Poetry and Prose from the Center for Writers
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by COURTNEY WATSON
It wasn't that it didn't look enough like a cave: the entrance gaped open like a long, black throat that could lead to anywhere, stalactites poked through the ceiling, and water rushed beside or behind or beneath them—Cara couldn't tell where the noise was coming from—slicking the prehistoric walls and chilling the balmy South Bimini air. National Geographic couldn't have done it better. The problem was the trash.
Swept up against the walls of the cave were decades' worth of debris: bottle caps, candy wrappers, shards of glass, and wadded up bits of paper were packed into the cave floor like urban mulch, and when one of the workers adjusted the halogen lamps Cara saw that the wall had been repeatedly tagged with graffiti. Excellent. She'd promised the Wanderers an authentic experience on a real-life archaeological dig, one that had unearthed small skeletons similar to the bones excavated in Palau, and she'd delivered a site that looked like the underside of an overpass in Little Havana. She feared that the obvious intrusion of the outside world would diminish the thrill for the Wanderers. Cara looked at the small group of travelers crowding in behind her, hot and excited after the two-hour long ride in Jeeps from the resort, craning their necks to read the graffiti. They were a sea of khaki, and one woman, Mrs. Glynnan, was wearing a finely crafted bamboo explorer's hat. Beside Cara stood Bernie Lowenstein, a retired insurance company executive from Boca Raton who joined the Wanderer's Club after his wife died. As Cara watched, Bernie read the tags on the cave wall, mouthing the lyrics to a mid-nineties rap song written there, “Mo' money, mo' problems,” he said. Turning to Cara, he laughed, “That's true, you know.”
Cara smiled. “I'll have to take your word for it.” As the Wanderers walked around the mouth of the cave and took pictures, Cara followed a grad student named Mary to the excavation site deeper in the cave. That day's activities, the last excursion on this trip, had been arranged through an anthropologist named Dr. Francesca Lima from the University of Miami, who had agreed to give a lecture and teach the group a hands-on lesson in excavation in exchange for their financial support of her project.
“Dr. Lima,” Cara said, “We made it. Thank you for having us.” The woman was tall and willowy, but with harsh, serious features.
“Thank you for coming. Are your Wanderers ready to work?” Dr. Lima dusted herself off, and Cara saw that she was standing in front of a 20x20 grid roped off with yellow tape. There were people brushing away the dirt one layer at a time, small particles laid out on folding tables, and packets of tools spread out around the perimeter. Water dripped down the walls, casting black halos around the spray paint, and thick cables were duct taped to the floor. Computers and large machines hummed and the throb of the generators competed with the rush of unseen water.
“They're ready,” Cara said. “I'll go get them.”
Cara had discovered the travel industry during her sophomore year in college, which was also the year she dropped out of school. The work wasn't easy, but Cara had hated college, and after everything that had transpired between Cara and her older sister, Juliet, she didn't want to go home. She'd had some pretty crappy jobs with impossible deadlines and shoestring budgets for the first few years, but after that her career had taken off. She was frequently contracted by magazines like Travel & Leisure, and Last Resort, and she had a regular gig with a company called The Wanderer's Club, which paid her to guest host Platinum Premium trips for their adventurous members. In the past seven years, Cara had traveled the world. She'd been to Moscow, Rio, Swaziland, Dubai. She'd exchanged her dollars for rupees, pounds, kroner and yen. She'd been to the top of a building that rose high enough to be seen from outer space, and aboard a boat that sent robots to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, never to be seen again.
And then there was the sinecure with the Wanderer's Club, a job that was less daring but far more reliable than anything she'd ever had before. It was a stable paycheck, with bonuses, that sated Cara's desire to see, to travel, to go, while at the same time giving her some stability and great perks. During the daytime, the Wanderer's Club offered its members authentic experiences that appealed to people who had seen everything else, and resort hotels to come home to every night. They got adventure, but they also got hot water, supper clubs, and mountains of warm, soft terrycloth. They best part for Cara, though, was the company. A few of the Wanderer's, like Bernie Lowenstein, had become like family to Cara. They'd seen the world together, and celebrated holidays in hotel dining rooms, savoring the sound of foreign tongues and anonymity. They knew each other’s reasons for wanderlust—Cara had even told them about her issues with her sister—and they comforted each other. They got lost in the world together, for awhile, and then disappeared into their other lives once more.
