We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
— T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
I pictured her below the waves where the water was gentle. I imagined she floated like a bright October leaf, unhurried, lazily seesawing in the current until at last she came to rest on the ocean floor. Her hair grew into delicate ropes of seaweed; her skin turned opalescent like the inside of a shell. She wore a necklace of coral, swam seal-like through shimmering clouds of fish, and slept in an underwater cave with a nightlight of luminescent plankton. In my imagination, she became mythic: The Saltwater Twin. She belongs to the sea, I thought. She knows things no one else knows.
She didn’t start out as a mythical creature. She was an ordinary kid named Abby Mahoney, a sandy-haired, freckle-faced girl—that is, if she looked anything like her twin brother, who was my age. I never met her. Her family lived on my cousins’ street, but she was already gone by the time they moved in. Abby drowned in the Atlantic when we were three, leaving her brother, leaving all of us behind. Abby had been Tommy’s twin, but The Saltwater Twin was mine—and she gave me a way to escape.
My family spent a couple of weeks each summer at Martha’s Vineyard—my parents, sisters, and maternal grandfather, and sometimes my aunt, uncle (my mom’s brother), and cousins. I loved the ferry ride from Woods Hole—the bellow of the whistle; the smell of diesel and tar and sea air; the gulls wheeling and shrieking overhead; the boys treading water in the harbor, calling for us to throw them coins; and the men tossing ropes as thick as my arm from the boat to other men who caught them on the dock and pulled us in. I loved the hermit crabs that scrabbled in our plastic buckets, the quicksilver minnows that flicked around our shins, the prehistoric horseshoe crabs. I loved the way the priest said Body of Christ with a Boston accent; the salt that dried in ribbons on our skin; the hippies and seaweed; beaded moccasins and sailor bracelets; ladies with tan legs and pleated white tennis skirts; the clay cliffs; the dinners of tomatoes, sweet corn, fresh-caught fish, and pie. Sometimes we swam on the ocean beach and raced down the hot sand of the dunes, past sharp, sun-bleached grass and tangled thickets of wild roses with blooms the impossible pink of Barbie lipstick. Sometimes we swam at Menemsha Pond, where the beach was festooned with dried seaweed and spotted like a bird’s egg with blotches of black sand. There was an inlet we called the Dangerous River, carved into the sand by the tide; it was one of our favorite places to play. It felt like a jungle; the grass was high and laced with the cries of plovers and gulls and the buzz of insects. We couldn’t see our moms from around the bend in the Dangerous River, which came to my collarbone at high tide. We’d strip off our bathing suits under the murky water and rinse the sand out of the crotches. The sand, of course, was ubiquitous. It peppered our scalps, worked its way into sheets and sandwiches, dusted the floors of our rental houses.
In the unstructured summer days, I drifted into my own world, mostly unencumbered by adult expectations and entanglements. I had books and sky and hours to daydream. The grownups had newspapers and sweet rolls and hours to talk over beach towels and the supper table. They talked to each other about what to make for dinner, and they talked about the president and James Taylor and what color they ought to paint the bathroom back home.
My mother asked us whether we’d brushed our teeth and if we could imagine what that little schoolhouse up the road was like a hundred years ago and whether we wanted a peach or some boysenberry yogurt for a snack. She felt at home at the beach. She loved to eat the special treats you could only get at that one bakery with the screen door or that little stand by the wharf. She sang in the car, songs she knew from college and before. She liked us to sing with her, and sometimes we did. She liked to imagine the fancy houses we could live in if we were rich. She took us to the library, and we filled canvas sail bags of books. She read voraciously. She loved strangers, and strangers probably liked her because she was inquisitive and pretty. But she was also sad. And scared at night to be alone. Afraid of thunderstorms and the dark. My mother was a cigarette-sneaking, bobby-socked twelve-year-old trapped inside a suburban housewife. Her father called her the Queen of Sheba. My father didn’t make her happy. As far as I could tell, he didn’t pay much attention to her at all, and my mother required attention. He thought she was naïve and careless; she thought he was uncouth and cruel. At least, that’s what it seemed like to me.
