Within an hour of arriving at the house in Sicily my eighty-four year-old dad, wearing a t-shirt that boasted, “I’m not dead,” wobbled on the seat of a beefy Italian mountain bike and contemplated, out loud, riding it into the deep end of the L-shaped salt-water swimming pool. The pool, hooked between an unruly tangle of lemon trees and the house’s stone patio, sparkled gamely, almost matching in depth the blue of the Mediterranean sky. My dad’s main support group in his dramatic but typical gesture, a gesture not unlike the trip itself in its optimism and minor potential for disaster, consisted of my brother, Matt. And although Matt’s joyful support found no other voices, we, as a family, and with the occasional exception of my sensible mom, tend to celebrate the heroically absurd.
Absurdity may have played a role in deciding to fly twelve members of the family to this huge southern Italian island for two weeks, a stupidly expensive vacation for us, under the banner of “the last long trip your father will make.” We’ll see, of course, if that turns out to be the case. But, absurd or not, here we are, most of the family together, but notably and unfortunately missing my wife, Angela, and youngest child—Isaac having been deemed unready for such a journey and Angela unwilling to leave him for two weeks. That decision, for the two of them to stay behind while I brought our daughter, Sofia, came hard.
The minute the rest of us flung our suitcases on the stone floors of our rooms, we headed for the pool, the hole of a donut, at least to us, in the middle of Sicily, surrounded by the sea.
Bodies of water, even man-made ones, call us, most of us, to their borders like idolaters. The simple wet beauty, a foil to our usual bustle, calms us. The chance to cool our skin between bouts of sun, to feel buoyed, to splash and leap safely, to slide wildly on its surface, and sometimes just to heal, as some of us on this trip have hoped to do—these joys and more. Collected water offers possibilities.
One would not, for instance, generally decide to ride a bicycle for effect, no matter our age, into an empty quarry.
The state of Michigan, where I unhappily left my wife and son, offers the tremendous, although seasonal, pleasures of fine sand and fairly gentle swimming in fresh water, the other side of which lies majestically beyond view. We live only half an hour from the lake that gives our state its name. My family of four travels often to its beaches, its dunes pushed up by glaciers, the same forces that scooped out the lake’s basin. We enjoy the simplicity of landscape, life itself reduced for a few hours in complexity, choices pared down to swim, read, sleep, Frisbee. Eating takes on some new sandy difficulties, as, I’ve heard, does sex.
I’ve loved Lake Michigan from both sides, having gone to school within yards of it in Chicago—I could see the water from my dorm room window—where a lifelong appreciation of beach glass found exciting new purchase because it apparently just seemed like trash to city-dwellers. In Michigan, the glass is collected by many, elevating its currency in degrees by color. Brown, green, white, blue, then red, the once-jagged pieces smoothed and clouded and resting like gems in the sand.
The ocean, or in the case of our trip, now on its last day, the sea, offers up much more diverse and fascinating material—desiccated crabs and unidentifiable shells, at least by me, kelp and weird round bubbles of once-living stuff that creeps me out pleasantly, and in a place like Sicily, a place less policed for garbage, all kinds of abandoned human detritus. Empty wooden crates, a small washing machine, a tampon dispenser my dad picked up not knowing what it was. My daughter and I, on the longest and best walk we have taken, found three intact and gigantic light bulbs, larger than any incandescent bulb I have ever seen, as if the sea were rejecting huge and fabulous ideas.
Much of our vacation has been spent rejecting each other’s possibly huge and fabulous ideas. We have quarreled, cried, pouted, sometimes drunk too much, and as a result, nearly come to blows. We have also, not surprisingly, said some beautiful and overdue words to each other about our love, our needs, and appreciations. But still, a hell of a lot of negating.
Never was this more apparent than when my mom and in turn, Matt’s mother-in-law, Kathy, recognized my dad’s intentions on the bicycle. The tide of hilarity turned. My mom shook her hands and said, “No no no no no!” Matt did his best to ignore her, and my dad very possibly could not hear. While my dad circled the pool, unsteady on a strange bike and lacking in balance these days, Matt cleared a path between patio furniture that would allow a runway over the uneven stones set around the pool. Kathy joined my mom in pleading for safety.
