Jill McCabe Johnson


I woke lying on my side, half-submerged in water between the mattress and the frame. The water made a borderline across my chest and back, and between my legs. The northern half of me warm, the southern half cold. South of the border wet. North of the border dry. In another country, on the other side of the waterbed, my mother snored softly. My father’s fusty breath and the vinyl-scented water made no noise.


My parents looked like any other respectable couple in the 1970s. My father in three-piece suits, my mother in brilliantly patterned house dresses. Both wore flannel shirts when they took the kids, all nine of us, camping. Tonight my father wore pajama pants and a pajama top. My mother wore a cotton nightgown. It was not a school night. It might have been summer. My sisters and I had used the bed as a trampoline earlier that day. No one knew.


Why does everything have to burst? Why does liquid seek escape? Anyone who knows anything about physics knows the weight of my parents’ bodies will force out more water. If the discovery of the leak is mine, does it make it more my fault? If I say nothing and go back to sleep, will I drown?


“Quick, put the pillows back and pull the covers into place,” my older sisters whisper-ordered. “Hurry up. And don’t say anything. It’s your fault if we get caught.”


Things my parents taught us:

Don’t play ball in the house.

Don’t jump on the bed.

Don’t speak out of turn.


Father: What are you doing in here?

Me: (Caught straightening my parents’ bed.) Nothing.

Mother: Is everything okay?

Me: (Nodding.)

Father: Did something frighten you?

Me: (Shrugging shoulders.)

Mother: Do you want to sleep in here tonight?


Things I felt the first time I woke that night. Before I wedged myself between the mattress and frame. Before the water seeped out.

Lying on my side.

My father’s legs clamped tight around mine.

My father’s torso arched toward me.

Something like a flashlight pressed against the small of my back.

My father’s breath on my neck.

My father’s entire body tensing, then relaxing, slowly.

I don’t remember any moisture yet.

Nor sound.


Cleaning up a waterbed leak is messy business. My mother gathered the bedclothes and ran them, one load at a time, through the washer and dryer. My father pushed one end of the garden hose into the plastic fitting on the mattress and ran the hose out the window where he sucked till the foul water entered his mouth. As he spat, I imagined it tasted the way stale beer sometimes smelled on his breath.


The clinical term for a wet dream is nocturnal emission, a spontaneous orgasm while sleeping. The term for an adult attracted to a pre-pubescent child is pedophile. The line between spontaneous orgasm and pedophilia is the line between conscious and unconscious intent. Saint Augustine determined that nocturnal emissions are not voluntary, carnal acts and therefore not sins, though whether this distinction applied to my father, who was not Catholic like my mother, is unclear. The term for a distinction that no longer functions as a border is relict. Relict can also mean widow.


“Will this work,” my mother asked, holding up a patch of black rubber from the bicycle repair kit. “No, sweetheart, you can’t fix a rupture this big,” my father said. So they dragged the mattress, heavy and still leaking, out of the frame, across the bedroom floor, through the house, and into the backyard. I stood staring at where water had pooled on top of the bed’s vinyl lining.


Up until sometime around that age, seven or eight, I had been an obedient child. The only time I got in trouble was when I went along with my older brothers and sisters. Anyone who knows anything about being the youngest knows you can’t tell on your brothers and sisters. Betrayal demands a greater price than secrecy.


I knew I had to jump.

I knew I couldn’t tell.

I knew I was still guilty.


Psychologists say abuse is in the eye of the victim. If the person sees an event as abusive, it is. If she doesn’t, it isn’t.


A border is a boundary demarcating one place from another. It may or may not be guarded. A border is an arbitrarily drawn line that sometimes follows physical boundaries such as a mountain range or body of water, but the distinction of “border” is a social construct, imposed rather than natural. In other words, a border is not real.


But what is restraint? Is it the ability to say nothing when you probably ought to? Is it the ability to stay quiet since everyone would just deny it and call you a liar anyway? Is restraint holding someone down? Or is it something more? Maybe jumping on a bed versus slashing it with a knife. Maybe pressing against a back versus slashing into a life.


I never said anything. Not a word. About jumping on the bed. Though I suspect my mother knew.


My parents gathered all of us into their bedroom. We stood in a half-circle, facing the dank water. “This is what happens when you jump on a waterbed,” they said without anger. “This is what happens when you don’t do as you’re told. Now everyone grab a towel and help mop this mess up.” My sisters glared at me as they swished their towels then wrung them out into a galvanized steel tub.


A magician waves his handkerchief with a flourish like a bullfighter with his cape.

North of the border, a conjuror’s blanket.

South of the border, hidden and submerged.

Somewhere around age seven or eight.

Presto chango!

Now you see me.

Now you don’t.

Jill McCabe Johnson’s poetry collection, Diary of the One Swelling Sea (MoonPath Press), received a 2014 Nautilus Book Award in Poetry. She is series editor for the University of Nebraska Gender Programs, including Becoming: What Makes a Woman and Being: What Makes a Man. Honors include an Academy of American Poets prize, Louise Van Sickle fellowship in poetry from the University of Nebraska, where she earned her PhD in English and the Deborah Tall Memorial Fellowship from Pacific Lutheran University, where she received her MFA in Creative Writing. Jill’s favorite birthday sweet is strawberry shortcake, but the rest of the year, dark chocolate truffles with espresso make her knees buckle. Find more escapades and caprices at http://jillmccabejohnson.com.

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