Too many instances of getting knocked off my feet and pulled under the waves have rendered me not a beach person. The fighting to right myself jarred by the undertow disoriented and consuming salt water is the equivalent of going fifteen seconds with Ronda Rousey. Brothers, father, friend, and stranger have all pulled my upright from the Atlantic’s punch.
In the mid-80s as my parents marriage began to disintegrate, August post-camp as dad’s business prospects ascended, spent no longer in the Catskills or discount hurricane season Caribbean. Bridgehampton awaited.
If there’s a beach in Bridgehampton, I’ve never seen it. The rental house left little option – beach, riding someone else’s daughter’s bicycle (as brother’s claimed the boy’s), or working the counter at Hagen Das with my older brother in Southampton. Nothing more compelling to an ocean phobic teen than scooping rich servings to himself Vanilla Chip for breakfast, Chocolate as lunch, and a hot fudge affair for dinner. My weight gain in a single week was fairly outstanding.
Sleeping in someone else’s beach house bed, amongst their mothballed tinged linen, not touching their collection of stuffed birds and mounted trophy lion heads. Was that a real bear skin rug in the sunken living room? The air in the house was as dank as the remains of my parent’s marriage.
The next summer mom rented an apartment in Westhampton on the bay. The marriage at a stalemate meant alternate weekends with dad and my sleeping on a couch in rotation with other brothers at the beach. Mom got into tennis. I walked the beach or ran along Dune Road. I’d see movies in the single theater in town, sometimes not leaving and seeing the same movie all day long.
The summer before I left for college, my mother bought in Westhampton. A brother would drag all my friends out to Westhampton for parties or I’d have everyone over to Great Neck – preferring to avoid the tennis and canapés served by mom’s bizarrely tanned, silver chained, old man boyfriend.
Like family, the house is imperfect yet functional. Certain outlets get no electrical charge, or lights flicker on and off signally nothing except reminding you they are able to temporally light. No amount of electrical engineering ingenuity can ever attempt a repair. Just as one door refuses to be pushed open save for super heroic strength.
Eventually, in graduate school, I realize the seductive lure of an ocean beach house – even in Westhampton. Eyes agog. Mouths agape. Nobody can say no to an in-ground pool, 17-foot sailboat, outdoor shower, and endless stretch of largely empty beach – well, empty except for the annoying fiercely protective terns. Me – they could say no to or find ways to get tired and want to nap or sleep in their own room.
We’d lie on the beach all day and then cool off in the pool. I was always careful to never go in deeper than my ankles – no matter who prodded convincingly or compellingly. At dusk we’d watch the sun dip over the bay streaking the sky painterly sipping richly alcoholic poorly mixed drinks.
The house became the place to romance – especially in spring – before my mother descended for the summer. All at once, I’d be the middle of a romantic moment post-meal of salmon and broccoli, when the crunch of driveway gravel, car door alarm squeak and screen doors opening would shriek against the smooth tones of Sade revealing Mom turning down the stereo and asking “anyone home?”
I popped out of the moment; scrambled on whatever clothes were nearest and greeted her sheepishly, flush with anger, embarrassment, and stupidity. The woman has a sixth sense for creating an undertow of romantic turpitude. She’d smile innocently, talk about the latest “Fridays at Five” or exhibit in South Hampton. And we’d sit all quietly uncomfortable getting to know one another until someone feigned tiredness or I suggested a late night walk on the beach to stargaze.
This is how she met my ex-wife.
My daughter – now nine – loves the ocean. For her grandma’s is a place to play with cousins, boogie board. Her hand in mine, we stride down the beach. The frigid Atlantic beckons no one when skin contact is made. We stand firmly as our feet sink quixotically slowly in the wet sand. As the ocean crosses our line, we move further in letting toes, ankles, and knees, get wet. My hand clenches like a vise, determined to root us in the ocean and protect her, while palpitations of an other worldly nature say run upshore. Steadfast, together against the world and temperature, we stand. Only here do our shoulders sag a bit, relaxing just enough to shake off the stress of traffic, work, relationships, money, family – all drowned out by the power of the tide. My only thought stay on your feet, don’t get sucked back under.
The house alone is welcoming. Filled with family, friends, the outside world intervenes. Alone the calm breezes, blankets of stars, and lapping of the bay – and if quiet enough crashing of waves across the street. The others create an undertow best quelled by a medium Coke Slurpee from the Sunset Lane 7-11 and a walk alone along the shoreline, just out of reach of the Atlantic’s siren call.