(from Chapter One):
I trust water. I know my limitations in water. And I don’t press beyond them. My name is Clarissa. I’m twenty-five. Lately, I swim a lot. Swimming toughens the vitals organs: lungs and heart. A swallow of air measures every stroke. When I’m underwater, I can’t see or hear clearly and can’t smell anything. I’m humble. I’m forgiving with others and myself. Maybe I’d have been better of living somewhere like Cuzco, in Peru, when it was the capital of the Inca. Water streamed down from the Andes and flowed in ditches throughout the city. When hot, I’d have knelt under a fountain. A vicuña might have sipped at trough near my feet. More often, I thin of another place, Atlantis. That is my favorite myth. The island was rich and no doubt lush. But I imagine its splendor after an earthquake sank it.
My grandmother was afraid of the water. She never swam. Her name was Rebecca Lyon, always known to us as Nanny. She was my father’s mother and the only grandparent I ever met. I know little about my mother’s past. She tells me that she lost both her parents during the Second World War. She is British and her name is Julia.
My father, David, was brought up in Hidden Gorge, a small town in upstate New York. His father ran a nine-hundred-square-foot grocery store called The Lyon Den Mart. The family lived on top. In 1952, my grandfather died of a heart attack. A few months later, Nanny gave my father and his sister enough money to build a supermarket in Puerto Rico. At the time, the island had only small grocery stores, or colmados. Nadia, my father’s sister, moved to Puerto Rico shortly after my father did. Today they have several stores on the island and throughout the Caribbean: in Saint John, Saint Thomas, Saint Croix and Tortola. They named the supermarkets Isla.
As our father puts it, my brother, my sister and I are “pampered.” We’ve been given some money. Sometimes we justify our good fortune by feeling guilty. The guilt lets us pretend we’re noble. Our father is sometimes noble. A friend of his once said, “Your dad is one of the few honest people left on earth.” He appears to find a goodness in almost every man he meets. But he’s not always sociable. He likes small islands where there are few people. Maybe that’s his way of pretending he has only himself to answer to.
I look like my father. I’m tall and my skin is more olive than white. Like him, I have a high forehead and a dimple on my left cheek when I smile. He tells me I have his poise. I keep my chin high; I’m never clumsy.
I grew up in a small suburb of Puerto Rico called Santa María. Our house had white gates, or rejas. Spanish ceramic roof tiles, white plaster walls and cupola with a horse weather vane. I was born in 1955 and stayed an only child for four years.
Nanny kept me company. She visited me every week. She drove in from Santurce, where she lived with her housekeeper. Nanny could bounce me high on her knee. She taught me gin rummy. She’d slap down cards. She’d say, I win, over and over. The day I won, she accused me of cheating.
In September 1959, Cora was born. She doesn’t look like me. She has blue eyes, like our father’s. Otherwise, she looks like our mother. She has her round face and fair skin. She is small-boned.
Michael came a year after Cora. As a baby he had straight blond hair. When it turned dark brown, I remember thinking he looked a lot like my brother. He grew to be six feet. But he doesn’t seem big. His legs, his neck, his fingers are all slender and almost graceful.
Nanny’s attentions turned to Cora and Michael. So I started to lie. I told my sister and brother stories of what I’d done before they were born. I told them I rode an albino horse in the rain; I cantered for hours. I told them I took a helicopter to a volcano top in Sicily; the volcano had just erupted. I told them stories of what I’d just read as if they were true. I read a lot. My mother had given me reading lessons every morning since I was three. I taught Cora and Michael how to read. I wanted them to look up to me. Nanny taught them how to play cards.
When I was six, my father found me a piano teacher. He was a short man with a red mustache. He used to carry a stack of old music sheets under his arm. He made me copy the music by hand. He used to tell me, “You’re the kind of student who can’t become too polished. You’ll lose your gut feeling for the music.” We had a Pianola. When I wasn’t playing, my mother pedaled it. We’d all sing to “Caravan,” “Stella by Starlight,” “Making Whoopee.” But the Pianola was eight keys short. My teacher never complained. He said I practiced a lot and that was all he could ask for.