My father talked about how the salt water was good for us and how that was a nice piece of fish, and asked who wanted to drive with him to the dump. He went running with my uncle and to the market to buy dinner. My dad was pale and then sunburned. I guess he read, too. That’s what everyone did at the beach—read or played cards. I played War and Spit with my sisters and cousins. Uno and Hearts with our moms. But I don’t remember my father playing. He made a swing for us and hung it from a tree in the front yard of one of the houses we rented. That’s all I remember.
My sisters, Molly and Sam, were fifteen months and four years younger than I, respectively. Molly didn’t talk that much. When she did, it was about whatever we were doing— riding in the car, swimming. Or maybe what we were going to do later—what we might eat for dinner, if there’d be dessert, if we’d get to sleep all together with the cousins. Sam talked about basketball, she talked about scary things she saw on TV that she wasn’t supposed to watch, she asked whether sharks might swim this far north. Molly loved dolls and babies, and hated it when people stared at her. Sam liked candy and getting her way. Neither of them liked to read like I did, but we played together sometimes on the beach. We raced through the shallow water, laughing at how it pulled us down and made it impossible to run, like when you try to run in a bad dream.
My grandfather was a sphinx with horn-rimmed glasses and fat toenails. He asked what grade I’d be in come September and if I still liked school and if I thought my dad made a blueberry pie that wasn’t half bad. He read thick, hardcover books and asked if I knew that it made God happy when little girls were obedient. He wore Bermuda shorts and the old Penguin polo shirts with skinny collars. He coughed when he laughed. He said, Good girl, that’s a good girl. He smelled like skin and smoke. During the night, sometimes in the afternoon, my grandfather would take me or Molly into his room. Sam was too little then, but he’d get to her eventually. There were lots of girl cousins. He could wait. He stopped short of intercourse, rejecting it, perhaps, as too risky—I don’t know why, really—but I remember his hands gripping my small thighs. I remember the color and feel of his skin against mine. The sound of his zipper. His fumbling, the rasp and heat of his breath. He huffed and snuffed—a goblin, a wolf. He dripped and oozed. He pried us open like oysters. He sucked out everything inside. Outside the room where he did these things, he sat on the couch with us sometimes and read us stories. He told my mother he’d take some toast with mushrooms. He crossed his brown legs and tapped ash into an oyster shell. He was mottled and knobbed like a witch, evil as Rumpelstiltskin. I saw him. I knew his secret name. But then I had to forget. I was a kid, after all. I understood pretending. Forget, pretend—almost the same thing.
It was probably my mother or my aunt who first mentioned Abby—maybe chatting on their towels at Menemsha Pond while we hunched nearby, drizzling sandy broth through our fingertips into delicate stalagmites. Although I was a fairly conscientious kid about many things, I didn’t have any serious qualms about eavesdropping. Grownups seemed to have a monopoly on all the really important information, so listening to them, especially when you were in plain view if they’d only been paying attention, didn’t seem wrong. That’s how I knew one of my uncles had gotten drunk and smashed through the sliding glass door of my grandfather’s shower, and that’s how, the summer I was eight, I found out how Abby had died.
It could have been any of us. Every summer, my sisters, cousins, and I exhausted ourselves fighting the waves, staying in until our mothers protested that our lips were blue. I knew how it felt to be dragged under, shaken like a ragdoll, lungs like party balloons about to burst until you managed to surface, sputtering and choking, through the foam. It made me feel strong to look the ocean in its fearsome blue eye and come out breathing. You knew the ocean might drown you, but not because it was malevolent. That’s just the way it was. Not that there was no fear; fear tumbled with you in the salt-clouded blue-green. It held you, one part at a time, laced around a wrist or thigh, bubbled across your sealed lips. But there was something else—a steady let go, let go—a calm, a beyond-ness where nothing could reach. For a split second, I felt eternal, omnipotent. Then I’d swallow water and gasp back into time above the surface.
