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A Love Letter to the Ocean, by Deidre Wollard

The beach was no place for a fat girl but Beth knew it was safe in September, when all the summer people had headed home and it was too chilly for swimsuits. After two years of living by ocean she had learned to relish this peaceful time, the still-warm months at either end of the brief New England summer.

A few daring surfers, sleek like seals in their wetsuits, dotted the water. Beth breathed in the moist salty air and watched their progress. She didn't know them by name, but she was familiar with their bodies and the distinctive way each one made peace with the waves. A lithe teenage boy stretched out on his board until the wave hit and then, in one fluid move, jumped into position. An older man extended his sinewy arms out wide in perfect parallel to the board. Of the regular surfers her favorite was the tall muscular blonde, who was the only woman surfer on the beach most days. Beth never talked to the surfers but she liked to think she joined them in being members of the same ocean-worshipping tribe.

Beth's apartment by the ocean was an hour from her job as a bus driver in downtown Boston. Two hours of commute tacked onto a day already filled with driving but she didn't mind; it was worth it to smell the ocean air each night. Driving is what she did best. In her bus, she was at relative ease, her bulk comfortably settled on the large seat. She hated the uniform. The way the blue polyester stretched over her thighs made her conscious of her size every time she looked down. Beth tried hard not to look down.

She had made her career choice shortly after dropping out of college. Every day she took the bus from home into the city to look for a job.

She had one interview suit that she had bought at the larger women's store. If she ever got a job she would have to buy new clothes, but for interviews it was the same navy suit each day. One morning, en route to another interview for an administrative assistant position, Beth realized that the only place she ever consistently saw people of her size, was on the bus. Driving the bus. She started to pay attention. Not all the drivers were fat but more than a few were. No one would question her size here. It wasn't like the offices she went to interview at, where the managers looked at her and then at their fragile desk chairs with skeptical eyes.

Even when it was cloudy and cold and spitting rain Beth made her daily pilgrimage to the ocean. The rain plastered her hair to her forehead. The female surfer was out on the waves alone battling the tides. After a few failed attempts, she caught a big wave and rode it into shore. She picked up her board and walked toward Beth. Beth stood frozen, horrified but unable to move. Just before she got to Beth she stopped and reached down. Beth felt the blood rise to her face as she realized the surfer wasn't coming for her at all. The woman pulled a towel out of her backpack and smiled up at Beth as she dried her hair.

"Nasty weather, huh?"

"Yeah."

"Great for surfing, just me and the waves. Little cold though, I could feel the waves biting right through my suit." She bent an arm behind her, seeking the long zipper pull on her back and began to peel off her wetsuit.

Beth remained, watching, unsure whether she should stay or go. For an awful agonizing moment she was afraid the woman was nude underneath the wetsuit. She nearly sighed with relief when the woman's red lifeguard-style tank was revealed. Beth watched her shake out her wetsuit and put it on a little hanger.

"I've seen you down here a lot. You live nearby?"

"Just up the street."

"Lucky you, I've got a half hour drive each way. But these waves are worth it, best surf around and hardly any surfrat wavestealers to contend with. Oh, I'm Kelly, by the way." She looked up from packing up her backpack and extended her hand to Beth, who leaned forward and grasped it. It was wet and cold yet surprising hard. She realized that Kelly was older than she thought, maybe even older than Beth herself. It seemed surfing wasn't just for young boys.

"I'm Beth."

"Well, Beth, I gotta run. I'm sure I'll see you around here."

Beth watched Kelly walk toward the parking lot, her long strides gobbling up the sand in monster portions. After she was gone, Beth made her own slow-gaited trip home. The whole rest of the day, she felt an inexplicable happiness despite the fact that she usually hated driving the bus on rainy days. But wet seats and slick roads and grumpy passengers shaking their umbrellas out in doorway couldn't faze her today. She had been acknowledged.

The next day, Beth waited at the beach all morning but Kelly didn't show. Beth had to drive eighty miles an hour down the freeway to get to work on time. She prided herself on her perfect driving record, as much as she did her perfect attendance record at work so all down the Interstate it was touch and go to see which perfect record would win primacy in Beth's heart. But she arrived at work on time, without getting stopped by the police, thus ensuring the sanctity of both records.

The following morning Beth saw Kelly out in the ocean. Beth smiled and waved. Kelly didn't wave back, but after a few rides she came into shore, breathing hard, and beckoned Beth over.

"Hi Beth, great weather today."

Beth nodded.