I liked the certainty of notes. They were less ambiguous than words. When I made a mistake, I knew it right away. The fewer mistakes I made, the more Nanny cooed. She began taking me on her lap again. I played with her under me. She made Cora and Michael stand next to me and listen. Nanny said I was a natural musician; I was meant to be a famous pianist. But I never thought of myself as gifted.
. . .
The year Nanny turned ninety, she came to visit for a few days. I was eight. My mother took us to the supermarket. Nanny frightened me: she began ranting about tomatoes and lettuces tumbling out of the bins. She said there were rats in the aisles poking their snouts at her toes. My mother had no desire to listen to her. So she drove her to my father’s office. She told him to take her home. Then my mother picked up our housekeeper, Rosa, and drove us all to the Japanese gardens, almost an hour away.
The gardens were in a hotel off a San Juan beach. The hotel was always busy with businessmen and tourists. Cubans and Europeans gambled in the casino. They sauntered on the garden paths. Cora and I watched them as if to learn from their motions. My mother called certain women the “gentry.” They were pearl-skinned and had black hair. Descendants, my mother said, of the conquistadores. One or two such women lived in Santa María. My mother knew them but thought they were too proud.
We entered the garden from the north on a path of stones laid in the grass. The path snaked up a hill. On top of the hill there was a pond with lily pads. A wooden gazebo with a bridge had been built in the middle of the pond. The gazebo was our sanctuary. We had picnics there. Then we threw breads crumbs to the garden birds. Pelicans balanced on one leg; peacocks dragged their tails in the grass; ducks stepped in and out of the pond. The pond streamed over the south side of the hill and turned into a waterfall. Cora, Michael and I used to roll down a dry part of the hill. At the bottom there was an abandoned art gallery, rotting under a mango tree. We used to play around the gallery.
Mom said to Rosa, “What a relief to escape that Rebecca.” We were sitting in the gazebo. It was almost five, and we’d been at the gardens since noon.
Rosa was from Peru. She’d been with us since I was three. She’d learned English for Mom. But Michael, Cora and I liked to talk to her in Spanish. Her clothes smelled of garlic. Her skin smelled like pine. She had a flat nose and paper-thin ears. The whites of her eyes had yellow shades in them. She was showing Michael how to whistle with a blade of grass. I was bent over the pond, catching guppies in a paper cup. Cora sat Indian-style next to me. She wore a yellow dress she’d already soiled.
“Rosa, that woman keeps him up all night sometimes,” Mom said and lit a cigarette. “She was a wild one. She had her men. Plenty, too. She loves to tell me all about them.”
Rosa said, “Doña Rebecca is a good woman. She doesn’t know what she says.”
“She knows exactly what she’s saying. She told me I should stop trying to have children. Imagine! Now she’s begun this raving. Don’t underestimate her power, Rosa. That was my mistake. She’s a mighty one.”
Mom caught me listening and blew me a kiss. She wore her hair short and behind her ears. Her hair is blond-red and her eyes are green; the left one slopes down a little. When angry, she closes both halfway.
She took off her hat and fanned herself with it. Even in the shade Mom felt the heat. She left to call Dad. When she returned, she said, “I told your father we’d be late. I packed sweaters in case it gets chilly.”
Cora leaned forward to watch the guppies writing in the cup. She said, “Do we have to wait until dark? After dark, God comes out.”
I giggled. I didn’t believe in God. My father made me go to Hebrew school. I skipped lessons. I never liked the quiet of synagogues, the small talk after the services. Passover or Yom Kippur was a chore to me. My mother is Catholic. She has, for all appearances, converted. Yet when frightened or nervous, she crosses herself.
“I have some juice and cookies,” Mom said.
“Let’s leave before it’s dark,” Cora said.
“Have a go at more of those tadpoles.”
“Doña Julia,” Rosa said, “Michael hasn’t had his nap.”
