Fall 2008, Volume 5

Fiction by Carol Schwalberg

The Beaches of Iberia

A soft September breeze lapped at Sally’s calves as she stood on the wet sand and squinted out to sea. If she plunged in, flipped on her back and floated straight across the Atlantic, she would land on the sands of Spain or Portugal.

Perhaps fifty feet away, a breaker roared toward the Jersey shore. Sally expected the wave to turn into ripples and the foam to purl over her toes, but before the water could reach her feet, Mamma trotted towards her and yelled, “Stop! Don’t go in the water.” Once abreast of Sally, Mamma spoke in an urgent whisper: “You can’t go in, not when you have your period. The water’s not good for you now.”

“Can’t I even get my feet wet? I’m wearing my bathing suit.”

“Only up to the ankles.”

Sally nodded. “I promise.”

Mamma shook a finger at her. “Remember, you’re a young lady now.”

Sally’s first period had come only four months before, but she was already fed up with being a young lady. She had to stuff her whopper breasts into a 34B bra when all the other girls wore a 32A. Menstruation brought mess and cramps and Mamma spouting lectures to be careful around boys. That was silly. Sally was going to an all-girls’ junior high. She didn’t know any boys. She certainly wanted to. Every time she went to a roller rink with Roz, Lillian and Bebe, the four of them discussed what they would do if one of the boys there actually spoke to them.

Sally kept on playing tag with the ocean, running forward when the tide was out and retreating whenever a wave threatened to splash her knees. Each time Sally ran back, Mamma rushed over. “Be careful. Don’t get wet above your ankles.” Why couldn’t Mamma go back to her beach chair and leave her alone? Didn’t Mamma trust her? She’d given her word.

The water receded and Sally darted forward anxious to catch the next fringe of foam. A new wave, seemingly bigger than the one before, rolled to shore. The brown-haired girl rushed back, but before Mamma could issue another warning, Sally said, “I feel like a dope with you trailing after me. Can’t you stand back a little?”

Mamma looked enraged. “I’m watching out for you. You’re my flesh and blood. Who do I have left? Papa’s dead, and so are Nana and Grandpa. Uncle Neal’s never around since he got married.”

“What about Murray?” Sally was talking about her stepfather.

“He’s nothing to me,” Mamma shouted, but she edged back perhaps a dozen feet.

A few more waves rolled in before Sally spotted a boy standing next to Mamma. They were having a conversation. If only she had her glasses on and could see what he looked like. She ambled over to find out what was going on.

“Here’s my daughter now,” Mamma cried, a big smile on her face. “This boy here was asking me why you were running back and forth into the water, and I told him you were playing a game.”

A lie, Sally thought. Mamma always said “Tell the truth and shame the devil,” but she also said that only meant telling the truth to your family. Anyway, a nice girl could never let a boy know she had her period, she had to make up some phony reason why she wasn’t swimming.

Sally saw that the boy was lean and muscular, with a blonde crew cut and a golden tan. He smiled at her. “Hi, I’m Glenn. Your mother didn’t tell me your name.”

A boy was actually talking to her and asking her name! Wait till she told Roz,

Lillian and Bebe. She managed to croak out “Sally.”

Glenn smiled again. “Sally, do you like to skate?”

“You bet!” Then she added, “I can’t do anything fancy though.”

Glenn beamed. “I can show you how.” He turned to Mamma. “Ma’am, I’d like to take your daughter skating tonight.”

Sally felt light as sea foam. Imagine a boy was not only talking to her, he was asking her out! She turned to her mother.

Mamma’s mouth hung open for a second, then she recovered herself and looked sharply at the boy. “Just how old are you, Glenn?”

“Seventeen, ma’am.”

“You should stick to girls your own age. How dare you ask out a child who’s only twelve?”

“Twelve?” The boy looked flabbergasted. “She’s certainly very grown-up for twelve, she’s all devel--. I mean I thought she looked my age.”

Sally was beside herself. He thought she was seventeen! Roz, Lillian and Bebe would never get over this. Sally hoped Mamma would let him take her skating.

“She’s not seventeen, and the answer is no.” Mamma tightened her lips.

“I’m talking about roller skating, ma’am. No harm can come to your daughter in a skating rink.” He stopped to think for a second. “I’m not one of those soldiers from Fort Monmouth. I’m only seventeen.”

