When my mother was a baby her father threw her into the ocean so she would be forced to learn to swim. It didn’t work.
This is what she likes to remind me as we pack up our ice-blue Datsun wagon on summer mornings and make our way across town to the lake. It isn’t really a lake, it’s a pond, but it’s as close as we get to the beach in northwestern Connecticut. We lug our beach towels and chairs and a cooler of soft drinks and soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the far side of the beach, where the sand is firm and a weathered wooden fence separates the swimming area from the weedy muck. Most families flock to the other end of the beach. The sun is brighter, the sand is softer, everyone knows each other there. Housewives drag on Virginia Slims as they keep one eye on their kids in the water and the other on the slim, tanned bodies of the Yalies who attend music school here, doubling the population of our tiny town each summer.
We take in a Yale music student or two as boarders every June through August; the extra money helps. Our rambling Victorian house has 13 rooms—I’ve counted—and we don’t need nearly that many, especially since my father left. My father does not throw me into the ocean, or even into this pond. Instead, he signs me up for swimming lessons, although he’s not there to see me swim. He says he doesn’t want me growing up afraid of the water like my mother, who only wades in occasionally, the water rising to the tops of her white thighs before she returns to the beach.
My mother doesn’t read while I play in the sand with my friends or take my weekly swimming lesson. She reclines in the cheap plastic beach chair, swatting away the occasional fly and sipping her Tab. With her mirrored aviator glasses, which she rarely removes in public, I can never tell if she’s watching me. All I can see is my own distorted reflection.
So maybe she doesn’t notice when someone does throw me in the water. She might have her eyes closed behind those glasses, might be imagining lesson plans for the coming school year, might be silently counting the hours until she can get her evening Valium from my grandmother. Nevertheless, she is seated directly across the water from the Little Dock, a small raft that is our destination today, the final lesson of the season.
I can doggy paddle well enough, and I try a makeshift crawl next to Holly, the older girl who helps our teacher. We reach the Little Dock and I cling, breathless and gasping, to the edge. There’s a niggling fear of what’s beneath the water: how deep it is, and what might be lurking below my scrawny, kicking legs. A few years later, I will read a dog-eared copy of Jaws that I find at a library sale and my fears will be confirmed by the cover illustration of a nude, swimming woman, oblivious to the monster below. All July and August I walk through our house, asking my mother, “How long is 17 feet? How long is 22 feet?” And sometimes she says, “From this wall to that wall” or “From the top of the stairs to your bedroom door.” That is the size of the shark.
Now, I heave myself up on the dock and shiver on the peeling gray wood. But I can’t swim back from the Little Dock. I’m frozen with fear, not just at the prospect of what unseen creatures might be in the pond, but at the very idea of getting back in. I swam here. Wasn’t that good enough? Why do I have to do it again?
I can’t even put a toe in, and no amount of coaxing will do. I crouch there, teeth chattering, skinny arms wrapped around skinny knees. I may stay here all afternoon and into the night. Tomorrow morning, the housewives and the kids and the Yalies will find me there on the dock, pale as a fish belly and unmovable as marble. The adults will shrug and light up another cigarette. The kids will roll their eyes and jump from the high dive on the Big Dock. My grandmother will dispense another Valium with a raised eyebrow and return to the lemon meringue pie she’s baking. She’s been through worse and never needed drugs herself, didn’t need her own mother to lock up the sedatives to keep her from another half-hearted suicide attempt. My mother will take the pill from her gnarled hands and mutter, “At least you didn’t marry a fag,” before climbing the stairs to her bedroom and shutting the door. But mostly she will just feel grateful that she never has to drive to the pond and sit on the beach again.
Finally, my teacher gives me a shove and I fall, terrified, arms flailing, and land with a splash. I go under, float up, sputtering. Then I start crying—but not loudly, because that would call attention to myself, which is something that I never want to do. Holly jumps in and tries to swim beside me again, but instead she ends up carrying me in an awkward floating piggyback as I cling pathetically to her wet neck. I wipe my tears before she deposits me down on the shallow water. I don’t want my mother to see me crying, not because I’m too proud, or embarrassed, but because in our family, no one is allowed to be sad except her.
“Half an hour and then we should go,” she tells me as I peel the foil lid off a small barrel-shaped plastic bottle of sugary fruit drink. But we might as well leave now, I think. None of my friends are at the beach today, and my mother doesn’t socialize. She has a reason for avoiding every one of my friends’ parents: They belong to the country club. They’re Catholic. What have they ever done for me? Each of these has its own translation: They have money. They’re judging me because I’m divorced. They think they’re better than us.
When we arrive home, I stay in the station wagon reading a book after my mother goes inside. It’s like a sauna, and I have to spread my Garfield beach towel over the vinyl seat so the backs of my legs don’t stick to it. She lets me stay out here in the hot car to warm up for a few minutes while she changes out of the black one-piece that never gets wet. They’re a respite, these minutes alone, when I can lose myself in someone else’s life until she inevitably calls me back into the house.
