By Adam Bjelland
I’m in the back of a taxi right now, shivering. It's closer to morning than night, but still dark out.
This trip is a last-ditch effort for me to find my peace. Face my demons; go back to the scene of the attack. Immersion therapy, my shrink calls it. I call it suicide. Either way, here I am. Back in Turkey. Back at the beach.
You may have seen the news stories about Ted and the baby five years ago. I still can’t bring myself to talk about that night. Too many thoughts and feelings all at once to verbalize, even to my therapist.
I can still hear their screams. They come to me when the washing screeches in its final spin cycle. I hear them in the autumn wind through branches of the oak outside my bedroom window. I hear them in the voices of unruly children at the food court in the mall.
And by far the worst, I still see his eyes in the reflection in my bathroom mirror that brief instant when the lights flick out. I see Theo’s eyes in my head when I close my own. Yes, I’ve named the little boy. Theo. After Ted. Sometimes Theo’s dead eyes just stare at me. Lately, and much worse, they blink with life.
Ted and I tried to play our parts of husband and wife once we got back to the States. At least I tried to try. But the trauma proved to be too much. Or rather, our “divergent methods of coping with the trauma led us down incompatible paths,” according to our marriage counselor.
Ted was practical. No surprise there. When we returned home from Turkey, he immediately started “getting involved.” From a distance, he did what he could to help Syrian refugees seeking asylum. He followed politicians’ stances, attended the appropriate demonstrations, and voted accordingly. But there was only so much impact he could have on a global scale, so instead he got involved with everything. Soup kitchens. Non-profits. Big Brother. Anything altruistic. Anything he felt could justify the privileged upper/middle-class life we were living on the north shore of Long Island.
While Ted nobly focused his energies outward, I cowardly spun myself a cocoon. I withdrew. Our marriage counselor listed the defense mechanisms she said I displayed, but honestly, I’ve forgotten most of them by now. I know I spent my days at home, in my pajamas, comatose on my couch, in my bed, behind my old Norton anthologies from college. I also started writing again. I actually finished a few stories for the first time in my life. Little one-act plays. When I showed them to Ted, he suggested a psychiatrist. What did he know about art? Were they dark? Sure. Like the one about the woman who repeatedly attempts to commit suicide, only to find out at the end that she’s already dead. I still think it's a hoot.
Besides the writing, I cried a lot. Watched old TV shows from my teenage years. Binge-watched old commercial compilations on YouTube. I worked from home as much as possible and did my best not to leave the house on weekends. I even missed my nephew’s wedding. He was getting married on the beach, and the reception was at the yacht club. I hadn’t been to the ocean since that night in Turkey.
So Ted eventually left me.
My sister told me to get off my ass. Do something. Anything. That’s the point. I’d been paralyzed. She dragged me to one of her yoga classes.
I liked it. I kept going every day, all summer. It was supposed to heal the body and the brain. My lower back never felt better, but when I was supposed to focus on my spiritual center, to strengthen my subconscious light vibrations, I couldn’t get there. The instructor suggested yoga capital of the world: Rishikesh, India. She said that maybe the rigamarole of sub-urban life was preventing my channels from being open to transmissions. That the holy river Ganges at the foothills of the Himalayas would surely give me ample space to help my mind grow and heal.
Maybe it would have if I ever got there. I should have paid the extra money for a direct flight to New Delhi.
Instead, I had a long layover in Mumbai, and I made the mistake of venturing out of the airport. I was accosted by waves of people, beggars, teenagers hoisting naked babies up to my face. Their brown arms reached for me, choking me, drowning me.
The faces. Those screams. The salt water on my lips, the sand between my toes. Something smooth rubbing against my calf. Theo. His opened dead eyes.
I passed out. Right there on the sidewalk.
I awoke back inside the airport in some sort of a triage. A man in a suit and tie mentioned the word hospital to the nurse. I lied and told them I was fine, I was just hung-over, hungry, diabetic, all of the above. I excused myself from their care and immediately checked for the next available flight back to the States.
