Grounded By The Sea
I was going to get away with it—again. This time, the destination for the diversion was the beach. Desperate to be pulled away, I ignored the question rising up inside of me. Instead of asking if I should go, I savored the rush as I walked to the fitting room with the $58.00 bathing suit, that I could not afford, but would make me look damn good. Eager to get it on, I placed the hanger on the hook and slipped off my clothes as I drank in the fabric’s tie-dyed design. It was just like a cup of sugary shaved ice that I craved as a girl. I imagined the person behind the counter of the wooden beach shack pouring three flavors at once. The bathing suit was blue raspberry, lime, and grape just before the colors blended together, before saturating every bit of the soft ice. Even though summer was almost over, I was going. Standing tall in the bikini, staring into the mirror, through it, I was already there. As I stepped out of my shoes, I imaged the bottoms of my feet burning on the sand as it radiated heat from the all day sun. Taking in the cold drinks, sea, and hotness, it was going to be heady. I need it! I insisted. Determined be filled up by the beach, I went straight the register and pulled out my credit card. With $73.00 available, I had just enough to get my fix.
That night, as I packed for the trip, I thought about how sexy I’d be, how much he’d want me, and how who he was didn’t spark a thing in me. Still surprised I’d agreed to go with this man, I tried to put it out of my mind as I found my good beach towel that matched my new bathing suit. I looked out the window to the porch as I made my way from my guest bedroom to my own. I couldn’t, he’d know, I thought as I walked toward the suitcase on my bed trying hard to control my craving for a clove. Pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth, aware of my breath, I needed to brush my teeth. I watched in the mirror as I brushed hard enough to make my gums bleed. I filled my cheeks with mouthwash, forced it around, and enjoyed the alcohol’s effect as it burned me. I held it as long as I could before spitting it out. I was relieved—proud—that I didn’t smoke. I was just as pleased that I’d agreed to take that weekend off. With it all temporarily under control, I was ready to get some sleep. I reached for my night guard and bit down against it; the tightness around my molars reassured me. My dental appliance was nighttime protection against the stress that had ramped up during that summer of 2006. I was ready for a break. I hadn’t had a bona fide beach vacation in well over a decade. In the two days away, I’d not only forget about work, I’d get some respite from all of the cumbersome uncertainties, my problems, that continued to mount and, somehow, were not my fault.
The next morning, I was feeling fresh. Excited to get out the door and on to the beach, I shoved my suitcases into my spotless, still new, car and slammed the door. After checking myself in the mirror, I went for the music. Instead of the usuals: Ani Difranco, Antony and the Johnsons, or Johnny Cash, I popped in a CD that, for the summer, had become my pick. KT Tunstall’s Eye to the Telescope must have been an impulse buy, not my typical choice—in fact, I didn’t really like it. She tried too hard and left little space. It was, in one word, overproduced, yet I listened. I cranked up “Black Horse and Cherry Tree” as she sang “You’re not the one for me,” while I merged onto I-40 speeding towards his house. I didn’t want to think about being “hot or cold”, just HOT—on fire, please! I didn’t want to think too much about any of the lyrics or consider who I was or wanted to be, but I played the song a few times on my way from Chapel Hill to Raleigh before turning it down as I slowly pulled in front of his house.
I wanted him to be the opposite of who he’d been on our first date. Hoping for intimacy, normalcy, not him, I made my way up his driveway and held my breath as I made my wish. Through the glass door I could see him walking towards me with that haughty daft grin on his face. Something happened in my chest (an Aurora Borealis viewing cancelled due to dreary skies type heartbreak) when I realized that the first date version of him would, in fact, be joining me on this rare and precious event. As he opened the door and greeted me, I hoped he didn’t hear as I sighed and flashed a duplicitous smile. Not wasting any time, he brought his things out to the driveway. My heart was heavy as he lifted his bag and finished loading up the car. I looked away attempting to momentarily get lost in the blue sky with only a few clouds—a sure sign that I shouldn’t back out. We got in, buckled up, and I focused, not on him, but the beach: sun, sand, and sea. We drove two and a half hours, long enough for me to know, without a doubt, that we were not right for each other. Our first date had been unremarkable, but on paper we should work. I wanted us to? I just didn’t like him, Guy, I knew right away, but I was attracted to the tension. I was excited by his aloofness, the distance between us. When he asked about a second date, to the beach, I said, “OK.”
Walking up the steps and through the front door of the faded yellow beach house, it was clear that this former retreat had become an abiding home. It was neat, small, but spacious enough and like the paintings of ocean scenes arranged just so, I was open and ready to walk through. Able to exhale in my getaway, I enjoyed the tour. There was a nice sleeper sofa in the sea foam blue living room and a color coordinated guest bedroom in back. The vintage nautical themed master stood command facing the beach and had its own bathroom that I never got to see. The guest bathroom was between the two bedrooms like the fresh stack of capri blue towels on the toiletry shelf, separating the sand dollars from the starfish. Off from the living room was a galley style kitchen and stools facing it and the focal point—the bar. There was a dining area that shared the living room’s space with a sliding glass door that served as window for looking out back at the neighbors’ small yards. Staring out the window I wondered, Who are these people living year round at the beach? They can never get their fill, I assumed looking at Wade, the homeowner and old friend of Guy. From the few minutes I’d known this seaside dweller, Wade went from safe enough to downright kind showing us around his raised house. Between Wade’s hospitality and his place with the inviting beach theme, it was plenty to feel right at home except someone was missing. I didn’t get to meet her, Jen, because she was away drying out.
