15th Writing Contest • First Place, Nonfiction
Maria Caruso has won the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize for “The Vacationers.”
She will receive $1,000, a certificate to document the success, and publication both online and in print.
“I’ve shifted Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea about life, ‘The thing you think cannot do is the thing you must do,’ and applied it to my writing. I try to write about the things I think I can’t bear to write about.”
By Maria Caruso
Do not travel far to dusty lands, forsaking your own . . .
if you cannot find the truth where you are now, you will never find it.
1. A Happy Girl
Recently, I read a letter a man published about his famously ungrateful daughter, wherein he insisted that her claims of debilitating unhappiness couldn’t possibly be true, since she had been given horseback-riding lessons every summer of her life!
I felt for the father: he was honestly baffled as to why the childhood treats he had provided were being undervalued. “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have an ungrateful child,” and all that. But it was clear to me from the focus of his letter that the intent was to prove how unwarranted and false her claim was, and to distance himself from any responsibility. By doing these things he made a miniature map of his behavior– one that explains her admission of unhappiness to anyone willing to look.
But horseback riding lessons? How could such a thing strike him as irrefutable proof? If it’s so well known that horses are a treatment for whatever ails us you’d think you’d see more people cantering around strapped to them: schizophrenics and alcoholics and people whose attitudes merely needed adjusting. But no.
At any rate, the letter brought me to what I think is a fairly good working definition of chronic childhood unhappiness, if brief:
CHILD: I’m unhappy.
PARENT: That’s impossible.
2. The Ass Who Went Traveling
With a similar fervor to the man who believed in horseback riding lessons, my father believed in family vacations. We applied ourselves to the lessons available in Rocky Mountain National Park and Hershey, Pennsylvania and the ubiquitous Houses of Mystery, where on slanted floors beneath queerly-shaped windows you became taller than your parents and they shorter than you. Following my father’s voracious appetite to see what was out there, we dysfunctioned in practically every state in the union. And I can’t help it– the image that comes into my mind when I think of him dragging us on these vacations is of Death leading the helpless line of plaguees, willy-nilly across the hills, in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
I spent my childhood being terribly afraid of my father, who would yell and sometimes hit us on provocation visible only to him. He was at his worst during vacations, when he didn’t have the supportive rigidity of his work to soothe him. He seemed unaware of this aspect of himself, I suppose because he was the only one his wrath never visited. He seemed to genuinely think he liked going on vacation, that it was relaxing and fun.
As I write, the phrase “an ass who goes traveling does not come back a horse” runs through my mind. I wonder if my father has heard it. Probably, he would take reasoned, serious issue with the concept if I brought it to his attention. I can hear him say, in his reasonable, see-it-my-way voice: perhaps the ass who goes traveling does not come back as a horse, but I’d bet he comes back as a better-informed, more well-rounded ass.
And I wouldn’t be allowed to laugh. All I would be able to do would be to keep repeating under my breath, well-rounded ass, well-rounded ass . . . storing this gaffe in my mind with all his others, hoping, no doubt in vain, that their accumulation might one day free me from the niggling feeling that I am tethered to him forever.
3. Picture This
Picture this: a snow is falling softly, great gentle flakes whitening the sky above a deserted highway. A station wagon comes into view, moving cautiously on the icy surface of the road. Inside, the passengers look out their windows, lulled by the colorless monotony. The man at the wheel is taking them somewhere, perhaps they cannot remember where anymore, and they are long over the presumption that they might effect any change in his plans. Everything is pale, bright, blank; as if it has not yet been decided, not yet written.
In a flash, like a blood vessel throbbing in the corner of your eye, a streak of red races across the snow, an animal, moving so fast it loses its form in motion. The man at the wheel feels a surge; his pleasure is immediate, and moves from the presence of the unexpected animal to the idea that his children will get to see it. He points it out to them, and all this takes only a second– a swift, beautiful red fox is running through the white field next to them. A perfect moment of nature, of color, of form and surprise, of what is beautiful being given, freely, wholly, and unsought.