Dr. Lama hadn't been kidding when she said she was putting the Wanderers to work. After receiving instruction from one of the doctoral students, Cara spent the next two hours manning the sifter with Lisa Seton, a recently divorced hedge fund manager from New York. Cara's shoulders and back ached from pushing the metal sieve back and forth to separate the dirt from the stuff that wasn't dirt, yielding a metal cap, a chip of pottery, and a guitar pick. Cara was sweaty and dirty, but Lisa seemed to be having a good time. Just as Cara was about to suggest that they take a break, her satellite phone buzzed. Cara excused herself and pulled it out of her backpack. The expensive phone was heavy and looked like a large walkie-talkie. Reception could be iffy in the cave, so Cara went outside to take the call. It was from home.
Two days later, after seeing off the Wanderers at the main airport in Nassau, Cara sat on her suitcase at a small landing strip in Bimini. They would meet again in four months in Alexandria, where they would begin their excursion through Egypt by visiting the catacombs and the sites of the ancient library and the lighthouse. Cara had hugged each of the Wanderers at the gate, and she missed them already.
“Just about ready,” Jason said, “I need to load your suitcase. Scoot.”
Cara sighed and stood up. Jason, her significant other of about two years, was a pilot who flew helicopters and small private planes around the islands in the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. He'd been in the military, stationed in the Middle East, but he didn't like to talk about it much. He said that he'd retired from counter-terrorism. Jason was 32, and Cara had liked him right away, though he'd made it clear early on that he needed his own space. Occasionally, he needed a lot of it, sometimes a sky-full of it, so he understood Cara and her traveling. He got the other stuff, too, after she'd explained it to him, the stuff about Juliet. He didn't press Cara about her sister or her niece, and on the bad nights that he couldn't sleep, she didn't leave him.
After he loaded her suitcase into the cargo-hold of a twin-engine Cessna named Lucy, Jason closed the hatch. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Cara shrugged. “No.”
“I'm sure your parents can handle this without you. And what about her husband?”
“Jason, they need me. They wouldn't have asked if they didn't.”
Cara's parents had sounded the same as ever, but anxious. It had been about three months since she'd seen them. They were amateur wanderers themselves, and on their last vacation, they'd invited Cara to meet up at a dude ranch in Montana. They'd had a great time. That had been before the latest trouble with Juliet flared up, of course, and Cara knew that she hadn't been imagining the stress in her Dad's voice:
“Juliet's not doing well,” Cara's father had told her. The satellite phone, like an old pay phone that ate twenty-dollar bills instead of nickels and dimes, was staticky and Cara heard a rushing blur of noise in the background. The TV was on, possibly more than one, and Juliet's twin boys were yelling hello in the background, with Cara's mother's voice above all of them.
“Cara, this is your mother. Can you hear me?!”
“Loud and clear. How are you, Mom?”
“Oh, fine. Your dad and I are going to Universal next weekend with Dave and the boys for the opening of that new Harry Potter theme park. They're so excited. Tell your editor thanks so much for the tickets.”
“I will. So what's up with Juliet? Is Ava alright?” Cara asked. She could see her phone bill ticking upward like a Key West taxi meter going double time, and her chances of writing the call off as a business expense were rapidly dwindling, so she tried to hurry her mother along.
“Oh, Ava's great. Juliet's hit a rough patch, though. I hope you're not drinking the water.”
“Did you pack sunscreen?”
“I've been working in a cave. Put Dad on. Love you.”
“I'm back, Cara,” her dad said. “So you're having a nice time?”
“I'm working,” Cara said evenly.
“Juliet set the patio on fire yesterday afternoon.”
“Juliet made a bonfire on the back driveway near the top of the boat ramp, and it got out of control. It took out the side of the pool cage and most of the furniture. Made an awful mess. This thing with Ava is really making her crazy. No one knows what to say to her.”
“Uh-huh,” Cara replied. So her sister had taken to building bonfires in the backyard.
