“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Marie asked.
“I want to be an activist,” Emma stated without hesitation.
The two fourth-graders were sitting in the warm sand on Santa Monica Beach, legs pulled up, watching people trying to swim in the incoming Pacific surf. It was fun—more fun than sitting on the over-heated seats on the Ferris wheel over on the pier, crammed with so many others. At least here on the open beach, there was some air between you and everyone else on this blazing July day.
But now Emma felt that the fun had ended. Marie was eyeing her in that strange way that her pests at school were, like that day when she had told Mrs. Richardson in English class what she wanted to be. Yes, she knew what it was like to be stared at. In that way. Not the way her best friend should look at you.
“What’s … an activist?” Marie asked at length.
Emma’s shoulders slumped a bit.
“An activist is someone who fights for what’s right—you know, to save the animals, nature, the climate.”
“My dad says the climate is just fine,” Marie said. “It’s always been hot in California.” Marie pulled at the straps in her bathing suit as if they were a kind of fan.
Emma pulled her legs closer up under her. They hadn’t gone into the water yet, but perhaps now was a good idea. If only Marie’s father would come back from wherever he had gone to get that frozen yogurt he had said he would fetch for them.
She didn’t like it when Marie contradicted her.
Emma had flown all the way from Yuma because she missed her best friend, and they only had this full day – Sunday – to be together. They had to do something fun, as much as they could, hadn’t they?
But on the other hand, one of the good things about Marie was that she could be totally honest with her without getting pummeled, like in school.
But … maybe that wasn’t so anymore?
Emma’s mind raced. “My dad doesn’t believe in climate change, either. Only when Mom says he should.”
Marie’s pearly white grin rewarded her. “Your mom is funny when she is like that.”
“My dad doesn’t think so.”
They both laughed and the breach had been closed.
“What do you want to be?” Emma asked carefully.
Whatever it was, she was sure she would agree with it.
But Marie changed her mind so often, and after they had been forced to move from Yuma, it was like the future had been this big dark cloud, either it was very scary or it didn’t really exist.
It hadn’t always been like that.
Marie had been the one who would tell Emma to slow down, now Marie was always going faster. Talking faster. Doing a hundred different things at the same time. And changing her mind as often about things.
Emma hoped Marie could trust the teachers at the new school.
Marie stared for a while at some daredevil boys, about twice their age, who were goofing around near the surf. Then with great confidence, she said, “When I grow up I’d like to be Ella Fitzgerald.”
“Who is that?” Emma blurted.
“She was a singer,” Marie explained, “my mom wrote her M-A about her at the U-C-L-A and loves her music.”
Emma wasn’t quite sure what an “M-A” was but she didn’t say anything.
The other word was some kind of school for grown-ups. Her mother had once attended to something like that but never finished. She didn’t like to talk about it so Emma had not really wanted to talk about what to do after school, either.
It was so far away, too … and yet Emma thought about it often.
“So she is—was—a good singer then?” Emma asked.
“Yes, very good. She has it. She died before I was born, but so many people still listen to her songs. I want that, too, but I’m not sure I can.”
“Of course you can!” Emma exclaimed. “You sing wonderfully. What does Ella sing?”
“All kinds of songs,” Marie said. “It’s jazz … but I will never be that good.”
“You will,” Emma said. “I know it.”
“How can you be so sure?” There was no reflection of the sun in Marie’s eyes now. “How can you be sure I really have … something? What if you are just saying it because you are … my friend?” She sniffed.
“I’m saying it because it’s true,” Emma said. “Friends help each other remember what is true.”
Marie shook her head. “I know I want to, but I am not sure. After … everything that happened, I am not sure.”
“You have to be sure,” Emma said, tension rising in her voice. “Or I will help you be sure!”
Marie smiled faintly and reached out to pat Emma on the shoulder.
Just then Marie’s father was back. He held out two big cups of frozen yogurt like they were prizes he had won. “Here you go, girls. Eat them quickly.”
Marie grinned but in a way that made Emma feel uneasy. “Don’t worry, Dad.”
“And after that, what about testing out that little pond of water down there, huh?” Marie’s father held up a hand to shade his eyes and smiled when he saw one of the boys fall over in an incoming wave. “As long as we stay in the first lane, we should be fine,” he added confidently.
