Whisper to a Scream

by Laura Foxworthy

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The first time I visited the ocean I screamed. Not a scream of excitement, or one of delight, but more the blood-curdling-psycho-killer-come-to-take-my-life kind of scream. At least that’s how my mother tells it. I don’t remember it that way. But memory is a trickster.

It all started with a car ride. Just the two of us, making up songs about our destination. That day it was “To the beach, to the beach, to the ba-ba-beach,” and a re-write of the ladybugs picnic that took place on the shore. “Watch your munch, there’s sand in your lunch…ladybug.” Rhyming silly things into a tune was a mom-and-me specialty.

Whenever we took a trip that required more than fifteen minutes on the road, we’d stop to buy an ice-cold Coke, which we shared between us. A “just us” treat that would continue for a few years after. That glass bottle with the syrup-sugary liquid inside, the carbonation tickling my nose and top lip, and the way my mother’s hand felt when she would pass it over to me. It felt like I belonged in her world.

I took a sip as we turned a sharp corner, splashing a little onto my lap. We veered off the main drag, passing the sign directing traffic to the Balboa Ferry. There were a few bumps in the road that required slowing down, and a ticket booth we stopped at where a boy my mother probably flirted with was taking money for beach parking. Once we passed the guard rail, the search for an open space began. That bit I remember too. Pretty clearly.

My mom talked to the cars we passed as if they were people, suggesting they “find their way anywhere but here,” reminding them of forgotten errands or uncluttered garages waiting for them to rest within. She had a way of giving the inanimate life, and of making even the smallest objects significant.

Old Maggie, our pale blue Oldsmobile, rattled as the engine shut off. Mom ran her hand gently across the dash, cooing love words to Good Ol’ Maggie. “Take a breather, old girl. Enjoy the ocean air,” she said.

As soon as we parked, I jumped out of the car, flip-flops half-off each foot, the pale-yellow ones with plastic daisies at the toes — my favorite that summer — I remember them so well.

I ran with arms outstretched, nearly soaring off the asphalt and onto the sidewalk. Mom slammed the door haphazardly behind her as she ran to catch up with me. The sand flew up behind me like a desert windstorm, shoes flapping, then flying off completely, and me, not noticing as I raced toward the ebbing waves. Mom thought I would dive right in, mistaking it for my grandparents’ backyard pool, and swim out into the dangerous deep.

“I thought you would disappear forever. Or drown,” she says. Sometimes she tells this part with an air of wistful sadness, sometimes with a bright wit to her words. It all depends on who the audience is.

At the water’s edge I stopped dead in my tracks, halted as if someone had grabbed a hard hold of me, or like I’d smacked right into a pane of glass. I stood there and screamed. Mom says she’d never heard anything like it come out of me. She didn’t recognize me in that startling scream.   

People ran toward me, coming from different directions. They asked what happened. They asked if I was okay. They asked if I was hers.

Mom caught hold of me and wrapped her arms around me. She held me close, suffocating my face with her polyester-blended-too-tight-blouse and escaping breasts.

She smelled of cigarettes and Anais Anais perfume. Two signature scents from my childhood.

She always pens herself the heroine in the story, scooping me up and rushing me home. Saving the day.

But I know that mom let go of me as soon as we were at the car. She resented holding my hand if there was no one around to see.

We drove home in silence, a Marlboro Light in her left hand, flicking ash out the open window. Her right hand sat steady on the steering wheel. No more sing-a-longs or shared pop. This part is never in her version.

Mom has so many stories she likes to tell. This one, the screaming at the sea one, out of all her stories, has always struck me as odd, inconsistent with my own feelings and memories. The ocean has always felt like home to me. A source of peace and understanding. Standing on the beach, with my feet wet and the Pacific cold on my skin, I’ve found reasons to stay alive. The sea is an integral part of who I am. I’ve personified it. I’ve made it a substitute-mother. I’ve thrown pain in her waves, asked for answers on her shores, and received them by simply listening to the come-and-go of her tides. The ocean is a constant in my life. A calming force.

I still kick off my shoes and run down the sand.

I still throw my arms out as if to embrace the sea.

But I never scream.


There was this boy. A not quite a boyfriend, not really a lover kind of boy. We worked together at Tower Records. Some afternoons, when we both had the day off, we’d go to a deserted patch of beach in Newport and pass a bottle of premade “Sunrises” back and forth. He used to like to lift my skirt slightly and slip his fingers underneath my underwear, watch me shudder as he turned circles inside me.

On a less sober day, after I chased three lines of speed with the salty air and sugar-sweetened tequila, I told him the screaming story. His hands were on my skin as I spoke, pausing only to grab the cigarette held loose between my lips, stealing a drag.

His touch distracted me, but I persisted with the story.

He pulled my hair back roughly as my voice trailed off, just enough to get my attention as he said solemnly, “Maybe you saw the rest of your life that day.”