Jen’s problem had been mentioned on the drive down, but I wanted to know more. I had questions—all of them. As we stopped at the kitchen, Wade gave us an update. “We talk when we can,” he explained addressing Guy then me like I knew her and the story. “She sounds like she’s doing OK,” Wade said looking down, leaning over the counter and smoothing out a kitchen towel on the bar. “Hope this time’s her last,” he whispered almost looking up at us, slowly shifting his weight before staring into space. “Wish I knew how long she’ll have to be there,” he added, making eye contact, trying to smile, wanting it to all go away. And that was it. There was nothing about why she was drinking so much or why she’d relapsed. Just that the beach was not the right place for her, well, them. “There’s too much temptation with a 24 hour party scene,” Wade admitted. He mentioned them possibly moving and that he might have to sell his old boat. “Wanna see?” he asked hoping we’d agree. With a reassuring smile, I looked at Wade to see which door we’d go out. We followed him down the back stairs, under the house to the renovated boat. I recognized his joy mixed with grief as he pulled back the custom cover to show us his treasure. I’d felt the same unwrapping the tissue paper that covered my new clothes after bringing them home from my favorite boutiques. In his eyes, I saw his connection to it all: the restoration and care. The things that mattered to him were clear. In that moment and for those two days, we were surrogates for Jen. It was obvious how much he missed her, but not her drinking. Missing her because of her drinking seemed especially hard on him.
We grabbed fountain sodas and a bite to eat before the three of us went out on Wade’s boat. It was nice being on the water until the salt air came at me so fast that I could hardly breathe. “I’m gonna give her all I’ve got,” I thought I heard Wade say as he pressed on the throttle. Was he referring to Jen or the boat? I wondered stumbling back. As I tried to find my footing, I looked up at the two men. What am I doing here? It wasn’t right and it wasn’t because of them. I tried to put the uneasiness out of my mind. Looking out at the ocean, focusing on the deep while keeping it light, I didn’t say much and I couldn’t wait to get back.
Later that evening as we got our fill of beer and fried food on the patio of a fish camp by the sea, I felt empty. I turned from Wade and Guy. I wanted to excuse myself but I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to be alone or, if Jen were around, I’d like to spend time with her; she’d understand. Looking out at couples talking, walking hand in hand along the beach, I noticed them looking down at their feet. I watched as the pairs of footprint shaped pools disappeared and it made me want something real. I would settle for a meaningful passing connection, a brief, but open conversation, just a hit of something solid. I needed someone, something to ground me.
After we left the beach and went back to the house, I ignored the tugging in my heart and deleted the scene of a true relationship in my head. I was becoming a master at it: distracting myself with whatever was nearby, and right there was Guy. Maybe it was just me. Maybe he wasn’t so bad. Even if who he was didn’t excite me, I could try to bridge the physical gap. If we kissed HARD maybe that would pierce the tension and I would get my steamy interlude on the sand. I wanted to be satiated for a bit.
As I changed into my bikini and grabbed my matching towel, I saw myself in the mirror, well, my body, not me. I knew what I was doing wasn’t right, and, as long as I didn’t look into my eyes, the consequences were as far from my mind as the work emails and unpaid bills. And I did look damn good! I was going to be a sexy make out star. And I was. It was, as he admitted, the hottest make out session he’d ever had. Our moonlit montage by the sea was somewhere barely above PG-13. It was just kissing, petting, no clothes came off, but it was sizzling. Evening became a late night and we were the only ones left on the beach. The stars were taken over by clouds as he grabbed my towel and shook it off. The fire followed us back to the faded beach house where the tension was resolved, the pressure released. Burned out, I tried to rest, but the emptiness was still there, resonating. Weightless, detached from my body, it was desolation. Nothingness. I had deserted myself by the sea. I was stranded with no night guard to protect me. Abandoned and dark, I was the dismal nighttime beach drifting off to sleep.
The next morning, it was rough facing the day—especially the guys. I had a headache and snuck into to the kitchen for black coffee to help me fain any feeling other than despair. After a few cups of joe and a day’s worth of Adderall, I was able to join the world, including Wade and Guy. I got ready and packed my bags before the three of us went out for an early lunch at a seaside dive.
The place was empty and I could feel Wade anticipating the same as we talked about leaving. I wanted to give the men some time alone and I needed a moment by myself so I walked out to the cloud covered beach. It felt right, with it just me. The bottoms of my feet did not burn against the sand. My shoes stayed on. The bathing suit, that barely got wet, was packed away with dirty clothes. I did not bring my towel. There was nothing to place in the soft sand. I did not sit, look out at the ocean, and lie back with my eyes closed seeing only red. It was all grey. Sober. A slight chill came over my skin from the breeze and sticky air. I kneeled and looked down hoping to find something to hold and take home with me. I noticed a tiny grey and white shell, already with a hole in the top. Even though I hadn’t done creative work in a while, with the shell in hand, I wanted to make something again. I would transform the shell while keeping her the same. Tiny and easy, I could see the piece resting beautifully in silhouette. Understated, natural, nothing showy, I envisioned. Just simple and honest. In that moment of clarity, it’s all I wanted to be.