April 17, 2015
I never said my family wasn’t complicated. When I was four years old and my parents died, I went to live with my Uncle Claudius. I suppose it says a lot about him that he did this even though he is not my real uncle. Just a friend of the family. Of course, he was a very busy man and often on long trips to places like Abu Dhabi, Johannesburg, Milan and Minsk. He had little time for a child. In the early days, he hired a nanny, Mrs. McGillicutty, to accompany us on his journeys, and the three of us travelled all over the world while Uncle Claudius tended to his important, yet mysterious, career. Then, when I turned 11, I was sent to boarding school.
Uncle Claudius was always kind and took care of my every need. But he didn’t know how to be affectionate in the way most moms and dads are with their children. My memories of my parents are like dreams now, but I do remember that they held me and told me stories. I remember my fourth birthday, the day before they died. That’s all. Just a handful of blurry images. That’s all I have of my parents.
This is what kills me most about the divorce, the severing of family. The end to that complete circle of care and nurturing that can exist for children. That feeling of safety, certainty and unconditional love. Because once the kids see that their parents can stop loving each other, it doesn’t matter how much we tell them that we still love them, the kids know love can be conditional. This knowledge shows in their scared, haunted eyes. I try not to see it there, but it’s there. In addition to the fighting they had to witness near the end of the marriage, they now know a person who has once loved them could potentially stop loving them. To a child, this can be terrifying.
I know they say harboring resentment is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die, but I will need to do a lot a personal work to forgive Dennis for creating this financial mess for me and causing me to seek a free place to live so far away from my own children, just when they need both their parents most. When our oldest, Briggs, was born, Dennis is the one who wanted me at home with the baby. I had wanted to keep going with my career. But there is no going back. It is what it is. Luckily, Uncle Claudius is well-connected and found this place in Wrightsville Beach through someone named Eileen. With Uncle Claudius, you eventually learn not to question the details. You just go with it.
Uncle Claudius said that if he were to pay me directly and set me up in a house near the kids, I would have a tougher case getting decent alimony. Both he and my attorney, who Uncle is secretly paying, say the judge might determine an opinion that would go something like this, “Well, look, you are not suffering. You have a house and income and you are fine.” Me? I am not so sure starting over hundreds of miles away is preferable. Uncle Claudius says to trust him, which is what I guess I have to do. Even Maude and Irving seem to think this arrangement is somehow good. But no one has convinced me yet.
I know I need to let go of the resentment and set a good tone for the kids, like this is just the most normal thing in the world for their mother to live so far away. But each time I see those three sets of eyes, emanating all the unspoken, unexpressed pain, when they visit, I feel absolutely wretched. And, when one feels wretched, resentment is one broken heartbeat away. But I will try. Really I will. Lord knows I don’t need any more poison in my life!
[Phoebe’s children are in the car with their dad, Dennis. Dennis is driving them down to visit their mom. Briggs is 19, Chelsea is 17 and Pearl is 13. They stop to get gas at a place with a mini-market. As they pull in, Dennis turns down the radio and speaks.]
Dennis: I’m really sorry you have to travel like this to see your mother. I don’t know why she moved so far away. But I’m sorry. It’s a shame she did this. It makes it hard on everyone, especially the three of you. I am sure, in her own way, she meant well. It’s just hard for a normal person to make sense of it.
Briggs, in the front seat, looks straight ahead and still has iPhone ear buds plugged into his ears. Chelsea and Pearl, in the back seat, look out their respective windows.
Dennis: Be right back with the junk food. Briggs…
Dennis reaches over and pulls out one of the earbuds.
Briggs (annoyed): What?
Dennis: Can you fill’er up?
Briggs gets out of car.
Dennis (turns to look at girls): Bathroom?
Pearl shakes her head. Chelsea doesn’t speak but gets out of car and goes inside with Dennis. Pearl looks out window. Suddenly her eyebrows raise in delight and recognition. She mouths “Hi.” She waves. Across the parking lot, a man who looks like a sophisticated Colonel Sanders stands next to a black Bentley and waves back to Pearl. He motions for her to come over. Pearl doesn’t hesitate. She jumps out and runs over. Briggs, earbuds back in, is tuned out and doesn’t notice.
Pearl: Uncle Claudius! What are you doing here?