"Hey, can I ask you a question? Can you swim? I see you here every day but you're never in the water."

"I can't."

"You can't swim? I thought so. I was thinking that if you would like me to I could teach you when the water gets a little warmer."

"I know how to swim."

"You do? Great. Ever thought of surfing?"

"I'm too big."

Kelly looked Beth up and down, as if it had never occurred to her that Beth weighed three hundred pounds. She then glanced down at her surfboard.

"You ever thought of losing weight?" she asked in the same offhand way she asked about surfing.

Beth sighed with frustration. She hated having this conversation, this same conversation she had been having since she was twelve. She blurted it all out as one sentence. "I've always been heavy, no it's not glandular, no, I was never molested, yes, I have tried diets, no, I'm not on one now, yes, I know it is a health risk and no, I haven't given up."

Kelly backed away. "Easy does it. I was just asking. I'm studying to be a naturopath so I'm always curious about people's health." She shucked her wetsuit and wrapped up in a towel. "Later."

On the bus later that day, Beth thought about Kelly. It almost seemed like Kelly wanted to be her friend. She had learned to be wary of friendship; too many people used her as a stopgap, a bridge between the next boyfriend or the cooler friends. In high school, she was always the first to make friends with the new girl, only to watch the new girl gradually get integrated into one or another social sphere while Beth was left, forever peripheral. She wondered what Kelly was like in high school. A jock perhaps, but jocks were always cruel to Beth. She remembered one day when she had missed a volleyball shot and a girl threw a sneaker at the back of her head.

Please, don't let Kelly be a jock, Beth silently prayed.

******

On Sundays, Beth didn't drive the bus but she didn't go to the beach either. Instead she took the train to visit her mother who lived an hour inland. She had learned to dread these visits, but she was the only one of her siblings who lived in the same state as Momma so it was her responsibility to check up on her. Even though Beth was nearly thirty, Momma still viewed her as the baby. She lingered over Beth's past accomplishments as if they had happened last week instead of back in high school. The previous week, Momma had brought out the old high school newspapers from when Beth was one of the assistant editors. As she sat on the train, wedged into her seat, Beth wondered what recycled hell Momma would dredge up this week.

At the house, after Diet Coke and fat-free cookies, her mother launched into her favorite subject. "I saw another story on the news. More doctors are doing them now."

"Momma, let it go." Beth was taught to respect her mother but it was difficult when every week it was always this thing, her weight, which lodged itself between them.

"If you would just ask your doctor about it, there's a specialist in the city that does them now."

"I don't want to have surgery."

"Honestly, Beth, it's no big deal. I had my gallbladder out, it's not like you feel anything. It's just snip, snip and you wake up later."

"People die from gastric bypass surgery, Momma."

"People die from being too fat." Momma scrutinized her in such a way that Beth felt every ounce of her three hundred pounds.

Momma got up from the table.

"I was in the attic yesterday and look what I found." She held out a leather-bound album. "It's the genealogy project you did in high school. You got an A plus, remember?"

Beth nodded and took the book from Momma's hands. She flipped through the pages, the grim-faced sepia photographs, her painstakingly detailed hand-drawn family trees.

"Why did I do all this stuff?"

"It was a history project. Don't you remember? You called all your relatives on my and your father's sides."

"I did?"

"I made the calls but you put the album together."

Beth was pleased by the careful work of her younger self. "Can I keep this?"

Momma hesitated, "Don't lose it."

"Forget it." Momma never gave Beth anything freely. Each gift had invisible threads, tying Beth to her mother.

"No, you keep it."

That night in the supermarket, Beth lingered over the surfing magazines. She flipped through the pages, feeling excruciatingly self-conscious. What if someone saw her? Would they wonder what that fat girl was doing reading surf magazines? The magazines were in a section surrounded by other publications that would appeal to young men. Photographs of busty women with flat stomachs pouted on every cover. But inside the magazine there were action shots of women who looked like Kelly. Suntanned, healthy women with hard arms. She sandwiched a magazine in the cart next to the family size frozen dinner of macaroni and cheese. She hated buying them in the store, certain that the checkout girl knew that there was no family. But nothing healed like noodles. Let Momma imagine she was at home nibbling delicately on lettuce.

Beth ate the macaroni straight from its large aluminum tray, conscious of her deliberate flaunting of Momma's rules of dinner behavior. While she ate, she flipped through her high school genealogy project, reading her own high-school-aged reflections on the importance of family and lineage. Newspaper clippings relating to family data fluttered out from between the pages. She took these out and spread them out on the table and continued eating. A large greasy elbow noodle landed on the newsprint.

