My parents rent a small, furnished bungalow on Rockaway Beach, at the outer edges of Brooklyn, with Marion and Sidney Star, a couple who also live in our apartment building in the Bronx. Rock-a-way, I like that word and the play on meanings it provides. Rockaway.
The smell of the ocean is wonderful. The warm sand is wonderful. I chase sea birds along the shore and make believe I can fly. I am two years old and there is almost no place I cannot go and not much I cannot do. I like that. I spend a lot of time climbing up onto my bed and climbing down out of my bed. I bounce and jump. I like to bounce.
The cottage is nestled in toward the end of a long block of cottages, each cottage packed tightly in close to the next, all connected directly to the beach by a narrow sandy asphalt street. The Stars have an infant daughter, Louise. Sidney is a schoolteacher. He has the summer off, and works part time at a day camp. My father is a New York City fireman. He is not yet twenty-eight years old. He is on duty for twenty-four hours and then off three days in a row. He and Sidney walk with their children on the beach. They play competitive handball on the neighborhood courts. I watch them from a bench, sometimes seated with my mother.
In the cottage there is a small kitchen with a metal table and chairs, one bathroom, and two bedrooms separated by cardboard thin walls. No one lives in the cottage year around. At night we draw closed the window shades so that the shoreline is darkened and the coastline protected from the view of attacking enemy submarines or aircraft.
There is always talk of war, of friends and uncles serving in the war. There is great anger, uncertainty, and fear. My father's brother, Uncle Sol, is in the army. He is a raconteur with U.S. forces in Europe and North Africa, the colonel's driver, the supply man, the securer of fresh vegetables, women, and wine. I am sent photographs of him in his jeep, in his uniform, with young women smiling at his side.
Uncle Al is in the navy.
My father's youngest brother, Bill, tells me proudly he is going to war and joins the air force when he turns eighteen. I have photographs of Bill looking dashing, a young pilot smiling from the cockpit of his plane, pictures of him in India with a dead tiger, pictures of him with his tee shirt sleeves rolled up leaning against a car, a Bronx tough with a thin moustache. Uncle Bill brought home lovely clay figurines from Asia. He became a New York City narcotics detective who married the most beautiful woman I ever met, beat his family regularly, and put the barrel of his service revolver inside his young daughter's mouth.
My father's best friend Sam, who was a pacifist but joined the army anyway, was killed landing with the allied forces in Italy. My sister, born before war's end, is named after him. I am told stories and shown pictures of airplanes diving through slate gray skies, of infantrymen with bloody bayonets rushing forward on beaches. Beaches like Rockaway. The irony of a world at war is not lost on a boy born on Armistice's Day. It puzzles me how men can fight in horrific battles where thousands of lives are eradicated and destroyed. I also don't know where I go when I am sleeping ... and worry I won't come back.
I am bouncing on the coach in the living room of the cottage, home alone with my father, Marion, and the infant Louise. Mother has gone off for the day, which is unusual. Perhaps they’ve had a fight. I am lifted playfully high into the air by my father and held at the end of his extended arms looking down into his upturned face. My rump brushes the ceiling. He is smiling. I am screaming with pleasure and joy. He swings me around and sits me down in the high chair in the kitchen. I am secured there by a little wooden tabletop attached to the sides of the high chair with aluminum arms. The tabletop acts as a restraint that rises up and down to let me in and out of the chair. There is no security strap between my legs. My lunch of apple and cheese slices is placed on this high chair table top along with a full glass of milk.
Sidney is not at home.
Marion is wearing a floral bathing suit. Her breasts are beautiful and obvious. Her thighs are naked. She is a very pretty athletic woman with dark hair pulled back from her face. My father is wearing his blue bathing shorts and a pair of black ankle high sneakers. He is very handsome and strong. He is aware of Marion's body, as she is of his.
I remain seated in the high chair as Marion and my father move self-consciously about the small cottage kitchen. They have never seen each other in bathing suits before this summer, never shared a bathroom before, and surely never slept a paper-thin wall apart from one another, nor have they ever been alone with each other half naked on a hot sunny August afternoon, on a crystal clear eye squinting day, on a day father has promised to take me to the beach.
