"I am good when I'm with you."
-- Cammie McGovern, Say What You Will
I was eight when I first saw what the ocean really looked like. I could still feel the salty air on my nostrils as my family drove through the freeways of San Marco, Florida and all I saw was this wide, wide strip of blue stretching out into the horizon. In my excitement, I hoisted myself up the window and shot my head out, letting the strong sea breeze pull my frizzy blonde hair away from my face.
“Shay, get your head inside the car right now!” my mother barked from where she sat at the backseat, her eyes admonishing me. But I was to happy to even listen to her. A small bubble of laughter gurgled from my throat as I continued to feel the wind whipping upon my face. I stuck my tongue out, eager to taste the salty air.
We passed by a rusty truck and the driver gave me a weird look as he whizzed past us. I guess he hasn't seen a girl sticking her tongue out, wanting to taste the sea-salt air. When I've had my fill, I pulled back into the car. My father gave me a sharp look, my sister rolled her eyes at me and my brother just gave me one of those pitying looks he always gave to me whenever I couldn't do something right.
But I was too giddy to be brought down by my family's hard, disapproving stares. I thought that true love felt like this, like when you're just so happy and the world would never make sense. Well, for me, at that moment, only I and the sea made sense. Ever since then, the sea and I have gone hand in hand.
Every year since I was eight, my family and I have made it a tradition to always go down to San Marco every summer, and I would fling myself down to the beach for as long as I would like. I would get a tan, and I would spend my days underwater, rather than spending my days on the land and seeing the sights.
My family was different, though. If my family were the valiant knights and lovely people of a kingdom, I would be the capricious vagabond who would constantly cause mischief amongst the men. I would be the jester whom the family would shun and never want to know about – or let other people know about either.
My family was an excellent line of waiters. My bigger brother Jon would wait for years just so he can get into a prestigious medical school. He even once waited for a girl who traveled half of the world and never came back for him. I guess he was still waiting until now. He would be sitting in his den, and his thoughts would be on her, his wife out with friends for drinks, his children fast asleep.
My older sister Nicole would wait for hours just so she could get out of her apartment with a decent make-up. She would wait in line just to get to a Broadway musical. My sister would even wait for forever, as long as at the end, she would get a fat bank account or a powerful asset to her career.
Even my mother would wait. She would wait for my father. Everyday, she would wait by the living room for him to come home from work. Then, she would take off his coat, hang it on the coat rack and proceed to the kitchen to make my father some tea lined with scotch. My father would wait for my mother in the den, where he would sip the tea and read the evening news.
A few days ago, my brother and my sister arrived home for our annual vacation to San Marco. My sister came with her boyfriend of the month, and my brother had his family in tow. When they were with us, it only made things ten times worse. My family would compliment Nicole and Jon countless of times, while I would be left in the corner, watching them like I was some sort of an outcast. My father, mother, brother and sister would be laughing, but I would be excluded – because I was different, because I did not know how to wait.
My whole family was intent upon waiting. Indeed, my family had waited so that they could be called prestigious and respectable. The entire Garret family's existence revolved in their reputation. It was a thought that was too hard for me to grasp, apparently. As we readied our trunks for the vacation, I knew that this family vacation would be just like all the others – countless cocktail parties, dinners and lunches with people I've never even met and I would never met again, people who would pretend to like me and people whom I pretend to like. Nothing would ever change. Nothing would be different.
My sister would give me some perfume, buy me dresses. It would be a desperate attempt for me to smell and look like a girl as we would take a stroll on the beaches of San Marco. My brother would kiss me on the cheek, and that would be just about the only sincere thing he could do for me. His wife would air-kiss me on the cheek, and act too pleased to see me when in truth she couldn't stand to be in the same room as me. My sister's boyfriend would ruffle my hair with some sort of respectful disgust, ask me how I was doing and that's just about it. He would not even know what happened to me for the last two months.
And just like any other year, I knew that I would hurry up into my hotel room, only to stay out when I wanted to be on the sea. I would constantly write down all the things I hate about my family, and wish upon stars that I would have another family and imagine the things that I would like to have if I had one.
