When I was little, my family and I lived aboard a boat for two years, and we traveled close to the mosquito-fogged jungle coastline of Central and South America. Our boat was a motor yacht, a steel trawler, well suited for mincing navigation up winding waterways, and less vulnerable to the caprice of the trade winds. I was always relieved when we entered the glossy brown Amazonian river waters, weighted and smoothed by the silt they carried. The blue ocean was beautiful to look at, but the trawler pitched and rolled like a barrel, and I wasn’t allowed on deck when we were underway, where the fixed horizon gave me my bearings. Instead I had to go below, where it was dark and the movement of the cabin made no sense to my inner ear. I would get sicker and thinner and would beg my Dad to find an island, any scrap of island to anchor behind, and rest out of the rough water. We couldn’t, though; it isn’t actually “any” port in a storm. We always kept to the course we’d set, even on one excruciating three-day haul from Puerto Rico to Jamaica, when the bone-numbing tremor of the engines and the exhaustion of dry heaving and watery swooping of the dark room seemed like it would never, never end. Deviations from the set course weren’t allowed; Dad said it was the only way he could be sure that we’d ever get where we were going.
Before we embarked, the four of us were inoculated against as many plagues as we could think of, mostly fevers: yellow fever, dengue fever, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A and B. There is no vaccine for malaria, though. Instead, every Sunday my mother gave my little sister and me a chalky white pill the size of a dime, and watched us as we stuck it as far back as possible on our tongues, and then gagged and grimaced them down. Those pills had a super-condensed, highly pure expression of “bitterness,” the way the sky defines blue or fire defines heat. It was the only sacred ritual we had, the practical communion we had to show up for in order to keep terrestrial body and soul together. Mom had explained to us, in that half-assed way that busy parents can sometimes have with children’s questions, that the medicine worked by making our skin tougher, so the mosquitoes couldn’t bite us. I remember pinching the skin on my arm, assessing it critically, trying to remember if I was softer before, and wondering what my impervious new skin would look like —silver scales, maybe, like the barracuda, toothsome submarine shadows that trailed our boat from harbor to harbor. Or maybe green scales, like the snakes that ribboned the branches of the Banyan trees whose enormous roots clenched the red clay riverbanks. Disappointingly, no obvious exoskeleton grew, and my skin remained a pink novelty in that land of brown people, who had already succeeded at growing up tough enough to survive their own climate—or they hadn’t.
The most noticeable effect of the pills actually came on the side: the doctor warned us about the possibility of extra vivid dreams. I don’t know if my strange, lucid nocturnes during those years were common to other eleven-year-olds, or a way of processing our gypsy adventure, or actually weird quinine-induced hallucinations. They were the kind of dreams you were shocked to wake up from, so dense and deep was the amnesia they induced. Some dreams were so strong they would bleed through from my sub- to my full-conscious and color the whole morning, after I would wake up feeling euphoric, like I was in love, or anxious and looking over my shoulder. The best, of course, were the flying dreams. I do remember being told that dreams of flying eventually abandon you as you grow up. My rejection of that awful fate was classic Peter Pan: well, maybe for you. But not for me. I will always have them.
These days I live in New York City, where there are no mosquitoes to speak of, but plenty of hard rain and radiant heat. Everywhere you go there are cheap, broken bodega umbrellas sticking out of sidewalk trashcans, flung there like the carcasses of so many dead octopi. I’m just the sort of person who repeatedly buys these $10 tickets to a future drenching, and so two days ago I dropped my own umbrella in a trash can and ducked inside a café, to wait out the squall with an espresso.
Inside, the café was mostly empty, but working at a nearby table was another writer, gripped in a familiar staring contest with his MacBook. I sat down and tousled my wet hair with a hand, and little droplets speckled the paper placemat in front of me, like a chain of islands on a chart. I was thinking about my umbrella, the way its aluminum arms had splayed when I chucked it in the trash can, and I thought, with the amount of water coming from the sky, it was a little like walking along the bottom of the sea, and the umbrella looked a little like an octopus on a gnarly head of coral, and I liked that idea, I wrote it down, and thought, now that might be a bit of Weather for Trop, beginning with “octopus,” just that word. Pile enough of those together and you’ve got a column; line enough of those up and you’ve got a magazine; publish enough of those and you’ve got a career. My damp clothes were drying and the espresso steamed and I felt lucid and light.
In the middle of this daydreaming the writer next to me struck up a conversation and then (“May I?”) joined me as I sipped my coffee. New Yorkers do this kind of thing; they interact, all the time. In his hand he held a book, a book he wrote, in fact, and he passed it to me to look at. It was thick, and the pages I flipped were all scratched in red pen. When he told me he had self-published it I smiled and handed it back, and then dropped my hand beneath the table to rub my palm against my knee. He started telling me about it, pressing the spine flat as he showed me particular passages. He was also a musician, and he moved constantly in that way some of them do, to an internal rhythm that made him nod and drum his fingers and twist in his chair; there was a mirror on the wall behind him, and as he shifted around I would see myself, and then he’d fidget back and I’d be gone.
I wondered if I moved at all when I wrote. I wondered what I must look like; not like him, surely? I wondered and said nothing of the 125 pages stuffed into my bag, scratched not in red ink, but in green.
The writer was talking, about his difficulty in finding an agent, the rejections he had dealt with so far, and my unease grew; as he described his renewed hopes for this next edition, I could feel the espresso creeping on me, that thin speedy hysteria, like hearing a distant shrieking echo down a hallway and having the urge to giggle in return. He sighed and clinked his spoon against his cup, and I heard the ring of an alarm.
“Ah, well. You know, it’s been lovely meeting you,” I said, and made a show of looking at the silver-bellied sky outside, shadowy and still threatening needle teeth of rain.
“Sure, sure. So, hey, do you want to go out for a coffee, or a drink, maybe, next week?”
I don’t even hesitate before heaping more rejection on this man. My rejection belongs to him. Rejection itself is for other people. “I’m sorry, I’m… That’s such a nice invitation, but I’m not actually free to accept it.” That is the second bit of fiction I have written today, and with it I am again free to go.
If I were eleven, I could stretch out my arms, and I would lift off the ground and rise up to the ceiling and circle it and then vanish through an open door. Instead there is an awkward fumbling of raincoat, bag, notebook, crumpled bills, apologetic smiles, and squeezing through tables, and I feel slow and awkward.
The discomfiting proximity of this other writer’s failed hopes was putting my own distance from a window display at Barnes and Noble into all too clear a light, and I needed to put some New York pavement between him and me. But while I walked it began to rain again, first tentatively and then really, and I wished I hadn’t given up my broken umbrella so quickly, because the octopi bit didn’t seem worth the water sluicing down my neck. I wanted to stop into another shelter, but I didn’t dare deviate again, so I walked faster. The wind gusted and a cab sent an arc of grey water at me. I shivered even in the clammy heat, cursing the damned foreign Yankee climate, where even the horizon is obscured by steel and concrete towers and glittering glass and literally millions of well-adapted others. After all I never did grow my thicker skin; the only thing I ended up with was crazy dreams. The fact is I’m not very close to my destination yet, and the water is rough, and there’s still such a long way to go. And there is no vaccine for failure. Which is indeed a bitter pill to swallow.
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.