I squint up against the hazy sun. It’s early summer, warm and moist under a layer of filmy gray clouds. I lie on a red beach towel, listening to the waves and the people, the distant whooshing noises and faint screams from the roller coaster. It is Father’s Day.
My brother is burying his two sons and my daughter in the sand while they giggle. They poke their feet and arms out every few seconds, and he feigns anger. They all laugh together as he keeps pushing sand over their small, sweaty bodies.
I have no husband. My brother has no wife. We form a complete family today, we two and our three, crosslegged on the blanket, eating sandy tuna sandwiches and chips.
My parents recline in earth-toned webbing chairs they’ve carried all the way from the car, up the long street, across the boardwalk and down the crowded beach. My mother is wearing navy blue shorts. Her legs seem very pale, almost blue with veins. She’s wearing a red straw hat, wide and floppy, which embarrasses me, as it always embarrassed me when we took vacations and she donned that hat. My father stretches out legs whiter than my mother’s. The shape of his head is round, like Charlie Brown; he hasn’t looked at me but I can smell his pipe from here. They are eating their tuna and chips, beach food, and chatting with my sister and her husband on their respective beach towels eating their respective sandwiches.
I’m 26 years old. I love my daughter. I tell her I love her every night before I leave the room. Sometimes she hears me. Sometimes it is just in my head.
The children finish eating first, for once, and leap up to chase the waves back to the ocean. Their kicking feet spray everyone with sand, and my mother and I call out together, “Wait a half an hour! Don’t go in the water! You’ll get a cramp!”
“I’ve been hearing that for 60 years,” says my father. “And I never got a cramp.”
“You never go in the water.” My mother folds napkins and puts food back in the picnic basket.
My sister and her husband have no children; newlyweds, they are arguing over which ride they should go on first. My mother reminds them to wait half an hour. They aren’t really angry. They’re debating caramel apples or cotton candy. My mother says they’ll get sick on all that junk.
They decide to wait. My sister and her husband run down to the water and play chicken with the foamy surf. They grab hands with my nephews and my daughter and play Ring around the Rosie. They all fall down in wet sand. My parents lie down to take a short nap. I watch the kids, my chin in my hands, content for now to feel the warmth on my tan shoulders. I don’t care for the water. I don’t like real or imagined creatures seething around my ankles unseen. I stay on the beach and watch the children play.
When I was six or seven I asked my father if he loved me. He said, “If you don’t know by now whether or not I love you, then the hell with you.” I didn’t know. It seemed important enough to ask. I didn’t ask again.
Half an hour passes. I turn from front to back and squint at the sun again. My mother is sitting up, watching the children, hers and mine. She turns to me with that look of disapproval as she appraises my bikini. I look down and see a few dark hairs peeking out from the leg opening. When she looks away I tuck them back in where they belong, hidden. When she glances again her expression has changed. She smiles at me.
My sister, her husband and my brother come back from the water, the children trotting behind. They drip, with dark, wet sand sticking to their legs, their bottoms where they sat down. The adults towel off, the children waiting patiently to be dried.
We’re going up to the rides now. My mother and brother-in-law stay on the beach to watch our things. My brother and sister are a pair now, walking slowly through the hot, heavy sand that drags at our feet. The children seem to skim across the sand, light as seagulls, as if nothing can hold them back from the forthcoming delights. My father and I follow more slowly than the rest.
We mount the rough wooden steps to the boardwalk and stand, a tight group, looking around at the many sights and colors, catching sounds and smells and meeting eyes with strangers. Each child is taken firmly by the hand. My brother buys tickets for the carousel and Ferris wheel. My sister tells me to go on the roller coaster with her.
“I can’t take Mia on that. She’s too little,” I say. What I really mean is, there is no way I’m getting on that thing.
She cajoles. I’m reluctant. She gives up and asked my father.
“Sure, why not?”
A bright red car rattles and roars past above us, shaking the yellow balustrades and supports of the aged tracks. The park has been here for years. People scream, their shrillness muted and then deafening as they careen toward the bottom of the steep hill, and rocket up another.
We’ve been to this boardwalk before. We were all children then. She dragged me on the very same roller coaster, and I vividly recall my terrified, tenuous grasp on the slippery bar that held us in. The choking fear that I would be thrown from the flying car, my throat constricted too much to scream.
They buy tickets and get in line. My brother wants to go to, but instead he comes with me and the children to the carousel. The boys straddle circus animals – a camel, an elephant. Mia eyes the swan boat. I tell her it doesn’t go up and down. She chooses instead the white and silver steed, a raging, snorting, galloping horse that appears ready to run forever. I boost her up onto its back, fasten the little belt. Weird calliope music revs up like a circus on acid. At the fence, I watch my daughter and her cousins pass, up and down, waving over and over.
My father and sister appear behind me, excited. My father is flushed, my sister mussed. They seem bonded by the experience. He always liked her better. My mother favored my brother. I’m the middle child, looking for a hand to hold.
