Swimming Toward the Ocean

Swimming Toward the Ocean

by Carole L. Glickfeld


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Chenia Arnow is a Russian-Jewish immigrant in 1950s New York, a sharp-witted, Betty Grable look-alike whose accent and Old-World superstitions mask untapped passions and intellectual curiosity. Her husband Ruben is a handsome philanderer who has a knack for creating phony lawsuits. Their precocious daughter Devorah, tells–and often imagines–the richly involving story of their lives.
No one expects the devoted Chenia to fall under the spell of a lover of her own, but the Arnows' lives unfold in many surprises. In tart and seductive storytelling, Swimming Toward the Ocean follows husbands and wives and children through often shifting and misguided connections, illuminating the timeless patterns of immigrant life, and the search for love and a place in a new world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385721769
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/26/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Born in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, Carole Glickfeld grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan, not far from the Cloisters, the museum of medieval treasures that expands the horizons of Chenia Arnow, the main character in Swimming Toward the Ocean. In sixth grade at PS 152, Carole began her literary career, writing a short story about a boy and his dog, two subjects that, at age ten, she knew nothing about but chose to imagine. Already she had been inspired by Jo March in Little Women.

In high school, she took a creative writing class--not a happy experience. Her teacher shamed her for writing about a teenage boy and girl who differed over how sexually intimate they wished to be. From then on, Carole was mostly a closet writer. Between high school and college, she worked as a salad girl in the Catskill Mountains. That summer, she wrote a story about a woman and her still-born child, which, uncharacteristically, she read to her three roommates. They cried. This was heady reinforcement for a fifteen-year-old writer-to-be.

At the City College of New York, Carole studied Latin and French, minoring in English literature. She enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English literature at Hunter College. Realizing she was too shy ever to teach, she dropped out. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked in politics and government and lost her shyness. For the past ten years, she has taught creative writing classes at the University of Washington, mostly to adults.

Her first book, Useful Gifts, which won the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, is about a family with deaf parents and hearing children. While the stories are not autobiographical, Carole drew on her own background as a CODA (child of deaf adults). American Sign Language was practically her first language. Although her two books are set in New York City, she has written fiction that is set in other places (e.g., Michigan, because she was writer-in-residence at Interlochen Arts Academy; Seattle, where she currently resides). She has written a one-act play, "The Challenge," that has been performed by hundreds of senior citizen groups in the U.S. and Canada.

The recipient of a Literary Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she was a Fellow at Bread Loaf, MacDowell Colony and Virginia Arts Center. Since residing in the Northwest, she has won some local grants and the Washington State Governor's Arts Award.

Carole is a night writer, beginning around midnight and working till around 4 a.m. She rises around noon and goes to her local Starbucks in Seattle (actually the second store established) to edit what she wrote the night before. One day, sipping coffee, she had an image of a woman going up to the roof in an apartment building. Suddenly she knew why the woman was going up to the roof. Though she writes on a computer, on this day, she wrote long-hand, surprised to see a story tumble out that begins with a fetus in her mother's womb. This became the opening of Swimming Toward the Ocean.

Writing is an act of discovery, Carole says. She writes out of the subconscious, without consciously controlling her characters or their actions. One of the joys of writing for her is finding out WHAT HAPPENS. Nevertheless, she is a relentless reviser. Once the draft is written, she pores over every word, paring and polishing. Mostly I re-write," she says.

Kirkus Reviews calls Swimming Toward the Ocean, published in hardcover by Knopf in 2001, "luminous with clear-sighted compassion for its imperfect characters, alive to life's bitter disappointments and transcendent possibilities; very exciting fiction indeed."

Read an Excerpt

Part One

I imagine my mother straightening the decks of cards, then lining up the Parcheesi game with the Chinese checkers board before she takes my sister's jump rope off the closet shelf. She doesn't lock the apartment door when she leaves. In her backless slippers, she walks up two flights, clopping with each step. The door to the roof is heavy. She has to pull hard to open it. Only a few pyramids of snow remain from the storm a few days earlier, in recesses that the sun fails to reach. My mother wears a cotton dress, short sleeves, no coat, although it's November. Thanksgiving, almost. It doesn't matter that she's cold. It might help, she thinks.