I hate to tell you this. I hate to tell you that the fox, the beautiful, tiny, perfect red fox, got closer and closer to the wheels of the car until it was pulled under them, as if by magnetic force. The people inside turn silent, shocked. The man at the wheel brakes sharply and pulls off the road. Without saying anything he gets out, goes to the trunk of the car, takes a blanket from it, and walks back twenty yards to the heap of red just beyond the skidding tire marks. As the passengers watch, he bends down and wraps the fox in the blanket. He carries it back to the car in his arms, like a baby, almost falling once on the ice and making the gesture that people do when they almost fall with a baby in their arms–holding it up higher to protect it. When he gets back, he tells his three sad children and his wife that there is no blood, nothing broken, that perhaps the fox is just stunned, that they will drive to the next town and take it to a veterinarian. He sets the blanket in his wife’s lap. The wild fox’s face pokes from it like the babushka-headed wolf in the fairy tale.
The station wagon drives on, and in a few minutes, the movement and the warmth of the car wake the fox. The wife screams, the man at the wheel skids to a stop, everyone opens their doors, and watches, in amazement, as the fox runs in mad circles across the dash, along the back into the hatch, over the top of the seat and across the dash again, over and over and over . Finally it finds a door, and like a bird lifts– out into the air. It hits the ground running and streaks back across the white drifts towards the far woods.
The man stands in the cold air, looking across the desolate field into the brushy woods beyond it with unmistakable longing. He clutches the blanket, searching for a flash of red fur– as if the fox might miraculously realize some reason it needed to return to him.
Inside the car his daughter too peers at the spot where the fox disappeared, but the expression on her face is a sort of wistful envy.
4. Now is the Summer of Our Discontent
Throughout my childhood, my father kept stacks of travel brochures on his dresser, shiny pamphlets that showed photogenic blond families hunting Nature and History, and glowing with the good results of their forays. He was always planning our next vacation, and I know he’d hate to hear it but like most children who grow up in a broad country what I mostly remember is the endless driving. My father was hugely, proudly, loudly patriotic: part of the point was to spool the miles of lifeless gray American highway onto the tires of our car– as if places were things you could understand by rolling over them. He picked our cars for what he called their “travel potential,” although we never had the classic station wagon with the wood-paneled sides, I think because we were not quite up to it, socially. Those paneled cars belonged to people richer than us, who traveled to one place and stayed there. Such people lounged in easy chairs with mixed drinks in lodges that we entered– more than a little out of place– to look reverently at the murals that our guidebook urged us to visit, and that the staying guests smoked with their backs to.
The touristing we engaged in, never staying more than one night in a given place, had a mad, searching quality to it. We were like those people who, having lost something vital, rifle ineffectually through drawers looking for it. One knows, watching such people, that the way they are going about it is all wrong– that what is lost will never come if the looker is too desperate. Missing things are timid, like animals. Rings of keys and important scraps of paper creep sheepishly forward only after one has sold that car, moved from that house, lost that particular friend.
All that desperate searching makes me think of Lao-Tzu’s claim: the content man need never travel further than his own village. The content man does not seek theme parks, or war memorials, or historical reenactments of any kind. He is not interested in corn festivals if he lives in an area that grows only rice, or rice festivals if he lives in an area that grows only corn. He does not need to see underground caverns or exotic animals or canyons stretching miles into the earth. The content man, unbelievable as it may seem, doesn’t feel like he’s missed out if everybody else spent the day looking at paradise through glass-bottomed boats. Things can look like paradise, the content man knows, and not be. The content man, if he had been in Adam’s place, would never have been driven from Eden by desires incompatible with its enjoyment.
