Rocky Point

By Rita Kasperek

It is your first time out of the country. What a thrill, that first illicit crossing over the border. You make me snap a photo of you along a dusty row of shops with Spanish signs and tourist gimcracks hanging from the rafters. You love it all, the piñatas, papier-mâché castanets, and embroidered sombreros, one of which erupts from your head like a volcano. You keep buying things. “What a deal,” you say. I still have that photograph.

The ride is hot. My air conditioner is on the fritz, along with the FM band of the radio. “Graduate students never have decent cars,” you complain, finally settling on an AM sports station.

You don’t talk. The only thing you are interested in is your cell phone, which rings once and turns out to be a wrong number. Still, you keep it handy. “I’m expecting an important call,” you say. By the time we get to the border you are asleep. I switch off the static-filled radio and tell myself you’re tired from your plane ride from Missouri. I count ocotillos and barrel cactuses and saguaros to pass the time until we cross the border. Then I shake you awake.

“Hey, Nickels!” I call you by the name I used when I was a baby and couldn’t pronounce your real name, Nicholas. It always used to be our big joke. Nickels, Nickels, won’t eat pickles. Won’t wear wool because it tickles.

I hand you a map and you say, “Don’t call me that, Kath.”

“Why not?”

“We’re not kids anymore,” you say.

I rely on you to navigate, but you are lost. The signs are in Spanish. You speak French and Russian. I force you to use the Spanish-English dictionary I brought along. This is the only reason we get to Rocky Point.

It isn’t a very exotic place after all. Lots of American retirees and stucco condominiums and new hotels that make the beach along the Sea of Cortez resemble a hundred other waterfronts. But you have never seen an ocean before and that transforms this stretch of flat, bland sand into a vision. We run to the sea’s edge like Saharan nomads to an oasis. You say nothing, your face says it all, rough and bearded and boyish with wonder. This is nothing like the slow, muddy rivers of central Missouri, where, in the summer, we could stand up to our knees, catching tadpoles and crawdads in paper cups. You stare and stare at the blue water, rippling like silk. The sun glints from the waves. My eyes are needles, threaded with light.

We walk and walk, picking seashells from the sand like found money. You stuff the shells into your pockets.

It is a miracle I find the sand dollar. Big as a hand and unblemished, it was somehow overlooked by the Mexican children who comb the beaches every morning for sand dollars and starfish and pretty shells to sell to tourists. I trust it to you for safekeeping. I explain its delicacy, how it can be broken as easily as a chocolate chip cookie. “I get it already,” you say with that novel peevishness in your voice. “I can think, you know.”

We flop on the sand, exhausted. You strip off your shirt. Your chest is pale and hairless as an earthworm. You don’t look like a lawyer now, with your five-o-clock shadow and exposed, pink stomach. I can’t imagine you looking like a lawyer anyway: pressed suits and polished shoes and all. This is the Nick I know, half-naked and dreamlike, seeing the new in things. You taught me to see angels in clouds and wizards in trees. We prayed to them from the fields near our home in the far, far reaches of St. Louis County. This is your first vacation. You never have time and you never have money. You haven’t for as long as I’ve known you.

“The sun’s pretty wicked. Sure you don’t want some sunblock, Nickels?”

“Naw, it feels great.” You stretch out, spread-eagled, your virgin skin unvarnished. You’re fresh from the farmlands, you want a tan. “I never burn,” you insist.

We lay beached on the sand, stranded like fish.

“This is the life, huh?” I pick a sand flea from my chin.


“Remember how we talked about traveling all over the world? And now, look at us now, lying on the beach in Mexico.”

“Huh, look at us now.” You grunt and roll away. Your cell phone lies beside you on the sand. You carry it like a private eye carries a handgun, but it never rings. I rotate slowly, like spit-roasted game, spreading buttery gobs of sunblock on my skin. A small dog scoops out a hollow in the sand and naps alongside us. You fall asleep. When you wake up, you are scarlet as a parrot.

“Fucking sun,” you say.

We check into the hotel. The newness disguises somewhat its cheapness. Only $55 a night, you marvel. Between the two of us, we can afford only an overnight stay. We don’t even unpack.

Dinner is exotic, a splurge. A salad of melons. Prawns big as fingers hooked over bowl rims. A dessert of coffee and white tequila. We toast to four days away from work.

