After the funeral we lie on the hood of Mike’s Audi passing sips of wine from a giant Rex Goliath bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I hardly know my cousins anymore, Mike and Audrey, but I never really knew them well. We share family and that’s it.
We share Maryland, too. A time I don’t often think about, when our respective parents tried to introduce us to nature, as if it wasn’t already all around us, constantly trying to break into the weak barriers we humans had so meticulously erected over millennia.
At Assateague, the bugs were the worst, but the beauty beat the bugs. Wax myrtles, loblolly pine and bayberry. Salt marsh grasses and eastern prickly pear. The landscape alien to us northern New Yorkers who knew dramatic glacial rock formations and expansive lakes, but not the salty rush of a windy day, and the boom of waves, or the soft blink of a far-off lighthouse.
The tents were hell. As able-bodied teens we were tasked to help, but we didn’t know how to put tents up, so we took cues from the exhausted adults, well on their way to drunk after having to circumvent New York City and drive through any of New Jersey.
“Put the pole in the pocket. Stick the end of it in there.”
“There is a little pocket at the bottom. The pole end goes in there. Not there, dummy. Yes, now take that mallet and pound the stakes into the ground.”
We had to stay in the tent because the mosquitos and biting flies wanted to kill us. When one of the many famous wild ponies wandered through our site, our parents called us out to see it, but we only stuck our heads out, already having been bit numerous times while eating dinner at the picnic table. They called us soft. Babies. As we watched the pony wander through, flicking its tail, the bugs bit our faces. There was no escaping it, except to leave.
You aren’t supposed to feed the ponies or go near them at all, but our respective parents were dumbshits and did both. Mostly it was my dad, who’d bought a bag of Cheetos at a store outside the park. He said it was for all of us to eat, but I knew what the hell he was planning. The ponies were majestic, their movements perfect and practiced. There is something so peaceful about them that likely lead stupid people to think they can go near them as if they’re house cats. There are signs everywhere warning people that ponies bite, kick and charge, but people like our parents think they can bend nature to their will.
So, my dad walked up to one of the ponies with his Cheetos and held his hand out flat like he knew what he was doing, because even though he didn’t grow up around horses, he watched a lot of Westerns. A group of hikers saw this and, thinking about their own self-preservation, said nothing to us and walked on. Though I did catch the eye of one of the women. I gave her a small, helpless shrug.
When the pony bit down on the Cheetos, it also bit my dad, breaking skin between the back of his hand and the fleshy part of his thumb. He screamed, and the ponies freaked. One ran off while the others pounded their hooves into the ground. Dad ran back to us, abandoning the Cheetos bag on the otherwise pristine forested floor. He held his hand, his eyes watering, blood filling the bitemarks and drawing lines down his fingers and into the sandy earth. We all acted shocked, but none of us were.
The trip ended shortly after a visit to the hospital. We were kicked out of the park, which is not a thing we ever talked about at family gatherings. All we said was that we went to Assateague once and the ponies were “majestic”. Dad blamed the scar on some random dog that never existed, and that was the end of it.
My cousins and I never talked much after that, mostly because they lived in Plattsburg, and we were a few hours south. But here we are in our funeral attire in the driveway of my old family house, a place I rarely visit, thinking about the things we stopped thinking about. Mike and Audrey are high achievers, which I could have predicted. Mike runs a small, obscure Internet start-up out of Philadelphia, and Audrey owns a bicycle shop in Burlington, and has won many races. Both do very well for themselves.
My dad fell off the roof trying to put up a bat box. He always appreciated nature, even if he often challenged it. When my mom called and told me he was in the hospital with a broken neck, I stripped off my barista apron and walked out of Starbucks with no warning. My co-workers thought I was doing a “walk out” because of poor wages, and left with me. It started this whole thing. I’ve been dodging calls from the manager these last couple of weeks. I don’t have the heart to tell them I have no principles, but I do have a dead dad.
