It Was Not Easy to Relax
by Ammi Keller
It was July. Covid-19 had been with them since March. So Sarah and her partner trudged across Rodeo Beach in face masks to where the crowd thinned. They’d rearranged their work schedules to be there on a Monday and still the parking lot had been full. The covid times were silent, people in their homes until we went to nature in a sad human attempt to be animal again, skins sallow from lack of sun, coolers and sun hats and tough Northern California camping umbrellas that cartwheeled away in the wind. A few polar bear types wore bikinis but the marine layer was headed towards us over the water. Most people wore fleece.
Eddy, the partner, had brought along a shade structure and went to work burying the sandbags that held up the posts. Someone had said to do so on the internet. So Sarah watched handfuls of armfuls of wet sand get pulled from the earth and slide back down into it, watched the bags get buried then pulled out and moved and the polls rearranged, while the wind whipped the fabric tarp and the shade fell nowhere near her body. Nothing wasn’t irritating. Sun, rangy grey pelicans, inlets and ice plant flowers and rocks that had seen a thousand plagues. At least, out here, each group was fifteen plus feet apart. It was a beautiful day. It was not easy to relax.
After the bags were buried again and the structure determined to be holding, Sarah got out a book on mindfulness and Eddy one, quite literally, on love. A family was coming towards them down the beach—a mother with a round bottom, a father with a round belly, a teenage girl and a four-year-old boy, all in masks. The mother pointed to a spot in front of some rocks six feet from Sarah and Eddy. Here, she said, and spread out a blanket.
Sarah and Eddy put the crack between their body over the rift between their towels and tried to go back to reading. Public health warnings told people to stay six feet from one another, but more was better, especially over long periods of time. Without speaking, they tried not to be annoyed. Eddy put on a mask, then Sarah did. The books called for love, forgiveness, care for one’s enemies. The mother had gotten up and taken the boy to build a sandcastle closer to the waves. When the little boy left, Sarah approached her. What was said and by whom would later become a point of debate, of myth really. In essence, the two women asked the mother if her family would move over—by how much, and why, and the tone of her voice—these were lost to the wind. But when the mother—my mother—came back and relayed this to my father, he shrugged.
“We’re here, we’re not moving. It’s a public beach.”
So began the last day of my childhood.
Sarah wondered why the family wasn’t moving. She looked crossways over her mask and thought she saw the mother look away, the father and teenage girl share a laugh. She thought she saw this daughter look at her, over the top of Franny and Zoey, a hardcover library book—“they still read Fitzgerald?” Eddy wondered. It was silly even then; now it seems so quaint as to be almost ugly, the old world trying to get its loose weak incisors into my generation before we could escape into the world to come. Sarah thought she saw a bald expression on the girl’s face, a narrowing of her eyes in the wind as the flyaways from her ponytail were whipped every which way. Not picking a fight exactly, just saying: you can’t push us around. And you couldn’t, not that day. We’d been home for months, fighting over the TV remote or staring at separate screens, my brother wanting me to play with him, me trying my best to help out but wanting my books, wanting my friends who had never really been my friends, to remember me, or at least perform this online so I wouldn’t have to go into sophomore year with my parents as my best friends. They were good parents, in no way authoritarian, a bit lost themselves. My mom a little chillier, my dad a bit of a teddy bear, both of them used to giving way for others. It was our first outing in weeks.
Sarah lay back, sat up, lay back again. She stared down at the book, too angry to read, because this damned family: why couldn’t they just move over? She and Eddy would have, but for the shade structure: the energy it would cost to unbury and rebury those bags, and the resentment it would generate seemed, was just too high. Sarah was virus podded with three others, one of whom had elderly parents. An idea for how to make this damned family shift themselves down the beach came to her mind and she discarded it—too mean. Sarah had been working with her anger in meditation and was no stranger to the moment rage overtakes compassion and the capacity to take the long view. She observed her body temperature spike and fall; she knew that this was one of these moments.
