At first, the water felt frigid. Standing on the shoreline, the foamy tide encircled my eight-year-old toes, the soft silt beneath my feet giving way to crushed shells. People were all around, and the air smelled of Coppertone and cigarette smoke, chased by a salty, fishy breeze. Two of my brothers whooshed past me, their thin frames glistening ocean green and blue as they body-surfed the rolling waves.
Hand in hand, my parents walked down towards me from the beach blanket. My father’s short blue swim trunks hung on his thin body, the outline of his ribs visible, front and back. Random dark hairs were scattered across his chest. My mother’s white bathing suit was corset-like, squeezing runoff pale flesh over the top of it. She had stuffed her brown hair into a white rubber bathing cap, the chinstrap hidden by folds of skin. She didn’t look like my mother.
* * *
It was beach day, our annual trek out east, where my parents and all six children, aged two to fourteen, escaped from our sticky house and stifling street in Queens, New York. On this day, there would be no running under the green hose tied to the sagging clothesline. There would be no sitting in the scary basement, trying to get cool. I had been counting the days until my father’s one-week vacation in August. He took this time to take my brothers fishing and to fix up our little home, but he always saved one day for the beach.
* * *
Hot and eager to get in the water, we waited while my parents painstakingly picked out the best spot to place our scratchy, woolen blankets. As we trudged along, a muffled roar sprang from the wide expanse of sand. People were everywhere, each party staked out no more than three feet from the next. Finally settled, we stood watching my father as he did his annual dance with our faded, striped umbrella, twisting and turning together as one.
* * *
Striding into deeper water, my father took turns picking up each of his younger children, holding them high as the waves moved beneath him. It felt dangerous yet exciting as I held onto his slippery shoulder. I didn’t want my turn to end. Looking back towards the shore, I tried to find the rest of my family, but only saw different shapes of blurry colors.
Standing in shallow waves, we marveled at my twelve-year-old brother Bobby, who stood on his head while under water.
“Do it again!” we screamed. My teenaged sister rolled her eyes.
“He’s so embarrassing,” Dianne said.
Running back to our blankets, my ponytail dripping with briny water, I dabbed at my body with a thin towel and found a seat on the crowded blanket. Music from transistor radios surrounded us, their erect antennas gleaming in the sunlight, the sounds of Sinatra, Elvis, and Belafonte blending together in disharmony.
Handed a waxed paper square, I nibbled at my purple-stained peanut butter and jelly sandwich, washing it down with watery lemonade poured from my father’s tall, chipped thermos. Sitting together, it was quiet. We were hungry, damp and content.
After doling out a hard peach to each of us, my parents stood up.
“We’re going for our walk,” my mother said. “Everybody be good, and don’t go near the water. Remember, your food isn’t digested; you might get cramps and drown.” I stared at her, worried already.
“Dianne’s in charge. Watch the baby, Dianne,” she said, pointing to my brother Brian, who was sitting on the blanket, gnawing on his peach.
Taking my mother’s hand, my father picked his way around chairs, bodies and blankets and headed towards the shore. My eyes followed them until they eventually disappeared into the hazy throngs. I hated when they did this. Right away, the ocean sounded louder to me; the beach seemed more crowded. Why do they have to go on a walk? Why can’t we all go on a walk?
Dianne, stretched out on the blanket, turned over and let out a long sigh.
“God, I’m sick of watching kids,” she said to no one. Lying next to the baby, she alternated poses in her bikini, looking up whenever a teenaged boy walked past. Tall and mostly legs now, Dianne’s wet ponytail held back her dark hair, and pimples dotted her face, her makeup washed off by the ocean.
“Let’s throw the ball in the water and watch it come back,” Bobby said to my brother Kevin.
“Stay here!” Dianne said. “God, you are so annoying! Did you hear what Mom just said?”
Scowling at Dianne, Bobby picked up his pink rubber ball.
“C’mon, Kev. Let’s play catch. And get away from her.”
“Bury me in the sand!” my brother Timmy said to me.
After digging a shallow pit together, Timmy hopped in while I filled our yellow pail with sand, periodically scanning the shore for my parents. After a few minutes, I stopped digging, when I heard the lifeguard’s whistle pierce the air. Three long tweets, a break, and then three more. A hush came over the beach. Everyone around us stopped whatever they were doing and looked up.
“Hey!” Timmy yelled.
“Wait,” I said.
Standing on his wooden tower, the lifeguard reached down next to him and picked up a sobbing little boy, who looked about four years old. The lifeguard’s coppery arms held the boy out in front of him, and slowly turned left and right. Each time he turned, he blew his whistle, the little boy crying louder with each tweet. Every year when this happened, it worried me. What if I got lost and my parents were on their walk? Is that how you become an orphan?
Everyone stood waiting for someone to rescue the lost child. Looking around, I saw my parents slowly walking towards us. Still holding hands, they were deep in conversation and didn’t see me run up to them.
“Someone got lost,” I said.
