The following is among the 16 essays, personal reflections and short stories from the recent collection, Outer Voices Inner Lives.
By Jean Ryan
They were sitting in the too-warm kitchen, drinking instant coffee. Peggy looked past her mother’s head and through the window. Snow was falling in the backyard, covering tree limbs, mounding in the stone bird bath. At the top of the window hung a plastic Santa with a sack slung over his shoulder and the words Merry Christmas beneath his boots. This was a reliable decoration, appearing each year at this time, and much of the paint had flecked off. Peggy turned her gaze back to the lazy Susan and with one finger slowly spun it round. She had done this as a child, watched these same items revolve: a jar of instant coffee, a white sugar bowl, a pair of ribbed salt and pepper shakers. From the rug beside the back door, Frankie, the aging fox terrier Jan had rescued from the pound, yawned audibly.
“What do you want for Christmas?” Peggy asked.
“I want to swim with the manatees,” Jan said.
Peggy stopped the lazy Susan and gaped at her mother. “Since when?”
“I love manatees,” Jan said fiercely. Her blue eyes flashed. As if in defiance of her seventy-eight years, her eyes were bright and still beautiful. As always, her hair was pulled off her face and tied in a ponytail; she had been a natural blonde and the transition to silver had been subtle.
Peggy frowned. It was just like her mother to say this sort of thing, to come up with some sudden, peculiar whim, probably fueled by a program she’d seen.
“You get on a boat and go to them,” Jan went on. “You wear a wetsuit.”
“Florida. I have a brochure.” Jan rose stiffly and opened a drawer behind her. As usual, she was wearing black stirrup pants and one of the aggressively cheerful sweatshirts she bought at the mall. Peggy noted how small her mother’s back looked now, how thin her calves had become. It was true: she was shrinking.
“Manatee Gardens, it’s called.” She pulled a flyer out of the drawer and slid it across the table. Peggy glanced at the photos: a catamaran, a grinning captain, turquoise water studded with fat brown humps.
“They’re closed on Christmas day but not on Christmas eve,” Jan said. “That’s when I want to go.”
Peggy looked up from the brochure. “Are you kidding? It’ll be a zoo!”
Jan shook her head. “It’s not a zoo. It’s their home.”
Merging onto the Pike, Peggy thought, why manatees? If her mother wanted to swim with dolphins or turtles, like everybody else, they’d be headed to the Bahamas or Maui, not some Florida tourist trap. She could see the place now: a worn-out gift shop with key chain bobbles and dusty jiggers, a few torpid reptiles in smudged terrariums, a leather-skinned, bleary-eyed skipper handing out life vests to shrieking children.
At least her mother had given up the notion of holiday travel and agreed to a mid-January trip. And it wasn’t like they’d be gone very long—a three-day weekend would probably suffice. And even if they weren’t heading for some swank Caribbean resort, at least they’d be getting a respite from the brown snowbanks and ice-crusted sidewalks of the eastern Massachusetts. They would make the most of this trip, Peggy decided, changing lanes, and her lips tightened in accordance.
She would take care of the travel plans, she told her mother, and Jan had shrugged. “Okay,” she said. “But no frills.” What Peggy really wanted to do was get a peek at her mother’s checkbook. Not long ago, Jan had written a generous check to a crook who appeared at her door asking for donations for children in need of facial surgery. “He was wearing a suit,” she explained.
It wasn’t just her mother’s trusting nature that concerned Peggy; it was her recent difficulty with words. Today she’d been fine, but when they met for lunch a month ago, Jan had opened her mouth to order a sandwich and had not been able to speak. “I want,” she began, and then her eyes widened and she looked at Peggy for help. Peggy blinked at her. “What do you want, Mom?” Jan said nothing, just shook her head. Peggy reached across the table and laid a hand on her mother’s arm. “Just point to it,” she said, and Jan did as she was told, tapped the picture of the grilled cheese sandwich and nodded at the waiter. Peggy ordered her own sandwich, and when the waiter left she turned back to her mother. She was going to tell her it was fine, that everyone forgets their words now and then, when Jan smiled at her and said, “Well wasn’t that the damndest thing.”
