Friday night in the suburbs, a small family puts their lone daughter to bed and sits down to watch some recorded television and pay the bills. My wife and I exchange silent looks. Remember when Fridays used to be fun? the look says. Out loud, she sighs, “I could really use a beach getaway.” Practicality being what it is, we can’t afford a long trip or the time off. The bills stare at me, gluey tongues mocking from windowed envelopes, tangible reminders of the cruel taskmaster named responsibility.
“Let me see what I can do,” I say. Life, it’s said, is for living.
We get going later on Saturday than I expect. There’s a stop for lunch, a stop at a department store for some beach towels and sunscreen, traffic on the highways. But the hotel is pleasant, overlooking the waves, even if the highway in between drowns the noise of the surf. We don’t get to the shore until almost five, but it’s summer and time is on our side.
For a couple of hours it’s all sandy messes and tag with the waves and screeching preschool laughter. I don’t think about stories or deadlines or finances. I build part of a sand castle until a couple ambitious waves reduce it to a pillar, and I give up. The sky is grey and fog dampens car roofs, but the water is pleasant instead of icy. My wife is unwilling to venture beyond the spread blanket, and so endures the chill ocean breeze as base camp for a distractible preschooler. We pack up when she declares herself cold and in need of food.
Sand gets everywhere, and we do the best we can. After dinner it’s late, and my daughter is tired and cranky, but I take her to the swimming pool anyway. It’s indoor, a small splash-pool never higher than chest-deep, supposedly heated but not pleasantly warm as the term implies. The child clings to me like a barnacle, fearful of and delighted by the freedom of splashing and kicking without the usual bathtub consequence. We’ve interrupted a middle-aged couple using the glass-walled building for some kind of exhibitionistic romantic gesture, trading vodka shots for fondling kisses. The unexpected arrival of a child and father upsets their plans. The greenish tinge on the woman suggests her over-indulgence was shortly to overtake their schedule anyway.
Shivering and weary, we squelch on soggy sandaled feet back to the room and dress for bed. It’s a difficult night, a strange headache plagues my sleep; away-from-home insomnia ruins my wife’s. She finishes a book, I manage a few lengthy naps and wake to hear the ocean beyond the quiet highway. There is no better alarm, I think, and I notice I don’t miss the notebooks and laptops and word processors I intentionally left behind.
Breakfast is coffee and eggs and pancakes in two large plates, shared three ways. It’s early, but we head to the shops of the tiny downtown area, finding most of them closed. The sky and sea are blue and the sun dries the mist at the edge of the buildings where the surf sprays up the rock wall. Fed and energetic, the girl wants to walk, so we hike down the steep hill to the oceanside trail and watch surfers paddle lazily, rejecting wave after subpar wave. Locals jog with labradors and greyhounds, the salt and sand giving texture to the world we perceive in our bedroom community’s blanched sterilization. We walk too far, and her small legs need assistance getting back, so I carry her, first in my right arm, then my left. When both are too sore, I heft her onto my shoulders and she kisses the top of my head.
On the way up the hill, a story occurs to me, whole and at once, but I discard it. We had planned to return to the beach, but after the long walk my daughter changes her mind and requests another swim instead. I say, “Sure.” This time there are no couples to hinder our play, and we splash and laugh. The doors are propped open and cool wind makes exiting the pool a freezing adventure. I wrap a massive towel over her shoulders and lift the cotton burrito up the stairs where she can be properly dried.
As I load the suitcases another story reveals itself, a decent setting and a trio of characters, a hint of promising plot. I smile and happily forget them all. I strain one last time to hear the waves and touch my wife’s hand. She smiles, and that is the look we exchange. There will be more stories. There will be more bills, more responsibilities. For now, there is the ocean. There is a moment. And there is us.