Books are a uniquely portable magic. ~ Stephen King

Friday, March 26, 2010

Back to the Beach

Matt and I were so happy with our last collaboration, that we decided to try it again. We're taking it from wintry snow to summers at the shore. Without further ado, I take you back to the beach.

Back to the Beach

It’s amazing how easy it was to return to beach living.

Just a month ago my wife had had to convince me to come back. I’d grown up at the beach, but we’d moved away when the girls were young. Every year she’d talk about wanting to go back for a visit, and every year I managed to talk her out of it. I just never really got the attraction. She said living there had jaded me and I suppose that was true. She also said that just because I’d had my fill didn’t mean I should deprive her and the kids of the pleasure. She probably had a point there, but I just didn’t see the charm. I always managed to redirect her with other vacations – different vacations – vacations that didn’t involve sand in places it was never intended to be.

A few months ago, though, an invitation had arrived in the mail for my twenty-fifth high school reunion. I had intended to throw it out, but my wife saw it on the counter before I got around to it. She’s always bitching at me to not leave my stuff lying around. I guess my noncompliance bit me on the ass this time. We went back and forth about it, but eventually she convinced me. We’d go down a week early and turn it into a family vacation.

The girls were excited. My wife was excited. Me? Not so much. I just wanted to get through it. Maybe when my family got a taste of it they’d see that I was right – that the beach didn’t live up to the hype - and we could ditch this yearly argument for good. Plus, I was curious - if not exactly excited – to see some of my old friends from school. I’d lost touch with most of them years ago. We grow up, our priorities change; our paths lead us in different directions. That’s as it should be. Still, though, it would be fun to catch up.

As we crossed the bay, my wife insisted that we turn off the air conditioner and open the windows and the skylight. “Smell that, kids? That’s the beach!” She breathed in deeply and dramatically. I rolled my eyes. It smelled like dead fish to me. The girls followed her lead and stuck their heads out the windows.

“Whoa! Dad! Did you see that? Was that a seagull?”

“Yep.” I answered, resisting the urge to call it a flying rat.

“Ohmigosh! It’s so beautiful!” My youngest aimed her new camera – bought just for the trip – out the window, attempting to capture the vermin of the sea, perched on a sign post, for posterity.

All three of them were pointing and exclaiming and their excitement was infectious. By the time we pulled in to our hotel I had softened up a little. This could be fun, I admitted to myself reluctantly.

As we checked into our room, the girls couldn’t be bothered with anything as mundane as unpacking. They were ready to get to the “beach, beach, beach, come on Daddy let’s GO!!!” My wife smiled at me imploringly with widened eyes and raised eyebrows, clearly in agreement with the girls on this one.

My wife grabbed the beach bag that she’d packed before we left home and the girls stripped away the clothes they had been wearing over their bathing suits for the trip. “It’s a little late…” I attempted, but they were half way to the elevator. “The hotel has an indoor pool…” I attempted again, but I don’t think anyone heard me. I was seriously outnumbered.

We got to the beach as most folks were packing up to leave. My wife spread a large blanket on the sand and sat down, facing the ocean. She wrapped her arms around her knees and fixed her gaze somewhere off in the distance. She suddenly seemed simultaneously so close and so far away; looking for something hopeful on the horizon. I lay on my side beside her, my head propped in my hand, watching her watch. The girls danced in and out of the little waves just at the shoreline. They kicked water at each other and squealed. My oldest dropped her cool fa├žade and looked like a happy kid for the first time in months. I had to grudgingly admit it: this was nice.

When hunger took over, and the sunlight was diminishing – giving way to soft evening breezes - we packed up the bag and headed back to our room. My daughters giggled as they tried to fold the blanket, sand and wind thwarting their attempts. My wife smiled at me – a simple, uncomplicated smile – and took my hand as we walked back to the hotel. It had been a while since we’d walked hand in hand. Too long. I gently squeezed her fingers three times – code back when we were dating for “I love you.” She squeezed back four times without missing a beat. “I love you, too.”

Sleep came easy that night. It was hard to say if that was because I was so exhausted or so content.

In the days that followed, we fell into an easy daily routine. My wife and I would watch the sun rise over the ocean from our balcony while we drank our coffee with a sense of leisure we never experienced at home. When the girls woke up we’d have a quick breakfast, then head to the beach early. My wife and I would spend the late morning and early afternoon lounging in the sun, while the girls played in the sand and the waves. We took turns reading and napping and watching the girls. We’d head back to the room when we got tired and take an afternoon nap, or just lounge around playing cards and board games – things we never did at home, where the real world put too much pressure on all of us to allow the simple enjoyment of such endeavors. Dinner was a casual affair – we alternated between seafood, pizza and subs – usually within walking distance on the boardwalk. After dinner we’d walk the boards or the beach – slowly, without real purpose, just for the joy of it. Sleep continued to come easy.

