My face emerged from the water, breathless, and I squinted at the summer moon.
Blue light spilled over all the trees surrounding the pool, and my dad stood with his hands on his hips and his chest pushed out, self satisfied in the glow.
“Hear that, Gel? That’s the sound of mosquitoes getting zapped. I think that machine there will finally take care of all these bugs.”
I smiled and dove under the surface again, avoiding a kamikaze horsefly.
That summer, and all the summers I can remember of my childhood, clouds of mosquitoes swarmed through every play date, every cook out, every diving contest, every back yard race, every breath. My sister and I, pox-speckled by the Fourth of July, grew up falling asleep to the unique symphony of Wisconsin crickets and our own relentless skin-scratching.
I tried to tune out the voices downstairs.
I held my breath and winced, whispering a secret vow to the ceiling fan: I’ll never go to kindergarten if going to school brings this much misery. Same goes for getting married. Never ever. Amen.
When I was young I learned that bug zappers don’t prevent mosquito colonies from growing, no matter how loud and glowing and expensive they are. And name-calling doesn’t compel a fifth-grader-big-brother’s brain to finally cooperate with math curriculum, no matter how much you insist that only idiots forget their books in their desks. And telling someone all the ways they are wrong doesn’t solve the problem of disconnection and pain, no matter how hard you slam the door in their face.
Reactively attacking problems after they already exist only feels powerful, and only for a little while.
Eventually, my dad stopped standing on the concrete with his hands on his hips and his chest pushed out. He retreated to the air-conditioned living room to devour boxes of Popsicles and watch the Sopranos, the mosquitoes and hopelessness ransacking the fantasy of backyard paradise. He stopped trying to please, often throwing his hands up, sometimes not coming home, and always writing checks to gain forgiveness.
Discontent people, like buzzing insects, can’t be screeched into submission. But they can be pacified and distracted and numbed to their powerlessness. I saw loads of clothing and artworks and furniture and rings and necklaces and fur being dragged into the house. I saw broken glasses, deafening voices, empty cans, sticky bottles, and still-smiling people being dragged out of the house. I saw steely dinners and forgetful vacations. I saw A+ papers on the fridge and sheriff’s papers on the doorstep. I saw serums of Rolex and religion, of perfection and prescription, of Tangeray and testosterone, of luxury and lust, injected into everyone’s veins, but no one ever talked about the sitting water or the larvae.
So still, the mosquitoes buzzed around all of our faces if ever we stepped outside of our avoidance.
Decades later, I imagined my dad dragging another machine out into the back woods, a contraption that tempted to erase all problems and return the fantasy backyard paradise, return the hope of a chest-pushing, hands-on-hips moment. It could have been a cartoon bank vault in my mind –the specifics never mattered– but that last machine was a compulsive, identity-fueling, pursuit of wealth.
And I, finally sick of trying to kill problems in the dark, begged my dad to get out of the bottle and out of the freezer and out from the cabinet, and away from the vault. My own thoughtless impulsivity drove me to send him a CD on detachment from image and contentment of the soul. All I knew was the killing game was killing all the wrong things.
The CD was ignored, but life has a way of giving us the lessons we need. And stripped of a marriage and a home and a fancy machine and facade, one day my dad stopped playing the game. In an instant of regret and forgiveness and intention and hope, he vowed to stop even pursuing the chest-pushed-out, hands-on-hips moment, to stop resisting long enough to capture the point: Let’s get a little house in the hills. We can watch Sloan grow up and simplify and just be…whoever we are….
Incidentally, it is ineffective to start zapping mosquitoes after they have already hatched. The trick is to place poisoned water-stations around the yard for them to deposit their eggs, and thereby create an environment where the problem has a significantly reduced chance of being cultivated in the first place. For mosquito populations, microbial insecticide does the trick. For humans, the problem-suffocating-poison is accepting others and our selves for who we are.
Several months later, my dad pulled his body up under the fluorescent light of an operating table, puffing out his chest and determined to have his cancer cut-out. By now he knew that long-existing problems can’t be forced into submission, but he breathed easily into an anesthesia slumber anyway, probably imagining his next home in the beautiful, muddy, bug-infested hills. Maybe even smiling, because after-all, he was lucky enough to have achieved, in his too-short lifetime, something most of us won’t ever truly know: the freedom to abandon the killing game and to finally just be.