One tree in the front yard, or two? Wood siding, or brick? Have I ever even set foot in the backyard?
These questions roll through my mind during the drive to Dallas. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but 4 short hours later, here we are. The front walk is like memory lane, leading me to answers I didn’t realize I had forgotten.
I’m 7 years old, sitting at the dining table, legs tucked underneath me. I hold out one finger, my body tensed in fear of being bitten. Inside a brass cage, yellow and blue feathers rustle, punctuated by twin chirps. My aunt opens a little door and slips her hand in. Next thing I know, tiny claws are dancing across my pointer finger. I relax and smile.
I’m 9 years old, playing Hearts on my laptop. My cousin, older and wiser, leans over and shoulders me out of the way. “Have you heard of an mp3?” he asks. As I shake my head, he is already typing and clicking and downloading a few things from his server at MIT. “It’s the future of music,” he assures me. Soon we are listening to some song called “Sweetest Thing” by some band called U2 on some program called Winamp. Impressed, I nod to the beat and try to sing along with the chorus.
I’m 10 years old, knocking tentatively on my cousin’s bedroom door. He doesn’t say to come in, but he doesn’t say to go away either. I close the door softly behind me. He’s sitting on the bed, face red with anger, eyes wet with tears. I sit down on the floor in front of him, but he just keeps staring hard at the opposite wall.
After several minutes of silence, I ask if he wants to play Connect Four. He still doesn’t say anything, but he scoots off the bed and slides the board game out. We’re dropping our red and black checkers into place when his father comes in to apologize. But he never actually says he’s sorry. He just holds his arms out and waits. They hug silently, my cousin’s small body stiff, my uncle’s hand heavy on his back.
I’m 12 years old, up late for no real reason. While the rest of the house sleeps peacefully, my typing fills the darkness. A childhood friend is teasing me over chat, but I feel something else coming. Something exciting and frightening.
Oh god, there it is. But what do I do now? What do I do with those three little words? I want them — of course I want them — but not from him, not right now.
Joy, regret, and panic churn inside me. With tears in my eyes, I type, “I’m sorry.” I hit send. I sign off.
I don’t sleep that night.
I’m 26 years old, sharing a mattress with my mother. In the morning we wake to soft light filtering in through the windows. Still half-asleep, we stay in bed, lying on our backs and talking. Catching up, sharing stories.
Memories layer one on top of the other, new on top of old, hers on top of mine. It’s been over 10 years since I last visited my aunt’s house, but pieces of me linger, hanging on the walls next to the photographs. I collect them now, questions and answers no longer forgotten.
The Fishbowl, we called it. It was supposed to be a study room. Just a conference table and a whiteboard, enclosed by a glass wall. Hardly anyone used it during the day, though there were always textbooks and papers strewn across the table. (Or the floor.) But at night, two, four, six, sometimes a dozen of us would jam in, mouths full of dirty jokes and vending machine snacks. Unlike the lounges, the Fishbowl had a door, so you could keep the noise in, not disturb those who had gone to bed. After all, you know how loud studying can be.
I got the letter on Valentine’s Day. “Thank you for your interest, but…” I had to move. The next year, I would not be allowed to live in the dorm that I thought of as my home. Numb, I walked into my room, looked around, dropped my backpack, and left again. I couldn’t stay there. Not as a sophomore, and not for the next few hours. So I walked. Out the door. Down the icy street. Up a steep hill of broken sidewalks. For half an hour, I wandered, weeping openly, with Avril Lavigne blasting through my iPod. My nose ran. My ears turned pink from the cold. I was homeless. I was heartbroken. I was the queen of melodrama.
Every Sunday night, six of us gathered from all corners of campus and met at the intersection of Morewood and Forbes. These were my closest friends, people I’d met on the first day of college, and would hug goodbye on the last. A lot of things had changed between us over the years, but this had not. This was a ritual. This was our thing.
It was a 15 minute walk down to Fuel and Fuddle for half-price food, past the museums and the Pitt gift shop. It was a 30-40 minute wait to get seated, standing outside with the frat boys and the smokers. Then it was 60 minutes of drinks and conversation, reliving the best and worst of our college careers.
After the bill was paid, it was another 15 minutes back to the dorms, 5 minutes of lingering and chatting on the street, and then 2 minutes to get upstairs to the fifth floor, where I often found my freshman residents creating their own bests and worsts. Usually I would sit with them for a while, before finally showering and going to bed. With their voices filtering through my door, I closed my eyes and fell asleep, smiling.
For eight days we live in a strange mix of primitive and privilege. We are stripped down to the minimum — of clothes, comfort, language. They plunk us into puffy orange vests, and we bounce on the water like babies in a pool. There is in fact an innocence to us now, a childlike grasping to our communication. Everything is curiosity and discovery. When we don’t know the words, we try a simpler language. We speak with our eyes and our hands and our laughter.
For eight days we share our lives with strangers. And then of course they are not so strange anymore. For all of us, this is a once in a lifetime experience. What does it mean to inhabit a single moment together? We cross into one another. We are living each other’s time.
The locals say they still feel awe, but I’m not sure I believe them. They are in constant motion, just like the boat on which they live. Cook, sail, clean, repeat. Our vacation is their responsibility, their exhaustion. Our paradise is their status quo.
I’m glad I speak their language, even if I do it poorly. Otherwise how would we have gotten to know that Mario is from the mainland, that Elio has a cold, that Edgar’s son is named Jessie, that Angel once worked for a Japanese man who liked shark fin soup? With my broken Spanish, I hope to become more than just another passenger to ferry, another guest to please, another bed to make. Because to me they are more than just the crew.
