The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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During my senior year in college my girlfriend dumped me, and I turned to Bob from my men’s group for support. A librarian in his sixties, he had a soft voice and a caring disposition. I figured he’d be able to lift my spirits.
Bob lived in a cozy cabin by the shore, where I arrived expecting a cup of tea and a sympathetic ear. Instead he said, “We’re going to the beach.”
As we wove our way through the beach pines and madrone trees growing on the dunes, I started talking about how miserable I felt, but Bob just pointed into the understory, rattling off facts about the nesting habits of wrens and what warblers eat. He would stop to listen for croaking frogs and skittering chickadees, instruct me on the migration pattern of butterflies, and extol the flavors of the wild mushrooms that popped up after fall rains.
Finally we reached the water, and I confided to Bob how badly I missed my ex. He listened for a few minutes, then started talking about the tides: spring tides, neap tides, slack tides. He went on and on about the damn tides! Wasn’t I supposed to be doing the talking?
As we left the beach, Bob spoke about the beauty of shifting sand dunes, especially during big weather events. Though I was tired of his monologues, my mood had improved thanks to our walk.
A few months later I met a beautiful woman, and for our third date I took her to the beach. As we hiked across the dunes, I found myself telling her about the plants and critters.
That woman is now my wife. She says one of the things that set me apart from other men she dated was how I knew the songs of the birds and the movement of the tides.
Morro Bay, California
Every other Saturday during summer vacation my parents would pack up me, my younger sister and brother, a cousin or three, the grill, and way too much food, and we’d drive a little over an hour to Sandy Point Beach on Chesapeake Bay. We’d find a good spot a little back from the beach, and Daddy would grill hot dogs, hamburgers stuffed with onions and green peppers, and foil-wrapped sweet corn while he sipped a beer.
After lunch, our bellies sloshing with grape soda, we’d toss a Frisbee, play tag, and whine to be allowed in the ocean. When an hour had passed, we’d sprint in our cut-off jeans across the burning sand and leap into the pewter-colored water. None of us could swim, but we wouldn’t go far out. My sister would lie in the surf, frantically kicking her legs and getting absolutely nowhere.
Going to the restroom meant less time on the beach, so we’d pee in the water and giggle while wading away from the warm spot. Sometimes jellyfish bobbed in the waves. If we saw one, we’d yell, “Jellyfish!” — the way white people in movies screamed, “Shark!” — then scoop up the gelatinous threat in a bucket and toss it onto the hot sand.
At least once every summer one of us kids would cut his or her foot on a broken bottle under the water. (I always thought someone purposely threw it there to hurt us.) We’d attend to the injured, remember where the glass was, then dive back in and resume playing, letting nothing deter us from our game of “black Aquaman.”
As the sun slowly sank on the horizon, we would comb the beach, inspecting withered seaweed, dead starfish, iridescent seashells, smooth sticks, algae-filled styrofoam cups, and plastic six-pack rings. When Momma called, we’d trudge back to the car, brush off the dry sand — which made us look ashy and covered with powdered sugar — and sleep the entire way home.
Eight years ago an inmate from my part of Maryland was transferred to the prison where I’m incarcerated, and I asked him about Sandy Point.
“Man,” he said, “if you go in that cruddy-ass water and then go see your parole officer, you’re gonna get a violation for a dirty urine test.”
I’ve lost count of how many ways the outside world has changed since my conviction, but in my memories Sandy Point will remain a paradise.
In the midsixties, when I was twelve, my family moved from a small town in Ontario, Canada, to the Caribbean island of Trinidad. Our dad worked for an oil company and had been transferred. Mom was a registered nurse and had no problem finding work. My siblings and I easily acclimated.
On Sundays we went to the beach. Our favorite was Maracas Bay on the rugged north coast, about ten miles down a narrow, winding mountain road from our house. The beach was wide and long, with pink-white quartz sand as fine as salt. Coconut trees lined the edge, and on the far end was a small fishing village where my dad and his friends bought fresh fish off the incoming boats. The water was a deep blue-green and crystal clear.
