The waves weren't that big. But he was only seven, so even the smallest of chop towered over his drenched head. “Never turn your back on the ocean” was advice he would never hear. Instead, he faced the shore, proudly gesticulating. His father was busy, drinking a sweating can of domestic beer and complaining to his group of friends about the lack of waterfront- zoning laws. His mother was busy looking at the stretch marks drifting across her once flat, smooth stomach. So neither noticed their son waving and smiling at them in the Atlantic Ocean, just thirty feet ahead.
At the moment he was going to give up on making eye contact with his parents and turn towards the blue-on-blue horizon, a crest crumbled and slapped him in the back, pitching him forward, facedown, forcing him to take a big gulp of warm salty water. He coughed. A new wave jostled him before he could regain his natural rhythm of breath, and then another. So panic started to set in. A panic with flailing arms, jerking legs, and lungs fighting against themselves, taking turns both hyperventilating and coughing. Soon, all his composure was lost. It seemed like the ocean knew he was in trouble and was happy to take advantage. Toying with his fifty-four-pound frame.
The rest was easy. Too easy, really. I was a breaker away, watching it all, holding my head high above the water, my neck straining a little so I could see him struggle in the undulating foam. My first instinct was to help him. I was a strong swimmer. I could paddle over and prop him up and call out to an adult to get him safely to shore. Then a second instinct kicked in, if there can be such a thing as a second instinct. A calm resolve filled my chest, followed by a burst of gold-glitter excitement that travelled to the tip of every limb. I dove under the water, eyes open. The sting felt good, a reminder that I was alive.
The ocean was murky, so it was hard to make out details, but I was able to see enough to grab onto one of the boy’s slick, thrashing ankles. My hand was too small to get a good hold. He was only seven years old, yes. But I was only five.
Using both my tiny hands, I had just enough grip to pull him down. And hold him down. A calmer boy might have held his breath and kicked free. He was only inches from oxygen. But he wasn’t calm. He was sucking in more and more water. Until he wasn’t.
When I felt his leg go slack, I held on for ten more seconds. Just to make sure. Counting slowly backwards. Like I learned in school. Like I did when I couldn’t fall asleep at night because my brain was swirling with too many high-voltage thoughts to power down for the day. When I reached the count of one, I let go of his ankle and swam away. Flipping my back legs together in unison, like a mermaid tail. I wasn’t so different from other five-year-old girls; I too loved mermaids.
When my own need for air became unbearable, I finally popped my head up a good distance from him. I searched the water until I saw his lifeless form being pushed closer to the shore, gently swaying with the seaweed. The ocean delivered him onto the sand, not wanting to play with a dead toy.
I didn’t even need to scream. His mother was already doing that. Adults raced to him, rushed and frantic, unwilling to accept that time was no longer a factor.
My mother started shrieking for me to come back in, worried that drowning was somehow contagious. As I splashed to shore, I thought about how primitive adults were sometimes. And predictable. All the swimming kids were plucked back to land, held tightly in oversized once-bright tropical-patterned towels, now faded from years of use in the sun. For a brief moment, parents and children alike were not taking anything for granted. We all noticed details like the scratchy hard corner edges of the towels, the grace of a seagull gliding past the billowing clouds that hinted at the afternoon rain that would be coming, the beauty of the peeling pink and green pastel buildings lining the bright-sanded beach. The warmth of the air was only trumped by the warmth of skin-hugging skin and the rise and fall of chests that housed healthy beating living hearts.
As my mother held me, I waited for guilt to set in. But it never did
Twenty-five years later, I sat in a small interrogation room inside the Washington Avenue branch of the Miami Beach Police Department. A cup of water was placed on my side of the table. The chair I was told to sit in was metal and flimsy. Light enough to pick up and swing around and throw at someone, but also light enough to not do much damage to property or person, if thrown. The table was also metal, but thicker and heavier and bolted to the concrete floor. There were some long scratches in it, of varying degrees of depth and age. Decades of frenetic doodles and cuts made by the people who had been trusted enough to hold sharp objects while sitting there.
