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Authors: Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

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BOOK: The Art of Floating
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But none of it helped. No one ever saw Jackson again.




Sia Dane's life story began at the moment her parents, Stuart Winchell and Madeline Wexler (affectionately known as M) ignored their parents' warnings, crawled into the backseat of Stuart's sky-blue Jeep Cherokee in the parking lot of Shaw's grocery store after hours, and—in a great tumult of sweat and summer cotton—removed each other's clothing. Then finally, FINALLY, after seemingly endless months of fighting the oh-so-unbearable urge to copulate, Stuart slid his penis into M's lovely, wet, mysterious (fucking unbelievable) vagina and exploded as powerfully as a supernova, except that this particular explosion did not mark the end of a life's evolution, but instead the beginning.

•  •  •

“Oh, thank God,” M said, and she stuck her bare feet out the window to cool.

Stuart was speechless.

•  •  •

While all the other high school girls who got pregnant that year slipped away during cheerleading practice and SAT study classes on Saturday afternoons to have quick abortions, Stuart and M knew their love would last. Trusting that, they married on Thanksgiving Day during their senior year, and six months later, Sia slipped into the world, a chubby, ruddy baby whose heart was as big and hot as the sun under which she was birthed.

“Her name is Odyssia,” M told everyone as she cradled her baby.

“Odyssia? What kind of name is Odyssia?” her own mother said in the same tone of voice she'd used when M and Stuart had announced—after feeding her two gin and tonics—that they were pregnant and engaged. By this time, she should have been accustomed to her daughter's independent, no-holds-barred approach to life, but since mothers tend to be the last to let go of certain expectations for their offspring, she was still surprised.

“That's right,” M said. “Odyssia.”

The name made sense. During the fall term when she and Stuart finally pulled themselves (temporarily) out of their rabid copulations (
band room, stadium bleachers, backseat of the bus, teachers' lounge
) and noticed she'd missed two periods and was beginning to swell around the breasts and belly, M was gripped by an irrational fear that she would lose her child.

“What? You're not afraid of anything,” Stuart said.

“I'm afraid of this.”

Her fear wasn't at all supported by reality. Throughout the pregnancy, M was healthy and relatively free of the maladies most pregnant women suffer. She didn't throw up during the first trimester or burp incessantly throughout the second two. Her back didn't ache. No nerves got pinched. She slept well. She ate well. Her blood pressure stayed low. She had funny baby dreams but no scary ones.

“Nothing to complain about?” her gynecologist asked.

“I pee a thousand times a day,” M told her.

“That's it?”


“Ah, youth.”

But despite the doctor's positive prognosis, M lay awake each night worrying that by morning she would be reduced to her previous, single-bodied self.

So while she ate, blossomed, and eventually ballooned, she meditated on her growing belly as often as possible, and when she and Stuart had sex—which was even more often than before the pregnancy—she insisted on being on top every time to reduce the danger of damage to the small being inside her.

“My fear of losing you wasn't logical,” she explained to Odyssia whenever her daughter asked about her name, “but it was powerful.”

“Okay, but why Odyssia?”

“Well,” M explained, “I was reading
The Odyssey
at the time . . .”

“Oh, M, tell the truth,” Stuart said. “You weren't reading
The Odyssey
at the time. You were obsessed with
The Odyssey
at the time.”

“Hush. Let me tell the story.” M pinched her husband's arm. “Sweetie, I was reading
The Odyssey
at the time, and I named you Odyssia because I wanted to arm you with the strength and smarts to find your way home in case the gods conspired to take you from me, just like they had Odysseus.”

“The second part of that is true,” Stuart always confirmed.

M was a romantic, who still used terms like
my dear
and whose laughter rolled out of her like giant pink bubbles. The thought of her mother chasing down Zeus or Poseidon for a tussle over her only child always made Sia laugh, even if she did have the weirdest name in the world.

