The New Country
They sit facing each other in the whispering shade of a tropical bush, lighted from below, leaves making shadow puppets on the trunks of the palm trees. They turn their heads to watch their daughter race through the grass, arms uplifted to the darkening sky. Her fingers grasp for water jetting out of the sprinkler, the beads making silver net above her head. Her squeals of happiness are so high pitched, one imagines dogs pricking up their ears and growling low in their throats, as if to acknowledge one of their own, something wild and untamed echoing in the dusk. Their only son mopes at the table, deprived of another dessert from the avalanche of food at the buffet. His sigh is as big as the Mediterranean Sea, which lies flat and impotent just beyond the volcanic stonewall.
“Can we go now?” Henry whines.
“No, I want you kids to enjoy this beautiful place. Look where we are! They don’t have palm trees like this in Springboro, do they?” her husband says.
“I don’t care about the stupid palm trees. Can we go now?”
“Honey, I don’t want you using that word,” she says, but doesn’t mean it.
The truth is “stupid” sounds like a pretty nice word to her these days. In fact, other more potent swear words keep floating up to the top of her mind just like in that black eight ball she had as a kid. She’d ask it questions like, “Does Robby Thompson like me?” and then shake the ball. Up from the murky depths, a triangular cube would rise with a phrase like “Could be true” or “Better ask later.” These days, when her four-year-old, Rachel, sinks her teeth into a peach and runs a sticky hand down her pressed linen dinner dress, the word, “shit” appears in her head, daring her to say it. Or when Henry, in a fit of hyperactivity, deliberately fists a pile of sand into the back of Rachel’s bathing suit, “goddamn it” comes to mind, and she wonders if she has actually spoken the words out loud.
“Can I go and play with Rachel?”
“Fine,” she sighs as he throws his napkin in her direction and stomps off.
“What’s wrong with him these days?” She wonders this aloud, in her husband’s direction, but she can tell he’s thinking about the luggage again. He sits gazing off at the flat sea, a deflated expression on his face.
Ten days in Nice, France, all expenses paid, including flight, food, lodging, and a kids’ camp. Ten days to relax and unwind in turquoise seas. Ten days. When they got on the long train of flights from Dayton to Minneapolis to Paris to Nice, everything seemed possible. But all that went slowly away, hissing like a slow leak in a tire the moment they touched down on French soil.
At the airport, she tried to make it fun. “See, kids? It’s the middle of the night at our house, but here it’s lunchtime. Isn’t that crazy?”
But the children didn’t seem to notice or care. They were like soiled clothes, puddled on the floor near the baggage claim carousel; Rachel, with her brown curled head resting in the bowl of her little hands, and Henry, tying and untying the string on the zipper of his Batman backpack.
She stood next to her husband and waited as one, two, three of their bags came parading down the black conveyor belt, like beauty contestants at a pageant. And then they waited for the last suitcase. It was hers, the one where she’d carefully packed her new pair of sandals and the beautiful dress her sister said made her look 20. They waited and waited, but the bag never came out. Only when the conveyor belt came to a stop, did they finally look around in a daze. They joined a long, slow line of people to file their missing claim, and a woman who was both bored and annoyed told them that the bag would be delivered to their hotel that very night.
Now it had been three days and still there’d been no sign of her suitcase. Every morning her husband would get on the phone with the airline.
“But we’ve been waiting and waiting,” he would say, “What if my wife’s bag is lost?”
And the voice on the end of the phone would answer, “Monsieur, your bag is not lost. We have just not found it yet.”
She imagines the luggage handlers sitting around on lost suitcases, drinking small cups of dark espresso, feet up on garment bags, the skin of their arms creased by the impression of zippers. She sees their tobacco-stained smiles and hears their laughter as they roll their own cigarettes. Her husband has started losing sleep over her lost suitcase. He is a problem solver and can’t stand the idea that there is nothing to be done until the men are finished with their coffee and conversation.
For three days she’s been wearing jeans, one pair of underwear, and a tired green shirt dotted here and there with Rachel’s yogurt-covered fingerprints. Every night, she’s been washing out her underwear in the sink using a tiny business-card-shaped piece of soap. The front desk gave her a mini toothbrush and toothpaste. On the second morning, she finally broke down and bought a bathing suit. A bikini she will never wear again.
When she asked the saleswoman for a one piece, the woman looked her over and pursed her scarlet lips. “We do not have those,” she said dismissively. “And we do not carry the uh, American sizes . . .”
As she stepped out of her clothes, she glimpsed her moon-like body in the mirror. Large pendulous breasts and a paunchy stomach that jutted out and over the bottom part of the bikini like a canyon ledge. She took in all of it; the great panorama of her body loomed in the reflection.