I've always loved writing. I would constantly write about the way my mother's disapproving eyes would bore down on my whole being when she would look at my beret when I head off to boarding school every September. I would constantly write about how my father would admonish in the morning when I would slouch as I eat my breakfast. I would constantly write about how neat and controlled and uptight my siblings were. I would write about the way how my family would pose for photos, how would they pile up on a thousand-dollar couch and smile at the camera like they were paid in gold, and I would be left to stare, slouch, or probably go cross-eyed as the camera would snap.
When I was in boarding school, I've always worked with the drama club. I joined the said club because I get to perform and pretend that I was another person. Being another person meant smiling all I could to me. I also got to smile all as bright as I could.
When I finished boarding school, I decided not to go to college. It was a decision that my family has never really learned to accept, not even until now. Though the hadn't taken this lightly, they've learned to back off after I got a job. But that did not mean that they would not remind me every dinner time that it was such a shame I didn't want to go to college and if ever I want to get somewhere, I would have to go to college and earn a degree.
I kind of got my job by accident. I was walking down and up the roads of Rosewood, Ohio when it started to rain. The quiet drizzle turned into a torrent, and I was practically running when I heard a small whimper coming from the twirling roots of an oak tree. Under the roots of the said tree, I found three malamute pups, shivering and cold in the rain. I put them on a box that was strewn beside the pups, and started to carry them home.
I had half of a heart to throw the pups away, because I knew that my mother would really have a fit if she ever found out of what I've done. I knew that if I brought the pups home, my parents would just tell me to drown them in the lake. Luckily, I met Patti Corwin, a spinster around the age of fifty. She was heading back to her ancient bookshop after she was out picking her lunch from the local deli. And she had gasped the same way I did when I first saw those pups.
Soaked and shivering, Patti brought me to her bookshop situated on the other side of town. For hours, the two of us dried up the pups and Patti lent me some of her old clothes. She hadn't bothered to call the vet, either. Judging from the way she had ruffled the pups with such certainty, I knew that she had done these kinds of things before. I heated some milk for the pups, and even though neither of us knew whether they could drink it or not, we decided to risk it anyway.
When they drank the warm milk, I've never felt more significant in my life.
Ever since that afternoon, I've spent my waking moments with Patti and the dogs in her bookshop. I got the dogs opening their eyes, I got them standing up to their feet. I've spent afternoons playing tag with them and running with them. It actually didn't take too many days before Patti had offered me the job in the bookshop.
I felt like I hit the jackpot. I spent all my days working with books, selling behind the counter and sometimes, pitching story-lines to the customers. I've had the dogs, whom I named Rusty, Cole and Todd. Rusty had a red-fox coat, making him look like he was covered in rust, that's why I called him Rusty. He usually stays indoors, sleeps and mostly just stays staring out into space. Cole was the biggest and the most intelligent of the three. He had a golden coat, with a red streak across his back. Todd was the smallest of them, and he had paler red coat like Rusty's, but his fur had white streaks.
The first time Patti told me that Rusty could be my very own dog, I was too happy I could feel the tears pricking the sides of my eyes. I knelt down and nuzzled Rusty's red coat, soaking him with my happy tears.
However, after all the fun that I'd get at the bookshop, I always had to come home to nothing. I did not mean the nothing that I had no home, no food, no shelter. I meant nothing as in no one would be there to meet me, no one would be cooking dinner for me, no cooked dinner waiting for me in the microwave. I had to come home to the stench of emptiness, with no one to ask me how my day had been. I was forced to learn independence during those times.
But from an outsider's eye, I knew long ago that the house I grew up in was nothing short of perfect.
It was always the same thing when I come home from boarding school, too. When I was a teenager, my parents sent me into an all-girls boarding school in Philadelphia. When I had to go home, it was never the same level of excitement from those of the other girls in my school. My journey home would be deathly silent, the car ride would be boring and my parents would prefer not to talk to me. I would imagine the things I would do when I was in the house, like hug my brother and sister, cook with my mother, play chess with my father. O would tell myself that I would bask in the ambiance of togetherness in the house, but instead I would end up spending my days cooped up in my room because those things never worked.
It never did.
I would be in my room before my father would even come home from work. I would lie on the bed for days and back then, it never felt abnormal or strange or even remotely wrong. I would stay underneath my duvet and just kept on thinking. Mostly, my thoughts would go to a young girl who went also to the same school I went to.
