Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
My father stood about a stone’s throw away, ankle-deep in the ocean’s tide. The wind whipped my hair around and my voice was carried off along the beach, tumbling out of ear shot; he probably hadn’t heard me. I sat farther back on the shore, on a beach towel spread out on dry sand. As I tucked a lock of hair that was flitting around my face behind my ear, I saw my father turn around.
“You remind me of that guy who walked along the shore with his trousers rolled,” I called.
Frowning, he barked, “Huh?”
I spoke louder. “That guy, Prufrock. Who didn’t dare to eat a peach.”
He looked at me for another moment before turning back to the ocean, hands on his hips. He had given up on understanding me. The ocean churned loudly in the wind and the tide made the old man sway as the water rolled in against his pale legs. I hadn’t really expected him to understand my allusion anyway; my father didn’t read nearly as much poetry as I did.
The coast was wide open to the ocean, the beach extending in both directions almost as far as my eyes could see—like an incredible wing span of sand—until the coast curved and tapered off into forest. The Atlantic Ocean reminded me of a large mammal, slow and powerful in its movement, as its water steadily inhaled and exhaled with each current; it was mighty and it took its time. My father looked like a bump. He stood in one spot, shoulders slumped, his bulbous gut curving over the waist of his swimming trunks and bulging underneath his white tank top. He was noticeably shorter and stockier than I remembered him being when I was a young girl, and the curly hair coating his chest had faded to gray. At least he still had hair on his head.
Our condo was behind us, mashed up against other condos and apartments stacked up on top of each other. I had heard about the pains of up-keeping oceanfront property from my uncle growing up, although owning property in such an ideal location seemed like it wouldn’t have many downsides. I had come to realize through my own experiences, though, after years of family vacations to the North Carolina coast, that the beach was not always a glamorous getaway—the humid air often produced mold in nearby buildings, tourist season was hectic, and even now, not even out of nose-shot, I could smell a washed up fish rotting on the shore.
It was cloudy but bright, and I pushed my large sunglasses farther up the bridge of my nose. We had the beach mostly to ourselves; only a few other people were near, and some off in the distance. It was a Tuesday morning, and nearing the off-season. Every now and then someone would walk by with their dog, or a jogger would pass by, and a couple families we could see had settled onto the beach, but no one near enough to ruin the total serenity of the ocean’s forceful shushing for me and my father.
My father hadn’t moved. I thought about how I used to hate his despicable posture. One day, I had mentioned this to my children, and my seven-year-old, remarked, “You mean Grandpa doesn’t have to stand like that?” I realized then that they had only ever known Grandpa as an old man, and had accepted him as he was, unchanging and inevitable, whereas I viewed him in relation to every other way I had ever known him growing up. He hadn’t always stood like such an old man; I remembered him being so tall, I thought.
I wondered if he began to slouch when Mom divorced him, several years ago. The divorce happened to be the marker for a lot of things that changed in our lives, actually. Mom was always too good for my father, but his heart was too good for her; she was so beautiful and so ambitious, and he was always trying his hardest, but all he could give her was his loyalty and his best effort. She needed more, though—it was always obvious she felt she had “settled” with Dad and our family. Her new life suited her better.
“What time is it?” my father asked out of the blue.
I was staring down the beach, and when he asked, I pulled my phone out from my beach bag, sitting beside me. The glare from the sky made it hard to see the screen, so I cupped my hands around it to make out the numbers, which carried no meaning for me. I had no idea what time we had arrived at the beach that morning, and we still had a couple more days of vacation left, to do whatever we wanted.
“Quarter to eleven!” I replied, setting my phone back in the bag. I looked up at him.
My father was satisfied with this information and took a few steps down the shore, resting his hands in his swimming trunk pockets. He gazed down at his feet, and then out to the ocean.
Stretching out my legs and leaning back on my hands, I asked myself if I resented my mother. Some sand blew onto my blanket and I brushed it away. I did. But I also admired her. What I learned from my parents is that people have different priorities. My mother’s priority was herself, and in the end, that panned out for her—she was now the co-founder of an organic household cleaning product company in Washington state. She had a new man in her life, someone who looked like he could be a politician, all polished and poised with a wide grin, combed-back hair, and a lean build. I’d never met him, though, because she hadn’t spoken to us in years, so all I knew of her I had to gather through Facebook. It felt strange to be “friends” with her on Facebook, but to watch what she posted online like a movie, having no idea who she was anymore, and having no actual contact with the woman I used to know so intimately, the woman who gave birth to me. The people who commented on her photos and posted replies to her statuses were absolute strangers to me, yet they knew her better than I did now.
