I was in the grocery story other night waiting to be checked out, and in the line next to me were these two girls. They were nineteen, maybe twenty years old. And as they stood there leaning on their cart, they let their heels slide out of the backs of their clogs and picked at their chipping nail polish. One flipped through a gossip magazine while the other looked on. When they straightened up, you could see the indentation of their belly buttons through their T-shirts. They were just girls, Mare. And I wondered if you ever got to be a girl like that.
Then a song came on. It’s big right now; you would know it. And as soon as they heard it, these two girls look at each other, and without a word, they let their heads drop back and they open their mouths and you should have heard the voices that came out. You should have heard how beautifully these girls sang. Now everyone was looking at them, not just me. And for a second, I could have sworn you were there. That you had come up quietly behind me. Listen to them, Bunny, you’d say. I’d turn and you’d be smiling, your lips apple red, the hood of your sweatshirt pulled up like a cloak.
It happens like that. I’ll be in the grocery store or waiting for the train or out on a run. And suddenly you come into my mind and it’s like I’m underwater. Like the rest of the world is above me and I’m watching it through the ripples and shimmers of the surface. And I’ll remember how on those days when the ocean was calm, you’d take me into the water and we’d sink down to the bottom and stay there for as long as we could. My need for breath always sent me bursting to the surface, but it seemed like you could stay down there forever, your black hair swirling around like smoke.
I don’t tell many people about you, Mare. Or at least I don’t tell them much. But I framed some of your drawings and put them up around the house. And sometimes Daniel and I will have friends over, and I’ll see someone staring at one. Who did this? they’ll ask, not looking away, their nose near the glass.
My sister, Mary, I’ll say.
It had been a day and a half since the baby was born, and still she did not have a name. Diane stared down at her, a dim yellow light illuminating the hospital room. A tiny fist escaped the swaddling blankets, and Diane gently spread it open with her thumb as if she were unfurling the frond of a fern. Looking at the wrinkled palm, at the translucent crescents of fingernails, she brought the little hand to her face and inhaled the child in, inhaled her newness, her purity. She was worth it, of course; she was worth everything that had been and would be sacrificed. “Sweet girl,” Diane whispered.
The maternity ward was without sound that night, and Diane felt as though they were sheltered in the belly of a boat as it drifted across a still black sea. Mary stood at the hospital room’s single window, her forehead resting against the cool glass, her eyebrows tensed as she peered into the night. Even at fourteen, Mary’s beauty had a ferocity to it, an elegant savagery. Diane let her head loll against the blue vinyl chair as she stared at her daughter’s back, at her reflection in the window.
“How ya doin’, Mary, honey?” she asked.
But Mary was silent.
Diane looked back down at the baby, feeling the warmth of her in her arms. She hadn’t wanted her, had mourned her coming birth. When she learned with certainty that there was, in fact, a baby, she cried for two days, pacing around the motel and muttering about how stupid she was. How she, of all people, should have known better. How this was going to ruin their lives. But that was all incomprehensible now. Their family was now three: she, Mary, and the baby.
She and Mary had left Sandy Bank, New Jersey, and their home at the Water’s Edge Motel in September. It was usually only the summer people who left then. Even though the motel closed soon after Labor Day, Mary and her mother always stayed through those months of churning gray seas and empty streets with the rest of the locals. Mary hadn’t wanted to go. There was a boy, of course. Someone Mary would have to leave, though she wouldn’t say who. And so she subjected Diane to terrifying acts of rebellion intermixed with frigid weeks of silence before their departure, but Diane insisted that this baby had to be born elsewhere. That she had to be born in a place without winters. So Diane pulled Mary out of school and they drove south, migrating slowly through small towns where people spoke with languid words until they reached their destination.
Bardavista, Florida, was a small city on the Gulf of Mexico whose business was shrimp and the United States Navy. And during that winter, Diane and Mary stayed on the barrier island of Bardavista Beach, which then had only a smattering of motels and beach cottages. Together they walked in silence over sugar-white sand from their cottage up to Ft. Rillieux. The fort was an enormous structure occupying one end of the narrow semibarren island. When they first visited, Diane found Mary reading a placard about Geronimo, who had been held there for a year of his life.
Diane read over her daughter’s shoulder. “Geronimo,” she said. “Isn’t that something?”
Mary was quiet for a moment. “One of his wives died here.”
“She’s buried in the big cemetery. Over the bridge.”
Diane and Mary kept to themselves in Bardavista and people let them. At thirty-four, Diane was still young. She liked to think that people assumed she and Mary were sisters. Maybe even two young naval wives walking together on the sand while their husbands donned uniforms and defended the nation.
Diane worried about Mary during those months. Worried that she was supplanting the needs of one child for another. Worried that something essential was being drained from her wild, lovely daughter. Mary used to sit alone on that beach that winter, a sheet of paper resting atop the phone book in her lap. She’d draw creatures rising up out of the sea, pelagic dragons, their massive bellies turned skyward as they breached the white crests of waves. Mary had always been an exceptional artist.
Diane had been twenty when Mary was born. It was she and her father at the Water’s Edge then. Vietnam was about to become the event horizon for a generation of young men, and so, perhaps sensing the inevitability of that conflict, boys began crisscrossing the country like creatures at once pursued and in pursuit. They would show up every so often at the Water’s Edge with an undirected hunger in their eyes, searching for something for which to long. And one day a boy with thick dark hair and a tall broad body parked his motorcycle in the lot of the motel and came in, addressing Mr. Chase as “sir” and asking for a room.
Mr. Chase looked down through his glasses as he took the boy’s name and where he was from.
“Vincent Drake,” he said. “From Bardavista, Florida.”
Mr. Chase gave a murmur of recognition. “I hear it’s beautiful down there.”
And as Mr. Chase filled out the paperwork in his slow, careful script, Vincent Drake looked out the window behind t...