Sink or Swim

Single mom and suburban misfit Cam Lightsey is facing her biggest challenge yet: sending her only daughter off to college. Eighteen-year-old Aubrey will likely do just fine—but will Cam? An exclusive excerpt from Sarah Bird’s new novel, The Gap Year.

July 2011By Comments

Illustration by Michael Byers

I once believed that I was physiologically incapable of being unhappy while submerged in water. Sunk in a bathtub up to my eyeballs, I was as free of earthly cares as a turtle sunning herself.

Yet here I am, wallowing through my tenth lap, feeling prickly and unsettled rather than weightless and dolphin-sleek. Instead of soaring into silent galaxies, I am snarled up in annoyance that my right eye is stinging because these crappy goggles are leaking. And that the ladies’ aqua-cardio class in the shallow end is blaring “It’s Raining Men.” And that the flip-turning jerk I’m sharing a lane with drowns me every time he powers past. And that because I didn’t expose my only child to enough dirt, Aubrey will hit the germ factory that is a college dorm with a weak immune system. And that she will die of spinal meningitis.

Although I am a slob and raised Aubrey with plenty of messiness, my worst enemy—Recent Studies—now tells me that I should have gone the extra step and provided actual squalor. Recent Studies says that the absolute best thing for building antibodies is close contact with livestock. If I’d only put a goat in the playpen with my baby, she probably wouldn’t have asthma today.

I speed up my stroke, pushing my hands beneath me like a Mississippi paddle wheeler, annoyances scattering in my mighty wake. But, persistent as a school of piranhas, the worries and regrets stay right with me and continue nibbling. They must have massed for this attack because Aubrey turns eighteen tomorrow. The day before she leaves for college. Not that we’ll be doing any celebrating together. She’s already made it clear that she plans to spend every second until she gets on the plane with Tyler.

I force myself to ignore the “Hallelujah, it’s rainin’ men!” chorus and concentrate on the comforting slurp and slap of my hands cutting into the water. I tune in to the stretch of muscles and tendons pulleying in harmony. I pay conscious attention to the shifting mosaic of wobbling squares of late-afternoon sunlight sliding across the turquoise pool bottom. I plan out where I will install the wheelchair ramp after meningitis renders my only child a vegetable.

Is it too late for the goat?

Hydrotherapy is not working. I yank off the leaky goggles just in time to see that my best friend, Dori Chotzinoff, has finally emerged from the dressing room. Dori always says that her last name is pronounced like you’re saying, “One shot’s enough,” even though, for Dori, one shot is never enough. She sashays over with her head cocked to the side, tucking her hair into the retro flowered cap with chin strap that she wears to look Mad Men–ish and to save her expensive dye jobs. Her vampire-pale skin is coated with a layer of sunscreen thick enough to mute her many tattoos to pastel smudges of blue and green.

I squint into the sun. “I almost gave up on you.”

She gives me a little Mae West pinup pose, one hand on her cocked hip, the other pretending to puff up her hair, and says, “Sorry, Cam, had to gild the lily.” Dori kneels down and waits for the guy in the lane with me heaving and whipping himself through the water with a butterfly stroke to reach us. When he’s close enough to hear her, she yells out, “Excuse me, sir!”

Ignoring her, he barrels into a flip turn, and for a split second we are treated to the sight of his upturned ass with its black censor bar of Speedo. He is about to push off and blast away when Dori grabs his ankle.

The butterflier—middle-aged once you see his face—pops out of the water. “What the . . . !” He punches a button on his waterproof watch and snarls, “I’m timing my splits.”

Alert as a herd of gazelle scenting danger on the Serengeti, all heads—the moms rubbing sunscreen on skinny shoulders, the just-turned-teen girls tanning on lounge chairs, the boys waiting in line at the diving board to show off for the girls—swivel in our direction.

Dori jumps in and informs Flip Turn, “We’re sharing this lane.”

“What is your problem?” Flip gestures to the lane next to us. “There’s only one person in that lane.”

Dori puts her arm over my shoulder. “Yeah, but that one person is not my BFF, Cam Lightsey.”

Flip starts to argue, so I lean my head on Dori’s shoulder and say, “Plus, we’re lesbians. Sorry.” We’re not. But it’s fun to say. And it ends the discussion.

Flip shakes his head, dunks under the white floats of the lane rope, jerks a thumb in our direction, and announces loudly to the woman in the next lane, “They’re making me move.”

I grab my kickboard, hand Dori hers, and announce our favorite cardiovascular activity, “Kick and kvetch!”

As we chug past Flip, busily resetting his watch, Dori yells out for his benefit, “Hey, Cam! Sorry for breaking up your romance with Mr. Banana Hammock!”

Dori is like my grandmother Bobbi Mac. Not the piercings or tattoos or broken marriage to the lead singer in an Aerosmith tribute band, but her take-no-shit, get-the-party-started vibe. Spunk—Bobbi Mac was big on spunk, something she didn’t think her own daughter, my mom, Rose, had had in sufficient quantity. Spunk is Dori’s middle name. Single-handedly, she almost made being a Parkhaven outcast fun. She loved to laugh over which mom had “shit the biggest brick” when Dori dropped casual asides about her years as a member of the all-girl band Tampaxxx. “Triple X,” she’d clarify with a lascivious wink. “I guess you know why.”

“So,” Dori asks as we stretch out and churn the water behind us with our fluttering feet. “What are we obsessing about today?”

I share my thoughts on brain infections and barnyard animals.

“Yes? And? So? Aubrey gets a shot.”

