Some families have weird traditions. Mine was no different. For as long as I can remember, every Friday night, my father took me down to the beach to look at the waves.
I never really understood why. We didn’t follow any other routines with the rest of the family. We didn’t have pizza or board game nights. We didn’t watch television or follow sports. We never went on vacation together, as much as I begged, and we barely even ate meals in the same room. But regardless of the weather, or conflicts, or any other excuses, at exactly seven o’clock; my father would always drive me, and only me, down to the beach to look at the waves.
That habit became more sacred than religion and almost more important than school.
We never missed a Friday.
My earliest memories of these trips were positive. Dad was an important guy to a lot of people. I think the time alone with him made me feel important too. We had a puppy, back then, a German Shepherd named Lola, that followed commands and listened perfectly off leash. Lola usually came along for the ride as well. That dog loved nothing more than to chase me up and down the dirty sand dunes. Something she would jump into the waves and splash around like a maniac. My dad always got a kick out of that. I was always scared she would swim away.
We went swimming when it was warm and not too rough. We played in the sand when it was cold. If it rained, or snowed, Dad usually brought an umbrella, and we would just sit together and watch the waves crash violently against the coastline. Sometimes we talked about school, or girls, or anything that popped into our minds. Sometimes we just sat together and said nothing.
I loved it.
But the older I got, the more Dad’s weekly trips became a burden to my social life. I missed birthday parties. I missed playdates. I missed just sitting at home after a long week of school and relaxing. When I was thirteen, a cute girl in the eighth grade asked to work on a project with me after school. Friday was the only day she could do it. I called my father up and begged him to change our beach day to Saturday.
Just once, I pleaded, just that week.
But he just said no, come home, and hung up the phone.
His curt response made me furious. I was not the type to disrespect my father, but at the same time, I was a teenager. Hormones pumped through my veins. The idea of a big kid like me playing with his father at the beach seemed stupid childish. I hated him for making me go. I hated him for holding me back.
So for the first time in my life, I ignored my father’s tradition, and stayed at school until well past six. Sadie and I were in the cafeteria putting the finishing touches on a diorama when the raspy voice of our principal kicked on through the loudspeakers.
“Matt… uh, Matt Richardsen. If you’re in the building. Please report to the principal’s office immediately.”
I cursed. Sadie ‘ooooh’ed and giggled a bit. I picked up my books and slammed them into my backpack, promising to see her Monday, as a powder keg of rage built up inside my gut. I paced the empty halls once or twice, just to calm down, before I waltzed into the principal’s office to find my father red faced and furious. A perfect recipe for disaster.
“Get in the car. Now. We have to go,” he fumed and turned to the principal. “Thank you, Bill, for the announcement. We’re late for soccer practice.”
My father grabbed me by the collar the moment we left the office. Then he nearly sprinted out the door. We walked that way through the entire parking lot, quickly sidestepping, with him holding onto my shoulder like a child. Then he opened the door to his SUV and tossed me in the back seat. I felt humiliated. The time on the dash read 7:05.
“Soccer, practice, Dad?” I repeated when he got in the driver seat. “Really? We’re lying about it now?”
My father swerved the car backwards and gunned it through the empty lot.
“How many fucking times have I told you?” he shouted. “Seven o’clock. Every Friday. We have to be there. This is very important, Matthew, why would you disobey me?”
I wanted to scream back. I wanted to ask him why. Why, why, why. Who the fuck cares if we miss one beach day? Who cares if we go at all? Was it really that important to the old man that we spend time together? Why did it have to be THIS DAY, of all days? But I had asked and received no answer a thousand times before.
“It’s tradition,” he would say. “Tradition is important.”
Sadie’s pretty face and features lit up in my mind. She would probably forget me by the end of the weekend. She would probably end up dating somebody else. The rage and hormones coincided to build up inside my stomach like a powder keg. I wanted to hit him. I wanted to hit him and make him realize what he had done to me.
But I reached out and slammed my fist against the car window instead. The glass shattered all over my knuckles. Warm blood ran over my fingertips.
My father’s angry expression turned pale.
“Keep your hand inside,” he snapped. “We’re almost there.”
We arrived at the beach in the pouring rain and parked by the old prison. My father cut the engine and nearly jumped out of his seat and into the rain. He had one of those flip phones, back then, the type that got shitty service too far away from the towers. He danced around dramatically trying to find a signal to place a call.
“You should have fucking listened to me Matthew,” he ranted. “WHY didn’t you listen to me?”
The cell beeped unsuccessfully. My father nearly chucked it before he grabbed me by the shoulders and shook. I felt tears well up in my eyes. I know I was too old to be crying. I knew I looked like even more of a baby now. But it scared me to see my father so angry. He never cursed at me. He never shook me. My dad was the type of guy to offer a pat on the back and warm conversation as reassurance. He never acted this way.
I pushed him back.
I pushed him so hard he fell down to the floor and smacked him elbow on the concrete. Then I stood over him like there was more coming. I don’t know what made me do it. I wanted to show him that he was not the only man in the house. I wanted to show him I could take care of myself. But my actions had the opposite effect. My father didn’t respect me. He looked terrified. He looked at me like I was an animal. He looked like he didn’t recognize me anymore.
I started to cry again.
My father still held the phone up to his ear from the ground. The fear vanished from his face as a dial tone sounded. Relief flooded in as a deep voice crackle on the other end. He nodded, said ‘okay,’ then hung up. Then he looked up at me and scooted away.
