Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: On the Edge, By the Sea

It was, Taylor told her, the best place for all of them to be and so they packed. Leah did not agree, but had gotten to the point where dissent was out of the question. A position she’d been in many times but not a long while. They were somewhat mired in her recent lack of acceptance. (Would there ever be an “after”?) It was the present, though– their lives in the here and now– so she had to manage things the best way she could: with calm, cool acquiescence.

Once they took off, it felt easier going to the coast. The radio played the whole two hours. His preferred stations– although he’d asked her twice if she desired otherwise. She was fixed on the depth of the flashing forest, the sharp descents to sea. It was the panorama of nature that she drank in so didn’t answer him. His considerations felt small and late. She wished it otherwise, but wishing…not an option.

The kids’ minds were engaged by whatever was on their phones. The back seat was another country. She felt no desire to demand they take in the sights; her private beholdings were rich with solitude. Chris and Marta were there for the ride; their worlds were blissfully absent from their parents for a time. Who could blame them? Leah glanced at her husband, wondered what Taylor was thinking–then her thoughts shut with a bang. Why would she wonder when she knew?

When they arrived Marta held back, bobbing her head to the music banging in her ears. They’d been there four years back, when she was twelve. She’d said it was an “okay place”, though she’d honestly not looked forward to that much time with family. But Chris grabbed his back pack, got out, looked all around and waited at the back door as he sniffed the breeze. They’d been there when things were good. Chris had been only nine. Did he remember how much they loved it? He had said he did when Taylor gave them the after-Christmas plan. Father and son–they’d be the energetic team they always were. Chris still had plenty of time to rebel, next year maybe, Marta mused.

The old house with its weathered wood shingles gave Leah a sense of misgiving. This was the way Taylor wanted to spend good money on three–really, barely two with driving to and from the city– wintry “getaway days”? But the interior was better rather than worse for wear with a brightened color scheme, comfier sofa, refurbished kitchen and bathroom. The loft overlooked the full-window wall revealing headland and cliffs, the grey-blue water below. Two bedrooms down, a bathroom and open living and kitchen area. The kids had chosen the loft before since it offered two single beds and a bit of privacy, a cozy retreat. But that was then–they were older now.

“This place sucks as much as it did before,” Marta pronounced and clamored up the steps to the loft. “Dibs on the north bed, Chris-cross!” she yelled.

At that, Leah felt a yank toward that long ago ease of these coast vacations, as if happiness could yet be snared. But Chris was outside staring at the muscular dance of endless wild waves. Taylor beside him, an arm thrown about his shoulders. He was no longer so distant in height, which they’d always predicted. Their bright-eyed son had been long of limb from the start. This was how it ought to be, those two, and shortly Marta would come around though she’d fuss and sigh. Leah was the in-between of it all. She felt like space between bodies, a pause between words, a momentary movement as she slipped about their energies…and then reuniting with her own unsettled self. It was a transitory, uneven life, she thought. Not like the years when all felt more fixed, true north always true north. That was so long ago she could barely bring it to the forefront and when she did, it made her head ache.

They needed this, she knew. This space and time, a small break. The beauty and joy of land and sea. Every one of them.

She put away the food, hung up a few garments and worried over sharing the double bed–maybe he’d take the other room after the kids were asleep, he got up quite early. She checked the wood box –a heap of splintery dry logs readied. At least there would be a fire to sit around. At least there would be the soothing roar of the ocean. She closed her eyes, stood with hands splayed on the counter.

“Mom? Going out.” Marta started out, then turned back, wary as she saw the closed eyes. “You coming?”

“Go on, I have things to do first.”

Her bleary gaze followed her lithe, blue-and-platinum-headed, newly tattooed girl–was it some symbol she made up?–some elegant geometry– as she ran to the long wooden stairway that led to the Pacific, then descended. Taylor and Chris, she noted, had disappeared.

******

Leah waited outside as the sun sank below the horizon, its brilliance cast upon the water. She felt better– maybe good. When its vibrancy spread and faded along the horizon, they came back full of exclamations about the amazing sky, how cold the wind, how wet their feet that got caught in awesome waves. It had started spitting rain, the sharp air gusted about; they all stumbled back in winded, laughing. Leah could hardly not be drawn into such exuberance. They helped her prepare dinner, to her pleasure.

There was soon a big plateful of enchiladas and they delved in, glad to be eating above the Pacific on a Friday evening. After they cleaned up they found their own spaces, settled down. Leah had started the fire long before and it took from the air its mustiness and clingy dampness. Now the house was redolent of seasoned Doug fir wood, rich with warmth. But before it was that late, they ran out of chatter and grew drowsy from the fire’s enchantments.

Chris latched onto the second bedroom when Marta took to the loft.

