Body Surfing By Ed Meek
I had invited my sister, Virginia, and her husband, Leo, and their three children from New Jersey to celebrate mom and dad’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. They, along with my parents, were coming for the weekend of the Fourth of July. Frank and I had bought a house on the beach in Scituate when I got pregnant with Christine. We’d been trying to have a child for so long, we had just about given up. We had in fact begun looking into adoption - I was thirty-seven - but then, miracle of miracles, it happened.
It was a difficult delivery. I wanted to do it naturally, with as few drugs as possible. I wanted to experience it and I got my wish. Thirteen hours in the delivery room. My back has never really been the same, but I was so happy about the baby that I didn’t care. And Christine was a beautiful healthy baby. I don’t think there is anything to compare to it--the first sight of an infant--she’d been inside me for nine months and there she was with her head elongated from the forceps and the wisps of black hair and the violet eyes she got from Frank’s side—she was so perfect.
For the first few months, she kept me up, of course, but then she was cooing and sleeping, and crawling and walking with first words mixed in there. The older she got the more she came to look like me—her violet eyes were almond-shaped like mine. She had the same pouty mouth and heart-shaped face I saw in the mirror. She was different from Frank and me though--always smiling, giggling, a happy child. I took a six-month leave of absence from Dr. Perry’s office where I worked as his secretary. Then I went back part time and put Chrissie in daycare. Dr. Perry let me work flexible hours. He was getting older and didn’t put in a full week himself anymore. I thanked God daily for Christine’s existence, for what she brought to my life. She made us a real family. I kept my part-time hours even when Christine went to elementary school so that I could walk her to school and meet her when school got out. It was the summer after fourth grade when we had the anniversary party for my folks. It was hard to believe that Frank and I had lived on the beach for ten years.
Mom and dad were staying at the house with us the weekend of the anniversary party. My sister Virginia and her husband Leo and their kids were staying at the Old Towne Inn in the center. We had eaten an afternoon dinner together at the Green Briar Inn where we had surprised mom and dad (Happy Anniversary!) and they had feigned surprise in return. Then we all went back to our house. It was four o’clock when we took our drinks out of the house and down to the beach where we sat on lounge chairs while the kids played down by the water. Virginia’s kids were seven, nine and eleven--two girls and a boy. Christine was ten. The girls were playing with Christine who was thoroughly enjoying herself digging in the sand. They were using plastic buckets to make a castle.
It was a beautiful day, hot and sunny with the sky that razor blue it only seems to be a handful of times a year. It was hot, nearly ninety, without a trace of haze. We were drinking Marguerites--one of Frank’s specialties. He makes them with fresh limes. It was one of those rare times when I didn’t feel stressed--I don’t know, it always seems as if there is some reason for tension in my family--mom’s upset at me or at Virginia or at Frank for something we said or did, or the kids are acting up. Anyway, we were just sitting there. It was mellow really. Time was passing slowly like those wispy cirrus clouds that began to form on the horizon while the ocean caught cups of sunlight and the spray from crashing waves made us gasp with surprise. I was keeping my eye on Christine as I sat and talked with mom. Christine was a good swimmer but the waves that day were big. There had been a storm the night before and it was a private beach—no lifeguards.
Anyway, mom wanted me to show her the rooms upstairs. I had recently painted them and rearranged the furniture. I said to Frank, “We’re going up; keep an eye on the kids.”
“Sure,” Frank said.
It must have been, I don’t know, maybe half an hour later when mom and I came back. I looked out at the beach and it was deserted. It was so strange. Empty red and blue buckets overturned in the sand. I looked up the beach to the jetty. I wondered if maybe everyone had gone out there. Sometimes Frank took Christine out on the rocks. Near the jetty I saw three kids. I couldn’t quite make out who they were. I remember thinking they could be Virginia’s kids. Then I wondered where Frank and Christine were. I thought, he must have taken her somewhere. Maybe she had to go pee and he took her up to the house. I walked down to the jetty and it was Virginia’s kids. I asked them where Frank and Christine were and they said they didn’t know. I was worried at that point. I headed back to the house and saw Frank coming down to the beach. He was alone. He must have left Christine with mom and dad is what I was thinking. “Frank,” I said, “where’s Christine?”
