Holding Back the Waters

Maria Poulatha

Mike squeezes my bottom before he sneaks out the window at night. “You think we’ll drown tonight?” I ask.

“You think you’re crazy, too?” he whispers. Does one know, I wonder? I challenge him to a wrestling match and topple him into my favorite position, the one I call the Poseidon Adventure. “I’m crazy about you,” I lie and dig my teeth into the back of his neck.

When it floods around here, and it does every other full moon, the basements fill with seawater. Those settlers should’ve known better, lilies floating in their squelchy nether lands that drifted across the ocean in holy buckets and landed with a prayer and a thud on this strip of soil. They were promised sturdy earth to skip a clog across, not this joke of land that sucks you two feet under like an elevator with a slack belt.

We built canals. The settlers didn’t bother to. Most of them took their split doors and their butter churns and moved inland to rocky beds that were good for bad backs and fierce tulips that taste like money. The ones who stayed behind held fast to faith in rewards in heaven and a sense of piety that comes from fruitless struggle. We descend from this stock. The canals divert the deluge but are sabotaged by beaver that’ve been doing this for longer than us. We evict the herons and the horseshoe crab looks confused. She seduces a hubcap and settles an infertile colony of steel.

We think we’ve sealed off the tide for good, but the curbs are always cluttered with bloated goods. Look, there’s an old bureau with edges fanned like a book in the wind and a portrait of a woman with her right eye peeled down to her chin like the skin of a pear. I find a seahorse floating in the basement, his belly a six-minute egg that leaks baby seahorses. My Mom, she’s the crazy one, she adds plaster coral and pink lights to our Home Aquarium, then invites the neighbors over for cookies cut from seashells. “They taste like sand,” they mumble with their mouths full. “I know!” she beams.

We build bridges that we never cross but make points of shutter happiness for tourists. They no longer come for the surf, the surf stretches 20,000 miles in each direction. They come for the overflowing canals, the toy bridges, and the house shaped like an elephant, made from tin cans by some lunatic, our local hero. She has tanned an oxidized brown over the years so they railed her off. When I was eleven, I was perforated with tetanus shots after someone bet me a pair of waffles to climb through the window carved into her backside.

When our island moves another inch into the ocean, we import rare Japanese plants whose roots dive into the underworld to tether us in place. One drunk evening, our neighbor ties rusty anchors to his porch rails and throws them overboard but the rails snap like popsicle sticks and the anchors drown in the muck like biscuits in hot coffee. “Haven’t you always wanted a boathouse, Fred?” Mom hollers and Fred mutters something I cannot fathom.

Some days we find seagulls wading in the lawn, slippery clams flapping in their beaks. They drop shellfish on our rooftops in messy air raids to crack open the prize and my little brothers race for the booty but the birds sweep down shrieking like maniacs and seize their loot. The city rents helmets to the tourists and charges eight bucks for a bag of clams. The Kamikaze Gulls are a hit until they grow so fat and lazy there isn’t any wildlife to purge the shore. Rats multiply like splitting droplets of mercury.

Dad left long ago. He discovered that a saline waterbed floats and early one morning, he set sail with a box of animal crackers, a tin of worms, pajamas flapping in the wind—all sea spray, shanties and freedom. Mom hasn’t been the same since, although people who remember say she’s never been the same. Last winter she was gone two days and then appeared on the front porch, her bloody feet jammed into her great-great grandmother’s clogs. “All the bridges lead back to this island,” she cried. My dreams of flight involve a tank of water, a girdle of chains, a breathless battle with disaster and alas, a surreptitious key. But what do I know of the art of escape? I was baptized in perseverance.

“Don’t you ever cry?” Mike asks. We sit on the dock after our shift at Cone-y Island, sipping vodka hidden in milk cartons and his cargo shorts chafe my thigh. I slap his hand away from my shirt buttons. “Come on. Try to make me cry,” I say.

“Forget it,” he says, and this hurts more than anything. I turn away from him, lick my finger and pretend to wipe the brine circling my ankle. I think I feel tears coming but I only leak from some ghostly displaced fluid, my waterlogged inheritance.

Sometimes I sit on our dock with the boys, searching for a speck on the horizon. I leave them out in the sun but by evening they droop like overcooked broccoli. The younger one was spat on for staring at the man called Mumbles in the mini market. Mumbles just needs a drink. We’ve been a “dry town” from way back so you have to cross two bridges to get your own liquor from the Malt Mart, which is impossible to say eight times. Mumbles has been trying to flash me since I was twelve but he fumbles at his fly with shaky hands and then grumbles obscenities.

I go to Mike’s because I’m sorry although I’m not sure about what. He’s sitting in the TV room with Cheryl from Cone-yplaying video games and drinking his mom’s vino. She’s wearing a tube top and I can see a bruise on her left boob even though she’s trying to cover it with a mug of wine.

The next day, rain is falling and the wind is picking up. We’re on hurricane watch and Mom is standing on our dock, ocean spray whipping through her hair. “Come inside!” I plead.

“Penance for original sin!” she hollers. “And all the unoriginal sins that followed!” In the yard, the boys are waxing their surfboards. “They’ll be fine,” she says, and looks toward the horizon. “Here it comes. You can’t stop the water.” Then she steps into the flood the way someone steps off a bus.

I scramble for a rope but realize my dock is unhinged. People float by on their living room couches, cursing at their remote controls. Some are eating dinner on upturned dining tables and I can smell the roast beefs, glazed hams and soggy meatloaves as they float down the bay. The water flows rapidly and a man approaches, strapped to a raft. It’s my boyfriend and he calls out, “I’m sorry!”

“What?” I holler back, but he is already gone and the water has covered my planks. As I fight the current, I wonder if it is necessary for lovers and deities to be catastrophic and apologetic and how apologies are not like rainbow covenants but more like lifeboats cut out of cardboard.

I faint, or drown.

When I awake on a beach, thinking myself a bold and fortunate Viola on a foreign shore, I look around to see an elephant in the distance, the tacky bridges, a band of whooping surfers and a family of rats digging a hole in the sand. My mother sways over me like the ghost of a shipwrecked pirate, “I prayed we would land home safely. And here we are.”


Originally from New Jersey, Maria Poulatha lives in Athens, Greece with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared in Split Lip Magazine, SmokeLong Quarterly, Copper Nickel, Okay Donkey, trampset and other lovely journals.