She only wishes she had changed into regular shoes. She leaves her slippers by the door and, in her bare feet, mounts the cracked marble stair. Stepping out onto the tar, she sucks in her breath from the shock of cold. Like ice, she thinks. And then, So what?

In an open space between the wash lines, she takes the jump rope by its bright red handles, one in each hand. She snaps an arc of twisted hemp over her head. Jumps and lands on two feet. Her wrists rotate, and the rope flies up behind her, over her head again. She jumps and jumps. Her soles sting. When she tires, she lands on one foot, then the other. She doesn't notice the brilliant blue sky, the roof of the building across Brighton 8th Street, the Parachute Jump in the distance. She snaps the rope over her head, lets it graze the tar before her feet lift and land. Again and again. Faster now. Faster. Faster. From her half-open mouth come cloudlike puffs of visible cold. She tries to ignore the sharp pain in her chest. The cold sears her lungs. Gasping for air, she lets the rope drop from her hands. She bends over, one hand on her belly, the belly where I've been growing for the past five weeks.

It is two days later. My mother empties a tin of mustard powder into the stream of hot water flowing from the faucet. As the bath runs she removes her nightgown. She hangs it on the hook behind the door and catches sight of herself in the mirror over the sink. The gray streak in her light brown hair. Old, she thinks. Forty-five. She gathers the hair from her neck into a hair net, uses three hairpins to secure the net to her crown.

I have no hair yet. My head is huge. I am just beginning to form a face--eyes, nose, mouth. My mother asks the face in the mirror, "Why did this have to happen?" She thinks of the boy up the street who sits by the window, twirling a straw, day after day. A late-born child. She calls him a boy, but he is large like a man, full-grown, and all he does is sit and twirl.

My mother steps out of her backless slippers and plunges one foot into the tub. "Oy!" She yanks it out. Her leg is a rosy pink. It burns. She shuts off the tap and drains the water to a depth of six inches. With one hand on the tile wall to brace herself, she lowers herself slowly into the steamy bath. It stinks of mustard. She spreads her legs out before her and, with both hands, scoops the cloudy water toward me. I am immersed in a bath of my own: amniotic fluid, at just the right temperature. I have a tub of my own, an amniotic sac within her belly. I float.

Sometimes when my mother is in the kitchen, her body shakes. She cries. She asks God questions, out loud. I cannot hear her. I have no ears yet. No skull bones. I cannot answer. She thinks of words such as: too late, split second, mistake.

She remembers the night my father came home early from playing cards: He zips around so lively she can tell by his cockiness he's won some money. He won't tell her how much. He never does. She's awake when he reaches for her, his determined fingers sliding under her nightgown, up inside her fleshy thigh. She rolls onto her back. His mustache grazes her upper lip, and then they're joined, one to the other. Usually he pulls out of her and ejaculates on the sheet laid over a quilted pad. This time he spills partly inside her. Right away she goes to the bathroom and bears down hard, as if to expel me into the toilet. Then she tries to flush me out with a douche, extra hot.

Now she takes the red rubber bag from the cabinet one more time, fills it again with boiling vinegar, hangs it from the shower curtain rod.

I have been gestating for six weeks when my mother goes to the doctor. My father is with her. He asks her how much it will cost. "Nu, if I could tell the future," she says, "would we be sitting here?" The nurse calls her in. Her heart beats faster. Mine beats twice as fast as hers, little butterfly flutters.

In the waiting room my father studies Rocky Marciano in Life magazine, the boxing gloves poised midair. In his office the doctor assesses my mother's charms: good legs, good skin, clean. He likes the scrubbed look in women. Though she smells of garlic, she isn't dirty like some immigrants, and she understands English, even if her Yiddish accent is thick. She says "tink" for think, and "vot" for what. "Got" for God. He listens to her speak now, a prepared speech.

"Doctor, you told me last week, 'Think it over.' Okay, now I tell you and God what I think. What I think is no." She waves both hands in front of her. "No baby," she says.

