FISHES & RIVERS
My mother was the one who met the oysterman, Mike, down at the bay. Each summer she went to him early in the mornings to barter, when the tide was all the way out and the rest of us were sleeping. Stranded sailboats would buoy up when the tide came in later in the day. She was good at talking to strangers. Mike gave her a good price. Nowadays, the blue veins of her feet pulse as she makes her way through shining black snails, lying in the rivulets of water that carve through the sand. I write about the snails every year. Same words: shining, black, rivulets. I don’t know another way to describe them. In the evening, before the mosquitoes arrive, my father cracks open the Wellfleet oysters my mother has bartered for, which are known for their brine. We eat half a dozen each, sometimes a dozen, lazy vessels for horseradish and Worcestershire, our lips swollen in the morning.
We didn’t wade in past our chests anymore. That was the recommendation: not past chest-deep. Last summer a 26-year old had been attacked, his wetsuit shiny and black like a seal’s skin. SHRED IN HEAVEN, read the makeshift tombstone at the top of the dunes.
The summer I stayed behind, I’d eat anchovies on toast in the morning and couldn’t get the salt out of my mouth for the rest of the day. We used the rest of a tin to make pasta one night. He stayed six nights. That was the last time I fell in love with a man for at least two years, though I didn’t know then if I was even in love with him, and I didn’t know it would be so long. I don’t know what I would have made of this fact at that age, whether I would be surprised, or disappointed, or something else completely.
We cooked four whole fish in total: two frozen from the discount store to the east, and two fresh from the Turkish market to the west, where I stood in a line of people who knew what they wanted while I hesitantly plotted out how to ask for two of their smallest dorados. They were on angebot. I swung the red plastic bag, thin and full of fish-smelling water, around the neighborhood. That night, hysterical from the slow seeping-out of drugs, we cooked them in a pound of coarse salt each, Mik slowly ripping the leaves off rosemary stems and scattering the leaves across our four mounds of salt with unnecessary care. A while later, we cracked each fish out of its respective casing––moist, from cooking inside its own skin––and brought them to the balcony that looked out onto the street called Sonnenallee.
I had only been to the ocean once that summer: early on, when we couldn’t even swim. The beaches were still closed—the city didn’t hire lifeguards, perhaps to dissuade people from swimming––and people wore masks as they congregated in small groups, protecting themselves and others from the virus. We watched with disdain when people hugged in front of us and we sat feet from one another on a sheet, the two of them in their little pod, which was also known as a couple, across from me. But the sun was quite strong and we hadn’t brought enough fluids, and eventually, we shared the only bottle left, erasing all of our work not to cross-contaminate. We had been inside for months by then. We were certainly safe, we reminded one another. I dipped my head in the water that day and let the beads drip down my neck for the drive home. When we got back to Brooklyn, helicopters droned overhead, and police crawled the streets, which were charged with an electricity that would come to mark those first days of summer’s protests.
I would always have this memory of my grandmother, swimming off slowly in her white swim cap at Gull Pond in the evening light in early August, when the water was just slightly cooler than you wanted it to be. The same set of accompanying images: slick dock, children almost all gone, water beating quietly at the roots of pitch pines. I would always have the same memory, and I would never have more memories, and over time the memory would become a photograph in my mind, and nothing more, just as my love said to me the last night I was in Berlin, as she reached towards my face, or my hands, and said that she did not want me to become a photograph again, as I had been for so many months before we saw one another at the train station where we would also say goodbye the very next morning.
Elliott and I, crabbing in a salt pond. Giant crabs, we swung at them with nets. Maybe eight or nine years old.
We dug our fingers into malasadas, losing them to powdered sugar. We were allowed to walk around the very tip of the Cape, where the whale watching boats launch. Passing men in assless chaps. I’m not sure how many humpbacks congregate in that region anymore, whether their migration patterns have changed from the warming waters, the way the seals’ have, and I don’t remember anything else––even the assless chaps, I’m not sure I ever saw. D may have told me about them, described them to me with a twelve-year-old’s delight.
To get to the beach, you had to cross a small pond before trekking up the dunes and down to the shore. As children, we piled our towels above our heads as we crossed, making sure not to fall and get everything wet, though of course that did sometimes happen. It was such a wonderful journey to get to the ocean. We sat naked up in the dunes and learned that you can write on stones in charcoal and erase the words you’d made with rabbit’s ear. In the same way, water mixed with sand in the palms of your hands makes castles out of dribbles.
Fourth of July, and I rubbed ice cubes along her forearms and slept in her white linen bed. “Just the two of us.” I think we both liked it this way: living life with one other person, making all your decisions together for a time, even just for a few weeks in summer. And S liked that too and that’s why we had each chosen S to be that person for us at different and non-overlapping stretches of our young lives.
