My dad used to say that standing in the surf looking out over the ocean was the closest he ever felt to being free. He’d tell us that we were never really free, no matter what they said. Putting a fragile stamp on a brick didn’t turn it into glass, he was always fond of saying. It didn’t change what it was.
We owned a beach house down in Malibu, a nice, secluded place right on the beachfront that always felt more like home to me than our real house. It was a cozy place, spacious but elegant in its simplicity and authenticity, not all decked out in technology and modern things the way a lot of the “nicer” ones usually are. The walls were wood, both inside and out, so coarse and rough that you might think the entire house had been built up from driftwood planks washed ashore from a shipwreck. I used to press my face up against the walls, closing my eyes and inhaling deeply through my nose, swearing I could still smell the salt from the ocean, soaked deep into the wood.
The house was painted a beautiful azure blue, like the bottom of the ocean on a hot summer’s day, with doors and window frames and the like painted white. If the walls were the ship’s sides then the floors were the deck, built from dark, polished hardwood, worn and smoothened by all those years’ worth of feet treading across it.
The house was as close to the beach as you could get without being subjected to the tide, and the water was literally a stone’s throw away from the front door. Granted not for me, not at that age at least. The porch was my favourite place in the entire house, and it was where I’d spend the majority of my time when not at the beach itself. Sitting under the canopy, lazily swinging back and forth in that old white rocking bench, its paint peeling and cracking around me as though time itself was passing me by, the sway of the chair synching with the push and pull of the ocean’s tide. That was how I’d spend my summer afternoons, all those years ago; looking out over the horizon to where the sea met the sky.
It was just the three of us, most of the time. Myself, Tara, and our father. Mom didn’t come down too often; she was never particularly fond of the beach. She was the kind of woman who was more at home in a shopping mall or a country club, not so much the outdoors. You know the one; tight, pursed lips, prim and proper personality, with designer dresses covered in colorful flower print, large sunhats and even larger sunglasses. She had been raised into the lifestyle, her family the proud owners of a decent fortune dating back several years after a certain investment took a turn for the best. A downside of her personality was that she could sometimes come off a bit pretentious, but behind the cold front was a very warm interior, and she was full of love, especially for us.
Dad was always the rough-and-tough one, the big lumberjack-type who was always on the verge of enveloping those around him in a crushingly nurturing bear hug, eager to take us camping and fishing and hiking and whatnot. He had come from close to nothing but had built his name up in his trade and passion of choice (carpentry), and when the day came had knelt before our mother with a ring of sizeable worth and a bank account reflecting it, having earned every last penny. Naturally she hadn’t cared much one way or another about this, but he had known it was important to her family that she didn’t marry “beneath her”, and indeed with this peace offering he managed to win them over as well. Friends would often tease that they were the oddest pair that ever lived, but whether or not their differences had any effect on their relationship, either constructive or destructive, it couldn’t be denied that they loved one another terrifically. That much was always obvious, even after. Especially after.
The beach house was always the favourite of all the outings our father would take us on, and whenever we got the chance (and the say-so from Mom) we’d be out packing the car sooner than you could say “vacation”. Mom would often watch from the front doorstep as we made the final preparations, a small smile plastered on her face. Sometimes she’d come along, just to be there with us if not to take advantage of the beach, but most of the time she’d make excuses, some of which would be legitimate. We didn’t mind too much though; it wasn’t that she was an absent parent figure, just that the beach house wasn’t her thing. She made up for it tenfold the rest of the time. And there was something special about her staying behind. I know how that sounds, and I don’t want to give you the wrong idea, but there was something intimate about it just being the three of us. Dad would slide his massive frame into the front seat, squeezing behind the steering wheel, and he’d start the car, turning his body around to face us as he pulled out of the driveway, and he’d give us this wink, like there was this big secret that only we knew about, something only we were a part of. It was a wonderful feeling, being part of something exclusive. It’s strange, isn’t it? That to feel included we feel the need to exclude others? That the more select the group is, the prouder you are to be a part of it? It’s like you’ve passed some kind of test, and immediately if not always consciously, you feel superior to those who aren’t a part of it. I guess that’s what it’s all about. Feeling better about yourself, if only by feeling worse about others. But I digress; of course I considered none of this as a child. It’s only in looking back that we see how naïve we were. Naïve and fragile.