If you drag the content man somewhere against his will– say to an amusement park– he sits quietly on a park bench while the roller coaster glad-hands the group he’s with. The content man watches the children walking by, their sweet faces the same the world over. He listens to sounds no one else hears: the breeze through the trees over his head, the skittering of trash along the pavement, his own heartbeats under his sweater.
The idea is hard to grasp. What’s wrong with traveling? Doesn’t everybody need a vacation sometime? It’s so interesting to see how the other half lives, to be exposed to what’s different, what’s new. Why wouldn’t one want to taste heretofore untasted fruit, or see a woman with a beard down to her waist, or gaze up into the super-sized eyes of famous men carved in marble?
But of course, Lao Tzu is right. It is our discontent that leads us, like creeping adulterers, from one spectacle to the next. Home is not enough.
5. Bad Actors and What they Taught Me
Led by my father, we were purportedly uninterested in material comforts. We drove five hundred miles a day– in July– in a car without air conditioning– to see a place in South Dakota where the pioneers dragged their wagons through the prairie as if they were so many teenage boys on motorbikes, ruining the ground.
We stood, my mother looking heat stricken, my brothers and I overcome with sweaty fatigue and car-headache, next to the muddy patches of rutted earth. But my father looked excited, looked in fact like one of the shiny people on his own brochures, if a little swarthier, a little shorter. He stared at the smeary earth and was struck by the facts.
“Isn’t that something?” he said, a phrase he used often, perhaps because it is one almost impossible to disagree with. Everything is something, I realized at about ten. He shook his head in awe and crouched down next to me, putting his arm around my skinny shoulder. He was a believer, and all he ever wanted was to make believers out of us too. I became an expert at feigning girlish excitement, which has to do with moving certain parts of your face in an exaggerated way while other parts are allowed to go on about their business. It satisfied him, and I knew, as if instinctively, that he needed this response from me.
A weird twisting took place, somewhere in my childhood, possibly during a drum roll before the canon went off as we waited to see the union clash with the confederacy on a small, authentic-looking hillside marred only by a lone turquoise port-a-potty. I suddenly, crashingly became aware of my father’s needs, and how I might meet them. I became tender towards his disappointment, humiliated by his embarrassments, and afraid of the devastating nature of any self-realizations he might possibly have. I joined league with my mother and my brothers in an acting troupe who performed the same play over and over, the moral of which was that my father was not weak, was not undeserving of our serious and whole-hearted respect, was not out of control.
If I had questioned why we traveled so uncomfortably to look at a bunch a plaques and a muddy trail he might have exploded, or, more probably, dissolved, like the lonely Wicked Witch, into a pile of flat and steaming clothes. If I had been even braver, and questioned why he hit us and yelled at us on these trips more than at home, and followed these explosions with the secret, stinging demand that we spring back, unaffected, cheerful, like the Weebles my little brother played with on the floor behind my father’s car seat– what then? There was no such thing as open rebellion or opposition, for the obvious reason that the world would crack open and split in two if my father was asked to see himself the way we saw him.
6. Lusting After Tour Guides
My father often repeated that our family preferred to spend our money on travel, instead of new clothes or furniture or going out to restaurants. I personally never remember being asked, and I seriously doubt I would have been able to resist voting for new clothes, had I been. It’s indicative of the contradictions present in my father that he liked to claim that his preferences were our own, that he insisted he had already polled us and we had just forgotten. In fact, I spent weeks at a time fantasizing in the hatched part of one station wagon speeding one direction or another, about the new clothes I would wear when I had a boyfriend at my biological parents’ horse ranch with a swimming pool and cache of sports equipment to keep the boy around. That I was not adopted only made these daydreams more desperate.
Perhaps we were all making up stories, separately dozing and bored in that car, one vacation after the next. It means something that I do not know if my mother got any pleasure from the trips. I think somehow she didn’t know then what she liked, or wanted, except that my father somehow repulsed her. Years later, when I was grown, she told me that when my brothers and I were little she considered running off with a bearded lobster fisherman during our trip to Maine.