“The brain is circuitry,” her husband explained that night. Philip was a vascular surgeon at Brigham Hospital. “With age, disease, the wiring fails.” Peggy pictured this, wires sparking and shorting, parts going dark. And her mother was aware of this, knew that her mind had turned treacherous. Peggy could not think of anything more dreadful, and she was baffled by her mother’s calm—at least she seemed calm.
A check-up and cognitive tests revealed nothing, nothing tragic at any rate—manageable degrees of osteoporosis and arthritis, slightly elevated blood pressure; all her labs were normal. As for Jan’s language difficulties, there were drugs they could try if the condition worsened. “But we’ll sit tight for now,” the doctor said, rising from his chair. Jan turned to Peggy. “I told you I was fine. Now let’s get out of here.”
Snow and heavy traffic hampered the trip home, and it took Peggy nearly an hour to drive from Shrewsbury to Newton, a commute she made every couple weeks. One day her mother would probably be living with them, which would solve the travel concerns, but Peggy could not yet allow herself to contemplate this arrangement; each time the thought crept up, she pushed it back down. Philip was actually fine with the notion of Jan moving in, maybe because he had lost his own parents many years before, or maybe because he simply and truly liked Jan. He said she was “a kick.” Jan was a kick, Peggy agreed, but this had no bearing on what her daily presence here would do. Peggy loved her husband for his generosity, but really, he had no idea.
She walked into her house and switched on the hall sconces. At some point in the afternoon, witnessed by no one, the roses on the granite table had fallen from their stems, and the white petals on the black surface looked like art. She stood there a moment, admiring this small gift, before hanging up her coat and heading into the sleek kitchen with its cherry cabinets and stainless steel appliances. This was an older Craftsman home, but renovations over the past five years had turned each room new and close to flawless.
Philip had surgeries today and would not be home till at least 7:00. Peggy poured herself a glass of Pinot Gris and fixed a small plate of goat cheese and crackers, which she carried into the study and set beside the computer. She needed to make flight reservations right away and to see what sort of accommodations she could secure at this late date. Jan did not want Peggy paying for this trip, but Peggy was firm, reminding her that this was a Christmas present, and it was. It was also insurance. They didn’t have to stay at the Grand Hyatt, but Peggy would not have them wind up in one of those budget monstrosities, besieged each spring by crazed college students.
For the flight to Tampa, Jan brought a box of art markers and a book of circular designs, which she steadily filled in with color. Peggy, who had never seen a coloring book intended for adults, asked her mother where she found it.
“Amazon,” said Jan. “It’s called ‘active meditation.’” She slid a teal marker out of the pack. “These are mandalas—sacred circles. They’re supposed to be calming.”
Peggy smiled. “Are you calm yet?”
Jan shrugged. “I just like coloring them in. It’s something to do.” She looked up at Peggy. “You want one?”
“No thanks. I have my book.” But the writing was god-awful—Dan Brown should have stopped after The Da Vinci Code. She kept looking up from the page and out the window, where crumpled mountain ranges and patchwork farmland slowly slid beneath them; to the left was the shimmering Atlantic. She checked her watch: one more hour.
“I think I’ll take one of those pictures, Mom.”
Jan set down her marker and carefully pulled a page—they were perforated— from the back of the book. She handed it Peggy, then bent back over her work. “Start on the outside,” she advised. Peggy pulled an orange marker out of the pack and began coloring in the border of an intricate circle. “My god,” she breathed. “I see angels.” Her mother ignored this, and after a few minutes, Peggy found herself absorbed in her picture, giving thought to the shades she chose and leaning back to see the effect. When she heard the pilot announcing their descent, she was surprised.
Jan pushed up her tray table and tucked the mandala book back in her bag. She looked about the plane with pleasant interest, then leaned back and closed her eyes. Peggy regarded her profile wistfully, thinking how pretty her mother was, how good her neck and chin still looked. Peggy would not be that lucky, did not have that sort of bone structure. She was fifty-five and doubted anyone would guess her any younger. From her father she had inherited her square jaw, as well as her tallness, and now that her estrogen was gone, she had his waistline, too.
“Is Carolyn taking care of Frankie?” Peggy asked. Carolyn was Jan’s next door neighbor and oldest friend. She too had lost her husband several years before.
