Of four children, I was the basketcase. This is what my mother said of me. My father, too, after each of my tantrums or crying fits or what my older siblings came to call my “episodes.”
“He’s a basketcase,” my mother would say, apologetic smile full shine, until she looked at me and her voice dimmed, and she warned me to cut it out, now.
It would be years before I understood exactly what this word meant, but its connotation was clear. More importantly, its compound parts - basket, case - were things meant for carrying things away, flowers from market, maybe, or clothing, toothbrushes, all of one’s belongings. I assumed the word had to do with travel, but the bad kind. The kind where one was sent away, disappeared, removed — lifting from the family the burden of one’s existence. I waited nearly every day for this eventuality, lying awake in the night light glow of my bedroom, my brothers’ snores rattling the dark, waiting for my father to enter the room and pull my suitcase from the top shelf of our closet, for my mother to start pulling my clothes from the dresser. When a strange car pulled into the driveway or the doorbell rang, I thought, “This is it,” and braced myself for whatever was to come. In truth, the prospect of being sent away was only partly terrifying. Some part of me was excited by the thought that wherever I ended up — with all the other banished basketcases — would be better than where I’d been all my life, although I would miss my sister, I admitted to myself, whose dark eyes were sad when she looked at me, an expression I interpreted as kindness.
For all the waiting, I wasn’t sent away until my ninth year, to a great aunt at the sea. She was old and spent most of her daytime hours on the porch where a strip of sea was visible between two houses. She never took me to the sea or really much of anywhere in the weeks I spent with her, but the sea captured my attention more fully than anything had before. It was a miracle of distance and space and its smell was both wild and medicinal. I opened my bedroom window at night and pulled in deep breathes, feeling it change me as its salt and seaweed and fishbone branched into my lungs, seeped into my blood.
After that summer when I was nine, I was packed away to my great aunt’s every summer and every summer I sat on the porch and longed for the sea, never venturing beyond the square green patch of lawn in her front yard, where I would sit in its single patch of palm tree shade. My last summer there, I turned thirteen. My aunt made a pineapple upside down cake to celebrate my birthday and only my sister remembered to call, apologizing that my parents were still at work. That this was clearly a lie was both understood and unspoken between us. By then, I had looked up basketcase in the dictionary. I picked the maraschino cherries from the top of the cake and sucked the sweetness from them before spitting the waxy peels into the trash. Then I retreated to my bedroom and waited for my great aunt to fall asleep, which she always did just after the sun went down. Then I climbed out of my window and walked towards the sea.
I found a fishing pier and walked to the end, where two older boys were standing on a bench and jostling one another, the one daring the other to jump in. “I’ll give you a dollar,” he said, grinning. “I’ll do it,” I said, just as the other boy was saying, “Only a dollar?” and then without waiting for a response, or the dollar, I climbed the railing, balanced for one wind-whipped second on its narrow edge, and jumped. It hurt to hit the water but after that I could feel the ocean holding me, even as it fell twenty, thirty feet beneath me, even as its darkness threatened to swallow me. I could hear the boys above whooping and hollering, but I floated on my back and closed my eyes. The ocean had baptized me a daredevil, a risk taker, someone who would always have a story to tell. I gulped a mouthful of the sea and swallowed it to confirm my new existence. Then I turned and swam for shore.