Volume 1 Number 1
Look at this. It's darker purple than the foundation, and the smooth part protrudes -- you'll see the details more clearly if you get it wet. Lick your finger and rub. See? Isn't it prettier than you thought? Yes, I know we're not supposed to touch. Stop lecturing me. I'm the mother, you're only the babysitter. I told you the rules if you wanted to come on the trip. We're not hurting it. If it survived however many years crushed down there, it'll survive a little spit. You're worrying too much.
Your Uncle John and I came here the day after we made Grace. You couldn't see any of this limestone then, just the dam. I don't even remember now why we decided to come here; there are some nice trails around the lake, but there were much better ones in Yellowstone, which was where we were headed. It was the year of the flood. We could see the water rising towards the spillway, but the engineers thought it would drop by July. We drove out from Chicago...Julie, I know you're sick of hearing about the family trips, but since you're on this one with us, you're going to have to listen or ignore me. We brought you a necklace from that trip, from the Badlands, I think. Oh. Wall Drug. Tacky, but the jewelry's not too bad for kids.
Hmm? I guess you were twelve the last time we were here. Your cousins were just little kids; Henry was seven and Benjamin was three. John and I thought we were done having kids -- we had a talk while we were planning the trip, trying to decide whether we had enough money. And I had diabetes with Benjy, and we wanted to keep Henry in private school, so we thought it made more sense not to have any more. I know your mother still wanted to have another one, but it never happened. I never asked her why not.
Look, Grace is trying to dig that shell out with her fingers. What? Not if she doesn't succeed, it's not damaging anything. These fossils are 375 million years old. Devonian -- that was before the dinosaurs. This was the floor of the sea then; the state of Iowa looked more like the middle of the Mediterranean. Look, it says in the brochure that the flood year was the wettest twelve months in history, but that can't be true if this all used to be a lake, can it? Says the dam overflowed during the spring rains, even though it had held for sixty years before. The water came pouring over the retaining wall at over 40,000 cubic feet per second. It washed away everything that had built up on top of these rocks, outing them to the Army Corps who were working on the dam. They called the university...
I don't understand, Julie. I know you think your mother packed you off, but I really thought you wanted to come on this trip with us. No, the only thing you have said you liked so far was the Art Institute, and they didn't have enough Picasso for you. You're right, he's not my thing. I like the Pre-Raphaelites. Yes, an obvious rip-off, so what? Look at the colors, and look at how beautiful the women are. Why should I have to look at art that wants an equal balance of ugly? I like beautiful. Don't start with me about the bodies, you're the one who's on a diet. Rossetti's models were real women, you can see photos of them in the books. No they weren't as pretty as the paintings, but why assume that they resented that? Maybe he saw them the way they wanted to see themselves, or he made them see themselves that way.
Julie, one thing you're going to learn as you get older is that life doesn't follow whatever acceptable patterns you think it should. You don't always get to choose -- oh, for god's sake, I'm not that much older than you. One generation. All my friends had sex with their high school boyfriends too. Well...no. Because I didn't have a boyfriend. I had a crush on my social studies teacher. Don't roll your eyes, it's the only reason I made it through anthropology. Got me interested in fossils, so indirectly that crush is why we're here. I know you're upset about Josh going away to college, but if you're supposed to end up together you will, even if he's away. You didn't? You're not just saying that because you think I'm reporting back to your mother? Well, I'm glad. It has nothing to do with being a prude! It's because sex is better when you're truly in love, and I learned that the hard way. I'm sure your mother thinks you did. That's partly why you're on this trip with us, isn't it? Don't worry, I have no intention of telling her.
Whose name? What teacher? Oh. It wasn't a he. Julie, you look shocked. Your punk friends didn't invent the concept, you know. No, she wasn't the only one. I wouldn't know, I have never discussed that aspect of my life with your mother. I'm sure she suspected but it's not something she likes to think about. Yes John knows. Before we got married. Why would it? It has nothing to do with my feelings for him. I'm sure I sound like a stupid old person to you with no useful advice, but as you get older you will realize that what I said about life is more true of love than anything else. It never follows the rules you think it should.
The last time I came here, we met my friend Louise in Chicago. The red-haired one, you met her at Uncle John's fortieth birthday party, and I think at Thanksgiving the year it was at our house. With the big earrings, that's right, you have a good memory. I love Louise's clothes, she always looks so put-together, not a slob like me. Hippie's not the word that comes to mind but I can see why you would think that. She bought me an Indian necklace on that trip, not too far from here. I hadn't seen her in years -- okay, maybe only two. We'd been diligent about writing and we talked on the phone a lot, but it's not the same as being able to touch someone. Grace, don't jump in the puddles! I knew I should have taken another pair of pants out of the duffel this morning.