Jan opened her eyes and turned to Peggy. “She’s staying in the house, bless her heart.”
“That’s sweet of her. Frankie will like that.”
Peggy looked out the window again. Tampa looked infinite. Toy cars moved along toy highways; here and there were the turquoise lozenges of swimming pools. The drive to Crystal River, she’d read, took about an hour and fifteen minutes; she’d have to remember to ask for a car with navigation.
“So mom,” she said, turning back to Jan. “What is it about manatees? Why the big urge to see them?”
Her mother didn’t speak for so long that Peggy thought she had once again lost the ability. Jan had never been a talker, which was frustrating at times, but better, Peggy supposed, than a mother who never shut up.
“You know they call them sea cows?” Jan said at last. “They’re huge. They don’t harm anything. They just swim around eating plants.”
“Are you sure you’ll get to see any?”
Jan nodded. “This place we’re going, Kings Bay? The manatees go there every winter—they can’t take cold water. It stops their digestion.”
“I suppose they’re endangered,” said Peggy.
“Oh yes.” Jan sighed. “Boats hit them.”
Peggy waited for something more intriguing, but her mother had closed her eyes again and had nothing else to say.
It was late afternoon when they finally pulled into the hotel. Peggy’s eyes were tired and she had a ferocious headache. Despite the car’s navigation, they had taken the wrong exit twice and traffic had been terrible.
“I need a drink,” Peggy said, stepping out of the car. “Pronto.” Despite the thick cloud cover and cool temperature—66°F according to the rental car—she could feel the humidity close in around her. Across the parking lot, the hotel rose before them like a promise kept, just as attractive as its online photo.
“Sounds good,” said Jan, who, with some effort, emerged from the car and looked around. She gestured at the hotel. “It’s…..”
Peggy waited a few seconds, then finished the sentence. “It’s new. It’s supposed to be nice. I’ll check us in and be right back.”
Their rooms were adjacent and located on the top floor, removed from footfalls and ice machine noise. Pushing open the reassuringly heavy door, Peggy paused to take in the amenities, gratified by the room’s soothing colors, the immaculate king-size bed (wisely minus a spread), the faux mahogany furnishings. No matter how the rest of the weekend went, at least they had these separate, pleasing rooms in which to repair. Jan of course did not approve of this arrangement, had already protested the extravagance of two rooms. Peggy, knowing her mother would react this way, paid her no heed.
Frugality, Peggy had learned, was a habit, one she’d eventually broken free of. Thrift could get the better of you, could close a lot of doors. Her father had been frugal. For thirty-two years he owned a shoe store in downtown Shrewsbury, never changing out the old carousel racks or revamping the front windows, paying no attention to the more fashionable businesses that shouldered their way in. As a child, Peggy had loved her father’s store, loved trying on all the new shoes and admiring them in the little floor mirrors, but as she got older these feelings changed, and the store became an embarrassment. For one thing, it was called Sheldon’s Shoes, which would have been fine except that Sheldon was her father’s first name. Sheldon’s Shoes sounded like one of those elaborately illustrated children’s books, a pair of penny loafers on the cover, all ready for their big day. The fact that nothing in the store changed, that year after year people sat on the same olive green Naugahyde seats and turned the same creaking displays depressed Peggy beyond speech, and when her father finally sold it, two years before he died, she was glad to lose the association. Predictably, her father’s income had been modest, but if he had not been a canny businessman, he had been shrewd in other areas, surprising his bereaved widow with some well-timed investments and a life insurance policy that more than covered her monthly bills.
The desk clerk told them about a nice restaurant not far from the hotel, and so Peggy and Jan decided to walk there. A strong breeze blew against them as they made their way down the wide asphalt path that bordered the highway. How strange this place was, Peggy thought, this flat, open land with its random businesses stretched along the road, a pawn shop here, a hair salon there. Trees grew in disparate clumps, bare, twisting limbs entangled with ivy-choked pines. Lanky palm trees swayed in the wind, their fronds waving and snapping. Just as Peggy and Jan reached the restaurant, rain drops pattered their heads and shoulders.
“Hope it’s not pouring when we leave,” said Peggy, smoothing her hair. “Do they still give tours when it’s raining?”
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t,” Jan said.
