Art by Aline Mare
Winter brought huge waves and stormy skies. The roads erupted with traffic on sunny weekends. Hotels that blocked too many people’s views were burned to the ground. The harbor hadn’t been dredged in so long the water was dirtier than anywhere else for miles. Beyond the safety of the groin a circle of surfers sat, bodies lifting and falling with the water. Scattered flower petals popped red, orange, and pink against the water’s reflection of the cool gray sky overhead. Safely past the place where the ocean floor rose to become land and pushed the water into waves, they reached out and held hands.
“Sam left us much too early.”
“Lived a full, full life.”
“He was always kind, always there to lend a hand.”
“Always halfway to the beach.”
His mother, Rebecca sat in the back of a double kayak. She was not the water creature her son had been, and his surf coach, Mark, had paddled her out to be part of the ceremony. At her slightest shifts in weight the boat tipped toward the surface of the dark cold water. The heads of Sam’s friends and acquaintances were stuffed into black wetsuit hoods and damp strands of hair poked out around their faces. Rebecca tried to fix them into her memory and hold on, knowing that all too soon she’d be back on the firm and unyielding land.
People came to the house in pairs mostly, and the refrigerator filled with meals in glass dishes Rebecca could reheat. She got flowers with notes written in the looping handwriting of the only florist in town. Nurses that Rebecca had worked with at the hospital sent big cards with swans that floated against impressionistic garden scenes. Sam’s third-grade teacher dropped off The Giving Tree, the kind of book that as a child he had been able to sit through because it had few enough words. Sam’s dad’s brother, who Rebecca hadn’t seen in years, called and offered stiff condolences. At the dry land funeral her aunt sputtered about how the loss of a child was the worst thing that could happen to a person until Rebecca’s cousin grabbed her, stopping just short of clamping a hand over her mother’s mouth. For weeks Rebecca kept the cards standing upright on the kitchen table in a small paper city of good thoughts. When she drank coffee in the morning she stared with tunnel vision at the flowers and avoided looking anywhere else.
In the grocery store she drew a tub of yogurt out of the refrigerator and the extra weight threatened to tip her over. When she shut the glass door a woman in a yellow sweater was there on the other side. The woman said her son had gone to middle school with Sam and there was something in her sad gaze and the solid plant of her feet that gave Rebecca the impression that the woman was poised to catch her.
“I’m doing okay,” Rebecca said.
She hadn’t heard the question and hoped that it was the right shaped answer. The woman’s name would not come to her so she smiled. At the meat counter, Margarita stood, wrapping chicken breast and pink steaks in thick white paper. She had been there since Sam had been a wriggling toddler in the cart. Margarita wiped the red juices from her hands on a towel and walked around to the other side of the counter to put her arms around Rebecca. It was a feat to get up out of bed where the covers and dregs of sleep sheltered her from the recurring process of recalling with a renewed ache that he was gone. Getting dressed and going outside into a world that misted memories of Sam was like lifting iron off her chest every day. Some weeks she grocery shopped in the next town over and cried in the car.
One morning when Rebecca stepped outside to collect the mail there was a pot with an orchid sitting on the ground beside the front door. A white bloom was open at the top. The rest of the stem was peppered by a smattering of shiny round buds. The attached note was written in an unfamiliar scrawl.
With love from all of us on the team!
There were no instructions attached for caring for the plant. Up until that point the flowers that came were all cut, clearly and without question temporary. Rebecca could bear their slow droop and shedding of petals and pollen because they were already gone. As she eyed this living plant on the ground at her feet she felt angry because she had failed to keep it alive. She took it into the backyard and ripped the bloom off and threw it down but it landed so softly she felt nothing. Raising the plant over her head, she threw the whole thing down. The smooth brown terra cotta pot shattered and the orchid lay there with its gray tentacle roots akimbo in the debris of bark and dirt. She looked down, thought about reaching for the turquoise garden hose and really going in on it. Someone cleared their throat. Her neighbor was standing there, tall enough to poke his face over the fence.
