Passing Milfin, passing Loxley. You say don’t you remember coming down here, two lanes and those azaleas, demented, big as houses, bringing down the gutters. Squinting for the memories, so dark on this stretch and nothing feels familiar. It was easy peasy "59," now with the grown-up name. "Parkway" makes it a parkway. Everybody knows that. I'm sorry...where are the parks, exactly? Hodgepodge of curious towns and silver king farm stands, moms and pops and T-shirt shacks. It’s 4 lanes now and complication.
You're up early and already down at the beach. Today feels like vacation. I sleep late, get up and gorge on citrus and ice cold melon. I lay by the pool and then walk out to the beach right as the storm rolls in. The clouds are impressive. I break my $5 sunglasses and somehow another pair appears. Back at the place, you and I start the risotto (yes, in a rented beach condo!). I stare at your gorgeous girls and their besties, all bronzed and luscious from a week in the sun, the same age as you and me when we were here last. All week long I’ve been watching them whisper and conspire. I wonder if their hearts are longing for a boy. Or if they’re anxious about the years ahead. You stir the risotto and then leave the kitchen, fussing with your hair. I holler after, "want me to braid it?" You let out a squeal.
I am 10 years old running these beaches with my dirt poor relations. It's only one case quarter to cross the bay, "Let me drop it in!" Kachink into the basket as the salt air hits my nose. Now we cross the long, long bridge, thump-thump-thump-thrump--so high it feels like fiction--and meander down to Santa Rosa Sound, calm and still, like some forgotten lake. This would be like if I had a nice book to read or for making dribble castles, maybe. But mostly, "ya'll I'm bored, lets cross on over!" We almost always choose the danger…summer cousins on the surf side now, descending the dunes like warriors. I plant my feet in the sand and stand where the waves break hard, trying to imagine what a rip tide looks like. Will it grab me from below and yank me under? Does it feel like swirling, some powerful underwater hurricane? Or will it swallow me slow-like, hypnotic hugging me into its depths until I'm limp and drunk and willing...
You say, just listen to that. Passing Daphne, passing Summerdale, windows down, the air is thick. You say it sounds like summertime in south Alabama. Cicadas, tree frogs, dry flies and crickets. Cowhides hung for sale…like laundry on the line. Deer packing plants, pecan orchards, statuary stores with life-size roosters, pine needle mulch, and one dead armadillo.
I am 8 years old up the road on meemaw’s porch, Cervantes Street and freshly washed hair. She brushes my senile platinum mane, "Surrender All," rocking on that swing in her moo moo and slippers, "creeeek, creeek." Talking, "What's for supper" or what we’ll wear to church. “Y’all cut up some hydrangea for the altar.”
The cool of the porch is so lovely after a day in the streets, barefoot and wild, feet chewed all to hell from broken glass and oyster shells and her wanting that bottle of coca-cola from up the road at the surplus store. Hours and hours detangling and discussion of my “hair rats” and their possible origins, she divides it into two piles and begins. There is precision and procedure. A Navy nurse's home is exactly as you'd imagine. Linens washed daily, starched white sheets, hospital corners, twice washed dishes and clorox, borax, ajax -- all the axes. The braids are tightly woven and perfect every time. Now she pats me on the shoulder and starts on my sister. My scalp is on fire from the siege and I wear that pain PROUD like a fancy new dress for no reason. She’s still singing. And I miss her already. But I will not cry! I won’t do it! I can smell roasted chicken coming from the kitchen. And baked potatoes too. I watch her face, so smooth and soft, the smell of witch hazel on her skin, rocking toward the end of summer, and I have just decided right here right now, I will never leave this swing, not EVER, not even if I bleed to death from scalp wounds, not if a whole bucket of Church’s Fried Chicken wanders past, not if Sean Cassidy himself walks up on this porch with a dozen roses, no death or threat of torture can move me from this spot. I burn a hole in meemaw’s back with my intentions. She slowly turns her steely eyes in my direction. No smiles, no reassurances, just her locked and prideful jaw and me with my locked and prideful jaw…a half an inch higher. She squints. I squint. And now, goddamnit, we have an understanding.
It is always, all of it, over too soon.
You say don't you remember back at the Ritz and "Crimes" and you did my hair in those pink foam rollers and then cheerleading camp, you did my hair in braids those two nights and put me right to sleep. I say nothing. I look at you and your beauty, still, and I'm wondering how it is you never age. You pour another glass of Pinot Grigio and chatter on about old times while I brush out your warm golden locks. I touch your neck. I let the heaviness of your silken strands surround my hands like paraffin. I want to hold you until all the hurting stops. Until we fill up again. Until every memory is just like this. I make up some lie about tangles and start again from the beginning.
I am 19 years old and I am nothing and I am here on this beach at twilight. I turn the engine off, in this town with all the names, with its pleasing disposition. I see everyone so clearly. Every summer, every fishing trip, every picnic, every crab boil, every Kodak moment. It is me. It is my sister. It is my mother and her mother's mother back to Barbados. It is my father and his father and my father's mother and her father and all the Pellegrins from over near Houma all the way back to France. I have no idea when I'll be back. My life is not here and I wonder why that is. The Gulf requires nothing but my willingness to breathe. It says you think you know things...but look how big I am. I ask it how the moments made all this. Are your secrets better hidden here, the sun in constant bloom, the tides that hide and bury things...that tango with the moon?
You say don't you remember the road being smaller, but it was faster, somehow. Passing Fairhope, passing Foley. And you take me back, and there we are. Back when we had all the choices, all the freedom, all the time in the world to rattle on about something or nothing at all. Like we owned it. Like it was our very own personal beach made for holding all our dreams until this time next year. Like we’d always be just a short ride to blazing hot sugar sand and lazy days and Coppertone tans and that summer crush from up near Andalusia. Like we’d never give up or walk out or lose hope or lose faith or lose us or move on or move out or move back or get old or get fat or get lost or get hurt like fucking hell or have our hearts broke down by the never-ending savage blows of life.
You know what? I do remember...