“Your trip's almost over, right? You have a couple of weeks off? We're going to be in Orlando with Dave and the boys over the weekend, and your mother thought it would be a great opportunity for you to come up and talk to your sister. Try to help her sort herself out.”
That was easier said than done. “How's Ava?”
“The same. Though I'd think you'd want to see for yourself.”
Cara did want to see for herself, which was the only reason she was strapped into Jason's tiny airplane for the short trip to the Gulf Coast, where her family lived in the small harbor town where she'd grown up. Cara put on her headphones and the engines screamed to life and Jason smiled the utterly relieved smile that Cara only ever saw when he was flying a plane. She'd talked him into staying for a few days with her in New Port Noelle, and she wondered how that was going to go. Jason didn't like Juliet, and he thought that Cara's situation with her sister was absurd, which of course it was.
If Cara had known at 19 how conflicted she would feel now, she never would've given in when Juliet begged her to be an egg donor. She understood now why most couples used anonymous donors, even when family members were viable options. The doctor had tried to tell her back then, and at first Cara agreed. The first time they asked, she said no, but Juliet had been so desperate, and so earnest. She wanted her child to look like her.
Dave and Juliet were both lawyers, and had worn her down with arguments about familial obligation, gene pools, and the biological imperative, as well as assurances that any resulting children would never, ever be her problem. The process had taken six months, and for Cara it had been unpleasant and invasive. Ava was born, via surrogate, and Cara had loved her instantly. When Juliet decided to harvest the remaining eggs from their deep freeze two years later, she hadn't even mentioned it to Cara until the twins were already on the way. Cara had never denied that it was an odd arrangement. It was an unusual sensation when Cara got pictures of Ava and the twins and saw her own features on someone else's children. It was also a difficult thing to explain to people. Relationships were trying enough to sustain because of the amount of travel associated with her job; any additional weirdness just made Cara a harder sell. Jason had been taken aback when she mentioned the children.
“So they're technically your kids?” he had said.
“No, they're my sister's. Juliet and Dave are their parents.”
“Right, I get that, but technically, biologically, you have three children with your brother-in-law.”
Cara hadn't been able to think of a reply that she wanted to put into words. It was what he said next, though, that still had Cara feeling unsettled nearly two years later.
“But what if your sister dies or goes to jail or something? What's your responsibility to them? What would you do?”
That was something that had never occurred to Cara, but had bothered her ever since. It was a question for which she didn't have an answer, either then or now. Cara leaned back in her seat as the little toy plane taxied down the grassy runway, bracing herself for the moment when the wings caught the stiff current of the gulf stream.
It was now four days after the fire, and the patio still smelled like smoke. The flames had melted one of the screens into frail bits of fused metal, the blackened wicker lounges were warped from the heat, and the Adirondacks were junk. The only seating area that survived was the concrete table beneath a tattered, smoky sidearm umbrella that had been there, overlooking Noelle Harbor, for as long as Cara could remember. The table was stationed next to a once-white fountain of a lion that was supposed to spit water into the pool, but was missing an ear and hadn't worked in years. Juliet had named him Leo when they were children.
“I hope iced tea's okay,” Juliet said, setting two tall glasses on the already laden table, which had always been their favorite place to eat. It was the best place to watch the pearly-pink heat lightning that was a fixture of late afternoons in South Florida during the rainy season.
“It's fine,” Cara said. Then she took a sip and cringed. “What's in this?”
“Agave instead of sugar. It's unprocessed. I read something in JAMA about unprocessed foods being better for kids like Ava, so I threw everything out and restocked the pantry.”
“Journal of the American Medical Association. I bought a subscription.”
“I was trying to help my daughter.”
“Oh. You didn't have to do all this.”
Even in the midst of her own spectacular meltdown, Juliet was a gracious hostess. Cara had often thought that her sister would greet even the four horsemen of the apocalypse with iced tea and snacks. The table was set with bamboo mats with matching napkins ringed with a band of seashells, and the marquis-shaped plates featured a restrained tropical pattern that Cara liked.
“Lunch looks really good,” Cara said.
