Early Mourning Flight [Norton Girault Prize 1st Runner-Up]

By Kelly Wolfe

My nephew, Bobby, died on a winding, country road he’d navigated 1,000 before. The next day his life was a paragraph in a section of the Orlando newspaper we called the rail, listed there on the right hand side of the local section with news from the municipal meeting and reminders about potluck fundraisers.  My mother cut it out and shook it at me. “This is just bad journalism,” she said. I read the brief. It was not bad journalism. Everything there was true. Editors had simply weighed the value of Bobby’s life and determined it was not worth 10-inches of news hole. In my career, I’d been part of those decisions myself.

Bobby had been 31, wire-rimmed glasses, freckled face, a grin, quick to loan money so that he never had any. He detailed cars, told his boss when he was hired, “I’ll work an honest day’s work, I won’t steal from you, and I won’t screw your old lady.” He loved his two red-headed daughters, friends, beer and dogs. My sister was a teenage mom, so Bobby was only three years younger than me, and we lived for a while in the same house. He was more my brother than my nephew.  I explained this after I disappeared from work for four days after his accident. When I returned, my editor told me I didn’t get time off for nephews. She pointed to the page in the Employee Manuel where it said so. “Better call Human Resources,” she said.  I looked at the page, as if an Employee Manuel could tell us who to love and how much.

Weeks later, our publisher gathered us, two dozen at a time, into a conference room next to the cafeteria. I remember it being institutional blue, but it might have been beige. We breathed in the smell of chicken baking in large, disposable tins, canned vegetables warming above steam tables. The newspaper was going to lay off 300 people, a quarter of its staff. “It’ll be a blood bath,” the publisher said. I was handed a manila envelope. The newspaper had calculated my value. The figure was stamped on a white piece of paper. We weren’t worth much, Bobby and I. In my head, I hear Bobby laugh and say, I could have told you that.

I volunteered to go, and wondered if I was escaping the blood bath, or part of it.

 

The first morning I didn’t have to go to work, I slept in. I tried to fill the day: a manicure and a pedicure, a trip to Barnes & Noble, coffee at Starbucks. Finally, I dialed a travel agency and booked a flight to Costa Rica. I wanted to go somewhere exotic, where no one would find me. I wanted to run away, but not; to throw myself off the edge of the world, but not. I drove to the airport and boarded a plane.

At 6 a.m. the next morning a bus picked me up at my hotel in San Jose. I was the first one on, but by the time we headed out of the city, there were three Spaniards, two Germans, two Danes, three Brits and me – the only American. We wore the uniform of the Western adventure traveler – beige shorts, T-shirts, Tevas and backpacks. Except for the British woman, who traveled with her leggy teenage daughter and short, fair husband. She clip-clopped out to the bus wearing high heeled mules, a sparkly sweater and long red curls. I stared. We were headed to the middle of a rain forest, to a series of rustic cabins with naked bulbs.  The Brits sat behind me. I felt smug in my hiking boots.

My travel agent arranged for me to spend three nights in Tortuguero National Park. The name means, “full of turtles.” Next, I’d visit the base of the Arenal Volcano; a live, 5,000-foot volcano located about 55 miles northwest of San Jose.  It’s a perfect triangle pointing toward the sky, like one of those signs in the mall, You Are Here. Then, finally, I’d be delivered to the place I was most excited to see, the Montverde Cloud Forest. Pictures online showed clouds draped over lush green trees, like bridal veils.

It was a three-hour bus ride to an open-air boat, then a one-hour boat ride to our cabins in Tortuguero. My cabin had three cots in it, and it felt too big for me, as if I were wasting precious space. I put my backpack on the middle one. There was a white-tiled bathroom with rough, white towels and a clean shower, but no shower curtain, a small bar of soap, and a sign urging me to throw toilet paper in the waste paper basket instead of flushing it. I went exploring and found a large swimming pool and, thank God, a bar. A young man named Eric, a native Costa Rican, small with dark eyes and long, glossy, black hair, gave me a tour of the garden where he cared for red-eyed frogs, the ones on all the tourist posters. Eric let me hold a frog and it jumped into my wine. I fished it out and handed the creature, stained red and startled, back to him. Eric laughed and said, “Wine juice.”

