Sandy led the way through the maze of motor homes, dodging lounge chairs, barbecues, and septic hoses as we weaved our way toward the park. I petted the Andersons’ dog, Charlie, as we passed his blanket. The smell of brownies wafted from their screen door, and Sandy muttered, “Yummy.” Her voice was still magical to my ears, having met her just moments before; it tickled something in my head that I couldn’t quite define, it dazzled.
Once we got to the grassy area, away from the grown-ups and their bland doings, the girl in the yellow dress promptly sat down. I followed suit. I was aware of the sun drenching me in a moist warmth, the air like a caress to my soul.
“It’s nice out.” I said.
“Not a cloud in the sky.” she replied.
I started pulling on grass blades, trying to think of something else to say. While doing this, I noticed a small yellow flower nearby. A quick survey of the lawn revealed there were scores of these scattered across the green patch. Without any semblance of a plan, I plucked one and stretched it toward her. I felt simultaneously romantic and foolish, and told her, “A flower for you, madame.”
With a sweet, disarmingly beautiful smile, she reached out slowly and took the yellow gift from my hand. “It’s a buttercup.”
“No,” I said. “It’s a flower, silly.”
“You’re the silly one. It’s called the buttercup flower. Do you wanna know why?”
“Because,” She held the flower with the tips of her finger and thumb, and placed its petals directly under her chin. “When you hold it like so, it overflows with butter.”
I looked and could not believe my eyes. Her entire chin was a radiant golden hue, the sunlight apparently reflecting off of the buttercup. I was unable to look away from the warm glow of her skin, brought on by this trick of nature that somehow I had never been told about. It was a combination of immersion in the natural world, and having a dump truck unload a pile of unbridled desire into my head.
She held it up to my chin, and out poured the most beautiful laughter I had ever heard in my young life. Again I sensed that dazzle. I laughed as well, and we both started looking for other things to distract us from the awkward exchange. Something caught my eye, a white disc some ten yards away. I sprang to my feet and skipped over to it.
“Look! A Frisbee!” I shouted. “Wanna play?”
So we began tossing it back and forth; whenever I’d fail to catch it, I’d curse the harshest curse I knew from my father’s occasional slip-ups. I was positive this would impress upon Sandy how mature I was.
“Goddammit!” I barked as one sailed over my head, out of reach.
“You okay, there, Mark?” She asked. “Something wrong with your leg?”
Still basking in the sharp glow of hearing her say my name, I settled on a plan. It kind of all just fell out of the sky and into my head. I knew I had to tell her a tale. And it had to be believable.
“Can you keep a secret?” I asked, drawing near to her.
“Sure. Everyone who knows me knows I don’t give out secrets. You can trust me. What is it?”
“I mean I’m seriously not supposed to tell anyone about this, it’s just – it’s just that you seem so cool. So, if you promise me now not to tell anyone…”
“I promise.” She said, her eyes proving her verity.
I took a deep breath, stared off at a faraway point, and told her.
“I have bionics.”
She just stared.
“Do you know what bionics are?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I had an operation on my leg and my arm, see? And they replaced the muscles and stuff in there with robotic machine parts. It was an operation that my parents signed me up for with the government.” I looked at her, and could see she was totally buying it. I backed off with the details, and offered up the slam dunk. “You ever seen that show “The Six Million Dollar Man?”
“Yes… so you’re like him?” She squinted a taste of disbelief at me.
“Well, yes and no. It’s a real technology, like in the show, but it doesn’t make me super strong like Steve Austin. It’s kinda cool, though. I am a bionic man.”
She was hooked. Her hand grabbed mine and she led me towards the treeline, near Canyon Creek. I wondered what was happening, blindly following this person I had just met at yet another horse show my parents indulged in. Every year a different friend, and this year’s friend was definitely different. I managed to ask her where she was taking us.
“The secret cave. You don’t know about it?” I told her no. “They say Lewis and Clark camped in it. Not very many people know how to find it, but I do. I want to show it to you, it’s really cool.”
