by Lara Foster
We walked through the campground perched over the Columbia River and into the big silver Airstream. We’d been invited into Scott and Sally’s new trailer home where everything felt so big and nice, unlike the two-sleeping-bag tent Mom and I were camping in for the weekend. There was a soft tan leather couch, a huge TV, and a real working bathroom instead of a bucket! My nose curled at the twinge of a funky smell un-matching of the newness around us.
Scott and Sally both had blonde hair and tan skin, just like mine, as if they’d spent their whole summer in the water playing. I’d seen their windsurfing boards strewn with sticky wax outside in the grass next to their picnic table. I knew we were amongst friends who enjoyed playing outdoors in the water as much as I did.
“We just picked her up yesterday,” said Sally, as she patted her hand across the new white-speckled dining room table.
I put my hand down on the exact same spot of white speckles to feel the newness she was telling us about. The table was cool and smooth across my fingertips. I looked at my hands, imagining the white speckles traveling across my skin, lighting me up with a new dream coming alive.
“We’re going to live right here on the outskirts of Hood River for the next few months,” said Scott, “until the weather turns in October. Then who knows where we’ll head next.”
I turned to look at Mom with a hot face as the flutter inside my chest sparked wonder in my mind, People can live in trailer homes? Mom could see that I was about to say something, ask another question, or blurt out words but calmly stopped me by putting her hand on my shoulder, scooting me in closer. I sunk underneath the pull.
This move had become the signal that I needed to be quiet, listen, and pay attention to boring adult stuff. Mom put her second hand on my left shoulder and gently but kind of forcefully scooted me over to sit at the dining room table.
I brought my small hands up to rest under my chin, bracing my bored head. I turned to look for excitement out the window. It was adult talk time, and I began to kick the wooden wall underneath the dining room table. Left right, thud thud. Left right. Thud. Thud. Exhale …
“Don’t do that, honey,” Mom said softly in between paying attention to whatever Sally and Scott were talking about now. My breath held still to stop the onslaught of upcoming trouble. Body frozen at Mom’s signal so I wouldn’t cause her to get more upset.
I sat up a little straighter. Looking out the window, I saw my friend that I’d just been skateboarding with walking away down the gray paved camp road. She had long brown hair that continued to look effortlessly brushed through the hours we’d played together. I chimed along with her pretty laugh and was drawn to her free-floating wildness. Her brown eyes were clear and loving, paying all their attention only to me. When I made a joke, she laughed with her whole body curving over to hold the giggles in her belly.
My friend’s name never quite made it to my lips. We just never told each other but we were fast friends, so it didn’t matter.
“You’re my friend,” she said, putting her hand on my arm.
Drifting into her touch, I wondered, I am? but only let out, “Okay!”
I wished I was still out there playing with her. She had let me push her around on my skateboard and tugged at my arm when she had fun new games for us to play.
“Sweetie!” her Dad had called from their tent. “We’re going to leave soon…”
“Be right there, Dad!” she had said back to him.
I didn’t want her to go. For this to be over. To say goodbye, ever. This was the most fun I’d had in a while. My new best friend had made me feel free and loved all in one fell swoop.
“La, what do you think of this place?” Mom asked, grabbing my attention back from out the window.
I turned to face Scott, Sally, and Mom all looking at me but didn’t have anything to say, embarrassed that they’d just caught me staring at my new sweet girlfriend.
“This place is cool,” I said.
The adults all turned back toward facing each other. I turned to look back out the window for my girlfriend, but she was already gone out of view.
Standing, I grabbed Mom’s hand and leaned into her side lining my body up with her petite leg. Mom used to be a model and reminded me of it often. She had a portfolio of pictures, beautiful shots, that she’d open up and say, “Before I had you …” to show me how good she looked. Sometimes I wondered who that girl in the photos was because I didn’t have legs like her. I was shorter, thicker, blonder, freer, but I was never going to be a model.
Taking a big breath to let out the things I was never going to be, suddenly an urge to get out took over. Even though this place was new and nice, the same funky smell curled through my nose and down to the underside of my belly. Turning it in the same way as when I drank milk.
I began tugging at Mom’s arm, and she swung to face me. I squinted my focus tight and mouthed, Can we go? but still kept voice-silent amongst the adults.
She shook her head.
Ugh, I’m going to have to keep listening to adult talk without any other kids to play with. I wondered if my love would be lost forever.
Mom looked over at me, “What’s wrong, La?”
“It smells funny in here,” I blurted.
Mom’s eyes got wide and her face flushed red. Oh no, it was the trouble look. The trouble I saw more and more often now that Dad wasn’t around.
