When the Horizon Swallowed My Sister

by Julia Di Capua

It was noon and the Sicilian sun had reached its peak and was asserting its dominance over the slew of natives and foreign tourists. One could decipher the origin of each individual through the amount of skin each one showed. The natives were often topless with bathing suit bottoms that resembled isosceles triangles. But blousy white cotton cover-ups, large sunhats, and oversized sunglasses covered the tourists, who predominantly traveled from Asia and America.

I found myself awkwardly in the middle of both cultural spectrums, in nothing but a bikini. I admired the Sicilians’ openness – their lack of self-consciousness and tolerant view of the human body. I was tempted to pull the strings of my bikini, let the top fall off and bury myself in the sand. But my father and mother were sprawled on lounge chairs about two feet away, and the thought of being topless on a beach near my parents made me shudder. I settled with lying on my stomach and untying the back strings in order to avoid undesired tan lines, and to get a taste of the Sicilian autonomy that surrounded me.

A waitress with a glow to her skin that I wished I could attribute to bronzer walked over to us. She somehow managed to appear graceful in spite of walking in the sand in sneakers and carrying six plates of assorted raw meats, and two tall bottles of water, una gassata e una natural.

“Aaaah, che benissimo. Grazie,” my father bellowed.

My already reddening complexion assumed a darker hue as I felt the stares of the local beachgoers fixate on my family. It was noon, and while most Sicilians were enjoying dainty cups of pistachio and coconut gelato, my family was preparing to devour half a pound of soppressata. I pretended to be asleep in order to avoid what I was sure were the horrified gazes of those around me.

After gorging themselves with a heavy midday snack, my father, mother, and brothers Chris and John, leaned back in a temporary comatose state. My father then struggled against the weight of his round stomach to sit up in his lounge chair. “Who wants to go banana boating?” he asked. Great. Let’s add awkwardly flailing on a yellow rubber tube to ways of drawing attention to the list.

 “Jen?” my father asked my six-year-old sister.

Alarmed by my father’s question, I sat up in order to intervene. I forgot that I had untied my bikini at the neck minutes before, and caught the top one millisecond before it dropped directly in front of my father.

“She’s too small to go on a banana boat,” I said. “She won’t like it – it will be too fast.”

My opposition irritated my father, probably because I was famously overprotective of Jen.  “I threw you guys on those things when you were her age, too. Don’t discourage her,” he said of my sister, who was seated three feet away from him in the sand. “She needs to experience these things.”

I sighed and lay stomach-down in order to avoid my tiresome, inevitable defeat.

“So whaddya say, Jen? And then we’ll get some gelato,” he continued.

At the mention of gelato Jen’s attention was captured and a glow of eager desire flickered in her eyes. “Yeah! Yeah!” she said through an open smile, and my father left us to go schedule the excursion.

He returned fifteen minutes later, during which time I lay face down hoping my frustration would evaporate into the dry and oppressive heat.

“All right, let’s go!” my dad cheered as he leaned back and shot his arms in the air. I reluctantly joined my father, John, Chris, and Jen. I looked back at my mother, who would stay behind in her lounge chair, but her face and eyes were barely visible beneath her large white hat and black sunglasses. I squeezed Jen’s hand, locking in the beads of moisture that formulated between them. “Come on, baby girl,” I said dryly.

We reached the boat minutes after my father and brothers, who had not glanced back at us once after they left the lounge chairs. My father had a way of doing that, and I saw my brothers doing the same lately. He would gather the family for an outing or activity, and after he rallied everyone, he would proceed forward at an incredibly fast pace, completely out of sync with the rest of us. It was as if he was setting forth on a journey alone, yet he had just urged us all to come with him moments before. Now, my brothers kept pace with him. My mother, Jen, and I were consistently left behind, forced to weave through bustling crowds in order to find the male half of the family. I accepted this travel pattern as a product of the male dominance engraved into the foundation of my family. I presumed that being back in Italy reawakened this mentality for my father, making him even more willing to race ahead of us.

