Trapped in a dead end beach town, and within an “anomaly of a family,” a dreamer — inspired by the wisdom of her grandmother —comes to realize a change is not only necessary, but is survival itself…
by: Carolynn Kingyens ((Header art, “Gardenia” by Freja.))
Time moved more slowly in a dead-end, beach town like Southport. I always said Southport was the final pit stop, right before the grave. That was fine if you were part of the majority populace of retirees who’d slowly descend on Southport, year after year, from the colder, “Yankee” states like my Grandma Helen did. She moved to Southport for the warmer weather and low cost of living. My mother would soon follow her mother to Southport from South Jersey right after I was born so Grandma Helen could help raise me.
The other half of Southport were the free-loving, aging hippies like my mother, Sonia. No one called mother “Sonia” though. Everyone called her “Sunny” because of her upbeat disposition, myself included. But Sunny had stormy days, too. Only Grandma Helen and I saw Stormy-Sunny. Everyone else saw Sunny-Sunny. Stormy-Sunny would sleep for days. Stormy-Sunny would not shower. Stormy-Sunny would not talk and would appear between boyfriends. I did not like Stormy-Sunny.
Most of my friends who’d gotten out of Southport upon graduation never looked back. The ones who were stuck behind, like me, stayed stoned to deal with the isolation, especially during those insanely quiet, winter months.
Southport’s economy, like a lot of coastal beach towns, boomed during the hotter months. We were a tourist town after all, right at the mouth of Cape Fear. For the last three summers, I’ve worked as a barista-waitress-ice cream scooper, all in one, at Southport Café, which was conveniently located across the street from the beach. I’d sometimes work double shifts so I didn’t have to be home alone. Ever since Sunny started dating Buddy Lang, a local bait and tackle shop owner, she was never home anymore. Sunny spent most of her time either at Buddy’s beach shack, or at his musty-smelling store — “working the till,” she called it. She only came home to do her laundry, or check on our cats, Mr. Mingles and Daisy-Girl. If I happened to be home during one of her drive-by’s, we’d sometimes end up drinking sweet tea together on the back porch. With Sunny, I knew not to get too deep or philosophical about anything. We’d talk about the latest celebrity gossip, a movie one of us had just seen, or the always safe — weather.
“Did you lose electricity on Tuesday?” Sunny asked.
I shook my head no.
“It was bad over at Buddy’s. I swore his little house was going to blow away in that wind.”
I noticed her quick glances in between the long silence of our micro-exchanges.
“You’re very pretty, Kyra,” Sunny suddenly said, changing the subject altogether.
I rolled my brown eyes, then looked down and spotted a large, black ant carrying a crumb on its back, I’d imagine for its queen.
“No. I’m serious,” she continued, “You’re beautiful.”
I didn’t know how to respond. She used to say I looked like my loser father — a married, Italian construction worker, whom she once had a summer fling with in Atlantic City. I was more petite with olive skin and jet black, wavy hair, and often got mistaken for Spanish. Grandma Helen and Sunny, having Scotch-Irish roots, were tall with reddish-colored hair and pale, freckled skin. We were an anomaly of a family.
Just then, Mr. Mingles, our handsome, black cat with jade-colored eyes, jumped up on her lap. Sunny began with the baby-talk.
“How’s my Mr. Mingles doing? Is Kyra treating you well? I miss you so much.”
Mr. Mingles would purr non-stop around Sunny. She had that effect on everyone, especially animals. I wished she would shower me with the same affection that she showered on Mr. Mingles and Buddy, but I knew for a long time that wishing was a waste of time. Sunny would always be Sunny. As Grandma Helen, rest her soul, used to say: “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” Even though Grandma Helen was referring to her Monday night meatloaf, I’d like to think she was referring to my mother as well.
I’d always planned to leave Southport for good, but then Grandma Helen got sick a year before I graduated high school. After her cancer diagnosis, she was able to hold on for another two years. By the time I was nineteen, I was already jaded and cynical with a bad case of trust issues. Grandma Helen was more of a mother to me than my own mother had been. I didn’t want to be left alone with Sunny and her rabbit hole moods. But alone with Sunny I was.
My best friend, Taylor Featherstone, left for New York right after high school graduation. We’d planned to rent an apartment together in Harlem while she pursued an acting career and I attended art school. Grandma Helen had urged me to go to New York, but I knew Sunny would flake out on her care, that she would’ve died much sooner if I’d left with Taylor as planned. So I stayed behind in god-awful Southport with Grandma Helen and Sunny.
