Just the thought of that greasy, gluey, stinking, probably-giving-us-cancer “lotion” makes me want to lie down on the couch and give up. But the pool is only open for a precious few weeks of the year, so I give myself a pep talk. Just do it! Just getitoverwith! I try to sound cheerful yet stern as I call to Amelia, “It’s sunscreen time.” Her inevitable groaning and delaying mixes with my inner ennui to make something entirely new: sunscreen-spiked rage. She is 8, and she wants to do it herself. But the thought of waiting for her to do it herself, one small drop at a time, asking me to help her with the lid again and again, makes me want to scream. She can’t reach her own back, but she will never, ever admit that. So I plot sunscreen sneak attacks. Armed with a giant white glob, I come from behind, trying to rub it into her shoulders as she shouts in protest and wiggles away. All the while, I am remembering that article I read years ago about the awful chemicals in mass-market sunscreens, feeling guilty that, yet again, I have bought the Banana Boat that was on sale instead of the exorbitantly expensive hippie sunscreen. Finally, she is coated, the screaming has subsided … and the job of coating myself still lies ahead. Let’s not even talk about reapplication.
Lugging all our chairs and towels and books and toys to the pool. Finally wrenching the chair open and sitting down, only a few inches and a thin piece of fabric separating me from the blistering hot pavement, the merciless summer sun shining in my face. (Shade is an amenity that our public pool does not afford.) It’s the kind of heat that would normally make me ill-tempered and snappish, send me running for air conditioning or the nearest tree to hide beneath. But with the relief of shimmering water just feet away, I sit until I am almost roasted. Until the tops of my knees are aflame and sweat is trickling into the small of my back. Another minute, and another. I am putting off the cold shock of the water. I wait until I am truly suffering and then … the sweet sting of stepping in. Finally, the cool immersion, the weightless floating, the magic of being gloriously slippery and cool under the punishing midday glare.
Stepping into the ocean, getting over that inevitable band of sharp shells to the satiny sand that has been rubbed smooth by the sloshing salt water. Paddling out past the wave breaks to the place where the swells gather and pass without violence or froth. To the place where I can lie on my back with my feet pointing toward the horizon and coast over the mountains of water as they arise and dissipate. Feeling like I have broken free, not just of the everyday humdrum of work or home, but of some deeply conditioned fear. Of a childhood spent walking on the beach in shoes, tightly laced, because walking barefoot is dirty, dangerous, probably downright stupid — and let’s not even dream about going into the water. Of my teenage self, who ventured in wondering, with every step, every stroke, what unimaginable thing was floating in the murky water beside me, or slinking under my feet, ready to bitepinchstingKILL. Now, here I am, facing the terrors of the deep wide ocean without armor. The old caution has been driven out, replaced with abandon.
The night song
I am walking through the trees to the bathhouse at the marina. The leaves are aglow with starlight and street lamps. The night is heavy and velvety, so full of moisture that the trees swoon under its weight. The full moon hangs between their branches. My skin itches as mosquitoes — real or imagined, I am never sure — bite at my ankles. Cats slink between the shadows of cars. The soundtrack to it all is the chorus of crickets, katydids and the occasional cicada. Their song is outsized, so big it fills up the night. The crickets hit the high notes, the katydids provide the squawking off-beat rhythm, and the cicadas add the drum rolls. Together, they are a wild, screeching, unaccountably beautiful orchestra. Surely they are violating some noise ordinance with their all-night wailing. And yet, their song comes as a surprise. It is midnight, I have been outside all evening, and I am hearing it for the first time. Only in this moment, when I am standing here alone, remembering to feel my breath going in and out, does their sound finally push past my eardrums and into my brain. Most of the time, I am missing it, this joyful, riotous song of the Southern summer.