My father’s priority was always the family. He used to come home from work with penny candy and plastic gumball toys for me and my two older brothers, and would happily hold out his hands to us, presenting us the goodies as we did our homework at the kitchen table and Mom made dinner. He’d beam and we’d go ecstatic, and then Mom would lay into him for getting home late and spoiling our appetites. I’m sure it was worth it to him every time though just to see us run around the living room with our new little toy or chocolate on our gums and cheeks. The family life really suited him. He made so many sacrifices during my childhood–working overtime around the holidays so the family could have the Christmas we wanted, giving up his hobbies, turning down a sales dream job because it would mean he’d have to travel and be away from the family. I don’t know if Mom was ever happy in her role, though. She had given up things, too, but her regret was clear. My dad never regretted his sacrifices.
It was just the two of us today, my father and me. My brothers had taken all the kids into town for one of those fun parks, with laser tag, go-carts, mini golf, and all those other family-type activities. My little ones were so excited to go, they had been up early that morning in anticipation of leaving. It was endearing seeing them so thrilled to spend the day with their uncles. My brothers had piled all five kids into a van—including my two—and left right before our father and I came down to the beach. Their wives had similarly left for the spa, and although I was invited, I wanted the day to Dad.
I don’t know why I thought of that poem, looking at my father. It was one I hadn’t read for a while, but remembered quite clearly. It was the pensive quality of his mannerisms—how a seagull would fly overhead, and he would slowly look up and follow it with his head; how he’d take just a step at a time through the water, then watch the ripples fade out; how he wouldn’t walk any deeper into the ocean than halfway up his calves. And all the while, with his back to the beach, looking out into the ocean, as though he weren’t my dad, but the back of any old man not at home at the sea but just observing. I felt that if Prufrock were a person, he would sigh thoughtfully and with his whole body, like my father.
I almost wondered if that was, in fact, my father, standing there so still. Was he the same man as way before? And, was I the same person as way before, too? Was I the same person as the little girl who would bite the inside of her cheek as hard as she could to avoid crying, when her older brother tried skipping rocks on the ocean and pegged her in the calf instead? Was I the same young girl as before, who would watch her mom do her make-up in the mirror before strolling down to the beach in her hot red bikini, and wish so badly to be just like her, a woman just like Mom? The same person as I was when I incessantly demanded piggy-back rides from my dad, him running up and down the shore, growling like a dinosaur and me, bumping along full of giggles on his back? Was he the same man as way before, the man who spent all day in the sun with us as kids, scouring the beach with our metal detector for beach treasures? “The real treasure is family time,” he would say, his voice emphatic and sarcastic, but we could tell he meant it despite the mocking tone. My brothers would ask if family time could buy them a Game Cube, and Dad would say, “You’re right, let’s keep looking.” At the end of the day, we’d all be burnt red and have crap to show for; Mom would comment on our spending family vacation time playing in other people’s trash—that’s how she was.
Except sometimes, especially on vacation, in the evening, on the deck of the condo, she’d let herself drink a couple mojitos—that was her drink. When she got a couple in her system, she’d start to loosen up, wouldn’t keep her elbows at her side so much, let her knees sway, flip her hair over her shoulder with a little flirty flare, instead of holding herself so rigidly poised. Her cheeks would blush, and if we had our aunts and uncles with us, sitting around the deck table, they’d start telling old stories about their youth and my mom would light up, eyebrows raised, eyes wide open, grinning bigger than I’d ever seen. She’d tell stories about her college days, and I was shocked to see her look so happy when she jumped up and started describing the time when she and her roommate had gone streaking across campus, the whole time telling the story laughing so hard she had to lean on the deck table because she couldn’t stand up straight. That was when I could see how my father loved my mom so much. She looked notably happier, I thought, while I watched as a young girl from inside, peeking through the screen door of the condo living room. Outside, the sky slowly dipped deep blue in the east, and blended into the orange creamsicle sunset, while my mother was finally letting herself revel in the moment.
A seagull yelped and I caught a whiff of sunscreen lotion as the breeze picked up against me. I looked down at my arms. I was the receptionist for a nonprofit that raised awareness about skin diseases, particularly those caused by sun exposure, and if I went back to work after vacation with a dramatic change in skin hue, I would never hear the end of it from my boss. I’d been applying so much sunscreen to myself and my kids that week I had to buy another bottle, and if it hadn’t been so windy, I would have been wearing a big sun hat that day on the beach with my dad, too.
I was thankful that we had all been able to make it out there as a group, for the first time in a while. For the past several years, I hadn’t had any extra money to take such a trip, because I was raising my kids by myself. My children’s father had left us a few years ago for a very exclusive doctorate program in the next state. We had started dating during our undergraduate degrees, and were together for five years. I was infatuated with him; I thought he would be the one to take care of me, and our kids. He had a change of heart, though, during our engagement, and when he was offered such an easy out, he leapt at the excuse to leave me with two toddlers. It was a bitter, tragic irony for me.
When we had started to talk about taking a large family vacation—my brothers and Dad and all the kids—I had to turn down the idea at first because I couldn’t afford it for us. My brothers were well-enough-off, and so my father quietly offered to me that he would pay for me and the kids. I didn’t want to take such a huge favor from my dad, but my brothers and dad wouldn’t have gone without us, and my kids deserved the vacation, and the memories. I had accepted my father’s overly generous offer.
“What are you looking for, Dad?” I called out. He had been standing there for so long in the water, it seemed.
He waited for a minute, always taking his time these days, and made his way back up the beach. As he walked up to me, I watched him grow taller and taller, until that small man on the edge of the water loomed over me, sand coating his feet. I looked up at him, using my hand to shield my eyes over my sunglasses and asked again, “What were you looking for?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, and I found my dad’s face among the deep creases in this man’s face, the way his lips moved when he spoke.
I smiled, because my dad never shared his thoughts with me, but I had learned to understand him through clues, and he was all right, right then. I pulled another beach towel out of my bag and unfolded it, spreading it beside me. It rippled a little in the wind as I laid it out.
“Here,” I said, turning back to my beach bag and rifling through it. “Put on this hat to protect your head from the sun.” My father squatted and took a seat next to me and I pulled out a baseball hat. It had been bothering me–I remember all those years we used to spend in the sun without a care, and I was concerned for what skin cancer may potentially manifest in him.
He grunted and took the baseball hat from me, pulling it snugly over his head, a little tuft of gray hair poking out of the back. I liked taking care of him. It was like how I felt about my kids, like how much of a high it felt to be a mother, like how nothing ever felt so wholesome and fulfilling in my life than to feel all my sacrifices were for some greater purpose, some purpose purer and more beautiful than myself: my son and daughter. I didn’t truly resent my mother until I had children and realized I could never leave my children the way she left us. I felt that love for them as a base instinct, a necessity, and I wondered if she ever even felt that way towards us. And what sort of a monster she was if she didn’t.
She was a monster in my jaded memories, but I was not my mother, and I was not the same girl she knew growing up. Because of her, and because of my ex-fiancé, I was now a person who had experienced an ultimate level of heartbreak and abandonment not once but twice, and by two people for whom I had laid out my heart and trusted to love me selflessly, to be on my side through the tribulations of life. I was now not the same young woman who kept her emotions locked strictly within the shelves of her heart, or the young woman who blamed herself for not being enough to love. I was now a better, stronger woman, and the spite I let myself feel towards them was my gift to myself, an emotion I felt entitled to feel. And one day, many years from now, I may eventually give myself the gift of forgiving them.
“Do you still miss Mom?” I asked suddenly. It was out of place, but I had to. It was on my mind.
My father, on his beach towel, looked away from me and sighed. I didn’t know what I expected him to say. It had been over a decade since she departed, but smelling the salt water, our family vacation memories overwhelmed me with the thought of her.
There was one memory I revisited time and time again, although this one didn’t take place during a family vacation. It was the day that she left us, and I still remember how heavy her bags sounded when they thudded to the floor. That day I was a senior in high school, and my brothers were away at college. I still think of the look on her face when she descended the stairs in our house that last time–like I could say nothing to stir her doubt over her decision. I had been in the living room, on the couch reading a book, and she came down the steps with her suitcases; I looked up at her and none of the clues were coming together for me. What did this mean, the hard expression on her face? She had even made up her hair, I could still smell her musky hairspray. She paused at the bottom of the staircase and we looked at each other wordlessly for a few moments. I will never forget that moment, that cold stalemate as she careened on the edge of our lives. But she was already gone.
“No,” he said finally, turning back to me. He looked at me, the bill of the hat shading his eyes. The day she left, my father had wandered in from the yard and interrupted that moment between my mother and me. He had asked what was going on, and she had said something about needing to do something for herself finally, and then they began arguing, and shouting, while I sat motionless on the couch, my book still open to the page I was on before my life changed. She left with the slam of the front door, cutting us off from her forever, maybe. My dad wept at the foot of the stairs. I had closed my book and tiptoed outside the back door, breaking into a sprint. I ran into the woods behind our house and stayed there for hours.
“I have the memories,” my father said now to me, shaking his head. “I don’t need to miss her anymore.”
I nodded, and he looked back out to the ocean, and slowly my gaze was drawn out to the water again. Maybe we were better without her.
“Each to each,” I mumbled, suddenly stirring from my thoughts, and my dad grunted in agreement. I glanced at him, then took him in. I had my dad through it all. Without looking at me, he moved his hand and set it on my knee, giving it a light squeeze; his hand was large, and well worn with lines and creases. I let out a heavy sigh and moved my eyes to the shore, to the ebb and flow of the tide, swaying in and out, rolling towards us, pausing, and pulling back out to the ocean. I felt lulled by the rhythmic movement, the undulating steady motion of this great body of water. Seagulls screeched in the distance. I put my hand on my father’s.
By Brittany Cole
Edited by Bryant Rogers