“Oh, you silly kid,” she said nervously, laughing with an apology to Scott and Sally while smacking me on the back.
Ouch. I threw my shoulders backward and swept my head forward to soften the blow. The sting stayed.
Sally leaned toward me. “I don’t smell anything,” she said but looked at me closer in the eye and asked, “What do you smell?”
I looked at Mom again. I’d just gotten in trouble for saying that I smelled anything at all, and now Sally wanted to know more. I didn’t know what to do.
Mom tried to cover. “Oh, Lara smells and notices all sorts of things. She’s a curious kid.”
My mood dropped as Mom put both her hands on my shoulders again and moved me in front of her so as to take the next blow that might come from Sally or Scott judging us.
“Oh, that’s okay!” said Sally. “I love curious kids! I used to be a curious kid!” she added, flashing her hands in front of me like a magician showing their tricks.
Scott laughed, “Isn’t that the truth!”
I exhaled. Whew. They were back in adult conversation. I’d made it out of the line of fire alive.
Then Sally turned and got down on one knee, almost bowing before me. I stopped breathing again as my jaw clenched, waiting for fresh trouble.
“None of us smell anything, sweetie. But I want to know what you smell,” she said softly with gentle brown eyes.
Stuck without air, I panicked. Did she really want to know?
My jaw released just as Mom’s hands squeezed into my shoulders. Don’t say it kid. Don’t embarrass me …
But the smell was so overwhelming, I had to tell Sally the truth no matter if I was going to get in trouble or not. I arched up with the tightness in my shoulders to ease the pinch and softly whispered, “It smells like rotten eggs.”
Sally looked up at Scott then smiled back at me.
She wasn’t mad.
“We better be going now,” Mom interjected.
“No problem!” said Sally. “Thank you guys for being the first guests in our new home!”
Mom led me to the door, hands still on my shoulders, and as soon as it opened, I jumped out running to get my skateboard. I looked across the street at my girlfriend’s campsite. They were really gone.
I kicked at the rocks by our tent, holding the board under my arm tightly as Mom walked toward me. “That was stupid,” I blurted out.
“Why would you say that?” she asked with her shoulders slumped forward and eyes getting darker, looking defeated again but also ready to pounce like all those fights with Dad.
I didn’t know if she was talking about the rotten eggs or because I had just said “stupid.”
“You need to keep your opinions to yourself, La. You can’t just tell everyone what you’re thinking or feeling.”
Kicking the rocks again, completely in her direction, I said, “Fine!”
“Okay, then,” she said back as she walked over to the picnic table to start making our dinner—ham sandwiches on healthy wheat bread.
The sun was starting to go down as I skateboarded back and forth in front of our campsite for the next hour. Sitting down on my board in my girlfriend’s empty camp driveway, I saw Sally, our new rotten-egg Airstream neighbor, walk over toward Mom at our picnic table. They began talking, but I was too far away to hear what they were saying. After fifteen minutes, Sally put her arm around my mom, squeezing her in tight. Mom put her head on Sally’s shoulder relaxing her whole body for just one moment. She never relaxed without Dad here. Then Sally got up, waved at me, and walked back to her new trailer home.
I didn’t wave back. I pretended to look away, to throw another hard, cold rock down the street.
Out of the corner of my eye I could see Mom get up next and start walking toward me. I froze with rock in hand.
“Are you having fun over here?” she asked. I turned to look at her and could see her eyes were red and puffy.
“No,” came out as I stomped both heels into the ground.
Mom kneeled down on one knee in front of me. “Sally just came over to share something about their new trailer.”
I pulled a big long breath of air into my belly, searching for the culprit of trouble. My body stiffened.
Mom reached out to hold my hands that were cold and bundled in fists. The way her smooth skin felt against mine was immediately calming.
“The rotten-egg smell that you noticed was gas,” she softly let out.
I looked over at Scott and Sally’s new trailer. I didn’t know what gas was except for the kind that happened after I drank milk.
Mom continued, “It’s the kind of gas that runs their trailer so they can cook and take hot showers.”
“After we left, Scott checked the propane tanks to find a crack with the gas leaking out. That’s what smelled like rotten eggs …” she explained.
“Oh!” I said as the smell came back to me. It was real. In the past, Mom didn’t like when I pointed out or shared things that I noticed or felt. I began getting confused about what to say or not say. Now it was all allowed?
Mom held both her thumbs gently on the top of my hands and said, “You saved their lives, La,” as tears welled in her eyes again.
Confusion set in at the sight of her eyes. Wait a second. What?
“You actually saved all our lives,” she said, gazing down at my dirty little hands that looked like smaller versions of Dad’s.