“They have a shot for meningitis?”

“Der. Cam, you’re a medico.”

“I’m a lactation consultant.”

“Medico enough for me. You’re supposed to get the shot before you ship your kid off to college. Twyla’s pediatrician told me that.”

At the mention of her daughter’s name, the blotches Dori gets when she’s trying not to cry appear like scarlet storm clouds around her overplucked eyebrows. The white sunscreen lightens them to a pretty pink. Her grip on the kickboard tightens until the spongy material dents beneath her clenched fingers and her flutter kick turns into an exercise in grim determination that propels her ahead of me. I let her surge forward; Dori always needs a few seconds after her daughter’s name comes up to put her tough-girl front back on.

Twyla moved out over a year ago to “tour” with Dori’s ex and his band, and the only contact they have now is a phone call every few months in which Twyla details all the ways in which Dori was a horrible mother and ruined her life. Then tells her where to send money.

Meanwhile, the inoculation news lets me relax, and I frolic through the water, happy as an otter. This carefree state lasts for a lap and a half before the real problem surfaces again, and it’s not meningitis. My kicking slows to a near halt.

Dori, recovered, her face again uniformly pale, waits for me to catch up, then, commenting on my look of brooding worry, demands, “What? Tyler Moldenhauer?”

At the mention of Aubrey’s boyfriend’s name, my jaw clenches and I moan, “A suburban white boy, redneck football hero with no plans for college. If Aubrey’s first serious boyfriend had been Glenn Beck, I could not have been more surprised.”

“Surprises,” Dori repeats wistfully. “So many surprises.”

“When did he take over Aubrey’s life so completely?” I ask, even as I try to figure out when my own daughter turned into a stranger. Six months ago? No, it’s been longer than that. In that time, she’s become like a guest forced against her will to stay in my house. A guest who would happily pack up and leave and move in with said boyfriend if I pushed her even the tiniest bit. I keep waiting for this evil spell to be broken. That it will be like the flu and one morning she’ll wake up smiling and help me make pancakes and tell me she’ll set the table as soon as she finishes this chapter, that she’ll be the nine-year-old who saved up her allowance to make me a memory bracelet for my birthday, then snuggled up next to me and told me what each bead strung onto the wire she’d coiled around my wrist meant.

“See this one, Mom?”

“The turquoise one?”

“That’s for your favorite color and because you love to swim. This little microphone is for you being such a bad singer.”

“I’m a bad singer?!”

“Really bad, Mom.”

“This one is beautiful. Is it ivory?”

“No! Do you know where ivory comes from? Elephants! Poachers! It’s just the color of ivory.”

“Right. Oh, look, it’s a tiny baby curled into a ball.”

“That’s for your job and also for me. Inside of you.”

“Aubrey, I love it. I love it so much.”

“So,” Dori continues. “Aubrey’s boyfriend is not who you would have picked out of a catalog.”

“Dori, he’s got her slaving away in a damn roach coach. She’s supposed to leave for college in two days and she absolutely refuses to come with me to claim her trust money. That damn trust was the reason I signed off on Martin’s—”

“Tsoo! Tsoo! Tsoo!” Dori pretends to spit three times in my direction to ward off the evil eye cast when I invoke the cursed name of my ex. Joking about our exes and being single-mom outcasts in the suburbs is how we’ve survived.

“—screw job of a divorce settlement. I mean, how hard could it be to claim your college tuition? Aubrey knows I can’t do it without her. We both have to be present. We could have done it anytime in the past two weeks, but will she take a few hours to come with me to claim it? No. She keeps putting me off.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to take anything from Martin.”

“Who knows? She doesn’t bring him up much. Like, ever.”

“Can you blame her? Given that the school board is in an uproar over evolution, being the daughter of a cardinal or bishop or grand wizard or whatever of a church that believes we all descended from a race of space travelers isn’t exactly the magic ticket to becoming homecoming queen at Parkhaven High.”

I glance over at Dori so that she knows I am not amused. “Believe it or not, Dori, something as ridiculous as having your husband leave you for a . . .” I stutter, trying to come up with an epithet strong enough to contain my hatred for Next and have to settle for “. . . a nutball religion actually makes it more painful, not less.”

“Oops. Sorry. Sixteen years. Too soon, huh?”

I splash Dori.

“Hey, at least you lost your husband to something kind of spiritual. Mine ditched me so he could wear scarves and tights and rat his hair up and sing ‘Walk This Way.’ ”

I don’t laugh.

“Cam, don’t stress. Aubrey is a good kid. Too good, really. She is going to be fine.”

Fine.

Our relationship is built on Dori telling me that Aubrey is going to be fine and me not telling Dori anything about how unfine Twyla is. Dori might actually be the only mother in Parkhaven for whom “fine” really is fine. The only one who doesn’t want superfine. Superior. Sublime. A five-point GPA and a full ride to Harvard. I know Aubrey is going to be fine. Eventually. But I want so much more than fine. And I want it to start in two days when she leaves for Peninsula State College.

“What can I do? Drag her to the bank bodily?”

“We all know how the dragging bodily ends.”

Dori is referring to the night last December when the roads turned into chutes of black ice and Aubrey went to Tyler and I tried to drag her back into the house. That was the first night she didn’t come home. But not the last. After Black Ice Night, Aubrey and I both knew that habit, manners, and whatever residual love she might still have for me were the only things keeping her under my roof. We knew that Tyler Moldenhauer would welcome her with open arms anytime she wanted. So I walk on eggshells with my only child and will until the second I shove her onto that plane for college the day after tomorrow.

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