KELI LOOKED AROUND HER, and in turning felt the sticky skin on the inside of her elbows peel away from the sides of her calves. That alone made it feel as though she’d sat an entire day sulking, her arms wrapped around her legs.
But in reality only a half hour had passed since this crowded Galveston beach, grungy but still one of her favorite retreats, had quickly emptied of swimsuited vacationers.
She shifted to find a more comfortable place for her butt, but the hard-packed sand under her towel pushed back–compounding the sense of rejection, disappointment, and isolation that now enveloped her–and leaving her just this side of despondent. She might as well be sitting alone on some Dallas curb, staring at a brick wall instead of at this sight that would normally buoy her spirits, the sea’s horizon.
Everything had happened so fast. The late summer weekend drew families full of kids to the Gulf to enjoy a few days of freedom before the start of school, and only an hour earlier, the constant, high-pitched din of manic children’s voices, sometimes indistinguishable from the din of manic gulls, had layered over the timpani-rumble of ocean waves to create a beautiful symphony. Most of the afternoon she’d sat like a Grand Marshall reviewing a parade of cute kids passing up and down the beach in front of her, but after her rented umbrella had cooled her about as much as it could, she’d decided it was time to go back in the water.
That is, until a mom, out about hip high, shrieked and grabbed her two little ones by the wrists and started dragging them toward shore as if she were an unstoppable tugboat. Keli remembered someone yelling, “Jelly fish! Get out!” and as she watched waves of waders swarm onto the beach, she recalled the silent, black-and-white government films from the Bikini Islands bomb tests. A similar scene played out before her today: the percussive pow, a split second of frozen time, then the shock wave rippling across the water from the spot where the mom had stood, pushing everyone ashore.
As dozens plowed through the waves, there’d be an occasional yelp or squeal, without any real indication anyone had actually been stung. And then, once safely on the sand, they all stood, pointing back at the terror that floated just below the surface about fifty feet out.
After a few minutes, an ambulance appeared through a gate in the sea wall and crept down the ramp. No siren, only flashing red and blue lights crawled and crunched across the sand and dry seaweed to stop near the crowd. Moms and dads had by then counted heads, and the tension hovering over the lapping waves evaporated with the realization that, miraculously, not a single one had been hurt.
Still, they’d never seen anything like this before. While it wasn’t unusual for jelly fish to appear out of nowhere like a storm front–clouding blue skies and ruining everyone’s fun–this appeared more sinister, more like a plague of Biblical proportions, a curse of Red Sea monsters that had gone unmentioned in the book of Exodus. Once or twice someone might cautiously wade out, almost on tip-toe, hands at shoulder level. But then they’d suddenly panic, and turning toward shore, come splashing back in, knees kicking high, exclaiming, “There’s millions of ’em!”
Now all the drama was over, and except for three cops and a couple of guys in wet suits, there was no one left to point out across the waves, all the out-of-towners having gone back to Conroe and Corsicana and Nacogdoches. Sitting alone on the abandoned beach, Keli was resigned to the painful realization that the Gulf would never welcome her again.
Were jelly fish taking over the world? Either that or, like jelly fish, all the other niggling heartaches of her life were becoming innumerable, and she wondered if she would ever escape them all. Things might seem to be going great, but some problem always bobbed to the surface, a sign that she didn’t deserve to be happy, a sign that she was simply to sit out life, watching everybody else’s parade from the grandstand.
She remembered other pilgrimages to this spot, ones that too often ended with her only getting a toe in the water before something turned the whole trip sour and made it all feel like a waste of time. Once, seven years earlier, it had been a hurricane.
On that Sunday morning in late August, she and her husband rose early to enjoy a quiet walk along the water’s edge before the rest of the tourists got there. But once arrived at the seawall they found the tide high, the wind stiff, and the sky and water joined in a seamless gray, so they were forced to cede the beach and go home. Only then, after hitting heavy traffic going north on Interstate 45, did they recall the previous afternoon and the muted television hanging on the wall where they had lunch on The Strand. News coverage was tracking Katrina, still hundreds of miles away, but bearing down on New Orleans, its deadpan mayor pleading with people to get out of town.
So these trips to the shore, any shore, trips she’d always considered therapeutic if not downright medicinal, now seemed to join her Top Ten List of Life Choices That Just Didn’t Turn Out As Expected. True, they might fall towards the bottom of the list in significance, but still, there they were, along with Not Having A Child, Trying To Adopt A Child Too Late, and most recently, Who, Me? A Career? All of that piled atop half-a-century’s worth of what she considered random screw ups–rejecting marriage when she was younger and choosing seminary instead, for instance–and suddenly she felt the weight of it all pushing her deeper and deeper, and in response, she angrily pushed her feet down into the suffocating sand so they could see what it felt like to be buried alive.
Her husband often confessed to a childish and irrational anger at God whenever anything went wrong in his own life. But somehow that made more sense than blaming jelly fish. Still, she glared at the sea as a small Coast Guard skiff trolled along, several sailors dipping nets and long hooks into the water to lift out the sagging, transparent conspirators that had chased everyone off the beach. For the first time in her life she wasn’t an animal lover.
The sailors waved at the skin divers, and one of them waded bravely out to the boat. Now as he stood in the water looking at their haul, they were all laughing, and it made Keli want to laugh, too, to dig herself out of her emotional quicksand as she’d done so many times before, to look for a sign that she should keep on pushing, some sign that she did in fact deserve to be happy. Deciding to fake it until she could make it, she pulled her feet out of the heavy sand and felt the ocean breeze cool her toes.
She watched the skin diver come ashore, his left hand dragging a bunch of the creatures and his right holding aloft a single dripping specimen. He was still laughing, and as he approached to pass by her, she could see that what he had were clear plastic food bags, imprinted with colorful, translucent graphics. The one he held high showed the smiling face of a brown-haired child.
“Oh, hey. Can you read Spanish?” he asked, holding it out to her.
“Yeah,” she said, peering at a soggy plastic bread bag, a Mexican brand, that now sparkled in the late afternoon sun. “Uh, that one says, um, LUCKY GIRL. Yeah. That’s what it says.”