Peeking around the edge of the door half hid, Char watched her mother swing around the pole in the middle of the room she used for more than just practicing. The blonde woman moved almost too slowly the circular path, fingertips alone just barely kept her posture from crumbling into a fall upon the shining floor. Both that and the music, slow and haunting, made the little girl think that her mother was sad.
“Mommy?” The tentative question was unsure of welcome in the moment as she slipped into the room. Rainbow eyes full of concern to look up at the woman who had never before seemed sad aside from when Char herself was sad first “s’ya sad?” she braved interruption, intrusion on adult concerns.
Dolores completed the turn about the pole in a way that brought her to a slow sit upon the floor facing Char, just enough time to turn attention away from regret and worry. “Juss a little, Punkin” she admitted. Holding arms out to catch the hug that poured from her daughter like sunshine from the small arms clinging about her shoulders.
“Why Mommy?” Char turned a face full of wondering concern to her mother’s glance.
Hugging her in cradling manner, her mother shook her head as she rose hand to stroke the little girl’s silvery hair “Juss thinking about sad things, that’s all. It’s juss what grownups do sometimes” She smiled down to plant a kiss on the top of Char’s head and briefly sighed. Not wanting to tell the girl that they had to move again, deciding not to tell her just yet just as she had decided a long time ago not to tell her all the reasons why they never stayed anywhere very long.
The world was far from as simple as it had been in Dolores’s youth, as it should be. She couldn’t even fully explain to the child why some people wouldn’t go outside without filtration masks and others wouldn’t go out at all. An epidemic of allergies and carcino-paranoia, all the desperate new traditions and desperate choices springing from it were things Dolores couldn’t even quite explain to herself. Least of all the desperate choices she herself had made.
Even the desperate choice of splitting up with Char’s father when his life had become convoluted in a way much more familiar to more than just her own generation. Dolores was hardly the first woman to give up on a drowning man to keep his mistakes from dragging herself and their child down. Her face took on that look of deepening sorrow all over again as she thought again about the love of her life. She hated as always that he hadn’t been able to get his life together in time to keep their family together.
Char piped “s’don’t be sad Mommy, s’gonna be all okay.”
Hearing her own words come from her daughter, Char’s mother lifted her head. Her precious disaster baby even though that was a new slur of it’s own, it carried a bittersweet ring of truth. Shaking her head as she gave her a strange smile “now that’s what *I’m* s’posed to say to you” tickling her and chuckling at least masked the weight of grownup concerns that Char should not bother about. Char squirmed from tickling fingers, laughing as her mother admonished “today’s not opp’site day silly!”
“Awww! But opp’site day’s fun!” Char complained upon giggling voice. Escaping her mother’s tickling grasp she ran across the room and back around, pretended for a moment that the pole in the middle as thin as it was was adequate to hide behind. “Less play opp’site day!” she exclaimed happily.
“All day long?” her mother couldn’t help but laugh for real at the antics, to join in as she sat up looking around suddenly shocked “where did Char go? Oh no where’s my little girl?” Leaning to crane a look behind the boom box just as unable to hide a child behind “she b’hind the radio?” Lifting it up as Char snerked stifled giggles while her mother ‘searched’ “she ain’t under it.. where is she?” Looking around again then suddenly darting forward to point smiling “I seeee you.”
“No ya don’t” Char laughed insisting “s’opposite day ’member Mommy? If’n ya do see me ya gotta say ya don’t!” sticking her tongue out at her mother even as she twirled herself about the pole and once again. Trying to toss her legs both up into the air as her mother and her dancer friends did. Though losing grip upon the pole with a diameter was too large for little hands to grasp, Char skidded flailing to flop upon the floor.
Her mother couldn’t help chuckling though she hid it behind a hand before leaning over to pick her up as she stood. Setting Char on her hip as she headed out of the room admonishing “till your hands are a little bigger you gotta ‘member, elbows and knees only for swinging Punkin.” Ruffling the silvery curls with a shake of her head “How about opposite day at the beach today?”
“S’nope!” Char shook her head emphatically and her mother laughed “no? Okay we won’t go to the beach today” though she knew it was opposite day and was not surprised though she acted it as Char turned to whisper the reminder into her ear complete with hand cupped beside her mouth “Mooooommy.. nope means yup on opp’site day.”
Chuckling her mother whispered in Char’s ear while fingers lightly tickled the little girl’s ribs “I know.. saying no beach today means yes beach today.”
Char threw her arms up cheering “YAY!” Caught herself and corrected with an “AW BOO!”
It was a warm day in the sort of way that less than a decade ago, would have seen the beach thronged with swimmers and sunbathers. But today here and now it appeared most everyone in the city had opted instead to remain enclosed with cleaner, cooler canned air. There were only half a dozen others on the beach. Several wore filter masks and one even waded fully clothed in the water; mask, bulky bio-suit and all.
