I’m part of a
cult collective of artists and writers called The Soaring Twenties Social Club (STSC). We gather on Discord, support each other’s work, and try to put actually good content out into the world. It’s a fun and inspiring group that I wish I had more free time to hang out with.
As part of STSC’s Symposium series, each month we’re given a simple theme to explore. This month, the theme is “The Beach” and I thought, hey, I wrote a piece with that exact title and I don’t remember it being too terrible. So, I decided to revisit it and publish it again.
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“What do you think she’s thinking right now?” I ask.
“That’s so funny,” says my wife Allison, “I was just thinking the exact same thing.”
We’re on our way to Doran Beach in Bodega Bay. I’m driving, while my daughter Em is in her car seat and Allison is sitting next to her in the backseat of our Honda CR-V. We were feeling stir crazy and Em has been doing so well in the car lately that we decided to attempt our first beach trip since Em was born 2 1/2 years ago.
We’re about forty minutes into our hour-long drive and Em is doing remarkably well, even without listening to her Spotify playlist on repeat. Today she seems perfectly content to look around and listen to our conversation, periodically contributing her own happy noises.
“She must be thinking something, right?” I ask.
“I’m not sure. Do you think she understands language enough to have thoughts?”
I’m not sure either. Em can make noises, but she can’t talk, which makes it difficult to know what she understands. We make it a point to talk to her all the time. We always refer to items using the same words, like her cadre of animated, talking, and singing animals with the names Trilly (penguin), Bailey (bear), Flora (rabbit), and Piper (pig). We act as if she can understand everything a typical child her age can.
My mind contemplates this as I continue to drive and take in the scenery. I notice the hills west of Petaluma are blanketed with lush, almost fluorescent green grass, reminiscent of the Windows XP wallpaper Bliss—an iconic image taken not too far east of here. The marine layer lingers in the tops of the trees as cows graze in the fields below. It’s refreshing to see so much open land.
The open land funnels down into more tightly packed hills for a few miles before we make a left turn toward the ocean and see our first peek of the ocean and the thin peninsula strip where the beach resides.
The parking lot is more packed than I expect on a brisk wind-swept mid-February afternoon. As we turn into the lot a car pulls out of a spot at the end of the first row. A few handicap spots are open one row closer to the beach, which we could use because Em qualifies for a placard due to her disability. But I’m glad to avoid the stares from strangers wondering why two able-bodied adults need to park in a handicapped spot.
Today is not a feel-the-sand-between-your-toes kind of day. I’m wearing my pullover SF Giants hoodie, Allison is wearing a down parka, and we have Em bundled in a beanie and her full-zip hoodie—the one with a broken zipper that we packed on accident.
Allison carries Em as we make our way closer to the water. I want Em to be able to smell the ocean and hear the waves crashing for the first time. There won’t be any running around splashing in the water for her, not only because she can’t walk, but because it’s too damn cold out today.
I find a flat spot and unfurl our blanket, holding it above my head in the wind like a flag turned on its side and slowly lower it to the ground. The blanket is made from stitched-together pairs of Allison’s grandfather’s old jeans—with the worn-down knees and dried stains to prove it. I never met the man. From the stories I’ve heard about him, it sounds like we would’ve gotten along great. I wish we could’ve met and played a game of cribbage before cancer got the best of him. Judging by the size of his jeans, it’s clear I would’ve towered over him.
Em is looking tired. She only took a thirty-minute nap earlier. Maybe the sound of the waves will lull her back to sleep.
All the other familiar sights and sounds are here: a couple sauntering down the beach, two crazy guys body-boarding in the frigid water, a dog barking, kids laughing, the dog barking again, seagulls squawking, and jesus will that dog shut up already?!
I look at Allison and see Em making a face that can mean only one thing.
“She’s peeing isn’t she?” I ask.
Allison slumps her shoulders and says, “Yep.”
We trudge back to the car through the wind and sand to do a quick diaper change in the backseat. Then it’s my turn to carry Em to a new spot on the beach a bit closer to the car, further back from the ocean and the annoying barking dog.
We timed the trip perfectly with Em’s tube-feeding meals. Allison finished up one just before we arrived, so we don’t have to feed her in public and without worrying about getting sand in her food. Instead, we can relax and enjoy some semblance of normalcy for a while.
I hand Em over to Allison and, once again, I lay the blanket down on the sand. I put my foot on the edge to keep it from flipping over with each gust of wind. Allison sits and starts to rock and sing to Em, hoping to get her to nap again. I lay on my side next to them and listen to Allison’s soft voice singing, “You Are My Sunshine.” As I close my eyes and start to drift off, a gust of wind blows sand across the blanket and into my mouth. I spit it out, turn my back to the wind, pull my hood over my head to block the next wave of sand, and close my eyes again.
Em doesn’t seem to want to go to sleep. I drift in and out of my nap each time more sand sprinkles onto me. But it still feels relaxing. It’s unclear if Em feels the same way. Like most kids her age, she lives in the moment and is more concerned with her immediate surroundings. I try to point to the crashing waves, but I don’t know if she sees them or has any idea what they are or where we are. In all likelihood, she’s probably just annoyed about the wind and sand in her face.
We decide to call it and walk back to the car. We unsuccessfully attempt to get the sand out of our clothes and our hair and our basically everywhere. We load Em into her car seat and hit the road. And my mind starts to wander.
In the times before COVID, we never would’ve considered going to the beach on a day like this. After nearly a year of isolation and being cooped up in our house, we were desperate for a change of scenery.
We stayed for an hour and nothing overly dramatic happened. We looked like a normal couple with their normal child sharing a normal, happy day at the beach together.
I chuckle and I say, “You know, if you boil it down, we drove over two hours and paid $7.00 so I could take a nap while sand blew in my face.”
But the trip to the beach meant much more than that. It felt like a weight lifted. Now we know our world can open up beyond our home and the neighborhood around it. We can make a day trip that’s not just a drive to San Francisco for a doctor's appointment. Trips in the car with Em used to be awful. Early on, she was so uncomfortable that she would scream and nearly hyperventilate. But now she seems like she’s getting a little more comfortable with her body’s unusual and sometimes involuntary muscle movements.
I can’t pretend I know what Em is thinking, but I know she’s happier now and that makes me smile.
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I loved this story Lyle….it was refreshing, it said a lot, and I feel Emily really seemed to enjoy the day, she didn’t want to sleep, she wanted to take this day in, hanging out with mommy, daddy, the sand, the wind and the waves….she was probably getting cabin fever too.💕🤗😘
Unless she's actively uncomfortable, she's more than likely enjoying it. That's the important part.