The sun, heavy with light, penetrates the black window curtains in Molly's beachfront efficiency apartment. Her super, Mrs. Rodriguez, bought them for her because when Molly first moved in she was stunned by the searing Miami sun. They are supposed to keep her room dark and cool, the air conditioning doesn't always work in her crumbling sea green building, but the sun always finds a way. It pushes through the curtains, around the edges, over the top. This morning it finds her tucked in bed. She is in a huge cotton nightgown, under a thin yellow quilt. They are both presents from Mrs. Rodriguez, as is almost everything in her apartment. It is early. Maybe sometime around six o'clock. She doesn't want to move, doesn't want to check. Her stomach trembles. The baby kicks. It senses the sun from its place in the darkness deep within her, desperate to connect with the world outside Molly.
In Miami Beach, there is no place to hide from the sun. From the beginning of a new day it finds her, wherever she is. It flushes Molly out of her hiding spots. This wasn't always the case. At first, the sun was her friend. It greeted her when she stepped off the plane, the small dirty jet that took her, on the cheap, away from cold heartless New York. At first, Miami Beach was fiercely protective. It understood her plight. Miami Beach was the mother she always wanted. Soft, sweet, never demanding. She shimmered in the heat. Floated in the ocean. She wanted to curl up inside the city and sleep in its safe warmth. The sun stopped time for her.
In New York, each day was an actual day, a reminder of things to come, a series of soul-numbing events that went on and on. But Miami Beach loved her. She was newly liberated, like all the people who came before her, and everyone who would eventually join her here—all the other people running for their lives. In New York, she was a young woman who didn't get out much, didn't like her job, didn't have any friends, didn't talk to her parents, didn't do anything at all. Then, she had sex with the man she works for, got pregnant, and needed a place to hide. Miami Beach promised to save her, promised to lose her. But now the ubiquitous Miami sun is threatening to out her, it has joined forces with time. Today marks the beginning of the ninth month.
Her doctor is angry with her for disappearing. He wants to see her this afternoon, no more canceled appointments, no more excuses. He's been leaving phone messages, pleading with her to reconsider. He is a positive person, he loves his job, but he is losing his patience. The first time she saw him, the only time, she was four or five months along. She assumed and he confirmed—twenty-two weeks. He wanted to chat while he did her internal exam. How's her husband? Is he excited? Over the moon? His hands covered in rubber, inside her, feeling around, getting his bearings. He is short with large jug ears. Like a cartoon. He gave her a lecture about prenatal care. He gave her pamphlets, showed her charts and graphs. Exercise. Take vitamins. Make good choices. Get plenty of rest. Don't disappear. Be careful on the beach. The beach can be dangerous. Buried hypodermic needles, broken crack vials, rip tides, rogue waves, sharp shells, hungry insects hidden deep in the sand. Protect yourself. Eat sensibly. Proper nutrition is the key to a healthy and happy pregnancy. He was worried about her blood pressure, her swollen feet, her emotional state. Show up every month, regular doctor visits are important at this stage of the game. Care about your body. Care about your baby. Pictures of healthy puckered newborns and their exhausted mothers covered his office walls.
He wants to see her once a week now, but Molly has refused. The doctor admitted that, yes, she has had an uneventful, unremarkable pregnancy. Mostly without turbulence. A pleasant flight. So far. But she's been lucky. Who knows if the last few weeks and the delivery will be so easy? He is struggling to stay positive. He will want to diagnose her crazy headaches, her fatigue, scold her about her weight gain. He wants to be a caring doctor who goes out of his way for his patients. Molly will go today, she promised to make an appearance, but she is only capable of one more appointment. How many times can she sit in that salmon-colored waiting room with the urine-stained white leather couches? There is also the tiny redheaded nurse who loves to refer to her as Mom. How's Mom? We are so excited to see Mom!
She skipped the day's work taking phone orders for a popular touristy fusion restaurant. They hired her three days after she arrived in Miami Beach with no references or credentials. The owners don't really speak English; they have a very small vocabulary, mostly just kitchen references and words that refer to the telephone bill. They gave her a seat in the back and ignore her except when she gets an order wrong. They call her fat ass in Spanish. They think she doesn't understand, but fat ass is fat ass in any language. They whisper bastard child and whore. They can smell it on her, she stinks of it. They point in her direction and everything is clear. The tone and the nod and the roll of the eyes says it all.