And Mom said, “He’ll live.”
Cora and I headed for the waterfall at the bottom of the hill. We splattered our ankles in the mango pulp and mud. We looked through a cracked window of the art gallery. I said, “Look at the shadows on the pedestals. Let’s go in.” We’d never been inside.
Cora didn’t want to. I said I’d go in myself and she changed her mind. We crawled through a window. The glass was missing. There were two rooms. The back one had a dirty desk in it. I sat behind the desk and pretended to play Mozart.
“Look at me,” I heard Cora shout.
In the other room, she’d climbed onto a pedestal. She was holding her hands up. She looked like a skinny cherub. I climbed onto a larger pedestal and thought there was no way a living thing could look like art.
Mom came to the window and watched us.
When we got home, she said, “You looked so quiet. Just like statues. I couldn’t disturb you.”
Standing on the pedestal made me feel composed. My mother would tell me she always sees me that way. She believes people like to assess our graces. I believe we ask people to judge us. Sometimes we even insist.
Michael fell asleep during dinner. Rosa carried him to his room. His room was blue, with white floors and a white ceiling. His bed was near the window. He could look out to the top of palm trees and the sky. I liked where his room was: above Mom and Dad’s and between Cora’s and mine. My room faced the backyard, the pool, and the forest that belonged to the church. We had a flamboyan tree. When the tree was flowering, I didn’t mind my view.
Nanny ate slowly. She toyed with the lacy collar of her yellow robe. Her face was long and smooth. Her eyes seemed to have clouds in them. She said to Dad, “Did you make sure the bulbs were changed in the store?”
He said, “The stores are very bright.”
Nanny chewed for a long time and then said, “Your grandfather, Clarissa, he was smart.” She winked at me. “He never let a light burn out. Smart… How were the gardens?” she said to Mom.
“Empty and quite lovely, but they should do something about that art gallery. It’s beginning to smell.”
“Worry if it doesn’t smell,” Nanny said. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen stank like hell. It was a whale in the straits off Vancouver Island.”
We’d already heard about the boat trip Nanny and my grandfather had taken. A whale had breached a mile away. Later, on Vancouver Island, she’d bought my parents a white and gray marble whale. Mom stored the whale in the closet. She took it out when Nanny visited.
Nanny pointed to the whale on the coffee table. She said, “One of the most beautiful sights, and it stank like hell.”
I wondered how a whale could smell if the sea rinsed it over and over again.
Mom trimmed her steak. But then she ate the fat instead of the meat. She held her napkin to her mouth while she coughed.
“Then there are baby elephants,” Nanny said. “Their mothers smell them all around when they’re asleep. To make sure they’re alive. So, my Julia, worry if it doesn’t smell.”
“They shouldn’t keep babies in a zoo,” Cora said.
Everyone was asleep, but I writhed in bed, feeling sunburned. I went into the living room. Mosquitoes were swarming around the lamp. The terrace door was open. I went to close it. It was cool outside and I walked toward the pool. The pool lights were on. I spotted a shadow in the deep end. Nanny floated faced own in yellow gown. Her head and upper body had sunk deeper than her legs. I jumped in, but I couldn’t swim to her. I became scared. I went back to the house. I woke up Mom and Dad. They both put on their robes and ran barefoot to the pool.
Dad started to pull Nanny out. Mom switched on all the lights in the pool house. “David, just leave her,” she said. “The ambulance will do it. Just leave her.”
I thought I saw something gray at the bottom of the pool.
Mom said to me, “Please get back in the house.”
I tried to figure out how Nanny had ended up in the pool. Had anyone wanted to hurt her? Had she been sleepwalking? Or had she drowned herself?
Cora and Michael came skipping across the yard. They were holding hands. Michael in his red pajamas, Cora in a white nightgown. Cora gathered a fistful of nightgown and stood behind Mom. Cora said, “Oh, that looks like Nanny.” Then she began giggling. Mom lifted her. Cora kept saying, “God got her.”