Gnat Magnet

by Nicholas A. White

I went kayaking with a new friend recently. We explored the waterway side of the beach, the inlands, the marshy islands with docked sailboats and buoys marking crab pots.

While drifting on the water, we talked about the struggle of connecting with people—true connection. I feel alone here. In a town where my mom lives, where my grandma has a beach house—where I grew up vacationing—I still feel alone.

Why do I feel this everywhere I go?
Because I’ve lived in the Carolinas my whole life and never truly explored?
Because I’m single?
Because I struggle to make new friends?
Who knows.
I’m tired of asking these questions.

But kayaking through those quiet docks in the waterway—with the crab pots, the marsh, the beginning of summer—I found peace for the first time in a while.

It was a start.

*

My grandma has owned the same beach house for thirty-five years. I grew up vacationing there, part tourist and part local at Carolina Beach, North Carolina. The roads flooded with the tide. They still do. Freckled fishermen hang their catches on rusty nails at the marina, often mackerel, sometimes red snapper and mahi mahi.

Wilmington’s about fifteen miles north of my grandma’s beach house. I moved there for graduate school after a very early retirement from my engineering career in Charlotte. I’m twenty-six. Most people supported me, but some undoubtedly considered me crazy for resigning from a steady career, from a job that paid a good salary with good benefits. But the heart wants what the heart wants, and for me, it’s this—pursuing a passion. Sometimes I wish that passion was something else, but it’s not.

My mom lives here, too—halfway between my apartment and the beach house. She moved from Charlotte a year before me.

Are we locals now? Transplanted tourists?

Who knows.

*

Unlike me, my mom has always wanted to live at the beach. Almost every day, minus terrible weather, she walks the oceanfront. I’m more sporadic, even during summer, sometimes going multiple times a week, sometimes not going for weeks at a time, even though I live nearby, too.

Today I went kayak fishing alone. My truck’s parked under my grandma’s stilted house, the end of my kayak jutting out.

“Still planning to come to the beach today?” I ask my mom.

I lean against my truck while talking to her on the phone. I’m tired. I spent the afternoon fishing a tidal creek, navigating around oyster beds, slowly drifting with the wind. Coming back, though, wasn’t as easy. I didn’t catch anything, save one minnow who somehow found its way into my cast net.

My kayak’s one of my best friends. That sounds weird, probably, but we’ve been together for three years. I’ve paddled and fished in lakes around Charlotte, in ponds, in tidal creeks here at the beach, in rivers. When I moved to Wilmington last year, I planned on hauling my mattress in my truck from Charlotte but ended up taking my kayak instead, opting to sleep on an air mattress for a few more weeks.

“Leaving now,” my mom says. “Want me to bring you a beer?”

She stocks her fridge with gluten-free beer for me. I’m exhausted and thirsty, and a cold beer sounds great. She also brings snacks. Like most moms, especially Italian moms, she’s always trying to feed me. Today I’m particularly thankful.

Growing into an adult relationship with her has been nice. We’re able to exist as friends. She still worries when I go kayaking alone or slice my palm on an oyster shell. But we get together for dinner at her apartment sometimes. We occasionally meet at my grandma’s beach house, like today.

If the beach isn’t too crowded, we might play bocce ball. That’s another thing that’s been nice with the two of us living in Wilmington now. We play games. We laugh. She usually takes the lead, rolling the balls across hardened sand while I opt for the high circus throws.

Once, she blamed her loss on being fatigued from the start of a cold.

Poor excuse, Mama.

*

My grandma is from New York, the daughter of Italian immigrants. Whenever people question the authenticity of my Italian ancestry, with a last name like White, I usually list my mom and grandma’s maiden names, and that’s sufficient.

I’m a southerner. I’m a northerner.

I’m an engineer. I’m a writer.

I want to bridge gaps. I want to show people that you don’t have to live within labels, that you can identify with more, live within a larger umbrella.

And yet, my overall experience is narrow.

I’m not a philosopher.

I don’t know.

But objects are concrete. I can look at my grandma’s beach house and hear her voice from when she visited recently on Mother’s Day.

“I’ve had a big day, too,” she said. “I’ve been in the garbage.”

She’s quietly funny like this sometimes. I don’t even remember what she was looking for in the trash. The beach loosens people. I’m sure it’s stressful at times, too, owning a beach house, preparing for hurricanes, keeping things intact while you live three hours away. Especially with age and family sickness. But it loosens. It frees.

There’s a dartboard in the utility room that we used to play with all the time growing up.

The steps leading up to the front and back porches are splintery now, meaning you’re brave if you walk barefoot.

There’s a chair lift now for my grandma’s husband, who over the past few years has battled back from colon cancer. His knees hurt and the lift keeps him mobile.

The same porch swing and rocking chairs from my childhood remain.

I store my kayak in the garage, beside a grill that doesn’t get used anymore and a spare trash can that occasionally gets flipped over during hurricane flooding.

My grandma turns eighty this year.

She and her husband have owned the beach house together for thirty-five years.

They just painted it a new color. It’s brighter, fresh. It’s my mom’s favorite color. It’s great.

*

Sometimes it’s the mosquitoes, sometimes the gnats. But if we’re on the porch during summer near dark, somebody’s getting bitten by something. They probably come from the nearby marshes, rising at dusk to feed. They’ve always liked the taste of my family’s blood. That hasn’t changed.

My mom and I rock quietly in our chairs on the front porch. I’m drinking the gluten-free beer she brought me. I could close my eyes and visualize the entire street. There’s a new addition from the past five years, a three-story goliath of a house with a white deck on the roof, from which you can probably see both the inlet—where I fished earlier—and the ocean a couple of blocks over. Most of the houses in my grandma’s neighborhood, like hers, are older, boxier, one-story houses on stilts.

Despite not catching anything other than that lone minnow, this is a sweet life: drinking beer after spending the day fishing in the sun.

It’s salty.

It’s kind of a dream.

But what is this place to me now?

I’m part student, part adult, part tourist, part local.

I live here.

I grew up here, kind of.

The gnats are coming out. I see one, watch it land on my forearm.

“They’re attracted to you,” my mom says. “You must have sweet blood.”

“Apparently I’m a gnat magnet,” I say.

I like those words together. They have rhythm, a nice sound.

“Gnat magnet,” I repeat. “That’d make a good story title.”

These marshes are calling to me. A year ago, I thought I wanted to move out to Arizona, having lived in the Carolinas my whole life. But I’m not so sure now. This place might snag my heart before I can leave. Moments like these, drinking a beer with family on the porch after fishing during the start of summer at the beach.

Who knows.

I can live with the gnats.

***

 

Nicholas A. White grew up near Charlotte, North Carolina, and graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Clemson University. He’s currently an MFA candidate in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, and his stories have appeared in Pembroke Magazine, Necessary Fiction, Pithead Chapel, Fiction Southeast and other magazines. 

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