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Ten years old. Weekend. My Brooke doesn’t so much walk through the house as bound, trot, stomp, leap. A caterwaul of joy. Come school day Monday the old moves return: the shuffle, the plod, the complaint. And at day’s end: the backpack drop, shoes choked off, jacket shed like skin, unmade bed revisited with new crumbs and old books.
Eleven. Field trip. I’m on the school bus to the beach with Brooke’s class, room mothers in their own cars, smartly. The bus driver doesn’t utter a word, must be deaf to the noise. Clump-glut out the door and onto the curb, then the steep walk down to the beach, a girl slips and scrapes herself, attended to by the teacher and a room mother with the first aid kit while I lead the rest down to the beach. Early. Only surfers out. A smothering fog. Soon a line of shoes silenced with socks. Sack lunches, a guarding mother warding off the gulls. The kids crab over the rocks, poke fingers in sea anemones that look like dough rolled in sand and bits of shell. A shout. I hurry over. There behind a large outcrop a scuba diver on his stomach, washed onto the shore, sand like salt on his black wetsuit, scratched silver air tank, spear thrust into his side. Dead. A girl vomits into the water’s retreat, and briefly the warmth of it against our ankles. Back, quickly now, turn around boys and girls, quickly now—no, that way, GO! The other end of the beach. No tide pools here but a snack shack just opening. I blow through the bills for that evening’s grocery run buying them all ice cream just to keep them away from the body. Police arrive as we board the bus. Brooke never saw the diver. She hears about it, asks me if it’s true there was a dead body. Of course not, darling. Of course not. Just a dead seal.
Twelve. Evening. 1982, when, briefly, the Lawrence Welk show overlapped with Knight Rider on channels as different as fire and ice. Breadwinner is asleep, back to me, when I pull my nightgown out from under my pillow. He wears a worn T-shirt, holes along the seams, the back plastered with logos for a charity event, as though the organizations and companies sponsor our sleep. I climb in beside him and, in the closet’s light, read from a history tome on World War I that helps me sleep. Except I’ve read now an account from the Battle of Verdun. How soldiers could tell American corpses apart from the French and German corpses by the smell, only the Americans had meat in their bellies. The Germans called the dead Americans Flesh-eaters. And now, obviously, I cannot sleep knowing this.
I check in on Brooke. She’s under the covers to her chin, in deep slack sleep. I have a relative who fought in the battle of Verdun. Breadwinner has an uncle who fought on the German side. Flesh-eater vs Potato-eater. Neither soldier could have imagined, through the months of miserable fighting, that in the not-so-terribly distant future there would be this relation holding both sides within her, dreaming peacefully of not-war, under glow-in-the-dark-but-not-glowing-now stars and moons and cottage-cheese ceiling heavens. I crouch beside the bed a quarter hour until my Achilles rebel. Raising Brooke is like reliving a version of my life, but in the third person, restricted.
Thirteen. Night. Brooke sleeping at a friend’s house. Me, insomnia. A small, very small nip of brandy first warmed. The house is cold. The coiled dog buries its snout in its tail like an ouroboros. Breadloser away on “business.” I finish the brandy in the study, bring my knees to my chin under the sexless wool blanket. In the dark corner, the recliner. In the recliner, the diver in his wetsuit, dry. Breadloser’s infidelity allows me whatever mischief I might desire to take. I desire no mischief, is the problem. Worse, I have begun writing poetry. I write only at night, before sleep like now, and in the early morning after sleep. Sleep is like a sea with moist banks of evening and morning, places where the writing happens, where I can still make out the footprints of dreams. I should stop writing poetry, obviously. I should fuck someone. Or join the diver.
“Well now,” the diver says, in the dark, playing with the broken spear poking from him.
“Well now,” I say. Dog straightens, looks up, loses interest.
“What are you going to do?” diver asks.
“Tell me again what it’s like to die.”
“For me, the trunkling, glurgling, blurbling noising up of the silence of water, then that shhhhffff and the pain taking a second to register in my side, the regulator slipping, the coughing, gulp and tang of infinite saltwater, the surface far away, forever. Later, tumblesurfing to shore.”
“Not tonight. Not the rest tonight.”
The diver shifts uncomfortably. “They wept for days. Weeks. They were broken. They still see me in dreams I turn into nightmares.”
Fourteen. Morning. Brooke already on the phone, finger bright red, entwined in the beige coil. Don’t do that. Show times scribbled on the realty pad. A drive to the cineplex ahead of me, I see. Matinee. Then the drive to the cineplex and the drive back home. Shoes choked off, jacket shed like skin. Court-mandated support check in the mail from Breadgiver. Laundry. A nap between cycles. I reach out my hand and take the diver’s, cold but strong, understanding. Just a nap, don’t worry. Then the drive back to the cineplex. Brooke emerging from the theater with her friends, squinting against the light. Driving home in swirl of nonsensical movie plot points, laughter, each girl dropped off one by one by one until just Brooke, switching to the front seat.
“It was all right.”
They never ask how you spend your own time, daughters. My existence freezes when not in her sight. Oh, you’re interested? How did I spend my day? I napped beside the dead diver, remember him, of course not, I shooed all you kids away before you could see the body. Ice creams for everyone. Years of dinners. A hundred tons of laundry. Setting aside for summer camps. School volunteering. House cleaning. Always, always, always there for you.
It is better she doesn’t actually ask. It’s better she doesn’t know how I spend my time. How we talk, Diver, about everything that’s come, gone, and remains under the sun.
Fifteen. Boyfriends, one each. Brooke’s from band. Mine from work. Soon, ex-boyfriends, one each. Jazzercise. Less insomnia. Less drinking. Feeling younger, rather than older; Brooke looking older still. The diver absent an entire year. Heatwave. The beach in September, first weekend after school starts, sophomore year. Was my body ever like Brooke’s body, lithe but strong? She boogie boards with her girlfriends. Later, milkshakes on the bluff, warm air rising, osprey atop a telephone pole tearing into a fish.
“Mrs. Welt, tell us the story of when you and Brooke found a dead body. Was that here?”
“Ms. Welt, please,” I say. “I mean, Ms. Jeffries.” Once more a maiden. “And it wasn’t a dead body.”
“What? Okay, fine. It was a dead body. A diver. He had a spear in him. But that was in the past. He’s been gone a long time.”
“He shot himself? Ms. Jeffries? He shot himself?”
“No no. I mean, I don’t know. I don’t remember. I think it was an accident. Another diver, maybe.”
“Did they ever catch him?”
Freckles, sun-damaged hair, salt-air sniffles, glow of near-sunset on faces perfumed with coconut. Gorgeous, these girls. Did I ever have friends like these? Of course I did, but I didn’t see them, then, the way I see Brooke’s, now. The future was where I wanted to be.
“Ms. Jeffries? Did they catch the murderer?”
“Yes. Of course. Everything turned out just fine.”
Surf sending sunset-lit mist over the sand below. Columns of smoke from beach bonfires, newly lit. A shiver.
“C’mon girls, it’s time to go. You can finish your shakes in the car.”
“Thanks for the shakes Ms. Jeffries.”
“Of course. No no, put that away. Today was my treat.”
Sun touching water but inextinguishable, even when deserving to cool itself, even when underwater. When it rises, we should rejoice.