This first chapter of SWIMMING NAKED may appeal to you. If it does, you can read the rest on Kindle or your iDevice. Order here!
“Fresh, edgy … brutally moving first novel. Sims works toward a stunningly beautiful climax while bringing painful pictures into excruciating focus.”
- Chicago Tribune
Every summer, my family rented the same small house on the same mosquito-covered lake in the same small town in Canada, several hours north of Toronto. The idea was to drive all the way in one day, packing the station wagon the night before so that we could leave at 4:00 a.m.
My older sister, Anna, and I would crawl into the pajamas and our untied gym shoes, which had been put on our feet before we began our zombielike walk to the car. Anna walked a few steps ahead of me, both of us carrying our pillows. The only sound of the start of the journey was the crunch of the gravel in the driveway under our feet as we shuffled to the car. We lay down on top of our sleeping bags, which had been unzipped and spread out one on top of the other; hers Tony-the-tiger striped and mine a jumble of blue and yellow daisies. My parents were completely silent as they loaded a final bag of towels, a cooler, my mother’s purse. They were often silent. It just seemed more noticeable against the quiet of the night.
They were exciting in their own way, the moments that marked the beginning of the trip: the smell of the coffee rising from a thermos in the front seat, the sound of the lighter popping out of its hole, glowing hot to light the first of my parents’ many cigarettes. We fell back asleep almost immediately and woke up a couple of hours later in a different state. Anna and I opened our eyes at the exact same time, blinking hard and taking each other in for a second before looking around to remember where we were: trapped in our parents’ silent, smelly car. We were desperate to go to the bathroom and sat up, suddenly wide-awake, clamoring for my father to stop the car. 1 don’t remember my mother ever driving on vacation.
My father finally stopped, passing, as always, at least one viable exit before giving in. We ran clumsily to the bathroom, trying to avoid stepping on our untied shoelaces. When we finally got there, I went into my own stall, dutifully pushing the rusty bolt into the rusty lock. Anna shouted, “Don’t sit down!” I said, “Okay,” then sat down on the toilet, anticipating the moment when the pee came rushing out, warming my insides and sending a shiver through my body. I wiped and then got another piece of toilet paper to wipe my legs and bottom where they had rested against the porcelain. Anna made me wash my hands. I wiped mine dry on my pajamas and waited an eternity for Anna as she dried her hands under the loud air dryer. Finally, we ran back to the car, our legs flailing out crazylike, exaggerated and goofy, around the flying shoelaces. We climbed into the back again and sat Indian-style, facing front, Anna behind the back of my father’s head and me behind my mother. The backseat created a barrier between them and us and was filled with our luggage, since Anna and I took over the serious storage space for our travel bedroom.
Last year my father had attempted to tie the luggage to the top of the station wagon. It was an unpleasant memory for all of us, Anna in particular. We had been driving along for hours, well into the trip to the lake. The cigarette smoke had commingled for hours with the smell of Dentyne gum and my farts. “I can’t help it!” I would maintain, each and every time. The windows were up because it was raining, keeping every stinky odor trapped inside the car. Anna was teaching me a trick with string, something far more complicated than Cat’s Cradle and likely made up and not a real trick at all.
We heard a scraping noise then a thump on the top of the car. We looked back to see several pieces of luggage flying and a colorful jumble of clothes swirling in the rain. This was seconds before the luggage and the clothes hit the grille of a huge truck behind us. By the time my father pulled the car to the side of the road, the truck was long gone and with it went most of Anna’s favorite summer clothes. She had insisted on packing her things in her own Sleeping Beauty luggage. Two other pieces of luggage had flown off with Anna’s, but my father had rescued them from the highway—beaten but intact and still locked shut. The only thing he had been able to save from the now-missing Sleeping Beauty suitcase was her hot- pink bathing suit.
We watched out of the back of the station wagon as my father stood by the side of the road in the pouring rain, waiting until there was a break in traffic. He darted out one last time and grabbed Anna’s muddy, wet bathing suit. When he got back in the car he handed it to her, torn strap and all. She cried the rest of the way to the lake, clutching the mangled, flimsy fabric in her hand. She wore that bathing suit, with the strap reattached with a safety pin, for the rest of the vacation but never entirely recovered. Her eyes were filled with misery for a whole week.
After that, the suitcases always stayed in the middle seat, along with the food. The suitcases were stacked on the seat; the food was in a cooler on the floor. My mother kept a special bag in the front seat filled with car toys and snacks. The butterscotch Lifesavers, candy cigarettes, and gum would be gone within the first hour or two of the trip. The comic books, crossword puzzles, and secret writing tablets would each seem hugely exciting for about ten minutes. We had to beg for everything.