By this time, my divorce was settled, and I wound up with a little chunk of my money, so I booked a trip to Ireland. My destination was the Newgrange megalith up in the Boyne River Valley. I went there seeking what they call a rebirth through “death” in the Stone Age passage tomb. I thought maybe my family’s old Gaelic heritage might magically kick in and help to wake my hibernating soul.
The central chamber remains in darkness except for one day each year: the winter solstice. Spectators can only go into the monument at dawn from December 18th to the 23rd. They’re selected by a lottery system. I bought a winning ticket from some guy online.
Standing at the entrance in the pre-glow of the early morning sky, my guide Brian told me, “To venture inside is to have your spirit rekindled, whatever your faith.” I stood there underground, huddled with the other visitors, watching the sun permeate the dark hallway, inching its way down the light box and into the burial chambers. Seventeen minutes later, I emerged from the ground, among my fellow travelers and their freshly awoken spirits.
Brian asked me what epiphany came to me as I watched the changing sun-patterns. I said only one: I do not have any faith.
I felt nothing.
Everyone was oohing and ahhing, and I felt as empty as that ancient burial chamber. It was a few hours later at the Castle Arch Bar in Meath where I first picked up the Jameson. In one sense or another, I haven’t put it down since.
I thought I’d finally found the solution in the bottle. At first, it came a few dips into a bottle of Jameson. Soon, I‘d need to be half-way through the label before I could make it half-way through the night. Later, I searched feebly for solace at the bottom of the bottle, often pondering whether there was indeed a hole there. The Jameson gave way to cheap Georgi vodka. I no longer had the drink; it had me.
I tried one AA meeting a few months ago. It just wasn’t for me. Out of the twelve steps they have hanging up on that shade, seven of them make reference to God, or at least some higher power or spiritual contact, and I’d already discovered I have no faith. It’s not that I don’t believe in God; I think I do. It’s not that I don’t believe God can restore people to sanity; I think I might. What I don’t believe is that he’s at all interested in restoring me. Why would he be? What have I done to be worthy of such grace?
<callouttext> It’s not that I don’t believe in God; I think I do. It’s not that I don’t believe God can restore people to sanity; I think I might. What I don’t believe is that he’s at all interested in restoring me. Why would he be? What have I done to be worthy of such grace?</callouttext>
On the way out of the meeting, a woman grabbed me. She was around my mom’s age. She took my hand and said, “You don’t have to live like that anymore.” I went home, made a pitcher of Bloody Marys, and started booking this trip for Turkey.
Turkey. That night out on the beach. It sounded like they were getting murdered.
Ted and I had just capped off the perfect anniversary night. Dinner. Nighttime swimming. Drinks at the pool bar. I’d float on my back, and Ted would hold me steady and grab my arm, pointing it up to the stars.
It goes like this:
TED: That’s you. Virgo. The self-contained.
ME: Where are you?
Ted spins me slightly in the water and moves my arm to the left.
TED: There. Aquarius. God of the ocean.
Later, Ted is back in our private little oceanfront beach house, while I stroll the shoreline. I dip my toes in the water, counting my blessings under the moonlight. The sea is cold but invigorating.
Then I hear them. I can make out some kind of large shape on the dark water. It must be a boat. I can swear the people out there are getting butchered. The first thought I have is pirates. I’m actually picturing Halloween costume, Peter Pan-stylized pirates, but then my logic reconciles that there are indeed modern-day pirates with automatic machine guns. But there are no gunshots. Only voices. People, children, screaming for their lives.
Shark. It must be a shark. Scenes from Jaws now flash through my head, but then somehow I’ve shifted to picturing sea monsters. This scene, these noises, they’re too horrific to be a shark. There’s a giant squid. A Kraken. I’m standing there on the sand, water nipping my toes and retracting, the image of a sea serpent picking the bodies from the boat and biting off their little heads. My legs are made of putty.
In my mind, it’s an achievement that I’ve even stayed put like this. Every neurotransmitter is shouting Run to their adjacent receptors. Run! Away!
