I once kept an illustrated journal of the jellyfish I saw on long morning swims out into a bay. But some mules ate the notebook one morning, when I was swimming. The jellyfish appeared from a distance as clouds of light, as tangles of smoke. As my arms wheeled me closer, some sharpened to stark ovals and perfect squares. Others contained so many frills and mis-matched geometry they appeared as might tornados or cutting-edge fashion—impossible to comprehend. The jellyfish stung to varying degrees. I got to know which ones required dodging, and I could execute a full-body swerve without breaking my stroke. But they were so beautiful, so unworldly, that I let myself collide into most of them. I hoped they might transmit some of their grace to me through the stinging, so that one day I might drift into a room and blot it into awed silence with my easy grace, my simmering iridescence. It was so dry and dusty in that Mexican village. I wore torn castaway clothes, subsisted on castaway scraps, and pecked across the manure-strewn dirt trails in the manner of an ancient person, feeble and hunched. Some of the jellyfish had intricate wiring, like lightbulbs, and I imagined if smashed apart they would require a specialized electrician to save them. Some of the jellyfish had circular ends that billowed and recoiled, billowed and recoiled, like smoke rings refusing to launch. After watching jellyfish you could only laugh at clocks. How flat and clunky and ugly they were. How absurdly they incited people to rush madly and loudly away from themselves. From the busy, hurried shore you might never know that a free, never-ending ballet with magical lighting was forever unfolding. Villagers who saw my yellow swim cap ooze out the bay asked me why I swam so far, for so long. But how do you confess you’ve fallen in love with the jellyfish? How can you even know? I only knew that when I stepped out of the water, the raised pink ribbons on my skin would burn lightly, humming, and I would feel glad for them. The burning indicated—late into the day—that the creatures I thought I dreamt were still there, pulsing along as steadily as my welts. After I left that bay for good, I only knew that the strangest little things lodged a lump in my throat. A ripped tail on a windsock, barely fluttering. The pastel sheen on a mud puddle. An umbrella blooming open, impossibly slowly. A crystal goblet bobbing up from dirty sink water.
This morning in the forest this little pink loop of surveying tape screamed up at me, Happy Birthday! My dad—a surveyor—used to wrap my presents with it. Later I found out it was called flagging tape but he was dead so I still called it surveying tape. These little gasps we take, trying to keep the gone from going. Because of surveying tape I get to associate hot pink with utilitarian. Even in the shade it looked backlit. When take-your-child-to-work day rolled around I pulled up my striped tube socks like his, knowing burrs would stud cool designs into them. At first It was really boring. We did a lot of walking and stopping and my dad stood at his transit for long periods of time. His legs looked way thick and tan beside the skinny metal transit legs. He seemed happy pacing the fields, though I knew he’d rather be pacing the deck of a sailboat as it cut through warm ocean. I remember I had a strand of his surveying ribbon wrapped around my wrist and it was soft and silky but also rough and stiff. It was right where those things met. I found soybeans growing at the field’s edge and I picked and chewed them, thinking soy soy soy to myself. Measuring words while he measured distances. It was good to be standing near each other, lost in separate things. It was good to be outside getting grubby. I knew it that day, watching him. And I knew it this morning, as I trudged on alone through the dirt with a pink plastic bow around my finger.
Who can write hanging on the form about your child’s favourite activities? Yet how he loves to hang. On the trampoline he spends more time hanging than jumping. One explosive leap to reach the basketball rim and then the world fades out, stills, as he sways. It’s an art, maintaining the clench in your arms while letting the rest of your body go limp as a windsock. As soon as he could walk he would toddle up to the space between couches and put a hand on each arm-rest, hoisting himself up to hang there. His diaper would make little crackling sounds as his legs swayed back and forth, back and forth. It was kind of creepy. People would be gathered on the couches talking and suddenly this baby would slap down a hand by their arms and completely ignore them as he suspended, his eyes fixed ahead in concentration. He’s doing his hanging, we would say, as though that explained it. It was hard work and sometimes he made sounds as he swung, something between humming and groaning. His legs were fat and white. He had no kneecaps or ankles, just immense rolls interspersed with creases. When I jammed them into pants the fabric would stretch out and along astonishingly, on and on, entire land masses. Just you watch, people said, He’ll slim out. I nodded, not believing them. This summer as he clutches the basketball rim, hanging, swaying, building callouses on his callouses, I can’t stop staring at his legs. So long and skinny. If you can’t see their crazy freckles, their pelt of blond hair, you might think they are white bones, hanging Halloween decor. His knees take turns shifting in a little bit, adding grace to the dangle. They are what you’d call bird legs. When a bird is flying, and the top half of it is working so hard it looks like the legs are doing nothing. Then you realize the bird legs had to sacrifice their stance, their weight, their main role. Maybe giving up the ground is harder work than flapping. I watch him sway, wondering which legs are his legs. Those sumo-wrestler legs? Or these long bird legs? Both pairs seem to be swimming around in slow-motion under the work and joy of his hanging, swimming and swimming and swimming so minutely I might be dreaming it.
