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Under Water

Under Water

– Fiction by Cindy Littlefield –

Honorable Mention in the 2020 Dreamers Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest

The Sunday I first went to the quarry was after I made Tito choose. He’d been back in the States a few weeks. This is what his mother asked for her sixtieth birthday, the company of her rebel son for a little while, before he returned to the fight. She worried, but she was proud; while the pride I felt was just my own, and my only battle, to make him stay.

He spent the days eating his mother’s cooking, the bacalaitos and stewed chicken, her coconut pudding. Nights he’d wait for me out on the stoop until Mami and Papi went to bed and my brother Jorge fell asleep in front of the TV, and the cement lost enough of the summer heat for us to walk in search of a place where we could be together before we talked. But always we would talk, and the closer it came to the end of Tito’s stay, the more my words betrayed me.

“If you loved me, you’d stay,” I said the night before he was supposed to go.

He reached for my hand and I let him take it without holding his back.

“You wouldn’t ask me,” he said. “You wouldn’t want me to be someone I’m not. I can’t pretend what’s going on at home is right because America says so.”

“America,” I mocked. This was the word that both connected us and separated us. When he started high school, his mother had moved him and his younger sister Nilda to the States, the same barrio in Hartford where my family came to live, but he stayed just long enough to finish. To Tito, Vieques was home, where his grandfathers had worked in the sugar mills and his father fished. He and Jorge were close in age, and I might never have met him had they not reconnected during one of his visits after my brother came back from Vietnam.

“You think we are Americans?” Tito said. “What makes you one of them? Living here? What happens when you leave this barrio? Do you think it’ll feel the same?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to be mad. Don’t you ever get tired of fighting?”

Tito sighed then pulled my hand to his lips and kissed it. “I love you, Rosa. But freedom is a slippery rope to hold. Ask your brother. He fought for it, and now he knows. The same government that trained him to kill for freedom thinks nothing of taking it from others. On Vieques, they moved families out of their homes and made them live in a burned-off cane field in the middle of the island. They gave them twenty dollars and one day to leave their houses before the bulldozers came. How is that okay? How are the fishermen supposed to make a living without access to the ports?”

I knew already that I’d lost. From the beginning it was Tito’s conviction that drew me to him, how certain he was about what he believed in. “Then bring me with you,” I said.

“For a while, would it be so terrible to stay in San Juan with la familia?”

I’d told him over and over how I felt about Papi’s plan to leave Hartford for good, his decision not to renew the lease on our family’s apartment above the bodego come fall, the expectation that I’d move with him and Mami to Puerto Rico. “For more than a year you’ve talked of taking me to Vieques. When will you keep your promise?”

“Soon I hope. But not now.”

“So you’ll take Jorge but not me.”

He shook his head. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“That’s different. It’s childish to pretend it’s not.”

“Don’t call me that,” I snapped, because now he’d touched the nerve that made me crazy. “You’re like everyone else, acting like you know what’s best for me. Like I can’t decide for myself.” But what I felt for him was too big to shake loose, and the next thing I was pleading. “Take me with you, Tito. Please.”

“I can’t,” he said. “Not yet.”

“If not now, then never. I’ll make myself forget you.”

I could see in his eyes that I’d hurt him. “You don’t mean that.” He said it softly, carefully, as though treading the words to the tip of a weighted branch.

Before Tito, I didn’t know what it was like to love a man so deeply it hurt, how it felt to lose your breath when you look up and he’s already staring. And yet I couldn’t bring myself to tell him he was right. Instead, I gambled. I walked away.

When Tito and Jorge flew back to Vieques, and the TV no longer played after Papi went to bed, I didn’t believe the quiet. I still listened for steps on the stairs. Three nights I slipped out to the stoop at midnight unconvinced that all I’d find was the dark. But, as nighttime became nothing more than an extension of day, the apartment walls caved in on me. After graduation, I’d planned to work at the furniture store on Park Street or Mr. Ortiz’s bakery until Papi said it wasn’t fair to take a job considering we were about to leave. With nothing to do other than cook and clean, I paced between the kitchen and living room carrying a desperateness that threatened to rip through my skin. I begged Nilda to drive us out of the city now that Tito had left her his car. Someplace we’d never been before, away from the heat for just a day. Lucia, another girl from the barrio, wanted to come too. She’d heard of a place in Vermont where kids went to swim.