The doctor tilts his head and says, "What's more beautiful than a baby?" He's thinking, Betty Grable in When My Baby Smiles at Me. He studies her small, silky face, her huge, heaving bosom. "You're married. You're healthy. What are you worried about?" he asks.

Plenty, she thinks, but doesn't say.

Inside her is a litany of reasons. She has two children already, one of each sex. There's hardly money enough for them as is. At long last they're in school, and she's too old to start over. Close to fifty. And what if the baby is retarded? That's all she needs. Lately she and my father aren't getting along so good. Not because he never helps her around the house. When wasn't that the case? But now he goes out all the time and leaves her home. To play cards, he says. To make a little extra money. They can't afford a baby-sitter, he says, and anyway he doesn't trust them.

"Doctor, to tell the truth, I'm very exhausted," my mother says. "You have no idea."

"Eat more red meat," the doctor advises. She also reminds him of Lana Turner, the ivory skin, the way she wears her shoulder-length hair in a net bag, though it's light brown, not blond.

"I can give you an injection," he tells her. "It'll stimulate a miscarriage." He can't bring himself to use the word abortion. He's risking his medical license as it is. "You know you'll suffer a lot when you're old," he tells her. He means physically. "Is that what you want?"

She doesn't waver for an instant. "Please, doctor, let's get it over."

While he prepares the needle, my mother imagines herself half a mile away, swimming toward the ocean. The sun is waking up over the horizon. She cuts a graceful figure, breaking the waves like a torpedo. With my paddlelike hands, I row clumsily in an ocean of darkness.

My mother tries not to think about what I look like now, what parts of me are already formed. But as the needle goes into her buttock, she imagines a teeny doll. She closes her eyes. My eyes are pits in the skull.

Afterwards the doctor says the injection can take up to twenty-four hours to work, sometimes longer. My father smiles when my mother emerges, looking pale and serious. He kisses her on the cheek. "We're much better off," he says. She walks with him to the elevated where he takes the BMT to Manhattan, to his job in the garment factory. Already he's lost half a day's pay.

My mother walks along Mermaid Avenue. She glances at the barrels of pockmarked fruits and vegetables, the ice beds of fish with eyes staring at nothing. Her hands are dug deep into her coat pockets, cradling my yolk sac. She walks and walks, exhaling contrails of frosty air. From time to time she glances at her watch, her engagement present from my father, twenty years before. She has to be home when my brother and sister return from school.

Checking her watch again, she realizes it has stopped. She finds a clock in a candy store. Two minutes to three. She starts to run. What will they do when they ring the bell and nobody answers? she thinks. Gevalt! They don't have keys to get in. Terrible, to lock out her own children. She runs and runs.

At Coney Island Hospital she has to stop to catch her breath. She looks up at the brown brick facade as if it's a warning to her. She hopes the pain won't be too bad.

My sister and brother are sitting on the stoop when my mother arrives. My sister is crying hysterically. "Where were you?" she asks. "I thought something terrible happened."

"Kholilleh!" my mother says. God forbid!

My brother looks calm but relieved.

"I had to go with Papa to the doctor," my mother says. "His upset stomach. Men are such babies. Come, we go for a nosh."

At the ice cream parlor, she lets them get expensive malteds. So what if she has to cut back a little on groceries, she thinks. Feeling reckless, she orders a banana split.

At home, my mother gathers together a pile of rags, washcloths, and towels. She hopes she won't have a hemorrhage.

My sister asks what she's doing with all the rags. My mother says, "If you must know, it's that time of month." She doesn't say she's waiting for the bloody end of her baby.

That night my mother is awake when my father comes home, but she pretends to be asleep. In the morning she examines her pish in the toilet bowl, looking for blood. Nothing.

For a week after, my mother wakes up each day and puts her hand on her belly. Please, she thinks. Make something happen. She lifts her knees to her chest, boosts her hips up with her hands, and extends her legs into the air, one at a time. She does a hundred bicycle kicks, hoping to shake me loose.

Nothing happens.

