Saltwater

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.

Holy shit cuz.
You see that? Fuckin’ Moby Dick, man.
Great white whale!
You imagine fuckin’ that? How’d you find the hole?
Man. Somebody did, chick’s got two kids.

I’m not surprised. It’s a conversation I expect and am accustomed to. I know I’m fat. Morbidly so. I know, while the teenage girls have perfect bodies and magazine-worthy skin, I’m the one garnering all the attention. No one can keep their eyes off me. I haven’t always been this way. It would be convenient to blame my situation on large bones or some bizarre glandular condition. However, last week after I bought a size five pair of trainers I consumed half a dozen donuts as a snack. Not exactly the actions of an innocent. I’ve been told by my doctor, friends and several earnest, well meaning, completely-out-of-line strangers, I am killing myself and unlikely to see my boys grow up. I know there are programs and support groups available to help me lose weight. There are surgeries, pills and remarkably helpful forms of hypnosis. When a person watches me struggle down the street and thinks, my God how does someone let themselves get that fat? All they would have to do is ask and I could easily tell them the hideous truth: I eat. I eat more than I should. And I cannot stop.

Even though I intentionally keep the teens in the periphery of my vision, I can feel them pointing at me. I focus my attention on my lads scooping handfuls of wet sand in their fists, only to let it slip though their fingers and plop back on to the beach. They seem joyful, but they’ve set their backs to my detractors, and their heads are turned toward the water. They hear the insults. They feel the cuts as deeply as I do. It is a burden I wish they did not bear, and I know someday the kindness they show me by feigning ignorance won’t hold and I shall be called to account for my sin of gluttony.

My small gold watch reads noon. A day of blazing sun ahead and I can already feel the prickly sting of sunburn creeping into my cleavage. Beads of sweat slip from the crease at the back of my neck, flow down the curves of my body and collect in the crack of my ass. I must shift side to side to release them. England never has sun like this. Our sun is weak and embarrassed, like a man with his hat in his hands. Even in our summers you feel yourself turning into a snail, all gray and damp. But here in California the sun is a Colossus. Brash, confident, a movie star with perfect teeth. My husband lured me to his country with promises of a lifetime of perpetual sun and golden skin. It’s a shame he was promising my lifetime, not his.

Not wanting to burn, I’ve been careful to coat myself thoroughly with Coppertone, but doubt it affords much protection for my miserable pale skin. Parts of my body haven’t been exposed to the world for years and are now grotesquely on display. I think they are all in a bit of shock. The sand burrows up and underneath the clenched edges of my bathing suit, despite my every effort to not leave my towel. I haven’t even touched the sea, but I can taste its briny tang on the back of my tongue. This beach makes me miserable and I desperately want a beer.

“Mom! Mom! They’ve got sand crabs in a bucket!” My youngest, Brian, runs up the beach kicking sand behind him, sprinkling it on neighboring towels.
“Mind the sand,” I say.
He slows instantly and carefully picks his way to our spot. Despite his natural exuberance, Brian is an obedient boy. Like his father, he will make a good soldier.
“That girl, down there, she’s got sand crabs. She digs after them when the water comes up. You should see ‘em. They look like big white fleas.” He touches my shoulder with a wet, sandy hand, leaving a patch of coolness. I want to roll him over my whole body to ease the sun’s sting.
“C’mon, they’re really cool!”

I’ve let the boys grow their hair out for the summer. Brian’s is straight and dark, wet with sea water and plastered to his face covering his brows. Small rivulets of ocean course down his cheeks, gather at his chin and drip off in a line like a water chain. The older one, Jamie, has blonde curls starting to show. Bleached at the tips by the summer sun, each curl looking like it was dipped in gold. Remarkably pretty for a boy. I’ve been told he is an Adonis in the making. My father looked the same in his childhood photos: angel down, a red pouty mouth. The resemblance is striking. I know my Jamie will grow into a very handsome man. The kind of man who will have the world at his fingertips. If I am careful, this golden mane will be the only characteristic he will share with my father. A man who looked at his children and found us wanting. A man who polished us, ground out our glaring imperfections, until we were smooth and perfect. Exactly the way he thought we should be. A man who held us up — his works of perfect art — and then without cause or warning, cursed us and cast us out. Tossing his children heedlessly into the world, like we were stones to be skipped across water.

“Oh, Brian the crabs sound lovely. But if you don’t mind, I’ve found myself in an exciting bit of my book. I’m glued. You go ahead and enjoy yourself.” I dig into the large bag next to our cooler and pull out several red plastic cups. “Here, take some of these, give one to Jamie, and see if you can dig out some wee beasties of your own.”
Brian snatches the cups from my hand and breaks for the beach.
“Walk,” I say.

