by Cleo Harrington
The ocean always shines like diamonds in my mind. I recall being 10 years old, picking little Wiley up in my arms and running into the waves to meet our mom who’s past the gentle break, waiting for us. Wiley, crying and whimpering with the push and pull of the water. Me, holding him for a second, like my mom had held me, before passing him off to her more experienced arms.
Together, we came to peace with the idea of currents—graceful ups and downs, always in flux. Constant in their change.
In this remembrance, I hear my mom’s voice—delicate, the individual words soothing, albeit imperceptible over the sea’s roar. I turn around and stare at the faded gray walls of our grandparents’ beach house on the dune above, singing to the shocking blue of the California sky.
I shift uncomfortably in my stiff airplane seat, sweat dripping down my sides and matting the baby hairs at the base of my neck. My right hip is cramping up, and I’m worried that my shoes are emitting that damp leather smell.
“Thank you for hanging in there, folks. Unfortunately, we’re experiencing some weather delays, but hopefully we’ll be able to get you off the ground shortly.”
The girl sitting in the window seat to my left is already on her third mini bottle of wine. I stare as she takes two small white pills out of a green tube and turns her gaze toward the window when she swallows them. The sky has darkened. Fat, scattered raindrops are making slate gray impressions on the concrete below. I think of my mom, and her inability to fly without little white pills too.
The raindrops are gentle but the humidity in the air is stiff, infiltrating the hollow cylinder of the aircraft. An LED light jumps up from my lap—a response to the text I had sent five minutes prior. It’s a video of Ryan, my college roommate and best friend, in our favorite diner, cry-laughing and shoving a cinnamon muffin into his mouth. I see my arm extend from behind the camera and grab his hand on the table in front of me.
As the girl to my left takes another swig of acidic red wine, I watch Ryan. I forget about my tired heart and laugh. There it is, a pocket of joy. And for that moment, I relish in it.
When the plane lands at 6:38 a.m., my eyes are heavy and watering. I grab a coffee at the Starbucks in the airport and drink it as quickly as possible, hoping the caffeine will shock my mind into wakefulness. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I dab wet paper towels on my armpits and take concealer to the bags under my eyes.
My brother, Wiley, texts me. Out front! so excited to see you! and I smile. He always comes to pick me up at the airport after I spend the weekend with our parents. Wiley’s a junior at a small school in Boston—a former track star and pre-med student who has shirked his California coolness and adopted a sensitive grace through the first couple years of his twenties.
We both live in Boston now—a strange twist of fate I have found myself feeling increasingly grateful for. With both of our parents still on the West Coast, I often felt as if I had been intentionally misplacing myself by staying in New England.
As soon as I walk out of the security gates, I see the back of his mustard plaid flannel, sandy brown hair curling at the base of his head. Pulling the headphones out of my ears, I run up to him. When I squeeze him on the shoulder, a familiar warmth runs through my body and I let myself cry in a way that feels like breathing.
“Hi sis.” He turns, wrapping his arm around my neck. “How’s Dad?”
“He’s the same. Tired.”
My mind flashes to Saturday morning, Mom stirring eggs in a frying pan with a strange fragility. Being careful to not spill any over the side, and when she does, her brow furrowing so harshly that I contemplate getting up and telling her to go rest outside on the patio.
Instead, I sat silently and watched her struggle.
“She’s hanging on.”
Wiley smiles at me again, softly. “It’s good that we’re taking turns going out there.”
“Sometimes I wonder if she ever leaves the house when we’re not there.”
Wiley sighs and gazes towards the line of cabs outside the terminal. “Sometimes I wonder if she wants to leave at all, or if she does it because she knows it makes us feel like we’re doing something.”
Two cabs next to the terminal exit lay on their horns. The sun is pulling itself up and above the top of the freeway overpass, and I give myself permission to feel happy being back.
Wiley turns back to me. “You going into the office this morning?”
The laugh that comes out of my mouth startles him. “FUCK no. Let’s go get some food.”
I lean my head against my brother, and the sun throws its shine over us as we walk to the bus stop.
