I was once at a lake in Arkansas with my mother. It was shortly after my parents’ divorce and I remember my mother telling me it would be good to get out of the house, out of Texas, and lay by the water. My mother loves the water. She feels in tune with herself, allowed to move and change as frequently as the surface of a road puddle.
We got there and the house was rickety. Wooden. Croaking like a dead man’s rattle. There was an enormous gravy boat bathtub with jets and a lot of drawers with nothing in them. There were mirrors that angled my reflection to make it look like there were millions of me, forever lined up in an increasingly amorphous algae green swamp drop. I stowed my prized hairbrush - the one with scars of several lifetimes carved into the handle - in one of the empty drawers.
My mother bought raw chicken legs, slapped them on the grill and doused them in barbecue sauce: “Sweet Bubba’s Cheap-O BBQ Sauce!”. We ate as much as we could, coating our fingers in the grease, and only an hour or so later I was sick enough to name a ward.
I sat in the gravy boat bathtub and got sicker at the thought of gravy, so immediately got out. I laid on the couch, writhing, throwing up every hour or so. My mother didn’t feel so great either, but she was convinced the whole thing was a performance brought on by family tumult and a vacation I had decided was simply not worth it. The next morning, she left a cup of iced Gatorade on the coffee table and took herself out to the center of the lake on a canoe. Around midday, I rallied enough energy to trudge down the stairs and stand on the beach.
The sand was coarse, almost translucent. I built a sand castle - really, more of a patty -- and then demolished it. Fellow patrons were mostly older. They’d take their blue-haired wives and wrinkly arms out on the dock, steady their kayaks, paddle away through the gray underbrush. There were a few children who donned their mother’s sun hats and rushed to the edge of the water only to stand there for a moment before deciding the murky water wasn’t worth the danger and ran back to the safety of their picnic blanket.
I mostly swatted at the gnats gathering around my pale feet, which looked like slivers of radiation fish. I puked in the glassy sand and buried it out of shame. I hadn’t been out in the sun much over the last year or so; I was starting to think I’d developed a mild allergy. I still think that might be true.
My mother soon came paddling back, recognizing her mistake in renting a canoe rather than a kayak.
I don’t think the place was what she imagined, either. It was like an ancient mystical land had been rung out of all of its color and magic, and was now just a big echoey husk, lackluster, and far out of the way. That much of the intention, at least, was met.
We watched a movie that night, and by the time we went to sleep, I felt nothing but weak. I hadn’t brushed my teeth for fear of contaminating my toothbrush, voting instead to lick the grime from my teeth to the sound of a far off telephone ringing.
The next morning, we packed the car quickly. My mother asked if she could take a picture of me next to a rose bush to commemorate our feverish adventure. I leaned against the wooden posts and held myself from behind, still woozy at the thought of salt and sugar and gravy.
We didn’t look back as we drove. I think both of us were content to forget we ever came -- save for the photo, which has probably resigned to one of my mother’s over-stuffed bins of untouched scrapbooking supplies.
I left my hairbrush behind by accident, in one of the many drawers. I hope the maid who found it has enjoyed it after all this time, adding yet another notch to the brush’s ever-prolific handle.