I Wanted to Catch a Whale
first appeared in Litro, Volume 158
I dipped my toes in the Atlantic today, holding you tightly in one arm, your feet kicking at my hips. It’s been years since I’d done that. Felt the salt on my body, the way it dries out your skin when you leave the water behind. What was once a daily occurrence has now become a special treat for me. This is not because I don’t want to do it. I think about the water every day, at home when the dry heat burns my skin like fire. But not here, in this land of perpetual summer. Here, the humidity feels as if you’re slowly being smothered by a wet towel, heavy and suffocating. I am never able to dry off. In this house the sheets are sticky with sweat. When I pull the covers over my legs, pocked with mosquito bites that itch and bleed and wake me up in the morning, they stick to me. They absorb my sweat and feel damp.
This house is empty. For most of the year, it sits vacant. After the fullness Labor Day brings, as summer becomes overripe and ready to turn, we close it up for the fall and winter seasons. Beds are stripped and curtains tied shut. I never see the old glass windows with the frost of winter, never feel the linoleum cold beneath my feet, never pull the blankets up high and tight under my chin. When the warm air of early June feels pregnant with the possibilities that summer holds, we return to this house. My father drives drives us there and leaves for work, returning on weekends with the rest of the men of our family, and we go up to the room we share with my mother. In this house everything is just as we left it last summer. In the summer this house is filled with women and children, from my great-grandmother and more aunts than there are names to my sister and I.
Everything in this house is damp. Sheets, towels, curtains, the clothes on the line that blow in the breeze under the moon. In this house the floors are covered with sand. There is sand in the bottom of the pink bathtub downstairs and the blue shower upstairs. The shower has tile that is cracked, the grout crumbling away and mixing in with the sand under my feet. The sheets are gritty with sand. Even after I’ve showered, rinsed the last bit of sea salt off my body, rinsed the seaweed out of my hair — or so I think — I find sand on my sheets. Sand is speckled on the floor in front of the refrigerator, sprinkled like salt on top of my grandmother’s soup. Sand is mixed in with my memories of this place, of this time, and I’m no longer sure what is sand and what is real. I grasp these memories tighter as they slip through the cracks of my fingers.
In this house, everything is dirty and old. When I was little my sister and I would fight over who got our favorite plate, with gold trim and a delicate pink rose painted in the center. In this house we hand wash our dishes because no one can afford a dishwasher, so little bits of food stick on the edges of our dishes and inside our glasses with each wash. Everything is second hand. Though they are beautiful, the plates once belonged to people who did not want them, who decided they were not good enough. My aunts have collected the plates and glasses they no longer wanted in their own homes and brought them here. Nothing matches. Green juice glasses with cracks in the bottom and tall, clear highball glasses with crests of other people’s families etched on the side. We do not have money, but we do not not have money. We have this house. We have a swing set, rusted and busted. We have a backyard filled with trees and enough grass to run around on, and it is enough. We have fans in our rooms to help with the stale, smoldering heat. When the fans are not enough my grandmother sits at my bedside and fans me with a newspaper as I sleep. She rubs ice cubes on the bottom of my feet, and it is enough. We have Friday night pizza and spinach pops and garlic knots, from the place that burned down when they could no longer afford to keep it open. In this house, it is enough to make believe with desks and a playhouse picked up from someone else’s yard like garbage. One person’s trash is another person’s treasure, my mother said, though she is not allowed in this house anymore.
The water is always a little colder than I remember it growing up, like the first bit of ice cream that makes your head hurt a little, in the good way. My toes feel it first, little needles prickling my toes, then my ankles, them my calves and knees. I don't hesitate, but embrace it, walking in further and further until the bottoms of my rolled up jeans are wet and salty with sea water. I tip-toe over the sand, more cautious than I used to be. In everything, I’m more cautious than I used to be. Where once I would have ripped off my dress, tossed it onto the dock into a pile of sand and seawater, today I do not. Today I wade in slowly but unable to stop and as the water laps at my calves I cry. When I was a girl and we arrived at the beach for the day, I always ran. Kicked off the shoes my mother made me wear, tore off my cover up and threw my towel onto the sand. Sandwiches could wait. Lemonade could wait. It was as if the water was calling me, whispering my name with each rush at the shore, tossing it onto the earth along with the seaweed. The sand would kick up behind me, little rocks digging into the soles of my feet every now and again. I’d look down and try to avoid the bits of sea glass when I could. The little cuts always hurt the most until they turn into one big gash, deep, oozing onto the sand.