'“I heard a crash so I thought I’d investigate. Everything okay?” His swirl of white hair fluffed up above his head.
“Yes, I’m fine.”
“Well, while I’m here, I just wanted to let you know that Dana gets tired of cooking just for me. You’re welcome to join us for dinner anytime.”
“Thank you, that would be lovely.”
“And,” he dropped his voice, “please know that it’s absolutely fine for you to cry.” He gave the fence a hearty pat and was gone.
She thought of Sam’s father and how tall he’d looked the first time she saw him standing on the dock beside his boat, his body long and lean, apt for swimming. It was where Sam’s fishlike tendencies had come from. Rebecca picked up the orchid, now just a stem and roots, and threw it in the trash in the kitchen. But that evening as she sipped potato leek soup, drank a bottle of wine, and futzed over a puzzle she kept thinking of it there, shriveling slowly, deprived of air in the dark plastic bag.
The flower shop was at the end of Arroyo Road, the main drag in town, in an old wooden barn that over the years had weathered shiny gray. Pots of flowers, herbs, and vines sat in neat rows out front. Trickles of water ran out from their bottoms and Rebecca could see a figure further back in the yard with a hose. She stepped through the door into an immaculately ordered room. Green cabinets lined the walls and in the center beneath a dangling light was a table covered in dahlias, tuberoses, mums, roses, stock, gerber daisies, calla lilies, stargazer lilies, tulips, and scabiosa. The florist’s hair was wrapped in a bun and gloves covered her hands. She cut through the thick stems of eucalyptus branches. The medicinal scent of the plant's sap filled the room and fragments of the stems ricocheted off her white apron.
'“How can I help you?”
“I found this in the parking lot,” Rebecca said brightly. She held up the mangled orchid.
“Here?” The florist frowned and took it from her.“Yeah, I thought maybe I’d give it a second wind. But I’ve got no idea how to care for these.”
Rebecca tried to appear nonchalant as she looked around the room. Ribbons for all occasions lined the shelf behind the florist.
“Do you do a lot of funerals?” she asked, pulling at one of the bright pink ribbons. It unrolled into her hands.
“Yes. And birthdays, proms, Mother’s Day, graduations.” The florist poured a handful of bark into a pot and tucked the orchid into it gently. She handed it back to Rebecca.
“Soak the roots once a week, cut the stem to the base when it stops blooming.”
There was a mobile dangling in the back door window, refracting bits of light onto the wall. The door opened and another employee walked in, her apron slightly less clean than her counterpart’s.
“The bride called and she wants to move the delivery up two hours.”
Rebecca reached down into her purse but the florist waved her off.
“Don’t worry about it.”
The two of them launched into stuffing boxes, throwing vases around with small amounts of water, slowing down only to pick up the bouquets themselves. Just outside the door Rebecca paused. A pot like the one she’d shattered was there, stacked on top of other colors of the same shape. She was crouched down and had reached for one when she heard her name float out the door above the din.
“That was Rebecca.”
“She one of our regulars?
“The one whose son drowned.”
“Nick’s cousin surfs and he told me that Sam was high when it happened.”
Rebecca left quickly, and drove without a destination in mind. The midafternoon traffic was quiet enough that she ran lights without consequence. It made little difference relative to the banging thoughts hammering at the inside of her head. The road dropped down to eye level with the curve of the coastline and she pulled over and watched the surfers that dotted the water. As a wave swelled a surfer started to paddle, frantically, faster and faster as the wave grew up behind their small form. They caught it but just as they went to stand the tip of the board dipped forward and they were pitched forward into the water where they disappeared beneath the surface. Over the years of report cards, detention slips, and calls from teachers, Rebecca had learned that many times when she thought he was in one place, Sam had been in the water. None of the consequences that arose had mattered to him in the face of even the mere rumor of a good wave. Wondering if that was him out in the cold, powerful waves had been like breathing, and it was a habit she didn’t want to let go of. She climbed over the boulders that separated the road from the sand and walked slowly to the edge. The cool air washed over her skin. A couple of surfers swam in and now walked, boards tucked beneath their arms, in her direction. From where she stood they could have been anybody, just bodies dripping and clad in black rubbery suits. One broke off and started to walk straight towards her. Her heart pumped harder. His gait, the long steps, and the way the foot lifted and fell, seemed familiar. She hoped, then believed, that it was her son, walking toward her to come say, with his goofy smile, that it had all been a surreal and terrible dream. The figure got closer and his face came into focus.
