Knopf Doubleday. 320 pp. $26
July 29, 2009
Chapter OneIn Water I Float
I'm a problematic infant but everything seems okay to me. I'm sitting in Leonard's arms grabbing at his nose. I have no idea how prehistoric my face is, am smiling a gaping, openmouthed smile that pushes the fat up around my eyes, causing a momentary blackout. When the world turns black, I scream. I'm blessed with unusual eyebrow mobility; when I scream, they scream with me. Leonard pats my back, bouncing me gently up and down; his face is tired and drawn and as green as the lime green paint the nuns use for their windowsills. I recover quickly, push his big nose in with all my force, have no idea that a perfect replica is sitting in the middle of my own face just waiting to grow.
I have seven chins varying in size and volume; crevasses things get stuck in that my mother has to excavate carefully after each bath. We have ceremonies: Each morning she leans in toward me with a cotton ball dipped in baby oil, two purple sandbags of fatigue carefully holding down her eyes, and each morning I karate-kick the open bottle of baby oil out of her hand. Today she burst into tears as the bottle whizzed past her ear, shooting a trail of shiny oil across the room. I wailed with her in loving solidarity, the fat above my ankles flapping over my monstrous feet like loose tights.
I live simply; when something doesn't seem okay, I scream until it is again. I do not like closing my eyes to discover there is no music, lights, or people I know inside. I do not like being alone, being alone with Bron, finding myself in my bed alone, waking up in my car seat with no one in sight, the sound of silence. If I fall asleep listening to the beat of my mother's heart, pacing my breath in cadence with hers, and awake later to find myself lying on my back in a pastel-barred prison, I feel cheated and betrayed. I howl with my guts in a belly-shaking rage until someone comes and gets me, usually my mother, who is shocked and worried at how her second child could be so different from the sleepy, button-nosed first. Day and night mean nothing to me. Leonard is trying to think; can't.
We're at the Quaker Aquatic Center waiting for my first aqua baby class to begin. My mother's sitting at the edge of the pool, holding a shivering Bron, who's studying me quietly, an intent expression on her oval face. She won't get in and no one's making her. I grab Leonard's lips and pull; he taps my hand with one finger, whispers: Stop. I can't walk yet; he has to carry me everywhere and it's starting to hurt his lower back. He yelled at my mother yesterday. What in the hell are you feeding her? And she yelled back, hard. The same damn formula we gave Bron. I look over at my mother; Bron has moved behind her and is holding on to her neck with a hand that suggests possession. She's got one thumb in her mouth, eyes burning holes in my flabby face. I kick Leonard in the gut; he grunts. I jump a little bit, pointing toward Bron, gurgle, then speak. I'm trying to say: She means me harm.
Leonard says: Shoosh now; the nice lady is talking.
I don't know what the hell he's talking about so I kick him in the gut again, grab one of the long hairs that sprout from his eyebrows, pull.
There's a lady coming at me with a mermaid puppet on one hand. The mermaid is saying goo things, but Bron has destroyed the joy of puppets for me forever. I try to get away from it by weeping dramatically as I crawl up Leonard's shoulder and he scrambles to hold on. The lady is hailing me, but I don't know her face, so I won't look at it. She's wearing a swimsuit with a skirt attached and a necklace with a bright yellow plastic smiley face in the middle. Leonard bounces me up and down. I wipe puppet from mind, swallow sobs, lunge for the smiley face. Leonard almost loses me, says: Whoooahhhh there, a sharp satellite of pain pulsing in his lower back.
The lady says: She's ready, all right.
Leonard says: You think?
She says: Oh yes.
He says: What should I do?
She clasps her hands. Let's put her in.
He says: I hope this works.
She says: Oh, this'll work. You'll see. It will change your life.
He dips my feet into the warm water. I hop, squealing a high-pitched squeal that makes the lady jump. Oh my. I see what you're talking about.
