The Book of Numbers
Our heads bobbed up and down like buoys. I flailed my limbs how the swim instructor taught me, desperate to keep myself upright. I’d never swum in the ocean before, finding the texture and flow of the waves unmanageable. All I’d known was the stillness of the chlorine pool at the tennis club, where I’d spent long hours floating in the shallow end while the adults drank.
But this wasn’t Palm Springs. This was Sicily.
For the first time in my life, I was undergoing jet lag, never hungry at mealtimes. I slept in two-to-three-hour intervals on top of the covers, sweating out of every pore, the ceiling fan more decorative than functional. Aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins had made the trip for my great aunt’s bat mitzvah. When she retired from the Red Cross in the 80s, she followed a lover to Sicily who soon abandoned her for someone younger. But it wasn’t in her character to return home defeated, so she stayed. After spending her adult life as a devout atheist, she claimed that God showed himself to her in the ocean one day, not unlike the parting of the sea. She reconnected with her Jewish identity, at first practicing privately. Once she could confidently sing the prayers in both Hebrew and Italian, she joined a local congregation, whose recent formation symbolized the end of Jewish persecution in the area. Soon, between Shabbat and holidays and volunteer projects, her whole schedule was defined by the temple. Her bat mitzvah would be the culmination of her new identity, a permanent marker of her faith. At 75, she was the oldest person in her community to undergo this tradition.
On our third day in Sicily, I felt a stinging underneath my belly button, then a warmth in my groin. I rushed to the café bathroom to find a splotch of maroon in my Gap underwear. I took about 20 squares of toilet paper and folded them into a sturdy rectangle. Thankfully, the pseudo-diaper couldn’t be detected under my flowy skirt, the silhouette hidden under layers of paisley cotton. It wasn’t until later that night when my mom spotted the blood in the trash can that she finally knew what had occurred and offered to teach me how to insert a tampon. I screamed as it went in and she hushed me, fearful we’d wake my grandparents in the next room, who we were sharing our suite with. She ran her fingers through my hair and assured me that I’d be alright, that she didn’t start using tampons until she was in high school. I wasn’t sure if she was telling the truth or just trying to get me to feel better. Pads were going to have to do for now, even in my bathing suit.
The trip was the most time I’d ever spent with my mom’s side of the family. Most of her relatives lived in Palm Springs, where she grew up. Up until then, we’d only seen them for brief visits around the holidays. After my mom graduated from UC Berkeley, where she met my dad, they settled in San Francisco, got married and had me. She was often called the black sheep of her family, an animator amongst lawyers and doctors. Our relatives never made an effort to understand her, which alienated us from them. The car rides to Palm Springs were often plagued with a sense of fear of what my uncle or grandma might say to antagonize us, although they always hid their insults behind the guise of play.
In the days leading up to my great aunt’s bat mitzvah, most of the family would leave the hotel mid-morning to set up camp on the beach, where we’d linger until dinner time. Unlike my cousins, I had no desire to go into the water, so I always brought a book with me. That summer, I was making my way through the Divergent series, often picturing myself as the heroic Tris. There I was, 13, laying out on the hot sand for days on end, watching my second cousin rub almond-scented tanning lotion into her chest, listening to my grandma bicker with my grandpa about putting too much on the Amex. Tris’s life was so much more exciting than mine.
The day before the bat mitzvah began like the rest of them. We settled in the same spot. My mom did her usual twenty-minute morning swim. My cousins all splashed around closer to the shore, throwing wet sand at each other, playing Marco Polo and Colors. Lily, the youngest, got thrown to the ground and cut her shin open on a rock. She sobbed as her mom bent over her with the first aid kit. The rest of the cousins, completely unphased, went on playing without her. I was already well into the second book of the series when my uncle, my mom’s brother, approached my towel.
