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Swimming Toward the Ocean

Part One

I imagine my mother straightening the decks of cards, then lining up the Parcheesi game with the Chinese checkers board before she takes my sister's jump rope off the closet shelf. She doesn't lock the apartment door when she leaves. In her backless slippers, she walks up two flights, clopping with each step. The door to the roof is heavy. She has to pull hard to open it. Only a few pyramids of snow remain from the storm a few days earlier, in recesses that the sun fails to reach. My mother wears a cotton dress, short sleeves, no coat, although it's November. Thanksgiving, almost. It doesn't matter that she's cold. It might help, she thinks.

She only wishes she had changed into regular shoes. She leaves her slippers by the door and, in her bare feet, mounts the cracked marble stair. Stepping out onto the tar, she sucks in her breath from the shock of cold. Like ice, she thinks. And then, So what?

In an open space between the wash lines, she takes the jump rope by its bright red handles, one in each hand. She snaps an arc of twisted hemp over her head. Jumps and lands on two feet. Her wrists rotate, and the rope flies up behind her, over her head again. She jumps and jumps. Her soles sting. When she tires, she lands on one foot, then the other. She doesn't notice the brilliant blue sky, the roof of the building across Brighton 8th Street, the Parachute Jump in the distance. She snaps the rope over her head, lets it graze the tar before her feet lift and land. Again and again. Faster now. Faster. Faster. From her half-open mouth come cloudlike puffs of visible cold. She tries to ignore the sharp pain in her chest. The cold sears her lungs. Gasping for air, she lets the rope drop from her hands. She bends over, one hand on her belly, the belly where I've been growing for the past five weeks.

It is two days later. My mother empties a tin of mustard powder into the stream of hot water flowing from the faucet. As the bath runs she removes her nightgown. She hangs it on the hook behind the door and catches sight of herself in the mirror over the sink. The gray streak in her light brown hair. Old, she thinks. Forty-five. She gathers the hair from her neck into a hair net, uses three hairpins to secure the net to her crown.

I have no hair yet. My head is huge. I am just beginning to form a face--eyes, nose, mouth. My mother asks the face in the mirror, "Why did this have to happen?" She thinks of the boy up the street who sits by the window, twirling a straw, day after day. A late-born child. She calls him a boy, but he is large like a man, full-grown, and all he does is sit and twirl.

My mother steps out of her backless slippers and plunges one foot into the tub. "Oy!" She yanks it out. Her leg is a rosy pink. It burns. She shuts off the tap and drains the water to a depth of six inches. With one hand on the tile wall to brace herself, she lowers herself slowly into the steamy bath. It stinks of mustard. She spreads her legs out before her and, with both hands, scoops the cloudy water toward me. I am immersed in a bath of my own: amniotic fluid, at just the right temperature. I have a tub of my own, an amniotic sac within her belly. I float.

Sometimes when my mother is in the kitchen, her body shakes. She cries. She asks God questions, out loud. I cannot hear her. I have no ears yet. No skull bones. I cannot answer. She thinks of words such as: too late, split second, mistake.

She remembers the night my father came home early from playing cards: He zips around so lively she can tell by his cockiness he's won some money. He won't tell her how much. He never does. She's awake when he reaches for her, his determined fingers sliding under her nightgown, up inside her fleshy thigh. She rolls onto her back. His mustache grazes her upper lip, and then they're joined, one to the other. Usually he pulls out of her and ejaculates on the sheet laid over a quilted pad. This time he spills partly inside her. Right away she goes to the bathroom and bears down hard, as if to expel me into the toilet. Then she tries to flush me out with a douche, extra hot.

Now she takes the red rubber bag from the cabinet one more time, fills it again with boiling vinegar, hangs it from the shower curtain rod.

I have been gestating for six weeks when my mother goes to the doctor. My father is with her. He asks her how much it will cost. "Nu, if I could tell the future," she says, "would we be sitting here?" The nurse calls her in. Her heart beats faster. Mine beats twice as fast as hers, little butterfly flutters.