I'm nine months old and the longest I've slept at one time is one hour and forty-three minutes. I think my name is Boo, but it's not. It's just one of the many things I'll be called: Boo, Mena, Phil, Pip, but the name on my birth certificate has four syllables: Philomena, and will be the first major disappointment in my life. No one will use it until I get to school and the nuns insist. I have various hobbies that consume me: kicking, screaming, pulling things down, kicking again, crying. Lately, I've been experimenting with howling like a wolf. I sit up in my crib three hours before dawn, grab the bars with both fists, and keen at the moon. I've started to pull myself around on the floor and, when no one is looking, roll myself up in electrical wire, get my fingers stuck in air-conditioning vents, and scream until someone yanks me out. Yesterday, I gnawed down half a candle, pooping it out this morning with horrible grunts as my mother wept: I just turned my head for a second.
Leonard's trying to write Most Misunderstood Mammals, which will be published at Roxanne's birth and will win him the largest grant to study bats ever awarded in the history of American academia. He will be pictured on the cover of the Glenwood Morning Star standing next to Rosy, a cuddly African fruit-faced bat with wide, dreamy eyes. He knows that his work is good, but at the moment he's just tired and poor, sleeping in his ratty old car with a pillow over his head when he can't take the screaming anymore. When he gets the grant, he will celebrate with his bat team, astronomer Gerald, Ahmet Noorani, and Dr. Bob, and then he'll fly all over the world studying bat behavior, coming back home with a burnt nose and a collection of exotic bowls things will get lost in. I will do things too. I will be ashamed of his job, pretend he's a regular doctor until the mini-Catholics turn into junior Catholics and find out he's the guy in the dumb suit that Channel 9 interviews every Halloween. They'll call me Batgirl, draw ears on my locker and all the school pictures I ever hand out until the day I win my first Olympic gold and they repent.
Leonard slides me in up to my belly; there are spaces in my diaper that let the warm water leak in. This makes me so happy, I squeal. I look over at my mother; she's clapping her hands and making goo sounds. She's pregnant again because I took so long coming that she and Leonard decided they'd better have the rest of their children quickly, bam, bam, bam. When Leonard said bam, bam, bam, he'd hit one open palm with the side of the other, a gesture I will soon come to dread. She'd agreed with him at the time, has changed her mind since, but doesn't know it because she's too tired to articulate thought. I look at Bron and my two eyebrows become one. She's been poking me through the bars of my crib with her Barbie. She's been pinching me hard with vicious claws. She pretends to be nice when they're around, but reveals her true face when they're not looking. She tries to scare me with it, and succeeds; I howl. At the howl, Mom and Leonard look at each other and frown as Bron smiles. I am one of those people who will never truly grasp the relationship between time and space. I tried to hit her from my high chair across the room as she played with her Barbies this morning, her hair lit in long golden shafts by the narrow winter light. I howled in frustration when my fist hit air and not her head as Mom and Leonard exchanged glances, unspoken worry darkening their eyes.
The lady with the face I don't know yet whispers: Just let her go.
Leonard gets nervous. I don't think I can.
The lady says: Trust me. She's ready to go and he lets me go.
I sink into warmth for a second, go into natural apnea. My eyes open wide with shock; this is new, but it's blue and not black so I stand it. I kick a little bit; it moves me. My diaper absorbs water, puffing out like one of those kinds of fish. It slides slowly down my thighs, eventually tangling itself between my knees. I kick again; my diaper falls off and I bob to the surface like a cork. Leonard says: Wow! That was ... should I put a diaper on her?
The lady thinks for a moment, twiddling the puppet. No, let's just watch her for a second. She seems ...
I look at him, and the sounds that come out of my mouth mean: Hey! Where are we? What's going on here? When he doesn't answer, I insist Dah? Dah? as I go under. He says: She just called me Dad. Did you hear her? She just said Dad. My mother claps; Bron squints. Leonard's happiness vibrates through the water; it helps speed me along.
All my life, I will kick things that find their way into my path: shoes, baskets, toilet paper rolls, money, rocks, tennis balls, rolled-up socks, gym bags, Roxanne once or twice, any kind of circular fruit. It will become an irresistible urge that serves me well. I kick; it moves me, and I feel joy. I have no idea that I'm floating in the center of Glenwood, that Glenwood is floating in the middle of Kansas, that Kansas is a simple state, a safe distance from the other, more complicated ones. I do not know that my mind is an ocean, collecting things that sift down through the sunlight, the twilight, the midnight, the abyssal zones to the pitch-black bottom, settling into the deep trenches nature dug below. I do not know that one day the winds will churn and that when the winds churn, the dust will rise, bringing everything up along with it. All I know is that when I kick, it moves me, so I kick again, liberated from my fleshy prison of gravity. I am as I was, churning in deep archaic memory, naked, filled with free-floating fatness, the world murmuring outside with sweet deafened sounds that lull. I pop up, open my eyes; I learn to glide.
