Hydroambulante

By KATE BERSON

First morning in Nueva York, in los EEUU, and Néstor in the kitchen was a stone his daughter rushed around like river water. Two years past her quinceañera, one more year of high school left, thirteen years since he last saw her. Néstor had kept running all the numbers in his head the whole way up to la Frontera, but here and now such compulsive calculations fell away, replaced finally by the actual, the reachable young woman those many years had yielded: Sara. She still went by the name he gave her but not the one he called her by. Even while he looked at Sarita, his mind shuffled through memories of the face he knew best—her first face, when she was new to him and to his wife, Esperanza, who was also rushing now. Everyone in the not-cement, not-yellow-painted, not-his house was in a hurry. A New York hurry. America hurry.

Esperanza had offered to call her boss and see if they could get Néstor working his promised job right away. She had offered, too, to call in sick for the day. Or two or even three. As if the couple could make up, in just three days, for the nearly five thousand Néstor had lost. Anxious by nature, Esperanza worried he’d grow lonely at home. And so long since they’d been together. But he could bear one more day, he’d said. It was too late now to tell her he’d changed his mind.

“I’m off,” Esperanza said in English. She put a plate of eggs on the kitchen table. “Para tí.”

“Sunny side up,” Sarita added. Sunny? “Bye, Papá.”

Néstor reached for their hands, his wife’s, his daughter’s still smaller than his. Could he stop them from leaving by merely holding on?

They wished they could stay, they said. “Later,” they said. “Tonight, tomorrow, this weekend, we’ll take you—, we’ll go to—, you’ll see—.” Their places were not places, though, just utterances of names of places.

“But for now,” they said. “Trabajo. Escuela. We’re going to be late.”

“Late,” Néstor repeated. A shock of English on his tongue, behind his teeth.

Sarita granted Néstor a kiss on his cheek. How wise, how grown-up she must be, to know the generosity of this light, swift gift for her father, a stranger. She slung her backpack (not pink or purple, but black) over one shoulder and tilted her head for a moment, looking at him, thinking… who could guess what she was thinking? Certainly not Néstor. He clung to this pause. He willed time to stop so that his daughter stood suspended before him. In that extended moment, Néstor was a spy, examining a foreigner for clues, for some understanding of who Sarita had turned out to be. But he could not break through the surface of her. She looked more like her mother now, no longer like him as she’d looked when she was born—her small mouth and searching eyes exactly his.

His daughter snapped back to life and said again, “Bye.”

Bye, Sarita.” Néstor startled at the sound of this word next to the sound of his daughter’s name, the queer mesh of the two together. He wanted to ask someone—Esperanza, but she had already left, Sarita on her way out—“How did that sound to you? How do I sound in this country?”

Néstor could cook for them while they were out. He could tidy and clean, and when they returned, their house might feel as new to them as it did to him. But there was no mess to clean. And the possessions arranged around the house seemed untouchable as artifacts, gleaming behind glass in a museum. Indeed, his wife and daughter had both become collectors. Néstor surveyed: Esperanza’s porcelain miniatures on the mantel. A box of Christmas ornaments in the closet. On Sarita’s windowsill, a display of childhood dolls, and on her bookshelf, a mixed stack of novels, spiral notebooks, and a single book of poetry, the poet Néstor had told her about, Antonio Machado. But Sarita’s book was a translation. Border of a Dream, read the binding. Beside the books lay a bundle of letters tied with string. A boyfriend? Or a friend lost to Sarita, perhaps, but how? A tall clock chimed in the hall. All these shadowy clues, and their actual shadows Néstor saw stretching and widening, approaching one another, until they overlapped, the dark closing in on him, shadow consumed the whole house, and the chime prolonged into an awful din. Néstor could not stay.

He’d been moving for weeks toward here, a here that was not a place but was in fact two people, his wife and daughter, whose lives, over the years, Néstor could never manage to envision from afar. In this single respect, his imagination had failed him. He could conjure just their voices and the shapes of them shifting here and there inside some dim structure, floating about a lit-up city. The shapes of his wife and daughter, at last full and defined, had just slipped out the door. His destination had left him.

