“Water Baby,” Fiction

by Susan Israelson

    “If we miss the boat, goddammit, it’s your fault,” warned Dad as he floored the pedal of his prized ’55 Buick convertible to 70 in the slow zone known as a speed trap. It was the final stretch of the race to make the 5:10 Ocean Beach ferry, the schedule like Moses’s Law; we were going to make it. Period. No matter what. If the police stopped us Dad was ticket-proof, with a magistrate’s shield nesting cozily under his driver’s license. Nervous, jerky — worse, dangerous inveterate lane-shifter without signals, light-jumper, tailgater, he was the worst driver in the world.  I held my breath, shut my eyes, crossed my fingers. Guilty.

    As we blew through Bay Shore, Maple Avenue’s mansions blurred by on the way to the Great South Bay. We took the last turn on two wheels as the valiant Century, a beauty — black and chrome, red leather interiors, four portholes, white walls — galloped full throttle to the finish line.  We skidded to an abrupt halt at the Ocean Beach ferry, a dock full of frenzy. Laden-down parents trying to keep track of their children, pets, and belongings converged in a last ditch attempt to board. We unloaded bags and cartons, counted then stowed them at a frantic pace, got back in the car, found a parking space. A miracle. I thanked Buddha, Mohammed, Zeus, Christ, Allah, and Jehovah; I had just finished a course in comparative religion at Smith. As the engines began to rev we sprinted the 200 feet back, and made it — the usual, an anxious journey.

    Mea culpa. Overpacking had done it. And indecision. I’d taxied home to 91st Street and Park from Dad’s office, Madison at 43rd, with plenty of time for a round trip. I’d throw a few things into a suitcase, get the car from the garage, then pick Dad up back in midtown. All I really needed for the weekend was a bathing suit for day and an “in case” outfit for night; so far, no big plans. The trouble started when I couldn’t make up my mind which “in case” things to take. I wanted to wear white to show off my tan, legal after Decoration Day weekend, according to Mother, the fashion maven. Could I get into the white linen Bermudas? Would they make me look too fat? I’d gained a few pounds during finals a few weeks ago, needed to go on yet another diet. Why wasn’t I naturally thin? The white sleeveless blouse had a spot. I’d bring it anyway, Mother, “the white glove,” could get anything out with some magical potion that included a Q-tip and ammonia — or was it Clorox. If she ever tired of being a housewife she could go into the laundry business for not even the yellow of age on white dared elude her potent formulations.

    Was a Shetland cardigan warm enough for nights that always got cold?  Beige or blue? Black letter sweater or Dartmouth green? I broke out in the cold sweat accompanying decision-making, desperate — I’d take everything. Everything wouldn’t fit into one bag; I now needed two. I began to beat myself up, had enough clothes for two summers, let alone two days, was hopelessly late. There’d be hell to pay. I’d done it again. Dad would be mad, I mean angry — sorry, Mother, dogs are mad, people, angry. Indecision plus lateness equals anxiety, the constant equation of my 20 years.

    He was furious. Nervousness ran in the family — his side. Waiting made it worse. An hour’s worth of silence filled the car with devastating noise. Would or wouldn’t we make it; a noose hanging over my head. Dad was driving out to the Island to escape the pressures of his overworked week. Oh God, I’d created more.

    I’d just finished my own harrowing first week as receptionist-switchboard operator-typist at Dad’s labor law firm. He represented teachers, elevator operators, window washers, buttonholers, gravediggers, the Rockettes, a mediator and arbitrator in New York, and a judge in Ocean Beach. I’d been bored-depressed-humiliated. How could someone so smart be stuck with a job for which a moron was overqualified? Simple. No one else would hire me while I planned a month off to Paris in July as a summer exchange student — a last ditch attempt to parlez Francais. I needed to make spending money, not wanting to get stuck in the world’s greatest shopping mecca without enough argent. The Big Fact was that Dad was tight, Mother a sport but her fivers weren’t going to get me through this time.

    I’d started French as a freshman. I was lazy and bored by endless repetition; my good ear and accent did not make up for bad grammar. Who could spell or write it? Imposible, much harder than Spanish, which I read, wrote, and spoke like Dad, gracias to his Argentine mother, Georgiana. She traveled from Buenos Aires to Boston at 15, 16, 17, or 18 — she was notorious for lying about her age — for an arranged marriage to grandfather Isaac from Riga. They settled in Brooklyn, had five children, four girls then finally a boy.

    Grandpa, a pharmacist, died when Dad was eight and was well remembered, a good guy. Georgiana on the other hand had a bad rep, or rap. Fortyish give or take when widowed, restless, a firebrand, man-eater, still a beauty — the chase was on. She passed off her older daughters as younger sisters, and preyed on my poor aunts’ boyfriends and husbands, an abortionist in tow. No love lost there. Surrounded and outnumbered by women, Dad never said a word. He hid his feelings. Mother detested Georgiana, to put it mildly. “She dyed her hair” — the crime. 30 years later I’d write the headline, “I’ll never go gray,” as a copywriter for Clairol. Glad you never did, Grandma.

    Georgiana passed when I was two. The date of her demise was engraved on her tombstone, but no date of birth. Her vanity, selfishness, hot temperament, and cold heart would set the stage for my life; I was a direct descendant of damage. 

