The Beach, July 29, 2014
“I’m going to dunk you!” Philippa shouted to me. I was standing at the water’s edge, inching slowly into the Atlantic. I’ve learned many lessons about summer water – it never gets warm. So, as I did as a child and even now, I was going to take my time getting in. I was going to shiver a bit, and then go deeper, then deeper. Philippa did not have patience for this. She jokingly splashed me and I gave in when I saw she and L. do it so effortlessly: ankles, to knees, to sandbar, to waists. Then me: ankles, to knees, then a protest – “It’s so cold!”—then waist in.
Philippa and L. taught me to jump in the waves with my back to the ocean. It’s a strange thing, trying to submit to it. We had a good laugh, trying to fight the waves, then letting it carry us. We sat on the sandbar with our legs before us.
“We look like mermaids,” I said.
I love swimming. I’m my second-most happiest in a heated pool drinking a cold beer, and as a child, I would spend hours and hours at hotel pools. My parents could only get me out for meals, and even at dinner time I’d have to be dragged out, my hands looking like wrinkled prunes.
There aren’t so many pools in my adult life, and even the beach is so rare that I can’t help but think back to my favorite beach memories, and they come easily because they are few, and of those few, they are all strangely profound or comical.
In 2009 I stepped off a plane in Palm Beach, Florida and got into a chauffeured town car. I’d been scoffing to myself the entire day. I was living out my dream, traveling for business, and ironically to a town just an hour away from where I spent the first six years of my life. So it wasn’t exotic, but at least it was something, somewhere.
I was in charge of a company retreat, everything from location to what we were eating, to where people were sleeping and how they were getting from point A to point B. On my ride to my hotel I was furiously texting and making calls and signing off on the final dinner menu. At the hotel, a very demure man (who always stood at ease, hands folded over his waist) led me to my room. A woman came in directly after him for the turn down service.
“Someone left a cake on my table,” I said.
“It is for you!” the woman exclaimed, and pulled out a card underneath the plate. “Compliments of the hotel!” Never in my life had a person so un-special (read: me) been made to feel so special.
I expected the following three days to be strictly business, but on the last day of the trip, after the guests were gone, the invoices signed and my bags packed, I raced down to the water just one last time. Two things became clear: that I was an adult on a business trip and it felt like yesterday that I had been in Florida at 7-years-old. I cried. Time was passing faster than I could reach out and examine it.
“So what is one to do?” I asked myself and the waves.
“Enjoy who you are right now,” the waves said. “You will never be this person again.”
In July of 1990, on Perdido Beach, another almost-in-Florida beach, the little five-year-old version of myself set her tanned, sunsick head down on the arm of the car seat and sang, “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love”. I was filled with remorse, and sadness. In short, I was in as much love as someone can be at that age.
It all started with my father’s annual company picnic, a weekend-long event at a resort near the water. My father’s co-workers and their kids descended upon the place for everything but picnicking. We had buffet dinners, karaoke, guest comedians, raffles, swimming, sailing, jet skis, and bicycles all complimentary, all on the house. The kids, including my sibling and I, were given gift bags on arrival. It was always the same thing: a stuffed animal of the company mascot, company stickers, a yo-yo, a t-shirt, and a set of tennis kid-size rackets and balls (poor parents were hit accidentally by stray tennis balls for an entire day). Each year’s picnic was marked by a specific memory: there was the year my sister won the hula-hoop contest, the year I was rude to the puppeteer (which I regret), the year a toddler did number two in the pool, the year I took my sister to the beach at night and we screamed with delight, the year a comedian came, the year we took a steamboat tour. All delights.
As a kid, I lived for those “picnics” I lived for going to the beach, eating ice cream, swimming all day, and more importantly, being reunited with all the other kids that we only saw once a year. One year they hosted the picnic at Perdido Beach Resort, a place that we would return to on our own as a family forever after.
That year there was a boy with a boogie board and jet black hair that touched the back of his neck when it was wet. We swam next to each other for hours, and I tried unsuccessfully to gain his attention by doing advanced doggie paddles. He was really unconcerned with anything I said or did. He commented to someone only once, “I hope they play ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise,’” he said, referring to the company hired-musician on top of a tiki stand, dancing in a Hawaiian shirt and a keyboard.
Even then, I had a very sensitive ear to a badly-picked phrase. “’Cheeseburger in Paradise’?” I said to myself nearly furiously, “what a gross name for a song.” (Editor’s note: ironically, I ended up attending the same high school as Jimmy Buffet.)
By lunch I felt defeated and retreated to the indoor pool, and later, the hot tub. Back to the pool, my boy was still trying to surf with a boogie board and no waves. His snaggle-toothed grin growing more into a frown. In retrospect, I don’t know what it was about him that I liked so much. I drove back home with the family and I wanted to cry. Now the story makes me bowl-over laughing in my chair at both the situation (asinine) and at myself because I haven’t changed much. I still fall in love with strangers on the train and friendly baristas. The allure of the unknown.
Back on the shores of Sandy Hook, NJ, a few weekends ago, Philippa, L. and myself baked in the sun and I told them about the boogie board boy, “the beach reminds me of that story,” I told them. They laughed and told me their stories of childhood love, which I really liked to hear. The rest of the day I had a swig of rum, and ate a burger wearing a bathing suit. We took a ferry back to Manhattan, dined under the flags of Stone Street, and to my short list of important beach moments, I added that day, filed neither under “Beach Sadness”, nor “Beach Comedy” but just a “Darn Good Day.” We all need those.