I'm hungry all the time now. I suck more and more nourishment from her placenta. Her umbilical cord is my straw. My mother is also hungry all the time. She knows she should starve me, but she devours pints of cherry vanilla ice cream. She drinks quarts of milk. She finishes all the spinach and peas my sister won't eat. Waiting for my father to come home, she makes herself a midnight sandwich of American cheese. She becomes addicted to Ritz crackers with peanut butter, banana slices topped with raspberry preserves. In the morning she squeezes halves of oranges, turning them clockwise around the green glass juicer. She strains out the pulp and picks out the seeds. Sometimes she puts the seeds into the dirt of the snake plant, hoping they will sprout.

Every day my father asks her, "Anything?" and after she shakes her head no, he makes clucking sounds of regret. Else he doesn't speak.

One night after dinner my father puts on his good suit.

"You're dressing up to play cards?" my mother says.

He grunts.

"What kind of answer is that? You could talk to me at least."

He grunts again.

"I want to know," she says. "Where are you going?"

"None of your business."

"None of my business?" Her voice rises. "You're not my husband? Excuse me, what's between us certainly it's my business."

He slaps her so hard she stumbles back and falls onto their bed. She sits up slowly, her hand on her cheek.

In front of the mirror my father knots his tie.

My mother flings a pillow at his back. "What kind of man are you?" she yells to his image in the glass. "A paskudnyak! To hit a woman, to hit me, your wife with a baby here." She covers her belly with her palms. "Only a parech--" A lowlife.

She flings the words at him and pretends to spit, ptooh, ptooh, until he turns and raises his arm as if to strike again, but all he means to do is silence her. Just now he wishes he were elsewhere, in the arms of Trudy Fleisch.

With one hand on the cheek where he struck her, my mother hurries to the bathroom, her open slippers clopping as she goes. She hunches over the sink. How can she have this baby? she asks herself. Her husband doesn't love her. She opens the medicine cabinet and surveys the shelves: Colgate tooth powder, Pond's Cold Cream, Vaseline, Ben-Gay, Milk of Magnesia. There are only six Bayers left in the bottle. She could never swallow the Prell. Or the Mercurochrome. When she comes out of the bathroom, my father is gone. She cries herself to sleep.

The next morning, after my brother and sister leave for school, my mother goes for a walk on the Boardwalk. It's her favorite thing to do in the summers, to take in the salt air. To take in the life that bustles along the length of the wooden planks: Old people coming and going from the Brighton Baths. Mothers with strollers. Teenagers heading with their love blankets to the beach. Children stuffing their mouths with sticky cotton candy or balls of caramel corn. Gawking tourists, lured by the Bearded Lady. Laughing sailors, happy to be back after the war in Korea, trying their luck in other ways. As they aim feathered darts at balloons, she thinks of the mothers whose sons never came home. "Tsores tsezhegen di hartz," she says out loud to herself. Trouble cuts up the heart.

In front of the sky-high Parachute Jump, she never tires of watching the soldiers egg each other on. Two by two they go, strapped into a little swing, two strips of canvas for a back. Overhead is a canopy of folded-up silk. Each swing is attached by cables to the latticed steel tower. It reminds my mother of oil derricks she's seen in newsreels. At the top, its girders fan out like a flower. Wherever she is in Coney Island, she can always see the Parachute Jump. To her it's the Empire State Building of Brooklyn.

Soon the soldiers rise to the very peak, maybe fifteen stories up, their feet dangling in open air. There's a popping sound as the parachute bursts open, and the men plummet to what seems like certain death. She stays until the soldiers are safely back, the seat bouncing hard from the sudden stop. Afterwards she treats herself to one paper cone of Nathan's crinkled French fries. That's all she can afford.

Reading Group Guide

The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your reading group's exploration of Swimming Toward the Ocean. Set against the vividly drawn neighborhoods, parks, and museums of New York City, and evoking the prejudices and promises of the post-World War II years, Swimming Toward the Ocean tells the story of Chenia Arnow, a Jewish-Russian émigré, her charming and unreliable husband Ruben, and their three children. Narrated by the Arnows' youngest daughter, Devorah, Swimming Toward the Ocean portrays with warmth, humor, and compassion Chenia's courage and sacrifice as she balances the yearnings of her heart with the realities of her life.