“Vieni, vieni. Attenzione,” Come, come. Be careful, a small man with leathery skin instructed. I diverted my eyes from his Speedo and hairy legs, looking again to the horizon.

I guided my sister onto the boat. I held her hand and steadied her as she tiptoed across the hot, plastic boat cushions. I sensed that she was nervous so I sat and placed her on my lap. “Tee toppity toppity toppity toppity,” I chanted as I bounced her on my knees. My grandma used to do this to me when I was anxious, and it had the same effect on my sister. She giggled and I felt the tension leave her body, which eased my nerves as well.

My sister was born when I was ten years old. I remember when I learned my mom was pregnant. I saw my mother sitting on the top step of the staircase with her face cupped in her hands, weeping. I climbed the staircase to find out the cause of my mom’s distress and end her tears. Between heaves and sobs, my mom said that she was pregnant. While my mother was in a state of anxiety, I was elated.  A sister! – I was sure the baby would be a girl, and I had dreamed of having a sister throughout my entire childhood – a younger female counterpart, bound by blood. But my mom was 39 years old when she discovered she was pregnant with her fourth child, an age when fears of miscarriage or giving birth to a child with a disability are very real. My mother was scared. Now, at the age of 18, I can imagine the fear-ridden thoughts that must have plagued my mother’s mind, not to mention what my mother already knew: giving birth to another child, no matter how fiercely loved, would require her to put her own identity on the sideline once again. I ignored my mom’s fears, just that once, and let myself bask in excitement.

Jen was adored by all of us, instantly.  As for me, from the moment I met my sister, I vowed to live for her, in addition to myself. I changed her diapers. When she was no longer breastfed, I fed her. I rocked her to sleep. I rushed to her crib when she was crying. I felt her back when she was asleep to make sure that it was moving up and down in even intervals. Soon enough, I attended her swim meets, encouraged her to participate in the school play, and kissed her goodnight after my mother did.

Now I held Jen on my lap as the boat tackled the waves of the Mediterranean Sea. The water was almost entirely transparent; I felt as if I could scoop it up and sip it through a straw. I traced the vastness of the sea to the point where it aligned with the sky, and searched for a distinct boundary that separated the two. Ultimately, I decided that the divide between the ocean and the sky resembled my relationship with my father: hazy, cloudy, and difficult to interpret.

The boat slowed. Rather than skimming the waves the boat rode each crest – it lazily lobbed over each peak and drop. “State pronti?”Are you ready? the boat driver asked. We mounted the unstable rubber tube. I sat at the head of the tube, Jen sat behind me, my dad sat behind Jen, and Chris sat behind my dad. John remained on the boat to videotape. Before I had an opportunity to make sure that Jen was securely wedged between my dad and me, the boat began to accelerate. The banana boat jerked forward when the tension of the rope increased.

I remember thinking that it would be okay at first, that my sister could withstand the bumps and jerks and the salty water that blinded her eyes, and that afterwards we would get gelato. I tried, like my father, to see the light rather than the dark.  Still, I placed myself at the front of the raft and hoped I could weather the majority of the ocean mist, rather than my sister. In the middle of this stream of consciousness, the tube skimmed over the wake and entered the infinite sea. I squeezed my eyes shut and screamed for Jen to hold on.

The speedboat turned and we skated back towards the wake. We were riding on the edge of the wake and the rest of the sea—the brink of safety and the unknown. The sea was far too immense for the tube to fight and it flipped onto its side, tossing us into the sharp current. My life vest forced my face to break the barrier between water and oxygen. My dad and Chris resurfaced as I did. Dad, check. Chris, check. Jen…Where the hell was Jen?  My muscles lost all tension. My life vest was the only thing keeping me afloat. The pigment in my dad’s face seemed to bleed into the ocean—he was white. Chris looked into the clear water in utter terror and confusion. Without ordering my vocal chords to do so, I screamed Jen, in a tone so raw that it could not have been produced voluntarily. The waves continued to roll from the horizon to the shore, completely unperturbed and giving no hint as to where Jen was. I looked at my dad for direction. He was staring through the water to the ocean floor, hoping but dreading to see his daughter fighting for oxygen. “Jennifer” he screamed in a coarse, foreign tone. John stood still on the back of the boat scanning the sea. He had lowered the video camera when he processed Jen’s absence. My sister had vanished; she was lost in the hazy divide between the ocean and the sky. The vastness of the sea, the enormity of the sky, engulfed my sister.