I was appalled: being my mother, she should have no desires except those having to do with me. I tried to imagine one of the blond mothers pictured on my father’s shiny brochures secretly lusting after the handsome young guide that led the family into an underground cave. And this, I see now, was my mother’s gift to me. Or perhaps it’s a curse. Things are not always how they look. They’re often much, much worse.
7. Model Vacationers
Everywhere we went we saw what we were supposed to see, we never missed the main events. In Maine we poked sticks into tide pools and watched the sea anemones patiently clam up; we signed ourselves up for a lobster bake; we hammed for the camera with pieces of black-green seaweed draped over our arms. In Colorado we camped under the Tetons and bought key chains in the shape of grizzly bears and watched muddy bubbles popping and put on our excited faces for towering columns of water. We did everything right, everything families were supposed to do. Our public lives were unimpeachable.
That we might fall off my father’s plan was as unlikely as falling off the earth. His block print schedule made everything happen, and we were pulled to it, and to pleasing him, with a force that modestly rivaled gravity.
During all of this, I am afraid, my father was not looking for a transcendent moment, but for a moment that looked transcendent if anyone should happen to be watching. He seemed most pleased with my little-girl-sweetness when he had a loaded camera in his hand, and there was something picturesque behind my head–as if taking a picture was not at all a way to document reality, but a way to make another, realer, better world.
What were we looking for, when I was eight, ten, twelve? Why did we go so far afield? I only know that we could not have sat around a table in our own home and faced each other and talked of what was wrong with us.
8. Why We Love the Donner Party
Perhaps it is a gender thing (I see I am starting with an excuse) but I lack understanding as to why so many men participate in and/or are drawn to watching historical reenactments. The irony seems acute to me, since these same men, facing an Ebeneezer Scrooge-like backward glance into their own histories, would definitely give it a miss. I always felt that my father himself was far more interesting than wherever he took us; I suppose all children feel this way. But he hid himself from us, he would not bear examination.
If my father cuffed my brother for forgetting to shut the refrigerator door, such a scene was not meant to be questioned, or commented upon, or remembered. But look, look into this famous canyon, and be overcome with wonder!If my mother was depressed and withdrawn and went to bed during the day with headaches painful enough to make her vomit, it was not to be taken seriously. But what do you think of the indoor roller-coaster! If I was slapped in front of long-awaited company, the event was born to disappear, sucked into a black hole. Here’s the Donner party, now, and perhaps after all you might find some interest in their plight.
9. Forbidden Fruit
It did not strike me until recently how strange it was that my father– a staunch republican defender of private property rights in the way only the son of an impoverished immigrant can be– felt free to invade with impunity if he thought a place looked promising enough. The last time we vacationed together my about-to-be-divorced parents took us to the Virgin Islands, an undreamed of luxury of the kind we knew moneyed people had. One afternoon, feeling rich, walking a long road of sharp shells to a beach lined with coconut palms, my father had the idea of getting a really fresh coconut for our lunch. Never mind the intricacies– like we wouldn’t know the mature from the immature fruit if it fell on us, or the fact that the stone-like nuts hung forty feet over our dumb tourist heads. Never mind that the trunks of these trees were plastered with no trespassing signs.
Why did he do it? Maybe he saw himself, pulling a machete out of his belt like a pirate, throwing the coconut up in the air and splitting it in two in front of our grateful, loving faces. Maybe he imagined our looks of delight as we dug into the snowy meat, so different from the bagged shredded stuff on the baking shelf in the grocery store. We’d be united, by our happiness. Our painful coming apart would be halted, if only for the time it took to eat a coconut. The looming divorce, banished by tropical fruit excitement.