Since he could not follow Esperanza to the restaurant or Sarita to school, he followed the same path they had taken, the hallway to the outside, to enter their world and see what the two of them had seen every morning for thirteen years. He stood in the doorway. He saw the hurried walkers see him in the doorway, and he tried to picture himself standing there. The unbelonging he felt then, and the isolation that came with it, ushered him out of the house. He hopped down three steps into the end of a season—not rainy season, or dry, but spring. Or had spring turned into summer already?

The Spanish Néstor heard surprised him. He made his way down one street and another, another, until he’d left his language behind. He pumped his arms and took strides unnaturally long. He could not remain a stone passed by. If he walked quickly enough, perhaps the hurry itself would generate some new, different urgency than the one that had kept him moving toward this city. Néstor was off.

And lost just as quick. Signs around him bore his alphabet, but shuffled into words he could not parse. Borough Park Supermarket. Gravesend Neck Road. Still he asked no one for directions. There was no where-to. And anyway he could make nothing of the talkers’ run-together English.

A seagull, thrown around by rising wind, cawed its racket above him. Néstor couldn’t say how he’d found his long, long way to this beach, nor how much time had passed. Back home, he had been conscious of each passing hour. Even the thinner fractions of time—minutes, seconds—he could feel tick by: as he walked in early light to his plot of land down the road to tend to his corn and cattle; as he walked back home at dusk to tend to his mother, who’d slipped into steady decline after Néstor’s father passed. So, too, Néstor had tended to time, as if it also called for his attention and care. But now, here, an hour or two had slipped away without his notice. He followed a path that was no path at all, just the indecisive shoreline, rushing in and retreating. “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar,” wrote Machado. Traveler, there is no path, you make the path by walking. What creatures swam under this water? Animals who welcome cold, he guessed, hybrid animals who bear the changing seasons with grace. The gull curved down from sky to water, belonging in both.

Néstor came upon the high-up loop of a roller coaster and crossed the boardwalk between sand and street to reach it. He tipped his head back, as a man does to sip water in the desert on the longest walk under the hottest sun. The coaster’s cars inched up and up before him. Cars, buses, the slow-fast-slow-fast Bestia he’d jumped from, spraining his ankle, lucky not to suffer worse in a moment of exhaustion, distraction, or dream, as others had who’d teetered and fallen under. Néstor’s stomach turned. The roller coaster riders put their hands up as the cars slithered over the top of their arc, coming for him. He waited, open-eyed, for its jaws to unhinge as it plummeted. But only its noise subsumed him, its shaky wooden clamor and screech, drowning out all the unintelligible chatter around him. He could not even remember Sarita’s once-squeak, now a woman’s rich timbre, or Esperanza’s voice asking him to join them here, or his mother urging him, too, to go ahead up north; there were nephews and nieces who could care for her, and he could sell his land to pay his way. Néstor had agreed. He’d made arrangements several years ago, set off, and, yes, he’d reached the border.

But he wouldn’t let himself dwell now on that first, failed attempt. He kept moving. He peeked into the doorways of little buildings squeezed together. Carnival? Park? Perhaps there was a map somewhere for tourists. Children were running around—was school finished for the day already? Was Sarita at home and waiting for him? He should try to make his way back to her.

A small, determined girl brushed by, distracting him yet again. She slid coins into a machine and stared into the screen on which Pac-Man wound his way through mazes, away from the chasing ghosts. Next to the game was a big glass box with plush toys waiting inside: dragons, trolls, monsters. A boy pressed the buttons to steer the hanging metal claw, which dropped and failed to clutch the horn of a unicorn. Sarita would no longer play like these children. Her face this morning had looked old. Old enough that Néstor could imagine what she’d look like when she got even older, when she transformed from almost-woman to woman.

What a wild imagination you’ve got, pregnant Esperanza had told him—a dreamer, she said, a poet—as Néstor made predictions for their daughter: hair gold in the day, silver at night; legs twice as long as the next child’s, so she’d run farthest and fastest, fast enough to cross water on foot. So why, for all these years, could he not imagine this same girl living a much more imaginable life? Perhaps it was, in fact, the absence of magic. His grand predictions had been thwarted. Now, yes, Néstor could see his daughter and his wife, somewhere in this magic-less Brooklyn: Sarita turning pages of a textbook, scrawling indecipherable notes in the margins. Esperanza, simply exhausted from another day of dishes and prep—work that Néstor tried to make himself look forward to.

