When I was 12, my mom bought me a half-gallon water bottle because I joined the cross country team — plain red with a white lid and convenient-carry handle. The illustrated label showed it gleaming in a vaguely idyllic campsite where everything was Coleman brand, bonfire and all. Every Saturday morning, even if we were already running late, Mom would empty the ice maker into the water bottle until it couldn’t hold any more then fill in all the gaps with water from the sink, the lukewarm liquid melting the hard, dry edges of the ice cubes.
After every sweaty, heaving race, I would drink a pale purple Gatorade bought with two bucks from concessions, followed by long sips of water from the red Coleman. During my two years running middle school cross country and track, I scratched up the flip-top lid and handle running my thumbnail along the plastic seams, leaving what looked like anxious toothmarks from a lesser beast.
The Coleman swung unevenly at my side when I walked and often leaked on the floor of the team bus, garnering attention when the last thing I wanted was for anyone to look at me. But now, I don’t remember any water bottles I carried before it. Water has never tasted so good or so cold.
When I was 14, we were supposed to have one-gallon water jugs for late-July marching band. My mom went above and beyond and brought home a two-gallon blue tree stump with a spout, wide and sturdy enough to sit on; I could hardly twist off the lid without using both embarrassed hands and squeezing the rotund receptacle between my sunburnt thighs. I brought it the first day of band camp and, ashamed, left it promptly in the car. The next day after work, Mom went back out to Walmart for a comparatively sleek, red, one-gallon model, so then I had the same one as everyone else.
When I was 18, I could not for the life of me remember to take a reusable water bottle when I left my room for the day. I flirted with all the good brands: Smartwater, Fiji, the nameless Redhawk label. “Mmm,” a French bottled water connoisseur murmured somewhere in the world. “Zees ees a very good year.” But I hated the over-filtered taste, hated that I was spending money on something that I could get from the fountain for free. The cheap crunch of the single-use bottles of water in my hands reminded me of road trips and gas stations and just-passing-through’s; I felt like a visitor, a tourist even, certainly not a native. I began buying one at the beginning of the week and refilling it until the bottle was so crumpled it couldn’t stand up straight. It reminded me a little of myself, a freshman mess just limping through.
When I was 19 and I sat in front of my laptop on the floor of my room in Stoddard Hall and bought myself a 32-ounce Nalgene water bottle in Clear Pink. I settled on the narrow-mouthed cap in Beet because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to drink from the shallower wide-mouth version without spilling on myself. I spent so long deliberating the perfect make and model that my friend Austin, out of simple boredom, memorized my credit card number over my shoulder. My roommate Madison (an outdoorswoman extraordinaire) cheered daintily when I completed my purchase, a Nalgene virgin no more.
I had butterflies about putting on my first stickers, like I was marking up not the water bottle but an extension of my very own body, a seemingly permanent tattoo for the smooth rosy plastic. I was terrified that the wrong placement would reveal that I was trying too hard — if they were overlapping too much, I would look messy and overzealous and cluttered, but if they didn’t overlap enough, someone would surely know I took a painstaking minute to place them neatly at right angles, which would reveal I was not really an extraordinary outdoor adventurer at all, just a sincere but infrequently practicing disciple at the church of trees and flowers and breezes and skies.
I decided I would never go out and intentionally buy stickers to express myself, that I would only put ones on my Nalgene that had come to me on the winds of life and slap them on like passport stamps. My water bottle became an object through which I document, for no one but me, where life leads. I take with me wherever I’m going an adhesive collection of where I’ve been.
On the last Saturday of spring break, my mom and I loaded up the car for the drive back to Oxford. Before leaving the apartment, she stuck her head in the fridge.
“I’m a little bit hungry,” she said. “You want an apple?”
I declined — I’d eaten one a few minutes before.
“You want a water?”
“I have… mine already,” I said. In the car, the flimsy plastic of hers shone with condensation, refreshing and cool to the touch. My Nalgene was only half-full, the water a day old and tepid. But I screwed off the fading magenta cap and tilted my head back for a drink.