McKenna remembered the day well, although she hadn’t thought of it in many years. The way the wet sand held together beneath her feet, seawater seeping up from the edges of each step as she sloppily pirouetted to the melody of her freedom; it still resonated within her. Sometimes she’d lie still at night and listen to what she swore was a thrumming in her bones, like that time she’d stuck a butterknife in her mother’s toaster to fetch a jammed English muffin. This electrocution was independence, the shock of wind and surf on her as she twirled away from a past of hurt, neglect and then, most painfully, demands that she get better, shake free of the cobweb depression that gripped her since she was a child. They’d tried drugs first. She’d barely talked to the sharp-faced woman with the short-length blonde and gray hair before a prescription had been written. But the pills seemed like little white lies to be ingested, believed. All was allegedly better if she couldn’t feel as much, so McKenna went numbly through years while her mother ranted at her about how McKenna’s presence in her life held her back from so many goals. Mom never finished her associates degree, couldn’t find a good man to date, could only afford the one-bedroom basement apartment they shared, all because of McKenna. And on the other side, Dad was rarely seen but too often felt, hands too greedy, mouth too curious. She knew their relationship was wrong, but there was nothing she felt she could do because at that point she felt very little except the dark, a void slowly spilling into her detachment the way high tide took the beach on stormy days.
She blended more gray onto the canvas, appropriate for these recollections and in stark contrast to the auburn hair of her dancing figure on the shore. It was overcast that first day out of the home, roiling clouds threatening to spit but holding back their say. She stepped into day, expecting rain to purge the place and the two years of brainwashing perpetrated on her under the guise of faith-based healing, but that would have been too easy, too predictable. Instead McKenna was left with the months of their intrusion into her memories, those early weeks when she was stripped of her meds and all connection to the outside world while left to pray to a faceless power that held sway over all. It had been her idea. She’d started planning for the home when she was sixteen because it wouldn’t cost her anything and she’d already turned to God when she was very young to stop her father’s visits. That was the one time He’d ever answered her as Dad died when she was fourteen, only the memory of his Old Spice and the hair of his body haunting her after his upended ’89 Cutless Supreme was found in a ditch. She thanked God then, felt indebted and she wanted to open up more to Him. But home proved to be little more than an absuive Bible camp masquerading as a safe place for damaged women. McKenna was starved off her meds as soon as she walked in, and the shift in her life away from the haze of her mother’s house felt like hammers beating at her limbs and chest. It seemed young women were wallpaper there, many of them crying more than breathing, and the place smelled of lemon bleach, the glare off the floors from the overhead lights like ghosts chasing her through hallways. She started to believe her father had guided her there when the room councilors started staring at her too long, chubby hands shifting in their pockets. She tried to do as her doctors said, focus on faith, allow God’s guidance and love to heal her woe. But everything was too intense, the sorrow echoing off white walls too loud to imagine God, her God anyway, having anything to do with the place.
McKenna battled for that day on the beach, the first year like a feral cat caught in a cage, the next as a docile drone. Her bared claws and teeth were sheathed by lose fists and a feigned, close-lipped smile and she nodded in acceptance of their narrative spun for her which grew her father’s role from sick, broken alcoholic to malicious child sex trafficker. Her mother too was made complicit in his lecherous dealings, an accomplice to farming her out to neighborhood men for money and only God, their God, could reveal all McKenna had repressed, pulling her away from torment with His boundless love and forgiveness and placing her there, between the safe walls of home with its kind grins, bland food, daily prayer circles and unlicensed white coats. Deliverance was compliance, acceptance, and so McKenna flew the path of the righteous like a bumblebee in Spring, zigzagging from one fictional trauma to the next and pollenating each with sterile intentions. Then at night in her room, she would take out the paints and pastels she stole during their rancid art therapy hours spent making crude renderings of flowers in vases, fruit baskets and Christ and she would pour her rage onto blank sheets, clearing her memory of forced wrongs and rights and treating her exit from the home as a epiphanous light at the end of one of their shimmery hallways where a figure, her, was always standing silhouetted.
That gray morning arrived and she went through the motions as always, smiling bigger though, her teeth shining. She collected her things, including her stash of hidden art, and was picked up by her mother who too was smiling but from a face that seemed dried equally by cigarettes and life. She asked McKenna where she wanted to go and without thinking the young, free woman said “the beach.” They drove in silence and when McKenna reached the tide line she kicked off her shoes and hollared into the wind, twirling her skirt and impulsively tearing her blouse off. Mom admonished, but McKenna grinned and told her that it was no different than a bathing suit and she continued along the surf, feet stinging in the cold water.
It was all here now, on the canvas, a mix of gray tones and wonder from a day twenty years ago that she’d suddenly felt compelled to revisit while holding her brush. She thought about the home, her mother, Dad, and God and saw it all playing out before her in oily reverie, good and bad, truth and lies, captivity and freedom: a lone figure dancing in an ocean breeze, hair wild and arms open. The painting was the first time McKenna understood fully what the home had really done to her. By taking away her God, she found reason in His absence. To let go. To forgive. To live. She wouldn’t sell this one, she knew, but would give it to her daughter Maisie who was twelve now and showing signs of the darkness that inked her mother’s adolescent years. They would talk about it, and McKenna would tell her the story of the girl on the beach that learned freedom was the ultimate blessing, the truest grace they had being alive.