During the rainy season the ocean got very rough, with a vicious undertow that could take you out to sea. The most dangerous areas were marked with red flags. There were orange, yellow, and white flags too. A white flag was the safest. And the beach was segregated: the white-flag areas were always whites-only, whereas black and East Indian bathers were confined to the rougher spots.
One rainy afternoon as my family and I returned to the car to head home, we passed the nonwhite portion of the beach, where the undertow was strong. We saw a crowd of people standing around a lifeguard who was pumping the chest of an unconscious black man. The man’s mother was pleading with the crowd, “Is there a doctor here? Please help save my son!”
I turned to my mom and said, “Mom, you’re a nurse. You can help him.”
My dad locked eyes with her, then grabbed my arm and pulled me to our car.
Whether my mom could have saved that man’s life, I’ll never know. He died right there, I later found out, and my parents never spoke of the incident again.
I’ve been back to Maracas Bay a few times since then. It’s still one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. In the rainy season the different-colored flags still fly to warn swimmers. But now people of all colors share the safest parts of the beach.
My mother and I stepped tentatively into the store and eyed the rows of bathing suits. My nostrils were assailed by perfume, as if someone had just sprayed a can of “Expensive Boutique” air freshener.
“This may be the last suit I’ll ever buy,” Mom had said when she’d asked me to come with her. “I want a good one.”
Last is not a word one wants to associate with one’s mother, especially if she has had breast cancer.
Two saleswomen bustled up to us. “Do you need a suit with a prosthesis?” they asked. “One breast or two? Left or right? Come right over here, dear, and let us help you.” It amazed me how easily the word prosthesis fell from their lips.
My mother told them her suit size and needs, and one of the women handed her a temporary prosthesis. (A more permanent one would be sewn into the suit she chose.) Most of the suits on the hangers were incongruously girlish, as if to take the buyer back to younger, happier days. My mother tried on several, her too-white flesh spilling over neon-hued spandex.
“What do you think?” she asked.
I think it’s a tragedy that people get breast cancer, I thought, that mothers grow old, that loved ones suffer. Out loud I replied, “Buy the navy.”
My mother didn’t take my advice. The purple floral suit she chose was, in my opinion, inappropriate for someone of her age and build. It was too flowery, too bright, too much. She plunked down $116 for it, and we left.
The next day Mom wore her new bathing suit, and I began to understand why she had chosen it. The suit said, I’m alive. I’m not ashamed. I’m not afraid. That day my mother was the brightest spot on the beach.
My sister rang me at work on a Monday, and minutes later the secretary came to my office door to see what had caused my stifled cry: my father had dropped dead on a deep-sea fishing boat thousands of miles away.
The body had to be flown back and delivered to an undertaker. My siblings and I went to see it. (Mum didn’t want to come.) We each went in to view the body alone. When my turn came, I felt hollow. It was surreal to step into that cold room and see my beloved father lying stiff in a box. His body might have been a waxed effigy, it was so bereft of spirit.
Over the next few days my four sisters, my two brothers, and I met at Mum’s place on the coast. Neighbors came by with dishes of food and sympathy. The house was quiet except for the occasional sound of weeping.
The funeral was scheduled for Friday, and late Thursday afternoon my siblings and I all went to the beach. We spilled out of our cars and headed for the sand, then stood looking at the waves. One of us began to undress, and, without speaking, the rest of us did the same until we all stood naked or in our underwear in the winter wind. Then we ran, screaming and splashing and crying, into the freezing surf.
Darlinghurst, New South Wales
With my father gone off to live his new life and my mother in her own world, I felt free to roam farther and farther from home. On a sticky, August Long Island morning, my buddy Carl, whose parents had also announced divorce plans earlier that summer, hitchhiked with me to Jones Beach, about twenty miles away — an ambitious distance for a couple of thirteen-year-olds.
At the beach we scampered across the boardwalk to the top of the sand berm, where we surveyed the waves: crisp and shoulder high from the southeast; no dreaded black-dot flag signaling dangerous riptides.
Carl and I plunged into the cool water, both determined to catch the first wave. As the swell approached, I launched off, tucked my head under, and windmilled my arms. Feeling the force of the wave rocket me shoreward, I was finally as far away from home as I needed to be.
