The sand felt like little ants crawling between her toes. She ran, feet plunking into the seashore, ready to dive into the great blue. Ready to disappear. The waves made her body sway, and she liked feeling out of control. She liked that no one was there to hold her or talk to her, just a faceless entity strong enough to stop a city, moving her to its own beat. … Janae Williams felt the agony of sitting in class, pen in hand, but nothing good to say. Everyone around her was scribbling words on their papers like they were born for this type of thing, and she sat, completely clueless.
The close reading questions in front of her blurred on the page. Fake it till’ you make it, her mom would say, but she couldn’t find it in herself to focus, to read, to write, to think. Her mother was gone. Her eyes began to burn at the thought.
She gazed out of the window watching the early rays of the sun glint off the dew drops glistening on the grass. Those drops would be gone within the hour, they would rise into the air, and return as rain. They would water the earth, grow crops, quench thirst. Their purpose was monumental, yet she couldn’t even write one word without wishing for her mother’s guiding hand.
"Janae," she glanced up, heart beating slightly faster, “Any thoughts on question one?"
She looked down at her blank paper.
Everyone's eyes were trained on her, heads swiveled towards her to gauge her response, eyes burned into the back of her head. She could feel everything. Were they thinking about her mother too? Janae shook her head.
Her teacher sighed. "Would anyone like to share?"
One person, two people, three—she didn't know, she couldn't count—raised their hands, and their answers all blurred together in her mind. Ms. Brandon jumped back into the lesson, and her thoughts drifted away once again, barely within her reach.
Seconds turned into minutes and minutes turned into hours and one could only hope that the days would blur too. But time passed, class ended, and life grew completely unavoidable.
The school bell’s ring shocked her ears, and she was brought back to the living, breathing society of high school. Janae hated being among the living, ever since her mother died. Two months, 19 days, and 21 hours. She didn’t want to remember, didn’t want to keep count, but it was the default of her mind. How long has it been? How long will it take? Her father was Humpty Dumpty, every day he fell off the bridge and she had to piece him back together. His grief was nothing like her own. He had lost a lover, and she a confidant, a loving creator. She pulled her frizzing hair into a bun and made her way out of the classroom, her body already heading toward the entrance of the school. People bustled around her, fiddling with their lockers or rushing to the cafeteria to be first in line for food. She wasn’t hungry. And she didn’t want to be around people any longer. What she longed for, was space from the world. Why did she have to go back to school anyway?
You’ve missed too much already, Jay. I know it’s hard, but you have to continue, her dad had said just a few days ago. A few days and she was already ditching class because she couldn’t handle the quick pace of teenagers. She didn’t want to see students getting picked up from school by their mothers, or hear people exchanging jokes in the hallways.
To hear them laugh, to see happiness glistening like stars in their eyes, to see the genuine smile she felt she could no longer give. It hurt to be reminded of how hard her mother used to make her laugh with those silly phrases of hers. Your father looks like he’s going to combust if he takes another bite, she'd joked once at the dinner table, earning a seething glare from Dad.
Oh, and her mother’s laugh was the best. Loud and rambunctious, the usual snort included here and there. Her mouth would open wide and her teeth would shine against her dark skin. Just thinking of that laugh made Janae smile sadly.
Mom? Where are you? I miss you.
“Girl!” Janae saw Jenna moving toward her, forcing a path through the crowded hallway. Janae looked at her through heavy lidded eyes and her lips didn’t quirk as they usually would at Jenna's growing afro, her giant circular glasses, dressed straight out of the 80s.
“I’m leaving,” was all Janae said. She didn’t bother to grab her textbooks from her locker, she didn’t even bother to look Jenna in the eye before turning away. She couldn’t bear the confusion she would see there, the sadness, and then the confidence. Jenna thought she was a bandage. She always made it her mission to solve every problem. Right now, Janae was her problem — a friend struck down by grief, who needed help getting back up.
She remembered those weeks after the accident. They were in the ice-cream shop just a block from her house. There was silence, until Jenna opened her mouth.
You gotta keep smiling Jay, just do the things that make you happy.
