Suddenly the laughter stopped. Uncle Paul coughed out a mouthful of smoke. They all looked at each other with eyes wide and spooked, as if they were staring into the spotlight of a police car.
“And I,” my grandmother declared finally with haughty indignation, “can’t believe that your children are here while we’re trying to smoke pot!”
Of course, that did it. They howled with such glee that Uncle Billy choked briefly on a martini olive and Uncle Paul fell backward in his chair and cackled all the way down to the concrete. Even my father, who couldn’t have had more than a contact high, laughed eagerly as he always did when other people laughed—happy, I think, to have been given a recognizable social cue. And the sight of everyone laughing and falling all over themselves made me laugh too, even though I had no idea what was going on.
“Relax, Bev,” my grandmother said through her giggles. She pulled out what looked like a lit cigarette that she’d been concealing under the table. “Here. Have a pull. God knows you could stand to chill.”
“It really is magnificent stuff,” Uncle Paul added.
“Go ahead,” my grandmother said. “Spark it up.”
There was even more laughter, so much laughter and such contagious laughter that I became swept up in it, overcome by anxious hysterical giggling. I did not notice at first that Matthew was not laughing. As soon as I saw the seriousness of his face, I looked to my mother and realized that there were tears in her eyes. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t mean it, that I didn’t even know why I was laughing, but I couldn’t stop. She looked at all of us with a sad knowing smile, lingering on each face, as if recording us. When her eyes landed on my father snickering into his hand, she watched him for a long moment without blinking, and as she did, her sad smile dropped slowly and something else came over her. It was an expression that I’d never seen before, a frightened look, a panic even. She took several steps back, wrapped her arms tightly around her shoulders and squeezed. I had seen her mad at my father a million times but this was something else, something worse, something animal and desperate. It was as if she saw all the chess pieces had come to life, they were all on the other side of the board and they were gunning for her.
I moved toward her with a sickening feeling in my stomach.
She stepped back as if afraid of me and pulled Matthew close like a shield. Her frightened eyes darted between me and her family and my father as if we were all one, all the enemy.
I think, looking back, that that was the moment. I didn’t know it then, but I felt it happen. I felt the Atlantic break.
And I had to do something. I had to fix the thing in my mother’s face that looked broken. The thing I felt that I had broken. The solution was obvious to me. I turned and headed for the pool.
“Mom, look!” I shouted over the laughter as I threw off my life preserver and climbed onto the diving board.
The sun had taken its own dive behind the trees, and the water looked darker without it. I took a big breath before pushing off from the tips of my toes. My knees went up to my chest. I was going to be the something good in my mother’s life.
I sank like a quarter. I don’t remember being scared. Only that it was quiet. So quiet. And I was swimming, treading water at the bottom of the deep end in a wet and quiet room that felt like God. I looked to the surface, through all that trembling blue and the diluted sun overhead, and I waited for my mother’s smiling face to appear.
Back on dry land, according to Matthew, no one heard the small splash of my body hitting the water, which was more than enough proof as far as he was concerned that I couldn’t cannonball for shit. My mother, so disturbed by the scene of her family, grabbed him and headed out the back gate as my father followed, calling, “Wait!”
They were in the car, Matthew said, my mother hunched over herself and my father gunning the engine when Billy knocked on the glass, holding up my life preserver.
“Cassie forgot this.”
My mother rolled down the window to grab it. But it was Billy who noticed, Billy who glanced into the backseat and said, “Wait. Where is Cassie?”
• • •
I thought I was dreaming and in the dream my mother was screaming, “This is all your fault!” Then I heard my father say, “How is this my fault?” and I opened my eyes and wondered why everyone was staring at me.
“Welcome back, Sailor,” Uncle Billy said. His wet curls were dripping on my face. “Did you have a nice trip?”
I went to smile and coughed up a lung full of pool.
“She’s okay,” someone said, and the next thing I knew I was being hauled over my father’s shoulder, watching the gate to my grandmother’s house swing shut.
My mother was behind us, and her angry face appeared to bob up and down with the motion of my father’s footsteps as he carried me.
Suddenly she drew back and chucked her damp towel through the air. It hit me square in the face. “Sorry, Cassie,” she said. “That was meant for your father.”
My father swung around and now I was looking in the direction of the car. I wanted very much to be in it and heading home. I didn’t feel so good.
“That’s not nice,” my father said.
“Don’t talk to me about nice! I can’t believe you just sat there like that.”
“Well, I would’ve jumped in, but Billy got to her first.”
“I’m not talking about her, you imbecile,” she said, and her voice sounded like it had been put through a cheese grater. “I’m talking about how you sat there and laughed with those assholes and let them get stoned in front of my kids!”
“They weren’t getting stoned,” my father said with a straight face. At times, you really had to respect him for his awe-inspiring capacity for denial.
“You’re out of your damn mind,” my mother muttered.