The sky is so big here. How could I watch the road? I pull over often. Better we walk away from the car completely. Past the scattered machinery, the brick and whitewashed houses. My sons and I peel off our shoes and socks, and step gingerly up one side of a barn. It’s not hard to scale walls in the town of your childhood. Everything has gotten so small. At the top of the barn we make a little leap to a silo. It is hotter on the bottoms of our feet, but easier to stick to. It is strange being atop something so shiny, like walking into water that will not part for you. From the top of the silo, it’s one step to a cloud. I go first. They follow with quick surety, like they are first. Here we are, then, right at the spot our eyes went to. We made it. For a moment we are the cloud, just light and breath above the green, green country. Then the buried discontentment that hums here always, from closed face to closed face, up along the wires, reaches back for us. One son whimpers we might fall, and pulls away from the edge of the cloud. One son says it’s no fun up here. He wants to go back down into the cornfields, to claw so deeply into a dark row he is nothing to us but a rattle and shake.
In airport security I realize my younger son has a hole in his sock. The tip of his toe peeking out looks fresh-born, so naked. My older son asks, in a panicked whisper, what to do with his power cord. I clutch the golden eagle on my navy blue passport face-down against the golden Royal Arms of Canada on their navy blue passports. When we land in the other country I will stack theirs below mine, with the eagle face-up. At the very end of our journey someone might slide them back to me as casually as a cafeteria worker handing over a sandwich in saran wrap. He might look me in the eye and say, Welcome Home. Which might confuse me so hard all the official efficiency, or is it efficient officialism, slips right out of me, and I turn to stone. A statue has no country at all. Just the one it’s placed in. I think about the people in crashing airplanes, who wasted nervousness in these security lines, just prior. I think of other people crossing other borders: walking all night without shoes on cut feet, subsiding on slivers of moonlight and sips of sewage water. How lucky we are, with our light skin and eagles and royal arms, to merely have chosen the slower line, to merely have an expensive perfume bottle confiscated. I do know—from sitting in one—that airport questioning rooms are sleek and sealed, designed to emphasize your puke or shit or sweat, your fear. One time my bag registered high explosives. One time my violent in-flight sickness mimicked that of a drug mule carrying a burst bag of drugs in her stomach. One time an immigration agent knelt to my four year old son and pointed up at me, saying, Can you tell me who this person is? For once he didn’t say mama. No, he drew out every syllable of my first and last name with the slow nervous uncertainty of someone who had just that morning been forced to memorize them. Lucky people come away with stories they can tell. So many people collect ones they can’t. The mix of hurry and sleepy in the security line makes the scene almost beautiful, if you added in opera. And a sunbeam. We shuffle forward as much as we can without touching the backpacks on the humans in front of us.