When we are back on land, Andy asks, “What will you take away from all this?” At first I don’t know how to answer. The question is too big.
“Adventure,” I say at last. It is trite but true. “Opportunities. They’re all around us, if we have the guts to pursue them.”
He imagines, perhaps, that I am referring to swimming with sharks. Or chasing penguins with my camera. Or speaking Spanish with anyone and everyone because I have to.
But I am not referring to any of those things. Or perhaps I am referring to all of them, plus one more.
I am remembering our night in Puerto Ayora, when Ruben took us to the Calle de Kioscos, to eat his favorite dish, to meet his wife and son. I am remembering the bar we went to afterward, with the Australians and the Italians. I am remembering the empty dance floor.
Loud music, dark lighting, and a room full of people I would probably never see again after the week was out. No risk, and yet still I hesitated. Ruben and his wife led the way, twisting and shaking and spinning, with their spirits full in their eyes. The Italian ladies went out next, shedding inhibition, embracing the moment, as they had done the entire trip. Then there was me, sitting on a bench, sipping jugo de mora.
The girl that sat. That wasn’t how I wanted to be remembered. Or forgotten.
After a few minutes, I got up. I danced. And now I can say it, forever. Even if I never see those people — including myself — again.
There is no light when you wake. Just the ship’s musty heartbeat, and the sharp ring of a bell calling everyone together. Through the darkness, sixteen pairs of eyes flit to the shoreline, eagerly watching its approach. What strange and lovely creatures await us today? What experience, what adventure.
But there are rules, even out here on these untamed rocks. Don’t get too close. Don’t fall too far behind. Sweat too much, drink even more. Stretch. Ache. Tire. Rest. See. Do. Live.
The truth is, you couldn’t possess this land even if you tried.
The paths are marked in black and white — gentle but obvious reminders when set against such a vibrant world. This is the only way you may go. The rest of the animals pay no attention. Their definition of home will never include lines or locks or laws.
An iguana blinks up at me. His skin is ridged and cracked. He steps forward. He angles his head. His jaws open. He plucks a tiny yellow star from its leafy nest. He chews.
I laugh as he deflowers the entire patch of grass and then moves on to the next.
What a strange and lovely creature.
Once upon a time, these islands were nothing but fire and ash. Coils of black rippling against each other. Burning waves conquered by the steady blue water.
Then there was a seed, a sprout, an egg, a chick.
Lifetimes layer like sweet, rich cake. Once upon a time, once upon a hundred years ago, once upon a yesterday, once upon a now. Tomorrow is invisible but there, waiting. It’s the salt you taste on every breeze.
My only regret is that I am never alone here. Just for a moment, I would like all the other bodies and voices to disappear, to leave me with my thoughts, allow me to converse with this place that is science and history and art. We have been introduced, the Galapagos and I. But we are not intimate. I would like to really know her.
I spot a sea lion pup sucking on its mother’s teat, and suddenly I have been let in on a secret. Our vulnerability is shared. The islands whisper, You may not know me, but I know you. And it’s true. I cannot hide here, I do not perform. Like the land, my mind and spirit roam wild. This place is not the experience or the adventure. I am.
I grew up on the water, but I didn’t always love it. As a girl I feared the crash of the waves, and the dreadful dip down into the sea. But I became older and braver (and my dad became a better sailor). The boat is now a happy place, an escape, an inner peace manifested. I look forward to being surrounded by blue of all different shades. I look forward to the rhythmic song of the waves, to the openness of the sky, to the cradling. Day or night, I feel a vastness around me. Within it I am not small, but exactly the right size.
I have never been a great swimmer. Once I nearly drowned at a beach in Valencia. I was with friends, but they had gotten ahead of me. Since then, I’ve been afraid to be in the back. What if the water tries to claim me again? What if no one notices until it’s too late?
But I refuse to live a fearful life, so I swim, and when I fall behind, I move forward as best I can.
There are sharks in the Galapagos. Yes, I refuse to live a fearful life, but still I felt the fear. Of blood and teeth and the Jaws theme song. Of becoming one of those unlikely statistics. Of losing a limb — or worse, a friend. Yes, I felt the fear.
Naturally, during our very first snorkel, we saw a shark nearby.
After a few electric heartbeats, it was fine. He didn’t come after me, he didn’t want my flesh. He didn’t even care that I was there, really. He was nothing to fear.
It’s easy to understand why we create fairytales about mermaids and lost cities under the sea. There’s so much life below the water, so much color and motion. There are stories to be told, and feelings to be felt. There is life and death and love and wonder and ruthlessness and cunning and loyalty.
When I saw a penguin swimming right beside me, I lost my breath entirely. I became a child. I watched, starry-eyed, and I giggled like I never do. I tried to keep up, tried to catch the little elf, but I have never been a good swimmer. So I let him dance in circles around me. I let myself live a little fairytale.
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My Web Serial / Ebook
Beautiful and confident Sophie Lin, goody-goody aspiring writer Claudia Bradford, and boy-crazy scientist MJ Alexander are ready to tackle work, love, and life after college -- or so they think.
As their relationships go sour, their careers sputter, and a few too many ethical dilemmas arise, the girls turn to the one thing they can always count on: each other. But even that will be put to the test...
Welcome to New House 5. It’s not just the top floor of a brand new dorm. For 56 freshmen, it’s home. A place where friends are made and doors are always open. A place where hearts are broken and tears are shed.
Watch as these students try to overcome their flaws and fears to create a bond so special that nothing can pull them apart. Not even themselves.