My daughter Augustine and I draw starfish on butcher paper, which I will later frame and hang in the upstairs hallway, beneath last week's soldiers and kings. She is nine, with long honey-blond hair, and wears an electric blue dress I've decorated with denim patches. As she draws the starfish's bumps in purple and yellow, I think about things she's not aware of yet. Easter Island, the price of gold, the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"I like yours," she says, pointing to my cluster of three next to a clownfish.
"Thank you," I say with a wink. "Yours is better, though."
Augustine has always been steadily sure of herself, curious, inventive. One day we found seed pods in high grass with what looked like gauze inside. Something to do with pollination, or maybe just a symptom of rotting on the lawn. Augustine's fist circled like a conch shell, binding her specimen as she studied it. She proposed that the pods were eggs and that the mothers had designed blankets for the babies within. I loved that image: a warm, cotton blanket inside a paper-thin globe. When I asked what kind of babies she supposed lived there, under the miniature comforters, Augustine gave me a patient, studied glance, and asked, "What does it matter?" Not with attitude or exasperation, just calmly stated, though apparently bemused that her mother did not, perhaps could not, understand the simple philosophy of things.
She watches The Parent Trap and The Trouble with Angels and then sits in front of the mirror, trying to perfect Hayley Mills' animated expressions. The tongue poking around her cheek, the accent, the exclamation of "I've got the most scathingly brilliant idea!" Her other quirks include calling El Camino cars "Palominos;" Neapolitan ice cream has become "Napoleon." She knows better, but still. I watch her daily, closely, trying to grasp how she came to be the person that she is.
"Can they really grow their arms back if one falls off?" She has drawn a black line across her paper, rendering the purple and yellow starfish an amputee, right near the body.
"Yes. Just like that," I say.
I tell Augustine a story about what I remember most when I was her age: my first trip to Marineland, a sort of prototype Sea World off of Highway A1A on the Florida coast. We went in a Winnebago and stayed in the campground next to the park.
Inside, the walkways were white sand, and all the buildings were shaped like they were part of the beach, like grottoes. There was a diving show, with a tiny pool and sky-high ladder, rusted anchors laying everywhere, and an electric eel in a tank built into a stucco wall. Near this exhibit you could push a button and a lightbulb would flicker on. The eel was the first animal on display, and I think he was meant to impress visitors with the magic of his latent power.
"Why couldn't he live with the other eels?"
"I guess because he was special."
The closest attraction to the entrance was a 3-D projection show. The audience became the hang glider pilot as he soared over oceans and other now-vague, majestic land and seascapes. The theme music was John Denver's "Fly Away," and that dreamy song, coupled with the entirety of it all, made me never want to leave that theater, though I knew what treasures awaited beyond. When you walked outside, the air tasted like kosher salt.
"Is that like regular salt?"
I laugh. "Yes. It tastes like the ocean."
There was a huge, circular tank that held something like four hundred thousand gallons and sat like a big silo next to the otters and penguins. You could climb up and peer over the ledge to see sharks, sea turtles, and all kinds of big fish, with coral and anemones dotting the bottom like splashes of paint. It bothered me to see them all living together like that; I worried that the sharks could turn at any time, snacking on a turtle before their afternoon nap.
"They don't do that, Mom. They're friends."
I don't tell Augustine because it would sound silly, but it wasn't the sharks that scared me most, the morays, the threat of falling in. It was the darkness of the water, the darkest blue. It seemed cast with shadows even in full daylight.
I tell her about the stairs that led down to be observation windows below, stairs that were tight, rusty, and time-worn, like those in a ship. It seemed safer down there, somehow. You'd walk around, looking through not huge panels of glass, but portholes. The thickest glass, clouded within its layers.
Quick as that, however, and I've lost Augustine's attention, though later she'll ask me to tell her more about the eels and tanks, and if there were lionfish. But now she's asking about her father.
"When do I have to go, Mom?"
"In the morning, babe. But not for long."
I try to read her expression but cannot. She's drawing a mermaid with steel gray wings.
An elderly friend of my mother's told me once, with scotch on her breath, that our names made us sound like a family of immigrants. There is me, Magdalene, which I suppose conjures the benevolent nun, the sun-hot mission, the pair of hands sticky with stigmata. Then, Augustine: fleeting pictures of chapels, rosettes, and river picnics; royal but benign. And our cat, Alexander: his name suggesting wool coats over turtleneck sweaters, slimline pistols; only better if it were Aleksei, because then you'd so easily picture the Kremlin, all brassy in the rise of dawn.
