TW: physical abuse, alcoholism, death
The piquant salty scent of the ocean conjures memories for me, memories long forgotten in the dark recesses of my mind. Memories grayed from the march of time, grayed from barely seeing the light of my notice.
The sea and sky are stormy today, green as pickles and gray as mold. The waves pound the shore with a thunder that rocks everything around me. A plastic water bottle bobs in the water, sinking into the water and then popping back up. Over and over. Sand crabs leave little Vs in the sand as they burrow downwards, trying to escape the daring sandpipers that rush to slurp them up. As soon as the waves rear up to crash down again, the sandpipers skitter away, fluttering their wings. The water retreats, and the cycle repeats. Over and over.
When I was a child, our house was always full of sand that my mother and I tracked in from our long walks on the beach. No matter how many hours we’d spend sweeping the floors, they had a perpetually grainy texture. Dad was always grumbling about it when he’d stumble home, knocking into the walls before managing to find his bedroom.
As I walk towards the shore, a briny sea wind blasts my face, laced with salt, sand, and decay. Eddies of trash and seaweed swirl on the beach. Granules of sand fly into my face, and I brush them away. Over and over. My hair is so tangled that it would take hours to brush out all the knots.
Mom always took the time to brush my hair at night. Then she’d flick off the lights and snuggle next to me in my sagging twin bed. “I’m scared,” I’d whisper when the darkness pressed in, and the couch creaked after Dad would collapse on it. “Don’t be,” Mom would whisper back, “Embrace your fear. Fear makes us stronger. It gives us armor to face the really scary things in life.” Then the refrigerator door would slam and glass would clink as Dad opened another beer.
There’s no one on the beach today. No one but me, the sand crabs, and the sandpipers. And the occasional screeching seagull. A red flag waves near an abandoned lifeguard tower, warning those who see it that swimming is extremely dangerous.
Mom and I only swam when the green flag flew. Green, meaning it was safe to swim. We hunted for sea glass in the calm water, smoothed by the endless waves. We would sun ourselves, slurp ginger ale, and build sandcastles. Elaborate sandcastles with turrets and spires. After we’d dusted our hands, Mom would press the sea glass into the sides of the castles, making them glitter. Then we’d laugh and dive into the clear blue water. Over and over.
I slip off my navy blue sandals and slowly approach the water, stepping around rotting seaweed and broken shells. My feet leave deep footprints and grainy sand squishes up between my perfectly manicured toes. I feel raw, like the cod fillets my mother would dredge in flour and slap into a pan popping with oil. The salty moisture in the air clings to me like a second skin, stinging me.
Dad’s slurred voice was like the sting of salt on a fresh wound. “ADELAIDE!” he’d yell at night when there were no more beers in the fridge. “Get me a bottle opener!” Mom would touch my shoulder, slowly rise, and murmur, “Stay here.” I remember how she had a way of walking through doors, opening them just enough so she could squeeze through, never wider. As if she was trying to prevent something from slipping through.
I drop my sandals on the sand and step into the water. A wave slams into my knees with a crack, drenching my white sundress. No matter. The water pulls back, sucking the sand from under me and creating trenches around my feet. Then the sea crashes into me again. Over and over. I stand unmoving. Numb.
“I told Adelaide to get it,” Dad would growl when he’d see Mom closing the door to my room. In those moments, fear tasted sour, like milk that was too spoiled to drink, but not spoiled enough to throw away. “Danny, just calm–” Mom would start. Then Dad’s hand would rear up like a wave, and Mom’s jaw would crack.
Why is it that a single second is all it takes for your life to flip upside down? I am still flailing, wondering which way is up and which is down.
The green flag was flying, the day of that fateful second. The waves gently lapped against the shore, and the sun smiled upon us. Children shrieked and laughed, splashing as they leaped into the water. Mom and I were lying on fraying beach towels, sipping ginger ale, the sun slowly baking our skin. She decided to cool off in the water. One second, I was admiring Mom’s breaststroke. The next second, there were only bubbles.
It starts drizzling. The water droplets gleam on my skin and run in little rivulets down my arms. Upset at the change in weather, the sandpipers fly off, giving the poor sand crabs a break. Soon, the waves barely reach my toes. Tide out. I walk a few steps forward so I’m in the water again.
Heart attack, the doctors said after the divers pulled my mother’s cold, dead, blue, body from the water. We’re sorry for your loss. Loss. As if Mom was a Barbie doll I’d misplaced.
I stand on the beach for so long that the tide comes back in. I’m up to my waist in the frothing water now. The drizzle intensifies. The ocean is giving me a cue, so I turn and glance at my abandoned sandals. My gaze travels to the houses scattered at the beach’s edge, their legs as flimsy as twigs compared to the ocean’s might. The homes I always wished to live in instead of our own. Homes that stank of sea and salt instead of beer and vomit.
“When you start something, Adelaide, finish it,” Mom used to say. “And if it doesn’t work out, just try again. Over and over until you get it right.” One last time, I’ll heed Mom’s advice.
Taking a deep breath, I dive into the water, just like I used to with Mom. I lift my arms over my head and kick my feet, just like Mom taught me. I refuse to acknowledge the salt in my eyes or the debris battering my body. The choppy water makes it difficult, but the repetitive swimming motions keep me grounded. For once in my life, I keep going, nearing the end of the never-ending cycle of life.
The sandpipers plunge their beaks into the sand. Over and over.
The sand crabs burrow into the beach. Over and over.
The plastic bottle bobs up and down. Over and over.
The waves roll bits of broken glass. Over and over.
The sea crashes into the shore. Over and over.
The tide moves in and out. Over and over.
And my arms and legs cut through the water. Over and over.
As I swim toward the horizon. And Mom.
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Very much a sad story. You do some good scene building here, and we get a great sense of the beach in the beginning. It's desolate, abandoned, just like the family has become. I also like the mention of red and green flags. Particularly, "Mom and I only swam when the green flag flew." That's a great metaphor for what was happening at home, as I'm sure there were flags for when Dad was safe. Beer was probably a red flag. But then it's curious that the mother dies on a green flag day. Perhaps that's a sign that danger can strike unpredictabl...
Thanks so much for reading! I mostly mentioned the flags to contrast the circumstances of Adelaide and her mother's death. The mom, I think, was at peace when she died, but Adelaide was not, because of her grief. Further, the fact that Adelaide goes into the ocean on a red flag day exhibits the extent of her grief and desperation. I love your interpretation of the flags though; I didn't even think about them in context to the Dad!
This is well told, Sophia. I especially like: I feel raw, like meat. That simple line was, to me, masterful. Great writing, Sophia. Nicely done.
Thank you so much! 😊 This piece is one of my favorites.
Whew this was a tear jerker! That ending was crafted beautifully. I'm a sucker for poetic rhythmic repetition. At first I thought, well if her mom drowned, why would she be swimming, but then I realized how geniusly you set it up with the Mom's lesson about fear, and trying something again and again. Wonderful! I also loved the sandpiper description, as I was just watching them the other day do exactly what you described!
Thanks so much! 😊 I'm glad you liked it. It took me a while to set up, balancing the scenes from past and present, but I guess it worked out.
It certainly did!