Back outside, the spring or summer sky was a gray roof. Gray sand met gray water in the distance, the shoreline smudged. Gray spindly trees around him stood isolated from each other in their tiny, fenced-in plots. Néstor squinted to blur the trees, to double one into the two lush trees he’d strung a hammock between behind his house, when the house was still home to his family and the hammock still a place to rock the baby while she napped. He should try to figure out his way back now, to Esperanza, who must be waiting for him, who had been made to wait so long already. Who, worrying as always, must have imagined the worst when she hadn’t heard from him for days—robbed or kidnapped, surrendered to the desert, drowned in the Rio Grande. What she could not see, what Néstor could not unsee, was the man who fell. And now, another doubling: this man turned into two, and those two multiplied, exponentially, like video game villains, and all of them cascading off the roof and spilling out the windows of the train, which finally became an actual beast with headlight-eyes and doors for mouths that spit out the men who all looked just like Néstor.

Onward. Or rather, backward, toward Sunset Park.

On signs, the letters in their strange combinations morphed before him. He almost could not recognize A anymore, B, C. He imagined crawling under the curve of the h in Brighton, climbing up and over the height of the t. He was tired. How many of today’s hours had he spent on his feet? How many steps had he taken? And what if he added his northward trek? Or both of them? The ache in his muscles and joints, the burning of his skin, had accumulated until all he was, was his body, its limits, its endurance, until the ultimate limit that stopped that body at the border on his first trip; what endurance had carried him here on the second he did not know, but he was grateful.

Néstor slid through the open o of Brighton to rest just a minute in the stillness he discovered there. He wished to turn off his ears and close his eyes for a while. But music poured through the o seconds later. Voices, too. The quake of many moving. Chants and flute song eddied the air. A few more blocks and he was face-to-face with a parade. The sea of marchers swallowed Néstor. And a sea it was: all of them were dressed as mermaids and tritons. They swung their fabric tails, which they’d sewn to T-shirts. Plastic seashells around the mermaids’ necks clacked as they danced. Sequined bikini tops. Loose wigs. Tiaras dotted with fake jewels. Néstor wished Sarita were there, entranced beside him and turning around as he did now, to be part of the parade for a moment, to walk alongside these creature-like humans, whose song was made up only of notes and sounds, not a single English word, and Néstor opened his mouth for the first time that afternoon and sang.

The gray sky cracked into a storm, which boomed its own enveloping noise. Rain struck the crowd. The mermaids and tritons threw their hands up, tilted back their heads, and pretended to drink the rain, which was thickening now and turning the street from dark gray into the impenetrable black of Sarita’s hair, which she had streaked yellow. Blond. Stiff mascara, red-gloss lips, a thumb through the belt loop of her jeans this morning, tiny heels clopping out the door, away from him.

Néstor began to jog. Run. Wherever their house, wherever his wife and daughter sat waiting, he meant to get there as fast as he could. Before his daughter grew to shoulder-height, before her height matched his. Before Sara stood seven feet tall and lost every drop of her Spanish.

Awnings of shops wavered through the rain. One arranged its letters into a decipherable sequence: Fronteras. But this word did not belong. Here there was no border, no barrier at all, just a chiming door easy to open. He backed away to double-check. The word was no mirage: Fronteras Grocery.

“Buenas tardes,” Néstor said. He tried quickly to orient himself, glancing around at the brightly packaged sweets and claustrophobic clutter of cans, jugs, bottles, and boxes.

“Buenas. ¿Qué lluvia, eh?”

“Sí.” Néstor had no time for small talk. “Oiga, ando buscando a mi familia. Acabo de llegar ayer.”

“¿Perdido entonces?” The man looked genuinely concerned. He had an overly expressive face with raised, exaggerated eyebrows and a frowning mustache.

“Completamente. Me puede decir cómo llego a Sunset Park?”

“Línea N… el metro está cerquita… al fin de esta cuadra… en Stillwell Avenue…casi ha llegado ya…” His directions were unhurried. They sounded even sluggish to Néstor, who worried the man could go on for a long time yet.

“La N,” Néstor interrupted.

“Correcto.”

