When I was Young and Swam to Cuba

By Sara Schaff

 

This was their first trip together as a family, and it wasn’t going well for anyone except the newlyweds, who were all over each other like a couple of teenagers. This behavior baffled and embarrassed the four children, especially the actual teenagers: Marie’s kids—Antonia (almost fifteen) and Jeremy (thirteen). Their mother looked so old to them! Dimpled thighs, frizzy gray hair, oversized, tie-dyed t-shirts. And of course they couldn’t understand what she saw in Parker. He laughed at his own bad jokes but rarely smiled otherwise. His belly hung over the tight, jean shorts that he had worn every day since they’d left gray New York State for radiant Key West.

“I seriously want to die,” Antonia said. She buried her head under a pillow to muffle the grunts and moans from the next room. “I’m suffocating myself right now; don’t try to stop me.”

“Please, let me help you.” Jeremy sat up from his lumpy cot, reached across his sister’s bed, and punched the pillow that covered her head. Her sheets felt damp from sweat and the humid, sea-salt air, but she clutched them to her as they tussled, sort of angry with each other, mostly hoping that by making noise they could stop Marie and Parker from having sex.

They only succeeded in waking the twins on the other side of the crowded room. Dara reached for Darlene’s clammy hand, and Darlene sobbed quietly into her pillow. At age five, they didn’t mind sharing a bed; they were used to sleeping close to each other, but they were not used to surly older siblings or a mother who always wanted to know if they were having a good time. They were not used to having a mother anymore.

“Is someone crying?” Antonia groaned. “Isn’t this the greatest vacation ever?”

“Are you okay, Darlene?” Jeremy was only guessing which one it was. Darlene cried a lot. Dara never spoke and had stared out the window of the van the entire drive. When anyone said anything to her, she looked first at Darlene and then down at her hands.

“It’s hot in here,” Darlene sniffled.

The condo had problematic air conditioning. Also, the paint on the ceiling peeled from water damage, but a friend of a friend of Parker’s owned the place, so they got a deal on the rent.

In the other room, the sex was still going on. Every night for the past three weeks, since Parker and his daughters had moved into Marie’s house, Antonia had awoken at around 3:00 am to these grotesque animal sounds. It disgusted her to hear her mother like that. Antonia preferred her mother BP, Before Parker: a regular mom who made you dinner and listened to your problems and never displayed any obvious desire for anything or anyone.

“I’m out of here,” she declared. “Who’s coming with me?”

She threw the sheet off, revealing her thin tank top and her boyfriend’s martini-glass-print boxer shorts. Her long legs glowed in the moonlight streaming through the sliding glass doors. Dara and Darlene sat up and looked over at her, both admiring and afraid. When Parker had explained to them that not only were they getting a new mother and a brother but also an older sister, they had imagined a kindly girl who would play school with them and French-braid their hair. Antonia, they seemed to realize now, was not this kind of sister.

“We can’t go anywhere,” Darlene said. “It’s dark out.”

Antonia was already opening the sliding doors, beaming with new purpose. “That’s the best time to swim to Cuba,” she said. Before, she’d fancied herself the persecuted revolutionary of her family. Now she believed she could get an army to do her bidding.

“You don’t have your bathing suit,” Dara whispered.

For a moment everyone stared at her. She looked down at her hands apologetically.

Antonia laughed. “At night you swim in your pajamas, silly. Grab your towels from the porch.”

The girls sat on the edge of their bed, lifting their feet into the air and flexing their toes. “Don’t we need shoes?” Darlene asked.

Jeremy pushed the twins out the door, forgetting to slide either the glass door or the screen behind them. “Let’s go!” he said, spurred on by the force of his sister’s enthusiasm. “We don’t have all night.”

*

 

Antonia marched toward the rickety gate, ignoring the condo’s courtyard pool, which Marie and Parker had posed as a major selling point. The kids, of course, were trying hard to be unimpressed with anything that Marie and Parker wanted them to enjoy.

