There you go again, running reckless into the ocean. Body all slick with baby oil, hair pulled back tight. Your skin was fragile; the color of parchment, but you never feared the sun. You didn’t cower from the inevitable burning; rather, you sought it out, took it like sacrament. The years were an overcoat you were desperate to shed, and now all you wanted was to feel something. Later, I’d spend an hour slathering Noxema on your back (you feel this?), but now, right now, you smoked your roach down to the clip and dove into the water. Left your clothes behind. The boys wolf-whistled, wiped the froth from above their lips. The homegirls rolled their eyes with exaggeration, crossed their legs and inspected their talons. Taking a swig from the boys’ 40s, they said, you ain’t getting none now. Come on, baby, don’t be like that, the boys said, all suave. Don’t be withholding.
The sky was cloudless. The waves receded. Nothing would dare interrupt you.
Before you left, you teased me, said, imagine if I don’t make it back. Imagine if I drown. Back then this threat frightened me, but now I realize that you’d never settle for a meager curtain call. Yours was a plane hurtling into the ocean, of a great machine crackling and hissing with black fire. Of wings floating and somber men narrating the six o’clock news. You were a woman who would not go quietly.
Before your sister crawled into cabinets and closets in search of the bottles she hid, she buoyed me up in a three-foot pool and taught me how to swim. Back then everything I owned had to be mint green, and I remember the moment she surprised me with a terry cloth swimsuit in my beloved hue. I remember you scowling, taking deep drags of a Pall Mall, and spitting out the word fancy. In response, your sister laughed and whispered in my ear, everything always needs to be about her.
I took to the water instantly; I liked the confines of the rectangular pool and how it swathed me like a cool blanket. But the ocean was different. It was a sentence that would not complete. It would not be contained, measured, reduced to a simple scarf on a child’s neck. Rather, it would swallow flying machines whole. That summer, I’d watch all the bodies emerging from the surf, and they looked as if they’d return from war or a night cruising the strip, hair all webbed and matted, eyes red, the cold snaking their limbs in bumps.
Why would I crawl, so willingly, into a coffin? But you were at home in the water; setting up shop, ready to do business.
When you were the age I am now, your grandmother stomped on your head, broke your jaw in two places, and locked you in the bathroom. Because that’s what you get, Roach, when you drink all the milk. You hate milk. She didn’t let you out until your brother complained that the neighbors ran out of toilet paper. Your mother collapsed in a chair, crying, said, someone is bound to figure this shit out. Behind the locked door, you refused to flinch or cry out in pain. You wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of your tears.
One day you will be strong enough to wreck things.
Years later, I wondered aloud if there were hospital records, police reports, photographs. Evidence of the beatings, pictures of the chunks of hair you claimed had been ripped out of your head. Because the woman I met in that diner, the woman with the red hair from one of the Dakotas, who broke down in front of her cheeseburger, let it go cold, let the blood eddy at the edge of her plate, didn’t seem like the kind of woman who would allow… She was not a woman who would permit…
What? You don’t believe me?
I didn’t say that.
Be lucky that we don’t look like her. Be lucky that we look like us.
What does that even mean?
It’s cold. Shadows cast over the book I’d been reading, one in a series about blonde girls with credit cards. They drove fast cars, wore silk blouses, and lived in houses with two floors. Panic was breaking curfew. Tragedy was selling the pearls and the minks. Forced to wear cotton and bow out of boarding school, the blondes pressed their hair, frantic, and wondered how they’ll live and whether they’d be found out. Because there’s nothing worse than being poor, of having to buy your chicken from a bodega, of having to hopscotch over the jaundiced bodies, of climbing down fire escapes on rent day, of having to wait on line for the check, of having to hear, we don’t accept food stamps here, of watching the mice eat the food right out of the traps.
But in the end, the stock market never crashed, money mysteriously appeared, and everything had been set to rights. White people, we knowingly nodded.
The sun settled into the waves that had turned black. The boys turned down the volume, shook out their towels and finished off their beers. I need to get me some Nathan’s, the girls said, with conviction. The boys laughed, pulled at their shorts, and said, I’ll save you the 59 cents.
Where are you?
I noticed a man sleeping behind the rocks. Curled up against the moss, the flies arranged themselves around his body in the shape of a halo. The rocks were a muted grey, drilled with holes that gave the appearance of eyes, from which ants traveled in and out. I wanted to lean in and check for signs of life, but you had warned me about the men. Always sleeping. Always jerking off. Don’t get too close.
It’s not like I hadn’t seen a dead body before.
Let’s go, you said. Now. I threw my books, towels, and beach pail into a trash bag while you made a break for the boardwalk. My footfalls caused a pigeon riot; they abandoned the remains of half-eaten hot dogs and tepid cheese fries to seek shelter.
This would forever be a cyanotype of us, you running, and me coughing ash in your wake. There will be a day when I catch up, meet you, and then leave you behind. Look at all the life jackets in my trash bag and the rope in my hand. There will be a time when I stand on the shoreline watching you cut through the water, determined to beat the undertow, and I won’t be able to pull you back in. You’d spent your whole life swimming, and you still needed something on which to cling. Still.
On the boardwalk, I heard someone call your name. Maggie. Is that any way to treat an old friend? The way he said friend. The seagulls come like swallows.
Come the fuck on, you hissed. How is it that you’d managed to light a cigarette? And smoke it?
On the bus you said, that was close.
We lived where the night could get in. Sometimes I’d wake and imagine our furniture floating, our cat pawing the surface for air, and all my books anchored to the floor, opened to page eight. Our home was a river, and we were forbidden to let out more than what poured in. Those were the rules.
Your room was dark save the glare from the black and white television set casting a white line beneath the locked door. I learned to keep the lights out because the dark brings out roaches. Once, eyes filled with sleep, I slipped into the kitchen, flicked the switch and saw a swarm of them coming out of the drain.
I wondered how the blondes would handle vermin. Would they find practical ways to snuff them out? Credit card impalement, cashmere suffocation, or death by tennis racket, or would their bodies warble like a note held for too long to only fall and collapse in a wave, receding into darkness?
What if I had turned the man over? Body all molten, eyes bleached, a face full of barnacles, I would find a trace of your activity in ten years time. This is what happens when I wind the clocks forward – I find you considering permanent attachments.
You waited for signs of life to wash by; your legs, now spindly, now barbed wire, hitchhike. You cleaved, burrowed and attached yourself to anyone who yielded. This is how you settled. You were a siren, calling all the sailors to shipwreck.
Out of the river, I will find my way. I will say the word orphan. I will get a knife. I will cut, dig and scrape. There will definitely be blood. Here are the scars that will be you.
I’m patient. I can wait.