When I was still my mother’s little girl, my parents and I spent our sunsets strolling south along Ocean Front Walk. We enjoyed checking out the architectural anomalies along the way–the homes that stared down the sea and sky were almost cartoonish with their clown colors and garish asymmetry. And, every evening–except when the fog rolled in–their windows were lit on fire with the colors of the sky, and walking past them, it felt like we were surrounded by the sunset, completely enveloped on all sides in a primordial orgy of red, violet, and gold.
My parents and I loved our evening walks, when the sun lay low on the lip of the sea, and the wind sashayed through the palm trees. Usually, we’d just stroll down to the old Venice Pier, and then turn around again, but once in a while, we’d linger on, and have dinner at one of the restaurants on Washington Boulevard.
One of our favorite places to go was The Crab Shell, a large restaurant-slash-bar painted Pepto-Bismol pink with mighty windows boldly facing the sea. My mom loved this place because they served up a mean Bloody Mary, delicately spiced and garnished with not one, but two crisp celery stalks.
“Never trust a Bloody Mary without celery,” She would say, offering me a tiny sip of her spicy drink.
I loved The Crab Shell because of the abalone ash trays set out on each worn wooden table. I thought that the knobbly shells with their insides of pearly rainbow smear looked like something that a mermaid princess would use, and I would watch intently as my mom and her Marlboro Lights would coat the inside of the shell with a delicate layer of ash. This was in the mid 1980’s, before the California State Legislature (finally) bitch-slapped smokers, banishing them 20 feet from all restaurant and business entryways, forcing them to hide their nicotine stained shame deep in the shadows of dumpster-lined alleys.
Usually, when we went to the Crab Shell, we’d order fish and chips and a huge basket of the most greasy and delicious french fries in the world. My mom would sip a solitary Bloody Mary, my dad would have a cup of strong black coffee, and I would be allowed a Shirley Temple with two maraschino cherries. Usually, we’d head back home just as the last fingers of sunset were slipping in to the sea. But one balmy summer night, my mom happened to have a pack of playing cards in her purse, and so, for the next few hours, we nibbled on french-fries and played Go Fish.
By the time the moon rose in the sky, the abalone shell on the table had lost its opalescent luster under a mound of my mom’s cigarette butts.
“Darling, shall we head out?” my dad asked.
“Oh no!” she said, dabbing her mouth with a napkin, and enunciating very carefully, “I think we should stay and play another round of Go Fish.”
“But it’s getting late,” my dad replied. I stole a peak at his wrist watch, shocked that it was already 9:00–an hour past my bedtime.
“But we’re having so much fun!” she said, taking a long swig from her third Bloody Mary. “Besides, one day Sarah will be too grown up to play Go Fish with us.”
“Mom, I’ll never be too old to play Go Fish with you and Dad,” I said.
She smiled sadly, holding her Bloody Mary glass and gazing at me with hazy eyes.
“You will,” she said.
And so, we stayed for a while, and played another round of Go Fish beneath the anemic glow of the neon bar sign.
That night, I felt like I had been let in on a secret I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want things to change, but for the first time in my life, I understood that they would. I looked out toward the inky black sea, listening to the rhythmic waves slamming down on the shore beating like an eternal, ancient pulse. In that moment, more than anything I wished that I could stop the inexorability of time, and stay in that summer when I was 7 years old.
But breath after breath, we are aging, locked in the certainty of change.