He found the station. He fished in his wallet for money, then looked around for who to give it to. A set of machines before him. He was relieved to see on the screen a button for Español. But still, he was slow, much too slow, as was the machine that churned out his flimsy ticket. He watched a man go through the turnstile before him, and tried to copy his exact swipe, push, and march. It took three attempts, but Néstor made it through.

He thought he heard a train, but no, the rumble was just in his head—an echo of the roller coaster, or the parade’s insistent drumbeat, or the chugging haunt of la Bestia. Time muddied. Pain in his knees and ankles. Néstor had gotten older, too. The low ceiling dripped. The walls breathed damply on him. It would be dark by the time he got home. Would he be able to make out the beige brick and black door? To know in which house his wife and daughter waited? At last a train screeched in, gusting dank air into Néstor’s face.

He counted two stops, three, counted each vast second between them. The subway car carried only him and the huddle of a family. Their boy was yelping about something, rolling his hands up and down. Mimicking the roller coaster, or waves that knocked him down at the beach. Their girl—six, seven, eight years old?—could barely keep hold of a giant stuffed animal, some creature Néstor didn’t recognize.

The family poured out of the train’s narrow exit. The mother swung the boy over the gap. The father pulled the girl, who clutched the paw of her creature. They took with them, too, all of their commotion, leaving Néstor alone in thankful quiet.

But he was not alone. A young woman was there with him, slumped over in sleep. How had he not seen her before? How could she have slept through the children’s noise? She was drenched from the rain and shivering in her sleep on this air-conditioned train, pobrecita. Néstor followed the contours of her rolled up tank-top, her bare stomach and waist, her large pillow-tail, her sandaled human feet. On the seat next to her lay a necklace of shells and a plastic gold crown.

Néstor sat close enough to see a stamp of drool below the woman’s still mouth, and her eyelids twitching as Sarita’s did the night before she went with her mother to the States. He willed the train forward, faster. The lurches were so slow and halting, they may as well have been moving Néstor backward. He felt sure, suddenly, that he’d gotten the directions wrong—even his own language he’d lost here. And the map on the wall was nothing more than a frenzy of colored lines, numbers, and letters that spelled nothing.

The sight of the sleeping woman calmed him. Her breathing was even. Her hands lay in her lap, laced together like Sarita’s hands folded on a plastic table, then wooden desk, in the school photos Esperanza sent year after year. Néstor could gather the photos into a neat stack and flip through to watch—in an instant—Sarita grow up.

The twitch in the woman’s eyes traveled down to her lips, chin, shoulders, through her arms, and reached her still hands, which hopped off her lap and went swimming through the air in front of her. Her fingers wiggled. She waved one hand beside her face. She must be having a nightmare. Pleading or beckoning someone. He should wake her. He searched his memory but could not, in that moment, remember a single English word to speak to her. Maybe he should have stayed at Fronteras a while longer. He should have pulled up a chair and kept talking while he had an ear to listen.

“Sarita,” he called now, feeling foolish as soon as the name left his lips. The name which, after all, did not belong to the woman did not reach her through her dream.

Sara,” he tried again, louder. His raised voice sounded clumsy, foreign, unfit. And still, the woman did not hear him, did not wake, just kept up the wild dance of her hands.

Then—because, if you choose your wishes well, Néstor believed, there will come a then, sooner or later or much later to answer you—a sharp gleam of ceiling light caught something small behind the woman’s ear. A plastic plug with two tiny buttons and a thin white wire. Néstor tilted his head sideways, nearly upside down, to see if there was another in her other ear. Yes. No wonder.

Her arms kept moving like flying or like swimming. But what was she signing in her sleep? The woman slowly lifted a hand to her chest and left it there. And Néstor felt his own hand rise. He watched his palm, flat like the woman’s, find its place over his heart.

She woke, she saw him, and she left her hand on her chest—his mirror, or he hers—for the narrowest of moments before she dropped it back into her lap, onto her tail.

A droplet of water landed on Néstor’s forehead. It slid down the bridge of his nose and landed between his lips. Then another. A tiny leak above him. He stayed in his seat, no longer watching his companion but still not ready to part with her. But she, her eye on him, grabbed for her crown, and she lifted it and placed it on her head; put on her necklace of shells; her tail she pushed to the side in order to stand and walk, glide, all the way across the car and stare at her face in the reflective black window of the subway door.

