It was midday, and the maraschino cherry in my cocktail glass glistened like the blood-red of my toe nail polish. My shoulders smelled like coconut sunscreen, the sea smelled of sex and shrimp. Waves rolled gently. I brushed the golden sand grains off my ankle and dropped the paperback thriller in my lap. Blinding sun ink-spots flashed underneath my shut eyelids.
It was the second week of our honeymoon in Fiji, and I felt that my childhood dream had come true. My sister Katie and I had had it all planned. One June afternoon when the heat covered Central Park like a pillow, Katie and I—then ten and eight—tip-toed away from Mom. She read a book and chewed on a grass blade, and didn’t seem to care. We found a lawn and fell on the silky grass under the tree.
Katie took my palm, tickled it with her fingertip, and said: “You’ll marry a Polish artist, Stanislav, in a sailor shirt, with a bear beard, and he will carry you in his arms.”
“Where?” I asked.
“Everywhere. For your honeymoon, you’ll go to Fiji.”
“Why is it called a honeymoon? Why Fiji?”
“Because you only eat honey, and when you come back your tummy is round like a moon. Fiji, because you fidget a lot. Stanislav will drink lots of vodka, and smell like onions, but he’ll love you very much. You’ll live in a castle and will have one girl, you’ll call her Katie after me.”
“I don’t want to call her Katie, I already have you,” I said. “I’ll call her Desiree.”
She stuck her palm up, her fingers spread out like a running spider, and talked to herself, “I’ll marry an Olympic champion, a runner, and we’ll win every Olympic game together. We’ll have three boys, and we’ll live in Ashkhabad.”
We both believed that Katie had a special power, but sometimes I started to doubt.
“Why not?” she said.
Then, she put our palms next to each other and said: “Or, we’ll never be apart. We’ll have some husbands, of course, but they will always go away on business trips. Japanese millionaires, they’ll be,” Katie laughed, her almond hair falling in her eyes. She looked a bit Japanese herself, to me.
“Why not? You and I’ll live on a cruise ship,” she slapped a mosquito that landed on her shoulder. “We’ll be lounging—” Katie loved important words—“on a snow-white deck of a ship, by an aquamarine pool in snow-white hats that huge—” she opened her hands, hitting my nose, “and the gorgeous stewards in white and gold uniform will bring us extravagant beverages and straws.”
She picked up a small wilted flower and tore off a pink petal. She licked the petal and stuck it to my pinkie nail, “Manicure.” After Katie finished my manicure, she started to clap hands and sing,
“Miss Susie had a steamboat
“The steamboat had a bell
“Miss Susie went to heaven
“The steamboat went to…”
…so all the petals fell down. We raced each other on the dusty path back to Mom. Katie won. She was the fastest girl in her class. I always remembered the white balls of her socks flickering in the green grass, and Mom’s lazy eyes, “Girls. Don’t run.”
I didn’t marry a painter, nor a businessman, but Larry was a surgeon and he had very blue eyes and dark skin, and his voice sounded like an actor’s voice. I thought that Katie would approve if she were around. Katie died from a spine injury after a skiing accident. She was twenty. She didn’t see that bump underneath the snow.
I reached my hand—a sharp sparkle of my ring, so new, so bright—and touched Larry’s golden-brown forearm. He smiled. His teeth flashed white and perfect. He leaned over to kiss me. His lips felt hot and scratchy.
“We need to go,” he whispered in my ear, tickling it, “The snorkeling trip, remember?”
Larry melted me. He found places in my body that I never knew existed. When I looked at his fingers, I felt a lump in my stomach. We walked barefoot towards the long boat, sandals dangling in our hands. The blue-green vastness of the water and the white speckled sky looked like the photo from the swim suit catalog. My life felt like a photo from that catalog. Larry’s warm hand rested on my hip.
I stepped into the boat. A skinny man in a dirty white t-shirt and swimming trunks looked serious, but smiled. The boat slowly left the shore. It went up and down riding the wave. Slightly, so I first didn’t feel it at all. Then it slid down. Then up. Up and down, and the breeze became stronger. I smiled at Larry, but something inside felt wrong. A pull. As if little men pulled on the ropes attached to my intestines. The boat sped up, and hopped up on the top of the wave again. Up! And down it fell again, with a little oomph! at the bottom. Up, down, up, down, faster, sped the boat, and the little men inside pulled and pulled. I felt a void filling me, from my throat and to my legs, a strange, full emptiness. I doubled up. I pressed my palms into my stomach—they felt dead, listless. Cold sweat crawled over my body like a giant insect.
“You are very pale,” said Larry, “Are you seasick, my love?”
“I’m scared,” I tried to say, but I couldn’t speak.
Did Katie feel it? Did she feel it just before she hit the bump? Did she—
I turned into a ball of fear—something grey and small, a fish on the shore. Heat scorching the gills. I couldn’t breathe. I rocked side to side, and all I could do was chant inside, because sounds wouldn’t come.
Ask me no more questions
Tell me no more lies
Miss Susie told me all this
The day before she …
Dyed her hair all purple
Dyed her hair all green
Dyed her hair all purple,
And washed it down the stream…
“We’re here,” Larry’s voice was more like an actor’s than ever. He held my hand. “What is it, cutie?”
The boat came to a stand in a shadow of a rock, and I saw rainbow fish fleeting in the transparent water. The Thai man looked towards the horizon, half-grinning. His face was like a bronze mask.
“A panic attack,” I said, my teeth still clattering. “I get panic attacks.”
“Skating, roller coasters,” I said. “Skiing.”
“So, it’s speed that scares you?” asked Larry.
Katie loved speed, I thought.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” asked Larry. I couldn’t see his eyes under his shades.
“I forget,” I whispered. “Each time I forget that I have them.”
It was true. I also didn’t want to talk about Katie being dead. I didn’t want to think about death.
“It’s ok,” said Larry. “We’ll get back and you’ll go see a therapist. There are pills.”
I smiled at him, and jumped off the boat into the warm water. I opened my eyes and looked at the waving seaweed, at silver fish sliding by me, at tiny bubbles breaking off the hairs on my forearms. A jelly-fish brushed against the inside of my thigh. Deep behind me, in the rock crevices, I felt a cold undercurrent.
Death was always there. It hid in the brightness of the day, in the lilac twilight, in Larry’s smooth arms. It didn’t matter if I spoke about it or not. I knew that one day it would pop up in front of me, like a bump under the snow or like a shark in the ocean. It would snatch me and I would be no more, but until then I’d stay afloat, I thought. I’d have a little girl, Katie Desiree. We had it all planned.