My dad loved the beach house as much as we did; maybe even more. Like I said before, while my pastime of choice was sitting on the porch, his was to stand right out in the surf, usually at sunrise or sunset. Seeing him standing out there, hands on his hips or hanging limp at his sides, the back of his head betraying none of his thoughts, you couldn’t help but wonder what he was thinking. I would often watch him from my perch, wanting to go over to him, to see the expression on his face as if to get some kind of clue as to what he was thinking about. I’d stare at the back of his head for what seemed like eternities, imagining what might be going on inside, what might be transpiring behind that wall. Sometimes I’ll wake up in a cold sweat, chest heaving with each panicked breath as I try my best to shut out the image of my father’s head over the eternal spread of the ocean, of my arm reaching up, of my hand grabbing him by the shoulder, turning him around, his face the last thing I see before I wake.
He’d stand out there early morning or evening, ankle-deep in the sand as the waves rushed up over his shins, coming in strong and then retreating, leaving behind the froth which would cling to the mass of coarse hair on his legs. I remember being fascinated with his leg hair when I was young. Whenever he would settle down to read a book or watch television he’d set me down on his lap or at his feet, and I’d gently pick at the dark entanglement, brushing it gently down with my small hands. Sometimes I’d pull too hard and he’d cry out, making me giggle. Then he’d smile and place his hand atop my head, the already massive palm seeming enlarged in proportion to my tiny skull. He’d rub it gently, my head shaking around a little as he did so. Every now and then I think back to those times, and I think about all the force and power behind those hands, the same hands that would lift massive pieces of wood and operate heavy tools and machinery, and I wonder what might have happened if he had pressed just a little harder, or squeezed just a little tighter, and I wonder just how much effort it would have taken for him to crush my skull in his hands.
Last but not least was Tara; my younger sister by three years and a bit. She had dark black hair that seemed to flow like ink spilt from a writer’s glass jar, an effect that was (to the best of my knowledge) unintentionally doubled by the feathers she would often braid into it. She’d wear a different one every day, only going without when the formality of the family’s destination called for it, such as church or one of the many lawn socials held by relatives on our mother’s side of the family. They were always feathers she herself had found; never store bought or artificial. She’d collect them in this big old vintage trunk she had found in the beach house’s attic on our first stay, an ancient thing whose ivory-green shell was littered with old postage stamps and stickers, charming in its ugliness.
Whenever she’d come across a new feather, an occurrence that happened most if not always during walks along the beach front, she’d stoop down and gently pluck it up by the stem, raising it up in line with her eyes. She’d study it for a while, looking for breaks in the barbs or damage to the stem or caked-on dirt, her small lips parted slightly in what could only be described as childlike awe and fascination. Then she’d brush it off, preening the barbs so that they were all perfectly aligned and smoothened out, and she’d take it and race back to the house where she’d wash it with soap, being careful not to rip off any of the barbs. She used to leave out washing them at all, but once mom found out she insisted on it, for fear of fleas or ticks or other such things. Which, to be fair, was a reasonable enough concern, and in her added defense not once did she even consider suggesting that Tara throw out the feathers. That was the thing about our mother; with so many quirks and peculiarities herself she knew what it was to be eccentric.
When they had been sufficiently cleaned the feathers would be left on a windowsill to dry, often anchored beneath a small rock lest a sudden gust whisk away her cherished find. Sometimes she’d forget to collect them, and as their numbers grew you’d see dozens of them littered all about the beach house. They’d flutter across the floor with drafts, settle lightly on armrests and stairs, decorate the counters of the kitchen. There was something magical about them, like the forgotten effects of fairies who’d been passing through the house. Eventually they’d all be collected again, and carefully placed in that old trunk with the others, to be chosen as a hair accessory at a later date through a process understood only by Tara herself.
So there we’d be, the three of us: my sister on the beachfront, my father in the wake, and myself settled safely beneath the shade of the porch roof. The rest of the time we’d spend our days playing in the sand, swimming, chasing one another in and out of the tide, our shrieks of joy and amusement echoing far across the beach. We’d take walks along the beachfront together, going as far as the lighthouse peak where the sand turned to rock beneath our feet. When the sun had dipped low beneath the horizon we’d retreat indoors for dinner and a board game, sometimes a movie. They were good days, and the memories forged there have remained with me unblemished by the blur of time even to today. Not a single one lies out of reach should I have the notion to recall it.
God help me, not a single one.