“Don’t make fun of your father,” my mom said, the volume and intensity of opposition rising so that Sofia picked up the vibe and started to cry, fearing harm for her grandfather, her tears splashing on the warm stones. I crouched around her in an attempt to comfort, abandoning whichever side I might have otherwise taken. Probably Matt’s.
My dad, from several yards away, lined up the channel to the pool and prepared to launch. In response, Kathy laid down on her back, entirely blocking access to the water like a protester in front of a tank. In his afore-mentioned mid-eighties, my dad is smart, proud, and still very strong though getting confused more than he once did, and he does not much suffer being told what to do by folks who’ve done less (with another possible exception of my mom, who may have done more in fewer years, and who’s counsel he can accept, sometimes). He put his foot on the top pedal, very clearly getting ready to run Kathy right the fuck over.
Water makes up, as most of us know, more than half of the human body, and I imagine our ability to adapt to new challenges and situations coming partly from this composition. We pour ourselves into new vessels, like those of age or disorder, and somehow often retain the ability to laugh or love or act like happy fools.
I wonder how Angela would have reacted to the bicycle incident had she been present. I will find out when I tell her about all this, when I get home to her and Isaac. So far, I haven’t communicated many specifics about the trip, mostly telling her on a daily skype that we miss her and our son. We have been run over pretty well recently ourselves, having received an official diagnosis of autism for Isaac just days before the vacation was to begin. We, of course, already knew something was wrong. For three-plus years, life with him has seemed to slowly and exhaustingly bend off course, and we have kept our struggle mostly private, sticking publicly to the narrative of Sofia’s relative success. With this diagnosis we have said good-bye to “speech delay,” to “boys mature more slowly than girls.” We have entered the deep waters of autism and the work it will take to, hopefully, emerge, whatever that will mean.
When my dad saw Sofia crying, he relented. They are close. He pulled a leg back over the bike’s high bar, requiring some assistance from Matt to do so and Kathy stood up with a whiff of triumph. We all calmed down, at least for a while. We retreated that first afternoon of our crazy vacation to the depths of books and sunshine and swimming. Matt has circled the pool on the bike several times since then, with a mock look of menace on his face but a real threat to finish the job himself. I hope he does it. He’s only got a few hours left.
Bodies of water come varied as families, not to be discounted due to size, and I’m reminded of a junior high lesson in surface tension, in part because the teacher who delivered it, along with Paul Simon and some kids from my library, has visited me in a dream here. In describing why a teaspoon of water can dangle over it’s edge without spilling, he told us how the water molecules, lacking any above them, form stronger bonds with the molecules on either side. Like anyone else, I don’t know where my people are headed. I don’t know how ok we’ll be, how fortunate. I only know to reach out with both hands and grab hold.
“The Great Flood,” short fiction by Jacqueline Vogtman, introduces us to a memorable character, Kathy, a modern-day Cassandra who, unlike Noah, foresees the rising waters without God’s aid. Vogtman’s piece displays excellent narrative drama and pacing and offers a surprising, thoughtful take on the demands of motherhood.
This issue’s flash piece, “Your Stride,” by Jacquelyn M. Stolos is a triumph of the second person, a perspective of which I am generally suspicious. She effectively, and with such confident, polished prose that the present tense receives a sense of perspective, too, places the reader in the troubled pool of a nearly-teenaged girl’s awkwardness alongside her cruel and worldly friends, the surely caring but unwanted eyes of her mother.
Beautifully visual, “Anniversary,” by Terri Muuss, likens deep and quiet human love to the action of water in a bay. Her poem is a gorgeous hush, a conundrum of word-art that celebrates wordless splendor.
“Breasts,” by William Dekle, presents another oceanic analogy, a pair of answers to an unstated and unneeded question. At once comic and reverent and cleverly shaped, Dekle’s poem and its imagery find new purchase on an ancient interest.
Barbara Schwartz’s poem, “Immersion in the Waters,” displays a masterful feel for the line while probing a daughter’s keen sense of the intimacy and immeasurable distance between a girl and her divorced father. Her use of oceanic imagery—the poem describes a fishing trip—impresses but never upends the playfulness and deep feeling of the poem, the organic swell and recession of the stanza’s shapes.
Photo By: J-O Eriksson