The wave hit the shore, and Carl and I knelt in ankle-deep water to catch our breath, giving each other a look that required no words. In years to come we would share many such looks as we watched our families disintegrate.
Long Beach, California
When my husband, Steve, found out that he had inoperable cancer, he wanted to move from Ohio back to Cape Cod, in Massachusetts, to be near the ocean when he died. We found a great rental house right on an inlet to Nauset Beach, but it wouldn’t be available until October. While we waited, Steve met with a new oncologist, who thought he might be able to remove the tumors surgically. Steve prayed and deliberated and finally decided to go ahead with the operation. He never recovered from surgery and died on October 1.
On October 23 I arrived on Cape Cod, where it was cold and raining, and moved into the house we had so carefully chosen together. For the next several months I felt more alone than ever before, but being on the ocean in the winter was just what I needed to begin to heal. I would walk on the beach in all kinds of weather, the noise of the waves drowning out my sobs. As the weeks passed, I found moments in which it wasn’t so hard to breathe. When the time came to leave the house, I decided to stay on the Cape. I have been here ever since.
South Orleans, Massachusetts
My girlfriend, Carolina, and I decided to spend spring break camping along the Suwannee River in northern Florida. I borrowed an old canoe, and she borrowed a canvas tent that hadn’t seen daylight since the Korean War. In those days the river had long, undeveloped stretches of woods along its banks, and the trees hung over us, shadowing our slow progress upstream.
As we rounded a bend in the river, we saw a white-sand beach — a stark contrast to the clay banks and bare roots we had passed all day. Carolina pointed, and I followed her finger and saw four buzzards dining on a disemboweled beaver.
“I don’t like this place,” she said.
But we needed to stop for lunch, so we landed the canoe on the beach and ate cold fried chicken, doing our best to ignore the buzzards. There seemed to be no one else around for miles, and after lunch we went skinny-dipping and then sunbathed nude in our small piece of paradise.
I was dozing naked on my stomach when Carolina shoved my shoulder: a small motorboat was coming into view. We scurried off the sand and huddled out of sight behind a log. The two forest rangers in the boat couldn’t see us, but they saw our canoe along the bank and our blankets on the white sand. They pulled ashore, brought out clipboards, and walked up to the dead beaver, which was now swarming with flies.
When I thought the rangers weren’t looking, I reached over the log and snatched my shorts to put them on. “Where are your clothes?” I asked Carolina.
“In the canoe, but don’t get them, or they’ll know I’m naked.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Make them go away.”
I stepped over the log and cleared my throat. “How are you guys doing? What did you find?”
One looked up from his clipboard. “We’re figuring out what killed this beaver.”
“That sounds interesting,” I said.
“It isn’t,” the other ranger grumbled.
I rambled on nervously about the buzzards and my own theories about the beaver’s demise, probably sounding more suspicious by the minute. The two rangers pretty much ignored me except to nod politely.
With a curt goodbye they returned to their boat, started the engine, and headed downriver while I waved stupidly at their backs.
Sound carries well over water, and as the rangers neared the bend, I heard one ask the other, “Do you really think that guy was interested in the dead beaver?”
“I suppose so,” the other answered. “He left a naked girl back there just to look at it.”
St. Petersburg, Florida
My two brothers and I were still in our pajamas and clutching pillows when our mom and dad hustled us into the night air and loaded us into our 1972 Ford. I wondered what our lunatic parents were up to now. Maybe we were moving to skip out on the rent again. (We would move more than twenty times before I turned seventeen, often in darkness.)
“Are we moving, Ma?” I asked.
She laughed as if I had pulled the idea out of nowhere. “No, we’re going to the beach,” she responded.
We lived only three hours from the Atlantic Ocean, so it wasn’t clear why we had to leave in the middle of the night. On the way out of town we stopped to pick up my dad’s friend Hunter, who climbed into the front seat with a cast on his right arm that wrapped around his shoulder. A board held the arm out at a ninety-degree angle, and we had to keep the window down so he could let it stick out. The cast made a whistling sound as we sped down the interstate.
