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CANALS ZIGZAG ACROSS THE CITY I used to call home. Those lines of murky water still run beside and under expressways, now choked by whorls of algae-mostly hydrilla, a well-known invasive, though that's likely the only algae I ever saw growing up in Miami. Even just ten years ago, before it took over, you could float tangle-free down those waterways from neighborhood to neighborhood, waving to strangers from your inner tube as they would wave back and wonder whether or not you needed rescuing.
While they were married, my parents used the canal across from the house they owned until just before I left for college in ways that make my current research group howl. Every Tuesday, at the weekly lab meetings I help our principal investigator run, each of us in the group is supposed to catalog the slow progress we're making toward understanding the demise of coral reef systems everywhere. But being one of the institute's lab managers means I've been working on this project longer than any of the postdocs or graduate students we hire, so my segment of the meeting has another goal: I try each week to make our PI laugh at least once by revealing, like a prize behind a curtain, some new and highly illegal thing my mom or dad tossed into that canal's water.
My dad: every single drop of motor oil ever drained from any of the dozen or so cars he's owned and sold over the years; a stack of loose CDs I once left on the couch and forgot, for days and days, to put away, each of them dotting the water's surface like a mirrored lily pad; an entire transmission. My mom: a dead hamster, cage and all, the failed project of my older sister Leidy, who was charged with keeping it alive over Christmas break when she was in fifth grade; any obvious junk mail, before I knew to grab the brochures from colleges out of her hands lest she send them sailing from her grip; dried-out watercolors, homemade tape recordings of her own voice, parched hunks of white clay-any and all signs of an attempt to discover some untapped talent she hoped she possessed wound up in the water. Too many things got dumped there. I know this was wrong-knew it then. Still, I say to my drop-jawed colleagues when they ask how we could've behaved so irresponsibly, what do you want me to tell you? I'm sorry, I say, but it's the truth.
Starting my segment of our meetings this way has let me turn Miami's canals into a funny family story. But I know which stories not to tell, which stories would make these particular listeners uncomfortable. Once, when my dad was thirteen, a friend from junior high dragged him and some other guys to a nearby canal to see a dead body he'd found there. My dad told me this story only once, the summer after Ariel Hernandez was sent back to Cuba after months of rallies and riots. I'd asked him if what people like my mom said was true: that Ariel had seen his mother's body floating in the Florida Straits, had watched sharks pick her apart before his rescue. This story was his only answer. So I asked him, What did you do, did you tell anyone? We just left it in the canal, he said. It got worse and worse, then one day it was gone, problem solved. My dad didn't say any more, even when I asked him why he'd kept the body a secret. He doesn't have any evidence to prove this actually happened, and there's no verifiable record I can look up to confirm it, but the fact that he's never mentioned it again-that he'll deny this story if I bring it up now-tells me it's true. My dad's canal isn't far from the one in front of our old house. The two waterways are probably connected, and though I don't know exactly how you'd navigate from one to the other, I'm sure it can be done.
Years after that summer, managing my first lab at the institute and working for a parasitologist studying the effects of sewage runoff on canal-dwelling snails, I slipped under another city's slick water: I lost my grip on the concrete shelf lining that particular canal and screamed as a reflex, which meant the contaminated water flooding my ears and nostrils had-via my open mouth-an additional (and an exceptionally gross) way to enter my system. My head submerged, the image of all these objects-the body, the CDs, the hamster cage, all of it somehow still intact and floating in Miami's water-surged over me. I found I couldn't kick my legs, fearing that I'd cut open my foot on a transmission that couldn't possibly be there: I was already on the West Coast by then, far from the canal my parents had abandoned to another family almost a decade earlier. The parasitologist hauled me out from the nastiness, made some unfortunate joke about Cubans and the coast guard, then spent the drive to the hospital apologizing for said joke, which he claimed was truly offensive in that it wasn't even that funny.Nurses plugged antibiotic-filled sacks into my arms, the hope being that intravenous administration would keep the various organisms that'd bombarded my body from calling it home for too long.
I called each parent from my sublet a couple days later once I'd been discharged.
-I don't know why you do that nasty work, my mom said, angry because I'd waited to call her. She preferred the rush of an emergency, the play-by-play of panic.
My father asked, after having me explain the basic facts of my treatment, Did you call your mother already? When I said yes, he said, Good girl, Lizet-his voice the same as if I'd brought home a decent report card or gotten rid of a Jehovah's Witness at the door without bothering him for help. Good girl, Lizet. I was almost twenty-eight.
Neither parent brought up the canal across the street from us during that phone call-I didn't let either conversation go on very long because I didn't want to hear that other story, another supposed truth about our canal, one my family has always claimed but which I don't know I believe.
It goes like this: When I was three years old and left under the very temporary supervision of my then five-year-old sister while my mother spoke with our backyard neighbor, I marched into the garage and rummaged through piles of old-clothes-turned-cleaning-rags and half-empty bottles of detergents and oils, found the floaties used to buoy me in the Atlantic Ocean, and blew them up on my way across the street to the water. By my mother's account, I stood on the sheer edge of the canal and blew these things up the way my father always did-bending forward as I pushed air into them, as if that motion helped-then licked them to slip them up my arms. By my father's account, I went over there with the floaties already on, my arms hovering out from my sides so that from behind, I resembled a tiny body builder. (Sometimes they say I was barefoot, but that can't be true. I would remember, I think, the asphalt embroidering my heels, shredding the pads of my toes. I would remember the sting of every step there.) By all accounts-even my sister's, who you could argue was too young to have an account, but that's not how stories work-I took several huge, shoulder-raising breaths before launching myself into the canal's crowded water. In some versions I pinch my nose; in some I know to breathe out through it as I hit the water; and in others still the water rushes into me through this and other openings, mandating that I be prescribed antibiotics the minute my parents, who take embarrassingly long to discover me floating across the street, explain to the triage nurse in the hospital's emergency room from where it is I'd just been pulled. Versions of this story change from teller to teller, from time told to other time told. But every version ends with almost the same lines: She was fine! All that worrying, all that time and money and crying wasted-and for what? She was fine. It made us want to kill her.
Copyright © 2015 by Jennine Capó Crucet