“I never thought I’d get outta there,” you say.

“What about weekends? Can’t you take off on weekends?”

Your face sours. “No, I can’t just take off on weekends. Jesus. Graduate students!” Then you laugh. “I forgot—law school. I forgot how much it sucked.”

You order another round. The unfamiliar drinks turn me sentimental. I tell you I love you, that I’m glad to see you. You wince. That look I know, the one you save for when a family member embarrasses you. Mother’s Christmas bragging about her Son the Lawyer. My coming out over Sunday pot roast, when I was 15. Dyke was the first word you used.

“Stop acting like you know me.” He toyed with a knife. “You don’t even know why I came to visit you.”

“Oh, do tell. Did you rob a bank? Kill somebody?”

“I’m serious, Kath. I’m going to leave St. Louis. Permanently. As in never going back. Packed my shit, sold my furniture. Thought maybe I could find someplace new. I mean, if you could do it...”

I ignore the put down and the fact that your visit came with a hidden agenda. “That’s great, Nick.”

“Well, don’t sound so enthusiastic.”

“I’m just surprised is all. You really sold your stuff?”


“What about your law office?”

“I don’t know. I just closed my last case. I’m supposed to hear about a bankruptcy case this week, but that might fall through. God, I hate having to chase down ambulances and fix broken lives. I was thinking maybe of going back to school myself, study anthropology or sociology. Law isn’t as—interesting as I thought it would be.”

“You’ll like Arizona. No rain. And you can stay with me. I mean, as long as you need to.”

You are silent. We finish our drinks in silence.

Afterward, we marvel at the sunset, watch couples stroll, hand in hand, by the sea. It is awkward, then, being brother and sister when everyone around you is in love. There is no way not to feel excluded, not just as an individual but as part of an entire rejected family unit. I ask you if you have a girlfriend. You shake your head. You don’t ask about me. You never ask about me.

“I’m going for a walk,” you say. I sit at the portiere leading to the dining room, the gauzy white curtain billowing like a ghost. You walk along the beach, a tall, thin silhouette in the mellowing light. You scuffle. I see you kick your path clear of stones and pebbles. Behind you the silvery shadows of a porpoise family frolic in the water. Fins cleave, bodies arc over waves.

When the sunset fades and stars fringe the purple sky, you come back and touch my hand. “I’m glad I came here, Kath.” Before I can reply you turn away. “This damned sunburn is giving me chills. I’m going to call it a day.”

We head to our room, frigid with over-conditioned air. The hotel promised cable TV but our set doesn’t work. You empty the plastic baggie of shells onto the bureau and deposit your wallet and decide to write postcards to your lawyer friends (all of your friends are lawyers, you’ve told me) back home. The room is silent except for the scritch-scratch of your pen. Your face is different, engrossed. When I talk it’s like you’re sitting through a really old B-movie. You’ve seen it a hundred times before, and it wasn’t that interesting the first time.

It wouldn’t hurt you to write me once in a while, I say. The words sound petulant, the one trait you’ve disliked ever since we were kids.

“I don’t have anything to say,” you reply, not engaging, never engaging. You never say it, but I think you pity me. For attending a lesser university in our town, for not being married, for being a girl in a world of men.

“It’ll be great, you and me in Arizona, Nick. We can camp in the desert. Hike to the old mines and the Indian petroglyphs. Like old times.”

“Camp in the desert! Hike! I hate that stuff. I didn’t think you were so keen on it, either. Remember when Mom took us to Elephant Rocks?”

“All those big granite boulders. We climbed all over them.”

“Yeah, but remember the colored rock you found? You asked Mom to hold it for you. And then I slipped and fell. Landed right on my face. Knocked my front tooth right out.”

“You bled all over. You thought it was cool. You figured the tooth fairy would leave you a dollar for how you lost that tooth.”

“But your rock. Don’t you remember? The second I fell down, Mom dropped your rock. And it cracked. Pieces flying into the bushes, off of the cliff. You just bawled. Wouldn’t speak to anyone for a whole day.”

“No,” I say. “I don’t remember that.” But I do, now. I remember most how your loss was so much more important than mine.

You finish the postcards and get into bed.

