|Tammey and I, talking about life.
My cousin Tammey and I were born just months apart and grew up together like Irish twins. Our mothers are sisters. Sometimes, she and my cousin Tracey lived at my house. When my mom’s life was falling apart, we lived at their house.
In our families, there was chaos swirling around us, but we clung to one another for stability. Tammey was only nine months older than me but she always treated me like her baby. She was protective of me. When we were four-years-old and there was violence in my home, we held hands and hid in the closet together. When we were eleven years old, she saved me from drowning in the ocean. In our teens, she taught me how to stand up for myself in a fight. She taught me how to hold my liquor, and what to do when I got my period.
In our early twenties, Tammey and I both had daughters. Just like us, our girls were nine months apart. Tammey’s daughter, of course, was older. Tammey was sweet-natured and generous, but being the tender heart that she was, she wasn’t able to heal those wounds from our childhoods. Not that she didn’t try. She really, really tried.
Our sweet Tammey was found dead in a hotel room on Saturday night. We don’t have the autopsy results back yet.
I honestly don’t know how life goes on without her. She was such a huge part of my growing up, and is such a huge part of who I am. I told Troy I feel like I’ve lost a limb. I can hardly put one foot in front of the other.
My first memoir is filled with stories about her. They are all I have left.
When my friend Phyllis was dying, I asked if she believed in an afterlife. She said she believed people lived on after death in the stories you told about them.
If that is true, I will tell my stories about Tammey.
This is one…
It’s a perfect summer day at Malibu beach with just enough breeze to keep you from sweating. Tammey, Tracey and I unpack the cooler and set out chips and sandwiches while mom puts a t-shirt on Christopher, who’s running around like the Tasmanian devil. We smooth out our towels and lay on our bellies to eat our sandwiches. Tracey has to make an indent in the sand with her elbows because she’s getting boobs now. Me and Tammey don’t have those yet so we can lay flat and comfortable. I’m so glad to be back with my cousins again.
Mom finally brought me home from Aunt Laura’s. I lived there for the whole fifth grade. We got our house back from those renters, but they trashed it. The carpet is all ripped up, the pool is a green swampy mess again.
Mom lays in a beach chair reading a magazine. Tracey sets up her portable AM radio and spins the dial until she finds a song we all like. Band on the run blasts from the little speaker. Tracey sings along, and I do the harmony part.
Christopher runs around kicking sand in everyone’s faces.
“Stop it, hyper!” I yell at him.
“Oh, he’s just having fun. Leave him alone,” Mom says.
“But he’s getting sand in my sandwich!” I protest.
“Why do you think they call it a SAND- wich…ha ha ha,” Mom says.
I roll my eyes, “Oh brother. Don’t be such a dildo, Mom.”
Tracey’s eyes go wide, she spits out her soda and starts cracking up. Tammey is laughing too.
“What did you say?” Mom hisses, squinting her eyes at me.
I look at her, then at Tracey and Tammey who are hysterical.
“What? What did I say?”
Her look softens a little. She leans in closer to me.
“Do you know what that word means?”
“What word…. dildo?” and there go my cousins, cracking up again, even harder this time.
“Stop saying that!” she says in a hushed whisper, and looks around at the people next to us to see if they heard. “What do you think that word means?” she asks.
“I don’t know….. does it mean…silly?” I say, starting to feel kind of stupid as my cousins howl and roll back and forth on their beach towels.
Mom puts her hand over her eyes, then looks up at me.
“C’mere” she wiggles her finger toward her. I crawl over. She leans toward me and cups her hand against my ear. “It means….. It means….. artificial penis.” she whispers.
I back away from her. “Ewwww! Gross!”
My cousins are laughing so hard they have tears running down their cheeks. Even though I feel completely stupid, I have to admit it is pretty funny, and we all have a good laugh except for Christopher who keeps asking, over and over, “What tho funny, what tho funny?”
We finish our sandwiches and get up to throw our trash away. The sand is hot under our feet and the breeze has died down.
“Did your mom tell you what dildo means?” Tracey asks me as we walk back from the trash cans.
“Yeah, it’s an artificial penis, whatever that is.”
“No, it’s not.” Tracey says, “It’s a fake dick.”
Tammey cracks up, “You said dick!”
She grabs my hand, “I’m hot. Let’s go in the water!”
