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Short Story: "Ocean View"

By Micaela Myers

                    As they walked out into the deep sand in front of a lifeguard tower, Kate remembered the way the sun made Michelle’s almost white-blonde hair glow. When they were kids she thought it made Michelle look like an angel. Now Michelle was nearly as pale as her hair. Kate didn’t understand how she could go from growing up in California to living in Seattle, where it was gray and rainy so much of the time. Following her man around, Michelle—the one who beat up boys when they were younger and when they were teenagers, said she would use them for her own pleasure but never get married—was now a housewife, volunteering, sewing curtains! Kate smiled and shook her head.


            “Nothing, just remembering how you said you’d never ever live in any state but California.”

            “I was a dumb kid. What did I know? I can’t believe some of the stuff I said back then! Remember how my mother said teenagers are full of nevers and alwayses?”

            “Time to start acting like our mothers?”

            “Well…” Michelle smiled. “I am pregnant.”

             “Congratulations!” They stopped walking and Kate leaned over and gave her a hug, feeling her birdlike bones. It was Kate’s automatic reaction to scream congratulations and give a hug to friends announcing pregnancy, which a lot of her friends were doing these days. But she remembered Michelle was her only friend who adamantly claimed to never want kids, even when she and Paul became engaged.

            “I thought you didn’t want kids?”

            “That was a zillion years ago. Paul and I do want kids. We’ve been trying since our honeymoon, just took awhile.”

            Michelle climbed up the lifeguard tower, which surprised Kate for some reason. It was something they’d done as teenagers when they had nothing else to do on a Friday or Saturday night. They’d sit and talk and smoke cigarettes, until a beach patrol would tell them to get down. Climbing up, Kate watched Michelle, trying to detect a look of pregnancy, but there was nothing, no rounding of the belly, just the same old skinny Michelle. They sat down side-by-side, legs dangling over.

            “How far along are you?”

            “Only a few weeks. We’re not supposed to tell anyone till three months, but I couldn’t resist.”

            Kate smiled, knowing it shouldn’t surprise her. Michelle had done a 180 from who she was as a child and teenager, but of course, just about everybody does—Michelle’s mother was right about that one. They both stared at the ocean for a while. No one was swimming. The water was too polluted, too close to the shipping docks, offshore oil rigs, and who knew what else. Mostly people just walked, jogged, roller-bladed, biked along the path. A few people straggled along close to the water or ventured wading.

            “When are you going to start on those ten kids you always wanted?”

            Kate shook her head and leaned back, feeling the rough grip of the tower floor dig into her palm. “I’m not sure we’re going to have kids.”

            “Greg doesn’t want them?” Michelle turned from the beach to face Kate.

            She knew Michelle would think it was Greg. Michelle had never been sure of him, for some mysterious reason Kate couldn’t figure out. It wasn’t blatant, but still there. “No, he wants them. I’m just not sure I should.”

            “Why? You’ve always wanted a ton of kids.” Michelle pulled her legs up to face Kate with her entire body. “I remember all that babysitting you did. I would have none of it. If it weren’t for my friends in Seattle, I wouldn’t even know how to change a diaper! But come on, you’ve always loved kids. You’re a school counselor for Christ sakes, it’s perfect!”

            “I know. But I don’t want to quit my job. I’d go crazy at home. I mean, I admire the people who do it, but I just couldn’t.” Kate had always thought it was weird when she met teachers who didn’t have kids, thinking if they liked kids enough to work with them, they’d surely have their own, but now she was beginning to understand. It wasn’t something that could be easily explained to Michelle though, and it wasn’t the only thing.

            “So, most mothers work nowadays. That’s what daycare’s for, or you could find a mother that does in-home care, work part time, there are lots of ways to balance it.”

            Michelle’s brows were scrunched together, her forehead wrinkling. Kate laughed. Just as alcoholics like company in their drinking, friends like company having kids.

            “What?” Michelle said.

            “You’re just getting all worked up!”

            “Because you’ve always wanted kids. You’d be a great mother.”

