Sea Wall

Poor Theo, everyone always says. But there I was in my wetsuit, wading knee deep in the frigid ocean, blindly feeling around to retrieve cut-up pieces of my limited-edition world map that had hung on our living room wall before my brother destroyed it. I must have looked like a madwoman, holding up laminated fragments of oceans and countries to examine under the cold pink light of the winter sunset, before dropping them in a clamming bucket.

I found the Indian Ocean first, its swollen belly cut out with near-perfect edges, ghosts of Africa, Asia, and Australia on the periphery. Theo’s scissor work was less careful around archipelagos and small islands, creating ragged plastic borders for Indonesia, the Philippines, Capri. I looked in vain for Martha’s Vineyard, where our father’s ashes were buried. Morocco, Russia, and Germany floated up as I trudged through the wet, dense sand, wondering into how many pieces and by what logic he’d reduced the world. The light changed, and the map’s beige and blue tones blended with the actual sand and sea, making my rescue mission even more futile.

Around 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by oceans; 94 percent of life on earth is aquatic. These are facts I teach my students in preparation for field trips to the oceanographic institute, facts that remind me I’m part of something much bigger than this beach.

My phone vibrated in the waterproof pouch hanging from a lanyard around my neck. Maybe it was my mother, having a sneak attack of scruples, returning one of my carefully worded, urgent voicemails about Theo, whom she’d left in my charge two years ago without warning, a year to the day after our father died. His school has been graciously lenient—surely because I’m a teacher in town—about allowing me to sign permission slips, represent him at parent-teacher conferences, and carry out other general responsibilities of a parent or legal guardian. But now they’re starting to ask more questions, for which I have no answers.

Or maybe it was Jake, the carpenter I’ve been meeting for drinks the last few weeks, sneaking out after Theo’s in bed. Last night on my way in, my arm brushed a glass on the counter. It shattered to the ground and woke Theo. Which probably explains this whole map episode.

“It’s 2 in the morning,” he’d said, watching me pick glass shards off the floor.

“I’m thirsty.”

“You’re wearing a coat.”

“I was going out for a smoke.”

“You don’t smoke.”

“I might start.”

Jake was kind, smart, full of useful and useless facts (best practices for fascia installation, exact heights of the world’s tallest buildings, secrets to killer seafood stock). I first noticed him across the school parking lot, working with a crew on the new gymnasium addition. Distracted, I placed a folder of student assignments on the roof of my car; they proved no match for the wind, and I ran after them, grasping what I could. Jake put down a sheet of drywall to scramble after the loose sheets of paper and manila folder. He handed me the pile, then hoisted the drywall back over his shoulder, all in what seemed like one motion,  and I noticed his hands, muscled and sinewy. This man can build things, I’d thought. It wasn’t until I was back in my classroom that I noticed his invitation scribbled on top of the folder: Have a drink with me Friday at the Clipper?

Over the course of a few weeks, those hands carried beer from the bar, held mine, touched my face. I imagined them grabbing my neck, reaching under my shirt, my skirt, as my own hands hung by my side, stupefied, letting his do all the work.

But with Theo in my charge since my mother took off to go find herself, dating was pointless. What to do with my 16-year-old brother—rife with abandonment issues, grief, and anger, according to his therapist—leaves me paralyzed beyond a first date. My friends have stopped trying to set me up with coworkers or their spouses’ friends after I canceled too many times. But I accepted Jake’s invitation, thinking if I canceled, I’d only be disappointing a stranger. Weeks later, he still seems interested, even after I told him about Theo, or what I like to call, The Situation. Idyllic really, I’d told him.

As I shoved the pieces of the map into my coat pocket, snow began to fall, flakes big and fat, catching on my eyelashes. I ambled up the icy steps that separate our property from the beach.

That morning, I’d stood at the bay window and watched Theo toss the jig-sawed aftermath into the ocean, only later realizing what he was doing when I saw the empty spot on the wall where the map had hung.

My phone vibrated again. A text from Jake: Is it too early to be smitten?

Jake and I hadn’t even really kissed. Just polite goodbye hugs and lip brushes. But we’d talked! The kind of talking and connection my friends gushed over when they’d met someone with whom they clicked. But I’d shrugged, thinking: who talks that long, who wants to? But then it’s last call, and the roomful of students you have to face in less than six hours feels inconsequential, because all that talking has you spinning, thinking about more than talking.