The condo was not actually on the beach; they had to cross over several sandy roads, all of them empty, before they heard the ocean. Dara and Darlene held hands, terrified but compelled to follow. Neither of them had seen the ocean before this morning, when they drove on US 1 from Key to Key to Key.

On the beach, Jeremy jogged to catch up with Antonia. The sand felt cool under his feet. “You’re crazy,” he said admiringly.

“Everyone put your towels here,” she announced, pointing to an arbitrary spot near the water’s edge. She dropped her own towel and started running toward the sea, her long hair fanning out behind her.

Even with the moonlight the ocean just looked blank, like outer space. Darlene started crying again, and Dara squeezed her hand, gently.

“Come on!” Antonia said. “You have to do it like this. You have to run in without thinking about all the creatures in the water waiting to eat you.”

The twins had not even considered hungry sea creatures; the darkness was enough. Still, they shuddered but walked forward, holding hands until their toes touched wet sand. When the end of a wave swarmed around their feet, they screeched and ran back to Jeremy.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to go in.” He put his hand on Darlene’s back, and she and Dara looked at him gratefully. They were such skinny, funny-looking kids: their watery eyes too big for their faces, their curly hair in permanent tangles because they refused to be brushed. He couldn’t believe that they were now, technically speaking, his family.

“Chickens!” Antonia cried. She dove into a wave and resurfaced, smiling.

“Don’t swim too far,” Jeremy yelled, surprised to hear himself sounding like their mother.

“I’ll call you from Havana!”

“Whatever, Commie!”

“Viva Fidel!”

Jeremy looked at the twins, who stared morosely out to sea. “Want to look for shells?” he asked.

They nodded slowly, bewildered but pleased to have a task, and the three of them started picking up things that looked promising in the dim moonlight.

At some point, Antonia emerged from the ocean. “I almost made it,” she said, panting. “But I knew you would all miss me too much.” Even as she said it, she had her doubts.

“I think we could have done okay on our own,” Jeremy teased. To let her know he was joking, he threw sand in her face, and they went at each other furiously, eventually involving Dara and Darlene, who laughed for maybe the first time since they had moved their bunk bed and Barbie suitcases into Marie’s house.

When the sun started coming up, the four of them trudged back to the condo, slipping into bed before Marie and Parker woke.

*

 

“You could have drowned!” Marie shouted.

The family had assembled in the small, eat-in kitchen that could barely fit the six of them.

“A college student was raped on that beach last month,” Parker said.

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Antonia said. “No one was raped. No one drowned. Look! Happy as a clam.”

She spun around to reveal her full health and happiness, and on her second spin, her back to her mother and Parker, she glared at Darlene and Dara. They looked away. One or both of them had told, even though nothing happened except that Darlene had stepped on a shell and cut her big toe, which she only realized in the morning, when she woke to find a little blood on her sheets.

Also, they had left pools of sand in their beds and on the tiled floor of the living room.

“We’re sorry,” Jeremy said. “We won’t go to the beach at night again.”

“Damn right, you won’t,” Parker said.

Marie leaned into him. “They’re sorry.” She was actually happy her kids had taken the little ones somewhere, without any prodding from the adults. “Let’s have breakfast.”

Parker kissed her neck as if he wanted to eat it.

“I’m not sorry!” Antonia screamed. “You’re the ones who should be sorry!” She pushed past Parker, looming in the doorway, and let the screen door crash behind her.

“That kid has a lot of anger,” Parker said. But he didn’t want to criticize too much, not yet. It was too soon to be requiring that Marie discipline her children, who were, frankly, a little overindulged. “Ouch!” He swatted at his arm. “A mess of mosquitoes got in here last night. You kids make sure to shut the windows and doors.”

Everyone nodded solemnly.

Marie started pouring pancake batter onto an electric griddle. She eyed the twins.

“I know you two love pancakes, don’t you?”

