“Swallowed by the sea,” she sang, her voice a warm bath. She strummed a honey-colored ukulele on her lap. The words weren’t mine nor were they hers, and I didn’t know if she was singing about Japan or my father, but it didn’t matter. The sun was shining and then it stopped. The crystals on the chandeliers knocked shoulders with one another like close friends, and we all looked up at the ceiling, at the light, listening for cracks in the plaster, checking nervously for leaks, leaning against each other to remind ourselves we were alive.
I present to you the perfect execution of the cruelest kind of poetry. If you poke a stick through an orange and the place where the tip goes in is Japan, and – let’s say you’re a pretty straight shooter, you have an eye for detail, you can iron a shirt collar and not make it look like something Harpo Marx would wear – then the place where the stick pokes out would be Portugal.
Lisbon had a tremor some 300 years ago, but still wound up with a bridge painted rusty red, cable cars that clamber up and down their 7 hills, and green wine that makes those who drink it want to open their throats and sing about brotherhood, sisterhood, and nights full of stars.
I say this because there have always been skeletons. Apparitions have always blossomed at the corners of our eyes just when we need to believe they exist. You can stand on a street corner at any address, in any city, and not be far from home. There will be waves, one after another, but still we crave a stroll on the boardwalk. We begin in the water but somehow feel we deserve to end up in the clouds.
You don’t have to believe me when I say I know how it feels not to know how to swim. I have tumbled in the undertow and been embraced by fluorescent kelp, whose soft eyes sparkled and watched over me. Long arms beckoned me under, twirling me in a gritty vortex of sand and foam. When the thing — and it was more than a thing, it had a body and a mind and a mother’s embrace – when it spit me back onto the shore, I cannot say I was unchanged. I do not know whether I had burst or caved in. But I looked behind me and the horizon was clear..