I looked up towards the front dashboard window, extending my neck to see over the tall heads in front of me. I can’t see much, but I catch a glimpse of the flat shoreline, a few people fooling around on the sand, and the unfathomably big sea of blue water stretching out so far that I couldn’t tell where the water ended and the sky began.
Ma’s dented, grey van trudges along the bumpy cobblestone paths. All four windows are rolled down. I inhale the fishy, salty-smelling air and it tickles my nose. My pink, frilly, one-piece bathing suit is glued to my body like a second skin. There are seagulls floating overhead in the parking lot.
I lift my left hand gently from the sticky, padded arm rest. I glance up towards Ma. I survey the scene. I resume and move two of my chubby fingers towards the red “release” button on the seatbelt and then I slowly press down and hear the indistinguishable click, signaling my mission of was a success. I grab my unclipped seatbelt and place it to the left, keeping it out of view so that my mom won’t hear me or see it and say, “Carly...are you buckled?”
I am too hyper and too antsy to wait any longer in this dirty ol’ van. Ma….you don’t need to go BELOW the speed limit. We pull into the parking lot closest to shore so that the cousins won’t need to walk too far. Seagulls blanket the picturesque sky. I hear the familiar sounds of chatter and laughter and singing and cheering and crying and chanting and complaining and radios and waves tumbling over onto the sand. I quickly gather up all of my beach belongings: Spongebob towel, Barbie towel, and a big loaf of white bread. I am ready to rip it into shreds to give to the whiny birds. I rip off the smallest piece and toss it in my mouth. I don’t wanna waste too much. There needs to be enough for every single bird; they’re probably starving to death. It feels chewy against my tongue; it’s fresh, and the crust is crispy and delicate. Just how I like it. Our noisy vehicle creeps into the corner parking spot. I grip the door handle tightly and shift all of my body weight to the left, immediately throwing open the heavy car door. As I prepare to hop out, every single other cousin in the van hops out before me, pushing me to the side. I wait. I let the van go empty and then drop down onto the pavement. I can now see the seagulls that I’ve waited a year to see again. I look around and see my cousins all already galloping towards the feisty waves.
I look up at my friends who float above me. They look so free. The pavement is too hot for the fragile skin that covers my toes and the soles of my bare naked feet. I like it, though. I like it when I compare it to the relentless water; the crowded water, packed tight like a can of tuna, that everyone seems to love to jump around in so much. A mystery I can’t solve. A hype I can’t make sense of.
I tear my eyes from the seagull-filled sky and see my lone companion. Billy’s standing beside me in his swim trunks covered with rainbow colored starfish. “They look hungry,” he says to me, loaf of bread in hand. I nod in agreement. At this point, I can barely contain myself. I am a timer ready to sound. I reach out for his fleshy wrist and tug at it, pulling him towards me and then all the way down the entire stretch of parking lot to where the biggest cluster of seagulls hover near the edge of the pavement. Our feet were hot so we took fast, short steps until were nearly directly under the cluster. There were millions. I scream, “Ready? Set?” I pause. I smirk. I see him smiling back at me through my peripherals. “Go!” I exclaim at last. Our plastic bags crinkled in unison as we dove our hands into our individual fluffy loaves.
My hand sinks into the soft bread and I clench it and tear off a chunk. I wind my arm in circles like the Red Sox players I sometimes see on T.V. and whip it up as high as I can so the seagulls will see. my cousins are all as overjoyed as I am. My small hand grasps the soft, fluffy loaf of bread, and I tear a big chunk off. I wind up my arm and throw it up as high as I can, so the seagulls will spot it. They do. One seagull dives quickly towards the bread and snatches it, claiming the first piece of the day. Billy takes his turn. I go again, winding up my arm and then releasing the fluffy goodness into the air, giggling each time I feel the bread leave my hand and I see the seagull claim it’s prize.
The breeze is light and gentle and the sun is harsh and raw and they compliment each other. I keep tossing piece after piece up, up, up into the cluster of seagulls. Maybe they’re a family. Some are fast and some are slow and some are powder white and others are a mucky brown. But they travel together wherever they go.
One of the seagulls never gets the bread. He travels with the cluster but he stays off to the side at all times. He’s slow and can’t get to the chunk of bread before it’s snatched up by one of his family members. He wants to impress the other birds but they ignore him. He keeps trying. Our bread is running low and I really want to feed the slow one. I can see that he’s hungry and he wants it just as much as the rest of the cluster, but the others push and bump and nudge and he does not. He stays off to the side. He waits patiently between each of our throws. He tries. He gets pushed. Knocked to the side. He stays off to the side. He tries. He’s hit. Pecked by an older seagull. He stays off to the side. I watch him. Billy is throwing his bread to a different cluster now, about fifty feet away.