You fall asleep right away, snoring the way men snore. I sneak one of your postcards from the bureau. The handwriting is even, calculated. “Greetings from Mexico! Loved the ocean, but major BURN! Mother warned me to use sun block, but bad boy, I didn’t listen.” I rip up all of the cards and flush the pieces down the toilet. It hurts that you compare me to Mother. Neither one of us likes her.

I can’t sleep. I leave on a light, watch fat tropical spiders spin webs in the ceiling corners. You scream in your sleep. No words, just a Neanderthal yell, like Tarzan with nightmares. Mother used to scream in her sleep like that. After father died. I wrap my pillow around my head to muffle the sound, just like I did back then.

The day dawns bright as a penny. You shower, leaving the bathroom hot and wet and impersonal as a locker room. Soap, water, lather. I’ve forgotten the blankness of men’s intimacies.

You collect your wallet, the shells. Look here, you say. Creatures trapped in the shells had crawled onto the barren bureau top in search of sea. Their dead, curled bodies are flung across the desk like scattered hands.

“For God’s sakes, Kath, why didn’t you tell me?” You’re thinking that, of the two of us, I should have known better. I live in the desert now, I’m the earth mother. I want to object, I want to clear my name of such culpability. You’re the smart one, I want to say, you’re the Lawyer. You gently shovel the creatures into the wastebasket. You notice the missing postcards. Where did they go, you wonder. I tell you I dropped them in the mail.

We check out. I ask you to drive home, and you pout. You want to enjoy the scenery after all, it’s your only vacation. I drive, and you sleep most of the way. I drive, and it is me who marvels at the idiosyncratic vistas carved from sand and wind. Your face is closed, your manner small. You are lost in this massive landscape. You belong in the middle of the country, cozened by green hills and slow rivers and full-grown oaks that crowd together like fields of open umbrellas.

We’re in Arizona before you remember my sand dollar. You forgot to take it out of your pocket, which you empty in a rain of dust and crushed beauty. You look guilty, like a schoolboy caught vandalizing the hallways. I call you a bastard. You are careless of what belongs to me. It is something I have forgotten about you.

You are blasé, dismissive. “Hell, I’ll buy you one from one of those stores—they had a whole bunch of them, bigger than yours. It’s not the last sand dollar on earth.” You switch on the TV. When I wake up in the middle of the night, a western is playing. I hear you talking (your cell phone? Did it finally ring?) in a voice so low and urgent I can’t make out the words.

The next morning you wake up with burned skin hanging from you like old wallpaper. You look hung over, haggard. You say you have to cut the trip short.

“But I thought you were going to stay.”

You shrug. You say you don’t like it here. “I don’t know why. Too much sun.”

“But you always liked the sun!”

“No,” you say, “I have never liked the sun.”

I don’t ask about the night before. I don’t ask if my calling you a bastard had anything to do with your going home. Our family never asks such questions, you and me and Mother. It’s as if we can’t risk the contempt that our own familiarity could breed. You pack hurriedly, give me a tentative hug at the airport.

More than a year passes without a word from you. When I call, you don’t return my messages. Mother says you are busy. Mother says you closed your law office and moved back home with her. Mother says I should come home, too. You are drinking too much and she is worried. Maybe I can talk to you. She actually pleads. I am ruthless. I break her heart. I tell her I will never go back.

Now it is a minute after midnight the day after my 26th birthday, going on two years now since our trip to Rocky Point, and I know you will not call. I am unwilling to let you go. I leave another message. I talk to the machine as if it was you. I tell you I am graduating next month. I tell you I accepted a teaching job in France, and that I’m taking my new girlfriend with me. Maybe that is the wrong thing to say. Maybe it is too much to expect you to be happy for me. I hang up at last, knowing I will pack my belongings and leave you farther behind without the courage to ask the important questions, the questions that might have made a difference between knowing you and leaving you. We’re pirates, blood kin. Only families can be so ruinous to each other’s happiness.

In the meantime, I hold onto what I can. I save the snapshot of you, just across the Mexican border, shaking castanets and wearing a sombrero embroidered with the name Nickels. It is this, along with an image that stays with me, finally: The silhouette of a man kicking stones on the beach while dolphins shimmied through the water. The sunset was a heartache.