Juliet had prepared seared ahi tuna over a bed of spring greens dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. Cara folded her napkin over her lap and started eating. Juliet didn't.
“I assume this isn't a social call?” Juliet asked.
“You know it isn't. This bread's really good.”
“It's tapioca. I saw an expert on Discovery Health who said that some children with neural development disorders respond well to a gluten free diet.”
“Neural development disorders? I just thought she quit talking to you. Do the doctors think there's something actually wrong with her?”
“No. They think it's me,” Juliet said.
Ava was almost six. She looked like a Burnside. She had fair hair and light eyes that changed from blue to green, and she had reached every milestone early. Cara had been keeping track. She watched the rapid rise and fall of her sister's chest and thought about how blindsided her family had been by Juliet's meltdown. Cara was the only one who seemed surprised that Juliet hadn't snapped sooner.
For the most part, children remained an unknown quantity for Cara. They were loud, messy, and unpredictable. For nearly six years, Cara had been mostly content just knowing that the kids were doing well. Juliet had never once objected to Cara keeping her distance, coming home only a few times a year, which was easier for Cara anyway.
“I told the doctors everything I could think of—anything that might not have been on your chart. I told them how you snuck Grandma Vi's cigarettes when you were 11, that you smoked pot in high school, that you were so drunk that one time in college that they had to pump the alcohol out of your stomach. Remember I had to come get you?” An accusation colored Juliet's tone, and Cara felt like her sister was building a case against her.
“And what'd they say?” Cara asked.
Juliet shook her head. She had lightened her hair and the buttery yellow color drew attention to her anxious green eyes. She was a decade older than Cara, and starting to look it.
“I also told them about that silly tattoo you got that one year during Mardi Gras? The one you got lasered off? Maybe the laser did something to you.”
“Yeah, I remember it,” Cara said. “I think if lasers altered your genetic makeup, someone would have sued by now.”
“I've told them everything, about all of us. I think I may have offended Dave's family.” Juliet averted her eyes from Cara's, and Cara knew there was a story in that gesture, but she didn't ask.
“Before or after you banished him and the boys?”
When they got married, Dave and Juliet bought a house on the harbor down the street from Cara's parents. When the twins were born, Cara's parents traded houses with Dave and Juliet until they could either build up or buy a bigger place. After all this business with Ava started, Juliet decided that it was too stressful to focus on her daughter while her twin three-year-old boys were wreaking havoc, so she sent them and Dave down the street to stay with her parents. Juliet lived alone with Ava in the home that she and Cara had grown up in, where the doorways were marked with their heights. Juliet said that she liked it better there than her own house, and that was the last Cara heard about it.
At least, that was the rushed explanation Cara got from Juliet over the sat-phone two months earlier. It had seemed like an odd solution to Cara, but she didn't press the issue because Juliet's voice had a wobbly edge to it that never boded well. Cara had been on a tour of Angkor Wat that day led by one of the saffron-robed Cambodian Buddhist monks who tended temples. That night, in her travel journal, she taped a Polaroid of her tour group crouched in front of a towering limestone bas-relief of Vishnu. Before she left the country, she bought Ava and the boys traditional Cambodian kites as souvenirs. Unfurled, the kites were huge, and Cara had loved watching the Cambodian children fly them 0n twilit summer evenings. Broad strokes of silver paint graced the kite's thin paper wings, winking in the moonlight like stars falling to earth.
Juliet looked at her then, her eyes frantic. “Is there anything else that might have caused this? Anywhere you've been, anything you may have done? Please, just try to remember.”
“Why are you so sure this is my fault?”
Cara heard the napkin in Juliet's hands rip. “Because this is something you would do!”
“What?” Cara wasn't sure that she'd heard her sister right.
“When we were kids, you pulled shit like this all the time. Mom called it 'the silent treatment.' You would look at me and refuse to say anything and I would just get madder and madder. And you never did it to anybody else. Only me.”
Cara looked at Juliet, silently, and watched an angry flush creep up her sister's cheeks. “You're serious?”
Juliet rubbed her forehead, where two blue veins protruded in a deep V. “There's nothing diagnostically wrong with Ava. We've been to doctors, and therapists, and psychologists, and no one can find anything wrong with her. She talks to them, just not when I'm in the room.”