My uncle was more muscle than fat, a stocky 5’6’’. When he walked, his feet turned out slightly, his legs struggling to bear the weight of his upper body. His hair came out in odd patches, remnants of biotin shampoos and collagen supplements. He looked nothing like the TV ad models. Against the wishes of his third wife, he had an affinity for extreme sports, spending his weekends jumping out of airplanes or participating in endurance swims, in which someone in a little boat next to him would have to pour liquid food into his mouth so that he didn’t starve. He never survived these trips unscathed, often landing himself in the hospital. But it didn’t matter. He had money and health insurance and a family that did nothing more than give him a friendly slap on the wrist every time he almost died.
“Camille,” he said. “Get up.”
I looked up at him in confusion. I hadn’t slept more than an hour the night before. Throughout the two weeks we’d already been in Sicily, he had never addressed me directly.
When I didn’t offer a response, he yanked the book out of my hands.
“Come on,” he said.
My uncle led the way towards the water. My cousins all followed him like puppies, yipping and screaming. My mom was already wading about 100 feet from the shore. Suddenly, I was the only person left on the sand. I had been so enraptured reading that I hadn’t noticed everyone either head towards the water or back to the hotel.
“Don’t be a wimp, Camille!” My uncle yelled back at me. I looked towards my mom. She smiled and waved, clearly having not heard him. Just to get everyone to stop looking at me, I took off my cover-up and walked towards the water.
“Does she even know how to swim?” my uncle’s stepson Devon asked. He was a recent addition to the family. I hated the way he smelled like Axe body spray and armpit all the time, even after showering.
“She knows how to swim,” my mom said as she paddled towards us, then stood when it got too shallow. “Don’t be silly.”
We slowly waded our way in together. The adults were able to walk farther due to a height advantage, so for a little while, us kids swam next to them as they marched on. Once everyone was in deep enough, we formed a loose triangle, my uncle leading as our central point. I tried to stay next to my mom, but she kept swimming in front of me. Ever since we’d gotten to Sicily, she seemed uncharacteristically distracted. Back home, she noticed every small thing, if my dress was missing a button, if I had lied about doing my homework. Now she seemed somewhere else entirely. When we were alone in the hotel suite, she spent most of her time catching up on work. She didn’t seem to notice when I slipped out or when I charged Junior Mints to our room. One time, I even took a small bottle of vodka from the mini bar just to see what she’d do. I made a farce out of trying to open it. She looked over, smiled, and went back to her call with my dad, who couldn’t get enough time off work to join us.
I kept looking behind me. The shore receded. Soon enough, with so much water in my eyes, I couldn’t make out our umbrellas and beach towels from the rest of the landscape.
“Duck!” My uncle yelled. A wave, medium in size, was approaching. My heartbeat quickened and I lost feeling in my arms. At the last possible moment, I plugged my nose and ducked like everyone else. A few seconds passed in total darkness before I miraculously came up on the other side. I managed to use my right arm to tread while I moved my bangs out of my eyes. Everyone suddenly came into view. Devon was cutting his arms through the water like an electric mixer, thwacking Lily in the face, who seemed to have recovered enough from her injury to join us. Then I saw my uncle with his hands on my mom’s shoulders. He had this dumb, sweaty grin on his face. She was laughing but there was something about her expression that suggested she wasn’t fully in on the joke. He pushed her under the water.
“No!” I screamed. “Stop!” I aggressively dog-paddled my way towards them. “Stop it!” I screamed again, but my uncle just laughed. In a quick succession of mental images, I pictured my life without my mom. My dad sobbing over her grave. All my graduations she wouldn’t attend, the dance we wouldn’t share at my wedding. No more Passovers on the porch, no more Halloweens knocking on doors in Seacliff.
My rapid mourning turned rageful.
Feeling as though I was left with no other choice, I socked my uncle in the jaw. He let go of my mom instantly and reached for his cheek. For a fraction of a moment, I felt Tris-like, heroic, like I had done some good for the world. My mom devoted her life to caring for me. For once, I had returned the favor.
My mom bobbed up to the surface, coughing up saltwater. She rubbed her eyes and as everyone came into view, she smiled and laughed through her nose. More water came out.
“I’m fiiiiine!” She said, elongating her vowels. “Come on.” She nodded her head in the direction we were initially heading in.
The cousins all turned their attention to my uncle, who was screaming: “What the fuck!” His face was only six inches or so from mine.
