Creative Nonfiction by Sabena Stark
I was almost four years old. My big sister, Susie, was nine. Our mother walked us to the subway entrance. It was a workday for her but it was summer and Susie and I were out of school. She gave Susie a rolled-up bath towel and a bag with sandwiches wrapped in wax paper and a package of Hostess cupcakes. She put only two tokens in Susie’s hand, one for going there, one for coming home. I could slip under the turnstile.
At the Coney Island stop, the breeze tasted like salt and fish and little wafts of pee. As we reached the boardwalk, Susie held me by the wrist and pushed us through the crowd.
“The beach!” I yelled and broke free and ran into the sand, into the sea of umbrellas and people and towels and babies and beach balls and fallen hot dog buns and I was laughing.
And I ran and Susie chased me past men with cigarettes and hairy legs and boys digging sand and she screamed my name and I slipped between women who smelled like suntan lotion and girls pouring sea water out of pails. And Susie came after me and I scrambled around women in bathing suits with big breasts and sunglasses and families eating on chairs and swimmers returning, water dripping down their legs, and I was still running and laughing, “The beach! The beach!” and I couldn’t stop and radios were playing.
And when Susie caught up with me, she grabbed one of my thin arms and was mad and I cried. She walked us to a spot on the sand between teenagers and glass bottles, unrolled our towel, and we sat down.
And I was afraid of the monstrous, gray-blue ocean. But Susie lifted me and hugged me to her chest and walked us toward the cool waves. I screamed and hit her on the head as we got closer but she held on and walked in deeper and my legs tightened around her waist as the water rose.
And I shrieked, “No! No! I don’t want to!” and I tried to break free but she squeezed me tighter and stood in the water until the salty gray waves splashed up to my belly. And she ducked down without warning. And my head was drenched and for one gasping moment I thought we would die in that terrible place. And I hated the beach. And I could see through the dirty water and the salt tasted terrible and burned my eyes.
“See. It’s okay,” she said. And she dipped us down again and I was stunned and I sputtered and tried to twist away and I glared at the horrible lapping waves. But she stayed in the shallows and hugged me until I stopped crying. And she walked us back, both of us soaking wet, to the shore.
We returned to our towel and I sat in my own puddle of water, staring at the hideous gray-blue waves, my little feet caked with grains of sand. And we ate lunch and the sandwiches were hot and my cupcake fell and Susie broke off the dirty part and gave me the rest.
And later she took us to the bathroom where we showered across from two women in a room with no curtains and the cement floor was gritty and someone left a bathing suit on the floor in a pile of sand and everyone walked around it.
On the subway home, my bathing suit straps were hanging untied on my back. And by the end of the ride Susie’s eyes looked red and my face and neck and shoulders and the tops of my arms were burning. Susie pulled us through the crowd at the Delancey Street stop and we took the escalator up to the street.
All the windows were propped open and the table fan was spinning when we got back to our apartment. We could smell chicken and onions simmering on the stove. And my mother was taking a bath. We could hear her singing a wordless song through the open bathroom door.
And I shouted to my mother, “Susie took us swimming! Susie took us swimming at the beach!”
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Sabena Stark writes fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. A daughter of immigrants, she is inspired by people who experience the world as outsiders. Her work appears in The Carolina Quarterly, Georgetown Review, Bridges Journal and other journals and anthologies. Her memoir in progress was awarded the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for Literary Nonfiction. She lives and writes in Eugene, Oregon.