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 redundantlook 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 Im being picky, dont you?
In these times, the least we can do is use our words
as precisely as possible.
Isnt 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 whyhe
was still married.
She could have said, Count yourself lucky and
go find someone else, but that was my fathers
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 fathers
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
My father had never understood my passion for drawing,
which Id turned into a career in scientific
illustration. Id made many jokes at parties
about my current project, and people found it hilarious
to hear about the exterminators 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 fathers suggestion that I come
out and see them. Your mom misses you,
he said. We both do.
What he didnt tell me was that shed fallen
into a great sadness. Not the kind that half the country
felt, but something deeper. For the first time since
Id known her, she wasnt 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
Im 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? Id 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 fathers 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. Youre just
working to get through the day. Anything they do to
the place, its an improvement, probably, though
some would disagree with me. But here, its so
beautiful, you know it wont last. Its
the beautiful places that are going to be hurt the
You need to get back in the circle of happiness,
little lady, I said.
She stepped into the circle shed drawn in the
sand. This is the circle of, the circle ofoh
for goodness sake, I dont know. She walked
to the frothy lace at the waters edge, and scrawled
our names again in the sand, just as the waves came
up and erased them. But maybe Ive seen
What do you mean? I asked. She put her
hands on her hips and looked out at the ocean as if
she hadnt 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
youd had a child, Id only worry about
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 Im
going to have sex with the first man I meet just to
I said, if Id 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. Im
an easy target.
You started it.
Well, you persist in misunderstanding me. Lets
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,
shed get out this box of paints and set up her
canvas. Then shed just sit there and stare at
it. Night after night.
My latest project? Its done. She
plopped down on the dry sand far back from the waters
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
couldnt 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
I tried. She frowned. It just takes
getting used to.
You mean the water? Jumping up, she grabbed
her shoes and skipped to the waters edge, dodging
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. Its pulling me in.
What did you do? I asked.
Not much. I didnt know what to do. I
couldnt push the whale back intry pushing
against a hillit just isnt possible. I
didnt 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 couldnt
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. Thats not safe.
Maybe. I wasnt 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 Id calmed them.
She frowned. Or maybe he was trying to calm
Where was Dad all this time?
He doesnt 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 dont know why. After
the tide ran out, they died. Bulldozers came and buried
them. In fact, these werent 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. Its something engrained
in us from the very beginnings of human existence.
It seemed to be trueI couldnt 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
Shall we go back? I suggested.
Technically thats not possible. Were
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.
Youre babbling, I said.
No, Im not. Lets 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 wasnt close to shore.
She turned to look at me, then back at the ocean.
You dont see it?
Theres nothing out there, I said.
She pointed. Youre sure you dont
No. Good grief, Mom. Youre 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 stoppingknee deep, thigh
deep, waist deep, still going. She was nuts.
Hey! I jumped up. Its way
too cold to swim.
Its all right. You stay there.
She stretched out her arms and plunged headfirst into the waves.
Theres 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. Id never known how good she was.
Dont 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
couldnt 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
Hills creamy side. Something black in the sand
flopped in the wind. My heart skippedwas itno.
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
I ran back down to the wet sand at the waters
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 mothers 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
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. Icantdo
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 youre 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.
Kelly, a voice called, small and thin.
Kel-lee. Adjective? Noun? I turned toward
the sound. A tiny stick figuremy father? stood
on Whale Hill. The waves marched toward the sand.
Then something brushed against my legs. I screamed
againat 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
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. Hed
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 diemy
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 shed left them.
Will she be all right? I asked.
Shell be upset if we dont 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
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 mothers
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