“It’s your turn, Quasar.”
I was shaken out of my self-induced funk by the lively sound of my mom’s voice. “Huh?”
“Come on,” said my dad. “Is the correct definition of cupidity a) unconditional and unbiased love, b) a type of Italian sausage, or c) greed?”
“Uh… A,” I mumbled.
“Nope,” said Dad. “It’s greed. Your mom wins the Dictionary Game again.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not really in the mood.”
“But Quasar,” said Mom, “it’s Family Fun Friday. You’re really missing out on all the fun! Do you want to play Scrabble instead?”
“Do you think we could maybe… watch a movie?” I suggested tentatively.
“That’s a great idea, Quasar,” said Dad. “There’s a Nova on string theory at nine!”
“Ugh, never mind,” I said. “I’m going to go read.”
“Good idea,” said my mom. “Here’s that O. Henry book of short stories. ‘While the Auto Waits’ is a great one.”
“Forget it,” I mumbled. “I’m off to bed.”
Forget self-induced funk, this is seriously parent-induced. I’ve heard all of their rationales about how lucky I am not to have annoying siblings to deal with, but a sibling is also a partner in life. The solitude can be peaceful and relaxing, but sometimes I gaze out the window and wish I had someone to share the burden of overly intellectual parents. While lying alone, sleepless in the dark, I long for a companion to talk to, someone to think of quirky nicknames with that aren’t related in any way to something scientific, someone to reassure me when I’m scared, instead of my father launching into a monotonous explanation about the physical impossibilities of the boogeyman. So while I nod along to my mother’s rendition of an Eagles’ song from her youth, my heart is aching for a kindred spirit. Luckily for me, my entire grade is about to embark on the long-anticipated trip to Yosemite. For those precious two days, I will have sisters.
* * *
As I walked towards the bus, sleeping bag in hand, my parents waved goodbye. “We’ll tape all the Novas for you,” said my mom.
“We won’t play Scrabble until you’re back!” my dad called.
“And if you get bored,” my mom reassured me, “you can read The Grapes of Wrath. I packed it for you.”
“Yeah, right,” I muttered, and stuffed the book in the trash before we boarded the bus.
By the time we arrived in Yosemite though, my wide grin had slowly morphed into a grimace of disgust. Sitting in the overcrowded bus, I had closed my eyes and attempted to block out all surrounding stimuli, but alas, no such luck. My life for those two hours was a mix of shouts, farts, and the occasional sob of homesickness. I had gritted my teeth together, though not too hard because it erodes enamel, and waited, like a last-minute stowaway on an overcrowded ship to America, for us to reach our idyllic destination. To my horror, the famous, lush green grasses of Yosemite were brittle, bleached by the sun’s harsh rays. Near our campsite, it was a dry savanna, much different from the green, semi-coniferous forest advertised in the glossy brochures I had read before coming. I would have to file a complaint for false advertising. We were then herded out of the bus like flocks of sheep to our respective cabins and left alone to “get organized.”
Still determined to have a good time, I was about to ask my cabinmates to join me in a game of Guess That Historical Figure, but they were too busy fighting over the largest bed in the room.
“I call dibs,” said Gretchen triumphantly, waving her hand above her head like she had won an Olympic gold medal instead of a sagging, decrepit mattress with rusted springs and chipped paint.
“That’s not fair,” snapped Allie. “The big one should go to whoever shares a bed, and I’m not sharing.”
“Well then, I’m not either,” sniffed Gretchen.
Still clinging to my earlier optimism, I chirped to Niota, “Well, I guess we can share.”
During the afternoon meeting, the camp leader smiled disingenuously at us, gushing about how overjoyed she was to be introducing us to this “beautiful wonder of nature,” while covertly wiping her hands on her olive-green jacket after accidentally touching a child’s hand. Despite her discomfort with us, she was right. As we had ventured more deeply into Yosemite to the community center, I marveled at the juxtaposition of the evergreens’ prickly needles against the impressive granite mountains and brilliantly blue sky, pondering how such images and textures had inspired poetry and art.
“Anyone want to play a game or tell a ghost story?” I asked shyly after we were all bundled up in our beds with the same bored, oh-my-god-how-am-I-gonna-survive-here-for-another-day expressions.
“No,” said Allie, and everyone turned over and went to sleep.
The next day I woke up freezing. “Why is it so cold?” I asked, shivering.
“Because someone,” said Gretchen, glaring at Allie, “forgot to turn on the heater.”
“Well, at least I don’t snore,” retorted Allie.
I groaned. This was going to be a really long day.
On the hike, I paused to admire a gorgeous flower, its pale pink petals sprinkled with specks of golden pollen. “Isn’t this beautiful?” I said to Niota.
“Eww!” she shouted, face scrunched up into a disgusted expression. “I’m allergic,” she said, then sneezed dramatically.