I turned Abby into The Saltwater Twin on the ferry. I liked to lean over the railing and watch the hull carve the bottle-green plane below us into frothy white furrows that connected the dot-to-dot of where we’d been to where we were going. I’d press myself into the space of that moment—sun and spray on my skin, the snap of my windbreaker, the deep rumble of the ferry in my legs—and think that no one else could hear what I heard or see what I saw. I am apart from these others; I am my own. I thought about Abby on her own in the ocean; her drowning set her apart from all the rest of us alive on this boat and on the island and all over the world. Maybe she was watching our ferry like the mermaid sisters in the Hans Christian Andersen story, who’d poke their heads up through the waves and spy on ships. The mermaids sang through storms to sailors whose ships were going down. They told them not to be afraid; they sang of the beauty of their kingdom under the sea. But every sailor who reached their undersea gardens arrived there lifeless. The sisters grieved for the unlucky sailors but couldn’t cry; the story says that because mermaids don’t have tears, they suffer that much more. I liked that. Unlike my mother, for whom an offhand remark or a touching Pepsi commercial could set off profuse weeping, I held back tears even when I split my chin open falling off my bike. I guarded my tears fiercely; they were mine to keep.
Lifeguards differentiate between a swimmer in distress and someone who’s drowning. We expect victims to shout and flail and wave their arms, and swimmers in distress may do that—panic when they realize the water’s too rough or deep and they’re not strong enough to make it to shore. Drowning, on the other hand, is deceptively quiet. Looking back, I wonder why all of us who were subject to my grandfather’s assaults—me, my sisters, my cousins, and my mother, her sister, their cousins before us—didn’t display more unmistakable signs of distress. It seems strange there wasn’t more ferocity in us, but I guess we were absorbed in staying afloat. We turned on each other sometimes. We knew instinctively how to hurt. We quietly laid siege to ourselves. There would be eating disorders, self-harm, substance abuse, and destructive relationships. As a kid, I engaged in the occasional skirmish with adults. When, clearing a Thanksgiving table, I refused to touch my grandfather’s plate. When I whirled on my mother, chasing me for some backtalk, and socked her in the stomach. But mostly I was good. Mostly I sank. Resistance was playing dead, pretending to sleep so soundly I couldn’t be moved, going limp, going blank. The drowning person can’t wave her arms; she can’t shout. She tries in vain to use the water as a ladder to push herself up; she angles her mouth toward oxygen. Drowning is quiet: the head tilts back, the eyes glaze over, the victim slips beneath the surface.
Leaning over the ferry railing, I imagined Abby’s smooth head emerging from our foamy wake. A wake. When we learned about homonyms in third grade, I was fascinated. Every afternoon after school, I scoured the dictionary for more pairs to bring in for my teacher. Two words that looked and sounded the same but meant different things. Doorways into different worlds. Wake: to rouse or become roused from sleep; a watch kept over a body before burial; the track of waves left by a ship or other object moving through water. The roiling water behind us that marked the place where we’d been. A wake: where Abby’s family had sat with her and said goodbye; where men wore suits and cried and ladies set casseroles and cakes on kitchen counters. A wake, awake: conscious, having your wits about you. I hated waking up. In the morning, dreams still clutched like dark weeds; I wanted to sink back into sleep and stay. A wake, awake. A word could mean one thing and another. A thing could be one thing and another. In the ocean, my mother grew light enough for me to carry; I could pick her up like a baby or a bride. I endowed The Saltwater Twin with that magic. She was all-powerful—more powerful, anyway, than me or any of the adults I knew. And she was gone from the world, for good, while I was stuck where I was.
Everyone acted like things were normal. They talked about rain and carpool; they chopped onions and poured milk. Outside was green lawns and fresh paint. Outside was living rooms kids weren’t allowed in, with petit-point pillows and crystal dishes of candy made to look like pebbles. Kids with perfect bedrooms and perfect Halloween costumes. I knew a girl whose Raggedy Ann was so big she wore the doll’s clothes for Halloween till she was ten. Kids in the suburbs caught on early to what was important, the things that made the world easier to take. If you wanted to be unique, you could maybe wear an Izod in a funky color or admit that you liked to read for fun. Questions were uncool. Everyone was supposed to act like they knew what they were doing at all times. Shallow: where the water was warm and safe. Shallow was every day in the suburbs, every conversation, most every expression on every face. Shallow: the breaths we took when we were afraid, the way someone breathes when she’s drowning.