We were fed buffet-style every five hours, steam tables of grilled chicken, fish, beans and rice. I sat alone that first night, and part of the second day, before growing so lonely and bored I eased close to the Brits. In my fantasies, I’d seen myself as a mysterious, single traveler, raven haired, a woman always gazing off into the rain forest with an expression that let fellow travelers know I’d suffered, oh how I had suffered. But in reality, I was a lonely, frizzy question mark of a ponytail.

The Brits welcomed me. We agreed the food was delicious. We stayed at our benches long after everyone retired, drinking wine. I was giddy with English on the air, instead of inside my head. The mother wore a thick layer of greasy make-up, but her eyes were a firefly when she told a story, when she laughed. I liked her very much. Her husband and I had a full glass of wine when she said she was tired. Her daughter and husband moved to go with her. No, she said, stay up, have fun.

“I don’t know why, but I just can’t bounce back like I used to,” she said, then kissed her husband’s cheek.

“I wonder why that is,” he said.

“Don’t know,” she said. “It’s extraordinary.”

Her husband chuckled.

I watched him watch her clip clop back to their cabin. When she was inside, he turned to me. “My wife,” he paused. “Is not well.”

She had cancer. I didn’t ask what kind. She’d exhausted her options, her husband said. She was going to die. This was their last vacation together. The doctors told her not to come, that she was not well enough for the trip, that she may not survive it. She decided she wasn’t going to make it easy for death. If he wanted her, he’d have to come find her in the Costa Rican rain forest.

The next morning, it rained. The four of us sat side by side in an open boat, peering up at the sky, searching the trees for sloths, laughing because the raindrops stung our eyeballs. I opened my backpack and gave the shivering, teenaged Brit a spare, 99-cent plastic poncho I bought at Wal-Mart just in case. We laughed at the ridiculousness of it, of sitting drenched, shoulder to shoulder, cold, while our guide searched in vain for an animal sighting that would make this outing worthwhile. The less we saw, the funnier it became. We were the only ones laughing, and this bonded me to the Brits for the rest of our trip. We ate every meal together, and I drank wine with the husband when exhaustion overcame his wife. I wondered if they felt sorry for me, because I was alone; or, if my company kept them from speaking about the cancer. Instead, they told me about their exotic travels, Syria, India, Morocco. I told them about my big family in Florida. Except Bobby. I did not tell them about Bobby.

It was difficult to explain, to say that my seven older brothers and sisters were practically teenagers when I was born. Bobby was the person I was a child with. Now here I was, alone with our childhood, trying to protect it. It was as if a large box of photographs had been dumped on the ground, was blowing around in the wind. I would catch hold of memories and grip them tight, worry they’d flutter away. Was Bobby seven or eight the year he was into He-Man and Castle Grayskull? What word would describe the texture of his strawberry blond baby curls? How old was he the year he believed he was the Incredible Hulk? He would roll up his pants, pull off his shirt and point his bony chest at us. Then he’d ask, “Am I turning green?”

I hear Bobby say, Why you always got to be like this? Why can’t you just think of the good times and laugh? Because, I answer, the good times are like stepping stones across a fast-running river and suddenly I can’t swim.

 

For $20, guides would show us sea turtles laying eggs on the beach at midnight. At the appointed time, I walked blindly in the night, fingertips splayed out to protect my face from branches, making my way down a narrow, sandy path toward the beach. I was guided by the sound of voices just ahead. Finally, the darkness gave way to moonlight sparkling on waves. I could see the shape of people, rounded, dark against the sparkles. My eyes adjusted slowly, and I made my way toward the dark form that looked like it was wearing an enormous wig. We laughed at the blind walk through the Costa Rican wilderness, me and my impermanent tribe.

