Salt water carries her, runs across the boggy hills and craters of her body. If she had a waterproof housing for her camera, Nancy Scordato would’ve brought it right in with her. Clouds moving overhead on the currents of the wind mimic the currents of the waves. Video and stills, all is moving, all is not. Here and not here.
She drifts further from the shore, the squeals of children playing in the foaming surf. A seagull glides along and dives six feet away, rises with an empty beak and an angry cry. Next time.
It’s her second float today. Where should she be? Home, writing. There’s a deadline she can’t name. Spank me Daddy, I’ve been a bad girl. The thing about getting older, time becomes more fluid. Or not. Maybe it’s just her, old enough to accept it doesn’t matter. Dawn is noon, tomorrow is next week. But not today. A wave from a passing jet ski climbs over her face, forces her eyes closed and twists an elongated silver hoop into her hair.
“Red. Red! The lifeguard is whistling at you.”
She hears Sam’s voice, too close. “No lifeguard has whistled at me in twenty years. And I haven’t been red since 1969.” Gray now under the blonde hair dye, a moot point, really.
“You’re too far out. And now I’m too far out.”
She turns her head and opens her eyes. Another lifeguard is paddling towards her on a longboard, orange shorts bright against the gray green water, he’s in no hurry. That’s the point, isn’t it. Nancy flips onto her stomach and the cha siu bao she ate earlier feels like a river rock in her belly, sweet pork weighting her beneath the next wave. Most of her underwater, she can feel air against her butt as it rises like the flotation device it resembles. She scissors her legs a couple of times, brings herself a few feet away from the approaching guard, closer to the shore.
Sam’s nervous dog paddle pushes her still further in, and she kicks over again, just in time to see the sun disappear behind a gray cloud. At sixty-two, having spent his entire life within three blocks of the beach, she’d think he’d have learned to swim. Instead, he flounders, strutting his pooched belly and jaundiced skin like badges of honor.
“Why dint ya wait for me this morning?” His voice rises, nervous with the water over his knees, and still far enough away for two teens displaying their new back tattoos to snicker at his words. “You musta heard me hollering when you went up the train steps. Ida followed but I don’t have any money left on my Metrocard. You shouldn’t be alone today.”
She should, but she isn’t. Yes, she heard him yelling out his apartment window over the pharmacy. All of Brighton Beach Avenue heard him. But for the first ritual of this noniversary, she had to be alone. Second, really. The first was putting on the earrings, silver for twenty-five years.
“I brought you a pork bun, I’ll give it to you later, okay?” He loved Anthony too, and he remembers.
He slaps water into her face with the enthusiasm of his wrinkled extremities.
This morning she had walked to the end of the elevated platform while she waited for the train, not so much to move away from Sam as to find the spot where her son had died. If it took long enough she could feel him. Today the train came right away. When he was alive, it was a treat on Sunday mornings to take the train into the city, watch for the moving mural in the tunnel before the Manhattan Bridge, and then on to Chinatown to buy his favorite breakfast. Now she only has to go three stops– not even making it to Downtown Brooklyn. Avenue U has become a new Chinatown.
“I’m going to light a candle for him. You going to come?” He’s backing up, water shin level now, still far enough from her for his too-loud voice to carry down the shoreline. They’re probably wondering about her church going habits the next bay over.
Sam asks this every year, and every year she says no. She also says no on Christmas Eve, when he goes for Midnight Mass.
“Twenty-five years, Nancy. You should light a candle for the anniversary. Even if you do it at home, God will see. He’ll know.” Sam calls it the anniversary. She used to, but seven years ago, when the number of years since Anthony’s death passed the years he was alive, Nancy began calling it the noniversary. For his life-non-life.
