M. Scott LowellThe Miami Beach salt water feels warm swirling around his ankles as it makes its eager retreat from the shoreline. He steps in a little further, bends at the waist, and begins to carefully finger the sand from between his toes. He continues his meticulous work, moving in progression from one toe to the next, from right foot to left, until he’s satisfied he’s left no trace of the day’s sand between his toes or around the nails.
He steps, delicately, from the water, all ten toes pointing up to keep them from sinking into the tightly packed wet sand at the shore. The hot July sun bakes his already burned and peeling shoulders, and makes his nose sweat beneath its protective coating of zinc oxide. He ignores his burning skin and gives himself over to the warmth, allowing his thoughts to lose focus, his mind to drift, his body to relax.
For the first time since this family vacation began two weeks earlier, he is completely at ease. Anger does not hang overhead like the southern moss he’s seen sucking the life from every tree. On this day, he has not shamed his father.
He returns his attention to the job at hand and approaches his moccasins, waiting where he prudently left them. Beyond the reach of the waves. But safely within his reach.
When he’s a few inches from the moccasins, he stops and takes a firm stance before lifting up his right foot, his lean arms outstretched — like those of a tight-rope walker — as he tries to balance on one leg his gangly five-foot-eight-inch, 105-pound frame. He points his toes to ease the foot’s entrance into the clean, dry comfort of the well-worn moccasin.
But he misjudges.
The big toe hits the leather upper and flips the moccasin on its side. His foot continues its unexpected descent, toes pointing downward, plunging directly into the soft, deep sand.
“You moron … What the hell is wrong with … You … Goddamn … You stupid … You! Idiot! Get over here!” his father roars from fifty feet away on the very narrow strip of beach.
The rage might be because he brought his moccasins down to the water. Or because he put his wet foot in the sand. It might be that he was just moronic enough to think that what he had been doing had been a good and clever idea. Or, he realizes, it is most likely because his father is ashamed of this sissy son he produced.
At this distance he cannot see, but can easily imagine, his father’s tongue bluntly jutting between clenched teeth, biting the ends off each sentence. He closes his eyes, but cannot lose the image of the vein in his father’s temple pulsating furiously — dangerously, he’s always convinced, near to bursting.
Through his tears, he desperately scans the beach and is relieved to see only two strangers bearing witness to his humiliation. He’ll have to walk past them, a man and a woman in their twenties. A grown-up boy and girl, really. College students, perhaps. They observe the scene like a tennis match. Their heads pivot from the father to the son.
The father. The son.
He notices that they’re both attractive. They’re not awkward. The man is slender, but not skinny. He doesn’t look like a sissy. He’s sure he’s not a loathsome disappointment to his father.
He tries to rein in his emotions, but cannot. He wails back at his father in a voice now choked with tears, “Leave me alone!”
“Leave you alone? I’ll leave you alone! You … You Goddamn son of a …” and then his father really does bite his tongue. His face is vivid red. With a roar, he spits out his final words, “Shit-for-brains!”
He stands at the shoreline tearfully slipping his feet into the moccasins. His left foot feels smooth and clean against the leather. The right foot is wrapped in sandpaper.
The short distance up the beach to the parking lot looks to be miles away as he takes his first, tentative steps onto the dry sand. He can just begin to make out the expressions on the faces of his big sister and little brother.
This is nothing new to Claire, who is 16. She stands straight, rigid, tightly clutching her rainbow-striped beach towel. Her head is tilted back and slightly to one side, leaving her long chestnut hair to hang loosely over one shoulder. Her delicate chin juts forward. He knows the posture. He knows her chin is dimpled from the effort to hold back her tears.
Eight-year-old Chip holds his pail and shovel and numbly watches the scene.
Their mother quietly repacks the white Styrofoam cooler for the drive back to the hotel. He sees her look, anxiously, toward her elder son and whisper something to her husband. A brief, gentle reminder that they’re in public, he assumes. Appearances are everything to his mother.
As he continues his awful progress to the parking lot, passing the two sun-bathers, he hears the male voice softly say, “Poor kid.”
He’s shocked. Struck dumb by this sentiment. This empathy. He hadn’t said, “Stupid faggot.” He had said, “Poor kid.”
He steals a glance in the stranger’s direction and sees a handsome face; heavy-lidded, dark brown eyes; a warm, kind expression. When their eyes meet, he hastily looks away and doesn’t look back, his pace now fueled by his anger.
He finally reaches the car, an aging, white Rambler station wagon. Claire is waiting for him, but he’s unable to meet her gaze. Their mother is already seated in front, facing completely forward, the expression on her face unreadable in profile. Chip sits quietly in the middle of the back seat, safety belt fastened.
He and Claire shake the sand from their towels before spreading them on the car seat. They solemnly take their places on either side of Chip and fasten their seat belts.
He turns his head slightly and, through the corner of his eye, can see his father angrily stowing the beach gear in back, his expression grim and filled with disgust — eyes narrowed, nostrils flaring, jaw rigid, his thin lips pinched, barely visible, into a tight sneer.
After the back of the station wagon is closed, but before the driver’s door is opened, Claire whispers in the direction of the front seat, “What was the big deal? He wasn’t even doing anything.”
Their mother continues to stare straight ahead and does not betray a breath as she hurriedly whispers back — half order, half plea — “Just be quiet.”
The driver’s door opens. And, without a word, their father takes his place, fastens his safety belt, and starts the car. Except for the roar from the old Rambler’s engine when he pumps the gas, all is silent.
By the time he shifts the car into reverse, the boy’s eyes are dry. He sits rigidly. His posture is perfect.
He feels a slight pinch and looks down to see a bloated mosquito feeding on his forearm.
He freezes and holds his breath.
He observes in stony silence.
Then, nostrils flaring, body held perfectly still, he takes his right hand and quickly, furiously, slaps it down on the engorged insect.
When he lifts his hand, he reveals a forearm stained with blood, as is his palm.
He has left an angry handprint.
He sneers and — eyes narrowed, jaw rigid, lips pinched — exhales silently through flared nostrils, and leans back into the smoldering vinyl seat.
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