“And you think that has something to do with me?”
Juliet bit her lip. “There's some days when I'll be with her, and she'll do something, or give me a look, and I'll think, 'That's just exactly like Cara.' Do you have any idea what that does to me? I look at my daughter and I don't see myself. I see you.”
“Which is unbearable, clearly,” Cara said.
“You don't understand. You're not a parent. I need to check on Ava.”
Once Juliet returned, it was a while before either of them said anything. They just sat there, looking out over the harbor. Cara missed home the most when she was right here, in this spot. She had never seen anywhere a sight finer than the view from her parents' back patio when the afternoon lightning storms rolled in off the Gulf. The lightning started off as a faint blur in the far distance, but within minutes it would be much closer, nearly overhead, a silent storm of pink, violet, and gold shocks of light flashing through oyster-colored clouds like short circuits but never falling to earth.
It was hard for Cara to be around the children for long stretches of time. She didn't know what her relationship with them should be, or what she wanted it to be, but she felt a greater responsibility to them than that of an aunt. Also, now that she was an adult—though still younger than Juliet had been when she persuaded Cara that this wasn't a big deal—she resented the way her sister had manipulated her. Every time she saw Juliet these days, Cara felt a little mad, even though she was happy that Ava and the twins existed. For the past several years, it had just been easier to stay away, but Cara couldn't stand by and let her sister act like a lunatic around them either. That, she wouldn't do.
Cara had never really appreciated New Port Noelle until after she left, but now the storms and the harbor were never far from her mind. It was an ideal place for the kids to grow up. The harbor, really a bayou, was a vast, silty basin where the brown waters of the Pithlachascotee River met the salty green Gulf of Mexico in a brackish marriage that made the water appear either shallow or depth-less, depending on the light. From her parents' backyard, which was landscaped with leafy hibiscus bushes that bloomed pink and orange, dense, sugary stalks of banana plants, and tall, crooked swamp cypress trees heavy with lush ruffles of gray-green Spanish moss, it felt like the entire world was a subtropical garden. The smell was off, though. The air coming off the water usually smelled like citrus and salt, but now there was only smoke.
“So what did you burn? I mean, besides the patio?”
Juliet shrugged. “I started with the medical journals. There were so many of them, and it was days before the garbage was going to be picked up, and I couldn't stand them being in the house any longer. So I took them out back and started a controlled burn.”
“With whiskey and a box of matches?”
Juliet ignored her. “The journals weren't helping, so I burned them. And it felt really good, so when the fire started to die down, I found more things to put on it.”
Cara said nothing, but she felt her heart beat faster. She wondered where Ava was when this was going on. Juliet continued.
“Then I burned the junk mail, and some files from work, bills from the insurance company—because it's not like any of those doctors actually did anything, right?—and a painting Dave gave me for our anniversary last year. He's been useless lately.”
“Dad thinks that it was the law books that set everything out of control. The gilt on the pages—I always thought it was gold, but I guess it's just some cheap chemical composite. When I put the books on the fire, sparks shot out everywhere and everything burned.”
“You burned your law books?”
Juliet's voice turned bitter. “I quit last week.”
“You quit?” Cara was stunned. Juliet loved being a lawyer, and she was great at it.
“Cara, I don't deserve this. It's not fair. I did everything right.”
Cara stared at her sister as the words flooded from her, oddly flat, past shouting, past tears.
“I'm losing everything. I haven't been able to help my daughter and I'm so mean to Dave that I think he's glad to be living with Mom and Dad. I don't like playgroups, or pre-school, or Harry Potter. I love my kids, but I wake up in the morning and think, this can't be my life. I miss my job so much. I always assumed that I'd get my career back when the kids were a little older, but now I'm not so sure. I can't do this much longer, Cara.”
Juliet put her face in her hands and then stared at the water. The sky was deep gray and gloomy, the breeze had picked up, and the horizon was a dark shadow in the distance. The air smelled like ash and electricity, and lightning bloomed across the heavy clouds in bursts of metallic color.