It was a part of the deal, an attempt to make us feel as though we were a happy little family, with rituals and everything. After having just eaten doughnuts and orange juice, we began to whine for a car toy and a treat. My mother looked to my father, as though she actually wanted his participation in the decision. She said, “Frank, what do you think?” smiling in this sappy, unfamiliar way, then sighing and shaking her head, as though giving in to something seriously against her better judgment. I don’t think my father even realized he had been part of the act. He just drove and smoked cigarettes, occasionally looking into the rearview mirror, saying to us in the mirror’s reflection, always a little too loud but not quite a shout, “We’ll be there in about a week and a half. You girls good with that?”
I knew somehow that these moments were important to my mother. And I worked really hard to play along with the vacation game. Anna totally bought the program. She was lying down on her stomach on her side of the station wagon, with her head toward the tailgate, reading Archie comic books with a concentration that was nearly impenetrable. I swung my body around, so I could lie next to her. I wrote on the secret message pad, scribbling all the worst words I could think of. I wrote “bad” then ripped the gray plastic up so the newly visible black letters disappeared. I did it so Anna couldn’t see what I had written and because it had a built-in, nasty sound.
I wrote another word, “dam,” then ripped up the plastic, schwip. This didn’t get a response, so I scrawled only a line on the pad, just to have something to erase.
“Stop it, Lucy,” Anna said, her head still cocked, perkily, from her own secret attempts to mimic Veronica or Betty. She could read to herself but she always moved her lips and was silently dramatic in doing so, tossing her head or smiling shyly, whatever the character demanded of her.
Schwip went the message pad. “I’m just doing secret messages,” I added quickly, loud enough so my mother could hear.
Schwip, schwip, schwip, I demonstrated, pulling the plastic up repeatedly. “See, it makes this sound,” demonstrating schwip again, “when you erase the words,” adding, “Mom, that’s how it works,” because I knew we were only seconds away from her intervention.
“Mom, she is doing it on purpose,” Anna complained. “I can’t concentrate,” she added, sighing as though she were reading something terribly important.
Schwip. I had written “fat head” and needed to erase it.
“Lucy, stop.” My mother caved in so easily. I knew it had to do with the noise. I could sit and smash bugs, heartlessly squishing ant after ant after ant. Or write in marker all over my body. Or trace my name with the edge of a wet, slimy, halfeaten Lifesaver on the back of the station wagon window. As long as I didn’t make any noise, I could get away with murder.
I tried writing only at the very edge of the secret message pad, so erasing would only make a tiny noise, schw, scliw.
“You aren’t writing anything at all,” Anna reprimanded, her voice raised. “Mom!”
“Stop it, Lucy. Give that to me right now.” My mother unbuckled her seat belt and turned full around, her left arm reaching all the way back into our space now, hand open, palm up to confiscate the secret message pad.
I gave it to her, swinging it down against her palm, swack. I am sure it didn’t hurt. It was the noise that did me in.
“Get up here right now,” my mother warned, as I retreated to the farthest corner of the station wagon, knees against my chest and arms wrapped tighdy around my knees. I looked out the side window, suddenly fascinated with the passing scenery. “Now,” my mother repeated. Her voice had lost all of its vacation charm.
Anna did as she always did. She acted as though she had no part whatsoever in the drama unfolding in front of her; the drama she created by telling on me. She kept reading her comic book, twirling her hair around her right finger, crossing and uncrossing her legs at the ankles. She never once looked at me. She kept reading; mouthing the words, raising her eyebrows, and wriggling her shoulders for Veronicas southern accent.
1 knew it wasn’t the biggest kind of trouble. All I had to do was to go forward and sit, squished, in the middle seat for a while. But 1 wasn’t going to give in to my mother so easily. She had her games, 1 had mine.
“If you smoke, you’ll die,” I said quietly, almost a whisper. It made Anna look up and over at me, startled and concerned.
“What did you say?” my mother asked. “Get up here right now or we’re pulling over.”
“You are going to die,” I said. “You smoke.”
Anna was undone. She covered her ears with her hands and started crying, saying, “Mom, please, make her stop it.”
My mother slammed her hand down on the top of the seat, making my father jump. “Pull over, Frank. Now.” I heard the car move from pavement to crunchy gravel so I crawled quickly toward the middle seat, climbing over and wedging myself between the suitcases and the door on the passenger side of the car. I looked sullenly out the window and whimpered just the tiniest little bit. “Well, you are,” I whispered.
The car moved back from the gravel to the pavement and we drove along, silently. After a few minutes, I felt my mother’s hand on my knee. She had squeezed her arm between her seat and the door, curving it behind her to tap my leg. I ignored her, looking out the window for at least three taps of her vacation-manicured finger against my leg. Then I felt something tickle my leg. I looked down and saw that my mother had a stick of gum, still wrapped, and was running it up and down against my leg—a peace offering. In that moment, I knew I had won a round, but I was too much in love with her to care.