The silver bell above the door clangs as we walk in. Anthony’s Diner. A neon pink grease trap. American cheese drips off the croissants on the grill. The owners never play music in the tiny restaurant, which is why Sundays are my favorite time to be here. Tales of last night’s woes always fill the space up with a jovial sort of regret.
Last time we were here together it was a Sunday too. Ryan was with us. The three of us had spent the night together—singing “Closing Time” at 2 a.m. in our old college pub, eating bad Mexican food on Wiley’s futon, and crying about the constant slew of endings and beginnings that seem inevitable at this point in our lives.
We had been celebrating Ryan’s new job at a Chicago consulting firm. I sat in Anthony’s that morning, imagining my gleaming-eyed best friend walking into a shiny office with his leather satchel, feeling like he was taking an assured step forward. Proud and a little terrified.
The waitress to my right coughs.
“This pancake is still wet in the middle,” Wiley hisses, leaning across the table.
“Don’t lean too hard, Wy. This table is going to flip, it’s so unstable.”
“Well, I’m about to flip, I’m so unstable.”
We pause before laughing together, everyone around us blurring into the background. That was something I had always been grateful for, our ability to laugh in the midst of whatever hurdle our family was facing. Our ability to find joy in the pocket of air between us.
I pick a single blueberry from the golden, porous slab under Wiley’s chin while he leans back in his metal chair. The clouds buckle on top of the building across the street. The guy sitting behind us is going on and on about the concert he and his girlfriend went to last weekend. I turn around to peek at the girl—golden eyes dusted with speckles of mascara, dark hair, and baby bangs. The kind I wanted as a Sophomore in college but never got.
“She probably has a thigh tattoo,” Wiley said, subtly calling me out.
I turn back to him, smiling, “Definitely.”
My phone buzzes on the table and Wiley’s eyes immediately jump to the screen.
“What’d she say?” The little pocket of laughter that had been there moments ago dissipates, replaced by the heaviness and worry that follows the word “Mom” these days.
purple cauliflower. arugula. ghee. tri-colored baby carrots (they come in a little baggie). apple cider vinegar !!! thx, love you!
“She sent me the shopping list again.” Holding it up in front of Wiley’s face, I try to divert with “Can you tell we’re from LA or something?” He keeps his smile on, but I know. I respond quickly, Hi Mama. I think you meant to send this to dad! I’m back in Boston already with Wy.
I look back over the top of my phone to Wiley. He is tired too.
My room is stifling. I reach from my bed to the window, dragging it up and welcoming the Saturday morning wind into my haven. My roommates are out in the living room, making coffee and talking excitedly about a boy who just left. I listen to them from my bed for a couple minutes, picking at the crusted drool on the side of my mouth. Alex knocks.
“Hi girl! Can I come in?”
I look at the fur coat, stack of socks, my work bag, headphones, wallet, glasses, and keyboard all piled on the right side of my bed. I shoved it all over last night before crawling into the small pocket of free space.
“Yeah, sorry it’s kind of messy.” Alex is already in the doorway.
“We’re going to brunch in five! Thought we could use some roommate time. Wanna come?”
Ryan pops back into my mind. On weekend mornings, we would yell at each other across the living room from our beds.
We gotta fucking get up and stop being such MUMPS!
I’m not a mump! I’m HUNGOVER!
And then we’d laugh, and pull ourselves out of our sheets, walking arm in arm down the stairs and out into the morning. Looking like Hell.
My vision refocuses on Alex in my doorway. “My mom and brother are going to be here soon—she’s visiting this weekend.”
“Oh fun! Well, tell them hello for me.”
“Will do.” Alex shuts the door softly, and I turn back toward the window. The tree outside has a single orange leaf sprouting from its left side. “You eager motherfucker,” I whisper to the tree. But I get it. I’m ready for the next phase too.
I get into the driver’s seat of the car, Wiley in the back middle seat so he can rub Mom’s shoulder. I put on Elliott Smith and drive along the Charles River, across from Soldier’s Field Road. We get onto the highway, pass Boston University, and watch as the city gives way to a tree-lined road.
