Magic In The Water
Autumn on Long Island is cloudy and quiet. Warm and washed away. Everything is damp: the splintered wood of the fishing docks, the falling leaves, the grass, the sand.
It was on such day in my early twenties that I found myself, my senses wide open, sitting at the edge of Mount Sinai Harbor’s fishing pier, taking in everything at once. This is what it is to be happy, I thought as I felt my chest rise and fall, breathing in the world around me; the salted air, the black-blue water, the worn and weathered rocks, the wandering people. It is here I am acutely aware of all I’ve taken for granted.
I was running out of time. I shifted my weight off the edge of the pier and began to run back onto the beach. My feet finding balance in the ever-moving sand as I looked down, admiring the tiny grains as I often did for its endlessness. For how each one held a magnificent story of how it came to be here along the sound. A place that can transport you back in time to where Native Americans once called home more than 5,500 years ago.
I had come home for a long weekend from college in upstate Pennsylvania, trading the orange and fire red leaves for for a cool breeze and sandy shore. Running along the beach towards the house I grew up in less than a mile away, I passed the occasional charred embers left over from summertime bonfires. Little remaindered scattered across the sand that not too long ago the beach was warm with laughter deep into the night.
Now I getting ready to go apple picking on the North Fork. It was only October, but sweat beaded the top of my forehead as I ran up the steps to the porch and pulled open the sliding glass door. There, in the middle of my living room was a man, who was still young enough to look like a boy when he laughed. His name was Steven. He stood there waiting for me with his hands in his pockets and an ease in his voice as he chatted with my mom.
I was in love with him, even after he tried to tell me Jersey Shore beaches were better than Long Island’s. He had grown up spending his summers in Lavallette, a beautiful shore town I’ve since come to love myself. It’s one of the things that separated us from the rest up in our landlocked college town. We knew what it was like to feel sand beneath your feet on the kitchen floor, the unspoken need to stop what you were doing to watch the sunset, to collect seashells and count sailboats and use the tides or the tilt of the sun to keep track of time. But my North Shore is better, I told him through our laughter, our eyes blithe and bright. Losing track of time with our legs tangled in my dorm room bed, a million miles away from any grain of sand or salty ocean breeze.
So it became my sole mission in life to convince him otherwise.
We took the trip out east and stopped when we saw an apple picking sign. Whether it was Woodside Farms or Harbes Orchard, I can’t remember. An apple was an apple. We walked down the aisles of trees, occasionally sliding a hand up into its branches to find the best ones. We raced me down to the end and back, leaving our baskets in the grass as the finishing line, and had throwing contests with the rotted leftovers that decorated the dirt patches beneath the trees. He lifted me up to the top where the best ones hid, filling our baskets with far too many apples for any two people to eat.
With our baskets in the trunk, Steve and I drove back, leaving the country charm of Long Island behind us. We stopped at Martha Clara’s vineyard for a glass of wine and listened to the band play while we leaned back in adirondack chairs.
“See,” I told him smiling. “You can’t share sunsets with sommeliers at the Jersey Shore.”
At home, we dropped the basket on the floor and stood at the doorway, warmed by a wordless intimacy. I looked out beyond the porch towards the water that was waiting a hundred feet away. The water was calm, lit up by only the stars and a few stray lights from the nearby park.
I have spent uncounted hours looking out at the water, staring deep into the crease of the sky; studying each white cap wave, one after another different from the last, memorizing how it caught the light from the sinking sun, the changing tides, waiting for a pattern to emerge. It was the day I realized there was no pattern.
He rested his chin on my shoulder. The wind picked up and brought with it a sweet saltiness into the air through the windows, flooding my nostrils. I closed my eyes and bookmarked the smell in my memory. I’d surely need it for later when I was alone again in my dorm room. I stared back out the smudged glass door, thick with fingerprints and grabbed the door’s handle. I opened it just enough to slip through and ran but not before I caught the fingertips of his hand.
I ran so wildly, blindly down the shoreline. The wind blowing through my body, the dark blue water rising and crashing violently back into the ground. Empty of lung by the time I reached the water, I reached my hands above my head and ripped off my shirt then kicked off my jeans. My eyes widened as I looked up at him. He followed me in. Though it’s been years, somewhere in corners of my memory I can still here the echo of my splashes into the dark.
Our salt-slicked bodies met and he pulled me closer. My heart clenched, as I could feel the onrush of blood pumping through one side into the next, the rhythm rising to a faster pace. The water looked black around our pale, wet skin. The world around us was silent with only our ripples to mark our place.
“You’re right,” he said. “Long Island is almost as nice as the Jersey Shore.”
I splashed him hard and he splashed me back harder until we were out dizzy from laughter and near drowning. Out of breath, we reluctantly retreated and found our way back to the worn wooden stairs of the beach house.
Looking back, I think there was magic in that water. A magic that makes you both drunk and sober. Sane and mad. Wild and calm. The sea is like that.
I fell in love with the in between of it all. The moments within memories that seemed ordinary enough on the surface, but revealed themselves to be more than we had ever realized. The strange pause the tide takes on the shoreline just before it drags itself back into the water.
I often step back inside this fall memory, though it envelops me into quiet smiles almost every time. My favorite part of life lives within this. I pry it open for you, not to escape into its safe haven, but to use it as a constant reminder of love that makes you feel at home, no matter where the grains of sand are.
If you are lucky enough, someday you’ll find yourself on the Long Island shore, sitting quietly on the sand, surrounded by reminders of long-ago summers and swims in the magic.