The first time I vanished, I was at the zoo. Watching polar bears. You could see them swim in this peaceful room downstairs, and my parents had wheeled me downstairs in my stroller. I was 6 and too big for a stroller, but I know now that it made them feel safe. They couldn’t lose track of me if I was strapped in. Of course they were wrong about that.
Polar bears are slow-moving in zoos on dry land. I don’t know about in the North Pole or wherever they live. But underwater they are amazing. Like some kind of graceful dancer moving acrobatically through the water, totally gravity-free. I didn’t realize it was water at first. Or even whether I was watching something real or a movie. And it didn’t matter which it was. The mass of white fur, the dark eyes flying towards the glass, towards me, and then spiraling backwards away from me as I sat very, very still completely absorbed me. Flip and back again towards me, flip and away he soared. I don’t remember any other sounds or even other people. Nothing but the silent bear sailing towards me and away from me. The most peaceful and perfect thing I had ever observed. I remember I felt very warm and very calm. Way beyond calm. Which may be why I didn’t notice my parents right away.
But then the bear abruptly changed his pattern and left the pool and suddenly it was noisy and people were calling my name, my mom’s voice shrill and panicked. I twisted in my stroller to try to find her, calling out, “Mommy!” A woman turned towards me, startled to see me just sitting there in my stroller, I know now. She ran towards the source of my mom’s voice, up the stairs directly behind me.
“She’s here! She’s back in her stroller!” and then the woman turned to me and asked, “Are you Samantha?”
“Your little girl is here,” she cried again as my Mom’s face came into view, back into the polar bear room.
My mom’s face was smudgy. She’d been crying, which troubled me, and she had been far up the stairs away from me, which confused me. She spoke rapidly to the woman who had been nearby about getting my dad back in here and then grabbed my shoulders hard, looked me straight in the eyes with mascara-covered cheeks and said to me to never, ever, run off like that again, and how scared she was and how much trouble I was in and lots of other things that didn’t make sense. But that just kept me quiet. My instinctive response to trouble or danger has always been to keep my mouth shut.
So I didn’t explain that I hadn’t left my stroller. And I didn’t ask my mom and dad why they had left me alone in the polar bear room. And I didn’t understand the whole event until so much later.
I sort of don’t live in California. I don’t live in the California you know from TV or the movies. I’m a hundred thirty nine miles from a beach and it might as well be a thousand. This is not the Beach Boys’ Endless Summer. There are four real seasons in Las Abuelitas. Okay, so winter is nothing to complain about. At 1000 feet we don’t get much real snow. Just a little powdered sugar a few times around Christmas and New Year’s. But summer is the real deal. 100 degrees for 3 to 4 months every year. And no beach. Sometimes we drive up to the Merced River or the Tuolumne, but that’s an hour’s worth of curvy road away. Which is how I got in trouble when I turned 15 last summer.
My dad thinks that the best way to learn how to drive the roads around here is to drive them. So last June we headed over to the Merced a few days after school was out. It was going to be a hot day. 113 predicted on the Valley floor, which meant an easy 103 for us in Las Abuelitas. Dad gets up early in the summer, so we were on the road by 6:15 am. We got to the river about 7:15 and hiked in to a pool about 10 minutes walk from the road. The river was really full. Last winter’s snow pack, fresh from 8000 feet, and about 33 degrees. It was still early in the morning, but it was easily 80 degrees. So that’s about 50 degrees difference from the water. I was hot by the time we got to the river and dad was setting himself up under a scrawny Digger Pine. I tore off my sneakers and cautiously put one foot in the water, then the other. Freezing. Not completely freezing all at once, but cold enough to make my feet ache within a couple minutes. So no swimming just yet. Maybe come August when the river is lower, slower, and a couple of degrees warmer. I sighed, hobbled out of the river and over to a small patch of almost-sand. Granite gravel from a bend in the river that created the pool.
“Dad,” I called, “How long can we stay?”
He looked up from his book, “Have to be back for lunch.” Which meant about 2 ½ hours. “Did you bring your book?” My summer reading list, courtesy my dad.
“Uh-huh,” I nodded, “got it right here.” And I reached into my backpack for Dante’s Inferno. Another part of my dad’s brilliant Driver’s Ed plan. I read through his list the next 2 summers and my car insurance is paid for when I get my license. Which suits me just fine, more or less. Better books than flipping burgers.