The restaurant was dimly lit and nearly empty; it smelled of fried fish, varnished wood and a potent disinfectant. A smiling, chunky hostess led them to a booth and handed them large leather-bound menus. “Enjoy your evening,” she said.
Peggy pulled her reading glasses out of her purse and opened the menu; Jan, who’d had refractive surgery, did not require glasses. “God almighty, look how small the print is—why do they do that?” She scanned the list, frowning. “Wow. They really nail the tourists here—$29 for a pork chop.”
Jan closed her menu and said, “I’ll have a Manhattan and the Vintage Seafood Platter.”
Peggy set her menu on top of the other and removed her glasses. “Guess I’ll have the grilled grouper.”
A server appeared at their table, a black woman with thin glossy braids that fell over one shoulder. Tidy, perfect rows crisscrossed her scalp. “Can I get you ladies something from the bar?” she said. She had a Cajun drawl: half Deep South, half Caribbean.
“You sure can,” said Peggy. “I’ll have a Stoli over and she’ll have a Manhattan.”
“Be right back,” said the woman, picking up the menus. Jan watched her walk away.
“I like her hair.”
“Must take forever to do that,” Peggy said.
“They call them cornrows,” said Jan. “Black people spend a lot of money on their hair.”
Peggy smiled. “How to you know that?”
“I saw a show. They buy hair and make ‘weaves’ out of it. Do you know where the hair comes from?”
Peggy shook her head.
“India. Indian women are afraid to go to sleep because people cut off their hair when they’re sleeping.” Jan nodded. “It’s true.”
Peggy, absorbing this, said, “Mom, you are one surprise after another.”
Both their meals came with a salad: iceberg lettuce on ice cold plates with a few pallid wedges of tomatoes and some shredded carrot. Peggy got through about half her salad, then watched Jan chase the last bits of carrot on her plate. For a small woman, her mother had an astonishing appetite.
“When do we have to be at Manatee Gardens?” Peggy asked.
“In the morning?”
“The boat leaves at 6:15,” Jan said. “But we need to be there early to see a video. And we have to put our wetsuits on.” She pushed her empty salad plate to the side.
“I’m not going swimming. People can just stay on the boat, right?”
Jan blinked at her daughter. “You’re not going in the water?”
“Do you know how cold that water is?”
Peggy nodded. “That’s pretty damn cold.”
“That’s why you wear a wetsuit.”
“Yeah, I know.” Peggy leaned back against the booth and folded her arms across her chest. “But I’m just not that interested. This is your deal.”
Jan shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
The mustard sauce on the grouper was a little too spicy for Peggy, but she managed to eat around it. Jan proclaimed her own meal “scrumptious,” and Peggy watched, faintly envious, as her mother made steady progress through the fried shrimp, scallops and onion rings, just the sort of food she herself couldn’t tolerate, not anymore; she wouldn’t sleep a wink.
As Peggy and Jan were leaving the restaurant, a family came streaming in: an exhausted-looking couple with three children and an infant. The baby was crying.
“Glad we missed that,” Peggy said. She pushed the door open for her mother and they stepped into the cool night air; fortunately it wasn’t raining and the breeze had died down. A few stars twinkled.
“Isn’t it odd,” Peggy said, “that we both had just one child?” She paused, but Jan said nothing. “What was your reason?”
“You were enough, I guess.”
“I was enough? What does that mean?”
Jan sighed. “Criminy, Peggy. It doesn’t mean a thing.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence. It would have been nice, Peggy thought, if her mother had said something tender, or at least shown a little interest in the conversation. But that wasn’t her way, never had been. Not that she’d been remiss as a provider; she just wasn’t keen on showing affection. Peggy’s father had been the demonstrative one, freely giving hugs and praise, making up pet names that made his daughter laugh.
Peggy considered her own child. Ben was thirty-one now and living in San Diego, where he designed “green homes” and lived with a man named Tyler, to whom he was married. Which was fine. She had no problem with that, and neither did Philip. Ben was a sweet boy, everyone said so—you couldn’t do better than that. And yes, she reflected now, Ben had been enough. Which was one thing, at least, that she and her mother had in common.
When they walked into the hotel lobby, a young man at the desk looked up at them and smiled. “Have a nice evening,” he said. Jan paused and started to say something, but the words didn’t come, and after a few seconds she closed her mouth and simply smiled at him.