I sure miss balls. They’re scattered all around this house and yard. My sons still ask me to play, sometimes. But I miss balls being everything. Entire hours with a single one. Until it became an extension of myself I cast away, palm to finger, knowing for sure it would return—in a kick or throw or rebound—right to me. How trust can come so naturally we don’t even know it’s that. We’re just playing a game. I miss how a Nerf football clung to my hands, just an increment, when I went to throw it. No one seeing its long sail through sky would have guessed at that tiny reluctance. I miss how a rubber ball sang out when we smashed it with our paddles. And again, in a higher key, when it hit the street. I miss giving the superstitious bounces of a tennis ball—one two three downward flicks of the wrist—before tossing it up for the serve. How quiet and slow it feels when you’re being watched, expected to fail. I even miss that. And how a ping-pong ball looked fragile and lit from within, as apt to break as an egg. Yet it became a militant leader on the long rally, clattering sharp and crisp and even as a metronome. I miss knowing somehow, even before a basketball left my hands, that it was going to swish through the net without touching the rim. How the swish was as much something you felt as heard. And I miss how it was to run with a football tucked tightly under my arm, both aware of it and forgetting. All the bodies with their arms out, diving for me. I was running too fast to see them hit the ground when they missed. And how dark it got, suddenly, and we didn’t care. We could still see the ball when we couldn’t see each other. Balls now, they make me wonder what I’ve become. When I look at them lying dangerously close to the garden or in the spot where I park, or bleaching circles on the yard. When I’m sweeping them up with a sigh from under beds and couches. When I’m wondering where they should all go. How I’ll contain them. Just last week I heard myself telling my son to cut out that bouncing in the house. It was making too much racket. And that ball is too heavy, I heard myself say. You’re going to break something.
A dance can provide an opportunity for a rare non-blurry outdoor shot.
This week I took some boys home from their first middle school dance. I feel asleep before then, but luckily I had set an alarm. One wore a leather jacket. One wore a jean jacket. One wore a blue suede jacket. And one–mine–wore no jacket at all. In fact he kept pushing up the rolled three-quarter length sleeves on his button-down shirt, trying to convert them to short sleeves. Perhaps he plays too many sports. Before he left I had shown him how to slow dance, wondering as I did if kids still held onto each other in the same places. I remembered the ways the popular girls had of hooking their hands behind the boys’ necks, instead of keeping them—as I did—shyly and firmly on the boys’ shoulders, new-driver-steering-wheel-style. It was as though those girls would rather touch their own hands than someone else. I showed him how some couples also dance holding out their hands, just one set of hands, but I wasn’t sure on that. Where our fingers should entwine, how far from our bodies we should hold them. I guess with this dance style you can use your joined hands like a rudder, to steer around the dance floor, I said. He giggled at that. He’s good about having a mama who wonders about the things she’s supposed to be demonstrating with authority. As we were slow dancing on the floor between the overflowing laundry hamper and the strewn soccer magazines I seemed to be shrinking. I shrank right down to my grade six self. Maybe you should ask some girls to dance, I said. I mean the ones who are just your friends. It can be sad standing out the whole night. How strange, having a child of the opposite sex. How strange and yet how healing. He’s tall for almost twelve. I know a school dance shouldn’t bring up memories of diapers but seriously, he was just wobble walking over that very floor, with the edge of his diaper almost blinding white against his tan skin. He was born with a tan. Seconds after he was born he lifted his head right off the table, to look around. I knew he’d be doing that at the dance too: standing at the side, looking all around. When I pulled into the school parking lot that night the car was very still and dark for awhile. And then suddenly the boys in jackets (and mine) catapulted into the car, talking over each other in loud bouncy voices, and I felt so lucky. Because some people only get dark quiet cars. I wanted to know if they’d slow danced but I played it cool and asked about the DJs. Some of the songs were so old we didn’t even know them! I smiled at that, thinking: Oh, then they played some good ones. One of the boys tried to explain how cool the strobe lights were by talking about how light waves enters the eye and bounces off the brain or something. I tried to grasp the science, and, failing, ventured that strobe lights can make anyone look like a good dancer. To which there was a pause and then one of them countered: Well, a better dancer anyway. One boy said the concession stand was a scam, that a little bag of chips at the concession stand cost three bucks and only had about ten chips in it. Eventually they talked about who had slow danced, with snippets of color commentary. None of the boys had asked anyone to dance, or been asked to dance. The week before I had accidentally bet my son five dollars that someone would ask him to slow dance, so I spent a long moment trying to picture what bills and change I had in my wallet. I thought to myself: Being shy doesn’t mean you won’t get what you want. But I didn’t say it aloud. It’s just what I was hoping. The boys were going on again about the strobe lights, and about how sick it looked to do ticking in them, and I kept taking peeks in my overhead mirror at their animated faces. They were each of them, in their way, going to break hearts. They were each of them, in their own way, going to get their hearts broken. It was past my bedtime, and way past his, but I lifted my foot off the gas a little, driving as slowly as I could get away with.
