We lived in the constrictive belt of bible-thumpers, but I always wanted my life to unfurl like a beach read. The kind of life that conjures a certain ephemeral pleasure, baked between sand and sun, the crashing waves far enough away so their fatal danger only registers as ambiance.
I wanted and dreamed—there are no real beaches in Kansas, so it was in dreams I came closest to the sand that spread into an endless ocean full of salt, the mineral I craved. Dreams made of old sepia-stained pictures of my mother and grandmother on beaches in Mexico when I was a baby, when we lived there with my father. This was before my mother took me and hightailed it back to Kansas, secretly pregnant with Marcella. My father had beaten her into the emergency room many times over the years, so I suppose she saw her chance and took it. She left our sister, Isabella, six years old, with our grandparents who couldn’t speak English.
“Mom will be right back,” she lied to her.
I think if I keep telling you about Cherryvale, that tiny Southeast Kansas town, maybe it will solidify in me. No matter which angle I approach it, it’s all blurs and burnt-film static. Buried in a valley in the spleen of Montgomery County, which was the meth capital of Kansas when my mother moved us there to be with my stepfather, Dick, in 1993, Cherryvale was the dilapidated gateway to Big Hill Lake.
There were no waves or sharks, but I still feared the brown murkwater of Big Hill. I imagined the non-existent lake monsters lurking below the surface, bolstered by fears of real animals I knew lived there—the fanged gar, the giant catfish, alligator snapping turtles with heads three times the size of a human’s. Fearing death in the water does not stop it. The best safeguard is to stay ashore.
Sand to a native Kansan is always artificial—a commodity that had to be shipped in bags, poured over the rock slabs comprising the tectonic-like undermakings of the part of the man-made lake we called a beach, the small and shrinking patch of sand surrounded by tall grasses. Even the saddest, fakest of beaches offer meager opportunities for escape.
That’s what beach reads offer too—an escape. Through translucent prose, they are often written for the type of person who devours books like cheap chocolate, or who only reads on vacation. Isn’t the writing usually, luckily, full of uncomplicated imagery? The drama is mellow, risk-free, enabling the reader to indulge in escapist impulses and fantasies. Beach reads indicate a kind of life that could be joyous, weightless—sexily disposable, unlike my own gutted and decomposing existence.
When Marcella and I finally found our family in Mexico after thirty years, we sat with them on a natural beach in Tampico—a beach for Mexican tourists, no gringos in sight. I watched the peddlers hobble by in the curling heat—they politely asked if you wanted to buy something (plastic beach toys, desserts, crocheted headbands and bracelets, shirts piled high and draped mountainously over their shoulders). Each time, Isabella stopped our conversation to tell them, “No, thank you.” I was coming from New York, where I had trained myself to defensively ignore all who approached me, eyes wide but averted.
An old woman who had passed several times, each occasion asking again if we wanted to buy something, didn’t leave after we declined her the last time. Isabella continued to talk to us, in English that had been broken by years of our mother’s abandonment, because English was the only thing Marcella and I understood. The woman, smiling, leaned against the back of an empty adirondack chair and wiped her brow.
“We said, ‘no thank you,’” Marcella told her, and the woman looked at her and hesitantly nodded, but did not move.
Isabella kept talking, increasingly casting her gaze on the old woman who wouldn’t leave, until she told her yet again that though we appreciated her asking, we would not be purchasing anything. I thought of the homeless old woman at a Starbucks in New York who asked me for money. I gave her the change from my pocket, and from her palm she picked out the pennies with her lips and spit them in my face.
This old woman spoke to Isabella in Spanish, and Isabella laughed, told us she was asking if we minded if she listened for a bit longer, because though she didn’t understand, she thought English was so beautiful and rarely got to hear it in person.
Marcella bought one of the headbands from the old woman, tied it on.
“I’ve always wanted something like this,” she said.
I’m a nerve, rawed—my friend jokes that she doesn’t appreciate my negative energy and I have a small, tearful disintegration at her tired kitchen table.
I’d come to stay the weekend with her to get out of New York, a city haunted in the fall. I told her I was afraid I was only negative energy—a violent, rageful energy since birth. I feared people would discover this truth unequivocally. I told her how Marcella hadn’t forgiven me for our childhood together, when I had stepped in for both our mother and father, but did so much damage in the process.
I felt guilty because the very act of confiding in my friend smacked like a judgment—of course I could tell her anything, because how could someone so wretched judge me? There was a comfort in surrounding myself with people whose problems were so bulbous and leaking.
I did not know how to ask for help without also insisting I was not in abject need of it. The ask lies entombed in its own denial. My friend said self-love and self-forgiveness were essentially the same thing. And yet, for people like us, to love oneself feels violent in its radicalism. Everywhere we look, some blade of the world tells us to press ourselves into it until we bleed out. To deny this beckoning to give up, to disappear, to unbecome ourselves, is to fight.
Through the window we see an elderly couple walking down the street—the woman reminds us each of our mothers, but the man is a blur who never comes into focus in the story. A failure of memory. For, while the window to the authentic self is available—we knew though it consoled, it distracted. The man doesn’t matter, because he could be any man. He’s not specific to any one tragedy, but an embodiment of all of it.