“She was drowning,” I said, my words all chopped up from trying to get my breath back while treading.
“Camille,” my mom said. “It’s fine. We were just playing.”
“But I—you were going to die.”
My mom giggled. All the cousins joined in a choir of laughter.
She paddled closer, wedging herself between me and my uncle. “I’ll never die,” she said.
My uncle was silent at dinner. I caught glimpses of him leaning his left cheek into his palm, trying to cover up the swelling as he ate his spaghetti in massive, messy bites. His new wife did most of the talking, even sang for us after a few glasses of wine. She bragged about her 4-octave range and her time studying opera in Vienna. The younger cousins, who had not yet learned how to feign politeness, plugged their ears and grimaced at her out-of-tune and nearly glass-shattering performance. Devon, her son, rolled his eyes in embarrassment. I tried to discreetly check my flip phone under the table, waiting for a message from my dad. I wanted to tell him about what happened in the water, but I didn’t want to bother him while he was at work.
“Camille,” my grandma hissed at me during the dessert and coffee course. “Put that away.” It was only then that I noticed the soft glow of the screen under the white, lace tablecloth. I reddened through my sunburn and focused on cutting up my tiramisu into perfect triangles.
Back in the suite after dinner, my mom wrapped ice in a washcloth and held it to my right knuckles.
“My little pro-fighter,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say so I didn’t say anything. Too many things I wanted to say floated around in my head, all canceling each other out. I studied the patterns in the carpet and counted how many squares I could see in my visual field.
“Hey,” she said to get my attention. “I’m fine, ok?”
“But you were drowning,” I said, automatically. My voice cracked a bit, warming up after my hours of silence. “You were going to drown.”
“You’ve heard the stories of Tahoe,” she said. “We’ve always been like that, your uncle and I.” The ice was melting. She fumbled around her luggage and pulled out a plastic bag to put the DIY ice pack in. “You don’t have an older brother,” she explained. “This is how he shows his love.”
I had trouble understanding her comparison of love and violence. I had grown up with parents who hugged the bad feeling out of me, rewarded me with treats and presents when I got good grades or moved onto the next level of piano lessons. If violent love was a part of her identity, why had she never treated me that way?
“I think you need to apologize to him,” she said.
“Why?” I asked, tears welling up in my eyes. I was so convinced that I had saved her. Shouldn’t she be thanking me?
“We still have a week left here,” she said. Her phone rang and she reached for it on the coffee table. “Please do this for me.”
She took her call into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
I did not like the dress my mom bought me for the bat mitzvah but there was nothing else fancy enough in my luggage to replace it. Yellow was my least favorite color, but my great aunt, who had micromanaged her special day into oblivion, had assigned each generation its own hue. The top was a little too tight, so some skin spilled out of the bodice. The skirt was made up of layers of tulle, which made a scratching sound every time I moved.
My mom did my make-up and hair before tending to her own, so I sat there watching an Italian talk show, all done-up at nine in the morning while I waited for her. Although I did not want to apologize to my uncle, I was afraid of upsetting my mom further.
I’m sorry for punching you, I wrote on the hotel stationary, then crossed it out. It seemed too curt. I’m sorry for what I did yesterday. I was scared and I acted before I thought. Please forgive me. This seemed acceptable. I mouthed the words to myself a few times. It felt silly to rehearse something that was supposed to come from the heart, but I knew that I’d freeze the second I had to face him. It was better to go into the situation with some level of preparedness.
The temple was small and fit only our family and a few of my great aunt’s friends from Torah study class. Other congregation members stood in the back out of courtesy. I spent most of the service entranced by the architecture, the stained-glass depicting scenes from the Torah, the intricate fresco on the ceiling. The service was conducted primarily in Hebrew and Italian. After my great aunt led us through all the typical blessings, she gave a lecture, in English, on the significance of her Torah portion. That week in the Book of Numbers, God encouraged Moses to take vengeance on the Midianites. Although the Torah typically condemns violence, according to my aunt, this was a time where vengeance was permitted simply because God said so. As she slowly read through her speech in her best radio reporter voice, I rubbed my sore knuckles. Was my act of violence morally good because I had saved my mom in the process? I couldn’t help but feel a spiritual connection to the portion, as if God had been the force that turned my hand into a fist. I decided then that I wasn’t going to apologize.
