The final bell rings and the once empty hallway quickly fills with a crowd of murmuring teenagers. Two girls walk out of class, one of them throwing her head back in laughter. She yells out “Finally free!” and starts to sing “Cheers to the Weekend” by Rihanna. She’s wearing ripped jeans and a top that hangs slightly off her shoulders. The other girl joins in, just as loudly as they skip down the hallway toward the doors. She’s wearing jeans and a tank top, her box braids swinging back and forth as they make their way to freedom.
“What should we do? The world is our oyster!” Joyce-Anne says as she flashes another smile.
Joyce-Anne smiles a lot. People tell her it’s her best feature. Her top is hanging a little too far off her shoulder. The top of her cleavage starts to reveal itself, but she doesn’t reach to fix it. The two girls burst through the double doors and are met with the bright Sacramento sun.
Tia looks around. She’s watched this scene many times over the past four years. The patio is filled with students catching up with friends or rushing to catch the bus. When it gets really warm, kind of like today, people will hang out here for hours after school. As she looks around at this familiar scene she feels comfort, but the feeling vanishes just as quickly as it comes. She feels a heaviness creeping back into her.
“Let’s go to the beach,” she says suddenly.
“What beach?” Joyce-Anne asks with a surprised look on her face.
Tia turns and looks at Joyce-Anne. “You ever been to Santa Cruz?”
“My mom took me once when I was seven.”
“Same! Once every year she’d pick me up from school in the middle of the day to surprise me and we’d ride the ferris wheel on the boardwalk.”
“Oh, I love that ferris wheel. Do you guys still go?”
Tia’s expression darkens and she shrugs.
“It’s been a while.”
Joyce-Anne notices Tia’s mood shift and quickly changes the subject. She’s been having to do that a lot the past couple of months.
“Fuck it, let’s do it!” she says as she grabs Tia’s hand and leads her to the parking lot.
Joyce-Anne walks toward the driver’s seat and Tia watches her as she struggles to open the door. She’s watched this scene many times over the last two years, ever since Joyce-Anne first received the old car from her grandmother. When Joyce-Anne is finally able to open the door, she reaches over to unlock the passenger seat allowing Tia to climb in. She sinks down in the worn leather seat as if it had been perfectly molded for her, smelling the familiar musky scent which now had a hint of forest car freshener.
“Santa Cruz, here we come!” Joyce-Anne exclaims as she turns the radio to 102.1.
“Ah, two and a half hours of R & B’s finest throwbacks. You know me too well,” Tia says.
Joyce-Anne responds by turning the music up. She presses on the gas and speeds out of the parking lot. The girls head toward the freeway singing along to Usher as they make their way southbound toward the beach. The sun sits high in the sky, beaming down on their faces and the air from the window cools them off. It is a perfect day in Northern California. Tia is just about to doze off when the car slowly comes to a complete stop.
“I guess that’s one thing we blocked from our precious beach memories. Traffic.” Joyce-Anne says.
“That’s because you hardly notice traffic as a kid,” Tia says.
“I noticed. Now that I think of it, those two hours in traffic were the longest amount of time me and my mom have ever spent together, just the two of us. Two hours of complete silence, as if I wasn’t even there.”
Joyce-Anne has never hesitated to share her feelings of neglect from her mother with Tia. She knows Tia gives the best advice, even if she doesn’t share her own stories.
“I’m sorry, Joyce. Has your relationship gotten any better?”
“If anything it’s gotten worse. Well, maybe not worse. It just hasn’t changed, I guess.”
“So you guys don’t talk much?”
“It’s like this. You know how you go home and you feel warm and comfortable and just…safe? Not in my house. There’s no love in that house. There’s never been any love in that house.”
Joyce-Anne stiffens and looks straight forward. Tia turns and looks out the window. The sun is a little lower in the sky now, right above the yellow hills that seem light years away. The ground looks as though it goes on forever and everything suddenly seems empty. She squints her eyes and tries to find something in the distance, anything. They ride in silence for a while.
“She’s..sick,” Tia hesitates. She feels the urge to release everything she’s been holding onto. Once she starts, she can’t stop.
“Who’s sick?” Joyce-Anne responds. Tia turns toward Joyce-Anne with tears in her eyes.
“My mom is my best friend and she’s sick. She has cancer and there’s nothing I can do about it, Joyce.”
Tia looks back toward the window and breaks down into tears. She stares at the “Welcome to Santa Cruz” sign as Joyce-Anne reaches to grab her hand. They ride in silence.
They finally pull into the parking lot of the beach as the sun begins to set. Tia jumps out of the car and runs toward the boardwalk as Joyce-Anne trails slowly behind. A little boy and his mother climb into the ferris wheel carousel and she watches as a smile creeps across his face; it looks so familiar. She notices the sun sitting low in the sky as her eyes follow the mother and son as they slowly rise toward the clouds. The sky is turning purple and orange and red as they go higher and higher. Tia feels a hand on her shoulder and turns to see Joyce-Anne looking at her with sad eyes.
“Thank you, Tia,” she says.
Tia gives a weak smile and turns back toward the ferris wheel. She feels lighter. She’s watched this scene many times over the years.