“We can keep an eye on everything from here,” she called down.

“Go ahead,” he said and closed his door.

“Since I have the best views, who wants you to spoil it?” Marta rustled around, then grew quieter in her private place–just as she had hoped. She’d had to offer, though. He was still such a kid.

“They’re close,” Taylor said, “but Chris sure is growing up.”

She looked up from a magazine, waiting for more, some insight he’d offer about the mysterious workings of a preadolescent boy. When he only poked at the fire so embers sparked, she returned to the page. She understood Chris better than her husband imagined, as their son still talked to her in small spurts of self-disclosure. Marta, less so, cautious about her expanding inner life. It seemed as if she could intuit the cause of friction between her parents, but at sixteen such watchfulness guarded her privacy. She had her life–parents had their own issues.

Leah remembered how it felt, despite it being 30 years since she was in Marta’s shoes. She wished she could reassure Marta, anyway, of–well, everything, really. That wishing impulse! She must rid herself of it once and for all.

“What do you think?”

Leah closed the magazine, nearly smiled. More attempts at normalcy. They worked so hard at it lately.

“I think they like– and love– each other much of the time– but will soon fully go their own ways.”

“I hope not, I’d rather they were close all their lives. Like my siblings and I were…until we got out of school, anyway…”

The sweet longing in Taylor’s voice made a beeline for her innards, then ricocheted. Firelight flickered over the lines of his face, that creased brow. His neat but stubbly beard might be debonair, if only she put her mind to it. His skin half-glowed in reflection of the flames, while also half in shadow. He grasped another split log, placed it atop those burning so the fire leapt and sizzled.

“I really want you to enjoy yourself, you know. Me, too,” he said quietly, the crackling nearly covering his words. “The kids love it, though Marta would rather bite her tongue all week-end than just admit it.”

Leah let out a small laugh. “I’m good enough. I’ll get to the beach tomorrow.”

He scooted across the worn pine floor, leaned back against the sofa, his body inches from where her slippered feet rested. She pulled them back sharply.

His forefinger tapped a slipper, anyway. “Leah.”

“No,” she said and got up to look out over the sea. She fanned her warm face. “It’s stuffy, cramped in here.”

He turned away, stared into the fire. She did not mean the house was too full of family. Or the fire was too hot. It was him, his thoughts, and the unforgiveable thing.

He heard her footsteps, bedroom door opening and gently closing. He knew he’d be sleeping on the narrow edge of that hard bed they used to so well soften.

******

Leah was gone before Marta and Taylor got going. She had carefully rolled out of bed and took a moment to listen to Taylor’s tuneful snore. After she got the coffee perking, Chris came out of the second bedroom, cheerful, hungry. She got him started, then pulled on jacket and gloves. He was left to finish four frozen blueberry waffles, drenching each bite with maple syrup. But when he saw her running across the grassy width between house and long stairs, he stood and stared.

For a passing second he stopped eating and held his breath, scared she might slip, fall down eighteen steps and turn over and over into the waves. His speared waffle was aloft midair, and only when her cap of burnished hair dipped beyond sight did he proceed with gusto. But he thought about why he worried his mom or dad might get hurt, not come back, even. He stuffed himself with more waffles than planned.

It was getting bright already. The sea’s breathy mist was drifting away, the leftover air smelling green and fishy and salt-tinged. Clouds were thinning to grant passage for sunshine. Seagulls wheeled and cried as they did every day whether people were there or not, working, communicating. Leah was pulled in by the magnetic waves and followed alongside them, sidestepping as they threw themselves higher. Her face was scoured by moist, edgy breezes. It was end of December, a winter beach with birds and few people–a man in the distance, a dog cavorting. She felt some release as the sky opened to reveal greater peeks of transparent blue. She could see the faintest star out there, was that yet possible? Maybe it was hope she was meant to see, and she squinted until it was lost in bolder sunlight.

They were used to the beach, the Pacific. For twenty-some years they’d immersed themselves in it as they could and then, too, their children so tiny, then toddling, then walking and talking. She shivered, shoved woolen-gloved hands in her pockets, hunched into a pressing wind. It swept over you, life did, and if you didn’t hold on, it slipped away. Her throat closed tightly and she shook her head. She was not taking tears to the sea. Let it do it work, let it lift her from the hollows she’d come to inhabit.

Leah knew Taylor deeply wanted them back the way they were. How could that be? She wondered over his capacity for entitlement, the naïve selfishness driving some actions. The bridge of their commitment had been loosened at either end enough that they barely walked across it to keep things going. How to repair what felt too irreparable? Taylor was a smart man; he had gone this way before, he had arrived at similar crossroads and conclusions. But now, once more: forgive and forget, he implored. A refrain when at its noblest was powerful. And at its most self-serving, so full of holes as to disperse into nothing.

