“You’re my good luck charm, little girl,” he tells me. “Your voice breaks open a window to heaven.”
“Don’t call me a little girl,” I say in a mock-tough voice that’s barely hiding sarcasm. I pull the serape I grabbed from the back of his beat-up truck around my shoulders. The itchy material protects my goose-bumped skin from the early-morning ocean air.
“Sorry, my little lady,” he says with a teasing laugh.
He turns with his old surfboard and runs towards the awaiting ocean. I roll my eyes and shake my head as I watch my uncle run to the only thing he might love more than me: surfing.
My uncle is my everything; but I would never admit that out loud to him or to anyone else. He’s all I’ve got since my mom passed away when I was 12. Mom was his older sister and has been gone almost eight years now.
Sometimes, it seems like mom never existed. Like her long brown hair and soft brown eyes were parts of a dream. But other times, it feels like she left yesterday. The memory of her sitting on Uncle Gary’s front porch promising she’d be right back is still fresh. But she never came back.
I never knew my dad. Mom didn’t tell me that much about him and my uncle tells me nothing. He says I need to focus on the future. But I think wanting to know where you come from is the most natural instinct in the world. I’ve tried to explain this to him. I asked him once why he thinks all the ancestry and DNA sites are so popular.
He just laughed and said, “Little girl, your brain is too big for your heart.”
That sort of infuriated me. But I didn’t stay mad for long. I can never stay mad at Gary.
I dig my black Vans into the sand a bit and shift on the mounds of fine light-brown sand under my bottom. Gary didn’t bring me a chair and sitting on the naked sand is getting uncomfortable. I grab a piece of my long hair and twist it into a little ball, and then let it fall down my back. I grab another strand absentmindedly and twist again. I stand up and stretch as I watch him peddle out in the waves past the break.
I used to surf. I used to love it almost as much as Gary does. He taught me how to surf, along with his love for the ocean and its rhythm. I stopped surfing a long time ago, though. After mom passed. Surfing made me happy, and catching waves felt like celebrating. How could I celebrate my mom’s death?
I dress in black from head to toe most days. But if there was anyone else on the beach this early, they might think I’m ready for a party with this colorful blanket wrapped around me. Gary bought it in Tijuana a couple of years ago and always keeps it in his truck for the beach.
I used to be more of a girly-girl when I was younger. Less black, more color. I used to wear pink, flower prints, even sequins sometimes. Then after mom left, colors left too.
I kept one girly thing – my long hair. My sun-bleached light brown hair goes past my butt and the big, black sunglasses sitting on top of my head are holding it out of my face. I have a permanent, light brown tan but it isn’t from being in the sun. I got that from my mom’s Hawaiian genes.
My life is pretty simple right now. I live with my Uncle Gary in a beach town in Southern California called Venice Beach. You might’ve heard of it. They actually have canals here, kind of like in the real Venice, Italy. Gary and I live in a historic neighborhood near the canals in a small, two-bedroom house. I love it here.
I work at a coffee shop owned by two nerdy brothers who I can tolerate some days, and other days annoy me to death. I didn’t go to college when I graduated from high school almost two years ago. I didn’t know what I wanted to do and Gary didn’t particularly care if I went to college.
“Do something that nurtures your heart, little girl,” Gary told me.
I didn’t know what nurtured my heart. I wasn’t a great student. I wasn’t terrible either. I just didn’t see the point. Especially after mom was gone. Going to school felt like a well-worn routine I was good at, but I wasn’t all that interested in learning. I enjoyed writing, art and music. But nothing appealed to me enough to do anything past high school. At least not yet.
Before I graduated, I wondered what mom would want me to do and couldn’t come up with anything. She didn’t go to college either, so keeping my job up the street from my house made sense.
I’ve been working at Kava Kava Coffee full-time for the last year. Part-time a couple years before that. I make decent money and give Gary a little each month to help with rent. He says I can stay with him as long as I want, but at some point I’ve got to figure out what comes next.
My uncle is a good guy and I love him, but one drawback to living with him is the non-stop rotation of new girlfriends. I don’t want to be disrespectful by grouping them all together, but Gary attracts a certain type of woman that never stays around that long. After so many years, they all blend together. And there have been a lot of them. Mom used to tell me Gary had a way with women she never understood.
“He’s my goofy little brother, I don’t get it,” mom told me.
I don’t really get it either, but I see it. I see the way women pay attention to him when we’re together. He’s tall and in good shape. He’s forever in board shorts and tank tops, tan, with long brown wavy hair that he keeps in a messy man bun most of the time. He’s got big green eyes and an easy-going nature. He’ll talk to anyone and never gets angry.
Sometimes when we’re together, people mistake me for his girlfriend, which makes me want to barf. He’s only 14 years older than me but still, he’s my uncle. When one of the nerdy brothers at the coffee shop first met him, they thought he was my boyfriend. The brother didn’t believe me at first when I said he was my uncle. It became something that was brought up over and over as a joke, until they found something else to joke about.
I’ve never had a boyfriend. It’s not that I’m not interested in guys – I am but the whole relationship thing has always been confusing for me. Gary isn’t much help. He says I should wait for the right person to come along before I jump into anything serious. He always said that teenage boys are mostly a waste of time. I guess I decided to agree with him at some point.
Anyway, Gary’s girlfriends have a lot in common physically (short and blonde), but mostly they’re all obsessed with him in the same irrational way. And he loses interest in them fast. When I was younger, I used to try to make friends with his girlfriends.
He had one girlfriend I really liked. Her name was Mandy. She was sweet, thoughtful, and she liked me. Actually really liked me for me. She wasn’t just pretending to want a relationship with me to make Gary like her more. I learned to spot the difference because most of his girlfriends try to strike up relationships with me.
Mandy was sincere, though. Told me she liked my long hair. Braided my hair ten different ways. Gave me hugs whenever she saw me. When she disappeared, I raged at Gary.
I yelled at him one afternoon in our living room while my favorite show, “My So-Called Life” played in the background. I told him he ruined everything by breaking up with Mandy and was a gigolo. I didn’t really know what the word meant as a middle school kid, but I knew it had something to do with a guy who carelessly has lots of girlfriends. Me calling him a gigolo made him laugh, which in turn made me angrier.
“Little girl, don’t use words you don’t understand,” he told me.
I never forgave him for breaking Mandy’s heart. At least that was my version of events, which I admit might not be accurate now that I am older. When I was a kid, I was convinced that she loved him with a pure heart, and he dropped her like he does all of the random women who come through our front door.
“Josie!” I hear Gary faintly bellow from beyond the waves. “Sing!”
This is our ritual. This is why Gary brought me today.
I look around and make sure I am still alone on the beach. The sun is just breaking over the horizon, beyond the deserted pier. All the stores behind me on the boardwalk are closed. Big metal gates cover the doors and windows of the t-shirt shops and little restaurants that tourists love to visit. I open my arms and the itchy blanket to welcome the sun. I take a deep breath and begin to sing softly at first.
“Not to touch the earth, not to see the sun. Nothing left to do but run, run, run. Let’s run. Let’s run,” I sing, beginning to pick up speed and volume.
Normally, I would be embarrassed to do something… so weird. Singing on the beach alone to my Uncle Gary while he surfs is at minimum out of the ordinary. I’ve never seen anyone else do it.
But it doesn’t feel that weird anymore. He insists that when I sing to him, he always catches the best waves, leaving the tourists behind. He doesn’t care what I sing. Just that I sing something. I usually pick songs from his old record collection.
“House upon the hill. Moon is lying still. Shadows of the trees. Witnessing the wild breeze, come on baby run with me. Let’s run,” I sing louder and start to lose myself in the sound of the slowly slapping waves.
I pull my arms in towards my chest and wrap the blanket back around me as I dance a bit on the sand. “Run with me,” I chant-sing. “Run with me. Run with me. Let’s run.”
“Yeeeee-hooooo,” I hear over the sound of the waves and cawing seagulls.
I open my eyes to see Gary cresting a big wave on his board. Now that he caught one, I can stop singing. He says I’m just good luck for catching waves but he’s got the “skills to pay the bills” after that. I don’t know what that means but he laughs every time he says it. He laughs at his own jokes a lot.
I decide to keep singing this time. Sometimes, once I get started, I don’t want to stop. It feels like there’s a momentum; like I’m riding a bike down a hill and I can’t stop until I reach the bottom.
“The mansion is warm at the top of the hill. Rich are the rooms and the comforts there. Red are the arms of luxuriant chairs. And you won’t know a thing till’ you get inside,” I sing as I kick the sand around with my black shoes.
The sun continues to creep up on the horizon and I can feel its warmth. Gary’s wave breaks close to shore. I stop singing for a moment.
“Gary!” I yell, trying to make my voice carry over the sound of the waves. “I’ve got to be at work soon!”
Morning shifts are the busiest at Kava Kava Coffee. It always seems to be busiest when I am working. All the business people on their way to work come in like zombies needing their caffeine fix. It can be crazy, but it’s the best time to make good tips.
Gary turns his board and starts peddling out again. I sit back down on the sand and sigh out a long deep breath.
I started watching Gary surf from the beach after mom died. When we moved all my stuff into Gary’s small house, I didn’t want to go outside and feel the sun. Gary’s need to surf was something he couldn’t ignore and he wouldn’t leave me home alone. I guess he sort of forced me to go with him.
The more he made me go to the beach with him, the more I understood it was good for me to get out of the house and think about something else. While Gary surfed, I’d watch all the people on the beach. The high school kids laughing and running into the water. The families lugging chairs, tents, coolers and little kids behind them. I’d imagine what their lives were like. Especially the kids with a mom and dad. Were they different from me? Were their lives better?
Watching Gary surf helped me start a new chapter after mom was gone, and we honor that tradition at least once a week. I started coming with him in the early mornings a couple of years ago. That’s when he first asked me to sing to the waves.
“Sing, Josie!” Gary hollers again from the ocean. I take a deep breath.
“Sun, sun, sun,” I sing at the top of my voice. “Burn, burn, burn! Soon, soon, soon. I will see you soooooon. Soooooooon.”
Gary catches another wave and I trail off at the end of the song. A group of seagulls lands near me and start high stepping in a large circle around me on the sand. I have no food so I assume they won’t stay long.
“Caw!” One shrills as it approaches my right foot, making me jump a bit.
I watch another dig its beak into the sand, furrowing for a left-behind bag of Doritos and can of grapefruit La Croix.
The seagulls gingerly step closer to me even though I have no food. The three of them closing in on me feels oddly threatening, even though they’re just birds.
“CAW!” A big voice bellows from the direction of the ocean.
It’s Gary running towards me with his surfboard under his arm.
The seagulls take flight at his approach and leave me wrapped in the serape on the lonely beach.
“You making some new friends, little girl?” Gary says with a laugh as he shakes water out of his long hair.
“I guess,” I say as I stand up and wipe sand off my backside. “They started to scare me for a minute.”
“I told you,” he says as he unzips his wetsuit. “It’s your singing.”
I roll my eyes and cock my head at him, shaking it a bit as my long hair swishes behind me. I’ve heard this all before. The singing compliments seem like Gary’s well-intentioned attempt at making me feel good about myself, but the effect wore off after being told so many times that my singing made me special.
“Well, my magic voice needs to get to work,” I tell him as I fold up the blanket and pull the dark glasses over my eyes.
“You ready?” I ask him.
“I was born ready,” he says as he winks at me.
“Do you ever get tired of making dad jokes?” I ask him as we walk towards his old truck.
He pulls the wet suit from his torso down around his waist as we walk.
“Honestly?” He asks in a serious tone. “No,” he replies, as he laughs at himself.
“I’m glad you think you’re so funny, Gary,” I say. “We’re all really happy for you.”
“You’ve got to love yourself, little girl,” he says as he loads his surfboard into the bed of his truck, strips off the wet suit, and wraps a dry towel around his waist. “I love myself enough for the whole world.”
“Yeah, we’re all aware,” I sigh, shutting the truck’s passenger door behind me with a bang.
Gary jumps into the truck with an enthusiasm I don’t understand. His good nature and always-upbeat attitude are still a mystery to me.
“Hey,” he says as he starts the truck. “Can you get me a Caffe Americano when I drop you off?”
“Yeah, no worries,” I tell him. “But you have to come in and say ‘hi’ to Adam and Scott. You know they love you.”
“Of course they do,” he says proudly. “They still think I’m your boyfriend?”
“Oh my god, shut-up Gary!” I say. “I swear if you mention that, I will kill you. They literally just stopped talking about that.”
Gary laughs hard, his eyes twinkling and his wide mouth showing his straight, white teeth. I admit, I can tell he is a nice-looking man sometimes. But that’s all I can muster without feeling creeped out. I still don’t understand the never-ending loop of women vying for his attention.
We pull up to Kava Kava and grab one of the open spots on the street. The parking around the shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard will be completely full in less than an hour, but since nothing is open yet, we get primo parking.
“Two shots of espresso,” he says, rolling the car into park. “And a pack of raw sugar. I’ll be in there in a minute. I’ve got to dry my hair.”
“Ooohh la la,” I tease him and laugh as I grab my little black backpack with my wallet and phone nestled inside.
“See you in a minute.” I say and shut the passenger side door.
I walk into Kava Kava humming a song under my breath with a little piece of the sunrise in my heart. Gary’s upbeat attitude somehow managed to put me in a good mood this morning, although I’ll never admit it out loud.