“I’m sorry, son, but you just have to trust me,” he whispered. “These trips are important.”
I wiped a few tears from my eyes and stuck out my hand.
“Sure, Dad,” I sniffled while helping him up. “I’m sorry.”
My father returned to the car to pull some bandages from his glove box. He carefully wrapped the ends around my knuckles. I protested for him to be careful as he stepped over to the back window and pushed away the glass shards with his jacket. Then he wrapped his arm around my shoulders and led me towards the boardwalk.
“It’s okay, bud. Let’s go watch the waves.”
My father died two weeks before my sixteenth birthday.
The injury to his elbow prompted his first physical in years. The physical found the cancer. He fought for a long time. There were ups and downs in his journey that kept him in the hospital through most of it. Nonetheless, Dad always insisted I keep up the beach trips, even if he couldn’t go.
“Just until your eighteenth birthday,” he would beg pitifully. “Please?”
I wanted to ask why. The question burned in my brain throughout the majority of my existence. Why did we have to go to the stupid fucking beach, every Friday, at the exact same time? Why did it matter? But ever since that day we fought, I reconciled to never make my father that disappointed in me again.
And so I went. Even after he passed. And I never asked why.
Sometimes I still took Lolly with me. Sometimes I took Sadie. Sometimes I just went by myself and took the hour to relax with a book by the waves. It quickly became a peaceful habit, rather than a painful one, filled with the memories of my late dad and the soothing sounds of the sea.
But after high school, my goals drifted off in other directions. I wanted to go to college. I wanted to get away from the shore. I wanted to experience the world and see things for myself. And I wanted to live in a world where I didn’t have a standing appointment every Goddamn week. So when my eighteenth birthday rolled around, and coincidentally fell on a Friday, I resolved that night would be my final trip.
I drove down to the beach a bit early and set up an umbrella underneath a passing storm. I parked my chair in the sand and watched the waves roll by, with a fresh new perspective and lease on life. Part of me welcomed the freedom. Part of me missed it.
About twenty minutes later, a familiar voice shook me from my trance. I turned around to see my mother in a sundress.
“Your father always intended to tell you this,” she muttered as she pulled over her own beach chair. “And a little birdie told me today is your eighteenth birthday.”
I smiled and stood to give her a peck on the forehead.
“Back in the eighties…” she sat down carefully and looked out across the water. “Back in the eighties, your father and I liked to go out to the bars and drink. I know that probably sounds weird to you now. But we were young. And your father was a hell of a dancer.”
I laughed. She didn’t.
“One night… one we went to this beach bar on the edge of town. And we got into a fight,” Mom allowed herself a small smile. “It was one of those bad but stupid fights, you know? I don’t even remember the reason. I think he said something mean about my friend.”
She paused and caught her breath.
“Anyway, we got separated. Your father marched off to the bar and got caught in line ordering drinks. I stormed off to the bathroom to drive home my point. I wanted to make him feel it, you know? But on my way out of the toilet… a man stopped me.”
She looked at me pensively.
“He had long black hair. Kind of like yours. A broad jaw. Kind, blue eyes. Denim jacket and denim jeans. Very handsome,” she sighed. “I talked to the man for a while, and when your dad didn’t come back, I followed him outside for a cigarette.”
I noticed her fingernails were dug into the armrests. I didn’t stop her to ask why.
“Maybe I was naive. Maybe I thought nothing bad could happen. I was born in this town. I grew up in this town. I knew everyone but him. And something about that face just seemed so mysterious. He was new. Fresh blood.”
My mother looked away as tears started to fill her wrinkled eyes. The next sentence spilled out of her like a confession.
“I don’t remember the rape. He smacked my head so hard on the car door that I passed out. I woke up in the parking lot, and I’m thankful for that. The other girls were not so lucky.”
She stared at me, suddenly becoming stoic.
“Six in total. But only one became pregnant. You were born nine months later. A healthy, happy baby.”
I felt the color leave my face. No. I wanted to scream the word a thousand times. No, no, no.
“Your father and I attended the trial. I testified. Jeremy was convicted and given a life sentence for six rapes and two homicides. He served his term at the Hook Correctional facility..”
She turned and slowly pointed towards the prison. My world collapsed around me.
“Why mom? Why am I here?”
My mother couldn’t hold in her sobs any longer.
“Honey, he knew about you. I don’t know how,” she choked. “He said he could hurt you. He said he could kill you. Even from the inside, you know, he said he had friends. We couldn’t take the chance. We couldn’t. We couldn’t. No one could know. No one.”
Her voice trailed off as my hand squeezed around hers. The rage and horror in my stomach turned over and over again. But I didn’t say anything.
“All he wanted…” she coughed and regained her composure. “All he wanted was to see you. Once a week. Fridays at 7. That was when the warden gave him time by the window. Once a week, until you’re eighteen…”
My heart felt dead in my chest. I looked down at my watch to see the time. Seven o’clock on the dot. The long row of windows in the prison behind us had been dark the entire night. But as I looked closer, one room was brightened by the flick of a light. Sitting at a table was the gaunt outline of a man, with long black hair, looking out towards us on the beach. Two armed guards stood by his side.
Our eyes met for a moment. Everything in my entire existence turned foreign in that one singular second. My mother sobbed and turned away.