She was the first to walk into the south of the street, our mum was. The first Jewish girl, that is. With her male trousers and her brown cap, smoking a cigarette, probably – I remember mum, she had smoker’s hands. She smoked back then, right? Back when our family was living in Jack the Ripper territory, when it was recent enough – thirty, forty years, that was nothing, he could still be alive, you know, a useful tale for would-be wayward girls – that she and her sisters still felt a chill down their spines in certain corners, tongue-shadow used by parents to make them come home early each night. Now they do tours up there, don’t they. Even a museum these days, I think.
She crossed it, she did. On a Sunday, which was particularly egregious to the people around the place, because the south of the street all were just coming out of the Church. We got two synagoges for every church back then, on the street, but just the north side, and we had public baths and French-sounding street names. The names are still there. Not the baths. Not the shoemakers. We have that one beautiful mosque now. The bagel shop is still there. Mum took our Pa there on their second date. That’s why she crossed it, you know, the boundary. To talk to Pa. In her man’s trousers and with her brown cap, her pretend-cock-walk, her not-girl walk. Pa on the only day of the week his clothes didn’t smell of bitter piss-colour liquid from the brewery. They all worked there back then. I don’t think my Pa had ever spoken to a Jewish girl before. He could have gone up the street, easy, the easiest thing, that way, south to north, was okay for crossing. But the other way around, Lord, what boldness, imagine. Pa had never crossed the boundary, and Mum wasn’t supposed to. Mum crossed but Pa talked to her, grabbed the cigarette she offered, looked at the eyes beneath the boyish cap. You weren’t supposed to talk to Jewish girls just like that back there. You weren’t supposed to smoke with girls like that back then, even half-girls, pretend-boy-girls.
Pa didn’t talk to anyone those days, supposed to or not. He was so quiet people who saw him in church assumed he was deaf and dumb. No family either. Growing up me and my sisters only had the one set of grandparents. It was weird not being able to follow back Pa’s gestures to the root, where his silence or his worried frown came from. Our mum had her father’s eyebrows, grandfather’s eyebrows, and the same mouth as her sisters, our loud and cheerful aunts. We didn’t know if it had any family precedent or it was just age and aging, the way wrinkles would surround our father’s eyes when Mum said something clever or funny or happy. We heard the muffled music of our father’s voice behind our parents’ bedroom door, closed, an unknown voice, like a secret we didn’t have the right to. There was laughter, which sounded like the radio on the flats across the street, when it was summer and Mum would left the windows open, many years later, that kind of sound, faraway but not really, almost making sense.
The community knew nothing about him except: he didn’t touch beer because the job had developed a distaste to it in him, and he went to Church every Sunday, reading from the Bible with his lips moving. The community made conjectures, based on his age and a slight limp, that he had been in the war. The community never expected him to talk to one of the Jewish girls who lived on the north side. The community did not approve.
They started meeting at the boundary, daring each other to cross, taking turns. Mum waited at the entrance of the brewery when the shifts were done, she bought cigarettes for the both of them and they’d walk the neighbourhood until it was late. She taught him words in Yiddish. She was younger, but she could read without moving her lips. She would wear men’s clothes and pa would sneak her into the men’s working clubs. They would drink gin and go to union meetings. They would go to Wilton’s Hall, and Pa would say Mum was his little brother, smiling, finding a family finally. Pa would kiss her still in her boy’s slacks and her shirt, brush him with her pretend-cock.
All because our mum went down the street one Sunday, right as everybody was coming out of church.
First one to cross it, remember, my aunts and grand-aunts said, reproach and admiration in their voices, their mouths – looking like my mum’s mouth – that would twist and then curl, they said that of Mum, first one not just in the family, in the whole street, first one. What boldness! Imagine.
There were two beaches in my hometown but one of them was fake. There used to be a third one but it was filled with so much mineria y metalurgia that no one ever talked about that third beach anymore. Yet I remember swimming in it as a kid – dark water up to dark ankles, black coal rings around the taut skin. No wonder they found a crustaceous, slippery, many-tentacled prehistoric animal in those waters. My ankles no longer dark, none of my skin really, no longer blissfully boyish ankles, boy-ankles. A lovecraftian squid it was. Our own lochnessian claim to local fame. Not to be shored up on the main (the not-fake) beach with the rest of shored up things, the dead algae, sanitary napkins, blue plastic bags, wrappers from that year’s favorite ice cream brand, mine always Calippo, and sometimes dead whales. No, the monstrous, before-Christ squid did not wash up on the sand like last week’s garbage and shit, it was only visible in sonar black-and-green,blip-blip grainy images like the dial-up years, the tarifa plana years. Once they snatched a picture of it but not in its tentacled glory, only faraway as a dark shadow on the dark sea, black on dark on water like too many years of too much mineria y metalurgia until we did not speak of my hometown’s third beach again. Can the anti-miraculous apparition of the giant squid be the reason I like tentacle porn, dial-up downloads of black-and-white grainy hentai images, its black rings that I wish would graze my no-longer-dark skin, the reason for bestiality, for reverse anthropomorphic desire, for the lesbians in my stories with feathers and beaks, or is it just aesthetics and aesthetics the reason for my kinship for Cthulhu-upon-Piles, or a simpler predictable kinship between monsters, between bodies aquatic, Zulawskian paroxysm on the parochial pages, the squid older than mineria y metalurgia or its shadow.