Uncle Claudius leans over and gives Pearl a dignified pat on the head. He stands and clears his throat.
Uncle Claudius: Are you studying your art, young lady?
He has a monocle and looks down his nose at her, his monocled eye abnormally large and blue.
Pearl: Yes, sir.
Uncle Claudius: Excellent.
Pearl: We are going to see Mom. Are you going, too?
Uncle Claudius: No, I am not. I must be in Bangkok tomorrow.
Pearl (looks disappointed): Oh.
Uncle Claudius (his eyes glance toward the store): Is what’s-his-name treating you well?
Pearl: Dad? Yeah. He’s okay. He doesn’t like Mom, though.
Uncle Claudius (frowns): Hmm. Well, time is wasting. I must give you a package.
Uncle Claudius: Yes, for your mother. Come here.
He walks to the back of the car and opens the trunk. Pearl watches him open an intricately carved wooden box lined with silk. Out of it, he lifts a jade statue of an Asian-looking woman. An envelope is attached to it with a piece of string.
Pearl: Oooo. She’s so pretty. Is it a present?
Uncle Claudius: I’m afraid not. This is to be given to your mother for safekeeping. Instructions are in the note.
He hands Pearl the statue. Pearl holds it like a baby.
Pearl: She’s heavy!
Uncle Claudius: Be very gentle with her. I want you to wrap her in your clothes inside your suitcase and don’t tell anyone about her except your Mom. Can you do that?
Pearl: Of course I can!
Uncle Claudius: On the double, then.
It is clear they are done and Pearl gives him one more smile before taking the statue to the car and doing as he asked. When she turns to wave goodbye, both he and his black Bentley are nowhere to be seen.
[At a surf shop, close to Phoebe’s gallery and studio, a man stands behind the counter and waxes a surf board in the deserted shop. His name is Thor and his age is hard to guess. He has the appearance of an aging surfer who clearly was a hunk at some point in his earlier life. Tucked under the counter is a piece of wood almost the length of an arm, like a polished and whittled-down tree branch. A wand. As Thor works on the board, the tip of the wand begins to glow. He doesn’t notice at first. The wand-tip goes from a serene blue to a violent red and the counter begins to shake. He stops what he’s doing and looks down at the wand. He picks it up, looks into the air at nothing in particular and speaks.]
Thor: Yes, what is it? It’s not like I have nothing to do all day.
He stares into thin air like he’s listening.
Thor: Hmm. Right. Okay. I get it, but does it have to be me? Like I said, it’s not like I’ve got nothing to do. Some of us actually work.
In the surf shop, empty of all people except Thor, the clock can be heard ticking.
Thor: Plus, the waves are good this afternoon and I want to cut out early.
Thor glances at the unfinished wax job then looks back at the spot of air with which he’d been conversing. He rolls his eyes.
Thor: Well, I guess when you need a real man to do the job…
It looks like the exchange between Thor and the empty spot of air is complete but then Thor looks up again like he’s listening.
Thor: You want me to what?
He makes a face.
Thor: What if this Phoebe person is some fat old sow?
Thor: I didn’t say I wouldn’t do it. What I’d like to know is how will I be compensated?
Thor rubs his fingers against his thumb.
Thor: Get my meaning, do you?
He listens then smiles.
Thor: Now we’re talking! You got yourself a deal.
He twirls his wand and puts it under the counter once more. But the wand turns an angry red again and shakes the whole shop. Thor scowls but picks up the wand again and looks with irritation at the invisible caller.
Thor: Come on! Don’t you have an elsewhere to be? I know I do. It’s not El Morro, but we have four foot swells and northeasterly winds. That’s a good afternoon in these parts. A guy has to get out there while the gettin’ is good.
Thor cocks his head and listens.
Thor: So, just to be clear, you are saying that if I am unsuccessful, which is highly doubtful, death is the only alternative? A bit harsh, don’t you think? Isn’t there a crystal cave, or something like that, we can banish her to for all eternity? Turn her into a willow tree, perhaps?
Thor: Really? Okay, if you say so. Long as I get paid. Are we done now? Great. I’m outta here.
[Later that afternoon, on the beach.]