The children dismount. Mia slides from her horse, falls to the bottom with a thud. She contemplates crying, pursing her lips. But her cousins run off to the train ride so she doesn’t cry. We buy more tickets and get in line, filing through the dingy ropes until it is our turn to ride. The family fills an entire car. It rumbles down the tracks, slowly picking up speed until we are fairly flying at about 5 mph. The black mouth of the tunnel yawns around us and closes behind. We are in the dark. Children whisper, just shy of a whimper: “I don’t like this!”
We hear a voiceover, static squawking, supposed to be the engineer, making inane comments about the drive. We begin to see fluorescent figures, cavemen caricatures with jerky arms waving clubs or spears. The cardboard cavewoman cooks a cardboard meal over plastic fire, and more of the same. I’m holding Mia close, cooing over the figures she finds so fascinating. I’m far away.
My father yelling at me when I picked fruit off the neighbor’s tree, cherries hanging over the fence so temptingly. “That’s stealing,” he thundered. I knew I was bad. I deserved that spanking. I wanted to tell him that before he spanked me, to tell him that I knew it was wrong. Visions flashed in my head of him not spanking me, of him being so proud of me for learning such a lesson. But I couldn’t open my mouth to tell him.
The train turns a corner and we see dinosaurs, a current favorite of all three children. They squeal, pointing. “Yeah, lookit there,” says my father. My brother and I make mock excited faces at each other. We’re jaded about dinosaurs these days.
I recall my father coming with me to a father-daughter dinner for Bluebirds. We had fried chicken. I don’t remember talking with him through the entire evening. I see him talking to my best friend’s father. Her father is tall, looming over my father. I see them standing together. My father is short, barely 5 feet tall, but I always see him big, yelling, or big, silent.
The train leaves the tunnel and its imitation neon Paleolithics behind. We round one last curve and end the five-minute journey through time, theirs and mine.
My sister wants to ride the roller coaster again. So does my brother. We see my mother and brother-in-law heading our way. They’ve taken everyone’s things to the cars. My mother asked the children what they want to do next. They want to ride the kiddie cars. My brother and sister and her husband trot off to the roller coaster.
My father and I stand alone. “What do you want to do?”
I can’t recall the last time we spent even five minutes alone together. “I don’t know. You want to go on a ride?” A distraction to keep from talking, to keep the status quo alive and well.
“Not really. Are you hungry?”
I’m not hungry.
After my high school graduation, I took my long-haired boyfriend with me back to my parents’ house and opened my presents. There was a cake with sugar roses and squiggly blue writing, spelling out enthusiastic congratulations. My boyfriend shifted uncomfortably on the couch. We didn’t stay long, leaving my own party to go to other people’s houses, to fun parties, drinking binges. But I was taken by some previously repressed urge to tell my father something. As I left, I hugged him and whispered, “I love you,” in his ear. He didn’t say anything. I felt the press of crisp, folded paper in my hand, and in the car open my fist to $60. I still don’t know whether he heard me.
I’m not hungry. I say, “Let’s take a walk.”
Game booths with small stuffed animals swaying from the awnings. Tan, bare-chested young men with their arms thrown possessively across the unclad shoulders of nymph-like, budding girls. The coarse, seductive calls from the game hawkers, “C’mon, three balls for a dollar, win your sweetheart a teddy bear!” The smell of popcorn and hot dogs and salty surf, the complete essence of summer captured and forever embedded in my memory. And my father walking beside me, not touching, not talking, taking in the raucous, giddy sense of our surroundings.
From one vendor’s cart swing clouds of pink cotton candy, delicate and frothy sugar spun into whimsical puffs, wrapped around the paper cone and gently swathed in light cellophane. “I haven’t cotton candy in years,” I say, almost to myself.
My father abruptly changes directions and strides purposefully toward the vendor. He jingles coins in his pocket and fishes out enough to buy a stick. I am standing where he left me, watching from 10 feet distant. He brings it to me, a Magus bearing some strange and rare gift, and I take it, offering him my thanks softly.
I remember last year, when I tried again to tell him on the phone, and the words came from me mechanically, like a puppet or an actress, not really mine. But he heard me. He heard me say, “I love you,” and he breathed and paused and said, “Same here.” It hurt and it burned with a sweetness, a something I had said didn’t matter that suddenly did, and always would. I felt a curious relief, a bizarre thought like, “God, at last, I have finally told my father that I love him. I can die happy now.” As if I were really dying.
We turn back toward the rides and see my family gathering, looking for us. Mia sees my gift, my nephews see it, and they want some, too. “Grandpa, we want some cotton candy! Can we have some?”
He says, “Sure, why not?” He turns around to get some more, trailing three small children behind.
“The Pied Piper,” my mother says.
I look out to sea, tasting pink spun sugar melt, sweet and empty as air.
Photo credit: Cotton Candy by Kate Ter Haar is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.