I thought it was a remarkable idea, the mystique of being alone with her in such an intimate, historically relevant site shot the dazzle into the stratosphere of my mind.
Soon we came to a medium sized boulder, where she turned off the path, and we were walking through ferns, over rocks and tree roots so gnarled they seemed to be reaching for my feet, trying to trip me. We skirted the blackberry bushes as much as we could, but one or two thorns found their purchase on my arms. I felt the blood mix with my sweat and the sting subsided.
“We’re almost there, Mark the Bionic Man.” She giggled a little, and I wondered if she actually doubted my story. After we passed under a dark canopy of trees, we stopped and there was a hole in the rocky outcropping, a curtain of fern concealing most of it. She ducked in, and I followed.
Despite our small sizes, we had to stoop the first dozen steps so as not to bump our heads on the chaotic rock formations this cave revealed. The temperature dropped dramatically, and my sweaty skin was now a frigid terrain of goosebumps. The light faded as we came to the centerpiece of the hollow tunnel: a large, circular room tall enough to stand in. I could barely make out pieces of litter scattered around the edges; an empty 12-pack box, discarded cigarette packages, and other evidence of teenager partying. In the center was a fire pit, one charred fraction of a log sat there motionless.
“Sit down, and tell me what you think.” She said. I sat, and took it all in. The space seemed too large, unnatural and manufactured. The creek’s babble outside was barely audible.
“I like it, I think.” I offered.
Sandy grabbed an empty Budweiser can and mimed drinking. “Let’s pretend we’re teenagers. Ohh, me oh my, I’m so drunk!” She cackled. I wished I could see her face better, but the light…
“Hey, do you have any paper?”
“Sure,” She said, “I got tons of gum wrappers right here.” As she pulled out a wad of Doublemint sleeves, I dug in my jeans pocket for the book of matches I’d swiped from my mother. I shredded the wrappers and placed them in the fire pit, then lit the pile with one dazzling match.
Her face was now visible, observing me shrewdly in the bold new firelight. Smiling, she said, “Now we’re explorers. Treading through the Northwest with no maps, no safe harbor but what we make.”
“Like this cave.”
“Yes. The cave that was made to shelter the explorers.”
“It’s pretty cool, I guess. Lewis and Clark spent time right here. A long time ago.”
“Yeah, and they must have left their horses tied up right outside there. They could drink from the creek, and if there was wildlife, they could catch and eat things like rabbits.”
“No, silly. Lewis and Clark. Horses can’t hunt.”
“Do they at least eat rabbits?”
She laughed, and this time there was patronizing tinge to its tone. “No! Are you serious?”
I spoke the first thing that came to mind.
“What do I know about horses? My family has some is all, not like I ride them. Just my sister. I hate horses, and people who ride them in these shows. It’s all such god damned bullshit.” She grew silent. “The events are boring, even the barrel race is dumb. Everyone gets pretty much the same time score. That’s not impressive.”
The fire had gone out. She stood up and dusted off the back of her dress, its color diminished in this space. Before I knew it, she was out of the room and heading down the tunnel back outside. After a while, I followed her out, but not before absorbing the cave’s aura a few moments more.
I had to run to catch up with her, and just like some damsel in a horror movie, I tripped over one of the tree roots. I heard a mind-bending crack as my knee landed on a jagged rock, and pain flared an orange-red across my vision. My anguished cry stopped her retreat, and turning to me, she looked sad, disappointed.
“I should be going now, Mark. I have a barrel race in a couple hours. Sorry it’s not impressive to you. Take care of yourself.”
She went back to the trail and sprinted away. My knee was broken, and my afternoon dream had become a nightmare. I supposed this is what it meant to be a grown-up. When the veils of childhood simplicity flutter away, when yearning for something so much more than idle playtime requires a whole new way of thinking, it is confusing at first. At the time, that truth didn’t quite occur to me, though, and I still dismiss the experience as my first at-bat in that most major of leagues.
I never did see Sandy again, and the time we spent was terribly short, but it remains as one of my most awakening relationships to date.
(Photo: Museum of Life + Science)