It’s the kind of sadness that’s not sadness at all.
Jensen stares out at the water and can’t help but feel the déjà vu pressing him into the sand as if gravity were heavier here. It’s not like he didn’t know Jared was returning to school come fall.
But this is not like last time. He turns the shiny silver ring on his left hand unconsciously as he does dozens of times a day. The ring is thick and glossy; it is Jared through and through. The subtler wedding bands are Jensen. They plan to move their engagement rings to their right hands when they get married.
Jensen is concerned that it’ll bother him when he’s painting but then scolds himself to not pre-worry about that. It’s what his mother would say in any event. She’s big on handling things as they occur.
Donna understood this morning when Jensen had called to beg off their standing Sunday lunch. It was last minute, so all told, she’d taken it well.
“It’s only the first weekend he’s gone, Jensen. Certainly, it can’t be that bad yet?”
“I know that Mom. I’ll be up for lunch next week for sure.”
He could picture her narrowing her eyes and tipping her chin up. “I suppose it’s still rather fresh. He returned to school on Wednesday, right? By next week your routine will be back and it’ll be fine. You’ll see.”
He’d stayed on the phone another moment, awkwardly thinking that she’d maybe offer more consolation, but she’d merely said, “Alright then” and ended the call with a click.
The waves choose that moment to churn higher and Jensen stops to appreciate the crescendo of foam as it peaks, then dissipates into a mist by his feet.
Seagulls are numerous this afternoon and Jensen wonders if they are all one family. He wonders if the lone gull from a year ago, who was so magnificently indifferent to Jensen’s woes at the time, has found a mate and these are his progeny.
Of course, that immediately returns his thoughts to the Decision. And, yes, Jared asserts that it always has a capital ‘D’ when uttered. Donna’s opinion hasn’t veered. There’s something to admire in that, Jensen admits to himself. Although he’d never say that aloud to either Jared or Danni. They still don’t understand how Jensen forgave Donna for her omission about his father.
“Lie, Jen, let’s call it what it is.”
“You surely can’t expect me to never speak to her again? Essentially orphan myself?”
Jared had looked taken aback. “No. I mean, of course not. I didn’t—“
“Then what do you expect?”
His fiancé’s face was distorted by the angle of his cellphone until his chin seemed to take up the entire screen. “I don’t know. I mean, you’ve only been home a few days.”
Jensen laughed but knew it came out bitter. “Is there some sort of standard waiting period for when your mother never tells your father you exist?”
“Jen … “ Jared sighed. “I wish … “ He was pacing his small bedroom and Jensen was getting dizzy with the motion. “Damn, Easter can’t come fast enough.”
Easter had come and having Jared again in his arms was wonderful … until he had to leave again. But the semester was nearly over and then it had been blessed summer and two whole months of nothing but exploring each other and painting and … exploring each other with paint.
Jensen’d gone to the summer beach with Jared, doused head to toe in sun block. His freckles had appeared anyway. It bothered him less as Jared kissed trails between each one every night, while his skin pebbled in the air conditioning.
Now, the fall wind whips around his hooded head as if to apologize for the heat of summer. Jared’s absence makes Jensen feel as if a chunk of his heart has been cauterized. It doesn’t help that Danni has been in Italy since she’d left him and Jared in Santa Barbara months ago, and she doesn’t have a designated return date. But she Skypes regularly, promising to do it even oftener now that Jensen is alone again.
He looks forward to her calls. At least when they’re not arguing about Adam. She’s been like a dog with a bone on the subject, even before she’d left Santa Barbara.
“How can you not want to meet him? He’s your father, Jense.”
“He’s a stranger.”
Danni had closed her eyes as if seeking patience. “Yes. And he’ll stay that way until you arrange to meet him.”
Jared had interrupted and told Danni not to push and then Danni and Jared had gotten into it and, well, Jensen had left their hotel room to go spend some time staring at the godawful beach mural in the lobby
By the time Danni had boarded her plane, Jensen had told them both he needed time, told them he was going to take the summer and think about it. Danni looked unhappy but he knows she’d figured Jared would simply talk sense into him.
A gull swoops low enough that he can hear the rustle of feathers. It lands, then hops about leaving peace sign footprints. The water whips toward him again, trailing long mud-green seaweed like a child’s wild, long hair. Strands snake around his sneakers and he steps back slowly, arms crossed against the chill. His hoodie isn’t warm enough but the sun had been bright when he’d first arrived. It’s playing peek-a-boo with the clouds now.