“It wasn’t easy for him, you know,” Nilda said once we were underway. “It wasn’t fair to make him choose.”

I wanted to say it wasn’t her business what happened between Tito and me, but of course it was, because before I’d distracted him, he was already in danger. I kept my head turned to the passenger window, watching the blur of buildings from the interstate as we left Hartford then passed through Springfield heading north. It turned greener then, and hilly, and all the mile markers that followed, the unbroken sky, made it easier to breath because it felt like I was going somewhere too, less like I’d been left behind. Until we found the quarry.

Even as Nilda parked in the pull-off at the head of the trail, Tito’s voice came back in my ear casting doubt about how it would be outside the barrio. Making it impossible not to notice that the lot was mostly filled with pickup trucks, and the only car that stood out from the others aside from the Fairlane was a Charger with fancy hubcaps, though its orange paint had lost its shine. And, once we’d followed the path to the pool beneath the ledge, I heard the hush that settled as the locals turned their heads; felt their eyes on our backs as we spread our towels on a stretch of rock beside the water. After that, I knew they were just pretending indifference, keeping one eye on us and another on the kids jumping from the cliff overhead, one after another twisting their bodies into somersaults or dives.

“Those chicos están locos,” Nilda said, rolling onto her back and raising her knees after we’d watched for a while.

“Putting your body in front of bombs, that’s what’s crazy.” I hadn’t meant to say it aloud, and I braced for a scolding, but Nilda only shook her head in disgust.

“Look,” Lucia said, drawing our attention back to the ledge.

A blond girl in a hot pink bikini stepped up to the edge and peered down then backed a few feet away before coming forward again, this time with her arms held out to her sides and shaking her wrists, trying to psych herself into jumping. Another girl watching from below cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted, “Come on! You can do it.” But the next time the blond backed away, she didn’t come back and the boys who’d been waiting at the top took their turns.

The longer we watched and listened the more my mind flooded with memories of Tito. Even the hot of the rock under my towel became his touch, so that when Nilda and Lucia waded into the shallow end to splash away the heat, I couldn’t follow. Now my pledge to forget him became a taunt graffitied on the quarry walls, testing my will to prove I could be as brave as him, that I could find a way to fit in wherever I had a mind to. Why else would I climb? The temptation to slip? To stop the longing, if not one way then another, once and for all?

But, halfway to the top, when I realized it wouldn’t matter how hard my fingertips pulled against the lips of stone above me if I lost my foothold, I prayed not to fall. And when I finally reached the ledge and saw the others watching, the girl in the pink bikini whispering to the person beside her, I was grateful the boy with the sandy hair reached out to help me.

His hand was calloused across the palm, his arm lean but muscled and tanner than his chest, barely, because really his skin was so much paler than mine. As if it only soaked up the scent of the sun. Even the stubble on his cheeks was faint as ginger.

“I’m impressed,” he said. “For most people the jump is enough.”

“Enough?” I asked.

“Excitement. You climbed the cliff instead of taking the trail.” He tilted his head toward an opening in the brush behind us and now I understood that the path we’d followed down to the pool also forked up through the bushes to the ledge. 

“I didn’t know,” I said.

He told me his name was Vince Cavanaugh, and I turned toward the cliff determined not to return his smile. From above, the pool colored the sky’s reflection a deeper harder blue. In my family, the stories about water had always led to the ocean. The strand beyond the Spanish Wall where Mami played as a girl before the nuclear Dome was built, the pirate cave near Boquerón Bay said to hold Cofresí’s stash. Yet, my whole life in the States I could only remember a single Sunday at the beach, just an hour’s drive to the Rhode Island coast, but too long ago to remember the smell and taste of salt. I’d learned to swim in the city taking lessons at the Y. Then came Tito with his tales of seas that sparkled like cobalt constellations in the night. I knew little of fresh water, but here I was, watching sunlight break into pieces against its surface. 