My brothers and I, huddled in the back seat, were told that Hunter had injured his arm in an accident. I later found out the truth: that he had attempted suicide using a coat hanger looped around the trigger of a shotgun, but something had gone awry, and he’d shot himself under the arm. I can’t think of anything sadder than screwing up your own suicide.
When we got to our destination, the air was salty and warm. We climbed the rickety steps to the weathered beach house, dumped our luggage — actually paper grocery bags — on the beds, and headed down to the water in our pajamas. The foamy surf glowed in the moonlight, and I envisioned pirate ships and giant, mysterious fish just out of sight.
I watched Hunter walk to the water’s edge and stand looking out at the vast, dark ocean, his untucked white shirt flapping in the breeze. I remember the glow from the tip of his Marlboro. I remember wondering what he was thinking.
The last I heard of Hunter, he had successfully aimed that shotgun and pulled the trigger.
Jackson, New Jersey
My mother grew up in a Chicago suburb during World War II, and hers was the only Jewish family in the neighborhood. They were not allowed to join the country club, and she was often left out of birthday parties and social events.
Rather than igniting a healthy indignation, this exclusion aroused her longing. When I was a girl, she admired the appearance of my non-Jewish classmates, commenting approvingly on their slender builds, upturned noses, and fair skin. Often she told me to push my own nose up. I looked like my father, who was dark and plump. My sister was naturally svelte, and my mother worked hard at being slim, so in the mythology of the family they were more attractive than Dad and I.
At summer’s end we’d usually vacation in the mountains of Mexico, where my father’s parents had resettled after leaving Germany. It was there that I felt most content. My grandmother thought I was beautiful and never tried to control my diet or change my appearance. She was proud to be Jewish and displayed her silver Passover platter in the dining room. I always hated to leave Mexico.
The summer that I was eleven, my parents decided to take us to the Long Island shore instead of making the trip to my grandparents’ home. When we arrived on the sand, my father carefully set up a low beach chair, got out his books and magazines, and settled down to relax, ignoring my mother’s entreaties to put on sunscreen.
Later, back at the house we were renting, Dad complained that he was chilly and his skin felt tight. He was sunburned, but because he had big folds in his tummy when sitting, his skin had burned in a pattern of red and white stripes. We all screamed with laughter at the sight. Even he was laughing. He said he looked like an American flag.
After dinner at a seafood restaurant, we went for a walk beside the dock. My mother just would not stop laughing about my father’s sunburned stomach. She said he resembled a “grilled kielbasa.” She was walking ahead with my sister, and I was behind, holding hands with my dad. At that moment I wanted to be a part of my mom and sister’s closeness, so I dropped my father’s hand and sped up to join them. Mom made another joke, and I laughed. Dad stopped and stood alone, silhouetted against the sunset.
“I just bought you guys such a nice dinner,” he said. Then, using his pet name for me, he said, “Ticky, I would expect it from the other two, but from you?”
His words brought tears to my eyes. How could I explain that I didn’t want to be like him anymore: fat and Jewish and picked on? I bowed my head and didn’t answer. It was a small betrayal that I have never forgotten.
Lee’s Summit, Missouri
Every Thursday all summer long I rode to the beach in the back of a flatbed truck with forty other boys from the orphanage. We huddled on long wooden benches, enduring the snapping wind and bumpy back roads of San Diego, to arrive at an almost empty parking lot beside the beach. We were each given a boxed lunch and reminded to be back by 4:30. We were on our own for six hours, free to roam La Jolla Shores, one of the most pristine and beautiful beaches on the California coast.
We spent the mornings burying each other in the sand, building castles, and catching waves on the yellow rafts the rental place let us use for free. Our beach lunches were the prized meal of the week: ham sandwich with lettuce on fresh white bread. (Most loaves at the orphanage were stale leftovers from local bakeries.) Three or four of us would sit together on the grass, savoring every bite, the sun warming our salt-drenched bodies.
