naval jets. Hummingbirds dart and hover amongst the compact vegetation. The plants are rigid and defensive. Dad calls their lives hardscrabble, and that’s all anyone says for a while.
As we get closer to the beach we can see long lines of waves. Where the waves break, the ocean and the land make their sound together. We drop through narrow chutes of bone-coloured stone onto the beach, where tons of palm-sized rocks are half-buried in the sand from the cliffs right down to the water. Mom picks up one of the stones and throws it. Dad quickly throws one too, and it hits hers, an old game we used to play on camping trips. She throws another one. This time he misses. She throws another one and this time I hit it. We burn about half an hour this way, throwing and hitting and missing and the ocean swallowing our stones.
As we climb back up to the parking lot, the sound of breaking waves fades. I notice fewer hummingbirds and more joggers than on the way down. At the top of the trail, right before we hit the parking lot, we all just stop at the same time without anyone organising the stopping and we look back. Red rock cuts up the blurred green carpet of plants. Flat blue ocean hits flat blue sky. All of the details of the place are hidden from us now.
‘Let’s go camping,’ I say. I almost didn’t know I was going to say this. I almost hope they will say no. Why did I have to go and suggest camping? What was I thinking? I wasn’t thinking.
Mom and Dad are so surprised and happy that they both just say yes and sure without doing any thinking either.
The Blair Valley Campground is primitive and empty. Our borrowed house’s owners are campers deluxe. We could all have our own tents. Mine is pitched, a splendid green four-man dome with a super thick page 120 Thermarest lying there inside breathing itself full of dry desert air through its open valve. On the other side of the picnic table Mom and Dad are pegging out their last two guy ropes. They are so anal. I wait for them beside the metal fire ring in the centre of our campsite. The day pack on my back is heavy with food and water and I tighten the belt around my hips to ease the weight off my shoulders. Mom and Dad twang their taut guy ropes and swing on their own day packs.
The road we walk along is yellow like sand but softer, like silt maybe, like powder. Tyre tracks and footprints cut deep into the road but there’s no one but us out here, us and the dust and the sharp plants and the stinging biting things.
We do tons of walking. I eat tons of candy. The Blair and Little Blair valleys eat our day. Towards dusk we climb a small mountain to honour the family that used to live there (a place even cheaper than the woods outside White Sulphur Springs; I wonder what their father wrote). The sky darkens and the mountain turns blue as we climb back down it. The full moon rises during our walk back to the campsite but even with the full moon the sky is dusty with stars. Mom and Dad organise dinner and I light the fire inside the metal ring. I stand, waiting to eat, with my hands held out between the sky and the fire. The flames blot out the stars.
I spend the night in a light, panicky sleep alert to every noise. and I’m awake at sunrise when someone unzips the door of my tent. My panic shoots from mild to freaking the fuck out. An unseen hand holds one flap of the tent door open. The sky is purple and orange and I can’t tell which colour is sky and which colour is clouds. I’m calmed by this puzzle for a second, and then I almost scream when Mom pokes her head and shoulders into the tent.
‘Hey,’ she whispers. ‘Come outside.’
The day after my birthday she said she hadn’t come into my room in the middle of the night, hadn’t put on the green velvet dress, never asked me to come outside. She said I must’ve had a vivid dream from all of the rich food and champagne, but here she is, at it again.
‘What’s out there that’s so important?’ I ask. Her answer is to go out there. She’s gone. The two flaps of the unzipped tent door hang loosely together. A sliver of desert sunrise hangs between them.page 121
I collapse back onto my mattress to settle down a little, and then with my sleeping bag around my shoulders I check my boots for bugs. I slide them on and walk out into the desert dawn.
About fifty yards away from the campsite I scan in a circle for her but she has vanished. More annoyed than confused or scared I hiss, ‘Where are you?’
I hear a whisper—Where are you?—and then the sound of water vapour and soil heated into movement by the returning sun, the scuttling of insects and scorpions and spiders, the slow relieved breathing of snakes and lizards. All across the brightening basin the plants stand motionless beside their wild shadows.
‘Right here,’ I say, ‘I’m right here.’
I stay here as the noises drop slowly to silence, as the rising light washes the orange out of the land and calms the shadows, fastens them to the ground.