When I got in the car to drive home, it hit me that we hadn’t spoken in weeks. Maybe a month. We weren’t big talkers, but instead opted to exist together in an activity whenever we met. Putting up birdhouses, changing oil, cutting tree branches. Sometimes he’d ask me how I was doing, and I’d always say that I was good even though I was scared most of the time. When my girlfriend left me because I lacked ambition, I didn’t tell my parents. My dad died thinking I was still with someone.
He wasn’t drinking, Mom was quick to tell me when I met her in the waiting area. I said okay, and hugged her, and that was when the doctor walked out looking the way the vet looked when our cat had a sudden heart attack at home, out of nowhere. I held her tighter then, hoping maybe if I held on, she’d never have to turn around and I could keep her hopeful forever.
“Bats are cool as hell,” Mike says, passing me the wine. He plays with his tie, which he had loosened after the wake.
“Dad read this thing in some magazine about them. How they’re threatened or something. Losing their habitat. He wanted to help.”
“That’s beautiful,” Audrey says. She stretches out on the hood and even though she’s wearing dress pants I can tell she has incredibly strong legs. Strong enough to kick me right through the sternum. I imagine her foot exploding my spine like a shotgun blast, and feel strangely comforted.
“Do you remember Assateague and the bugs?” Mike says. I wasn’t at all surprised he was
thinking about Maryland too. It was the one real memory we shared.
“Of course,” I say.
“I never got bit. Not once.”
“Really?” I say.
Mike shakes his head.
“Why’d you say you did?”
After the pony bit my dad, I caught him outside the restrooms looking at his hand, bewildered. I was fourteen and angry that he’d do something so stupid and was sick of sharing a tent with Mike who snored all night, and I hated so much that we were that family you always hear about who fuck up in national parks. We all knew, any minute, the rangers would find us, and we’d shamefully roll up our sleeping bags and head north.
“How you doing, kid?” he said, forgetting about his hand.
“You embarrass me.”
Dad cocked his head, confused at first. But then, before he could say anything, I walked away. An extra knife twist. He was quiet for the rest of the trip, and I was gentler to him. All the way home I sat in the car with a festering lump in my chest that made me feel ugly and tainted. It was the first time I’d ever felt true hatred toward myself. Like an ancient glacier tearing across the land, my words cut deep wounds in our relationship. And though lakes formed after, and trees grew, time only disguised the open wounds as scars. Instead of using my words, I’d spent the rest of my life apologizing through helping him out around the property, knowing it was never enough.
Mike goes into the house to pee, and Audrey gazes at the stars and I stare at the soft yellow lights emanating from the quiet house. My aunt and uncle are there with my mom, and my one living grandma. A family friend and neighbor I hardly know, but who apparently always let my dad borrow his mower. I’m not saying I want anything bad to happen to me, but I want something to happen. All I ever do is wake up, go to work, and go home. I go to the gym. CrossFit. But for what? I never walked into trouble the way my dad did. Long ago, I had the guts to hurt him, but I never had the guts to tell him I was sorry.
“How strong are your legs?” I ask Audrey.
“Would you kick me if I asked?”
I slip off the hood of the car and face her, my feet slightly apart as if about to perform a box jump. I uncinch my tie and throw it to the ground. Over her shoulder I catch the moon washing a pale gray glow against the mossy roof.
“Please,” I say. I hit myself in the chest. My voice is steady, and I wish I could cry right now, but nothing is happening. Nothing ever happens. When I got the call about my dad, I didn’t cry. I just jumped in the car and drove. When the doctor told us he didn’t make it, I didn’t cry. I went to the vending machine and got some bad coffee and brought it to my mom, who wanted nothing but her husband. But before I did, I stared at the coffee options—hazelnut, regular, decaf—feeling like I’d just spent my whole life polishing a stone that through carelessness, I’d lost in the ocean.
“I bet you could kick clean through me, I say. Like a bullet. I bet you could.”
“You’re drunk,” Audrey says, sitting up.
Mike comes out, hearing all this, and I can see it in his eyes, this kid who never got bit. He wants it too. Maybe we all do. Maybe after me, we’ll just start taking turns until we tear open that overgrown thicket on our hearts, and bleed.
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