Every year, my husband Will and one of his friends from high school go on a road trip or a mini-vacation. They are similar in their adventurousness, something I am not; they enjoy vigorous activities like whitewater rafting, zip-lining, driving fast in expensive rental muscle cars, and eating barbecque and raw fish. This year, they decide to return to one of their favorite vacation locales, and after hearing about it for years, I somehow, despite being unemployed (and therefore not deserving of going on vacation—more on this later), was coerced into agreed to accompany them.
I had a bit of a breakdown after I finished my Master’s in May. The stress of the past year caught up to me, and I crashed, overwhelmed with feelings of worthlessness and incompetence. This vacation would be an opportunity to put myself back together. Time to actually do things I want to do, like read and write and enjoy myself. Time to repave precarious neural pathways and imagine new ways of being. Going to the beach? WHY THE FUCK NOT.
You should know, I am bad at vacationing and decidedly NOT a beach girl. I have what I consider to be a healthy suspicion of beaches, owing, no doubt, to having nearly drowned twice in my early childhood—and once, almost being swept away by particularly aggressive gusts of wind at a beach. My badness at beaches is historic, chronicled in photographs. Perhaps the most iconic image of my childhood is a photo of me on a beach, with wild, curly hair and giant bifocals, wearing too many layers–one of which is a bright quilted windbreaker–and clutching a book about tropical fish.
Even my mother who “can’t swim,” the way I “can’t ride a bike,” enjoys beaches to a certain extent—she just doesn’t go in the water. My mom can swim and I can ride a bike, technically—we just aren’t confident in and don’t enjoy these respective activities. And we are utterly disinterested in changing these qualities of ourselves. Imagine us both as gawky birds, although catlike in behavior. We both wear glasses, have similar mannerisms, and will say some of the same bewilderingly frumpy expressions, like “Everything in moderation,” and “Hope springs eternal,” both of which I have been earnestly spouting since the tender age of eight or nine. My mom is better at vacationing than I am. When on vacation, she enjoys spas and tolerates her teas and coffees with full-fat milk. She occasionally treats herself to real bacon instead of extra crispy turkey bacon, which she normally allows herself on Sundays. She owns a lot of sandals, which she actually wears, both when on and not on vacation. I despise sandals and people I don’t know who wear them.
I haven’t been on a proper vacation in several years. When Will and I got married, we didn’t even go on a real honeymoon—we were, at the time, living in Nashville, Tennessee, and got a nice AirBnB in New York when we went for Thanksgiving. We gorged ourselves on sushi and did a little shopping; my most extravagant purchase was a black hooded sweatshirt with an upside-down Nike logo and the phrase “JUST DON’T” in gold glitter. I have trouble with the concept of vacation, which mostly stems from a lifetime of anxiety and double depression. I am neurotic and self-hating, and tend to believe that I don’t deserve to have a good time. To complicate that already hectic matter, what sounds fun to other people often sounds nightmarish to me. Exhibit A: BEACHES. Other examples: horror movies, paint-balling, driving in fast cars.
I really don’t know how beach girls do it. They thrive in the natural environment wherein I am perhaps most uncomfortable. They are graceful; I am ungainly. They are like magnificent otters joyfully bathing in a bucket, and I am like several cats thrown into a bathtub, bug-eyed and yowling. You must know what I mean when I say, “beach girls.” There are many varieties of this joyful creature. Some of them are young and some of them are old. They have bodies of all shapes, colors, and sizes. Some are loungers, reclining like sandy royalty and baking in the sun on fluffy towels; others are athletes, spiking volleyballs, catching Frisbees, bounding into the waves in wet suits with surf boards. Some bare their bodies, and others cover up. They are all beach girls. All goddesses. They share open minds and hearts. They wear flip flops. They ENJOY getting saltwater in their eyes and sand between their toes. I am no such creature. I would go to embarrassing lengths to avoid these circumstances.
Over time, my healthy suspicion of beaches has turned into not just distrust, but ardent dislike. While I do actually like swimming in warmer and more enclosed bodies of water, and I enjoy baths more than most things, the ocean is not my friend. I have, at various points in life, conceded potential bias and attempted new ways of engaging with the sea: body surfing (disaster), sand-castle making (devastating), etc., but I get too edgy. My uncle Phil once warned me as a kid never to turn my back on the ocean (and I’ve never forgotten that). The ocean is powerful, demanding of genuine respect. It feels your distrust and tugs away the sand beneath your feet, twines through your ankles like a thousand streaming cats that flick you with their tails and grace you with their presence, to gain your trust, and then bite you.
