She was the lady in the song, tanned legs striding, hair blowing back. As we walked down the road from our house to the beach, she did not mind a thing—not the hot breath of the sun or the sticky prints of the air on our skin. Not the following gaze of the neighbor, sitting in his carport, drinking a beer. She smiled at the surfers unloading their cars. She smiled at the man with the big orange dog. We turned off the road and headed through the grove of ironwoods down to the sand. She was the lady in the suntan commercial, smiling at the pot-bellied suntanner in the tiny blue shorts.
We spread our mat on the knoll above the tidal pools, and after slathering herself with thick white cream, she lay herself out, carefully timing the exposure on every side: back, left, right, front, until she was perfectly golden brown. While browning, she read to me from the True Strange section of The Weekly Gazette. “Oh Rosie, here’s something for you,” she said, and read about the Driest Man in the World, who could not take a bath, or swim, or even go into the rain because water leaked into him through his skin.
She closed her eyes, tilting her face toward the sun. “This is just heaven—to die for,” she sighed. “I think I’m melting.” Even then, it seems now, she was always trying to disappear.
Mother loved the water. “Come in, come in,” she’d call as she walked into the waves. Nearby, eyes peered from beach mats, considering the invitation. Then she turned, arms pointing up, and poured herself into a swell. She emerged for a moment, hair dripping, her face a blur, then dove again and melted away.
While she swam I inspected the tidal pools. It was almost time—the sun still hot, but lowering. Soon, Father would join us. I examined some seaweed in a hollow scooped out by the sea.
Now he was driving up the drive.
Shining silver fish.
Now he was walking up the walk.
Pretty pink shell clinging to a rock.
Now he was opening the front door, now his eyes were caught by the nest of spiders up in the eaves—No no, don’t stop there, don’t look at that now–
“Rosie! Rosie!” Father was calling. His arms were around me, lifting me up, and he was hobbling across the rocks. We reached the sand, just as the big wave came crashing down. White foam swirled around our feet.
He frowned. “Pay attention to where you are.”
Out past the waves, Mother had rounded the buoy and was headed for shore.
She stumbled out of the surf, glistening, water falling from her in pearly strands.
“We had a close call,” Father reported, handing her a towel.
“Oh?” She looked at me.
I looked away. A wave fanned out, filling her footprints with water. Mother and Father talking in low voices. Brown sea grass tumbling in the bubbles. Mother saying, “Rose Lazarus you must never do that again do you hear?”
Little white crab disappearing down a hole.
Then Father yawned and stretched. “I guess it’s our turn now.” I poked my toe in the sand. He crouched, facing me, and opened his arms. I was forgiven. As I clambered onto his shoulders, Mother watched.
“She never does that for me,” she said.
He turned my terror to glee as he walked me past the angry teeth of the surf, the hair of drowned people clinging to rocks, the invisible hands under. He was always in reach as I tried to float and sank or affected a dog paddle while still touching bottom. Then, laughing, he hoisted me onto his back, and swam out and out to where the green turned to blue, and the ocean rocked us back and forth.
When we returned, Mother had been to the house for sandwiches. The orange light of the sun spilling across the sky and staining the water. By then, everyone had gone home and we had the beach to ourselves. She laid out the picnic things, while Father and I collected driftwood for a fire. We gathered shellfish, shaped like tiny black ears, among the rocks. “They are listening,” Father said. I put my ear close, but I did not hear a thing.
Then soon, Father was off to the field again—this time to the Marshall Islands. On the map, a curve of insect tracks across the blue. While he was out there, he said, with studied nonchalance, he thought he might tour the local cholera epidemic. That made me laugh, but Mother was not at all amused.
The morning he was to leave, he sat at his desk arranging the papers in his briefcase. They were the same ones that I’d seen before, only now there was a graph on top, labeled Statistical Occurrence with the names of various diseases.
“Which ones are yours?” I asked.