Phoebe and her kids, Briggs, Chelsea and Pearl, have their chairs pulled up to the water’s edge. Phoebe is watching the sun dip lower in the western sky. The beach is mostly deserted but for a few sunset walkers and surfers taking advantage of the wind. The kids, especially Pearl, are watching one surfer in particular, a man with longish blonde hair who seems to be the most accomplished of the surfers. The next time the man glides toward the beach, Pearl shouts, claps and runs out to him.
Thor: Thanks, kid.
Pearl: How do you do that?
Thor picks up his board and heads back out to the water as Pearls runs behind him.
Pearl: You are really good! My name is Pearl. What’s yours?
Thor looks around at her.
Thor: Did you know that this is the shark’s favorite feeding time?
Pearl’s eyes grow large.
Pearl: Wow! Where are they?
Thor rolls his eyes.
Thor: Have you never seen Jaws? They especially like to chomp on girls. Drag you under and bite you in half before you can even open your mouth to scream, that’s what they’ll do. If I were you, I’d get out of the water before they catch your scent.
Pearl: My guess is that they are just as likely to bite you in half. Are there any out here now? If I’m careful, will they let me pet them?
Pearl looks around at the darkening waves.
Thor: Seriously, kid. Did you leave your brain in your beach bag?
Just then, behind Pearl, Thor sees a fin.
Thor (muttering): Unbelievable.
He motions to Pearl.
Thor: Hey kid, on second thought, why don’t you come over here and I will show you how to get on the board. No, no! Don’t splash around like a neophyte. If you want to look like a professional, you glide quietly without the disturbing the water. Yeah, that’s right. Okay, just hold on here and…
Thor shoves her onto the board and scans the water for the fin, which has disappeared. A bad sign.
Thor: Feet up, too. No! No paddling. Let me get you turned around. There you go. Hey, just this first time, you know, just to get the feel of the board, why don’t you stay low and ride just like this. You know, like a boogie board. It’s how all the champion surfers first start. And stay on the board until it hits the sa…
Pearl: Hey! There’s one.
Pearl reaches out toward a fin, which is right next to her. Thor freezes, knowing that if a shark is that close, absolute stillness is best. He whispers.
Thor: Hey, kid. Kid! (he whispers loudly) Don’t move! Keep your arm…Hey! No. You can’t pet them. Did I not say that? You do not, and I mean never, pet a shark. Kid!
But Pearl reaches out and strokes the fin.
Pearl: Ooo. It’s like sand paper!
Thor (still frozen): Dumb as a sack of hammers, this one.
Pearl: Wow, I love this place. I have never pet a shark before now, can you believe it?
Thor (muttering): Probably ’cause they keep you locked up the rest of the time… Watch out! (He yells this)
The shark’s nose sticks up next to Pearl’s hand. She strokes it.
Pearl: Awwww. Look. He’s so sweet.
Thor: That’s it. I’m done.
Thor grabs the surf board and runs with all his might, holding Pearl tightly so she won’t slide off.
Pearl: Wait! You might hurt him!
They reach the shoreline and Thor drops to his knees to catch his breath.
Pearl: Mom! I got to pet a shark!
Phoebe stops watching the sunset and looks over to where Pearl is leaping off a surf board and running toward her. She sees a man on his knees next to the board. Phoebe jumps up and jogs over to Pearl.
Pearl: Mom! It felt scratchy, like sand paper, like the sidewalk, like your legs when you don’t shave!
Phoebe: Haha. Very funny.
Phoebe looks toward the man, who is now standing.
Phoebe: Who’s that?
Pearl looks back at Thor.
Pearl: A surfer.
Phoebe: I can see that. What were you doing on his board, though? Didn’t we say no swimming past dusk? How can I trust when you don’t even…
Pearl: Define “dusk.”
Phoebe walks past Pearl and up to Thor.
Phoebe: Thank you for giving my kid a surf lesson, but next time you might want to ask me first! I had given her instructions not to get in the water.
Thor: Hey, what you need is a leash for that kid. She followed me. Almost got her hand bitten off. And where were you? You should be thanking me for getting her back in one piece, but, apparently, a lack of manners runs in the family.
Phoebe: What? I can see now that the shark was the least of her problems!
Phoebe grabs Pearl’s hand and turns to walk away. They hear a voice calling down the beach.
Thor’s head whips around.