When Sam leaves she continues floating, until the current starts pushing her too close to the rocks and the old women who refuse to buy bathing suits, go for their daily swim in their brassieres and panties believing the rocks shield them from view. Nancy pushes a little further in until her feet touch the broken shelled sand under her, and she stands to look around. To the fancy pink condos now standing in place of the Brighton Beach Baths. The Baths had been a public country club of sorts; with pools, seedy lockers and a plethora of unofficial card games to redistribute pension checks of women named Rita and Sheila who strained to catch a glimpse of Red Buttons — Borscht Belt comedian, the Brooklyn Annex. She looks away from the mayhem of Coney Island, towards the relative quiet of Manhattan Beach, and beyond, the Rockaways, where the young men gather to surf and drown in the sudden riptides with beer-startled laughter.
Her ocean, her beach. Shared now in the height of summer with crowds of families and hipsters, occasional tourists trying to figure out if Coney Island really is a walkable distance while they cock their heads at the Russian language that dominates the neighborhood. Another month and the kids will be gone, disappeared into schools and gymnasiums that smell like old feet. Two months and it will just be her and a few other diehards. And of course, the sea gulls and pigeons brave enough to venture off the boardwalk to investigate the ocean.
She walks out of the water, picks up a Ziploc bag and a broken pail at the low tide line. A discarded tampon lies next to her foot. That will have to be carried off by the sea, more cleanup than she can do. A boy, probably eight or nine, comes towards her, dark hair in tufts of clumpy sand make a crown, wearing a t-shirt that declares his love for Uzbekistan. A woman with perfect makeup and a Jessica Rabbit body chases behind him, holding out a sandwich for him to bite.
The tika tika tika of a flat bell comes closer, and the boy veers left, towards the Mexican woman pushing an ice cart across the sand. “Hey! Cherry!” he calls out, secure his mother will appear behind him with the necessary dollars.
And from the right and the left, calls of “Cold Water, Cold Beer, HEEERE!” from black men dressed in rolled up jeans and tank tops, weaving through towels and umbrellas with torn and dripping plastic bags, as if this were a baseball stadium and they were the employees of the ocean herself — instead of ready to drop and hide in plain sight when the police buggy rolls through. “Nutcrackers, Newports, Water here!” A crappy way to earn a few dollars, the tourists and hipsters whipping out cell phones, secure in their right to Tweet photos of their authentic Brooklyn Beach experience.
Nancy picks up her towel and dries her shoulders, hair dripping onto every spot the thin terry cloth catches. She hears him, her favorite, and turns her head to look for him as she reaches for the ten-dollar bill twisted around the strap of her flip-flop.
“If you don’t drink beer, yer gonna die! Ice Cold Cor-ON-a HE-AH!”
She loves his spiel, loves the way he takes this part of his life for what it is and makes the most of it. She’d like to think Anthony wouldn’t have done this for a living, but if he had, he’d have been this man, putting his all into it. Nancy waits for him to pop the top off, then hands him the ten and wraps the bottle in her towel. A cold beer on the beach does, in fact, feel like grace.
Beer in one hand, flip-flops in the other, she makes her way to the boardwalk, and home.
In the apartment, she takes a shower and then throws on a sundress, a $5.99 special from the variety store on the avenue. Little Odessa, Brighton is called now. Stores filled with two-dollar trinkets sitting next to Swarovski crystals. A buck is a buck. Nancy understands this, approves it.
Vinyl go-go boots sit on top of her CD player. So easy to pretend the yellow tinge to the white is purely from the sunlight that pours through the patchwork curtains. She smiles at the very beforeness of them, feels the tightness of youth in their cracks. When she called herself a dancer, Red, a woman going somewhere. The Kinks — didn’t they call girls like her birds?– start singing in her head, “Stop Your Sobbing.” She stopped, a long time ago. Right about when Anthony’s father walked out the door of this very rent-controlled apartment, unable and unwilling to continue fighting his family about his white girlfriend, who tended bar along with their son. Now it isn’t such a big deal, but then? An unwed mother with a Chinese boyfriend? Never to be seen or spoken of. Her Irish-American mother took one look at the baby’s straight black hair and round cheeks and slammed the door. Hard days, those, but wrapped in his sweet gummy smiles.