No, it wore thin, that tidy panacea, after years of his “mistakes.” His solution was not a choice she yet might want to make. How much hurt can happen before hurt is a numbing finale?

And yet here she was.

Cormorants glided overhead, then to prominent dark rocks. Pelican dove, fished. She began to run, and picking up speed she recalled what it was to run with him, their strides long and fast, each adjusting to the other so neither was left far behind, faces flushed with effort and excitement. Full of good will.

Good will, Leah thought. Could she summon that much now? Not for their children only this time. For herself. For Taylor. And what if the outcome was the same? Well, then–for love? How did you know what love was when it becomes fractured or, worse yet, obscured? Fractured things mended. Obscured things began to confound, even become meaningless.

The rhythm of a good pace was well established, Leah’s tennis shoes smacking wet sand as the long and high expanse of sky blued up more and salty gusts bit her cheeks. It was easy running; she was fit and propelled by the sea’s accompaniment and her desire to go farther. She was committed to at least a half hour, maybe an hour. But she sensed someone coming up behind so glanced over her shoulder.

Marta waved at her and ran harder, faster than Leah could these days, but she felt a glow of pleasure. Her daughter had gotten up to run with her, Leah with her seeming renegade ways. And so they ran, Leah slowing, Marta speeding up until they ran side by side.

She looked at her mother and saw her spirit and the wearing down of it, too, and had a burst of energy to speed by her. But shortly she let her catch up, they were neck and neck again on that sea treasure-strewn beach, sunshine fanning out, whitecapped waves chanting its story. It was a rolling, rushing meditation for life. Marta never wanted it to stop. Her mother nearby. The ocean music. Her legs so strong she could leap over jammed piles of driftwood in a great single effort.

They kept on, legs and arms pumping, feet colder, wetter, hair tossed, eyes watering. And Leah thanked God that her teenaged daughter still could love her this much.

******

The partly cloudy day became a meandering family walk: gathering agates and broken sand dollars. Poking about in small caves and finding oddities. Climbing basalt rocks and seeking greenish, soft anemones. Late afternoon: games- Scrabble, Hearts, a bit of Balderdash. Leah forgot pain and impasses. Taylor was… more himself. Chris was competing like mad, Leah was winning too often–until he broke her streak of good luck. They were all together and not at odds. It was almost too good to believe.

Taylor stoked the fire. This was it. This was all of it. Why did he ever think doubt otherwise? Why did he have to live dangerously, ever? He telegraphed to Leah when she looked at him momentarily: this is our life.

When he got refills of coffee and a bowl of mixed nuts, Leah came to help with four mugs. They spoke of little, the weather, their good luck with it. He half-smiled as he gazed through the mammoth windows. She made Chris’ hot chocolate with eight tiny marshmallows, each melting a bit as they floated on the rich liquid. Tears sprang to her eyes as she saw how he would be lost to her before that long. Taylor saw but did not speak of it. There was time left before night fell. He was keeping things steadier, he was willing more moments of happiness. And so was she, despite the newer anxiety, despite the old sorrow.

******

“Leah?” Taylor rolled onto his side in the dark. He had been listening to the shusssh of wind, and he remembered how they’d often gotten up to listen together at the beach. The waves, wind; the stars, moon, lovemaking.

“No.” she mumbled.

“Wait, do you remember how we used to get up, wrap blankets around us and sit on decks when we came to the coast? Watched the waves roll in, looked at stars or just talked and….anyway, I doubt the kids knew we got such alone time. They never said so.”

She stretched her arms, seriously plumped her pillow, lay on her back. “Yes, of course I do.”

“So…want to go out now?”

“Really? It’s so cold. It may even be raining, it usually does.”

Taylor rolled to his back, stared into blackness. “It might, sure, but still.”

“Heaven help me– hear me once more–you drank, Taylor! I cannot tell you how…” The words were pushed out like a terrible taste.

“I know, yes, I know–“

“You saw a woman at a bar.” She could barely say it again.

“Yes, but–“

“Do not explain anything to me again.”

He propped himself on an elbow. “You know Val’s my A.A. sponsor’s ex-wife, you know her, she called and she’s trying to get sober and no, I didn’t drink with her, I assured you of that!” His words were a hiss, voice lowered. “Please.”

Leah put her palms up to the darkness, pushed hard against it twice.

They both fell silent. No, but he’d waited until he took Val safely home, waking her roommate to so she’d look after her. And then he went back. Then he had a beer. One cold beer. But it was a drink, the first of what could be so, so many. He was not kidding himself, no. It wasn’t all that easy going in to try and help her–but easier the second entry. Then far harder leaving, laden with remorse. Shame. How could he be that stupid, again?

“So were you trying to stay sober! After five years, I thought we were good. You were good.” She turned over, faced the wall. “I need sleep, Taylor, go to the porch, okay? I can only manage so much at a time…”

But her words had softened. He knew she might cry; he didn’t want that and he turned toward her. Put a hand on her warm shoulder. She barely flinched, she did nothing, so he left it there.

“Please, give it another chance. I’m back on track six weeks now. We had a nice Christmas. I truly don’t want to drink. I can do this. I love being here with the family. I’m better than that night and fully sober.”

Why was he pleading again? It was going to work out or it was not. He had to prepare himself. He had been working on sobriety a decade. Well, five years, now he was starting again. The minutes ticked by. Taylor bent close to the delicate skin of her neck and ear and whispered, “I love you, Leah. I want to stay sober for me. But also for us. I’m working on it every single day.”

He thought he heard her say something but her breathing was more even and slowed, her body still. He wanted to touch his cheek to hers, to lean against her and hold her close, the way they used to fall asleep more often than not. But then she sat bolt upright, pulled the covers off the bed and walked toward the door. Taylor sat up, waited at the edge of the bed, heart pounding.

“Alright, Tay, are you getting your own damned blanket or not?” she said impatiently.

He followed. She was still so angry, but he followed that small hint of caring caught in her anger, all the way to the deck.

******

In the morning, they both wondered if anything at all could have changed. It had been so hard this time, the failure and regrouping; the waiting for one another, being guarded, finally reaching out. Words like poison arrows and hasty retreats. But they had gone to the stars and sea, wrapped themselves separately at first, then combined blankets to get warmer. His body and her body closer than in so long. Too long. His soul–it answered to hers, hers to his as they sat riveted with wonder–by the sea’s singing, by a velvety dark and star beaded sky, by the benediction of wildness and a glimpse of peace far beyond understanding. By lips touching, hands clasped together under a good weight of blankets though they were shivery, anyway, and finally went inside.

Nothing more was said. He knew what to do. She knew what to do. They were in it together. That, they’d agreed upon by the time they’d rolled back into bed, coldness leached from their flesh as they curved about each other and slept.

They savored their pungent coffee and talked. Marta filled Chris’ bowl with corn flakes and a heaping spoonful of sugar when he came and directed her.

“What do you want, Chris-cross? I’m moving fast as I can–here, you do it.” She pushed the milk carton to him, then saw his errant ways. “No more, you wanta be a sugar addict?”

Chris smacked her hand with his spoon and nudged her over. He was going to be taller than she’d be, he thought–and then just wait. “Okay, but stop calling me that idiotic name!”

“Hey,” she said quietly as she put elbows on the counter and leaned in. “You notice anything different this morning?”

Chris took a huge bite of cornflakes and raised his left eyebrow high with eye widened weirdly–the one facial comic trick other than curling his tongue. Which he also did, cornflakes falling out of his mouth.

“Seriously, Chris-cross?… I mean it, though.”

“Maybe,” he said, “I’m busy eating now. Get your coffee breath out of my face.”

They sat at the round glass table by the windows and looked out, Marta munching on a scone and sipping heavily cream-doused coffee, Chris slurping his milky bites.

“You know how it can be, right? Well, it’s not so much like that this morning.” She looked over her shoulder at her parents sitting on the sofa, even laughing a bit here and there. She shrugged, finished off the scone.

Chris put another cereal load on the spoon and said, “I know. They were on the deck late last night, I saw them kiss so went back to bed before it got worse.”

Mart erupted into a chortle and high-fived him to his surprise. “Right, now hurry up, we need to get down to the beach. It’s our last day.”

“Kids!” Leah called out. “Finish up, we have miles of beach to explore before it rains and then we leave!”

“Do we have to go so soon?” Chris said.

Marta punched him in the arm gently. “We’ll be back–clean up your cereal mess.”

Taylor got the kitchen in order. Leah closed the damper on the cleaned, cooled fireplace. It was the best thing to have come there. A fragrant fire to cozy up to, communing with the great sea, playing old games with her family. Saying a yes when a no made more sense, perhaps, to some. But she had held on this long; she was in for the duration. What mattered were steps forward, not the missteps. She and Taylor talking sensibly, no blaming for once–a mark of true progress. They only had what they had today, and tomorrow…she just chose to believe in a better tomorrow.

“Mom, let’s go,” Marta called, tossing her jacket to her.

“Let’s race on the beach,” Chris said as he rushed out the door, Taylor and Marta behind him.

“Wait for me!” She slipped on the jacket, grabbed her gloves. Taylor poked his head in, gestured to her to hurry, and off they went. It had to be taking a chance or give up faith. It was going to be all or nothing, and she was more ready for all of it again.

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