I’m at the beach, lazing on a beach chair with a book loosely held in one hand and sunglasses trained to the undulations of the ocean. I love its smooth rise and fall, the curl of its waves, the fan-shaped spread of its watery hands.
The book I’m reading isn’t very interesting, so I am people watching and constructing small stories in my mind.
Take for instance that young father who is bobbing up and down with his son some distance away. The child is screaming with delight each time they bob up over a wave, but I notice that Dad has his eyes trained toward the deep. Perhaps he is looking for a big wave or… yes! He’s afraid of sharks. And he thinks: I just read about a shark attack somewhere near here. Maybe it was right here on this beach. The waves are darker out there, and a monster might be lurking. The ocean is a treacherous thing. It’s not our element. We have really no business being out here. I’m endangering my son. We have to get out of here!
So much for this poor man. I turn to a skinny teenaged girl in a red swim top and baggy shorts. She’s with her mom and at Mom’s urging is dragging herself toward the ocean. Mom is excited, but I can almost hear the girl’s whine. Why do I have to go in? I don’t want to get wet. Salt everywhere, and then I’ll have to put sunscreen all over again, and it’s a total yuck. Who needs the ocean? It smells bad, and the shells hurt my feet, and if I step on a jellyfish I’ll throw up.
Characters give vastly different personalities to places. And imagined characters give way to plots which circle lazily through my mind. Sometimes a plot touches down, and a story is born. Other times they slide past me and are lost in the ceaseless motion of the sea.
Oh, look, a woman with her young son is standing at surf’s edge. The little boy is pointing at the waves and clapping his hands, loving this huge, blue-green bath tub. He’s not sure he wants to put his feet into the water, but he is brave enough to run to the water’s edge and then scurry back when a wave comes. The lady smiles and takes photographs. Someday, I hear her thinking, he’ll grow up and it won’t be cool to love this place as I do. It’s so serene, so natural. He loves the shells, now… oh, look at him! Perhaps he’ll come to love the ocean, too. At least, I’ll have these photos…
Such a charming scene. But now, a new character arrives, a small, spindly-legged little girl with spiky curls. She wears a two-piece swimsuit which she is tugging uncomfortably, and she keeps looking seaward. At first I think she is watching the swooping pelicans, but then I realize that two people—a man and a woman—are having the time of their life in the swells. The little girl looks at them wistfully then puts a foot into the water. She draws it back. I don’t dare go out there. The waves are so big and scary… I’ll drown. But I want to go out there. I want to. I want to…
The young couple finally tires of their sport and comes back to shore. To my surprise, they are the little girl’s parents. I am indignant. What kind of parents would leave their small child alone on the beach? But I try to withhold judgment and watch as the man bends to talk to the little girl while the mother adjusts her own stylish black bikini. Then, almost reluctantly, Mom gives a hand to the small girl. Dad takes the other hand. They walk into the water, but the little one balks. Oh, no, I’m scared of the waves. If Daddy would carry me… but he drops his daughter’s hand and dives into the water. His wife does the same—and they leave the child standing there!
She takes several steps into the water, looks sea-ward, calls to them. She tries again and goes up to her knees. Why won’t they turn around? Don’t they know the sea is a scary place? The waves are bigger than I am. Maybe, if I’m brave I can go out to them. Maybe then they’ll play with me… but the couple never look back, and the child walks away from the ocean, her small face puckered and woeful.
I almost go to her, but I hold back. Strangers can’t heal broken hearts or change the fact that this child will most certainly grow up disliking and distrusting the sea. Perhaps she will grow up disliking herself and distrusting everyone.
No, strangers can’t do much but feel… and write. And yes, I think I will write about this small moment by the sea.
Child by a great sea
Shadowed by sad memories…
Ah, the broken heart.