The water in Cairo in summer

Sometimes the snakes, the bong hits and cancer are all visible through the lens of one place in one season.

Published May 16, 2001 7:33PM (EDT)

Ralphie lived next door at the Casa Mia. He had a pool and shuffleboard courts and his parents served pizza on paper plates.

When my mother took us to Cairo, Ill., I would clumsily climb through the woods to Ralphie's house and watch him dive into the deep end. I don't think he ever made a splash. Through my 7-year-old eyes, Ralphie was the cat's meow. He was Jimmy Dean. He was Michael Jackson. He was Elvis and he was mine. I'd crouch in the back of an old maple tree, trying not to pee, watching as he pushed off the side of the pool into a butterfly stroke. I'd watch him come up for air and thought he was breathing me in, sucking the oxygen out of my lungs, making me dizzy. I loved Ralphie, with a spinning, floating, falling 7-year-old kind of love.

He wore red swimming trunks with blue stripes at the waist. I'd watch as droplets of water fell from the back of his thighs, to his knees, to his ankles, to his heels, to the concrete, as he wrapped himself in a Garfield beach towel and read Mad magazines on a turquoise lawn chair. And I'd watch him slip on his Oakleys and swat at deerflies and sip on chocolate shakes his mother made at noon.

I thought he saw me once, when he squinted to see beyond the saplings that lined the backyard. A murmuring silence, as he lifted himself off the beach chair and headed toward me. I was crouching on last autumn's fallen pine needles and moist moss that stained my knees green. A crack of a branch, the bark of a dog, the sound of the tires of passing cars, the scream of Ralphie's mother calling him for lunch. If he found me, would he smile? Would he hold his hand out to me to help me off the forest floor? Would he ask me to go for a swim? Would he walk me home so I could strap on my sunflower one-piece, my flip-flops? Would he help me on with my faded magenta terry-cloth robe, holding the arms out so I could get mine in? Would he hold my hand all the way back to the Casa Mia, where his mother would make me fried dough and french fries and bring Italian ices to us as we giggled on towels in the yard? Or would he scream, "Hey kid! What are you doing?" Laugh at me and call me peeping porker? Would I walk home rubbing tears that only a fat girl could cry from my fat-girl eyes, with my fat-girl fists?

All summer long I nested behind the maple tree, watching him go for his noontime swim. And at 3, my sister and I would play spit on our front porch and roast marshmallows in the backyard over a campfire we seemed to rebuild every year. We'd ride go-carts, play miniature golf and lick ice cream cones in the back of the Corolla before they melted in our hands. We'd swim at Durham, where snakes were curled on rocks and pebbles got stuck on my feet. Durham, where algae splattered the butt of my bathing suit from my sister pushing me down waterfalls where the rock bottoms scraped the backs of my legs. I'd get to the edge, the ground beneath me disappearing, and fall into a freezing swimming hole that stopped my heart. And I'd swim to shore, hoist myself up onto the rocks and sit with my knees pulled to my chest. There is nothing like the heat of the sun captured on the water's edge, which heats you up like a baked potato until your hair is half-dry and matted. That's when you get up and climb back to the top where you'll start all over again.

Years later, a girl was killed at Durham. Her scalp was nailed to a tree. Durham closed down that summer, and hasn't reopened since.

We had neighbors who called their dog Max for six years before "he" got pregnant and had a litter of puppies. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson had three children and their house was filled with flies. Their son, Michael, had a crush on me. He'd follow me around smiling as we played hopscotch and caught praying mantises. He had a mouthful of rotten teeth because he drank too much pop and ate too much taffy, but I didn't mind. And Cassie, who was no more than 3, was the prettiest thing you'd ever seen, except flies crawled on her eyelids as she slept on their orange velour couch during lazy summer afternoons.

Gwen was the oldest. She was friends with my sister. They used to smoke cigarettes at the dead end at midnight. The two would leave me curled up in a half-zipped sleeping bag trying not to notice the bats that flew above my head swooping down in graceful arcs. Gwen had feathered hair and green eyes and wore pink-rimmed glasses. Her room, oh, her room was like nothing I had ever seen, unicorns flying in a sky so blue you thought your fingers would fall through the walls. There were Pegasus pillows and ceramic jewelry boxes and a full-length mirror with a picture of this week's boyfriend.

We all used to go roller-skating at the roller shack. And when my sister shoved me to the floor, Gwen would help me up and kiss my forehead and tousle my hair with her polished nails. And Michael was never far behind, with his rotten teeth and his cowlicked hair, calling my sister a bitch.