Her name was Carrie and she would constantly think about elephants. She would constantly wonder about the elephants and she would always want to see them. She had always dreamed of embarking into an adventure but she never had the chance to because she was too late, too late.
Pretty soon, I realized that I had been thinking about elephants, too. I found myself thinking about Carrie and the elephants. I never really talked to Carrie during my time at Jane Addams Academy for Girls. But I knew that she was just like me. She was fascinating, but easily forgettable. She had many people who knew her, but she had no friends.
As I would lie on my bed, I would constantly think about her and how I was just like her. I would find myself thinking about her, regardless of the time of day or whatever I was thinking about before.
I wondered if she had a home just like mine, or she had dog just like I did, maybe a malamute like Rusty. I was even wondering about her when I went home one night and I was still wondering about her when I stood in front of my stained mirror as I pulled the knots of my messy blonde hair.
And I kept on wondering because I knew that Carrie was somewhere miles away from where I was, lying on a hospital bed. I knew that Carrie had a wire through her chest, just so she could keep on living. I knew that she was being force-fed through an IV drip, because her mouth wouldn't open to anything.
Again and again, I knew that I was just like her.
Just. Like. Her.
As I looked at my reflection in the mirror, I did not see myself there. Instead, all I could see was Carrie. Carrie, and everything Carrie. I had become exactly like Carrie.
All bones and britches and blood and broken wrists.
The doctors said it was the lack of serotonin and endorphin hormones in my brain. Was it? I wasn't so sure. My parents stood huddled at the foot of my bed, looking at me as if I was some sort of an absolute joke. They would look at me like I was not the girl who won them the National Dance Competition for three consecutive years ever since I was nine.
When I was thirteen, I moved to the more intermediate classes and by the time I turned sixteen, I've won more than cups I could count. I had to leave school for a weeks because I had to join a competition. My teachers were pretty much supportive at my endeavors. They even said that I was certainly on my way to becoming a champion. I believed them, and I've held on to that belief until I had realized that I had a life outside the stage, outside my school and that life included my home and my family.
And then sadness and fear hit me like a freight train when I actually saw how dysfunctional my family was.
I was to scared and too sad to even figure out what exactly I was about to do. If it wasn't for Rusty, I knew that nothing would have been possible. I couldn't even go downstairs and make a sandwich without being shot with bullets of hostility.
That's how I ended up in a hospital bed late that August. When I looked back to all those times, it was too easy to see it all coming to this. It was so easy to figure out how it boiled down to me lying on a hospital bed. And the guilt that came with it was like a huge thundercloud that rained down on me. It was easy for me to succumb to the feeling of guilt when I was surrounded by death wishes and despaired people.
And it was not hard not to fall into that great spiral of sadness, too. The doctors told us that it was depression and anorexia. I could not get it though, because I've always believed that I was good. I've always believed that I was better than my family. I was better, happier, more free.
But now I was being released.
Although it was temporary. I was released to go to my family's annual vacation. Sure, it hurt when my mother rolled her eyes and my father had to buy me another seat, sighing on the phone about the inconvenience I've caused, I couldn't help but be excited about the vacation to San Marco. I couldn't wait to get out of my hospital bedsheets and bury myself into those familiar Caribbean ones. I couldn't wait to stop inhaling this medicine-smelling hospital air and start breathing that familiar salty breeze from the sea.
As I sat on the coach of the plane while my family sat first class, I looked out into the window and wondered if maybe, just maybe this was really a good idea. Maybe this was the new tomorrow I was desperately looking for. Maybe, just maybe. I looked out to the horizon and saw the sunrise through the rolling clouds as our plane passed through the skies.
But then, on second thoughts, I wondered. It could be another sunset, followed by the darkness that I was trying so hard to escape.
The thing about San Marco was that we would always come back. So when my family got out of the shuttle van that met us on the airport, I felt that same feeling of familiarity rush through my veins. It was as if I had come home, almost.
There were several reasons why we would always spend the summer in San Marco. My father was keen on familiarity and it would actually give my mother time to leave us behind so she could go to spas and treatments all day. My brother, ever the good child that he was, he would go along with just about anything my parents would say and my sister wouldn't turn down a free vacation.
