We hardly ever went to the beach, even before my mom got sick. And if we did go, Mom wouldn’t let me swim, afraid the Pacific would swallow me up. My best friend Timmy, though, he and his mom were beach people. When school was out, they went almost every day, and the summer I turned eleven, I got to come too.
I didn’t understand then that Timmy’s mom was doing my parents a favor. Mom and Dad had enough on their plate without having to take care of me all day. Or maybe it wasn’t like that. Maybe they were just happy for me to get out of the house and do normal kid stuff. Take a break from worrying.
On beach days, I’d wake up early and pull on my swim trunks. I’d wait on the sofa, watching TV and listening for the rattle of Timmy’s mom’s Volkswagen bus.
At the beach, I didn’t think about cancer, or doctors, or chemo. I didn’t think about my mom, and how every day she looked more like a ghost, pale and vanishing.
When I got home, I’d climb into bed with my mom. My skin salty and sticky, hers smooth and cool. It tired her out if talked too much. So I didn’t tell her about the beach. I didn’t tell her about the leathery old men in speedos who gathered each morning to swim in the rough water. Or about the sand crabs that wriggled and tickled as they tried to escape my digging hands.
I didn’t tell my mom that sometimes, when I was sitting on my beach towel, I wondered if people thought I was Timmy’s brother. I didn’t tell her that sometimes I pretended, just to myself, that I was. That I’d go home to Timmy’s house at the end of the day. That his mom would make dinner, maybe let us have a bowl of ice cream for dessert. I didn’t tell my mom that sometimes I pretended Timmy’s mom, with her glowing tan and easy laugh, was my mother too.
When my mom called the other day and said Patti had died, I couldn’t think who she meant at first. Patti? I’m not sure I ever knew her first name. It’s so long ago and I was just a kid. Timmy’s mom. She fell getting out of the shower. They’re not sure how long she lay on her bathroom floor before someone noticed the mail piling up and called the police.
I can’t picture her as an old woman, though of course she was. Same age as my mom. My mom, who survived that awful summer, who lived to see me graduate, who went back to school herself, who got to be a grandma. My mom, who’s lived long enough to become frail again, like she was that summer.
There’s one beach day I remember above all the others. It was late, almost time to go home. The water glittered in the late afternoon light. Timmy and I were falling backwards into the breaking waves and letting the water push us forward. I was just about to fall again when Timmy suddenly swam away fast. A wave caught him, surrounded him with white water and rocketed him to shore. At the end of his ride, he jumped up and punched the air.
I tried to catch a wave, too, but they kept rolling past me. One broke on top of me and tossed me until I came up gasping and sand-scraped. Timmy tried to teach me, but I kept missing the waves.
We could see Timmy’s mom on the beach, shaking out the towels. Timmy said I’d better catch a wave soon. I kept watching over my shoulder for a wave I could ride. Swell after swell rolled by.
Then, a wave stood up. It glowed turquoise and the crest curved forward. It dragged my feet backwards along the sand.
“Go, go, go!” yelled Timmy.
I turned toward shore and swam as hard as I could, kicking, kicking, kicking. The wave caught me, enveloped me, and I laughed, whooped, my arms outstretched, the water carrying me in its white foam roar, finally dropping me in the shallows, where Timmy’s mom stood at the water’s edge, calling to me that it was time to get out, time to go home.
Melissa Fitzpatrick lives in the Los Angeles area. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in CHEAP POP, Scrawl Place, Corvid Queen, Milk Candy Review, and MoonPark Review.