Every time you remember an event, your brain replaces the original memory with a new version, one that is slightly altered by the impact of all you’ve experienced between the last time you remembered the event and now. The new memory is, therefore, never exactly the same as the old, which is why memories can’t be trusted for accuracy. Family stories in particular, are told and retold until all you can count on is the emotional truth. Which is why this story, while real, may not be true.
My father has bought a Volkswagen bug and he is driving our family from Maryland to Florida to visit my grandparents who live on the Gulf of Mexico. My mother and I wait in the car with my sisters: 11 and 14. I am six. Apparently, no knucklehead left the water running or a window open, so my father locks the front door and gets in the car.
As he starts the engine, I regard my family breathing the same air, almost but not quite touching, as we begin our trip south. At the Esso Station in Port Royal, I switch to the wheel well, the narrow space behind the backseat. My sisters shake hands with each other and spread out.
Four hours after the last Stuckey’s stop, we see signs for Cape Hatteras. “We need to get out of this car,” my mother says. There is a package goods store coming up fast on the left.
“I’ll see if these folks know of any motels,” my father says. “We’ll have an hour on the beach and leave first thing in the morning.” He swings the little car into the parking lot and gets out. A few minutes later, he returns with a bottle in a brown paper bag and directions to the Lighthouse Lodge.
We can’t see the ocean from the motel, but we cross the hot pavement and a wooden walkway to the dunes and then step onto an astonishingly long white beach with red, blue, and yellow umbrellas scattered along it like gumdrops.
We run down to the water’s edge, where icy waves numb my small hot feet, sucking away the sand under them so that I become shorter and shorter. My sisters brought Lodge towels on which to stretch out, but only my father remembered to bring something to drink. He takes a long pull from the bottle he has left in the brown bag to stay cool.
Suddenly he scoops me up under my arms. I dangle for a second before he hoists me over his head and onto his shoulders. Holding my hands out on either side as if we are balancing on a tightrope, he walks slowly toward the ocean. One step. Two. The freezing waves splash my thighs. I call out in the breeze, “Far enough!”
But he lets go of my hands pulling us into deeper water, bouncing then paddling to keep our heads above the swells. The next wave rolling towards us is a frothing rogue beginning to break. I cry out again. “Daddy! I don’t want to! Go back!” We will never make it over, and it is too late to retreat. With a half-gasp of air, the sky is gone.
I slam to the bottom, grinding into the sand and sharp broken shells, and am held there as the wave thunders over. Then, still underwater, I’m scraping along the bottom like a piece of beach glass. I claw up for air, but tons of water keep me pressed to the bottom.
I am seeing stars when a strong hand clamps around my upper arm pulling me into the sunlight. A man in bright red swimming trunks sets me on my feet. I stagger, my bathing suit bottom is scooped low with sand. “Are you okay, sweetheart?” he asks.
My mother appears, flying down the beach. Behind her, my father shouts cheerfully, “Hey, cutie, where’d you go?” As we walk back to my sisters, my mother’s quiet is a lit fuse. I reach for my father’s hand to short-circuit the spark. With my other hand, I reach for my mother. That night I sleep with her in one of the big beds, and my father takes the rollaway. We are on the road again at dawn, and I am back in the wheel well. I am becoming famous for sticking it out.
We cheer at the “Welcome to Florida” sign and stop for gas. There are postcards with pink flamingos standing on one leg in front of orange and purple sunsets. Alligators grin because they’ve just eaten someone. As evening falls, we are pulling up to my grandparents’ house. Sure enough, they live on the Gulf of Mexico.
While my parents haul our suitcases inside, my sister and I wander down to their pier and look out across the gulf. I could see Mexico if I could see far enough. I tell my sister, and she says I could walk to Mexico. Anybody can walk on water if they believe they can. “Like if you really believed, you’d just walk off the end of this pier with your shoes on and stuff in your pockets, and you wouldn’t sink because that would prove you believed.”
With my sneakers at the pier’s edge, I concentrate fiercely until I can see myself walking on waves as solid as roadbeds. “All talk and no action,” my sister says, heading back up the pier.
Raised voices reach us as we near the house. The grownups stop speaking until we pass through the living room and close Granny’s bedroom door. “Let’s play who can be quiet the longest,” my sister says, and we climb on the bed to see who can make the other laugh first. We stare at each other as the voices in the living room grow louder. She points a finger at me and then pinches her nose, crossing her eyes. It’s not too funny.
My mother is crying. I point a finger at my sister, pretend I am driving a car, point to myself, and circle a finger near my ear. She rolls her eyes, but we don’t even make the bedsprings squeak. “Last chance,” my mother says through the wall.
“I quit,” my sister says, and just like that, everything is over. In the morning, I get back in the wheel well, and by 8:00 am, we are headed home.
My father begins to sing “Charlie on the MTA.” “Oh, he never returned, no he never returned, and his fate is still unlearned.” The words are sad, but the tune is catchy, and my mother joins in. My parents’ voices sound better together than either does alone and
I wish my friends could hear them. I would say, these, these are my beautiful parents. Because I am watching them, I don’t see the police car behind the overpass. My mother spots it first. “Slow down!”
My father squints quickly in the rearview mirror as the patrol car slams onto the highway, lights flashing, siren wailing. I know we can’t afford a fine, which may be why my father does not take his foot off the gas. He looks in the mirror again and turns to my mother. “Florida cop, Ginny. He’s got no jurisdiction out of state.” He glances from her face to the road and back again. Up ahead, a sign says, “Georgia State Line, One Mile.” The siren is louder. Louder still.
He smiles his slow smile. The one she has told me makes her say yes, every time she means no. “We can make it, Ginny; I know we can.” They look at each other forever and ever, and I hold my breath.
She twists to glance back over the seat. The police car is gaining ground but in the distance, a sign says, “Welcome to the Peach State.” Turning back to the road ahead, my mother sighs, and my father whoops. He slams the car into fifth gear, and we are outlaws gunning for Georgia.
I close my eyes and imagine walking on waves to Mexico. I think maybe one person believing in something just isn’t enough. But if two people believe, anything is possible.
Laura J. Oliver is an award-winning developmental book editor and writing coach, who has taught writing at the University of Maryland and St. John’s College. She is the author of The Story Within (Penguin Random House). Co-creator of The Writing Intensive at St. John’s College, she is the recipient of a Maryland State Arts Council Individual Artist Award in Fiction, an Anne Arundel County Arts Council Literary Arts Award winner, a two-time Glimmer Train Short Fiction finalist, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her website can be found here.