Twenty years ago, when my parents were divorced but dating again, they bought property together—where my dad’s business, a photoshop now sits—that is currently the source of a lawsuit between them. Both of my parents would like, and have tried, to tell me their side of the story, but I’m not privy to the legal particulars because I don’t want to be. The specifics don’t matter to me. What matters is that, even two decades post-divorce—long after their mutual trust has evaporated like rubbing alcohol on photo paper—they remain not only emotionally enmeshed (their hated is the kind that eats away at stomach linings), but also financially enmeshed, thanks to mounting legal fees that have left them both crying poor. Mom has refinanced the house twice, marring her once near-perfect credit score; and Dad had to lay-off an employee, downsize and rent out his store, and cash out his 401K.
Most of my memories of my parents together are not loving ones. They were seldom outwardly affectionate and very often visibly angry—usually about money. (Mom once threw all of Dad’s clothes over the upstairs railing after a big financial tiff. His shirts, pants, belts, and tennis shoes went flying like leaves in the autumn or a gymnast mid-flip before landing on the slate entryway floor with staggered thuds, whacks, and thumps.) Yet, when they entered into this business agreement, they must have felt agreeable. What might that trust have looked like? I wonder, and I let myself imagine a moment, frozen in time: a picture-perfect still shot of a love that once was—theirs and ours.
June 1985: Santa Monica Beach, California
I’m sitting inside my playpen, rolling a toy ball around and watching two seagulls fight it out for a piece of fallen coconut Popsicle. I can smell the salty tang of the sea mixed with the sweet scent of Banana Boat suntan lotion. My playpen is securely positioned on the sand—wedged in deep, so it won’t topple over. Mom is four months pregnant with Sean but doesn’t know his name is Sean or even that he’s a he yet. She has that glow other people have been saying she has. Her cheeks are just the right amount of flushed, and her long face—which is normally too-thin looking—is just the perfect amount of round. She’s sitting in a folding chair under an umbrella, so her head is covered, but her legs are in the sun. They’re getting that nice brown hue that Dad’s and mine never get because we’re fair-skinned.
Dad bends down and rubs sunscreen on Mom’s chest, just to be safe, so she won’t turn red or freckle. When I’m older, I’ll be the one hounding her to slather on more lotion (Reapplication is key!), but for now, at fifteen-months old, all I can do is gurgle, which makes Dad laugh. He comes by to coo at me, feeding me broken up pieces of bread, inadvertently mixed up with bits of sand: my favorite.
“We love you! You’re our little beach baby,” they singsong, as they take turns fussing over me—giving me milk to drink from a Sippy cup; tightening my hat to make sure I don’t get sun in my blue eyes; covering me in baby-safe skin products, so I won’t burn.
Mom opens the cooler and pulls out baby carrots from a Ziploc bag. “These are babies too,” she jokes. Yesterday, she fed me a baby corn, and now I’m wondering what kind of vegetable she has in her belly. Corn, I decide. Definitely corn, before the sound of waves in the distance lulls me into a drowsy calm. It’s Mom’s teeth meeting the carrot—crunch!—that jolts me back from the precipice of sleep.
Dad leans over my playpen then to place his Maui Jim sunglasses on my squishy, full-moon of a face. He thinks this look—me in adult-size spectacles—is hilarious and often photographs me this way. It’s one of his bits. Melissa sits in the driver’s seat of the car wearing sunglasses. Melissa sits on the tire swing wearing sunglasses and an exercise headband while holding a tennis ball. There are entire series of this sort—Baby with Giant Sunglasses—clogging up our family photo albums. Dad’s camera goes click-click, and I know he’s taking more pictures of me to add to his collection. “Deb, look!” he says to Mom. “Look how cute Scrunch is in my glasses.” Scrunch is his nickname for me because I scrunch up my forehead like a wrinkly old man.
Yes, they make cute babies, Mom agrees, and Dad rubs her bump affectionately. “Crazy that next summer, we’ll have two littles rolling around in the sand,” Mom says as she scoops me up in her arms and kisses my belly button, nuzzling her nose in my rolls.
Mommy and Daddy really love me, I think as I feel Mom’s slobber drying on my soft, baby tummy.
They once loved each other, too. I wish they could remember that.
Melissa Greenwood earned her MFA in creative nonfiction writing (CNF) from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2015. She has been published in Brevity, Annotation Nation, the Pup Pup Blog, Lunch Ticket, Moment Mag, Sledgehammer Lit, Screenshot Lit, Pink Plastic House, and forthcoming in Imposter. Melissa also received a best short fiction nomination in Meow Meow Pow Pow for her essay, “The Stain.” More of her work can be found under a pen name in The Los Angeles Review, theLos Angeles Review of Books, The Manifest-Station, Poke, Neuro Logical, and The Erozine.