The teenage boys who spend the night outside her apartment, boys who wear boxer swim shorts, boys who sit on car hoods directly below her window all night drinking beer, yelling, and smashing cans showed up again—so far, it's been every night this week. Molly's having trouble sleeping anyway. She's been staying up too late and has been bothered by headaches and stomach cramps, but she found that eating pizza after midnight soothes her. She loves watching the boys from her window with their browned adolescent chests and their testosterone-fueled exuberance. She loves listening to the vacationers determined to party all night long in schizophrenic Miami Beach before they have to go back to wherever they came from, back to their real lives.
Mrs. Rodriguez and her family think her husband is overseas, in the military. Deep in the combat zone, Molly told them. They've been wonderful to her. They knock on her door two, three times a week and invite her to dinner. She told them her husband is somewhere in the Middle East. A captain in charge of his division. An intelligent man with strong meaty hands. Her husband doesn't really have the time to write, but he wishes to God he did. Thinks about Molly and the baby every second of every day. He moves around a lot. He lives on a ship. He's in the Navy. Mrs. Rodriguez is so understanding, she believes every word. Because Molly is not a hundred percent certain where everything is in that strange otherworldly part of the world, she wasn't too specific. She rarely watches the news, doesn't really have a clear understanding about what's going on there. It seems as far away as the moon. The perfect place for her husband.
But it doesn't matter to Mrs. Rodriguez. She has fallen in love with Molly's husband the same way she falls in love with the thick, yellowed romance novels Mr. Rodriguez brings home from the bargain stores by the beach. The dashing new father tenderly caring for his troops before sending them into battle. She fancies Molly's husband to be an armor-covered bronzed giant, a broad sword tucked neatly in its pouch on his side. Afraid of nothing and no one. Molly is the long-suffering wife, carrying his child, wearing a luxurious silk white nightgown, her breasts and large belly visible under the flimsy material. Also, Mrs. Rodriguez doesn't like Middle-Eastern people, so in this fantasy Molly's husband is victorious against the shadowy enemy. She makes no attempt to try to hide her feelings. She wrinkles her nose, rolls her eyes, wrings her hands, and crosses herself whenever the war or Middle-Eastern people are mentioned.
Any word from your husband? Mrs. Rodriguez asks.
No, no word yet, Molly says.
Mrs. Rodriguez clucks her tongue, says she'll pray. Maybe he is lost at sea. Somehow, for some reason, he is unable to find a pen and a piece of paper or a napkin to write his poor pregnant wife a few words expressing his undying love. Mrs. Rodriguez promises that everyone at church, everyone in her family, will pray for Molly's husband.
Let me tell you a story, Mrs. Rodriguez told Molly after her first meal with the family. My oldest, Jennifer, got pregnant at fifteen. Some stupid Italian boy from school. Anyway, I convinced her to get rid of it. We went into the city and took care of it. Jesus will forgive. Her father, the other kids—they don't know. Even the Italian boy doesn't know. The way I see it, they don't need to. Four years later and Jennifer is in college—the University too, not just Miami-Dade. She's studying biology. She's going to medical school. She's going to be Dr. Rodriguez! See? Everything worked out for the best.
That's wonderful, Molly said.
You're lucky to have a good man, Mrs. Rodriguez said. I told Jennifer she has to wait, she has to wait until she's an adult. When she has a nice man with a career, like your husband. My twins, Julia and Honor, are fourteen now. You'll meet them soon. My girls don't like to come home for dinner, but I'm sure you've seen them around in their tube tops and bikinis. They are so American! I mean, we're American too. Been here almost all our lives. Me and my husband, we didn't even teach the kids Spanish. Whatever they know, they didn't learn from us. We're Mexican, you know, not Cuban, and we've both been in the States for almost thirty years now. We met in the States, both of our families live here, so the kids should speak English, but anyway, the twins are so boy-crazy! I don't know what to do with them! They live in their own little twin-world.
Julia is impossible. We caught her half-naked on the beach with that Jewish boy, the one with long hair from up the block. Lives with his grandparents. We grounded her for a month, but I'm pretty sure she was still going out at night. You know, we do live on the first floor, it's just a short jump from her bedroom window. I'm so afraid for them. I tell the girls to follow Jennifer's example, but they won't listen. They never listen to me anymore. But my youngest, Sammy, my sweet boy, he's so good.
That's wonderful, Molly said.
Mrs. Rodriguez always smiles when she mentions Sammy.
Sammy, for reasons nobody in his family can understand, has stopped speaking English. He will only speak Spanish. And he has started hanging out with the neighborhood boys, something his mother never let him do until recently. He is ten years old now, desperate for friends his own age. Mrs. Rodriguez refuses to admit that anything is out of the ordinary, that anything has changed. He is still her precious little boy. As far as she is concerned, he is perfect in every way. Sammy has picked up enough Spanish at school and around the neighborhood so he can hold a conversation, but he sounds like he has marbles in his mouth. His Spanish is borrowed. His Cuban accent is odd. It is forced and awkward. He can't quite get his mouth around his parents' language.