1. In reconstructing her parents' lives, Devorah describes feelings and events of which she has no direct knowledge. Do her assumptions and interpretations undermine her reliability as a narrator? Are life stories, whether fictional, biographical, or autobiographical, ever completely "objective"?

2. Images of and references to water recur throughout Swimming Toward the Ocean. Does water serve as a metaphor in the novel? If so, for what?

3. In what ways do the Arnows represent the universal experience of immigrants in this country? How do their individual expectations affect their behavior toward one another? What goals, if any, do Chenia and Ruben share?

4. How do Chenia's superstitions and traditional beliefs influence the way she rears her children? What is the significance of the statement, "My mother's heart is bursting with affection for her son, but this she doesn't say" [p. 31]? In what ways are Mimi and Sheldon shaped by their mother's remoteness and lack of outward affection? Does Chenia treat Devorah differently, and if so, why?

5. Does Chenia provide Devorah and her siblings with the moral or ethical guidance we normally expect from parents? What values does she teach them? What role does Ruben play in the children's lives? How do the choices Devorah and Mimi make as grown, married women reflect their reactions to their parents' marriage and their own childhood experiences?

6. Despite her old-fashioned upbringing and her strong notions of sin and punishment, Chenia is irresistibly drawn to Harry. What makes her so vulnerable to him? How do the emotions and feelings he elicits transform the way she thinks about herself?

7. How would Chenia's life have been different if she had not met Harry? To what extent did the affair rescue her? In what ways did it make her life more difficult?

8. How do Devorah's descriptions of her mother's affair with Harry differ from her accounts of Ruben's infidelities with Trudy and Bertha? How do the specific events she recounts, as well as her tone, influence your impressions of their motivations and the depth of their feelings? Does she judge one parent more harshly than the other? Do you think she recognizes and understands her father's need to be with other women?

9. The setting plays an important role in Swimming Toward the Ocean. What physical details does Glickfeld use to evoke the period? Which cultural, social, and political references are most effective in illuminating the particular milieu of the Arnows, their friends, and extended family?

10. From Devorah's birth to Chenia's first encounter with Harry and Mimi's unlikely friendship with Sofie, the concepts of fate and coincidence are integral to the plot development of the novel. Does the author make these events credible? To what extent are the characters responsible for their own destinies and to what extent are their lives shaped by chance?

11. How does the life the Arnows have constructed for themselves differ from the other lives depicted in the novel? What do Glickfeld's portraits of Harry, Chenia's sister Ruchel and her husband, Trudy and Barney Fleisch, and Bertha Landau reveal about the process of assimilation? What factors, both practical and psychological, influence the various characters' ability to make a place for themselves in American society?

12. Does Chenia's story represent an experience that is typical of women of her generation? In what ways does she conform to society's rules and expectations? Other than her affair with Harry, what examples are there of her refusal to follow the rules? Do Ruben's behavior and attitude, as well as the limited options available to Chenia, justify acts which might otherwise seem selfish or immoral?

13. In imagining Chenia's reaction to seeing Harry at the theater years after she has made another life for herself, Devorah writes, "What is she thinking, that Harry will call her up and it will be as before? Even if she could love this man again, she thinks, she can never stop hating him" [p. 332]. In light of this, why does Chenia agree to meet with him? What does she hope will happen?

14. Chenia has three very different relationships in the course of the novel: her marriage to Ruben, her affair with Harry, and her marriage to Sol. How do each of these relationships illuminate Chenia's personality and her needs at different times in her life? Which relationship do you think best reflects the woman Chenia really is? The woman she wants to be?

15. Is the ending consistent with the spirit of the novel? Does it bring the relationship between Devorah and Chenia to an appropriate close? Does Devorah see similarities between her mother and herself? Does she fully forgive Chenia for the hurt she has caused?

16. What literary traditions (or genres) might you use to classify Swimming Toward the Ocean? Would you characterize it as a family saga? A love story? A coming-of-age novel?