“Over here!” A guide shouted. We walked over. He held a flashlight in one hand and beamed it at the leatherback’s backside. With the other hand, he’d pulled one of her flippers back. We watched an egg drop into the sand. I stumbled back, embarrassed. I felt like we were violating her privacy. Someone quickly moved to fill my space, and, fearing I’d miss something important, I pushed my way back and watched another egg slide out of her body.

“Did everyone see that?” The guide asked.

We all mumbled the affirmative, in our respective languages.

I remembered the turtle nest at Melbourne Beach, Florida, the weekend we’d gone to mourn Bobby’s birthday. Each year, his birthday would pass and he’d grow no older. My sister and I saw the hill of wet, overturned sand at dawn. We didn’t like the idea the mother turtle gave birth alone. We preferred to think she’d heard us laughing on the balcony above her.

The turtle dropped the last of her eggs, the guide let her flipper go, and we watched her cover her nest with dry sand. Then we watched her turn and make her way back into the waves. I wondered what it felt like, to leave so much behind. We watched the curve of her shell grow smaller and smaller in the water. Finally, it disappeared. Mother Brit turned to me, “Well, that was odd, wasn’t it?”

I agreed it was.

 

The next afternoon, Mother Brit and I lounged by the pool. I wore a big hat, sun block like spackle, and sipped a cold beer. She wore her wig and a full-face of make-up. I saw amber pill bottles in the bag beneath her chair.

“The Germans are always acting so superior,” she said. “Look at that. Playing water polo. Always have to be doing something athletic.”

I looked at her. Then looked at the pool. Four blondes were playing what I would have called Volleyball.

“The Spaniards, taking over half the pool. They think they are so gorgeous.”

It was a much better lesson on European politics than I’d ever had in school. The Danes were practical, a whiz with languages, and people we should all aspire to emulate. The Irish, who’d arrived late, after we’d formed our little English-speaking clique, wore too much green and smiled needlessly.

The sun soon depleted Mother Brit, and she went to nap before dinner. I went to buy another beer, and when I made it back to my chair Eric, the frog farmer, was standing there.

I smiled at him. He smiled back. Then he said, “You have a nice body.”  I was startled. It was a compliment I never heard. A friend once described me this way, “You are not the kind of woman a man notices at first. But if he takes the time to get a good look at you, he’ll follow you all the way down the street.” My love life had been a series of monogamous relationships with nice guys that ended, sometimes, in heart break, but nothing debilitating. I’d always been proud of that, of choosing wisely the kind of men who came and went without leaving a mark. I loved just enough to remain intact. I wrapped my towel around me as if shutting a door, and put my sunglasses on.

“Do you have children?” he asked.

“No.”

When I didn’t say anything else, he said, “I have three.”

I stayed quiet.

“Two are black but one is white.”

“That’s nice,” I said. He took a step closer.

“Kaaa-lee, I like you,” he said.

I didn’t answer. He dropped his voice, as if telling me a secret.

“Kaaa-lee, I’d like to see you tonight.”

“No,” I answered.

“No? Why not? Kaaa-lee?”

I shook my head, stayed quiet and closed my eyes. I felt him standing next to me for what seemed like a long time. I heard someone call his name, and relaxed when he moved away. For the rest of the afternoon, I caught glimpses of him moving through the trees on the property, carrying buckets or a ladder. After dinner, I went to bed and worried he might have a key to my room. He’d made me feel vulnerable, exposed. I didn’t want to be seen, or touched. I certainly didn’t want to be entered. Perhaps, just then, what I wanted was to disappear. That’s what I was doing in Costa Rica in the first place, disappearing. I pushed one of the empty cots in front of the door before I went to bed. Then I read until my eyes burned. I turned off the one light in my cabin, and listened to the rain on the roof. It sounded like the sky was laughing, a joke at my expense.