I don't know Mom's pregnant, just think she's obese like me. We'll get bigger and bigger together until I wake up one morning and find that she's gone. I'll search the house, walking and wailing, as Bron paints with her fingers without saying a word. That knobby-faced babysitter will be there, pinching my chins and making goo sounds, will watch in horror as I kick dents in the refrigerator door until Leonard urgently reappears and takes us away. I'll look out the window at the trees whizzing by, deep in a sob until I find Mom in a strange bed holding a squirmy red-faced Roxanne. I'll throw myself on the ground and roll until she puts it down, then I'll punch her in the face with a sticky fist when she offers her cheek for a kiss. I won't remember the tall, full-skirted nun standing in the doorway holding a plate of cookies, assessing me with cool, professional eyes, but she'll remember me.
When a squirming blue-faced Dot shows up a year later, I've resigned myself to a life that will never cradle me in its center. I'll stand next to Mom's bed in the maternity ward, weeping hot streams, opening my palms in the universal sign of defeat, saying simply: This one's blue. This will come up over the dinner table until the day no one brings it up ever again.
I have never looked at myself in the mirror, will only suspect the grim truth when I finally hit puberty. I have no idea my feet are special, am simply impressed that they heed my call. I kick both legs at once, executing a perfect flip, as everyone, including Leonard, sucks their breath in. The Glenwood aqua aerobics class hears the commotion, stops in mid-twirl, and runs to the edge of the baby pool. I kick; it moves me. I do a perfect figure eight as the crowd gasps. I plunge, flashing a butt wrapped up carefully in layer upon layer of ivory lard; the crowd takes a step back, gasping again. My chins have piled upon each other like an accordion, squirting out water instead of notes. I have no idea what I am. That the world I will see will be experienced alone, from the inside out, but I suddenly remember I have arms, so I flap them. The lady with the face I'm starting to recognize doesn't know what to do. She's standing in the middle of the warm water, her rabbit teeth chewing on her lower lip, a limp puppet at her hip.
Mothers and fathers with their aqua babies squirming in their arms are watching, mouths agape. I speed by Leonard's pole legs, stop, turn, pushing off of them with heavily padded feet. I glide on my back, the world whizzing by. I recognize the lady as I pass, hail her with gurgle, two worms of green snot inching out my nose. She wants to call Channel 9, but won't, will regret this until the day that she dies. I pop to the surface, both arms over my head; I squeal. The Glenwood aqua aerobics class and their instructor get a case of the shivers. I plunge again. I kick. It moves me. I skim Leonard's hairy legs and surface slowly like a submarine on its way home. I wind down in a soft whirlpool of energy that cradles me gently in tune with some clock. My eyes become heavy, the lids start to sink. Mom, under the influence of strong hormones, puts her head in both hands and weeps. Bron narrows her eyes, sitting back on her haunches for a big think. Leonard pulls me out and up, is holding me tight. I spit up warm water streaked with milk, pee on him, fall asleep for fourteen hours.
I don't wake when they put me in my light blue snowsuit with the thick thermal padding. I don't wake when they tie the dreaded scratchy hat under one of my chins, when they strap me into the car seat, when they pull me out and Leonard accidentally knocks my head on the door and my mother screams. I don't wake when they carry me up the stairs, put me in my pajamas, cover me in a soft blanket, turn out the light. I don't wake when Bron stands by my bed poking me with Cinderella's magic wand that lights her serious face with an eerie green glow. Leonard checks on me, Mom checks on me, they check on me together. It is an unspoken fact that they can finally love me now that I'm out cold. They bask in this love, as waves of breath ebb and flow, causing the dome of my stomach to sink in, then swell. The silence of the household has opened a space for hope. Leonard rubs Mom's belly, accidentally waking a sleeping Roxanne, who's hanging upside down in a mushy pre-birth stupor. She's listening when he whispers: Look at that little bugger sleep.
Excerpted from Swimming by Nicola Keegan Copyright © 2009 by Nicola Keegan. Excerpted by permission.
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