In Our Skin

Short Fiction by Sam Thomasson, 2023

We board a plane. We all carry our own bags, lumpy canvas things, over our shoulders, or drag them on the ground. There are eight of us, the whole family. We inhabit three rows of three seats in the middle aisle of the plane, one adult per row. One seat is empty, and we pile it will things we are tired of holding. We are squirmy. It is a long flight. Some of us cry, but not all of us. None of us have ever been in a plane before. Our ears do funny popping things that hurt in a weird, good way. When we land, the plane shakes and rattles and we question the integrity of the manufacturing. We feel under our seats for flotation devices. We grip each other’s arms and suppress whimpers.

We gather our things and leave the plane as quickly as possible, moving as one writhing mass of scared-sweaty travelers. Some of us hold hands so we don’t get separated.

When we step out of the tiny airport, people are yelling. Everything seems dusty and a little bit greasy. We can’t understand what they are saying, but we eventually make our way into a van with one of the calmer of the yelling men. He is going to take us somewhere. It is going to be fun. As we drive, he spouts facts about the city, points out sites along the way, but mostly we don’t listen because we are too busy complaining.

When the van stops, we are in a parking lot. There are other cars, and it is hot. We can tell there is water somewhere nearby. It makes us itch with excitement. We are going to a beach. The ocean. Bigness, wetness, blueness. There is an iguana lazing under a car. We have never seen an iguana before and we want to touch it, to pick it up and maybe let it bite us to see if it hurts, but we are too scared. It just looks at us with its tiny black eyes. There are a lot of things going on. A lot of people we don’t recognize. We are asking questions. There is food somewhere. There is a kiosk where we give them money and they give us paper wristbands. We hear people laughing.

We have arrived at Kukumba Beach.

We were under the impression that we were being taken to a beautiful blue beach with soft bright sand, one where you can recline and peer out across the waves into the beyond and imagine sea monsters and ghost ships, or laugh and scamper as you try not to buckle under the weight of waves. This is not that kind of beach. Kukumba Beach is a sandy ring of chlorinated water, partitioned from the salty ocean by a structure of large rocks and pipes and levees. There are parasol-covered picnic tables and wooden recliners arrayed in concentric circles around the blue swimming hole. Floating inflatable lounges, some shaped like sea turtles and dolphins and other aquatic creatures, are available for rent.

At one end of the swimming hole there is a rope swing where children and giddy, vacationized parents take turns pushing themselves off the pier and curving out over the water and releasing the rope to fall into the blue. We had always thought that when you swung on a rope you would release it and the momentum of your swing would cause you to arc majestically over the water, affording time mid-air to perform somersaults and acrobatic twists, and potentially time even for extended internal discourse on the perspectival advantages of slow arcs above water. Just like Indiana Jones does it. Though, Father does not know we have seen his films, so this is an observation we cannot make out loud. Watching others use the rope swing reveals it as more of a release and plummet than anything.

We look at the people. Watch them like animals in a zoo, as if from behind glass. Then we realize we’re in the glass, in the zoo. We have entered Kukumba Beach and tasted the chlorine in the water and something feral is threatening to rear its head within us. The other vacationers are wearing brightly colored shorts and nothing but. We move as one toward a set of wooden reclining chairs near the edge of the water. Two of these chairs are shaded by a sparsely leaved plastic palm tree, and Mother and Mimsy take those. Mimsy is old. So old we don’t know how old she is, and she complains about her sensitive spine on the hard recliner.

We watch other boys running across the beach, kicking sand, their arms red and flailing. Their shorts are all different colors. There are girls here too. They look different in swimsuits than we had imagined, not that we’ve actually thought about it, if anyone asks.

We see some of the boys and girls looking over, and we look around at ourselves, at each other. We are all the same. We are all dressed the same, at least. The boys are wearing black denims with a purple, sleeved, blousy shirt, machine-sewn by Mother. The girls all wear the same floral purple dress, covered throat to elbows to ankles, shoulders subtly poofed, another Mother original. The boys are topped with Western-style hats, which Father does not admit are also called Cowboy hats. The girls wear stuffy bonnets, tied under the chin with ribbon. The sun is bright and our skin is fair. We are all wearing the same thing, and we are not the only ones to have noticed this. We suddenly no longer want to be here. An itch starts on the backs of our necks and slides down our spines. It is very hot in all these clothes. We try to be unaffected. Father always says to never be ashamed of who we are, but that’s easier said than done right now.

