by Tamuira Reid
My mother loves the ocean. It sings to her, she says. When we lived in Manteca we didn't have an ocean. The only place you could find water was in the swimming pool.
She says if it's not singing than it's telling her stories. She says she sees faces in the waves. She doesn't know any of them though.
I was nine when my parents divorced and we moved to Santa Cruz. We played in the white wash for hours, the salt sticking to our legs in sheets. My mother watched from her perch further up the shore. She didn't like to get wet.
“Can you believe it? Two blocks from the beach.”
“It's an apartment, mom. And it's green.”
She danced around the tiny two-bedroom apartment with my little sister on her hip. When she tugged on the mini-blinds, they scrolled up, the kitchen filling with an obnoxious light. Everything was bright in this town; there was light everywhere.
“Come on you guys. It's not that bad. Look – you've got a beach for a front yard, for Christ's sake.”
“I miss my dad.”
Maeghan started to cry. I decided the sound of the ocean scared her. My mother tried to quiet her, gently kissing the top of her head. Everyone was tired. She looked out the window at the U-Haul parked sideways across the front lot. Our old life had been reduced to nothing more than a sofa and some chairs.
I ask her what type of songs it sings.
She doesn't answer, thinking I'm just being a smart ass. Probably the kind of songs you hear on wedding compilation discs. The ones they sell on infomercials. Ballads. Luther Vandross. Lionel Ritchie. My mother's a sucker for a good, sad song.
When I was in second grade, she made me sing I Just Called to Say I Love You in the school talent show. I was horrible. Tone deaf. Stuttering. Drops of sweat falling from my mullet. She would convince me to sing Barbara Streisand the following year.
The new apartment was green. We were living in a can of split pea soup. I bunked with Carina in the smaller room and my mother took Maeghan to the bigger one. Within minutes our room was divided by a long stretch of duct tape; stereo, bed, and bureau full of Madonna-inspired clothes on her side, trash can and empty milk crate used for packing on mine. Somehow I knew this division wasn't fair but I went along with it; at that point Carina was still bigger than me and would not hesitate to knock me flat on my back. Soon the line of tape was covered with about three feet of books, Barbie dolls with bad military haircuts, and laundry our mother didn't have the time to do.
My mother took us on a wild shopping spree at the local mall. Guess jeans, bangle bracelets, penny loafers, knee socks, Esprit sweatshirts, pink legwarmers, t-shirts with piano keys silk-screened across the front.
We came out of the dressing room, one by one, as she looked us over. Too tight. Not tight enough. Wrong color. Too matronly.
My last outfit was an acid wash skirt and paint splattered halter-top. I started to cry.
“I look stupid.”
She stood up, swinging her purse over her shoulder and grabbing Maeghan by the hand. “I just want you kids to fit in, that's all. We aren't in cow town USA anymore.”
The car ride home was a painful one, the only sound the electric glide of her window lowering as we passed by the water.
Twin Lakes beach was two blocks down, at the end of Sixth Avenue. Everyday after school I'd plunk down on the sand, take my loafers off and watch the sailboats get eaten up by the mouth of the harbor.
The beach was long and smooth, beginning at the jetty and continuing uptown until moss and ice plant-covered rocks blocked the passageway. Some pieces of land stretched out into the water. You could pass them if you swam around.
I wore flip-flops and crimped my hair. I became familiar with products like Aqua Net and Nair. I was a ten year-old with shaved legs and a mother who was was MIA. The teenaged boys grouped themselves around the rocks behind where I sat. Their half-developed chests were covered in ink, homemade tattoos covering tanned skin. Four years later, I would be sitting on those same rocks, a Coors Light in one hand, joint in the other.
She'd call us when she was leaving work. Seaside High School, where she was a guidance counselor, was a forty-five minute commute south along the coastline. We would time it perfectly so that the hot rollers were plugged-in approximately five minutes before she was due to arrive. She'd push through the door, kiss each one of us, and change into her favorite jeans, the white ones with the crazy red flowers that were so tight she'd have to lay down on the bed as we zippered them. After curling her hair and applying a quick coat of mascara, she was gone. While we stayed home and struggled with homework and decided what to eat for dinner, she made friends down at the Crow's Nest, a bar adjacent to the yacht harbor. After seventeen years of marriage to the wrong man, my mother was enjoying her newfound freedom. Some nights I waited up for her. Some nights I locked myself in my room and readjusted the duct tape ever so slightly.
I remember thinking that I would hate to be the car behind my mother.
She'd slow her speed down to about minus five when we passed by the ocean on the way home from anywhere. “Isn't that just gorgeous?” She would roll down the window and stick her head out, the wind pushing her bangs back, revealing a freckled forehead. “God it smells good!” And even though we were annoyed, we agreed. But we did it silently.
Her sailboat was called “Buffalo Dancer” and had a plaid interior and a functioning toilet inside.
“I'm tired of these guys asking me to sail with them and then not letting me do anything. So I got my own damn boat.”
She even had a sweatshirt with the name of her boat on it, complete with zippered front and a starched collar. “You look like a yuppie, mom,” we teased, secretly proud that our mother had more balls than most men we knew. She would go out there, day after day, learn how to maneuver around, gliding through the ocean with the ease of a natural sailor. Sometimes she dropped anchor and sat out there for hours, head tilted back, a mile from shore, just staring at the sky.
We walk down to the beach together when I'm home visiting, making sure to leave the house in time to catch the sunset. It is purple and pink. It is red then orange then red again. I tell her I can't see the sunset from my apartment in New York. The buildings are too tall.
“Probably too much smog to see it anyways,” she tries to reassure me.
“The Atlantic is gray. It's all gray in the East.”
“I bet it doesn't sparkle like that,” she points a finger at the waves breaking.
We're sharing a Styrofoam cup of rum and coke minus the rum, resting our backs against a sandbank. I look at her and suddenly see myself; the same long face and big sad eyes.
“You been sailing lately?” I had noticed that Buffalo Dancer was now parked in the side yard instead of in her slip at the harbor.
“Oh yeah. All the time.”
I don't tell her how I also noticed there were weeds beginning to grow around the hatch and how the cats had been using it as their vacation home.
My mother's heart hurts. Another thing we have in common. Weak, faulty hearts. Hearts that decide to take breaks whenever they feel like it. Hearts crushed by their own weight.
She's on a lot of medication. She doesn't feel too good, she says.
“There's Homer,” she motions to a large sailboat with silver sails lurching out of the harbor. “Don't know what he's thinking. Not enough wind to fly a kite. He's gonna have to motor back in.”
Our drink is gone and we crunch on the ice cubes that have not yet melted. Seagulls flock around a mass of seaweed that the tide has brought in and an old couple walks by, their linen pants rolled up, shoes in hand.
“Everything just kind of falls away when I come down here. It's like nothing else in the world matters. Just this big old pool of water.”
She goes to the beach to bury her past under the sand with the bottle caps and the forgotten wristwatches and the white jeans with the red flowers.
She goes to watch the boats. There weren't any boats in Manteca.
She goes because it sings to her.