Margaret Ross

Thirty white people wearing white and posing
by the sea. Actually, two of them
wear blue, one of the brothers’ wives
who’s always trying to distance herself
from the family, and one of her daughters.
It will ruin the picture but better to pretend
nobody notices. First the group shot
then the turns for individual families
who can choose to sit together in the sand
or jump over the surf in unison, grinning.

Every other year, this reunion. All my life.
The same photographer shoots it
wearing her son’s old cargo shorts.
Something bad had happened to her, maybe
I wasn’t told. And it made her
not as you’d expect a tragedy would
make someone but cheerful, capable.
Last year, she got married.

Last year, whatever I was doing
on the beach, I was thinking
about a man. When he was
with me, he was cheating on the woman
he was cheating on his girlfriend with.
But the woman was going to
have a baby and he’d told me he
was leaving me and the girlfriend both
to be with her, it.

The little cousins walked
the sand at night with flashlights
to detect the crabs they shoveled
into plastic pails they’d carry out as far
as they could walk, then dump there.

The one aunt who was single
would describe herself as married
to Christ. “And we have fights
like any couple.” When a cousin
turned thirteen, she took them
on a beach walk to explain chastity.
She was a Shakespeare scholar
who discovered in the tragedies
some details at the ends which indicated
wretched characters were born again.

Some things everyone agreed on, like
you had to justify a garment praised
by saying how cheap it was.
In other cases, no one felt the same.
When giving punishments, for instance,
whether somebody who’d been bad should
sit alone reflecting in a room or apologize
to the group and whether or not to soothe somebody
who had torn their clothes off, sobbing.

The cottages we rented on the shore
weren’t part of any family’s real life.
They were designed to feel
they had no history. It was comfortable.
Even the plates and cups we used
were all disposable, though
the silverware was metal. Bright flags
of beach towels hung over the porch railings.
Standing by them, you could barely see
the water for the roofs of other rentals.

When they were sunburned,
the aunts drove to a market
selling handmade soap and straw hats, delicate
cheap jewelry. An uncle said
the site had been a slave market.
His wife said please don’t tell the kids that.

They lived, like most of us, in the middle
of the country, two days drive away.
He brought from home a giant pool float
so we could ride the ocean. Over and over, waves
shot it forward and you fell off screaming
or kept clinging to it somehow, screaming.
We called it Party Barge and marveled daily
at its not puncturing.

Each year, the pictures taken on the beach
would turn out brighter, more
garish than the twilit shore
remembered. Inland, one year
hung beside the other, framed, detached,
as if history were comprised of do-overs.
The dress code always white, white
and tan, and some of the same
shirts and dresses would appear again.

Before the reunion, I was
with the man at my parents’ apartment
on a bed that used to be my sister’s.
Next to it, the built-in shelves
still crowded with dolls she liked
to line up on the floor and count.

When I got home, he said
the woman lost the baby
so he felt free to love me.

Margaret Ross is the author of Saturday, which will be published by The Song Cave in September.
Originally published:
January 1, 2020


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