At night, before bed, my mother and I sat in metal chairs on the front porch with its slate floor. We'd sip iced tea and she'd call me Peanut. She knew about Ralphie. She knew. Twice a week we'd drive down to the Casa Mia and have fried clam sandwiches and Shirley Temples. Mom knew Roberta, Ralphie's mother. She had black hair and apple cheeks and her pants made noises when she walked. And Ralphie would play pinball in the game room and give us our check when we were ready to leave. He wore a gold chain, and sometimes he'd reach behind his neck to unhook the little auburn hairs that got caught between the prongs. He wore George Michael T-shirts, and faded jeans with holes in the knees, and a red checkered apron around his waist with marinara stains and powder at the edges. He winked at me once, when he served me a slice of pepperoni pizza. It was a Wednesday. My mother laughed.

At the end of summer I cried. I didn't want to go home or back to school where a boy named David would shove pictures of pussies down his pants on the bus ride home. School, where the other girls wore tank tops and miniskirts and corduroy jumpers, and I was always in polyester. Between classes, the boys made pig noses when I walked to my locker and teachers looked at me and called me big-boned.

When I was 14 and my parents were divorced, I spent summers in California and sipped Corona all day by the pool while my mom was at work. I was 117 pounds, 5-foot-9, and wore bustiers and short black skirts. My hair was blond and my lips were red and I'd flirt with the boys at Magic Mountain. I smoked cigarettes with my mother in Mexican restaurants and did drugs with her co-workers' daughters at midnight. I'd surf the waves of Venice Beach, walk the boardwalk barefoot, the concrete burning the soles of my feet and the sun blemishing my skin. I babysat little boys who ate snails after the rain and I walked the boys to the park, where there was a Ralphie at every corner of every pool. My mother took me to Medieval Times, where we ate with our hands and drank out of goblets; Medieval Times, where the knights threw roses into the crowd. We went to karaoke, where I sang "Somewhere Out There" in front of cousins Joe and Dorothy and their matching gold pinky rings. And on the night when my mother thought someone was breaking into her house, she threw me the car keys and a can of bug spray and told me to save myself.

Bradley Connor wanted to go out with me because I wasn't fat anymore. I wore see-through sweaters and the boys whistled from the second-floor windows as Megan and I walked around the school during lunch. I'd tilt my head and look the other way so they couldn't see my smile. I was felt up by Eric S. in my basement. He had a big dick and black hair and combat boots. We did bong hits and I blew him while my father watched "Jeremiah Johnson" upstairs in the living room. At night, I cut myself with straws because straws make the perfect circles. I broke jewelry boxes and blown glass and slashed the back of my hands while I waited for my mother's calls. I drank vodka, played the guitar and gave Rob Salmon my number when it started to snow in November. I stood outside of his Trans Am with my face pointed to the sky. I giggled as snowflakes tickled the tip of my nose, and spun in circles till I fell to my knees on the parking lot pavement, breaking the silence of the snow. He reached out to help me off the ground. I walked back to Sara's house blushing.

I went back to Cairo when I was 19. My sister and I went swimming at Shinglekills, where swimmers left donations in the antique shop, the same antique shop where I once bought my father a picture of Christ embedded in a piece of tree bark. At Shinglekills, the spring water is so cold it numbs your thighs, turns your skin purple and robs you of your breath. At Shinglekills there are black holes, no more than 3 feet around, little pools of water so deep you can't see bottom. When I was 7, I ripped branches from trees and tried to find their bottoms. I think they went all the way to China. At Shinglekills, you have to know every stone, every boulder, every branch; if not, you'll lose your footing, break your toes or step on 4-foot black snakes that nest in the coolness in the shade of rocks.

There's a picture of my mother outside Cairo House with her new husband, Bill. She looked sick and disheveled, and I wondered how no one knew she was dying.

We poured her ashes in the waters at Durham out of a silver-plated urn. She made a perfect circle. The sun came out as we dropped roses in the water. Mine was pink and got stuck between two rocks. I wanted to tiptoe to the center of the water hole and free my rose, let it float with the others, but I didn't. Something told me not to. Sometimes, I pretend that something was my mother, keeping me closer to her circle, not wanting me to float away with the others.

After her service, we went back to Maria's house, where I learned that my Uncle Mario and his wife, Aunt Dorothy, were first cousins. Where I learned that Maria had cancer, and smoked joints after she put her kids to bed. Where I learned that Casa Mia burned down in the summer of '95, and Ralphie was arrested for beating up his girlfriend behind the bleachers in high school.

I haven't been back to Cairo, but during the summer months, I hear it summoning me. And on the hottest day of the year, I think of go-carts and miniature golf, of Shinglekills and its freezing waters. I think of drying off on the banks of Durham, of spit on the front porch on sweaty afternoons. I think of the way little Michael used to smile, his rotten teeth showing just how much it means. And I think of Ralphie, in his holey faded jeans and his red checkered apron tied at the waist with marinara stains and powder at the edges, and of the way my mother laughed on a Wednesday. She's what I think of most, when the temperatures make me sweat, when iced tea never tasted so good. I think of my mother, and her perfect circle.

By Jen Wiest

Jen Wiest is a writer in Esopus, NY.


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