I look up. Suddenly my eyes meet the slow bird’s and I panic and I reach into my bag and it crinkles and I rip out the last chunk and I don’t wind up my arm this time and the bread leaves my hand and I watch and hope and pray as slow bird races at the chunk and then he got it. He snatched it up and I screamed and my eyes felt wet and I knew how happy the slow bird felt as he flapped away from me and my empty bread bag and my frilly one piece and my bare naked feet and the dry, cracked pavement I stood on that whole day.
Sour celery. The taste that fills my mouth after sleeping for at least twenty minutes is like sour celery. Like something that belongs in the mud-colored compost bin leaning precariously to one side. Waking up feels like a battle between the celery and the flood of water that I use to try and wipe it out, once and for all. If only that were the lone battle I had to fight every morning.
Miles Davis’ trumpet croons, struggling to stay afloat on top of the blaring alarm clock shaking me reluctantly into my reality.
This is my life.
I wonder if these pills are numbered. They sit in their orange-shaded cage, waiting to escape and assault the murderous tumor imbedded within my throat. Do these strange animals jump at their turn to attack? Are they tattooed with a 28 or 24 or 21 or 19 or 10 or 4 or even a 1? I can imagine the blood colored characters scratched into the surface of their otherwise smooth exterior as I recline back into my wheelchair.
The metal is cold and unforgiving under my bare, unshaven legs- three weeks without the strength to shave doesn’t do them well. “It won’t have any serious side effects,” they said. “You will be able to live your daily life as usual,” they said. But still my strength lessens by one everyday, and the bottle of pills lessens by one too. Perhaps they are an hourglass- Like the Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz. They mean the same thing, don’t they? Dorothy only has as much life as the hourglass has sand. My hourglass is a test though. If I can beat the odds and make it through my food tube and beyond the carrot juice stained bottle of pills, I might have a small chance. I can see my time waning with the level of pills decreasing from the bottle. It’s sort of backwards, but I can’t help it. I tell myself over and over, “They are helping you. They are helping you.” The squeaky, high-pitched voice in the back of my head tells me otherwise. How can something that’s supposed to save my life drag me down to the lowest point in my existence thus far? It’s too ironic.
It transforms me into that mud-colored compost bin—teeming with harsh remnants of what was once a collection of brightly colored fruits and vegetables. That used to be me. I was brightly colored once. Then the horror of the lump happened. Then the sterile, examination masks happened. And finally, they gave me those strange animals. They were tamed by a translucent, carrot-colored bottle, but I had a feeling that they were itching to break free. Apparently these pills were supposed to prolong my life, each one with two, maybe three, more days to live. They are the crusty, old, dried-up play-dough that gets stuck in the play-dough press and smells like the box of baking soda that’s been sitting in the pantry for a month and a half.
“So this pill is my last hope?” I ask.
“Well it’s ultimately your choice whether or not you chose to take them. They will prolong your life, but it’s up to you if you want to do that or not. I would suggest it though,” states the doctor in a somewhat mundane tone. Basically, this grey, lifeless, pellet of compact powder has inside it my last days. It molts grey dust in my tired hand.
Have you ever seen a box jellyfish? Let me rephrase that. Have you ever seen a box jellyfish without having a deep-seeded worry that you might get stung? Regardless of what horror stories The Discovery Channel or Animal Planet may trick you into thinking, they are magical. But strangest of all, is the way they appear harmless. Their tentacles flow behind them, suspended in the cytoplasm of the ocean. Without the knowledge that they are some of the most venomous animals in the animal kingdom, would you ever fear a box jellyfish? Of course not. You would have no reason to.
Chemotherapy pills are like jellyfish. There’s a kind of beautiful simplicity to the idea that a bottle of pills can save a life. It’s a romantic idea, really. Why should you fear them? Well, without the personal experience, you shouldn’t have to. They seem harmless. One might even argue that they are really quite the opposite- they contain life instead of take it away. Or so I’m told.
Atop the small dive boat, tossing and turning over the swells of the vast ocean, I strap on my tank, fins, and mask, and desperately gulp down the last bit of cool water before surrendering my lips and tongue to the dry air that is idly waiting in my tank. I stride into the water from the small wooden landing off the back of the boat. Bobbing about in the surface chop and swells, heart pounding from adrenaline, I’m craving to begin the descent into the serenity that waits just beneath my fins. Being underwater has an unmatched capacity to relax the mind, and allow it to see not only what wants to be found, but also what is cloaked in secrecy.
Water glides past my face and combs through my hair with an inimitable freedom and fluidity. I feel like a mermaid—I’m at home here. Invincible even. As I gradually descend, I hear my ears make a final and desperate attempt to adjust to the pressurized environment.
70 feet down.
My muscles begin to ease while my breathing settles into a deep, steady rhythm through the regulator. I am left only to the sounds of the glossy, wriggling bubbles of my exhale. They tickle my ears on their way to the surface. A Pat Metheny song that was playing in my car echoes in the back of my mind. His guitar mimics the sound of the water sloshing around in my adjusting ears.
