Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence Day: Goodbye to All That

Monday's July 4th celebration comes with much fanfare, and sorrow. I spend the morning packing up my clothes, including the ones that somehow never got worn--the button-up white shirt, the black pants, the high heels. Melissa and I drive around a bit, running last minute errands. I drop off my bike--o loathsome, uncooperative vehicle of non-transportation--at Wildlife, and they hand me a check for $25 in return. Too much, I think, but I use the check as an excuse to buy some pretty earrings at Orcas Island Arts & Gifts. The store owner's daughter, a jewelry designer who plays with sea glass and all kinds of precious stones, talks me into a gorgeous pair of quartz earrings, golden citrine and blue-green chalcedony, translucent and smooth in my hand.
I look through the gem book behind the desk for the meaning of these stones--chalcedony is considered a powerful cameo; Greeks in the 3rd-4th century used to wear it to prevent drowning. Citrine, meanwhile, gets its name from its lemony color, and is meant to increase self-confidence, desire, and creativity--generally known as the wealth or abundance stone. I've picked stones that put me at a crossroads, between what has happened and what might be coming around the bend.

Melissa and I get a text from Annie--she and Ken have loaded their kayaks onto the truck, and will meet us down at Cascade Lake for a bit of summer sun before the barbecue tonight. We drive down to the lake, crowded with fishermen and families by the swimming area, and pull the long heavy boats down from the rigging. Melissa and I slide them into the water, which is much warmer and softer than expected, and paddle out into the lake. It only takes a few minutes to move away from the shore, the sound of laughing kids and sizzling barbecues dying off, and soon all I can hear is the ripple of the water, the low vibration of a dragonfly skimming the surface, the zip of fishing lines as they fly into the air and plop down toward their targets. We steer into an inlet where the water is much stiller and deeper--I can see the roots of water lilies snaking yards down into the darkness, their roots imperceptible but unshakable. Whole tree trunks have crashed down into the water, forming underwater bridges and walkways. The air is warm and sweet and redolent with clover and fir and madrone trees.

I lay back and pull my feet out of the boat, letting them rest on the hot plastic. I want to keep my mind this quiet, this still and appreciative, forever. The peace of just floating here, letting the gentle current carry me away from shore, needs to stay even after I board the last ferry tonight. But my mind is racing with ideas: could I open a restaurant? what would it be? what could I cook? The fact is that a career in cooking wouldn't mean this peace--it wouldn't necessarily mean peace at all. There is just as strong a chance of neurosis, anxiety, and disappointment in a kitchen as there is in an office. What I'm thriving from is the contrast...and, perhaps, the distance. The sky here is wide, open; the trees are taller than office buildings, but not nearly as foreboding. Even when I'm in shadow, I can feel the warmth of the sunlight on my skin, radiated back from the rich brown soil. Wrapped in the Island's embrace, I start to tear up, knowing that tonight, I'll have to leave it behind me.

Melissa and I paddle back to shore, where Annie, Ken, and Amanda are hanging out as little Ava are paddling in the swimming area. Annie wades in up to her knees, the hem of her cotton dress darkening with water. "Blow bubbles, Ava!" she says. "No!" says Ava, paddling away like a puppy, her head bobbing above the surface so her face doesn't have to get wet. A few seconds later, though, she's dipping her face in the water, shaking it off and rubbing her eyes like a damp kitten. But she doesn't shed a tear, or run to get out and dry off. She stays in the water, content as she is to paddle around.

We load the kayaks back onto the truck and bid them farewell until the BBQ tonight. Melissa and I return to the Inn, and as I walk around, taking my last batch of pictures for posterity, Melissa carves out a chunk of a straggling chive plant for me to take home. I wrap the tender roots in a damp paper towel, cover them with plastic wrap, and wrap the long stems in tinfoil. This will insulate it over the next 48 hours of travel--whether it will flourish on my window grate, I'm still unsure. But it's a small consolation to bring even a small piece of the Island back with me.

Melissa and I get dolled up--the first time on the Island I've worn more than a light coating of mascara and sunscreen. My skin has darkened considerably since I arrived a month ago--where I once resembled the creamy interior of an almond, now I look like its toasted skin. It'd be a Kardashian-esque tan if my nose didn't bear a bit of a burn from the morning's boating, proof that the color is hard-earned rather than store-bought. Despite putting on a few pounds from family-meal, I look healthy, athletic, adapted to the outdoors. I look nothing like myself. Or maybe exactly like myself.

