Presenting a dose of literary fiction today from Pauline Benninga. It's a short selection of from novel, Up the Body, but the words have no less of an impact. Pauline is a wedding gown designer from the Boston area who, in addition to have two kids, also manages to write novels. Despite her addiction to romance novels, she's sticking with literary fiction for the time being. (Perhaps someday...) Hope you enjoy!
Up The Body
By Pauline Benninga
IN ONE OF my earliest memories, I’m staring down at my brown toes wiggling their way through the small shower of white beach sand that my older brother is pouring in boy-sized handfuls over my tanned three-year-old feet. We had gone to Pawley’s Island that summer, driven most of the way with the windows down, starting from Washington, D.C., climbing through the Great Smoky Mountains, careening down the Eastern side of North Carolina, then on into its Southern sister, and finally stopping in Charleston after a hot, windy ride in the white Lincoln town car with camel colored upholstery. My father loved that car. We stayed the night in Charleston at a hotel with blue shag carpeting in the room.
Looking back, I realize that the trouble had already begun then, though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time. Mom would later ask me, fixing those honey-colored eyes on my chubby pre-adolescent face over the rim of her highball, if I remembered that vacation. I always said that, no, I was too young, because I didn’t want the questions that would inevitably follow. She would want to know if Dad ever made phone calls from the restaurants (or the bait shop, or the grocer) where he would take me and my mother in order to “give mom a break. She would want to know what he said during those phone calls, or had he ever asked me not to share something with her, a big secret?
It always rankled my mother to have never had the opportunity to even lay eyes on the woman for whom my father left her – left us all.
But that wouldn’t happen for another year.
Then, in that moment in 1965, standing on an expanse of sand that met the even wider expanse of the Atlantic, I was a tiny speck of a yellow sundress next to a little boy in a blue sailor’s outfit (my great-aunt’s attempt at decency that my mother desperately wanted to destroy.)
My father had gone into the water and is standing, back to the sea, and calling our names as he makes wild, waving gestures and screaming, “Come on in! The water is fine! Jeannie, Frankie! Marianne, bring the kids in!” I see my mother give him a tight-lipped smile and a tiny shake of the head. Neither I nor my brother are wearing bathing suits, and my mother is wearing sheer white capri pants.
Of course, my brother – devoted to his father and namesake – strips off his sailor suit and runs in a streak of pink skin and white underpants, straight into the tide. I smile and start to follow, trying to tear away my yellow sundress so that I can plunge headlong into the surf, but one look at my mother’s now-frowning face and I am unsure.
But I am still a child, and her disapproval isn’t enough against the tantalizing view of the waves breaking against the formidable mountain of my father’s back as he bounces my brother in the water. They are laughing, and I desperately want to join them. After a minute of indecision, I plow through the mound of sand that my brother has built up around me and head toward the water, fully dressed. I am not a delicate child, but neither am I fat or clumsy. In photographs that I will find later, when I am going through my mother’s effects in the back of her closet, I am surprised to find that I look not like the golden cherub that my mother had always described, but rather like a sturdy little boy in girl’s clothing. One of the pictures in that musty old box must have been taken the day of this memory, since we’re standing in the living room of the cottage where we had stayed – happy vacationers, or so it seems – bright yellow sundress, crisp clean sailor suit, lipstick and curled hair, and the guileless grin of the man who would someday shatter our lives forever.