I don’t know how long I froze there, listening to the carnage. Eventually I hear the footsteps approaching from behind. They’re running. Toward the water.
TED: Leah! What are you doing?
TED: I know!
He is past me now, high-kneeing over the shallow waves breaking on the shore.
TED: Call someone! The police.
With that, he dives into the water.
I swear to God I almost warn him about the sea monster.
But my husband has a purpose, and he has given me one. I turn to run back to our room to get my cell phone, but I soon see more people approaching the water. A young woman already has her phone to her ear. People are removing clothing and diving into the surf. I follow but only make it ankle deep. I start crying. I just want to be back home, in my pajamas, in my bed, watching TV in the dark. My mind flashes to all the comic hijinks that unrolled in the studio lagoon of Gilligan’s Island.
But something soft brushes against my toe, and I jerk back with my leg shaking in the air. I fall back on my butt. I now see that it’s no fish; it's a little boy. My vision telescopes onto his vacant eyes, and I cannot look away. I am frozen.
Just as I open my mouth to scream, Ted comes rushing ashore with his arms tightly wrapped around his abdomen.
Oh my god. He’s hurt. He’s been cut, wounded, his stomach gorged. He will die, just like the child at my feet.
He blows past me, leaving me in the sand at the water’s edge.
I’m sure the boy at my feet is dead, that his eyes do not roll back into his head just as I turn to run toward our room. Any movement I think I see must just be the way his body responds to the waves and sand; he does not twitch. He mustn’t.
I run-walk-stumble back into our beach house. I will not be able to handle the mess of blood and intestines I’ll see when I open the door, but I can’t let my husband die alone.
Inside. There is no blood.
On our bed is a baby.
ME: Ted? Ted!
TED: It’s alive!
He shouts from the bathroom. I approach incredulously as Ted storms in with a hairdryer.
TED: We have to warm it up.
He quickly, tenderly, has the baby naked, and I’m frozen in awe watching my husband move. He, dripping with the winter sea, yet I’m the one shaking.
TED: Did you call the police?
ME: Everybody else…
TED: Jesus Christ. Hold this.
He hands me the hairdryer, and I swear to God if it were a handgun, I would have put it to my head and pulled the trigger.
He calls the front desk. They are aware of the emergency, and help is on its way. He informs them that we have a survivor in our room, an infant, and instructs them to send the paramedics.
TED: Leah! You okay?
He must see me shaking.
ME: There’s a boy.
ME: At the shore. He hit my feet. He floated…
I watch Ted’s face and can clearly read his expressions as they shift: first, disbelief that I could just leave a child and not try to help him, then, the thought of running back out there himself to find the boy, and finally, he realizes he cannot trust me to handle the baby by myself in my detached mental condition. He resigns to stay in the room, and this leaves him with disgust. He never says a word, but I’m sure that’s what he’s thinking. He takes the hairdryer from my hands and resumes massaging the baby.
I don’t know why I was so paralyzed at that shore. I wish I could say it was just fear. Part of me knows I just didn’t want to be responsible. If I didn’t act, I couldn’t mess anything up. And the longer I stood in the shallow water, the more impossible it became to move a muscle.
As far as I can tell, that disgust never left Ted’s eyes for the remainder of our marriage.
One year after Ted and I got married, I found out I was pregnant. It most definitely was not planned.
When I went to the OBGYN for a bi-monthly visit, my doctor shook his head and simply told me it had been a bad pregnancy. I’d never heard the term before. Bad pregnancy. I thought of a bad movie. Two thumbs down. So I pictured myself bed-ridden, in pain, or in store for a scheduled C-section. I’d tell the girls back at work that I had a bad pregnancy.
But then the doctor was saying words like DNC, D&E, miscarriage. I was 16 weeks pregnant. The next night was our anniversary. Ted and I never had good luck on our anniversary. We should’ve realized it was a sign.
After all was said and done, Ted and I decided we weren’t devastated by this. The pregnancy was not planned, and while we never overtly swore off parenthood, we certainly did not have it as a predetermined goal. But when I got pregnant, what were two married comfortable people in their thirties to do? We felt like we couldn’t justify an abortion; we weren’t a couple of irresponsible, underprivileged teenagers.