“How is it?” she asked her husband, holding her breath and pulling in her stomach.
“It’s fine,” her husband said, looking not at all in her direction but at the international newspapers folded in racks next to the cash register.
She almost cried, the feeling rising up like lava, but then she swallowed it down and felt it settle somewhere dark below her heart.
“Mo-om, can we go now?” Her son suddenly interrupts her thoughts, and they shatter like glass dropped on stone. Henry’s returned from the sprinkler, and she can see Rachel lying on her back in the grass.
“You don’t want any more wine, do you?” her husband asks, pouring the last bit into his own glass.
She wants to say “yes” just to see what he’ll do, but then changes her mind because what’s the point in starting something unpleasant. The last remaining light in the sky is on the water, and they watch a bank of clouds as large as a steamer ship, its hull a raw pink, roll softly by. Up at the pool, she can hear the beginnings of a conga line working its way around the pool’s edge. French voices staccato against the tiles. She looks over at her husband and has this sudden urge to grab his hand, forcing a romantic moment.
Maybe somewhere, in a parallel world to this one, they are having a great vacation. The kids are waking at dawn’s light to run happily down to the beach for camp, and she and her husband are eating breakfast in the shade of their bungalow. They lounge in oversize robes and make lazy love in the hush of the air conditioner. In that other place, she has her suitcase and a week’s worth of underwear.
But in this world, the kids are stuck to her like Velcro, their voices oozing with need as she drags them to camp every morning, her fingers slippery on their sun-lotioned arms. And in this world, there is no making love because she’s gotten her period a week early. It arrived this morning and her suitcase didn’t. And she had to go to back to the hotel gift shop where she bought The Bikini. Now, she is certain the saleslady was laughing at her. The woman’s lips tightened as she handed over the small box of panty liners. Her neck muscles convulsed like a snake’s as she rang up the purchase.
Back in the bathroom, she opened the box and wondered what kind of woman used these things. The liners were small and paper-thin like rolled parchment. She knew they’d never work for her. And there she was, caught awkward and American again. It was as if her body betrayed her, revealing more about her than even her stilted American accent did when she said, “Mercy” instead of “Mer-ci,” as if asking for forgiveness. She was a living continent of wide-open spaces. In her very form, people only saw oversized plates sagging under the weight of ten-pound sirloins, stomachs like beach balls stretched tight over “Hi Y’all” t-shirts. Her period was like her country, large and wasteful and embarrassing.
Tonight, she finds herself washing her underwear with new force, the soap fitting the contours of her clenched fingers.
She wakes in the morning as if drugged. She can’t open her eyes all at once. Her thoughts are cotton candy, and she rises slowly. She pads into the bathroom and looks at herself in the mirror, focusing on her mouth, nose, and eyebrows. She won’t look into her eyes, because she’s not sure she wants to see what’s in them anymore.
Day four without luggage, and everything is so bright and teal-colored, it hurts her eyes. This morning, they give up on the idea of dragging the kids to camp and decide to head down to the beach by themselves. She is wearing The Bikini, and she carries their towels in front of her stomach as if they’re an unborn child. She burns easily, so she slathers on sun lotion, and it marbles her skin. Her husband flops down heavily on the chaise next to hers, but he can’t lie still.
“I’m going to go check on the bag again. I’ll be right back.” Off he heads, his feet kicking up sand, his head down with purpose.
“Mo-om, we want to go in the water,” Henry says.
“Yeah, Mom, we want to swim,” Rachel joins in.
“Pleeeeeeeeese?” Their voices drag out the “e” until it scratches against her like a cat’s tongue.
“Not right now. Why don’t you and your sister make a sandcastle, and then we’ll go.” She lies back and closes her eyes for a moment. A light breeze touches her face, and she’s floating on the cadence of voices around her. Time hesitates, holding its breath. She takes a deep breath of her own and opens her eyes. Next to her, a large furrow of sand winds around her chair and she can see the curled white edge of a half-buried bucket.
“Ok, kids, let’s go swimming.” She sits up, looking right and left, then behind her. “Rachel? Henry? Where are you guys?” She slides out of the chaise and shading her eyes from the sun, cranes her neck to see beyond the chalk white umbrellas.
“Rachel? Kids, where are you? Henry?”
They must be down by the water. She told them not to go down there without her. It’s just like Henry to not listen and drag his sister into it. She can already hear her voice rising like an angry wave and feel their tears, their hunched shoulders and hiccupping sobs.