Her voice was high-pitched, babyish, strange to Jeremy’s ears.

“I’ll make your pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse,” she coaxed. The twins had wanted to stop at Disneyworld, but Parker had said it was too expensive and that the girls weren’t tall enough yet to go on most of the rides.

“Thank you…Mom,” Darlene said, watching Dara.

“Yes, thank you, Mom,” Dara said, watching Darlene.

Marie teared up at the sound of these sad children claiming her as their mother. She’d been trying to get them to call her Mom since they moved in, but until now they had called her nothing.

Darlene had only wanted to say something that would make everyone stop being angry. She felt bad about getting Antonia in trouble, but her toe had hurt! There was a piece of shell stuck in there and her father was the one with the tweezers.

Dara felt uncomfortable calling Marie “Mom.” Their own mother lived in Rhode Island now, and they weren’t allowed to see her because she had a drinking problem and lived with a boyfriend who also had a drinking problem and had been in jail for hitting someone. Their father had explained that the man hadn’t hit their mother, but another woman. They were very glad their mother had not been hurt, but they still wondered why she didn’t come back to them or why their father didn’t go to Rhode Island and bring her back. Was it so far? Only reachable by boat? They hadn’t seen her in eight and a half months, and they worried about her almost constantly.

*

For a full day, no one was allowed to go to the beach. After breakfast, Marie and Parker sat by the pool and held hands between their lounge chairs. Dara and Darlene played Marco Polo in the shallow end while Antonia and Jeremy sat inside and watched television, bored and disgusted.

They had never seen their mother in a bikini before. She had definitely lost weight since starting her kickboxing classes at the gym, but they still didn’t want to see her in the bikini, or Parker ogling her. They could hear her giggling, so they turned up the volume. It was a stupid morning talk show about how to style the perfect Easter look for the entire family, and Antonia wanted to watch it and Jeremy didn’t, so they fought for the remote control, which felt better than their other options.

*

 

In the afternoon, they rented bikes and cycled around the island. This was supposed to be fun, but because there had been other restrictions to the day, the cycling felt like punishment to everyone except Marie and Parker, who rode a tandem bicycle and made a big show of singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” in harmony.

At Hemingway’s House they discovered that Dara and Darlene were allergic to cats. Also, both girls were afraid of ghosts, and as they toured the grounds, Antonia made them believe that Papa’s spirit watched them from the balcony of the house. They refused to go inside, and even though their eyes were itchy and watery, they sat on a bench near the pool and accepted six-toed cats into their laps.

Marie and Parker held hands and stole kisses during the tour, and Antonia made gagging sounds in response. Marie ignored her daughter, but Parker turned around, his neck red.

“Have some manners,” he scolded.

“You’re one to talk,” she hissed.

Although Jeremy had questions for the tour guide—How much did Hemingway pay for the house? Did the son who lived in Montana get to come stay here for free? How much were all those first editions worth?—he allowed Antonia to drag him away from the group.

“Let’s start our own tour,” she said. “You’re the expert, you be the guide.”

In the writer’s studio, he pointed at the typewriter in the center of the room and made some announcements: “This is where the great writer penned such important novels as For Whom the Bell Tolls and Death in the Afternoon and the famous short stories ‘The Short Happy Life of—”

“You’re going to be a famous writer one day,” Antonia interrupted.

“Maybe.” Jeremy shrugged. There were other things he liked besides writing: basketball and chemistry, for example. He also enjoyed birdwatching with their father. But he could see that Antonia was consumed again. He wouldn’t get in the way of her ideas.

“When you’re famous,” she breathed, “you’ll buy me a house like this in Havana. With tall windows to let in all the light, and in one room there will be a wall full of mirrors and a ballet bar.” She did a few plies and then an elegant arabesque to illustrate how she would use this future room. “You’ll have your own studio of course, and you will visit whenever you need to break free of writer’s block, and one of your most popular novels will be about a famous American dancer who moved to Cuba, became a principal ballerina in their National Ballet Company, and forgot how to speak English.” She looked at Jeremy very seriously. “We will only be able to communicate in Spanish, dear brother. You’ll pass along messages about my life to Mom, and you’ll have to translate her Christmas cards for me. It will be a heartbreaking story.”

