Iowa Writes

MADELEINE BAER
By the Sea (Part 1)


        Rowe's Close was where they went for the summer holidays. A stiff yellow villa with long eaves and a blue door with "john" and "harry" painted on it from many years back, sitting precariously amongst the roped-off dunes directly on the beach. There was no garden, no yard, no walkway, only sand, and a trail of sand lead from the front door (which was always open) through the main part of the house to the sunroom in back, containing nothing but an old denim sofa and a coffee table on which a laptop sat, playing reruns of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
        "Do you want to write your name on the door?" John asked his sister. They sat close together under a jersey sheet and a large pile of packaged snacks, soda cans, and homemade muffins sat before them on the coffee table.
        "Sh! No, I've told you a hundred times, that happened before I was born and I don't want the house to change." John peeled the paper off a muffin and examined her blank face.
        "We could call dad and see how he's doing," he said as he slowly nibbled. "We could put my phone on speaker and talk to him right here."
"Sh, I don't want to miss this part."
"But don't you want to talk about anything?"
"No! I don't want to be distracted. I just want to do this." John sighed and waited until the episode was over.
        "You're leaving for Washington next week, to go to your school," he said, picking up a roll of twine from under the couch and beginning to roll it into a ball, "And Harry's leaving to Virginia the week after, to go to his school . . . ." She wasn't listening, she was already playing the next episode. "Which leaves me all alone in Florida for the rest of the year after that, in Gainesville, living at home with mom because it's cheap."
        "All alone in Florida, with all of our friends and family members, and your other friends at Gainesville." Julia retorted. Ever since Julia had broken up with her boyfriend Jake six months ago, she hadn't been herself. She never had any energy, and seemed to be functioning on autopilot all the time.

        Rowe's Close was where they went for the summer holidays. A stiff yellow villa with long eaves and a blue door with "john" and "harry" painted on it from many years back, sitting precariously amongst the roped-off dunes directly on the beach. There was no garden, no yard, no walkway, only sand, and a trail of sand lead from the front door (which was always open) through the main part of the house to the sunroom in back, containing nothing but an old denim sofa and a coffee table on which a laptop sat, playing reruns of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
        "Do you want to write your name on the door?" John asked his sister. They sat close together under a jersey sheet and a large pile of packaged snacks, soda cans, and homemade muffins sat before them on the coffee table.
        "Sh! No, I've told you a hundred times, that happened before I was born and I don't want the house to change." John peeled the paper off a muffin and examined her blank face.
        "We could call dad and see how he's doing," he said as he slowly nibbled. "We could put my phone on speaker and talk to him right here."
"Sh, I don't want to miss this part."
"But don't you want to talk about anything?"
"No! I don't want to be distracted. I just want to do this." John sighed and waited until the episode was over.
        "You're leaving for Washington next week, to go to your school," he said, picking up a roll of twine from under the couch and beginning to roll it into a ball, "And Harry's leaving to Virginia the week after, to go to his school . . . ." She wasn't listening, she was already playing the next episode. "Which leaves me all alone in Florida for the rest of the year after that, in Gainesville, living at home with mom because it's cheap."
        "All alone in Florida, with all of our friends and family members, and your other friends at Gainesville." Julia retorted. Ever since Julia had broken up with her boyfriend Jake six months ago, she hadn't been herself. She never had any energy, and seemed to be functioning on autopilot all the time.
        Just then, Harry came pounding down from upstairs, causing bits of plaster dust to drift down from the ceiling. He was wearing an oversized polo shirt and jean shorts, and a damp towel lay across his thick shoulders. He had been down at the beach all day with his buddies, and had just gotten out of the shower.
        "What are you two doing tonight?" he asked, standing in the doorway and rubbing his hair with the towel. John barely opened his mouth before he spoke again.
"Nothing again, I see? Well there's a party over at the Phleb's condo on the island — everyone who's over eighteen's invited, so that means you." He threw his towel and it landed on John's face.
        "When are you gonna be coming to the gym to pump some iron with me, Johnny-boy? You've been backing out all summer. The boys and I are going tomorrow morning, better see you there!" He stuffed a muffin from the coffee table into his mouth, slid into some rubber sandals, grabbed his car keys, and ran outside. "Bye mom!" he called into the office right before he slammed the screen door, to no response. Their mother was a novelist by career, and during the summer holiday she often spent days locked in her office and wouldn't speak to anyone.

        "I can't believe I've got to spend another week here with just Harry, after you leave. I think I might fix up the old sailboat and set sail for Africa."
        Several minutes of silence passed. "Hey, let me see that." John grabbed the computer out of Julia's lap and checked the weather forecast. "Alright," he said, grinning, "That's it, we're going down to the beach tomorrow. It's finally going to stop raining."

        It was so bright you could barely see straight, the wind was spewing the sand against their legs, the waves were high, and the water was turquoise. They had to set their towels down with a jug of water on top. Julia ran to the sea and dove headfirst into the water, allowing herself to be tossed under and nailed again and again in the shallows. A strong wind pushed against John's back and pulled him into the sea. Julia jumped on him and pushed him under, and he was in a different world. He forced his head back up and began to swim against the waves towards the sand bar, getting flipped under with every big wave and coasting gracefully over the small ones, Julia still on his back. It was the first time he'd heard her laughing since the previous summer. He closed his eyes lest the salt should leak into them, and didn't stop swimming until he felt the space and the water around him, the space, the water in him, softly settle. Julia let go of him and floated on her back; he held onto her ankle. He opened his eyes and was nearly blinded by the light. He looked out, far, far out, and nothing came in front of his field of sight until the earth curved away from him, and he ran into the horizon.

        It was on the bus ride to Seattle a week later that Julia had her first dream about a man that wasn't Jake, and it was a wonderful dream, with nothing really substantial in it except a soft red coat, hands, and a sort of brown fur blanket that was draped around her shoulders. She awoke to the sound of slamming suitcases down from the compartments above her head and a general stale smell. It was dark and pouring outside the station, despite being in the middle of the afternoon. She ran outside and waited for the bus driver to hand her her bags from the storage underneath the bus, and walked down the sidewalk to where her ride was waiting.


        There was nothing notable about school at all that first week except for one day in her drawing class when the instructor showed her work as an example to the other students, even though they were doing nothing but practicing different speeds of mark making, because she had "used the whole page" and "displayed a wide range of motion". It was only an elective class, but it seemed more important, somehow. In October she got a letter from John. He knew that she still liked to send letters in the mail. "Harry's been getting into some trouble at school, apparently. . . ." he wrote . . . . "Been doing pretty well with grades myself, doing homework all the time. Mom's agent is pregnant. Some kid down the hall from me managed to get a dog into his room and it barks all the time, don't know how he hasn't been caught yet. Aunt Jamie sends her love, and says that unfortunately Uncle Mark has got to have two teeth pulled. Haven't heard from dad in a while, was wondering if you had?"
        Apparently, nothing exciting ever happened. Julia wrote back to John. "I have this drawing instructor. . . . I don't know if you'd like him or not. He's super cocky and really sarcastic, but really cool as well. He's really young, he feels like practically our age. Everyone just calls him Michael. He has a beard and he always wears this really bright red coat and some sort of patterned sweater underneath. I'm thinking about changing my major to something more fun. Ecological Systems is interesting, but it isn't really fun."

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


MADELEINE BAER

Madeleine Baer enjoys taking summer writing workshops at the University of Iowa.  She has been inspired by many people and places in Iowa City

By the Sea will appear on the Daily Palette in two parts.

This page was first displayed
on August 30, 2016

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