Swim by Ambata Kazi-Nance
I am the last to see the water. I look up only when John Jr. and Grace stop singing, their voices sucked up suddenly like they’ve been swallowed by a vacuum. Ms. Laura turns from the front passenger seat and gives me her accordion smile, all the lines in her face folding in, her big white teeth flashing. Her eyes are the same color as the water; they both scare me.
We crest the hill and the beach appears, the blue of water and sky almost melting into each other. I have an almost violent urge to pee. Mr. John presses down on the brake, but still we roll too quickly forward down the hill, like we are going to drive right into the water. Ms. Laura lays a hand on Mr. John’s forearm, John Jr. and Grace glance at each other, wide-eyed.
This family has a pool. Ms. V at the foster home had presented this fact to me as the golden ticket. “They have two children, an eleven-year-old boy just like you, aa-and,” she sang, “they have a pool.” She told me this as she helped me pack my clothes in the green duffle bag she’d bought me. “Top secret,” she whispered when she gave it to me. Her eyes, buried underneath inky black hair that sprang out from her head and hooded her face, were shiny brown like honey, and so was her skin. She was round and soft and smelled like bread when she hugged me goodbye. Ms. V had been the only one to talk to me at the home, but still I let her go first, escaping her warmth.
I used many excuses to avoid getting into the pool. I have a stomachache; the sun hurts my eyes; just one more chapter in my book. I was reading a book about a boy with no parents who learns he is a wizard and goes away to a wizarding school. The boy looked more like the McNally family than like me, and he lived in a world that was equally foreign, but still I liked the story and wished for a magic broom to fly away on. Though, unlike the boy in the story, I had nowhere to fly to. I had only the first book, but I read it over and over.
“Simon’s still reading that same book,” John Jr. told his mother one afternoon while we sat in the living room.
He was sprawled on the sofa watching a cartoon. Grace lay on her belly in front of the television, holding two dolls facing each other, mouthing a silent dialogue between them. Ms. Laura, sitting with her legs crossed in the armchair across from me, put her own book down in her lap to answer him.
“Well sweetie, it might be hard for him, he might not be a strong reader like you,” she said, though I had yet to see John Jr. read anything other than a cereal box. Neither of them looked at me as they spoke.
Later, at the dinner table, after Ms. Laura finished talking about the hard time she was having finding a caterer for the school fundraiser, a long story to which Mr. John responded with grunts and nods, I asked if I might be able to get a library card. They stopped eating; four yellow-haired heads turned to me, confused, squinting eyes, eyebrows meeting together. Usually only Ms. Laura talked and asked questions at the table.
“Hm,” was all she said, and turned back to her food.
“I don’t like the water,” I told her, when she finally cornered me before our beach trip.
“Silly,” she said, patting my head. “Everybody likes water.”
She said the ocean would be different.
“I bet you’ve never seen an ocean before. The beach will change your mind.”
At night I dream of other waters, black water, knife-like and mercilessly cold, that swallows small boats. In my sleep my toes curl around invisible sand. I wake and try to recite the prayer my mother and father taught me, the one for protection, but the only words I can catch like feathers floating in air are ya hayyul, ya kayyum. I try to pray the way they taught me, dropping to my knees, pressing my forehead into the floor, fumbling through the few words I still possess. I am forgetting so much: the sound of my mother’s voice calling my name, the powdery smell of my baby sister’s skin, my father’s rough palm warm on my cheek; but the water, the water I never forget.
The salt in the air seizes my stomach. The ocean rolls in my belly. I keep my eyes down as we trudge through the sand. My heels sink into it. I lift my knees up high and smash my feet down, embracing the tug on my ankles. I imagine each step pulling me deeper and deeper into the sand. Ankles, then knees, then waist, elbows, shoulders, head. They will march on and by the time they realize I am not with them, I’ll be gone. “Where’s Simon? Where’s Simon?” I’ll hear before the sand fills my ears.
We walk, Ms. Laura in the lead, until she stops and turns to Mr. John.
“Here?” she asks.
He bobs his head in response. Mr. John doesn’t talk much.
He and Grace lay out beach towels in the sand. John Jr. unfolds chairs. Ms. Laura kneels on a towel and rummages through her big canvas tote bag with “BEACH, PLEASE” stamped in wavy letters across the front.
“Come here kids,” she says, pulling a bottle of sunscreen out of the bag, a wide-brimmed straw hat now balanced on her head.
We stand in a line like at school, Grace, John Jr., me. John Jr. looks back at me, his eyes watery. He looks at my skin and scrunches his eyebrows together, his lips curled.
“Move back some,” he says.
I shuffle my feet but don’t move. Ms. Laura squirts big dollops of the cream into her palm and slathers it onto Grace and John Jr. The white cream melts into their skin, leaving a thick sheen. After she finishes with John Jr., I step up but she has already closed the bottle and put it away. She rubs remnants of the cream into her hands and looks up at me, her eyes hidden behind black frames.
