By Leo Apilash
“Hey Maria, wanna go on an adventure today?”
“Just like that? I haven’t even told you what we’re doing yet.”
“Yep, I’m all in.” She looked at me through the mirror while braiding her hair and gave me a warm, full-faced smile that made me blush.
“Okay, grab your swimsuit and a change of clothes.”
“Where we goin’?”
“Now that wouldn’t be much of an adventure. You’ll find out when we get there.”
So she gathered her things and we jumped into her Oldsmobile heading north. First, a pitstop at the local supermarket for some beer and vittles—already things were getting exciting—and back on the road. I handed her a map and told her I’ll need her to navigate. I showed her where we were headed and said to map out a route.
“What do you mean?”
“What do you mean what do I mean, tell me how to get there.”
“I don’t know how to read a map. I’ve never used one before. I don’t even know how to begin.”
“What? Don’t look at me that way, I’ve just never needed this skill before. There must have been a time when you didn’t know how to use a map.”
“That’s crazy! Isn’t it one of those things you’re just born with, like breathing or eating?”
“You’re making me feel really self-conscious. Can you cut the crap and just tell me what you want me to do?”
“Sorry. Okay. Imagine you had a map that was actual size, like, one mile equals one mile, and you want to use that map to tell someone how to get from here to, saaaayyy, New York City—what would be the most logical way?”
She thought about it for a few seconds and said, “Lay the map down over the actual terrain.”
“That’s right. Why?”
“I can stand on the map in the direction of New York and simply read off the road names.”
“Exactly. No different here, you just have a much smaller map. We’re sitting here,” I pointed to our current spot on the map, “and we need to get there,” I pointed to our destination. “Picture yourself in a car pointed in this direction,” I pointed along the route, “now tell me which direction to turn, right or left, as if we were driving on your giant map. If it helps, keep turning the map as we go so north always points north.”
“I get it. So simple. See, with a little patience you taught me something new. You should be proud of yourself.” It was my turn to flash her a big smile.
After about 40 minutes of driving on the Northway we pulled off the exit and traveled due west for another 50 minutes until we hit the little podunk town of Tironga. I had to rack my brain a bit to remember how to get to our final destination, but after a few wrong turns and guidance from some friendly locals, we found what I was looking for. I pulled into an empty, weed-filled parking lot, turned the car off and looked to Maria for her reaction.
“Are we here? Is this it?” she asked, fishing for some clue as to how she was supposed to react.
“This is it, whattya think?”
“I think you need to learn how to read a map.”
“Ye of little faith. Grab the blanket, I’ll grab the groceries.”
“Should I change here or wait until we get wherever we’re going?”
“Probably best to just change here.” Her modesty demanded that she change in the back seat of the car despite no evidence of anyone else within miles of us.
“Come on,” I yelled in my impatience, “how long does it take to put on a bikini, for Chrissake?”
I admit I got a certain satisfaction in pushing her buttons, but Maria was able to give as good as she got. Growing up with three siblings and so many cousins that I’ve lost count had forged in her a profound sense of self that reflected outward in an aura of real confidence and strength. The bulk of her friends were also family, and they spent their formative years together as a tribe. The matriarchs and patriarchs from the old country were already a tight-knit bunch, and the joint venture that was their restaurant forced the younger generations to be around each other most hours of the day, like it or not. In an attempt to stave off boredom, there was never a moment when someone, a sibling, a cousin, an uncle, wasn’t pranking on, picking on, or out-and-out fighting with another, especially the boys. But it was always with an undercurrent of love and respect and an understanding that these were the only people in the world that mattered and could be trusted. This annealing process produced a strength of character rarely found in the world, and I was very proud to be accepted into their tribe, even if only along the periphery.
She finally popped out of the backseat and said, “Okay, ready.”
“Great, follow me.” I led her toward a clearing in the high weeds that surrounded the parking lot. It was just wide enough to allow cars through, and from the deep grooves in the soft ground it was clear that at some point in history, large trucks used this path as a road. We walked for about five minutes up a slight uphill grade the whole way, finally arriving at our destination.
“See it yet?”
Maria looked around slightly exasperated, “Sorry, no. What am I supposed to see?”
“Here, step up onto this boulder … carefully.” I gave her a hand as she scrambled up the large limestone boulder.
“Walk to the edge and look down … carefully.”
“Holy cow!” was all she said, over and over again.
I climbed up to stand next to her. “Pretty cool, huh.” We were looking down at a huge body of water—a rock quarry, actually, that had long ago been abandoned when the mining company hit an underground freshwater spring that flooded the hole they were digging. We were standing atop the thirty-foot north wall, a sheer cliff with nothing but air between the top and the bottom. The whole quarry was roughly the dimensions of a football field, and we were standing on one of the sidelines at around the 40-yard line. The north wall ran the full length of the quarry, but upon reaching the east or west flank, tapered down toward the south end, which wasn’t a wall at all but more of a beachfront.