But then the teenage girl sneezed. Not once but three times. She covered her mouth with the back of her hand, but limply. Not with appropriate devotion, given the stakes of the sneeze. And it was as if Sarah could see the small cloud, sent forth at 50 mph, which might or might not decide to hang out under her and Eddy’s tarp. Another eight plus feet and the wind would have sheered it, left viruses dismembered in the sun, but no: this family was too close and though it wasn’t likely, the image of Sarah’s housemate’s parents dying in the ICU was worse than the almost sweet cruelty that had popped into her brain fully formed, like an angel or an app.
“We could plan our Zoom class on vaginal fisting,” Sarah suggested and Eddy giggled. Eddy was butch and stocky, prone to the deathly seriousness of a small child, so it was a delight to see her giggle and say ok.
“So what do we need to put on the syllabus for our Zoom class on VAGINAL FISTING?” Sarah asked. She had to project her voice in our direction (potentially expelling virus particles, which she realized, with a small amount of guilt, in the moment of exhalation) and because her throat was already sore from social distanced hang outs. She could be nervy person when she felt aggressed upon, but in general she had a hard time drawing deep on her diaphragm. She didn’t have the energy to project every word, only the ones that counted.
“We need to start with relaxation. It’s very important that people know the person getting fisted is in charge,” Eddy said.
“So during VAGINAL FISTING, it’s important to RELAX THE VAGINA,” Sarah projected.
“Lube should be a bullet point. Do you think we could demonstrate?” Eddy’s voice was warm and deep, half eaten by the wind, and yet it was her totalizing seriousness that enabled Sarah’s replies.
“During covid, it would be hard to find a VAGINAL FISTING Zoom model. Unless somehow they had a really long arm?”
Sarah fell sideways laughing, fell as if shot, in a gesture that to me captured those fragile, adrenalized months. In her nerviness, she reminded me of my parents. My mother was wandering and looking at shells, my father closing his eyes with his face to the wind. I saw the slackness in my father’s cheeks, after so many weeks indoors, and realized neither of them had heard yet. Adulthood: that liminal zone between childhood and old age when you are the one who needs to do something about the situation of the present, ideally while shielding others not just from being impacted but from knowing the intent behind the impact. When you are the one tasked with advocating a trustable world.
I got up and moved to the other side of my father, farther from the women, thinking if I couldn’t hear it would be easier for him. He, after all, knew about sex. It was reflexive, to move as though I could protect myself from what I already knew. Clearly it was already too late—not just because of covid, but because of internet porn (I sadly saw my first when I was 6), social media bullying, climate change, racialized murder, endless scrolling. Did the generations before mine feel rejected even by their imaginary friends?
My mother returned and plopped back on the sand, looking younger than she had when she got up.
“So FISTING transwomen VAGINALLY isn’t recommended?” Sarah asked. “Perhaps we could have ANAL FISITING RESOURCES available?”
Eddy said her ex-girlfriend taught classes and that she could reach out. It would be the least awkward thing, in fact, she could reach out about.
My mother’s face tightened just as I realized I had begun leaning sideways, curious. A girl in my class was trans and this issue had never occurred to me. I bet it had never occurred to her. Childhood: the ability to believe magic exists under the grey stones of the world. My mom’s stone-grey eyes shifted my way. I sat back but it was too late.
“It’s important to include all women’s bodies,” Eddy said.
“Could just say transwomen should expect to enjoy FISTING as the FISTER rather than the FISTEE?”
“How about we take a walk down the beach and find some shells?” My mother said. I jumped up and began running while my little brother screamed for me to wait. Running took me away from the voices; I made my own wind. Salt and sun and sand so hot it hurt my feet till I got to douse them in the aching cold of the Pacific.
When I looked back, my father was lying on his back with his eyes closed, five feet from the women. He wasn’t budging, he was the wall between us and them, but he had put on his mask. If you knew my father you would have wept. That he thought appeasement could work, at his job, when my brother had tantrums, and with his own difficult brother. He was a person who believed doing a little did something. Voted a moderate ticket, tried to let go of animus, was a defender of “two sides to every story.” The glacier that man was standing on—in his forty-six years on the planet, it had shrunk down to nothing.