What’s too early… I started to type. I put my phone on the counter and peeled myself out of my wetsuit. Standing in my underwear shivering, I began reconstructing the map on the kitchen island countertop—piecing together pieces of the world I may never see, leaving big, gaping holes for the countries and water bodies still among the missing—before giving up to take a hot shower.

When I came back downstairs, Theo was in the kitchen, his cowlicks fighting each other. I chopped half an onion, taking care to make sure the pieces are symmetrical, the way Theo likes.

Order helps make sense of disorder, his therapist told me. Two parents leaving in such a short period will do that.

If you consider dying and abandoning the same kind of leaving, I’d challenged. Still, it was impossible to untangle the individual effects; I’ll give the therapist that. Cumulatively, the result is the same: Theo’s OCD and anxiety, which for as long as I can remember registered at a low hum and occasionally rose to the surface, are now full-blown. So I cut vegetables and fruit like this for him. I wonder if it helps me, too, if I’ve got some hereditary imprint that wires me the same, even though I don’t have a therapist who tells me such things.

“Maybe you should talk to someone,” Jake had said.

“I’m talking to you.” He couldn’t know how he’d shaken something loose in me, this soon, the words rushing out, tearing at the cobwebs in my throat.

Theo looked at the map pieces, then back at me.

“Look at what you did,” I said.

“The map will be out of date soon, the way everyone is fighting.”

“It’s barely a year old,” I said, running my finger over a mountain terrain, remembering the day I brought it home, all the way from Harvard Square.

“Have you been following what’s going on in Iraq and Syria?”

“People hang maps on their walls, current events notwithstanding.”

“Mom called.”

Our mother, who had picked lint off her pants as she said goodbye two years ago, her eyes darting from wall to wall. She was leaving Theo all to me, but didn’t have the guts to ask, or tell me, until she was 300 miles away with bad cell phone reception. “You’re breaking up, Mom,” I’d said. “Sorry! I’ll call back soon!” she’d shouted back over the crackle. Two months later, she pulled the same thing. It was in this missing each other that I willed myself to miss her less in real life, to feel less hurt by her leaving.

Shortly after our parents married, they moved to the Cape for our father’s job at the oceanographic institute. Our mother reminded us of that fact quite often: when traffic backed up for miles over the bridges in the summer, she felt trapped and suffocated; then in winter, when the town halved in population, she felt deserted. The Cape Cod Vortex, she called it.

We were born after they moved here, so I only remember this house, this shore. A few times each summer, we camped out on the beach. Inside nylon tents that billowed in the sea breeze, Theo and I would build pillows out of sand for our heads and wake up with horsefly bites as big as gumballs that would itch for weeks. Sometimes we’d ride the ferry to the Vineyard with the prepsters dressed in their nautical stripes, sipping white wine out of clear plastic cups; when we all reached the island, and they set off for more white wine and maybe oysters and an overnight stay, we took a few runs on the Oak Bluffs carousel and treated ourselves to soft-serve ice cream before heading back on an empty ferry. Theo had seemed calmer then, even carefree.

On hot nights, our mother would sit on the front porch and get nostalgic for city lights and restaurants that stayed open later than 9. After our father died, I think she felt like she’d earned the right to do something about her geographic claustrophobia. I like to think her departure was impulsive, but then wouldn’t she be back by now?

“What did she want?” I asked Theo.

Theo shoved a piece of raw onion in his mouth. In the kitchen light, I could see the yellowed underarms of his ratty t-shirt.

I let my question hang as I chopped. Silence is the best way to draw Theo out. If you wait long enough, watchful, a hermit crab will poke its head from its shell and scurry along the ocean floor.

“She said she misses the sunsets, the storms. She asked about the cat.”

“The cat died a year ago,” I said.

Theo had fought to keep Sadie in the house, to lay her to rest in her cat bed, swaddling her in his old childhood blanket. He only relented and agreed to have her cremated when I suggested we bring her ashes near our father, who had brought her home from the shelter in the first place. It was illegal to bring her to the cemetery, so we improvised. One rainy afternoon we took the Vineyard ferry and sprinkled Sadie’s ashes off the back. On the boat ride home, we ate peanuts and drank hot chocolate as the mist sprayed our faces wet. Theo declared it a good day.

