No Season Is Sweeter Than a Northeastern Summer
The heat wave did it, awakened the half-gilled self that longs to go back to the beach where it was born.
Since then, the daily drive to Chatsworth has become a heroic effort.
Some of us feel vaguely unsettled whenever we move inland, away from the nearest ocean, as if we’ve turned our backs on Mecca.
But this time of year the ocean’s pull increases, becoming an ache and a distraction. Instead of gamely facing the Santa Susana Mountains and driving cross the Valley to my landlocked office, I want to race the twisted course of Topanga Canyon and spend the day the way God meant it to be spent, on a beach, inhaling Eau de Coppertone.
For those of us raised in the East, this urge is seasonal.
It is possible that Encino natives and other Californians value the shore as much as those of us who had to wait for the drifts to melt before we could break out our swimsuits. Possible, but not likely. Scarcity makes things dear, and no season is shorter, or sweeter, than a Northeastern summer.
We began to fantasize about the beach as soon as the first asparagus poked through the snow. But the season didn’t actually start till June, and the water wasn’t warm enough for any vertebrate not covered with fur until halfway through July.
By Sept. 1, it was all but over. One day just before school started, you rolled over on your beach towel, opened your eyes and realized that the light had changed from August yellow to autumnal blue.
The sand beneath your back suddenly felt cold.
We became sea people the first time our parents showed us the Atlantic, after a purgatorial drive from the city in a hot car full of towels and little brothers. People like us, who came down from Philadelphia or Camden for the day, were called “shoobies” by year-round residents of Margate and Atlantic City, a disdainful reference to the shoe boxes we commuters were said to carry with us, packed with whatever the lower classes ate for lunch.
The shoe box was an elitist canard. In point of fact, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were in a Styrofoam hamper, next to the beer. We ate them as soon as we hit the beach, our appetites undiminished by sand, horseflies or the scorn of the natives.
My father removed black shoes and socks, exposing alarmingly pale urban skin, and eventually fell asleep on the beach. My mother sat at attention through the day. She squinted at the shoreline and counted us over and over. She insisted on pulling us out of the water when our lips turned blue.
I imprinted on the ocean before I actually saw it.
The car windows were rolled down. Some younger, even more restless sibling had just reprised, “Are we there yet?” And then I knew we were there, even though the surf was still a mile away. The car was suddenly perfumed with the lovely, erotic stink of the salt marshes, a scent more distinctive and indelible than bacon frying or Black Jack gum. I was forever hooked.
That hunger was refined in adolescence. It was the practice in my high school crowd to get summer jobs at seaside resorts. Our stated purpose was to earn money for college, something we did almost as an afterthought. It still strikes me as miraculous that, in the midst of the Great Repression, in the era of the Legion of Decency and Sandra Dee, our parents chose to believe this noble nonsense and simply sprang us for three glorious months from the handcuffs of suburban respectability.
A job waitressing at the shore was a passport to another, better country, a nation of peers in which you could stay up to see the sunrise even if it wasn’t prom night. You could stay up together.
No fools, we spent every clement moment on the beach, our unmarked bodies basted with Johnson’s baby oil and iodine, our bathing suits as carefully chosen as wedding dresses.
This was a courtship ritual, as stylized as any bird’s or butterfly’s, with both active and passive stages. For hours at a time, we lay on our stomachs, pointing our toes until our calves ached. During this phase, you could read, if you had to, as long as you chose a sufficiently becoming title.
It was more pleasurable, though, to close your eyes and try to wish the Sean Perfect of your churning libido into existence in the real world. This actually seemed to happen from time to time. One day an acceptable male would cast an actual shadow on your back. Soon he had assumed the intimate responsibility of smoothing on your marinade. You moved your towel out of the all-female gaggle and mated for life, or at least until September.
Slowly cruising the beach was the active part of this rite. That we could stand at all was remarkable, given that the sun and sound and smell of the water quickly turned us into little more than college-bound erogenous zones. We strolled self-consciously in pairs, with a shrewdly chosen girlfriend who was neither a threat nor an embarrassment. In the best of all possible seaside worlds, a lifeguard came down from his stand in heaven and spoke to you.
In hell he descended and talked to your friend.
It’s time for the beach. The part that stays 16 remembers.