By Kyra Baldwin
On the way to the waterpark, the seatbelt grafts to my skin. Laurie opens the door for Alex and I and we squint, unprepared for the July sun. We separate our sweaty limbs from one another and I peel the safety belt off where it has left a welted beauty pageant sash across my chest. Mom looks at us expectantly. Let’s have fun! her brown eyes say, scrutinizing our tight lips, our desire to be at home, curled together on the sofa-bed watching the Summer Olympics. I look at Alex and we adjust our expressions concurrently. Yes, we answer back. Let’s.
The four of us walk in the heavy heat. The sounds of squeals and sloshing water carries towards us reiterating that this is a place of fun. Mr. Fang’s Whirlpool of Fun. Three hours south on 95, down the Garden State Turnpike, past landfills painted over with grass and cellphone towers adorned with branches while Stevie Nicks’ voice hums through the radio.
“I’m so happy you could take off work,” Laurie says to my mother, placing her hand where my mother’s bicep would be. “It’s good for the kids,” she says more softly, not so that we won’t hear but so we know it wasn’t for our benefit.
“I’m hot,” Alex responds.
“Well, that’s why we’re here guys! To cool off,” says our mother.
“Hottest summer on record,” Laurie remarks. We all nod. “Past 95 degrees everyday these past three weeks.” Laurie lives with us now and she made us blueberry waffles this morning and she was the one who bought me the pink-green two-piece I’m wearing now. But none of that means we don’t talk about the weather.
“I’m hot,” Alex says again. I want to put my arm around his shoulder like I do in January when he says, “I’m cold,” but physical affection only exacerbates the problem. I’m so mad at the heat, the way it slows and coagulates and makes me feel sweaty and fat and lazy.
“Me too,” I say in bitter helplessness. Mom tries to fix it. She lists an itinerary of water slides and lazy rivers and sno-cones and iced cherry cokes. Alex and I don’t want her to fix it. We want to sit in the corrosive heat, we don’t want to move. We want to melt like ants, under the magnifying glasses of budding sadists. But she’s trying so hard and Laurie looks at her fondly so in the end I say,
“Yeah, I’m excited. Thanks for bringing us.”
“Thank Laurie,” she says, “She’s the one who drove.”
“Thanks Laurie,” I answer.
“I’m hot,” says Alex
The four of us approach the white-shingled ticket booth. A bored boy with bloodshot eyes mechanically trades wristbands for twenty-dollar bills, his elbow the same right angle each time. His oily face is passive until a girl walks up in a lifeguard’s red bathing suit. She wears shorts with the waistband rolled twice that are hung low so you can see the half-moons of her hips. She is tall and slender and blonde and twirls her whistle in purposeful carelessness as she speaks to him. He wipes his forehead on his collar when she turns and laughs a second too early at her comments. He looks at her the way Laurie looks at Mom. The girl walks away and he stares too long at her departure, a family of five waiting until the father “ahems” so forcefully his skin jiggles. The boy becomes mechanical again. I read his nametag, “Mason.” When we step up, Mom reaches for her wallet but Laurie smiles and shakes her head. Mason hands me a purple wristband and we leave him at his post. I look back as I walk away like Lot’s wife, but he does not stare at me. The salt dries sticky against my skin.
When Laurie took me to Kohl’s last week, she said she was under strict orders from Mom. She said it lightly, bringing me into the joke that my mother can’t say anything strictly. “Lisa,” she said, “wants you to get a bra and a new bathing suit. Failure is not an option.” Mom had to have Dad around so he could be stern and she could be sweet. Now Laurie is around. Laurie with her well-paying job as a pharmacist and her short hair and her square, attractive face.