Sammy Rodriguez thinks Molly's swallowed a pumpkin because when he asked his mother why Molly's belly is so big, that's what she told him. Sammy is convinced, despite the fact that his new friends laughed at him and told him otherwise, that the stork brought him from Mexico to Miami Beach because his mother was desperate for a son. This is the story he's been told all his life. He was a gift for a mother of girls, he is the heir to the Rodriguez throne.
Her parents don't know she's pregnant. It thrills her to leave them flailing about like this, so in the dark. They are perfectly dressed and coifed. Her father is retired now, but he is a partner in a world-renowned firm, a well-respected trial lawyer. Her mother plays bridge and mah-jongg. They belong to all the right clubs, know all the right people. Their tennis game is flawless. They sold the apartment where she grew up in Manhattan and retired to San Diego. At first, they wanted her to move with them, they always wanted her to listen to them, they knew everything, their judgment was the best. She'd ruin her life if she didn't heed their warnings. New York City is not a place for a young single girl. The vultures will eat you alive if you're not careful. If she didn't want to go to college or learn a trade, if she didn't want to do anything with her life but run errands and make coffee for wealthy educated people who would always ignore her because she wasn't important enough, well, she should just do that in San Diego where they could keep an eye on her, keep her out of trouble.
There was never a good time to tell them about her pregnancy. They don't listen anyway. They hear what they want to. If she told them the truth they'd be horrified, disgusted: She is pregnant because she went home with a lovely gentleman, a lawyer, the man she works for, after the only party she'd been invited to since she started at the firm because he seemed interested, and they had sex, wild out-of-control sex that startled both of them, it should have been protected sex, he did have a perfectly good condom, but it remained in the package the entire time, crushed in his fist. She, Molly Sue, had unprotected sex with a virtual stranger.
Her mother might laugh—a chilly, nervous laugh—and hand the phone to her father who would listen quietly and then hang up without saying a word. She'd hear from them again, maybe around Christmas. They'd wait long enough to think they'd meted out the appropriate punishment, a favorite of theirs since she was a child—the silent treatment. They'd be cheery—wouldn't she like to come see them in their new spacious home in Southern California this year? They'd call it SoCal because they think they're witty and irreverent. They wouldn't mention it at all. A baby? A bastard grandchild? No. They wouldn't even ask. Maybe she'd gotten rid of it or gave it away to a more deserving woman. Real adults have babies. Their daughter, with her childish doll name, Molly Sue, is not a real functioning human being. To her parents she is a shadowy adult-ish person who has a job, a trivial office job, not a career, and sometimes they send her a little money, twenty dollars, maybe fifty, because they pity her. How weak and mousy she is. They think she still lives in her boxy dark apartment, it was all she could afford, in what they consider to be a questionable part of Brooklyn. She left that apartment four or five months ago, in the middle of the night, by then obviously pregnant, wearing the last pair of sweatpants that fit her, and caught a taxi to the airport.
In her third month, she was certain everyday she would get her period. It was just a matter of time. She needed to be patient. Think menstrual thoughts. This was all a mistake. A hoax. Her insides pulled and squeezed tight—maybe what she was feeling was a spasm, a cramp? She ran and checked every time. She wasn't pregnant. How silly. That happens to somebody else, in somebody else's world. She was fooled by the phantom pain. Cramps. Like when a soldier has a limb cut off, he can still feel the ache he wants it so badly.
One of the car hood boys is blond. He wears black and silver swim shorts and black water shoes every day. He is the king. He stretches out, relaxing against the windshield, letting his long tanned legs dangle off the sides, while the others stand around. His friends provide the beer. They smoke marijuana hidden in cheap hollowed out cigars. Sometimes the adults in the neighborhood threaten him. They come outside in the middle of the night, their own street unfriendly after dark, in fraying bathrobes and dirty slippers, curlers in their hair, gray tufts sticking up in every direction. They point their telephones in his direction, bellow at the blond boy and his friends—they're going to call the police, they're going to have them thrown in jail. The boys laugh. The adults retreat into their houses pretending to be satisfied with the result, with their own power. Molly has been watching the blond boy for months. He's beautiful. Sometimes his eyes dart up to her second floor window. A few times the blond boy caught her gaze. Twice in just the past week. Once, he smiled. A lazy lopsided smile. One of his front teeth is cracked.