By the time we arrived in our booked villa in San Marco, it was already afternoon. My mother went straight to the spa so she could have her welcome massage and my father went out to buy groceries along with my brother tagging along him like an obedient puppy. His wife had put the children to bed, reasoning out that they were tired after the long flight and they could rest while she would drink beside the infinity pool that we have in the villa's backyard. My sister unpacked her things, as well as her boyfriend's, while her boyfriend sat on the edge of their bed, just watching her and looking incredibly bored.
I knew that my doctor had told my family that I shouldn't be left on my own, but I knew that my family had chosen to ignore that warning. With nothing to actually do, I donned on the black bikini that did not fit me anymore. Tossing an overlarge shirt over my shoulders and slipping onto rubber flip-flops, I headed to the familiar beach.
The warm summer sun felt good on my bare skin. There were a lot of people milling about the beaches, and few have given me appalled and shocked looks as to how thin my limbs were, or why there were bandages on both of my wrists. But even their looks could not contend on how beautiful the sea that was beckoning me and frankly, I couldn't really care. The sea was calling me, like a long-lost lover.
My short walks managed to break into a stride, and I only stopped when I felt the saltwater taste my ankles as I reached the waterline. I closed my eyes, letting the warm sun crawl into my skin and I stuck my tongue out, on the very same fashion that I did when I first saw the ocean. The salt-sea air felt good on my tongue. I've never felt this happy before – never more alive.
I managed to stay that way for longer than intended. The sun had slowly sunk down the mountains, and the breeze grew colder. I decided to go for a walk along the coast. With wet, white sand sticking on my legs, I made my way down the strip of sand where the sea met the land. I met several more people who stared at my bandages, but there were also a few people that exchanged a few respectful smiles with me.
I saw a couple of teenagers sitting on the distant wooden dock, with one of them playing a guitar and all of them singing to the tune of his guitar. I watched them from a distance, being one who did not really prefer to start off the conversations. They caught me looking and waved at me. In my embarrassment, I turned on my heel and went off to the direction of our villa.
The thing was, I never really went home to the villa. Instead, I went on to spend the night with one of those cottages on top of the granite cliffs overlooking the ocean on the northern side of the resort. It was practically a better place compared to the villa that made me feel so constricted and uncomfortable.
The rising sun felt a bit better on my skin, though I felt that half of my body was numb from the cold the night had caused. I stepped out from the cottage, and my eyes instantly squinted at the glare of the rising sun that reflected from the water. I greeted the morning sun and the great of expanse of sea before me.
“Miss Garret!” a familiar voice with a thick accent tore through the quiet morning stillness. It was one of the Latin employees whose face and name I remembered during the twelve years my family had been going and coming here. “How have you been? Your father is worried. You spent all night in beach,” she asked exuberantly in her heavy, thick Mexican accent. There was the evident rolling of the 'r' as she spoke.
I only smiled at her in reply. Libby, that was her name, took a few more strides and clasped me on the shoulders. She took in my face and assessed my body's state.
“You look like a stick-man,” she observed. I took note of how her disapproving looks raked through my thin frame. She held up my hand and forced a smile. “I call you shuttle,” she said and sauntered away from me. She might have expected me to follow, because she paused a few steps after she realized that I wasn't following her after all.
Her brows quirked in that funny, motherly way that I would always remember her for. I let out a dry chuckle. “I'll stay here for a while, Libby. And watch the sunrise.”
“Fine,” she rolled her eyes, but she gave out a warm smile. “I get you towel, Miss Garret,” she walked over to one of the rectangular wicker baskets she brought with her. She came back with a thick, cotton towel and she flung the white cloth over my shoulders. I smiled in appreciation, even though I felt the chill on my legs and not on my shoulders.
She smiled again before leaving me to watch the sunrise. I went towards the edge of the cliff, where they resort had set up some sort of railing made out of black wood. I leaned on the rails and sighed, letting the warmth seep in through my pores. I stayed on the beach for a few more hours, walking on the shoreline. People were starting to fill the beach. Some of them were having their morning runs, the other were sunbathing early.
Then, I heard something that sent jolts through my system. It was the pure sound of laughter, the sound I had forgotten to elicit these past few months. It was pure, unadulterated laughter. It was not the mischievous one, let alone the sinister or the sarcastic. It was just plain, pure laughter. I whipped my head towards the direction of the lucky person who got to feel so much joy.