Ignoring it with practiced expression and all for Char’s sake, Dolores (herself wearing a filter-mask, already liberally slathered with a supposedly chem-free sunscreen fully guaranteed 15% more hypoallergenic) and Char skipped from roasting parking lot surface, onto the barely cooler cluttered sand.
Dolores couldn’t help laughing as the little squealed “SWIMMING!” wildly swinging the pail for shells and sands on wheeling arm, excited as though she didn’t even notice the beach’s littered and long-untended state.
At least one of the people on the beach cast Dolores a disapproving glance. When Char was with her she knew plain and simple that it was condemnation of her parenting skills or lack thereof, not occupation. This time at least, it was for having a child outside without a filter mask, let alone on the cluttered beach, this close to unpurified water. If she hadn’t known what she wouldn’t tell anyone about her daughter, she would have been sorely ashamed of herself for such apparent bad parenting. Not that she would bother explaining, she couldn’t. The fact that her husband’s gambling problem had required she ditch out of the clinical trials of that In Vitro therapy also meant she didn’t want to go explaining her daughter’s resilient health or her physical defects, visible or internal, with every busybody.
Char on the other hand noticed none of it, knew none of it. Running in circles, skipping through the sand to kick up great spraying clouds of sand, she squealed and laughed. Dolores smiling behind her mask while spreading out the beach towels, careful eye out for sharper bits of garbage.
“Can I’s go’n the water Mommy? Can I’s?” Char jumped up and down just a no’s edge from whining.
Dolores laughed “here” taking the bucket from her to set it aside, and kneeling she slipped ‘floaties’ up the girl’s arms. On after the other she inflated them till they were secure around her upper arms. She stood up again and tousled the girl’s hair “s’right now you keep those on and run away from the waves.”
Following after, she stood on the wet sand just at the edge of the surf watching close and laughing at how her daughter ran, splashed, laughed and played in the shallow surf. It almost reminded her of her own childhood days at nicer, cleaner beaches.
For a moment Dolores fell lost in memories of crowded noisier beaches that had snack stands, ice cream trucks, actual lifeguards and hordes of children, people lining the surf, waiting for swells to curl, patiently bobbing halfway between shore and ocean in a loose human garland. The memory faded as she saw Char splashing waist-deep toward a wave. Back to the here and now she sighed and called “careful Char! I said Away from the waves.” Frowning when the child didn’t listen and literally threw herself into the wave, Dolores started forward into the surf herself.
Char was tossed by the wave and felt only a thrill of pure glee. It seemed a cartwheel and a slide all at the same time. Only the light constrictive bulk of the floaties and gritty swirl of sand, debris made it a shade short of completely fun. As impulsive as the thought was quick, she removed the floaties from her arms in the same manner that she had fixed the crack in the face of her favorite baby doll last week when it had fallen from the porch balcony. Just as the doll’s hard plastic had smoothed like clay2play to the rubbing of her hand, the floaties deflated and slid free.
Despite that, she found it impossible to try doing an actual cartwheel. The wave dragged her back and under instead and she felt the first twinge of panic. While Dolores was already panicking, splashing through the water trying to catch up to the tiny form tossed and dragged under, Char tried to shout, gasped in and swallowed mouthfuls of brine.
She found herself pressed by a heavy world of scratchy sharp water both around her and inside throat, lungs. Gasping in even more water and flailing arms and legs until she suddenly realized that the dizzy feeling that had been growing behind her eyes had faded long moments ago. A world of wonder dawned with the realization that her lungs didn’t even feel tight, let alone hold any trace of the burning pain that had spurred the panic.
Floating still tossed and lost in a rhythmic ebb and flow she blinked staring at the clouded water around her. In and out she breathed just as always but water rather than air. Even at her young age she knew it was something that should not be. In that timeless moment she first experienced awe. No time to understand the moment as her mother’s arms caught her up and with a splashing that ruined it all, yanked her from reverie and water.
Dolores was shaking as she staggered out of the water with Char’s body in her arms. Stricken at the limp state of her limbs she couldn’t know it was mental shock rather than physical, and nothing close to death. Falling to drop her on the sand it was only the attempt at CPR that shook a sign of life from her daughter.
Char coughed up water and seemed to choke. Dolores shaking more, tears streaming down her face as she tugged her to sit up, made her lean over and almost tried the Heimlich when Char spoke. In a strangely calm whisper on hoarse voice she said “Mommy.”
Dolores nearly broke down right there as she hugged her close and too tightly, rocking as she scolded “you Listen from now on! I say run ‘way from the waves, you run Away!” Already promising herself that she wouldn’t take Char to the beach again, ever, or at least until she was much older and had had Years of swimming lessons.
“Mommy” Char repeated, coughed up a little more water.
“It’s okay Punkin, you’re okay, you’re okay” Dolores shook her head, gave Char another squeezing hug and looked her over to make sure nothing was broken.
“Mommy,” Char looked up at her mother, could tell that she wasn’t paying attention to words right now, but she said it anyway, the only explanation that her young mind could formulate. With a voice as full of wonder and awe as the world had been a minute ago under the water, she whispered “Opp’site Day is real.”