Jensen looks at the gull. “You can’t miss what you don’t know. Can you?”
The gull doesn’t reply but tilts his head as if he can hear Jensen’s racing thoughts.
“He takes pictures. A photographer.”
Jared didn’t look particularly surprised at Jensen’s revelation about his father. Jensen realizes Jared already knew and felt a spark of anger as he turned hurt eyes at Jared. “I thought we’d agree you’d wait for me to research.”
Guilt fills Jared’s eyes making them appear more blue than hazel. “I know. And I didn’t – but, Danni … “
Jensen’d slammed his fist against the sofa cushion. “Even in Italy she can’t help being a busy-body.”
“The internet makes it easy, Jen,” Jared explained feebly.
That it did.
It had taken Jensen less than one day of research to see his father’s photography and simultaneously discover where the man called home.
The images flash before his eyes. Art, yes. But as different from Jensen’s paintings as if they’d been done by someone on another planet.
Portraits. A gallery of them, all of people staring straight at the camera. And the man was good, no denying that. How could he peer into those people’s souls like that?
This was the man that had sired him? Someone fearless enough to capture people’s essences on film?
Jensen’d been sated and naked and clawing so tight at Jared he was afraid he’d break skin when he’d finally uttered. “I’m afraid to let him see me.”
Jared had kissed him then. A deep, meant kiss that swallowed him up and warmed him to his toes. “Oh, baby, you break my heart, you know that?”
“But you’re marrying me anyway,” Jensen replied, because it had become a ritualistic answer to many things that Jared said to him.
He felt Jared’s smile as he kissed his forehead. “You betcha I am.” And Jensen smiled back.
His mother hadn’t been aware of the photography. Although she’d admitted he had taken her photo during the brief time they’d been a couple.
Jensen wishes he could have seen that picture. She said she’d thrown it away, no need to hang on to past mistakes. He wonders what she looked like in love. He knows he looks different now that he has Jared.
“I can’t tell you what to do, Jensen. You’re a grown man. It’s just that it’s very likely that Adam has a wife and children and, well, frankly, you’d be quite the unwelcome thorn, wouldn’t you?”
Danni, in Italy, was spared that one. Jared had gotten so incensed upon hearing Jensen’s report of what Donna’d said that he’d literally had to leave the room. It didn’t get much better when Jared calmed down enough to express his thoughts to Jensen on his mother’s views.
“Cruel, Jensen. There is no other way to look at it.”
“No, Jay, she didn’t mean it like you think.”
“How many different ways is there to interpret that? For fuck’s sake anyone not—“
“Fucked up would see it your way?”
“No. I didn’t mean—Shit! I simply cannot speak rationally to you where she’s involved. I will say this. You are not a ‘thorn.’ People are not inconveniences to be tolerated. We are all messy. All complicated. If he has a family – then that means you might have brothers or sisters. That’s not bad, Jen. Sure, they might be surprised. Hell, I’m sure they’ll be stunned. But it doesn’t mean they won’t be happy about it. It’s not like he cheated on his wife and you’re the result. And it’s not like they can blame him for leaving you because he never knew.”
Neither Jared nor Danni understand Jensen’s reluctance. To them, there is only one course to take. Find Adam, reunite and live happily ever after.
The bird squawks and Jensen watches as it grips a piece of seaweed in its beak, shaking its head frantically.
“That stuff tasty?” he asks.
Apparently having had enough, the gull drops it and flaps once to rid itself of any residue. Jensen swears the bird is eyeing him with the expectation of a handout.
“Sorry. I don’t have anything better to give you.”
It flicks its head down in grudging acceptance before lifting its wings and ascending in an impressive arch above the water’s edge.
The photos did help illuminate one key element – his father’s wanderlust. It wasn’t places he was seeking. It was people. Interesting faces. The website he found spanned images taken in every state. But the contact address at the bottom in tiny type was in Nebraska.
Jensen shivers as the last of the sun’s rays disappears behind him. The moon has been making its ascent in the dove gray sky, still too faint to offer any shine.
“Fucking Nebraska,” he nearly shouts.
Nothing stirs except the seaweed.
“Most landlocked state in the union.”
Jared had stared at Jensen for several long moments after that discovery. “Makes California seem better?” he’d said when the silence got awkward.
