Sailfish

“If we tip over, make sure you stay underwater and swim away from the boat.” 

My mom emphasized away with her left hand as she unconsciously maneuvered the rudder of our old SailFish with her right. I looked up nervously at the twelve-foot high sail, pulled tight and bowed to the breeze. I held onto a piece of rope she handed me at the beginning of our little excursion.

“Don’t let this go, alright? If I ask for some slack, give me some slack.” I nodded. 

 It was my first sailing lesson with her, and the most time I’d gotten with her that summer of 2002. She was a busy, up-and-coming real estate agent and most days were spent at Nan and Pop’s house by myself or with my brother until she got back from the office. When she asked if I wanted to learn how to sail I jumped to the occasion. It wasn’t more of a question, but rather, “Get in the boat or don’t but I’m leaving the shore either way.”

“If you do come up too close to the boat,” she continued, “you can get stuck under the sails and you’ll suffocate and drown because you’ll be panicking the whole time. Try not to panic, okay?”

I nodded cautiously as she squinted at the reflection of the sun as it bounced off the creek. I absorbed every warning she gave me – she did know best – and spent the rest of our sailing lesson in fear of the sails that could very well kill me. She gestured at me to move to the far side of the eighteen-foot boat and her hand relaxed on the ropes. Wind caught in the sails and all at once we pitched to one side. I braced my feet in the middle of the boat and held my breath. My mom sat in the back and effortlessly guided us through the strait of the creek, wind blowing her box-dye hair and messing up her usually tamed hairspray bangs. She had no fear in her eyes. In fact, they were closed. She had sailed the creek for thirty years before I joined her that day, so she didn’t need to see where she was going. She was the creek. She tilted her head up towards the sky and I watched her open up to the world and be in love with the moment. I felt myself ease my grip from the side of the boat. As the wind let up the boat slowed down, she looked at me and smiled, refreshed and new.

The creek was supposed to heal us. I believed it was magic for so many years because any time there was something wrong, the remedy was to simply go swim in the water. If there was too much sand on our feet, we’d dip them in and shake our legs around until it dusted off and floated gently home to the bottom of the creek. If our feet were scuffed up and calloused, we soaked them silently and patiently, and waited until tiny fish came up and ate the dead skin from between our toes. If we were injured while playing around the neighborhood, or if we stepped on a broken clamshell – or if we got splinters the size of posts stuck in our hands – Nan would send us away to the water’s edge.

“Go sit in the drink,” she said. “Go soak in the salt water. Salt water will clean it out.”

I took my cut up foot, or my splintered hand, and waded out into the brown-green drink, the drink that made the pain go away after a salty sting first met the wounds. And Nan was right – first the salt water would burn and then it would soothe. The cuts would turn white and after a few minutes of soaking I would study the depth of them and bake on the dock until my skin pulled tightly around me in a hug.

The water was iridescent on top and impossible to see beneath at a depth greater than a few inches. Sometimes I would cannonball off the float at the end of the dock, or off the back of the boat, and let all the air out of my body once I was submerged. I tried to remain tight and balled up, suspended in the black and the silence – away from everything except my thoughts and the fish below me. Then I’d pop back up eventually and break the surface, and stretch out on my back and float along the creek. I listened to what the water had to say, muffled and slow in my ears. I took in the drink. Calm and heavy from the salty thick water I paddled my way back to the dock and dried my skin again until it was too hot to sit still.

The adults floated in the drink, in different ways. Nan was self conscious so she would dip her toes into the water; I only saw her swim in a bathing suit a handful of times before she died. She had breast cancer and lost her left breast to a mastectomy. She stuffed the left cup of her bra with tissues or padding if she had to venture out into the world, or go to Bingo Tuesday, or go to church. The mastectomy scar was never visible in her bathing suit, but her radiation scars were tendrils that crawled out from underneath her straps and made themselves a part of her bold floral swimwear. When she did go take a dip in the drink she would go alone at sunset, as if she had a pre-arranged date with the water. Her intimate encounter left us kids as well as Pop in the house or on the deck so she could enjoy the solitude of the brine and converse with nature or the sun or God. She dipped under once or twice, a baptism. Pop didn’t mind sharing her with the creek – “My girl,” he always called her. He and Nan had been together since 1936, or 37 or 38, so he knew he’d never lose her to another.

