Living With Water
Heather C. Meehan
On the eastern end ofLong Island, one can always feel the presence of the water. Surrounded by the unbroken sheen of strip malls that line the Long Island Expressway, it can be easy to forget our proximity to the shore. Yet even miles from the ocean, humidity lingers in the air.
“I’m more of a Sound guy, really,” my mother’s boss tells us casually. A Long Islander at heart, he has learned as I have to call the bodies of water around us by name, to recognize their distinguishing traits, and to become intimately acquainted with their personalities. “The Bay is nice,” he continues, “but it’s so clean. The sand is smooth; you can see right through the water. The Sound is murky, it’s filled with seaweed, and mossy pebbles and crabs that bite at your ankles. I like the mystery. I like not knowing what’s there.” Along theNorthShore, the Long Island Sound divides us from the mainland. Between the fishtail of the two forks lies thePeconicBay–withShelterIslandserving as gatekeeper between the Bay and theAtlantic–the ocean that stretches out toAfrica,England, and beyond.
There is something indelible about theAtlantic, in all its vastness. The waves have crashed upon the South Fork andFire IslandsinceLong Islandwas deposited by a glacier that once covered the eastern seaboard, and have left their marks, both physical and psychological.
Many tourists are attracted to our ocean beaches during the heat of the summer. I remember watching a young woman run laughing into the water, only to be dragged out minutes later, coughing and crying, the object of yet another lifeguard rescue. It was a harsh reminder that underestimating the ocean is a foolish mistake.
I was left stunned on the beach, beneath a seemingly benign sun, in front of a force of nature that could easily crush me with its might. I myself prefer theAtlanticin the winter, when its crashing waves cast a chilly mist over the sand, whipping bitter cold across the deserted beaches. Seals poke their heads up in the cove, their smooth gray scalps forming dark ink blots against the horizon. The ocean in winter shows its true colors; it is wilder, more infinite; immediately recognized as a force to be reckoned with. I face into the wind, feeling my face go numb, and hearing my own heartbeat drowned out by the dull roar of the waves.
Unlike the ocean, the Bay belongs to us. It is a small, manageable body of water, home to the Peconic Bay Scallop and otherIslanddelicacies. Wading in the Bay is different from navigating the ocean, diving in the Sound. The water comes up to knee-length near the shore, and mothers carry their young children in with them, to paddle around on the glassy surface. Land is visible across the water; one could toss a pebble and hit the opposite shore. It feels safe, close, contained. Yet I know that this is mere illusion; although we like to mythologize the seven seas, in reality all waters are connected and flow into one another, scaling and descending the hydrological cycle. TheAtlanticis lurking just around the corner.
Out of the three, it is the beaches of the Sound I know best. At the beginning of summer, as soon as the uncertainty of spring has faded and become a forgotten memory, my family piles into the car with towels, bathing suits, an old squeeze bottle of sun-block, and perhaps a fading beach blanket. It is hard to contain my excitement as we make our way down to the beach for the first time. I kick off my shoes, and for a few minutes, I revel in the feeling of sand between my toes. Sand! The feeling is indescribable. For one moment liberty has become a tangible thing, throbbing with warmth. The seagulls circle above the waves, caught in their own life’s circuit, and the water moves along beneath them, impervious to sound and sense. I have found my place.