She is alone in the clinic's waiting room. Alone with the pamphlets and the old magazines and the fake miniature palm trees. Her fat legs stick to the grainy white leather. Her feet don't reach the floor. She is short, but being in this huge room sitting on these huge couches makes her feel tiny. She swings her legs back and forth—she is an impatient child, a bad child, a child in trouble. She is awaiting certain punishment.
How are you, Mom, her doctor asks.
Fine, Molly says.
Where have you been?
How's your husband? Hanging in there?
Yes, she says.
Good. Do I have to tell you how angry I am about your disappearance?
No, she says.
Didn't I tell you not to disappear?
Yes, she says.
Sixty pounds, the doctor says when she steps off the scale. You've gained sixty. That's a lot of weight. Too much for your height. At twenty-two weeks you had only gained ten.
Pizza, Molly says.
What's going on? he asks. I'm worried. Are you having headaches?
He peers at her, studies her, trying to find the answer.
No, she says. Everything's fine.
He is an ocean of concern.
Well, she says.
She owes him an explanation, a grand sweeping epic of an explanation.
It's my husband, Molly says. My husband is a captain. In the Navy.
Her doctor nods. He knows.
They've been putting him in more dangerous situations. Lately, he writes once a week, but every day I think he's dead. Everyday. Every morning I wake up thinking he's dead. So, I'm worried. That's it. I get tension headaches because I'm worried.
Her doctor nods.
Molly, he says. This is serious.
The situation with my husband is serious, she says.
Yes, her doctor says. I know.
The first time she went to a gynecologist she was twenty-two years old, a year after the first time she had sex. She went to a dim, almost dirty, clinic across town, way over on the West Side of Manhattan, near Tenth Avenue and the water. She made sure to be far enough away from her parents. The woman doctor who examined her had pale pink lips and wore pigtails. There were birth control ads and funny little anecdotes on the ceiling written in childish cursive. Knock-knock jokes. The woman scolded her about her year-long wait. This is serious, she said. Her voice was deep and scratchy, almost masculine. There were framed pictures of her singing in holiday pageants and picnics. She was an alto in the Pro Women's Rights Chorus. They sang folk songs during their yearly protest in front of City Hall. Sexually active women need to be examined, she said. She offered some obvious advice about boys (make them wear a condom!) and told her to make sure she came back every February. While she was on her back, Molly told the pigtailed doctor that she didn't tell her mother when she got her first period because she knew she wouldn't care. Molly told her she used the sanitary napkins she found in one of the cabinets under the bathroom sink until her mother noticed they were mysteriously disappearing and, one day, told Molly to go buy her own and stop using hers. The doctor busied herself with swabs and twisted metal instruments.
I'm sure your mom didn't mean it, she said. I'm sure your mom cared. Motherhood is a serious occupation, don't forget that. Moms don't always get it right.
Baby is on the move, Mom, her doctor says. I'd really like to do some tests. In fact, I insist. Right now. Let's get you checked in.
I have to go, Molly says. My husband needs me, he might call.
Her doctor frowns.
This is serious, he says. Will you come back later? Ask Amy to set it up. This afternoon. It's very important we find out if there is a problem here.
O.K., Molly says. Yes, I will. Absolutely.
Fantastic, her doctor says.
He looks eager but a bit forlorn. He's won the prize but he can't collect. If she doesn't return later for his battery of tests, where he will poke and prod, push his clammy jellied hands inside her, figure out what's wrong, his record for first place wins will be lost.
The tiny redheaded nurse, Amy, smiles at her.
Glad you came back to see us, Mom, she says. Some girls don't come back.
A woman in her office in New York City, a paralegal, a young woman with orange hair, half Cuban and half Irish, Erin de la Sosa, her parents obviously wanted to make that point absolutely clear, spends a week in Miami Beach every February. Last February it was ice cold, the coldest winter in the Northeast in a hundred years. The air sliced through Molly's lungs, leaving her gasping, desperate for a deep satisfying breath. Every morning, wrapped in her giant puffy coat, she pushed against angry, sneezy New Yorkers in the subway.
Erin loves Miami. She comes back tanned with manicured lacquered nails in fuchsia or watermelon, showing off her thick tan lines.
She tells stories about beautiful Caribbean faces, spicy food, and the late, warm nights by the pool.
She always tries to say I left my heart in Miami Beach in Spanish but gets confused halfway through and switches back to English. Erin doesn't speak Spanish, her Cuban father never taught her, but she pretends she can.