There were two ways to get into the water: You could leap off the walls, or leisurely walk in from the south beach. The bravest (or, depending on your degree of risk aversion, dumbest) visitors would leap off the north wall. The merely nutty individuals still looking for a thrill would find a less vertiginous spot along the east wall from which to leap, and those with nothing to prove would choose the beach option.
I chose the north wall as my entry point, and after much cajoling I convinced Maria to follow suit. After leaping in, I looked up to see Maria wringing her hands and rubbing her arms in clear discomfort.
“Just do it, don’t think,” was my sage advice, more out of self-preservation than my desire to give Maria a thrill—the water was absolutely freezing, and treading water for twenty minutes while she worked up the courage was simply unthinkable.
“Come on, ya chicken.”
“Damn right I’m chicken. It looks so much higher from up here. I think I’m just gonna…”
“No, no. Come on, you know you’ll hate yourself later if you don’t do this. Just grit your teeth and jump, the water’s beautiful.” I lied.
As we slowly doggy-paddled our way toward the south end to where our blanket and picnic were waiting, I could see the sense of fulfillment on Maria’s face. She overcame her fear and, I think more important to her, impressed the hell out of me. When we got to the south end, I ran out ahead of her to grab our towels, but she was in no rush to get out.
“Aren’t you freezing?” I asked.
“No. Too much adrenaline. Hey, check this out.” Maria was standing in the shallow water up to her waist. She took a deep breath and then dropped straight down, disappearing under the surface. She spent a few seconds under the water positioning herself so that when she reemerged, she was stooped forward with her long hair draped in front of her like a curtain. She then reached down with both hands, grabbed the end of her hair and started to roll it inwards towards herself, sort of like rolling up a newspaper. When she rolled it to the level of her chin, she picked her head up and draped the thick roll of hair onto her forehead, letting the full weight of her wet hair cascade down her shoulders and arms.
“Ta da!” she said, arms held wide in P.T. Barnum affectation.
“And who are you supposed to be, Brigitte Bardot?”
“Brigitte Bardot was blonde, silly. Don’t I look like Marie Antoinette?”
“Holy cow, that’s amazing. That’s exactly who you look like.” She held the pose for another few seconds, enjoying the attention, and then with a slight nod of her head sent Marie packing.
We spent the next couple of hours soaking up the sun, occasionally cooling off with a quick dip. Lunch was simple, just a big loaf of sourdough and a large block of cheddar cheese, all washed down with a few cold Buds. About as close to a perfect day as one can get.
On the way back Maria was mostly silent, falling in and out of sleep. After about an hour of driving she looked up, perplexed, and said, “Where the hell are we?”
“I never said the adventure was over. I thought maybe we’d head to the Catskills and meet with up with Mitch and Emmy—they’re crashing at her dad’s cabin for the weekend and invited us to join them. You in?”
“Of course. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Just before reaching the cabin I stopped in town at the local KFC and picked up a bucket of Extra Crispy.
“Are you ready for another first? I’ve never had KFC.” Maria shared in a confessional tone.
“Oh, are you in for a treat. Mitch worked at a KFC back in Long Beach briefly and used to bring buckets home every night. Thankfully he got fired a few months after they hired him otherwise we all would have died of malnutrition, but boy was it good.”
Big brother Mitch and Em were happy to see us, and after the four of us gorged on KFC, we spent the rest of the evening enjoying Captain and Cokes and playing ping pong until the wee hours of the morning. While Em and Maria crashed on the living room couch, Mitch and I whipped up bacon and eggs and blueberry pancakes using blueberries picked fresh from the numerous bushes just behind the cabin.
After breakfast we all grabbed a quick power nap and then Emmy surprised us all by taking us to a local rafting place that, for ten bucks, rented these huge tire tubes to ride down the Delaware River. We spent the next couple of hours drifting lazily with the current, not saying a whole lot, just soaking up the sun and thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. It was smooth sailing right up until the very end when, quite unexpectedly, we found ourselves caught up in some real rapids. Our exit point was at a particularly treacherous spot in the river and Mitch and I had to tag-team to pull Maria to safety. She was a bit shaken by the whole experience but managed to emerge unscathed and was even able to laugh about it as we teased her unmercifully the whole ride home.
We dropped Mitch and Em off at the cabin, said our goodbyes and headed back home.
“How did that rank on the adventure scale?” I asked.
Maria had her head back against the seat, one bare foot resting on the glovebox in front of her and the other wedged against the corner of the open window. She was making sine waves with her right hand as it hung out the window and rode the wind eddies. She just stared at her reflection in the sideview mirror and smiled.