I didn’t feel normal. I felt like an anomaly, some kind of monster or feral child accidentally dressed in a Snoopy T-shirt and corduroys. I felt dark; I felt deep. I could drag a sailor to his death. I asked questions; I wondered incessantly about what was unspoken, underneath.
In Sunday school, we learned about transubstantiation, in which bread and wine really turned into the body and blood of Christ. When the altar bell rang, I looked for some tear in the air, some juddering of magic, listened for the whisper of the Holy Ghost. After I received communion, I’d hold the host in my mouth and wonder what it would feel like to be chewing on sinew and flesh, my mouth filling with the blood of Christ. I imagined the taste of jungle gym, penny, a thickening in my saliva like milk. The communion wafers turned to paste in my mouth while I knelt and puzzled over the way something could seem like one thing and all the time be something else. I learned to hold a notion close, just shy of truly believing it, managing in that way to give credence to two, often disparate, things at once. I lost baby teeth, picked out socks; I had sore throats and Easter dresses. I faced my mother’s hysterics, my grandfather’s assaults. I believed in Middle Earth, looked for secret passageways, prayed for signs. I managed somehow to live in the world that was and in the world I conjured. It was a way to believe things I knew weren’t true—that my family was the sunny Sunday family building castles on the beach, that I wasn’t growing up on a sinking ship.
Maybe—when someone close to you died or someone did you harm or maybe simply when you emerged from a dark movie theater onto a bright sidewalk full of people hurrying home to dinner—you’ve felt, somehow, the world split in two. Ordinary things—coins clinking into the machine on the bus, the key rotating the lock on your front door—feel jarring, surreal. Yet you keep going. You ride the bus, you open your front door, you put something on a plate, you eat, you watch TV. Somehow you find a way to be in two worlds. One fades; the other comes to life. We shift and rattle and float between. People do this. It’s remarkable and ordinary. This must be how my grandfather lived. I know it’s how my mother survived. She found other, more palatable things to believe—that she was her father’s little princess, that we were all warm and safe in the bosom of a beautiful family. I learned this lesson well, the knack of splitting the world in two. There’s little incentive to distinguish between real and pretend when what’s real is often intolerable, so frequently I drifted somewhere in between. I used to cry sometimes, in secret, when I finished a book. Sometimes I’d finish the last page then start the whole thing again. My childhood games were about acting out the stories I loved or plotting for a rosy future. I daydreamed about someday.
Dwelling on how things were going to be helped me cope with how they were. I still do this. I can imagine the built-in bookcases I covet for my living room and the vintage mantle where I’d arrange soy candles and maybe some branches. I can imagine the art that would be on the walls, which would be a soft gray-green, and the ottoman would be upholstered in maybe a cherry-red print instead of the grimy wheat color it is now with a lot of cat scratch threads hanging off it. A person can get too good at imagining things. When you live in fantasy, being in the flesh-and-blood world can start to feel alien and heartbreaking. You’re not really present if you’re always imagining something different. I’ve accepted some things I shouldn’t have—jobs, relationships—because I’m good at tolerating. I’m good at getting things over with while plotting something beautiful and fantastic. Staying submerged for extended periods— in books, fantasy, television, whatever—can make you like one of those blind fish that glow in the dark, a creature that swims away from light. The Saltwater Twin gave me a way to imagine myself strong and powerful; she gave me a world where I was safe. But she also represented a death wish. She was a siren. Her song rang in my ears.
At the end of our vacation, my father drove the station wagon into the belly of the ferry, and we clanged upstairs to the deck. Shouts of “’Bout a coin!” drifted up from below. They were there every summer—boys treading water in the murky green harbor, calling for coins from the passengers waiting onboard for the ferry to depart. “’Bout a coin!” The coins fell silver and flickering, and the boys disappeared after them. I imagined kicking down, eyes stinging with salt, catching nickels, dimes, and silver dollars as they tumbled, sunlit, into the dark water. One by one, the boys surfaced, slick-haired, and called to us again. Then the ferry whistle blew, and the boat lumbered away from the wharf. The wind picked up. I watched the gulls bank and plummet, cocky and shrill. Out on the open water, I pressed against the rail, eyes on the waves, watching intently for signs of life.