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Swimming Toward the Ocean 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
joiseygoil More than 1 year ago
Fascinating and intriguing and different and a must read. I really loved it and couldn't put it down. A different representation of what life for immigrant Jewish people....buy it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been a fan of Carole Glickfeld¿s for some time now. When I discovered that Swimming Toward the Ocean was to be published in eight long months, it was all that I could do to prevent myself from calling up the bookstores and demanding that they push up their deadlines. I had already read Carole Glickfeld¿s first book of short stories, Useful Gifts, and could not wait to read something else by this gifted and talented author. The day I purchased Carole Glickfeld¿s novel, I read the first few pages while standing near the checkout counter and from that point on I could not put it down. Carole Glickfeld is so wise. I am so emotionally attached to her characters. I want to meet them on the street. I have questions for them. I love them. My mother also sailed through Swimming Toward the Ocean. On the phone she said, ¿Oh, Chenia¿what a character¿and she loved her children so much.¿ We spoke about the intricate lives of Chenia and her family for what could only have been more than an hour, and once I had hung up the phone, my husband asked, ¿Who were you talking about?¿ ¿Chenia,¿ I responded. ¿Do I know Chenia?¿ he asked. ¿No,¿ I answered and pointed to Carole Glickfeld¿s book. It¿s a hardback, the type of book one treasures. Let me tell you a little bit about Chenia, but not too much! Chenia is a Russian immigrant who is pregnant with her third child when the novel opens. Although she is married, Chenia has never experienced a loving relationship with her husband. What follows is a comical, intricate and unique description of Chenia¿s process of self-discovery, as told through the omniscient eyes of her youngest child. Chenia¿s unique personality is enhanced by the fact that her English is often spoken in a foreign syntax and peppered with Yiddish words throughout the novel. It is in this colorful manner that we are introduced to Brighton Beach, the Atlantic Ocean, the cloisters of Manhattan, the shoe store salesman, the opera, the underbelly of the Coney Island boardwalk, a factory fire, and the infidelities of a marriage. Chenia¿s fear of the evil eye, her superior wit and intelligence, her likeable and humane spirit, and her vivid sensuality and passion along with her compelling story make this a must read for men and women alike. I guarantee that you will cancel plans to finish Carole Glickfeld¿s novel and when you have read from cover to cover, you will mourn the loss of Chenia¿s world, considering her a dear and important friend.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In all my years of reading, this is one of the few books that was very difficult to put down. It was a very moving book. I felt so close to Chenia that she became part of me. I felt her happiness and her sadness. I was there with her at the Cloisters,walking on Dyckman, taking the elevator down to the subway. I was totally submerged into her world. I wish I was able to read the book before my Mom past away last year. It would have provided a better insight to her upbringing and the traditional thoughts and feelings of her generation. It was a beautifully written story. I hung on to every word and was sorry it had to end. This is a book worth reading and I hope to see more books from this wonderful author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'Swimming Toward The Ocean' is hard to put down! It is a compelling story with strong characters that I really cared about. The story moves along rapidly and pulled me in from the first page. The descriptions and every day details are wonderful. I am an avid reader of contemporary fiction. 'Swimming Toward The Ocean' is a winner!
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1953 Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, Russian-Jew Chenia Arnow agrees with her husband Ruben¿s pronouncement that they cannot afford a third child. Chenia tells the doctor no baby, as she knows they cannot afford a third child plus she is closing in on fifty. Though the doctor gives her a shot to cause a miscarriage, Chenia gives birth to Devorah.

Ruben decides to relocate the family by moving to Manhattan nearer to his lover Trudy. Chenia feels guilt for her own liaison with Harry and his ¿Magic Shoes¿. So a family begins to extend while the parents provide illicit lessons to the next generation on faithfulness, caring, and love.

SWIMMING TOWARDS THE OCEAN is a powerful look at a New York City Jewish family in the 1950s. The story line provides incredible insight into the era that it documents. The key players, Chenia and Ruben come to life through their reactions to her two affairs and his three affairs as seen through the eyes of Devorah, who narrates the story. In this realistic look back in time, Devorah¿s insightful knowledge of family matters that she would at best know few facts could destroy the feel of the plot, but instead opens the story line even wider. Whether the specifically of the events is true or not, Devorah the narrator believes them to be so and perhaps subconsciously filed in the gaps. Carole L. Glickfeld has written a superb tale that the boomers and probably their children will want to read.

Harriet Klausner