Coming of Age Lessons in Drowning
They say: I have to be honest, seeing that little girl and all that brown skin, for a second it was terrifying. Sometimes you forget people can look like that. No pink anywhere. Except her nails.
Me, at Six
At the local diving pool, where most of us town kids go to splash and race, where we go to eat Good Humor vanilla king cones, the creamy coldness turning to sticky residue on our cheeks, I climb a tall ladder, braving the flexible board that gives under my feet. I am meant to learn to dive, but I wait on the edge, hoping someone will tell me that my fear is reason enough not to free fall. I’ll catch you , the man says, solid and stark white as he treads water in the middle of the pool. I trust him, because I am still sure about the authority that a permission slip, a check, a sign-up form brings. But when I hit the taut stretch of water, nothing about the flow calls to me, nothing about the feel of water on my skin is home. I should beg to go again, like all the rest. No, I should be caught, by the arms that promised me that. But I sink, some air in my lungs, but no impulse to kick up, up, up. When the man pulls me out, limp and wet and hung on one of his muscular arms, I stagger to my feet. Everyone is expectant, even the man, but I don’t thank him. I say: What you did was very wrong. You lied to me. I walk away, and later, I tell my mother I’ll never come back here again. This is how teachers teach, she replies. Are you sure about this? But I am adamant, and truthfully, I belly flop and cannonball later in life, but I never perfect the swan dive that my friends do. I don’t learn how to cut water with my bones. I want fairness. I want to know that what’s owed to me will come. And yet, sometimes, with my feet dipped in the water up to my ankles, watching the rest of everyone in file at the diving board, I wish someone had pushed me to learn to be less myself and more everyone else.
You, My Mother
In Bihar, the rains come at monsoon season, the truest kind, when the world is wet for what seems like forever; and your family even changes the food you plate to fit the gray skies; and those days you venture to the river; and it is swelled and looks dangerous; and you are tempted; and you have never treasured your body that way that men, or even some women, have been taught; and they say you are not beautiful and will never be so; and you want to dive; and you don’t dive because in the end what you want is to impress your father; and so you sit at his feet in the warmer house and watch him drink and play cards and flirt; and you think that is how marriage should be, as in, loveless; and so you marry, eventually; and he is a man you barely know from America; and you believe in a better future because that new country is promised; and isn’t this a dive, you convince yourself; and it is, except you never learned to swim, you never ventured in the first river; and so how can you learn to ford the next one; and when you have a child, you hope that she will know how to say what is on her mind; and you hope that she will understand her worth; and that is why you divorce the man eventually, because children learn by example not moral messages told at bedtime; and you cannot realize that she will also learn how to be abandoned; and how to take each lie and add it to a map of fissures in heart; and so you take her to swim lessons; and she disappoints you because she is not daring; and she has everything you could want, every opportunity to let the water take her away; and you allow her, still, to be afraid; and you allow her, thinking of all that you were never allowed to be; and yet, twenty years later, she will call and say she does not know how to parse out the soul inside her; and you will think, how much I could have done to make her something else; and yet you tell her she is loved, not a lie; and still a lie.
They, the White Neighbors
They say: That girl has mouth on her. / Is that how Indian ladies raise their children? / I thought they were strict? / I thought they prayed. / They say: I had her over for a playdate, but she just didn’t get along with the other girls. / I invited her to the birthday, and all she ate was cake. / No hot dogs, no hamburgers? What about the pizza? / Pepperoni. All the other kids kept asking why they couldn’t eat dessert first too. / Well, we’ve got to teach the kids to deal with difference. I read that in the book. / Oh, you and your books. / And besides, why is it us who’ve got to change? / They say: You know, my cousin’s been trying to find job for a year now. / What do you think that girl’s father even does? / Oh, no, no, he was born here, brought the wife over. His parents, though, I don’t know how they got over. / Almost like abuse, isn’t it? How much do you think the wife’s family paid him? / They say: Do you think they’ll do it to that little girl too? Do you think she’ll ever have a boyfriend? / They say: I have to be honest, seeing that little girl and all that brown skin, for just a second it was terrifying. / Sometimes you forget people can look like that. No pink anywhere. / Except her nails. /Have you ever seen Indian ladies with red in their hair. Looks like blood. / Oh, what about the dots they wear? Been-di, or something like that. / I heard it’s something to do with sex. / You’re kidding. / No, Oprah had a segment on the Kama Sutra. Can you believe it? / Ha, for that, I’d marry one of those skinny little monkey men. / They say: Would you ever adopt from a third world country? / Have a daughter like her? / It would be good to do. So good. / I want to be good. / I think I’d be afraid. I think I’d be afraid even if she was mine for fifteen years. / They say: I want to be good, but I can’t hold something like her close, not when she’s so strange. / Not when she’d look at me and see something strange in my face.
We, All of Us Together
We are at the bottom, fifteen feet of water surging above and around, blue-black and viscous. We have drowned, but we are not dead. Around each of us, a light, emanating in the shape of an egg. As if we are waiting to be birthed. Or, not waiting, but deciding. Our heads are bowed, tucked into our chests, and then we rise, crowns tilting first. Our eyes, our chins, the rest of us, adorned by riffles of bubbles. We want so badly to make it, our gazes looking for the sun. Fifteen feet is far. We look laterally, seeing the strange shapes around us. Other bodies. Other people. We’ve known about each other forever. Anticipated this moment, this surety. We hold hands, our fingers pruned and barely able to link. But we do. We hold, knowing we can make it. The surface closes in, and this is our emergence. Our heads break the surface, and what we notice first is the noise. The sound of everybody else racing. Laughter, but then screams too. For a moment, we bob, unsure. We could move matted curls out of each other’s eyes. We could rub droplets from each other’s’ eyelashes. In this moment, we could take the power, to be closer instead of far, to be honest about our humanness. But then, simultaneously, we are able to decipher what the rest of the world demands of us. What we know is this: we want something more, something better, something easier, something allowed. We move towards the noise, though maybe it would be better to submerge again, to the place where we can only move slow, to the place where we will take whatever hope we can have. You lied to me , we say to each other, I thought it would be better than this. We meet eyes once before we fragment completely. We meet eyes, and we know that the most horrible part is how we are all feeling the break.