Seventy-two. There are seventy-two steps you must walk to get down to Cedar Beach from the neighborhood called the cliffs. The houses border the edge that drops into the Sound down below where the stairs meet the sand. There, a small and growing bonfire sits inconspicuously, a tiny flicker on the island. Surrounding the crackling orange and hot yellow is a group of old friends with cardboard boxes filled with glass-bottled beers.
On high tide nights, the boys and girls of a small beach town laughed, and I mean laughed. The girls were wrapped in their old classmates’ oversized sweatshirts that had been previously stuffed into the back of car trunks parked at the top of such a far away cliff’s edge. They sat on old tree trunks and leaned forward, eyes wide with honest laughter. I sat at the edge of the sound, the dark waves lapped at my childhood best friend’s feet. The sound of our friends played in the background as we looked out across the Long Island Sound and squinted at the small, quiet lights that lined Connecticut.
“Do you think you could make it across?” he asked me.
I looked out into the dark and took a sip of my beer, contemplating. “No, not a good swimmer. Probably get hit with a boat or something, anyway.”
“People’ve done it before. It’s definitely possible at least.” He skipped a rock that seemed to trail off endlessly; he was always good at that. “I wonder how far it is,” he said.
It is in fact, completely possible. People swim the 15.5 miles from Captain’s Cove in Seaport to Black Rock in Bridgeport, CT., every year to raise money or awareness for something in the form of a relay race or an open water swim. Although sometimes, one person will do it alone, just to see if they can.
We never talked about anything really important, but I guess that was the important part. All of them back there sitting on the worn-out logs, shuffling their bare feet through rocky sand, comforted by each other’s familiarity.
That one over there held my hair back on my 21st birthday, and the one sitting next to her bought me the shots. That one whistling on the blanket held me while I cried when no one else knew why, and the one to his left brought over chicken parm when my grandma passed away. And that girl with the big smile, I sat next to her when I learned how to color in the lines, and the one she’s talking to got the best penmanship award I wanted in third grade. I rode a pony at her birthday party and the one looking up at the stars buried me in the sand last summer on Fire Island and left me there until the tide came up. Throughout the years we’ve kissed and cursed and fought and forgave, and I listen to the memories in prized seashells that line my shelves.
I smiled and combed my fingers into the damp sand. A flashlight beamed in the background and we all stopped frozen, even the guy off in the brush taking a leak held his flow. Never mind, it’s just another one of us with an 18-pack of Bud heavy. See, ever since middle school we’ve all had this automatic trigger to run at the first sight of a bouncing flashlight down the beach.
Those cops hated our illegal late-night bonfires, especially because they had to walk down the beach for a while with sandy shoes, knowing that we’d just run anyway. I bet they thought they got rid of us once we graduated high school and split up to different colleges. But it made no difference; there was something about the summer that made the town ours again.
We were a beach-birthed, sandy-haired, wild group who grew up meeting at the local ice cream parlor that always seemed so bright pink, green, and delicious during the day, and so scary and forlorn looking at night. We’d sneak out to walk the streets that were no longer streets, but pathways to the different playgrounds the town morphed into when it slept. The yellow dotted lines painted across the warm pavements became guidelines for our cartwheels. We hid beneath the bulkheads and drank bottles of tequila and Sambuca we stole from our parents’ liquor cabinets and begged our siblings to buy, or that one friend with the beard that could pass.
When we got old enough, we took trips east to the Hamptons and pointed out of the car window at our favorite houses on Dune Road that we said we’d own someday. We traveled to Montauk and smiled at fishermen, and put our Sunday sneakers on for Boardy Barn where we’d cover each other with obnoxious yellow smiley face stickers and sing to every single song as loud as we could. We took taxis to bars and had run-ins with cops, and ate greasy pizzas and looked forward to our high school reunions in downtown Port Jefferson. And somehow, I always woke up with sandy feet. I’d roll over, half my face still buried in a pillow, smiling at some scribbled diary entry and the creeping late-morning sun.
In our town, life was different. Like a day at the beach, it didn’t move from hour to hour but leaped from mood to moment. There was something so childish in the way we loved the beach, and I think that it will wind up helping us in the end.