“Mark,” she croaked.
“Hey there! Thinking about going for a swim? It wouldn’t be too cold for you in a 4 ml. suit I bet.”
He pulled the hood, stretching it so that it snapped back before his head was free. A couple drops of water landed on Rebecca’s shoulder. She looked out toward the horizon.
“When you took me out for the funeral, it was my first time on the water in years. I forgot how powerful it feels.” She shivered.
“That’s the beauty right there.” He paused and looked at her. His skin was weathered, tanned and etched with lines from years in the sun.
“You got it! Come on, just push past that last set of breakers.” Mark stood on the beach yelling.
The wetsuit was so tight it pulled on Rebecca’s chest and shoulders and squeezed her calves. The hood pressed in on her ears and turning her neck from one side to the other was difficult. When she first stepped into the water all she could feel was the movement around her feet outside of the boots. But then icy fingers crept into the boots and her feet screamed in pain. Another step and the cold wrapped around her knees, all the way to the bone. When a wave pushed past her and her vagina, belly button, and butt were submerged, she felt the urge again to get out. But when she finally got deep enough for the water to come in through the thick zipper that ran down her back there was no turning back. Her breath was gone and she gulped tiny mouthfuls of air. Everything clenched tight and she turned and looked back at Mark, eyes wild. He waved his thick arm and a wave caught Rebecca from behind and knocked her over. It tossed her like a rag in a washing machine and she tried to come up but wasn’t sure which way that was and when she finally did break the surface again she gasped, and her mouth and nose were assaulted by the burning salt water. She dragged her feet through the water and went into the beach.
“Do not ever turn your back to the ocean,” Mark told her.
She nodded, shivering.
At the neighbors’ for dinner they asked if anything had been helping in particular lately.
“Swimming,” she told them.
“Oh yeah? Up at the gym in town?” Dana asked, passing her a napkin.
“No, in the ocean.” Rebecca gnawed on the bone.
Martin looked at Dana.
“I know, my friends hate that I go alone. But I don’t go very far out.”
They knew somehow that there was no point in telling her to be careful.
The shock of the cold water’s icy slap never lessened, no matter how many times Rebecca walked into the sea. The currents that traveled down from Canada penetrated her whole body, sending every sense into high alert. Her skin pulled taut and rose in goosebumps. Her heart pounded hot blood out to her fingers and toes. The first time she submerged her head she usually felt like she might throw up and she waited for it to pass while her eyes instinctively tried to make sense of the shadows and streaks of light that cut through the murky water. Shadows coalesced into points and she’d have a flicker of certainty that she was looking at the head of a creature there, just in front of her.
Slowly as she started to move through the water the shapes would disappear. Her body traced a line parallel to the coastline and a rhythm took over. With every other breath she’d lift her head up and see the sand, which gave way to low cliffs carpeted in spiky succulents. When she turned to breathe in the other direction there was only more ocean, stretching on and on until the flat line of the horizon. Her thoughts swirled like the water. No one was there trying to figure out the right thing to say and so in return she didn’t have to try to say the right thing back. There were questions of her own. How was it that a dead whale could wash ashore, stink up the whole place with its body and had to be dragged out 25 miles offshore so that it wouldn’t float back, when Sam’s body had disappeared without a trace?
Were you being reckless? Were you on some drug? One of the ones I didn’t worry about? One of the ones I did?
What could I have done to help you?
I should have done more.
At every turn of their lives together there were notches, paths taken and not taken.
What if I hadn’t had work that day? Or so many other days of your life?
If your dad had been around?
Sam had told her in 7th grade one day after his science class, that the clear turquoise waters off tropical islands had less nutrients. He’d pointed out the car window and said,
“Look, our water is darker. It has more life.”
