Northern Mariana Islands, 1970
My mother, seventeen, perfumes herself against malevolent spirits. Dabs the scent on her wrists and neck. Everyone in the house is asleep. Her four sisters in the sagging bed behind her, their hair knotted over the pillows like seaweed. The night is warm, moist. The sisters have kicked off the thin sheets. In the bed together, they are heavy-limbed and pale. My mother is the smallest, the darkest. She tiptoes over her three brothers lying, fully clothed, on the floor. She can hear the gentle snoring of her parents coming from the other room. At this time of night, there are no cars bumping down the uneven roads, only the immediate noise of her family, then far off the sound of surf, a dog howling, coconuts falling on the tin roofs.
The sand path to the beach is empty. There is no danger of being caught; most of the island falls asleep before midnight, but still she looks occasionally over her shoulder and hurriedly makes the sign of the cross.
At this hour the tide is low, the ocean peeled back to the reefs a mile out. The smell of brown algae dried from the sun stinks up the wind. Bare feet pick their way through the scurrying hermit crabs.
My mother, a girl in a pink school uniform, does not notice the moon drifting like a buoy in the dark water. She has no ear for surf dashing the reef. She sits instead, facing inland, on the cool sand with her dry arms hooked around her legs. Rolls and smokes four cigarettes, tucks the burnt ends inside crab holes. She waits.
Inside the glass house, lights pop on. One by one. The glow falls onto the beach and tugs at the shadows. My father enters, still young. His wife follows, pale faced, hair the color of wheat swinging down to her hips. On the beach, my mother lets down her own hair, tugs at the ends, dry as grass. Music leaks from the seams in the glass. By now, she has learned all the songs and so she half-sings the lyrics under her breath. The beach is dark, and the water and the sky are dark. The house is lit up from the inside like a shop window. Or else, like a movie screen.
Inside the house, my father and the woman move through the rooms, they smoke a joint and my mother imagines she can smell it. The two inside climb the curving staircase, which will in my mother’s memory build until it winds up at least three levels and in some of her memories even further, in some the staircase keeps going and has no top. On the amber wall behind them, my father’s shadow stretches long over his wife’s. The blond woman says something to him, a scrap of talk thrown over her shoulder.
My mother is seventeen, catching her breath as he pushes the woman up against the clear wall, leaning in hard for a kiss. She holds her breath the length of the kiss, exhaling only when it is over. Something fierce grows inside of her, something that sees only the tableau unfurling in front of her.
Going home with her hair smelling of sea and her bottom caked with damp sand, my mother is a new person. And every night that she can, she walks down to the beach. She doesn’t care that she is learning to sleep less and less, or that at school her head droops over the books. Every night she can sneak out, my mother slips barefoot down the sandy path and waits for the glass house to light up.
Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams is a 2013 winner of the Whiting Writers Award and the author of The Man Who Danced with Dolls. Her work has most recently appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Mayday Magazine, Off the Coast, and Cedars. Abrams has also been the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers Award and an NC Arts Council Fellowship. She lives in North Carolina and teaches in the Department of English at UNC Wilmington.