The metal arm of my beach chair clunks against my back. It's one millimeter from painful. White sand sticks to the sweaty skin on the back of my calves. Only the breeze from the waves cuts through the 97% humid Long Island summer air. Behind the haze, the sun burns longing to reveal a clear periwinkle sky. It’s a perfect day. It's a day I've seen hundreds of times before, but it never ceases to save me.
I drop the chair and my enormous canvas bag filled with towels, books, sunscreen and the remnants of my daughter's late afternoon snack from yesterday. I remove my obscenely over-priced red coral beaded tunic to reveal an ultra-conservative black skirted swimsuit. My chair squeaks as it unfolds with a little extra push. I flop down onto the chair and open my father's mid-shipman's log. That's why I'm here - to discover someone I lost or never knew. Me.
Whenever I felt awful growing up, the beach was salvation. After anyone died, I found freedom here. My mother brought me here when I couldn't look at other children with their fathers at a camp barbecue. I sat on the roof of a surfboard shack in the 30 degree wind until I could feel nothing else when my high school boyfriend and I finally called it quits. It’s like leaving the planet for a little while. No one can touch you.
To find escape, you walk down a long white path of wooden boards through a field of beach grass. Behind you is a beach club with shouting children, a frigid swimming pool and the smell of fat burning on a grill. Ahead of you is white sand, grey-green-blue-ocean and a fuzzy horizon line - the edge of the world. Even though it’s only about 500 steps to the breaking waves, it feels like miles. Once you’re there, in your beach chair, under a blue and white umbrella, reading and re-reading sea-spray damp pages of your book through sunglasses dirtied by fingerprints absorbing fog, you are somewhere else. Alone and comfortably lonely. Here, for just a little while, you are free of everything behind you, free to inhale whatever emotion sits on your chest. There is no judgment, just being.
Daddy and I came to the beach even in the off-season. I remember a clear October day. Mommy was probably stuck packing up the summer house. We went out onto the sand, took off our Reebok sneakers and white tube socks, rolled up our jeans, pulled up our hoods to block the wind, and ran. We ran in endless lines of tire tracks left on the sand. He was ahead of me, running toward the jetties, which are now visible only out in the water. As he ran, his body shrunk and shrunk until, he dissolved into the mist. I panicked. As tears streamed from my eyes, I willed my legs, scratching against my rolled up Osh-Kosh jeans to push through the sand as my feet sank further with each step.
He was right there in front of me, but I couldn’t see him obscured by mist, sun and sand blowing in the wind. I reached into the mist, running faster with my arms open, until he ran back to scoop me up into his arms. Even then, I knew that loss was the inevitable outcome of life.
That’s why I’m here, back in this small town on the Atlantic Ocean. I've come and gone, moved from the green woods of the mid-Atlantic, to the jungle heat and bugs of the Deep South, to the face-splitting cold of the Midwest, to the twilight-at-noon-light of Northern California. But, it is only here, where the surf burns my ankles from the cold, that I am not running away. For as long as I can remember, I felt like a story lived inside me, hidden and unwritten. That story is who I am, who I am meant to be, and how I enter the world.
As I read through his Midshipman's log, five yards from the breaking surf, I know that this is finally real. As I see Ellie, learning to be of the beach and sea, I am finally sure I’ve saved a part of him and carried him into the world for as long as she and I live.