Pop was unashamed of his body. His back was covered in broad white zig-zag scars from World War Two, and his belly was old but not fat, also folded over with many large scars that met at his belly button and went up and across, down and to the side, all from surgeries he had since he got home from Germany in 1945. He frequented his opened button-down shirt – or would forgo the shirt altogether – and place himself in front of an ancient oscillating fan. He sat quietly and patiently, his specialty. If he could no longer take the heat, he’d walk out to the dock until he reached the end like someone walking up the aisle of a church, and he’d submerge himself into the water – one dip – and dry off and come back inside. 

The adults took in a different kind of drink as well, and often. One of the first words I learned to read was Scotch, another Whiskey, another Bacardi, and another Glenfiddish, which I frequently mispronounced as Glen-fish and Glen-finch. It smelled awful to me, but Nan and Pop drank it everyday after dinner. A couple of ice cubes in a fancy crystal tumbler – it wasn’t a glass, it was a tumbler, I was told. Nan would mix hers with water and it reminded me of pee. Pop would sometimes mix his with water, or just sip it straight. They sat with matching drinks, in matching chairs, with matching coasters that were plastic and had green felt circles in the middle. The fan whirred between them, the tumblers sweating together. I never knew what time they went to bed even when my brother and I slept there; they were always frozen in those chairs, in my eyes. Relaxed, sailing along in the evening, healed. 

My dad rarely drank the liquor in Nan and Pop’s house. He was more of a beer person, with tastes varying from German to American, light or not. My mom, known for her room temperature glasses of blush-colored boxed Franzia wine, fancy in its long-stemmed glass and always accompanied by a cigarette, traded her pinks for a tall glass of Bacardi rum and Diet Coke. I was not fond of the smell of Bacardi either, and I didn’t entirely favor the taste of Diet Coke – but she drank from the moment she greeted my grandparents until my brother and I put our shoes on to go back home for the evening.

I noticed those nights, she looked different in her drink. We were mostly only at Nan and Pop’s house on Sunday night for dinner – maybe two or three more days a week during the summertime – but her eyes were not the same on those days. She didn’t have the slow, relaxed, cat-like glances with her shimmery green eyes peering the reflective black creek water. Instead she was foggy, frosted glass and tension. The wind was often either out of her sails, or too much in them and she would return home with us just to fall asleep curled on the couch, or become combative with my dad. I didn’t know this is what being drunk was, or that my mom often was drunk around me.

The adults were able to imbibe as often as they wished on the spicy-smelling drinks. Always with or after dinner – maybe it was for digestion, or maybe as a grown-up I would want a drink instead of ice cream. All I wanted to get my hands on was a glass or two of Coca Cola or off-brand Root Beer from the sale aisle, and I often had to wait for Sunday dinner to do so. For Sunday brunch, though, I watched with equal parts repulsion and intrigue as my aunt mixed together vodka – “Shhhmirnoff,” she joked – with tomato juice, horseradish, ice cubes…celery? Each pour was calculated, almost scientific. She stirred with the celery, licked the end and then took a large bite before placing the stalk back into the tall crystal glass. 

“What is that?” I cringed and looked at her as she took a deep drink of her beverage. I hated pulp in my orange juice, I thought as I watched her down tomato and vodka with horseradish. Horseradish pulp, I thought. I cringed some more. Horseradish was good with ketchup for cocktail shrimp. It wasn’t a drink.

“It’s a Bloody Mary,” she replied. She pursed her lips and then smacked them together as if the drink was not good but also necessary to her, like medicine. 

“D’you mean like Mary, Mother of God?” I was learning about these people in my Catechism class and Sunday school; we were Roman Catholics and it was generally taken very seriously. 

“Yeah, but Bloody because it’s alcohol.”

“So it’s a sin?”

“No, it’s vodka,” she said.

I thought about the Blood of Christ, wine we had to drink at Sunday mass (I wasn’t allowed to drink it, though), and wondered if a Bloody Mary was the home version of that. I then decided to stop asking so many questions and go drink my pulp-free orange juice and wait for things that were good, like bacon and Pop’s scrambled eggs. If we stayed long enough, my brother and I may have gotten in a glass of soda,  or an Oreo if Nan felt generous with her personal stash of cookies. On these mornings, my mom drank only coffee with sugar and milk. She told me she also thought Bloody Mary’s were gross. She also waited until a certain time to partake in things that were indulgent.

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