He was dark that way, full of razor wire words and a cloudy, rainy soul that broadcasted a gaping need too deep to fill. He left a touch of pain in everything he came near, and in all he laid his hands on. Including me.

I rolled my eyes and pulled away, just enough to feel his tug on my hair again, imagining I was sinking into the sand, wishing I’d wash out into the ocean, or that I’d shake him off and run down the coast, not looking back.

What would he have thought then?

I stayed though, lost in the momentary silence.

We made our way back to the car. We climbed inside and squeezed ourselves into his small hatchback. He kissed me hurriedly, one hand pulling at my skirt, and the other making quick work of the button and zipper on his jeans. I started to crawl to the backseat but he stopped me somewhere in between the seats and spread my legs painfully apart, pushing my underwear to one side, and slipping himself into me. He groaned my name into the back of my hair as he moved in-and-out. I stayed quiet, withholding my breath as long as I could, then inhaled frantically. I breathed in all the words I wanted to say but swallowed instead.

I wish I could scream so loud it would break all the windows. So loud I’d finally wake up.

No one would have heard me though, only the ocean or some uninterested passerby. We walk by so much in life and just turn our heads, turn up the music, avert our gaze.

That boy, he knew if we were near the ocean he could take things further than I’d allow in my bed, or his. Afterwards, we sat awkwardly together and confessed things. My legs were sticky from him, and I could feel the spots on my hips where his rough hands had been. Spots that would leave bruises. They stung a little as I spoke in an almost-whisper.

He told me about a girl who used to babysit him when he was twelve years old. Told me how she’d paint her toenails bright green, and practice giving blow jobs on him, ones she’d later gift her guitarist boyfriend who had a mohawk that matched her nails.

She smelled of Love’s Baby Soft and Bubblicious gum, he told me, and had bleached blonde hair with one long strand dyed pink. It would flip back and forth while she was on her knees, practicing, that rogue pink streak of hair.

He traded that tale for my screaming at the ocean one.

Those exchanges of stories, with our bodies spent and sore, they were the closest we ever came to being in love.

“If I could just go back to that spot by the water. Recapture it all, then maybe I’d know what I was screaming about. Maybe I’d find some missing part of me there.”

He grabbed the tequila bottle from the backseat in response, shaking it. “C’mon. Let’s go back.”

We walked across the parking lot and back onto the sand. We made our way closer to the abandoned lifeguard station and took the rickety ladder up to the top. We sat down there, side-by-side, legs dangling and eyes affixed to the horizon. The sun cast its goodbyes over the waves. He brushed a strand of salt-sticky hair out of my face, touching my cheek with his thumb, tracing it around my eye and across my forehead, stopping on the scar that slashes crookedly into my hairline. His gentleness unnerved me.

“What’s this from?” he asked, softly.

“Which version do you want to hear?”

He turned my face toward him and looked at me for a long moment, cocking his head to the side. “I don’t know. Both?”

I began to recite what I call the five stitches story.

I’d been spinning in circles and lost my balance. Clumsy and careless, as my mother always called me. It was a crack on the corner of our coffee table that did it. She’d held me in her lap all the way to the emergency room, crying along with me.

“That’s the one I was told until last year.”

The truth, or something like it, came out at the Black Angus. In the bar. It was one of those rare nights, with me just barely drinking age, and mom in the middle of another post-adolescence-in-her-forties stage, when we’d put aside our prescribed roles, and long list of differences, to toss a few back.

The scar story changed that night.

She was in a car with her best friend, Connie. I was in the backseat.

The two of them had been drinking, and those were the days before mandatory seat belts or child car seats. The brakes were hit hard, an accident avoided, and everyone made it through unscathed.

Everyone, except for me.

I’d been sleeping in the backseat, footed pajamas and “Doll Baby” in my arms. I had flown momentarily.

“You didn’t even scream when you hit the gear shift,” she claimed.

And it was Connie, not my mother, who’d held me in her arms and cried, all the way to the E.R.

But me, I’d been silent, and the story had been edited for content. Hidden first from my long-gone-now father, then my grandmother, and later, from me.

“So, if even my scar is a lie, then the screaming at the ocean…maybe that’s a lie, too.” I half-whispered, taking a shaky breath, trying to hold back what felt like tears.

“One day you’ll give it up and admit that you like it that way,” he said, smiling crookedly at me, taking my hand. I turned away, looking back out at the water.

I wondered what he meant.

The not knowing?

The uncomfortable backseat sex?

Or the way the ocean reminded me I’m just a bunch of stories, some true, and some false?

We stayed in that spot while the sun disappeared. In silence. His fingers traced small circles up my sand-and-sex-sticky leg, and I thought about the girl with the pink streak in her hair. I tried to imagine what she looked like on her knees. I wondered if she made him feel things I never would. I wondered what he would be like if it had never happened.

I wondered if he ever screamed.

end of story

© 2021, Laura Foxworthy Go to top