It came from a tanned, teenage girl wearing a white, two-piece bikini. She was standing in the water, and the water came about halfway to her trim waistline. Her hair was jet-black, and her skin was a deep, gold color against the rising sun. It was the deep color of rich, expensive brandy. I silently watched her from a distance.
Pretty soon, all I could ever think was how pretty and how happy and contented she looked and seemed to be. She looked so proud and in awe that all I could hear in my head was the chanting of the word 'Brandy'. It seemed to be put on loop because my mind kept on repeating it like a very old vinyl record. That was then when I nicknamed her Brandy.
A smaller girl's head bobbed right in front of Brandy and she cackled another fit of laughter. She lovingly drew the smaller girl closer to her and wiped her face. I could practically hear the younger girl screech in glee.
“It's so awesome!” the little girl gushed out as she opened her palms towards Brandy. Brandy smiled lovingly, proudly and widely at whatever the small girl had shown her. Even from the distance where I was watching them, I was certain that the small girl and Brandy were sisters. One could spot the resemblance from far away. They both had tanned skin, and they both had dark, jet-black hair. And they both have the same smile – genuine and blissful and infectious.
“It is awesome,” Brandy agreed. I couldn't help but notice her accent. It was American.
I let out a shaky breath as I watched them. I guess there were so many people around us, but I wasn't really watching or focusing at them. I just wanted to watch Brandy and her little sister. I wanted to hear them laugh and laugh even more. But then, Brandy took the little girl's hand and they walked up towards the beach. They headed to the restaurant of the resort that served seafood lunch.
I desperately wanted to follow them, but I never really did. Instead, I found myself walking up the hill where our villa was located. This time, I managed to reach the front door and I walked into my family having lunch quietly.
As I laid on my bed that night, under the cover of my Caribbean duvet, I kept thinking about Brandy and her sister.
The next day, I spent the morning on the cliffs again, watching the people on the shoreline below mill about. The very same group of teenagers I've seen during the day I arrived in San Marco were playing beach soccer on the sand. This time though, they seemed to be very caught up in their game that they did not notice me.
I watched them for sometime, until my brother found me and told me to head back to the villa with him. He looked like he was concerned about me being out in the open, with all my skinny limbs and my bandages. It was as if he was scared that the sea breeze would suddenly blow and I would be blown into pieces by a particularly strong breeze.
“Let's head back to our villa, Shay. We're having lunch with the resort manager,” he said.
“No Jon,” I shook my head in disapproval. “I like it here.”
“You can come back here, once the lunch is over,” my brother deftly explained as he ran his hands through his blonde hair. “You just gotta sit through the lunch. I'll cover for you when you stay in the beach for tonight.”
He looked like he was sincere. He wanted me to be there, and for once, I felt that someone else really did care for me. So I went back to the villa with him. We reached the villa and I found out that my parents, sister and sister-in-law had already left for the lunch. Jon walked me towards my room.
“I'll wait for you when you're done,” he said. I knew though, that Jon would wait. He definitely would wait.
I stared out the floral, pastel-pink dress that laid on my bed. I recognized it from one of those dresses that Nicole had picked out for me from the duty-free store in the airport when we arrived. A pair of flats laid next to the floral dress. I washed myself, changed my bandages and slipped on the clothes.
The restaurant down below the resort was full of people. The buffet was laid out in the far corner of the restaurant, with the gray-vested waiters waiting on everyone. Because my family owned a share of the resort, we were given the free privilege. Also, we were singled out and we were seated on the breezy decking west of the restaurant, where we could have a very nice view of the Caribbean Sea. My mother was nursing a flute of champagne, my sister was furiously downing a glass of rum by the corner. My sister-in-law was looking incredibly bored as she swirled the vodka on her glass. Almost everybody seemed to mirror the same facial expression as my sister-in-law's. Well, everyone, except for my father, who was eating the shrimp recipe on his plate with the exuberance of a cherub. Jon's wife had beckoned him to come near and he shot me an apologizing look.
“Will you be okay here, Shay?” he asked. I nodded in response. He smiled sincerely at me and held my hand. “I'll go get you some food, you wait at the deck and sit yourself there, hey?”
Again, I nodded. I thought that, after the incident last August, Jon had been kinder to me, and he actually showed some sort of concern towards me – real concern, not the faux one. I didn't know if I should be happy at the fact that he seemed to show effort to understand me, or I should be sad that it was only him in my family who seemed to try.
