December 5, 2007
by Amanda Jones
Age twelve at the time
When I was twelve years old, the father of a girl in my class committed suicide in deplorably bad taste. One fine Sunday afternoon he suggested the family go to the movies. Excited, all four children and their mother drove downtown with him. There, outside the parking building, the father told the family to get out of the car, leaning over and kissing each of them as they did so. Not being a demonstrative man by nature, the family thought this act mildly unusual, but no one commented. They stood on the sidewalk and waited for him to park and join then on the street.
Instead, he took the car to the sixth-floor rooftop, got out, locked the door, and jumped off, landing in full view of his family.
The man was clearly disturbed, but the malevolence of his method stunned the community. In the full bloom of pre-adolescent egocentricity, none of us knew what to say to Lucy Q, whose father had introduced domestic horror into our lives for the very first time. She was an odd girl to begin with, bony and skittish. She didn’t perform well in class and she played no sports. I can’t remember if she had any real friends, and though I had known her since kindergarten, she was not one of mine.
Naturally there was a tide of morbid pity that swept through the school, but in reality that pity translated into most of us avoiding Lucy Q, as she came to be known, mainly to distinguish her as, oh, that Lucy.
The truth was, I was haunted by the suicide. My mind kept attempting to recreate the scene. What were Lucy Q’s thoughts as her father hurtled towards her? Possibly, I postulated, she didn’t see him until he landed, with that sickening thump, in front of her. What happens to a body that falls six floors? Was there an obscene amount of blood? Was the family spattered? But the question that none of us could answer was why anyone would do something so infinitely terrible.
I never spoke to Lucy Q about the “episode,” as my parents referred to it. I could not bring myself to mention it in her presence, and when she talked about her father, she referred to him as “dad,” and spoke of him as if he were still alive.
I never knew what possessed my mother to invite her on our vacation mere months after the suicide. Of course it was something as basic as kindness, but surely, as I said at the time, she could have dropped off a smoked fish pie or offered to take Lucy Q to the pictures. But to invite her to share my grass hut for ten days on a tropical island without consulting me, well, it was ludicrous.
I had the impression Lucy Q was as appalled as I was, but her mother came to school to take her off for a passport photo, giving me a grateful smile as she left the room. I had no choice in the matter, and subsided into ill-mannered acceptance.
The first few days of the trip were consumed with travel and adjusting to being in the tropics. My mother fussed over Lucy Q, giving me fraught looks when I failed to live up to her ideal of a hostess. Lucy Q and I did not talk very much. She kept occupied by reading Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five series and watching the geckos that moved industriously over the woven sides of our hut. I wrote moodily in my diary and walked the island, which was a tiny South Pacific dot, a place of no consequence on the global map.
It was my first time in a developing country. There was poverty on the island, but a moderate, subsistence kind of poverty that seemed not to make the locals miserable. They were hefty and tattooed and their teeth were dazzlingly white. They dressed in cloth bound around their torsos, even the men. I remember this fact surprised me, that they could work their crops wearing a skirt. They smiled unreservedly and beckoned to me if I walked past their fields, handing me a stalk of sugar cane that they had deftly peeled with a machete. There was a constant low current of excitement for me on that trip. It was years before I put a name to that feeling, but I believe it was the exhilaration of discovery.
Some days later one of the staff at the hotel asked if Lucy Q and I wanted to take a boat ride to an outer island to go snorkeling. Neither of us had snorkeled before, but we both agreed to go.
Although I was a strong swimmer, I was anxious about snorkeling, never having been taught how to do it. I wondered about Lucy Q. She was not on the swimming team, and her pale body in that loose bikini looked thoroughly inadequate for the task. Perhaps there would be another “incident.” There would be a drowning and we must return home and tell the benighted mother that her daughter was dead too.
But something curious happened on that snorkeling trip, a delicate shift that had the impact of a proverbial epiphany. Lucy Q and I donned the mask and fins and spilled into the sea, kicking in the direction the native guide pointed. The waters were of bluer blues than existed in my world previously, and the light flickered through it, dancing without rhythm.
There was entirely another world beneath those bluest waters. A parallel universe. A place of such great beauty that my head reeled. I looked over and saw Lucy Q, her eyes magnified comically behind the mask. I could see she was smiling. The reef sprouted in strange colors and unlikely shapes that made me laugh and suck water into my snorkel, and the fish in their outlandishly loud costumes seemed unafraid of us, the clumsy observers. When we approached they spun around with choreographed precision.
Lucy Q and I would raise our heads above the water to shout at one another about what we were seeing, and on one such occasion we saw our guide gesturing for us to swim into a cave with him. Once in the cave, he told us to swim to the back where we could dive underwater through a tunnel into another cave. It was pitch dark in the tunnel, he said. He would go first and pull us through by our hair. I felt my heart quicken, but both Lucy Q and I were so intoxicated by what we had seen that day that there was no turning back.
There was a blank moment of panic when I swam into nothingness and felt a hand grab my hair. My skull smashed on rock and I felt an urgent desire to turn back, but was pulled upwards suddenly into a glorious cathedral of rock and spectral light. And then Lucy Q surfaced beside me and I heard her shout, and it was a shout of amazement and triumph.
Looking later at Lucy Q’s sunburned face and listening to her chatter on for the first time, I knew why my mother had brought her to this place. On this tiny island no one but us knew her misfortune. She had escaped her own context. She was here to understand that she was not inextricably tied to her tragedy, she had the rest of her own life at her disposal, and she had the option to fill it with adventure and elation.
Because of that trip, I learned early on the curative power of travel. And ever since I have lived with a reverent appreciation for it, knowing it permits us the incalculable freedom of perspective. And I like to think it was a turning point for Lucy Q too, who went on to do great things with her life.