Tracey, Tammey and I race toward the water and dive straight in so you don’t feel that first shock of the cold. This is a perfect day. Me and my cousins, body surfing in the ocean. We ride in wave after wave to the shore, then turn around and jump right back in. Tracey gets out after about twenty minutes to work on her tan, but Tammey and I stay in until our hands are pruny and our faces are beet-red sunburned.
“Let’s swim out past the waves so we can rest for a minute,” Tammey says.
We swim out further where we can tread water, up and down over the swells, the sun glinting off our faces. We’ve been in the water so long our teeth are starting to chatter, and we’re getting all giggly.
“I can’t believe you called your mom a dildo!” Tammey laughs.
“I know!” I start to laugh too. The more I think about it, the funnier it gets. Even though I didn’t know what it meant, I’m kinda glad I called her that. She didn’t care when I wanted to kill myself, she sent me away and kept Christopher, she ruined everything with Dad. I laugh harder.
“And I got away with it!” I can’t stop laughing. And it’s just me and Tammey, laughing and floating out in the middle of the ocean, like two little corks bobbing on the water. The sun on our faces, laughing together. It feels perfect and happy and safe.
Tammey imitates me in a dumb voice, “Mom don’t be such a dildo”, and the waves of laughter start up again.
I’m laughing so hard now I can hardly breathe, but I can’t stop. The laugh is coming from somewhere deep inside me like it has power of its own. I start to feel weak. That giggly, dizzy carnival ride feeling…the buzzing in my head. I try to tread water, but my head goes under. A huge gulp of salt water floods my mouth and goes up my nose. It burns. I sputter and laugh and choke all at once.
Tammey sees me go under and stops laughing. But I can’t.
“Are you okay?” she shouts with a worried frown.
I keep laughing and choking. Another swell pulls me under, and then another. I hardly have the strength to pull my head above water now. Salt water burns my nose, throat and eyes. Tammey screams my name as I go under again. I can hear her through the water, all swimmy and gurgly. My arms and legs feel like they’re made of rubber. Tammey grabs my arm and pulls me up.
“Hold on to me!” she shouts, and puts my arm around her shoulder. I lean against her back, choking and coughing. I look toward the lifeguard tower but they’re talking to some girls and not looking our way.
Tammey swims strong over the waves, pulling me with her. I’m not laughing anymore. My head goes under but she yanks me up.
She swims to where the waves break, and shouts, “DIVE!” I see a huge ten-foot wave towering over us. Oh god, Oh god.
“Hold your breath!” She grips my hand tight. The last thing I see is a huge wall of water, then Tammey is gone.
I’m tossed around like a rag doll in a blender, sand in my ears and eyes, rocks and shells hitting my skin. The rip tide is a magnet pulling my body out to sea. Another wave sucks me up and spits me out. The current pushes me, my belly scraping along the rocky shore until I don’t know where I am. When I open my eyes I’m laying face down in the wet sand. Tammey lands about twenty feet away from me. She jumps up and runs toward me. I hear her shouting my name but I can’t answer. She kneels beside me. I’m breathing so hard the air burns my lungs like a fire. I look up at her, too weak too move. She is all sparkly-wet, sun-bleached white hair, tan lean arms and sunburned face. Everyone always said how fragile Tammey was because she was only two pounds when she was born. She was so little and skinny, and the grown-ups said we had to be careful with her, but the truth is she’s always been stronger than me.
“Take my hand” she says.
Two lifeguards run toward us with their orange float things.
“Hold on! We’re coming!” they shout.
Tammey looks their way and puts her hand up as if to let them know she’s got it all under control. They slow down their pace as they see Tammey pull me to my feet.
“Hey, is she okay? Do you guys need help?” One of them shouts as he gets closer.
Tammey wraps my arm around her shoulder.
“Not anymore” she says, “I’ve got her.” She holds me tighter.
“You sure you’re okay, little girl?” one of them asks me. I bend over with my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. I nod my head, huffing and puffing.
“Good job, kid,” The lifeguard says to Tammey. The lifeguards wave to us as they turn and head back to their girl-watching at the tower.
Tammey rolls her eyes at him. “What a dork.”
She walks me back to our towels, where Mom and Tracey are sleeping and Christopher’s making a sandcastle. I feel a lump in my throat but I won’t cry. Not in front of Tammey.
Tammey looks back over her shoulder at the waves that are coming in huge and really crazy this late in the day. She squeezes me tighter with her lean strong arms.
“We made it”, she says.