Too Young to Face the Dawn
You are crying now in your crib, which your father moved from our bedroom to the guest room. He sleeps there with you because on your first morning home post-hospital, when you cried, I went to the kitchen to fix your bottle and punched my hand through the foil lid. I cried too and told your father to get you away from me.
It’s been two weeks since your birth. I can’t speak your name. I say, “It” is hungry. “It” is tired. “It” is wet. I don’t want you near my breasts. At least I can write your name, Eva. I’ll keep writing it. Eva. If this is a breakthrough, I’ll need to thank my psychologist who prescribed writing you letters.
At your birth, my regular physician was in Barbados. An invader, some pompous resident, checked my dilation with his index and middle fingers. His nails stretched against his glove. “We’re still at four centimeters,” he said. We weren’t though. I didn’t want him to take the moment from me. That’s when I remembered a sardonic memory from my adolescence I had buried —the night I met Pharaoh Kal-Bassari. It spoiled any motherly jubilation, any intimacy I could’ve felt for you.
In retrospect, since that night, I’ve sunk like a damaged ship; in a miserable ballet, a vessel falling through the ocean of my consciousness. When that resident touched me, the memory, which had for years rested on the seafloor of my subconscious bubbled to the surface. I birthed a reminder of the most horrifying moment of my life.
Pharaoh Kal-Bassari molested me. I’m sure of it.
When you’re old enough, you will know of Pharaoh. He’s a world-famous surfer. A massive black-and-white photograph of him riding a wave is installed in a permanent exhibit at the MoMA, a few blocks from our apartment in Midtown. After I cut my hand on your formula lid, I went there. Inscribed below the photo is a quote from Pharaoh, “Humans are made of a multitude of infinitesimal star-seeds.” He’s a trick, Eva. You must be aware of men like him.
My psychologist told me to write to an adult Eva who has the ability to judge my actions. I’ll begin with my life at sixteen at my family’s inn at our beach home, On Borrowed Time. Past where the road ended and the sand began, our home was the only home at the tip of the outer shore. My mother, Irene, gave directions to guests as follows: “At Exxon station remove 10 psi from tires. Continue until you hit sand. Left at the ocean. In ten miles, turn left between the dunes marked with American flags.” Inaccessible at high-tide, check-in times were dependent on the moon’s phases. On Borrowed Time resembled a drip sandcastle. Improbably, the architect had layered rooms on top of steeples on top of cedar closets on top of bay windows to design a structure that somehow withstood blunting storms.
Besides myself, six people were present that night. Mother who in her youth had served as a Peace Corps nurse, kept one room as free lodging for any marred creature be they clipped egret or stranded sailor. One such weary soul was our only guest that night, John Manatoe. Then, I knew him as the oyster diver who took refuge in the tiniest bed in Mother’s care room. The outer shore’s far rim ran rough. The crag’s base proved fertile ground for pearl oysters.
My father, George, was there. A real penny-pincher, George would’ve been one of the keepers who told a pregnant Mary there was no room at his inn. Of course, my molester (here, Eva, I could bash my head against my desk for using such possessive, but I refuse to erase it). Also present, his underling, a wretched man, Flipper Sadat, and my friend, Jocelyn.
Jocelyn could be best described in two words — early developer. She claimed her breasts arrived at ten. Certainly by fifteen she’d come to understand their devilry. She arrived as the au pair for a vacationing, South African family, the Brummel’s, who believed they’d hired an eighteen-year-old. Jocelyn managed to fool them for a month before they left without her. My parents employed her to dress beds, bake waffles, etc.
My education came from the summer guests who carried so much knowledge from the mainland. Dr. Dahlquist, a zoologist, who spent summers studying bottlenose dolphin migration, would let me hold a preserved brain he carried in his luggage. Jean Arthur, a daffy old widow who claimed to have known Nancy Reagan, chatted with me about politics. I overheard business negotiations by the horseshoe pit and marvelous gossip on the terrace. But in the off-season, we were lucky to book a stray fisherman.