    I learned clock watching my first day on the job and during the next four waged war against the red and yellow spaghetti switchboard. Witchboard. Dad’s trusted secretary Gloria, ever ready for dictation with spiral steno pad in hand, sharpened yellow Eberhard Faber #1 over her ear, tried to teach me. I couldn’t get the hang of it, mystified, my mechanical gene M.I.A. When a call came in you had to take a piece of yellow or red spaghetti out of one hole, plug it into another, pull a switch, remember where it came from, and at the same time keep track of the other wires, holes, and lights. Which was which? Charlie Chaplin stuck in the middle of machinery in “Modern Times” came to mind. I sabotaged 50 percent of all incoming and outgoing calls, cut everyone off, created surprise conference calls.

    My typing was worse, the old two finger hunt and peck system a disaster. Then, too, the subject matter was stultifying, legalese in briefs that were too long: the party of the first part heretofore, thereafter and in the hereafter shall be known as the lingo jingo party, etc. etc. etc. I did nothing right or on time. A boss’s daughter, I wouldn’t get fired. Nepotism saves. Just one week of skyscraper suffocation trapped in a sweltering city learning skills I resented turned me into a blasphemous idiot, oh God, a telephone operator *@i/)**&?T$*@rX! Mierda. Merde. Shit.  Smithie Strikes Out.

    Dad was caught up in conversation with Jack, his fishing crony, laughing, a different person from the one in the car, relaxed at last.  Charming. Handsome. A Cary Grant look-alike. Dad, I’m sorry, you don’t deserve it, I thought, the guilt building.

    I worked my way to the open bow of the crowded, covered boat to get some fresh air, ran a gamut of “Hello,” “How’s college?” and “Look how thin you are.” True. I’d been tubby, but two months in Mexico City at 17, after graduation, living with a Spanish family, their maids, and amoebas, and doing the Atzec two-step had done it. I could’ve drawn a map of every bathroom in the city by the time I was through dropping 20 pounds, which I’d kept off more or less. Everyone had known me since I was a little girl, our family old timers on the island.

    My first Fire Island memory was of going to get ice with Dad down at the dock. I watched a half-naked man with massive muscles wallop an ice mountain, saw off a huge cube, pick it up with pincers, and plant it on our wagon, fascinated by his physique. This primordial sexual glimmer was ineluctably imprinted into my two-and-a-half-year-old psyche. The toned man-with-the-gong slowly striking the brass cymbal twice, featured trademark of J. Arthur Rank films, later furthered my musclemania.  When I landed a job doing public relations for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film “Pumping Iron,” I was agog, and looked but never touched — he was my client.

    After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, fearful that Fire Island was too dangerous or vulnerable we went to Loch Arbour, a New Jersey beach near the amusement park in Deal. The summer of  ’45 when we’d won the war and it was safe, we returned.

    The many unfamiliar faces on the ferry had to be “groupers,” — not the fish, a new word. “Groupers, n., a large group of unrelated people that get together to rent shares for the summer.” They were mostly “Garmentos: n., B and T’s, (Bridge and Tunnel) workers in the garment center, at 39th and Broadway.” They were unwelcome in Ocean Beach, a family community. Watch out, there goes the neighborhood.

    I put my head into the wind to smell the sea air and purge myself of the worst week of my life. Hyperbole helps. We puttered in the harbor along the maze-like canals that led to the Great South Bay, past the Point O’ Woods ferry, the Saltaire ferry, a sign proclaiming “Fresh Killies” — tiny fish used for chumming — and Gil Clarke’s, the best seafood restaurant in Bay Shore. If only I hadn’t been late we would’ve had time to stop for a half-dozen clams on the half shell. I pictured Gil, an enormous man, big fingers delicately shucking small Cherrystones with a surgeon’s slice, all the while exchanging fish stories. Sorry I missed your clams, Gil. I could’ve killed for an oversized piece of chocolate cream pie. Anxiety made me hungry.

    We zigzagged through snippets of uninhabited islands all the way to the western tip before doubling back, impatient at our progress — not fast enough, a gigantic waste of time. If the Great South Bay had been deeper than a foot outside the channel, we could have gone straight across to Ocean Beach and saved twenty minutes.

    I spotted a big wave coming at us from the wake of the Point O’ Woods ferry we were racing — there was no love lost between the two communities; they had a locked iron chain fence, no Jews allowed. I turned to escape the wave, but no such luck. Soaked. I hoped that nobody had noticed. I looked up to check, right into a pair of staring, sparkling eyes. Sapphires, July ocean color, they belonged to the most handsome man I’d ever seen. Thick blonde hair, and a slightly shy attitude as if he were embarrassed for me, or was I projecting? The bottom dropped out of my stomach. I turned away, awestruck, unable to deal with direct eye contact, unsteady. When I looked back he was gone. Had I imagined him? A mirage? As we neared Ocean Beach I prayed he’d appear again. He didn’t. I looked around wildly to no avail as I moved back to join Dad. We docked.

    Susan Israelson, a former advertising agency copywriter and fashion coordinator, is the author of  “Lovesick, the Marilyn Syndrome,” and a poet who travels between the Hamptons, Paris, and San Miguel de Allende. “Water Baby” is an excerpt from an unpublished novel of the same name.


A lively and entertaining piece. Left me short of breath!