Issue 9 :: Summer 2007 
Avatar Review

Caroline Marwitz

At the Beach

Ours were the only footprints on the beach that November afternoon. My mother picked up a stick of driftwood and scratched our names in the sand: Kelly and Blythe. As an afterthought, she scrawled “were here,” which, as she said, was redundant, but that was life, life was redundant—look at the thousands of cells which died in your body every day and were never missed.

“If you want the truth, then it should be ‘are here,’” I argued.

“ ‘Were here’ is true, Kelly my girl,” she said. “ ‘Are here’ has a shelf life. You think I‘m being picky, don’t you? In these times, the least we can do is use our words as precisely as possible.”

“Isn’t that a little extreme?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “Your father and I are too old to start over in another country, so here we stay. At least at the beach, the way the waves erase everything, it makes you actually believe for a moment that every day is a fresh start.”

That was what I had been counting on, actually, by coming to visit her and my father at their retirement home on the coast. A fresh start. At thirty-five, I had just ended a major relationship with a man who could never commit to me. I found out why—he was still married.

She could have said, “Count yourself lucky and go find someone else,” but that was my father’s line, not hers. His name was Curt. “One of my three favorite adjectives,” my mother used to say. As a child I thought that “adjective” was another word for people.

Her name, Blythe, fitted her as well as my father’s did him. She was cheerful, energetic, with a light spirit that had gained her many friends. He was brisk, impatient, decisive--traits which had helped him rise to the level of CFO with a nationally known exterminating company.

My father had never understood my passion for drawing, which I’d turned into a career in scientific illustration. I’d made many jokes at parties about my current project, and people found it hilarious to hear about the exterminator’s daughter illustrating a major volume about the beetles of North America. I guess every child finds a way to rebel against his or her parents, whether consciously or unconsciously. But I had never actually shown him my work until I arrived that week with a few small drawings. When I showed them to him, he just smiled.

Actually, my break-up with the married man had oddly timed with my father’s suggestion that I come out and see them. “Your mom misses you,” he said. “We both do.”

What he didn’t tell me was that she’d fallen into a great sadness. Not the kind that half the country felt, but something deeper. For the first time since I’d known her, she wasn’t Blythe. I found a stick of my own, drew a large circle in the sand and stepped inside it. “This is the circle of happiness,” I said.

She stepped inside with me. We looked at each other. “So here we are,” she said. “Feeling happy yet?”

“I’m happy here, right this moment. This is a great place.”

“Can I borrow your stick?” She took it and drew another circle that intersected with the one I was in. “You know, we probably should have retired to Rock Springs.”

“No way. Why there?” I’d spent sixth grade through ninth grade in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a place I hated still. My childhood, her adulthood, had been spent in small dry places: Benson, Arizona; Rock Springs; Raton, New Mexico, Palisade, Colorado. We had followed my father’s job around the buggier small towns of the west, until he rose higher in the company and moved us to bug nirvana, Houston.

“Because in Rock Springs, you have no illusions that you are in a perfect place. You’re just working to get through the day. Anything they do to the place, it’s an improvement, probably, though some would disagree with me. But here, it’s so beautiful, you know it won’t last. It’s the beautiful places that are going to be hurt the worst.”

“You need to get back in the circle of happiness, little lady,” I said.

She stepped into the circle she’d drawn in the sand. “This is the circle of, the circle of—oh for goodness sake, I don’t know.” She walked to the frothy lace at the water’s edge, and scrawled our names again in the sand, just as the waves came up and erased them. “But maybe I’ve seen the worst.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. She put her hands on her hips and looked out at the ocean as if she hadn’t heard me.

“I have been very fortunate,” she said. Cocking her arm back, she flipped the driftwood stick into the surf. “Children keep you hopeful, looking to the next day.”

My eyes burned and I blinked hard and was about to say something about finding the right man and having a child someday soon, when she added, “But if you’d had a child, I’d only worry about its future.”

I turned away from the lapping ocean and stared at the cliffs behind us, steep as prows of cruise ships, but stranded in the fog. “If you think I’m going to have sex with the first man I meet just to get pregnant—”

“I said, if I’d had grandchildren, it would be just more people to worry about.”

“Well, who are you worrying about today? The Sudanese? The Koreans? The Iraqis? The Republicans?”

“Go ahead, make fun of me,” she said. “I’m an easy target.”

“You started it.”

“Well, you persist in misunderstanding me. Let’s talk about something else.”

So I asked her about her latest project. There had always been a project when I was growing up. Too late. I had forgotten what my father said about her latest project. “Every night before you came to visit, she’d get out this box of paints and set up her canvas. Then she’d just sit there and stare at it. Night after night.”