The service was followed by a luncheon in the temple’s courtyard. My great aunt rented a hardwood dance floor and a DJ who exclusively played Italian covers of 80s hits. After sneaking a glass of wine, which I chugged out of fear of being caught, I decided that nothing mattered and joined my cousins on the dance floor. I showed them some moves Sammie, my occasional babysitter, had taught me back home, like the “Shopping Cart,” in which you pantomime pushing a cart down an aisle while you check the labels for expiration dates. Soon I had everyone, even my grandparents, doing it.
But not my uncle. He remained at one of the circular tables, slowly sipping a glass of wine and snacking on grapes. When his wife tried to pull him onto the dance floor for the Horah, he vigorously shook her off. I watched her scan the room in embarrassment, hoping nobody had seen their minor altercation. His left cheek had turned a reddish blue. It looked as though there had been attempts to cover up the swelling with his wife’s make-up, but it being summer in Sicily, any concealer had already melted off.
“Oh, come on,” my mom yelled to my uncle as the DJ smoothly transitioned from the Horah to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” “Quit being such a curmudgeon.”
He acted as though he didn’t hear her and clicked through his Blackberry with his right index finger.
“All right, Mr. Grumpy,” my mom said. “Have it your way.”
Suddenly, my uncle backed his chair away from the table and started towards the building. My mom chased after him. After about thirty seconds, when I was sure nobody was watching, I shimmied off the dance floor.
The poorly ventilated temple was now warmer inside than out in the courtyard. I took my kitten heels off and followed the low hum of voices down a few hallways until they got louder. When I sensed my mom and uncle were just on the other side of the wall, I sank down onto the cool tile and quietly folded myself into a cross-legged position.
“I’m not going to tell you how to raise your daughter,” my uncle was saying. They seemed to be standing in the alcove by the bathrooms, which helped carry their voices to me. “But she has no manners. Also, what’s up with her? You know.” He paused which led me to believe he was making some sort of hand gesture.
“She’s just a little under the average height,” my mom whispered. “She’s catching up.”
“And what are you feeding her?” he asked. “Do you just let her have junk whenever she wants? I see her out on the beach, just eating, eating all day. The other kids, they’re out there getting their necessary exercise, you know. It’s good for them!”
“She’s on vacation. Can’t you just cut her some slack? She’s your niece.”
“Has she even gotten her period yet? Aren’t you worried about her?”
“Yes,” my mom said. “She’s gotten her period. She’s just a bit of a late bloomer, that’s all.” I felt my face get hot in embarrassment. The idea of any man knowing what was going on down there felt like the end of the world.
“I was just trying to help yesterday,” he insisted, changing the subject. “I wanted her to feel included.”
“Bullshit,” my mom said under her breath.
“I don’t know why you’re getting so defensive,” he said, raising his voice. “Camille is the one who hit me. And she hasn’t even apologized.”
“You know, I wanted her to apologize,” my mom said. “I felt bad about what happened. She doesn’t have a brother. She doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up with one, all the rough housing and all.”
“For once, can you let me finish?” My mom asked. “You never let me finish.” That seemed to shut him up. “I’m tired of you treating me as a lesser parent because I didn’t stay near mommy and daddy and I didn’t go to law school and I don’t make my kid do a sport every goddamn day. You parent different than I do, and that’s fine. Your kids are fantastic in their own ways. And even if I don’t agree with how you do everything, I’m an adult. I would never say anything bad about my own nieces and nephews.”
There was a ringing in my ears, then total silence. I looked down at my belly, which now appeared to me three sizes bigger than it had been the day before. I’m not sure how much longer they went on fighting after I stopped listening. I sat there until a janitor approached with a mop and told me, in Italian, to move, which I only understood by his hand gestures. I shuffled back towards the party barefoot.
David and the girls left for the grocery store in our rented baby blue Civic a few minutes ago. Based on how far from town we are, I have about an hour to myself.
