by Lisa K Friedman
Four o’clock on a Friday afternoon and she’s in CVS with a list and a headache. She turns sideways, waiting for an elderly couple to push their cart, toting a ridiculous plastic flag overhead as if they’re cruising in a go-cart. They stop, the old couple, and scrutinize the array of corn pads and foot creams. They are holding hands. She turns to the task at hand.
Travel sized toothpaste, a miniature cask of Gold Bond powder, Secret unscented deodorant, Band-Aids. She tosses the items into the hand cart stationed on the floor between her feet. Sunscreen with SPF 30, sweat-proof. Insect repellent, cotton balls, Neosporin ointment, Benedryl cream.
The list is typed in eighteen-point font. ‘Can you help me out,’ Marina had begged her. ‘I don’t have a minute to spare.’ Of course she’d help her only daughter get ready for the trip of a lifetime. A last minute opportunity that came, as so many do, as a surprise.
‘It’s a photography expedition. They had a cancellation, and the tour operator who’s a friend of mine remembered that I spoke Spanish. And that I didn’t have a job. And that I love to travel.’ Marina’s breath gushed over the words. And so they asked me and I said yes immediately. I mean, who would refuse such an experience? A month in the Amazonian jungle with a group of wildlife photographers? Can you think of anything more exciting?’
‘Picture me sitting on a bough in a tree, waiting in silence as a giant snake slithers toward its prey.’
‘You hate snakes,’ she said. ‘You nearly passed out at the petting zoo that time.’
‘Very funny, Mother.’ She always used the full title, Mother, when she was pissed off. ‘That was twenty years ago. A lot has changed since then.’
A lot indeed. She wanders toward the Groceries section. She’ll buy the largest pack of individual cereal boxes and a few cartons of protein bars. You can live on cereal for a long time. Why is she doing this? She’s an enabler, providing the means and the materials for this terrible idea. She presses a fingernail to the now-damp piece of paper. The paper is from Marina’s father’s desk. She’d kept all his stationary, his letterhead. Sometimes, when she is most lonesome, she goes into his study and holds the old fashioned telephone receiver to her ear, hoping that the tiny holes in the plastic might still release the scent of him.
She uses her nail to mark the items, scratching away a bit of the ink. If only she could erase this moment from their lives, erase the memory of the expedition entirely. Turn the clock back just a few days, and Marina never hears about the cancellation, never gets an offer to risk her life for an adventure.
She understands. She does. She feels a similar desperation to scramble out of the abyss of grief. Surviving a death is not an easy process, and she knows she is not handling it with the most grace. Her friends have commented that she has used up her allotted time, that she is expected to return to her old self.
Her old self. She doesn’t even know what that is. In the mirrored wall, an image forms, looming, moving just enough to signal an existence. Beige, blurred. It is her. Or what is left of her. Behind the pink and black and orange and green cosmetic packages, her face is a broken mosaic. Like something Salvatore Dali would assemble in his collage studio.
‘But you’re not a photographer,’ she’d stated the obvious. ‘How can you participate in a photography expedition? You don’t even own a camera!’
Marina had a ready answer. ‘I bought a camera. I’m half-way through the instruction manual already.’ She coughed over a throat dry from breathing too fast. ‘Oh god, I need to order the hiking boots, the hat, the sleeping net. I hope they’ll deliver overnight.’
She picks up a packet of make-up remover pads. ‘I don’t know why you have to go to such a dangerous place,’ she says dropping the packet into the basket. She adds foldable toothbrush, a half-sized hairbrush that retracts into a plastic tube and a tiny receptacle of dental floss.
Who travels to a country where kidnapping and cocaine are the two chief economic industries? She retrieves the make-up remover pads from the basket and put them back into the store bin. The basket is filling up. She’d found a travel notebook and a pack of those mechanical pencils Marina liked, a water bottle with a cross-body strap, a box of Tampax even though it was not on the list, and four bottles of Pepto Bismol, one for each week. Will this be enough to protect her daughter from the hazards of the unknown? She bites her lip and forces herself toward the counter.
‘Having an adventure?’ The sales girl looks about twenty years old. ‘Aren’t you the lucky one?’
Lisa K Friedman writes humor essays and fiction. Her work appears in the New York Times and in the Huffington Post. She is the author of the novels Nothing To Lose and Cruise to Retribution.
She lives and writes in Washington DC. Lisa welcomes feedback and comments: LisakFriedman.com