My mother lost my trust little by little over my first sixteen years. She was all I had and I slowly came to know that she wasn't nearly enough. She was doing a shitty job of raising me; I realized this by the time I was twelve.
When I was about eight, before she'd started in on the hard drugs, Tanya took me to see my grandmother. Grandma Lucy lived in Florida, in a crappy apartment complex that was a 15-minute drive from the beach. She lived there alone, occupying her retirement hours with TV, cigarettes, and lattes made with coffee, milk, and Wild Turkey. Sometimes a bit of honey, depending on how important the taste was. She made a Thermos for herself and my mother packed a picnic for us all and we went to the beach almost every day. There was nothing much else to do.
One day the beach was different: The sky was a slate blue, not the clean bright azure of other days, and the clouds were not white but violet and darker than the sky. I didn't know the world was about to storm; I thought the purple clouds in the distance streaming gray to the sea were magic, an invisible hand feeding the ocean a fairy dust that would conjure some kind of fantastic dream right before my eyes. The cool breeze on my skin felt exciting. The waves were bigger than I had seen them and they amazed me. I expected them to toss something at my feet—a sea creature, a sailor, or a whale. Lucy and Tanya were both drinking from the Thermos and laughing. At some point, watching me watch the water, Lucy insisted on taking my picture. I grabbed a shovel and pail but Lucy waved the props away.
"Everyone has pictures on the beach. I want to get a wave behind you. That'll be more dramatic."
This sounded fabulous to me, so I followed her directions to stand in the surf facing her.
"Mother…We should go. Look at the sky." Tanya did not sound serious and neither Lucy nor I listened to her. We were having fun. Lucy and I continued our photo shoot and Tanya started to pick up our picnic. She stumbled a bit and had to focus on her movements, especially when she bent over. I took advantage of having Grandma Lucy's full attention and I strutted around like I'd seen Tanya do for her boyfriends. Grandma Lucy loved it.
"Look at you, modeling for your picture. You're a precocious little girl like your mother, aren't you darling?"
Her encouragement made me ham it up all the more. She stumbled a little, trying to get the right placement.
"Oh, darn it. That was a good one and I missed it. Let's try again." She studied the camera, moved a knob, clicked the shutter again and accidentally took a picture of her own face, which made her cut up and call to my mother.
"Tanya, do you know what I just did?" For the first time that day my mother did not cut up with her.
"Lucy, it's going to rain. You two come back here and help me get all this shit together so we can get home before we get soaked." Grandma Lucy was undaunted, and so I wasn't moved either. She mouthed "party pooper" to me while mock scowling, then gave me a hundred-watt smile.
"OK, Kari, honey, can you step back a little bit? The waves are breaking so far out they won't show up."
Happy to oblige, I hopped back a few steps and turned toward her, gave her my best movie-star smile.
"That's better. We're getting close…"
"MOTHER! LET'S GO." Lucy waved Tanya off and looked back to me. Then both my mother and Lucy got the same look on their face: a kind of stunned fear. I turned to look over my shoulder and saw a wave taller than I was curling up and at me. I looked back to the beach and ran.
The water level was rising quickly up my legs and it was harder to move. Before the wave hit me I tripped, face-planted into the foaming water and when I yanked my head back up for a breath, the wall nailed me from behind. I was tossed into a tumble, rolled ass over teacup to the shore. I was cold, wet, and my mouth was full of sand.
Looking back I realize that Lucy was drunk and Tanya was not far behind her. I understand that they were grateful things hadn't gone worse than they did and I believe their reaction was a reflection of the relief that follows a horror you feel helpless to stop.
But at the time all I knew was that I wanted to be collected in someone's arms, to feel loving fingers rake my hair and all I felt was a sickness of heart when Lucy yelled "Whoopsie Daisy!" and Tanya bent over to pick up her beach bag with one hand and instead of taking my hand with the other, used it to hide a grin.
Then the rain came and we all ran to the car, and we were all soaked. Somehow I knew to rinse my mouth out with water, like at the dentist. I stood in the parking lot, spitting, for much longer than necessary. I made them wait for me while I did what neither of them had the sense to do: take care of me.
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Part of the Covers series