The cherry red nail polish on my toes popped against the cedar floor of the outdoor shower. My wet, sandy hair plastered my cheeks and chin, water dripping from the tips, and polka-dotting the wood floor. Though dusk approached, the sun was still overhead, and I lifted my face to it, squinting, feeling safe in this solitary small space.

I was protected on all sides from everyone who needed me to be a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend. From schedules, carpools, class projects, art lessons and dance classes. From grocery shopping, the orthodontist, overdue library books. From worrying about my aging parents, about saving for my daughters’ college. From wondering about mistakes, about regrets.

Throughout the day, rhythmic waves of the Atlantic struck the seashore, seagulls squawked. Small plastic shovels scraped the densely packed sand. Little feet pounded the seashore as kids ran in and out of the water’s edge. Now, stillness settled over the block, interrupted only by an occasional backyard gate squeaking open or a neighbor snapping a towel before hanging it on the line to dry.

In this tiny fortress, there was only room for me, water, sun, and air. And in the absence of everything else, there was bandwidth for my own musings. What surfaced, like a riptide or strong undertow, was unexpected. 

Fragrant cedar filled my lungs, engulfed me like a freshly pressed white cotton blouse. 

I opened the tap fully, hoping the water would warm up faster that way, and hung my towel on a silver hook. On the small corner shelf, I placed a bar of soap, shampoo and a bottle of Bud Light Lime. 

I tested the water with my left hand. “Ouch, waaaaaay too hot,” I said aloud. I adjusted the tap. While I waited for the water temperature to cool, I stood aside and reached for my beer. 

I’m not a drinker. Full-bodied sauvignon, supple pinot noir, rich chardonnay, Russian vodka, Tennessee whiskey, Southern bourbon—all of it—wasted on me. I never understood the allure. Red wine made my tongue feel hairy. Scotch burned the back of my throat. But a cold beer in an outdoor shower in the summer at dusk after a day at the beach? Perfection. The smooth swallows eased the sting of sunburn, cleansed the grimy residue of sweat and suntan lotion.

According to my husband, I liked bad beer. “Ew,” he said, grimacing after a sip of my Bud Light Lime once. “Reminds me of apple juice.” Precisely why I liked it. It tasted like childhood.

I tilted my head back and took a long drink. The light amber liquid blended seamlessly with the sinking sun.

I stuck my left foot into the water’s path to test the temperature and when I realized it was just right, I returned my beer to the shelf, and stepped directly into the shower’s stream. Warmth surrounded me.

I grabbed the hem of my tankini top and hoisted it over my head then lowered the bottom of my suit, caught it on my big toe and tossed it into the air, catching it with my hand, the way my five-year-old used to change her princess underwear in the morning. At an earlier point in my life, I would have ensured there was no sightline to my naked body outside in the shower. But heck, as a 43-year-old mother of three I’d be flattered if someone considered my naked body worthy of gawking. I rinsed my suit and swung it over the shower door.

Water flowed from my scalp to the sandy spaces between my toes. It was impossible to trace one rivulet of water the full pathway down my body, but I tried. Some fell off my chin. Others escaped between my breasts or were trapped in my bellybutton. Many made a sharp turn at my hips, where I could feel them cascading down the small of my back.

Sand was everywhere. Across my ribs. Between the creases of my elbow. In my ear. I turned my back to the sun, faced the shower, let the water rinse it all away, broken bits of shells and the lone piece of seaweed, gone. I watched the water’s own force remove what was left of my day at the beach. 

Slowly, the water’s warmth spread from my face to my chest, around my torso and down my thighs, as if the sun were acknowledging me—all of me—establishing my place on Earth. Validation from the universe. Relief inundated me. I was a woman, and I embraced her. In this moment, I belonged to myself. 

As I took another sip of beer, I held it in my mouth, not allowing myself to swallow, my eyes zeroed in on the single water droplet suspended in the silken symmetry of a spiderweb in the corner of my cedar retreat. I stooped closer and water pounded my back. The droplet quivered, as if holding on for dear life. It mesmerized me. Two molecules of hydrogen and one molecules of oxygen hanging in the balance of the geometrical patterns built instinctively by a spider. Both nature’s creations, but somehow out of sync. Among the web’s silken threads, the droplet continued to quiver—perhaps a silent request for support? Then, without warning, the droplet fell from the web’s perch. Gone. Immediately undecipherable from the rest of the water in my Atlantic hideaway, and no sign that it had ever existed on the spiderweb—no matter how momentarily—in its simple beauty. Two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen. Now it mixed with millions of droplets, finding its way out of the shower. I stood, my captivation with the web’s beauty suddenly broken. I swallowed my beer and, with the bottle, swiped at the web, destroying it.

As I lathered my hair with shampoo, grains of sand trapped in my scalp accumulated beneath my fingernails. Soap slid down my back and flowed out the side of the shower and down the walkway. Suds pooled around my feet, like they didn’t want to leave. Me neither.

Being alone didn’t conjure loneliness for me. It was invigorating, because, in these moments, I emptied my mind of everything the world constantly tried to stuff inside it, like a tangled ball of yarn. And I’m constantly pawing at it, toiling over it, trying to find the loose end so I can unwind it, untangle it, look at it linearly and make sense of it. But this ball of yarn only exists on the other side of the shower door. Here, I am knot-free. Unwound. 

I lathered my hands with soap and wondered how long I’d been in the shower. Fifteen minutes? This seashore house was filled with my husband and daughters, my parents and siblings and nieces and nephews, and thankfully, no one had discovered me missing yet. It was only a matter of time. If I’d been at home, someone would have knocked on the door by now looking for a ride or a snack.

I wrung my hands together. On the ring finger of my left hand, beneath my fingernail on the right side was the sizable bump Mrs. Grant had promised me in second grade would appear if I didn’t change my pencil grip. When I’ve been writing a lot, it swells. I smiled. Proof of a commitment I’d made to myself to start writing again. I’d only ever been encouraged to get married, then, have babies, and while those dreams fulfilled me, something nagged at me, something I couldn’t define. Outside, it was unfocused and intangible, but in here, dreams were crystal clear. The bump on my finger would never be ugly to me. 

I rubbed the bar of soap across my ribs and down to my bellybutton, which, like me, never returned to its old self after giving birth. The stretched skin around my new navel created wrinkles that encircle it, much the way a child draws a circle for the sun and yellow lines all around to signify rays of sunlight.

As I stand back up, I can see the line from my bathing suit where I’d gotten too much sun today. “That’s going to hurt later,” I say aloud. 

I closed the tap, grabbed the towel, and dried off. As I took the last swallows of my beer, in the distance, I heard the smack, smack of little flip flops growing closer. Time was up. I wrapped the towel around me and picked up my soap, shampoo, and empty beer bottle. I unlocked the door, and the smell of warming charcoals hit me. 

“Mom?” Amy was calling me.

“Here I am, Amy,” I said. 

Amy rounded the corner of the house, donned in her kitty pajamas. Her hair was still damp from her shower.

“Mommy, where were you?” she asked. She sounded panicked. “I couldn’t find you.”

Smiling, I walked up and kissed the top of her head. Mmmmm, baby shampoo.

“Right here, Amy,” I replied. I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs completely. “I’ve been right here the whole time.”

Jennifer Cinguina

Jennifer Cinguina is a writer living in New York. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield University and is published in The New York Times.
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