Flotsam (semi-rough draft)

My intentions were to work on the next assignment for my “Lit Star Training” course. (I signed up back in November, before my income nose-dived.) But a steady stream of interruptions has prevented that from happening this morning.

I am three surf sessions and a half-dozen mental essays behind in my blogging. Scrambling to do other work has (thankfully) taken some of the time I would’ve used to write here. (Yay, money!)

I’m posting a piece I wrote a couple weeks ago for the writing workshop, still rough, but not so awful that I can’t share. Suggestions welcome. (Please note: while in first person, it’s a fictionalized account. I wanted to write it in third, but it just didn’t work as well the first go-round. Still hoping to revisit that idea, as people tend to associate first-person work with the author’s actual life more. If that makes sense.)

Sometimes people move here for college, thinking all of California matches the sunshine and palm trees they’ve seen on TV. Others read up on Humboldt County, know to expect the rain, fog and drizzle, but underestimate their ability to endure through so many dark days. I love it, most of the time.

After spending my first twenty-five years in the high desert, land of freezing winters and blazing summers, the relative consistency of Northern California’s coastal weather appeals to me. Morning fog. Partly cloudy. Chance of rain. Chance of sun. When the skies do clear, the beauty and fragility of this place lift my very soul. The area is famous for its redwood trees – the old-growth forests do lend a sense of wonder to even the most jaded of observers – but I love the beaches most of all. After so many decades of logging, leftover stumps and trunks wash down our rivers and back up on the coastline. What we call driftwood weighs hundreds, thousands of pounds, scatters across the sand like badly parked cars lining a parking lot.

The chill keeps most people away from the beaches, enabling solitude on all but the warmest of days. In the winter, the waves swell to twelve, fifteen, twenty feet or more. Typically we lose someone to the ocean every year. People fail to pay attention to the forecast – or worse, walk too close to the waves to get a better look. I always tell people, check the weather report. Be careful. I even wrote a feature for our daily newspaper about how to avoid being that person, the one swept out to sea.

Which is why, on a February morning, I should have known better.

The buoy report that morning showed a twelve-foot swell at seventeen seconds. That meant not only would the waves be more than twice my size, but with an interval that long, powerful like a semi-truck barreling down the highway is powerful. Especially dangerous because in the time between wave sets, the ocean would flatten, deceive with mildness while actually gathering strength for the next assault. The incoming tide overwhelmed the beach a bit more with each moment.

On a day like this, I should have stayed on top of the dunes, taken the high trail, remained aloof to the ocean’s threat. But my thoughts concerned my daughter’s safety, not my own. In three days, she’d be sixteen. In the nearly sixteen years of raising her, I’d never regretted my decision to have her, despite only being nineteen when my sporadic use of birth control led to the predictable result. Lately, though, I found myself walking the edge of resentment, afraid my anger would overwhelm my love. Always I’d tried to make decisions based on what a good mother would do.

I loved her enough for anything, fought to not fail this precious being I’d brought into the world. We’d never had much money, but I kept art supplies on hand, made backyard picnics, read out loud to her every night, made cookies and cake whenever she asked. I kept joy afloat, no matter the pressures beneath the surface. Lately, though, the only happiness in the family emanated from Duke, our yellow lab. He chased birds while I walked, rehashing the latest fight with Cam.

Last night, she’d failed to call until an hour past the agreed time, called me a bitch for insisting she come home, then again when I picked her up. She’d wanted to stay at her boyfriend’s house – he was eighteen and living with roommates. I said no, of course not, explaining with all the words that never would have swayed me when I was her age. “Why not?” she spat. “You know we’re having sex. What are you worried about? That’s I’ll get pregnant like you? I’m not that stupid.”

I’d wanted to hit her. Instead, I gripped the steering wheel, willing my exhausted brain to hang on a little longer, not make any sudden moves. But the attack didn’t stop.

“I’m almost sixteen. How long do you think you can tell me what to do?” she yelled. “Cam, please, don’t shout.” “You’re such a bitch,” she said again.

I remembered when she was tiny, six months, teething. She’d cry all night. Desperate for sleep before my breakfast shift, I’d hold her, rock her, rub numbing gel on her gums, try all the tricks the parenting magazines suggested. Eventually, she’d sob herself back to sleep, snuggled against me, little breaths upon my neck. No amount of exhaustion could compete with the love filling me in those moments. I would always love her, protect her, provide for her. So I’d thought.

But these late nights, the drinking, the stupid loser boys – how did we get here when I’d taken every path away from this destination? How could all the years of sacrifice, of struggle land us here, in this most clichéd of relationships? Why did she hate me when all I ever did was love her more than anything? These questions filled my mind as I walked. Every mistake I ever made since birthing her haunted me. Wondered which of the many times I’d screwed up in the past had brought us to this future. All I could see was the younger version of Cam. The one who wanted to play with me, asked me to look at her newest drawing, watch her latest play, said “thank you, Mommy!” when I made mac-and-cheese.

Even last year, she still laughed, still hugged me. How had she transformed into this sullen teenager who pushed me away if I attempted so much as a pat on the shoulder? God, I missed that little girl.

