Encrypted Happiness: or, What I Lost on Martha’s Vineyard

I lost a roll of film once on Martha’s Vineyard. I had spent all week capturing little pink cottages, and ice cream carts, and sea birds, and cliff faces, and ocean breaks, and cotton-candy sunsets – and, of course, all of us holding onto each other in the tide, smiling wide in tank tops and beach hats and sunglasses – enthralled to be so far, far away from home.

When it was time to go, to leave this enchanted place named all those years ago for a British explorer’s baby girl – I panicked. I could not find the roll. I thought I had placed the long, looped disc on the dresser.

‘Help me pull this out from the wall!’ I yelled to my sister. It was heavy, an old-fashioned wardrobe with a large, beveled mirror that ogled you even after you had left the room. My parents were busy: tidily clearing the cottage, efficiently packing the many suitcases into the car like puzzle pieces, checking every last nook and cranny for their own possessions.

How could I have lost something so valuable? I thought about it falling out of my pocket and into the street, the narrow, black-knobbed body being kicked underfoot by tourists as they milled about seeking lighthouse ornaments and island delicacies. What if a stranger found it? Would they be curious enough to pay to develop the pictures? Would they try to find me? What would I do if I found someone else’s film roll? I thought about it falling into a gutter, buried forever in rain and mud and eventually snow.

I closed my eyes and willed as hard as I could to know it, its dimensions, where it was hiding. Why couldn’t we just know these things? What had happened to our fellowship with concrete objects? I heard the ocean crashing outside, and I thought about the roll being tossed about in its white waves. I saw it dropping miles and miles through the blue-green-black to the very bottom. Maybe it would get caught up in a current and be pushed and pushed along until it found its way back to the mainland. Maybe it would even arrive ahead of us and our seagull-covered ferry.

My dad was shaking his head in disbelief that I could lose something so important. ‘At least you didn’t lose the camera,’ he said as he loaded the last bag into the car. Was that supposed to make me feel better?

It was a Kodak 110 — a long, slim, rectangular model that fit nicely in my hands, in my back pocket. The film was easy to load, and there was a long, black string attached for carrying and swinging as you walked. It was my favorite birthday gift. But what good was it without the pictures it had snapped up? It was just a flat, plastic, black shell.

‘We can’t leave!’ I shrieked. At least, I was shrieking on the inside. Outwardly, it was barely a whisper, with a tiny cry attached. ‘I can’t leave without it.’ I pictured the little roll bobbing away on the sea, out onto the horizon and of sight.

I was convinced that all of the best moments of my life – of our lives — had happened on that roll, and that I desperately needed it in a way I had never needed anything before. I had been entrusted with those magical scrolled memories, a guardian of those keepsake hours the five of us had spent together — away from the TV, away from the exhaustion of work and school, away from the rattling radiators and runny noses and snowy weight of winter.

I stood in that vacant cottage and listened to the echo of the sea through the open windows and smelled the salt as it settled onto the hardwood floors and furniture and stripped beds. It was an emptiness I had never felt. I tried hard not to hear my heart beating faster and faster as my dad started the engine.

Years later, even after losing so many more things — both concrete and abstract — I am still convinced that everything I ever needed to know and understand and remember was on that lost roll: secrets of childhood, hidden messages, encrypted happiness.

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