I had my purse with me, which I hung on the back of the tin chair. A nice bag to show I was a professional working woman. But not so nice as to be flashy. And inside it I had a few pointy items. A purple pen. A house key. Tweezers. A nail file. I also had my wallet in there, with identification confirming I was
Ruby Simon. Miami Beach resident. Thirty years old. Five five. Organ donor. My weight a lie. Brown eyes. Brown hair, because auburn was not an option at the DMV. My hair was a deep pecan color dappled with copper. And so were my eyes. The reddish flecks in my nut-brown irises matched my mane perfectly. And this color coordination was the most striking thing about me, physically, and pulled my otherwise unremarkable face together. I thought about taking out my nail file and idly smoothing a few edges, to show how unconcerned I was about this whole thing. But it felt like it might read as too performative, so I kept my would-be weapons in my purse.
The man who gave me the water was Detective Keith Jack- son. He lumbered into the seat on the other side of the table and placed a closed file folder in between us. No doubt a tactic to put me on edge. To make me squirm and worry about what could possibly be inside the folder. I refused to give in to basic inter- rogation techniques. I didn’t squirm but instead sat still. And looked at the man in front of me. He was handsome and weathered, maybe fifty. His head was completely bald and smooth. He had a nicely shaped skull. Symmetrical. And a small nick on his neck from shaving. As he settled in, I caught a glimpse of his ankle skin, peeking out over his black sock. His pants were a little too short for his well-over-six-foot height.
He slowly opened the folder. Making a real meal of pulling out four pieces of paper, which I could tell from the edges were all photographs. He looked at each one, hidden from my view, and then purposefully placed each facedown on the table, until all four were in a tidy row in front of me. He certainly wasn’t concerned with seeming too performative. This felt like more of a game show than a police interview. Behind photograph number one is either life in prison, or a brand-new living room set!
Then he then turned over the first photo. It faced me. A smiling seven-year-old boy, awkwardly posed, wearing a pressed collar shirt stared up at me. An unease started gnawing through my ribs. I remembered that very school picture day so well because my big sister, Ellie, couldn’t decide what to do with her hair for her own school picture. As I looked at the backs of the other three hidden photos, the gnawing gave way to an educated guess. If they were like the first, they were each of a different person. And I knew these four people had at least two things in common. One, they were all dead. And two, they all died within arm’s reach of me.
To be clear, I’m not a sociopath. I’ve studied myself. I’ve felt empathy and sympathy. I’ve had long-lasting friendships and relationships. I’ve laughed so much so often that my obliques get sore like I’ve been rowing a boat. And I’ve cried too. At normal things like breakups, goodbyes, and manipulative commercials about cars with safe airbags. I’ve felt compassion. For the homeless. For the starving. For the lost. I’m also extremely kind to animals. Even as a young child, I boycotted the evil elephant-using circus every year when it rumbled into town. To put it simply, I respected life. But Keith Jackson didn’t know this. He stared me down, wanting to believe the worst of me, waiting for me to break.
After a pause long enough to make most people uncomfortable, the detective laid into me. He started by leaning back, away from the photos, a show of calm strength. He said, “I’ve been on the force twenty years. Before that I was in the army. And no one has ever died in front of me. Not one person. Soldier. Civilian. Cop. Criminal. Not a one. Sure, I’ve rushed junkies to the hospital while they overdosed. I’ve hauled my fair share of people with gunshot wounds into ambulances. And of course, when I’m called in to investigate a homicide, I’ll see a corpse or two. But never has anyone had a freak accident and died while in the same room as me. Even my ninety-year-old grandma gracefully passed away when I was out of the house.
“But you. You have four dead people in your midst. At least. That I know about for sure. And one of them is your husband.” He punched the word husband, to make sure it hit hard, in the air. I felt it. But did not flinch. He leaned forward, his broad shoulders hulking in, just a little. “How do you explain that, Ms. Simon?”
It was a valid question. And as I decided how I might respond to him, my mind raced back and all the details of my life that led me to this exact moment came to the surface. It was like Remembrance of Things Past, but instead of waxing poetic about my life while drinking a cup of tea, I had a cup of tap water. Which I was sure was given to me to acquire my DNA and fingerprints without a warrant. Before I answered him, I took a long sip, knowing my DNA and fingerprints were not going to help this homicide detective one way or the other anyway.