The young mother rubs oil on her already brown legs and lays back on the towel in the sand, her skin a shining offering to the sun. Nearby, her blond, toddler son, husky and covered in sand, sucks orange soda from a straw.
“Don’t spill that,” the mother says, not opening her eyes, not moving her head, her brain slowly melting in the heat.
“I’m not,” the boy says, truthfully. He looks at the can and the sand around him, checking for signs of spillage.
“I don’t want any ants,” the mother says, breathing a deep sigh, sinking further into the depths of sun-self absorbtion.
The boy sucks hard on his straw. He looks at his mother, notices her brown, shiny legs.
“How come your legs are wet?” he asks, dropping the not-yet-empty can to the sand.
“It’s oil. It’s for making my skin look good.”
“Looks wet,” the boy says, not satisfied, absently burying the can beneath a shallow mound of sugary sand.
“Why don’t you go swimming?” her eyes still closed, brain melting steadily toward the back of her skull.
“Too cold,” still burying, thinking about nothing, baking in the heat. Then, he flips himself backward on the sand, like a seal, falls immediately fast asleep.
The mother, her eyes closed, is, of course, unaware, and she speaks every now and then in the general direction of her son’s sleeping, blond body.
“You didn’t think it was cold an hour ago, she says, slowly raising her arm to brush away a casual fly. Five minutes later she adds, “…Couldn’t’ve gotten colder since then…”
Meanwhile, the boy sleeps. He sleeps with his hand buried under the sand, his fingers clutched loosely around the sticky soda can. Orange drool drains slippery from the corner of his mouth. His eyelids flutter like the wings of a hummingbird and his body temperature climbs like the sun. He sleeps like a mummy and dreams like a rock, the sun beating down on his skin.
Ants, small soldiers of insidious intent, march toward the sugar in the soda can. Lines and ranks and corridors of them, all hustling toward the prize in the sand.
The mother drifts in and out of sleep, from dreams where the beach sounds are a shadow in the twilight, to riveting consciousness as aware as a child; her eyelids, nonetheless, remain shut.
“Isn’t this great?” she mumbles, rhetorically, still oblivious to her boy’s heavy slumber. “We haven’t had a summer like this since the year you were born…God, I was miserable that year.”
When there comes no answer, she slips back once again to her dreaming, her brown skin cooking.
She remembers the summer her son had been born, the green empty feeling it gave her. She remembers the loneliness of the drives to her gynecologist, the windows down, listening to the radio and the hot highway wind, sweating and crying, too weak to pray. She remembers the fear and the nights with the fan blowing the air around, mixing her mind, bouncing her dreams off the shadows.
She opens her eyes, just a crack, feels the blazing yellow pinch of the sun, and closes them again, inhaling a deep breath and exhaling slowly, unable, despite that, to clear her mind.
She remembers how she came to hate her body, so huge and round and unfamiliar. It was somebody else she looked like, somebody’s mom or unfortunate older sister — whoever it was, not her.
She remembers how she hated the sight of herself, her stomach, hated the feel, would stare in the mirror, standing sideways. Once she stared at herself for nearly an hour and threw up at the end of it, falling down on her floor, the itchy, hot carpet, the taste like lye on the back of her tongue.
“I’ll never be beautiful,” she says, and then hears it for real, from her here-and-now throat, and jerked awake, squinting like an infant, her mind sprinting, her melted brain sloshing like pudding.
She looks at her son and sees him there sleeping peaceful as a daisy planted by the wind.
“There you are,” she says, lying back down. “Go ahead and sleep if you want to.” With her eyes closed again, she thinks of nothing at all, just the pulse of the heat on her skin.
The boy, still asleep, like a stone in the earth, does not jump up or answer or move. He lays like something beached, his arm like a bridge for the cavalry of ants that traverse it.
They march like cadets, diligent and true, from their prize in the sand toward the orange, drooling hole of his cracked-open little boy mouth.