My mother was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland and like most Baltimorons her summer vacations were spend in Ocean City at the board walk. I was born there too but it hadn’t been there in a while since my family and I had begun our long exile in the landlocked midwest.
So I was pretty excited when my mother planned a trip for just the two of us to head back for long weekend at the board walk when I was about 13. We checked in to a highrise hotel over looking the water and proceeded to spend our waking hours consuming as much blue crab as humanly possible and shopping in tacky gift stores when I wasn’t demanding to spend another hour at the beach.
Mom isn’t a big water person. Although no one really is compared to me. I can stay in the ocean from sunup to sundown, through rip tide warnings and jelly fish blooms. Eventually my mother had enough.
“I’m going up to the room. Will you be okay if I leave you down here?” She asked and flinched as I shook out my wet hair over her towel.
“Yeah! I wanna stay on the beach!”
“Okay…and you’ll be okay?”
“You know how to get back to the room, right?”
She was clearly having an internal war with herself over getting the hell out of the sun and leaving her young daughter alone. But these being the days before Jersey Shore was plucking the innocence of young wasted girls so she decided I could take care of myself.
“Here.” She pulled out her wallet and palmed me thirty dollars. “If you want to go shopping or get hungry. Just stay in sight of the hotel.” She rolled up her towel and gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Come up at 6:30 for dinner. Bye, Sweetie!”
I stayed out in the surf for a few more hours until a particularly brutal wave knocked me ass over teacups and ground my face into the sand. I limped back up to the beach to puke up some salt water and take a break. I picked up my beach bag and waddled back up to the boardwalk.
A few minutes later found me gnawing on a corndog and staring around stupidly at the gaudy neon and the distracting clang of rides and screaming children. Somewhere in the profusion of colors a brighter ribbon of electric red fluttered across my vision.
A kite shop.
I wandered in. Giant box kites, kites shaped like dragons, kites shaped like fighter planes, kites shaped like birds, their streaming tails all grazing the top of my head. I became enamoured by a rainbow colored stunt kite. I moved in closer to inspect the price tag. 25.50$.
I imagined a brightly lit scenario. Me skipping down the beach in my bikini, laughing the way the girlfriends do in romantic comedies as I loft my kite over the heads of admiring onlookers (all of them handsome young men in this fantasy.) Then I would make the kite do a triple loop and all of the boys would sigh and think I was prettiest.
I peered at the price tag and went to take another distracted bite of my corn dog which has gotten caught in one of the trailing streamers so I got a mouthful of nylon along with hot dog. I gagged and spat.
“Can I help you?” A tired and slightly irate clerk had showed up behind me.
I kicked the hot dog gobbet under the nearest shelf and pointed at the stunt kite. “I want that one.”
Back to the beach I strode with my new gay pride kite under my arm. I looked at the other families flying their kites and thought: “Man. Fuck your kites.”
I plopped down in the sand and set to piecing it together. After a few false starts I had the poles slid into the correct places and tied the end of the string to the kite. A slight breeze came up and grew stronger as I stood and began running backward. The kite wobbled and rose skyward.
I felt like Moses. Kite Moses.
I ran and ran and ran and the line of string unspooled and unspooled and unspooled. The kite was becoming smaller now, and the line made a harsh sound as it unwound…and then came off the spool.
I made a lurching, desperate grasp for the end of the string and belly flopped hard into the sand. I looked up, spitting sand to see $26.87 dollars of my play money flying seaward.
And I was just not having that.
I went careening after it.
I ran at a furious pace down the beach, griping my empty spool and dodging around the vacationing families who whipped their heads around to track my absurd pell mell dash. The kite was drifting out across the waves and I followed like a fox hound that had caught the scent of fear.
The wind dropped off and failed. My new kite drifted slowly, back and forth, back and forth and made splash down several dozen meters out. I stopped, panting, next to a young mother who was building a sandcastle with her toddler.
“Can you keep an eye on this?” I panted, hands on knees, doubled forward to draw breath. “My kite got away from me and I have to go get it. I’ll be right back.”
“Uhhh. Sure?” She said.
I leaned heavily in on my own body, hunched and took one last rattling breath then sprinted another 20 yards and dove into the surf like a life guard from the hit TV show Baywatch.
I swam forever. First doing and over head stroke then switching to an underwater butterfly. My muscles burned but i tracked the bobbing of my brightly colored kite at every breath. A sand bar rose in front of me and I rammed it at top speed, climbed it and then dove again into deep water. I was nowhere near touching bottom and had gone so far out I couldn’t even dive deep enough to see the bottom on full lungs. I know this because I tried.
I treaded, stroked and pushed until finally, finally I reached my drowning kite. I snatched it and hauled what was basically a parachute of dead weight back to shore. The drag from the nylon made that swim twice as exhausting, but I made it.
Coming back on to the beach I could see the unmistakable figure of my mother in her Ralph Loren sleeveless blouse coming towards me. She must have seen my epic swim from the balcony of our high rise and come to congratulate me on my refusal to let go of what was mine to the unforgiving elements! She must be so proud of my athleticism! I was someone who made her proud!
I trotted up to her with my soaked kite with a stupid golden retriever grin on my face, the 40 yards of string still trailing out of the ocean. I got within shouting distance only to hear:
“I cannot believe you could be so goddamned RECKLESS.”
I halted, confused.
“What the HELL is wrong with you?”
You know when you are at a party and you make a joke about a really bad rash you once had? And the whole crowd goes silent at the punchline and feels awkward for hearing it? Multiply that to eight square feet of beach. Every one had tuned in to my reaming.
My mother was extremely upset.
“You swam into open water! you ignored all of the warnings about rip tides! You could have drowned!!”
I looked down. My kite dripped coldly while my new tears of shame dripped hotly.
My mother berated me the whole way back to where I had dropped the spool off with the mother and her toddlers sand castle. She berated me as we sat in front of the sandcastle pulling kite string from the briny deep, laden with seaweed, and wound it back around the spool.
“That was so foolish. I can’t believe you would risk your life for some stupid kite….”
“But I just bought it!” I wailed and tugged at a knot.
“I don’t care about the kite!”
Now, how this had happened from my mothers point of view it that from the 20th story of the hotel balcony, where she sat in a recliner peacefully alternating between her PD James novel and watching her daughter fly a kite, she saw the kite fly away… and me diving after it…
“Don’t you dare.” She thought. “Don’t you even dare...”
But no- I ran after it and dove into the traitorous water and swam out well beyond the breakers. She had pelted down all of those fights of stairs in flippy floppies to keep me from becoming lost at sea. And kept running.
Even though she gave me one of the most thorough ass chewing of my life my mother still sat with me on that beach, pulling all of that tangled string from the ocean and making it wind on to my spool again until it was all like new.
As we trudged up to the hotel entrance again, me fighting back embarrassed tears she didn’t break her stony face even when she put her arm around my shoulders and said:
“It’s a very nice kite. I’m glad you bought something you like.”
The kite hung in my room until the shifting tides of time and youth made me lose track of it.