Tides | Sara Freeman | Granta


Sara Freeman

On the long bus journey out, she doesn’t cry or even have a single thought that she can name. She watches the dark impossibility of the road instead, the mostly empty seats ahead of her, the head of a woman a few rows up, listing forward and then jolting back. She does not sleep. She wants to be awake to make her declaration at the border. She will show her passport and when they ask, Where to? she will say without hesitation, The sea.

She does not have to leave. No one says: You must go. No clothes thrown out the window, no eviction notice. Her husband is already gone by then; she was the one to tell him that he had to go. She could say it was the baby – her brother’s and his wife’s. His sweet squawking through the open window in the apartment beneath hers. She could no longer live in this fixed way: their joy so firmly lodged beneath her grief. She could say that.

The motel advertises an ocean breeze but is nowhere near the beach. She waits in the small room, for something, for someone. She has turned her phone off, but she still feels it in her palm, waiting to bleat back to life. To deliver what message? I love you. I miss you. Come back. She left a note for her brother and his wife. No explanation or apology. I’ll be fine! That’s what she wrote. She asks at the reception desk about another motel, nearer the water this time. The woman behind the counter has eyebrows like tadpoles swimming lazily across her forehead. She says there is a town she might like, remote, for rich folks mostly, about thirty miles up the coast. There is a hostel there too. She puts her index finger on a map, her nail filed down to a tidy point. This one is canary yellow, the surrounding ones sky blue.

She gets a ride from a man who is delivering ice across the state. His eyes are blue and inflamed, his hands raw and meaty. The town sign reads: this road leads to rome, with an ugly drawing of the Colosseum, followed by the population, 2,353. When she gets out in the town’s central square, she touches the hard shell of the truck with gratitude and it is so cold, the hairs on her arm stand up.

There is no coliseum in this Rome. Instead, a supermarket, a Greek restaurant, an Italian restaurant, a seafood spot, an ice-cream shop, a wine store, a laundromat, a pub, an inn, a garden center, a health center, a hardware store, a library, a clothing store, a pharmacy, a marina and a dump.

The sea, in this new town, is surprisingly hard to get to. It is somehow everywhere and nowhere. She needs an invitation, a private viewing: through the stately homes, and onto the other side, where everything is vast and pristine. The other her, the one she left behind, would have easily slid between the giant piles, past the outdoor furniture, past the slim lounging bodies and their pure-bred dogs. Everything belonged to her then; that was back when she believed that nothing that could so easily be had wasn’t somehow already hers.

From her bedroom window in the hostel, she can see it best: the sea and its expanse, edging in and then pulling back. She doesn’t want to be in it yet. It is warm out, but she still feels frozen, blood-let, fleshless. She is content, for now, to watch the comings and goings from afar.

In the evenings, she walks along the town’s main drag. It is shaped like a horseshoe. She often sees the same faces twice, on the way to the ice-cream shop, and then on their way back. There are often tears on the return journey, mostly children’s, but on one occasion a grown woman’s and her wife’s. Once desire is met, she thinks, there is only turning back from it. There is not much to do or see in the town at night: just tourists dining al fresco, prodding swordfish slabs and slurping oysters. A busker nearby crooning, Oh, oh, Mexico, as if he might be in this town in error. The first nights, she stops and finds a place among the small crowd gathered before him. But one evening, mid-song, he looks up and greets her with a complicit nod. Now, when she hears the busker’s familiar sound, she passes by without so much as looking up.

She asks around at the hostel, and they tell her she is right: the prettiest beaches are cut off by the houses. It wasn’t always like this, they say, the coastline so private and all. Some of the richest families used to turn a blind eye, but not anymore. In a few weeks, once the season is over, then that’s a whole different story. For now there’s the public beach, of course, but that’s nothing to write home about. That’s good, because she’s not planning to write home about anything. They laugh, hearing her say this, and she thinks for a moment that nothing much has changed: she can say a few words in the right order and get people to love her for a moment.

She finds it, flanked by the supermarket and the garden center: a slip of public sand. There is an orange tent set up at the far end of the beach and two pairs of swollen, mangled feet sticking out. When she walks by, the screen is zipped halfway down, so that she can’t see any faces, she can only hear the syncopated sound of their snoring.

She wonders what she will do when the money runs out. The thought is sticky, the first one like this, insisting on its own importance. It seems absurd somehow, that she must think of it, make something of this thought. The beach ends and there is a large expanse of dark, jagged rocks. She walks across the fraught ground, canvas shoes sliding dangerously beneath her. She slips and catches herself then slips again and falls hard on the rock. Not pain, just the feeling of everything coming up from within. She sits there, looking around, for someone, a witness to her fall, a hand to grip as she steadies herself back up. But there is no one, just the dome of orange light tented in the distance.

She buys a large lemonade filled with crushed ice and drinks it until her teeth and brain are numb. She shuts her eyes hard and when she opens them again, she is surprised to find that everything is still there: the lemonade truck, a few waves quietly churning in the distance, the sand, dank and gray, waiting to be touched.

