Iberia, Iberia, the TV jingle went, siren voices wafting atop jets of air. Dutifully I memorized brochures. We’ve decided! my mother announced, finally, triumphant: Melia! We were 36 and 9. Melia was a Spanish hotel chain. My mother always longed to go abroad. My father had been dead one year.
Next came the dizzy whirl of purchases. New luggage, floppy hat. Jean Naté Friction pour le Bain, by—my mother’s awe echoing the commercial’s breathless tone—someone called Charles of the Ritz. It came in quart bottles. In the seventies you could carry anything on a plane.
My mother dubbed it Splash, and did so with abandon. Even her breakdown months before had been decidedly upbeat.
Madrid proved no Manhattan, where we’d gone to what she called The Modern, ambling back through madcap human traffic, her new Guernica photostat held safely aloft. Later we’d stop in downtown Paterson for a large dime store frame.
No, Madrid was orderly and quiet. The passage of citizens through streets, heads down, was furtive, smooth. Dar un paseo, we’d repeated after the Berlitz while packing. But nobody strolled arm-in-arm down boulevards, as far as we could see.
August, I suppose, the Europeans go away. Dismayed already by the second day, my mother sighed. At least it’s safe. Unlike our own cities—she paused—Stateside. Self-schooled while her parents ran the store, she felt words out for who they made her. Young woman on her own—still young, you know—can’t be too careful. Men in uniform on every corner here, it’s a relief.
In real life my mother barely ate. The grapefruit diet was the first I recalled. Then grief. She’d taste the Campbell’s Tomato I’d heated on the stove—when my father started dialysis, she’d shown me how to light it—then loose the spoon back to the bowl. The string of fix-ups she’d requested only weeks after the funeral meant Butterick patterns for pert shift dresses, McCall’s dog-eared to the latest slimming fads.
Spain seemed to have changed that. I could eat a horse. And in this crazy place, who knows—I might! The vitrines showcased gory treats: sliced congealed blood, pigs’ feet cloven in V’s like Nixon’s peace sign.
For my part, I was always starving. I don’t know how something like you came out of me. She was petite and dark, vivacious. I was a beanpole like my father, blonde, and wan without him.
Now bar counters piled with doll-sized sandwiches and glistening fish mocked us. She waved peseta bills all lunchtime and yet no one came. Dinner wasn’t served before eleven. Jetlagged and wrecked from touring forts, shaky in our new espadrilles, we’d flop into the saggy beds for siesta, rising only to find evening had passed us by for dawn. Later I’d remember little more of the grand capital than picking at gristly almejas—dried clams she’d taken for almendras, almonds—out of a roll-top tin in a deserted park.
Madrid was done. We dragged our suitcases to Domestic Departures, rivets scraping off—they had no wheels back then. No men offered to help. So much for Latin lovers. On board, my mother collapsed theatrically into her seat, and poured a glass of murky wine—Rioja, she approved it—gradually revived. Mallorca. Resort isle. That’s what we need, we girls, what with this year that we’ve been through.
The taxi driver cruised us past the Palma Promenade. The Guardia Civil had guns here too.
Let’s change and hit that beach. It was hot, too hot to breathe. The ocean off the Melia was deep green.
Before we’d left New Jersey, my mother locked herself in the bathroom with the sewing scissors and a tub of Dippity-Do, emerging with a stiff curled bouffant and a look – eyes narrowed, lips pursed – intended to project a knowing air, but which was more one of hoping to seem knowing, like the detective in the Monday Night Movie my dad had laughed so hard at. Inspector Clouseau.
Now, in Spain, from the waves, she semaphored her new moue at a man who lay smoking on a chaise on the sand. Mustachioed, weathered, short, slick, he seemed the inverse of my father. But—as my mother always reminded me pre-dates, dabbing My Sin behind her ears—the pension wasn’t much. I miss Daddy too. But he’s gone.
The man rose, wade-marched out to us. Please, he said. I teach the child how swim.
I’d been in the water since I was three. In my father’s view, no time could be too soon. Before he left the earth he tried to make sure I would never drown.
I demonstrated: sidestroke, backstroke, butterfly, Australian Crawl. Nose pinched: handstand.
My mother giggled, rueful. Oh, that kid. Messing up her chances once again. She’d planned to be an author, sculptor. Revolutionary. Fashion plate. Not pushing forty with a tract house, half a degree, and fluent steno.