Thor: Did she just say, “Phoebe?”
Phoebe looks from Lucy to Thor and her eyes narrow.
Phoebe: What’s it to you?
Thor: Oh! Um, what? Nothing. Just didn’t understand what she said. That’s all. Look at the time.
Lucy: Hey, Phoebe! Is this Pearl?
Phoebe: Hi Lucy! Yes, Pearl this is Lucy. Lucy, Pearl.
Phoebe watches Thor carry his surf board to the parking lot.
Phoebe (to Lucy): Who’s that?
Lucy squints in the fading light.
Lucy: I think that’s the surf shack dude. Thor. One time he tried to pick me up over the arugula bin at the grocery store.
Phoebe (snorts): Poor you! He just took Pearl into the water without my permission.
Lucy: Huh! That’s strange. He doesn’t strike me as the kid type. More like the run-from-kids type.
Pearl: He’s not bad. I did kind of follow him out there. Sorry, Mom. I forgot about dusk. It wasn’t his fault. Hey! Look how pale that guy is.
Lucy and Phoebe follow Pearl’s gaze.
Phoebe: Oh! I think that’s him. That’s Julian.
Lucy squints toward the approaching figure as Pearl runs off to join her brother and sister, who are watching a ghost crab.
Lucy: Oh, yeah. I think I have seen him around. Tall, pale and handsome.
Phoebe: Doesn’t help that he’s always wearing dark colors. At least he’s not wearing a dinner jacket tonight.
They hear another voice behind them.
Cooper: Well if it isn’t a spontaneous meeting of the Lonely Hearts Club. Darn. I should have brought that jug of moonshine from the shed…and, who are we drooling over at the moment?
Lucy and Phoebe laugh, stop staring at Julian and turn to talk to Cooper.
Cooper: Oh, I see. It’s castle-man. No wonder. Although, I can’t begrudge him the attention since I think he, or should I say his mansion, might be putting my kids through college.
Julian walks up to them.
Julian: Good evening.
Phoebe pretends to fan herself and curtsies. Lucy smiles.
Cooper (holds his hand out): It’s always nice to meet your best customer! Hello, sir! Come join us for, well…
Cooper looks around for the sun, but it’s already set.
Cooper: …our post-sunset gathering. Forgot the moonshine, but there’s always next time.
Julian: Phoebe, can I talk to you for a moment?
Phoebe (frowns and looks at Lucy and Cooper): Um. That sounds so serious. Sure, I guess.
Phoebe and Julian walk down the beach a little.
Phoebe: So…are you going to tell me what this is about? I’m all ears, see?
Phoebe pulls her hair back to show her ears.
Julian: I wanted to talk to you about…
Julian watches Phoebe twist the tree-of-life pendant.
Julian: It’s hard to know where to begin.
Phoebe: The beginning usually works.
Julian: No, that would take too long.
Phoebe: Okay, how about the middle?
Julian stops and turns to Phoebe.
Julian: I figured out who you are. I didn’t know at first, but, well…I figured it out.
Phoebe: What do you mean, “Who I am?” I’m Phoebe, middle-aged momma. Divorced, broke and starving at the moment.
Julian: I mean who you really are.
Phoebe: And who’s that?
Julian: You’re her. You’re the prophecy.
Phoebe takes a step back and holds up a hand.
Phoebe: Whoa. Stop right there. My kids are here and all talk of prophecies and whatnot must cease right now. This may be pleasant cocktail chatter down here but where I come from this stuff is weird. Whatever it is you have to say, I’m not interested.
Phoebe: Sorry. Can’t.
Phoebe starts to walk away.
Julian: But you’re in danger. I would think with your kids here you might want to know…
Phoebe: Hey, my baby, my youngest? Just faced down a shark like it was a fluffy bunny. A far cry braver than that Thor character. I think we can hold our own, thank you very much!
Julian: Wait…Thor? How do you know….You should stay away from him.
Phoebe: Not to worry about that!
Julian: Phoebe, you’ve read the headlines. Do you know why we have this uptick in deaths?
Phoebe: No. Should I?
Julian: Well, part of it has to do with you.
Phoebe: Me?! Okay. Time to feed the kids. Nice bumping into you. Gotta go now.
Julian: Don’t say I didn’t warn you!