Father and Marion are shy and self-conscious around one another. Their tension squeezes the air out through the screen door of the cottage into the street. They speak in words that are tight and stiff.
"Maybe I should take Bruce to the beach before Louise wakes up," father says.
"No, stay here with me. I want to go with you when she awakens."
He cannot take his eyes off of Marion or her breasts, their slope, the remarkable beauty of her shimmering flesh. He has never seen Marion this way before, perhaps never been half naked and alone with a woman other than mother before.
Father does not want to be caught staring. There is nothing else he can do. Marion looks father in the eye, as if to say, "What? What will we do with all this feeling?" Father rubs his hands together as if he were cold. He cracks his knuckles. He stares at his fingers. He looks at the floor. He looks at me and winks.
"Eat something," he says and I dutifully pick up a piece of cheese but don't put it in my mouth.
"Aren't you hungry," he asks, and I shake my head from side to side as far as I can, exaggeratedly saying "no."
"Don't you want it," he asks me.
He looks at Marion. She blushes.
"Okay then, why don't you get down and get ready for the beach. Get your pail and shovel and we're off."
In one hand he picks up the apple and cheese pieces off the high chair table. With his other hand he gives me the nearly full glass of milk to hold and then lifts the high chair tabletop up over the chair to let me down as he walks back across the kitchen toward the sink.
As he reaches the big kitchen table he turns toward Marion who is still standing with her back pressed against the cast iron sink. Her hands supporting her as she rests against the sink top. My father tries to get past her. He is taking funny sliding side-to-side steps. He is facing Marion leaning against the sink. There is barely enough room for him to slide by. I sit in the highchair watching them. Father stops and leans back against the metal kitchen table. He folds his arms against his chest. His breathing raises and lowers his arms.
Marion says, "Maybe I should wake Louise."
"No, let her sleep," father says.
They are facing one another, standing and staring, leaning away with their bodies, nearly touching with their feet. They are in that same position for what seems a long time when the tension eases out of them. You can see it. Their bodies soften. Their faces break into smiles. They say nothing to one another but clearly enjoy the opportunity to be this close. Father drops his arms to his side. He opens his mouth to breathe. Marion's eyes sparkle. They are each smiling broadly. Marion asks, "Yes?" There is no other sound in the room. No sound outside the cottage. Not a plane overhead. Not a car passing through the city streets. Father raises his right hand to his face. He wipes it down across his nose and chin. Marion's breasts swell and lower as she breathes, like the ocean on a quiet day pressing and retreating against the sand.
"Marty," she say softly. His name a prayer, a praise of god in heaven. "What should we do?"
Father takes a very deep long breath and lets the air out slowly through his nose as I start to ease myself out of the high chair. I try to turn so that I can use the arms and the rungs of the chair to let myself down backwards, as I usually do. But I have the full glass of milk in my left hand and find myself sliding too quickly forward out of the seat. I grab at the arm of the chair with my right hand but am pitched forward out of the chair, my legs tangled and slipping from the rungs. Falling.
"Marty!" Marion yells as she sees me, her mouth and eyes wide opened. Father turns and moves toward the chair. His arms reach out to me. He is too far away and too slow to stop my fall. My butt hits the edge of the seat. I lurch forward from the high chair holding tightly to the glass of milk. I reach out with my left arm to break my fall and land hard on the glass, which shatters into large shards, driving a large wedge of glass deeply into my left hand and wrist.
I feel intense pain instantly and see the spurting arterial blood pulsing out of my arm turned quickly red and wet. There is an open gash in my palm, which runs up through my wrist and arm. I imagine I see bone through the parted flesh. Other shards of glass skitter across the floor. My head bounces hard onto one of them and glass is stuck into my forehead, which is also bleeding. Blood is spurting furiously out of my hand and wrist. I grab my left arm with my right hand below the wrist and scream. There is only terror.
Father lifts me up. "Oh, shit!" he screams. "Oh shit! Oh God Marion Jesus help me. Please help me. Oh god. Oh shit. Get me a towel Marion. Please, Marion get me a towel. Oh god."
Father's arms and hands are red with my blood. His left shoulder is covered with blood. There is blood on his chest. There is blood on his sneakers. There is blood on the floor. I do not hear myself screaming.