Always big on enlisting other people in his fantasies, my father made my brothers and I– over my mother’s feeble protests– shake the thinnest palms as hard as we could, setting up a sibilant hiss whose somehow unsurprising result was that the furious owner of the trees came running. I cannot remember much of the argument that ensued, only the sense that my father ushered us off with dignity, sure that he had been in the right since his desire was so modest. Just one coconut, that was all he wanted. I never thought to ask, and wouldn’t have dared to anyway, how you can get “just one coconut” to fall from a tree while leaving all the others hanging.
10. Why the Mona Lisa Makes Us All Shrug
Walker Percy has suggested, in his essay “The Loss of the Creature” that we are no longer capable of seeing those spectacles that have been seen too many times already, because they have been represented past all true recognition. If you want to really see the Grand Canyon, to use his example, now that everyone and their brother and dozens of movies and travel posters and commercials have seen it for you, you must take drastic measures.
Jump into the Grand Canyon, for instance, and you will be able to see it, for those few tantalizing, glorious moments on the way down. Go to it blindfolded, led by a child, and let her describe it to you, and you will see it. Rent yourself out as a pack mule and take a daytripper down on your back, and you’ll see it. What you cannot do is stay on the path, leaning over the spot where thousands of feet have worn the dirt to a hard sheen, thousands of fingers silkened the wood of the railing. You won’t see a thing but your own expectations.
I am left with this question about my family as well, though god knows they are no kind of tourist attraction: how do I see who they are, after looking at them all for so long?
11. Super 8
Where were we, Dad, when you took the movie of us running through swirling wheat fields, one after the next? What image had you seen that you were trying to recreate? First your sons, tearing by and shrieking, ripping the kernels off the stalks gleefully. Then me, self-consciously putting on the gait of a dreamy farm girl as I’d learned it from Little House of the Prairie, windmilling my arms as gracefully as I could. Then my poor, sensitive, intellectual mother, forced into this absurd exercise by you, loping awkwardly by. You can see the moment in the film when you tell her to smile and if flits across her grimly set face. We ran for you, Dad, and I happen to know, because I was there, that there was no wheat field at all. The whole thing was imaginary. It was just a patch of tall grass at the side of the highway, a couple of yards wide, that had struck your fancy as being picturesque. I hold this memory up, high above my head, as evidence that you dared only hope for a facade of happiness, having given up on the real thing too long ago for even you to recall.
12. Have You Seen Us?
My older brother, especially, found unconscious ways to poke holes in the idea of family vacations, usually by maiming himself in the middle of some sojourn. He axed his leg with a rock pick in Michigan, and caught a mysterious virus that almost killed him in Minnesota and finally got my father to put away his schedule, worried. As we got older, my younger brother and I joined in, until we could barely get out of the driveway with a map before eardrums swelled, strange rashes blushed, and rare wheat allergies manifested themselves. We didn’t want to go, was the thing.
This was one of my father’s ideas: some morning, in some depressed little town in which we awoke we would turn a likely-looking corner and find the bakery he had been dreaming of, peopled with smiling wives and blustery with flour, fat-handed children clutching buns and long stalks of bread protruding out of baskets, the whole place fragrant with yeast. We turned a lot of corners, looking for this bakery, in a lot of different towns, by-passing ordinary breakfast joints, at first jaunty with hope until we grew tired and shambled after him while looking longingly at people eating adequate plates of pancakes and doing the crossword puzzles while they drank their coffee. And what did they think, looking out at us, as we looked in at them? Did we seem like a family on a quest, a family to be envied? Or did we trouble their minds, in a way they might not have been able to explain?
13. Worth A Thousand Words
My friend Joe once told me a story about his father. They had been at Niagara Falls and Joe, who was a child at the time, had turned from the railing of a scenic overlook to see his father a little way away on a hill, just out of ear-shot, gesturing at him with a camera in one hand. Thinking his father meant him to assume a pose and smile, Joe struck the sad half-face grin familiar to bullied children. His father kept gesturing, more and more wildly, and even from that distance Joe could see the anger in the movements. He squinted, and read his father’s lips: Get out of the picture, his father was furiously enunciating.
