Saturday begins as another day of sand, and swim, and relishing my recent return to childhood. I feel pure these days in Zanzibar, like something essential about myself has emerged: a self before pain, before betrayal, before abandonment. My skin has turned the color of honey under the sun’s rays, and this external glow feels to me to be an expression of the sweetness at the center of my pure delight in the world and all its creatures. This childhood I am finding in my middle 40’s has allowed me to shed the depression and anxiety that has all but crippled me in recent years. I greet the day with enthusiasm and set out for a swim with Pawel, my new friend from our guest house.
Pawel, a handsome man also in his 40s, himself has a childlike quality that I find completely endearing. He’s playful and enthusiastic in a way that’s infectious, in a way that adults so often lose, even when on vacation. Our relationship quickly becomes akin to one of childhood playmates: simple, centered around fun and innocent mischief. Pawel is from Poland but he speaks nearly perfect English. Only occasionally is his ethnicity betrayed by an American idiom he gets mistaken. “I have zero luggage,” he tells me once when we are talking about our relationship history. He means “baggage,” but I don’t correct him because I find the error endearing. Luggage: meaning something carried laboriously; I imagine carrying my emotional pain laboriously in a set of antique hard shell overweight bags — the phrasing works. I smile at the image in my head.
Pawel lives now in Switzerland. It’s the one thing about him that for me is a cloud over our friendship. For me Switzerland is among the worst of triggers. But I don’t tell him this. It’s not a thing that adults say to one another upon first meeting. “Yes I have been to Switzerland as a matter of fact. I would have been about ten. The Swiss man who molested me for six years took me there for several weeks one winter; it was the site of some of the worst abuses I suffered with him. But most of my memories of that time have been mercifully wiped out by a brain in a state of shock trying to protect itself. I remember only the Alps, the St. Bernard in our hotel lobby, and the sting of his hand across my cheek when I told him I loved my mother more than I loved him. But do tell me, how are you finding Switzerland?” Instead I say nothing, and listen quietly to his stories. I have a lot of luggage.
Pawel and I decide to run up the beach and swim back down in an attempt to mix up our lazy days with some exercise. I’m not as excited about the running as I am about the swimming, but I know that it’s good for me and so I agree to join him. We wear only our bathing suits, me my bikini, and set off north, facing away from the sun, still strong in the early afternoon sky. We run on the hot white sand, and walk, and then run again, until we are both panting and sweaty and satisfied that we have done enough work for our heart for the day. Finally the moment of payoff has arrived — swimming. I launch my body with full force into the pale green ocean. The salt water rinses away the sweat of our run, it rinses away the memories of Switzerland, and returns to me a new childhood that is happening in that very moment, a childhood full of play and delight. Pawel and I swim and splash and kick and dive. We head south toward our guest house.
We pass a group of teenagers standing in a circle in water up to their chests. It’s a mix of boys and girls, locals. The biggest boy among them, maybe 19 years old, is tossing the smaller ones over his head into the water. They’re all cheering and laughing as they take turns getting tossed. The oldest boy has thick muscular arms, his biceps bulge as he lifts the others high above his head. Splash, laughter, the sound of cheers, and the next child moves into place for the launch. I tread water a few feet away from them, watching. Thinking of my own childhood summers at my Aunt Mary’s pool. My cousin’s friend Gus, a thick strong German boy lifting my skinny body off the edge of the pool and tossing me in without warning. Splash, laugh, cheer, mock promises of revenge. I’m a child in this water as I watch a memory from my own childhood, like a movie, play out in front of me with these local children. One of the older boys sees me watching them and waves me over. I swim toward them. “Jambo.” “Jambo.” The greetings pass between us. The oldest boy seems to be about my height, but thicker, stronger. I stand next to him. He bends over and puts one arm between my legs and with his other hand takes my wrist and pulls me across his back like a wooden beam. I am too heavy to lift all the way over his head, but he gets me well above the water line and heaves me into the sea. The turquoise water surrounds me, my body suspended in the rush of blue and clear green and bright yellow light from above. Sounds are muted. I hold my breath and stay submerged for as long as possible.
