I lie drenched in my bed, my wet lungs sucking for air that comes like little breaths through a straw, and like a sense memory, it pulls me into a particular moment in time, the moment that we all—the whole family—started going under. I close my eyes and slip down down down into blackness. Cars and landscape whiz by me. I feel the jerky rumble of the old station wagon. My father’s voice comes into my head, loud and jarring. And all at once, I am back there on that fateful vacation, the one my mother demanded my father take us on, the one I begged for, the trip that marked the beginning of the end.
• • •
It was just days after my near drowning in my grandmother’s pool. My father, eager to get on my mother’s good side, had arranged everything at the last minute. Our luggage had been packed and piled into the back of our car in such a hurry that we reached the end of our block before I realized I had forgotten my favorite doll, Betty—a plastic Jamaican girl with a basket of fake fruit on her head—and screamed bloody murder until my father agreed to turn the car around and go get her. Once Betty was safely in tow, we were off again in our station wagon, aptly named the Blue Bomb for the explosive grunts of its tired engine. My mother had promised Matthew and me a nickel for every time we spotted a license plate that was not from Pennsylvania, and I’d never seen anyone so thrilled to lose money as we moved farther out of state and away from her family.
Meanwhile, my overly eager father, who might have been a taxi driver for all the attention we paid him, was shouting out every single sign that we passed along the highway.
“Boston! Ten miles ahead!” his voice boomed through the car like a train conductor.
“Stay alive. Drive fifty-five!”
“Slow for construction!”
“Who’s he talking to?” Matthew finally asked.
“God only knows,” my mother said with a sigh.
The two were discussing the various ways they might dispose of his body without drawing suspicion when at last my father called out the one sign that everyone was waiting for.
“Welcome to Maine!”
My mother clapped like a little girl, and Matthew threw his head out the window and howled into the warm summer air.
“Just wait till you see the house!” my father said. It was clear he’d been merely biding his time, waiting until he could pull out the trump card that would win my mother over. “It’s practically on the water. I’ve heard it’s almost impossible to get a house like this so late in the season. Okay, everybody, keep your eyes peeled. Ours is going to be the red one, number 377.”
“Look at these gorgeous homes!” my mother said, and in a moment of clemency, she gave my father’s arm a quick squeeze. He was so pleased with himself that if he’d had a tail it would have been wagging.
“Number 377,” he shouted. “Here we are!”
My mother squealed. The house was small but lovely, hugged by a sprawling porch and surrounded by wispy green grass that lay down in a breeze.
“It’s not red, though,” I pointed out.
“That’s because you’re looking at the wrong house. It’s just behind this one.”
We all leaned forward.
The dread in the air was palpable.
“Where?” I said.
“Right there!” He pulled down the driveway and pointed to a second house that sat directly in back of the first.
I could barely bring myself to look. My father was famous for his “Reverse Midas Touch”: Everything he touched turned to shit. I wrapped my arms around Betty and dared a glance out the window.
“Oh my God,” Matthew said for all of us.
We all gasped. The house was amazing. It was a huge, sprawling place, the red color of a barn with white clapboard shutters and windows that opened almost onto the beach.
“The original renters bailed at the last minute, so I got it at a great price. Talk about good old-fashioned O’Malley luck, huh, kids?” He turned to my mother, his eyes hungry for her joy. “What do you think?”
She got out of the car and stood silently before it, her hair blowing against her face as she stared, stunned and agape, at my father’s miracle. We all held our breath as we waited for her reaction.
“It’s beautiful,” my mother said finally. She turned to smile at all of us. Then she looked back at the house and her smile faded. “There’s no porch, though.”
• • •
We had barely unloaded our bags into the house before Matthew grabbed my hand and pulled me out the back door.
“Come on,” he said, dragging me behind him into a wind that lifted the back of my dress like a kite. “I’ve got something to show you.”
“Matthew, wait!” my mother shouted.
But we were already gone, running, running away from the house and over the sand dunes. I had no idea where we were going, only that I was with my brother and released into wide-open space, taking flight. The air was thick with the sea I’d never seen, so salty I could taste it when I breathed. Then all at once, it rose up before us, or we rose up to meet it, and I was standing for the first time before the deep blue waters of the Atlantic.
I gasped. Its enormity stunned me, ripped me out of the small ecosystem of my family and propelled me into a world far larger than I’d ever imagined.
“What do you think?” Matthew said, smiling proudly as if he had built the ocean himself.
I turned to my brother, seized and silenced by the beauty of this other realm, and it was then that he pointed out the sailboats, brilliantly colored triangles that square-danced against the sky. I watched them, captivated, watched the seagulls rise and fall with the waves, squawking into the wind.
Matthew led me gently down to the ocean’s edge, where, in a small cove with shallow pools, we kicked off our shoes and let small fish scoot around our ankles. I felt that I had come home. I never wanted to leave.