You don’t get it. You can’t. Just leave me alone. Janae had thrown the ice-cream Jenna had bought her into the trash and walked out of the shop. She thought she could throw their friendship away with the cone, but here Jenna was, the most determined best friend there ever was.
“Wait! Janae, it’s barely lunch.” Janae felt the shake in Jenna’s voice, she felt Jenna’s desire to see her friend healed. She knew Jenna was likely pushing up her glasses, thinking, thinking, thinking. What do I do? How do I help? She ignored her and walked out of the school. ... It was a Tuesday afternoon when 8-year old Jenna had walked up to 8-year old Janae and asked, “Do you want to play handball with me?”
Janae had reluctantly agreed to play with the tall girl she thought looked too old to be waltzing around her school. She’d taken one look at her beaded braids and crooked smile and decided she would make a friend because you never knew where friendship could lead. That’s what her mother always said.
Jenna always hit the ball so that it went over Janae’s head, and Janae thought that was unfair. The girl was much taller than she was, which meant there wouldn’t really be a chance at winning. But Jenna’s tall agility was encouraging, and Janae found that she liked watching the girl, liked seeing the girl’s face filled with determination, unaffected by the glare of the sun against her glasses. It made her want to do something great. They were giggling like rascals when two boys came up to them and claimed that they were using their handball court.
Jenna shrugged. “Look, there’s one over there.” She pushed up her glasses and was readying her arm for another swing when, “We want this one, duh.” The boy crossed his arms while his friend took a stance beside him, like a tiny bodyguard.
“Duh yourself, I said there is one over there. We were here first.” Janae had decided in that moment, watching Jenna’s slim face scrunch up in confusion and growing frustration, that she would never let her go. They would be together forever, two girls fighting for whatever they wanted.
The boy stepped forward, but Janae was quick to hop into his way. “Go away. We were here first,” she muttered.
He pushed her. It hadn’t been a real push, more like a small shove at her shoulder. Janae had barely budged but Jenna was on him. Jenna in all of her tall and lithe beauty shoved him back with all of her might, so hard he fell onto the other boy. Before they could even react, Jenna grabbed her wrist and off they went. They ran past the playground, past the classrooms, all the way to the overgrown field where they would stay until their parents picked them up, laughing and conjuring up stories from their imaginations. They became best friends that day. ... She was at the beach again, she was staring at the horizon, how far it was and how close it felt. Janae lounged on her back, grabbing fistfuls of the warm sand, and then letting it slide across her palms, filling the gaps under her nails. She knew there would be sand in her hair, and she knew what a pain it would be to wash it out later. The sound of crashing waves was worth every extra second spent in the shower. The feel of the sun beaming down on her. She imagined fish, swimming in those deep depths, able to see in the dark, free to explore the unexplored. Maybe she would be a fish too one day, flipping about, meandering through the corals, saying hello to Ariel and King Triton whenever she stopped by Atlantis.
She saw her mother, sun-bathing on the beach with giant sunglasses, not a care in the world. She saw her holding her small wrist, guiding her chubby feet into the water. She told her that the ocean was her friend, and that it would carry her to all parts of the world, wherever she wanted to go. In that same memory, Janae and her mother were lounging on the living room floor, bodies bent over a map of the world. Her mother had guided her little hands over the faded blue coloring, the one beauty in the world that connected everyone. It was that faceless entity, that made her feel both close and distant. She reached out her hand, as if trying to take hold of the salty water, trying to grab the ocean’s hand and let it guide her to its heart. But then she heard her mother’s voice, always reminding, always knowing. Don’t you have homework to do?
The minute she turned the lock to her house, she remembered what she had been waiting for. When she stepped into the house, she knew her dad had remembered too. He gave her a great big hug. Her dad, who had only left his room for work and the food she forced him to eat.
“You got in!” You got in. She saw the big envelope, she saw her name printed on the front of it. From Harvard University. You got in. The memory hit her like a punch to the stomach.
She remembered coming home one evening to her mother typing furiously on her laptop, sprawled across the couch, constantly pushing up her glasses as they slipped down her tilted nose. “Janae, you should apply to Harvard.”