When I come to the surface there is laughter and cheers. The squawking birds overhead seem to be cheering too. The whole thing is over too quickly and I want the feeling again. “Again. Again” I shout like a kid. Another boy steps in place to launch me, and I realize in that moment that I’m too heavy for this game with these young men. I am a tall woman. I’m far from fat, but large and heavy for any average man. A cloud of shame passes over me; I have asked too much of these young men. But it’s too late. The next boy leans over, places his right arm between my legs, takes a hold of my opposite arm and hoists me onto his back. Just as quickly as he does he heaves me into the water. Again the turquoise water. Again the muted sounds and the bright beams of sun beating down from above. Again the laughter and the smiles. I want more but I know it’s too much to ask. They are being gracious to the white tourist, suspending their own fun for my benefit. I thank them and swim away.
Pawel is quite a bit ahead of me now. Treading water to keep me in sight, but well out of ear shot. I swim toward him. Another 100 yards and we pass another group of children, all boys, and much younger. Maybe six or eight of them, all of whom look to be grade school age. The youngest, who looks to be six years old, is centered in a flotation device shaped like a giraffe. He has the deflated giraffe’s head in his mouth, which he is sucking intensely. Like a mirror of the older group they are splashing and cheering. When they see me they stretch out their arms to lure me over. I swim toward their circle. One of the boys grabs on to me as I approach. I briefly consider tossing him over head like the other, older boys did for me. I want to give him the same playful childhood experience that I have been enjoying for several days now – but he is small and I don’t know how well he can swim. Even though the water is more shallow here I decide it’s too big a risk. Instead I hoist the boy out of the water and lift him up and down, into and out of the sea, increasing the chop of the waves, settling him on one hip when I grow tired. He laughs wildly. They all laugh wildly, jumping and splashing. The birds screech wildly too. The inflatable giraffe see-saws in the waves, and the boy has let it’s withered head fall out of his mouth as he laughs loudly, enjoying the pick up in the action. Another boy swims over to my left side, arms outstretched as he reaches my giant tree trunk of a body planted firmly in the sand – a shelter from our self inflicted storm. I hoist him up onto the other hip. There is more laughter, more howling, more jumping and more chop in the sea. We are wild. This blur of tiny bird bones flailing wildly in the bright sunlight, black bird arms, black bird legs all around me, splashing in the turquoise water, laughing, and howling. I am lost in this childhood spell. We are no longer separate people, this pile of limbs. There is only color: turquoise and green, black and cream.
A third boy swims from around the back of the giraffe and grabs a hold of my leg under the water. My thigh is as thick as his torso. My leg is longer than his whole body. He reaches for my hips as if landing a boat to shore. He wraps his limbs around me like a vine strangling a tree and presses his pelvis into my leg. Up and down we are jumping, laughing and howling still. Up and down he rubs his soft penis into my leg, like a dog on a bitch. We are jumping together the four of us before I notice him rubbing so intensely on my leg. We are jumping together before I notice the satisfied smirk on his face. A forth boy, the oldest – maybe twelve years old, hoists himself up onto my back, knees bent tightly hugging my waist. I feel the open palm of his hands plant firmly, squarely on each one of my breasts. A squeeze. His small hands pump the flesh exposed my by bikini top. The cacophony of laughing and howling escalates. We are jumping the five of us. These tiny limbs feel tight on my body like a vine strangling a tree. A wave of shame passes over me. The laughing now ringing with a menacing quality. The child in me shocked. The adult in me has to step in for a rescue.
In one swift motion, a forceful shrug of my shoulders, a quick jerk of my legs, a snap of my forearms to break the boys grasp, I toss them all off my body. I shift out of reach of their small limbs casting about for safety. The boy who was on my back is tossed under water. I catch my breath out of their reach. His dark figure gently rocks beneath the surface of the sea. He is not coming to the surface.
Shit. Shit. You groping little shit. Don’t you fucking die on me. A blur of crying mothers, and vigils, and burials flood my brain. A wall of fire rises through me — this groping little kid, this bundle of bird bones, this stupid kid doing stupid adult things — can’t fucking die this way. I reach down under the water and wrap my hands around his chest and lift him high above the water line. Breathe. “Are you okay?” I ask desperately. I place him on his feet and look at his face searching for the answer. He is silent. He slowly blinks his eyes open, his lashes full of sand and droplets of sea water. His eyes grow wide as his pupils adjust to the strong afternoon sun. “Are you okay?” I ask again. A long silence. All the boys are silent around us. A dozen brown eyes staring at the two of us. The sea is silent too. This young boy and I looking into the eyes of the other, both of us searching for some reassurance.