This year, Molly fell in love with Erin's stories. This year, she needed those stories. Erin has this fascinating colorful life, a life that Molly didn't know existed. Erin invited her to one of her famous dinner parties. Mojitos and dinner catered from a Latino-Chino restaurant. She had never been invited before. Why now? Because this year she listened so intently to Erin's stories? Because she was the only who asked questions? Erin was always polite, somewhat friendly, but never a friend.
So she went. Bought a new dress for the occasion. In spite of herself, she hoped Peter Deal would be there. She worked in his office, she sometimes caught herself thinking about him at work, at home alone at night. He is a handsome, well-dressed man—warm brown skin, gentle eyes, tailored suits, shiny designer shoes. Peter Deal is an attorney for the firm. He is important. She is nobody, a coffee girl, a sometime typist, a mail filer.
She knew that he often stopped by Erin's after work. She was pretty sure he would be there, he wouldn't miss one of her parties. Molly had never really had a conversation with him, nothing much beyond the usual polite salutations—she just worked in his office. Peter likes his coffee dark and sweet. Just like me, he'd say, and smile bright as sunshine. He thanked her when she made copies for him, tidied up his workspace, made sure his lunch was on his desk at noon. Is Peter Deal married? He didn't wear a ring, but there was a picture of a young woman in a white dress on his desk. Were Erin and Peter having an affair? They seemed to like each other. They touched briefly now and then. In passing. A finger, an arm. They had an easy friendship.
Peter Deal sat on Erin's couch, entertaining the crowd, holding court all night. He looked at her from time to time and smiled at her. Molly sat in an overstuffed chair, sipped a diet soda, blushed a fiery red every time their eyes met.
On her way to the beach, Molly sees Julia and Honor. It looks like they slept on the sand. Their hair is dry and clumpy and their make-up is smudged on their cheeks and around their eyes. Skinny tanned raccoons with red and black temporary tattoos all over their arms and legs.
Hey, Molly, Julia says.
Honor sits down on the sidewalk and picks at a tattoo on the inside of her upper left thigh.
Hey, Molly says.
We got tattooed, Julia says. She holds up her arms and spreads her legs.
I see, Molly says.
We lost a bet with the boys on Collins, Honor says. But Julia didn't mind because what's-his-name, the blond one, her new boyfriend, had his hands all over her.
Julia makes a face at her sister.
He did not, she says.
Yes, he did, Honor says.
Shouldn't you girls be at school, Molly says.
Half day, Julia says.
It's ten o'clock in the morning, Molly says.
Instead of putting on the tattoos with a wet napkin, the boys lick them until they stick, Honor says. It's cause we lost the bet.
Can we touch your belly? Julia asks.
Before she can answer, Honor gets up and slaps her hands on her so fast, Molly almost falls backwards.
It's so weird, Honor says. She moves her hands over her belly like she's blind.
Julia puts her hands on her gingerly.
Does the baby move? she asks.
Yes, Molly says.
Honor puts her hands on her own flat stomach.
I want a baby too, she says.
Ma says she'll kill us if we get pregnant, Julia says. She said she'll kill us with her own two hands.
Ma says we should study and be like Jennifer, Honor says. But seriously, why would we want to be like Jennifer? She has a fat ass and she does nothing but fucking study. No boyfriends. Nothing. Seriously.
Seriously, Julia says.
Is your husband awesome? Honor asks.
Pretty awesome, Molly says.
Where is he again?
At war, Molly says.
Oh, Julia says. Right. Where?
The Middle East.
Oh, Julia says. Sure. I know.
Don't worry, Honor says. He'll come home safe.
I know, Molly says.
Was it love at first sight? Honor asks.
Yeah, was it? Julia says. Did you know when you met him?
Yes and no, Molly says. Something you'll learn when you're adults is that everything is yes and no.
The girls nod solemnly.
Honor and me—we're not virgins, Julia says.
Oh yeah, Molly says.
Yeah. We've done it with some of the same boys too, Julia says.
But they can tell us apart, Honor says.
Yeah, Julia says.
They want to impress her. They stand in front of her; they're sweet girls, still so childish with their round sun-toasted faces and their shiny white teeth. Mrs. Rodriguez takes her daughters to the finest dentist in Miami—nothing is too good for her girls. They always wear bikini tops with tiny shorts and dollar plastic flip-flops in bright primary colors. Even to school. When they go. They have small breasts, no sloppy lumpy parts, just perfectly round firm browned breasts sitting neatly packaged in stretchy waterproof fabric.