“How far is it?” I asked.

“Thirty feet. Maybe more.”

I stepped closer, inches from the edge, and took a long slow breath.

“Are you scared?” he asked. “You don’t have to jump.”

“I’m afraid not to.”

“Why? What happens if you don’t?”

I gazed back at him but didn’t answer.

“You have to go wide, to clear the wall. And straight so the landing doesn’t hurt.” His voice was calm, steady, but worry pulled at the corner of his mouth.

“You want to know why?” I said. “Because, right now, more than anything I need to do something I’ve never done before. Something …”

“Reckless.” He raised his chin just enough to look at me more fully, and in the light his eyes turned a paler, softer blue.

“You’ve felt it too?”

“Every day.”


“Especially today.”

That’s when I did it. I jumped. And in the instant that followed, I learned what it felt like to make a decision that can’t be undone. How long a second can stretch when you’re touched by nothing but air, and how it sounds to scream a scream there’s no prayer of stopping. What it is to plunge so deep and still not hit bottom before kicking up through water that tastes sweet and feels like velvet.

Three weeks after I moved to the Cavanaughs’ farm, I wrapped sandwiches and walked out to the field where Vince was planting winter rye. It was all so novel to me then, I didn’t bother to change into the old muck boots his sister had given me, and by the time I crossed the furrows my favorite red sneakers were streaked with dirt. Vince was facing backwards on the tractor, intent on the seeder hitched behind him. He grinned when he turned and saw me, like he knew I would come and wanted nothing more.

“You might starve before you finish,” I teased once he stopped and I climbed up to share the seat. “You drive like a grandpa.”

His grin spread wider. “Slow, you mean? How fast do you think I should go?”

I shrugged. “Faster than molasses.”

“Let’s see,” he said, sliding up onto the back edge of the seat so I could sit between him and the steering wheel. I felt the warmth in his arms when he reached around me to pull the switches that restarted the tractor, the quiet strength in his hand cupped over mine on the lever knob when he showed me how to find each gear. When he was done, he moved the lever into neutral and took his foot off the clutch. “Your turn.” 

It was harder to hold down the pedal than he’d made it look, and after I shifted into gear, I released it too quickly and the tractor stalled. With someone other than Vince, I might have been embarrassed, but instead of looking smug or making some flip remark, he blamed the tractor and adjusted the throttle to give it more gas. When I stalled the second time, he said simply, “third time’s a charm.”

The thing about Vince was he had infinite patience, a heart bent on sharing everything if it could make the farm feel like home. It was enough for a while to make me think it would. When I eased off the pedal once again, slower than before, the gear caught just the way he said it was supposed to. “You got it,” he said when the back tires started to turn. “You got it.” You could hear the joy in his voice even through the poppy stutter of the engine. But almost as soon, the hood of the tractor lifted off the ground and we were rolling along with the front wheels in the air. I screamed and held tight to the wheel until Vince managed to stomp on the clutch to drop the front end back in the dirt.

I turned to him, stunned, breathless. “What happened?”

“You popped a wheelie,” he said and then we couldn’t stop laughing.

That day, Vince explained why tractors aren’t designed to go fast; how they use power to pull the implements you need to plow and plant instead. A sacrifice of speed for strength. He talked about torque and RPMs and how the center of gravity was too high, the steering too tight, to race. How important it was to keep the rows straight, each perfectly aligned with the last, because wavy rows were hard to harvest—though it didn’t matter so much with rye as corn and potatoes and other crops. The way he described it all made it easy to understand. But what struck me more was the breadth of what he knew, how fully he fit the role and accepted what it took to get the things done that needed doing. Then, after I’d grown quiet, the concern in his voice when he asked, “Are you bored?”

“No,” I said. “I get it.” We were still on the tractor seat, me in front of him, looking out across all that land, not a single thing but us to cast a shadow in the sun. “Are there times, though, when it drives you crazy? When all you want is to go as fast and far as possible? Even if you don’t know where, or why?”

