She called me Bah-Bah. Everyone else in the family had normal names. Joe. Lily. Ernie. The most exotic, Edith. When I was old enough to understand that this wasn’t a normal name, I asked my mother why she hadn’t called me Sarah. She knew that was my favorite. “Bah-bah black sheep, have you any wool’…she started to sing and then laughed. I didn’t understand. I thought, maybe she was saving my real name until my next birthday. I wondered if she was playing a joke. Like when the family played that joke on Uncle Harry and we moved to a different house while he was in the hospital.
My Aunt Lainey with the mole on her chin and dark hair growing from it like a spike used to say, “Such a little head so full of big thoughts”, and pinch my cheek sharply. She smelled of wilted flowers and spearmint and I didn’t trust her. With the exception of my father I didn’t trust any of the adults. I felt it was my job to keep an eye on these people who called themselves my family and watched them like most kids watched cartoons.
Before he died, my father had an old family movie converted onto DVD for me and this is the first time I’m watching it. It’s late winter and outside my apartment a storm builds an igloo around me. A place to hide. For now.
I look around at the boxes stacked in the corner by the single bed: my notebooks and new design patterns, bags of yarn, knitting needles and tape measure piled into my project bag on top of the desk. I’m moving as soon as the calendar lets me know spring has arrived. I’ll head south again.
There I am as a three-year-old seen through the eyes of a Brownie hand-held movie camera: on a beach in Florida wearing a polka-dot bikini and floppy sun hat. Bending at the waist, small arms swinging back and forth. It’s low tide. The ocean is like a mirage in the distance. I stoop down. The bikini bottom puffs out in the back as I pat the wet rippled sand. Then up straight as a stick, palms facing the camera, fingers wiggling ‘hello’.
The women in the family recline on lounge chairs. They wear one-piece bathing suits and straw hats. The light coming through the little holes in the hats freckles their faces. Their arms and legs shimmer with oil and sweat. Their mouths are darkened with lipstick, their eyes with sunglasses. They lay back, hands moving, rings glinting in the hard July sun. The men sit apart from them smoking cigarettes and playing cards.
I move my dolphin beach towel away from the adults, sit down and unwrap the sandwich my mother has handed me. It was the same every summer, peanut butter and banana – ‘doesn’t go bad’. But the banana was always brown, cooked from the heat. Sometimes when I ate it I felt sick.
Tin foil open like a flower on my lap, I look out there, towards the water. I bite into the sandwich and chew with my mouth open, as if I don’t want to taste it. I keep doing that until – probably bored – I flop over onto my stomach and examine the towel, picking at the loose threads. As a child I tried to imagine what it would be like to touch a real dolphin. If I was there right now I would imagine being a strand of seaweed. Floating and twisting beneath the surface. Silently, gracefully, slipping away; down deep through layers of misty green to a different world.
I stop the film and get up to boil water for tea. I look out the room’s large window. The sky is plastered in gray, driving snow sticks to the glass in clumps. On the inside window ledge are shells I collected from the same beach on my last trip home. That was four years ago. I had planned on making them into a mobile, something to hang from a doorway or window, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I pick up an abalone, run a finger over its shiny ridged surface and wonder if the women still wear false nails. Do they still go en masse to James the hairdresser on Saturdays?
The movie changes. Same beach, high tide. I am older. Maybe six or seven. The same women are grouped together like a school of fish in water up to their necks. The rims of their straw hats quiver as they laugh. They are only heads now. Bobbing buoy heads. I float near them on my fat blue raft, water sloshes into the grooves. I stick my tongue out and taste the salt. One of the women, I think it’s my cousin Tami, tells me to stop. Stop that, it’s disgusting. I don’t stop because it’s not disgusting. The taste always made me hungry. It made me hope that later we would go to the place where I could eat a pile of fried clams with French fries.
Holding on to the sides of the raft, I scoot back until my legs dangle in the water from the knees down. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, sipping tea (something I never liked as a child) I see the plan before it’s put into action. I remember the plan because it was always the same. Kick fast until I am a motorboat passing the buoy heads on my way out to sea. I point my head forward, mouth pressing down onto the salty fabric of the raft’s pillow. I’m moving fast, water splashing everywhere but then, there’s Aunt Spike Hair blocking my way. All the other heads turn towards me. The mouths are straight dark lines. The eyes, black mirrors.
Back on land the camera catches a quick glimpse of my mother leaning forward, holding my arm up by the wrist. She is not smiling. That moment is very clear to me, I know what it meant. Clams and fries disappearing into someone else’s mouth. I imagine she shrugs when I come up in conversation now, if I do come up at all these days, and shakes her head and wonders briefly where I’ve disappeared to.
The snow has stopped. The sun weaves a white and glittering tapestry that spreads itself out over the houses, the buildings and lamp posts. I look beyond the thick icing on cars, the snow-cone trees, past the Interstate and winding through neighborhoods I once knew. Turning down that long ago treed avenue to the place where the sky opens up blue and clear and the tide waits for my return.
‘Float’ originally published in ‘So Long Polyester’ 2013 Labello Press
Revised version (c)2022 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved