One clear winter’s day in your childhood, it was your father, not your mother, who picked you up from school. “Where’s Mom?” you said.
“She’s visiting family,” he said. And then he said, “How about the beach?” and you were young enough to be pleased rather than disturbed by this deviation in routine, and so you went.
It was February. The sky was a soft gray that signaled impending snow, a hush like a dome over everything. Ice crystals formed on the windshield, and you drew smiley faces and hearts and practiced writing your name backwards on the window with your finger. Your father drove too fast down the turnpike, the old Toyota Camry rattling whenever he went over 65 in a way that frightened you, but you knew not to say anything from the set of his brow and how his knuckles gripped the steering wheel. He and your mother had fought recently over the car. He was supposed to have taken it for a tune-up, but he had taken the money and blown it all in Atlantic City, just like she had known he would, your mother said.
Things were always disappearing from your house in those days. Appliances, furniture, your mother’s jewelry. One time the TV vanished, leaving a dark circle in a sea of dust on the dresser. A few weeks later it was back, like it had never been gone before, but your mother’s gold bracelets, the ones she had received from your grandmother when she got married, never came back. With every item that vanished from the house, you thought you saw a new line appear between your mother’s eyebrows, her face and hands a map that only you knew how to read. Sometimes when she held your hand to cross the street you traced the pale blue tributaries of her veins with your fingers, marveling at the strange, rough terrain they marked. Your mother cleaned houses on the weekends and bagged groceries, and the proof of it was in her hands, which were always dry and chapped.
You watched your father’s hands as he drove. They were pale and elegant, pianist’s hands, your mother called them.
You were not sure whose hands you had inherited. You wiggled them now in your red mittens. They matched your red scarf, which had been your mother’s when she was your age. For this reason, it was your favorite, even though the wool itched against your neck.
When you finally got to the beach, the snow was falling in thick, fat flakes that reminded you of flowers. You caught one in your mouth, and it tasted like salt. The ocean was a gray, glassy roar that frightened you, until your father showed you how the waves were turning to ice as they approached and receded from the shoreline. “Don’t they look just like crushed diamonds?” he said.
The sun was a frosty orange, sinking slowly. Swirls of cold sand drifted around your small ankles. The wind was sharp enough to bring tears to your eyes, but the jaunty firefly glow of your father’s cigarette and the smooth, unfamiliar warmth of his hand around yours made you forget the cold. You scanned the horizon for mermaids, hoping to catch a glimpse of a silvery tail or two, but all you saw were the waves.
You watched, fascinated, when your father began making a funny, high-pitched noise with his lips, like a bird. “I want to learn how to do that,” you said. He showed you that the trick was to let the wind pass through your lips, rather than trying to force the sound out. You practiced this again and again, until the air burned in your lungs and black dots danced in front of your eyes.
When you got tired of this, you lay down on the snowy beach, making grainy angels, and watched your father call different numbers, again and again, on his phone. You watched him throw the spent cigarette into the sand, and you dug a hole for it, a tiny white grave.
And although you will, in a few hours’ time, come back to a dark house where the closets will be empty of your mother’s things, and there will be a note in her handwriting taped to the refrigerator door that your father will not let you read, and although, much later, there will be weeks and months and years when you learn to hate your mother, first, for leaving, and then your father for not stopping her — that is not until later.
For now, remember this afternoon as a happy one. Remember how to purse your lips around the wind and let it play music across your mouth. Remember how it felt to be small and cold and happy on a beach with your father. Remember the way the air tasted, the silence of the snow, the glow of the winter sun. Remember what it felt like to watch the sea turn to diamonds.
Gina Chung (@ginathechung) is a Korean American writer from New Jersey currently living in Brooklyn, New York. She is the communications manager at PEN America and an MFA candidate in fiction at The New School. She holds a BA in literary studies from Williams College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in F(r)iction, Split Lip Magazine, the VIDA Review, and LIT Magazine. She is currently working on a collection of short stories about family, memory, and myths and a novel about climate change, sea creatures, and loss. Find her at gina-chung.com.
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