I have no way to reach our mother. When she calls, she’s vague about her whereabouts. Just northwest of Montana, or near that lake in Maine we all visited a few summers ago before our father got sick. Or something more far-flung: a beach villa in Montenegro, a Baltic cruise. “Did you get my package?” she’d ask. Hotel toiletries (cotton swabs, Q-tips, shower caps, little tubes of shampoo and conditioner, miniature emery boards) that I keep in a bin under the bathroom sink.

Before Theo destroyed the map, I would look at it and picture our mother, a waif of a woman, a restless traveler, kicking up sand, a colorful scarf billowing behind her. I used a red marker to dot the places she’d been, a blue one for the places I’d imagined she’d go, just footnotes to my pathetic travelogue.

She left not long after I had started teaching, turning my new beginning into something that felt more like an end, turning my excitement into dread, as I faced all those hungry-eyed children looking to me for scientific explanations of the world. Rent-free living, Catherine!, she wrote on the notes she sent with checks for property upkeep and Theo’s therapy. Guilt disguised as generosity, I’d thought.

Later on the phone, when she told me she had wander-lust, splitting the word like she was teaching it to a child, I wondered, What guilt?

“Some people call that self-ish,” I’d told her and hung up.

Now she’s asking Theo about a dead cat and feigning homesickness for a place she’d come to despise. “Did she say she misses us?” I asked.

“She said she’ll try calling back tomorrow,” Theo said.

“She’s got my cell number. She could have tried that.”

I took the chicken out of the refrigerator and flipped on the radio, handed the twine to Theo. He likes to truss the chicken, rub butter and herbs under the skin.

We’re in for more snow tomorrow, the coast will get the brunt this time. Our radars show 4-8 inches. It was too early for this. Barely mid-December. The sea wall had already taken a good beating last year. Buyers were asking realtors to find them homes farther inland. As I chopped the carrots into evenly spaced disks, I took a mental inventory of our storm supplies.

“Want to play chess after dinner?” Theo asked.

“Sure,” I answered, like I do most every night.

What’s too early for smitten? I finished texting. I took a deep breath—wondered what kind of a house a man who builds houses lives in, what kind of bed he sleeps in—and hit send.

 

The next morning, snow built up against the lower edges of the windows, white peaks forming at the corners of the glass. Ocean-effect snow, several inches an hour. The storm was proving much worse than predicted. School was closed. My lesson about tides would have to wait, as we waited to see what kind of damage this high tide would bring. Theo came out of his room ranting about his calculus test. He was ready for derivatives.

“You’ll have the test tomorrow. You’ll be even more prepared.”

“I’m already prepared.”

The moon and the earth’s rotation dictate the tides. Schedules don’t adjust for weather, for moods. High tide would hit at 2 p.m. today. A TV reporter was already out on the beach musing about erosion and the fate of unsecured decks. I could see her on the TV and from the window.

“She just lied,” Theo said. “It’s 600 feet of stone revetment, not 400.”

He was obsessed with the replacement project and the beach grass plantings, but mostly with the piping plovers. Channeling and displacement, his therapist called it. His hyper-obsessivity is a way to mask his real pain about your mother’s desertion, your father’s death. I told the therapist that Theo’s always been pretty obsessive about things, especially the beach and its destiny, and that I was fairly certain hyper-obsessivity wasn’t a word.

Every summer, town officials and volunteers parade out to the barrier beach to plant culms of grass in an effort to protect the 9-mile stretch. The local press covers it as an environmental success story, when really the stalks of beach grass—seaside goldenrod, dusty miller, and beach pea—are only creating an unnatural kind of succession that disrupt the plovers’ habitat. The threatened birds prefer wide-open spaces; they don’t want all that grass getting in the way of their nesting. Theo is for the plovers. I get it. I’m for the birds, too. Teaching environmental science requires me to be.

My mother had always thought it was all a big fuss. Over some birds! Don’t they have better things to worry about?

The birds? I’d asked.

I watched the reporter’s bright red parka bob against the white squalls, her long hair whip in her face. I wondered if she’d heard of revetment before today, if she’d drawn the short straw in the assignment pool. I hate TV news, but it was hard to look away during the long, lazy hours of a storm, especially when it was right in my back yard.

