After the single went silver, Dad bought us a house on the Jersey Shore, but he wasn’t there with us much because he had to go on tour. And every night, after I was supposed to be in bed, Mom walked to the beach in her nightgown and cried into the sea. My bedroom’s on the second floor, so I could see her from my window, and she didn’t see me because the light was off.
I wasn’t spying on her really. I mean, I didn’t expect anything to happen, I just didn’t know anybody in town, and I was worried about her because she’s my mom. I totally wasn’t expecting it when a guy crawled out of the water and shucked off a wetsuit, and it was dark, but I think he was naked underneath. She ran to him as he stood up, and they kissed — not how grownups normally kiss; more like in the movies — well, except she was half a foot taller than him.
Of course I called Dad.
“Dad, I need you to come home.”
“We talked about this.”
“No, really. You need to come home.”
“Mom kissed another guy.”
“Ah, crap. Is it a local? Someone she met there?”
“No. Um… I don’t know. He came out of the ocean and he kissed her.”
“Out of the ocean?”
“He slithered on his belly and took off some sort of wet suit, and he was naked under it.”
Dad said a word I’m not supposed to hear.
“Listen, Ocean, um… give them their privacy, OK? I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“I love you, kid.”
“Love you too,” I answered as if in a daze, and the phone fell silent on the other end.
I hung up, went out the back door, and walked two blocks south before heading down to the beach. The sea was calm, but I wasn’t. I mean, give them their privacy? I could’ve imagined a lot of responses from Dad, but that was nowhere on the list. The only thing that made sense that night was the moonlight on the water, and I took off my PJs and swam until I felt right.
Giving Mom and that stranger their privacy wasn’t as hard to do as it was to imagine. They were on the beach or in the bedroom all day, so I just had to go to a different part of the beach and stay out of the kitchen when they came down to eat.
I was swimming when Dad got home, and when I got to shore he was next to my towel, sitting on a small yellow suitcase with a grease stain on the outside. “Dad!” I shouted and ran to him, and he hugged me like he didn’t care that I was wet. “So did you punch that guy out yet?” I asked.
He laughed and shook his head.
“But you’re gonna, right?”
He squeezed my shoulder. “Let’s go for a walk.”
I picked up my towel and hung it around my neck. He picked up that small suitcase, and we went walking. “So you are gonna punch that guy out,” I said. “Right?”
“Nah,” he answered. “I’d like to. But there are some things in your life you just can’t fight.”
“Can’t fight? He’s tiny! You’d land three punches before he could even reach you!”
Dad laughed. “I probably would. But the stuff between him and your mother won’t change.”
“Why? Who is he?”
Dad looked at me, then away, then at me again. He seemed ashamed of something, but I had no idea what. He didn’t whisper, but his voice was so soft it was scary. “He’s your father.”
“But you’re my dad! You’ve always been my dad!”
“I wish I was.”
“I’ll always be there for you, Ocean, but your biological father is in the house with your mother now.”
The sun was way too bright. My hands balled into fists. I wanted to pound on his chest like a little kid throwing a tantrum. “You’re lying!” I shouted.
He shook his head.
“But that’s not possible!”
My head hadn’t quite wrapped around it yet, and my body was still getting used to the idea that my dad was not my father. “Are you sure?”
He nodded. “I should have told you sooner.”
“Did you do, like, a blood test or something?”
He sat down in the sand and opened the suitcase. Inside was something that kind of looked like leather, kind of like rubber. My heart beat faster when I saw it, though I couldn’t tell you why.
“What is that?”
He held it up to show me. It was shaped like a seal but it draped like a coat, and from nose to tail it was exactly as tall as me. “It’s your skin,” he said.
I looked down at my arms. My skin was still there, and the hair on the backs of them was standing up. Still, that thing in the suitcase, in Dad’s hands, was unmistakably mine, in a way I did not understand. “No!” I shouted, and I dropped my towel and ran into the sea.
“Ocean, wait!” he called and ran after me, but he stopped about ankle deep, because he knew better than to try and catch me once I was swimming.
When I came back it was nighttime, and the moon was on the water, just past full. Dad was still there, but he must’ve left and come back, because the suitcase was gone and he was wearing black shorts and very quietly playing the acoustic guitar named Ophelia that he leaves here when he’s on the road.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“You’re famous,” I said. “How can you play guitar on the beach and not have a million people watching?”
I tried to figure out if he really meant it. I had no idea.
“I’m not that famous,” he said. “And I’m not famous at all in shorts.”
He was right about that. I love my dad, but his pale, scrawny legs are not something you want to look at unless you have to.
