Every year, my husband Will and one of his friends from high school go on a road trip or a mini-vacation. Living three thousand miles apart or more, they have one of those enviable friendships of regular, if infrequent, correspondence, the kind that picks up exactly where it left off and is punctuated by these in-person, shared vacations.
Despite their differences in lifestyle–Danya is a dentist and consultant (sensible), and Will is a writer, grad student, and full-time dog-dad (an Aries)–they are both adventurous, something I am not; they enjoy vigorous activities like whitewater rafting, zip-lining, driving fast in expensive rental muscle cars, and eating barbeque and raw fish. This year, they decide to return to one of their favorite vacation locales, and after hearing about it for years, I somehow, despite being unemployed (and therefore not deserving of going on vacation), was coerced into agreeing to accompany them.
I had a bit of a breakdown after I finished my Master’s in secondary education, in May of 2017. The stress of the past year caught up to me, and I crashed, overwhelmed with feelings of worthlessness and incompetence. This vacation would be an opportunity to put myself back together. Time to actually do things I want to do, like read and write and enjoy myself. Time to repave precarious neural pathways and imagine new ways of being. Going to the beach? Not exactly my idea of a good time.
I am bad at vacationing and decidedly not a beach girl. I have what I consider to be a healthy suspicion of beaches, owing, no doubt, to having nearly drowned twice in my early childhood—and saved, once apiece, by each of my parents. I was once almost swept away by particularly aggressive gust of wind at a beach in Santa Monica after an otherwise very satisfying sea glass-collecting excursion and trip to the arcade at the Pier with my dad and brother. We walked along the old boardwalk, the thick wooden planks smoothed by wind, sun, and many feet, and just after we descended the stairs, I felt myself being dragged backwards. My feet scraped on the sandy concrete, my arms reached out for anything to grab, and my screams were whipped away from my mouth. As I was accepting imminent death, my dad noticed me struggling to move forward, and wrenched me to the side, out of the current. After that, the beach would take on other tactics.
Even my mother who “can’t swim,” the way I “can’t ride a bike,” enjoys beaches to a certain extent—she just doesn’t go in the water unless she has to. My mom can swim (she did in fact once dredge me from a furious riptide that pushed me from a beach, dragged me up a set of concrete stairs, and drew me bloodied back towards open water) and I can ride a bike, technically—we just aren’t confident in and don’t enjoy these respective activities, and are utterly disinterested in changing these qualities of ourselves. Imagine us both as gawky birds, although catlike in behavior. We both wear glasses, have similar mannerisms, and will say some of the same bewilderingly frumpy expressions, like “Everything in moderation,” and “Hope springs eternal,” both of which I have been earnestly spouting since the tender age of eight or nine. My mom is better at vacationing than I am. She can enjoy spas and will tolerate her teas and coffees with whole milk. She will occasionally treat herself to real bacon instead of extra crispy turkey bacon, which she normally allows herself on Sundays. She owns a lot of sandals, which she actually wears, both when on and not on vacation. I despise sandals and people I don’t know who wear them.
I haven’t been on a proper vacation in several years. When Will and I married, we didn’t even go on a real honeymoon—we were, at the time, living in Nashville, Tennessee, and indulged in an AirBnB in the West Village of New York when we went for Thanksgiving. We gorged ourselves on sushi and did a little shopping; my most extravagant purchase was a black hooded sweatshirt with an upside-down Nike logo and the phrase “JUST DON’T” in gold glitter.
I have trouble with the concept of vacation, which mostly stems from a lifetime of anxiety and double depression. I am neurotic and self-hating, and tend to believe that I don’t deserve to have a good time. How can I be good enough if I’m doing nothing? How can I relax if I’m not being productive, the easiest way to be good enough? Other people do not enjoy themselves around me that easily. I worry, I am frugal, I am restrictive. I am the wet blanket over the risky ideas. I am afraid of everything, and feel responsible for everything; that precise responsibility has halted me from acting out at my lowest points.
To complicate that already hectic matter, what sounds fun to other people often sounds nightmarish to me. Exhibit A: Beaches. I do not believe my anxiety or depression is a direct result of beach-related trauma, but I do believe beach-related trauma exacerbates my anxiety. And the threat of vacation most certainly does taunt depression, the red cape to a wounded bull.