“Girl, because it’s Harvard!” Janae had cocked a brow at her mother, and her mother had looked at her and laughed that loud, wonderful laugh. Her teeth gleamed under the living room lights and Janae couldn’t help but giggle along. There was always room for laughter with her mother, always room for mischief and mystery.
Her dad was in the kitchen, cooking up whatever concoction he’d found online. She remembered how her mother had made room when she’d slumped down beside her, how her mother somehow read her insecurity straight from her eyes and said, “Come on, let’s do it together,” her excitement bubbling at the prospect of her daughter receiving a college education. They’d started that night, had even allowed her father to chime in with his questionable suggestions. She didn’t know much about Harvard, and the only reason she’d written out that application was because her mother had asked her to.
Suddenly she was back, glimpsing her mother’s smile in a frame, wishing that her warm body was there to embrace her, feeling her loss more than ever.
She stared hard at the envelope and the tears came faster than the shock. Dad, she was saying, Daddy. She began to cry in her father’s arms, feeling the nostalgia hit her in the back of her throat. She saw an image of her mother walking through the door right that moment, a smile exploding over her face, her body beginning to move into a giddy hop, the happiness and pride at seeing her daughter’s acceptance into a higher education. But it wasn’t real, she’d never see that smile on her mother’s face, never feel her excitement radiating like sunlight into those around her.
“I know,” he whispered, “She would be so happy—” a pause, and then “We will get through this, Jay, I promise.” Janae heard the determination fall into his voice, as if it wasn’t quite sure it wanted to be there. She felt his arms tighten around her—her father, who had relied on his two girls, had found his happiness through them. Her father who had driven her to the movies instead of school one day because he knew she was stressed, her father who loved to cook, but didn’t know how to, who was a human being broken by the loss of his beautiful wife. Somehow this letter, it meant more to him than it may ever mean to her, it was a parent’s pride, their success found in their children. She would never understand what he felt, but her arms tightened impossibly around his waist.
“Jay! Janae!” She could already hear the acceptance letter in Jenna’s voice. She could hear the excitement, she could see Jenna hopping up and down in the middle of her living room, Jenna’s mother screaming as though the sky was finally raining men. She saw Jenna's father, giving a curt nod, secret pride brimming in his hard stare. She saw beauty in that picture, joy and pride and beauty. It was there, just within her reach, but it wasn’t hers.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and quickly turned toward that ever-beaming face. “I didn’t get in, okay?” she snapped. Lie.
Jenna’s face scrunched. “What, but I was sure—"
“Well, I didn’t.” The shock was apparent in Jenna’s face, she looked as though she were ready to fold in on herself. Through all of the pain, the envy, the disgust, she felt a tinge of guilt weigh heavy in her chest. Janae wasn't sure why she lied, maybe she just wasn't ready to be happy about something yet. Not when every time she smiled, she was reminded that her mother wasn't there to smile with her. The beach, the ocean, the waves, it was the one place she felt truly at home. It promised her adventure, a journey that might lead to her mother. Janae kept her face neutral.
“Congratulations. I knew you’d get in.” Janae said as she looked away. She wanted to smell salt in the air, she wanted to look at her feet through the rushing water, she wanted to be in her father’s arms.
“Janae I—" Jenna started, but Janae couldn’t predict what she was going to say, and the possibility of it being pity made her cringe.
“Look, we don’t have to talk about it,” she muttered. And that was all. The rest of the walk toward their lockers was made in silence. Silence seemed to be the new foundation of their relationship. Janae wondered if it was because of her. She wondered if the grief made Jenna uncomfortable, and she waited for the day when Jenna would stop calling her, or smiling at her, or talking to her. It was all too much, and she hated it. She hated that she couldn’t laugh without feeling guilty, or that she couldn’t predict when she would feel like herself again.
She could see the future: Jenna gone, making new friends, stressing over college classes and then acing them, discovering Boston without the girl who was never able to move on. She saw herself still floating in limbo, packing for college, disappointing her father, failing her mother. She would make friends, she had to. Maybe join a club or some program to distract her, to help her move past all of this. It was like a huge, ginormous weight. Harvard. A bright path was ready to be walked upon, and yet her lips did not form a happy smile, her heart did not swell with pride at her acceptance, the empty look in her eye did not change.