James, the only one of us with an ordinary name, was the one to migrate away. We divorced seven months ago, my husband fading more and more until one day I discovered he was no longer mine.
Yesterday I turned thirty-eight, and James sent me a yellow vase from 1-800-Flowers with a mix of yellow gerbera daisies, yellow roses, and yellow verbenas.
I was the recipient of several gifts. The first was a present to myself: a pair of red shoes from a place called Sass on North Cherry Lane. Size nine, narrow, with laces that wrap up my legs like a ballerina's ribbons. Augustine made me a macaroni picture frame, and my boss from Reedman & Reedman, Mr. Leif Reedman, tied a silver bow around a bottle of '98 Shiraz.
I've hung the starfish drawings and put Augustine to bed when I sit down on the sofa in the living room with a glass tumbler and my Reedman wine, wearing my new shoes. I'm picking out the roses and verbenas so all that's left is a vase of gerbera daisies, the only flowers I like, when I take the first sip. I hold it under my tongue, tasting a musky kind of sweet, like a hint of a large brown nut that's been buried in a dark, deep forest.
James will be over soon, to talk, he says, which is why I've started on the wine. One glass to relax me. He makes me edgy, makes me feel disjointed. I don't have as much money as he does for a lawyer, for court, for her. Last time he was over, we had an argument that teetered in and out of being a fight. He made veiled non-threats, observations with potential. About the unlocked liquor cabinet, the emails of mine he'd found implicating that I'd had two different male visitors over to the house in the span of one week, about my complete lack of Christian values. In my head I addressed all these concerns calmly while he rambled on, but when I got the chance to speak I shouted out my rebuttals like pellets from a toy gun. I couldn't keep in check that I'd found emails of his as well, namely a string of them from a prostitute named Harmony who dressed in purple lingerie and for their first "visit" hid behind the hotel door room shyly when James walked in. He was astounded I'd found out, like only he had the power, the know-how, to unearth secrets. And amazingly, James explained with hardly a pause that his indiscretion wasn't that bad, as it was kept away from Augustine. He was smart about it, he said. And, by the way, they're dating now. Her real name is Rachel.
I was so shocked that I apologized in a way I'm not sure he bought as sincere and reminded myself to behave for the sake of my daughter.
It was all too much, though. The fact that they're together now seems somehow larger than life, and I can't help but picture him as some mad interventionist, all hugs and rehabilitative quips for the poor, childlike nymph who just couldn't help herself, couldn't pull herself away from all that delicious, pulsing, neon sin. I wonder what I was doing while he was busy pulling her gently from behind the hotel door, her lace shoulder strap perhaps perfectly, accidentally giving way to reveal a nipple as buttercream soft and smooth as any virgin's the world round.
But now, suddenly, sweet Rachel has become my only ammunition. If I hadn't found those emails, I'd have nothing. His degrees, his summer working with disabled children, would kill my paltry years as an exceedingly competent, ready-and-willing-to-die-for-her-daughter mom.
The doorbell rings and all of a sudden he's back. My ex-husband, former love and more recent stranger. When I open the door, he's too close to the threshold, as if he's been peering in the peephole. He plays it off well, though, like he does with everything.
"Maggie. You look good."
I'm tempted to duck behind the door, push a strap off my shoulder, use a Bacall voice and ask just how good. But I stay put.
"Thank you." I refrain from a matching compliment, though he looks fantastic. Dark brown hair combed straight back, a glacier blue shirt that looks devastating against his skin. Instead, I keep mum.
He stands in the center of the room with his hands on his hips, looking altogether interested in the ceiling fan. "Shall we have a drink?"
"Is this a test?" It's supposed to be a joke, but there's truth in it.
He smiles modestly, as if to challenge my doubt. He looks with scientific eyes at the wine glasses, my book on Cuban cigars, the blue lightbulb in the corner lamp. All things that were here while he was still here, but seen now through new eyes.
"Just relax, Maggie."
"Magdalene," I correct him. "And I'm fine." I shoot him a glance, quick and venomous, then wonder with a heart skip why I'm not acting angelic, all words laced with honey. He has the power to take her away.
"Really, it's okay. Just relax." And there's that look again, that therapist's expression of everything-under-control, genuine concern and empathy, as if he's a master of solemnity. That look I fear will sink my battleship in front of any judge.
I try to play along, and hold up the Shiraz. "This okay?"
I pour with a remarkably steady hand, relaxing further when I spot some dirt under one of his fingernails, an imperfection I'll have to cling to, as it's the only one being offered to me.