Soon, a tiny stream was falling on Néstor from above. And he saw, on the floor below, the slowly lengthening radius of a miniscule puddle. He spotted a trickle of water seeping through the crack at the bottom of the subway door closest to him, spreading its way, centimeter by centimeter, toward his feet. The woman kept her back to him and her arms at her side. Hadn’t she noticed? The floor was growing a thin coat of water. Its surface wavered and distorted Néstor’s reflection into a face both strange and recognizable. His own twisted visage struck him as a sign, or even proof, that he did not belong here.

The water crept higher. He could make out, across the car, the woman’s sandals submerged. His pant cuffs clung wetly to his ankles, higher, his calves, his knees. After just one day, this place had refused him. I’ll be pushed out, he thought, and returned yet again in a sliver of the time it took to get here. Néstor plunged into the memory of the American plane flying him back over the river, desert, and mountains he’d traversed on his first journey up. The plane’s wheels had struck the tarmac with such force, Néstor thought the whole monstrous machine might break apart with him still inside it. He arrived before sunset back in Nueva Concepción. At his mother’s doorstep, his feet felt so heavy, so firmly planted on the ground, that he could not uproot them. He had slowly rotated his head left, then right, like a camera capturing his surroundings: the full trees, the playground’s still swings, the high-up cross atop the church in the distance. They formed a picture as sharp and actual as his imagining of New York was blurred and bizarre. When he finally managed to pass through his mother’s doorway and walk across the house to her bedroom, he saw that in the short time he’d been away, his mother had nearly gone on to the next world.

Néstor sloshed his way to the nearest subway door and tried to pry it open. He slammed his elbow against a window in vain. When the water rose to his waist, he slapped his palms against the surface, as if he could push it back down. He clutched the bar above him with one hand, then the other, and needed only to shut his eyes to feel himself clutching instead the rungs of the ladder that climbs to the Bestia’s roof and to feel, at once, both trains’ forward rush toward the same destination.

Should he call out to the deaf woman again? By what name? His breath quickened. He had no words in any language for what was happening. The gap between the ceiling and Néstor’s upturned face narrowed quickly now. He puckered his mouth to sip at the little air left and shouted out sounds that the woman couldn’t hear, that his own underwater ears could not hear.

She was under. He went under. He squinted through the water and saw her body—just a calm blur in the distance. “Caminante, no hay camino, sino estelas en la mar.” Traveler, there is no path, only the wake in the sea. Néstor pointed his arms toward the woman and kicked his tired feet against the water until he was almost close enough to touch her. He had run out of breath, but there was no surface to swim to now. All he could do was watch. The woman pressed her legs tight together. Néstor pressed his together, too. She pointed her toes. He pointed his. She crossed one foot over the other, until the two feet looked like one, and Néstor did the same. Her feet were slowly fusing, her pillow-tail turning into a tough casing, her new skin opening. Where her ears and hearing aids had been, the mermaid now had two tiny gills, pushing the water out, letting it in.

 

On Sara’s birthday, Néstor takes the train with her, back to Coney Island. Back to the roller coaster, arcade, beach. He knows the way.

The water moves only slightly—the gentlest of swells, a wave in no hurry. Sara tells him what she’s thinking when he asks. She wants to go to college. Somewhere close to home, she stresses. He can tell that she thinks this will please him. Yes, he is pleased. The pleasure of this entire day strikes Néstor as pleasantly simple and clear.

He does not expect Sara to scamper ahead of him on the sand, crossing over and back over the shoreline. He no longer imagines her smaller, smaller, un-growing. But when he finds a pink, spiraled shell, he picks it up and holds it to his daughter’s ear.

“Escucha.”

“Yeah. I can hear it,” she pretends, and pockets the shell she will keep for a time.

Néstor bends to feel whether the water has held onto summer’s warmth.

“Está frío,” Sara warns him. “Too cold to go in.” Fall has begun. The colors of the leaves are outlandish.

 

 

Kate Berson‘s fiction has been published in The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sonora Review, Denver Quarterly, and other journals. In collaboration with Velma García-Gorena, she is currently translating Gabriela Mistral’s Poema de Chile, poems from which appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review and Copper Nickel.

 

[Purchase Issue 15 here.]

Sunna JuhnHydroambulante

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