My wife, who generally wears full make-up to go to the grocery store, has pared down to a moisturizer with SPF and lip balm on her lightly bronzed skin. The blow dryers and flat irons and hair products that absolutely needed to be packed have been virtually abandoned, as all three of my girls have taken to pulling their hair back into high casual ponytails when they’re not wearing hats. Me? I shave when I feel like it – which is every second or third day. I’d let it go completely, but there is nothing appealing about a tan line where facial hair used to be.

The week passes quickly in slow motion. It feels like we’re just getting started – it feels like we’ve been living this way all our lives. As the weekend rolls around, we are reminded of the reason for this trip: my reunion.

The night before, I’d noticed my older daughter walking on the boardwalk with a casual sway to her gait that I hadn’t noticed before. It was a mating call of sorts and I’d noticed a couple boys slow down to appreciate it. I didn’t care for the fact that they were looking at her that way and I didn’t like the way she pretended not to notice while she amped up the arc of her sway. I was a boy once. I was THAT boy once – hanging out on the boardwalk, carrying my skateboard, chatting up the vacationing honeys. They were always impressed when I told them I was local. I shrugged it off. It was amazing what girls would let you get away with when they were on vacation. It horrified me that MY girls were beginning to show interest in the ritual. I thought I had more time. More than that, though, I was overcome with a maudlin sense of nostalgia. I would never be a young boy trolling the boardwalk for girls again. I loved my wife and my girls – I had no regrets – but it was hard to accept that my youth was really over. Gone. I was no longer that boy, I would never again be that boy, now I was the man who intended to cockblock that boy. I silently mourned the boy that I was and feared for the women my girls were becoming.

The next night I’d be in the company of people I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years. People I had last seen when I WAS that boy. I was so different now. Would they all be different too? I wanted them to be different. I wanted them to be the same. I wanted for us all to still be young. I wanted for us all to have grown up. I wanted them to be fat and bald. I wanted them to have not changed a bit. I wanted.

Sleep was less easy that night.

“Wanna see my old stomping grounds, girls?” I asked on the morning of my reunion. They didn’t. They’d rather hit the beach. Their mother reminded them that if it weren’t for my reunion we wouldn’t be at the beach at all. They grumbled and fell into the back seat as I prepared for a melancholy cruise down memory lane. My wife has taken this guided tour before. When we met we hadn’t lived far from here. She could’ve probably provided the commentary. “Coming up on your left is the street Dad lived on. His best friend lived in that house right – there. Once, at this friends house, they set his moms curtains on fire when they were practicing smoking cigarettes…” stories on every street, around every corner. I became more depressed as the cruise continued. This was where I’d spent my youth, and now it was just – gone. Some of the stories now started with, “There used to be a little store on that corner where the Home Depot is now…” My youth, literally as well as symbolically swept away, replaced by work and family and obligations and home improvement warehouses. For a brief fleeting moment I resented my companions in the car. It was their fault. They had taken all of this away from me. If it weren’t for them, I’d still be that boy.

“Oh look, girls! That’s the apartment building Daddy lived in when I met him!”

“Yeah – I used to ride my bicycle to work – this is the path I’d take.” As I traced the path between my old apartment and my old office, the girls periodically made comments on the length of the commute. It was an awfully long bike ride.

“Why did you ride this far every day, Daddy? Didn’t you have a car?”

And I remembered why. My youth was gone long before my wife or my girls or even the Home Depot made their marks. My youth was gone and I still lived here – alone. I remembered why I rode my bike instead of driving – it was because it filled more of my lonely hours. It left me with less time to spend alone in my apartment. I reached across the center console and squeezed my wife’s fingers slowly, three times. Her response was immediate.

1 comment:

  1. What a great story. Where to begin?

    With the surface of the story...

    I LOVE the beach, I love the feeling I get there. And, yes, I love the smell. I love family vacations that are relaxing and serene where everyone just IS together- playing games, being together, simple pleasures.

    Now the deeper part...

    There is so much truth in what you've written about missing our youth. Wanting it back, but not. Wanting things to have stayed the same, but not. So conflicting. I love how the narrator goes through all these emotions and finally figures it all out at the end. That he is exactly where he wants to be. Awesome story.

    I can already hear the song that Matt is going to write. I hope you will share it here.