Bobbing and Weaving Excerpt from “When Doves Cry”

by Emily Stern

My mother, Antoinette, or, Toni, wore a red flower that spread with a yellow explosion from the middle; it was pinned into her black-brown hair that was sometimes rolling hills past her shoulders and sometimes dense coils to the base of her neck. It was thicker than my always long, straight blond hair that I’d taught myself to braid so I could unravel it into waves and maybe be as beautiful as my mother. She wore a creamy halter dress trimmed with thick macramé lace edges, along with a pair of dangling gold earrings, a series of circles that nearly reached her small, defined breasts. Her skin changed with the angles of the light, from bronze to golden to brown to a translucent buttery yellow. Random men in the crowd touched her arm and tried to say hello. She’d stop, seeming flattered and amused, and meet their eyes as her chest rose and spread with her smile. They’d stare at her mouth as it took a hit off the joint in her hand then open again to offer its raspy, intimate, feminine, full-bodied guffaw, and then glide away, leaving them looking like cartoon characters who’d been pleasantly punched in the face. My father’s sandy-blond hair was in its inaugural run of what remains his signature style—a sophisticated mullet paired with an iconic seventies mustache, thick and wide and burying his upper lip. He wore a wide-cuffed, longsleeved white shirt made of gauze with blue embroidered birds along its edges. His back always arched right before his foot pressed the pedal that made a note linger or pop, and then his torso rolled to the side and back to the middle as he threw himself into the piece’s next movement. The four of us were among the hundreds of people watching him play Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in the fancy hotel ballroom in Cozumel. I was three years old. My sister, Jessica, was two years old. My half-brother David, was nearly fourteen. Occasionally my mother stopped behind my father to touch his hair as he played the loud classical music. In my hard folding chair at the edge of the room, between my brother and sister, I sat high on my knees and twisted my body to follow her with my eyes, studious and longing. When my father finished the piece, the applause bombed the room. It was the first time I noted his masterful ability to brazenly expand in the spotlight while simultaneously conveying heartfelt reciprocity with a group of admirers. Near the front, my mother’s vibrancy faded into the collective waves of adoration. Her hands, a chaste knot beneath her chin; her fingers, twisting the thin, gold chain around her neck like she was praying the rosary; her head, jerking back and forth while her eyes bulged with the possession of a devoted zealot. I covered my ears as I watched him shine in the adulation I thought happened only in our family’s living room; my appreciation usually hailed from beneath his piano. I preferred to listen with my head buried in the shaggy green carpet, and my legs entangled in the massive instrument’s wooden intestines, trying to converge with the rhythm. Three days after the hotel ballroom concert, at a much humbler motel in Cozumel, I sat on the rim of an organ-shaped swimming pool, staring at the water. I experimented with contorting my eyes to better isolate each layer of light, mimicking the tiles at the bottom. They seemed to exist independently of one another, with their own distinct edges and corners. The back of my neck had begun to smolder and burn under the sun. I turned and saw my mother walking toward us. She wore a yellow T-shirt, thin and tight, with the word Cancun across her braless breasts. Her shorts were cut off denim with fringy bits reaching to her mid thigh. She had fine legs— smooth skin and brown flat-heeled Jesus sandals. She was a short woman, as many Sicilians are. She had been 5’0 tall since she was a teenager. I thought that her name, Antoinette Rose, suited her. The letters of the word ‘Antoinette’ spilled in every direction. When she wrote it, the ‘A” was always a brazen and untamed loop that crossed the boundaries of its designated space. The rest, a series of sophisticated and coy omissions, was accented by a flailing, misplaced tendril or over-inked splotch, much like her curly hair. “Emily! Where’s your sister?” I didn’t know, and stood to join her in scanning the water, chairs, and tables. She yelled for David, who appeared immediately. His Converse low-top gym shoes walked the edge of the pool until they stopped at the other end, the deep end. I watched him freeze, and then, stare. The overgrown curls of his bark-colored hair fell in front of his eyes, giving what must have been a shortlived and terrible dilemma a moment of privacy. Not entirely sure what was going on, I was more interested in whether or not my brother was going to actually jump into a pool without taking off his jeans and t-shirt. He dove in. My mother ran toward the waning circles in the water. When he emerged with my sister Jessica’s toddler sized body pressed against his chest, her hair was matted against her face and down her back in stringy chunks. Her wrinkled skin matched the color of the water where green met blue, and she wasn’t moving. As David sped toward my mother, he flipped Jessica over and beat on her back, and flimsy drops of water trickled out of her mouth. She still wasn’t moving. He laid her on the concrete and started CPR. My mother yelled for help. A crowd formed a circle around David as he continued to try to wake up my sister while my mother spun in circles with her arms out, through the people, yelling, “Please! Please! Somebody help us!” Jessica wasn’t moving at all. A man said he was a doctor, and my brother moved aside to let him in. My mother knelt on the other side of my sister while the doctor did CPR, stopping to turn Jessica over and slap her back hard then breathe into her mouth, counting and pressing on her tiny chest. After several minutes, the doctor slowed his attempts then suddenly stopped completely. I looked at my sister through the many legs of the many people surrounding them. Her eyes were closed, and her face appeared as if it were sinking under the weight of her long, wet, black hair. My throat was clamped in the middle, and I started to cry. The doctor said, “I’m so sorry” and reached for my mother’s arm. She leaned away from him, her body going from the soft, bent, lumpy witness to rocketing erect as she wildly searched his face. Then she yelled, “Noooo! Nooo!” but stopped abruptly. He tried again to gently speak, and again my mother’s mouth opened, but this time no words fell out. Instead, the ground vibrated and swirled as she wailed louder than anything I’ve ever heard. Her cry drowned out the doctor and the ocean and the trees and the people and the sky and wrapped the bystanders in its storm cloud. Over and over, rolling up from the ground as each moan began again; first low then crescendoing with her fists and quaking shrieks; the siren of a mythical animal fighting God with the essence of its soul. It was then that Jessica moved. Then she coughed. This is the love that lived beneath everything else