He coughs. And then the tension is broken. He coughs louder and harder, pushing the water out of his lungs. I motion for him to shake his head on one side and then the next to dislodge the water in his ears. He does. “You’re okay?” He nods. He is stunned. But not harmed. As if a signal went off in the crowd, the laughing and howling reignites, and a dozen tiny arms reach in my direction. With one quick stroke of my long body I swim out of their reach. I swim toward Pawel. And toward the horizon.
∴ ∴ ∴
By the time I reached Pawel he was laughing. “Yesterday you got a marriage proposal, today you almost got gang raped by a bunch of 8-year olds.” “It’s not funny.” I am still catching my breath. I’m still confused my what has just happened. The words pierce me in my most tender wound. “It freaked me out” I tell him. “It’s gross. Why didn’t you help me?” My shame grows as the realization sinks in that Pawel has looked on with amusement as these young boys pawed my body. How many other people watched it. How many other men laughed at my expense. “I thought you were having fun” he says. “I was at first, until they started groping me. And then I wasn’t.” I want to scream at Pawel, but my anger and my shame steal my voice. I sink back down into memories of the childhood I actually did have. Into feelings of shame about my body. Into a darkness that passes over me like a veil.
Pawel has moved onto talking about something else. Kitesurfing perhaps. I hear the sounds but the words have no meaning. I am lost now, sunk down in the tunnel of shock and shame that erased much of my childhood memories. I must still be swimming for I didn’t drown, but I have no sense of direction, no sense of time passing, just my brain carrying a spiritless body like a soldier carrying his fallen comrade out of the line of fire. I am swimming. Pawel is talking. Time passes. “You’re still thinking about it?” Pawel asks me. It has finally dawned on him that this was not so easy for me to brush aside. “Yes” I respond, although that’s not entirely accurate. I couldn’t say I was actually thinking about anything. More words pass between us, but I don’t know what is said. My brain is still carrying a lifeless corpse.
“I’m going back to talk to them” I finally declare. “Please don’t” he urges. “They are just kids” He sounds disappointed. He thinks I am foolish that this should bother me. He has no idea that his words also bother me. My affection for him slips away and the childlike friendship we have enjoyed sours as he becomes just another man who has betrayed me with his callousness.”Kids have to learn somehow” I respond. I swim away back toward the beach, into the blaze of the afternoon sun. It occurs to me as I am swimming toward the boys that I don’t know how much English they understand. It occurs to me they may understand absolutely nothing I say. But I have no choice. I have to speak for myself now, for my childhood self, for the other girls who they will meet and want to touch.
When I reach the circle of boys, it appears their play time has significantly muted since my departure. The boys themselves have scattered farther apart and are playing in small groups of twos or threes. “It’s not okay for you to touch me without my consent” I tell them. First it feels like I am only speaking to the open ocean. The nuance I know of the words ‘touching me’ versus ‘touching my breasts’ is lost in translation. But I say the words. I find my voice. The boys stare back at me blankly, watching me talk to the sea. I look for the boy who groped me but I can’t tell which one he is. He was behind me, and everything happened so quickly.
One of the older boys steps in to translate. I wonder if it is the groper. “You don’t touch her” he says to the others scornfully. “Not just me” I clarify “You don’t touch any women without her consent. You don’t touch her breasts” I clarify, touching my own. “You either” I say facing the young translator. He seems confused by why I am aiming this message at him. “Tell them” I insist. He says something to the boys, but I’m doubtful that it’s what I was hoping. Then he starts shouting at them to go to shore. “Leave here” he commands them. “No, they don’t have to leave. Just explain to them that they can’t touch women without their consent.” The young translator seems confused but what I want from the group. But he says words to the group and this time I have more confidence that it’s something approximating what I wanted to convey. “Respect women” I say to him. “Respect women” he says back to me. I thank him and swim off.
It takes the rest of the evening to wash off the day. I can’t bear to be around anyone, least of all Pawel. I swim alone for a long time. Then I sit on the beach alone. Finally I meditate alone. When the sun starts to set and the tide starts to rise, threatening the stretch of beach that will return my to my guest house, I make my way back. The child inside me is gone, but the adult is not helpless. Maybe that’s enough.
∴ ∴ ∴
photo credit: spotmatik