“My latest project? It’s done.” She plopped down on the dry sand far back from the water’s edge, and I sat down beside her. Now the sun squeezed through a hole in the clouds and shone, warm as a hair dryer. “A whale came in, right here, then couldn’t get out because the waves were broadsiding her and the tide was going out.”

“Did someone try to help?” I asked.

She took off her shoes and wiggled her toes in the sand. Her feet had always been pretty and well shaped, as though they were carved from two pieces of wave-softened driftwood.

“I tried.” She frowned. “It just takes getting used to.”

“You mean the water?” Jumping up, she grabbed her shoes and skipped to the water’s edge, dodging waves.

I shivered. “Maybe we should head back.” Away from this heaving, creeping, ocean.

“Just get your feet wet, Kelly love,” she said, plowing back and forth through the inch-deep water. “It energizes you. Come on, try it.”

“No way.” I buried my toes in the dry sand and wiggled my butt more firmly into the beach. Watching her go back and forth was making me seasick. “Were you all by yourself when that whale came in?”

“Yes,” she said, breathing heavily. “Whew.” She stopped and waves swirled in around her ankles. She swayed. “It’s pulling me in.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Not much. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t push the whale back in—try pushing against a hill—it just isn’t possible. I didn’t know if I should run back home and call the state patrol or stay. Then I saw another one, coming in too. Probably heard the cries of the one that was already beached.”

She began walking back and forth across the lapping waves again, as if the saltwater had triggered some electrical reaction deep in her muscles and she couldn’t stop. Her feet slopped droplets across the sand to land on my arms and face.

“Anyway, I got in the water with it.”

“Jesus, Mom. That’s not safe.”

“Maybe. I wasn’t thinking about safety. I started patting it very gently, and when the other one came in, I patted it too. After a long time, the highway patrol showed up, and a bunch of other people with cameras, and a couple of biologists. One of them said it was traumatic for the whales to be caught in the shallows and that maybe I’d calmed them.” She frowned. “Or maybe he was trying to calm me.”

“Where was Dad all this time?”

“He doesn’t like the ocean,” she said vaguely. “After a while, a group of men pushed one of the whales out into deeper water, but it came right back in again. I don’t know why. After the tide ran out, they died. Bulldozers came and buried them. In fact, these weren’t sand dunes before. This used to be all flat.” She swept her arm out in an arc behind me. “I call this Whale Hill. Original name, eh?”

Somewhere in one of my failed literature classes, I had read something about how people never turn their backs on the ocean. It’s something engrained in us from the very beginnings of human existence. It seemed to be true—I couldn’t turn away from the ocean for long. Now it was the color of the sky, a butter-soft gray lead. Aluminum waves shivered and buckled, then crashed against the shore. I was starting to wish the water would just stand still for once.

“Shall we go back?” I suggested.

“Technically that’s not possible. We’re always going somewhere new, into something new. Every moment is something new. I guess that should be a comfort.” My mother walked over and stood above me. “Comfort is seriously overrated.” She walked toward the water again.

“You’re babbling,” I said.

“No, I’m not. Let’s be honest. The world has changed. Drastically. Life will never be the same again. Your children will never know the world as it was years ago. Months ago. Weeks ago. How good it was.”

“If I ever have children.” I found a stick and broke it into pieces, and with every piece, I threw it hard into the waves where it disappeared. “Did you see that? A splash?“ She dropped her shoes on the sand and stepped into the heaving water again. My eyes followed the line of her outstretched arm but I could only see bruised, plum-colored waves and a lighter line at the horizon.

“Mom,” I said. “I was throwing sticks.”

“I know that. It wasn’t close to shore.” She turned to look at me, then back at the ocean. “You don’t see it?”

“There’s nothing out there,” I said.

She pointed. “You’re sure you don’t see anything?”

“No. Good grief, Mom. You’re going to get cold. Come out already.”

She shuffled backward toward shore, the water nipping at her toes. She was almost to me when she stopped again. “There is something.” A step forward. Another step. Then she walked back into the water, fully clothed, without stopping—knee deep, thigh deep, waist deep, still going. She was nuts.

“Hey!” I jumped up. “It’s way too cold to swim.”

“It’s all right. You stay there.” She stretched out her arms and plunged headfirst into the waves.

“There’s nothing out there,” I shouted.

She stayed beneath the water for a long moment, then surfaced farther out, a silver form against the dark water, swimming effortlessly. Her curving arms dipped rhythmically into the water. She had always made sure I took swimming lessons, but I had never actually seen her swim. I’d never known how good she was.