*

 

They ate dinner at the Margaritaville Café. Marie winced at the music, but she kept a cheery face for Parker’s sake. He was glowing. He owned all of Jimmy Buffet’s albums, and in ’94 he had followed the Fruitcakes tour around the country.

“A round of daiquiris for the table,” he said to the waiter, making a bold and inclusive gesture with his arm. “Virgins for the children,” he added.

Antonia and Jeremy snickered. Marie glared at them.

“What’s a virgin?” Darlene asked.

Parker said, “It’s a drink without any alcohol, Darlene, honey.” While he spoke, he eyed Antonia, warning her.

The warning felt like a dare.

“Darlene, honey,” she said, “a virgin is also a person who has not yet had sex, which is when, you know, a man puts his penis in a woman’s vagina. All the noise we hear every night from the other room? That’s sex.” She waited for the uncomfortable silence to descend. “For your further information, three out of six people at this table are virgins.”

As she expected, Marie and Parker gazed at her with horrified expressions.

Jeremy shook his head, wishing they were at home so that he could go into his room and shut the door.

Antonia remained nonchalant. “Don’t worry, Mom, I know all about condoms.”

“You are so grounded, young lady,” Marie said.

“So ground me,” Antonia said. “This trip couldn’t get any worse.”

“You need to start being nicer to your mother,” Parker said. “Also, watch your mouth around the children.”

Dara had never seen her father’s face turn so red. He rarely got angry with her and her sister, although he always seemed very tired. She felt like she should be angry at Antonia for making her father mad, and for saying something that sounded inappropriate, but she couldn’t stop staring at the older girl’s very pretty blonde hair.

Antonia felt Dara’s gaze on her and winked. She leaned across the table and whispered, “One day you’ll learn how to piss off all the adults, too.”

When the daiquiris came, the twins drank them quickly through curly straws. Without asking her father first, Dara told the waiter she’d like another.

*

 

Parker thought Antonia should not be able to leave the house for the remainder of the trip, but Marie argued him down to a lighter sentence: one more day of house arrest, followed by a month without phone or television privileges when they got home. The argument felt useless and ridiculous to Antonia. The punishments they were devising had nothing to do with her supposed crimes. If they didn’t want her to talk about sex to the children, they should stop having it so often and so loudly! And if they wanted her to stop having sex, they could think again. Back home, she would still sneak out with Tommy at the end of the school day, before she caught the bus to dance class. He had a car and knew all the secluded spots in Milton Park.

In the middle of the night, Jeremy heard nothing from the room next door except for Parker’s loud snores. Still, Antonia appeared restless, mumbling into her pillow and kicking at the sheets.

She didn’t ask anyone to join her this time when she left the house. She walked to the beach again, but she didn’t feel like swimming. Instead, she did a few handstands and then sat in the sand and buried her legs. “I’m the no-legged dancer,” she said to no one. She made sweeping gestures with her arms. She sang a few bars of “Guantanamera”: Yo soy un hombre sincero…

She felt very alone and melancholic, but it was a satisfying sort of melancholy, one that convinced her that she would do great things one day and make the people who had underestimated her wish they had treated her better when she was younger.

*

 

When Antonia returned to the condo, Dara was standing on the porch, looking over the railing at the pool. Worried that Antonia might have drowned in the ocean or been raped on the beach, she had waited out here since Antonia crept away.

“Why did you go to the beach again?” she asked. “You know you’re not supposed to leave the house.”

Antonia saw, for the first time, the girl’s bony shoulders, the hollow, purple crescents under her eyes. “I’ve never heard you say so many words.”

“I can talk fine.”