She marches down to the water’s edge. Her eyes now scanning the water, looking for the cowlick at the back of her son’s neck or her daughter’s long brown curls. She looks down the shore at the dust brown rocks hugging one side of the bay. From this distance, she can see sea spray rising in the air, a plume of cloud thrown up against the rocks. She sees beach vendors, their arms draped in a rainbow of sarongs and seashell necklaces. A young mother slaps a toddler across the back of its thighs. The child’s face blooms red, then she hears its cry. A balding older man rises up out of the surf, his gold necklace gleams in a thicket of gray chest hair. A young man kisses a girl in the water. A wave brings a plastic water bottle tumbling up onto shore. A speed boat whirs by like a mosquito. She sees all this. She does not see her children.
“Par – don,” she says to a couple walking past her. “Have you seen my children?” She gestures with her hands, but the couple shies away from her. Sweat beads on her brow, down her back, and down between her breasts. She’s pacing, the panic like a vise at the top of her throat.
“Excusez! Please!” she says loudly to the beach, to the greased bodies lying with their eyes closed, to the sea, to the hard blue sky. “My children. I’ve lost my children! Has anyone seen my children? A boy and girl.” No one answers her or for that matter even looks at her. “Won’t someone help me? Please!” She hears herself sob before she realizes she’s crying. Where could they be? Her eyes dart up the beach and down. What if they were kidnapped? She’s heard things like this happen. American kids stolen and sold in Asia. She read an article about it once.
Where are they? A little girl runs toward her in a bright pink bathing suit just like Rachel’s but no, it’s not her. Her heart rattles in her chest, jumping and shimmering with fear. She’s crying loudly now, heedless of her blotchy face and her runny nose. And no one is paying any attention to the crazy American.
Oh, God, what will she do? How will she explain to her husband that she lost the children? She can see the two of them, breathless and sweaty in the un-air conditioned police station. A large burly policeman is questioning her in broken English. His body odor is pungent. He’s been wearing the same worn brown suit all summer. He looks into her eyes and knows. He knows. He knows she lost them on purpose. That she wished them lost and they were. Just like that. A magic trick. Now you see them. Now you don’t. Her husband slumps next to her. He can feel her shame. And now that her secret is out, she lays her head down on the scarred table. In her lap, her fingers tear a piece of tissue into tiny little pieces.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Her husband voice is suddenly behind her. She turns as if on a carousel. She sees the blur of blue water, dotted with boats, the bright slash of sky. And there he stands. Henry and Rachel like bookends on either side of him. She finds her voice but it sounds hoarse and scratchy.
“I – I couldn’t find the kids.”
“You were sleeping when I came back from the room. And the kids wanted some ice cream, so I took them up to the snack bar. You okay?”
“Yeah. I just thought I lost them.” She stumbles on the words and kneels down to pull Henry’s and Rachel’s bodies close to her. Their skin smells like sun lotion and salt. She breathes them in like smoke.
“Are you okay, Mom?” Henry asks.
“Yes, Mommy was scared ’cause she thought she lost you,” she says palming the tears away from her face.
“Don’t worry, Mom. You’ll never lose us.” Henry says cheerfully.
Rachel grabs her hands and pulls her back to their umbrella as if she were hypnotized, a sleep walker, one slow moving foot after another.
“Guess what?” Her husband says as they sit down. “You’re not going to believe this. They found your bag. Someone from the airport’s going to drive it over here this afternoon.” Her husband’s voice is plump with happiness. She hears him but it’s hard to concentrate with her heart still waltzing around in her body. Her blood is slow and sluggish, an oil slick. “Hey, why don’t I take the kids for a swim? You just sit here and relax.” He leans over and for the first time in days, kisses her on the mouth.
She stares after him as he lunges into the water with the kids following him, jumping on his shoulders, hanging on him. For a moment, she imagines running past them, knees pumping over the waves. She dives into the surf, her arms cutting the water with hard strokes. Faster and faster, her breathing is ragged now. The air is a rope she is pulling into her lungs through her open mouth. Finally, her muscles give out, and she has to stop. The sun is a bright ball overhead, a spotlight gleaming down on the new continent that is her body. Her eyes are shut, but she can still feel her husband and children at the shoreline, their need for her as taut as piano wire. She goes under for a moment, just a moment, feeling how soft and quiet it is underneath it all. The emerald depths cradle her in their velvet hands. So quiet. So peaceful. She surfaces. Then, with steady strokes, she launches herself back at the shore.
3 replies on “The New Country”
Susan, i love your story. I live a few minutes walk to a beach and i constantly worry about lossing the kids. my kids are coming our of that stage of constant whining and needyness and i remember the guilt of wanting a break……i cant think of any mother that wont relate to this. perfect
I was mesmerized by the beach and that imagining of “how it should be.” But of course, there’s reality, and every mom can relate. You had me at the edge of my seat. Love your story!
Beautiful writing and completely relatable!