Mom looks at me the whole drive, not saying anything. I don’t ask her what she’s been up to in the two weeks since I was last with her. I am tired of knowing the nothing that fills her days. I am plagued by the guilt that comes with wanting back our old world. The one with the shimmering sea.
Halfway to the house, we stop at a market. I get out, leaving Wiley and Mom in the warmth of the car. The harshness of the grocery store lighting hurts my eyes. I focus on the shopping list, Mom’s voice singing to me after each item. Pasta. Not Barilla. Parmesan Cheese. From the deli area, not the one in the tubs.
I pay for the food. Walk back to the car. Climb in. Continue down the wooded road.
Inside the house, the foyer immediately gives way to a wide, brilliantly white kitchen. The kind Mom always talked about—how she would cook and have us kids running in and out with our friends. Joy, always joy. And always in the future, we would have it together.
Wiley is staring at the dining room table, running his palm over the light reclaimed wood. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” He sets the groceries on the island in the center of the kitchen. “This will be good! We can cook, put on some music. I’m starving!”
Neither mom nor I answer him. She stares at the kitchen and it’s as if she’s looking at the life she never got. “I’m really tired,” she says, turning to me now as if asking for permission.
“That’s alright, Mama. You should go rest.”
As she walks upstairs, her grief is a ghost in the pocket of air between Wiley and me. He starts crying. I close the distance between us, passing through the ghost so her grief settles like fog on my shoulders.
I hug Wiley hard, allowing it to enclose us both.
Gray morning light falls onto the white duvet in wide lines. I brush off the confusion that comes with waking up in an unfamiliar bed. My laptop is still open to my left and I hear Mom and Wiley laughing in the kitchen below. Wiley must be stirring the eggs. I breathe in and out more easily now, pull on my sweatshirt, and go downstairs to join them.
Mom is leaning up against the marble island counter, a cup of tea in hand. Wiley is at the stove, swinging his hips back and forth as Mom laughs again. Her skin looks warmer than it has in some time—brought out by the white linen frock draped over her frame.
The gray light filters in through the window here too. There are no ghostly remnants in the air, and for that, I am grateful. We fumble around with the bluetooth system for a while, before finally syncing Wiley’s phone to the speakers. He turns on Sgt. Pepper’s, and a wave washes over me. I can almost taste my five-year-old Sunday mornings. Wiley is watching us both, our eyes happy as I wrap Mom’s hand in mine.
The rest of the morning, we play our favorite albums softly all throughout the house—alternating between chatting and sitting in gentle silence. Around 2 p.m., Wiley goes up to his room to study for a midterm before dinner and I pull out my laptop to do some work. Mom sits next to me on the couch flipping through a W magazine.
From the corner of my eye I see her pause—head lifting up to look out the window toward the beach.
Without turning to face me she says, “Honey, I think I’m going to go for a walk.”
I look out the window too, see the muted waves shiver in the distance. The light like this makes the trees along the driveway piercingly green. “I think that’s a great idea. Would you like me to go with you?”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
I watch as she walks to the front door, pulling an oversized black sweater over her linen frock, and then lacing up her sneakers. She leaves, heading straight for the beach.
For twenty minutes she walks back and forth along the water’s edge. She’s a natural addition to this seascape. Wiley or I would have surely disrupted it. From here, I see her shoes come off and she’s ankle deep in the gray foam. She turns around towards the house and I wonder if she knows I’m looking at her.
I see her close her eyes and lift the sweater up and over her head—casting it onto the damp shore. Then the frock. I stand up and make my way outside to the porch, my eyes on her the whole time. Turning back around toward the horizon, she lets herself fall into the water. I feel my breath catch as the bareness of her skin is swallowed by the push and pull of the waves.
And then I see her release—allowing herself to be passed off to the sea’s more experienced arms.
Cleo Harrington has been published in Overheard Literary Magazine. She studied English and Women, Gender, & Sexuality at Harvard University, and now works for a book marketing company in Cambridge, MA. https://www.instagram.com/ineffable_something/