We walked through the swinging transparent doors wordlessly. When we breached the entryway, a woman with perfume sprayed Laurie after asking and then me without asking. We walked up the escalator and Laurie made our quiet so obvious. She can’t ever sit in quiet. When I’m silent around her, I can feel her analyzing it, marking it as a data-point she can bring up to my mother later when she says I should talk to someone. Like enjoying peace and quiet is evidence of pathology only more conversation can fix. She didn’t speak until the Juniors section, “It’s alright with you then Jordan, that I’m taking you to do this?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I think it’s good bonding for us you know? After we can go to popeye’s for lunch.”
“Yeah,” I said but she wanted more and I guess I wanted to give it to her so I said, “Thanks Laurie.”
A woman with cold hands measured my chest and determined that I’m a 32A. She brought me cotton bras in prints and solids and neutrals and there are too many options, like when you try to buy cereal. I chose a black one and I chose this pink and green bikini. When Laurie saw both, she commented, “Jordan, you are a beautiful young lady.”
I wore the black bra out of the store under my tank top. I looked at myself on passing reflective surfaces, catching my own eye, feeling both repulsive and sexual. I wished Mom had taken me. I couldn’t have said any of that to Laurie. It’s not like I would’ve said it to Mom, but she’d have picked up on it in the car ride home. Or maybe she wouldn’t have but she would make it seem like she did. When I got home, I put the bra in a shoebox and then under my bed and I haven’t touched it since.
Alex is so small and his shadow is bigger. “Ah! We’re here!” mom squeals, “What do you guys want to do?” Alex points at the wavepool and we follow him. He leads the way all afternoon, the littlest and therefore the most powerful. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Dad used to say and it’s true. We do what Alex says because he’s so loud if we don’t.
Dad was full of clever little epithets, most of which I suspect were pilfered. I remember these more than I remember his face or his voice. When he got home at night, he used to come up behind Mom in the kitchen and snake his arms through the crooks of her elbows. I remember him doing this when she was growing pregnant with Alex, how his hands reached farther and farther out each week. He would talk about his relationship the way he talked about me. Mom said it started after a year and a half, when he looked at her and said, “Eighteen months. Our love has first words.” Later it was, “Sixteen years. Our love is sneaking out at night.” He told me I had two siblings and their marriage was one of them.
Dad checked unemployed on forms but Mom said he was a musician. She said it’s why he left all time, cause he was following the music. When I was little, I would tell her that music comes from the radio and Dad should just stay in our living room but she says it comes from other places too. He wrote a song about Alex when he was born called Alex. He wrote a song about me when I was born called For You, Anything. He’s written dozens of songs about Mom. When he used to play them, she would only hum. She said it was vain to assume the songs were about her. Even when he played “Lisa”.
When he left one January and didn’t come back, Mom says we should call him Davis because that’s his name and he’s not a father. He doesn’t come home and my oldest sibling dies. That was two years ago. Mom never talks about Davis and she never talks about love or music or her life anymore. She and Laurie talk about politics and taxes and pragmatics. We have so much more food in the refrigerator now and my toes never point through the tops of my sneakers. The only time she mentions the past is when she laughs and says she stopped being a teenager at 32. I know Laurie finds this endearing, just like she finds my mother burning meatloaf and not scolding us and loving Halloween endearing.
If I am only parts to Laurie, those parts are knobby knees and a deadbeat dad and a shyness that probably means I should start Zoloft. If Alex is parts to Laurie, he’s a rounded belly and wide eyes and her chance to raise a man who isn’t like every other man she’s ever known. If my mom is parts to Laurie, she’s long brown hair and low self- esteem and someone who needs to be taken care of. None of us are whole to Laurie.
Mom and Laurie begin to stay behind as the rides get bigger, “You kids go ahead,” Mom says as we approach the tallest slide in the park, “My adrenaline seeking days are behind me.” Alex and I climb the stairs of The Water Boiler and another red-faced teenager blows a whistle when it’s our turn to go. I get to hold Alex as we speed downward on our foam raft, the two of us bellowing and laughing and wanting. The sun hits harsh when we are ejected into the receiving body of water.
