Drowning by Natasha Williams

Featured Art: “Somersault” by Ann Marie Sekeres

My father marched to the table as if on a mission from God. He was a large man: five eleven and nearly three hundred pounds. His dirty t-shirt, slacks, and black dress shoes hinted at his early beatnik days.

“Hey Baby, what a hassle getting here,” he said, swiping his thick dark hair from his eyes. He was disheveled and smelled like cooked grease and cigarettes. It was an odor I associated with his being poor and hemmed in. There was so much about our life together that was hard to describe. The unspoken inheritance of the child of a schizophrenic is a story without words.

It was a warm autumn day, and we sat at an outdoor table with an ashtray. He stubbed his cigarette out on the sole of his shoe and put it into his pocket.

“Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?” the waitress asked, and we figured out we had graduated from the same Greenwich Village high school two years earlier. She brought menus over and left us to decide.

“Maybe you could introduce me?” Dad said, after she left.

“What? She’s my age!” I said, even though things like age and social mores had never mattered to my father.

“I’m simply mentioning the woman is attractive,” he said, with a tone that implied I was getting in the way of his creative pursuits. I crossed my arms, looking at the menu not at him, trying to avoid his mania. I was not yet twenty-one, had recently dropped out of college, and was increasingly sure there was something wrong with me that could be traced back to caring for him.

When she returned, I ordered a sandwich.

Dad asked for a cup of coffee. “Maybe there is something I can do for you in return?” he asked, tilting his head the way he did when he was looking for something inside a person. “Like make you immortal, my dear?”

She laughed awkwardly, flashing me a questioning look, and left to get our food.

“What the fuck was that?”

“I’m offering the young woman a chance of a lifetime,” he said, looking me in the eye with the arrogance his delusions fueled.

When sane, my father was steadfast. He was the sibling who easily killed the wasp caught in his brother’s baseball mitt with his bare hand. He was the Dad at the Kmart register who counted the change in his pocket to buy me the three-foot stuffed giraffe I wanted. It was his lap I went to cry on when the opera aria made me sad to leave him alone at the end of our weekend.

But then his steadiness would flip to paranoid certainty. He transformed into an arrogant prophet. “You know I’m the Son of God my child?” he demanded, and I knew enough to love even this part of my father from a distance. I was left to roam the jungle of my father’s illusions with a stuffed giraffe.  After my grandmother died, when I was fifteen, he deteriorated into a darker version of himself, as if his mother’s esteem had tethered him to his better nature. I was left to form an adult understanding of my father. To investigate the line between what was real and imagined, to understand how his ineffable fights of madness merged with my becoming into a wordless intimacy.

I ate my salad and he inhaled his coffee, sucking the overfull cup to cool and drink at the same time. His leg shook under the table as he took the cigarette from his pocket to relight it.

“How’s Barbara?” I said, trying for normalcy.

“She’s crazy as a fucking bat!” he complained, with none of the loyalty he previously showed his fellow schizophrenic, his partner of the past ten years, the woman with whom he’d had three children. In and out of the hospital and unable to care for them, they’d been convinced to give up the first two babies. But they had birthed their youngest, Jacqueline, at home, social services none the wiser, and had been attempting to care for her in their house on Staten Island. “I really think it’s affecting Jackie,” he said, reminding me of how he loved his children. I pictured the way Jackie hid under the table to get away from Barbara’s paranoid shouting. But I had removed myself from worrying about a baby half-sister I didn’t want to know, that I was afraid to know. After my lunch and his coffee, with nothing else to say, I asked for the check, paid, and walked out with him.

“I have an idea, Tasha,” he brightened. “Let’s go to a bar where we can meet people.”

“I’m not going to a bar with you,” I said harshly, resenting him for making me his lure.

“Well, suit yourself,” he said and started toward the downtown bars limping on ruined knees, the effects of years of psychotropic meds. There have been studies involving mice hung from their tales, which proved SSRIs decrease humeral bone formation. He was a human testament to the effects of so many drugs over the course of a lifetime. I felt the familiar heartache my father elicits in me when I leave him. He was so alone with his imaginary powers that I wanted to join him, to call back an earlier version when he seemed gallant, even heroic to me. As children we unconditionally love the people who care for us. I wanted to be the daughter who stood by him even in his mania. But I couldn’t bear him anymore.

That spring, on April 10, 1986, my father took his two-year-old daughter for a drive to the piers on the bay of Stapleton, Staten Island, just two blocks from where I grew up.

“She wouldn’t go to sleep so I drove her around in the car and then headed out to the piers to see the city lights while Jackie slept,” he told me later, explaining why they were at the docks at night. I wondered if he had been copping crack. I can picture this view, from our quiet island harbor, fifteen years before the World Trade Centers would implode. From the abandoned piers across the bay, the luminous twin towers still rose up over the tip of Lower Manhattan like beacons of civilization. In the dark of night, my father said he didn’t see the yellow caution tape that warned the pier had been demolished. He later claimed there was none. With reflexes made slow by years of medication, he didn’t brake in time, and the car plunged into the freezing cold New York Bay.

They sank devastatingly fast. Somehow my father managed to get out through the driver’s side window, but Jackie was trapped. He swam up to breathe but couldn’t get his buoyant body back down to reach her. She was fighting for air, trapped in the car in the freezing water.