“The buoy bobbed in the waves, the water level rising up to the base where the green tower emerged, then lowering to expose the rusted section and then in the next instant rising and submerging it once more. Sometimes a seal would be there, its speckled bulbous body hauled up onto the rusty green edge. It’d hop off as she approached, sending a spike of fear through her, and she’d reach out and touch the rough metal with her hands. Then, stroke by stroke, she would make her way back to the stretch of beach.”
Each week Rebecca swam a little farther. After a month she could swim all the way to a large green buoy. It bobbed in the waves, the water level rising up to the base where the green tower emerged, then lowering to expose the rusted section and then in the next instant rising and submerging it once more. Sometimes a seal would be there, its speckled bulbous body hauled up onto the rusty green edge. It’d hop off as she approached, sending a spike of fear through her, and she’d reach out and touch the rough metal with her hands. Then, stroke by stroke, she would make her way back to the stretch of beach where she left her shoes and small mountain of clothes. By the time she got back the sun would be up, the fog that covered the sky most mornings thick overhead. She began to crave the quiet that came over her when she swam. The fullness of the ocean around her where sound was neither absent nor present. When she swam she could move with some of the grief. The cold made her alert, present and alive to her body. There were no looks in people’s eyes like she might be a broken toy that would never truly run again. Sometimes she would remember the mornings, her with tea, Sam with a bowl of cereal turning soggy as he swirled the milk with his spoon. The peace of that simple ritual. A memory she could have drifted off into had the relentless ocean not called her back, consistent in its wildness and making no exceptions, not even for her.
Rebecca met Mark for a beer at the bar. Candles flickered against the shiny dark wood walls and the bartender was friendly.
“Are you ever afraid?” she asked him.
“I mean, sure. It’s important to have a healthy dose of fear for ol’ mother nature. You afraid of something in particular?”
“It mostly happens in the beginning,” Rebecca took a sip. “I’ll see things, shapes. My imagination goes wild.”
“Have you ever seen a shark?” she asked.
“Was it a fin, like the movies?”
“You know, it wasn’t. What gave it away was the water. The way that it moved. It was too deep to show its fin, but something that big, well, displaces a lot of water, and you can see that in the vibrations on the surface. Like it’s boiling.”
“But you were sure that’s what it was?”
He raised his eyebrows and finished his beer.
“Only one thing makes the water move that way.”
“Why did I ask?” Rebecca shook her head.
“They are out there.” He moved his hand from the empty bottle and laid it on hers.
Mark’s house was small, just a living room with a couch that pulled out into a bed, and a kitchenette with just a stove and no oven. It was an easy and lonely place. He placed his hand on Rebecca’s bare chest, rubbed smooth circles all over her, patient and slow. He watched her face. She blushed. It had been a while, she wasn’t sure which way to go. She put her hands around his arms, felt the soft skin on his wrists. Kissed there. He kissed her mouth and she ran her hands through his hair. The ocean, he had told her, was the one love he’d never lost. The salt water had made his hair coarse. It curled between her fingers.
They tensed, breathed deeper, faster, then slower, pulled at each other, asked questions, answered, and eventually a rhythm emerged, potential energy let loose unwinding into kinetic, free to drop, to fall, to spread. And then break. Break. Rebecca covered her face, willing it not to happen, but the tears came and then she just tried not to make it ugly. There was no way to be only selectively undone. Mark was panting as he tried gently to pry her arms away from her face. When he couldn’t he sat up and wiped himself, then her. She regained some control when he stood, and finally stepped away, his warmth removed so that the cool night could take over. Bits of streetlight from outside reflected off his skin. When she took the box of tissues that he handed her they both felt something shift in the room, like a dead bolt falling into place.
“I loved him, too,” he told her. “Nothing like you, I know that, but in my way I really miss him. And he could be a real shit sometimes.” He wiped his eyes, “Got so drunk on one of our trips south that he swung at me.” Mark laughed, leaning back against the pillows.
Rebecca remembered Sam coming back with a black eye from one of the surf trips. He’d said his board had hit him.