She wakes one morning, clutching her stomach. No time has passed; her husband is by her side. He touches her rounded stomach with his palm. Nearly there, he says, speaking into her belly button. She is awake now, her palm on her own skin, the fingers cold and thin. Her belly is nearly concave, more than empty. She has been gone for three days, maybe four, or maybe it is six, and since then she has eaten a sleeve of saltines, some peanut butter from a spoon, a few beers, a lemonade, some fries and some licorice. She is saving money; she doesn’t have much left. One thousand seven hundred and thirty-three. If she needs more, she’ll turn the phone on, write her brother a message. He has never said no to her before. His only sister. She’ll write to him and say something like this: I am changing. Or better yet: I have changed.

She sees children everywhere, in the flesh, but also in what they leave behind: striped swimsuits hanging over banisters and beach chairs, colorful pails discarded on the beach. When she sees them, children and their traces, she turns her head away. It is her head that does the turning. She speaks, as though defending herself before a jury: This is not about that.

At the town’s small marina, day trippers clump around the seafood spot, composing their seaside shots: plush pink lobster rolls, heaped French fries snapped from above. In the background, a row of handsome wooden yachts, sterns wagging; a fisherman, sun-creased and smoking, unloading his mid-August catch. She doesn’t stay long; the smell here makes her queasy. Fish entrails and sunscreen, cooking oil reused one time too many.

In a shop window along the main drag, she spots a letterpress sign: keep rome off the map. In this town, the patrician crowd don their modesty like a crown: beat-up station wagons, worn-in khakis, styles from thirty years past.

The diner here is famous for its 1950s memorabilia. She sits at the counter and orders the lumberjack special. She pictures a lumberjack laying her across his lap, breaking her, like a twig, in half. She eats a sausage link and one of three sunny-side-up eggs, a bit of the pancake just for the mouthful of syrup. This diner, with its defunct Coke machines and jukeboxes and old graphic lunchboxes, reminds her of her mother’s house, crammed with dangerous nostalgia. A woman and her toddler sit nearby. She spoons cereal into his wet little mouth. He dribbles and she wipes. He dribbles and she wipes. Easy as that. The woman is wearing all linen and a large-brimmed hat; she looks old to be a mother. But who is she to say who is old and who is not? She was thirty-five when she got pregnant, thirty-six when she lost her child. And now she feels one hundred, or maybe only seven years old. She looks a moment too long. Something passes between them, the mother and her, a warm current of it: pity, or maybe its cousin, contempt. When she asks for the bill the man at the counter, pointing to the table where the mother and son were sitting, says, They said to say good luck.

In the bathroom mirror, she lets herself look up. She sees what the woman must have seen: the gaunt face, the hair matted to one side, the lips chapped, the nails bitten to the quick. She splashes cold water on her face and pulls her hair back. She looks nearly dead. This is not that. She looks down at her clothes; they are dirty but intact.

It is hot. The hottest day yet. August, slinking into September. Still hot by the evening, when the sun is a red face dipping its chin into the water. The public beach is empty. Everyone is on their patios sipping Campari and eating pistachios, saying their farewells. She removes her canvas shoes, her jeans and shirt, and moves into the water – sharp and cold as a knife’s edge. She swims out until, when she turns her head, she can no longer make out her clothes bundled up on the sand, just a single line of darkness in the background. The water is bitter now, the moon just a sliver in the night, barely any comfort at all. She is that sliver, she thinks, drowning in the dark. She could die here, so slight and sinking. Nothing but her body to buoy her up. Whatever reserves she had, she has lost them now. She feels a rush of heat around her, her own urine, terror at her own thoughts. She thrashes around, trying to turn back, but even this turning, this changing course, seems impossible: the body has forgotten how to lead. It takes an eternity to move against the current, the arms and legs dumb with disuse and then too much exertion. She kicks hard, and then softer, it is easier this way, without trying at all; she is moving forward and back, lulled by the waves. She is like this forever, until she hits something, a rock, and then her knees hit it too, and she finds that she can crawl. Beneath her, the hard, wet certainty of the ground. She manages to get to her feet, finds her clothes in their pile, falls asleep in a damp heap.

She wakes before the sun and sits up, stiff and cold. She has always wanted this: to slip beneath the surface, to dispossess herself. Now that she has done it, it is hard to remember how her self could have become such a bottomless pit: feed me, fuck me, fill me, love me.

This is what it feels like to slip, she remembers telling her husband, when she was teaching him to ice skate on the Ottawa canal. You can’t teach someone how to slip. He was right: you slip and then you’ve slipped and so you know.

Sometimes, she pictures them: her brother and his wife, discussing her now that she is gone. Impossible, that’s what they would say. Or maybe, instead, beyond repair.

The management has moved her things. You were gone for two nights, they tell her. She can only remember one, but she doesn’t want to fight. Her things include: a toothbrush, a sweater, two T-shirts, one pair of jeans, the biography of a famous chef, all stuffed inside an old backpack with her brother’s initials embroidered on it: p.s.t. They have placed her in the large dormitory. She can tell from the work boots neatly lining the beds that the place is full of men. She buys a six-pack of beer and some cigarettes and brings them with her to the beach. She will wait until the men are sleeping before climbing back into her cot. She lies down. The beer and cigarettes are effective; she feels herself drifting pleasantly into the night. Today she has only eaten half a packet of tea cookies and a banana. The waves are loud, brimming over, coursing to their violent meter. Before she falls asleep, she thinks: This is what babies must hear when they are held inside the womb.