The downstairs floor of the house I grew up in was always significantly cooler than the upper floor of the house. The floors were concrete, whereas upstairs was unfinished wood that offered splinters and creaky betrayals of each footfall. A long crack ran along the length of what we called the “downstairs kitchen,” but was more or less an extension of the “laundry room,” which really was just a little extra space next to the enormous octopus-shaped central furnace to the house; behind that was my room, which was originally intended to stock coal to feed this 8 limbed fire monster. That crack in the cement, my father used to tell me, was the result of an earthquake from when his mom was a kid in the 30s – she also grew up in the house. I would run my foot along it, a seam in the cold cement that was greenish and gray, almost like moss on a stone. Earthquakes were as real to me as whales or dinosaurs. I knew they existed, but I’d never even come close to feeling or experiencing one for real.
My oldest brother Gabe was on the back porch, his leg propping open the screen door and a giant innertube held under his arm. “Come on,” he called to me, “we’re going to the creek.” I don’t know how I actually felt about this moment. I was never invited to anything Gabe was doing because he was too much older than I am, about 7 years. I was the youngest, the only girl; I wasn’t interesting or fun, but occasionally Gabe seemed to take it upon himself to shape my personality through comments about how I dressed or inviting me to join him on some kind of expedition. Gabe was relentlessly outdoors, no matter the weather or time of day. It’s possible he was put in charge of me and my closest brother, Shane, as it was summer vacation and kids home from school have to be supervised at the younger ages. And I don’t know how I felt about this invitation because I always wanted to be included, but I was also a fierce introvert and didn’t usually want to go on adventures… but I think that reluctance came later, when I was older. My memory has added that reluctance from years that came later.
The walk to Boulder Creek was about 20 minutes. As the little one, I didn’t have to carry an innertube. They were huge and cumbersome. I remember later on, when I did have to carry them, how easily they fatigued the arms and you’d have to switch back and forth frequently. We stopped at a gas station on the corner half-way to the creek to inflate the tubes to their fullest. Gabe carried one, the next brother in line, John, carried another. I don’t know where Shane was. Maybe with a friend. The pavement was hot, even through sandals and it felt nice to step into the patches of grass that led to the bank of the creek. The water was cool and dancing. The creek runs all the way from the glacier in the mountains, delivering at times icy water that flows clear through town. You can hike up the canyon and tube all the way down. At the end of summer there’s a festival where little yellow rubber duckies are “raced” in a segment of the water; I’ve watched this race a dozen times and still have no idea what the prize is. Gabe takes us to a portion of the creek I’ve never tubed before. Usually I’m resigned to the shallower, slower areas; no rapids, few rocks and absolutely no “falls.” There are only 2 tubes, so this means I’ll be riding on the same ring of air with Gabe… this kind of acceptance is off the chart for me and I’m thrilled. So much so that I swallow down my fear when I look at the rapids and the waterfall we’re going to go down as part of the early segment of this ride. Gabe assures me it’s fine, “I got you ‘Bo,” he says, using my nickname.
At that age, Gabe was tall and long. My mom wrote one-woman plays that she would sometimes perform, taking inspiration from her own diaries. As a compromise to our lives being played out in performance for strangers, we were given an alias for her stories. Gabe was called Cain, or Cane. I’m not sure which way it was spelled because the play on the biblical villain and the long, rail of a staff was intentional. Something about Gabe’s anatomy at that age was long, lithe, agile. His limbs seemed to stretch out forever in every direction as he sat on the tube, and I was to sit next to him, side-by-side. I’ve always been small, so I tucked right in next to him, kind of filling in the space between his armpit and his hip. We were weightless, together, as we floated atop the little rapids and bounced off small rocks that jutted out from the water. John was behind us, but I don’t really remember. The waterfall that I’d dreaded was coming up, it was loud as the water crashed and stirred back in on itself. There must have been a snowmelt up on the glacier, or rain in the days prior, because the creek felt full. The tube tipped over the lip of the waterfall and I felt my stomach drop, a rare but not unfamiliar surge of fear and thrill as we swooped down with the water. But then we tipped over, because Gabe’s weight and my weight were nowhere near balanced on the tube. The undertow sucked me back into the heaviest part of the waterfall and I went under. The water was very cold and I could feel the frenzied pressure all around me, my feet kicked in an unconscious attempt to keep myself upright and my arms clawed for the surface.
I don’t know how long I was down there, probably not too long, but at the last Gabe’s hand found my head and my hair, like an octopus’ tentacles, wrapped around his fingers as they closed shut and ripped me to the surface. Air crashed into my lungs and snot shot out of my nose as I tried to steady my breathing. I was too cold to feel anything, even relief, even fear. Gabe and John looked at each other as we scrambled onto the edge of the creek, John collecting the tubes as Gabe pulled me up by my elbow. I must have kicked a rock while I was flailing around under water – I still have a scar on my foot from this – as I was bleeding on the top just under my toes. Without a word Gabe crouched down and pulled my arms over his shoulders, putting me on like a backpack. It wasn’t until we were close to home that the foot started to hurt, as numbness wore off. It’s a long walk, but I don’t remember it until this point, when Gabe started speaking out loud. Not to me, but about me: “I’ve got the bravest little sister. Maaaan, I’ve got such a brave sister.”
So precious were these words of praise from my oldest brother, who I loved and desired attention from so thoroughly, that they burrowed into my little heart and made a nest. I was inspired and told him I could walk, so he let me slide down off of his back and I limped along beside my two oldest brothers, leaving little stamps of blood with each left foot fall. “The bravest sister, Man.”
I found out maybe a decade later, in a more casual reference to this story, that Gabe had only talked like this in an attempt to drive my feelings about the incident toward the positive, so I wouldn’t tell my parents that I’d been sucked into an undertow and almost drowned. I’m not sure I would have anyway, but it was Gabe’s insurance policy to compliment me like this. Same team. This was a terrible thing to learn at the time, as those words had nested in my heart for so long; it was a precious memory, a moment of acceptance and praise from my brother who, generally, had no interest in me. I have another memory, older, when out of nowhere Gabe invited me to go to the movies with him. We watched Stargate, which also happened to be the movie I would later go see for my first date. I must have been in 4th grade or so. Gabe had invited me out of nowhere and we sat in the dim theater before the credits started, quiet except for the crinkling of candy wrappers being ripped open. Gabe stared straight ahead, the tip of his thumb pressed into his pursed lips, a position he assumed often. Without moving his thumb, speaking almost through it, he told me he’d had his heart broken by a girl. I was maybe 10 years old and had absolutely nothing to offer him. Instead, I snatched this moment of confidence as a little treasure to keep in that little nest made so long ago with the “bravest sister” words that turned out to be a ruse. It almost doesn’t matter; the nest was built, the compliment was taken, regardless of its intent. Maybe it’s because I was young enough at that time to believe it, because it was said by a person I admired so deeply. I never thought of myself as brave, but even without ever seeing it or myself, I could believe… like whales, dinosaurs and earthquakes. There was a scar left there forever. Like proof.