In the morning she drove to the diner for fried eggs just as a faint blue light was filling the sky. It was pretty empty, still too early for the flocks of weekend tourists. Her order came, a plate laden with hash browns, fruit, eggs, and toast. There was something familiar about the man cooking. The faint line of a tattoo curled from behind his ear and down his neck.
She leaned over the counter, ignoring the confused eyes the man who had served her was making.
“Excuse me, did you go to San Pedro Elementary School?”
“Yes.” He flipped a pancake.
“Did you know my son, Sam?”
He stepped back from the grill a moment. Eggs, sausages, peppers, and bread spread out around him.
“Rebecca, it’s me, Ivan. Yani was my mom. Of course we knew Sam.”
His adult features yielded to her memory of him as a child then, running around his mom’s daycare where Sam had gone.
“Oyé! Cuidalo.” He motioned for one of the other guys in the kitchen to look after the grill and walked up to the counter.
“How is Yani?”
“Ah, she died a few years back. Ovarian cancer.” He pursed his lips, his eyes suddenly glassy.
After a certain age, Sam and Ivan’s lives had been channeled onto different paths. Subtle dotted lines that carved apart where they shopped for groceries, lived, and mourned their dead. There had been nothing in the newspaper that Rebecca read each week about Yani’s passing.
“We lit candles at Saint Joseph’s for Sam,” Ivan said. Stronger smells were starting to fill the air.
“They’re burning my dishes back there,” he said, “It’s good to see you.”
Rebecca finished her meal and left a 50% tip.
That day the water was choppy and rougher than usual. She hesitated before she got in, thought about her friend’s warnings. The suggestions to find a group to go with. As she swam she felt tired. As she approached the buoy, lifting her face out of the water to breathe, she saw a seal. She got closer but it didn’t move other than to lift its head and tail up, curving its body into the shape of a wide U. Rebecca didn’t touch the rusty flakes and kept going. Her arms were heavy, but she kicked down into the darkness. Her ears popped, the goggles pressed into the skin around her eyes and her lungs wanted air. Her hand collided with the sandy bottom and she exhaled, bubbles racing off towards the surface. Her body sank, she’d gone deep enough for the air in the suit to compress. There was not much buoyancy to her. It was so relieving to be dark and cold, like being inside of an iceberg. But she looked up because a glimmer of light made it down much deeper than she could. And there in that liminal space where light and dark constantly exchanged from one moment to the next, she thought she saw it. The ancient contour, the form of a shark, chiseled in time. And a foreground and background emerged.
Rebecca was up to the surface so fast and when she saw the pale sand and scrubby hills in the distance panic took over and a scream rose up in her and then out and it was mangled by the water and then that water was in her mouth, in her lungs and she was coughing, sputtering, hauling, stroke after stroke toward the shore. The force of the tide pulled her back and then pushed her forward and every second was the infinite one that would be her last before the animal’s teeth closed around her arm, her leg, just to taste before realizing there was nothing to her. She crawled out onto the wet foamy sand and rolled onto her back. Rough green boughs of a cypress tree came into focus. Rebecca reached back for the thin black cord tied to the wetsuit zipper. She yanked it open and ripped the neoprene away from her shoulders and sat there, in a red bathing suit crushed up against her body. With her eyes she dug into the cresting waves, waiting for the fin to emerge, while the salt water dripped down her back.
Spring / Summer 2023
Lena King is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn. She grew up outside of San Francisco and studied fiction at The New School. Her short story “Eve is Seizing” was published by Sazeracs Smoky Ink.
Aline Mare (b. 1961, Bronxville, NY) is a visual artist, performing artist, and filmmaker whose photo-based, multimedia works hover between themes of creation and decay. Mare studied with Nam June Paik, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton, and Tony Conrad, and holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has been shown widely, including at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Museum of Modern Art (NY), San Francisco Cinematheque, Griffin Museum of Photography, Turtle Bay Museum, Santa Monica Museum of Art, San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, Jerusalem Biennale 2019, and Lancaster Museum of Art and History.