•  •  •

As M planned, Sia's birth had been a glorious event. (“Leave it to a teenager,” a somewhat-snarky, somewhat-jealous OB nurse whispered when she thought no one was listening.) Despite their parents' protestations, Stuart blocked off a good portion of the beach, and although M would have preferred the birth to be completely open to the breeze and the sea, she conceded and allowed him to convert the sandy hollow into a lovely beachside birthing room by hanging (in a variety of creative ways from volleyball posts and beach umbrellas) white silk sheets in a circle. The result was miraculous. The hot morning sun reflected off the sheets and the sky made a glorious blue ceiling.

After no more than a few hours of mind-numbing contractions, Odyssia Wexler Winchell slipped into the world to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore and the calls of a few determined seagulls that refused to be lured away by the bread crusts Stuart had hidden a few hundred yards down the beach. Even the doctor had to admit it was the most beautiful birth she'd ever witnessed. “Sandy,” she said, brushing off her hands, “but beautiful.”

It wasn't until after Sia was swaddled in a white cotton blanket that anyone noticed the one small puffy cloud lingering in the eastern corner of the sky, reminding them all that nothing was ever perfect.


Sia settled Toad in her kitchen with a plate of blueberry muffins and a glass of milk, but then noticed that the buildup of salt around his mouth and on his cheeks was so thick and crumbly now that he was mostly dry, there was no way he would be able to eat. His mouth was welded shut like the Tin Man's after a rainstorm, and now that she could survey him up close and without the glare of the sun, Sia didn't know how he could even see. His lashes were heavy with the stuff, and his eyes were nearly crusted closed. She dampened a dish towel with hot water and set it beside him.

“Wipe your face with this,” she said. “It's clean.”

But Toad didn't move. He sat, looked off into the distance, and kept his hand on Gumper's head.

“Gump, give the guy a nudge.”

Gumper sighed and licked Sia's hand, but he, too, remained still. In fact, other than to take a quick piss against the fence before heading into the house, he hadn't left Toad's side.

Sia leaned against the counter and waited. Besides her father, she hadn't touched a man in one year, one month, and six days; she certainly didn't want this stranger to be the first. But when Toad flagged against the counter, she moved to his side. “Fine, fine. I'll do it. Just don't die in my kitchen.”

She imagined the headlines in the paper:
Local woman's husband disappears. Local woman finds silent man on the beach. Silent man keels over in local woman's kitchen.

“Dammit,” she said, and she picked up the hot cloth and pressed it to Toad's face. Though his suit was still damp, the dried ocean salt on his skin was sharp and crusty, like the edges of a broken clamshell. She didn't rub, just pressed the towel to his cheeks, his mouth, his temples, his forehead, and so on, allowing the heat to loosen the salt. The cloth cooled quickly. She rinsed it and started again.

“You're like a mangy lion,” she said. His hair was heavy with salt. Sticky and clumpy too. Sia grabbed a rubber band from the junk drawer and managed to secure his hair in a thick ponytail. “Good enough,” she said.

As she worked, she noted the cuts on his hands, the deep scratches on his cheeks, and the strange pink wound behind his left ear. Surely there were other injuries under the suit, but she wasn't about to go looking.

When Sia moved to Toad's eyes, she expected him to flinch or cry out—there had to be as much salt in them as there was around them—but he didn't.

By the sixth rinse, his skin was bright pink with heat. It was rough, and there was still a lot of salt around his ears and in his hair, but at least he could open and close his eyes and mouth.

“That's better,” Sia said and stepped away. “Now eat.” She pressed the cloth to her nose and sniffed. It was as if she'd dipped it into the ocean. Good lord, she thought, where had this man come from?

She plucked the strands of seaweed from his back, arms, and legs, leaving the one at his crotch alone. Then she went into the living room to wait for Jilly.

•  •  •

The Dogcatcher tucked herself between the two glacial boulders just outside Sia's front gate. She peered through the fence slats and waited.