“That’s why I have the Charger.”

Vince’s arms were wrapped around me and when I leaned back against his chest and he rested his chin atop my head, I thought no one could love me more than him. I felt adored. Like everything circled around me. Like I could only do right after all the time I’d spent believing everything I did was wrong. It was exciting being where nothing was familiar, where I didn’t know the rules I might be breaking.

I could sense the change from the beginning, though I tried to deny it. The way my body felt just a little warmer and craved a bit more sleep, how the smell of cooked food and the scent of dropped fruit fermenting under the apple trees seemed always to fill the air. With the nausea came the understanding that I’d created a fairytale to step into when I left the barrio, a romanticized story of country fairs and church suppers and collecting eggs to substitute for the one I’d really wanted. Like the sickness itself, the realization rose in waves, intense and profuse, ebbing just enough to catch my breath before it hit again. A rock rapped repeatedly against glass until the pane shattered and brought into focus all the dreams that had blurred behind it, the hopes I’d held for a life with Tito. They knocked about in my head, begging me to find my way free.

I prayed to come clear on it, and what I heard were other voices. Voices of the older women I’d listened to growing up in the barrio, telling stories about girls who’d shown no restraint and disgraced their families. The same women who played ignorance to the antics of sons, encouraged them in fact, because boys were meant to test the waters before they settled down. Even if I dared discount them as old-fashioned, Papi would insist it was my duty to hold tight to the life I’d waded into, lest I become his biggest disappointment.

So I set to work boarding up that broken glass. I whispered the name Rosa Cavanaugh to myself again and again, willing myself to believe that this, and not Mrs. Perez, was who God meant me to be. I said okay when Vince’s mother offered to sew my wedding dress. And when it was time to try it on one last time, I followed her to the back room where she’d spread it across the bed, the fabric white as snow atop the old chenille spread. Cotton with embroidered eyelets, and a row of buttons round like pearls down the bodice all the way to the gathered skirt.

It took a minute to undo all those buttons and refasten them once I’d stepped into the dress. I was surprised by the heaviness of it, how stiff the cotton felt against my shoulders when I expected it to be soft.

“Have you lost weight?” Mrs. Cavanaugh asked, pinching the side seam. “It’s looser than last time.”

I knew how much this mattered to her, how determined she was to get it exactly right, this wedding dress for her son’s bride. A girl she barely knew, destined to carry her first grandchild.

Without warning, the room seemed to spin a little, and I reached for her arm. “I can’t …”

“What?” Her eyes filled with concern.

I knew right then I had to tell her I couldn’t do it, that coming to the farm was never meant to lead to this. The words were right there, but before I could say them an unbearable heat rose from my soles to my cheeks, glazing my skin with sweat.

“Quick, let me help you out of the dress,” she said, mistaking what she saw for queasiness and reaching for the buttons as I pulled away and turned for the door.

I ran down the hall, and all the way the fabric brushed the walls, as if the dress was growing wider and reaching for a handhold to keep me from bursting through the doorway into the living room where Vince and his father were watching the weather forecast on TV.

“What’s wrong?” Vince asked, getting up from his chair to reach for my hand.

But I kept running, through the living room and kitchen, focused only on the door to the back porch, sure I wouldn’t make it because there was no air, no air at all, until at last I stood in the middle of the yard, the hem of my dress resting in the dirt while I tried to breathe.

About the Author – Cindy Littlefield
Cindy Littlefield

Cindy Littlefield earned an MFA in Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University, and her fiction has appeared in Litro, Dogzplot, and other literary journals. She is currently working on a novel about two young women conflicted by the cultures they were born into as they search for a sense of home. As a freelance writer, editor, and writing coach, she has developed online and print content for a variety of publishers, including Disney Press and Storey Publishing. Cindy spends winters in Western Massachusetts and summers in Maine. Visit her website here.

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**This story by Cindy Littlefield received an honorable mention in the 2020 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place & Home Contest.

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