Every day I awoke at blue hour and spent my mornings picking lenticels off tubers for chowder. I lived full days in my bikini. At night, Jocelyn and I could dial our music to full volume. Nothing could be heard over the ocean’s roll.
On that terrible night, thunder boomed as the first named storm of autumn, Adolphus, made landfall. A salty zephyr whistled through a crack in my bedroom window. I pushed my forehead against the glass. The sky split. A dark cloud twirled the wispier, eastern ones into its swirl like a fork sucks spaghetti off a plate.
Jocelyn crawled from beneath a gob of worn blankets. She woke the disc player. The opening notes of Juice Newton’s song “Angel of the Morning” echoed. Juice’s voice was wispy, yet there’s an ache behind each note. Jocelyn and I performed pretend music videos. For this song, I played the man who slept with the prostitute, then left her bed before sunrise.
I reached behind me to take hold of the splintered sill. I whipped my hair. When Juice belted the word “dawn” at the end of the second chorus, I somersaulted onto the bed. In sync, we belted the refrain, elongating the words: aaaaaaaaan-gel and baaa-baaa-baaaaaaa-by.
For the dramatic finish, I stepped to the bed’s edge and swan-dived into the blankets.
“Why do we even like that song?” Jocelyn said. Her breathy, South African tinged voice had a certain staccato impulse that characterized a ditzy girl. She sat at the rattan vanity, which was littered with L’Oreal vials. She stretched her eyes and applied liner. She drew in her cheeks and blushed her cheekbones. “I have the oyster diver in a half-hour.” She used the blush to powder between her breasts. “Two hundred for the night.”
Here, Eva, my inclination is to turn to abstract language to hide this simple truth. I’ve never told your father. I certainly never would’ve told my child, but my psychologist said to tell my truth. Jocelyn and I prostituted. Her for money, me for trinkets men left.
I received my first gift, a hollowed Antarctic penguin egg, when Dr. Dahlquist, wrapped in a towel, put it into my hand and told me he couldn’t live without me. I was cleaning the outside showers. He wrung his arm around my midriff, blew against my neck, and told me Jocelyn had let him touch her breasts. My scrub brush fell and clanked off the bucket lid. Sudsy-water ran beneath my feet and through the thin spaces between the wooden planks.
When I asked Jocelyn, she confessed, yet confession implies guilt. She had none. Eva, understand I lived on a cay, tethered to the mainland by an eroding strip. Each year the beach thinned. I prostituted because I wanted Dr. Dahlquist, all the men, to remember me. The girl at the edge of the continent who did have something meaningful to offer.
But I never offered Pharaoh anything. He took it.
YOU’VE STOPPED CRYING. Your father probably picked you up and told you he loves you. I haven’t let your father touch me. I can’t blame you. You couldn’t have known. At your birth, when I remembered that night, shame paralyzed the lower-half of my body, which was propped in stirrups. I didn’t want that half of me and worse, I let you enter this world through it.
Maybe my psychologist is right, there can be consolation in that which is most unsettling — so, here, Eva, I record the rest of that night unfettered by self-analysis.
“COME WITH ME to the oyster diver’s room.” Jocelyn pushed her hand through a stack of gold-plated bracelets. “I can charge triple if we go together.”
I lit my table lamp, a relic Tiffany with blue dragonflies etched into its hood. A gift from Mr. Brummel. Outside the clouds discharged their electricity, illuminating the sand dunes in purple. In a flash, I saw a man drag another’s limp body from the ocean. In another, he had pulled him to the base of our dune. My mother hollered for us.
In our foyer, the littler man, Flipper, tried to pull Pharaoh through the door. He smacked his side into our onyx mirror. It detached from the plaster and fractured into billions of bits across the titled floor.
Pharaoh was leashed to half an electric-blue surfboard. When Mother went to help, Flipper yelled, “Don’t touch him.”
“He’s right,” Father said. “Call the Coast Guard.” He caught a mirror shard in his slipper and yelped.
“Jocelyn, bring a broom.”
“Genevieve,” Mother called to me. “We need gauze and antiseptic.”
We learned later that a wave had split Pharaoh’s surfboard. He’d knocked his head against the jetty and his lower-body jammed beneath a rock. Flipper yanked him free, but shredded Pharaoh’s legs. He tied Pharaoh’s body to the top-half of the board so he could drag him across the beach into our home.
“Let’s carry him to a bed.” Mother nodded to us.
Flipper panted on the floor. His wetsuit bulged around his pelvis and underneath his armpits. He looked like a piece of soppy bread.
Pharaoh’s right calf was so torn I swore I saw his sinew spill onto my mother’s arms. The left side of his face rested on the board’s nose. He had severe features synonymous with what we revere as Egyptian beauty: almond eyes, razor-cut cheekbones, an obtruding chin, and a swimmer’s torso so harden he laid on the board like a golden sarcophagus. What were indomitable were those nutty eyes, their color reminiscent of a worn encyclopedia.
His eyebrow had been sliced. Blood flowed down his temple, pooled into his earlobes, and ran into his braided hair. Each braid was a rope woven of starchy fibers. They followed the shape of his head, over the surfboard’s lip, and fanned over the floor.
“Surface wounds,” Mother said. She pointed down the hallway to the care room where the oyster diver awaited Jocelyn. We carried Pharaoh into a bed. The A-framed room had six beds. The oyster diver was tucked into the furthest one.
Mother cut off her patient’s trunks.
Flipper entered. Upon seeing his naked friend looking as if he had already passed, he cried, “Why? Wa-wa-wa-hy?”
“He’ll be fine.” She cinched an elastic tourniquet above Pharaoh’s thigh.
Flipper held his fingertips a centimeter above Pharaoh’s abdomen as if he weren’t allowed, by rite, to make contact with such a relic. “You’re healing Pharaoh Kal-Bassari. He’s on a mission to ride godly mountains.” Flipper pulled down the top half of his wetsuit. His flabby, welted chest was a stark contrast to the sculpture before me. “Mohammed and the mountain. Mount Olympus. Mount Sinai. The transfiguration.” He said it like a question, as if I were dense for not making the seemingly apparent connection. “Every holy man has his mountain.”
I always needed proof. Eva, I want you to be more like your father, except I hope you will be the type of girl who isn’t charmed. Flipper’s lofty speech was a lie. If Pharaoh had been blessed, then why did he crash? It seemed simple.
“I guess he’ll need to try a smaller mountain,” I said.
Flipper grabbed the bed-frame and pointed at Pharaoh’s body. “This scar on his collarbone is from a vicious swell in Oahu. The one on his left side, he slipped off a tidal bore in the Polynesian.” He got animated, defending Pharaoh’s honor. “Surfers have died there.” Blotches appeared on his neck and face.
I had punched a nerve. Flipper believed his friend a god. What were we? Servants? Footnoted women, long-forgotten in the legend of Pharaoh Kal-Bassari?
Don’t be a gullible girl, Eva.
Mother whisked four ointments into a mortar. She dosed Pharaoh’s wounds. I heard his skin sizzle, but he remained unmoved.
“He’ll live,” Mother said with a tinge of mockery.
By the Time Mother finished dressing the wounds, Flipper had fallen asleep in a bed. Jocelyn too, on the floor. In the far corner, the oyster diver’s bare back faced me. The storm had passed, so I thought.
Irene covered Pharaoh’s bottom half with a white sheet. She lit a candle. In its light, she kissed my forehead and walked upstairs.
I clicked on a lamp, then shook Jocelyn.
She awakened with a jerk. She put her hand over her eyes.
I whispered, “The oyster diver’s asleep. We should go back to the attic.”
“No. Even bet-tah.” She roused herself awake and removed her tank top. “We’ll surprise him.” She reached behind me and untied my bikini straps. My skin didn’t tan, it burnt then freckled. Jocelyn sunned topless, not me, so my breasts stayed white.
