Personal Essays

The Marshmallow Question

An ice cream cake dripping with blood red wax sat in its box and liquified as minutes chugged by. It seemed to send a message to the 9-year-old it addressed: the year to come promised nothing but bloody battles between velvet-coated glass hearts and battle-worn souls, calloused with age and so-called wisdom.

 

Every skirmish, every confrontation, every metaphorical gasket being blown are permanently etched into my being, splotching the timeline of my life with ugly black tick marks. Even as I tiptoe down this timed-out tightrope, farther and farther away from the root of these blemishes, I still feel the sting of their presence. 

 

My life is my life because of all of those tarnishes, but if myself and my family had realized years ago that kindness was more important than victory, I may have become a completely different person.

 

I learned many lessons over the years staying at my father’s house, but the greatest one was taught to me by the 6-year-old blonde who would eventually become my stepsister. I only recently discovered the power of her words. 

 

Every other weekend we went to my father’s house and waded through acrid acid, suffocating on the fumes of each other’s vitriolic words, flames being fanned by the burning money my father begrudgingly sent to my mother every month. 

 

My little sister walked out my mother’s front door every other Friday night telling herself that she had a stomachache because of something she ate, not because she had the anxiety of a prosciutto-wrapped woman trapped in a lion’s den. My mother stayed home preparing for the impending breakdowns where one, if not all of us would collapse on the floor, hyperventilating as we tried to explain that weekend’s injustices.

 

Of course there were good times too, and our favorite thing to do with my father was play hide-and-go-seek in the dark. We would spend the night scrunched up in small spots, suppressing giggles. 

 

One evening, we brought up the idea of playing with my father and the new residents of his house - our soon-to-be stepfamily, which consisted of a blonde be-freckled woman and her somewhat troubled 6-year-old daughter who had difficulty controlling herself due to ADHD and a host of other abbreviated disorders.

 

My stepsister was afraid of many things, as most 6-year-olds are. I remember she was afraid that a spider was going to crawl out of the toilet while she was conducting her business and sneak up her butt. My father and her mother thought it was ridiculous and were angry with her about it; she always left a ring of urine on the toilet seat from hovering in fear of gaining a parasite. I didn’t admit it back then, but I was 11 years old and I shared the same fear.

 

She was also afraid of the dark, and she simply did not want to play this game that sounded like her worst nightmare. We tried to frame it as an initiation into the family when we brought up the idea, but when we realized there was no way they were going to play, we dropped that shtick very quickly The idea to banish the blondes to the top floor of the house and wait in a bedroom while we played was quickly dismissed with incredulity. We claimed it was a compromise, but we didn’t really care about a compromise. We wanted to play a fun game with my dad. We wanted to travel back to the time when our dad’s main focus was us, and we didn’t have to worry about other people’s preferences or emotions. We felt it was a reasonable request.

 

There was no resolution that would make us all happy; my dad didn’t want to disappoint us and wasn’t completely reneging on the subject, which only encouraged us to press on.

 

While my stepmother opened her mouth with what I assumed were going to be her final words on the subject, my stepsister shot out of the chair in which she was lounging, folded up like a half peanut butter sandwich, and the words “Do we have marshmallows?” catapulted out of her mouth. 

 

There was silence. 

 

We had exerted so much energy over the last 15 minutes arguing that it took a few moments before our brains could even translate her question from mere sounds to words.

 

After the brief silence, we laughed. Everybody’s shoulders descended from inside their ears, fists unclenched, jaws relaxed, and we laughed for a long time - possibly longer than was appropriate for a random question that really wasn’t that funny.

 

We didn’t have marshmallows. We didn’t all come together over a bag of sugar cylinders, share stories, and eat until we were sick. There was no satisfying ending to the argument or to the marshmallow proposition. We all just moved on. We weren’t angry with each other, we weren’t upset, and we weren’t stuck on the fact that we couldn’t agree; the entire argument melted away like a marshmallow in a moist mouth. We eventually concluded the night with hugs and kisses; no animosity lingered and there were no hurt or unresolved feelings.

 

My family considers this to be a funny anecdote, but recently, as I reflected on the question that my stepsister posed mere milliseconds after it popped into her head, I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t the world be so much simpler if we could all just stop and ask, every once in a while, ‘Do we have marshmallows?’”

 

As we got closer with my stepmom and stepsister, we also became more combative with them. We often found ourselves waging war with each other, fighting to win my father’s attention, throwing each other under the bus. When I was young I felt there was nothing I could do to stop the fighting - I was a powerless young girl who fell victim to a family who didn’t know how to get along. We spent years pushing each other under the sea of spite that had flooded the house my father had tried so hard to make a home, and none of us had realized there was a way out.

 

Several years later, the flame on my little sister’s birthday cake melted the candle into the ice cream, and none of us recognized the obvious metaphor staring us right in the face: a veiny candle haphazardly shoved into a neglected cake, tainting it and painting it red, the flame melting the very foundation of the structure that held it up. I wish we could have fathomed back then what I know now - that there is more to life than ice cream cakes; there is more to life than pee on the toilet seat; there is more to life than hide-and-go-seek in the dark; there are marshmallows.