“What do you expect?” I said to Theo. “She can barely hold the microphone straight with all that wind. Or see, with all that blowing hair. How could she possibly keep her numbers straight?”

Our mother always loved a good storm. She’d walk right out to the water and just stand there, facing the waves. When she came in, she would be soaked and red-faced, storm-faced, yelling, “What’s better than a storm on a beach!” Our father would watch her from the window, smiling. But the winter before he died, he joined her during one particularly nasty blizzard. “Maybe I’ll blow this disease right out of me!” His face was raw when he came inside, and he coughed himself to sleep that night. Theo tagged along that day, too, as I watched from the window, convinced I was officially the only normal one. He took it a step further and dove in, laughing and shivering at the shock of the water. I’ve watched Theo venture out in storms since, but more tentatively, from a distance, hanging back behind the sea wall.

I put on my own faded navy puffer coat and trudged out to the red parka with day-old muffins I bought at the bakery down the street, and two thermoses of coffee.

Do carpenters work on snow days? I imagined Jake inside a beachfront property, building its bones, shaping its beams.

I waved the thermoses at the reporter’s cameraman. I handed him the coffee and muffins and offered our bathroom and fireplace in between broadcasts.

The reporter shoved the mic in my face, her way of saying hello. What’s it like to live on the precipice of danger? How long until your house meets the same fate as the sea wall?  I spared her an earful about erosion, the details of our insurance policy, the deal with the state for reparation, and stuck to something I know nothing about: fashion. “Is that real down?” I fought the urge to reach out and pat her coat.

Theo would have answered her in meticulous detail and when the segment aired, people would have either pitied or respected him. I couldn’t bear the first.

During storms, I want to be alone and together. Nature shows itself, reminds us who’s in charge, and I want to brave it, cower from it, hold hands with it.

When we were kids, we built tents out of blankets, using chairs to prop up the fabric, in the living room on stormy days. We’d all huddle inside and listen to NPR or sing along to show tunes on our parents’ old LPs. After a while, it would get really warm in the small, shared space, and Theo would be the first to bust out. But I never complained because I didn’t want to call attention to something that would break up our tented world.

 

As the storm wore on, the meteorologists adjusted the forecast. Standing in front of their digital maps, they showed how the jet stream shifted, making more snow a certainty. Another news crew was setting up a few hundred yards from the red parka and her team. Back inside, Theo sat in the corner by the fire wearing headphones, bobbing his head, staring out the window.

The storm let up in the early afternoon, the predicted lull before it would start up again. While Theo worked on a puzzle of the New York City skyline, I put on my wetsuit and went outside. Flurries floated around like dust. I took the kayak from the shed, raised it over my head, and walked down to the spit, which is few feet away from the beginning of the sea wall. The sand at the spit was buried in a coat of fresh snow. A small shallow inlet to the west had frozen; sand mixed with ice to give it the appearance of gritty oatmeal. But the stretch of the bay before me was mostly thawed. Off in the distance, a group of gulls nested on a patch, their grey backs rounded like thick stones.

My phone buzzed against my chest but I couldn’t reach for it; I was focused on navigating the light chop as I came upon the curve of the island. We call it an island but it’s really just a peninsula. Summer residents use it like a track—rounding the mile-long circle on foot and bicycle, toting dogs and strollers and children—while cormorants rustle and dry their oily black wings on the jetties after diving for fish. Today: just the waves and me.

It started to snow hard again, and the wind picked up. Water rushed into the sides of the kayak. The lull was over.

As I dragged the kayak, I heard the crunch of tires over packed snow, which covered a bed of crushed shells that my father had insisted we maintain for a true Cape Cod aesthetic. I recognized Jake’s truck, except now it had the addition of a plow attachment. Jake wore a bright orange hat and bulky down coat. What would it feel like if this were normal, if his stopping by was a regular thing, if I didn’t have a brother who was like a son.

I left the kayak on the lip of the spit and hurried to the driveway.

“Jake!”

He turned, tilted his head.

I remembered my wetsuit hood and ripped it off, exposing my matted hair. I imagined my mother. Wild, uninhibited, unencumbered.

I pulled my phone from the waterproof case and saw Jake’s texts. I’m in your neighborhood and thought I’d check in. Then, an hour later: You okay? This storm’s pretty bad.

“Sorry, I was a bit preoccupied,” I said, holding my phone up for Jake to see. I attempted to wink but then blinked both eyes shut as big flakes blurred everything.

