restricted access Reward for Bravery
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Reward for Bravery

I was born on a hill two blocks back from the Pacific Ocean. I was born in a garage apartment that I never saw, and then my parents moved even farther from the shore. That was before my father went back to Vietnam, taken with a violent nostalgia for war and obsessed with creating a family who wasn’t us, and before my mom moved up in the world, at least a little, to the white stucco house with hot pink weeds clamoring all over, the one we live in now. She called those voracious hot pink things a garden, the cactus too. We were close enough to where the rich people lived, so the rich people were our friends, invited my mom to their parties, and I slept in their bedrooms under soft, white comforters. Growing up, the water was everywhere. My best friend, Vee, had a house right on the cliffs. It was the real deal, with shining, silver cars covered up in the garage, and paintings splattered in grays and olive greens hanging on walls, everything worth millions. Her house would also be the first place to go if the earth moved at all underneath it, just sliding right down those cliff walls and being taken by the sea. No one seemed too concerned with that, though they should have been. Vee and I knew how precarious every structure was, including our own little skeletons, the black hole of ourselves, the crumpling center of our chests where each breath went.

It didn’t matter what else we knew about geography; when we stood on Vee’s deck we knew it was the edge of the whole entire world, and also the end. In those days no one’s parents were concerned about the strength of the tide. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted. Even when we were far younger, we chased the edge of the water, smooth rocks in our hands, imaginary contests unfolding, as our parents stood with their backs to us. We took our shoes off when the water came in and trapped us along the cliffs, but nothing bad ever happened. We saw the lagoons of green far out, farther than we could swim. We were never trapped long. Our backs pressed against the red [End Page 20] silt, and the tide fell back again. In that way we were freed, again and again.

“There are two tides each day,” Vee recited patiently, her wind-snarled hair pressed to her salty mouth. We both knew equal amounts about the water. I knew about the pressing core of the deep that lured sailors downward. I knew about the broken lighthouses, the shipwrecks, the women with pulsing, turquoise legs. Some nights I wished I were one of the latter, concerned only with swimming and water, as I mostly was any-way, and the considerations of a sky only over ocean, never over land. Some nights without Vee, I walked all those blocks to the beach from my own small house and pressed my feet into the sand all the way down to the break. I don’t want to admit it, exactly, that I hoped I might transform there in the dark all alone, with no one looking. I pinched my legs and threw myself on the ground and kicked and was still, but nothing. My human girl legs continued to stretch out long in front of me.

The rich parents had granite-topped kitchen counters and leaned over them with wet glasses in their hands, gin and ice inside. We understood what they talked about, sort of. We eavesdropped when we remembered to. Their afternoon cocktail hours were a vague and daily anthropology class for us. It was the first time I heard words like hysterectomy, a thing that sounded medieval, or fugitive. Vee said it had something to do with what was essential to making us women, something inside us we might not be allowed to keep.

Women had an ambivalent power, it was clear, something painful and put-upon about their air when they spoke to their husbands and sons, not that my mother had...

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