After lunch we usually headed up to Scripps Aquarium, which had no admission fee. You simply walked in and wandered through the dark, glass-walled rooms, feeling as if you were underwater. I liked watching the stingrays flap their smooth gray bodies like aquatic birds.
Many afternoons I explored the north end of the beach by myself. Its rocky promontory and tidal pools could be crossed only at low tide. On the other side another beach stretched for miles. Walking there alone, I felt I could just continue on and never come back. I was completely at home in this water-sky landscape, on the farthest edge of my constricted life.
Turning around was always the hardest moment of the day, but I knew I had to get back over the rocks before the tide returned. I lifted my arms as I made the turn, swooping like a bird, running at full speed, and darting in and out of the water. No nuns, no kids, no chores, no school, no taunts, no loneliness. Just the open sky and the sparkling sea.
Francis Collin Brown
Port Townsend, Washington
I was an insecure child. My mother was sick, and I was often sent to stay with her friends and acquaintances. Some of these people were not accustomed to having children around, and it was apparent that I was imposing. Others had children of their own, who often mistreated and taunted me. Once, a man attempted to molest me, but he was caught before he could do any harm.
When I was seven, my mother died, and I went to live with her oldest sister. My aunt’s sons were both in their twenties, and one Saturday they accompanied us and some other relatives to the Santa Monica beach. When we arrived, my older male cousin, whom I had a secret crush on, lifted me and carried me to the water. The surf was barely over his ankles, but I could see only the immensity of the sea and a wave coming that appeared monumental and would surely drown us. I punched my cousin’s chest and screamed as if he were trying to murder me.
My cousin set me down on dry land, and the look of shock on his face gradually turned to hurt: I clearly did not trust him. My younger cousins, who were around my age, roughhoused and pushed one another into the water, riding the shallow waves without concern as to whether they would resurface. They were carefree in a way that I had never learned to be.
In my late teens I came to appreciate the beach: the gritty sand on the soles of my feet and the foamy water between my toes. Much later I learned to ride the waves and not fear drowning. But that was much, much later.
I grew up in a suburb on the shore of Lake Michigan in the 1950s, and the summer I graduated from high school my boyfriend, John, was a lifeguard at the beach. How perfect: to be eighteen and the girlfriend of a handsome lifeguard. John sat on his towering chair, observing the chilly water, and I lay on the beach, observing him.
He also kept an eye on the long-legged, slim, blond girls in fashionable swimsuits. One such willowy beauty wore a black suit with a fringe. She was gorgeous.
Slut, I thought.
John suggested I get a suit like hers, but I was short and pudgy with mousy brown hair. What was he thinking?
What was I thinking when I bought the only suit the shop had left in that style: a Day-Glo pink model with a boned bra “out to there”?
My bosom was a scant 32A. How would I fill the extra space in the expansive bra?
The answer: Foam-rubber falsies. Size D. Complete with nipples.
Did you know they float? Yes, falsies float. They float right out of the top of your swimsuit and bob just out of reach, so they can’t be retrieved and surreptitiously put back in place, away from the eyes and laughter of friends — and the look of horror on your lifeguard boyfriend’s face.
The day my falsies sailed the waves of Lake Michigan, perky nipples pointing to the sky, I was swimming with my friend Whitty, a sweet boy and class clown. After gently pushing them away a few times to tease me, Whitty caught the size-Ds and made a great show of squeezing the water from them and handing them to me with a theatrical flourish.
I never wore that suit again, and the following summer I left the beach behind. I was nineteen and involved in more-sophisticated pursuits, such as studying dance in Chicago. I had lost those extra pounds and was happy with what nature had given me. Dancers have no need for oversized bosoms or lifeguard boyfriends. John was delivering groceries, hoping to earn enough money for college and a little extra to take his new willowy, blond girlfriend to the movies.
Gentle, funny Whitty surprised everyone by joining the navy. He never came home.
My elementary school was less than a block from the beach. (Apparently the land hadn’t been so valuable when they’d built it.) On Fridays the two fifth-grade teachers took their classes down the long ramp to the sand, where we removed our shoes, rolled up our pants, and waded in the surf. We also hunted for seashells and sand crabs and sometimes made the trek to the tide pools next to the cliffs, where we got to touch sea anemones, sea cucumbers, urchins, starfish, and hermit crabs. We would head back to school windburned, sandy, and damp, having learned much more that day than just reading, writing, and arithmetic.