I really don’t know how beach girls do it. They thrive in the natural environment wherein I am perhaps most uncomfortable. They are graceful; I am ungainly. They are like magnificent otters delightedly bathing in a bucket, and I am like several cats thrown into a bathtub, bug-eyed and yowling. You must know what I mean when I say, “beach girls.” There are many varieties of this joyful creature. Some of them are young and some of them are old. Some are loungers, reclining like sandy royalty and baking in the sun on fluffy towels; others are athletes, spiking volleyballs, catching Frisbees, bounding into the waves in wet suits with surf boards. They share open minds and hearts. They wear flip-flops. They genuinely enjoy getting saltwater in their eyes and sand between their toes. I am no such creature. I would go (and have gone) to embarrassing lengths to avoid these circumstances.
Over time, my healthy suspicion of beaches has turned into not just distrust, but ardent dislike. While I do actually like swimming in warmer and more enclosed bodies of water, and I enjoy baths more than most things, the ocean is not my friend. I have, at various points in life, conceded potential bias and attempted new ways of engaging with the sea: body surfing (disaster), sand-castle making (devastating), sunbathing (detrimental to your health and comfort). My uncle Phil once warned me as a kid never to turn my back on the ocean (and I’ve never forgotten that). The ocean is powerful, demanding of genuine respect. It feels your distrust and tugs away the sand beneath your feet, twines through your ankles like a thousand streaming cats that flick you with their tails and grace you with their presence, to gain your trust, and then bite you.
We drive in two cars for three hours to get to the beach. Everything is carefully planned. We are going to Montauk, the easternmost point of the United States, a unique biome, a magical place where in winter, it snows on the beach. That, I think, I’d like to see. It is, however, August. Remarkably, I am so delighted to be on vacation that all I want is a chance to stretch my legs and maybe eat a nice pastry in a bit. I don’t care what beach we go to (or honestly, if we even make it to the beach at all on the first day), so I am sort of bemused by Will’s mounting anxiety. It is so rare that I am the calm one.
“Anna, you don’t get it,” he says tersely, over the phone, “I’ve been driving this car around for an hour, trying to find parking. I just need to get in the water. I want to feel the sea on my skin.”
Will illegally parks Dani’s rental car and pays an obscene sum for me to park by her surf instructor’s establishment, despite my protestations. I arrive perhaps twenty minutes after this fact, my heart sinking like a stone into the pit of my stomach. But this time, it is…raining. In all of the time I have spent running through different worst case scenarios and convincing myself of their inevitability, I have not considered this possibility. This is appalling. Audacious. It’s not even heavy, real, significant rain; that, I would welcome, as it might deter the most ambitious of beachgoers, driving them away to make sandy messes of their cars and showers upon return to their homes. This is spitting, inconvenient rain, rain that nags for attention but has nothing really, to say.
Dani is somewhere out at sea, a bright spot of a wetsuit on the horizon. I can just imagine the slightly frightening, steely glint in her eye as she faces down the crashing waves, her sandy blonde hair slicked back and restrained in a ponytail. Will, unfazed by the rain, is happily stripping off his t-shirt, socks, and shoes. He wore his swim trunks on the drive up and is not wasting any time. He is also relentless and charming in his efforts to cajole me into the water. At first, I am resolute in my refusal. I am adamantly still wearing the jeans I drove in, which I generously rolled up to the calf. That is the extent of the commitment I made this morning to getting into the water, and I fully intend to stick by it. Especially now that the sky is literally yawning drool and dribbling spit upon me. But finally, I cave. I roll the legs of my jeans once more, and venture forth. The cats in me shriek when the cold rushes over my toes and ankles. Water recedes and returns, icy, polluted, higher than I am anticipating, based on the first rush. I yelp and Will laughs at me, not unkindly, squeezing my hand and urging me forward. A wave crashes against my clothed knees, and I bail, rushing back to crumple on our towels, wet jeans clinging unpleasantly to my knees. My huge glasses are peppered with raindrops, and both my shirt and the zip-up I appropriately wore (as it is cold!) are thoroughly damp. Too damp to wipe my glasses. How monstrously uncivilized.