The next morning, Eric found me at breakfast.

“Kaaa-lee you leave today?”

“Yes.”

“I write you in America?”

“No.”

“No? Why not?”

Our group climbed back on the boat for the ride back to the bus. Eric stood on the shore and watched us pull away. I wondered if he thought I was going to fall in love with him and take him home to America. I wondered if I should have. In all honesty, I had nothing better to do.

The Brits and I sat on the boat together.

“What,” I heard the husband ask his wife. “Was your favorite part of the rain forest? What will you remember?”

“The clear water,” she said. “I love the water.”

 

We went our separate ways. The Brits wanted to spring for a more luxurious hotel than I could afford on the rim of the volcano. The travel agency had rented me a cabin in a resort at the volcano’s base. The guy at the desk gave me a brochure advertising mineral baths, complete with swim-up bar, and a view of red lava spitting into the stars. I changed into my bathing suit, waded into the blood-red water. I perched on a slippery stool and ordered a red wine. Soon I was singing along with the radio, harmonizing with two building contractors who’d just made a fortune working in New Orleans. “If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?”

I caught sight of the smiley, green-clad Irish couple we’d ignored in the rain forest. I felt like Hemingway, drunk, wet and running into fellow travelers.

“Hello!” I called out. They turned. They were dragging behind them heavy suitcases.

“Hey! Come get in the mineral bath! We’re singing!”

They looked at me. We’d barely spoken at the rain forest resort, and they surely wondered why I was being so friendly now.

“Kelly?” the wife said. “Are you already in a bathing suit?”

I looked down, embarrassed. Here I was, drunk in a mineral bath, singing with strangers, calling out to acquaintances. No wonder Eric thought I’d let him in my room.

“We’re just going to go to dinner, I think,” the husband said.

I stayed for one more glass of wine and sang with the boys from New Orleans. “Oh you had to be a big shot, didn’t cha?” I ordered another glass of wine to take back to my room, staggered out of the mineral bath, got lost trying to find my cabin. I fell, skinned my knee, and broke my wine glass. I wandered around until I found the lobby, then I charged inside, holding the broken glass like a sword. The same desk clerk who’d handed me the brochure said, “I’ll just take that,” and tugged it from my fist. He called security to whisk me back to my cabin in a golf cart.  I stumbled off the seat, toward my door and the security guard called out, “Hey, lady, are you OK?”

I started to cry, and walked faster toward my door so the security guard wouldn’t see. I showered, crawled into bed, fell asleep, and then woke two hours later. My stomach felt sick. My head hurt. I could smell wine seeping from my pores. My decision to leave the paper clawed at my insides. What had I done?  Who was I now?  I had no purpose, no reason.

The next day I sat in the same lobby where I’d stumbled in, wielding a broken glass. A van was late to pick me up and take me to the Montverde Cloud Forest. It occurred to me then, just then, in that lobby, that Montverde was also the name of the small town outside Orlando where Bobby died on the side of the road. It was the dateline on the brief Mom waved in my face. “This is just bad journalism,” she’d said. Why didn’t I think of that when I booked this trip? I’d been romanced by the idea of clouds like bridal veils, a truth I hadn’t let in. The desk clerk from the night before smiled and waved and I waved back. The van finally arrived. A family was already seated in the back, so I rode up front with the driver. He spoke English and gave me a mini tour as we cruised along.

“That’s coffee.”

“Coffee,” I repeated, as if were some strange herb I’d never heard of before.

“Cows. Moooooo!” He pointed and smiled.

“Cows,” I repeated.

He dropped me in front of my hotel and I handed him $5. There was a small woman dressed in black at the reception desk. As I approached, she smiled. “Buenes tardes.”