In the waiting room my father studies Rocky Marciano in Life magazine, the boxing gloves poised midair. In his office the doctor assesses my mother's charms: good legs, good skin, clean. He likes the scrubbed look in women. Though she smells of garlic, she isn't dirty like some immigrants, and she understands English, even if her Yiddish accent is thick. She says "tink" for think, and "vot" for what. "Got" for God. He listens to her speak now, a prepared speech.

"Doctor, you told me last week, 'Think it over.' Okay, now I tell you and God what I think. What I think is no." She waves both hands in front of her. "No baby," she says.

The doctor tilts his head and says, "What's more beautiful than a baby?" He's thinking, Betty Grable in When My Baby Smiles at Me. He studies her small, silky face, her huge, heaving bosom. "You're married. You're healthy. What are you worried about?" he asks.

Plenty, she thinks, but doesn't say.

Inside her is a litany of reasons. She has two children already, one of each sex. There's hardly money enough for them as is. At long last they're in school, and she's too old to start over. Close to fifty. And what if the baby is retarded? That's all she needs. Lately she and my father aren't getting along so good. Not because he never helps her around the house. When wasn't that the case? But now he goes out all the time and leaves her home. To play cards, he says. To make a little extra money. They can't afford a baby-sitter, he says, and anyway he doesn't trust them.

"Doctor, to tell the truth, I'm very exhausted," my mother says. "You have no idea."

"Eat more red meat," the doctor advises. She also reminds him of Lana Turner, the ivory skin, the way she wears her shoulder-length hair in a net bag, though it's light brown, not blond.

"I can give you an injection," he tells her. "It'll stimulate a miscarriage." He can't bring himself to use the word abortion. He's risking his medical license as it is. "You know you'll suffer a lot when you're old," he tells her. He means physically. "Is that what you want?"

She doesn't waver for an instant. "Please, doctor, let's get it over."

While he prepares the needle, my mother imagines herself half a mile away, swimming toward the ocean. The sun is waking up over the horizon. She cuts a graceful figure, breaking the waves like a torpedo. With my paddlelike hands, I row clumsily in an ocean of darkness.

My mother tries not to think about what I look like now, what parts of me are already formed. But as the needle goes into her buttock, she imagines a teeny doll. She closes her eyes. My eyes are pits in the skull.

Afterwards the doctor says the injection can take up to twenty-four hours to work, sometimes longer. My father smiles when my mother emerges, looking pale and serious. He kisses her on the cheek. "We're much better off," he says. She walks with him to the elevated where he takes the BMT to Manhattan, to his job in the garment factory. Already he's lost half a day's pay.

My mother walks along Mermaid Avenue. She glances at the barrels of pockmarked fruits and vegetables, the ice beds of fish with eyes staring at nothing. Her hands are dug deep into her coat pockets, cradling my yolk sac. She walks and walks, exhaling contrails of frosty air. From time to time she glances at her watch, her engagement present from my father, twenty years before. She has to be home when my brother and sister return from school.

Checking her watch again, she realizes it has stopped. She finds a clock in a candy store. Two minutes to three. She starts to run. What will they do when they ring the bell and nobody answers? she thinks. Gevalt! They don't have keys to get in. Terrible, to lock out her own children. She runs and runs.

At Coney Island Hospital she has to stop to catch her breath. She looks up at the brown brick facade as if it's a warning to her. She hopes the pain won't be too bad.

My sister and brother are sitting on the stoop when my mother arrives. My sister is crying hysterically. "Where were you?" she asks. "I thought something terrible happened."

"Kholilleh!" my mother says. God forbid!

My brother looks calm but relieved.

"I had to go with Papa to the doctor," my mother says. "His upset stomach. Men are such babies. Come, we go for a nosh."

At the ice cream parlor, she lets them get expensive malteds. So what if she has to cut back a little on groceries, she thinks. Feeling reckless, she orders a banana split.

At home, my mother gathers together a pile of rags, washcloths, and towels. She hopes she won't have a hemorrhage.

My sister asks what she's doing with all the rags. My mother says, "If you must know, it's that time of month." She doesn't say she's waiting for the bloody end of her baby.

That night my mother is awake when my father comes home, but she pretends to be asleep. In the morning she examines her pish in the toilet bowl, looking for blood. Nothing.