I settled down on my back in the gravelly-sand with my backpack for a pillow and Dante for company. I made it through 45 pages before I noticed I was re-reading the same sentence over and over. Definitely time for a break. I sat up wishing the river wasn’t so cold, staring at it.
We come often to this spot because the path is well-used, meaning less likelihood of rattlesnakes. Also because it’s beautiful. On our side of the river there was a wide flat spot which makes a great place to hang out. On the other side a sheer cliff rises 40 or 50 feet. Big on drama, this river. Right above our pool the river was shallow, maybe 3 feet deep this time of year, with massive boulders scattered across. The water came rushing down, around and through the boulders and then rolled into the cliff wall where it deepened to at least 15 feet. You could see the bottom of the pool as the water was clear. It didn’t look like 15 feet, but I had never come close to touching bottom. The deep section was the color of jade, but so clear. I rested my eyes on the shallower water, where the boulders anchored. The water looked almost golden there. The rocks were granite, but with lots of gold-y brown coloring which made the water appear golden as it rushed past.
I’ve always liked water. A lot more than I like Dante. I set my book down and sat up, hugging my knees to my chest and simply stared at the swift river rushing over a group of smaller boulders. Later this summer the rocks would be exposed. Now the water running over them seemed almost solid, still like glass. I watched and felt a peaceful warmth steal over me. There was no Dante, no driving, no time passing. Just water as smooth as glass and impossibly golden.
I don’t know how long I sat there, mesmerized by the water, but I am very clear on what brought me back. My dad, shouting my name from far, far away. I turned to look at his lone pine tree. There was his backpack, his book, but no dad.
“Sam! Samantha! Sam, can you hear me?” My dad again, but I couldn’t see him anywhere. Very strange. I hadn’t noticed him leave, and it was weird that he would just walk off. He had very strict rules about the Buddy System and not straying off by yourself. Well, I wasn’t going anywhere since both my feet had fallen painfully asleep. I groaned and reached for my backpack. There should be a whistle in here, I thought. Another boy-scout idea of dad’s. Always carry matches, a whistle, a flashlight, and a cell phone.
“Sam—where are you? Samantha!”
I couldn’t be sure if he was nearer or farther. I blew on the whistle as hard as I could and then listened, still not able to stand or walk comfortably.
“Dad, I’m here with the stuff!” I yelled, but was interrupted by the sound of his whistle. Okay, he wants us to whistle to find each other. Maybe this is some other part of his practical Driver’s Ed. How to find help if you get a flat tire or something. I blew again just as he came into view about a football field’s length downriver. I tried to stand. My feet were prickling like crazy, but I could stand, and I waved wild big arms at him.
“Sam! Stay right there!” He shouted. “Don’t you move!”
He was moving quickly for my Dad. And he was very red-faced from the heat and the exertion.
“Hey, Dad, what’s with the—” I began, but didn’t have a chance to finish.
“What do you think you were doing?” he bellowed as he got close enough for me to see the anger in his eyes. “What on earth did you think you were doing?”
I was too unsure what he meant to say anything.
“Sam, you know better than this. You are fifteen, young lady. How could you even think of wandering off like that without a word?” He was really, really mad.
I hesitated, very confused and trying to decide whether to point out that I wasn’t the one returning from down river or to ask what he meant, exactly. He didn’t give me a chance to say anything though.
“I expect better from you. Much better. Rattlesnakes, a river that could freeze you OR drown you. Samantha, you are not a child, so what do you want to go doing something like this? You know better—what were you thinking wandering off without a word?” He seemed to have run out of accusations. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to answer.
“Well?” he demanded, and at least I knew I was supposed to say something, “What have you got to say for yourself?”
“Dad, I’ve been right here, reading. What do you mean wandering off?”
He glared. He opened his mouth. He shut his mouth. He opened it again and said clearly and quietly, “Samantha, I’m not an idiot. I’ve been looking for you for 10 minutes. Ten minutes of trying to figure out which direction, why, where, “he broke off.
“Dad, I didn’t go anywhere. I just stood up this minute. My feet are asleep. I’ve been here the whole time,” I said quietly.
He stared at me, looked away, and said to pick up my stuff, go back to the car. We grabbed our backpacks and started walking, both silent. It was over 95 degrees by now. The car would be an oven.
“Keys,” he said, and I handed the keys back to him. “I’ll talk about this with your stepmother. There are going to be some new rules, young lady. Get in.”
And that was it. The new rules turned out to be just one rule really: You’re grounded.