“Let’s take a break from planning and read.” Sarah picked up her book, took of her sweatshirt and lay back in her threadbare bikini. Silence then, which proves my father was not her target—I was. The women went back to reading and my father watched the clouds and the water. If you have ever experienced a peace between enemies, you know it is like no other. In the distance all I saw were three masks.
I let my brother catch up, then pointed out shells and rocks. A smart six-year-old, he’d picked up on the tension and had been turning back to point his warlike little face at the women. So I made him run with me through the surf, kicked foam at him so bright with sun it shone almost yellow. We didn’t need any more problems.
My mother was beside my father now, waving for us to come back. But I wasn’t ready yet so I dropped to kneeling in the sand, told my brother to count, quick, the colors of sea glass, those polished little green and blue and brown stones the size of bug poop.
“It’s poop?” He asked and I tried to clarify: the sand was okay to run between our fingers, no germs. In a short time the world had become untouchable. I will have to learn to touch, I thought, once this is all over. If there ever was an over. It seemed as impossible as fisting.
My brother and I landed beside my parents, spraying sand.
“What’s fisting?” He asked.
I refused to look at my parents’ faces.
“It’s when you punch someone, but lightly. Like this,” I said, popping him gently in the arm. He did not seem convinced.
“Here buddy,” my dad said. He jiggled his knuckles in my brother’s side. “I just fisted you.”
He was laughing, as was my mother. She proceeded to play-punch me, my brother and my dad. “I fisted everyone. Family champion.”
Her curtain of her hair swayed as she lunged and her small triangular teeth came out when she smiled.
I had my back to the women now and my father was facing them. I saw him lower his eyes and I thought: don’t turn around, don’t do it, don’t look behind you.
Made is seem like an accident, under my arm while retying my shoelace and saw the peculiar (my favorite word of the week, via Salinger) gesture they were making. An upward motion, the fingers extended and pinched together at the ends (so not a fist, not exactly). All of their hands—four hands—were turned under, their palms facing in. They were looking at us and they were laughing harder than we were.
“Time to head on home?” My dad asked.
You might have missed it. If you weren’t a fourteen-year-old girl and you weren’t with your parents, both parents. If your shared understanding wasn’t experienced by one and witnessed by the other. If they hadn’t realized, together and in an instant, by the composure on your face, that you’d know all along. That you’d been protecting them.
As rolled up our blanket and poured the sand out of our shoes before putting them back on, the women were subdued. They lay back down, Sarah on her back and Eddy on her stomach, and read. A few whispers, the calm of a settled score. We started walking back down the beach with our masks on again, even my brother. On the horizon the white caps were stiff with wind. I held the library book against my chest, protection against whatever it was about adulthood that had seemed so terrible that I’d intended before that day never to live there.
It hangs around like a memory now, this potential terribleness. What is it? It’s often mistaken for sexuality in literature, but because my generation doesn’t have the same hang ups that our predecessors did, I think I might be able to see it more simply as: the agreement to lie in order to contain unbearable emotion. And it isn’t only sex that is unbearable. It is loneliness, it is nature as separation, computer as friend, it is the lies over lies we have to tell about all this in order to keep open the hope of reconciliation.
Sex seems unbearable because I have been taught to protect my inside, but because I have to protect my insides, everything is unbearable. Vulnerable? My family was beyond vulnerable—which doesn’t mean they weren’t badasses. My family were like people you’d have to make understand what skin was before you could show them, as gently as possible, that they didn’t have any.
I wonder what the women were thinking as we left. Sarah’s eyes followed us above her mask. Her hair had a hefty wave of grey but her body was more a young person’s than an old person’s, partly for the insistence on a pink bikini on the northern pacific coast, public hair down to her thighs. So much body and all I could interpret were her eyes.
Is this a tragedy? They seemed to ask.
The real tragedy would be catching and spreading the virus, they seemed to say.
I can’t really say this was a tragedy, unless growing up is always a tragedy. But I was fourteen-years-old years old when the coronavirus hit. What would I know of always?
Ammi Keller wrote the zine Emergency and her stories appear in American Short Fiction, Sycamore Review, Joyland and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has received support from the Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, the Lambda Literary Emerging Writers Retreat and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Image: Aaron Burden/Unsplash