Keep Art Alive :: Art by Tara McPherson
“We are, we are, we are, we’re just children, finding our way around indecision. We are, we are, we are rather helpless; changes forever, whisper to a scream.”
The first time I visited the ocean she screamed. It was not a scream of excitement, or of delight, but more of the blood-curdling psycho killer come to take my life variety of screaming; at least that is how my Mother tells it. She tells of the car ride over, how we made up songs about their destination, rhyming silly things that a four year old tends to cling to, full of exaggerated pronunciations and familiar language.
We had the Coke that we shared between us, a habit that would continue, whenever we took a trip that required more than fifteen minutes on the road. It is that part I play at remembering, the glass bottle with the syrup-sugar liquid, and the way my Mother’s hand felt when she would pass it over to me; it felt like for once I belonged in her world. In all reality, though, it could have been any trip, not necessarily that first time; memory is a trickster that way.
She tells me we turned a sharp corner, veering off the main drag and away from the sign for the Ferry. There were these bumps in the road that required slowing down for. The ticket booth with the boy my Mother most likely flirted with looming ahead, and then the search for an open spot to park in. This I remember, too, though not necessarily from that day, or in that order.
My Mother spoke to the cars as if they were people, suggesting that they find their ways to anywhere but here, reminding them of forgotten errands or plush garages to rest within. She had a way of giving the inanimate life, and of making the smallest of objects significant. The cars, like anything else, were just another something for her to subject her emotions on.
One car left to her delight, the credit given to her power of suggestion, and she pulled in, proudly.
Old Maggie, our pale blue Oldsmobile, rattled a bit when the engine shut off. My mother would run her hand gently across the dash, cooing love words to her in hopes that she would keep on keeping on. “Take a breather, old girl. Enjoy the ocean air.”
The door swung open then and I jumped out of the car, flip flops half off each foot, the pale yellow ones with the plastic pink daisies at the toes. She recalls that I ran with arms outstretched, off the asphalt and up onto the sidewalk. She had to slam the door haphazardly behind her, and run to catch me. The sand flew up behind me like a desert windstorm, my shoes flapping then flying off completely, and me not noticing as I raced towards the ebbing waves. She reckoned then that I would dive right in, mistake it for my Grandmother’s pool, sprout fins where my feet had been and swim off into the deep. That I would disappear forever.
At the water’s edge I stopped dead in my tracks, halted as if someone had grabbed a hard hold of me, or as if I had smacked against a wall of glass. I stood there and screamed with everything I had in me. My Mother, she still claims to have never heard such a thing come out of me, did not even recognize the sound. People ran down the beach toward me, asking if I was alright, asking what had happened. She wrapped her arms around me then and held me close to her, so close I probably felt myself go invisible as I disappeared into her. I know she smelled of cigarettes and Anais Anais perfume without remembering, a mixture of scent that I would later associate specifically with childhood, and her.
We had driven home in silence, my mother’s hands shaking at the wheel. No more sing-a-longs or shared soda pop. That is my assumption, mind you. She always penned herself as the heroine of the story, ever swooping me up and rushing me home; saving the day. There was silence though, and feelings sent strong within that lack of noise. She usually resented having to hold my hand if there was no one of significance around to notice.
She taught me how to play to the necessary audience, among other things. When he tells me I don’t fake it so well anymore I think to myself “no one is watching, and you, my fading love, you no longer matter.”
This story, though, out of all the others she has told me throughout my life has always struck me odd and inconsistent to my own memories. The ocean has always been home to me, peace and understanding. Standing on its shores, with my feet wet and cold, is where I have found reasons to stay alive. The sea becoming an integral part of my soul. I knew of all the pain I have thrown into her waves, and the answers I have sought, and received, by simply listening to the current come and go. There has never been anything quite like it. I still kick off my shoes and run down the sand. I still throw my arms out as if to embrace all of it.
There was that boy, the one who liked to lift my skirt slightly and slip his fingers underneath my panties; watch me shudder as he turned circles inside of me. I told him the story once while we sat close together on the sand. His hands were always on my skin, or grabbing at the cigarette I would share with him. His touch was usually such a distraction to me, but despite his persistence I kept to the story. He pulled my hair back roughly as my voice trailed off, just enough to get my attention, and he said solemnly, “maybe you saw the rest of your life that day.”
He was dark that way, just the way I liked them back then. Boys with cloudy rainy souls and needs too deep to fill; a touch of pain in everything they came near, and in all that they lay their hands upon. I rolled my eyes and pulled just enough away from him to feel the tug on my hair again. I imagined myself, sinking into the sand, or washing out into the ocean, as he sat there with narrowing eyes, just watching me go.
Later, in the car, my body crammed into the gap between the seats, and my legs spread painfully apart, he thrust himself into me. I felt myself disappear as I tended to do during those encounters. My breath would catch and stick somewhere deep inside of me, and I would think to myself, “right now I wish I could scream so loud it would break the windows; so loud that I’d finally wake up.”
Who would hear me though? Only the ocean or some uninterested passerby. We walk by so much in life and just turn our heads away, turning up the music, and averting our gaze. He knew that near the water he could take things farther than I would allow in my own bed, or his. Afterwards we would sometimes confess things to each other, sitting there awkwardly with him still sticky on my legs and tell-tale marks left on my hips from where his rough touch had been. It seemed that the flip-side to pain was my honesty, blood tasting like some bitter metallic pill of truth. And, I knew then we would never last, that he would become just another memory to contemplate later, to reiterate to the sand.
He told me about a girl who used to babysit him when he was twelve. Told me how she would paint his toenails bright green, and practice blow jobs she would later gift her boyfriend with, on him. He told me she smelled of cheap perfume and bubble gum, and that her blonde hair had one strand dyed pink. He traded that tale for the one about my screaming. This exchange of stories, with our bodies spent and sore, was the closest we would ever get to being in love.
I think perhaps if I could only return to the exact spot by the water, if I could somehow recapture that moment, then I would finally comprehend the sort of “something” that seemed missing from me. I asked her again one afternoon through the crackling of a long distance call, holding my hand tight to my ear as if I could impart more truth this time; if I could just shut the world out and do nothing but listen. She sighed and asked why it was so important. Why that story? Why now? She relented and told it again, well-rehearsed to the point of disbelief; her voice sounding scripted.
Just then I remembered the scar on my forehead, the five stitches story. How I had been spinning in circles and lost my balance. How it was a crack on the corner of the coffee table that did it, and how she had held me in her lap all the way to the emergency room, crying along with me. The truth, or something like it, came out years later,over drinks. It was during one of those rare nights, with me barely an adult, when we had put aside our born into roles, and our conflicting perspectives, and tossed a few back.
I had been in a car with my Mother and her best friend Connie. They had been drinking, and these were the years before mandatory seat belts and child restraints. The brakes were hit hard, an accident avoided, and everyone unscathed; everyone except for me. I had been sleeping in the backseat, footed pajamas and doll baby in my arms. I had flown. I did not scream when my head hit the dashboard. And it was Connie, not my Mother, who had held me in her arms and cried. But me, I was silent, and the story was later edited for content and for acceptable consumption. I asked her then, that night, half-cocked and confused, “so my scars are lies?”
Perhaps the screaming was fabricated, too. He smiled and said, “one day you’ll give up and accept the fact you like it that way.” And I wondered which way he meant. The lies? The crumpled up backseat fucks? Or the way the ocean reminded me that I am simply just a shadow of myself?
His fingers slid up my leg again, and I thought about the girl with the pink in her hair, imagining what she looked like on her knees. And, I wondered if she made him feel things I would never know. If she had known how to make him scream.