Marie’s father had been in regional swimming competitions when he was younger, and the dark skin on his arms still revealed wiry hard curves, although the curve around his stomach also revealed that it had been some time ago that he was able to compete with anyone.
But Miles Jackson was an authority on everything to do with water and Emma trusted him, although she thought the waves were a bit frightening at times.
There was this roar that she could hear, just before a wave hit, and it was like you could feel the power in the ocean, just when you heard the roar.
It didn’t sound like a nice power. More like something to be wary of.
They ate their yogurt in silence, while Marie’s dad sat down beside them and watched the multitude of people testing their own ability to stand firm when the waves hit.
“I just talked to your mom, by the way.” He looked at Emma. “We agreed, I will drive you to the airport tomorrow and meet her there, with your grandmother.”
“Okay,” Emma said. “How is Mom now?”
“Your mom is feeling fine,” Mr. Jackson said, “they had a good dinner last night at your … uncle’s house.”
Emma nodded quietly. “I hope Mom and Uncle Marcus get along.”
Mr. Jackson nodded. “Yeah, I think they will. I think they will. There was something about Marcus wanting to pay for your mom’s education, wasn’t there?”
“She doesn’t know what she wants to do with the money,” Emma said. “Or if she wants them.”
“Why not?” Marie asked. “If I had 100,000 dollars I could go to music school and pay for it myself—university, I mean.”
“We’ll figure that out, Marie,” her father said. “For Carrie, it would be her second education, so you see there is plenty of time to be sure. Maybe when you grow up you want to be something else, too.”
“No, this time I want to be a singer,” Marie said firmly. “I’ve always wanted to. Only now I know for sure.”
“Okay … ” Mr. Jackson glanced at his daughter. Then he shifted his attention to Emma again. “So how’s your brother? Is he still reading and writing a lot?”
“You know, if they can teach him to understand more—” Mr. Jackson folded his hands over his knees “—then he will be a master writer before he is your age.” He put on a wide smile. “I think Michael could end up being the new Stephen King.”
“Michael is afraid of the dark,” Emma said. “When he wakes up at night we always have to turn on all the lights quickly, or he screams. So I don’t think he will write horror stories.”
Emma was proud that she knew who Stephen King was, but in reality, it was only because Dad had once joked that this book—Carrie—was the only book he had read and that it was funny because then he had met Mom and she had the same name.
Mom hadn’t thought the joke was funny and had said something about it being a good thing she wasn’t able to do the same things as the Carrie who was in the book. Dad had just chuckled at that.
Mr. Jackson didn’t follow up on his thoughts about Michael’s—or anybody else’s—future career.
Instead, he gazed thoughtfully at the incoming waves. “You know, I don’t think there is any rush to figure out what you girls want to be. Right now you have to have fun and enjoy life. So if you are ready … ?” He looked at Marie’s now empty cup of yogurt which she had placed neatly with a small ‘fence’ of sand around it, so the wind didn’t blow it away.
“I’m ready.” Marie got up.
Mr. Jackson got up, too. “You coming, Emma?”
Emma wanted to say yes, but she just sat there with her legs pulled up under her still. “Maybe I’ll just watch you two first … and then come later?”
“Suit yourself.” Mr. Jackson tried to take Marie’s hand but she was already running toward the water. “I have to be going. Stay right here, okay?”
“I’ll stay here,” Emma said.
Emma felt the ocean tugging in her; she really wanted to go. Especially when she saw how much fun Marie and her dad were having once they were running along the waterfront, trying to dodge the bigger waves.
But it was like the sand had become concrete around her feet, and she couldn’t move. Not yet.
She had felt like this before, at home. She had hoped she wouldn’t feel like this in L.A. but here it was.
Emma knew that if she was to be an activist when she grew up, she had to be brave. But right now she couldn’t.
Just like those times at home.
Did that mean she couldn’t be what she wanted to be? Suddenly she felt like crying.
She wiped the tears away quickly. She couldn’t cry. Not here.
She willed herself to get up.
Mr. Jackson was steadying Marie, just when another wave came in and flooded everything up to Marie’s knees, making her reel. Then he saw Emma coming down to where they were, walking not running.
“Don’t worry, Emma,” he called. “We are right here.”
Emma called back. “I’m … coming.”
Cover photo by Ema Studios on Unsplash