Mamma bristled. “You must have a problem with your ears. The answer is no. N-O. Absolutely not. Got it?”

Sally felt crushed. “But Mamma--”

Mamma shouted “No.”

The boy slunk away. Sally started to cry. “Why not, Mamma?”

“Stop crying. Nobody likes a whiner. You don’t know anything about this boy. Said he was seventeen. He’s probably older, maybe a soldier.”

“But aren’t we supposed to be nice to soldiers for the war effort?”

Mamma shook her head violently. “Not that nice. He probably wanted to get his hands all over you. Besides, we’re going home tomorrow. School starts on Monday.”

The next day in the railroad car, Sally still mused about Glenn. “Mamma, will you let me go out with boys when we get back to New York?”

Mamma looked away from the window. “At this age, absolutely not.”


“When you’re older, say fifteen. You’ll go to the YMHA and meet lots of boys. That’s what I did when I was fifteen.” Her blue eyes were fixed on the golden past. “I got lots of calls from boys who wanted dates and you’ll get lots of calls from boys.”

Sally wondered how that could happen. They didn’t have a phone.

Mamma’s smile dropped away, and she lowered her voice to a whisper. “The conductor’s coming through. Take the seat by the window so he can’t see you too good.” They exchanged seats. “Now slump down so you look eleven. You have such an honest face you can get away with it.”

Sally pouted. “I passed for under six until I was eleven. How long am I going to be under twelve?”

“As long as we can get away with your traveling half-fare.” Mamma stared at Sally’s chest. “Fluff out your blouse so the conductor won’t notice your titties.” Sally made the starched cotton balloon over her chest and slid lower in the seat.

A minute later the conductor gave Sally a long look, shrugged and punched their tickets. Then he put them in the tiny slot on the seat in front of them. As soon as he passed, Mamma let out a sigh of relief and opened her copy of True Story.

Sally peered out the window and moped about Glenn. Maybe she would meet him again somewhere, somehow. The more she thought of her lost opportunity, the sadder she became. Mamma glanced up from her magazine just as tears began to flow. “Crying again! It’s a wonder you have any tears left. Remember, laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.” Sally kept on crying.

Mamma fished a lipstick out of her purse. “Here, you want to put some on?”

Sally was thrilled. She always loved playing with her mother’s make-up at home, but that was pretend and this was real. Mamma handed her a mirror. Sally traced the outline of her upper lip and was about to darken the lower when a shadow fell over the mirror.

It was the conductor. He kept on swiveling his head between the half-fare ticket in the slot and the girl with the lipstick in her hand.

Mamma slapped on an artificial smile and began batting her eyes. She always said men liked women to smile and bat their eyes. “They grow up so fast these days.”

The conductor glared at Mamma. “You can get away with it this time, but you’re the mother of a teenager and old enough to know better. From now on, that girl better travel full fare.” He passed on.

Mamma looked disturbed. She kept on repeating, “Old enough to know better, why I look young enough to be your sister.” She paused a second and returned to True Story.

Sally stared out the window. Rundown houses rimmed the railroad tracks with an occasional ailanthus adding a touch of green. Within an hour the gray bricks of Manhattan would close in around her, but right now, in her mind’s eye, she was doing arabesques in a roller rink as Glenn nodded his head in approval. The PA played a waltz. The boy extended his arms, and they glided together across the floor.

BIO:  "The New Short Fiction Series presented four stories of mine in a staged reading at the Beverly Hills (California) Public Library last year. I have also been a resident fellow at Helene A. Wurlitzer Foundation. My short stories have also appeared in Steam Ticket, Penthouse, Women in Judaism and Wordplay (USA), Ita (Australia), Fair Lady (South Africa) and Woman (U.K.), as well as in the anthologies, 'If I Had My Life to Live Over, I Would Pick More Daisies' (Papier-Mache Press), 'Paraspheres' (Omnidawn), 'Am I Teaching Yet?' (Heinemann), and 'Rite of Passage' (Lonely Planet).

I have published poetry in the anthology, Alternatives to Surrender, and also in these journals: Krax (U.K.), Ash Canyon Review, Bear Creek Haiku, Black Bough Review, Black River Review, New Voices, The Sunday Suitor, West, Potpourri and Yet Another Small Magazine."