For a week after, my mother wakes up each day and puts her hand on her belly. Please, she thinks. Make something happen. She lifts her knees to her chest, boosts her hips up with her hands, and extends her legs into the air, one at a time. She does a hundred bicycle kicks, hoping to shake me loose.

Nothing happens.

I'm hungry all the time now. I suck more and more nourishment from her placenta. Her umbilical cord is my straw. My mother is also hungry all the time. She knows she should starve me, but she devours pints of cherry vanilla ice cream. She drinks quarts of milk. She finishes all the spinach and peas my sister won't eat. Waiting for my father to come home, she makes herself a midnight sandwich of American cheese. She becomes addicted to Ritz crackers with peanut butter, banana slices topped with raspberry preserves. In the morning she squeezes halves of oranges, turning them clockwise around the green glass juicer. She strains out the pulp and picks out the seeds. Sometimes she puts the seeds into the dirt of the snake plant, hoping they will sprout.

Every day my father asks her, "Anything?" and after she shakes her head no, he makes clucking sounds of regret. Else he doesn't speak.

One night after dinner my father puts on his good suit.

"You're dressing up to play cards?" my mother says.

He grunts.

"What kind of answer is that? You could talk to me at least."

He grunts again.

"I want to know," she says. "Where are you going?"

"None of your business."

"None of my business?" Her voice rises. "You're not my husband? Excuse me, what's between us certainly it's my business."

He slaps her so hard she stumbles back and falls onto their bed. She sits up slowly, her hand on her cheek.

In front of the mirror my father knots his tie.

My mother flings a pillow at his back. "What kind of man are you?" she yells to his image in the glass. "A paskudnyak! To hit a woman, to hit me, your wife with a baby here." She covers her belly with her palms. "Only a parech--" A lowlife.

She flings the words at him and pretends to spit, ptooh, ptooh, until he turns and raises his arm as if to strike again, but all he means to do is silence her. Just now he wishes he were elsewhere, in the arms of Trudy Fleisch.

With one hand on the cheek where he struck her, my mother hurries to the bathroom, her open slippers clopping as she goes. She hunches over the sink. How can she have this baby? she asks herself. Her husband doesn't love her. She opens the medicine cabinet and surveys the shelves: Colgate tooth powder, Pond's Cold Cream, Vaseline, Ben-Gay, Milk of Magnesia. There are only six Bayers left in the bottle. She could never swallow the Prell. Or the Mercurochrome. When she comes out of the bathroom, my father is gone. She cries herself to sleep.

The next morning, after my brother and sister leave for school, my mother goes for a walk on the Boardwalk. It's her favorite thing to do in the summers, to take in the salt air. To take in the life that bustles along the length of the wooden planks: Old people coming and going from the Brighton Baths. Mothers with strollers. Teenagers heading with their love blankets to the beach. Children stuffing their mouths with sticky cotton candy or balls of caramel corn. Gawking tourists, lured by the Bearded Lady. Laughing sailors, happy to be back after the war in Korea, trying their luck in other ways. As they aim feathered darts at balloons, she thinks of the mothers whose sons never came home. "Tsores tsezhegen di hartz," she says out loud to herself. Trouble cuts up the heart.

In front of the sky-high Parachute Jump, she never tires of watching the soldiers egg each other on. Two by two they go, strapped into a little swing, two strips of canvas for a back. Overhead is a canopy of folded-up silk. Each swing is attached by cables to the latticed steel tower. It reminds my mother of oil derricks she's seen in newsreels. At the top, its girders fan out like a flower. Wherever she is in Coney Island, she can always see the Parachute Jump. To her it's the Empire State Building of Brooklyn.

Soon the soldiers rise to the very peak, maybe fifteen stories up, their feet dangling in open air. There's a popping sound as the parachute bursts open, and the men plummet to what seems like certain death. She stays until the soldiers are safely back, the seat bouncing hard from the sudden stop. Afterwards she treats herself to one paper cone of Nathan's crinkled French fries. That's all she can afford.

Excerpted from Swimming Toward the Ocean by Carole L. Glickfeld Copyright 2002 by Carole L. Glickfeld. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Swimming Toward the Ocean
by by Carole L. Glickfeld

  • paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0385721765
  • ISBN-13: 9780385721769