The Waterslide Vanishes
About the Writer
Melissa Wiley is a columnist for Storyacious and freelance writer living in Chicago. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a number of journals including Lowestoft Chronicle, Menacing Hedge, Gravel, Beetroot Journal, Specter, Stirring: A Literary Collection, Tin House Open Bar among others. You can find her eating cookies and go-go dancing at the odd surfer-space party.
I see him every morning now. Who? you ask. Well no one you would know. Just a boy who turns to smile at me before he stretches taut his bow, ready to kill the lion in the shadows. The lion that would kill me if the boy didn’t kill him first, the only lion in all existence. The rest are mere mirages.
And seeing the boy smiling beneath an acacia tree amid a field of flaxen grasses, I know he loves me also. This though we have yet to whisper each other our names while touching together our noses, lengthening the line between our nostrils. Still I know him, enough to see he would rather leave the lion be. Knowing he has no choice but to let his arrow fly and make the lion bleed. Being a boy in love, with the only woman the lion will have to eat.
The lion so hungry I almost slide off my mattress’ edge in my nightgown with its faded yellow daisies and leap into his wide, red rictus, saving the boy his trouble. Because my stomach is beginning to rumble for scrambled eggs with sausage. Because I am no stranger to hunger, how it forces you to tear out a beating heart still caged in its rib prison. To break bone woven tight as a skep in skin that tastes better burnt to charring.
I don’t begrudge the lion its appetite, in other words, even if it is for my own organs. As a little girl, I asked my mother for steak so pink I could slurp the blood floating in a moat at a plate ringed in purple roses. And then I have no real lust for this living, because the boy who loves me—the only boy who loves me—will never come any closer. His stretch of savannah always the same distance from my bed amid its puce carpeting. The grasses encircling him so tall I can see only the face and torso of the only such boy there is.
Sometimes when I buy toothpaste and toilet paper from the convenience store across the street from my apartment, I hand my money to the cashier while asking myself, “Where did the love go? Has the boy stolen all of it?” Because she is hallooing, “Next person in line, next person in line!” while I stand still waiting for my change. Change, this word for money that weighs more but counts for less than the paper kind. That we excise from the earth’s abdomen rather than shave from the skin of trees. Change, the companion of everything except the boy, the lion, and the bow poised to release its arrow. My three friends, bracing for the slaughter.
Friends, old as they seem, who only appeared once all the waterslides had vanished. Slides that slid into the pool one day without warning. That dissolved and made the water so blue it blinded both my pupils.
A local hotel chain offers discount rooms stretched along desolate passes of highway with a waterslide, heart-shaped pool, and a fireplace. Sunday evenings it airs commercials on a station broadcasting ’60s science fiction, showing a girl in a bloodshot bikini careening down a waterslide with her arms skewed sideways. The fireplace is lit like a red dwarf star busy expiring while a man with in a black Speedo waits to catch her at its maw of polyurethane. The background music pulsing with a sustained, percussive susurration I have come to think of as the opening bars to the Star Trek theme song.
If at the time my husband is nearby, I observe aloud that everyone who rides down that slide contracts syphilis, inevitably, when he reminds me that to some that’s erotic. “People with syphilis,” I respond always, waiting for William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy to again defend the Starfleet but still in some future time. For the woman on the waterslide to sip her flute of champagne against a pair of waxed pectorals the color of cat dung and be done already.
Because the problem with waterslides is this: Slide too fast and you’re in the water before you know it. And slide too fast you do, always. Waterslides being love for those without lion hunters at the skirt of their beds. Because life without a lion widening its jaws to crack your femur is not much of a life at all. Little more than killing time at the top of a slide you’ve slid down too many times as it is.
Yet when the lion appears, you flinch. As if you didn’t know this was coming all along. As if the boy was ever going to stop a beast as hungry as this one. Love the great devourer, recall, and then you’re such a tender piece of meat thanks to that appetite of your own. The boy’s smile was only ever a way of welcoming you home. He who’s done nothing all his life but watch you climb to the top of the waterslide just to fall once more to the bottom. He who loves you, yes, but the lion loves you with far more ardor. The real danger always the fall from such a height in what is an older waterpark. Built in 1965, when William Shatner was in his prime and top earning power.