Jensen had tried to smile, he had, but even with no mirror around he knew it was more of a grimace. Jared had taken his hand and made Jensen meet his warm eyes. “It doesn’t really matter. It’s not like you’re a kid and have to go live with him.”
The pearl moon glimmers as the sky leaches the last of its color. It’s nearly full and Jensen stares hard, imagining he can see that missing sliver, filling in the details with his painter’s eye.
Lately, he’s been painting the moon a lot.
Jared had laughed and said there was no better subject for Jensen’s preferred silver-to-gunpowder pallet.
“You’re beautiful,” he tells the moon now. “Regal, bright.” He kicks at the damp sand. “Solitary.”
Heart slamming, Jensen spins because in all the many years he’s spoken to the moon, she’s never before responded.
Donna approaches as if it’s not unusual that she’s out on the beach at dusk in September. An event that’s happened exactly never.
She walks gingerly, careful not to sink her boots into the sand. But it’s hard packed and wet solid and he doesn’t think it’ll go badly. She’s wearing a black trench coat, collar raised against the wind, her head is wrapped in a paisley scarf and Jensen thinks she looks like an older Grace Kelly.
“How did you—“ he begins, but Donna flicks her hand up dismissively.
“Surely you don’t think you’re hard to find.”
Well, he supposes not.
The strangeness of this intrusion will not quit. “Is something wrong?” He has his cellphone with him. If anything was wrong with Jared, undoubtedly, they’d have called him and not Donna. His spine straightens with nerves when he thinks of Danni overseas.
Donna smiles with her lips closed. “No. I just … I didn’t like how we left things when last we spoke and you didn’t come to lunch today.”
“Yes, I know. You miss your Jared.”
Jensen’s heart squeezes. He likes the term ‘his Jared.’ And he does miss him terribly. Yet it’s not like his mother has ever cared about that before.
“This isn’t about Jared,” she says as if reading his thoughts.
He waits but she looks around and twists her lips as she spots the seaweed and flotsam ebbing closer with each gentle push of waves. “Perhaps we can go up on the boardwalk if you insist on being here.”
Offering her his arm, he leads her toward the dry wooden platform. It’s not empty, he spots some folks cycling and a few runners. He wants to take umbrage at her accusation of forcing her onto the beach. It’s not like he invited her. But curiosity has him now and he decides to hear her out.
He points to a bench but his mother declines and leans instead on the chipped wooden railing, facing the water. This is an odd distance for him, he prefers to be up close where he can feel the ocean’s caress, smell her salty sweat, listen to her raspy song. The clouds part and the moon cuts a silver ragged swath from horizon to shore. He admires their symbiotic relationship. Ocean and moon. Dependent but separate.
Donna touches his arm through his jacket and withdraws just as quick. The moon’s cool glaze touches, but never penetrates beneath the waves.
It’s only intended to get his attention. He looks at her gloved hands and thinks it’s not nearly cold enough to need them. But she always protects her hands the minute the weather cools.
He remembers her wearing hideous yellow rubber gloves when washing dishes in his childhood. Years later she got a dishwasher, but the gloves still come out as she always rinses each dish first until it is practically clean.
The gloves must have worked because even now her hands are soft and unmarked – looking years younger than her age. Much the same way that protected art can look pristine despite being hundreds of years old.
She stays quiet and he wonders what she is thinking about. What she’d make of his insane musings. Lit by the moonlight, a strand of her golden hair glows silver as it escapes her scarf. Not surprising, as she is the moon in this stage play. He, of course, is the ocean. That leaves Adam, landlocked in Nebraska, as the sun.
“Is this about my father?” he asks.
Still facing the water, she nods once. “I know this discovery has been difficult for you. And you’ve been getting advice from everyone. All different.”
“You think it’ll ruin Adam’s life to meet me,” Jensen states and the sheer bitterness makes him realize that Jared was more right than Jensen had previously allowed himself to acknowledge. He swallows through a dry throat.
Expression unreadable, she turns to face him and reaches one gloved hand out to place over his on the railing. “No, Jensen. I certainly do not think that. I do think it’ll be disruptive but that’s just a fact. It’s neither good nor bad. What I didn’t, but should have said, is that I don’t care what this does to Adam.”
She tightens her grip and the squeeze feels warm despite the leather separating them. “I care about you. It’s been three decades … I … don’t know what he’ll do. It’s not like … “ She pulls her hand back and looks first at the ocean and then the bright moon. “I see now that I’d not interpreted our relationship as realistically as I might have.”