Isabella, Marcella, and I are on a balcony in Mexico talking about our mother—we invoke different versions of the missing woman. It’s raining, and the power’s been knocked out.
“Does this happen often?” I ask.
“Only when it rains,” she says, swatting away a horsefly. “I hope they fix it today. Sometimes, it is out for days.”
Isabella remembers our mother before she left Mexico. The beautiful woman who was mistaken for a famous singer at the airport when she first landed in Mexico, bombarded by young girls asking for her autograph in Spanish.
“They just think you’re hermosa,” our grandmother had said and winked.
I remember mom after. Toothless and screaming, banging her head on my door frame because I’d stolen all her pills and hidden them. Her posture is hunched with the weight of her aberrant, consuming tethers. I do not tell Isabella about this—moral confusion hurts, but the pain was the pain of eternity and not to be made too much of.
Marcella smokes a cigarette, and I am unsure which mother she sees, if she sees anything at all, because she’s quiet, reddened, tired eyes peering out into the rain.
A beach read is all about what happens next, because you know there is a next. Because nothing is so dire you fear a violent end. You’ll be the one to end it—you have that power. The most avid beach-readers who give themselves over to a first page, are they not all delivered to a beach? Though, while they are living and reading, a part of them, too, slips away to the cemetery.
The stain of place hangs on not as a birthmark, but a battle wound. In Cherryvale something intense was always happening: improvisation, surprise, suspense, molestation, injustice, manipulation, desertion, secret drinking, depression, lying, crying, hiding bottles and pipes, arriving from Mexico in the middle of the night.
I’m teenaged and at His Youth Connection—by way of the Assembly of God church, and a man is trying to save us without our consent. After watching a religious cartoon and eating deep-fried snacks (the real reason we went to youth group), the man told us to repeat after him—realize the sin, repent, accept Jesus Christ into the heart. It wasn’t until he was nearly finished that I realized what he was doing. I’d heard from my Catholic cousins this is how the protestants converted you, regardless of your will.
I asked the man about the Holy Trinity—how can something be three separate entities and singular simultaneously? Always, all my life, I have been looking for answers from a man, though a man will tell me I’m wrong even when he is unsure. This is life. A woman will absolutely know what is correct but still soften and discredit her knowledge if she gives it at all. This is survival. Telling a story is control—do I not want you to ache like I ache?
Still at her kitchen table, my friend tells me how she’s averse to negative talk, pessimism, etc. because it casts doubt on hope, that to voice your fear gives it power. While I considered this, I wondered if my worldview was the opposite—I habitually voice my fears, or at least imagine them in great detail, because I believe that naming them prevents them from blindsiding me. When crossing the street, I envision the flash of a car slamming into me, knocking by body to the ground and shattering my skull on the pavement. But in imagining this scenario, it’s as if I’ve warded against the possibility. My rationale: how many people are hit by cars when they’re thinking about being hit by cars?
I worry that my negative thinking veers into obsession, that I am inviting more negativity into my life by having constant ideations of it. But these thoughts become talismans—the only way to keep the fear at bay, preventing it from manifesting in the physical world. The hope is to never be caught off guard, to be fluent in the language of tragedy.
Even in Cherryvale, mom used to be able to dream within its dried cornstalk borders. There was a two-story farmhouse right outside of town, abandoned on land forgotten and overgrown—neglected but not beyond salvation. When we drove by, she’d pull the car to the side of the road. The house sat a quarter of a mile back, shaded by angry trees. She talked about her plan for us to move there. She and Dick would quit drinking (they were still only drinking at this time). He’d be a ranch hand to whoever owned the property. We’d restore the house, each have our own bedrooms, take the bus into town for school.
Instead, Dick got a job with the city as a trashman. Garbage, decay, and drunken resentment piled up around the collapsing brick house we lived in. The heavy heat of July blurred the treelines below a clean blue sky, exhausted and sharp. Already the summer seemed to be passing away.
Somewhere in Mexico, there is another Oscar Cuevas. Of course, there is my father, and my grandfather, but the Oscar Cuevas I’m talking about is different, of no blood relation. He’s not as tall as I am and he doesn’t have red hair, but he’s beautiful, though his face is unclear to me. I think about him frequently, and wonder if he thinks about me. I don’t know if he speaks English—yet another reason I should practice my Spanish. It seems our meeting and free-fall into love is as inevitable and hard-to-parse as our names written over each other. I do not have a middle name, but he does—I must find out what it is.
I looked for him on the beaches, supernaturally sure I would know him when I saw him. I want to be him and inside of him at the same time. He travels, wears linen shorts, is surrounded by friends who are always drinking but never the sad drunks I grew up with. Smiling and dancing, there is so much dancing in his life—uninhibited, rhythmic movement that isn’t belabored with the need to exorcise a trauma, but is merely a constant way of being. His life is the balance of carefree and cared-for that I think about while I read on the beach, my skin burning. Tocayo—how can he have so much of what I lack so naturally?