In the news report of the accident, witnesses said he smashed through the driver’s window to escape. This is virtually impossible, but my father was uncommonly strong. They said he repeatedly tried to reach her. When I read that, I cried. Once the police and divers arrived, they pulled my father from the frigid bay. I imagine they would have needed hoists to get his numb body out and over the breakwater. Critically hypothermic, he was taken to the hospital while divers continued their attempts to retrieve Jackie. They found her body floating face down in the darkened car. I can picture her: thin hair looking airborne in the water, her back against the car’s roof. She had been underwater for forty minutes.

Preserved by the cold, she was miraculously resuscitated. The Post’s front page read Back from a Watery Grave: “‘It’s like she was brought back from the dead,’” one of the EMT’s was cited as saying. Her brain and vital systems had been suspended by the cold. She wasn’t the first or the last to come back from death. A group of Danish students drowned in the Praesto Fjord. By the time the paramedics got there, two hours later, the students were pronounced dead at the scene. But cold can suspend life and put the body into metabolic slow motion, taking the moment of death and “smearing it out.”  Machines were used to circulate the blood and slowly increase their body temperatures. Six hours after the incident, all seven teenagers had come back to life. Jackie was alive by the time she reached the hospital.

A friend of the family called me. “Tasha, have you seen the headlines?” Miracle Girl Breathes; Francis Williams drove off the pier in Stapleton, alleged to have attempted suicide. The daughter, Jacqueline Williams, is lying in a coma at St. Vincent’s Hospital, she read out loud. “It must be Frank!”

I was living in the Berkshires at the time. Training to be a masseuse far away from the chaos of my father’s life. My journals that year toggle between prayer-like efforts at finding my way and a record of my dreams. In my journal there’s no mention of the accident.

I called the hospital, stepping reluctantly into the role as my father’s keeper, the only adult child willing to help him. He answered the phone in slow motion, like he was still underwater, “He-l-lo?”

“Dad, it’s Tash. What happened?”

“I tried to get to her, Tash, but…I just couldn’t,” he paused, as if reliving his failed attempts. “But she’s alive. It’s a miracle, Baby!”

“They said you tried to kill yourself?”

“That’s ridiculous,” he said, without explanation. “You gotta come get me.”

“Yeah, I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

Jackie survived, but there was significant brain damage, and she needed to stay at the hospital. When I arrived to take Dad home there was a throng of reporters at the main entrance who bombarded him with questions as we left.

“Mr. Williams, can you tell us why you drove off the pier? Is it true you wanted to take your own life? Why did you bring your daughter in the car with you?” they asked, microphones extended, swarming like vultures with their reckless appetite for a story. “Mr. Williams, what do you have to say?” they demanded.

He said nothing. If they had known him, they would have known better than to expect answers from a man who never had them. We held our heads down as we made our way to the car. I kept my eyes to the ground to hide my shame for a father made notorious for not saving his baby girl. Mostly, though, I wanted to avoid their questions and keep under wraps my identity as the sister who believed Jackie would be better off dead than alive.

Two weeks after the accident I dreamt I was with my father and Jackie. In the dream she’s showing me a photo album. Instead of pictures, there are pages covered in wrapping paper, and I’m afraid she doesn’t feel safe with me. Reading this now I imagine the wrapping paper was the way I covered up the desperate portrait of her life so I didn’t have to see it.

When we got to their dirty, smoke-filled Staten Island home, Barbara was sitting in the dark, an overfull ashtray next to her seat. Did he call her from the hospital? Had she been able to get to the hospital to see her baby?  I wondered. She sat smoking and talking as if Jackie were in the room. “You’re going to be all right my little angel. God is watching over you, and everything is going to be fine. Isn’t that right, Frankie?” she pleaded, looking to him for reassurance.

My father looked up at her from the old armchair across the room where he sat in wordless agony, his head in his hands.

“If only I hadn’t gone to meet those Negros at the piers,” he finally said, reminding me of the ways he had begun to hang his misfortune on bigotry, to keep afloat on the back of the one sinking below him. The Thanksgiving before, the last time I had seen Jackie, I had noticed remnants of their burgeoning crack habit on the surfaces of their home.

It was all too much, this dark room with no air to breathe, the overwhelming loss. I had to get out, away from the undertow of his life, away from the father who drove off the pier, away from his guilt and the way it all fed the feeling my father was an anchor, pulling me under. I never went to see Jackie.


Natasha Williams has worked as an adjunct biology professor at SUNY Ulster in the Hudson Valley of New York and a consultant for the International Public School Network coaching science teachers. She recently made writing her primary job. In summer of 2020, she accepted a spot with the Bread Loaf School of English. She has also taken classes at Grub Street, Fine Arts Work Center, Sarah Lawrence and Sacket Street Writers.

A long time ago, Ann Marie Sekeres went to art school and learned to paint. She showed a bit around New York in the 90s. She didn't get where she wanted to be, but eventually became a very happy museum and nonprofit publicity director and started a family. She found out about the Procreate drawing app from an illustrator she hired last year, stole her kid's iPad and has been drawing every day since. Currently, her work, "Girl Detective," is on view at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ. Follow her work on Instagram and at https://www.annmarieprojects.com

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