Self-criticism is very rare for his mother and Jensen stares. He’s not even sure what relationship she’s speaking about. “What do you mean?”
Flicking her collar up a little higher she settles cool blue eyes on Jensen. Voice steady she explains, “I was very young when I met Adam. Still a teenager. He wasn’t like any of the town boys. Had this soft, steady way of speaking. Vowels flat and soothing. Back then I was … well, like all kids, I guess. More excitable. It takes experience to control oneself as one should.
“Adam was older. In retrospect, he was hardly old. But to me twenty-five seemed worldly.” She huffs a laugh and flicks that strand of escaped hair back where it belongs.
Jensen looks around and they are alone again. The runners long past. The gulls are flying overhead in swooping circles. He knows his mother hates seagulls. Refers to them as flying rats. He wants to shout at the gull family to stay away, that the vibes will only be bad. It surprises when his mother speaks again.
“I took his soft-spoken seriousness for commitment.” Her face is looking toward the black of the ocean. “I suppose I can be forgiven that error given circumstances.”
“You thought the relationship was more serious than he did.”
Blue eyes blazing her face is chiseled in shadows by the moonlight. “Clearly.”
“And he wanted to take pictures,” Jensen says. They’ve discussed this a little since his return from Santa Barbara. They even spoke about it with Jared who insisted on including himself in at least one meeting with Jensen’s mother because he could not understand how it was Donna could do something so heinous.
In front of Jensen’s mother Jared had only scowled. Alone with Jensen he’d erupted.
“It’s just selfish.”
“She let him pursue his dreams. You would never … I mean, you understand about my painting. Isn’t it sort of the same—“
“No! Christ, how could you ever equate us? I would never lie to you about something that important.”
Jensen hadn’t thrown it back at Jared that Jared had known the possibility of Donna’s lie from Danni and had, in fact, chosen to lie to Jensen about it. Or, well, omit telling him. But Jensen had forgiven Jared for that because he knows Jared would have said something eventually. A secret like that would have burned a hole in his gut.
Frustration fills Jensen with heat. “What are you saying, Mom? Are you saying now that I should track down my father?”
Hand over his again she looks up to meet his eyes. In the dim light, her normally bright eyes are midnight blue. “I’m saying that you shouldn’t make this decision based on any opinion other than your own. It doesn’t matter what I say. Or Jared. Even Danneel. And certainly, it doesn’t matter what Adam would think. The choice is yours and yours alone.”
The wind whips hard that moment and her scarf lifts up like a wave above her head and then falls behind her like a hood. Her golden hair is messy and curls are escaping. He can picture what his father saw in her all those years ago, the tempered wildness, the spirit that doesn’t quit. The commitment that Adam, himself, seemingly couldn’t provide.
Jared, whom Jensen loves to a degree he’d not thought possible, has a blind spot when it comes to Donna. And Danni, well, she’d never understood his mother at all. Jensen, however, loves her fiercely, this proud woman who has more faults than most. Yet in the end, even if it takes a long time, she will always tell the truth in a way no one else does.
They don’t do this, but Jensen wraps his arms around her briefly. Not tight, because she won’t accept it. She stiffens as he knew she would, but doesn’t push him off. A few soft pats to his back are all he gets. He accepts them gratefully.
Eyes stinging, he bites his lip hard to prevent any tears from falling. “Before Jared, I guess I would have tried to find my father immediately.”
She nods at him as if she already knew that. Perhaps she did.
“But having him in my life now. I don’t know. It just … doesn’t feel as urgent.” He smiles ruefully. “Not that Jared understands that.”
“Of course not,” she says. “Your Jared wears emotions like one would wear clothes.”
“Ours are deeper, covered.” But no less there.
She grins back, warmer than usual. “Decorum is an underrated state of being.”
Jensen turns to gaze once more at his ocean. It shimmers like black ice in the nearly full moonlight. “Did you see Adam’s photos?”
“Very different from my art.”
Not looking at him she says, “I prefer your paintings.”
Not remembering a time past the age of six when she’d complimented his artwork, Jensen feels his jaw nearly drop. “Really?”
“They are elegant in a way those portraits can never be. Stripping people like that … it’s … intrusive. I could hardly look at them.”
Jensen nods. He’d felt the same. “But you always say you don’t understand why folks buy my art.” He knows there’s a petulance to his voice.