We drive in two cars for three hours to get to the beach. Everything is carefully planned. We are going to Montauk, the easternmost point of the United States, a unique biome, a magical place where in winter, it snows on the beach.
Ominously, there is a parking-related problem when we arrive. There are no metered lots, apparently, for miles, and you have to have a local parking permit to park by the beach. All beaches? No, this beach. Well why don’t we go to another beach. This beach is THE BEST. Well all beaches are pretty nice; we don’t need the best. Yes, we do, why would we want to go anywhere else?
Remarkably, I am so delighted to be on vacation that all I want is a chance to stretch my legs and maybe a nice pastry in a bit. I don’t care what beach we go to (or honestly, if we even make it to the beach at all on the first day), so I am sort of bemused by Will’s mounting anxiety. It is so rare that I am the calm one. “Anna, you don’t get it,” he says tersely, over the phone, “I’ve been driving this car around for an hour, trying to find parking. I just need to get in the water. I want to feel the sea on my skin.”
Will illegally parks Dany’s rental car and pays an obscene sum for me to park by her surf instructor’s establishment, despite my protestations.
I arrive perhaps twenty minutes after this fact, my heart sinking like a stone into the pit of my stomach—which it normally does, upon arrival at a beach. But this time, it is…RAINING. In all of the time I have spent running through different worst case scenarios and convincing myself of their inevitability, I have not considered this possibility. THIS IS APPALLING. Audacious. How dare these circumstances cross paths! It’s not even heavy, real, significant rain; that, I would welcome, as it might deter the most ambitious of beachgoers, driving them away to make sandy messes of their cars and showers upon return to their homes. This is spitting, inconvenient rain, rain that is nagging you for attention but has nothing really, to say.
Dany is somewhere out at sea and Will, unfazed by the rain, is happily stripping off his t-shirt, socks, and shoes. He wore his swim trunks on the drive up and is not wasting any time. He is also relentless and charming in his efforts to cajole me into the water. At first, I am resolute in my refusal. I am adamantly still wearing the jeans I drove in, which I generously rolled up to the calf. That is the extent of the commitment I made this morning to getting into the water, and I fully intend to stick by it. Especially now that the sky is literally yawning drool and dribbling spit upon me. But finally, I cave. I roll the legs of my jeans once more, and venture forth.
The cats in me shriek when the cold rushes over my toes and ankles. Water recedes and returns, icy, polluted, higher than I am anticipating, based on the first rush. I yelp and Will laughs at me, not unkindly, squeezing my hand and urging me forward. A wave crashes against me, and I bail, rushing back to crumple on our towels, wet jeans clinging unpleasantly to my knees. My huge glasses are peppered with raindrops, and both my shirt and the zip-up I appropriately wore (as it is COLD) are thoroughly damp. Too damp to wipe my glasses. How monstrously uncivilized.
I use one of the towels to cover my face. “Anna!” Will shouts from the water. I reluctantly emerge from beneath the towel and fix him with what I hope is a wrathful stare. Beach girls flit in and out of my field of vision, practical beach girls, their long salty hair expertly whipped up in messy buns and elegant ponytails, their lithe bodies likely warmer than mine in their sleek wetsuits. I sit there for an impossibly long time, fingers swollen and skin smarting from the barometric changes, sweaty yet wet, undignified, ridiculous, clumsy.
“WILL,” I yelp, when he emerges from the water to kindly check on me. “THERE’S WATER EVERYWHERE. IT’S COMING FROM THE GROUND AND IT’S COMING FROM THE SKY.” After a moment I add, “AND IT’S ENCROACHING,” with a fervent wave of my arm, indicating the factually encroaching tide, as if he hasn’t noticed. “That is how the ocean works!” He says, chuckling adorably. Fuck him for being adorable. The diffused light makes his skin seem slightly translucent, freckles delicate, cheeks pink with energy.
I seethe like the waves, although they are far more picturesque. I am so physically uncomfortable. I somehow have sand in my mouth and this injustice must be noted. Will musses my wet hair and says, “You look like you need windshield wipers,” sweeping his fingers towards my glasses like so.
SOME VACATION THIS IS.
