My damp hair lies strangled on my sweaty shoulders. The air around me covers every bit of me with heat, and continues to close in on me. My hair clings and knots on my swirly tie-dyed top. It swirls along with the oranges, reds and yellows.
As we bounce up and down along the dusty gray, brown South African road, pictures of my father and sister far away bounce along with my stomach.
Suddenly the car stops, my mind begins to swirl with thoughts: Did we break down? This can’t be good.
My aunt’s smooth voice bounces out of the car with her tall dark body. The dust shines in her eyes. As she gleams in pleasure the wind pulls and pushes her, pulling her into its clutches, as if to smother her with a kiss. The dust is rising into the sky, swirling, taking away all hopes of being able to see.
“Calm down, settle back into the ground, dust,” my mom whispers to me jokingly. And then, like it knows what she said, the dust gently floats to the ground. From the dust is rising a forest of cactus, rose hips and tiny shrubs. A chorus of sighs rises in the silence. I begin to talk but my mother hushes me. “This place is nothing like the hot busy streets of New York; enjoy it while you have it,” she says.
The rose hips have tiny green stems protruding from big luscious fruits, each the size of a golf ball, the color of blood.
I stick my nose out of the car and take a sniff. I smell something salty. Something not at all like the cruddy, cigarette-butt-covered sidewalks that I always used to wake up to. This something smells like something salty, but with the same sweetness as a newly unwrapped candy. My aunt says that it is the ocean and I think that it is the love that is in this place.
We stand there against the wind, looking out onto the ocean before us. The wind dries up all the sandy sweat off our bodies, sweeping it off gently. A big gust of wind brings the gritty sand and harsh salt mist into our eyes, making them tear as we walk blinded into the sand.
When the sand finally comes out of our eyes, gray seagulls hit and dive across the sky, chasing tiny bugs. Their young sit in their nests, cawing for their mother or taking their first flight.
“Each tiny bird spreads its sticky wings and is gone, just like that,” my mother snaps, then stares into her hand as she slowly drops it into the sand.
The sun is dipping into its blue blanket, and is making the sky into a fuchsia blob.
“An ocean is a mural, of a part of a big idea, the beginning of a memory” My father used to say things like that. “Life is a canvas that goes on forever right above the water and anything can be painted on it,” and I would roll my eyes and walk away. But now I know what he meant, and I can see the paintbrush painting.
I stand in the sand, my feet slowly sinking, my mind racing with memories, then like a bullet I run splashing into the white foam, my toes numbed. Then I run crashing out of the waves and rush into my mother’s arms, burying my face in her shoulder, my knees wobbling and my feet blue. I lift my head to her ear and whisper that the water has frozen icicles in my brain. She laughs and blows in my ear.
“I am all better now,” I say.
“Good,” she says and we talk and giggle until I know she’s still a kid inside. We stand there for a second under our fuchsia sky, as pale blue clouds lazily roll through the sky, and my mother’s baked cookies smell fills the air.
I take a deep breath in and smell the sweet, salty ocean, cookies and car sweat—and the corners of the sky seem to lift and say, “I feel the same way.”
There is only one thing missing: a souvenir, something that I could paint a mural of in the sky when I got home. And then something sparkles, shining like a diamond. I run from my mother’s grasp, and into the icy water. But now I do not feel the coldness or see my feet turn blue. My mind is focused on something.
The water pulls from the sand and the something goes with it, slowly toppling over itself, and then it is gone. The water pushes towards the sand and it shines like a star. I dash for it and quickly pick it up. I rub it, shining it on my shirt as I walk back up the beach. I move it from hand to hand, massaging it, making it burn my hands. One side has a metallic glaze and the other is just a shiny black shell. The shell seems magical, as it rests in my hand, sending waves through my body.
All of a sudden a little hand reaches from behind me and snags the shell. I turn quickly to see my tiny cousin’s gold locks swiftly moving down the beach and into my aunt’s arms, her pink cheeks flushed and her little body heaving. I want so badly to scream, to run towards her and snatch the shell from her tiny fragile hands. But all I can do is cry. The hot tears stream down my face, making tiny bubbles in my eyes. I rub the tears away and run towards her.
Tiny bits of sand fly in the air behind me, making little whirlwinds. I slide across the sand arid kneel before her, pretending to be some humble servant begging for mercy. She smiles but keeps the shell locked in her hand, holding the key in her heart. My eyes are burning and I can hear the laughter of my mother cutting through the air in the distance, but nothing matters. My hand creeps into her palm and slowly pries away at the lock. The key turns and the door opens and the key is in my hand.