When they sat down for lunch, Janae saw Jenna’s eyes fixed on the table, and that tinge of guilt made her heart twist in shame for not speaking to her friend, for not wanting to speak. She knew there was nothing she could explain, there was nothing she could say other than I’m sorry. It made her want to pull her hair out. She wanted to be kind, she didn’t want her next words to feel forced. For she had just lost her mother, and she felt that she did not have room in her heart for courtesy.
“Jenna,” she watched her bite into her favorite peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, watched her look away, which she only did when she was trying to hide how she felt.
“Jenna, look, I didn’t mean to snap at you.” She began, twisting her hands sheepishly, hoping her friend could still look at her the same. Jenna’s eyes scanned her own and suddenly Janae felt self-conscious, continuing, “I just haven’t been feeling well, I—”
Jenna looked pointedly at her friend. “Jay, there's no need to explain. I understand.”
Janae’s hope was quickly diminished by the rising frustration she felt again. She looked at Jenna, as she chomped on her PB&J, as she adjusted her glasses, waved at a friend passing by. She would never understand. Not ever. Janae could never make her understand, and that was the worst part. Janae looked down at her clasped hands, feeling out of place, angry, and selfish all at the same time. She would not cry at the lunch table. She would not.
One night her mother was driving, and then she wasn’t. She was flying, the car tumbling through the air, crashing to the ground, and that was it. Drunk driver. They were all in the hospital, gathered around her dying mother, when a woman approached Janae, an extended family member she occasionally saw at parties. Hold her hand, she’d beckoned, taking Janae’s wrist, hold your mother as she goes.
The little restraint she’d had burst into dying embers. She wanted nothing more than to rip her arm from the woman’s grasp and shove her away, she didn’t want to be in that hospital, she didn’t want to do anything. Janae had backed away from the woman as if she were a viper and retreated into her father’s arms. That memory plagued her in her dreams. The image of her mother’s pale face, the false liveliness situated in her mother’s final moments before the casket closed forever.
She went straight to the beach after school, just barely making it through an entire day without bursting. Hours upon hours spent staring into that sparkling surface, drawing patterns in the sand, thinking about everything she wished weren’t true. She decided then that the ocean would be her resting place. She didn’t know when her time would come, or how or why, but it would be her final request, to be set free into a familiar yet unknown world. Her soul would be lost in the crash of the waves, the seagulls call, the sway. She could lay in the sand for the rest of her life, so close to her mother, so far from her life, and a wave away from destruction.
Why don’t you ever go out? You’ve got spunk, you’ve got love, you’ve got life, go out and do something, her mother’s voice echoed.
Janae was such a home-body. Most of the time, she didn’t want to be with anyone other than her family. She hated that she hadn’t been with her mother that night. She hated that she hadn’t sensed death in the air, that she wasn’t a character from a book that could see danger and react just as fast. Would she worry every time her father left the house? Would her heart thunder in the minutes that passed while she thought of every horrible scenario possible? She must be cursed. Destined to fear who would be next, to live in the thought of losing another.
The only escape was distraction. Something snapped in her.
She’d heard from a friend that there was a party happening that night. She was going. And she would have fun. It was somewhere on a local college campus she might’ve gone to, and she hoped this would be a cliché: grieving girl gets drunk at college party and re-discovers her purpose in the world. Of course, it could always be: grieving girl wakes up with massive hangover and intensified depression. Excellent. She was going to this party alone, just as she wanted to be.
It was a jumping party, music spilling out of the doors and windows and cracks. “Come on in!” someone yelled to her. Inside, the music made her body thrum and she was excited to really be somewhere she didn’t have to worry about anything. Not Jenna, not college, not even herself.
Before she knew it, her face felt warm, and she wasn’t feeling the pumping beat of the song that played. She stepped out into the darkened backyard, grateful for the cool night air. Looking up at the stars was like looking at a map written in a different language, but for a moment she saw her mother’s face smiling down at her. She saw her eyes twinkling as two stars in a vast and unknown sky. Despite the music, the sound of her mother’s laugh on the wind coaxed tears to her eyes. Her mother’s warm voice was there, it’s okay, it’s okay to cry.
