At Low Tide ~ Joan Wilking

Early that morning in the first week of July, after three days of steady rain, the sun came out to glitter briefly on the steely waters of the bay. That spring and summer were exceptionally cold. Swimming was still a bone chiller. The usual weekday gaggle of moms and kids was sparse for so far into the season. BJ didn’t care. Her kids were grown or gone. She had no one to amuse but herself. She hummed as she did the few breakfast dishes. It wasn’t that she despised the tourists. They were what they were, rolling into the public parking lot in their pricey new SUVs, herding their kids down the beach, dragging coolers, and towels, and blankets, the kids swinging plastic buckets so they could capture and torture unsuspecting periwinkle snails, razor clams, and sometimes, if they were deft enough to catch them, small fish.

Midday the ice cream truck arrived with its familiar bell ringing. The driver, a grizzled man in middle age, drove by with his upper arm jutting out the window, displaying a tattoo on his bicep of a mermaid, en flagrante delicto, wrapped around a trident wielding Neptune, which was none of her business. She had a couple of ill-conceived tattoos herself that had blurred with age. She tried to remember the feel of the prick of the needle, but it was like what they always said about giving birth. The memory of the pain fades.

The pain she felt that morning was more of an ache, deep in her chest. Not the usual psychic ache. Each breath felt like she was trying to breathe underwater. The air bubbled out in an audible wheeze that rattled her. Allergies or a harbinger of the flu, she thought. Need to get outside. Into the fresh air to clean out whatever she’d been breathing while cooped up in the rain soaked house. As much as she wished for sun, she wasn’t looking forward to oppressive heat like last summer when the temperature was stuck in the high nineties for days on end, and the marshland on the banks of the river stank at low tide for no visible reason other than it was so damned hot. First world troubles she tried to tell herself. She had no right to complain. The air-conditioned house kept her cool although she wondered what was breeding in those coils, convinced it was what had turned her every breath into piercing pain.

“If it worries you so,” her middle daughter said during one of her infrequent calls, “replace the damn thing. When’s the last time you changed the filter?”

BJ pretended not to have heard her, said the cell service was lousy at the back corner of the lawn, although she wasn’t on the lawn for fear of ticks; she was on the deck sweeping up the Niger seed shells the gold finches dropped from the feeder. It amazed her that they were able to separate the insides from the tiny black shells. The proof was the mess, which she had to clean up day after day until the showy yellow birds moved on for the winter.

Despite years of striving for anonymity, trying to live just an ordinary life, fame was threatening to close in on her again.

“Why not,” her oldest daughter said, “sounds like a juicy part, and you keep saying you could use the money.”

That was true. The part was a dowager queen in a TV series that, to her mind, was grossly overhyped. Twenty years ago, when she left the industry in a desperate attempt to save her drug-addled son, she was playing romantic leads. He was a young teen. Got his nose into meth and coke until it bled. The dad was long gone. The girls’ fathers were gone too, but it never seemed to affect them the way it affected him, or to be more accurate, afflicted him. Raising a boy was different. The girls were predictable, steady, reliable. He was an energy ball, awkward, gangly, angry. Still she could see what a handsome man he was going to be when he filled out. She bought groceries with an eye to what would beef him up, but the only ones who beefed up were her and the girls. That was years ago though. Since then, they’d all slimmed down. Except for the wheeze she looked and sounded pretty good for her age.

The casting agent liked the newly acquired huskiness of her voice. The wardrobe mistress sent drawings of what the costume designer had in mind for her part, long flowing robes in jewel tones and headpieces that were gem-encrusted wimples. The whole get up looked like something a counter culture nun might wear. Those robes looked heavy, too hot, for scenes she’d been told would be shot on a beach in Croatia in August. They reminded her of the last time she walked the beach.

It was last summer, during the heat wave. The sand within sight of the lifeguard stand was packed, so she walked and walked until she was past the crowds, to where the beach was sprinkled with groups, here and there, sunbathing and playing Frisbee. She could see a black cluster in the distance. As she got closer she was surprised to see several families. The women were dressed in long black robes, their faces covered except for eye slits. The men were as close to naked as anyone could be in their skimpy black Speedos. The kids all looked to be under the age of three. They were dressed in brightly colored bathing suits like any kids you’d expect to see on the beach. A mix of boys and girls, toddling towards the water and BJ wondered at what age those little girls would be stripped of their individuality and imprisoned in layers of suffocating black cloth.

It was low tide. At that end of the beach the exposed sand flared out into rivulets and tidal pools. The robed women rose to follow their children. The men didn’t even glance their way. She watched the women chase the kids out onto the flats, all the way out to where there was open water. The children ran into it, laughing and splashing each other. The women waded in after them, their robes floating up around them, as they called out in a language BJ didn’t recognize. She looked back to see if the men were watching. What would they do if there were an emergency, if one of the children waded out too far and was caught in the current or dropped into a hole carved out of the sand by the tide? No way could the women swim dressed like that, and the men were oblivious.

But wasn’t it always the way?

Her ex kept saying, “He’ll grow out of it. It’s a phase. All kids experiment. Boys will be boys.” Then he took off for a film festival overseas with wife number three. She was the one left to retrieve the kid when he was expelled from the pricey private school, to rescue him from drowning in an ocean of bad choices. She was the one left to listen to his glib excuses, over and over, while his sisters finished high school, then college, got jobs, made lives with men, not of her choice if she’d had one, but they’d turned out to be good guys nevertheless.

