My older sister invites me to come stay at a house on the beach to celebrate her 50th birthday. I rent a Ford Escape that has Bluetooth and satellite radio and cruise control, pack up my two kids, a suitcase and a cooler, kiss my husband goodbye and head for North Carolina.
We stop too many times for too many potty breaks, get too deep into the country to find a Starbucks, I drive too fast and get a speeding ticket five miles from the house, but eventually we pull into the driveway as the sun is setting behind Salter Path Road.
She meets us at the door and we hug tight and long. She has our mother’s eyes, different color but same shape, deep-set and able to see through my skin and flesh down to the bones of me, where questions that will never be answered swirl through my marrow like the cancer that filled our mother’s bones for twenty years.
We file through the doorway, take in the view, drop bags on our beds and have dinner with our brother and my sister’s friends from work that have come to celebrate, too. That night we fall asleep to the ocean sounds coming through my sister’s open window across the hall.
The next morning we rise at dawn and look for shells, pick through deposits of brown sea lettuce, lengths of rope, wilted plastic bags. Little white piles of dried and empty sand flea skeletons are everywhere, as if swept into neat heaps by the sandpipers. Our collected treasure swings at our sides in green buckets.
We return to the house, hose sand off of our toes and heels and make coffee, make small talk, make chicken salad and salsa. We spend the day moving between inside and outside. We play cornhole and Frisbee and Quirkle, listen to Jimmy Buffet and Steely Dan, drink pitchers of sangria and chilled Coronas, swim in the pool and the ocean.
Later we make dinner, then her friends head out. The rest of us settle into an evening of cards and chatting. During a game of Greek Poker we disagree about something unimportant and my sister starts to mother me, gently correcting me. I stare down into my iPhone and read a random email over and over again, angry. I look up and it’s my mother’s eyes that are looking back at me from across the table, and when my sister’s friends suddenly pile into the kitchen, back from one bar and ready to bring her out to the next, I make my apologies and follow the kids upstairs to get ready for bed. Asleep, I don’t hear her slip into her room when she gets back from her night out.
I am scrambling eggs when she comes into the kitchen the next morning. She pours herself a cup of coffee and then begins to move around the room, tidying up while I cook, and we talk about nothing, really. I want to know if she saw my face flush angry last night but I don’t ask. I step out of the kitchen onto the deck, into a chill morning wind, and look out at the beach. The sky is grey, the sunrise blocked by clouds. A large pod of brown pelicans is feeding in the shallows right in front of the house, all wings and distended pouches and flying spray. A lone adult glides in from the south and approaches the flock, sailing over the dark waves, and as she reaches the group she hurls herself towards the sea with great purpose, plunge-diving they call it, a precision strike meant to catch the living thing shimmering like silver just under the skin of the water. I hold my breath until she emerges from the deep.