“Don’t you see?” I heard her voice above the schussing sound of the waves on the shore. But where was she? The waves were like shoulders I couldn’t see over. I turned away and crunched over the dark barbed line of bottles, tampons, and seaweed at the high tide area and trotted up Whale Hill’s creamy side. Something black in the sand flopped in the wind. My heart skipped—was it—no. Just a corner of an old plastic garbage bag. I looked across the waves and saw a blur of silver rise on a swell further out. I shouted her name. The silver disappeared.

I ran back down to the wet sand at the water’s edge, tore off my sandals and dashed in. The coldness slapped my knees and thighs and I yelled. Then I yelled again as my feet scraped some low rocks, and then I was actually swimming, if you could call two arms thrashing water, swimming. My mother’s maiden name in Lithuanian meant “sea people,” but obviously any seaworthiness had been severely diluted by the time it reached me. Which is to say, after swimming as far as I ever had in my life and seeing how tiny the beach behind me was, I panicked. My arms clawed the waves while I sucked both air and water and choked.

Then I saw her, even farther out to sea. I wanted so much to turn back to shore. The water felt thick as oil against my arms, and my legs felt like they were kicking pudding. Beefy hands of seaweed latched onto my shoulders. But I thought, if I die, I die with her. She was treading water quite calmly. Her cheekbones stood out now that her hair was plastered to her head, and her eyes appeared huge and dark.

“Mother!” I called, in between the chattering of my teeth. A stately word. It calmed me momentarily. Verb and noun. Verb and noun. “Thank God.” I reached out for her but I missed, or she dodged, and I went under for a moment, emerging coughing.

“I was right,” my mother said, still paddling and looking very calm. The ocean was gathering around me, a ruffle of water tightening at my neck. I was used to the bottom of the pool being only four to eight feet deep. But this bottom was far, far below me, and I was slowly sinking toward it. “Help me,” I cried. “I—can’t—do this.”

“Just breathe,” she said. And she disappeared.

Somehow I got a free breath, without any water in it. Then another. I started to relax just a touch. Time to go in. We could swim back together. But where had she gone? I was in a trough. I heard a splash and a roaring filled my ears, like being near a waterfall, or that feeling when you’re about to pass out. I saw dark water and suddenly, incongruously, like I was looking in a store window or watching a TV, I saw for a second a great dark eye peering at me. I screamed.

“Kelly,” a voice called, small and thin. “Kel-lee.” Adjective? Noun? I turned toward the sound. A tiny stick figure—my father? stood on Whale Hill. The waves marched toward the sand. Then something brushed against my legs. I screamed again—at first from not realizing what it was, and then because I realized what it was. I pulled her up to rest her head on my shoulder.

The same kind of clawing, desperate motion that got me to her, took me with her to shore. To my father who stood out of reach of the water, on the dry sand. A rolled-up piece of cardboard in his hand. He’d brought his megaphone. He bent, picked up a white lifesaving ring, and threw it. A pathetically small gesture. Yet the ring at least gave me something to cling to for a moment. Then I realized I still had to move myself and her for the final heave onto land. I shoved her up against the wet sand out of reach of the water for a moment, and then, then he came closer, knelt and gathered her up, carried her away from the ocean.

I sprawled belly down on the sand, the good, good land. And when the weeping stopped I just lay there, pinned to the earth as it spun across the huge black universe. She was dead. We were all going to die—my life, this life, the world around me, would all end. Then I heard him talking. I got up and stumbled over to where he knelt over her.

“Mother?” I asked. The noun, not the verb. No more verbs.

She coughed; he turned her on her side, smacked her back and she heaved. When she was done, he picked her up, grunting as he got to his feet.

“Get her shoes,” he said, jerking his head toward where she’d left them.

“Will she be all right?” I asked.

“She’ll be upset if we don’t get her shoes this time.” He lurched, shifted his load, and suddenly seemed to find his balance. He strode across the sand, my mother rounded into a dark curve in his arms. Further down the shoreline, I saw blinking red lights coming closer.

“This time?” I picked up her shoes and stared at them, small and black and smooth, for perfectly shaped feet.

“This time?” I shouted into the darkening sky. “What do you mean, this time?” No answer.

The ocean kept on breathing, in, out. It would breathe the same rhythm no matter what happened, whether I was here or not, whether she was here or not. I looked down at her shoes. Good ones, made in Portugal, by hand. Her damn shoes. I threw them as hard as I could, far out into the waves. Meanwhile, my mother’s two favorite adjectives had reached the ambulance. And I realized as I began trudging in that direction, that for now, what was expected of me would be straightforward and easy to provide.



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