I took you to the water today. Your little arms reached towards the water, fingers extended, stretching, as if trying to catch a brass ring from a carousel. I held on to you tight. I hold on to you too tightly, I know, hold on to everything too tightly. Each experience is gripped with everything I have, desperate to not let it go. As if they could drift away. I took you to the water today and I bounced you in my arms until you were asleep and then I threw you in the water. The water rose and waned. My love for you rises and wanes. I asked you what you wanted to catch in your fish net and you said a whale. It was so beautiful I cried. My mother tells me I am too young to carry the weight of so many memories. I am too young to turn towards the past with an aching openness. I talk as if I am on my deathbed. I think as if tomorrow is the end of my life and all I can muster in my mind is how quickly it all went, how your time is so different from mine. I mourn the loss of things before they are cold and buried in the ground.
When I was little we caught fireflies in glass jars. I open the lids to let them fly in the house and my mother glances at my sister and says I'll never be as much as her daughter. We drowned in the pool, rescued by fathers in suits at dinnertime. We ate ice cream from three-fingered ice cream truck drivers, the sticky sweet cream dripping down fingers only to be washed off by even stickier saltwater. We picked berries from thorny branches until our fingers bled and we licked them, unable to tell the difference between blood and juice. We broke windows with balls and played hide-and-seek in the dark, when only the stars could see where we were hiding. We hid nothing. We threw bricks in the water and dared jellyfish to sting us. We baked cakes of sand and played with sea glass. We rubbed lemons over our hair. We caught minnows in nets and buried them alive in the sand. Our uncles handed us lit sparklers and we gripped them tight in our little hands, pieces of fire landing on the stones around our toes. We swung to the moon and never looked down. We poured salt over slugs and watched them shrivel up, amused by their suffering.
In this house, I had a sister and she loved me forever. We cut limes in half and rubbed them in sugar, sucking them dry. My sister had curls spring out of her head like my grandmother’s pasta she spooned into our bowls on Sundays. We made plans for our lives to align, to make husbands out of boys and make babies out of love. She wrote lines for me to say and I said them all. My sister was made in her mother's image. My sister was black and I was white, and I made myself grey to be more like her. We whispered secrets in the dark and shared a twin bed even when we were too old to do so. She threw a party and her friend slipped his fingers inside me and I bit his shoulder to keep from screaming. My sister sucked me dry, and now my juices have run out. These memories keep me up at night, eat me up inside. The fireflies in my jar have flickered out the last of their light.
Having you has been like starting over. Your childhood will be stitched together of your own experience. It will not be a continuation of mine, as I had once hoped and not understood. These are the things I wanted for you once. To know the love of many and the joy of summers. To catch fireflies in jars and drown in the ocean. To hide under the stars and get sticky with love. To be smothered by heat and your family. To run wild with the air and cut your feet on sea glass. To pick blackberries until your fingers are stained from juice and finger pricks in the brambles.
The house is gone now. I still mourn the loss of the house every summer, when the air grows thick with sea salt and mosquitos bite at my skin. My sister is gone now, slipped beyond my reach, carried out to the open sea by the tide, by our mistakes and broken hearts. But in my dreams we are bare belied to the sun, bronzed, Africa's children. In my dreams we were together forever. Our children played together, hiding in the dark and falling down stairs. In my dreams the heat is still smothering and the sheets are still sticky and the floors are still sandy and you run around the house and out the door. You swing on the rusty swing set. You drown in the pool until your father comes home in his suit at dinnertime. In my dreams my childhood is your childhood. I took you to the water today and the salt was the same but everything else is different. I couldn’t catch a whale for you but I caught you a jellyfish and you squeezed it in your hands until it dripped through your fingers, it’s remains dropping onto the dock beneath our feet.