            “That was when I was full of alwayses and nevers.” Kate couldn’t believe she was agreeing with, let along quoting, Michelle’s know-it-all mother.

            “Come on,” Michelle said. “This is different, you know more about kids than anyone I know.” Michelle looked like she was going to say something more, but stopped to watch three boys slowly walking down the beach toward them, kicking water up at each other and hitting the water with sticks. They looked about seven or eight.

            “It’s good to see kids can still take a walk safely these days,” Michelle said. “It seems like most parents won’t allow it anymore. I hope I won’t be overprotective.”

            “You’ll be exactly perfect,” Kate said. “And, you know, I do want kids. It’s hard to explain. I just don’t think I should.”

            “What do you mean should? Are you OK? Is everything all right, health-wise?” The sun was behind Kate a bit now and Michelle squinted at her.

            “No, it’s not that. I’m fine. It’s just the world I’d be bringing them into that bothers me. Daycares aren’t very good. I don’t like most of the parents I see, and the kids—they’ve got so many problems. I don’t know if I want my child in school with them. I know that sounds awful. It’s just such a mess."

            Michelle had stopped looking at Kate; they both just watched the waves and the three boys slapping the water with their sticks, walking a few inches in, backtracking, then continuing down the beach toward them. The beach was mesmerizing, like campfires at Girl Scout camp when they were kids. It was getting hot though. The sun was strong, and Kate squinted and wished for some shade. She hadn’t put sunscreen on her legs and could almost feel them baking. She knew she couldn’t explain her reasoning to Michelle, she couldn’t explain it to Greg either, and she’d spent many nights trying.

            “You’re thinking like that because you’re a counselor,” Michelle said. “You see the kids who need help. But that’s not how most kids are.”

            “I’m not just talking about my job. I’m talking about the kids I see at the grocery store, the movie theater, everywhere. The way they act, the way their parents treat them. I don’t like any of it, and everything that’s going on in the world, all of it. I mean, I’m not trying to make you feel bad. I’m really glad you’re having a baby. I know you and Paul will be great parents. We need kids like yours to help balance out all the kids with major problems, with bad families.” Kate paused a moment, “I’m not saying this right. I just mean, for me, I’m not sure.” She looked over at Michelle, but Michelle didn’t turn to her.

            “I’m sorry,” Kate said. “You’ll be really good. You’ll be like the one or two parents who come in each year because they’re worried their kids aren’t organizing their assignments well or making the honor roll, as opposed to the majority who don’t give a shit what their kids are doing.”

    “Man. Maybe you need to get out of your profession,” Michelle said.

                    Kate laughed.

            “I’m serious. I think you need to get some perspective. That’s not how the world is. The school district you work in isn’t the best. Most parents are good parents; most kids are fine.”

    “Well, I know you’ll be great. You’ll be a wonderful mother.” Kate remembered the brick and stone houses on large plots of land in Michelle’s neighborhood—the tall glass school with a state-of-the-art computer wing that Paul had told Kate about as they’d driven past. She didn’t know whether there was truth to what Michelle said. When she did her college internship in a wealthy area, things weren’t quite as bad in some ways, but the kids were just as vicious to each other, if not more so, and some of the parents were equally cruel and neglectful, just maybe in different ways. She thought that even if she’d stayed there and never come to work in the mixed income, mixed race school she was working in now, after this many years she might still feel the same.

            The boys were nearly in front of the lifeguard tower now. They were sword fighting, waving their sticks dangerously close to each other’s eyes.

            “Maybe you’ll change your mind in a few years,” Michelle said as she watched the boys.

            “Maybe,” Kate said “I’ll probably regret it.” Regretting not having kids while she still could was Kate’s biggest reason to have a child. She knew she’d always regret all it meant missing out on. But wanting to see a piece of you running around seemed a selfish reason to have a child.

            “It’s a part of life I wouldn’t want to miss,” Michelle said.

            “I know. Sometimes I see the women that didn’t have children, and I think there’s something hard about them. Maybe having kids gives us something we need. Like all those Romanian babies rocking themselves alone in their cribs. Maybe there’s something we’re left without as well. You know, some kind of internal rocking.” Kate smiled and looked over at Michelle, but she was looking away.

