Panic in a Suitcase

atthebeach.jpg
Jackie Gendel, At The Beach, 2008, oil on canvas over panel, 26" × 22".

It wasn’t another mirage to which Esther enthusiastically waved but Pasha and Frida in the flesh. The family was barricaded on one side by water and on the other by cherry pits like tiny bullets that had perforated a flock of seagulls. They’re organic, said Levik, implying that they weren’t litter, though he would never say that as the family had a complicated relationship to litter. But the trouble with cherry pits was their clotted bloodiness and that they carried the ugly secret of mouths.

What took so long? You had to wait until the sun was strongest! Put on a hat. Take a dip. Come here. Don’t get sand on that. Want a sandwich, a drink, oh I know, an apricot? The pinprick sun reigned triumphantly, but the corners of the sky were thick, curdled, darkening — a threat that preoccupied Frida. She sat between Flora’s slack legs, staring up. Flora was sprawled across the blanket, her palms shielding her nipples.

Soon there’ll be no more sun, said Frida.

It’s out now, isn’t it?

But the black clouds —

Go swim with Grandpa.

Frida ran until the water lopped off her knees. Grandpa, she yelled. Twenty men turned around, but Robert kept floating half the ocean away, facing the darkening sky and being gently tossed by crests.

Flies attacked Flora’s legs. She decided to ignore them. Not a minute later, bewildered by how painfully they bit, she began to swat. A plastic bag was blown into her hair, sand into her eyelashes. A neighboring family’s feral kids were shrieking, Esther chewed a never-ending apple. Helicopters, fading sirens, lifeguard whistles. Flora wiped the perspiration from her hairline, pulled up her straps, raised her head into the breeze. All around, tan muscular specimens were running, digging, stretching, throwing balls, and then there was Pasha, folded crookedly into a low chair, his face contorted against the sunshine. No, her brother didn’t look good — though to be fair, they’d expected worse. Since they were no longer around, who fed Pasha, who ironed his pants? Who reminded him to shower, to tuck in that shirt? Certainly not his wife. His visit, they had decided, would be a chance for rehabilitation. They would feed and pamper him, cram in a year’s worth of nutrition, hygiene, care. But then he emerged (last, of course) from the baggage claim — if anything his belly looked fostered, cheeks buoyant. His clothes were wrinkled, but twenty hours in transit might do that. Esther reassessed the situation with lightning speed. Look at you, she cried, a haircut first thing tomorrow!

Flora peeled her brother off the canvas chair and they began to tread at his excruciating pace. It was Pasha’s only mode of moving and to walk alongside him you had to adjust yours. Pasha’s pace wasn’t a deliberate saunter — he had bad lungs and motor difficulties (such was the official statement, believe it if you will), an unmanageable thought chorus, and no need to be anywhere, at least not in a timely manner. Flora herself had once been queen of the promenade, most qualified in a city of inveterate lingerers and loiterers to demonstrate how to stretch a quarter-mile for hours, how to ping-pong gracefully between the Opera House and the Steps in four-inch heels. She still had trouble disassociating punctuality from the height of desperation.

With her silence Flora was giving Pasha the opportunity to say what he intended to say, which was that he’d given the matter due consideration and the answer was yes. Then the real work could begin — compiling a list of people to call, speculating about elements bound to remain uncertain for a while, and the paperwork, my God, the paperwork. Flora had actually been expecting the announcement last night, imagining that it might accompany the first toast. A nice thought. But last night Pasha stepped through the door at 10 PM (5 AM in Odessa) and protested, no food, not tonight, then after being forced into the kitchen began to fade at the table while Esther microwaved maniacally, suffusing the air with Chinese smells and plastic. Pasha hated to fly but more than that he hated interruptions. Packing, relocating, resisting the pull of his daily rituals, all this amounted to a profound psychological stress. So yesterday they’d kept to superficial topics. Today the big issues would be resolved.

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