Father is pulling his massive feet out of his boots. We start to hope that maybe he has swim clothes packed secretly in his bag for all of us to put on. Then he stands, his feet whiter than the sand, and marches to the water. We watch him go. He tests the water with a giant, bunioned toe, and walks in. He walks like a merry traveler, his elbows cocked and arms pumping at his sides, head bobbing side to side slightly. The youngest of us can no longer resist. The fear and strangeness have finally broken, and they dash to the water’s edge after Father. They run and splash and grapple for attention. Their shoes are still on their little feet.

Mother snaps at Tilda, the oldest of us kids, to go and get their shoes off them before they get ruined. Mimsy looks to be either asleep already or dead, finally.

I look around and realize I am alone by the water. My toes wiggle in my shoes, digging for the sand so close, but my feet are cemented. I resign to just watch today, as it is the first day of vacation. Let the family cut loose and I’ll just watch, figure out what the appropriate vacation attitude is. I can’t shake the feeling I’m being watched as well. The triplets are fighting tooth and nail with Tilda to not be unshod. They attack her from all sides. As she bends down in the shallow water to strip the boots off Ezra’s feet, Isaiah pinches her calf. When she tries to fend off her assailant, Ruth, the non-identical, calls to Father that Tilda is hurting Isaiah. The Trinity of Trolls, I like to call them: tricksters, terrorists, and tattle-tales all.

The chairs Mother chose lie between the concession stand and the giant waterslide that looms over the swimming hole. Someone has just ordered something called “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” and paid ten dollars for it. Apparently Mother has overheard the same, or else she is absent-mindedly muttering the phrase “expensive sin.” It wouldn’t be the first time. I look up at the slide above us, a green, plastic, coiled thing like a snake at rest. I have been taught that humans’ natural fear of snakes comes from Genesis, from Satan and Adam and Eve. The stairs that wind up to the slide cast a long shadow over the water. Water is pumped to the top and flows down the slide, lubricating the descent for the few brave souls, mostly younger children, oddly, who are riding the beast. They enter at the top, then dip, turn, coil and drop, to spill out of the mouth of the slide into the blue hole at the bottom.

My hat feels heavy and out of place atop my head, but I worry about taking it off. Such things are sometimes seen as rebellion. In all things, I must gauge the risk and the reward: the parents may tell me to put it back on, or not tell me to put it back on but make faces and muttered comments that imply that they wish I hadn’t taken it off, because it’s not about whether or not I am wearing a hat, it’s about whether or not the parents think I am rebelling against the idea of the hat, against the impetus behind our family’s hat-wearing, and this is the worst affront. But if I take it off I will be so much more comfortable, because the hat is currently biting into my skull. And taking it off will probably reduce the number of looks I am getting from other kids. Every time someone looks at me, I get this heat in my forehead and just behind my ears.

I have been deliberating too long, and I’m starting to think the hat is not really the problem. It’s all of it. When I look at myself I see the same thing as when I look at everyone else in my family. Pale people in silly matching outfits that are obviously homemade. We are not persons but people. A subtle but important distinction for us. Father would say that the problem here is not that matching homemade clothes are silly, the problem is that in our head we love ourselves more than our family, and we desire to separate and cleave to an illusion of individuality supplied by bright swim shorts and expensive sunglasses. We would rather pretend to be a beautiful and unique snowflake than accept our position as a hand or foot of a larger family body. Father would never actually say those words but he would make our desire for individuality seem infantile or sinful. And possibly he would spank us.

I look at other fathers, and they wear swim shorts like their children, and sunglasses with a strap around the back to keep them attached to their faces. They sip from colorful drinks and take pictures of their sunburned families.

Tilda has returned from the water now, dripping, her hair matted against her neck, but carrying six shoes by their laces. She drops them in the sand by Mother’s chair. The triplets are clambering at Father for him to pick them up and toss them in the water. While Father is throwing Isaiah in a flailing arc through the air, Ruth is trying to trip Ezra and take his place in the throwing line. Tilda lies down on a wooden recliner next to Mother, a mirror image. Father is engrossed in his vacation, oblivious to his otherness. 

I am still standing in the sand. Perhaps if I stay in one spot long enough the ground will just swallow me.

Tilda seems to have given herself wholeheartedly to the idea of homemade floral dresses that go to the ankle. Or maybe she has just given up. On the inside, she is little better than fat old Mimsy, asleep or dead on a painful wooden chair, chin sunk into neck. Or maybe she is just not as narcissistic as myself. Less filled with the devil of self-love, or self-consciousness. Not her problem but mine. Tilda, why was I not made of stone like thee? She does not languish like I do under the sore thumb of the family aesthetic. The little ones are truly blessed, too young to recognize our anachronism here. Too young to know what anachronism means. It crosses my mind that I might not know either. The triplets splash and play and scream, under the delusion that they are just like other children, that no one is looking at them with eyebrows raised. Father seems to be enjoying himself despite his usual aversion toward this sort of consumerist venture. He giggles as Ruth jumps at his hat to rip it from his head. I think to myself how I don’t understand the man at all. Then regret thinking it, because God knows our thoughts, and Father talks to God all the time.