Every summer since the twins were born, David and I have rented this house in Martha’s Vineyard to get some quiet before heading into Boston to visit his parents. It’s not something we could ever afford on our own, but David’s family friend lets us stay here for practically nothing.
And now the girls are eight, although only yesterday they were crying at all hours of the night or giggling wordlessly with gummy smiles. I’m not ready for them to grow up and be their own people. I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m no longer depended on.
Ever since that trip to Sicily, I haven’t swum in the ocean. It’s not a fear of the water, considering I often attend a water aerobics course at the gym near our house back home. It’s something about the ocean itself, the vastness, never-ending sensation of it. My knuckles get sore just thinking about it, thinking about him.
But recently, it’s been calling to me, like when someone says your name in a dream.
The summer house is on the sand, the water only a short walk from the back door. I quickly gather the few things I’ll need, worried if I wait too long, the desire will pass. A few feet from the water’s edge, I lay out a towel and take my shorts off. I put my phone underneath my sun hat and lay the book I’m reading, Bolaño’s 2666, on the brim so that the hat doesn’t blow away. I’ve been lost in the 900-page epic all summer and picture myself as everyone on the page. I think about the books I read in middle school, about living vicariously through Tris, about wanting to escape the present circumstances, the blood in my underwear, the belly forming. I walk towards the water. It’s warmer than expected. I march at a steady pace towards nothingness, no end in sight, although I know it’s there, miles and miles away, another shore with another beach just like this one. When I can no longer walk, I lean forward and begin swimming. I glide for a few minutes until I can barely make out the house behind me. After surveying my surroundings to make sure there is nobody to interrupt me, I plug my nose and dunk my head under. At first, I study the water, cool blue in the afternoon sun, but when my eyes get tired, I close them and lean into the blackness. My tears seem microscopic against this great body of water. In a few moments I will resurface, my body’s final push towards survival, but for now, I curl my knees into my chest, put my free hand against my cheek, and give in.
Sofia Wolfson is a musician and writer from LA, currently living in Brooklyn. She has toured the US and UK with original music and her fiction has been published in Westwind and Open Ceilings. She currently attends the New School MFA Writing Program. Learn more about Sofia and find her music at her website, Instagram, or Twitter.
Eden Smith: You are not only an author, but a songwriter and musician. How does creating music affect your creative writing? What is the difference in your process between writing song lyrics and writing fiction?
Sofia Wolfson: The most important lesson I take from writing songs that I try to infuse into my prose is concision. In a song, you’re only given a few minutes to get the whole story out. When I first turned to short stories in high school (after years of writing songs), I felt so freed by the blank page that I started writing these really lengthy and convoluted sentences. I quickly learned that prose and lyrics had a lot more in common than I originally thought, and soon enough my stories started to sound more like my songs, precise and honest. I always ask myself: how can I get this emotion across as clear as possible? But that doesn’t mean I don’t get to play with language. I find myself lifting many figurative elements from lyric writing (wordplay, alliteration, an obsession with the sound of words) when I’m crafting stories.
Both songs and stories start in the same place for me: I have to be engaging in another activity, whether that’s driving or running errands or walking around a museum, to get some sort of spark of inspiration. I find it extremely difficult to start from nothing and just write, whether that’s composing music or drafting a story. I’ll jot down a lyric or two in the notes app if it’s a song, or a brief summary of a conflict if it’s a short story, and save the note for when I get home. It’s usually pretty clear to me from the beginning if something will become a song or a story, but there have been times when I have explicated a concept in both lyric and prose form. In the novel I’m working on, certain chapters have a song sibling on my forthcoming record; there are memories, scenes, moments I’ve felt compelled to explore in both song and story-form. Almost all of my songs and stories have begun while I’m out and about, which can be frustrating at times if I’m unable to get it all down quickly!
ES: This story explores the transition from child to teenager and the richness of Camille’s Jewish culture, set against the backdrop of the Italian coast. How did you negotiate trying to capture these places and identities?