Father wraps a bath towel around my left hand and wrist. He says, "Tourniquet." He says, "I don't fucking know." He says, "Marion, where's the nearest hospital?" He says, "Oh shit." He says ‘oh shit’ a lot. He says, "Don't cry boy." He says, "don't cry boy you're gonna be fine." He says, "don't cry,” but it is he who is crying and he doesn't even know it.
And I am decidedly not fine. I am terrified. I am hurt. I am frightened and blood is pouring down my face and spurting out my wrist. There is blood in my eye and blood in my mouth. I am really not fine, I know. I am, in fact, bleeding to death. So I scream again, even louder. I scream again and again. I scream to blot out everything in the world but my scream. I scream to scream … and then I grow quiet and still and cold. And it is my father who is frightened, which is perhaps the most terrifying of all.
"No no no," father says. "Oh no."
"The hospital is on One Hundred and Eighteenth Street and Rockaway Boulevard," says Marion. She throws a shirt at my father as he runs with me in his arms out the door of the cottage into the sunlight of the August day.
Carried in father's arms running up Rockaway Boulevard I am no longer terrified, no longer screaming, no longer in pain. I bounce uncomfortable and dazed against my father's chest and shoulders. I seem suspended, outside myself, watching myself and my father running, watching the towel now completely red, wondrously red. My father is running. Running. And I am bouncing over his shoulder. His breathing heavy, he paces himself. He does not speak. He cannot speak. My head bounces up and down as father jogs along the Brooklyn pavement. The blood is warm in my mouth. It takes fifteen minutes to get to the hospital.
Father runs with me into the emergency entrance corridor. It is dark and cool inside the building. I am quite cold on this hot day. Shivering even.
"I am a fireman," father gasps. "My son is seriously injured. He needs a doctor. Immediately. Please. Somebody help me."
A nurse in a white uniform takes me from my fathers arm. I am trembling. She unwraps the towel from my arm. Her uniform is quickly stained with blood. “Jesus Christ!” she says. “Get a doctor in here!” she says to the air. “I mean it. Immediately.”
I am placed on a cold metal table. There are wide bright lights. I am shaking. I try to run away, to climb down, to bounce, but the nurses' arms hold me. I scream again. Scream as loudly as I can.
“Daddy! Please don’t leave me. I promise I won’t cry,” I say as my father leaves the room filled with people in white uniforms moving around the room talking. I lose track of myself. Some little boy is being bandaged and sutured. I lie above myself looking down at the boy on the table shivering and crying. There is concern I will lose the use of my left hand. I hear the whispering. Then I am taken home. We leave the hospital together, that boy and I. My arm in a sling and my head bandaged. I feel considerable pain. My father gets a cab and we ride home. Mother is predictably angry when we walk in the door at the cottage. Father is angry too. It is the emotion that comes easiest to them.
“What happened,” mother demands to know.
“It was just an accident,” my father says, “he was climbing out of the highchair and then it happened.”
In the photograph taken later that week the boy is seated alone on the edge of the Rockaway cottage’s front stoop, precariously perched three or four feet above the ground. He is smiling, but there is a faint look of anxiety on his face, a reflection of his fear he will fall because he is not securely seated. The boy props himself up and braces himself with his good right arm. He is wearing a small pair of the brown ankle high leather shoes that kids wore when they were two years old in the forties, a part of shorts, and a long sleeved pull over shirt with the left arm sleeve flopping down. There is a large bandage over his left eye running halfway up his forehead. His left arm is in a sling and his hand and wrist are extensively bandaged as he sits in harm’s way.
Father has posed the boy on the stoop’s edge to take this picture. He has told the boy to smile. He is proud of his injured boy, his only child. He has disregarded, or is devoid of awareness, of the child’s feeling of anxiety, so deeply in love with his son and his own emotions when he is aware of them, he is unable to attune to or acknowledge the boy’s vulnerability.
Where is that boy who was with me in the hospital, that boy sitting obediently on the stoop? Here he is, inside this scar on my wrist, inside the scar on my eye, inside the scars on his vision and his heart. Now again on the beach. Now bouncing and jumping. I like to bounce.