I’ll Always Come Back
The salt always stings before it heals. I stood where the waves broke, even though I knew better, and I let the crest slap me. I needed the smart of Mother Nature’s swift hand — a chastisement, a reminder that it was all real.
I was staggered by how my whole world could change in one single moment, how every cell could be rearranged in less than a second. It was like I was plucked from one reality and set down in another, meant to adapt as quickly as possible without any warning or say in the matter. The tide shifted and suddenly the shoreline was receding. I could fight against it, try to swim straight to shore, or I could go with the current. I may have ended up miles down the beach, but at least I made it out in one piece.
Exhausted from being battered by wave after wave, I pulled my knees up high and trudged through the calf-deep water up to the beach. Just when I always thought I’d gotten through the hard part, there was always something to slow me down just a little bit more. At that time of day, an orange cast shrouded Ditch like an oozing layer of apricot marmalade. I could almost taste it, except for the dull grit of sand left over from mouthfuls of ocean water.
The dogs were allowed to be off-leash, and I watched them lope across the uneven mounds. One was warily sniffing a stick by the rusted bathtub that was embedded into the drop off. Usually as I’d walk past, I’d make up stories about how it got there — kids using it as a sand sled, a remnant of time travel gone wrong during the Montauk Project, the anger of an overworked interior decorator — but this dog reminded me too much of him. The way it looked at me with its head cocked like it was asking me a million questions at a mile a minute, its cautious eagerness, its long legs lagging behind the momentum of the rest of its body.
Could he have been reincarnated as a dog? I laughed at the absurdity of the thought and plopped down next to the dunes, not caring about the sand creeping up the edges of my swimsuit.
Later that evening as we drove past Gurney’s, the blow of the wave struck me again. He was right there in front of me, board shorts just a little too low on his hips, his easy laugh reassuring me even though the joke was made at my expense. As fast as it appeared it vanished. I grappled to seize hold of it again and wondered how something liquid, like a wave, could feel so solid and how something real, a person, a living breathing human, could feel so amorphous, how the memory could just dissipate into sea spray.
I focused on the absolute truth of the moment: I am breathing, my heart is beating. I listened to the thump and the sharp intake as Old Montauk Highway came back into focus.
The next morning, I sat on the bow of the boat as it soared over ocean waves and tried to rifle through every moment of my incidental life. The wind was deafening in my ears, drowning out the thoughts I no longer wanted or needed and I tried to pinpoint the exact second we were all happiest.
I conjured up clammy grass underfoot, the night breeze like an exhale, the rubber of a kickball pinging off steady feet. I focused on it. I shut my eyes tight and stared at the image in my mind. It burned as bright as the sun did that cloudless day.
What says more about a person: the best day of her life or the worst? It always seemed like the best was harder to define. I wasn’t sure if this was because there were too many good days or because the bad ones hit with a jolt – like the boat coming down a too-big wake. I still felt the hum of the aftershocks and the rocking of the ship when I laid down to sleep at night.
I couldn’t tell if the tears were from the wind or something else, but either way I reproved myself for letting them come. I tried to reserve crying for the mornings and nights. In the mornings I had to remember and during the nights I couldn’t forget.
It’s hard when there’s no one to blame, no one to be angry with, when death comes in the night like high tide, no trace of disruption at first light. There was nothing to hold onto, no cause to rally around, no battle cry—just the empty moan of long, rolling breakers crashing onto shore, of feelings that have no names.
Every year shorelines shift, old paths widen, new ones are plotted by curious footfalls, ramshackle bungalows shorn to make room for grandiose mansions. Through all of this, there is always the steady drumbeat of the ocean, churning up silt and stone and memories, urging us to return.