by Keith Rebec
On the Fourth of July my mother arrived unannounced to take me swimming at Lake Michigan. Whenever she asked to spend a day with me she had to promise my father that no strange men would accompany us, because my father didn’t trust her after she left us for a roofer.
She swore up and down that it would only be me and her, and that she’d have me home by evening, long before the fireworks started. But after we got the Maverick rolling I knew she’d have a hard time keeping any promises.
“I have to make a quick stop, honey. Just wait it out in the car, okay?”
I shrugged. “Okay,” and went to flipping through one of her gossip magazines.
I was learning about a soap star and her liposuction, comparing her tan skinny leg to her pale fat one, when we rocketed over a lip of concrete and parked next to a service station. My mother took a drag off her cigarette and pushed it through a slit in the window, then reached into her dress pocket for her powder case. She dabbed her cheek bones and swiped her forehead, watching her progress in the little round mirror.
“Whatever you do don’t tell you father about this,” she said, and patted my knee. “I’ve got to meet a friend, let him know when I’ll have his car back. Then we’re off to the beach.”
She got out and strutted toward the mouth of the garage. A man in blue overalls appeared, covered in grease. He kissed her and tried to grab her around the waist but she slapped his hands away. She pointed toward the car and the man squinted. He didn’t look like the roofer. He stopped trying to grab her and stuck his hands in his pockets. She laughed and gave him a peck on the check, and he watched her until she reached the car and waved. He straightened a black wrist watch and pointed at it before we exited the lot.
“Who was that, Mom?”
“Who?” She dug into her cigarette pack.
She lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward the window. “How do you turn the air conditioner on in this tank?”
We arrived at the beach a little after noon and put our blankets down on the hot sand. After a few hours of tossing and turning, I noticed her smiling at a man and a little boy playing at the water’s edge. She fluffed her hair and straightened her shoulders.
“Gretchen, how about you let auntie have a little alone time?” She winked and smiled. “You can call me auntie for today, can’t you? Please stop picking at yourself and listen.”
I always listened. I listened to her talk all afternoon about my father’s failures while the waves lapped the shore; I listened to her go on about how weak he was, how dull and inadequate he was, how he could never please her. And I listened to her fake laughter each time a strange man walked past and noticed her.
I said, “How long do you want me to go away for?”
She pulled her sunglasses down, revealing eyes the color of muddy water. “It isn’t that I want you to leave. I just want you to go play, enjoy yourself, make some friends,” and she pushed the sunglasses up. “Let auntie have a break.”
So I left her there, basking in the sun, and walked to the water and stuck my feet in. I felt the cool sand slip between my toes before wading to my knees. I turned against the waves and faced the sun until my eyes watered. When I regained focus a man my mother had smiled at earlier was rubbing her shoulders. She rested on her stomach, and he straddled her, while the boy played behind them in the sand. I turned and went out a little farther, until water curled around my neck. I held my breath and slipped under. The air in my head tightened and the muffled voices above the water went flat. I counted to twenty-five, resting against the cold bottom.
When I emerged parents screamed and ran into the water. I tried to find my mother. She was standing and brushing sand away from her legs, and the man and child were no longer there. Down the beach, I noticed the same man hustling from the water holding the small boy in his arms. The boy’s limbs were limp, and the man placed him on the shore and slapped his back. A group of people circled around the man and the child. When the boy opened his eyes and coughed, the people cheered. Then my mother ran down and put her arms around the man’s neck and hugged him. Within minutes a van arrived. It said Channel 8 News on the side and a crew got out and began filming. A woman asked the man questions but my mother interrupted. She described how the man was brave and put her arms around him again. She kissed him with an open mouth. And I knew then, when my father turned on the evening news and saw her swapping tongues with another new man, that I’d no longer be going swimming with Auntie again anytime soon.