Taylor went on to get a bit part in a soap opera that Grandma Helen liked to watch. She would clap with joy every time we’d see Taylor on TV. But I’d end up studying Taylor’s face more than her acting, or storyline. Something had changed. Was it weight loss? A subtle nose job? Colored contacts? I’d often wonder if she was happy in New York.
The soap opera gig had been a stepping stone for Taylor Featherstone. She was on her way to Hollywood, and not even a hot mess of a mother, a drunken deadbeat of a stepfather, or a trailer park on the edge of Southport was going to stop her. I was truly happy for my best friend as someone who was happy to see a beautiful, caged bird finally set free. Southport never left its mark on Taylor.
I still sense that Grandma Helen was around, even though she’d been gone for three years. I left her bedroom exactly how she left it — her fluffy, baby blue bathrobe on the hook behind the door, her reading glasses resting atop of her crossword puzzles, and her bunny-eared slippers beside the bed, a gift I’d given her at the start of chemo. Sunny wanted to turn Grandma Helen’s bedroom into a yoga / work out room, but I wouldn’t allow it. Her bedroom was still a sacred place. This was the only spot in our house where I could still feel her sweet, loving presence.
“Be fragrant as a pink gardenia,” Grandma Helen would always say. She had a lot of sayings, but this one stuck with me most. Gardenias were her favorite flower. But I think Grandma Helen knew I had a propensity to become bitter and numb, and it was her way of reminding me to stay hopeful and open. Grandma Helen never said her wise sayings to Sunny. I think she realized a long time ago that Sunny was a lost cause. She loved her daughter, but accepted her shortcomings. There were no lectures or yelling when Stormy-Sunny would appear. Instead, Grandma Helen would whisk me away to the beach, or we’d sometimes go to Ms. Gladys’ farmhouse, her friend, where my job was to collect all the pretty, light blue colored eggs inside the chicken coop. When I was done with my chores, I got to ride Cody Chance, Ms. Gladys’ sweet, show pony. One time I walked in on Grandma Helen and Ms. Gladys talking about Sunny. I remember Ms. Gladys saying it was time to kick her out of the house, and Grandma Helen replying, “No. No. No.” They immediately stopped their conversation after spotting me standing quietly inside the doorway.
Reis Thornton texted me one day that Taylor was returning to Southport. Reis Thornton was Taylor’s cousin, their mothers were sisters. They were close when they were little then Reis’ mom cut off contact from Taylor’s mom after she married Taylor’s deadbeat stepfather. He got Taylor’s mom hooked on Oxycodone, and their family life soon worsened. All through high school, Taylor would go back and forth between Reis’ house and my house. Taylor never judged me for having a mother like Sunny, and I never judged her for having a mother addicted to Oxy.
Reis also texted that she was bringing her new boyfriend who was the lead singer of the British punk band, The Subterraneans.
“Taylor wants us to stay with her and Billy at Le Chateau. Are you game?”
“Hell yeah!” I texted back.
I hadn’t spoken to Taylor in a year and her texts had stopped eight months earlier. At first I was upset, but I reminded myself that she had a new life now, a life that involved the celebrity world. I couldn’t believe she was dating Billy Blue from The Subterraneans. I would’ve thought she’d at least text me to tell me the exciting news herself.
A year ago, I got Reis a job at the Southport Café. He worked in the kitchen making fancy sandwiches with names like “The Sonoma” and “The Southport Club.” We either talked about Taylor,or talked about our mutual hatred of Southport.
“Let’s just go. Let’s just get in my Jeep right now, Kyra,” Reis would sometimes say while I waited patiently on the other side of the kitchen window for my sandwich order.
The romantic, running away scenario he was proposing sounded similar to the Tracy Chapman’s song, “Fast Car.” Sunny used to blast this song in the car when I was a kid so much so that I knew the lyrics by heart, even now.
“You got a fast car / But is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision / We leave tonight or live and die this way.”
“What are you so afraid of? Your Grandma is gone. You have no reason to stay in Southport,” Reis said, interrupting my thoughts.
He was right. I had no one holding me in Southport, except maybe Sunny, but she was off living with Buddy at his beach shack. She could take care of Mr. Mingles and Daisy-Girl while I was away. That was the least she could do for me for taking good care of Grandma Helen and not going to New York after high school as planned. My life could’ve been different now. Not like Taylor’s, of course, but different nonetheless.