“Do you know what this is called?” I inquired of our hiking leader.
“Look, kid,” Jay said, “I’m just here because I want a car, and this is the only job I’m qualified for. So shut up and walk.”
I stared at him indignantly. Apparently, I was the only one appreciating Yosemite’s stunning flora.
At lunch, we chewed eagerly on our cheese sandwiches and carrot sticks. Perhaps regretting his previous surliness, Jay brought brownies to us but then resumed playing Angry Birds on his iPhone. Afterwards we trekked up another trail, enjoying the chirps and trills of playful birds and the rhythmic drips of water droplets, spherical shapes seeming to float, then splatter on wide, oval leaves, later falling and sinking into the earth.
Unfortunately, these serene moments were punctuated by the verbal sparring of Allie and Gretchen.
“…and those are the ten reasons you are unbearably annoying,” criticized Gretchen.
I moaned audibly. “Can you two shut up?”
“I will,” said Allie, “if she apologizes.”
“No way!” said Gretchen. “She started it.”
I sighed. “Let’s go to dinner,” I said to Niota.
“Food?” Gretchen immediately perked up.
“I suppose I’ll go,” Allie said sulkily.
Despite the smell of potatoes being deep-fried in trans-fat, I quietly reveled in the beauty of Yosemite. As the vibrantly colored wildflowers swayed in the background, blown to and fro by a cool zephyr, I closed my eyes and inhaled the sweet scents of autumn mixed with the crisp bite of an upcoming winter. Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, arms outstretched, I transformed into a shimmering stream of colors, coiling around tree trunks and up and out their branches. Then like a sleek, silvery arrow, I slipped into every waterfall, splashing down the harshly magnificent cliffs and…
“Um, Lia?” Gretchen asked. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” I said, a little wistfully, then started to walk towards the cafeteria.
Halfway through the line for food, Niota stiffened. “Lia?” she began, her voice edging on hysterical. “Where’s your retainer case?”
“Oops. Darn. I left it in the cabin in my backpack,” I said. “I’ll wrap the retainer in my napkin so I don’t gross you guys out. Remind me not to throw it away like last year at school.”
“That is not the concern right now,” whimpered Niota. “Your retainer case has touched your retainer, which has touched your mouth. It’ll attract bears!”
I rolled my eyes. “Ha, ha.” Then I looked at her face. Genuine panic. “Wait, you’re not serious, are you?” She was. I exhaled loudly, wishing I had chosen a different, non-paranoid roommate. This was just like the shoes.
The Monday before the trip…
“You shouldn’t bring those shoes,’’ said Niota.
“They’ll attract bears. Allie spilled chocolate milk on them.”
“Yeah,” I said, “three months ago.”
Back in the present…
“If there is a bear in our cabin,” Niota said desperately, “it’s all your fault.”
Sure enough, there was no bear in our cabin.
“That was a close call,” said Niota.
At 1:37 that night, I awoke from a dream in which bears were chasing me around Half Dome yelling, “We want straight teeth, too!” It was a warm darkness that embraced me, the hum of the heater a comforting constant. A lone creature in the darkness, secluded and protected from the bustle and cacophony of the day, I embraced it back. My nighttime reverie was interrupted by a scent, a pungent one that brought me back to fuzzy memories of warm milk and the soothing sound of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto playing quietly, while my mother recited passages from The Double Helix. The truth, as immediate and repulsive as cheap literature, became apparent as I thrust the contaminated sheets away from me and screamed, “Niota wet the bed!”
Niota sat bolt upright in our bed. “Did not!”
“There’s a big wet spot on your pants,” said Gretchen.
Niota’s eyes filled with tears. “Please don’t tell anyone. I was afraid to go to the bathroom because of the bears. I tried to hold it in, but I guess it just slipped out.”
I stared at her with anger, then contempt, then pity, and finally resignation. “That’s OK,” I said with a sigh, “but you have to help me clean the pee off my legs.”
* * *
I pulled the suitcase down the dusty road towards the bus, trying to avoid various potholes, then slumped dejectedly in a torn, vinyl seat, not even bothering to dislodge the wad of gum now fastening my shoe to the vibrating floor of the bus. As we drove away, I mulled over my trip. With a frown distorting my face, I replayed the trip over and over again in my mind, trying to discern what had made it so disappointing. I had almost longed for The Grapes of Wrath during one of Allie and Gretchen’s altercations. I was still pondering this when my mother and I pulled into the driveway of our house, wheels scraping on the rough gravel, and later during dinner.
It was Friday. Family Fun Friday. And it was my turn.
“Does epiphany mean a) a ball gown, b) a Middle-Eastern religious leader, or c) a realization?” asked my dad.
“C,” I said, smiling to myself.