Once she read an article about a ferry that went down off the coast of Indonesia. The men did nothing to help the burka clad women floundering in the water under the weight of their robes because it would have been immodest to remove them. The men swam to shore and let the women drown.

But that’s not what happened that morning last summer. The kids came when called. They all made it back safely to the men with the children laughing and the women happily chatting the whole way. The children rushed to be hugged and wrapped in towels by their fathers while the women unloaded containers of food from a cooler, and they all settled into a picnic on the beach.

A sudden wave of loneliness overwhelmed her. Who was she to judge them, she asked herself, less as a question than a statement of fact. She walked a ways more up the beach that day until she was out of sight of people. She never wore a bathing suit anymore. Her legs and arms, in cut-offs and a well-worn t-shirt, were once white and smooth. Now they were freckled with age. When did that happen? When did her own skin become so unfamiliar?

The boy had such beautiful skin. When his sisters were fighting pimples he never had one. There were so many things he never had. What he did have was hair so dark it was almost back and eyes so blue it was hard to look away from them. No braces for him. His baby teeth gave way to a straight set of whites that made his smile radiate with the confidence he never had. She held that thought when the phone rang. It was her neighbor, Carla.

“Suit up,” she said, without even a hello. “Time for a walk.”

Ever since her son, her beautiful boy turned ravaged man, was found unresponsive in a parking garage downtown, Carla had worked at buoying her. She was a small woman, a widow with steel gray hair and enough loss of her own to be understanding.

BJ’s daughters were less attentive, as though their brother’s early departure was a foregone conclusion and she should just get on with living her life. Easy for them, they were still young, and fed up. So much energy was expended on him, so little on them. They didn’t need it. They knew how to breathe on their own. BJ put on a pair of water shoes and walked out to meet Carla in the street.

“I’m up for a good long one today,” Carla said as they headed down the slope.

“Shorter, please,” BJ said. “I didn’t sleep well last night and I’ve got this congestion.”

For emphasis she took a deep breath and let it out so Carla could hear her wheeze.

“Pine pollen,” Carla said, very matter of fact, then, “Mayim was stuck in traffic on the turnpike for hours last night. Construction.”

Carla’s daughter, Mayim, aka Margaret, aka Maggie before she started working for an Israeli falafel maker in Jamaica Plain had gotten in touch with her Jewish roots, which didn’t sit well with her atheist mother. BJ listened to Carla drone on, the whole way down the hill, through the parking lot, onto the beach, about how her daughter wanted her to participate in some ceremony for Jewish women, which involved a ritual bath.

“I didn’t know Jews went in for baptism,” Carla said.

The sky had clouded up again. The wind off the water was just cold enough to be uncomfortable even though BJ wore a sweater. Gulls drifted overhead and she had to admit, outside in the bracing air, she felt better.

She hadn’t told Carla about the part. And she’d sworn her girls to secrecy. Everyone thought celebrity was such a great thing but if she had a nickel for every minute of hurt celebrity caused her she wouldn’t have had to consider exposing herself like that again. She wasn’t sure she could withstand the loss of privacy, and the inevitable scrutiny. She was more resilient then. And the boy was… well… she was still hopeful. She was forty-five. He was only thirteen. Her baby. His picture was plastered all over the covers of the tabloids, his hair cut in a blunt Prince Valiant bowl, and those eyes. That was the end of it for her. She left LA to hide out at a house on a beach north of Boston, to try to lead a more normal life for her children. A lot of good it did. She lost him anyway.

Carla was still talking about the ritual bath, something about her daughter immersing herself in Judaism and purity. BJ was still thinking about her character. According to the script, she was a strong woman, manipulative, using her status as the matriarch to play her children against one another to disastrous results. Carla babbled on. BJ was so lost in her own thoughts that she only caught bits of Carla’s monologue, something about “the memories we shared…”

The Wednesday after next was the first table read, if she agreed to take the part. When she was young, before children, and complications, she got excited about new opportunities, especially when they were handed to her. A pinch of recollection made her smile. Maybe she did still have the juice for it.

“You tiring out?” Carla said.

BJ kicked up the pace.

“Not yet. Let’s keep going.”

They followed the shoreline around the bend to where the inlet opened out onto the bay.

“You know what I really appreciate?” BJ said.

Carla shook her head.

“You’ve always been unimpressed by who I was.”

Carla laughed. “You know what they say. Everyone one pisses and shits the same.”

She dragged her toes in the sand as she walked, leaving what looked like claw marks of a giant bird. She laughed again and did a little jig. BJ stopped to pick up a branch, stripped of its bark by the tides. There were so many random small things to be found on the beach; only occasionally something so big survived. It felt good in her hand, like an ancient staff a dowager queen might carry to control her unruly minions.

They turned around. Waves gently lapped the shore. The gray haze lifted like a curtain revealing a Technicolor cloudscape. It was the kind of sky she saw when they first moved there. She’d walked the kids down to the beach that first day. It was low tide. Her teenage girls were preoccupied with finding shells and sea glass. It was the boy who looked up, spread his arms with a theatrical flourish, and shouted, “Ta da!”

The grief hit her like a blow to the chest. She stopped walking.

Carla said, “You okay?”

There was no way to answer. She simply nodded her head, and let the stick steady her until she recovered enough to walk on.