He’s so happy though, and all he wants is for me to enjoy this. He’s like a puppy, all paws in the sand and a beaming smile. He returns to the water and I resolve to try impersonating a beach girl. At least, in the rain, I cannot be the swimming type. I attempt to rig a tent out of one of the towels, so I can read my book beneath it. This fails miserably, the air so swollen with moisture that my fingers indent the pages, even smear some of the ink. The book returns to the safety of my bag. I bury my feet in the sand, as an ostrich would her head. If you can’t see me, I don’t exist to be preyed upon. Lions can’t hunt me; the sea cannot swallow me whole.
I am suddenly struck by the sand around me, which has taken on the most curious texture. I play arenologist for a moment, considering how it is gently packed down, damp, firm to sit on, but delicately dotted, like sandy pointillism. Like lace, almost. I probably alarm the frolicking beach girls as I practically press my nose into the sand, observing this phenomenon. It’s beautiful.
I take out my writer notebook, where I scribble down inane gibberish from time to time that is later entertaining to interpret, and try to jot down some notes about the beauty of the sand. Ink smears wildly, like watercolors, but I fill a few pages and lie back, exhilarated. Then I realize, my head has missed the towel and my hair is definitely now full of sand. Whatever. I watch the waves crash and trundle forward, foam fingers like a filigree of lace, briefly and faintly decorating the sand. Hey, I wrote something!
The air smells amazing.
When I close my eyes, the sound of the water fills my whole body. It’s cleansing. Primordial. It occurs to me why Montauk’s tagline is “the end,” as in, of the world. Forward is only water—for a few thousand miles. I let the sand creep into my hair and clothes and go somewhere else in my mind.
When Will finally emerges from the water, I can only be described as giddy. I’m bouncing off the proverbial walls, starving, delighted, willing to come back tomorrow. Where did this come from? Who am I? I practically skip in the sand as we make our way back to the car. Will laughs. “You’re like a supercut of all those videos of cats being surprised by cucumbers,” he says, not at all wrong. “BUT HAPPY.” I amend.
In anticipation of BEACH TIME DAY TWO we resolve to get up extra early so that Will and Dany can go to the gym in our strange hotel before we grab a quick breakfast, douse ourselves in sunscreen, and go. This does not happen as planned, surprising everyone but me. We rouse at the bracing hour of ten-thirty, and I have an admittedly lovely time sitting on the little patio adjacent to our room and reading (We Are Never Meeting in Real Life – Samantha Irby – loving it), while they do whatever it is people do at gyms.
While a good night’s sleep has sobered me, and I’m definitely dreading the beach again, I must confess that the day is exquisite. It’s how people always describe Los Angeles—only less polluted. Seventy-three and sunny, just enough of a breeze, no humidity. The air smells amazing. I might actually wear shorts over a bathing suit. I’ll step in a little, and if I’m feeling truly adventurous I might actually take off the shorts. If I had a motto, it would be Life on the mild side, but vacation is going to my head. This is me, living dangerously.
I haven’t owned a bathing suit in a long time, and I’ve never owned a nice one. I strode into a fancy boutique on the Lower East Side to get this one, earnestly explaining to the impossibly chic girls who worked there that I wanted a sexy-but-not-too-sexy black one-piece and would not compromise, did they know what I meant? They did not. The first six suggestions volleyed back and forth from “positively prudish” to “as seen on Sports Illustrated” and mostly were not the right size. Finally, we struck gold; scalloped edges, low back, a nice sort of cross-hatched texture. Now, in the hotel room, I put it on and swiftly add several layers of clothes. In the flattering mirror of the boutique’s dressing room, it didn’t seem like a balancing act of all boobs or all ass, and I am now predicting frequent twitchy fidgeting to adjust if I dare take off my shorts. When we get to the beach. We’re going back to the beach. My throat closes up with dismay. How can I get out of this? Are we really going to spend the whole day there?
When we finally get into the car, I am literally cornered in the backseat.