I felt sick and stuck holding onto Mom’s hands hearing this news.
“If you hadn’t shared what you smelled, they’d never have known the gas was leaking. If they lit a match, the whole trailer would’ve blown up right next to our tent,” she explained. “Also, if they had gone to bed without knowing the gas was leaking, they would’ve died and never woken up,” Mom continued.
I looked back at their trailer again in disbelief.
“Sally wanted to make sure you knew how grateful they are you told them about the rotten-egg smell that us adults didn’t notice.”
I shook off Mom’s hands and sat down on my bright neon skateboard looking at the ground.
Mom stayed kneeling and put her hand under my chin, lifting up so our eyes could meet. “I’m sorry, La,” she said continuing, “I’m sorry that I was embarrassed by your natural senses and tried to make you stay quiet.”
My head rested in her palm. I breathed the fresh new air of the moment and shook the trouble out of my hands, letting trickles of it stream out my fingers.
“I just didn’t know…” she explained trailing off.
Looking her in the eye, I let the convergence of not knowing if what I was noticing was true but saying it out loud to another person anyway flow down into my body. I opened my little arms, stretching them wide and leaned into her chest for a bear hug. The same hugs my Dad used to give me. I could hear a tear come out of her and felt it land on my shoulder but stayed quiet to let her cry in peace.
Mom put her hands on my waist and swooped me backward to create enough distance so our heads could meet eye to eye. My nerves rattled again. I bit my lower lip and put my hands on her soft shoulders. It was hard to look her in the eye still wondering which way this was going to go.
“Remember this moment, La. Remember that when you feel something, when you smell something, when you see something, when you touch something, when you notice something…” she trailed off and looked at the Columbia River passing by. I looked where she was looking too and saw the colors of the setting sun bounce in the sky.
Mom turned back to face me.
“Remember to always, always, always speak up,” she said.
I looked at her, squinting my eyes trying to make sense of what she just said as the lump in my throat was disappearing like the orange and yellow of the sunset moving with dusk into night.
She pulled me in for a hug in a way that signaled she was done arguing—holding me in an embrace from her imagination, as if I was a younger version of her and she was able to tell herself that everything was going to be more than fine. And believed it. If she was my age and size, I’d tell her we’d be okay too. So we could both relax at the same time.
I jumped back and said, “Do you want to ride on my skateboard?!”
I was already open for more adventure, and unlike the times she was normally tired, thinking too much, or just plain-out uninterested in me, she said, “YES.”
I grabbed Mom’s hand and walked up the twenty-foot hill I’d been cruising down all day with my forever-gone new girlfriend. “Up here, Mommy. Here’s where we start!” I said putting the skateboard down on the rough cement and propping the back edge under my foot. “All you have to do is sit down with your feet up in front of you like this.”
I followed my own directions, “Then when you’re ready, set both feet on the front edge and just let the hill take you!” My voice swooped down to show the flow of the ride, rolling the motion through my hand and arm, explaining the moves with my whole body.
“How do I stop?” she asked.
I smiled, “Just put your feet back down, silly!”
“Okay!” she said with her voice swooping up higher.
Holding the board nice and steady, she sat down right in the middle like I had just shown her, hands braced on each side with feet out in front.
“Are you ready?” I asked clapping the heels of my palms quickly together.
“I think so!” she said out to the air.
“On the count of one… two… three!” and I let go of the board, staying kneeled down to watch.
The dull hard wheels of the skateboard started churning fast across the rocky pavement. Mom hunched into the board in the exact same way I had been doing all day. She swooped down the hill and let out a “WOOHOO!” during the last ten feet as the street started to curve and she rolled into the grass to slow her ride.
She stood up ceremoniously and raised the skateboard overhead. “I DID IT!”
Sunset was ending as the cool air signaled time to head inside the tent. The new memory floated into my gut as a breath came through my mouth and the two met inside my chest.
I launched myself down the hill one last time as the ride brought me crashing into Mom, knocking us gently into the soft green grass. We laughed together as I landed in her arms but rolled out onto my own back to feel the grass against my own skin. I stretched my arms out at my sides creating a grass angel and sunk into the cool green blades underneath.
Lara Foster is a freelance writer, full-time coach, and part-time rancher. Downsizing for years with her partner, Gretchen, they currently live between a fifth-wheel trailer in the country and a cozy cabin at the coast. Their Olde English Bulldogge, Kona Rose, is a daily highlight reminding them to live in the moment and chase their dreams. Travel has always played a huge role in Lara’s journey. When not in transit to another adventure, all her free time is used training, coaching clients, driving tractors, starting new projects, and continuing to dream.