It’s that time of year when the eucalyptus trees peel their bark like wet swimsuits and let them slap onto the ground, as if they could step out of the soggy pile and kick it to the side. They bare their long trunks, poised on the precipice over New Brighton beach like naked ladies, peering over their shoulders to see if anyone is watching before standing tall like they’re about to swan dive into the Pacific in synchronicity.
The cool oils of the Eucalypti carry on the seabreeze; an updraft from the gentle waves rolling toward the base of the cliffs, lazily breaking like smoke rings on a nicotine-stained wall.
Up the hill, Mom rests in her bungalow, listening to MSNBC with her eyes closed and her arm in a sling. I sneak out to walk the train tracks and watch pelicans fight over fish with an otter.
I’ve been away for over two years, quarantined in Colorado, where my husband and I learned the hard way that Colorado is too remote from family during a pandemic; that I am capable of weaponizing my own words; that my social contracts were poorly negotiated and I didn’t understand the terms; that, at thirty-nine, I can cling to the side of a bathtub to avoid being flung from the face of the earth in a shame spiral while I whisper for my mommy. That I can stand up, dry my tears, and lie to everyone that I’m okay.
Now I’m here in Santa Cruz for the next two weeks to shuttle Mom to post-op appointments, sip cocktails with her, and do all the chores I refused to do growing up.
We’ve already cried, Mom and I, over the pain of the past, the hardest years. We’ve parked on seaside overlooks to reminisce about a thing that happened over there that sucked so bad, or the loneliness we both felt in college while sunning ourselves on the beach down there. And yet we’re so happy to be back here again.
Now, with outstretched branches, the Eucalypti beckon me to the cliff’s edge, but I know better. There was a time, once, when I thought we might apply each other’s makeup and model each other’s clothes. I thought we’d share chewing gum and secrets, and then we would sleep like rabbits on a full size mattress. Eu kalypto translates to “well covered” and that’s how I thought of all my bases. Instead, when I came near, their leaves whispered and I halted. The Eucalypti shushed each other. I peered down at the shore below, and I thought I heard them laughing at me.
Then I felt my roots tear out of the cliff as I toppled to the smooth sand, crashing and splintering into a clumsy mess of sticks and stones.
Now I see that the Eucalypti are not merely a grove of invasive mature timber I mistook for wisdom, but instead a cabal of bitter, shallow-rooted, pinched-face mean girls clustered against the cold, smoking weed and subtweeting and laughing about it.
And so I palmed the essence of their soft bark, distilled their pure extract, and used it to flavor a batch of words whittled down to a fine point: It didn’t have to be this way.
The mean girls glisten in the afternoon sunlight, sprinkling their toxins at their feet. That’s good, because one spark and they’ll all go up; a rage. I believe they invited me in and manufactured an entire drama just to set fire to the set.
I don’t resemble them at all now. Pulled from the wreckage, I was stripped of anything absolutely not of me. Layers and accessories and armor fell away on impact. Though I felt naked and exposed, I am smooth where I was once jagged, jagged where I was once smooth; broken in new places.
And there go the Eucalypti, up in flames. Without a collective target, they turned on each other. They call for me to extinguish their blaze. But none of them should attempt to bridge the gap they blew out with dynamite and pretended they didn’t light the fuse. Let’em burn. Their seeds will resprout. Mine did.
I turn away and walk back to Mom’s bungalow, where I will be well covered. There’s a show on Netflix she wants me to watch and I have to tell her I love her before even one more second passes.
Jody Rae was a 2021 Pushcart Prize nominee for her creative nonfiction essay, “Ice Chest” in Flyover Country. Her short story, “Beautiful Mother” was a finalist in the Phoebe Journal 2021 Spring Fiction Contest. Her work appears in various outlets, including X-R-A-Y Lit, MASKS Literary Magazine, Sledgehammer Lit, Cowboy Jamboree, and Red Fez. She has pieces forthcoming in Rejection Letters and RESURRECTION magazine. Her work can be found at www.criminysakesalive.com.