I try to reason with Will and Dany. What am I supposed to do on a beach, if I’m not going into the waters just waiting to claim my life? Socialize? Absolutely not. I hate strangers and small talk is THE WORST. There is no point in making small talk with someone if you can’t also talk deeply, so it’s a waste of time when you have to make it. I reject eating at the beach and submit to you the problem of SAND. To quote Anakin Skywalker in the atrocious second prequel to the Star Wars movies, “It’s rough and coarse and irritating, and it gets everywhere.” ESPECIALLY IN YOUR FOOD ANAKIN, AM I NOT WRONG? When you study the inactive action of tanning, there’s the sun to consider, and your options are getting burnt to a lobster-red crisp (CANCER) or liberally applying chemicals to your skin (CANCER, DIFFERENTLY). Also if I were tan, people might actually think I like being from Los Angeles. I abhor Los Angeles. I consider it the height of all compliments when people think I’ve come from elsewhere, with a regionally different personality, like the Pacific Northwest. I giggle and blush like these comment are the sexiest of flirtation; they are, incidentally, a great way for strangers to endear themselves to me. Maybe, after, I’ll consider making small talk.
But really what else do people do at the beach? They do heinous athletic things like run six casual miles or play beach volleyball, in the sand. What the hell do I look like to you, some confident, sporty goddess with a name like Emily or Claire, my hair neat in a practical ponytail, wearing the kind of bikini top I would admire but never dare to wear, with short-shorts from my college basketball days, barefoot, with pedicured toes?
We arrive at the beach, this time, in one car. Will and Dany have decided—to hell with the parking, so what if we get a ticket. We go back to the beach from yesterday, Ditch Plains. I am not fond of or attached to the white Dodge Challenger Dany rented, but nevertheless I screech about how we should just go somewhere else. What if we get ticketed!? Or towed!? What if we inconvenience people!? We park maybe-illegally, just outside of the lot, either intelligently or like assholes. They streamline for the sand, and I waddle unhappily behind them.
Objectively, I am ready. I have three books and am armed with striped beach towels. I have snacks, and a large bottle of water. I have my journal. There’s a pen. I am as ready as I’ll ever be. We set out the beach towels. Because it is not raining today and thus the sand is not packed down, I notice immediately that the weave on the terrycloth is so loose it’s letting sand through. My forced smile wavers faintly. No matter, this is fine.
They tease me, but do not force me to enter the water solely because, although the perfect weather would belie it, there is a serious tropical storm out of sight beyond the coast. The beach has been red-flagged, swim at your own risk. Emboldened by the presence of swimming locals of all ages, and his natural tendencies as an Aries, Will throws off his shirt and charges in. Dany, in her swimming shorts and tankini top, is right on his heels. They look so happy. I sneak up behind them and take some cute pictures, before retreating to the safety of the disappointingly permeable towels. Practical beach girls and a surprising number of children and dogs dance around. Will, for whom greeting dogs seems to be a biological imperative, is immediately out of the water, dripping salt and petting dogs. They are all sea dogs; the literal dogs, dogs of the sea, and Will possessing the bliss and purity of a dog, deriving strength and power from the salt in his beard. A true beach boy if ever I’ve seen one.
The dogs are somehow even happier than Will. They waggle their butts and dig in the sand, bound around woofing joyfully. Dogs are more beach girls than me, I think resentfully, as one streams past me, sniffing at my hand but not pausing to say hello. They have beach girl wisdom and unflappability. And they can sense things, right? I appraise the waves, into which one of the dogs and Will are both happily crashing.
It is stunningly beautiful today.
Everyone’s been telling us today would be horrible and rainy, because of the storm off the coast. It does seem miraculous, how we’ve been gifted with perfect weather.
I might as well—right?
I approach the sea. The sea is unconcerned. Where the tide comes in, the sand sticks to itself, not to my skin. My toes tingle. Fuck it, I think, and then I scream when the water races over my toes. IT IS COLD. What the hell? It’s SUMMER. Will whoops at the sight of me, arms crossed, shoulders hunched, each hand grabbing the alternate elbow. A series of cats are swarming in my mind, all mewling, fuck fuck fuck. “Come on!” Will urges. “You’ve got to go under!”
“You’ll be fine!” He manages not to laugh at my incredulous look. “You won’t be cold when you put your head under.”
“Absolutely not,” I shrill. I know a lie when I hear it, but I am frozen helplessly. The water rushes over my knees. Something curious and sinister happens beneath my feet. I am accustomed to the phenomenon of the tide pulling sand out from behind one’s heels as the tide rolls out and back in. It usually stops after the heels, so that the arches of my feet are still supported by sand. I wobble, toes trying to grip sand fruitlessly as the ocean mercilessly pulls it back: heel, arch, ball of the foot all in one sweeping movement.
