by Rachael Cudlitz
Last winter, in a moment of weakness, I promised the children a holiday at the beach. The trip wasn’t mentioned all spring, and I’d foolishly assumed it’d slipped the boys’ minds. We’d all been so consumed with baseball and hating school, I’d forgotten the promise myself, content to plan a summer filled with lifeguarded days at the public pool and the low-rent summer camp run by the city. But not two days after they’d been released from the clutches of Jefferson Elementary, my young boys engaged in a relentless campaign of whining and badgering until I showed them proof of lodging and pinkie promised styrofoam boogie-boards upon arrival.
There were times in preparing for this trip I seriously thought about walking into the street with the intention of being hit by a bus. Not fatally mind you – just whacked hard enough to land myself in traction for a fortnight. Long enough to avoid the ridiculousness of my current situation: massive bum displayed to the world on Mission Beach, sweat prickling across my brow like beetles. Instead, I’d be surrounded by the ping and pull of various medical machines, lulled in to a desperate dream my actual life was different than the one I seem to be living. I’d dream myself living the life promised years ago. The life shattered when my husband died and I was left alone. What keeps me from desperation is practicality. Who would care for my children? I’ve no family to speak of. A neighbor, perhaps? The state? No, better to walk through the door of my misery and let the children have their fun. No one will suffer but me.
Now sitting under a battered, oversized umbrella, watching the boys as they splash at the water’s edge and dig large pits in the sand, I know I’ve made the right decision to live up to my promise. I don’t even scold them when they beat each other about with the boards. Boys will be boys after all.
Close to the water’s edge a cluster of teenagers gather and claim territory. They’ve come in twos and threes, each group dragging long boards and coolers. Every one of them birthed by Gods. Boys tall and toned, covered in long lean muscle, casually flex and stretch as they talk and saunter down to the waterline. Girls equal in their perfection, tanned with tight bellies, giggle as their high ponytails swish across their backs and tickle the knotted bows of string bikinis. I can’t help but think it a travesty how high and round a teenage girl’s breasts can be. Warm globes filled with so much promise, but in the end – simply the height of false advertising. Nurse a child or two and things shift dramatically. Everyone’s disappointed then.
Wrangling a seven- and ten-year-old is more than I can take most days. Add the planning, the gear, the slow difficult trek across the sand, the constant comforting bake of the sun, and I feel myself pulled under by a heavy wave of exhaustion. Sleeping could be disastrous. I deliberately shift into an uncomfortable position – elbows grinding into the sand, a bright, green plastic shovel pressed into my hip – just to keep myself lucid.
I marvel at how strangely sound travels at the beach. The churning of the ocean waves and the whisper of the constant wind deadens hearing. My ears feel like they’re filled with cotton wool. Children not ten feet away sound like they’re miles off and I only discover people walking close when a sprinkle of sand scatters across my towel. Seagulls with their high mournful screams sound more like memories than actual birds fighting over an abandoned picnic lunch. And yet, through this deafness I hear snippets of conversation. A woman twenty paces away asks her husband to pass her a sandwich. An infant bothered by the sun mews. Wicked laughter from the cluster of teens, echoes over the sound of the pounding surf and slowly drifts passed my towel before it’s lifted and scattered by the ocean breeze. Maybe it’s a feature of the wind, or perhaps I’m being selective, but as I roll and shift on my towel I know the teens churlish laughter is for me. The wind carries it right to my ears, I cannot help but hear them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The complete story is available in the Askance collection “Saltwater And Other Stories“.
Rachael Cudlitz resides in Los Angeles. She attended CalArts, receiving a BA in Theatre. A degree she no longer uses as she has spent most of the last 21 years parenting and traveling the world. She started writing seriously four years ago and loves the challenge of both short and long form. She has just completed her first novel Mother’s Girl, a Magical Realism Mystery and is currently working on the sequel The Girl in the Cage. Her first published short story, Some Souls Stay, recently appeared in the anthology Lost Souls, by Flametree Press.
Beach glasses photo credit: Sai Kiran Anagani via Unsplash.
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You might also like Blueprint For The End Of The World, another story from the Winter Story Competition.