She sat and sat and sat, carefully sifting memories like sand, memories of a seashore much like this one, floury silky white sand, those laughing days squinting in the sun collecting shells until happy hour, two-for-one margaritas that were far too good, and caused her to eat too many stone crabs and swear off margaritas for good, at least until the next time, those staggering evenings rolling home after in the dark on a starlit beach. She sifted the memories carefully, separating the good from the fuzzy. The good: the long, lazy walks along the shore, right where the waves meet the sand and the best of the best shells wash up right at your feet, the lazy ones that never make it to the beach. Or the really lazy fighting conch shells that just stick up in the sand waiting to be stepped on, the shock of it like Legos in a dark living room when you can’t sleep at night. And so she sat, remembering Legos and fighting conchs, two separate eras melding in her memory.
The shells had to be perfect. Flawless. Not a crack, not a chip, definitely not a hole, except for that one time she thought she might like to make a mobile and sought out the small ones with holes. Otherwise she discarded ruthlessly anything with the slightest blemish, carefully placing them back exactly where she’d found them, just the way she did for those with living creatures still in them, the ones that just seemed stuck in the sand at first, but upon extraction revealed a probably rather confused-and-maybe-pissed-off clam or conch hurrying to suck itself back into the shell away from the searing sun. Yet for all her care in placing the broken ones back where they came from, she knew they’d be washed out to sea again with the next tide, to be beaten into smaller and smaller pieces until they became the sand under her feet.
Anything short of perfection wasn’t good enough.
She’d heard this so often growing up: perfection was the only acceptable result. (Only 95 percent? What happened to the other 5 percent? You have to try harder or you’ll never amount to anything in this world.) She’d heard it so much that the voice in her head, the one that criticized her incessantly, had actually become her own voice, so familiar that she’d entirely forgotten that there was ever a time when she didn’t loathe herself, didn’t berate herself for every little thing that went wrong. The voice had become as much a part of her as her skin or her toenails. For so long, she’d forgotten where that voice came from. She’d forgotten that it started not as her voice, but as his. It was his voice that occupied her head and her heart until she adopted it as her own. When her life began to unravel and she began to follow the threads, she was surprised to find him at the end of this one.This single thread that went so far back in her life she’d had no idea it was there.
He didn’t know what his own brokenness was doing to her young heart. He didn’t know that every time he said, “that’s not the way you do it, give it here, I’ll fix it, you’ve done it wrong,” this bored another hole into her already-fragile heart, fragile because she already felt she could never do anything right, could never please him, could never be good enough, perfect enough. He didn’t know her heart was already so broken that the tiniest shred, the merest whiff of disapproval or disappointment could send her into a tailspin for hours. He didn’t know how parched she was for a drop of approval, not even praise, just something that wasn’t “no,” anything to indicate that she hadn’t completely fucked up again, just this once, for a single golden moment before he found the inevitable flaw. But even this drop of non-disapproval eluded her again and again, and how would she ever get it right if he didn’t correct her?
There was that time when she was, let’s say, nine years old and had made him an egg because nobody else was there to do it and of course, a grown man, he was above such menial tasks. Or maybe he didn’t know how to use the stove. But she did, and she was glad to do it, proud when she brought him the plate with the carefully fried egg, soft the way he liked it, the lightly browned toast, with a little butter, a little jam, carefully placing it on the table in front of him, only to have him say, “You didn’t have to leave the shell in it, you know!” — as if she’d done this on purpose. But she hadn’t, of course she hadn’t, she hadn’t even noticed the tiny bit of shell. But of course it was in the first bite he took, just like if you dropped a single sewing pin and couldn’t find it for the life of you, he’d step on it the second he got home, and turn the air blue with his irritation.
Deflated, she slunk to her room and threw herself on the bed, too sad to cry, and anyways if he caught her crying, he’d only say, “Stop that or I’ll give you something to cry about.” She never knew whether he actually meant that or not. And of course she couldn’t be angry either (though she was, in fact, veryveryvery angry at the unfairness of it, of him). Anger was forbidden, even more forbidden than tears, no talking back, no slamming doors, no acting out in any way, or she’d be yelled at and possibly slapped, depending on how bad his mood was. So instead, she tried to read, the long afternoon stretching ahead of her, cold and grey, all alone by herself, with him. Reading was a waste of time, but maybe she could get away with it for at least a little while before he found something else for her to do.
In later years, after he was gone, she liked to think that if he’d known how broken her young heart really was, he would not have persisted in criticizing every little thing she did, would not have deliberately set out to break her spirit. She liked to think that he was genuinely trying to help her grow up to be the most wonderful person she could be. It was confusing, because he did also encourage her from time to time, telling her she could do anything, be anything, but in the next breath he’d berate her for doing something wrong when he had never shown her how to do it right. Surely that wasn’t on purpose. Surely he was never really that cruel. Surely he would have stopped if he’d ever figured it out. Surely he was not that broken. Surely he’d actually loved her, deeply and fiercely, like he was supposed to.
But love had to be earned, and she was never good enough, and so here she was. He was long dead, and she would never be able to tell him what had happened in her heart, back then.
And now she got up from the chair on the porch of the house on the dunes, and followed her feet along cool soft sand, down to the water, where the waves meet the sand, where the waves toss up all manner of shells, shells that now called to her, whole ones and broken ones alike, the brokenness of the fighting conch revealing the beautiful spiral within, exposed for the world to see.
Photos Copyright © 2018 Tunde Nemeth