            “Are you and Greg doing all right? Are you happy?”

            Kate sighed—back to Greg again. “We’re very happy. It’s really not about Greg. I actually feel a bit bad about depriving him of fatherhood.”

            Michelle didn’t say anything more, but she shook her head and the muscles around her mouth tightened, the way her mother’s always had. This made them look a bit alike, but Michelle’s expression softened as she watched the boys holding their sticks out for one another to jump over.            

    Kate decided to change the subject and asked Michelle where she was volunteering these days. Volunteering, like a desire for children, showed up later in life for Michelle, who had never bothered with the activist clubs in high school, as Kate had.

            “At the Cancer Society. I’m answering phones, recording donations. It’s not that interesting, but it feels good, the numbers adding up. It seems like with enough money we can really do something.”

            “That’s great.” Kate shifted, trying to get her legs out of the sun and think of what else to say. “It’s getting pretty warm, want to go find a bite to eat?”

            “In a minute, I’m enjoying the sun.”

            Michelle smiled and Kate was glad they’d moved on. It had always been hard to make up with Michelle after an argument, and even though it hadn’t really been an argument, she didn’t want it to ruin Michelle’s short visit.

            The boys stopped almost straight out from the tower and were standing looking down at something. They took their sticks and began poking at a black glob near the water. Kate thought it might be a bunch of seaweed, but when the boys picked it up, it had legs. The biggest boy, about the same height as the other two but heavier, had shoved his stick under its midsection and hoisted it a few inches off the ground. The other two boys stuck their sticks under it as well; then all three pulled up, and the animal flipped up and over, landing back in the sand. All three boys began poking it, then hitting it with their sticks.

            “God, tell me that’s not a cat,” Kate said.

            Michelle was watching also. “No,” she said, shading her eyes. “No.”

            The boys were beating it harder. Kate wondered if they were trying to break its skin open. As they dragged and flipped it closer to the lifeguard station, Kate could tell it was definitely a dead black cat.

            “Let’s just go,” Kate said.

            “No. This is disgusting. It could be diseased. I’m going to tell them to leave it alone. We should throw it away.”

            Kate remembered running to her parents whenever they found a dead animal, making them bury it and have a funeral service. Michelle climbed down from the lifeguard tower and walked toward the boys. Kate followed her but stayed behind as Michelle reached them. Kate didn’t want to get close to the cat.

            “Boys,” Michelle said, real friendly. “That cat could have rabies. You shouldn’t touch dead animals.”

            The heavy boy looked down at the cat, poked it with his toe and smiled at Michelle. “We can do whatever we want to, lady,” he said. “It’s our cat. We found it.”

            Michelle moved back a little and put her hands on her hips. “You need to learn some manners. That’s no way to speak to adults.”

            “Besa mi culo,” he said, and his friends laughed. “Puta.”

            “He’s not saying very nice words to you,” one of the other boys said. All three laughed, and the big one poked the tip of his stick into the cat’s bloated stomach.

            Kate recognized the words as curse words, but couldn’t remember their meaning. “Michelle,” she said, “Let’s go get lunch and let these little brats get rabies on their own.” Kate wasn’t afraid to call them brats; they weren’t clients sitting in her office. She only wished she could call them worse, but what good would it do?

            The boys laughed as they walked away, and Kate could hear the thunking of their sticks as they hit the cat.

            As they walked back the way they’d come Michelle held her stomach. “I think I’m going to throw up.” She got down on her knees near the foot of the lifeguard tower.

            Kate moved over and gathered Michelle’s hair to keep it out of her face.

            “No, don’t.” Michelle pulled her hair away and motioned Kate back.

    Kate turned and looked down at the beach, but the boys were still there. She could hear Michelle throwing up and stepped further away. She looked up at the sand banks, where cars trailed past on the road above, a crowded McDonald’s behind the cars, and behind that, rows and rows of houses—people willing to pay anything for a glimpse of the ocean.

“Ocean View” was originally published in the spring 2004 issue of Paper Street