“Thank you,” Peggy said. “You too.” She and Jan got on the elevator, and Peggy murmured, “It’s okay, mom. It’s no big deal.” Jan did not look up.
“Do you need anything?” Peggy asked when they reached their rooms.
“I’m fine,” said Jan. She pushed her card through the lock and over her shoulder said, “Sleep well, dear.”
Peggy walked into her room and leaned back against the door for a moment. How strange. How strange that her mother could say that just now, yet not be able to answer the desk clerk. It happened most often, she realized, with strangers, though Jan had never been a shy woman—quiet, yes, but never shy.
Peggy felt tears welling up. What must her mother be thinking right now? She pictured her sitting on the edge of the bed, eyes open wide. Horrible, Peggy thought. Horrible to be a victim of your own mind, to sit there wondering when it would strand you and for how long.
An hour later, when she was watching TV, Peggy’s stomach began to bother her—the butter sauce, foreign fish? There was no way of knowing what would give her trouble these days. The episodes were frequent now and made her feel old.
Incredibly, she’d forgotten to pack Tums—maybe her mother had something in her purse. She picked up the phone and called her room, but there was no answer. Was she in the bathroom? Peggy waited five minutes and called again, let the phone ring several times. Alarmed, she hurried out of the room and knocked on Jan’s door. No answer. This made no sense; her mother was a night owl, and even more so as she’d gotten older.
Okay. She would go downstairs to see if the desk clerk had seen her. If not, she’d get him to open up the room. Heart beating wildly, Peggy took the elevator to the lobby and was on her way to the front desk when she heard a piano. She looked to the right and saw the etched glass doors to the lounge. Peggy paused a second, then strode across the carpet and entered the bar. There was just a handful of people enjoying the music, and she saw her mother right away: a small slight woman with a silver ponytail, lightly tapping her foot to a lively rendition of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” She was sitting alone, and there was a drink, another Manhattan, in front of her.
Peggy’s first thought was to join her, but she stopped herself. If her mother had wanted to talk, she would have asked for company.
The desk clerk gave her a small package of antacids and said he hoped she felt better soon. Riding the elevator, Peggy smiled to herself, glad to give her mother this unexpected pleasure. Jan had frowned on their staying in such an expensive hotel, and it was true they would have been perfectly comfortable somewhere cheaper, but you don’t find pianists at Howard Johnson.
Manatee Gardens had a tidy office with cream-colored walls and sturdy blue awnings. There were no trapped reptiles inside, as Peggy had imagined, but there was a beautiful aquarium containing all sorts of flamboyant marine life. Peggy was glad she’d made reservations, as the 6:15 tour was filled to capacity. There were three covered pontoon boats, each designed for twelve guests.
The video was short and informative. The trip to the dive area would take ten minutes, and they would be snorkeling in about ten feet of water. In-water tour guides would be photographing the highlights of the experience, and a CD of these photos would be available for purchase. There were basic rules to follow regarding behavior in the water. Guests were NEVER to chase or crowd a manatee, or come between a mother and calf. Interrupting a sleeping or feeding manatee was forbidden, as was excessive splashing and noise. Guests were instructed to float on the surface and avoid dangling their feet and stirring up the bottom, and if they did get to touch a manatee they could only do so with one open hand. Personal wetsuits could be used, but scuba gear was prohibited as manatees were bothered by bubbles. Extra wetsuits could be found onboard in case those who declined them changed their minds. Jan nodded here and there as they watched the video; she had already seen it, she whispered, online.
Peggy and Jan were assigned to the first boat, along with four children, one teenage girl, two young mothers, two middle-aged women, and an obese, bald man—he and Peggy were the only ones who refused the snorkeling gear. The rest of them tugged on the blue and black wetsuits provided by the staff, and were then handed flippers and snorkels, which they carried outside to the dock. Jan had to be fitted with a child’s size suit, and though getting into it had not been easy for her, she was beaming the whole time. Peggy, walking behind her to the boats, snapped a few photos for Philip.