“Oh, they’ll be OK,” my mother said. “C’mon, let’s all go back in the water.”
Staying close to my parents, I didn’t leave their side and instead watched my brothers swim and throw the ball in the waves. Zigzagging from the water to the blanket, hours passed until it was finally time for us to leave.
As we made our way towards the parking lot, we resembled a line of burros, all of us laden with towels, toys, and coolers. Squished together once again in our hot car, we were a salty, tired group. I sat in the way back with Timmy, who fell asleep as soon as we left, his fuzzy blond crew cut tickling my shoulder.
Thirty minutes into the drive, when we were almost halfway home, my sister abruptly turned from looking out the window.
“Where’s Bobby?” she said. We all looked around. My brother wasn’t in the car.
“What!” my mother yelled, twisting, and nearly hurtling her body into the back seat. “Bobby, Bobby!” she said, as if willing him to appear. “John,” she screamed. “Pull over! Is he in the trunk?” The trunk? How could he breathe in the trunk?
Saying nothing, my father carefully steered the car onto the shoulder of the highway. I sat rigid, squeezing my hands together while listening to my mother cry. The baby, who sat between them in the front seat, was now crying.
With cars whizzing past him, my father opened his door and ran back to the trunk.
“Bob, are you in there?” he yelled, while fumbling with the key. But there was no Bobby in the trunk; there was just our beach stuff.
“It’s okay, It’s okay, I’m sure he’s okay,” my father kept saying as he got back in. “He’s probably sitting in the parking lot, waiting for us. You know how Bobby likes to hide, right?”
No one answered him.
Staring at the thick traffic, my father waited to ease back on the highway.
“Oh God, when is the next exit?” my mother asked.
We were quiet in the car. Staring out the window, I held my arms against my stomach, which had started to hurt. My mother tried to calm the baby while she quietly whimpered. Racing off the next exit, my father drove across a bridge and re-entered the highway. The traffic going back towards the beach was lighter, and he drove the car faster than usual.
At the toll entrance, he quickly explained to the guard what had happened, while my mother looked out the other window. The guard, shaking his head, waved us through. The parking lot was emptying now, many of the beachgoers heading home.
Picking his way around, my father drove to our original spot and parked. We exploded from the car, screaming Bobby’s name. Hearing all the commotion, many people stopped and stared, while my father left us and ran up and down every hot cement aisle.
“Bob? Bob?” he kept saying.
The rest of us walked to the sand with my mother, peering and hoping.
But there was no Bobby. He wasn’t sitting waiting for us. He wasn’t anywhere. I looked at my parents, waiting for them to make him come back. What happens now? Is he gone forever?
“I don’t believe this,” my sister said in a low voice.
“Everyone stay right here. Don’t move,” my father said. Quickly, my mother passed the baby to Dianne and ran with my father towards the shore.
“Bobby, Bobby!” they yelled, looking left and right. I heard their muffled “Bobbys!” as they got closer to the water. Standing next to my sister in the hot parking lot, I felt dizzy.
“Is he kidnapped?” I asked.
“No, no. He’s fine. They’ll find him. Remember when Timmy got lost in the supermarket?”
“But it’s bigger here,” I said. “There’s lots more people. Did someone kill him?”
“Everyone sit here,” Dianne said, ignoring me and pointing to the cement-parking barrier. There the four of us sat, like birds on a wire, watching as the baby toddled back and forth in the gritty sand, occasionally picking up a stone and bringing it back to one of us.
After a while, Kevin stood up. “Look!” he said, pointing. My parents were walking towards us, my brother between them. Bobby was moving slowly, head down, his skinny body covered with patches of dried sand. In his hand was his pink rubber ball.
Reaching the parking lot, my father lit a cigarette, leaned against the car and looked away. My mother started to put the baby back into the car, and the rest of us ran up to Bobby.
“What happened to you?” Kevin asked. “Did you get lost? Were you up on the lifeguard stand?”
Bobby nodded, still staring at the sand.
Excited, Kevin jumped around Bobby, showering him with questions. Bobby said nothing, still clutching his ball.
“Did they blow the whistle?”
“Were you scared?”
“Why didn’t you come home with us?”
Finally, Bobby looked up.
“When we were packing the car, I ran back to the beach to get my ball, and when I came back, you were gone,” he said, staring at us. “You left me.” His voice was small and shaky, and his tear-streaked face looked exhausted.
Hearing this, my mother got out of the car, slammed the door, and walked right up to him. The rest of us stood silent, waiting.
“No, Bobby. We didn’t leave you,” she said in a firm voice, pointing at him. “You left us. And don’t ever do it again! Then she pointed at the rest of us.
“That goes for all of you–you see what can happen?”
Silently, we filed back into the car.
She is at work on her memoir, The Hollis Ten, a group of stories about growing up in a family of eight children in Queens, New York.
Today, she is comfortable in crowds and still never leaves her dinner plate unattended. Mary Ann resides in Westport, Connecticut.
IMAGE CREDIT: Jasperdo/Flickr Creative Commons