No, it's all right, she's having a good time. I was much stricter with the boys -- I yelled at them more. Louise got me to change that. She was a lot more patient with her kids. Not that trip -- we took the kids to the aquarium in Baltimore together a couple of years before, but she came out here partly to get away from her family for a couple of days. I have no idea why she wanted to spend time with mine. She was living with a woman -- yes "living with" living with. Why? A lot of my friends were gay. My good friends. That's because you're seventeen. Give it time. Or give them time; none of my friends were gay in high school either. When I met her? I don't think it was the first thing we discussed, you know? I knew she had children and I knew she wasn't married, later I knew she shared a house with someone. We didn't start talking about our sex lives right off the way you kids do. Because of work. A colleague of mine put me in touch with her -- I needed a design consultant for a newsletter and he thought she'd work cheaply when she found out what it was for. We were friends before we'd ever met in person.
Yes. I was. I loved her hair, and the whole way she dressed, and her eyes. Why does that surprise you? Don't you notice whether you find a woman attractive when you meet her, whatever label you put on the feeling? Actually I didn't put any labels on it. I never have. I am certainly not telling you I'm bisexual, that's a terrible word. Why am I...? I don't even remember. Oh, that's right, I was talking about the trip. About how we made Grace. John and Louise and me. Yes, she was there.
Ooh, Grace, aren't they pretty? They're called brachiopods. See how the shell patterns fall away from the middle like a woman's breasts? Julie, if you're just realizing I have a dirty mind... Honey, you can't take the rock. It's been here for millions of years, we have to leave it for other people to look at. We can buy fossils when we get to the dinosaur park in Nebraska. Not as old as these but she won't know the difference.
What, I'm not allowed to touch you now? No, I'm laughing at you, Julie. First I'm the most boring, old-fashioned person you know and now I'm a sleazy pervert. I'll try not to corrupt you. If you think we went on that trip with the intention of having a ménage-a-trois, you're misunderstanding me. I loved her. John did too, probably not the way I did but he thought she was smart and funny and he liked her body. And she adored our boys, we all had a great time together. We had put them to bed and were sitting around in her room -- John was reading, I think, or going over his two dozen planning lists for the trip. Louise and I were lying around on her bed talking. And kissing. Haven't you ever kissed one of your friends -- I didn't mean on the lips, stop getting so huffy. You know how good girls can smell? Fine, when you get older maybe you'll be able to admit it and then you'll get a lot more pleasure out of life.
I didn't really intend to make love with her...well what would you like me to call it, fucking? That's not what it was. It didn't start out as sex, even. I loved touching her, she had the most wonderful, soft hair, and she always rubbed my shoulders and ran her fingernails all over my arms and back. That time she also rubbed my armpits and around the front, and I rolled over and put my leg across hers, and she kissed me. Then John came over and lay down behind me and started rubbing both of us, and what happened, happened. I guess, but it didn't feel like we were doing anything kinky. It just felt good, and we were all happy, so where's the crime?
We didn't mean to make Grace. That was the only thing we might have done differently if we'd planned it. Of course I'm not sorry but I hope you'll be more responsible because it could have been a disaster under other circumstances. As it turned out, Grace was a blessing, and she cemented all of us together, the way these animals got embedded in these rocks. Don't worry so much, Julie, it all works out for the best if you do it for the right reasons. For the future. Those fossils got hidden for millions of years, and would have stayed hidden but the flood knocked them loose. I guess even the rock couldn't stand that kind of torrent. I didn't find out I was pregnant for sure until we got home from the trip, but I knew -- and I knew it would be a girl, and we would name her Grace.
Speaking of Grace...damn. I knew we should have changed her shoes, she's got water up to her ankles. But doesn't she look happy? Get down here, you can follow the crust of the ancient coral. It's stuck here forever as a feature of the land. You see the whorls this shell left in the stone? Around and around the center like the way your tongue swirls on something that tastes good, right before you take the whole thing in your mouth and slurp. The stone left an impression here just bigger than someone's finger, as if the spot had been rubbed smooth but so softly it didn't even realize it was leaving a permanent mark.
You're born, you live, you die, and most of the time you don't leave anything beautiful of yourself like the fossils embedded in these rocks. You rot. Maybe you're too young to care about any of this, Julie, but you will. All we have is what we leave. That's the boys and Grace, and their children and grandchildren -- what the flood knocks loose, it's all we can see. It's why I come back to the dam, just to look and remember. That's what made Grace, love, her father and Louise and me. You can make your teenage grossed-out faces but I know you know what I mean. We think we control our lives, but the storm knocks everything down and the floodwater takes a long time to dry. You look at that little girl in the mud and tell me what's not right about it.
Illustration by Kimberlee Rettberg