•  •  •

In the next twenty minutes, Sia checked on Toad seven times:

  1. to see if he was real
  2. to see if he was eating (he was)
  3. to see if he was drinking milk (he was)
  4. to see if
    was real
  5. to see if he was making any sounds (he wasn't)
  6. to see if the expression on his face had changed (it hadn't)
  7. to see if he was real

As a child, Sia never cried at her own pain . . . only the pain of others. In a grocery store parking lot when she was four, she saw a couple having a horrible fight. Their young son was screaming and clinging to the hem of his mother's skirt so tightly it looked like he was keeping her on the ground. When the father backhanded the mother across the face, Sia grabbed M's hand, clutched it to her heart, and said, “It's too big. Too big.” It was the first time she'd put the depth of her feelings into words.

Many years later, she saw a desert on TV—the Sahara or maybe the Gobi. “That's me, Jack,” she said when she saw the endless expanse of sand. “That's inside me.” She recognized herself at once.

•  •  •

When M and Stuart realized Sia's overwhelming capacity for empathy, they had a fight.

“It's a curse,” M insisted, violently dredging a pork chop in bread crumbs.

“A gift,” Stuart said quietly.

“A curse, Stuart.”

“A gift.”

“Oh, give me a break. If Odyssia—our Odyssia—takes in enough pain, she'll swell up like a fat tick on a dog's belly and pop. It's not fair!” M shouted. She slapped the pork chop into a pan.

“She'll figure it out, M. We all have our own stuff and we all eventually figure it out. That's life.”

“Stop saying that!” M yelled, suffering from her own inability to make her daughter's life perfect.

“Darling . . .”

“Go away!” M shouted, and she hurled the dredging fork into the sink.

•  •  •

Faced with this, M threw herself into finding solutions. Remedies. Distractions. And to this end, she began making lists. Bright, colorful works of art meant to solidify the happy things in life for Odyssia. Lists on canvas, parchment, and silk. Lists of trees they hugged during a trip to the White Mountains, books Sia read for the reading contest in fifth grade, the seven greatest things about Stuart, animals they saw at the zoo. M made lists with markers, paint, crayons, and even, for very special lists, silk threads that she wove into cloth with thin needles.

M's favorite was the “Odyssia Is . . .” list she made on pale yellow paper with sparkly purple marker when Odyssia was five:









Sia's favorite list was the one she made about worms a short time later:










•  •  •

By the time Sia was in elementary school, she was making her own lists with fervor equal to M's. Together they created endless numbers of Top 7 lists:

the top 7 singles of 1986

the top 7 TV Christmas specials

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
The House Without a Christmas Tree
, etc.)

the top 7 beach days during the summer of 1990

(June 11, June 23, and so on)

During dinner, they performed their Top 7 lists for Stuart, complete with drumrolls and canned laughter played on a tape recorder.

Though for obvious reasons most of the lists were based on happy things, Sia once asked M to make a list of things she regretted in life.

“Why?” M asked.

“Just something different,” Sia said, but secretly she wanted to know if having a child at seventeen was on M's “Things I Regret” list. She thought about that sometimes, especially after she turned thirteen.
Only four more years
, she would think,
and if I were Mom, I would have a me
. She couldn't imagine such a thing.

But M insisted that such a list didn't exist. “I don't regret anything, especially you,” she said, and she meant it. “I was supposed to be a mom at exactly the moment I became a mom. I knew it then, and I know it now.”

“But how did you know?” Sia said.

“How do you know when someone is hurting?”

Sia put her hand on her heart. “I feel it here,” she said.

“That's exactly where I felt and feel my mom-ness.”

•  •  •

In college, Sia thought she might stop making lists. It's
Mom's thing
, she told herself for the first few weeks in the dorm. But within a few months, her dorm room and the shared bathroom and every hallway in the building were covered with brilliantly colored, perfectly executed lists. Her friends loved them, and with a new life came new material. She made lists of hot boys, tough professors, favorite movies, winners of weekend drinking contests, best kissers, god-awful slobbery kissers, boys with weird eyebrows, boys with good eyebrows, and so on. When the editor of the school newspaper saw the lists, she asked Sia to write a weekly column in list form. Then an English teacher read the column and persuaded her to join a poetry class. Sia's writing life burgeoned from there.

BOOK: The Art of Floating
3.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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