The backyard was big and she could hear the trees swaying, almost like the ocean's waves brushing against the shore. The blue midnight was so palpable, she thought she could cup it in her hands. She felt the warm earth beneath her, and heard the ocean’s call echoing in her memories as she stared at stars that reminded her of the dazzling light now gone from her life. And although the loud party continued only a few yards away, she did not hear the music, or feel the energy pulsing from the dancers, she only knew the tumble of emotions that pierced her heart.
Was this what it felt like to drown?
Leaning her head against the rough wood of a thick trunk, she closed her eyes as the breeze caressed her bare neck. She let herself give into that vulnerability, and tried to imagine herself as a girl who hadn’t a single worry. She didn’t know what she wanted, didn’t know the real reason why she had lied to Jenna, her best friend, her sister. She didn’t even know what she wanted to be, who she wanted to be, who she was, when she was, why she was, where she was. She took a shuddering breath and willed the tears away. This had to pass, this emotional mountain she was falling down had to end somewhere. She just hoped that somewhere wouldn’t be a lonely place.
She heard rustling next to her and felt a warm hand on her shoulder. She could barely see through the tears that stood in her eyes but made out Jenna’s concerned face.
“What are you doing here?” Janae wanted to sound fierce but the emotion in her throat dulled the fire in her voice. Jenna looked around warily, rubbing her shoulder. Janae remembered the last time they’d gone to a party. They were barely an hour in when Jenna had run to her from wherever she’d been. She grabbed her arm. “I’m uncomfortable, Jay,” she’d said and that was it. Janae took her hand and they’d left, grabbing burgers at the local diner a few blocks down. But she hadn’t missed the scared look in Jenna’s eye, the red hand prints on her waist she caught whenever her shirt rode up. She hadn’t asked questions. She knew she would talk when she wanted to.
“I-I followed you here.” Jenna looked Janae straight in the eyes, never one to back down, but the tremor in her voice betrayed her. She knew Jenna was nervous, but she didn’t know if it was the party or her.
“You were spying on me?” Janae just wanted to be alone. She didn’t want to put on a poker face so that Jenna didn’t have to feel sorry or guilty. She didn’t want to be with someone who could only say I’m sorry over and over again because death rendered people speechless, it made people too sensitive. Jenna was her best friend, the last person she wanted to push away, but she couldn’t help it.
“Why?” The tone of her voice tasted bitter in her mouth. Jenna cared so much—so much care that Janae didn’t know what to do with it.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, and she could see Jenna trying to mask the hurt. She watched her search the depths of her mind trying to find something right to say. Jenna took a breath.
“I don’t understand. And I’m sorry I said I did.” Janae wasn’t sure what she was talking about, until it dawned on her. Lunchtime, the frustration. “I want to be there for you so badly, Jay. I want to know everything you are going through, everything you feel so that you are not alone. But I can’t. I won’t ever, but you have to know that I will always be here. I may not know what to say or do, but I will always look out for you.”
The tears finally spilled over as her heart constricted. They were tears of frustration and love. Janae cried because Jenna was the type of friend that didn’t care if you wanted to be alone, or hated her, she would always go to you. She thought of all the times Jenna had been there, through bad grades, bullies, even class presentations. She’d always given her strength, confidence, and to see such heartbreak in her eyes … Janae could not understand what it was like to be that selfless, that beautiful. For the first time, Jenna didn’t hug her while she cried. She didn’t say anything.
Janae managed to croak the truth she’d been yearning to say. “I lied. About Harvard.” She looked away from Jenna, tilting her head to the sky.
And she was back in that elementary school field, making her first real friend, and who’s this young lady? That’s Jenna, she’s my best friend, she’d told her mother in her thrilled little voice. Her mother’s presence was there now, taking her hand, and placing it into Jenna’s open palm. It’s okay, it’s okay that I’m not there, her mother’s voice rang through her like the deep tones of a far-off bell.
Jenna wrapped her slim arms around Janae’s form as best she could. They held onto each other, and Janae knew she didn’t have to explain anything to Jenna. Because she did understand, she understood enough to let Janae shed her tears in silence, in the arms of someone that loved her. Deep down, she knew that somewhere could never be lonely.