Jocelyn, seeming to sense my apprehension, tweaked my cheeks. “There are much more detestable acts than giving a man some comfort.”
Her logic could’ve justified every despicable human action. Even molestation. If we weigh the morality of our actions against the whole of human wickedness, then our actions will always be minor. It suddenly felt wrong, but I didn’t want Jocelyn to go it alone. We were just girls, too young to face the dawn.
A bamboo coffee table divided Pharaoh’s and Flipper’s beds from the oyster diver’s. Jocelyn smacked her shin right into it. As I reached for her, a hand grasped my thigh. It bound me to my spot on the floor.
The hand pulled me to the bed. I tried not to flinch. “Floating beyond the surf, I put my fingers into the ocean.” The hand moved between my legs. “I felt the radiance of every planet and comet charging the water.” Pharaoh’s voice was as coriaceous as I expected. He pressed his penis against my back. His other hand gripped my stomach. “I saw your window, glowing as proof that I would not drown tonight.”
His thumb ran underneath my bikini bottom’s elastic band. It pressed the corner where pubic hair had not been a year ago. It moved down through my curls. “You kept me alive.”
It pressed harder, into me.
He wanted to leech something out of me. My childhood or spirit, I still don’t quite know. A dreadlock fell onto my bare shoulder. It was scratchy, and I thought it might coil around my neck and strangle me.
I yelled for Jocelyn who hovered above the oyster diver. She hit the floor. Before I knew what had happened, the oyster diver, as massive a man as Pharaoh, stood over us. He dropped his elbow into Pharaoh’s peaked chin. Blood laved over his mouth. The diver clenched his fists together above his head and slammed both down into Pharaoh’s bandaged upper thigh. Pharaoh howled, but tightened his vise.
Irene entered and turned on the overhead lights.
At this point, Flipper awoke. He stumbled into the backlash of the diver’s next blow.
“Stop. Stop.” George stormed in. He seized the diver’s arm, then, seeing me on the bed, with his other, he smacked me across my left cheek.
The diver grabbed Pharaoh’s hair and pulled him to the floor.
I leapt off the bed, but Flipper knocked me down en route to cover Pharaoh from the diver’s assault. Jocelyn found me. I couldn’t contain my sobs, and, at the time, my embarrassment of being half-naked in front of mother and father trumped what had just occurred.
Pharaoh tried to stand. His legs gave out as they tried to bear weight. He spat blood onto the hardwood, then leaned on Flipper.
After they left, for a wholeish five minutes, my father looked fixedly on my face. I placed my hands over my breasts. He did not speak. Jocelyn, believing in the morning she’d be tossed out with the coffee grinds, went to the attic to pack. The oyster diver went back to sleep.
My mother always knew things unknowable. Things I’d so thoroughly conceal, even from myself. She wrapped me in a quilt. “Oh, Gen,” she said in a voice so full of pity. “It’s going to be so difficult.” Then, slowly, she turned away.
Here, Eva, is another unknowable —will you ever have the great capacity to empathize? No child should be asked to do so. You may forever remind me of that night, or, now fully dredged, maybe not. I so want to love you as my little girl.
In Juice’s song, the prostitute asks the man to just touch her cheek before he leaves. That’s all — a miniscule motion to recognize that their act contained a smidge of love. For the girl’s sake.
The Next Morning, I approached the diver while he washed a bucket of oysters with our hose. The sun shone strongest the day after a hurricane. I thanked him.
“Do you know how pearls are formed?” He put an oyster into my hand. “It’s out of defense. When a foreign substance slips into the oyster’s mantle it coats the irritant with layers of a certain mineral.”
I’m not positive of my final motion after Pharaoh left and Mother and Father went to bed, but I’d like to remember, for our sake, Eva, that I took in a full breath and held it in my lungs. Held it in long, as if it were a treasure, the beginnings of a pearl.