We were fortunate children; I understand that now. By the time my younger brother was in second grade, the city had decided to sell the land the school was on. They bussed the students to the other elementary school, up in the hills, and the beachside school was torn down. The land is now the site of a gated community of multi-million-dollar houses. Walking by, you would never guess that schoolchildren once learned to respect and love nature there.
St. Louis Park, Minnesota
© Judy Nisenholt
I had envisioned the perfect tropical beach. But the village of Rutoria, on the Pacific island of Malaita, had no beach. The sea flowed into the lagoon and washed over an underwater tin-can dump along the shore. The villagers didn’t swim — fear of sharks, they said, although sharks rarely ventured into the lagoon. They lowered their dugout canoes into the sea and deftly leapt into them, remaining perfectly dry. Water was all around, but the Rutorians appeared untouched by it.
I felt glum and wondered what these people did for amusement. I soon found out.
One evening a group of teenage girls waded into the shallow water far from the tin cans. They formed a circle and began slapping the surface of the lagoon with cupped hands. As they slapped faster they created a stream of sounds that soon merged into one big, magical, mesmerizing song. The girls “played” the sea as if it were a musical instrument.
This stream of sound quickened, and its pitch heightened until it reached a resounding climax. Then it ended abruptly. After a few seconds of silence, the girls gathered up their skirts and waded out of the water, laughing and shouting. The villagers cheered.
These girls were simply playing with their world, but I envied their deep, natural connection with it. I’d had a picture in my mind of an island paradise. The girls of Rutoria showed me how to create it, without a beach.
Charlene P. Kane
It is the summer of 1981. I just finished college in the spring, and now my younger brother and I are waist deep in Lake Michigan, chicken fighting: His girlfriend, Trish, sits on his shoulders. My friend Serge sits on mine, his crotch pressing against the nape of my neck.
My brother and his girlfriend have no idea that I am gay. I am struggling mightily to stay unaware of it myself. I believe I am destined for a literal hell if I continue to do what Serge and I have been doing in bed at my parents’ house this summer.
As Trish and Serge fight to pull each other into the water, I wage an inner battle against the desire to throw Serge down onto the warm sand and ravish him right here and now: To hell with propriety. To hell with my family learning I am gay. To hell with my burning in everlasting fire.
Big thoughts, but I don’t act on them.
Later, back on the beach, I scout for a clump of dune grass that might afford Serge and me some privacy. Then I decide not to risk it. I will never openly declare my feelings for this man but will continue to deny, repress, and hate the love I have for him. I know well the fear of damnation. I do not yet know the world of sorrow, heartache, and grief that awaits my future wife, our children, and me.
I was fourteen, and my parents, after several years of hurling names and sometimes dishes at each other, had separated. I had been close to my father as a child, but now he was frightening to me.
My sister, Lanie, was five years younger and missed our father much more than I did. She spent most of her time in the study he had vacated, glued to the big TV he’d left behind, sucking her thumb and pulling pieces of wool out of her old yellow blanket. She always seemed to have her hand in a bag of chips, and she had ballooned in size in just a few months’ time. Our mother was always worrying about something: whether we’d have enough money; whether she was still attractive; who she’d be now that her husband had gone. So Lanie and I were on our own for the most part. Sometimes I perched on the arm of the recliner to watch TV with her, but mostly I stayed in my attic room, talking to my boyfriend on the phone.
One Friday night our father picked Lanie and me up for an evening out. I grew alarmed when I saw him take the turn for Atlantic City, several hours’ drive away. I hadn’t planned to be gone overnight. I didn’t even have a bathing suit with me. It wasn’t fair!
Our mother was out on a date that evening, and our dad muttered that he couldn’t bear to bring us back to “that house where that whore will be screwing her boyfriend all night.” I felt trapped and furious. Lanie didn’t mind, though. She actually sounded excited that we were going to the beach.