I find myself wondering, untriggered, what Rachel did when she first noticed the Tree of Life tattooed on his back. I could almost see her sidling up to him and running her fingers over each branch, down to the roots, around the trunk, over the shadow of leaves.
"Oh," he says. "Happy Birthday."
My cat Alexander and I lie on the bed in the cool, cool bedroom, under the waffle-weave blanket the color of chrome, sunlight dappling through as if we're inside a thatch-roof hut. Through the holes, the fan overhead looks like a swarm of bees, arranged in a perfect circle, hovering silently, respecting our quiet. Alexander's nose is the color of salmon steak, and he watches a thread dangling down toward us as if it's the plumpest, sweetest bird.
It's late morning on Saturday, and James has Augustine for the weekend. I thought maybe he'd want to wake her up and take her last night, but he only stayed for two glasses of wine. We talked a little bit about work, a little bit about Augustine, and then a little bit about Rachel. Between Rachel and his not-so-subtle inquiries about my dating status, I got irritated, though I didn't bite like last time.
There was something sad about James last night. He looked weary, tired of arguing, but more tired perhaps as a result of this entire process.
Now I'm wondering if he's ever had a dream of losing Augustine.
I woke briefly before seven this morning, then fell back asleep and dreamed that she fell into the big circle tank. I heard the splash, small, like a diver's moderated entry. When I looked down, all I saw was fish and that dark, dark water. The railing got higher then, and instead of trying to scale it, I turned and ran down the stairs to the observation level below. From window to window I scuttled, pounding on the fogged-over panes with the palms of my hands in hopes of the more damaged glass giving way. The last porthole was set low but was clear, and I ran over and sat on the floor, that cold, damp concrete, to look inside.
And there she was: my daughter, Augustine, and her beautiful wheat-colored hair flowing up like a proud daughter of Triton. I watched as bubbles rose from her mouth and realized she was okay; she could breathe! Something I didn't know about her, I thought, like breathing underwater was akin to having a talent for chess or being really good at math. Perhaps it is.
The next thing I noticed was who was lying next to her, as calm as a bedridden grandmother. A nurse shark, enveloped in blankets of sand and shell. Overhead, a lone tuna, floating along steadily, as if proud of its shine. Augustine was looking around, her eyes following an eel like watching cursive being written. And then she spotted me, peering in, an infant trying to understand the world.
She smiled, so gently, and then leaned over to kiss the nurse shark, her nurse shark, on the top of its head, then offering a stroke with the back of her porcelain hand along the shark's side. I looked around after that, immediately fearful of what else lurked in the water, hypnotized up until that very moment by my daughter's marine spell.
I watched her swim over to a large porthole I hadn't seen before. She opened one pane of glass, slipped inside, and waited for the water to drain before stepping out on my side of the tank, her hair wet and her eyes so bright.
Nothing seemed necessary then, no tight embrace, for she hadn't truly been in harm's way, had she? Everything seemed right, just as it should be: a nurse shark, a halo of fish, bubbles from her perfect mouth.
I call in the evening like I often do on weekends, under the transparent guise of asking a question or issuing a reminder, when really all I want is to hear her voice, to hear she's happy. I can always tell, innately, whether or not she's smiling, and I count those smiles like beads on a rosary.
"Hello! McKendrick residence."
In the time it takes me to inhale my next breath, I know it's Rachel. But before I can think it over, I've got to say something, anything, so I spit out, "Hi. Is James there?"
"No, sorry, he's out. Want me to have him call you back?" Her voice doesn't sound particularly alluring, though perhaps I'm the wrong person to ask. She sounds younger than I'd imagined, which is disturbing because I'd figured she was in her twenties.
"You don't have to. I can try—"
"It's no problem." And then, a little too forced-casual, "Who is this?"
I pause for what must be a second too long because she's asking in that same, pretend-calm way, "Is this Magdalena?"
I count to three, then, "Magdalene, yes."
Silence, though I think I hear her start to say something then stop. A sigh. She speaks up again before I have a chance to hurry off the phone, run to my bedroom with my face burning red.
"She's great, you know. Augustine? She's just great."
I try to think what this claim is supposed to convey but write it off as pure filler.
"Yep. She is."
"I mean, I know you know that." The briefest of pauses, and then, "So, you know about me, right?"
"Know about you?" I pray she's not asking about her line of work, worry I'm being led down a path I can't turn back from.
"About me and James, being together." And, in a much smaller voice, "I'm Rachel."
