This story is by Anita Merriman and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ocean sprawled on a warm boulder as the spray of the waves splashed her face and the telephone buzzed beside her. Happy and bone tired after her first day of classes at Wilbur Wright Junior College and a half shift at Panera, she wished she could just lie there in the spray forever. She closed her eyes, slipped away momentarily, and dreamed she was floating on a stack of crisp, starched, perfectly folded white aprons, larger versions of the ones by the time clock each day before her shift. Her buzzing phone startled her back to consciousness. She glanced at it and her heart sank. The number was familiar. 19th Street Station, her mother’s usual place for sobering up after a hellacious night of drunkenness. Should I even bail her out this time? The next wave drenched her.
She answered and spoke first. “This is Ocean. Uh huh. She did? Yes, officer. I’ve been there. I can get there, yes. How much? I know where to enter, yes.” She ended the call and rested her head on her knees. All the excitement and satisfaction of the day, gone.
Ocean had gotten up and left the apartment an hour early for her first day of college. It didn’t matter to her that it was a junior college. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t going out of state or to a university somewhere. What mattered to her was that she had actually made it through grade school and high school, all the Ritalin and the Adderall, the label of being a FAS child, and was on her way to a new beginning. Plus her GPA was so good, excellent actually, that it would all be paid for. She wondered how such a smart girl could have been stupid enough to get blindsided like this. Just because her mother had stayed sober for almost a whole year was apparently no guarantee of anything. She would remember that.
Placida. Hah! Her mother’s name was Placida. Ocean laughed. “You could not be further from placid. You are the opposite. Tempest! You are a spitting hurricane!” she screamed out at the lake. “You are a storm, careening your way through people’s lives! My life! You bust up all my beginnings!”
She considered her own name, Ocean. A forever source of humor. Her mother entertained the drunk and disorderly cronies that frequented their small apartment by recounting the story of her first sight of the premature and struggling baby she had just pushed out, in her drunkenness. “Fea!” she had called out. “Ugly! She was so ugly that it scared me! No, I mean it! I wanted to jump off the delivery table and run into the ocean! So it was between Fea and, what do you think, Ocean!” And then punch line, “And I figured she might have half a chance if I named her Ocean! So it was Ocean.” A bottomless source for jokes ever since.
Ocean climbed off the huge rocks and headed for the red line. The afternoon sun was still hot and her drenched jeans stiffened as they dried. She would be completely dry by the time she reached the station. She climbed the metal stairs of the El and stood high up on the platform, felt the the rumble of the coming train, and looked out at Lake Michigan. It had been peaceful there.
She got off at 16th Street watched her shadow bob along the tall walls, across the murals, and remembered her art class field trip to this very spot. Her mother had thrust a can of Coke at her instead of a sack lunch. “Take it,” she said. “At least you got something.” Ocean had been so electrified by the colors and shapes of the murals, not to mention the sugar in the Coca Cola, that she took off running, tearing, blasting down the street, around the corner and across the park, towards the smell of grilled meat. Her art teacher had found her sitting at a bus stop chowing down a chicken taco given to her by the kind owner of the 14th Street Taqueria. When had she stopped running like that?
She walked the rest of the way down to the station. Once inside, the metal turnstyle bumped the top of her hamstrings as she went through. She handed her backpack to the officer at security, who glanced at the new Algebra I textbook inside, handed it back to her and said, “Here you go, Sweetie.”
Ocean swung it back over her shoulder. Chin raised, somber, she walked toward the desk and saw several police officers on the other side. Even after a year every single one of those cops knew her by name. They knew who she was here for. “You bust up all my beginnings,” she said under her breath. “All of them. Every last one.”
Ocean pulled her money from a pocket she had hand-sewn to the inside of her tight jeans. Her own invention. Quarters, one dollar bills, and tens mostly along with a couple twenties, her tip money mixed with some change she had left over from her book grant. Two gold dollar coins in the mix caught her eye and she suddenly felt light-headed. She began to breathe hard and sweat beaded on her forehead. “Wait,” she said out loud. She spread her palms over the money. “Something is very wrong here,” she thought. “Do I really want to do this? Again?”
A voice screeched from around the corner and down a corridor. “You don’t need to lay no hand on me! Hey! This guy’s trying to put the moves on me! No, I’m just kidding. You know I’m kidding don’t you honey? Honey pie? Hey!” That raspy cackle with spit in the back of her throat.
And then it came to her. She saw it. She saw the broken cups, the wet towels barely slung over the towel bar. She saw ashes on the floor and the beer cans spilling out of plastic grocery bags by the garbage. She saw the sink full of dishes, piled up, crusting over. She heard it too, the slamming doors in the middle of the night, the incessant phone calls about nothing, nothing, nothing and more nothing. Honey this, honey that. Fea this, Fea that. The laughter. The cries. The self-pity.
Ocean’s mind went black. When she came to she was putting her money back in her pocket. She was walking away from the desk and could faintly hear the officers calling her name, “Ocean! Ocean! Ocean!” but they seemed worlds away. She walked back through the other side of security and caught the eye of the nice guard who had noticed her book and called her Sweetie. That woman knew. She knew. She winked as if telling Ocean, “Go now. Go. She’ll be okay or she won’t be okay, with or without you. Go.”
Ocean gave a fierce shove to the front door of the 19th Street Station, and paced, quickly down the sidewalk. She turned up towards 16th, back past the murals and started to jog.
She passed a panaderia and saw her reflection in the glass. “Ocean, your ass is so flat! It’s as flat as that pan!” came the voice inside her head. She tuned out her mother’s jagged noise and tuned in to the sound of the waves splashing over the rocks. She went faster. Her muscles worked hard and wrung her burden out. The heavy cloak of shame dripped off her shoulders and she let it go, didn’t even reach for it. She clenched her fists and picked up more speed. She was fluid and strong. She was rhythmic and dependable. Dang! She was like an Ocean after all. All the beautiful lyrics, all the verses she had ever heard about oceans came to her at once.
Our love is like a ship on the ocean. She felt her feet on the pavement. Immerse yourself in the ocean of my words…Scripture? Seriously? Her heart beat in her chest. You are my ocean, you are my everything…And with this she gave herself to speed and took off in the direction of her rocks. Straight up through downtown where she slowed for nothing, for no one, but gracefully, fluidly swayed out of harm’s way. She hurdled across sidewalk cafes with their makeshift picket fences in a single bound. Never touched even one toe on a spike.
The wind lifted her hair and escorted her to the lakefront. At the edge of Millennium Park a power within lifted her, scaled her over the walls of the sculpture park. So that’s how you do that!
“Yes!” she cried out.“Yes!” She circled around and went back for more. Up and over, up and over, as if the wall was nothing, just like the waves. Just like the Ocean that she was. Finally. And again.