Molly can imagine these girls taking off these tops, proud and maybe a bit uncertain despite their bravado. Maybe the boys reach out to touch them, these amazing, fantastic girl creatures, two girl creatures, not just one, two identical amazing, fantastic girl creatures. The fourteen-year old nipples barely know how to react. And the girls that own them are afraid even if they don't know it yet. They won't know it until they are twice their age, Molly's age. They are so proud and headstrong and grown-up. They can show their breasts to any boy they want. They can kick off the flip-flops that Mrs. Rodriguez buys for them by the bagful at the Dollar Shoemart, wiggle out of their tiny shorts, let them drop in the cold, salty sand and have sex with those boys on the beach. And they're so fierce, they're such adults.
In her fourth or fifth month, sitting in the waiting room for her first appointment in the same sweatpants she left New York in, the only other person a skinny young woman in a business suit, said, If you don't want that baby, I know someone who does. She kept her voice low. The tiny redheaded nurse behind the counter didn't seem to notice. Molly could hear children laughing outside and the doctors walking with purpose in their sensible shoes. Excuse me, Molly said. The young woman smiled. She had very white teeth and perfectly applied cranberry red lipstick. The baby, she said. You don't want it. I can tell by the look on your face. Is the baby one hundred percent white? I know a white woman, Sandy Allyson, very nice, loving, and sweet, but she can't have a baby. She thinks her husband might leave her. It's a tough situation. She's willing to pay forty grand for a white baby, maybe even fifty. We won't have to tell anyone. You deliver the baby to Mrs. Allyson and I'll deliver the cash. What do you think?
She stood up slowly, as if any sudden movements might cause Molly to bolt. She handed her a business card. There's my name, the girl said. Laura Perez. She spoke to Molly softly. She placed her left hand on her shoulder, bent down on one knee. Her tanned brown skin was shiny, healthy. Her nails manicured, the color matched her lipstick. I live in Fort Lauderdale, she said. You are welcome anytime. I have a nice place for you to stay. I have a wonderful doctor for you. Certified, of course. Gentle. Understanding. That's my number. I'm a headhunter, in the finest sense, a matchmaker, if you like. Laura Perez leaned over and whispered in her ear. The soft vibrations coming from her mouth made Molly jump a little. I know what you're thinking, she said. Forty grand is a lot of money. Tax free. The baby was a mistake. You pretended it wasn't happening so you didn't do anything and now it's too late. I know. I understand. Mrs. Allyson is desperate and unwanted white babies don't grow on trees, if you know what I mean. Call me if you change your mind.
Down at the beach, Julia and Honor run past Molly toward their friends, a gaggle of high school girls standing by the shore screaming at the bewildered faces suddenly emerging from the ocean. Molly sees Sammy Rodriguez and a few of his friends pulling people out of the water. They look like demented sea creatures, testing their uncertain legs on the land, breathing heavily, frantically, flailing thin scaly arms. A very pregnant woman allows herself to be dragged, on her back, through the crashing waves to the beach. The boys stand over the woman, offer her their hands to help her up but she refuses. Sammy tries to speak to her in Spanish, but she starts crying and can't stop. She sobs and sobs. She wraps her arms around her enormous belly as if she is afraid someone will steal it from her. She vomits seawater.
A boatload of Cubans wrecked off the coast of Paradise Island, Bahamas. Molly knows this happens all the time. Vacationers lying on the beach, playing in the waves at dusk, trying to enjoy every minute of the Bahamian sun and ocean, when they think they see ten or twelve bobbing heads in the water. They hear screams in the distance, drifting in and out of their consciousness. Maybe it's a dream or voices in their heads. And then it is silent. They go out to look and see nothing. Maybe they heard nothing after all. The sun going down, the water dark and treacherous. The vacationers were told that sharks come out at night to feed because they have become accustomed to the salty, suntan-lotioned taste of human flesh. The sharks have been known to prowl the beachfront, lying in wait just beyond the waves for the foolish to brave the dark, inky ocean. Skinny-dipping, perhaps. Just looking for a little vacation fun can end in bleeding to death on the gorgeous Caribbean beach. They were warned. The vacationers step back from the edge and return to paradise.
The last time this happened, only two or three made it to Miami Beach. A week or two later, gnawed body parts washed up on the shore. Bloated blue-green hands and feet, the fingers and toes still splayed in surprise, still ready to fend off the attack. Molly watched from her second floor window as the Miami Beach Police, young men in navy blue shorts on bicycles, winced at the sight of them, and dropped them, one by one, for the local news cameras, into the garbage.