I’m not saying it was a relief to lose the baby. There were tears from both parties. But we did feel like the cosmos was putting things in order, like “See? We weren’t meant to be parents.” When the doctors doubted my chances to ever conceive again, our initial instincts were confirmed as correct. But then the catastrophe in Turkey changed all that.
The baby girl lived.
We stayed in the country. The world was amazed at how much damage a sharp jetty and rough waters could do to an overstuffed boat filled mostly with malnourished women and children. The press was abuzz looking for Ted, but he was all over that baby in the hospital. No identification. No known living relatives in Syria.
Ted spent days with her at the hospital. He fed her formula. He sang to her. He called her Alma after his dead grandmother.
He talked of adoption.
I panicked. I had grown accustomed to our childless life. After my miscarriage, I had not just resigned myself to a life without kids, I embraced it. Whenever I’d hear horror stories from my friends with kids, I reveled in the freedom of my adult life. I loved my Sunday brunches with mimosas. I loved my trips to the theater. Museums. Happy hour with the girls after work.
I especially could not face a daily reminder of what happens when you take action to try to save a drowning child, instead of leaving him floating at your feet.
I think the little boy’s eyes did not blink. I’m pretty sure they did not roll back in his head.
I didn’t have to tell Ted no, because on the fifth day, the baby died. I tried with all my might not to reveal my relief, but Ted knew. He looked at me the same way he did standing back in the hotel room, dripping of the sea.
It's closer to morning than night, but still dark out. The stars shine clear over the Aegean Sea.
The taxi driver turned off the air conditioning. He must have seen me shivering in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, my condition has nothing to do with the air. I need to end this. I have two more airplane bottles of vodka in my purse, plus the rest of the Xanex my doctor gave me for the flight over. I know I won’t feel a thing.
I close my eyes, and all I see is quicksand all around me. I can’t be left alone in my head with these thoughts. Not even alcohol works to plug the hole inside me anymore. It’s like trying to fill a sieve with sand.
The sand. The beach.
I have to go back to the water.
Maybe my spirit has finally awoken, or maybe I’m just whacked out of my mind, because I’m not scared. I am at peace. Really. I know just how it will end. I can feel it in my heart; I see it in my head.
It goes like this.
My feet hit the sand, and I’m brought right back. The sand here is coarser, the granules larger than the beaches back home. I’d forgotten about that.
I strip down and form a pile. Every part of me becomes taught. I’ve never been completely naked in air this cold. My nipples send a current of electricity down through my body. I’m invigorated. It feels good to finally take action.
I close my eyes and listen. First, I only hear the lullaby of the wind on the water. My knees hit the sand, and I pray. Tears wet my cheeks.
Now I hear them. The voices. Their voices. Again. But they’re not screaming. They’re laughing. Playing.
The children sing a nursery rhyme to the melody of Frere Jacques. I know they must be singing in Turkish, yet somehow my mind translates their words clearly:
Lazy child, lazy child,
Come on, get up! Come on, get up!
Here comes the morning, here comes the morning.
The day's breaking, the day's breaking.
A child brushes past me, skipping toward the water. Another pulls on my hand. It is Theo, smiling down at me, no blame in his eyes. He is cradling his baby sister, Alma. He hands her to me. Theo takes my free hand, pulls me up off the sand, and leads me into the calm sea. As we get deeper, I see more children jumping from the jetty rocks, splashing around me. There’s no need for me to warn them to be careful of the sharp, shallow ocean floor. The sea can only claim once. There’s no need for anything at all except peace.
I float on my back, holding Alma across my breasts. Theo bobs next to me. I point up to the sky.
ME: You see that one?
He turns his head upward. I guide his hand, aligning his pointer finger with mine. He nods.
ME: Aquarius. God of the sea.
Soon, each child swims toward me, gathering around my body with purpose. All their tiny hands wrap around me and gently pull me under.
I hold onto Alma and stare up at the stars through the water.
I will not blink.
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