Fiction, Vol. 1.3, Dec. 2007
When I was a child, my father flew me to the very best beach on a half-island in the Caribbean. He never said the name of this place out loud, but even then I knew that he’d spent most of his life here before coming to New York.
We were so close to the capitol that my father claimed he could smell oil riding on the wind, sizzling up from all the city’s fried dough stands. For this exact reason he carried a ripe mango and a knife with him everywhere he went. The mango hung from his neck in a pouch he’d created from an old dress shirt and a slowly dying bit of twine. He picked the mango every morning, carved and ate it every night. But mostly he said the scent would encase his head and block the oil.
This beach was narrow, with its colossal waves sometimes carrying sheets of foam that engulfed every bit of you, though not lovingly. On one side of the beach was a cliff; at noon the turquoise water crashed against its rocks for so long that I sometimes wished they would just succumb. My father and I spent many of our nights on that cliff with nomadic strangers who’d built a one-room hut there, made of stringy driftwood and some cardboard. The neo-nomads said they preferred not to employ corrugated metal because it made them feel poor. Sometimes we stayed at the inn a few miles inland, where every room was white, with white floors and sheets and curtains pinned over the gaping, unbarred windows.
On the other side of the beach was a small grove of fruit-bearing trees: lime, mango, banana, honeyberry and sea grape. My father didn’t like me going there, but never said exactly why.
One day, when the tide was low, I waded into the ocean up to my knees with a handful of pebbles. I skipped them in silence, watching the bone-white clouds peel away from the sun. I was upset with my father for not having shared his mango with me the night before. When I ran out of pebbles, I went underwater to look for more, horizontally climbing some coral to keep from floating back up. He never let me play in beds of coral, either, but I couldn’t stay away because the reef looked like a kind of Manhattan, had Manhattan been bleached and melted in one apocalyptic instant.
I put the new pebbles in my pocket, fastened the zipper and turned to swim back toward the shore, but the current turned violent and caught me. One of the little nomadic boys, who lived on the cliff and who wore the same blue and yellow boxers every day, saw what happened. He’d been slicing coconuts at the time and stacking them into pyramids. The boy dropped his machete and ran into the water.
Even almost drowning I noticed the tide rushing over the machete. I didn’t know what to think about his attempt, except that I didn’t want him to save me. So I went under, crawling and grabbing the coral again. It wasn’t until the water became deeper and the open windows of the miniature post-apocalyptic city darkened that I saw a shark swimming ahead. Its skin looked like rubber. Since I’d learned on public television that sharks are less likely to attack than cows, there was no reason to be scared.
The shark ignored me. Once I realized it would never take me away, I had to deliberate on where to go. I could swim back home to New York, but then I would have to circumvent almost the entirety of Hispaniola. South America was out of the question; I could never pick up those dialects that sounded to me like Spanish rewound. The only other option was Puerto Rico.
Instead I waited for the water to calm down, and I floated.
I remembered when my father was dating a young Swiss woman named Patricia, and the one time they had attempted to teach me how to float. We never went out too far, trying only at low tide. Patricia would stand tall in the water, the very tips of her long greenish-yellow hair swinging against the complicated ropes of her bikini. She would smoke cigarettes from a box she’d fastened to her upper arm with a rubber band and her lips would end up rippled, her voice bent and low because of all the salt and smoke. When she was around my father wanted to smoke, too. And even though sometimes they got caught up with kissing, and with where to put their cigarettes once they were finished, and even though they’d get bored of teaching me, I learned how to float anyway. After that I turned into the best floater of any given group. In the years to come, when my mother would burn my passport in one of her furies and I’d be reduced to frequenting the overly- chlorinated community pool, off-duty lifeguards would approach me and say, “I almost thought you died, girl. That’s how good you are.”
So, I floated. The sky looked like rain —you know rain is coming in the Caribbean when the clouds sink close enough to blanket you. The gray itself cooled my skin. After a time I still can’t calculate, I fell into a trance and was surprised to wake up colliding with the sandy beach floor the way an airplane bumps against the runway when it lands.
The sun had already set when I left the water. Chilled air pecked at my arms but what I wanted more than anything was a soda. It would hit the salt on my tongue and they’d neutralize each other, tasting like the best thing that’s ever happened to anyone. Wet sand hugged and sucked the bottoms of my feet, and in it I could see the faint reflection of an orange light on the cliff. Usually the neo-nomads built a campfire for a supper, cooking sausages and unwrapping bloated water biscuits from their glossy cellophane, and my father would repay their hospitality with his old-fashioned charisma. He’d finger their cordless radio and in less than a minute find a station playing oldies bachata, the perfect backdrop to good if not passionate conversation. They’d talk through rounds of warm German beer, which everyone agreed complemented the sausage in a way that Presidente, the national beer, never could. My father knew the lyrics to everything. He’d recite Neruda’s famous love poems and their translations, and with every word offer the kind of undiluted, wholesome smile you only ever saw on mid-century TV shows like American Bandstand. His demeanor was like the sweetly stale milk I hated to drink right from the coconut the way everyone else did, including the European tourists.
The impromptu benches the nomads had once made out of logs, tires, and old soda crates were still unoccupied as the fire played against them like an old, crackly film. Something about the scene, though faraway, made the air colder. I couldn’t just show up there without my father because I never spoke to the nomads; even though some of them spoke some English, they still intimidated me with their sand-scrubbed flesh and gnarled hair. I’d have to find him first.
I stumbled through the hairs of beach grass and weathered crab carcasses, trudging toward the collective silhouette of palm trees, past which my father had parked his car. I stopped once to squint at a half-buried wedge of fried dough. Without sunlight, the sand half covering it looked cinnamon-colored in the dark; it could ruin my teeth, but I was so hungry. On top of everything I had to go to the bathroom. Orinador —that’s what adults called the toilet. As if it were a huge rectangular thing with blinking buttons, cogs and wheels, or some terrible villain.
At the foot of a nearby palm tree, something skinny and white pressed out of the dark. A skeleton. Its ribs were planted in the sand like it had been there a while —each clean rib bending cruelly at its peak. Sitting inside this bone fence was my father’s mango pouch. None of the firelight reached this far, but the bones seemed blue-white on their own as if already underwater.
Wave crests fell silent against the cliff. In a while the campfire would die untended, and eventually clouds in passing would mute all light from the sky. And there would only be the stench of oil drifting in off the highway. Already, I could smell it.