The next year, I don’t take a swimming class. They’re an extra expense these days and my father can’t afford to pay for a second course. Instead, my mother tells me, I will take private swimming lessons from our minister.
We are not a church-going family. I barely remember any time spent in our church when my parents were married, save holidays. But our minister has taken a special interest in my mother, sister, and me. My grandmother is skeptical of him. I can tell she thinks he’s meddlesome, sniffing around things he shouldn’t be. But she doesn’t turn down the turkey he brings us the Christmas after my father leaves, or the antique books he gives all of us as gifts.
There are two churches in our town: The pinkish beige Catholic church whose brand-new brass bell chimes at least fifty times each morning, and ours, the white-steepled Congregational church on the town green. My best friend, Annie, goes to the Catholic church, and the priest there certainly doesn’t offer free private swimming lessons or poultry.
Once a week or more I get my private swimming lessons with the minister. Someone—maybe he himself—has nicknamed him “Man of God” and now he signs all his cards that way: MOG. It makes me think of “frog” or “bog.” Something squishy. MOG has dark blond hair that he combs off his face, and glasses like John List’s. When he wears a bathing suit I can see his chest hair, blonde speckled with gray. MOG takes me to a different, more remote part of the pond, to one of the private beaches. There are no docks here, just a changing house and a small sandy beach. We swim—rather, he wades out until the water reaches his shoulders and has me swim to meet him. He teaches me the crawl, the breaststroke, the backstroke, and lets me climb onto his bent leg, slippery and thick, so I can jump into the water, pushing off his knees, and swim back to shore.
After swimming lessons, MOG often drives me home the back way, through brambly underbrush, spans of green meadows, and berry bushes. He points out different plants, and once, at dusk, we see a deer. He tells me that this time of evening is called the gloaming. It seems magical to me, even if I get bored of his stories. I’d rather be alone, reading a book.
But I’m just happy we’re taking the long way home. Often, when I’m out at Annie’s or Girl Scouts or visiting my father in Boston, my mother goes into my bedroom. I never understand what she’s looking for, what she expects to find in my empty room. Or maybe she isn’t looking for anything, except attention. She opens my closet and dresser drawers, goes through my things. She throws everything—clothes, toys, books, schoolwork—into a pile on my floor or my bed and leaves a box of garbage bags and a note that admonishes me to clean up the mess. She tells me I’m an ungrateful little brat and then presses her thin lips into an even thinner line, refusing to speak to me, sometimes for a week. When I try to apologize, she might break her silence for a moment to tell me that my disgusting, messy bedroom and irresponsible behavior led her to call the suicide hotline while I was out having fun. Whenever I come home after dark and see my bedroom light on, I know what to expect.
But she never does any of this when I’m out with MOG. Instead, she waits for us in our parlor, ready to spend an hour or two in his company. So I stretch out the swimming lessons and the rides home. I play along when MOG talks about all of God’s wonders. At nine years old, I’m pretty sure that God is bullshit. There’s no way He created nuclear missiles or starving Ethiopian children with bloated bellies. “How many days did God take to make the world again?” I ask. “Six,” he answers. “And on Sunday, He rested.” “Are you sure?” I press. “It seems like it would’ve taken a lot longer. And you’re just talking about Earth. What about the universe?”
He laughs because he thinks I’m joking. Pats my shoulder. A man with only sons, he is trying so hard to be my father. But I have his number. This isn’t what you think, MOG’s thick, slippery thighs and worn plaid swim trunks. He doesn’t care about a scrawny, anxious kid, not like that. The Man of God wants my mother.
One day I go looking for her, and find them standing behind her bedroom door. I hear a hushed murmur and see her step away from him quickly, wiping her mouth. I don’t have a swimming lesson that day, but here he is anyway. It makes me feel gross, but I’m not really surprised. My mother and I had watched The Thornbirds that spring, a miniseries about a young woman who falls in love with a priest. I was bored and fell asleep on her bed—the only color TV is in her bedroom—but she was riveted. I was just happy to be there, to see my mother smile, even it was a wistful smile at a TV screen. She was talking to me. She didn’t need to look for something in my room that wasn’t there. She wasn’t on the suicide hotline. For a few hours, she liked me and I wasn’t an ungrateful little brat.
So of course she’s in love with our minister. And who could blame MOG for taking advantage? My mother is still young, still pretty, although she doesn’t know it. In the summers since the divorce, she wears a cowboy hat, and thin, flowery shirts that tie in the front, revealing a span of flat belly above her jeans. In fall, when she’s working, she wears scoop-neck bodysuits and oversized blazers and the boys at the middle school where she teaches art have crushes on her. But MOG won’t be my stepfather. He won’t have a child with my mother, like in The Thornbirds. He’ll just go home that day, and every day after. MOG is married, and he has a sermon to write.