“She’s with the other kids,” he said.
I remember looking at him then. He had had a lot to drink that day. He always drank more when my parents came to visit. “No,” I said. “She isn’t with the other kids.”
“Well, I left her with them,” he said.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“I, I went to the house,” he said.
I was standing close to him. I thought I caught a whiff of marijuana. “You went to smoke a joint,” I said. “You went to get high.”
“No, no,” he said, “I went up to the house to use the bathroom.”
“Well, I’m going to check the house,” I said. “Maybe Chrissie is with Nana.”
“OK,” Frank said. “I’ll talk to the kids--they’re probably playing hide and seek.”
He smiled and it made me really angry. I wondered how in God’s name we had ever gotten married. I mean did I know this man? Did I trust him?
I went up to the house hoping Chrissie was with dad. Mom and I had left dad on the beach and maybe he had brought her back to the house. Dad was sitting alone in the living room reading the paper. He hadn’t seen Chrissie, hadn’t noticed her when he came up.
It was Frank who found Chrissie floating in the waves. She was right at the shore-- “in a foot of water,” Frank said. When I came back out he was trying to resuscitate her --pushing down on her chest and breathing into her little mouth. She looked like a doll--puffy and lifeless. That’s when I lost it. I pulled him off, screaming from my gut. I pulled him off and began shaking her and when she didn’t respond, I remember getting up and hitting Frank, calling him bastard, murderer, drug addict.
“Tommy said, he’d watch her,” was all he could say. He looked longingly at Tommy and at Linda and Ginny.
Tommy shrugged and said he was sorry. He started crying.
The girls said that Chrissie was playing with Tommy.
How could I blame Tommy? I hugged him and told him it wasn’t his fault. He was just a kid after all.
My father had called an ambulance. They arrived fast and rushed her to the hospital where a team of doctors tried to bring her back. I guess they’re sometimes able to do that. Not this time. I don’t really remember much of it. I was in shock I guess. Dad was there and he took care of the details. Frank walked out of the hospital when they told us she was gone. I think he needed to get drunk. He didn’t come home until early the next morning and he slept downstairs on the couch.
Dad was great. He stayed and arranged the wake and the funeral. I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing her little body in that coffin. Her face was so placid and content. They had put a little make-up on her and I could see her going to her prom and graduating, getting married and starting a family. I just know she went straight to heaven. She was just one of God’s little angels, Chrissie was.
There were media people, reporters, at the house and at the wake and the funeral. It was in The Globe, The Ledger, The Herald. It was on television too. My mother kept the articles. I couldn’t read them. I never said a word to the reporters. I heard they found Frank at O’Grady’s bar and asked him to make a statement but he was incoherent. My dad told the press we had nothing to say. We just wanted to be alone. I did get a lot of sympathetic calls and cards from neighbors and some from people I didn’t know.
I blamed Frank. I needed to blame someone. I blamed my parents a little for the fact that Frank had to hide his smoking a joint by going into the house, but mostly I blamed Frank and from that moment on I just couldn’t be near him any longer. I could not bear to look at him because every time I did I thought of Chrissie and his stupid selfishness--his weak need to get high and drunk. And I blamed myself too, it was my fault--like my mother says, I was the mother--I should have stayed down on the beach--you can’t trust men to look after children--they are only men is how my mother put it. Anyway, I couldn’t stay with Frank anymore. A week after the funeral I told him to leave and he did. He didn’t even seem surprised. He’d been sleeping downstairs. He’d stopped going to work.