That was never you, Dad. You wanted us in the picture. But maybe only in the picture? Bound by a frame we became simple, we became describable and cooperative in the story you were telling yourself about who we were. Simple people, who would be pleased by simple things– certainly too simple to demand or even suggest that you share yourself with us.
I remember myself, my brothers, my mother, from those vacations, better than the names of the battles or waterfalls or rivers you for some reason hope that I recall. I remember that you knew I liked my cocoa cups with only half the called-for water, and you always made a fire before you woke us from the tent on cold mornings. What I want to remember now is your hopeful face, excited by the next chance to make it all come out right–whatever right was: mini ice gondolas or trolleys or the world’s tallest building. What did these things mean to you? I want to know is what you were hoping for, so I can decide, as if once and for all, what I should think about you.
What would we do in these paradises of my father’s, once we entered them? Somewhere on a Washington highway he slowed the car by a stand of miraculous trees. With the sunlight sitting on their leaves– like each held a gold coin– they were lovely, but the sparkling trees stood in a field of cabbages, and the whole was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. Say we did find a hole in the fence and pick our way through the field of pale green spheres. Dazzling sunlight, glazing leaves in pearlescence, no doubt fades to something ordinary upon closer inspection. By the time we got there, the gold would most certainly be gone.
But what if it wasn’t? What if my family of five had been able to enter the copse of gold covered trees? Would my mother finally fall in love with my father in there? Would my father be able to lay his hands on his children with a spontaneity and gentleness he could never seem to find? I can barely stand to think about it.
It must somehow still be the thing I wish for most: to stand in some golden lighted place and love and be loved by my family. The reason I think I must still want this so passionately is that absolutely nothing seems more horrifyingly unbearable to me– speaking honestly to or being touched tenderly by them would sink me, melt me, scatter me.
15. Sure I Remember
A night, somewhere in Florida or Georgia. We stayed in a little cabana hut that stunk of molding carpeting. The pool had a layer of dead flies undulating on its surface and when we went to look at it the manager watched us from the window of her office as if we were crazy. But it was balmy and my father carefully skinned the pool of its dark layer for us and we swam, alone together, in the piercing darkness that descends only in places where you are not at home.
My mother sat at the edge of the pool in a swimsuit that had a decoration of anchors on its collar. She dangled her feet– not saying but nonetheless communicating nervousness about the dark and the water and the un-at-home foreignness of everything. My father swam like a sea turtle with me balanced on his back and I knew– though I could not see them in the dark– the freckles on his shoulders and the pallor of his skin where his shirt lay during the daytime and the tanned forearms that paddled us forward. He spit onto the deck of the pool with equanimity and tried to coax my mother into the water with the likelihood of urging a fish up onto dry land They started to argue and my brothers and I retreated to the deep end of the pool. My mother said things like “can’t you leave me alone” and “I’m tired.” My father said things like “ruining it for everybody” and “can’t you ever just do it for me.” I heard little bites of their conversation– which grew angrier and louder in a sort of patterned escalation, like something being dragged up a staircase– cut off when my brothers grabbed me by the feet and pulled me under.
Gasping, I treaded water, in over my head, and saw so many stars streak across the sky I wondered how the constellations held themselves intact. The moon grew brighter and it seemed that we spent all night there, and that the argument was never won or lost, but its cadence entered our breathing, the pulsing of our blood.
See, I could say to my father now, see: I do remember those vacations, better than you think I do. The smell of wet carpeting, the streaking stars, the exact timbre of my mother’s strained voice as it bounced off the undulating water of the pool, it’s all coming back to me now. I can smell the chlorine smell of the pillowcase next to my cheek in the morning, when I wake to the sound of your beloved voice: low, urgent, not-quite-yet-exploding-into-anger.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Maria Caruso lives with her husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon. She teaches literature and creative writing at Portland Community College.
The Vacationers © 2003 by Maria Caruso