We load my suitcases into the car. I give Wally a last hug before departing, telling him to check his low-boy for a last-minute present from me. (Wrapping up after clean-up from pizza, I slipped a bucket with his two oyster knives into his low-boy, one less thing for his daily prep work, with a handy piece of advice written inside: "Don't drop the nuts!"). We pull away from the Inn, the windows now, the breeze blowing hard and cool in my face. Amanda's house is already crawling with visitors by the time we arrive, so we slip off our sandals and sip cold beers in lawn chairs.
Annie enlists us in a game of badminton--my dress is too long to play, so I tie it up with a hair elastic way above my gym shorts, and dive for the birdie each time it comes close. We are embarassingly bad, but the workout we get from laughing at our own missed shots is more than enough exercise. We cool off in the shadow, nibble on crackers and cheese, and tickle Ava as she comes close.
"Ava," I ask. "Do you know how to play the hand-slap game?"

"No," she grins, and I show her how to rest her hands on mine, pulling them quickly away before I can flip them over and catch her with a playful slap. When it's my turn to get slapped, she simply grabs my fingers rather than flipping her hands over--I don't want to get into the actual rules of the game with her. It's too much fun to watch her squeal with delight as she gets me over and over again...and she gets the same glee out of Foot War. We sit on the ground and put our feet up against each other, her pushing her little heels against my bigger, until my legs drop to the ground, defeated. She feels like a champion, and that's what counts.
Everyone makes her feel like a champion--even in the midst of open bottles and half-filled Dixie cups, no one is too busy to play with her, or to interact with each other. Even though the grill is churning out sausages and hot dogs, people are slow to leave their chairs, or to leave the badminton racket. Ava wants to play everyone, and most are up to the challenge.
Everyone seems in a state of half-play--Angela and her boyfriend show up, nuzzling each other sweetly on a blanket. Justine from Coffelt Farms cracks open a beer with some of the guys, laughing and throwing in her own jibes with gusto. The Scot, who compliments me on my dress but remains a gentlemen throughout the night, is all buddy-buddy with Jay and the other guests.
Amanda and Annie, sisters but with dramatically different appearances, are all hugs and smiles with anyone they can get within arm's reach.
Ken grabs the camera from me for a minute and snaps a few candid shots of Annie. They're all shots I've seen in the kitchen--bemused, skeptical, joyous--and clearly looks he loves.
I make a wish for Annie and Ken to work out, to keep their rhythm and appreciation of each other for many years. I make a wish, in general, for Annie to get everything she wants, to feel contented in her life on Orcas, and wherever else it might take her. It seems cheesy to issue such a mental benediction, but I don't have any real way to repay her for her generosity, except to hope it all comes back to her ten-fold. That, and a "New York care package" for Ken. "Bagels, black-and-white cookies, whatever you've got," he says, smirking good-naturedly.

The sun starts to fade, and before I know it, the guests are packing it in for the fireworks. Melissa moves my bags from her car to Justine's, who's heading to the ferry to pick up some friends just arriving from the mainland. As one departs, another few arrive...I give Melissa a bear hug, whispering "Keep in touch." She smiles sweetly--she's started blogging this week, and I couldn't be more excited to read about her adventures after I depart. It's just one more way of staying close even as I have to go far away. The cars pull out, Annie nowhere in sight. Even as I feel like I've just arrived on her level, she's departed, off to see something new, notice something exciting. I leave her a teary message from Melissa's phone: "I didn't get to say goodbye...but keep in touch. Let's talk soon. And thank you, for everything."

Justine races me to the ferry, crossing through Eastsound, driving out of town, off to a loading dock with blinking lights. She helps me unload my bags just as her two friends come running up, all excited and sweatshirted. They speed off for the fireworks, and I plant myself on a nearby bench. Somewhere in the chilly waterside wind, I start to cry. The ferry pulls up, lowering its driveway, and I lumber onto the deck. Instead of sitting outside to watch the fireworks, I find a bench in the main galley and chat with an Anacortes man, who spends time on Orcas every chance he get. I don't remember the details of the conversation, partly because of the beers, partly because of the weird departing haze. But I remember thinking the whole time we were talking, "I will not get to have a conversation this spontanenous again for quite a while."

Outside, lights are shooting up into the air, spreading like lake ripples across the sky. The slow pop and boom of each explosion seeps through my teary daze, and even after I've made it to Anacortes, to the Inn where I will spend a restless night, their shimmery trickle will remain with me. Even without seeing the fireworks, I know they were exquisite.

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