Inner Tube Intimacy

I floated along the Lazy River at my local waterpark with the disturbing knowledge that the water was no more than a cesspool of children’s urine, bloody bandaids, and snuffed-out boogers that floated downstream on a mission to clog any filter they could find. One would think that this blatant display - easily visible to the human eye - would be enough to deter any mother or father from hauling their children down to a waterpark for what was advertised as “family fun,” but there is truly no denying the fervor of a child who wishes only to gush down a slide, propelled by rushing water, and land in a shallow pool with a stinging nose and a full heart.

 

During one of my trips to a waterpark as a kid, eyes stinging from the glob of sunscreen that had flung from the greasy bottle directly into my retina, I crossed the threshold of the theme park with my family by my side, ready to take on the Torrential Tornado or Harsh Hurricane or whatever disaster-themed ride was waiting up five flights of slippery splintery wooden stairs.

 

I often felt like the odd-man-out during these kinds of trips, as I wasn’t a big fan of rollercoasters or waterslides or haunted houses or any attraction that was basically created for the enjoyment of children. Waterparks, though, were the least scary, and I never really refused to go on any of the rides, mostly because I almost always went with my dad and there was no one to wait with me at the bottom of the stairs while the rest of my family shot out of plastic tubes held together with bolts that were installed twenty years ago before the park opened up. I also wasn’t a big fan of people trying to convince me the rides weren’t scary, and it was less embarrassing just to slosh through the bleach-scented water fearing I might drown, or worse, flash the lifeguards, than to stay off the rides.

 

Inner tubes, a staple of waterparks, were constantly being recycled as people dismounted them at the bottom of the slides. Before you mount the rickety stairs, you pick out a tube and have to carry it all the way to the top of the steps where the ride began. Most people held these tubes above their heads as they waited in line, but I never had the arm strength to do that. I was stuck holding it to my side, letting it bounce off my hip as I tried to forget the fact that someone else’s near-naked butt had been held afloat by it only minutes before. These once butt-laden tubes were carried carelessly by everyone else in line, knocking into other people and, on some occasions, beaming me in the face. 

 

This barbaric practice felt like some sort of cruel punishment; as if the owner of the waterpark felt bad for wasting water simply for people’s enjoyment and wanted us all to repent.

 

Besides being bombarded with glorified balloons (and sometimes beaten by their handles), my least favorite part of going to a waterpark was having to endure the subtle brushes against strangers’ skin, pruned, prickled, and coated with tepid water. 

 

Touching other people’s skin while it was wet had always grossed me out, even when I was little and my parents would help me wash my hands. It didn’t feel natural, and although the water in the theme park may have been clean when it first began flowing, once the droplets had danced on the skin of a 300 pound hairy man who had spent the entire time on line scratching his belly, it was no longer anywhere near pure.

 

The worst possible instance at the waterpark for me was when we went on a family ride. For these rides, your family or group gets one large tube with about seven or eight seats. When you get to the top of the slide, everybody climbs in and holds onto the handles behind them (another aspect I felt was overlooked at waterparks - safety). There was no stopping the mixing of fluids when you climbed into a tube with five other people and there was no way to avoid the intertwining of limbs leading to the jostling between multiple people’s soggy flesh. 

 

It wouldn’t be so bad if it was just your family, but sometimes there was a person who was there alone or a couple that were going by themselves, in which case the tube would be shared with complete strangers who didn’t have to so much as pass a basic physical exam before boarding a tube full of innocent people.

 

These were strangers - people who had multiple band aids, scrapes, rashes, runny noses, unwashed hands, feet that had been bare all day, pointy nails that could scratch your eye out at turns, sharp toenails that could puncture others’ feet as the slide sent you all down a spiral that would cause absolutely everyone on the tube to lean against and touch each other. There were no agreements, no guarantees, no precautionary measures involved when you went hurdling down a tube slide with a group of people you’d never even spoken to before; it was just trusted that getting into a glorified bath with complete strangers was perfectly safe.

 

The exchange of noxious recycled water as your body bumped against those of strangers with unknown maladies and questionable hygiene made attending a waterpark an anxiety-ridden experience for me.

 

That is what I remember from my time at different waterparks. You might think I was too worried as a kid and I should have relaxed and had fun. Today, as I look back on what I’ve had to deal with over the course of the last few years, I have to say I agree with you.

 

I am sick. I have multiple illnesses and disorders. I am not healthy and am not fully functional, but none of those illnesses were caused by anything I had control over. Maybe if I was more daring as a kid I would have wound up dirtier or would have gotten sick more often, but I also would have had more fun. Life isn’t about reducing risk; it’s about embracing experiences and opportunities. The sole thing I remember from going to waterparks is worrying. I have very little memory of having fun.

 

Worry does nothing but age your heart and raise your blood pressure. Some things, like sharing an inner tube with a complete stranger who has a host of band aids holding their leg together, cannot be controlled; they can only be dealt with. I’ve learned that dealing with things brings about more resolutions and more joy than worrying about them. As a person with multiple diagnoses, currently awaiting a doctor appointment that will provide me with another, I’m trying to just deal. I worry so much about every little thing, and it doesn’t help anything. Dealing with things is healthy, helpful, and also extremely hard. But it’s what’s necessary to move on in life and accept what is and what will be. 

 

I catch myself worrying more often than I would like to, but when I do I just try to think, “Well, I never got a staph infection from that waterpark.”