“Jensen, dear, that’s about the financial value. I do think there’s artistic merit. You see things others don’t in the very ordinary. And you do it in an understated way that lets you keep your dignity.”
The compliment is said with strength and Jensen can’t help but preen. He couldn’t describe his process better himself and there’s something about the fact that she can, that she gets him, that he’s suddenly very grateful for. Sure, he has Danni and Jared, both of whom see things in him that he isn’t sure are there. But his mother – she sees what he believes about himself. And that’s soothing.
Suddenly he finds that he’s sick of thinking about his long-lost father. Why does it matter when he meets the stranger that half made him? It’s not like he’s lacking in love.
“I think I’d like to concentrate on what matters. Jared will finish school next year and we have a wedding to plan.” He turns to his mother, smiles at her fully and with honest cheer. “Nobody plans a party better than you.”
He’s met with an answering smile that’s just as bright. “Well, that’s true.” She laughs full and loud, a sound that’s always been associated with spontaneous delight. Her voice lowers to almost a conspiratorial level. “We’ll have to work together to keep Jared in check. You with me?”
“Understated,” he replies and it’s like a promise.
Gloved hands reach to cup his cheeks. “I will give a you a beautiful wedding.”
He holds her hands on his face for a moment before releasing them. “Thank you.”
They listen to the distant waves in silence.
“Whatever choice you make about your father. Well … I’ll be here.”
The seagull chooses that moment to swoop lower and land a short distance away on the railing. Jensen expects his mother to instantly move away but instead they eye each other curiously for several moments. The staring match ends with the bird whisking one wing up in an elegant swish, and ascending back to its flock.
“I ran into Dana,” Donna says. “She thinks Danneel will return in a few weeks.”
Jensen startles because he hadn’t heard that. “Yeah?” He can’t keep the happiness out of his voice.
His mother sighs. “I suppose she’ll want to also assist in wedding planning.”
Biting back a laugh Jensen says, “I suppose.”
“Oh well,” his mother says with resignation. She turns her back to the railing. “It’s turned quite chilly. Shouldn’t we go somewhere warm?”
The wind is kicking up around them but Jensen doesn’t really feel it. “Go on Mom. I’m not leaving just yet.”
He’s met with a bemused look. “Your beach,” she says, turning back to walk home without another word.
Jensen doesn’t say goodbye although he watches her retreating dark form for a few minutes before heading back down the steps onto the sand. He walks to where the sole bird is once more pecking at the debris on the water’s edge and pulls his phone into his hand. Snapping a few photos of the startled bird he laughs as it squawks and flies off.
He sends the photo to Jared.
A moment later his phone rings.
“Scaring the wildlife?”
“Nah. Jon and I are old friends.”
“Walking the shore?” Jared asks although it’s obvious.
Jensen hears the concern in Jared’s voice. “As always.” He hesitates but then proceeds because Jared needs to know. “I made a decision about my father.”
“Yeah?” Jared asks, voice curious.
“After the wedding.”
It’s quiet and Jensen wonders if Jared maybe forgot for a moment that they were engaged and that generally a wedding followed that.
“After the wedding?” Jared repeats.
“Our wedding,” Jensen clarifies because he feels like that might be necessary.
Jared huffs. “I got that. OK. If that’s what you want.”
Jensen kicks at the sand again. “I want my husband with me when I meet him.”
Another moment passes and then Jared’s soft voice says, “OK.” Another breath. “I love you.”
He smiles. “I love you, too.”
“Damn, I want to hug you.”
“Stop being a copycat,” Jared teases. Then his voice sobers. “So, staring at the ocean for hours helped you to decide?”
“Something like that,” Jensen replies. And then he pulls on Jared’s virtual pig-tail. “Oh. And Mom wants to help us plan the wedding.”
He can practically see Jared’s face twisting in annoyance. “Mmm,” he replies noncommittedly.
“And I think Danni’s coming home. So, she and Mom can start on it together.”
As expected, Jared snickers. “You’re evil.”
“But you’re marrying me anyway.”
The bird passes by swishing his tail feathers in complete indifference as Jared replies, “You betcha.”
On The Winter Beach
by Suchoon Mo
I walk on the winter beach
from here to there
and beyond where the beach ends
past indifferent sea gulls
over beached kelps
over bleached sea shells
to the sound of crushing waves
to the call of ebbing memories
I walk on the winter beach
I shall go
I must go
beyond where the beach ends