He moved across town with an old high school buddy of his. I had to learn to live by myself. If I weren’t Catholic I would’ve taken a bottle of pills the day of the wake. After that day I searched my soul for the sins I must have forgotten, for my selfishness, for my aimlessness, for where I went wrong, what I did to deserve what happened, but I couldn’t find the answer. I felt some guilt for Frank’s drinking and smoking pot. I thought maybe I was not able to please him enough in the way he wanted. It was my fault he got high. I knew what he was like when I married him. I was over thirty and two years older. I was a little bit desperate, thinking of my biological clock. I wanted a child and a family and a home for the child so I compromised. Frank was not educated. He hadn’t even finished high school. He was a carpenter who worked steady and I thought I could live with his faults. We liked the same music. Like me, he was a Dylan fan. I told myself it didn’t matter if he drank and smoked dope. He was never abusive. In fact, I used to drink with him and although I didn’t smoke pot, I never felt it was my place to condemn someone else. We’d met at church and I felt that was a sign. I didn’t know then he only went twice a year.
It was Easter when we met. I was wearing a beautiful blue suit with a short skirt and heels and a white hat. I looked good. He had a tweed jacket on that looked a little worn around the edges and a white shirt open at the neck. He was tall and thin and he needed a haircut. I didn’t think I could change him but I thought I could tone him down a little, spruce him up, soften the edges.
Two years after Chrissie drowned, Virginia was visiting with her kids. Virginia and I were in lounge chairs on the beach. Her two girls had gone for a walk along the shore. It was a little cloudy that day, humid with a hint of fall in the breezes off the ocean. Tommy had just come up out of the water and was toweling off. He was thirteen and it seemed as if he had grown a foot in the past year. He was already taller than I was.
“Tommy has something he wants to tell you,” Virginia said. “Go ahead,” she said to Tommy, “tell her.”
“It was kind of my fault,” Tommy said.
I knew right away he was talking about Chrissie. It was never very far from my thoughts. Certain images floated at the edge of my vision—her in the water, Frank pushing on her chest, her at the wake.
“I said I’d watch her, like uncle Frank told me to,” he hesitated.
“No one blames you,” I said. “He was supposed to be watching her.”
“But we went in the water together—Chrissie and me. We were body surfing. The waves were a little bit big and there was an undertow.” Tommy looked at his mother.
“Keep going,” she said. She was smoking a cigarette. I had been trying to get her to stop smoking but she just ignored me.
“We both rode this one wave and it pulled us under. It was really weird, like I was a pretzel being twisted underneath the water and I couldn’t breath. I thought I was going to drown and then I popped up and I looked around for Chrissie and I saw her. She was just a little bit farther out than I was. We were between the waves and another one was coming. Well I just swam as hard as I could for the shore.”
“You mean you think you could have saved her?” The words just came out of my mouth.
“Yea, I knew how to—I had taken a class at the Y. I just panicked and wanted to save myself.” His voice caught on the last word and his eyes filled with tears.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I felt guilty.”
“Okay,” Virginia said, “you can go.” She waved him off with one hand and he walked down toward the water. “He told me last weekend,” she said to me. “He has an appointment with a therapist next week.” She reached over and held my hand. “I’m so sorry.”
I called Frank that night and met him for lunch the next afternoon. He didn’t say much when I told him. He just nodded and looked out the window of the restaurant. Finally he said, “So, you’re telling me it wasn’t my fault?”
“No,” I said. “I still blame you, but not completely. Maybe it could have happened even if we were right there. I’m not sure anymore.”
He looked at me with those violet eyes, now encased in wrinkles. It was as if his eyes had sunk back into his head. “Well, Tommy shouldn’t blame himself. He was only eleven. The thing was, I wasn’t high. I was buzzed from the drinks and I ran up to use the bathroom. I tried to go in the water but it was too damn cold.” He laughed and then stopped and his eyes welled up.
“Can we meet again?” I asked. I reached across the table and held his hand.
He shrugged and shook his head. I don’t think he was saying no though. He was just shaking it off, commenting how awful the whole event was and how it didn’t really change the fact that Chrissie had died. He mumbled something.
“Did you say something Frank?”
“I was thinking of a line by Dylan; something like: people don’t live or die; people just float.”
I looked at him sideways. “Chrissie drowned and she left us here, floating.”
He nodded. He was staring out the window but I don’t think that he was looking at anything. He needed a little time to absorb what I’d told him. I’d give him a little time and then I’d invite him over for dinner, just the two of us.