Three dozen dead moths were in my bathroom sink. I scooped them up in both hands and laid them to rest around the green bushes outside the door. Then I washed my hands, left my things in my room and ran all the way back to the main house for lunch. I looked out a large, picture window and into an ugly grey fog – more like smoke from a fire than a bridal veil. I wrapped my hands around a coffee mug and tried to feel warm.

I thought the cloud forest would be a place where everyone’s vision was obscured, where no one could see more than a few steps in front of them, where I wouldn’t be alone in my muddlement. But what I didn’t know, until I arrived, was that the cloud forest was also cold and wet, damp that penetrates. Soon, rain beat against the glass in sheets. I shivered. It was like sitting inside Niagara Falls. It was even heavier than the rain I’d seen in Florida, including Hurricane Katrina, which I’d watched, cocktail in hand, from a large window inside a suite at a swanky South Beach hotel.

After lunch, another van picked me up to take me on a canopy tour, which the travel agent had thrown in for free. The agent had been in good humor. I guess it’s rare a client calls and wants to go on vacation that very same day. “Would you like a canopy tour,” he’d asked. “Sure,” I said, picturing a leisurely walk through the woods and perhaps a trip across one of those high suspension bridges. When the van arrived, I crawled inside, where three German girls and two honeymooning American couples shivered. We reached our destination, and were outfitted in mildewed, smelly rain gear. Our guide pointed at a map, to a series of nine decks, high above the tree line, connected by a web of wires as big around as my thumb. The zip line waits for no storm, he explained. I was surprised, and looked at the couples, the Germans. No one wanted to back out in front of the others, even if it was storming like the end of the world.

We rode four to a metal basket up above the trees. We arrived at a slick, wooden platform, as close to God as I’ve ever been.  We wore white helmets, as if that would do any good if we fell. We were instructed to sit on glorified coat hangers, ride the line from slick platform to slick platform, nine times, the longest stretch half a mile. One of the husbands agreed to go first. We could see perhaps the first three feet of the cable, which draped slightly before disappearing into the granite-colored clouds. The young husband was handsome, broad-chested, virile. He looked at the path before him and laughed a nervous laugh.

“It’s a line to nowhere guys,” he said over his shoulder, to us. Then our guide gave his back a shove and he was off, letting out a girly scream that made us laugh.

I went last, suddenly alone on the platform, unable to see where everyone else had gone.

“On the other side, you have to spread your legs to stop,” our guide explained.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Spread your legs to stop.”

“OK,” I said, although I hadn’t really agreed.

I felt him put a warm hand on my back and push. I roared with fear. The rain fell like razors. I thought surely I’d arrive at the next platform bloody, skinned alive. Then I opened my eyes, looked below me, saw nothing but clouds. It occurred to me I was so close to Heaven, Bobby could be nearby. I pictured him just behind me, zipping along, smoking, pulling on a Heineken. The second platform came into sight. I saw my group crowded around our next guide, who was gesturing wildly. The crowd shouted, “Spread your legs!” I rocketed onto the platform crotch first, my baggy shorts gaping. (My sister Tammie would later joke, “Everything you see here can be bought!”) The zip line worker grabbed my harness as I passed and yanked me backward. I’d flung myself off the edge of the world and lived.

Our group became jovial. Oil from the zip line covered our faces, and made us feel like tough, adventure-seekers. We spoke about meeting up once a year to do something equally dangerous, like diving the blue hole in Belize. When it was over, we piled back into the tourist van, and the driver dropped us off group by group. We said good-bye to each other, stepped out, and never exchanged so much as an e-mail address. .

More than 200 people attended Bobby’s funeral. It was a small chapel. Fifteen people crammed onto pews built for ten. A crowd stood in the back. We ran out of prayer cards. Twelve people wore white bandages over freshly-carved R.I.P. tattoos.  My nephew had been loved, understood early how to love, handed it out as easily as the money he lent and desperately needed.

