Some families have strange 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 do stuff like that with my other siblings. 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 rarely 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 almost like a religion. 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, an old black-and-tan German Shepherd, the type you could take off the leash and let run. She usually came along for the trips, too. That dog may have been getting on in years, but Lola loved nothing more than to chase me up and down those dirty sand dunes. She waited for the click of the keys every night. Sometimes she would jump into the waves and splash around like a maniac. My dad got a kick out of that. I was always scared she would swim away. But she never did.
We went swimming when the water was warm and the current 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. We could make up the beach day another time.
But he just said no, come home, and hung up the phone.
His curt response made me furious. I was not the type of kid to disrespect my father, but at the same time, I was a teenager. Hormones pumped through my veins. The idea of playing with my dad at the beach seemed stupid and childish. I hated him for making me go. I hated him for holding me back. I hated him for everything, and the concept made me hate him even more, because I never hated my father before.
So, for the first time in my life, I ignored tradition and stayed at school until well past six.
Sadie and I were in the cafeteria the whole time. We talked about school. We talked about our parents, and our siblings, and our favorite shows, and pretty much everything except the project. I asked her if she wanted to see me the next weekend, and she said that she did. Then the speaker system blared out of nowhere.
“Matt…uh, Matt Richardsen. If you’re in the building, please report to the principal’s office immediately. Thanks. Matt Richardsen.”
I cursed. Sadie packed up her stuff. I promised to see her Monday as anger built up inside my gut. I paced the empty halls once or twice just to calm down. I waltzed into the principal’s office at six forty-five. My father was red-faced and furious. A perfect recipe for disaster.
“Get in the car. Now. Let’s go. We have to go.” He turned to the principal. “Thanks, Bill, for the announcement. We have to go. We’re late for a funeral.”
Principal Bill nodded. My father put his arm up around me and moved it up by the collar the moment we left the office. We sprint walked out the door. When we got to the car, he opened it up and tossed me in the back seat. Then he got in himself. The time on the dash read 7:05.
“Funeral, Dad?” I repeated when he got in the driver seat. “Really? Who gets buried at night?”
My father swerved the car backward 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?”
Sadie and her mother drove by. I hoped they didn’t see me cry. I wanted to scream back. I wanted to ask him why. Why, why, why? Who the fuck cared if we missed a beach day? Who cared if we went 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, the day I might finally get a girlfriend?
“It’s tradition,” he muttered to me. “Tradition is important.”
Sadie’s pretty face and features lit up in my mind. That look of disappoint when she left the cafeteria. She would probably forget me by the end of the weekend. Maybe even sooner than that. She would probably end up dating somebody else. I wanted to hit my dad. I wanted to actually hit him and make him realize what he had done to me.
But I punched the car window instead. The glass shattered all over my knuckles. Warm blood ran over my fingertips. Dad’s angry expression turned pale. But he kept driving.
“Keep your hand inside,” he snapped. “We’re almost there.”
A storm rolled into town just as we reached the beach. My father cut the engine and nearly jumped out of his car seat. He ran around to the other side, pulled me out, and dragged me onto the sand. 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 nice dad. 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. I probably wanted to cover up my own crying with something meaningful. 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. He looked at me like I was an animal.
I started to cry again.
My father dialed the phone again. The fear vanished from his face as a ringing sounded. Relief flooded in as a deep voice responded on the other end. He nodded, said, “Okay,” then hung up. Then he looked up at me and scooted away. He appeared so much smaller to me then.
“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. I don’t know why…I don’t know why I pushed you. I’m sorry.”
He walked over and pulled some bandages from the glove box. He carefully wrapped the ends around my knuckles and pulled out the bits of glass. 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 us over toward 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 it 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. “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.
So I didn’t ask. And I went. Even after he passed. Right up until my eighteenth birthday. Sometimes I took Lola 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 attention 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. Most of all, I wanted to live without a standing appointment every week. So, when my eighteenth birthday rolled around, and it coincidentally fell on a Friday, I resolved that night would be my final trip to the beach.
Just as Dad promised.
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. I welcomed the fresh perspective and new lease on life. Part of me yearned for freedom. Part of me missed the safety of constraint. All of it comingled into reflection.
About twenty minutes later, a familiar voice shook me from my trance.
“Glad to see you don’t hate it anymore.”
I turned around to see my mother in a sundress.
“Time is cruel,” she offered sadly. “My little boy is a man.”
I smiled and stood to give her a peck on the forehead. She didn’t smile back. I offered her my chair. She didn’t take it.
“Back in the eighties…” She looked out across the water. “Back in the eighties, your father and I liked to go out to the bars to drink and go dancing. I know that probably sounds weird to you now. But we were young. And your father liked to dance.”
I laughed. She didn’t.
“One night…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. I actually spilled his drink on the way. 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. A broad jaw. Kind, blue eyes. Denim jacket and denim jeans. Very handsome, very hip for those days.” She sighed. “I talked to this man for a while, you know, and when your dad didn’t come back…I…I followed him outside for a cigarette.”
I noticed her fingernails were dug into the armrests. I didn’t stop her to ask why.
“I don’t know. Maybe I was naive. Maybe I thought nothing bad could happen. I was born in White Valley. I grew up in this town. I knew everyone. Everyone but him. And something about that face just seemed so mysterious. He was new. Fresh blood. I was drawn to him.”
My mother looked away as tears filled her eyes. The next sentence spilled out of her like verbal vomit.
“I don’t remember the attack. He smacked my head on the car door so hard that I passed out. No memory whatsoever. 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 of them in total. He never used protection. He said birth control was against God’s will. Imagine that? But only one of us 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 serves his time at White Valley Correctional.”
She turned and slowly pointed toward 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. “The police said they would keep it quiet, but somebody slipped. He said he would hurt you. He said he would kill you. Even from the inside, you know, he said he had friends. We couldn’t take the chance. We couldn’t risk losing you. 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 seven. That was his window. Once a week, until you’re eighteen…”
My heart felt dead in my chest.
“Then you could decide for yourself.”
I looked down at my watch to check 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 brightened with the flick of a light. Sitting at a table was the gaunt outline of a man with long black hair. Two armed guards stood by his side.
Our eyes met for a moment. He tilted his head. Everything in my entire existence turned foreign in that one singular second.
And then Jeremy waved.