Nancy kneels next to the Weeping Buddha statue, reaches out one hand to surrender her grief, but pulls it back instead, fist into her belly she sinks all the way to the floor, folds her legs under her.
The pigeons are waiting. The feathered ones coo and call from the fire escape outside. The wrinkled ones are below, their gossip wraps around the rusty iron bars above their heads and knocks at her window. Nancy tries to open her ears and her mind, searches for zazen in a crooked lotus. The perfect now, solely in the moment, become the drift of her thoughts. But her hand won’t settle, knotted against flowered polyester, it crimps and crunches. Ragged, peeling skin on her toes tells her to give up on the lotus, put her feet on the ground where they belong and go back to the boardwalk. The thick line of a scar on her index finger talks to her, louder than the birds, it tells another story, today’s yesterday’s.
She had walked into the apartment on a morning like this one, and in the middle of the living room was a lawn chair. White plastic arms, blue and white webbing, it was the chair of her nightmares. Anthony.
They had argued the night before, he had broken curfew. The chair was an apology, a dig and a joke, she was on her way to joining the old women who sat guarding the front of the building to keep each other company while they spat out sunflower seed shells into knobby fists, wielding tweezers and exchanging neighborhood news like recipes. She wanted to laugh, weave fake daisies and rubber jellyfish through the straps and let it stay in the living room, an altar of how not to live.
Nancy went to his room to tell him to get up, come with her to find some of those awful flowers with the green plastic stamens and dusty petals and there he was, eyes half closed, jerking off to the Scorpions leaking from the cushy headphones that encased his ears. Oh.
She’d imagined it before, sideways and without visuals. She would make a smooth joke, as would he, and they would both breathe easy with the inevitability. Instead she’d slammed the door closed so fast she caught her finger, allowed it to crack and swell without treatment to avoid any acknowledgement. Not the poignant turning point she’d thought it would be. Just another moment.
That was the year she’d renewed her interest in Buddhism, out of sync with the times yet perfectly timed. The following year he was gone.
Here not here.
The lawn chair’s mottled aluminum frame is dented now, in a way that pushes it off the wall. Nancy had replaced half the webbing five years ago, now the chair looks like a crazed Fourth of July celebration.
She gives up on meditation and carries the chair downstairs, settles next to Lenore, who immediately switches the stream of her words from Greta towards her.
“I’m so sorry, dear. I know this is a bad day for you.” Lenore takes a pull from her electronic cigarette and exhales, “a bad day. He was such a beautiful boy. Those eyes. I never understood how you didn’t lose your mind.” She tucks the e-cigarette into the strap of her sundress, swaps it for a real one. “Especially when that pig,” here she stops to spit on the rubber tip of Greta’s cane, “who pushed him didn’t even go to real jail. Such a special boy, so smart.”
He wasn’t special. Anthony was perfectly ordinary, with a B average and a sprinkle of acne when he died.
She turns her head from the women, spots two bits of smudged white under the wheel of Greta’s old Lincoln at the curb. Pigeon eggs. They shouldn’t be there.
Anthony, maybe two, a pigeon egg on the outside ledge of their living room window. A prize! Anyone would think birds that could challenge a seagull on its own sandy turf for a pizza crust would have eggs like handballs, durable and made for a blow. But here they showed their dove roots, less than half the size of a chicken egg with oh so delicate shells. He’d pincered it between thumb and fingers, careful, but those sure fingers popped through, yolk dripping onto his round belly mixed with his tears.
Despite all the movies and tv shows she’d seen with screaming, cursing mothers giving birth, that’s what Nancy’d thought it would be, squeezing out a neat little baby like an egg, Anthony’s father at her side breathing for her if she got tired.
“Listen, do you want to go eat Chinese tonight? They have that special everyone likes. And maybe, you know, a banana daiquiri, just because, you know.” Greta’s voice trails off course like her lip liner, shaky and too deep.