In this placid state, I’m at ease. But the jellyfish still needs to dine. The peculiar, mixed flavors of cracked rubber and sweet, dry air dance with my taste buds, convincing me that here, everything really is okay. That I really can relax. After a quick glance at my pressure gauge, I try to make my way to my partner to begin my ascent. I’m running low on air. And the jellyfish moves closer still.
At the exact moment that I’m finally close enough to my partner I feel it. The tentacles have wrapped around my inner elbow, releasing their small vials of venom one after the other into my waterlogged skin. It’s like an IV. Except this time, I know what is being added into my IV—and it is not just a saline solution.
A slow ascent is necessary for safety—it seems to take decades to reach the surface. The taste of rotten acid and sour celery taunts the back of my throat. A vaguely familiar children’s song fights to be heard over the harsh cracks of the swells smacking the boat. I think it might be from The Sleeping Beauty.
“We will get you help in time! You’re going to be okay,” they say. It seems to me that they are doing this more for their own reassurance than for mine. “It won’t have any serious side effects,” they say. “You will be able to live your daily life as usual,” they say. This sounds familiar.
Then the sterile masks appear. Then I feel the IV again, tugging like fishing line with its hook lodged deep within my forearm.
I’m being dragged. Through the bleariness, through the fog and haze. Back to my wheelchair, to my unshaven legs, to my infelicitous reality.
I have nightmares about that jellyfish- about how it lurks in the opaque bottle sitting by my bed along with the countless other medications and supplements. Diving was my life, back before I started to resemble the mud-colored compost bin leaning precariously to one side. Wake up, dive, eat, dive, teach a lesson, eat, bed. And then again. And then again. Having been certified as a SCUBA diver since I was twelve, I couldn’t imagine life without it. I continued on to become a dive instructor and saw and experienced things that some could only imagine. It was supernatural.
I’m carefully questioned more than people like to admit. “How are you coping? What’s the worst part? Are you depressed? Because there are helplines for that kind of thing!” They approach me like I’m an endangered species, waiting to see if they’ll offend me enough to send me into extinction. Yet somehow, again and again, I seem to bounce back.
Life is like lychees. Initially, they’re rough, just like the basic, simple problems we, as people, may encounter on a day-to-day basis. The next layer down is the smooth, slippery fruit. This is the real exterior. We are afraid to let people in past this to keep adversity from showing. The problem with this level is the falsity. There is no such thing as a person without battles to fight, so why do we pretend that there is? Finally, if you can gnaw past the grape-like texture to the middle, you’ll stumble upon a pit—and quite a large one too I might add. This is the soul of the fruit. It holds everything of importance to a person. However, in order to get here, it takes time—time to get to know the person and peel back the layers.
This is where people get stuck. They have the initial idea to send “good jujus” my way, to send me a card with a few kind words written on the dull, white interior. But the smooth surface of the lychee is where something goes awry, so they never get to the pit. I’ve been turned into one of them. The strange animals I mean. They stole my vibrant colors and alienated me beyond recognition, even to those who were once closest to me, and so my soul, the pit of the lychee, is as inaccessible as ever. Don’t get me wrong, some people do try to penetrate the smooth exterior, but before long, they get scared of the sacrifice and emotional toll it may take. And so they abandon ship and get out while they can. It gets rather lonely.
When I was little, I had a travel size movie screen; if I was good leading up to a trip, I could bring it with me when we traveled. Three quarters of the way down the left side, there was a small, little wheel controlling the color levels of whatever Disney movie I had settled on watching. This wheel brightened all of the colors on the screen, but if it was rolled in the opposite direction, they would drain out of the picture like they were being sucked out by a straw.
This is my life.
My colors are gone.
I’ve been reduced to eating involuntarily, through what my niece called a “belly tail”. She snuck a peek at it from around the beige corner of the hospital. Even my family looks at me like I’m a two-headed butterfly that crash-landed into their wilting flower garden. I don’t belong here any more. That fact has been confirmed by everyone from my friends to the strange animals that sit waiting in their film-canister cage. I’m out of place, and this frightens people. That’s why they can’t get past the smooth, pearl-like, gelatinous fruit of the lychee to the pit—the part that truly matters.
I taste it now; the once sweet fruit that I never second-guessed now seems acidic. Its sour tingle lingers on the tip of my tongue as the trumpet and bass intricately intertwine in the last song of Miles Davis’ album In a Silent Way.
“It’s time for dinner, dear,” coos my nurse, struggling to pull me back to my reality of feeding tubes, doctors, and pills. The hair on my legs has grown from all of my goose bumps. Cinderella is playing on the small screen above the hospital bed. What should be a normal, pasta dinner, is waiting not for me, but for the snake of a tube that winds out from my abdomen like it has already eaten its way into my very being. And the jellyfish haunts me still. Sitting. Waiting. In a disposable cup next to my distressed bed, anticipating its next strike.