July 7th, 2023
By Bonnie Tarantino
“Fucking Beautiful.” She said taking off her sun hat, her eyes filling with salt water. She rubs her head, feels the smoothness of her bare scalp, her raw skin. Her nerves jump up unprotected by the once crazy curly hair that fell out in clumps almost a year ago.
“Babe?” Her husband says.
“Those two…” she nods down the beach slipping a worn swimmers cap onto her head for warmth. Her bright painted pink nails rest for a moment against the black latex cap framing her gaunt gray skin. Even the sun had stopped trying to heal her. She was always cold now.
“Babe, are you talking about those two.” Off in the distance a young man sits, his long legs wrapped around a young woman. East coast. He was carefully combing out her knotted hair.
“Yes. I have been watching them. They have no idea how fucking beautiful they are. Just the two of them sitting there like they are the only ones that know that this is the best time of day. She was trying to get her knots out before, and then he just sat down and started to help her.
“What else babe? The fucking beautiful stuff?” They have played this game a thousand times, the one where she tells other people’s stories to him, reading them soft and easy with her loving psychic heart.
“Oh well. He knows. He has decided. He has known for a while. But she…..she. Well she has curly hair.”
He laughs. She is brilliant at tangents. Even better at getting lost and finding something intangible. Like the way she paints fearlessly trusting layer upon layer, day upon day. Colors whisper secret hues to her. Smells send secret codes to her. She cooks like she paints. Her thoughts like her art wander after herbs and wildflowers for a bit, then find their way back to something beautiful that everyone missed but only she saw. Like those curls on that girl.. Like the curls she once had. His partner for over 40 years.
“I think she is deciding right now.” She continues, “Something in the way her body has surrendered. Something about his carefulness. His diligence. His hands are golden, blessed, healing. A surgeon in training maybe. Skilled. East coast smart. She knows he will see it through. Yes.. she is deciding right in this instance. He is so gentle. She will marry him.”
And there it is. He sees it too. The love before him knocks him under. These moments come one after another now with little break, like being caught under a wave and realizing another one is coming and coming again. He dives down holding his breath. He has been holding his breath for over a year now and still the big wave has not come. The tsunami that will wipe out his life for good is pulling everything he loves out toward it. All their memories are exposed waiting on this beach. There is no higher ground here.
He watches as the young man gets to the end of a long curly tendril. It bounces free of knots and springs up young and healthy. He feels heat in his groin. Remembers how over and over he fled here with his wife to this very beach to surf and stayed late into the night. How many times he reached for her hair when the sky got dark and the fire was stoked. How many knots they had made with sand and salt, rolling, kissing, eating, going too drunk fast, going too stoned slow, getting it just right, making babies. All three unplanned and made here. And now .. now all she wants is one last swim. And he wants to take her. In so many ways he wants to take her but it will crush what it left. His heart bangs. A soft wave crashes and even that shatters the sand it hits.
“Ready Babe?” He gets up and picks up the wet suit.
He thinks for a moment about how it looks like the skin of a seal. Like the Irish legend of the selkie, a creature that is half seal and half women. Of the men who stole the selkie skin to claim the mermaid and make them human. To make them earth bound to have and care for their babies. A blade slices through his back, guilt falls deep and slithers under his rib to haunt him later. The years her paint went dry. He admits it. He wished for it. Her full attention. Now he wishes she would just slide into her suit, glide out into the surf, shapeshift into a smooth seal, skip the slow death of one careful labored mammal breath at a time.
Let the big fucking wave come his heart screams. It is time we surf it already.
His wife stands and places her hand on his shoulder. He looks into her dark brown eyes. One foot then the other in. His kids crash in hard on him. All three, one foot at a time. Wiggling them in and out of wet suits. And then suddenly they didn’t need his help. Surfed safely without him, beyond him. He didn’t even bother to tell them about this last swim. Too many lasts….
“Ok.” He pulls up the seal skin. It slides loose over her, sizes and sizes too big. He zips it up placing his hands for a moment on the reconstructed breasts that once seemed like a good idea and now seem ridiculous, as if no one told them they were dying too. He tucks her carefully in.
“No..I am good. Thank you honey…”. Her pink toes wiggle suddenly animated in the sand.
On instinct she sits down again to save every ounce of energy she can
“Do you need a minute?”
“No…I just want to get in and go home.”
He reaches down and swoops her up. His worn surfer body is strong with longing for his two lovers, his wife and the sea. He carries her to the water. Her arm is draped over his shoulder, twirls his 60 year old salty pony tail then holds it strong as they enter the surf slowly. Her head burrows deep into his neck. He is as warm and safe as ever. She knows that the ocean will be gentle with her. Her last dip. Her last baptism. The cold crashes through her skin. This pain is welcomed. She slides off her bathing cap. Her bare head looks like a golden buddha in the setting sun.
The young couple watches the older couple bobbing gently in the quiet surf. They are careful not to go too deep.
The young man puts the wide comb down pleased with his work and wraps his arms and legs around the young woman. Her back is against his heart. Leaning in he realized she is different.
“Wait…Are you crying?” He asks.
“Yeah.. It is her last swim… She is dying.”
“How to do you know these things?”
“I have been watching her all afternoon. She is in that place of lasts. A state of grace. She glows. Like the sun is inside her now. Like my grandmother did at the end. And look… those three surfers coming down the beach. Watch. Omg… they look just like them… They are their children. They have her curls. They have his body.” She hears them calling out. “MOM! MOM!”
He pulls her in deeper feeling the top of her ass click right against his groin. It shoots up to his heart. That is how he knows. That bang in his heart before the rush to his groin. “How do you know she had curls? What are you talking about?”
“It is just a game I play. Telling stories about strangers. The writer in me.” Out in the distance she looks for a big wave. She feels a big wave coming. Instead, she sees two seals. Their little black eyes look back to shore as if they know the surfer family. There is not a wave they worry about.
“Hon… are you ok?” He leans over, nestling his chin around her neck. Kissing it, wanting her salt in his mouth.
She lets her tears slide down in awe toward his lips. Runs her hand through her knotless hair. She backs up on him more. She will take him out here later tonight. Her hair will get knotty again. She will say yes when he asks. “Oh yeah.. yeah.. I am good,” she says. “ I am fucking beautiful.”