“Come on, honey pie, come on.” Will lurches forward and I inch with him. The water hits my hips and I gasp at the cold. My feet are mildly warmer than the rest of me by now, but not by much. I drop his hand and clutch at my shoulders. Then I scream, as a large wave collapses under an even larger wave, and knocks me back several paces. “MAYBE I SHOULD GET OUT NOW,” I shout, but Will and Dany can’t hear me, having glided under the wave and thus not lost as much ground. We squabble as a number of smaller waves smack against our thighs in quick succession, and I have almost broken Uncle Phil’s cardinal rule (NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON THE OCEAN) when a wave is upon us, so behemoth, that I am forced to do as the beach girls do, trust the water, turning, diving, letting it carry me back to shore. Somehow, despite closing my eyes and mouth in a timely fashion, they are both smarting with polluted saltwater when I surface. “RIGHT,” I shriek. “ENOUGH OF THAT.” I stagger backwards to the beach, facing the water. NOT TODAY, SATAN.
“Anna!” Will is disappointed. “Come on!”
“NO WAY.” I bellow. “I went in. Promise fulfilled. Enough for me. EVERYTHING IN MODERATION.”
I’m feeling a lot more warmly toward the subpar beach towels at this point, so I lie back on one of them and cover my legs with another, using my book to block the sun from my face. Every now and then, I look up, and watch Will and Dany, those ridiculous sops, demonstrating insanity by repeating the same stupid audacity again and again, diving under waves, letting the fierce tide pull them an impressive distance down the beach to my left, and periodically clambering out so they can run back up to the right, past me, and jumping back in again.
After several hours, we are all possessed of fierce hunger. Together we walk back towards the car, and I grumble like an endearing curmudgeon about sand and sunburns. “OW, FUuck.” I drop my voice mid-expletive at the sight of practical beach children with their slightly older practical beach cousins or siblings. I’ve never felt so much like an ineffectual city girl. I’ve stepped on a rock. The following, absurd conversation ensues.
DANY: Where are your flip-flops?
(It sounds extra silly because 1. The thought of me with flip-flops, and 2. She has a very posh accent.)
ME: I don’t have any! I don’t believe in them.
DANY: What? How can you not believe in them? It’s not like they’re a religion.
ME: In L.A., they are.
That settles the matter, and I continue to swear under my breath as we approach the car to ruin its interior with sand. Will seems to feel bad. It’s taken him long enough. “Poor cat,” he says, rubbing my shoulder. “Got dunked in a bathtub against her will.”
“I’m having a great time,” I say aggressively, and we all stop as we realize it’s true. “I’m having a great time.” I repeat, trying out the flavor of this idea in my mouth and in my mind. The manic energy of the day before sets back in. “The air smells AMAZING,” I declare a few minutes later from the cramped backseat of the Challenger. I later make a comment about being even happier back on dry land.
“Honey, the beach is not the water. The beach is dry land.” Will chides me gently.
“No it’s not, it’s definitely DAMP LAND.” I fire back. I feel hilarious, as in I’m being funny, not people are laughing at me, which is how it usually is when I say something and people laugh. I can’t stop beaming.
We go to the beach one last time before we leave. This time, I know what to do. One of the beach towels did not dry properly and has been lost to the vile smell of mildew. We mourn it briefly and dispose of it without ceremony. It’s early, but we’re not alone on the beach.
Today, no one pressures me to get in the water. Dany has gone off for another surf lesson, and I finish my book from the remaining beach towels while Will communes with the water one last time. I recognize what I’m feeling as relaxed. I’m not even worried about us leaving on time. We’ll get there when we get there. I feel like…not myself. A self I’ve never been, or if I have, I’ve forgotten.
“So, do you like beaches now?” Will asks.
“Uh, no.” He’s dripping on me, interpreting my lack of stress for tacit consent to be dripped upon. I swat at him. Beach boys and their arrogance. “I tolerate beaches. This one is fine. We’re leaving today.”
“We are. So when do you want to come back?”
Old me would have said NEVER. Damn beaches, those sandy death traps. But this new me holds off on responding. She’ll entertain Will’s romantic descriptions of watching snow fall on the beach from the warmth and safety of a heated room, driving out to the lighthouse to watch snow fall there from the warmth and safety of a heated car. She loves lighthouses—granted, old me did too, as will every later iteration of me. She’ll think about it.
I know exactly what to say in order to make him groan, to answer without answering and deprive him of the satisfaction that has been the undercurrent of his beach boy superiority. Everything in moderation.