No air conditioning that summer, but she slept on the ground floor with her windows open, the billowing curtains getting sucked out of the windows from the breeze. Possibly someone could have climbed in. That summer she got electrocuted from the fairy lights out back. I only remembered this recently. I heard her scream, watched her tiny body tremble from the shock of it. You’re okay, I said, you’re okay, because I didn’t know what else to say. The glass had pierced her palm, she had clutched it too hard during the shock.
After school ended she moved to California, and when I visited I slept in her bed, still made up in white linens, and could hear the sounds of fights and stomping in the neighboring apartments. The sounds kept me up, and in the morning, I woke with a pit in my stomach. She packed a salad of carrots for her lunch, and left for her job at a production company in West LA. I wouldn’t be jealous, except for the fact that she still read a novel every Sunday but now she got paid for it.
Fresh urchins, split open with their golden insides to the sun. He showed me how to hold the creatures—gingerly, careful of their spines, scooping the insides out. We spread the cream across hard bread. August in the Mediterranean at 14 and a half, one’s body not yet crowded in one’s bathing suit, still with the buckteeth, eating vongole twice a day. He took photographs of us at every meal on a little digital camera. Surely there’s a picture somewhere of me holding a sea urchin to the lens.
I arrived to Hydra on a ferry from Athens, my skin already browned, and the first or second thing we did was go into the water that slapped at the rocks. In order to exit the ocean, one would ride the current and time it so as to launch oneself towards a single silver ladder on the rocks. Men––were they drunk or only full of an enthusiasm with which I was unfamiliar––stripped, their penises dangling in half-light before they catapulted off the rocks. It was like that all week, sleeping on a side of a small mountain with the window open to the wind and rising sun, roosters and donkeys making their noises in the morning. My first love slept beside me, her mouth just agape. By then I was thinking of someone else. This summer I craved the way we sat on the rocks that August or September, even craved the sunstroke and the way my brain ached at night from all the violent headfirst diving.
I walked up and down the river and took photographs for my father that would have shown the view better had I simply taken them from Google Images. One morning I walked miles down to a museum that looked closed, then up a spiral structure. Stopped to catch my breath, halfway up. A man and his child ran past me. Kicked an apple core. Well, maybe not that. But something about an apple. I was eating an apple, it was my breakfast, which was why I was in such a bad mood. I often wanted to say hello to the people I passed, but I never did, only short encounters like asking for the bathroom. I thought a different person would have made friends in my position. The museums showed nothing I was interested in and I had to pretend it was worth the five or ten euro. Not that it was euro; they used something else entirely.
The streets weren’t crowded around my professor’s flat, where she lived with a man who smoked cigarettes in the morning––a photographer, who, she said, had been influential during communist times but suffered after the political changes. He paid me no mind. I heard about his life, his art and divorce and children, from my professor the day she brought me to a small river town. We walked up the stairs of a cathedral she had visited as a child while talking about a Portuguese word she liked for nostalgia; she didn’t think there was anything wrong with nostalgia. Saudade, the word is, a longing or a yearning for something no longer present. I had saudade for the Balaton, then, where my great-grandmother had spent her summers, just as my professor had. She kept a house there, I think, and as a young girl she had water skied or sailed. This summer my professor read my writing at the Balaton and oh, the saudade I felt then, she would have been so proud!
My friend had made a movie there the springtime before, it was the best time of her life, she said, and she met a college student, I forget his name now, maybe Fabi, he loved The Strokes, or another band, he wore their t-shirts, and he took my friend to cafes on the side of the river less frequented by tourists, who overtook the bars after dark. I once went into a bar and ordered an apple juice for myself. That’s always what you got when you asked for cider: apple juice.
I walked around thinking I might learn something simply from seeing. I found parks I liked, parks I didn’t like. That was always the ridiculous and fundamental question: did I like the place or did I not like the place. The park I liked most was just across one of the northernmost bridges, past an island where people jogged and played sports. The park was called Szent István. I did nothing more than watch there, read a bit and stroll amidst a garden and watch children play, as one does in any park in any part of the world, the only difference being the types of exercise equipment and playground structures and the language that is spoken and screamed by the children who are playing.
I was always the one to follow her, not the other way around. I became accustomed to the rhythm of her bike and the way she maneuvered around cars. When there was a line of people stopped at a street light, she would go around them to get to the front, and then, what an asshole, she was the slowest to start up again, her bike was shit, so all the people she had passed in line would make their way past her until we were at the back again, right where we had begun. I shook my head about it every time and then one day we were in the kitchen joking around and I told her and couldn’t stop laughing and just said I loved her so much, please don’t change. This is similar to the way that she could not, for the life of her, spell the word _____ properly, and she knew by now there was a word she misspelled but that it didn’t matter because it would never come up in work emails, and begged me to tell her which word, but I couldn’t tell her what it was. I really couldn’t tell her, it felt like to do so would have snapped something soft inside me.
If this story were about a river, it would be about the river we passed over to get to Brooklyn, the summer she taught me how to bike between the boroughs. Or it would be about the canal, which is not a river at all, or the river Spree.