The pool is so contained, so safe, separated from the ocean. So shallow. All the sea-creatures here are inflatable and squishy. Even the trees are plastic.

I take off my hat. I don’t even realize I’m doing it, it just happens. I am standing in the sand, holding my Cowboy hat like a bowl, staring into the empty dome. I can feel Mother’s eyes on me already. She is always watching. She raises an eyebrow.

“Son? Something wrong with your hat?”

“Too hot,” I say.

“You’ll get burned.”

“That’s okay.”

“That’s not what you’ll say when your skin is peeling off.”

“I think I’ll be okay.”

“Daddy’s still got his on.”

Father does have his hat still on, and he is thigh-deep in chlorine-water and sand. “But it’s really hot.” I am still holding the hat in my hand. Tilda looks over, her face impassive.

Mother says nothing, but keeps her eyes fixed on me.

I put the hat on. “I need to go to the restroom.”

I shake the sand off my shoes and walk away from the splashing chlorine and toward the salt. I pretend to be following my nose. I walk under the slide. At the edge of the beach, where sand meets rock, grass grows. I step over the grass and plant my feet on black rock. I look back to check if Mother is watching. This side of the beach, the ocean side, is completely rock. Dark rock leading to dark water. The water here whacks against the rocky shore and sends droplets splashing up into the air. It is hot out but the foamy water looks cold. I walk closer to the edge. There is no sand here. Down the shoreline in either direction there are concrete bags and pipes and other beach-construction miscellany. When a wave splashes ashore, the water runs back between the winding cracks between rocks, like veins to the heart.

I look out at the ocean, at the immensity that I didn’t know was possible, and imagine a massive ship with bright red sails, and me at the helm. I am shouting orders to my men to hoist and haul and swing and row. I am wearing a pirate’s hat and holding a golden telescope in my hand. Mermaids swim to the surface and offer themselves to us, valiant sailors, masters of the sea.

“Hoist the mainsails, you scallywags,” I whisper, feeling the words on my tongue. “There is treasure to be had, and glory, and blood to be shed.” I look behind me again, to make sure I’m alone. “I said hoist, you damn sea-vermin.”

But I am firmly ashore, still wearing my black denims and purple shirt and Cowboy hat. No one can see me over the crest between the rocks and sand. I am alone.

I am ripping off my shirt before I have decided to do so. My body is a step ahead. I don’t bother with the buttons. I throw my clothes, my boots, my hat to the side, piled on the rocks like shed skin. I want to be in my own skin. I am stepping and slipping over the slick black rocks, wading into the water, which is not as cold as it looks. It is like nothing. Like stepping out of yourself and into a vast emptiness. The water is not shallow. Take two steps and it is deep, deep, deep. So far down and out. So much life in there. In here. Out here. Out there. All at once.

This is when I realize I can’t swim. My arms are making what I think are swimming motions, but I am just splashing and sinking. I have never swam in deep water. I assumed that swimming was like walking, something intuitive that the body will figure out on its own. I turn to reach for the rocks of the shore but they aren’t there. I am being dragged out to sea by an invisible hand. I pray for mermaids, for coincidental floating devices, for a benevolent jellyfish.

Death is real. If I die none of this will have mattered. There is no individuality in death, perhaps none in life. The silly hats and shirts and swim shorts and sunglasses are at once nothing and everything. As are we. We are a drop in the ocean, but also then we are the ocean. We are we. It doesn’t matter. We sputter. Water in ears, mouth, eyes. We thrash and reach for the surface.

We hear our name, and it is beautiful. We push our head above the surface and see Father dashing across the rocks. He throws his hat aside, diving into the waves. He looks like Indiana Jones. He is reaching for our hand. He pulls us ashore and cradles us like we are a baby again. He says he loves us. We do not speak. We cough and are embarrassed. He says we might want to put our clothes on. We expect him to punish us. At the very least to reprimand us. He says again that he loves us, then says nothing else.

He leaves us alone to get dressed. He comes back a moment later to fetch his hat.

He winks at me.

Instead of getting dressed, I carry my bundle under my arm and set it at the base of the slide tower. I am in my underwear and that’s all. I ascend and the sky seems an ocean to me. All eyes are following me and my wet white underwear all the way up the stairs. The wind whips at me. Heads turn to gaze up at me, raising hands to block the sun. Mother, Father, Tilda. They are looking at me. Me in my skin.