I reach into the picnic basket and pull out a large bag of saltwater taffy. This morning we’d passed a candy shop with an enormous motorized taffy pull in the window. The window’s glass painted in fanciful gold script read, Calloway’s Original Candy Emporium. The boys stopped dead, mesmerized equally by the movement of the machine as the seductive sugary smell wafting from the shop. They didn’t have to ask, I walked them in, released them and told them they could each pick out a special treat. The taffy pull, safely stowed behind white velvet ropes, was manned by a short, gray-haired fellow with a white bow tie and a groomed mustache. The boys quickly abandoned me and rushed him, firing out questions about the machine. He cheerfully answered each one and with a wink to me, slipped the boys several small samples. The pull looked dangerous. Heavily greased bicycle chains connected large spoked wheels, then dipped down into a plexiglass box containing the churning electric motor. Several shiny metal arms spun in big circles pulling, gathering and stretching the taffy between them. At the mercy of the machine, the taffy slipped helplessly between the rods, slapping against itself. I couldn’t help but empathize. The boys ignored the rest of the store, content to watch the taffy pull and easily agreed to a bag of saltwater taffy as their treat. I purchased the biggest bag Calloway’s Original Candy Emporium had to offer. Three pounds.

At the shore, the boys squat down like Indian beggars, heads bowed together, digging and poking at the sand. A boney girl in a sagging yellow bathing suit stands above them directing their efforts. She’s a bossy thing and I would hate to have one of my lads marry such a tyrant. They are growing up though, strong and sure. Their father would have been more than proud. He would have crowed to all his mates what fine, bonny lads he had. He’d have let them ride on his shoulders while he walked into the ocean’s deeper waters, then dunk them under the waves to let them fight their way to the surface, sputtering and scared, but braver for it. He’d have pulled them aside, one at a time, and told them about their grandfather, his father, a man who was kind and gentle. A man who had been a willing soldier in Vietnam, who’d taught him about honor and love and how to tie a proper hook. A man who’d died too soon. Their father would have done all these things and more had he not followed in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier and a man who’d also died too soon.

My Jim was the world I lived on. When stupid boys wonder how anyone could fuck the likes of me, I want to tell them I was just like those girls with the swinging ponytails and the high breasts. I want to tell them about Jim’s touch. How his lips played the small dimples of my spine, nipped at my breasts and made me come with kisses. How he gripped my boney hips like handles and rode me until I screamed. I want to tell them our boys were made with more pleasure than they, The Gods of Summer, would ever know. I want to tell the young, beautiful boys I pray my husband didn’t die scared, drowning in the blood of his friends. I want to tell them, when I think of him I have to force myself to see him whole, not ruined by the raggedy sons of bitches who bury bombs in the roads of that shit country Jim was sent to save. I want to tell them I pray, every day, he slipped away peacefully thinking of Jamie shouting his first words over a webcam and Brian, the newborn son he’d never touched. I pray he thought of me, knowing I loved him with all my heart and I pray he’d understand why every day his absence eats away at that love and makes me hate him just a little bit more.

What would those beautiful boys on the beach say to me then? What could they possibly say?

My elbows crunch deeply into the sand beneath my towel. I pull a bright pink piece of taffy from the bag and carefully open the stiff, waxed wrapper. At first the candy is hard and tasteless, then it blooms into a sweet rush of strawberry washing away the lingering taste of ocean on the back of my tongue. I sigh as it slips away. I grab handfuls and eat them one by one, savoring and burying myself in licorice, watermelon, root beer, cotton candy, orange cream. I eat and watch my boys and the skinny girl run into the small breaking waves flinging handfuls of sand and crabs in to the water, their laughter lifting up in to the wind and wandering down the shore. I eat and watch the waves crash on their small bodies knocking them off their feet. I eat and watch them rise from the water, shout above the waves and play brave warriors marching on the sand. I eat and watch, knowing if they went further in to the water and were pulled out to sea, I’d be left behind struggling to get to my feet, screaming their names, helpless, and unable to save them.

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.

If you enjoyed Rachel Cudlitz’s story please leave a comment for her below.

You might also like Blueprint For The End Of The World, another story from the Winter Story Competition.

 

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27 thoughts on “Saltwater

  1. Excellent! I can identify with the mother to some extent. And the retired teacher in me would find the one misspelled word. Congratulations on the win!

  2. I felt like I was there at the beach and reminisced about watching salt water taffy machines. I also have obese friends and though Rachael does not appear to be obese she had perfect insight to their feelings, especially at the beach. It’s a beautiful story and makes you want to reach out to the character. Bravo! A definite winner!

    1. Thank you so much. Part of the enjoyment I get from writing is to ask myself what someone else’s experience of this life is. I may not get it “right.” But I hope, I find some kernel of truth that we all share.

  3. Wonderful, Rachael!
    You drew me in to the characters so that I could truly feel the environment, and identify with all people, as well as circumstances. You are so very talentented. Thanks for sharing it!

  4. You are like Stephen King you pull us into the story, the smells, feelings and joy loved it. As we ladies age we pretend some of us do, that we hear but do not believe it. We still think we are hot and everything is where it’s supposed to be, but they are not. Thank you for a good read

  5. Finding an author that writes so poetically, and with such great humor and depth of character, is now possible – please, if you could write a giant novel for us again! Congratulations on your win from this priceless gem!

  6. Wow! I wanted to know more about this lonely women. Kinda reminds me about me in my earlier days, 2 husbands ago. Congratulations #MamaCudlitz keep writing 👊👊

  7. Your words held me to the story, I tried to skip away but couldn’t. Some stories are easy to pull away from, this wasn’t.

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