She followed her father to the beach without asking any questions.
He hadn’t really said anything to her before they left, he just looked over his shoulder and she followed him out the door. She was relieved to follow, to leave that house.
For days, extended family, friends, strangers visited their home and then left. But she sat quietly on the couch. “So well-behaved,” everyone said. So quiet. For days, she sat like that.
All she understood was that her grandmother was in her parent’s bed, very weak. Standing next to the bed, she could see her gramma’s chest slowly swelling and falling, but had not seen her do much more than that lately. The house soon became humid with heavy eyes and sobs, muffled by embraces.
Those days were lonely for her.
Even inside of her parents’ hugs, she felt like they were keeping a secret from her. Words about love, life and regrets flooded her ears until she forgot what the words meant. She sat observing her own family like an unseen child-stranger in her home.
And that was where her father found her, quietly sitting in the living room, sailing away in confusion behind her eyes. She was surprised to be seen by him then, feeling so far from physical visibility.
He turned back to another old couple that was leaving, embracing her father, whispering and forcing wet, blurry smiles. Her father stood in the doorway, watching them gingerly walk away.
And then he gives her that look. The look that says, follow me, I’m going to tell you.
She follows him silently to the beach. “Sit, sweetheart.” They both sit in the damp sand in their pressed clothes.
“Your gramma, your gramma is on her way,” he hesitates nervously. “Your gramma is…” he stops awkwardly, aware of his own uncertainty. Every time he says “gramma” she feels her heart fold inwards.
They sit together quietly, silenced by a fierce set of swells breaking on the sand.
“Your gramma is going to take her seat on the bottom of the ocean” he finally spits out, satisfied. She looks at him sideways. Her confusion was finally comfortably sitting on her surface.
“Sit….. close your eyes…. listen to the ocean. Listen, the ocean is breathing.”
She imagines a face in the middle of the blue surface, perking its lips and pushing air in and out like a straw. She squeezes air through her nose until her eyelids crinkle and then blows out through her lips flapping with over-effort.
“Do you know what makes the ocean breathe?”
She hears the question but keeps on breathing. Squeezing in through her nose. Blowing clumsily and loudly out her mouth.
“When gramma takes her seat, she will be surrounded by friends. Friends she knew in this life and friends she didn’t know she had. They will surround her, all sitting on the bottom of the ocean. She will look around her before she sits and realize her friends surround her. And when she sits, her seat will sink into the wet sand on the ocean floor.”
As her father speaks, her breath unfolds in her chest and relaxes. She thought of her gramma walking downhill from the shore to the bottom of the ocean. She saw her knees disappear under the water, then her hips, then her long grey ponytail. She saw gramma’s new underwater smile widen at her friends circling her. She felt her own seat soften into the sand as she thought of her gramma taking her seat.
“Soon gramma will be breathing softly, not just through her nose and mouth, but through space behind her ears, elbows and the palms of her hands. Her skin will become blue, like the color of the ocean, and as she sits her entire body will begin to inhale and exhale, like her nose and mouth.”
“Will gramma ever speak again?”
“When she first sits down, she may still smile to a little fish that swims past, especially if the fish reminds her of her granddaughter, but she won’t move, she will just smile, maybe even a very small smile, one the fish can barely see, until she swims away.”
“Will the fish see her?”
“Yes at first, the fish will be able to see her, and she might bite at her toes or swim around her in circles. But after a while, gramma will be full of ocean water and you will only see her smile, and then, and even though she will always be there breathing, the fish won’t see her body or her smile the way it was used to seeing her.”
She feels the weight of the ocean in her palms until she winces, squeezing her eyes shut tight. “What happens to gramma after she stops smiling?”
“She keeps breathing, at the bottom of the ocean, through her whole body, her palms, her elbows, the bottom of her feet. Listen.”
She listens to the swells breaking on the shore again and, this time, instead of seeing a face on the surface of the water, she sees thousands, their seats outlined in gold at the bottom of the ocean, none exactly like her gramma, but all familiar. All breathing, not in unison, but each steadily.
“So I’ll never see gramma again, even if I was a little fish swimming at the bottom of the ocean?” She feels her heart folding in again.
“Of course you will see her. Open your eyes.”
She blinks her eyes open to a new swell coming in. A long blue arm rises out of the surface until whitewater fingers separate, pointing towards the sky before curling in on herself. She smiles at its friendliness.
“She will always wave back at you,” he smiled wide.
Her eyes dance on the white water to the musical waving from a thousand beings breathing below, not in unison, but each steadily:
Hello, hola, ola.
Ole, ale, allah,
A dios, buenas dias,
Gott, gruess gott, atmen,
Breath, God bless.
Cinta Lora sits, breathes and surfs in Brooklyn, NY.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta