“You’re my good luck charm, little girl,” he tells me. “Everywhere I go with you, the world welcomes me.”
“Don’t call me a little girl,” I tell him toughly with a bit of sarcasm.
I pull his serape from Tijuana around my little body. The rough material is itchy but the red, blue and pink stripes around my shoulders protect my goose-bumped skin from the ocean air.
“Sorry, my little lady,” he says with a teasing laugh, emphasizing “lady.”
He turns with his old surf board and runs towards the awaiting ocean. I roll my eyes and shake my head as I watch my uncle run towards the only thing he might love more than me: surfing.
My uncle is my everything, even though I would never admit that out loud. He’s all I’ve got since my mom passed away when I was 12. My mom was his older sister and has been gone almost eight years. In a way, it seems like she never existed. Like her long brown hair and soft brown eyes were part of a dream I once had. Sometimes I think it’s always just been me and my Uncle Gary. But other times, it feels like she left me yesterday. That memory of her sitting with me on Uncle Gary’s front porch promising she’d be right back is still fresh. But you can guess the rest; 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 and not look at the past. But I think wanting to know where you come from is the most natural instinct in the world. I try to tell him that. Try to ask why he thinks all the ancestry and DNA sites are so popular. He just laughs and says, “little girl, your brain is too big for your heart.”
I dig my black laced-up Vans into the sand a bit and shift on the mounds of fine light-brown sand under my bottom. Uncle Gary didn’t bring me a chair and sitting on the naked sand gets uncomfortable after awhile. I decide to 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 Uncle Gary does. He taught me how to surf after-all, along with his love for the ocean and its rhythm. I stopped surfing a long time ago, though. After mom passed. I guess I thought I needed to keep myself from joy after she left. Surfing brought so much joy, that it felt like celebrating. How could I celebrate my mom’s death? I stopped surfing to mourn her and then the habit of not surfing set in.
Today I’m dressed in black from head to toe but the serape draped around my shoulders makes me look like I’m ready for a party. That’s kind of funny because festive doesn’t describe me day-to-day. I usually just wear black t-shirts and black leggings. Maybe a stripe of color on my pants or shirts sometimes, but nothing as bold as the blanket I got out of the back of Gary’s light blue pick-up truck. I used to be a girly-girl, I guess. I wore pink, flower prints, even sequins sometimes. Then after mom left, colors left too. I’ve favored black ever since.
I kept one girly thing – my long hair. My sun-bleached light brown hair goes past my butt. I’ve got big black sunglasses sitting on top of my head, waiting to cover my light brown eyes when the sun shows itself. I seem to have a permanent tan but it isn’t from being in the sun. I got that from my mom’s Hawaiian genes.
My life is pretty simple, I guess. I live with my Uncle Gary in a beach town in Southern California. I work at a local 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 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 routine I had to perform but I wasn’t interested in learning most of the subjects. I did like writing, and art, and music. But nothing really appealed to me past taking those classes in high school.
Before I graduated I wondered what my 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 in Venice Beach made sense. I’ve been working at the coffee shop full-time for the last two years. 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 so I guess I’ve got time to figure out what comes next.
My Uncle Gary is a good guy and I love him but I get tired of his “women.” I don’t want to be disrespectful by grouping them all together, but Gary attracts a certain type of lady that never stays around that long. After so many years, they all start to blend together. And there’s been a lot of them. Mom used to tell me that Gary had a way with women she never understood. “He’s my goofy little brother, I don’t get it,” mom would say.
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 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.
Recently, people have been mistaking 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 nerdy brother didn’t believe me at first when I said he was my uncle. It was frustrating and then became something that was brought up over and over as a joke until they found something else to obsess over.
Back to Gary’s “women.” They have a lot in common physically (petite blondes) but mostly they’re all obsessed with him in the same way. And he loses interest in them fast. I used to try to make friends with his girlfriends. Once I turned 15 and had lived with him solidly for three years, I understood that there was no point in making friends with any of them because they always disappeared.
One of them, I really liked. Her name was Mandy. She was sweet, thoughtful and she liked me. Actually really liked 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 tried to strike up relationships with me. Mandy was sincere though. Told me she liked my hair. Braided my hair. Gave me hugs whenever she saw me. When she disappeared, I raged at Gary.
I yelled to him that he ruined everything and was a gigolo. I didn’t really know what the word meant as a middle schooler 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. She loved him endlessly and he dropped her like he does all the random women that 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. “Your voice breaks open a window to heaven, little girl,” he started telling me before mom was gone.
I look around and make sure I am alone on the beach. The sun is just breaking over the horizon, beyond the deserted pier. 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 by doing something so … weird. Singing on the beach alone to my Uncle Gary while he tries to catch a wave. But it doesn’t feel that weird anymore. He insists that when I sing to him, he always catches the best waves, leaving the the tourists and Haolies behind. He doesn’t care what I sing. Just that I sing something.
“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 and stop singing to see Gary cresting a huge wave on his board. Now that he caught the wave, I can stop singing if I want. 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 keep singing this time. Once I get started, I don’t want to stop.
“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.
I learned this song from one of Gary’s old records; The Doors, Waiting for the Sun album. They lived in Venice Beach too. Gary says we should honor other Venice artists.
Gary’s wave breaks close to shore. “Gary!” I yell as I stop singing for a moment, 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. All the business people on their way to work come in like zombies needing their caffeine fix. It’s the best time to make good tips.
Gary turns and starts peddling to go out again. I sit back down on the sand and sigh out a long deep breath.
Gary and I created this ritual together after mom died. When she was first gone and we moved all my stuff into Gary’s small house, I didn’t want to leave. Didn’t want to go outside and feel the sun. Gary’s need to surf was something he couldn’t ignore and he didn’t want to leave me alone, so I guess he sort of forced me to go with him at first.
I refused to surf myself, but 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? Was their life better?
Sinking into the sand while Gary surfed helped me start a new chapter after mom was gone. And Gary and I honored that tradition at least once a week for the past eight years. Me singing to help him catch waves came later.
“Sing, Josie!” Gary hollered again from the ocean. I took a deep breath.
“Sun, sun, sun,” I sang at the top of my voice. “Burn, burn, burn! Soon, soon, soon. I will see you soooooon. Soooooooon.”
Then Gary caught the wave and I trailed off. A group of seagulls landed near me and started high-stepping in a circle around me on the sand. I had no food so I knew they wouldn’t stay long.
“Caw!” One shrilled right by me, making me jump a bit. I watched it dig it’s beak into the sand, furrowing for a left-behind bag of Doritos and can of grapefruit La Croix flavored water.
The seagulls started stepping gingerly towards me even though I had no food. The three of them were closing in on me slowly and it felt oddly threatening. I knew they were just birds but they had pretty sharp claws and their approach didn’t seem normal.
“CAW!” A big voice bellowed from the direction of the ocean. It was Uncle Gary running towards me with his surf board under his arm.
The seagulls took flight and left me wrapped in the blanket on the beach.
“You making some new friends, little girl?” Gary laughed as he shook water out of his long hair.
“I guess,” I said as I stood up and wiped the sand off my backside. “They started to scare me for a minute.”
“I told you,” he said as he unzipped his wet suit. “It’s your singing.”
I rolled my eyes and cocked my head at him, my long hair swishing behind me. I’d heard this all before. The singing compliments seemed like Gary’s well-intentioned attempt to make me feel good, but the effect had worn off after being told so many times that my singing made me special.
“Well, my magic voice needs to get to work,” I told him as I folded up the blanket. “You ready?” I asked him.
“I was born ready,” he said as he winked at me.
“Do you ever get tired of making dad jokes?” I asked him as we started walking towards his truck.
“Honestly?” He asked in a serious tone. “No,” he replied, as he started laughing at himself.
“I’m glad you think you’re so funny, Gary,” I said sarcastically. “We’re all really happy for you.”
“You’ve got to love yourself, little girl,” he said as he loaded his surf board in the bed of his truck. “I love myself enough for the whole world.”
“Yeah, we’re all aware,” I sighed, shutting the truck’s passenger door behind me.
Gary jumped into the truck with an enthusiasm I didn’t understand. His good nature and upbeat attitude were a constant mystery to me.
“Hey,” he said as he started the car. “Can you sneak me a Caffe Americano when I drop you off?”
“Yeah, no worries,” I told him. “But you have to come in and say hi to Adam and Scott. You know they love you.”
“Of course they do,” he said proudly. “They still think I’m your boyfriend?”
“Oh my god, shut-up Gary!” I said forcefully. “I swear to god if you mention that, I will kill you. They literally just stopped talking about that a month ago.”
Gary laughed hard, his eyes twinkling and his wide mouth showcasing his straight, white teeth. I admit, I can tell he is an OK-looking man sometimes. But that’s all I can muster without wanting to vomit. I still don’t understand the never-ending loop of women vying for his attention.
We pull up to Kava Kava Coffee and grab one of the open spots on the street. The parking around the shop will be completely full in less than an hour, but since the shop isn’t open yet, we get primo parking.
“Two shots of espresso, girl,” 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 striped backpack with my wallet, phone and journal nestled inside. “See you in a minute.” I say and shut the passenger side door.
I walk into Kava Kava Coffee humming a song under breath with a little piece of the California sunrise in my heart.