Captain Mike, the bearded, sandy-haired skipper in charge of their group, helped each of them onto the boat. It was still dark and chilly when they boarded, and Peggy was glad for the vinyl covering, through which she could see the moving lights of other boats and a string of brightness along the shoreline. The children were talking and giggling; the two older women were murmuring to one another, sharing comforting banalities.
Dawn broke just as they arrived at the swim site, as if this perfect timing was another detail that Manatee Gardens had carefully considered. To the east, above the dark ridge of trees, the glowing red top of the sun appeared.
“Remember, get into the water slowly,” said Captain Mike. “No splashing. Let the manatees come to you.”
“Where are they?” the fat man asked.
“They’re down there. You’ll be able to see them in a few minutes.” Holding his camera, the man peered down at the water and waited.
“Oh my,” said Jan, who was pulling on her flippers. She sat up and put her mask on, then looked through it at Peggy. The sight of her mother’s face in those big goggles with the blue tube sticking up, made her laugh.
Sure enough, within minutes they could see into the water, could make out the sandy bottom, strewn with shells and patches of seaweed, and what they gradually began to recognize as the massive bodies of manatees, not just two or three, but a logjam of them, all hovering above the sand, their backs crusted with barnacles.
Peggy turned to Captain Mike. “How did you know they were here?”
“Secret powers,” he said with a wink.
The manatees moved slowly and with odd grace, adjusting their positions with flippers that seemed too small for the job. Their fat, oblong bodies tapered to large flat paddles instead of the legs you expected to find. They looked wrong, Peggy thought, a species on the way to oblivion, unwitting, slow-moving giants not built for the world above them, the jet skis and power boats they could neither see nor avoid. They were doomed, Peggy concluded; all the coddling they required proved it.
The first one off the boat was Toby, Captain Mike’s helper, who was there to take pictures and make sure no one swam too far or ran into trouble. One by one, the guests followed him into the water. Jan slipped in like a butter knife, no splash at all, and immediately she was bobbing at the surface. She gave Peggy a thumbs up, then began making her way around the boat, her silver ponytail trailing over her back. The four children streamed off like fish. The middle-aged women, who were heavy-set, required noodles for extra buoyancy.
One of the young mothers, unnerved by the size of the creatures, climbed back onto the boat after just a few minutes. Jan, on the other hand, hung in the water above a trio of manatees twice her length and several times wider. Peggy watched with apprehension, thinking about Steve Irwin and the unpredictability of wild things. What if her presence annoyed them? What if they rose up and knocked her? One little bump could crack a bone.
“Do they ever injure people?” she asked the captain. “Even unintentionally?”
He shook his head. “No ma’am. If you’re gentle with them, they’re gentle with you.”
Peggy nodded slowly, figuring these tours had to be safe, given the potential liability.
Sunlight was flashing on the water now, and more boats could be seen moving over the bay: catamarans and pontoons, slender kayaks nosing into the tributaries. Along the tree-lined shore, streamers of lichen hung off the cypress branches and dipped into the water. Off to the right she saw a buoy that read: Closed Area – Manatee Sanctuary. They had been warned about these areas; you couldn’t boat, swim, dive or fish in them. People were trying, Peggy thought, doing what they could to make up for themselves. Her gaze swept across the expanse of water, from one end of King’s Bay to the other. What a lovely place it was, with the light green water and brightly colored kayaks. It was like something out of a fairy tale, all the little islands and inlets, and just a few feet below, at our mercy, those huge improbable beasts.
When Peggy looked back at her mother, she saw her face to face with a manatee, its whiskered snout nosing her goggles. Jan placed her open hand on its head, and they stayed that way a moment, before the creature slowly rolled over and offered up its belly, which Jan obligingly stroked. It was a communion beyond words, simply a way of being in the world, as honestly as anyone could be.
Language was often the first to go, Philip had said. In time, Jan’s memory would fail, would start to break apart.
But not today. Today she was safe. They all were.
Peggy walked up to the captain. “I want to swim,” she said.
Jean Ryan, a 2014 Lambda finalist in Lesbian General Fiction, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review and The Blue Lake Review. Nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, she has also published a novel, Lost Sister. Her debut collection of short stories, Survival Skills, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press. ‘Manatee Gardens’ has previously appeared in Blue Lake Review. Please visit Jean’s website at http://jean-ryan.com/