“So I just play softly,” he went on, “and I don’t play the songs people know. And if somebody stops to listen, I flub a note and they go away.” He plucked a note so wrong it made me want to leave.
“So it’s OK with me,” he said, “if you decide you don’t want to believe it.”
“That stuff about who you are and where you come from. If you don’t want to believe it, that’s OK, because it means you’re sticking around, at least for now, and I’m cool with that.”
“Then how come you’re never here?”
He was silent then for a while before he said, “Because music is my other love.” He played a sweet slow chord that was rich and sad. “It’s you and your mom, and music, and that’s all I have room for in my heart. But when I get to share a song with all those people, it’s like nothing else in the world. Sometimes I want to stay home with you and work in an office somewhere. But what kind of dad would I be if I taught you to give up on your dreams?”
“You’d be one who was here.”
That was when I heard Mom’s voice. I looked that way and saw the stranger that Dad said was my father walking toward us, with his sealskin wetsuit draped over his arm and the small yellow suitcase in his other hand. Mom was following him and crying, “Please don’t go!” He walked right up to us and held the yellow suitcase out to me.
I backed away and held onto Dad’s arm. Dad looked him over. He was shirtless, wearing a pair of Mom’s pants with white flowers on blue, with ties at the waist and ankles. They were kind of long on him. “What do you want?” Dad asked.
“I have come for my son,” he said. “To return to the sea.”
“Well that’s not your choice now, is it?” said my dad.
Mom was still clinging to the stranger’s arm, saying, “Please don’t leave again!”
He held the suitcase out to me. “Take up your birthright, son, and come home.”
I clung to Dad’s hand.
“You’ve picked up some confidence,” Dad told the stranger. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“You have taken good care of him — I can bring you gold. I can bring you lobster and caviar, if you want.”
And my dad punched my father so hard it turned his face sideways and knocked him back. Mom gasped in astonishment as she let go of his hand. My birth father stood up and started to walk toward my dad.
“You want to take him?” Dad shouted. “Go ahead and try it. I’ve been wanting to beat the crap out of you since I met you, and right now I’d love you to give me a reason.”
The stranger — my “real” father — stood his ground and started to sing. And just when I thought it couldn’t get weirder, voices answered from the sea, though I looked out across the horizon and saw no one there. Some clouds in the distance seemed to gather into a storm.
“Are you sure you want this?” Dad asked him. “I’ve got a pocketful of iron nails, and I’ll fight every seal in the ocean if I have to.”
The song rose to a crescendo, and the storm cloud seethed on the horizon. I let go of Dad’s hand and made a fist, ready to fight my father at his side.
“Is this what you want?” Dad shouted against the wind. “You want to take your son by force away from the only home he knows?”
And he still sung, but the voices from the sea fell away, one by one, until it was his voice alone, and the winds died down. My “father” stopped and looked around, and, with a look of defeat on his face, he untied his pants and dropped them on the ground. Then he pulled that sealskin on and was a seal, and he went out to sea, with my mother on her knees weeping “No! Please stay!”
And when my dad helped her to her feet she gave him a look like I’ve never seen, and I hope I never see again. But me, I admired him for it—I really did. On that day I was really glad to call him my dad.
But after my other father was gone, I remembered those voices from the sea. They were frightening at the time, but now they’re gone, I long for them. They were strange and mysterious, and, in a way I can’t explain, they felt like home.
That was a couple years ago, and since then I’ve stared at the sea and felt like a homesick exchange student. And what Dad told me then, about who I am—about what I am—I know it makes no sense, but I also know it’s true. When I look at the water, it beckons me home, and one of these days I am going to answer that call.
I know the hearts I will break on the shore. And my baby sister’s adorable, and I’d love to watch her grow. And I’d love to help Mom out, because that child’s a handful already, and Dad still has to tour. He’s talked about letting us come with him, but Mom doesn’t want to go, and I don’t want to stick her alone taking care of Wave.
But this is bigger than that. And bigger than love. And I try to put off that day for as long as I can. So far I’m still here.
BIO: David Sklar lives in Northern New Jersey with his wife, two kids, and a geriatric cat. His publications include work in Wormwood Review, Paterson Literary Review, and Space & Time, as well as the novella Shadow of the Antlered Bird. He is currently coediting the conjoined anthology Trafficking in Magic/Magicking in Traffic for Drollerie Press. “Tears in the Sea” is part of the novel-in-stories The Skin We Wear. For more about David and his work, please visit davidwriting.com.
IMAGE: Herbert James Draper, Flying Fish, 1910