In her sixth month, when she wasn't so huge, when it was still possible to wear an oversized T-shirt over her bathing suit and hide her stomach, it occurred to her that maybe it wasn't happening. She's not pregnant at all. She's in Miami Beach for a week-long vacation, like Erin, enjoying the South Florida winter, drinking margaritas, talking to the tanned boys skipping school, drinking cheap beer they stole from their dad's secret refrigerator in the garage, playing volleyball on the beach. The smell of Miami Beach. The soapy sea smell of the boys. They are so pretty here with their bleached hair and their slim bodies. She's not pregnant at all. She can run and play, the way she always wanted to when she was a teenager. A wide sunny world stood out before her. The freedom left her gasping, breathless.
The blond boy is suddenly standing in front of her. He's so tall, Molly never realized how tall he is. He seems to be leaning in from the clouds. For a moment, he shimmers like a mirage. He is water in the desert. He beckons to her, nods toward a bench—a cool, comfortable place to sit under the cover of twisted palm trees and weeds run wild. He slouches, one impatient hip bearing all his weight, his fingers tapping against his thighs. He walks ahead of her, moves quickly. He keeps his eyes open, he is on the lookout, making sure they are alone. It is a covert operation.
Molly has seen the blond boy with Julia from time to time. Last week they were fooling around the way kids do, running after each other, throwing clumps of wet sand. He pulled the flimsy tie on the back of her bikini top—one good tug and the whole thing came apart. He put his hands immediately on her breasts and they both stood there for a moment, shocked, before she started yelping and laughing, trying to move away from him but he held her tight and close, keeping her covered and safe from the prying eyes of strangers.
Honor tried pulling him away from Julia, she wanted in on the fun, but the blond boy was not interested in Honor. Molly wonders if they've had sex—the blond boy and Julia. She's pretty sure they have. Did Julia enjoy it? Is she even capable of that yet?
Next to the bench, under the palms, the blond boy leans down to kiss Molly. He moves his hand to her cheek—a warm, mature gesture. His eyes watery, his lips soft and unnaturally red, his breath citrusy. His finger pads are so soft, maybe he has never had a job, he doesn't know what it means yet to ruin your hands for a paycheck. Molly opens her mouth a little. He kisses her. He is so gentle! So gentle for sixteen! Seventeen? Molly doesn't know. He holds the back of her neck with both hands for a moment, spreads his legs wide and goes soft in the knees so he can lean into her without her huge stomach getting in the way. They kiss for ten seconds, then thirty, then for a full minute. He runs his left hand over her right breast. Pauses over the nipple. She is so excited she might pee.
She touches the boy. His flat stomach, warm and tacky from salt water, shrinks away from her, maybe her hands are too cold, then he moves into her, allows her hands all over him. She touches his penis. Moves her hand over it. It gets hard, immediately, in his swim shorts. He smiles at her. He is sweaty and fresh and alive.
Molly, someone says.
Molly recognizes the voice.
Julia and Honor are standing behind her. Honor has one arm out in front of her twin sister, as if she is trying to hold her back from an inevitable crash. They are stunned, suddenly fragile. They look like little girls—chubby baby faces, small bodies with no hips.
What's going on? Julia asks.
Molly sees long limbs behind a rock, a couple of boys pop out from behind the palm trees.
What the fuck? one of them says. Were you going to go ahead and fuck the fat pregnant lady?
The blond boy exhales and steps away from Molly. He looks at his friends and laughs.
No, he says.
Fuck, the friend says. Then what the fuck were you doing?
The other boy, an ugly boy, oily hair and snaggle-toothed, counts a wad of bills.
You win, he says. Above and beyond, Justin. Above and beyond.
The blond boy, Justin, laughs again, takes the money, counts it, snorts, puts it in his shoe.
I'm not giving you shit, the first boy says.
Yes, you are, Justin says.
No, the boy says. ‘Cause you were fucking loving it. You get nothing from me.
Justin holds his hand out.
No, the boy says, smiling. You're in love with her.
Give him the fucking money, the ugly boy says. He deserves it.
The first boy reaches into his pocket.
Fine, Justin, he says, and punches him in the arm. You want to fuck the pregnant lady? Whatever.
Hey, Honor, the ugly boy says. Why don't you come here and suck my dick?
Fuck you, Honor says.
Your mother sucked it last night. She loved it.
Shut the fuck up, Honor says.
Justin, Julia says. What's going on?
Nothing, he says. Why are you here?
Looking for you, Julia says.
What the fuck is going on? Honor says.
Go away, Justin says to the twins. Get out of here.