Waterparks being parlous places above all. If they weren’t, I would not have worn a bathing suit for my first summer job. I would not have stood seven hours a day at the top of a waterslide sinuous as a snake suffocating a small, brown mammal letting little girls take turns painting my toenails, whispering they could slide down backward if they kept the paint from spilling over into my crevices. Apprising this same entourage they could clean the toilets for 50 cents a pot if they liked as well when I took my turn guarding the bathhouse. As fine a way to pass the time as any before the boy appeared with his bow and arrow. The lion earlier than us all. Before I was born, the lion was waiting for me, leering at my great-grandma.
And though I worked at the city pool only three summers in high school and have gone down no waterslides since, make no mistake: All the world is a waterpark until your mother dies of some disease. Until the birth canal you slid down gasping for your first fistful of air, exhaling in strange relief, becomes a slide at the bottom of which the lion awaits you in a Speedo. The only lion there is, who hunts around the clock face. Until all your sliding is at an end and the boy goes hunting in some other bedroom. But now he stands alert, ready to leap into your mother’s middens—her bones lean as violin strings, her excrement calcified into the shape of shrunken dinosaurs—to slay the lion who will butcher the boy too in time, you know for certain.
But before the waterpark dissolved into a penumbra of flaming chlorine, just as it began to blink in and out again, I walked up and down Lombard Street, traversing eight hairpin turns aside a cataract of sports cars in the heart of San Francisco, as far away as I could afford to fly from my mother dying in Indiana’s plains. When her cancer-eaten spine had coiled itself tight as an asp around the branch of a tulip tree, quaking high up in the canopy, the vision nothing more than a side effect of too strong a dose of morphine. As if the lion were already a reality.
Before I left her for California and the coastal redwoods, she told me amid strands of filtered light dotted with dust mites that she had flown to San Francisco to see a boyfriend when she was 27, toting along her 88-year-old grandmother without warning him. Could I have only seen his face at the airport! she crackled, when she handed him her grandmother’s valise instead of her own hand. Her grandmother a devoted Catholic, so they stayed five nights together at a hotel near the cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption rather than she alone at his Presidio studio. Taking her grandmother to 6:00 a.m. mass every morning, and cutting short her evenings. Each night at dinner, the little old grandmother sat always between them, a woman who lived just long enough to croon I was the sweetest baby she had ever cradled. A woman with raven hair, skin smooth as a clock with no numbers glued on, more pneumatic a figure than any Gibson girl in her youth, before William Shatner was even born. Who swelled into as fat a rump roast as you could see hope to see hanging in any abattoir by the time she saw the winding street of Lombard and grew dizzy from the sight alone.
But when the lion is looking just past your shoulder, training its gaze on your mother’s wasted body, listening for her pulse to slow to an elegy, the chase gets boring. The lion has it so easy there’s no reason to watch him constantly. And no matter your feelings for the woman fading fast into transparency, these are boring hours to pass of an otherwise sunny Saturday, when you have just worked a long and boring week in an office with water-damaged ceilings. And the terrain everywhere flatter than your palm to add to the ennui. This while you are yet so young your skin snaps fast back from your bone while the lion masticates your mother’s marbled shin with no little relish. While you drum your fingers on the tray that pivots over her bed with its womb-shaped cup half filled with vomit, unable as yet to imagine a life without waterparks to play in. You still seeking the thrill of the slide you’ve not forgotten. You so determined to escape this blank, open palm of a state with no future worth reading you’ll walk up then down Lombard Street til your legs fall off their sockets.
You still the sweetest baby on earth as far as you’re concerned. One who deserves a break from your sick mama and the lion following her. You with your bloodshot bikini in your suitcase and love of hotel fireplaces, whatever the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Each afternoon when my husband and I returned to our room on Nob Hill’s summit, our bed held a fresh configuration of pillows in the shape of fortune cookies splayed over the mattress, looking like mushrooms clad in ocher velvet. Arranged, I said, in sinister alien code, marking us as a target species. Two people who had cheated the jaws of death for September’s early autumn, sleeping on the top floor of the tallest hotel on the city’s highest peak, the walk to hill’s bottom so steep my shins began to break into eyeless needles. But the pillows, dropped on the bedspread from some flying saucer, were too hard and triangular on which to rest our heads quite comfortably, so I threw them on the floor in a reckless heap, sending the aliens a message.
