My mother always told the story like, “You just walked off and didn’t tell anyone.” My father said, “It was your first incident of tail-chasing, kid.”
In Israel, on our family vacation right after my bar mitzvah, I remembered that Abigail had a whole-body heat rash. We were at the pool in the supposedly mixed neighbourhood and my mother was taking Abigail to the change rooms to put on some cream. My father was trying to fall asleep on his back on concrete. Girls here wore bathing suits that looked like pyjamas.
My father didn’t want us to go to a public pool in Jaffa. He said we had a perfectly good one at the hotel.
My mother said, even way back then: “Israel is like the Jim Crow American South.”
My father said, “My God, Ruth, you exaggerate.”
“It is a fact,” my mother said. “People have starting calling it apartheid.”
“And you don’t think that is hyperbole? Jesus Christ in Jerusalem,” my father said.
This was the one mixed pool in Israel, according to my mother, where both Jewish and Arab families went to swim. “Better than the Wailing Wall,” my mother said. She made us take public transit. “Mein Gott, let’s just get in a cab,” my dad said.
“It’s one bus. I think the kids can handle one bus.”
But Abigail whined the whole way there because she was too hot. Her forehead looked swollen. She had a towel around her neck.
"You should take that thing off your face,’ I hissed down at her, holding the hand strap over my head.
I had the plush hotel towel in my bag. I’d started growing hair under my arms. I smelled everyone around me. My family stood out in Israel. Tourist Jews. The bus jerked way too fast through narrow streets. My father mouthed all the Hebrew words in the bus advertisements. My mother kept hunching over and straining to check the street signs out the window. I thought Abigail’s forehead looked like there was water in it.
My mother suddenly rang the bell, stressed. “This is it,” she said, corralling us. “Come on, guys, this is us.”
There were no signs for the pool. My mother asked a few people, and Abigail really started to whine. My father kept asking if my mother should call the pool.
“You can’t call a pool,” my mother said.
Then my father found this old man on the street who spoke Yiddish and he directed us to the araber shvimmer.
I sat crossed-legged on the edge of the cracked concrete deck by myself. Some girls swam in the deep end with their suits on like fins. When they climbed up the ladder, voluminous cloth sucked to their butts. The sun hit their dark fabric wrinkles. Glittering patches of black oil, rivulets. The Arab boys who were there wore normal swim shorts but the girls had to be all covered and suctioned. On one side of the pool there were a few Jewish girls suntanning in their bikinis and rubbing lotion on each other’s thighs. Behind them was a line of old men on concrete benches with hairy chests and lit cigarettes.
I kept watching this one girl in the pool with really thick eyebrows and big breasts. She was covered in navy-blue volumes of spandex. Her head scarf slicked down the sides of her face. She saw me cross-legged with my surfer shorts. She smiled at me. I was trying not to look. I’d never seen a girl look like that in the water. I had to cover myself. Burning skin. She twirled in wide circles, fabric parting the pool. I knew she knew I was watching her as she danced. Oblivious, smiling, she bumped into one of the bikini-wearing girls in the pool. That girl yelled. It was crowded. I saw her pull on the dancing girl’s spandex head scarf. My father lay flat, his mouth open with snores. My mother and Abigail had not returned from the change rooms. Then all of sudden, it was really sudden, the dancing girl smacked the bikini girl’s face.
Then the dancing girl got swiftly pulled out of the pool by her armpits by some man in her family, I guessed. The Jewish girl in the bikini started crying. The dancing girl’s mother was apoplectic. Little kids ran around them in water wings. People climbed out of the pool. The bikini girl wailed. The dancing girl put on her rubber bath shoes. Lifeguards or some kind of security guards appeared.
I stood up with both of my shoulders on fire. The dancing girl was being taken away. One of the security guards jumped into the pool. He had a gun. My father did not wake up. The kids in their water wings cried. The bikini girl was now being helped out of the pool. I looked backwards. The girl in the spandex bathing suit had disappeared.
I half-ran to the hall near the change rooms. I’d forgotten my sandals on deck. My shorts dripped. I pursued. The hallway was purplish and smelled of bare feet.
I spied the dancing girl and a woman going through rotary gates. The girl was hunched over. Her head scarf was off. She was being dragged by her bathing suit by the other woman. I got scared. I kept going, running through the windy tunnel to the pool entrance, too. I ducked underneath the turnstile. I followed them into the scorched parking lot.
The girl had a swinging black braid and she was fighting the woman who was head-to-toe covered. Sun spiked my head from the open-faced sky. I thought of my sister. The girl being yanked. I thought, I cannot get back into this pool without cash. Then the woman pushed the girl up against the parking lot fence. I was scared. I crouched at the side of a car. The woman started slapping the side of the dancing girl’s head. I burned my back on a gleaming door handle. The woman slapped the girl’s head on repeat. I was paralyzed. That girl did not do anything wrong! Her elbows were up. She didn’t make any sounds. A siren released from a speaker above me. The girl crumpled down at the fence. “Stop!” I heard myself say. My name came from the sky. “Stop hitting her! Please!” My name on repeat. Her braid swinging around. I heard the voice of my mother, running in her bathing suit. A lifeguard was with her, a security guard.
“When I got back you weren’t there!” my mother screamed at me, punching the hood of the car I’d been hiding behind. “Your father was sleeping! We are not in Toronto! You need to tell me where you are!”
Cherry skin rippled out of her bathing-suit armpits.
I turned back around to the parking lot fence.
“My God, oh my God, look what happened to your feet.”
That hurt Arab girl and her mother were gone.
“Jesus Christ. This, your father has to see.”
Crooked blood lines between two of my toes. That girl had been slapped by her mother so hard. I hobbled back to the pool. My mother had spider-veined thighs. On deck, my father played war with my sister. Abigail’s forehead glowed with zinc. My father wore mirrored sunglasses. He shook his head at me.
I noticed the bikinied girl and her friends sitting in a circle. The oiled-up, old, hairy bears had changed sides.
I hated my mother. I hated my father. I wiped the blood from my foot with a plush hotel towel. My mother sulked on the cracked concrete deck.
I thought, my mother did not know where I was because my mother did not know who I was.
In the pool’s glare, in Israel, I felt like I’d just discovered my purpose in life.
My purpose was to help rescue kids from abuse. I thought of those kids on the monkey bars flying, the sad women dumped in the lot behind fences. My mother had said they were here from domestic abuse.
My thinking had progressed. Now it split off from my mom’s.
I thought in a logically articulated sentence: I pledge to help kids who are being abused.
Look, Mom, now it’s obvious to me that Barbra led me into what you call an abusive dynamic that by thirteen, in Israel, I’d already intuited existed.
I was not the victim; I was not the abuser.
I was fulfilling my fate of liberation, same as she.
Adapted with permission from Queen Solomon (Coach House Books) copyright © 2018 by Tamara Faith Berger.