The beach is dangerous. Last year, two French women, blond, in tan thong bikinis, were run over by a couple of teenagers, Julia and Honor's friends, the boys who hang out on Collins Avenue looking for trouble. They stole a beach patrol vehicle for fun. The women were sunbathing, glistening and slippery, lying flat on towels in a deserted section of the beach. They were asleep, a magazine sprawled on one of the women's chests, the other on her back, her skin starting to bubble and blister. They were crushed, flattened. The woman on her back died immediately. Her spine severed. The other woke suddenly, wrenched from sleep. One of the lifeguards said she sat up for a moment, despite the fact that she was disemboweled, her stomach split, and cried out once in confusion before she died.
The teenagers were sent to juvenile hall in Arkansas. They apologized. They were really, very, truly sorry. They didn't see the women, they just didn't see them.
There is no worse punishment then Arkansas, Julia said.
In her eighth month, Molly saw Laura Perez on a deserted side street near the little beach bodegas. She was leaning against a dirty minivan, pushing two white babies in a double carriage back and forth with one heeled foot, arguing with someone on a cell phone in Spanglish, wiping away tears with the sleeves of her expensive blouse. Her voice was deeper than Molly remembered, guttural and phlegmy. The babies were dressed in the same white terrycloth jumpsuit. They were on the verge of a twin temper tantrum, gearing up for a simultaneous gut-wrenching howl. They threw their bottles and a few chewed up squeeze toys onto the sidewalk. Laura Perez turned away from them and slammed one hand down on the hood of the minivan. The babies screamed in unison. They gave in to their agony, throwing their heads back, kicking at the sides of the carriage. She picked up their toys and patted their heads, but they only screamed louder. Molly stood at the corner watching her. For a moment Laura Perez looked up and her eyes locked with Molly's. A flicker of recognition, an almost involuntary slight nod of Laura's head. And then denial. She tried to fix her make-up in the side mirror. Tears ran zigzag over her face. She cradled the phone in the crook of her shoulder and fixed her eyeliner with her thumbs. The babies wailed. They held their arms out in front of them, grabbed at the air with their tiny fingers. Laura Perez remained focused on her cell phone, almost frozen in place. She refused to acknowledge Molly.
Molly walks slowly towards the beach like an old woman fattened by years of bad diet and neglect. Her hair is a little gray at the roots. One of her headaches starts, but now she feels some comfort in it, a sense of stability and ritual. She understands the headache, fits neatly inside of it. Molly wonders if her parents have been calling her Brooklyn apartment, getting the disconnected message. She doesn't own a cell phone and she abandoned her e-mail account when she left New York. When she was a teenager, Julia and Honor's age, her mother told her that if she didn't leave the house, find some friends, date some boys, even make an attempt to be popular, she'd have to learn to live by herself. She'd better get used to it. She'll be a loner, a spinster living with too many cats. She'll be cast out of society for lacking social graces. A misfit. You're going to have a difficult time finding people who like you, her mother said. Never mind getting married. Finding a boyfriend, and then a decent, useful man to be your husband is going to be nigh on impossible. It was a decree, as far as her mother was concerned, not an opinion.
The night is beautiful on the beach, where the hotels' neon lights meet the sand. The first time she was here it made her nauseous with happiness. She came straight from the airport with nothing, expecting nothing, and, despite herself, for the first time in her life, fell in love. Hard. She was flooded with it. She faced the island, the ocean behind her, the cool white moon promised a gorgeous Miami day. The lights, the music, the big happy world in front of her.
Now the sun is disappearing behind the vast ocean, behind where she thinks Cuba might be. All that water. So much dangerous, mysterious water. The furious wind tearing through homemade boats. The thought of being lost at sea makes her dizzy, makes her knees shake. Sharp objects pierce the bottom of her bare feet. Mites and mosquitoes bury themselves in her skin, feasting, attaching themselves to her swollen hands and ankles. Too tired to brush them away, she can barely pull herself along, her feet grow heavier and heavier with every step. Her head aches with stunning force and she is cramping. Maybe bleeding, but she doesn't check. The black water crashes as she walks along. She's on an island, she can walk round and round, in circles. No beginning and no end. Nothing else exists. She stands on the brink and lets the waves crash against her feet. She could go back to her studio apartment filled with all the things Mrs. Rodriguez lovingly picked out for her so she could be comfortable, and wait for her husband to come home from the war—her darling husband, the captain, who loves her but never writes. She should write to him, tell him where she is or he'll never find her, he won't know where to look. She is untraceable, unfindable, unknowable. She is shadowy, only existing in the present, in her oversized hand-me-down beach dress, leaning over the edge of the world.
Copyright © Naomi Leimsider 2008.