In Chinatown, we bought navy silk pajamas that began fraying the evening we returned to Indiana and changed into our old ones made of cotton. But in San Francisco we swam in them like fish across the bed. Then slid off the sides, landing in a plush pool of pillows fallen from the firmament.
At dusk, my husband and I walked off the jet bridge, while a coral sky wrapped itself with ribbons of red. We found my mom with her spine tensed and tilted backward staring at the arrivals board. Friday evening, her oncologist had released her from the hospital. Just long enough for her to watch the planes take off once more. To see the lights on the runway stretch out like distant galaxies where she might and might not be heading, to ride a starship again through thinning atmospheres as far as San Francisco, where even aliens liked to travel then rearrange our pillows. Where even the teeth of predators were shaved blunt as soup ladles and severed no tissue of no muscles. Where silk pajamas kept their seams sealed and you could slide across the bed and land on a floor in a jumble, pretending the floor was water and you hadn’t bruised your elbow.
When I tapped her on the shoulder, she looked so startled that I told her nothing, then or afterward, about San Francisco, the city where waterslides seem to vanish less quickly than they did at home. New ones sprouted with each new earthquake thanks to the San Andreas Fault. But then Lombard Street looked less steep in person, its hairpin turns less sharp, than in the guidebook we’d read in Indiana, where the land is flat and starved of humps. Lombard Street may have looked like a waterslide unwinding like a thread spool, but still it was waterless.
Then too she had felt the aftershocks of a San Francisco quake herself while swallowing Christ’s body—I didn’t ask what part of his anatomy—in an all but empty Cathedral of a Tuesday morning. In the company of a woman already with a view of the boy beyond her bedpost, a boy who loved my grandmother before he loved me, he murmured softly. A boy I have heard confess to the lion privately of a woman he has not since seen the beauty. Her body’s proportions as flawless as the Sphinx, her smile serene but also suggestive of some mystique. My mother merely pretty aside the glowing female majesty that had since dissolved into a dimming electricity now crouched near the baptistery, keeping the pool pulsing an extraterrestrial blue late into the evening. The pool we submerge ourselves in again and again only to climb the same ladder in the lambent lunar luminescence, until the boy’s face fixes us in place, midway to its apex. When we decide at last there are better things than sliding down again.
There is waiting for the devouring to come, for instance, savage as the sear of any autumn sunset. Our backs stiffened against the teeth that tear for the pleasure of it.
Nine years later, I sit sipping tea inside a coffee shop listening to a woman in a pink jumpsuit lament to her friend that she has forgotten her rollerblades, a shame since the weather is warmer than predicted. Her hair is streaked blonde and rotting at its roots into blackness. She is three or four years older than me and about to shepherd her daughter from the school across the street to a craft fair farther up the street, she says while chewing a muffin into disintegration. She sits near me in a cracked brown leather seat, explaining further that her daughter has become too beautiful to examine closely, that she rollerblades almost as well as herself but needs a haircut, the darling. Then, changing topics, she mentions her department budget has doubled in the past year and her company will pay for her to travel to Tokyo this summer coming. The flight, though, will be almost too long to bear.
She feels my eyes resting on her and turns to me with an unspoken query, when I smile then look down at the book I am not reading while my tea takes its time cooling, while the heat particles dissolve into the air above me and warm us all slightly. Looking again at the open page without attempting to understand the words because I am done with words now too as well as waterslides and the parks that hold them. Because too many paragraphs piled one on top of the other and you find yourself climbing yet another ladder. Standing on yet another platform of ether, so you either sprout a pair of wings or fall to the concrete in a scarlet splatter.
So I close my book and zip it inside my purse, knowing better than I should once she mentions the rollerblades a second time that this Tokyo trip will be another disappointment among many, that she might as well stay home and look at that daughter, however much it may hurt her retinas, and make more craft objects. That life without rollerblades and taken on foot is the better one, because skate too fast and the boy’s smile blurs into sneer and the lion reeks of chlorine. But knowing what I know, I stand up and leave my tea alone. I am going to prowl for love among the sidewalks while stepping lightly over a splay of oil-slicked puddles from last night’s thunderstorm. Seeing the eyes of the lion—the lion who loves me, the only lion in all the world who loves me—glowing green in my reflection, because night is approaching and I’m growing hungry.