Words By The Sea

Farah’s story of love by the shore and my experience of the beach couldn’t be more dissimilar. Looking down, you would not see our footprints in the sand in tandem. So while Farah talks to us about making a leap of faith by singing to a stranger on a beach and baring one's soul in the process, I'd sooner be parachuting into North Korean territory during a blizzard.  

I read and reread Farah's piece on planes from Texas through Colorado to Alaska. My imagination ran free (as far as it could go in the confines of a 737 at 38,000 feet) and reality reigned me back in. I went from the warm coastal beaches of Texas to the landlocked Rocky Mountain state, to the near freezing shoreline of Cook Inlet in September as I read and pondered Farah's article of meeting a stranger on the beach.

Walking alone on a shoreline is an odd concept for me. No, let me clarify this: it is a frightening thought. My first response was "alone? Was she out of her mind?" She obviously didn't grow up in Micronesia. I thought of how trusting I would have to be in that situation and all I could conclude was I am on this beach alone because I survived a water landing, or my car broke down, or my entire circle of friends at a clambake was abducted by aliens. Me on a beach alone? Nunca-nunca! (In moments of extreme stress I revert to childish Spanish.)

When I was a toddler our maid, Juana, would take me down to the beach in Cadiz.  She would gather me up, let me take a toy with me and collect a few oranges that our gardener Pepe would dutifully select from our tree in the garden in Seville. She’d parade me around - as the son of a sailor, I was dressed up in sailor’s kit - as was the custom of all maids (it was ironic that our mothers would dress us like that and ensure we were held tightly on the beach, when they were rushing their menfolk onto boats to be taken out to sea).

My earliest recollections of the beach was a woman’s hand tightly holding mine. The message was silent - “you are never alone,” but “never should you be alone” was how I understood it. I was famous for running away and crossing busy intersections by myself at age 2 and climbing up a ladder and sitting on the roof at 3 as my Mom, Pepe, Jose and Juana frantically ran around below in the yard and through the villa (nobody looked up). I swung my legs, calling out “here I am.” Knowing this, there was no way our maid ever let me out of her grasp on a beach of all places.

Still, she did what every maid did - painstakingly dressed me up and paraded her charge along the walkway. I always cried and asked for a Chupa-Chup lollipop. Juana would buy me one from the man who sold cola al fresca and snacks. After I finished, we played in the sand.

I remember the oranges she rolled to me like a ball.  Then she would dust it off, peel it and share it with me as I kept digging in the sand. Why can’t this be the overpowering image I default to when I think of beach? Instead, it will always be “never should you be alone.”

I couldn't equate Farah’s story with my summer at Concarneau in Brittany when I was an intern in grad school. Mark Twain said the coldest winter was his summer in San Francisco; he clearly had not been to Brittany in July. It brings back memories of tossing oranges to my best friend with my nails sinking into the rinds after eating cheese and baguettes at the water break near the harbor. And goose pimples. No matter how warmly I dressed, I was always in resemblance to a freshly plucked fowl.

I rendezvoused with an old friend from college - she was in France for the summer and I was just in from humid Vienna. We were as inseparable in college as we were that summer, as we floated in a fluid group of Brits, Swiss and Aussies all visiting for the vacation months. There was never a time I was alone on a beach. There would always be a pane of glass between me and the empty expanses of water and sand. Happiness was watching the waves roll in and out from a distance, snugly indoors, before the storms began their nightly routine.I would never venture out without company. I am not afraid of the sea, I am just not comfortable near too much of it. You never know what might be lurking just below the surface.

I cannot say Farah's story brought back any memories of strangers on the silted shores of that Kashmiri lake from my childhood - my shoes slowly ruining in the slush of snow, mud and plum blossoms - as I stood beside the houseboat we were staying in (which once hosted Henry Kissinger). That was the month Indira Gandhi was voted out; my whole family got stuck in India. I only remember our driver admonishing me to step back to the safe, dry solidness of the ground near the lake. I doubt I would have found love either. I was 12 years old. Now, I think about bringing my love with me to the ocean, instead of innocently discovering them as strangers by tide lines.

The beach of Farah's story could look like the gravelly beach of Odawara with its inhospitable tide - complete with a Japanese castle on the hill in the distance. There would be no songs from the men working on the shore. Traffic would hum past overhead on the elevated expressway. I can only imagine vibrations and the errant stench of diesel.

Her beach could have looked like the one laden with shards of broken dishware and glassware (abraded smooth over years of churning waves in Enoshima a few miles away) near Kamakura. The Great Bronze Buddha would cast his shadow through the temple. But then again, no one was on that beach or everyone was on that beach. There is never a moment of quiet interaction with a stranger.

I have never been at the shoreline alone - even on an island famous for its beaches. There is no desire to do so. I lived on Guam and it wasn't safe so I never did. I carried that through life as the emotional baggage it is. It is my a scar I keep hidden.

The thought of a solitary person on a beach brings back images of a corpse floating up to the shore in Anigua on Marine Drive on a work day morning. That happened when I was in high school back on the island. One person on the wet sand until his corpse was found - does that then make 2 on the beach?

My life and upbringing are such that reading about someone going to walk along the water line utterly in the singular is about as alien and as inexplicable as trying to describe an ocean sunset to a herdsman on the vast steppes of Mongolia. I would have better luck describing color to a blind man. Seeing solitary figures near the surf in movies still makes me uncomfortable.

That is why I find Farah's story so intriguing. It is as unrealistically beautiful as an orange tree in a snow bank laden with perfect fruit. She kept it simple and let me see if I could fill in the details. She left me to my comfort zone. I will celebrate Farah's bravery from my coward's distance.

* "Nunca-nunca!" : Spanish for “no, no, never!”

This article was first published 4 February 2017