The summer I turned 12 years old, my mother let me drive all the way to Panama City Beach. I'd been driving for a couple of years already, sitting in Mama's lap as I steered the car down the red dirt roads that snaked through the woods outside of Chattahoochee. But that summer, I'd finally grown tall enough to work the pedals and see over the dashboard, so as soon as we got outside of Sneads, Mama coasted into the grass next to a cornfield, scooted over and let me slide behind the steering wheel. We had a light-yellow Plymouth Fury that I thought looked like a Cadillac from the side. That's how I liked to picture it. When I stood next to it on our carport, I could almost see fins rising out of its boxy back end.
I drove fast. It was just me, my little sister and Mama. All the windows were down and the hot wind whipped my long, dark hair in every direction. Nothing compared to the feeling I got going 60 toward curves I couldn't see around. "Soft shoulders," the yellow signs read. I hung onto to the inside of those curves like I did riding the Himalaya at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park, imagining the black rubber tires clutching the pavement. We rocketed around one curve after the other, zinging past cornfields and cow pastures. Grasshoppers green as crayons flew over the windshield. After half an hour or so the car felt real, not like an amusement park ride at all, and I slowed down and drove more sensibly.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mama, her face tilted away from me into the wind, her eyes shut, her hair blown crazy. She is there, and not there at the same time. Mama and not-Mama. How many mothers let their 12-year-old daughters take over the wheel? I turned south onto Highway 231 and drove on. Mama did a slow fade and disappeared. Both she and my father end up doing the slow fade in most of my memories of summer vacations, the ones my mind has created out of all the trips my family made to Panama City Beach from the time I was 5 until I was about 12. They are bit players, visible only in the corner of my eye. After all, I'm the one driving the car. It never occurs to me that one day I'll grow up, have children and do my own slow fade.
We went to the beach all the time in the summer. My mother didn't think anything of driving down to Panama City for the day -- it was only a couple of hours from our house in Chattahoochee, but it was a world away from our boring, gray sidewalks, even if they were canopied with wisteria vines, lined with mimosa trees dripping flowers pink as watermelon. The Miracle Strip was a couple of miles worth of unreal gaudiness -- Pepto-Bismol-pink motels, plaster statues of monkeys and dinosaurs, souvenir shops with clamshells out front so big my sister and I could live in them; the Snaketorium, Goofy Golf, the Miracle Strip Amusement Park with the Starliner Roller coaster and giant Tiki Man.
Every trip started the same way, with my parents commanding center stage. My father stood on our front porch yelling at my brothers and sister and me to please be quiet, then turned to the screen door to sweet-talk my mother into coming outside. We always fought over who would sit where in the car, while my mother sat in the house and cried. She was manic depressive and threatened to call off the trip if we didn't stop fighting. We'd quit long enough to lure her out of the house and into the Plymouth.
As soon as we pulled out of the driveway both she and my father disappeared, not to reappear again until I got hungry or needed to pee. It was as though I somehow got myself down to the beach where I floated on my back in the Coke-bottle-green water of the Gulf of Mexico, the waves lifting my 10-year-old body as gently as a breeze. I closed my eyes and the hot, yellow sun turned a velvety red against my eyelids. I pretended I was drifting through clouds along with the seagulls, suspended in the warm air above the white beach, until my mother's screaming voice finally broke the spell, upsetting the hypnotic rhythm of the waves: "Don't make me ask you again. Get your tail back over here; you are too far out."
I knew without looking that she was standing on the beach flailing her arms. She'd probably called me 20 times by the time I finally heard her.
When I wasn't floating, I played shipwreck with my sister, tumbling off a neon-blue raft into the crashing surf where I skinned my knees bloody against the sandy floor of the Gulf. Once I almost drowned -- at least that's what I told myself and all my friends later. A large wave knocked me over and under, spun me round and round like a load of laundry for what seemed like five minutes. My eyes were open and I saw bubbles of light every time I flipped over. When I washed up on the shore, I dragged myself over to the patchwork quilt Mama had spread out on the white sand and flopped down: I imagined I was on a deserted island. My parents are conspicuously absent from this memory, but I know they were there, lying together next to me on the quilt my grandmother made.
Later, they reappeared long enough to haul us over to the public showers at the Wayside Park where the water smelled sulfury like boiled eggs, where I stood uneasily in warm puddles on the concrete floor. The showers didn't have roofs on them; I stared up at a cloudless blue sky, a helicopter full of sunburned tourists chopping through the air above. I wasn't about to take my suit off. Mama disappeared again.
I stood with my back to the concrete-block wall, fascinated by the naked women around me, the way they handled their bodies. One chubby lady flopped her breasts out of her swimsuit like loaves of bread dough, then backed up to the shower and wiggled, letting the water run down her dimply white ass. I thought of the time my mother had fallen asleep on the couch at home, how I pinched the skin on her knuckles into tiny ridges, then watched as they flattened out. Then Mama whisper-yelled into my ear, "Stop staring at that woman and get undressed. We don't have all day."
Her voice was there but she wasn't.
She wasn't there in the public showers, not there when I tromped through Alvin's Souvenir shop past the coconuts carved to look like shrunken heads, past the tiny dead sharks floating in jars of blue-tinted formaldehyde. She wasn't there when I found the toy hula dancer and squeezed her belly so that her breasts popped out from behind her top. She wasn't there when I played Goofy Golf and she wasn't there when I rode through the haunted house at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park. I climbed to the top of the giant Tiki Man and looked out of his left eye. I could see the whole Miracle Strip, the cars backed up for miles, the teenagers making out and smoking cigarettes, the Ferris wheel, the roller coaster, the Gulf of Mexico and down below, tiny as ants standing still in the middle of a bustling crowd, my parents. They lifted their hands and waved.
I know this is my fate; this is how I'll appear in my sons' memories: as a tiny distant figure.
My partner and I took our three boys to Old Grayton Beach recently. This is a spot we like because there's an estuary full of crabs and fish right on the beach; it actually empties into the Gulf of Mexico. My partner and I lug all our stuff across the sand and sit down on our quilt with baby Elias. The two older boys, Jordan, 9, and Samuel, 3, splash into the water, waiting for me to blow up their rubber boat. They crouch in the sand at my feet, staring at me like gators, waiting. I'm the center of attention at this moment, pumping air as fast as I can: "Mama, are you done yet? Mama! Mama! Mama!"
I know that once the boat is inflated, I'll disappear.
And I do. Jordan and Samuel are off, dreamily pushing their boat away from me, wading knee-deep in the tea-colored water, nets in hand, heads down, looking for crabs. They fill the boat with water, then with crabs and fish and sand. Samuel moves to the shore where he scoops a hole into the sand and makes a pool for his creatures.
I never take my eyes off of these boys. I watch them like I'm watching a movie, Samuel squatting, his starfish-shaped baby hands pushing the brackish water around; Jordan, hanging off the back of his boat now, murmuring to his crabs. I am there and not there. Later, when I walk over to Samuel and place my palm against his warm back, he shudders, lifting his sandy hands, startled out of his dream. He looks at me like I've ruined something, and I have. I've pricked the bubble he was floating in. So I do the thing my parents did. I do the slow fade, move back across the water where I sit down small on my quilt and just watch.