“I’m sure you can.”

“So why did you go?” Above the purple shadows, her eyes were shining now.

Antonia thought carefully. She wanted to create an air of mystery around herself; she could tell Dara was receptive to that sort of storytelling. “I had a secret mission. I can’t tell you what it was.”

“Please tell me.”

“I really can’t.”

“Were you meeting your boyfriend to have sex?”

Antonia smiled. “No. I saw someone who wanted me to give you a very important message.”

“What did he say?”

She said to tell you not to worry. Everything’s going to be okay.”

“Was it my mother?”

Antonia had not been thinking of Dara’s mother or of anyone in particular. “Yes,” she said.

“She’s okay?”

“She’s fine.” She patted Dara’s head. She was an okay kid, a little spacey. She and Jeremy would have to take it easier on the twins. They were just confused, a little worn out. She climbed into bed and fell into a deep sleep, sure that Dara would follow her back into the house eventually.

*

 

In the morning, everyone was in a panic by the time Antonia emerged from the bedroom. While Darlene sobbed, Marie spoke frantically into the phone, and Parker yelled obscenities. Jeremy stared at Antonia and mouthed, “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!” she said, and everyone stopped and turned to her. “What’s going on?”

“When I woke up,” Darlene said, “Dara was gone.”

“I went looking for her outside,” Jeremy said. “Where we were the other night? I didn’t find her.”

Before Parker could open his furious mouth, Antonia had bolted out the door and was running toward the beach.

*

 

Dara had been scared, but it felt important enough that she should go alone, without Darlene. She would talk to her sister about it later. After Antonia went inside, she retraced their steps from the other night. On the beach she looked both ways for anyone who looked like their mother. She heard laughing and far away music, but there were no people. She walked closer to the water, and then it occurred to her that maybe Antonia had seen her mother in Cuba, that maybe Antonia had made it all the way there, finally. She walked into the water. It was warm and impossible to see if there were fish underneath the black surface, nibbling at her toes.

She was up to her neck when the wave came, pushing her under. She felt the water going up her nose, she felt her nightgown bunching up over her head, her arms and legs scraped the ground. Time bent, time stopped. Dara knew she was going to drown and that her father and Marie would be angry at her for sneaking out in the middle of the night and drowning.

And then she was on the shore again, coughing out the water. In her confusion, she pushed herself away from the waves, crawling, crab-like. Her mother used to say that Dara and Darlene were her good-luck charms. Some luck! Alive, yes, but covered in sand and salty cuts that would sting later. She couldn’t go back to the house like this. She would track sand and water everywhere, and then she would be grounded like Antonia.

She walked down the beach for a long time, stopping when she came to a plastic lounge chair that she thought would make a decent roof if it started to rain. She dug a shallow ditch for herself, climbed inside, then pulled the chair over it, over her head. In the morning she would figure out what to do next. She might have to walk around the island and find another family.

 

She woke when she heard people calling her name. Forgetting she might be in trouble, she pushed the chair-roof away and gazed around, blinking. Far off, she saw her father’s lumbering body moving toward her. She saw Darlene in a sand cloud behind him, shrieking, “Don’t be dead! Don’t be dead!”

Antonia reached her first. “Oh, dear god,” she cried. “I’m so sorry, Dara. I’m so sorry.” The sunlight gleamed behind her golden hair, and her eyes were full, brimming over. Even her tears sparkled. Lifting Dara gently from the sand she said, “Don’t listen to me ever again.”

But Dara knew she would always listen to Antonia now. She clung to her tightly and closed her eyes. She couldn’t remember if her mother’s hair was dark or light.

***

Sara Schaff is a visiting assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College. Her writing has appeared in Burrow Press ReviewThe ButterFiveChaptersTampa ReviewThe Rumpus, and elsewhere. “When I Was Young and Swam to Cuba” first appeared in The Saint Ann’s Review (Spring 2013). Find links to her work at saraschaff.com.
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