Nana B Agyei CC
We shared a name and a beach. She was a year older; her body had a form so mysterious to me, bronze, muscular, ramrod posture that seemed to curve backwards. Her hair fell straight and became even more beautiful when the wind tried to ruin it; mine turned to awkward frizz with the salt-spun air.
She wore second grade bikinis and looked like a pinwheel doing round-off's in the sand. I’d follow behind her, attempting handstands with lanky legs and a slight belly, balancing for a second, then falling over. I lusted for her attention, and for a brief moment in summer, she gave it to me. After all, we had the same name.
Although each Memorial Day, she seemed to have doubled the growth I went through that school year; from round-offs and monokinis to boyfriends who threw lit cigarette butts into the dunes. His name was Mikey; he was older, although small-framed, and he never so much as looked my way, even when we all sat in close-shouldered circles under the boardwalk steps passing Big League Chew on the cool sand.
Then one summer another Emily came to be; we couldn't believe the irony...three Emilys, one beach. For a moment I had thought our crew had blossomed, we’d become “and then there were three.” But she was taller, legs of a young woman, her calves flexed with grace while she showed us her back handspring. And one grade older than my Emily made her two years and a lifetime older than me.
Just like that, I was over. The Emilys took off, and left me in my mother's beach chair, sitting among pretzel bags and Boggle games now suddenly embarrassing, drowning in the tedium of college cost conversations and AARP magazines. I sucked my loneliness from a water ice and watched with an amateur cherry mustache as the new Emilys owned the 50th street beach like it was their personal teenage sandbox. Afternoons, I’d cry alone in the privacy of an outdoor shower back home, knowing she would never speak to me again.
She became close with my older brother. They smoked pot under the basketball street-lights, the fluorescence lighting up their sunburn. I sat home staring at the sunset while helping my mom rinse tomatoes and basil in a kitchen sink. The plant seems to be wilting early this year, she’d say, I wonder what happened. Emily would arrive on the stone steps during dinner and call his name, and I’d try not to dream of an invitation as he left his rigatoni rings on a plate and slid out the screen door.
Over the years, I’ve collected details of her whereabouts like an archeologist. The addiction, the depression, the weight that piled onto her thighs. One summer while home from college, I looked up from my novel and saw her in the distance, long jeans and a dark T-shirt perched on a towel by the water. I waved from a distance. She waved back.
Then, she all but disappeared. The beach became a place where I’d remember her, but in her absence, my own story etched its way through.
She used her baby brother’s gun. When I heard the news, I already had two girls of my own and a small apartment in the Bronx. I still see him so small-- a fair-skinned child on that beach, toddling back and forth, heavy in a long-sleeved wetsuit. I don’t know what was harder for me to imagine: a black revolver tucked in his drawer, or her father’s face when he found her dead. The same father that used to fall asleep on his belly in the sun, wake up with one cheek burnt and red, the two of us leaning over him, cackling.
Some would shake their heads in sadness, think: well, that’s the way it goes, as if it is some rule that she who begins life too fast will finish last. That she became the “fallen” Emily, and I the one still standing. I can’t agree, because I guess I don't believe that’s true. Our lives aren't the plot diagrams and ironies of a screenplay or best-seller. They are all the screenplays and best-sellers shoved into a blender and chopped into liquid, splattered on the wall. And yes, my life resume may look ok, but during an interview you would quickly get to the unsavory meat of me that had no place in bullet-points or bold.
We are all just fluctuating mixtures of perfection and flaws.
Now, on that same beach with a new generation of seagulls and sand, I watch my own daughter chasing around the girl with the blonde bun, her chin protruding as she tries to tell her anything and everything and hopes she will listen. Other children wade ankle deep gathering rocks, as mine tries to collect relationships, conversation, put it in a bucket and take it home. Their eyes connect with the sand crabs and broken shells, and her eyes long for a friend, someone to teach her how to do a roundoff, to bring her in, accept her briefly, then, like the waves, deposit her on the shore before disappearing back out to sea.
And I always see Emily, her ghost alive on the sand. She smiles, wisps of brown blowing in the wind, and I feel glad for all those days she loved--even without me-- and grateful that our futures agree to hide.
Emily James is a teacher and writer in NYC. She is the submissions 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.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.