I walked onto the wooden decking and sat with my family. No one gave me greetings, and I did not give them the pleasantries, either. I mean, what was the point of it all? They actually did not care about me being there, they only care about having their family sitting together at a lunch table, looking as perfect as possible.
I roamed my eyes over the restaurant. There was no one that I really knew, actually. Jon came back with a plate of salad and a Greek dressing on the side. He set it precariously on my table. I stared at the food like it was some sort of monster that would inevitably come to life and devour me.
“It's okay, Shay,” my brother whispered and his soft voice actually made me pick up the fork.
I kept on forking my way through my salad, gingerly dipping a cauliflower on the Greek dressing, and then tasting it. It tasted like popcorn, only a bit healthier and there was that vegetable-y smell that always went with the cauliflower. In my peripheral vision, I saw my brother staring at me. I snapped my head up, and I caught him looking. I gave him a weak smile and he smiled back, before bowing down to his food and chewed a scrumptious amount of mahi-mahi.
Then, it was the time I saw Brandy again.
She was standing by the buffet table, holding a plate on her left hand. She caught my eyes for a moment, and her lips curled into a soft smile. I smiled for longer than I intended, but I was really glad that Jon hadn't paid too much attention to me, because I felt like this was one of those moments that only Brandy and I was supposed to know.
I caught her eyes back. They were dark, coffee-brown and I could practically smell coffee as her powerful, deep-set eyes were staring at me. Her eyes seemed to contain an avalanche of fire that would be too unquenchable, not even for the coldest Arctic blizzard or the coldest Atlantic snowstorm.
I found myself looking at Brandy and thinking that there was something about her. I've begun to search for what that something was, but I couldn't find it. I found my brother look at me with a worried frown, but his eyes softened when he saw me smiling. And then there was some sort of light flickering behind his eyes. It was the same look he gave me when I arrived home from boarding school when I was younger, or the look he would give me when he would be home for the holidays from his college in Stanford.
He turned back to his food and started to talk with my father. Instantly, my eyes searched for Brandy once again. I found her still standing by the buffet table, forking a watermelon slice for her sister, who was standing beside her. That something I felt earlier came back again. Now, I was certain that the said 'something' was a feeling inside me.
I supposed that not a lot of people would get to feel that 'something' every day. Especially not with the people whom they never knew or even talked with. It kind of made me feel terrified about the way I felt that 'something' at the moment. It terrified me how strong I felt that 'something', and how I felt that 'something' with a girl. It terrified me a lot.
This time though, I didn't catch Brandy's eyes. She filled up her sister's plate and she carried it towards the sand, where she and her sister ate their food. I haven't seen after that. Since they weren't seated at the deck like us, I assumed that her family did not own a share at the resort.
Once I've had three forks of my salad and five cauliflower pops through my mouth, I politely excused myself from the table. I decided to look out into the sea, only to find myself looking down on Brandy and her sister sitting on the sand. They were eating, giggling and talking happily. Sometimes, Brandy would skin out something for her sister and she would spoon-fed her.
I get that I should somehow be jealous of the relationship Brandy and her sister have, but instead of that jealousy for the thing I've never felt with Jon or Nicole, I found myself wishing I could have been a part of their friendship.
When Jon's youngest daughter screeched that she felt too hot and sticky to stay in the sweltering heat, all of my family members decided to leave the table and head back to the villa. My brother insisted that we should stay for a while, but his wife snapped at him and told him they were leaving.
He conceded anyways, but I decided to stay.
“You're gonna be okay here?” Jon asked, concern was lacing his voice.
“Yeah. I'll be fine,” I said. I looked out to the beach and I saw Brandy and her sister sitting on the boulders, their toes dangling out into the sea. Their plates were gone, they were done eating. Brandy was telling her sister something and her sister was enamored by whatever story Brandy was telling her.
The same group of teenagers I saw earlier during the morning was present on the farther side of the beach. Brandy must have seen them, and she must have known them because she waved a hand at them. The group waved back at her. Brandy's sister smiled and waved towards them, too.
Then, the two of them slipped of the boulder and walked towards the group. Brandy greeted them with high-fives and hugs.
That actually made me feel a bit lonelier.