I plunged my head into the water and fought the life vest that struggled to keep me afloat. Perhaps if I went into the sea, my sister would reappear; maybe I could switch places with her. The boat driver began to turn and drive towards us. The rope was taut and the banana boat flipped without the weight of passengers holding it upright, revealing Jen. She was barely afloat, bobbing in the water, unable to comprehend what had transpired. When the banana boat flipped the first time, Jen’s natural response was to grip the handles tighter. She continued to hold onto the handles after the rest of us let inertia and force pull us into the water, and had been dragged about 25 feet. Now, we all slapped the water in a frenzy to reach her.

Excessive adrenaline canceled out the moments in which I was reunited with her. Once we re-boarded the boat we forced our facial muscles and vocal chords to assume normalcy so as not to add to the trauma of the event. “How about we get that gelato, Jen?” I asked.

For three minutes I had experienced life without my sister. During those three minutes Mother Nature was a sorcerer, who had the capability of snatching that which was in front of me and evaporating it. In those three minutes, I also saw a persona of my dad that I had never witnessed before. The experience stripped my dad of his sure disposition, leaving him more than vulnerable. He was temporarily lifeless—dehumanized. During the moments when my sister was not visible, my father and I were one with a common fear, and a common pursuit. As I watched the color leave my dad’s face, I understood what would happen if any of us were to suddenly disappear. It is my brothers, sister, mother and I that put life in my dad, not the involuntary beat of his heart. The cause and effect was simple. If anything sudden were to happen to any of us, my father would lose an equally large part of his existence.

I sat next to my father and felt his shoulders tremble despite the rays of sun that beat down on our bronze skin. I did not say a word about what happened—no one did. Behind his usual closed-mouth smile, my father was experiencing numbness in his brain, perhaps subconsciously self-imposed, so he would not have to think about the nightmare he had witnessed. The terror that thickened my father’s blood was my pain as well. Jen was my everything, too.

My father keeps a folder on his computer, which holds every photo taken on our family vacations. Every single frame captured, whether blurry or overexposed, is saved in that file and never to be deleted because he believes each one documents a moment during our trip, awful quality or not. The video John recorded of our banana boat excursion is in that folder. Six months after the trip, my father and I were looking through the photos, which mostly consisted of candid photos he snapped that the rest of the family detested. My father pressed the next button on his keyboard and the video of us on the banana boat automatically played. My father’s eyes glazed over and his brows crumpled in confusion.

“Do you remember this?” I asked, breaking the silence.

He finally blinked and his eyelids removed the glassy film that covered his pupils like a windshield wiper. “I completely forgot about this,” he responded. “You know, there are few times in my life when I have been that scared.”

“I know,” was all I could respond. And I understood that after we stepped off the motorboat in Sicily, my father dismissed the near-tragedy from his mind, not out of irresponsibility, but of necessity. He emotionally could not permit such a horrific memory to exist.

I often wonder what my sister was thinking while she was submerged. I have come to the conclusion that she probably experienced a temporary state of not thinking at all. She was underwater, subject to the sea and without oxygen, and I do not think she was necessarily uncomfortable, either. Perhaps she was but another object being carried by the current, with no more thought than a piece of seaweed being dragged by the hook of a fishing pole. All of us, however—above the water and breathing in oxygen—experienced fear. For the ocean does not think, it merely rolls towards the shore and carries whatever cannot keep itself afloat. Oxygen, on the other hand, feeds human rationality, and forced us to watch my sister vanish before our eyes, consumed by the abyss.