Pushcart 2012: Lydia Conklin, “Rockaway” from New Letters Fall 2010

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

"Human Balance" Sand Sculpture by Helena Banger and Jooheng Tan

Dani and Laurel hold hands. Laurel leans on Dani’s shoulder, even though Laurel’s taller. She likes Dani’s shoulder blade bumping her temple at each stride. Dani is tough but junior-sized, with long, gelled curls that stand between her and real-boyhood. Laurel is mixed race – Puerto Rican and black and a little Chinese – with an ironed spray of ponytail. There’s a scar on her jaw from opening a bottle with her teeth. Sometimes tears and sweat or milky drips of moisturizer form tiny ponds in the scar. Dani monitors the ponds as they change with the light of day. She kisses them out of their beds. They’re salty.

Part of the appeal of this story, for me, was the placement. It followed an essay by B. H. Fairchild on the love of language, and a poem about the seductive nature of language (I’ll be dealing with the poetry and essays in this volume in separate posts later on). Then comes “Rockaway,” which uses language perfectly.

That isn’t to say it’s elegant or poetic. It’s just evocative as hell.

Dani and Laurel are a couple of fifteen-year-old lovers from the projects who visit Rockaway Beach to search for whale barf. They’ve heard a rumor someone just found a small piece that netted him eight thousand dollars, so off they go. They don’t know what whale barf is, what it looks like, or why it’s so valuable. They just go.

It’s sort of how they fell in love. Their moms got pregnant together as teens, and they grew up across the hall from each other, though they ran in different crowds until one day, Laurel noticed Dani “was more boy than girl.” They’ve been keeping it quiet, with Laurel sneaking into Dani’s bed late at night and leaving before her mom wakes up. Now Laurel wants to tell their moms about their love. Dani’s more cautious:

Dani wonders what would happen if she ever wanted to dump Laurel. They’re in love, really, and she can’t imagine it ending. But there’s the option. If they tell the moms, and then Dani wanted out, she’d be stuck. The moms would give her shit for the rest of her life for hurting Laurel. Before Laurel, anytime Dani got sick of a girl clinging on her she blocked her number and IM, looked away on the street. Some of the girls got mad, hit her in public. The boys on the block gave her high-fives and winks, had her back if things got dangerous. It was only time they respected her. Now that they sense she’s settled down, they’re dicks again.

Dani keeps putting off the issue; they’re at the beach looking for whale barf, after all.

A few things happen at the beach, including a party in a hole in the sand, that clarify the relationship, and it’s all very beautifully handled. The kids are in that adolescent state of zigzagging from hypermature ‘hood toughness to needy infancy to motherly tenderness at a moment’s notice, and the language lets them do that. Little touches – like “clinging on her” instead of “clinging to her” – matter.

The story works on face value, and it works in symbolics as well – the elusive ambergris, the hole in the sand at the beach, the adolescent view of committment. Very nice, but not intrusive. It’s just there if you want it.

Conklin, a Harvard grad, was an MFA student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison when the story was originally published. She’s an artist, cartoonist, and now writer. Given her ability to use language, that seems right.

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