“No she doesn’t want to eat Chinese,” Lenore’s tone is rough and sure. “Have a little sensitivity, she ate that for breakfast. Though how you can eat that shit early in the day is beyond me. I’ll stick to Cheerios. Hey, are those new earrings? They’re a little…much, don’t you think, honey? Of course, it’s your day.” She shrugs and smokes.
Nancy stays focused on the should-be-a-nest. He wasn’t there, Anthony’s father. Nowhere to be found when she went into labor, shaking coins at the bus driver to get to Coney Island hospital. The nurse, pursed lips telling her to stop crying, she’d get plenty of that once the baby was there, while she learned the meaning of the expression waves-of-pain. Then there weren’t waves, a hurricane, a tsunami in the wrong part of the world, there was no air, only the pain, squeezing and pressing and pulling and leaking. Sour mouth hovered over hers, rough knuckle at her chest, wake up, wake up, there’s a reason they call it labor, if you can’t do it, we’ll have to do a cesarean.
No, she would have this egg not an egg the way she imagined. Baby. If she could swallow this riptide, eat it, absorb it, don’t fight it, float with it, there’d be a baby at the end. Forever later there was. Her baby. Not smooth and cool and neat and reptilian. Hot, messy, heart expelled between her legs, he took everything with him. Into those eyes, sealed to hers with new waves. Not pain. Not fear. Not trite words of falling in love. Waves of connection, outside/inside didn’t matter. Recognition. A they so fused they were more than one but not two, a unit. Her eyes were still leaking but she wasn’t crying anymore, she was growling. Stay back, stay away, my baby. New babies can’t focus. A lie, he was focused on her the same as she on him. The lies of new baby tales fell away like drying seaweed. All babies are born bald. No, a lush layer of black duck’s down under the crud. All new babies are ugly, like shriveled old men. No, he was beautiful, with his father’s nose and her mother’s offset ears. All babies are born with blue eyes. No, deep and dark with a tinge of gray, the color of her Atlantic Ocean before a February storm. And then an overflow, a new flurry around her and then for the first time she was
Here not here.
Greta scrapes her chair a few inches away from Lenore’s, sets off a flurry of shifts and squeaks.
Nancy sees the smoke curl up and away from Lenore’s nostrils. One day they were all going to blow up from her smoking next to her oxygen tank.
The memory of a nasal cannula blowing cool air up her own nose, too dry with her arms too empty. A strange man, doctor, she supposed, telling her she’d bled too much, placental fragment that didn’t come out with the rest. Her first maternal failure, unable to let go. Where was her baby. Down the hall, nursery, the nurse would bring him soon, she couldn’t get up yet.
But the doctor left and she did get up, swaying, trailing blood and squawking nurses down the hall behind her, to find him.
There, under warming lights in an incubator, cleaned and smoothed and still and smothered in a blanket too tight, not a person but a package. Like an egg. But he wasn’t. He was hers, hot and wet and animal, still blood running down the insides of her legs to pool between her ankles. Anthony.
Sam comes huffing up the street.
“Oh God, here it comes. I know he’s your friend, but would it kill him to take a bath every day?” Lenore says.
“He’s clean. He was in the water with me a couple of hours ago,” Nancy says.
“You call that clean? I wouldn’t step foot in that water, the things I’ve seen washed up on that beach. How about the diner, then? I could go for a BLT, but only if they make the bacon crispy. I can’t stand when it’s all mushy, makes me gag.”
Yes. Anthony’s face at eleven, grinning over a rare bacon cheeseburger, napkin missing the juice that runs down his chin. Sam stands over her, extends the candle he couldn’t bear to leave behind in the church.
“Oh my Christ, what is that?!” Lenore trips over the too-long tubing from her tank, tries to get some distance without losing her view.
Nancy looks down. Blood leaks from her big toe onto the yellow rubber flip-flop. Five pigeons are clustered around her foot, beaks at work, peck peck peck.