I almost feel sorry for her. She sounds ridiculously young. "Yes," I say and stop myself just in time before tagging on "dear" or "hon" at the end. I feel ancient. "Rachel, I was just calling to check on Augustine."
"She's fine. She's out with James, at the grocery store."
"Okay. Well, thank you." I'm seconds away from hanging up when she speaks again.
"You know, I'm glad he talked to you last night. He was nervous. That you'd take it the wrong way."
Bracing myself, I pause ever so briefly to think, to make myself sound calm. The side of my neck starts to hurt in a way I know promises a headache for later. "Well, yeah. Me too."
She doesn't say anything. I try, "But we talked about several things last night. Do you mean...?" I'm hoping she'll take the bait, fill in the blanks.
"About Augustine," she says. "He said he talked to you about the whole custody thing." She's all of a sudden doubtful, stressed. "Did he?"
I have to answer now, before I lose the nerve. "Oh, yeah, that. Yeah, he told me." I'm instantly torn between worrying what this means and feeling violated that he's told this girl about everything. Everything about my daughter and maybe even myself.
She's audibly relieved, her words spilling out now like water. "Okay, good. He was worried you'd think he was giving up on her or something like that. When, you know, like he told you, it's nothing like that. He just needs time, you know? We both do. He's really helping me get back on my feet."
Still piecing things together, I say, "That's great."
"Yeah, James is awesome. And so is Augustine! But, you know, we get her over here and all she talks about is you. I mean, not every last word, but it's obvious she misses you. And I agree with James about a kid needing a place to call home and not go switching back and forth every few days."
I don't say anything, just wonder when this revelation occurred, when he decided that two days out of the week would be detrimental to Augustine, to them all. I recall that the only thing to stand out in our conversation last night was James asking who Hayley Mills was.
And then I can't pretend anymore, because what is there to say? I care far more now about getting details, far less about continuing this charade with Reform School Rachel.
"Wait." And in my voice she must hear that at least some of this, maybe all of this, is new to me. She must hear the bite. She hangs up.
It's about an hour before I get a call from the same number. It's James. His voice sounds gravelly and, like last night, exhausted. He starts by telling me they got a frozen pizza, but five minutes later he's into the logistics of it all, how things would be better if I take Augustine full-time for awhile. At some point, interwoven with it all, in the same drone he's using for everything else, he mentions that Rachel is pregnant. I can tell he thinks she divulged this secret with everything else earlier.
"You know, that's the one little detail she didn't get around to telling me," I say.
The longest pause, then, almost inaudibly, "Goddamn."
When I open the door on Sunday morning, after the second hollow knock, Augustine is standing there, in braids. James drives off, eyes on the road ahead of him, so obviously avoiding my stare.
And just like magic I have her back, and a day early at that. For the moment, though, I focus on the braids. James doesn't know how to do anything more than brush hair, so it must've been Rachel's handiwork. I picture her hands in my daughter's hair, hiding faceless behind a hotel room door while Augustine sits Indian-style on the worn, paisley carpet. There is a single-serve bottle of vodka in front of her, which she knows not to touch because she's got such a good role model in her father.
In front of me now, Augustine says, "Hi, Mom. Did you bring Pollyanna back to Blockbuster yet?" and pushes into the living room. As I turn then, mouth open as if to say some undecided words, to watch her go, she says, "Oh," and hands me a letter-size envelope, the kind with the security scrambling pattern inside.
It's a note from James, of course. Saying he'll call, saying he's sorry, all sealed up like those words were things Augustine shouldn't see.
I walk into her bedroom and see she's found the video I left on her bed. The opening credits are already playing.
"Can we have Napoleon ice cream?"
I smile. She takes it as my misunderstanding the question.
"You know, Napoleon. The kind with the strawberry stripe in the middle."
I think about what "Napoleon" ice cream would look like, so much more interesting than Neapolitan. A white ice cream with little chocolate pieces inside, all shaped like a man on horseback.
I'm amazed at my luck, though clueless about how I'm going to explain this to her, clueless also that what will stay with me past midnight for the next several nights while I try to sleep, back in the cool quiet with Alexander, is that teenager's voice saying, "Hello! McKendrick residence." Words I once said myself.
Whatever poise or strength I'll need is momentarily lacking, as unattainable as the touch of that cool, dark water. But for now it seems more than enough to have Augustine back, sitting across the room from me with braids like arms of coral, perched on her blue blanket like she's riding waves.
Title graphic: "Aquaria" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2010.