“You’re right, Reis. I don’t know why I’m so afraid, maybe I’m afraid of the unknown. Life is predictable in Southport, and I’ve grown to like predictability.”
After sliding my order through the kitchen window, Reis rested his hand over mine for a moment, and smiled a smile that told me everything was going to be alright. I needed that.
I wore the prettiest dress I owned to meet Taylor and Billy at Le Chateau, a 5 Star hotel located in the next town over from Southport. Grandma Helen bought it for me while she was still well enough to shop on her own. She said it was timeless, like me. It was a simple, black slip dress that fell right above my knee. I wore my long hair down in loose waves, and wore more makeup then I usually did, including a red lipstick shade called Femme Fatale. I looked in the mirror one last time when I heard Reis’ knock on the door, and for the first time in my life I saw myself as beautiful.
“Wow, you look amazing, Kyra,” said Reis, when I opened the door.
I immediately looked down out of habit before looking back up again, meeting his blue eyes.
“Thanks Reis. You look amazing, too.” I replied.
Reis walked around his silver Jeep Wrangler to open the door for me and for the first time in my life, I felt “the butterflies.” Sunny would always talk about “the butterflies.” She said the butterflies was a feeling I’d get when love awakened deep inside me. Don’t try to fight it, Kyra. Just go with it, Sunny would say. I couldn’t believe I was adhering to anything Sunny would say, but I trusted her on this one.
Reis held my hand as we walked through the exquisite-looking lobby of the Le Chateau. When we got to the front desk, Reis asked the hotel clerk to call “Sid and Nancy’s room” to let them know Reis and Kyra were in the lobby. Sid and Nancy were obvious aliases for Billy Blue and Taylor Featherstone. A lot of celebrities used aliases when booking hotel rooms. I noticed the desk clerk perk right up and asked if we would like a glass of complementary champagne while we waited. Of course, we said yes. While we sat in the sitting area, casually sipping our champagne, Reis leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Isn’t this wild.” His spicy-scented cologne smelled so nice, and Sunny’s butterflies were back again.
I heard a familiar voice shouting my name from across the lobby.
“K – Y – R – A!”
It was Taylor, and she was running towards Reis and me.
“I missed you so much,” Taylor said as she hugged me tightly.
“Look at you. You’re stunning, Kyra. Isn’t she stunning, Billy?”
Billy had finally caught up to Taylor in the lobby.
“Hi Kyra, I’m Billy. So nice to finally meet you.”
Billy extended out his hand. He was even better looking in person, and had the coolest accent. He introduced himself to Reis next.
Reis reached for my hand.
“Wait a minute. Are you two dating?” asked Taylor, who never misses a thing.
Reis immediately jumped in to answer the question for the both of us.
“I don’t even know if we know yet. This is kind of our first date.”
I nodded in agreement.
“If you two get married, then Kyra would be my cousin, too,” laughed Taylor.
Reis and I followed Taylor and Billy back to their penthouse suite for more champagne and conversation. While Billy showed off his new guitar to Reis, Taylor and I headed for the balcony to talk.
“How’s Sunny doing?” Taylor asked.
“Sunny is Sunny,” I replied. “She’s dating this new guy named Buddy. I only met him once. She’s rarely home. I try to pick up as many shifts as I can so I don’t have to be home alone. Ever since Grandma Helen died, the house has changed. There’s an undeniable void.”
“So why don’t you and Reis come to New York. I’m going on tour with The Subterraneans this Fall, and you and Reis can come stay at our apartment. Maybe you can take some art classes, and Reis can go to culinary school. You will love New York.”
I didn’t hesitate this time.
“I would love that. Thanks so much for the offer.”
Taylor and I locked hands as we looked up at the full moon. She laid her head on my shoulder. I could see Reis inside the living room. He would occasionally look my way and smile. I would smile back at him.
“Are you ready for a change?” asked Taylor.
Carolynn Kingyens’ debut book of poetry — Before the Big Bang Makes a Sound (Kelsay Books) — is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Greenlight, Book Culture, and Berl’s Poetry Shop. She’s been a guest author on two literary radio programs. Today, Carolynn lives in New York City with her husband of 20 years, two beautiful, kind daughters, a sweet rescue dog, and a very old, happy cat.