I use one of the towels to cover my face. “Anna!” Will shouts from the water. I reluctantly emerge from beneath the towel and fix him with what I hope is a wrathful stare. Beach girls flit in and out of my field of vision, practical beach girls, their long salty hair expertly whipped up in messy buns and elegant ponytails, their lithe bodies likely warmer than mine in their sleek wetsuits, their shaggy dogs yipping and running alongside them. Today, there are none of the beach girls who make me feel frumpy on my towel, the ones who tan in tiny bikinis, who have long smooth legs and never intended to get in the water to begin with. I sit there for an impossibly long time, fingers swollen and skin smarting from the barometric changes, sweaty yet wet, undignified, ridiculous, clumsy. At least they aren’t there to laugh at me.
“Will!” I yelp, when he emerges from the water to kindly check on me. “There’s water everywhere! It’s coming from the ground and it’s coming from the sky.” After a moment I add, “and it’s encroaching!” with a fervent wave of my arm, indicating the factually encroaching tide, as if he hasn’t noticed.
“That is how the ocean works!” He says, chuckling adorably. Fuck him for being adorable. The diffused light makes his skin seem slightly translucent, freckles delicate, cheeks pink with energy.
I seethe like the waves, although they are far more picturesque. I am so physically uncomfortable. I somehow have sand in my mouth and this injustice must be noted. Will musses my wet hair and says, “You look like you need windshield wipers,” sweeping his fingers towards my glasses like so.
Some vacation this is.
Will is like a puppy, all paws in the sand and a beaming smile. He returns to the water and I resolve to impersonate a beach girl. At least, in the rain, I cannot be the swimming type. I attempt to rig a tent out of one of the towels, so I can read my book beneath it. This fails miserably, the air so swollen with moisture that my fingers indent the pages, even smear some of the ink. The book returns to the safety of my bag. I bury my feet in the sand, as an ostrich would her head. If you can’t see me, I don’t exist to be preyed upon. Lions can’t hunt me; the sea cannot swallow me whole.
I am suddenly struck by the sand around me, which has taken on the most curious texture. I play arenologist for a moment, considering how it is gently packed down, damp, firm to sit on, but delicately dotted, like sandy pointillism. Like lace, almost. I probably alarm the frolicking beach girls as I practically press my nose into the sand, observing this phenomenon. It’s beautiful.
I take out my writer notebook, where I scribble down inane gibberish from time to time that is later entertaining to interpret, and try to jot down some notes about the beauty of the sand. Ink smears wildly, like watercolors, but I fill a few pages and lie back, exhilarated. Then I realize, my head has missed the towel and my hair is definitely now full of sand. Whatever. I watch the waves crash and trundle forward, foam fingers like filigree or lace, briefly and faintly decorating the sand. Hey, I wrote something!
To say the air smells salty belies the freshness of it. Salt is typical. This is cool, almost soothing.
When I close my eyes, the sound of the water fills my whole body. It’s cleansing. Primordial. It occurs to me why Montauk’s tagline is “the end,” as in, of the world. Forward is only water—for a few thousand miles. I let the sand settle into my hair and clothes and go somewhere else in my mind, where I am warm, dry, and cozy, unconcerned with my skin or hair, unencumbered by thoughts of drowning, dying, cover letters, or productivity, where–boredom is not the right word–my mind is empty and free, open, restoring itself by the warmth of the unscalding sun.
When Will finally emerges from the water, I can only be described as giddy. I’m bouncing off the proverbial walls, starving, delighted, willing to come back tomorrow. Where did this come from? Who am I? I practically skip in the sand as we make our way back to the car.
Will laughs, “You’re like a supercut of all those videos of cats being surprised by cucumbers,” he says, not at all wrong.
Surprised as I am to admit it, I amend, “But happy.”
Anna Press is a writer and educator from Los Angeles, where her distrust of beaches initially developed. She writes fiction and personal essays, and her book reviews can be found in Necessary Fiction, Glass Poetry, and the Columbia Journal. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and three rebellious dachshunds. Talk to her on Twitter at @annaepress.