I went to take a photo of a photo of my dad today, on his birthday. What would have been, I mean. Birthday is a tricky word for the dead. I was going to put him in my phone, because how crazy he never knew what an iPhone was. He would have had one before I did. He would have found the nautical winds app, mooring traffic alerts, the best chicken wellington recipes, Butler County weather, Tortola weather, Goodreads linked to the local library catalogue, a global spaniel tracker. He would have texted me brief reports of the day, misspelling short words within it so perfectly badly they looked better that way. I was lining him all up in the little screen of my phone, making sure not to cut off his work boots–which I still have and still wear sometimes, clunking and tripping and pretending as best as I can that they fit me. I hadn’t seen any ants around, but suddenly one crawled right into the photograph. Even with that wiggle it sped furiously. It was so alive. I knew before I even clicked the photo of the photo that it would be the clearest thing in it.
One dinky waterslide counts as a holiday. It has to. They run up the steps to launch twenty times, thirty, who knows. I only count when I’m trying to make it through. Outside the waterslide looks very still and sturdy, gives no visual sign of bodies within twisting and crashing at breakneck speeds. My heart thunders. The perfect pink against perfect blue does that. The perfect shine and perfect shadows. The perfect silver, the perfect rust. It’s sure exciting, when you suddenly accidentally end up right where you want to be. A week later someone in the grocery store will ask us if we got away. Maybe the boys will remember speeding spirals through the dark and maybe I’ll remember standing completely still in the parking lot with my neck craned but either way it won’t feel like a fib when we answer yes and yes and yes.
Velma lived in a brick house on Haynes Street in Memphis, Tennessee. She sat long spells on the concrete slab that was her front porch, watching the street and yard and sky for whatever happened. Day and night she wore silk or were they polyester nightgowns in pastel shades, some with lace accents. Whenever I was around Velma I wondered, what’s the difference between nightgowns and gowns? Nothing really. Velma didn’t even try and act busy. She seemed perfectly happy to be sitting and talking, or just looking at things. People could take this as a sign a person was dumb. But maybe it meant the person was smart. Velma wore a neat bun, coiled high. Her fingernails were always painted the same true red. Crimson rectangles look so crisp and revolutionary when prefaced by a dizzying smatter of age spots. Once Velma asked me to do her right hand and even though it involved a foot stool pulled way too close, and even though I had only ever chewed mine, I did. She acted as though I was like her, open and trusting. She acted as though I might grow up to be glamorous. I might be someone who told people what I felt and thought, who might even feel and think in front of them. But I just stared at people. I was always poised to bolt outside. I wore numbered jerseys or stripes and slept in my sneakers sometimes. My short hair looked like I cut it myself— although I would never, as that would be time spent on grooming, jail-time. But in Velma’s presence I felt a softening, a loosening, a slowing. My eyes caught on things that looked—though I wouldn’t have said the word—pretty. Can a person being very much herself can make you more like her? Velma liked to tell stories. From her life, or from last night’s news. They were all about people. Mostly what a person had done, or what a person hadn’t done. How it changed everything. But Velma kept interrupting the plot with questions. What would lead her to think? Do you suppose if he had gone back? I ask myself, what if that child had spoken up? But would you have done anything differently? Would any of us? Velma fell back in her chair under the weight of wondering. She fell silent, leaving the story with its loose ends hanging, unraveling all ways. You could see the way her visitors’ eyes glazed over, how their bodies twitched impatiently. But I was mesmerized. A grown-up wondering about the hearts of people was rarer than a grown-up crying. It was almost too much. I kept pretending I needed to use the bathroom. The toilet seat at Velma’s had a knitted fuchsia cover. I lowered down on it, the rear of my ripped Toughskin jeans settling into what felt like carpet. When you lived alone, you could make your house look just like you. You could turn your bathtub into a closet. A long line of nightgowns hung on the rod where a shower curtain would go. There was no wind in the tiny bathroom, just hot Memphis air. I could see how it might glide in, though, and whip up the pink and green and yellow and blue strips into living things. I could see how they might soar and dive freely, sticking together momentarily in surprising places before they fell back apart.