My last boyfriend needed me too much. Our life was a circle, he told me, and we were the center, the island. I’d thought of those mazes in kids’ coloring books, where if you used a crayon and made a mistake, you couldn’t go back. I started picking fights with him, then broke it off because we were fighting all the time.

Jake laughed a big, guttural laugh. “I thought you might have ventured out there.”

“Well, now you’ve seen me in a wetsuit. Mystery’s gone.”

“A welcome sight.”

Fortunately, it was too cold to blush.

“This may be overstepping, but I’m worried about your gutters,” he said. “All those leaves underneath the ice and snow.”

The snow caught in Jake’s stubble. I wondered how it would feel against my lips.

“I didn’t mean to surprise you. I can go,” he said.

“Don’t go!” I said, not meaning to yell. “I’ll pay you, of course.”

“You’re nuts. Just bake me one of those pies.”

What pies? How drunk had I been? There was dough in the freezer, so it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. My mother had taught me how to knead butter into dough, striping it yellow with my palm. Work it up the mountain. Now she just climbed mountains. I had no idea if she still baked, or really how she really filled most of her days. I only knew the highlight reel, points on a map.

Snow dusted Jake’s windshield. My car was already covered.

“I could arrange that. Want to come in? I’m going to change into something a little less… awkward.” Did this count as a date?

In the indoor light, Jake look weathered; his outdoor face and deep laugh wrinkles made him look older. He took off his boots and walked over to Theo.

“What’s this?” Theo asked, looking up from his puzzle.

“You mean, who. This is Jake. He’s here to clean the gutters,” I said, reducing him to a man who did odd jobs for strangers.

“Why?”

“Because they’re stuffed with leaves and ice and snow, and could cave under the weight. It’s dangerous,” I said, echoing Jake’s earlier assessment.

Jake extended his hand.

Theo didn’t budge.

“Theo. Don’t be rude,” I said.

“ A good firm handshake can tell you a lot about a person,” Jake said. “Your sister’s got one.”

I do?

Theo shrugged and went back to the puzzle, working out a corner where Manhattan’s Lower East Side connects to Brooklyn. We got it on a trip to New York last fall. Our mother had called. I miss you! Meet me in the city this weekend! We waited for two hours at the Herald Square bus stop like she’d instructed, but she didn’t show. Still, Theo and I managed to salvage the day. I offered to show him the city, but he only cared about the bridges. From the back seat of a cab, we explored them all as Theo rattled off facts: the George Washington is the world’s busiest motor vehicle bridge; the Brooklyn offers a nesting perch for peregrine falcons. I didn’t care that we were missing all the other iconic sites. Suspended hundreds of feet above water, traversing the city’s main connectors I felt important, like we had somewhere to go. When we finished, I asked the cab driver for a receipt and texted it to my mother along with a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge’s web of wire cables. See what you missed, I wrote. Where were you?

Oh no, she wrote back, followed by a trail of exclamation point and question marks. This weekend? I thought we said next weekend!

Before we boarded the bus back home, we bought the puzzle in a souvenir shop in Times Square, a cheap consolation prize to my naïve expectation of spending a weekend with my mother.

 

Jake’s gutter cleaning turned into coffee, which turned into a simple pasta dinner (next time, he promised he’d make that seafood stock he bragged about; next time, I’d make that pie), then chess.

Theo set up the board while Jake helped me with the dishes.

“Don’t put the onion scraps down the garbage disposal,” Theo told Jake. “We’ll never get a plumber here at this hour.”

Outside, the storm raged. The glass light fixture over the kitchen island rattled with the wind.

“Thanks, man,” Jake said, and winked at me. Of course, he’d know how to snake a drain himself. I didn’t offer how I’d ruined last Thanksgiving, turning the sink into a swampy mess of vegetable peels and turkey gristle.

I wiped my hands on a dishtowel and pulled up a chair beside Jake, ceding my usual spot at the board to him.

“Are you ready for this?” I asked Jake. “Theo’s good.”

“I mostly win,” Theo said.

“Game on,” Jake said.

Jake could build houses and additions to schools, clean gutters, and apparently cook. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Viking age and knew all the sides of the piping plover crisis. The beach grass planting converts something complex into something simple, he told Theo, who nodded eagerly. What if we just let nature take its course? But chess, it turned out, was not an area of expertise. The game had just begun and already his king was in danger.

