The house was always at high tide. Its broken timbers floated near the skeleton of its rooftop, sitting on the laps of a thousand waves and gently slipping over the walls. Salt from the ocean collected, dried on warped boards, and fell back into the waters. The sea willingly gave the house a thousand of those crystals, swished itself against the windows, and parted its mouth again. The house was rooted to the edge of the shore and couldn’t move into the sea, so instead it stayed up during the night trying to count all of the different waves, trying to prove to the ocean that it also had something to offer.
We lived a million grains of sand away, in our own cabin down the beach. Our house was not made of wood but of metal and glass, the outside walls sprayed with a thick chemical to repel the briny water that pooled and splashed around the foundation. This warned the minnows and crustaceans, sea lions and octopi not to come to say hello. I had to walk down the beach to meet them, to the house where wood and water fused like wet cotton to skin. I stood next to the house but never went inside.
In the darkness no one could see the barnacles and spiny anemones that climbed onto the house’s pitched roof and sat like tumorous gargoyles, brackish and sharp.
When I was small I said goodbye to my mother like this: every time we parted, whether for five days or five minutes, I wedged myself between the storm door of our cabin and the wooden one, chirping “I love you. Bye. I love you. Bye. I love you. Bye” each time she said anything else to me. It had to be the last thing that moved between us, an endless ticker tape of love and paranoia that ceased only with the slam of the car door. Cars can’t live on the sand, so I went out to the yard and sat and stared at it as it rolled down the smooth grey pavement, taking her away.
If a storm came, the house down the beach gathered the ocean and rocked it as it swelled with the falling rain. The sea always fit perfectly inside of it, no matter how much water fell from the sky. Off the shore, a watery canyon dipped steeply from the edge and out to sea, exposing the roots of islands and the cities of crushed glass built underneath miles of water. Some of them exploded when the ocean crawled up into the house, too used to the pressure of tons and tons of wet salt and waves. In the darkness no one could see the barnacles and spiny anemones that climbed onto the house’s pitched roof and sat like tumorous gargoyles, brackish and sharp.
When I was smaller my father captured two blue lobsters and put them in our bathtub under two inches of water. I wondered if they missed the taste of their home and poured in as much salt as I could find, so that they were covered in damp white powder by the time the pot on the stove was heated and steam was rising from the top. My father lifted me onto his hip and put the lobsters into their new tub, side by side like twins in a single bed. As their shells began to shift in the heat and they stopped ticking their claws open and shut, I turned my face from the stove and pushed into my father’s shoulder.
The moon controls the tides like small wet puppets, pushing and pulling them away from the house when she chooses. When she becomes distant the ocean is free to rush against the boards and pilings, but as the month presses forward and she grows round in white anger her invisible strings grow steely and strong, scraping the waves over the sand and dragging them under themselves. Their white-topped breaths disappear as they fall back into neatly marching rows, far too many of them for anyone to count.
Most of life is spent acclimating. If I sit at the edge of the shore for hours, I stop noticing the breeze where it bites at my skin. If I drink enough salt water, I’ll find I can live on it or I’ll shrivel up into a husk.
After I was no longer so small my father began to glare at my mother when she held my hand as we walked down the street. We made pulses travel between us with a squeeze of our fists, because if you squeeze someone’s hand and they squeeze back, it means they love you too. At home I hid in corners or beside walls while my parents argued, my father saying you shouldn’t let her do that, you will spoil her, she needs to learn to let go, my mother silent, salt on her cheeks.
I went away to the tide pools to learn how to barter respect for affection, to practice reaching out in the darkness for something that might not be there. I huddled in among the whelks and winkles, trying to form a shell. When I opened my eyes I was still without carapace, a sea slug soft and trembling who whined and wheedled and begged for someone to pat me gently. Nearby, the house down the beach from us sat with salt on its walls, timbers beginning to weaken. I shored myself up, hardened, and walked home.
But I would be rewarded with his affection only after I proved I deserved his respect. Most of life is spent acclimating. If I sit at the edge of the shore for hours, I stop noticing the breeze where it bites at my skin. If I drink enough salt water, I’ll find I can live on it or I’ll shrivel up into a husk. So I began the project of teaching myself to do without, to swallow tears when I was thirsty. I kept the card he gave me on my ninth birthday in a drawer, opening it to see the words “I love you” in place of hearing them. When I turned eighteen, I left on a shuddering bus, stopping to trail my fingers through the sand beside the house down the beach.
When the house and the ocean began to whisper in low tones that the moon was too far away and high above to hear, the moon grew jealous. She turned her shoulder hard against the sky, shutting off her light from the house, ripping away its blanket of tide like an angry housemaid punishing a bed. But the thousand hands of the sea reached up as one massive wave for the last time, each squeezing the house tightly before washing away. I love you. Bye.