There is no one around in any direction as far as I can see, and there is so much peace in that, in the absence of human voices. Sometimes it seems like everybody wants to put their noise into the world until you can’t have enough quiet to even know you exist.
A spot of light peeks out from the gray sky, and I close my eyes and push onto my back to bathe in it. The chop splashes in my face and stings the back of my throat, but I don’t mind. It’s this total merge with the ocean that I love so much: its tingling touch, salt taste, smell of fish, yellow underbelly, the sound of its roar and of its nuzzle. It is a return to the state of indistinguishable bodies, the gurgle of breath and heartbeat, the sense of being home. I tell myself I’m washed clean now, made new, that the flailing and wailing is over. I float for a long time.
Then suddenly, a flash in my head as if sparked by this new quiet and stillness. The voice from my nightmares. Reciting a nursery rhyme. “Georgie Porgie puddin’ and pie.” Startled, I gasp and flail, taking in water as I come back to the present.
I look up to realize that the shoreline has moved, the brick buildings of Dunton seeming much farther away and small. I go to stand, but the bottom is long gone. I recognize instantly that I’m in really big trouble. After all, I have been in this state of drowning before. So many times before.
THE FIRST TIME I drowned, I was six years old. It was July and we were in the middle of a monthlong heat wave. I was dragging ass behind my family, already wearing my life preserver and tripping over the too-long beach towel in my hand as we approached my grandparents’ house.
All morning my mother had been quiet. The last few weeks she’d been strained, probably because of the heat, and had been wearing an increasingly wilting smile. My father, who never noticed anything, had also not noticed this. But I was exquisitely attuned to my mother, needing the security of her steadiness, aware of its fluctuations, anxious when I felt it slipping. I raced to catch up to her, reached out my hand and grabbed hers.
“I’m so sick of having to come here like this,” she said, dropping my hand to yank at the hem of her sundress and then pausing to smooth down her polar blond hair. She glanced back at our old beat-up car on the street and then up at the mansion before us. “I feel like Cinderella returning in her pumpkin.”
My father seemed to register this as the accusation that it was, tucking his head into his shoulders like a turtle. We never visited his parents. My mother claimed they lived in an armpit (Cleveland). But her parents lived just on the other side of town and, unlike us, had air-conditioning and an in-ground pool, so we saw them often in the summer.
“Don’t let them get me,” my mother said. She took a step back so that my father could enter first, and Matthew and I gathered on either side of her like chess pieces to the queen. As always, my mother had the ability to pull people around her, compelling them to protect her no matter the cost to themselves.
My father sighed and pushed open the back gate as if it were heavy, which it was not, and we followed him through it.
My grandmother was in her usual habitat by the pool area, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. She looked like an aging movie star, with hair the color of sharkskin that swooped away from her forehead and stayed put in a poof with at least one can of hairspray. Even in her bathing suit, my grandmother wore all of her jewels: twenty-four-karat bracelets that jangled when she smoked and gold earrings that sat like fat snails on her lobes.
When she saw us, she gave a small patrician wave to my mother and called out, “Bevy, darling,” in her thick British accent. My grandmother was not actually British, and the details of how she acquired this accent, having never left the state of Pennsylvania, remain a mystery.
Posed like an antonym beside her, in jeans as old and wrinkled as my grandmother’s knees, was my uncle Billy, my mother’s younger brother. Billy weighed in at over three hundred pounds but was also tall, so my grandmother liked to say that he was not fat, “just big.” He was big and also fat. And he lived in my grandparents’ basement. As soon as Matthew and I were old enough to walk, he took us down there to see his porno magazines and his bong. He was our favorite uncle.
“Hello, Mom. Hello, Bill,” my mother said with a hopeful smile. She bent over the lounge chair to give her mother a hug, but my grandmother held her at arm’s length like a dirty diaper and blew air kisses at her cheeks. My mother drew up abruptly. Her beautiful smile twitched. She stepped back toward us, and I was shocked at how someone so large to me could be made to look so small, how one person could shrink another so easily.
“This bloody heat is awful, isn’t it?” my grandmother said. “But I guess you would know that better than me, considering that little sweat box you live in! Your father is hiding out in the den with the air-conditioning turned up so high, I’m afraid we’ll find him frozen solid in there. Thank God you have us to come to.”
“We are lucky indeed to have you!” my father chimed in with petlike eagerness. My mother gave him a withering gaze and he slunk into a plastic chair, removed his glasses and rubbed some sudden speck of dirt off of them with his shirt.
My mother nudged Matthew and me, and we both mumbled hello to my grandmother, who insisted we call her by her first name—Leigh—lest anyone within screaming distance hear that she was old enough to be a grandparent.
“Hello, children,” she said with a sigh.
Sometimes we called her “Pee” behind her back.
Uncle Billy complimented me on the pretty sundress I wore over my bathing suit and then took a hand out of his pocket long enough to ruffle my hair and call me “sailor” for the life preserver around my neck. Then he pulled a quarter from behind my ear and handed it to me before jamming his hand back into his jeans.
Suddenly, the back gate swung open again.
“Ohh, my darling!” my grandmother exclaimed. She leaped to her feet and pushed past my mother to envelop her other son, Paul, in a warm embrace.
Paul was a soon-to-be divorcé who declared everything was “magnificent.” “It’s a magnificent day, isn’t it?” he’d say. “I’m going to take a dip in this magnificent pool. Won’t that just be magnificent?” Even as a child, I knew he was full of shit and sensed that whatever was underneath all that magnificence was entirely unmagnificent and very, very angry. I avoided him.