The evening after the zip line, I was in the mood to celebrate, but there was no one in the dining room. In fact, there appeared to be no other guests at the hotel. I gazed out the picture window, and saw my own face staring back at me, floating in the black, untethered. Then, behind my own face I saw three more faces approaching, smiling, growing larger. I turned.

“May we join you?” asked the British husband. We grinned at each other. I wanted to fling myself into his arms, but didn’t. They were, despite how I felt about them, strangers. They sat, ordered wine, told me how wonderful their resort had been on the rim of Arenal. A stream of lava burned past their hotel. They’d walked to the edge, peered into Earth’s womb and felt her heat on their faces.

I told them I got drunk in the mineral baths, was dissed by the Irish, got lost on my way to my cabin, and stumbled into the lobby, wielding a broken glass.

“So, the guy goes, ‘I’ll just take that,’” I said.

The Brits laughed so hard, I feared the mother would lose her breath and expire right there.  The father wiped tears from his eyes. I felt light. Of course, I realized, it was funny. Once it was out of my head and told over wine, it was funny. Perhaps, I had found myself stumbling around that resort not because I was heartbroken and unemployed, but so I could tell Mother Brit this story, so that she could laugh so hard she had to put her head between her legs and gasp for air.  Perhaps that was what I was here to do.

“Did you happen to find a number of dead moths in your sink,” the daughter asked.

“Yes!” I said, too loud, too happy someone saw them too, understood what it was like to step into a perfectly gorgeous hotel room and find a sink full of dead moths.

I think of the Brits now, years later, and wonder how old their beautiful daughter is, how she weathered the loss of her mother. I think about the Dad, and wonder if he kept traveling after losing his wife. I think about the mother, and still remember her wig, red and long, lips painted the color of blood.  If you remember someone, does that mean they live on? Is that what I can tell myself? I gave away a 99-cent rain poncho and keep you in my memory? I think of you when I have no reason to feel afraid, and yet I do. I think of you when I have no reason to feel ill, and yet I do. I think of you when I have no reason to feel tired, and yet I do. Can I say that my memory made her life longer? Why do I badger myself to give back anything at all? Because I feel guilty I stole time away from them, when they could have been alone together, and that I took a piece of her too-short life and sewed it into my own.

The next morning, I awoke to the cries of howler monkeys at dawn. It’s a sound both mournful and hopeful, wrote Roger Rosenblatt. “Before they begin their day…they howl. Before they live, they howl,” he wrote. I envied them. How much lighter would my chest feel if I could wake and let our one, long howl before pulling the covers back and stepping out of bed?

I found the Brits again in the dining room. They had to eat early so they could go on their own canopy tour. They asked me how I enjoyed zip lining and I told them my tale, how the rain felt as if it would pull the skin from my bones, how I had to spread my legs to stop, how oil covered our faces and made us feel brave, how we promised to get together once a year and do something dangerous, then didn’t as much as exchange an e-mail. Father Brit was paler than usual, his eggs cold on his plate. His daughter buttered toast and grinned like the sun. He didn’t want to go, he said. But you promised, said his daughter.

I was packed. The van would pick me up while they were gone. I’d never see them again.

“We don’t even know you’re name,” Father Brit said.

I told him. He told me his, introduced his wife, his daughter. I can’t remember their names now. I wish I could. I would use all my rusty, journalistic skills to track them down, tell them what they meant to me during a very dark time. But, maybe it is better the story ends here, with this hurried good-bye in the dining room. I never disappointed them, they never disappointed me. They remain forever the brave ones, who rescued me from the inside of my own skull. Perhaps I remain the goofy American, traveling alone, frizzy-headed, too-loud laugh. Perhaps they still think of me and laugh. Perhaps they don’t think of me at all. Perhaps, in their minds, I disappeared.

 

*

Kelly Wolfe is an assistant professor at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, where she teaches journalism, expository writing and is an assistant advisor on the student newspaper The Gatepost. She received an MFA in creative nonfiction from George Mason University in 2013 and is at work on a memoir.