"Darn it, Momma's going to freak," she muttered to herself, picking up the noodle and popping it into her mouth. She dabbed at the widening grease spot with a paper towel. She picked up the clipping. It was brittle, dated 1934. "Man dies saving girls."

Beth scanned the article quickly, her eyes widening as she read. This man, this Reverend Howe, had died at her beach. She opened through the album to the family tree and traced his connection to her. He was her great-uncle on her mother's side. Her great-uncle drowned on her beach. She closed her eyes. She could see it, beyond the details in the tiny article; she could see the curve of the shore, the man in his antiquated beach attire, diving again and again, his head disappearing beneath the water.

The girls were girl scouts. It had been a church outing. Of course he had no other choice but to save them. Beth read all the other clippings relating to Reverend Howe. The last was a picture of his tombstone. Under his name and dates, it said: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

******

At the beach the next morning, Beth wanted to tell Kelly her news. Somehow it just seemed important.

"A relative of mine died here. On the beach, years ago."

"Is that why you come here?"

"I just found out last night."

"Maybe you were drawn here. By the spirit of your ancestor. His soul could be uneasy or you could be his reincarnation."

Beth didn't quite know how to respond to that. She was pretty sure she wasn't the reincarnation of some dead Reverend (although it would explain the lack of a sex life). She looked over at Kelly who was gazing at her all wide-eyed. Different than before, more interested, as if Beth might have something special inside of her.

"You really think that's why I come here?"

"Oh, sure. The universe is a wild place, all sorts of things happen for reasons we aren't nearly evolved enough to know. You here, this beach, it's definitely a message." Kelly stared out over the water. "The question is what message. I have a friend who's a psychic, you could go see her."

"I'm not sure." Beth had seen psychics on television; the last thing she wanted was some turbaned woman prying into her private life.

"She's totally on the level."

Beth looked at her watch, "I'm going to be late if I don't leave. I'll see you tomorrow." She hated leaving first; she imagined Kelly watching her waddle up the beach, struggling against the sand and her own body. But she had to get out of there. It made her nervous, Kelly watching her like that, so close. Beth was breathing hard by the time she made it to the parking lot.

******

All day long Beth was haunted by the image of her ancestor drowning in the same waters Kelly surfed, the same waters Beth stared at day after day. Though she drove the bus up and down her route all morning, stopping at all the right lights, smiling at the passengers, inside her remained the water.

The next time Beth saw Kelly she could barely wait to tell her. The remains of a hurricane pounded the coast. Bad weather for driving or being out in but the storm-tossed waters were manna for surfers. Beth wrapped her bulk in a red windbreaker and stood on the beach.

"Great color," said Kelly, squinting through the rain. "You were better than a lighthouse for guiding me to shore." She shook her head and droplets splattered around Beth.

Beth wasn't sure if she should be insulted or flattered but Kelly's face seemed open and friendly. "I've been thinking. What if I'm meant to surf? That might be the message, from my ancestor."

"So you want to go on a diet?"

"I've been thinking I should get bypass surgery. I've got a lot of weight to lose. I called my doctor and he's going to evaluate me."

"Oh, Beth, don't do that. It's major surgery, it's totally risky. We could make a nutrition plan for you. You could join a gym."

Kelly looked so alarmed, so truly concerned, it made Beth feel warm.

"I would need a lot of guidance. It's never really worked before."

"You've never had me helping you before," Kelly winked at Beth. "My yoga instructor says if you can believe you can achieve." She peered forward, her gray-brown eyes searching for contact with Beth's.

"Maybe." Beth looked down at her belly dubiously. But if she could lose weight, if they could do it together, they would be closer than sisters, an unbreakable friendship. And all winter long, there wouldn't be the ocean between them. In the spring, maybe she could finally take to the water.

******

One morning, a new surfer came to the beach. Beth watched him out on the waves. He was like an elastic, a string against the waves, a live wire sparking and slapping at the currents. When Beth got down to the water's edge, the surfer had come in and was chatting with Kelly. He was a surfer straight out of central casting, tall, blond, the top part of his wetsuit off and dangling around his hips. His body all sinewy muscle and evenly tan. Beth could tell by the tilt of Kelly's head that the surfer's charms were not lost on her. A familiar pain struck Beth in the gut, but she was certain that Kelly wasn't like those girls in college. Beth stepped forward.