“Don’t expose your queen,” I whispered in his ear.

“We don’t cheat in this house,” Theo said, shaking his legs.

“I’m sorry, I was helping,” I said.

“Helping is cheating.”

The table shook as Theo pumped his legs up and down.

“Stop that,” I said. “You’re going to upset the chess board.”

“Kid’s got a point,” Jake said, tracing one finger along the back of my neck. “I’ve got this.” I wanted him to keep his hand there, but I also didn’t want to risk Theo noticing, so I smiled but turned my head.

Theo stopped shaking and continued his domination on the board. Jake didn’t have a chance, especially without my help.

This could be a life, I thought. Me—a woman who wouldn’t let herself go beyond one date—imagining something like a future with a man I had just met. Instead of imagining a brother who had become more like a son, imagining Theo and me like we used to be, with room for someone else. Fantasizing about officially letting go of a mother who had stopped being a mother, handing those reins to her daughter. Wondering if the rest of the cut-up map would ever wash up with the tide or just drift farther out to sea.

Jake moved his king closer to the center of the board. He touched my hand while Theo contemplated his next move. This time Theo noticed. He looked from me to Jake and back at me again. He started to shake his legs again, faster and harder. The wooden pieces rattled. Theo shook harder. A bishop fell to the floor. Harder, and a queen slid off the board and across the room.

When Theo had played with our father, his temper simmered. He’d sigh and grunt, and once he banged his fist hard on the table, sending all the pieces flying. Dad sent him to his room for the night. After that, Theo managed his temper, but occasionally he’d get up mid-game and I’d hear him bang his fist on the bathroom wall.

I followed the queen’s trajectory. It landed by the big picture window that looked out onto the beach. The storm, which I’d stopped noticing until now, was in full gear. Snow hit the window in a fury, whiting out any spots of black night. The sea crashed and roared. I imagined it pummeling the sea wall, clawing its way up the beach, to us. I wanted it to rush in and sweep away this chess board, take us out with the tide and bring us back in a better state.

Theo leapt up from his chair. He flipped the board over. The remaining pieces scattered, hitting my legs, the kitchen island. Our own tide rushing in.

“Theo!”

He ignored me and began to lift the table off the floor.

Jake stood.

He’s had enough, I thought. This is why I don’t date, why it’s better to just keep things between Theo and me.

But Jake stepped away from the board, unfazed.

I wanted to grab Theo, shake the anger and confusion right out of him. Undo what the therapist said our mother had done in her leaving, our father in his dying. Instead I just stood there, watching Jake watch Theo.

Theo looked Jake in the eye, then tipped the table and walked away.

Jake waited a beat and picked the board off the floor. He collected the chess pieces from around the room and repositioned each from memory.

Theo watched from across the room, waiting for a mistake. When Jake finished, he walked over to Theo and put his hand on his shoulder. Theo flinched.

When Theo and I were kids our parents took us to Florida for vacation. On the last day, they let us take one last walk on the pier by ourselves on the condition I keep a close watch on him. At the end of the pier we saw a pelican dive for a fish. Its bill expanded into a massive pouch, and we watched it work the fish down its gullet. But just after it swallowed the last bit, one of its wings caught in a man’s fishing line. From the pier, he calmly lowered his net around the pelican, and reeled him up. Theo approached the man, who taught him how to hold the beak while untangling the wing. The man was calm and rested his hand on Theo’s back, coaching him in a low whisper. My brother never took his eyes off that beak. I realized later that he allowed this connection, this touch, with a stranger nevertheless, for the sake of a bird.

 

Jake went back to the board and moved his bishop.

Theo walked back toward the board, but before he could counter, the wind wailed and something outside cracked and crashed. The lights flickered and the house went dark.

The whites of Theo’s eyes glowed as lightning flashed outside. He looked like a lost boy, scared of the dark.

What now? The electricity could be out for days. I took a mental inventory: candles, flashlights, blankets. We’d ridden out storms before, me and Theo.

I grabbed a flashlight from under the sink, and left the room, left Jake and my brother to sort things out for themselves.

As I scanned the upstairs hallway linen closet with the flashlight, I heard something behind me. Jake. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders and held me. I could feel every part of him against me. He turned me around and kissed me deeply. My stomach tingled. I lost my mouth in his. Without Theo around, I took it all in.