“Don’t I need some too?” I ask.
Ms. Laura turns to Mr. John, who squints at my chest and shrugs.
“Well, okay,” she says, handing me the bottle.
I rub and rub but the cream leaves gray streaks all over my skin, like ash but shiny. I look to Ms. Laura, my arms sticking out in front of me, but she turns away and starts rummaging through her bag. John Jr. races to the water.
“Be careful!” Ms. Laura shouts to his fleeing back. “That boy,” she mutters.
He pumps his legs and runs straight in, throwing himself at a small wave that has come to meet him. He disappears into it, then reemerges, his hair plastered to his scalp. He stands up, his body slick as a fish, and waves in our direction. He smiles in a way I’ve never seen from him, his whole face opening up. Ms. Laura and Grace wave back.
“Daddy,” Grace says, extending her hand.
Mr. John takes her hand and walks with her to the shore. He is gentle, folding his large torso down to hold her hand, shortening his strides to match her dainty ones. Grace stops when the water reaches her toes, hopping over it before it disappears into the sand. She looks up at her father and smiles. I can’t see his face but I know he smiles back. I look away, feeling like I’ve seen something I shouldn’t.
I sit down on a towel next to Ms. Laura, who sits in a folding chair, a sarong tied around the waist of her bathing suit. Her long pale legs are stretched out in front of her, crossed at the ankles, her toenails a creamy pale pink like cake frosting. She flips absently through a magazine. I slide my book out of my bag and open it; the words are so familiar now I can recite lines without looking at the page. Ms. Laura sniffs and turns her profile towards me.
“Simon, you know eventually you’re going to have to get in the water. Otherwise I’m going to have to throw you in myself.”
She smiles when she says it, but there’s no laughter in her voice.
“Yes, Ms. Laura,” I say.
Now she turns her whole body to me, and lifts her sunglasses up to look at me.
“You should start calling me Mom now, Simon.”
I look into her giddy, bottomless eyes. My mouth floods with saliva. I blink and look to the sea. The water is calm. The waves rise up slowly, then collapse.
Mr. John returns. Only his hairy calves are wet. I get up and walk over to Grace, who sits close to the shore shoveling wet sand into a bucket. I kneel next to her. This is the first time since I came to the McNally’s two months ago that I have been alone with her.
“Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” I say back.
“Do you want to build sand castles with me?” she asks.
I shake my head. She shrugs and continues piling sand in her bucket.
“My name isn’t Simon,” I say.
Grace pushes stray hairs off her face with the back of her hand, leaving a streak of wet sand across her cheek. She looks at me. She is six years old, about the same age my baby sister would be.
“It’s not?” she asks, tilting her head to the side.
“My name was—is—Sulayman.”
“Su-la—Su-lee…” she tries.
“Sulayman,” I say again. “You can just say Simon, though. That’s what I became at the foster home, to make it easier.”
“Su-lay-man,” she says slowly.
She raises her eyebrows. The hairs are so light and thin they shine white in the sun. The same as the hair on her head.
“I come from a place called Somalia,” I say.
I don’t know why I am telling her this, but it feels good. The words, so long unspoken, are warm in my mouth.
“Where is that?” she asks, her voice a whisper.
“Far away from here,” I say, the only truth I know.
I plunge my hands into the wet sand, grabbing fistfuls. I scoop them into Grace’s bucket. I rub what remains into my forearms and over my head. Somewhere else, the sand can be used to purify.
I stand and walk to the shore. The water curls around my toes. It is warm and welcoming, it does not cut. It licks my thighs and my throat closes up. I swallow and continue on. Waist, elbows, shoulders, neck, only my head above.
Once I tore a picture from a newspaper lying on a chair at the foster home. It was a picture I had seen several times on the news, and glimpsed from the screen of Ms. V’s phone as she sat frozen, her thumb hovering over the image. A little boy on a beach, lying face down in the wet sand, arms at his sides. It was his arms, his small arms limp and lifeless, that told me his story. I kept the picture under my pillow for weeks, carried it with me tucked into the waistband of my pants.
A wave rises in the distance. I sink deeper into the water, it touches the corners of my mouth.
Ms. Laura. I ignore her and push out further.
I whip around. Mother?
Grace. Legs splayed, torso bent forward, hands balled into mighty fists.
I turn back and forth from the shore to the water.
The wave comes. I brace myself and let it pick me up and push me toward the shore. I rise with it and swim.
AMBATA KAZI-NANCE is a writer, editor, and teacher born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, where she earned an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of New Orleans. Her writing has been featured in Midnight & Indigo, Peauxdunque Review, Cordella, Ellipsis, and Mixed Company, and is forthcoming in Muslim Writers at Home, an anthology of writing by Muslim writers on homeland and identity. She currently resides in the California Bay Area with her husband and son. She can be found on Instagram @ambatakn musing about books, writing, and life.