"Hi Kelly."

Kelly looked up and smiled at Beth. But it wasn't her usual smile, it looked tight around the edges.

"Surfing is so fantastic. You are one with the water. It's like writing a love letter to the ocean." The surfer ignored Beth and continued to speak only to Kelly.

Kelly nodded enthusiastically. "That's exactly how I feel about it. I'm going to teach Beth here, to surf someday."

The surfer looked over at Beth. She could feel the full weight of his disdain and his incredulity that such a whale could ever take to the board. "Whatever," he said. "See you later, Kelly."

"Isn't he fantastic?" said Kelly, not sounding like Kelly at all.

"He's surfed everywhere, Australia, Hawaii, he was on the circuit for a while, ranked and everything."

It was like college all over again.

Beth's first semester in college had been her only one. She made it nearly halfway through. Her roommate was a volleyball player and although Beth thought they would never get along, they had become close friends. Valerie was wildly popular and she wouldn't accept that Beth shouldn't be popular too. Beth went to all the frat parties, all the football games and dances; she was fully integrated into the social circle. Even when Valerie wasn't around, her residual charisma was enough to insure that Beth always had a lunch companion or a study partner. She lived in a bliss of acceptance.

One night at a Kappa Delta party, the guys were trying to entice Valerie and her friends into a midnight swim at the lake down the street. Beth stayed out of the discussion. She dreaded donning her old-woman skirted bathing suit in front of the boys but she was determined to go along with whatever Valerie wanted to do.

"Val, before we do anything, we've got to get that wide-body out of here." Bill jerked his head in Beth's direction. "I'm not skinny-dipping with her, my dick would shrink back into my body," Bill said in fully audible whisper.

"Shut up, Bill. You're such as ass sometimes." Valerie was half-laughing as she took a swing at him. He grabbed her fist and then pulled her into his arms.

Beth pretended to get up to go grab a beer. Instead she went back to the dorm room. In the end, she would always be the fat girl. It didn't matter how charming or agreeable or funny she was. When push came to shove, she would get shoved, get out of here, fat girl.

******

Beth learned to watch for the new surfer, and to stay away when he was around. Finally one morning, Kelly was alone on the ocean. Beth walked down to the shore. As soon as she saw her standing in the sand, Kelly came in.

"Beth, long time, no see. Where have you been hiding yourself?" She was flushed and smiling. That wide, false smile.

"I'm having the surgery," Beth said. "I thought you should know." She tried to pretend it was no big deal. Like she hadn't endured hours in the hospital, being measured, weighed, evaluated in every possible way. She brushed her hair out of her eyes and tried to smile.

"Wait a minute. You aren't even going to try? We were going to be a team. I was going to come up with a really great diet plan for you."

"I'm done with pills and with diets. I talked to the doctor, I'm approved, and they gave me a surgery date." Beth hated the look on Kelly's face, the stony set of her jaw, her narrowed eyes.

"You're a fool, it's way too dangerous. It's unnatural."

"Kelly, be happy for me. I'm going to be thin and when I am you can teach me to surf." Beth wondered why Kelly couldn't see that she was doing this for her as well, so they could be two surfer girls writing their own love letters to the ocean.

"If you survive."

Beth turned away and walked up the beach as fast as she could muster. By the time she got to the street, she was breathing hard and shaking. But she didn't stop and catch her breath for fear Kelly might come after her, maybe even apologize. She was afraid she would, and afraid she wouldn't. She continued up the road, only looking behind her once to see if Kelly's blonde head had appeared over the dunes.

******

On the operating table, Beth feels for the first time what it is like to be the center of attention. She likes it. The nurses and doctors cluster around her and though her heart feels constricted and fluttery, she manages to smile at the anesthesiologist as he hovers above her face. She shuts her eyes and thinks of the ocean, of her great uncle fighting his clothes and the current to save the girls. Perhaps she never would have had the courage to do this without knowing that her beach was his beach. As the anesthesia floods her system, she begins to float away, her mind reaching toward that far off moment when she will be balanced atop the waves, finally at peace with the sea.

BIO: Deidre Woollard is a fiction writer whose stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Sojourn, Pebble Lake Review, Rhapsoidia, Words and Images, and on the SNReview.org and StoryGlossia.com websites. Her novel, Contemporary Art is being serialized on the Keep It Coming website. A story of hers was recently made into a short film. She has written freelance articles for a variety of publications, is the astrologer for www.askaprilonline.com, and blogs daily on her website, TheFictive.com.


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