The entire park smells like ketchup and urine. It smells like this for a quarter of every year. In the winter it is drained and sealed. Teenagers, maybe the same ones who work here, maybe Mason, sneak in and vandalize it. On the underside of The Water Boiler is a penis in black graffiti half-scrubbed off the wall. In Julys, Mr. Fang’s Whirlpool pulsates with life, with an ugly humanity of hairy chests and varicose veined legs and 30-something women who are acutely aware of the blonde lifeguards twirling their whistles. I see my own mother wrap her arms around her stomach after examining her outline in the reflective red linoleum of a slide. Laurie sees it too and hugs her from behind. This park is all parts and it only becomes robust in the summertime, when its arteries are filled with chlorine-heavy water and the young skin of its target demographic.
Alex is getting a sunburn and it’s almost 4pm when Laurie announces the Lazy River will be our last attraction. We are not alone in this decision. The waterway is dense with clear tubes and supine bodies. We each take a float and begin the slow watershed journey. I orient myself exactly as I would if I was at home, on the sofa bed, watching the Russian archery team. Alex, Mom and Laurie drift ahead together. Laurie looks back at me alone and sluggish. I see another data-point form.
Up ahead of me, I notice a young couple. The boy and girl sit in different tubes, only linked by their outstretched hands. She says something and he laughs which makes her laugh, exposing their too-white teeth embedded in their too-tan faces. They seem so heartily American and I crane my neck to see this hip adaptation of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. I imagine her round with pregnancy and his good job and their entire unfolded existence within a spacious robin-egg blue house in a neighborhood with a good school system. I lean too far, my tube tips over; I fall into the disinfected water.
When I try to push back up through the surface, my head hits a tube so I move left, but I hit another tube. I open my eyes and look up to see the entire world walled off by a leisurely procession of clear pool toys and their oblivious captains. It’s funny until I realize no one feels the reverberations of my hands hitting the bottoms of their watercrafts. I feel my lungs grow sore with oxygen deprivation and become desperate, painfully contracting, shouting at my mind and limbs to come up with our exit strategy. I hit harder and harder, I scream panic but the water absorbs my sound and strength. I look up through the plastic barrier, watching the sunny fat faces of waterpark patrons smiling above me as my chest burns and my eyes shut.
“Jordan! Jordan! Jordan! Jordan! Jordan!”
I hear Laurie’s voice, repetitive and alarmed before I feel her hands on my shoulder and the abrasive concrete of poolside tile against my back. “Jordan! Jordan! Jordan!” she tries again and I respond my coughing up what feels like a Big Gulp-portion of water, my body ejecting the liquid of my demise. I hear my mother’s higher voice, “Jordan! Oh my goodness- Jordan, baby, are you okay?” I open my eyes to see Laurie, my mom, and blonde lifeguard girl kneeling above me, eyes wide each with different kinds of worry.
I nod, my throat too raw for language. Mom looks at Laurie who begins to firmly thank the lifeguard. I learn her name is Violet. Laurie says Violet is the one who jumped in and saved me so I whisper Thanks Violet. Violet nods and looks at me sadly. When she walks away, all the other lifeguards cheer for her, like I’m the biggest catch of the day and she should throw me back in.
After I regain my breath and some fragment of dignity, the four of us walk in the heavy heat back to the car. Alex is silent, I can’t tell if with fear or boredom but I hope fear. Mom won’t stop rambling about floatation devices and Violet’s fast thinking. Every once in a while she puts her hand on my shoulder.
After Laurie starts the car, she says, “Well thank goodness we’re all in one piece.” On the way home, I think of Laurie and the parts she is assembled of. Tallness and fiscal conservatism and an easy kind of confidence. I hold my aching throat and promise to never let myself see her whole.
Kyra Baldwin is a student at Kenyon College, Ohio. She likes to write and hopes to do that for a long while. She wants to thank you for reading this blurb which probably means you read whatever was above it.