SW: What I love about fiction is that I’m given the opportunity to imagine my way into spaces unknown to me. Through a combination of research and imagination, fiction lets me go beyond my lived experience. Camille undergoes a series of internal struggles not unlike I did at that age, but I wanted to employ some device to separate me from her, so that I could construct her with a bit of distance, which is where the setting of Sicily comes in. I have never been to Italy, despite having taken a few semesters of Italian in college. I chose it because I not only grew up interested in the country (my dad speaks Italian and spent time there in his 20s), but also because I wanted to set the story in a place with a rich and fraught Jewish history, which mirrors Camille’s own struggles with her religious identity. The Italian coast interested me because I wanted there to be tension between the beauty and luxury of the setting and Camille’s own bodily/emotional struggles.
ES: When did you decide that this story would be told from Camille’s point of view? What challenges or constraints did you run into when writing in the voice of someone so young?
SW: I find family vacations to be very emotionally rich and formative experiences. I wanted to tell the story through Camille’s POV to explore how an unknown setting can shape a child’s relationships and internal life. There’s something very dissonant about witnessing your parents on vacation, seeing them outside of their daily routines. There were a few moments while drafting the story where I wanted to include a detail or insight that I had to omit simply because it would not make sense for a pre-teen to know, which can frustrate the writing process. But writing in a child’s voice is something I’ve taken much interest in over the years, so I found the experience to be primarily enjoyable. I was a theater major at an arts high school and despite quickly figuring out I was not cut out to be an actor, I relished in all the written work we had to do, all the character studies and scene analyses. I think that primed me for getting into different characters’ psyches. Much of the process of constructing “The Book of Numbers” was tricking myself into being Camille, reliving that awkward age, and letting her tell me what she was thinking.
ES: As I read “The Book of Numbers” I was struck by the theme of the tension between loving and being hurtful. Whether in the interactions between Camille and her uncle, or her uncle and her mother, love and hurtfulness often get mixed up in a very human way. Can you elaborate more on the connection you see between these two themes?
SW: I was interested in the idea that hurt can be masked not only by love, but by family obligation. So often I’ve heard people justify hurtful actions by using (or rather, misusing) the language of love, which has always unsettled me. I think my generation is willing to fight back a bit more against the idea that there has to be a certain level of decorum and kindness to people who hurt you simply because of social constructions. The story was my way of exploring what happens when you attempt to put love and pain in their respective boxes (which you point out often get very mixed up in each other), and to assure the younger version of myself that the complexities I was feeling at that age were completely justified, that not everything (especially the bad feelings) has to be housed under the tent of familial love.
ES: Your descriptions of characters are arresting; you have a knack for knowing what details to include to paint a vivid character sketch. For example, the introduction of Camille’s uncle: “Against the wishes of his third wife, he had an affinity for extreme sports, spending his weekends jumping out of airplanes or participating in endurance swims, in which someone in a little boat next to him would have to pour liquid food into his mouth so that he didn’t starve.” This made me laugh, for starters, and it also relays a lot of information about the kind of person he is. Can you tell me a bit about your process for describing characters?
SW: Thank you! I think it helps to be an introvert. I get most of my inspiration for characters at parties, or working one of my many public-facing jobs over the years. I love asking questions and getting people talking. I don’t know what it is about my face or body language, but people seem to love to tell me their entire life story (haha). The characters that end up in my stories are usually amalgamations of people I’ve met briefly at parties/work, people I’ve people-watched, and people close to me. No character is exactly based on a person in my inner circle; instead, I find a lot of joy in collaging details together to bring people to life on the page. What I love most about fiction is that I can mold characters to my liking in order to illuminate some sort of theme or answer to a question I’m trying to get at. I’m always trying to find that balance between the character appearing painfully and honestly human, and the character being used as a vessel to house larger meaning for the story.
ES: Can you tell us about any new music or writing projects we should be on the lookout for?
SW: My forthcoming record Imposing on a Hometown will be released next year. Three singles from it (“View,” “New Year’s Eve,” and “From up Here”) are already out! I’m currently in revisions for my first novel, which is an ekphrastic exploration of an age-difference relationship between visual artists, set in LA (where I grew up). It’s my dream to see it published one day.