My father and I used to play this game in the ocean. We’d see the wave, shout a direction, then float over or duck under. I delighted in the harmony of two voices colliding over frothing water. Or I pinched my nose with thumb and forefinger and pulled myself below, into the sudden dulling of sound. I always swallowed salt water anyway, I could never keep my mouth shut. This is my first memory; tossing my body into uncertainty and feeling buoyed. The wave came and we made a choice. “Don’t wipe out,” my father would call, it was the only rule, yet it was inevitable. The waves often caught me, small and doughy in a floral one-piece. I’d toss around in white wash, a long moment of salty chaos before emerging amongst the chipped pedicures of mothers’ feet in ankle deep water.
Ocean waves only look like they are moving toward the shore, horizontally. I have read that waves are made up of water particles rising and falling vertically. They move ceaselessly, relentlessly, up and down, up and down. Waves do not move water. They move energy, and energy moves more easily in salt water than fresh. The ocean is more conductive than say, a lake. I told this to a man who spent his days in the ocean. Once he used a hair dryer to warm a towel while I finished a shower. We lived together in a small, salt-stained cottage tucked behind a Victorian house. We used to walk to the beach before sunrise and drink “Backhouse” Pinot Noir at night. He filled our home with surfboards. I filled our home with books. His life revolved around the wind and tide. It felt natural to revolve my life around his.
When I started leaving home, my mother started missing me. So she’d take a picture of the ocean with her phone, and send it with a promise, it’ll be here when you get back! Maybe I was in New York, or Puerto Rico, or Spain. Maybe her car was full of grocery store bags, and she was still wearing her office clothes. She snapped a photo of the denim-colored sea with her car door still open. She took the long way home to see it. An even longer way away, I could see it too. Maybe it was October or maybe it was March. This was how she reached me, and I always did return.
I was just about to leave again when I met the man who spent his days on the water. And sure, I left anyway. I did not ditch my plan for a world I did not already belong in. I leased an apartment in New York and brewed pots of coffee with my roommates in the mornings. But I spent a lot of time on the New Jersey Turnpike, leaving the city I was trying to make home, returning to the beachtown where I spent most of my life and then love found me, on a throw-away Thursday. At a divey Irish Bar. Bud Light in plastic logo cups. I did not want to go, but my friend convinced me with just one. I wore a short black dress and forgot my makeup. The way he looked at me was something out of a dream. Having the same breed of dog was enough reason to go home together. He said I had “the wow-factor.”
I felt my life cleave between here and there. During those days, while digging through my purse to fish out a MetroCard, I’d feel a small clump of sand sieve through my fingers, and a montage of scenes would broadcast in my mental theater, against the backdrop of the ocean.
There was an overcast day, when my brothers, sister and I burnt. All four of us pale and freckled, now hot pink after a day seaside. We spent the next week and a half indoors in July, drinking tap water, watching TV and rubbing gooey aloe vera gel on each other’s backs. I was nine, but knew what guilt could look like, in my mother’s eyes when she lifted my brother from his bunk bed one morning, to find the skin on his back blistered and peeling. A bubble had popped overnight and golden pus adhered him to his bedsheets. It is a specific kind of terrible, the first pangs of sympathy for a parent, especially while scratching at the crispy pain of hot skin.
Another day, lying on beach towels near the water’s edge. A girl from school told me I should really think about shaving my legs. So I did, incessantly. I swept my fingernails through the hairs on my knee caps and begged my mother for a razor. She compromised and bought a yellow bottle of something called Nair. Then I stood atop the toilet seat, legs pin straight and apart, while she lathered it on from ankle to just above the knee and set the timer for five long minutes.
A little older, a balmy night in March, another beach towel, I lay in the sand dunes, under the stars and under a boy. After that, it would be years before I slept with someone in an actual bed. Just parked cars and sand dunes for me, thanks.
An August afternoon, a day after my grandmother died, when my mother and I sat in beach chairs and she told me secrets, stories about our family I’d never heard before. She did not want to be another young wife watching the softball game, wearing Reeboks and drinking beer, so she divorced him. Her feet dug into the cool sand, toes first. Did I ever tell you about your grandmother and the priest?
There were bicycles. They would get stolen from the racks, but somebody’s garage always housed an extra. One night, I watched my friend pedaling barefoot on a green beach cruiser. Fabric from her white T-shirt billowed in the wind. She was a glowing cloud against the black sky as we passed beneath the street lights every few hundred feet. She looked ordinary and luminous, gliding down the boardwalk with the dark ocean behind. This was a blurry postcard of a life well spent.
There was a house, blocks from the ocean, that I rented with three friends when we were twenty-two. We bought vintage peacock chairs at the flea market and arranged them on the porch. Early in the morning, with the windows open, we could smell the salty fog. We cooked oatmeal on the stove top and our recycling bin was in a constant state of overflow. We waitressed at a seafood restaurant where the owner said “look at you college girls, going away to school and then coming back to work at my restaurant.” We threw party after party on our porch with the jalousie windows, fireflies blinking outside, until we decided it was time to find something better to do.
There is a distinct ennui of living in a summer town all year round. My friends and I spent many conversations in that beach house, dreaming up better places to go. Cities, other coasts, countries, and eventually we moved to places. Then we’d talk on the phone, planning how to return, and when. We fantasized about becoming the women who walk the boardwalk every morning, arms and legs powering on, bundled up in coats and scarves, staying healthy into old age. They seemed to stay so healthy.
The beachtown pushes and pulls. The familiarity is suffocating, it closes in on me. Yet after I leave, the centerline of my body feels anchored to the ground. The lit up windows of my parents’ house look like eyes, silently asking, where do you think you’re going? The people in that house are reclining on leather couches and watching the nighttime news. They let you get sunburnt, but they are doing their best. Good luck, the house wishes me, on this goose chase for fulfillment you’re on. That solid and flawed house is the place that confirms that you are, for better or worse, real. What else is ever going to guarantee that?
When I left the salt-stained cottage, there was no time to pinch my nose. That story ended in a wipe out, but I knew what I was doing every time I drove across the George Washington Bridge, every time I fused the man with the ocean with my heartbeat. He might have been a current, swept beneath my life like an undertow, keeping me in place just a little bit too long.
Or maybe, he came to show me what one of my dreams felt like. The one in which I stay in the blurry postcard. The one in which the beachtown is enough. I watched that life drift away like a piece of jewelry slipped from a hand into deep water.
In the city, I stayed with a friend who grew up in the beachtown too. It only took her one try to leave, and I admired her for that. She kept a blanket and pillow on her velvet couch in Brooklyn for me. She too imagined ways it could have been.“We should have just stayed with the pizza shop boys, remember? We should have ridden bikes with them in New Jersey until we died and been happy enough,” she said to me.
Over, Under was a game, but it is also the only truth I can hold in my hand, before it sieves through my fingers into unseen pockets. The ocean is hypnotic and treacherous. I swim in it anyway.
The beach town kids have long since scattered, our Irish Catholic curfews shot to hell. I among them, continue moving and wondering and striving, stretching and curling and crashing often, then receding back calmly, to do it again.
Kate Devine is a writer living in Hudson, New York. Her essays have been featured in New York Magazine’s The Cut, POND Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, Breadcrumbs Magazine, and others. She holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. She is originally from the shores of Central New Jersey.