Mother had appeared in the doorway, with a stack of clean shirts for him to pack.
He laughed. “All these, I guess.” His finger ran down the names in the left hand column, Insect-borne I: Encephalitis. Dengue. Filariasis. I asked for symptoms, though I had heard them dozens of times.
“Really, you two,” Mother scolded. “Really now, stop.”
She didn’t look at him as she laid the shirts in his suitcase, smoothing and smoothing them with her hands.
Father reached for her hand, which she allowed him to take. “Eva, it’s less than a week,” he said.
Mother and I walked him out, and for a while we all stood on the drive, not saying anything—Mother’s eyes red and irritated, her lips pressed into a thin white line—until the airport van drove up. Father turned to her and they hugged hard. “Take care of your mother, Rosie,” he said. Then the door of the van slid open, and he was gone.
Mother wiped her eyes. “Well, that’s that.” But when we let ourselves into the house, she slammed the front door so hard that a picture fell off the wall and broke. “He can’t help loving his work,” she said.
We began counting days—now four, now two—the mornings for chores, the afternoons for the beach. Mother did not go into the water, though she was longing to (“We can’t have your father coming back and finding that you’ve washed away”); instead, she sat with me, reading the news aloud while I dug in the sand.
She read about a woman in New Jersey who, one evening spontaneously burst into flame while sitting in the living room conversing with her husband. All that was left of her was smoke, a pile of ashes, and a pair of shoes.
Mother laughed. “I guess he really burned her up.”
She read about the Incredible Shrinking Wife, who’d lost half an inch every month she was married. There was a picture of her, taken after ten years, sitting in the palm of her husband’s hand.
“Looks like he’s got her right where he wants her.”
She read about an atoll in the Marshalls where the women were birthing sea creatures—diaphanous, strange, with no limbs, no eyes—just mouths and breath. “Atomic legacy?” the headline queried.
I waited for more, but Mother stopped reading and looked up. “That’s enough of that.” She folded the paper and tucked it into her bag.
“Let’s go for a swim!” she cried.
I followed her to where safety stopped and the waves fanned out, in great swooping arcs, across the sand. When I refused to go further, she kneeled with her back toward me. “Come on, be a brave girl, you can do this.” Her tone was mocking, but she promised to go out just a little way, and I climbed on.
She staggered a little beneath my weight. “Hey kid what you been eating?” I tried to get down, but she held on tight. “I’ve got you now.”
She walked in—up to her knees, her thighs, her hips, her breasts, then she was swimming into the glass.
“Can you touch bottom?” I asked.
She answered yes.
She said yes again. And now?….and now? but we were already past the green and into the blue. I gripped hard, and she paused, treading water with her legs, to loosen my hands. She lowered me onto my back.
“I’m right here, be brave.”
I could feel her hands beneath my back. Overhead, a white frigate bird flew past. An airplane, shaped like a jack. The sun was hot upon my face. I pretended I was lying on my own bed, in my own room, looking out my own window. The air fragrant with sweet mango flowers.
“Thatta girl!” A voice called. “You’re doing it, Rosie!”
I turned toward the voice, and reached. Nothing. A swell lifted me up, then down, like breath. The air in my chest began to narrow, as the ocean breathed me up and down.
“Brave girl, that’s the brave girl,” the voice said.
I flipped onto my stomach and began to paddle like a dog, splashing furiously.
“Steady now,” the voice said. Where was it coming from?
The voice said, “Not that way; you’re heading out to sea.”
I tried to shout, making ugly gargling sounds, and sank. Surfaced, flailing. And sank again.
Suddenly, the strong hands of ocean had taken hold. I continued struggling, but the hands did not let go. Ocean scolded, “If you don’t stop that, I’ll let you drown.”
Beneath, I felt the gathering swell, the hands pulling me into the curve of a wave. A tumult of sand and stinging salt. And the ocean, laughing, tossed me out of itself, onto the sand.