The next day my father bought me a string bikini at Woolworth’s, which was almost enough to make up for the unplanned trip. I loved how the suit made my breasts look bigger, and I lay too long in the sand and got a bad burn. Meanwhile Lanie wandered off by herself and didn’t come back. My father and I spent hours walking up and down the beach looking for her. I began to wonder whether she had drowned. Then I realized that I actually hoped she had drowned — so she wouldn’t be in pain anymore; so I wouldn’t have to feel the pain she was in.
Lanie didn’t drown that day, but she’s been slowly drowning ever since. After she got chubby, she stopped eating altogether, then began to binge and purge. Now forty-one, she’s had multiple addictions, vacillates between rage and depression, and cuts herself when the emotional pain gets too intense. She’s never held a job for more than a few months, never had a healthy intimate relationship. She lost custody of her son. Only our mother’s financial help keeps her from homelessness.
I look back on that day at the beach as the day I first realized my sister was lost to me.
Two days before Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coastline on September 13, 2008, Frank and I spent the night at our one-room beach house on Bolivar Peninsula just east of Houston. It was a lovely evening, with a sky full of stars, a good breeze, and tumbling surf: the kind of night that makes you feel lucky to be at the beach.
The next morning, a Thursday, we went through our hurricane routine of nailing sheets of plywood over all the windows. Before we left, we stood in the center of our cottage and looked around to see if there was anything we wanted to take rather than risk its getting damaged in the storm. I picked up the guest book, in which people had recorded their thoughts over the last eight years, and an oil painting that a friend had admired. Everything else we left.
As we drove away, we noticed that the water was just inches below the bridge. We had never seen it that high before, and it was still two days before the storm was supposed to hit.
On Friday, back home in Houston, we heard that people who’d waited one more day couldn’t drive out because the water was already over the road.
Hurricane Ike hit around midnight Friday night, and we woke up Saturday morning to find our power out and our yard littered with toppled oak trees. A neighbor with a generator let us come over to watch news-helicopter footage of Bolivar on television. I sat there in disbelief as I watched the camera move over the peninsula. Where there once had been a community of beach cottages there now was nothing but sand, a few sticks, and some broken pieces of concrete.
Our little house and all its neighbors had been swept into Galveston Bay by a twenty-four-foot storm surge, along with the post office, the church, the volunteer fire department, the hardware store, the gift shops, and the restaurants. The hurricane had taken everything.
A thin, thirty-something woman, eyes tired, skin prematurely aged by the sun, opened the door to her trailer. A sodden mattress, clothing, carpeting, and furniture had all been piled in the front yard.
“Hello, we’re from the Red Cross,” I said in practiced greeting. “We’re here to see how you’re doing after the storm. Do you have much damage?”
She smiled at the question and invited us in to survey her soggy, sagging ceilings and buckling floor tiles. Black mold had started to crawl up the walls. But she spoke cheerfully of the kindness of friends, her hope for FEMA assistance, and her relief at knowing that the hurricane season was almost over.
“I’ll be all right,” she said. “I’m just thankful to be alive. Think of those poor people in New Orleans. Hurricane Wilma was nothing to compare.”
I sat on the floor and scribbled out the paperwork authorizing a Red Cross debit card, but when I reached to hand it to her, she stepped away. When would she have to pay it back? she asked; she was out of work because the K-Mart hadn’t reopened yet.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. In my efforts at efficiency, I had forgotten to explain. “It’s not a loan. It’s a gift from the Red Cross.”
The woman’s forced smile wobbled, and she lost her battle to maintain composure. I spent a little while trying to comfort her, then gathered my papers and prepared to move on to the next ruined trailer.
As I picked my way through the discarded furniture in the yard, I turned to see the woman in the doorway, bravely smiling again and looking toward the water. I followed her gaze out over the beach to the Florida Keys sunset — pink-gold shading to rose, then violet. The ocean, source of so much misery, was tranquil now, and the last rays of sun danced on its surface like so many bright jewels.