She shook her head, shrugged at the man. You see. She just splashes around.
The body belongs to a little girl. Her one-piece is violet, with tiny flowers. She has just finished the third grade.
The man flips her face-down, taut sea-surface a wallop. Los brazos, arms. Las piernas, legs. Paddle, kick-kick.
The Melia lifeguard remains rooted to his peeling perch, head turned aside. An orange ball floats toward the girl. She reaches, but it is retrieved by Spanish day-campers playing some form of Keep-Away amid the heightening breakers.
Where are you from? the mother tries. Valencia? Seville? —She la-las “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. —I’m from New York. New Jersey, but it’s the same thing. —The Modern had a Dalí retrospective. But you’ve got the Prado. —Staying long? I don’t fly Stateside till next week.
The mother chatters faster. Brighter, brighter, like the sun she’s come for.
The man, he doesn’t seem to hear.
Iberia, the sirens sing.
His hands go places that they shouldn’t.
The girl can make out shapes—a bobbing buoy, the hotel strand—but the tones are overexposed. Retinal flecks flashbulb her sight.
It’s maybe fifteen, twenty minutes.
The man grunts alarmingly, balloons his trunks with surf three times—efficient—leaves.
The girl kicks, paddles. Nobody can out-swim her today.
On land, I toweled off. My mother snapped a bandeau robe around her macramé bikini, wound a terry turban around her hair, and hailed a passing cart. Fresca: the lingua franca of the seventies. No shellfishy surprise hiding in there.
In Europe then there was no ice. I glugged the fizz, retched, spit up on the sand.
Are you deaf? My mother snapped. I said that it was warm. The edge to her voice was ragged, raw. Don’t just sit there sniffling. I can’t bear the sound.
I’d read my Mad magazine five times already, but complied.
We made it to supper that night, synched to the clock only as return home drew near. Paella! my mother rallied slightly. Saffron tasted to me like Jean Naté.
She threw back copas y copas of the sangría, toasting at full, raucous tables who raised their glasses back, sometimes. The flamenco floor show ended. The band resumed its place, much louder now. Women my mother whispered were hookers danced el go-go on window sills. She clapped along. I conked out in my chair.
Outside, all was silent. Still, the din rang in my head, like down at the Jersey shore when my dad had us listen at seashells.
At the hotel, we shuddered into matching nightgowns. Like twins! the clerk at Stern’s had smiled. I found the rayon seams scratchy, but this time choked back the complaints. At that hour the clay-tiled room was icy.
Some country, my mother yawned. Dinner in the middle of the night. Roosters in the market down there will be squawking soon. My shoulders look burned? King’s ransom for a beach umbrella. She went to the mirror, twisted around. Oh. Then there was you. Her mouth split into a rough, donkeyish guffaw. You and that, that – dirty old man!
The next morning the hotel doctor poked at a welt on my neck. It stung.
The bellhop translated. He say: is hives. Alergia? —Allergy? To shrimp, los camarones? Mussels, clams?
Beats me. She’s never had a reaction before. My mother picked the phone up. International line, please. —She’d reached her own mother. No, I’m not kidding. Covered in spots, head to toe, and can’t keep a thing down. —They took it, yes. Hundred-and-three.
The room swayed, a ship adrift. It spun and was sucked down. When I came to, she was shouting into the receiver. Bad line! —No great shakes. —I said, it’s no great shakes! —What? Well, Spain!
Before the trip, a different man had moved in with us, more or less. My mother had gotten cold feet. But now it was resolved.
No problems at all, though. Quiet. Too quiet. Don’t talk much, the Spaniards. In restaurants, yes. But not the street, the beach. —Cops everywhere. So all’s been well.
Franco? What about him? —I see. I see. I’d known, but not precisely. Explains a lot, I guess. All the more reason to come home. —Me too. Me too. —Oh, and: would you believe? A dirty old man said he’d show her how to swim! —About your age. Ha ha! Well, not so old, okay. —But, right! The kid is practically Mark Spitz!
There weren’t words for it back then, I tell the little girl. Creepy experience—that’s it. Left it behind.
What you have left behind, she says, is me.
Write me a better story. No one dies. And the bad guy—there’s no bad guy. And they don’t go to Spain. And it’s just all been a bad dream.
You’re a grownup, the little girl says. You can do it.
Make it a dream, but where the grown-ups save the kid.