We’d collected so many sand dollars along this very stretch of sand. In the summer, of course, when the dunes still sloped into the beach. This time of year, the ocean’s force ripped the slopes apart, transformed the edges into cliffs of sand rising several feet above my head. Once, years ago, a kid had tried to dig into the side of one, causing it to collapse around him. He suffocated before anyone could get him out.

Duke splashed by, apparently done with the birds, startling me out of my sorry thoughts and back into the present world. I paused, inhaled the salty air as the ocean receded, sinking further into the horizon and harnessing energy to unleash with the next wave. A wave whose path I stood in, I realized. How had I ended up so close to the water’s edge?

Adrenaline kicked in.

I ran, the crashing of surf drowning out all other sound, but the cliffs went on too high and too long – the wave came in too quickly. Just as the surge caught me, I saw Duke racing along the top of the dunes, safe. Thank God. I couldn’t stand the thought of Duke drowning because of my stupidity. Mark and Cam would really hate me then.

The flood of water picked up the scattered redwood trunks and stumps like weightless bits of flotsam, sent driftwood knocking into my ankles. I scrambled to stay upright. The 48-degree water smacked up against the cliffs lifting me in the flood. As my feet lost connection with the earth, I threw my arms out trying to stay above the surface. Foam churned over me, covered my mouth. Forward momentum spent, the swell drained, dragging me toward the sea. This was how I was going to die. I didn’t want to die.

Duke would run home eventually, causing Mark to wonder where I was, but no one would call the Coast Guard until far too late. The cold water would overwhelm me in a few minutes. I’d drown soon after. And then the ocean relented. My toes hit sand. I fell over as the water continued without me, left me on the sand soaked and choking. Another surge gathered. I stumbled to my feet. Ran.

Down the beach, a tree trunk protruded from the cliffs like a ship’s plank, driven into the side during the last storm – or maybe uncovered because of it. Afraid to look behind me, I reached the log, clambered to high ground as the wave exploded behind me. Duke pranced over, licked my face. I hugged him, not minding the smell of wet dog for once, greedy for his warmth.

How could I have been such an idiot? My body shook. I curled up, sobbing, fear still coursing through my body. I loved her so much. How could she hurt me so? Soon, I couldn’t tell if the shaking was from crying or shivering. I needed to be home and dry by the fire Mark was sure to have going. I tugged my damp beanie further down on and began the mile-long trudge home.

The sky stretched gray above, the ocean, harmless now, a darker gray, the dunes themselves a lackluster beige broken only by once-blooming plants turned colorless by winter. My calves ached from slogging through the soft sand. Stickers poked my feet. Why hadn’t I worn shoes? I cried again, hating the cold, the ocean – no, I loved the ocean. All I ever wanted was to live near the ocean. I’d found the only place in California a person could be broke and still inhabit the beach. I hated Cam and hated myself for hating her.

I cried harder, furious to be so weak. Tears dripped across my lips, their saltiness mixing with the crusted ocean, stung my lips. I forced the bawling to a series of sniffles. One last dune to traverse, just a half-mile from home. As I stumbled over the top, my foot slipped on a clump of ice plant, one of the many invasive species taking over the dunes. Before I could catch myself, I fell, tumbled down the slope into a heap at the bottom. My ankle throbbed. I lie there for a moment, wishing for rescue. Nobody came, so I hauled myself back to my feet. All I wanted was to be a good mom. But fifteen years of trying, only to wind up here?

I hobbled onto the trail, watching for the blackberry vines that like to snake across. Early fall, we pick berries on this trail. I like to run out of the house before anyone else is awake, gather blackberries for pancakes in the breaking dawn. Those are the best mornings, the ones that welcome the day with the sweet scent of batter on the griddle. When the roof of our house finally came into view, I quickened my pace, by now my teeth chattering so hard my jaw hurt. Mark must have seen me from the window, because he strode outside to greet me. “What the fuck happened to you?” He wasn’t being mean, he really wasn’t, but I needed reassurance, not mocking. Unable to answer without crying, I tried to push by him. He caught my arm. “Hey! Why are you all wet? What happened?”

His eyes looked worried, but the shape of his mouth reminded her of too many other moods. Anger. Belligerence. Wrath. Outrage. Indignation. He looks like his mother when his lips twist like that. I hate his mother. “Nothing,” I said. “I wasn’t watching and a wave hit me.” I tugged away, but he refused to let go. “Jesus,” Mark said. He pulled me against his chest. His warmth thawed me enough to trigger tears once more. Would I ever stop crying? “Shhh, it’s okay,” Mark murmured. “You’re okay.” We moved up the stairs to the house. I knew I would dry off, warm up, emerge wiser, but mostly unscathed. I wished I’d survive Cam’s teenage years with as much luck.

—————————-

Current problems with this piece include too many “I” statements and the lack of a good final sentence.

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2 thoughts on “Flotsam (semi-rough draft)”

  1. Hey Jen,
    Great work! I’ve raised teens and no one can break your heart like a kid.
    I really felt for your character. I love the feelings when he greets her and when she hated his Mother I laughed… I felt like she could have been my friend.

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