“I envy you, you know. I really do. You don't have to deal with any of this. Did you know that Mom and Dad follow you around the world by putting little pins in the map on the wall in his office? They think it's so great, what you're doing. I do too. There are days when I would give anything to switch places with you. It's like you never had to grow up.”
Juliet's voice was beyond bitter, and though Cara had a million things that she would've loved to say, she said nothing. Cara wished she could tell Juliet about the sense of dread she felt when she thought there was something wrong with Ava, but she couldn't find the words.
“You know, they all think it's me,” Juliet said. “They think I'm the problem. Ava has no problem talking to any of them. But not me. Ava never says a word when I'm around.”
Cara thought about her own transatlantic conversations with Ava. They spoke once a week or so over the satellite phone when Ava was with her grandparents.
Juliet shook her head. “Mom calls it, 'the silly little game that Cara used to play.' It's driving me crazy. I was losing it before all this happened, but now...Ava's pediatrician says that more than likely, Ava's just reacting to the tension that apparently radiates off me. Can you imagine? I'm stressing out my own child to the point where she won't talk to me. I'm not cut out for this, Cara. I thought the kids would make everything perfect, and now I'm afraid that I've done something terrible. And poor Ava, it's like she knows.”
“I don't know. That I'm just going through the motions. That I'm faking it, and not very well.”
Juliet's voice was dull and bloodless. This wasn't the supremely confident sister that Cara had grown up with, the one who could get anything she wanted. Juliet had been the valedictorian who made Law Review and won big cases, not a haggard woman whose backseat was littered with spent juice boxes and pulverized Cheetos. Cara knew that something had to give, and she didn't want that something to be Ava.
“You need to get out of here. Have you thought about taking a break?”
“I think about it every day. I dream about waking up, getting in the car, and just driving off. Escaping. But I don't think that's allowed.” Juliet rubbed her pale forehead and sighed. “I have to check on Ava.”
Before she what she was doing, Cara stood up. “I'll do it.”
Cara didn't go inside the house. She stood on the other side of the sliding glass door that looked into the family room and watched Ava. The girl, with her white-blond hair and delicate teeth, was close, sprawled across an over-sized pink-and-white striped beach towel decorated with bright green alligators. She wore a lime-colored fairy costume and was completely absorbed in the sparkling dresses papering the best-dressed issue of a magazine that Cara had gotten at the airport. Hesitantly, Cara tapped on the glass. Ava looked up at her and smiled. Cara waved.
A few minutes later, Cara rejoined Juliet under the tattered umbrella. The light show reached a crescendo and color battered the gray sky. The breeze was picking up, and through the lingering scent of smoke, Cara could smell the afternoon rain coming in off the Gulf.
“You should go,” Cara said.
For a moment Juliet didn't say anything, but when she spoke Cara heard the hope in her voice. “I can't burden Mom and Dad like that. And I've already put Dave through so much.”
“They'll manage. And I'll stay for a while.”
“Don't act surprised. You're not surprised.”
Juliet said nothing. She looked down at her lap for a few minutes, and then up at Cara. The look on her face spoke of anxiety and relief. “You can't have them forever. Don't let them fall in love with you. I don't want Ava to look at you and see anything more than her Aunt Cara. Do you understand? I know how much you love her, but... I'll want this life back. And then you can go back to Tai Pei or Timbuktu or wherever it is you run off to. Right?”
Cara didn't think. “Yes. Of course.”
Juliet smiled, deepening the thin lines at the corners of her eyes. “Where will I go?”
“Anywhere.” Cara smiled. “Go someplace I've never been.”
“You know the postcards you send me? I have all of them.”
Cara smiled. She'd sent her sister a postcard from every country she'd ever been to. “So pick one, and go there.”
The gesture was not altruistic, and Cara wondered to what degree her sister knew that, or even cared. Cara felt like she was getting away with something. A feeling gained momentum within her, one that she had whenever she traveled to someplace she'd never been before.
Courtney Watson is a second-year Ph.D student at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. She was awarded the 2010 National Society of Arts & Letters Regional Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2010 National Society of Arts & Letters Literature Prize. Her fiction and creative non-fiction has appeared in multiple journals and magazines, including The Key West Citizen, Product, and Coastlines.