Everything She Knows About Riptides by Emily James

The riptides are back at 30th Street Beach. The twins run just outside the green flags, splashing in circles, the girl’s hair long and dark, the boy’s chopped above his ears. Their tiny legs lift and fall like speedy flamingos, boogie boards trailing from small wrists by a string. Mom lays reclined in her Tommy Bahama chair just where the hard sand begins to soften. The distance and beach noise turn the twins into silhouettes. Browned lifeguards with sculpted legs watch from next to their stand, one of them lifts free weights into bicep curls. Weak waves today, they say, perfect for the riptides.

Even from a distance, in the sharp of the mid-morning light, Mom can see the twins’ mouths moving, their wet limbs dangling. But the beach wind steals the sound. She likes it this way. Their motions muted, they seem like just kids, still hers, but what kids are supposed to be, those little beings that run besides one another, that ask earnest questions with wet eyes. When she can’t hear them, she can imagine that this is how it has all worked out: her on a beach, chair reclined, children running in a salty playful chase, muscles banging and strengthening alongside the foam of the sea.

Other women stand closer in the shallow of the water, arms crossed in tankinis, just their asses wet, holding forgotten buckets and shovels as their children splash and scream. The lifeguard lifts left arm, right arm, his sweatshirt in a pile on the bench of the stand.

A young couple walks by holding a baby. Mom looks through her sunglasses, can see the arch of the new mother’s back, the way it has begun to curve now that her body exists outside itself, now that the has a constant pull towards the ground. Mom likes watching new parents walk through the ruins of their life that a baby has made. Beaches that used to be about beauty and bronzing, men that used to be about hot wet kisses between legs. Hands that would push and prod so hard the women came, but now hang limp and useless next to stacks of dishes and tiny fingers that flail during wails in the night. 

Mom knows about being a new mom: the vicious flinging from one life to the next. She knows about riptides, that their danger lies in a difficulty to be seen. She knows they happen when weather seems good and the wind is just enough to cool the sweat from between your breasts, when breaths are in and out and deep and slow.  But still, she stays reclined, second to last slot in the armrest, sand toys untouched by her feet, asking for another minute of this no-sound, just twin shadows still mouthing and jumping and slapping in the ocean that has  another plan.  She looks at her hand on the wood of the chair, sees the way her knuckles have begun to wrinkle, her fingers gathering in folds along the place where her ring used to lay and a tiny tan line used to form, round white circle where the diamond would’ve shone, even though she never cleaned it with that fancy cleaner next to the olive oil beneath the sink.

Riptides love small waves, small spaces between used-to-be lovers in a king-sized bed, saliva that only meets in the toothbrush holders.

The lifeguard has dropped his weights in the damp sand now. He’s flexing his wrists, holding one tight with a finger grip of another. Thinking about home, the bed by a window with an AC crackling and cackling, an old CD player on his windowsill, dusty and white.

Mom can see the twins hold the boards and smash them against the waves, heads turning from time to time to tell each other something.  Morning light hits different here—those beautiful specs of glare along the ocean surface.  And the lifeguard, the way his skin seems painted, the hair beneath his arms peeking out as he lifts his arms to the sky.  She can’t yet see his bedroom, the dust atop his CD player, the stained comforter that she’ll writhe beneath and moan into as he pushes her towards the wall. Squeezing herself together to let him pull her apart. The riptides become strongest where the flow is constricted. Where she holds tight between her legs until it busts wide open, tongue out, ringless hand against the hard of his neck. He’ll let his shorts gather by the foot of the bed but keep his sweatshirt on as he keeps prodding, waiting for her to cum. He’s learned enough about outflow water to know that sometimes becoming stable is where we are most quickly taken away. 

The twins are chasing each other now. Mom squints so she can’t see the grimace of the boy as he trips over the knee-high water. The girl doesn’t notice, splashes on. It’s all love, Mom tells herself, the glare of her sunglasses shading the view. Her eyes begin to close, orange-tinged darkness behind her lids, the beat of the sun hard against her cheeks and chest. The riptides swell beneath the surface; but she stays focused on this feeling, knowing that only in the steadiest of moments, we are finally able to lose it all.

EMILY JAMES — Emily is an educator and writer in NYC. She is the Managing editor at Pidgeonholes and the CNF Editor at Porcupine Lit. She’s the winner of the 2020 Baltimore Review CNF contest, a SmokeLong Flash 2020 Finalist, and the winner of the 2019 Bechtel Prize. Her work can be found in Guernica, River Teeth, The Atticus Review, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. 

Art by RURI KATO — Ruri is an artist and a full-time qualitative researcher based in Tokyo, Japan. She loves her cat, reading, eating, and taking walks through beautiful places. More of her art can viewed on Instagram as @rurilourdek.