“Come to my house. Theo too. It’s going to get too cold to stay here,” he said.

“We can’t.”

“Why not?”

I could think of a million reasons why not.

“I have three bedrooms. We’d each get one. I’ll behave, I promise.”

I imagined waking up entangled in Jake.

“How can we drive in this?” I asked.

“Four-wheel drive. I’ve driven in worse. Much worse.”

I thought of the sea wall, its pieces crumbling, the ocean having its way like it always does. Moving walls and sand and property, not discriminating. I thought of the ruined map, its missing pieces along the ocean floor. The cormorants rustling and drying their feathers on the jetties. My mother, charting her own course through the world.

I worried that if I agreed aloud, I might change my mind. So I nodded, kept nodding, until Jake was downstairs, until I heard him leave the house to clear off and warm up his truck.

I packed a bag. Unsure what to bring, I settled on a handful of my mother’s sample-sized toiletries, pajamas, a big fisherman’s sweater.  I grabbed Theo’s backpack from his room, and went downstairs to tell him our plan, to remind him I was in charge if he protested.

“Theo!” I yelled. I half-expected to see him in a corner, curled up with his headphones. After our father’s funeral, back at the house, he sat in a rocking chair on the porch, looking off into the distance, swaying his head to music only he could hear.

Then I saw the screen door, propped open by a pile of snow was building at the threshold. I looked at the wall hooks. Theo’s wetsuit was gone. I grabbed my coat, gloves, a hat, and stuffed my feet into my boots in what seemed like one motion. How long had I been upstairs? How far could Theo have gone?

I ran outside, plodding through heavy, wet snow as more of it came at me sideways. I fell twice. The second time, I had to stop for a minute and catch my breath, wipe my face. What if I just waited here, waited to see what happened—to the plovers, the sea wall, me, Jake. Theo. What if I let nature take its course.

I saw the shed door first, swinging back and forth in the wind. I forced myself up and made my way toward it. Inside, the kayak was gone. Presumably with Theo, who only kayaked when the water was calm.

“Theo!” My voice like a pin dropping in the vast ocean, leaving no ripple, no sound.

I started to weep. For my brother, whom I’d wished gone, whom I’d cursed. Poor Theo, Mom and Dad would say. Poor Theo, his therapist says. Poor me.

I headed toward to the spit, every step heavier, my boots sopped and leaden with snow, looking for a sign of Theo or the kayak.

I kept walking and just beyond the spit, I spotted it, a lonely plastic crescent glowing luminescent yellow against the white-pocked sky, adrift on the ocean. Nearby, white-topped buoys bobbed, placeholders for the boats stored safely away for the winter.  Just as I’d searched for pieces of that cut-up map, I saw myself combing the bottom for my brother after the storm broke.

That time Theo joined my parents in the storm, dove in, I was jealous of his fearlessness, and how it seemed to make him unnaturally buoyant as he swam in, smiling big as we screamed. Now as I scanned the black water, between the pounding snow I saw a large shape just beyond the pier. Was it Theo, had he finally lost his buoyancy?

I felt something like fear, but then on the edge of it, something worse, scarier: a sliver of relief. Freedom from caring for him, from being the responsible one.

My cries blended with the wind and my hair whipped in my mouth. I couldn’t look at the shape anymore, so I turned toward the house. There: the floodlight tripped, illuminating pieces of Jake’s silhouette, his bright orange hat, behind a curtain of snow. He couldn’t see me as he made his way to the shed, no doubt retracing my boot prints in the snow.

Where the spit begins, the sea wall ends. The waves crashed and crashed against it, overpowering the manmade barrier, breaking loose pieces of concrete.

And there he was. Theo, with his knees curled up to his chest, his black wetsuit-hooded head tucked inside, rocking with his back to the crumbling wall. I collapsed into the small space between Theo and the wall. I put my arms around him and hugged his slippery wetsuit.

I thought back to that time at the pier in Florida, when Theo held the pelican’s beak. Now as I held Theo, and he let me hold him, I knew this was as close as I’d get to him. I held it in, this moment, like you hold your breath underwater, stretching, stretching your lungs until you can’t hold it anymore, and you have to burst to the surface and breathe.

 

 

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