I was on a safari with three other people in Mozambique. It had been raining all day, and we had seen few animals. In the evening we stopped at some sand dunes to make our camp — the highest forested dunes in the world, according to our guide. We ate a dispirited dinner around a soggy campfire and tried to keep our chins up, but the idea of a wet night’s sleep did little to improve our mood.
Around ten o’clock the rain stopped, and a magnificent starry sky wheeled overhead. Hearing the Indian Ocean on the other side of the dunes, I had an impulse to go swimming. I asked who would come with me, but no one liked the idea. One of our crew said there were wild animals out there, including poisonous snakes. I decided to go anyway.
It took twenty minutes to reach the ocean by a path through the high dunes. I strained my eyes the entire way, looking for snakes, but I managed to arrive without encountering any fauna and was rewarded with a beach more remote and deserted than any I had ever seen. The sand sparkled luminously beneath a moon as bright as a streetlight. I stripped naked and took a step toward the softly soughing water. Then I noticed the entire beach move. I stepped again; it moved again. Closer examination revealed the moving “sand” to be hundreds upon hundreds of crabs. As I approached, they parted before me like the Red Sea.
I made my way into the bathtub-warm water of the Indian Ocean. Never in my life had I felt so totally alone. I floated on my back, gazing at the vast, dizzying, star-studded sky, feeling so small and insignificant that I shivered. I actually felt my mind go blank. To describe the experience any further would be to diminish it. Some things words cannot express.
As a child I enjoyed summer days in the Lake Michigan dunes and winter trips to see my aunt and grandmother in Fort Lauderdale. Later the magnificent beaches of northern California and Oregon renewed my body and soul. So I never expected to end up in the landlocked mountains of West Virginia. The forests and valleys are beautiful, but I miss the ocean, and a part of me will never feel at home here.
Recently I returned to the Bay Area for what I thought might be my last visit with a close friend whose cancer had spread. While waiting to see her, my husband and I slipped over to Half Moon Bay to get my beach “fix.” It was a glorious day. I felt my heart lift as the waves curled around my feet. Then I thought of my friend, suffering through chemo and radiation, spending hours in bed to conserve strength for her next trip to the clinic. I called to remind her of the days she had spent by the water. She didn’t answer the phone, and I left her a message describing the beach and saying how much I missed her.
Later she called back, angry that I was in “vacation mode” while she struggled just to make it through another day of pain. I will never forget my shock: I had unwittingly brought her heartache instead of healing.
Saint Albans, West Virginia
“Tell me what time of day you want to first see the ocean, and I’ll figure out when we should leave in the morning,” said my friend Lisa in the motel in St. George, Utah. It was late July, and we’d covered hundreds of long, hot miles that day in her un-air-conditioned Mustang.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I’d like to see it at sunset.”
I’d never seen the ocean, and Lisa was going to show it to me. We’d been planning this trip for months, somehow cajoling our parents into letting two seventeen-year-old girls drive by themselves from northwestern Montana to San Diego, California, where we would stay with Lisa’s grandparents.
“OK, we’re going to have to get up really early,” Lisa said, “but I promise to get you there just as the sun is setting.”
The next day we drove the desert highways with our eight-track tapes blaring and the windows open. Lisa kept close track of time. Having made the same trip with her family on several occasions, she knew exactly how long it took to get to San Diego.
When we were a couple of hours away, the landscape changed from barren vistas to rolling hills and tall trees, then to city streets and neighborhoods. About a half-hour from the beach, Lisa told me to close my eyes so I wouldn’t see the ocean until I was standing on the sand. I did as she said. I could smell the briny, moist air and feel it cool my skin. As Lisa parked the car, I could hear waves crashing on the beach. We got out, and she led me, eyes still closed, toward the water. I felt scared — it was so loud! The wind whipped my hair, and I hesitated. This was unlike anything I’d experienced. The nature I was used to had never roared at me like this.
Finally Lisa said, “Open your eyes.”
I did, and I immediately fell to my knees. Lisa had timed it just right: The sun was sinking below the horizon, tinting the sky orange and gold and pink. The vastness, the beauty, the pounding surf — I struggled to take it all in. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and I couldn’t speak. It was my first experience of awe.