We—the kids, La Bonavita, his friend, Evan, and me—were at the Santa Monica beach. I was stretched out under a beach umbrella gazing at the waves crashing onto the shore under the blue, cloudless sky.
“Sometimes, it’s so surreal to me that I actually live here,” I murmured.
Evan looked up from his phone, questioningly. “Growing up in London,” I continued, “I could never have imagined living somewhere like this. It would have seemed unreal,” I added.
“Well, LA is kind of unreal,” he observed.
I’m not sure we had the same thing in mind.
I wasn’t thinking of Hollywood or the common perception that L.A. is somehow inherently ersatz (an observation usually made by people who don’t know the city well, but who nonetheless offer it up as an insight of some profundity and worldliness). I wasn’t even thinking of the distinctively sleek feel of the pocket of Santa Monica where I live, where the air hums with the soft purr of Priuses and dry bars and Birds whirring by.
All that is unreal in one way; but so too was the thisness that I had meant to evoke: the thisness of being supine on the sand hearing the waves crash and the cries of “mango mango mangooooo” ring out, the hot sun tempered by the breeze, the scent of sunscreen on warm skin, the saturated colors of beach umbrellas vivid against the sky.
It felt to me in that moment almost on the order of a category error that these sense experiences should be available to me where I live everyday.
I have memories of beaches like this from childhood holidays abroad; they were the very essence of what it meant to be “on holiday,” for normal life to be temporarily suspended. These particular sense experiences are also the stuff of fantasy; it’s what the yoga teacher tells you to imagine—“feel the weight of your body in the warm sand …”—when she guides you in a meditation.
Why is lying on the beach our shorthand for deep relaxation? Is it that lying on the beach is really so relaxing or is it that, in a version of Elaine Scarry’s argument about how filmy objects are easier to imagine, there is something about the feel of sand and surf and ocean breeze that is more easily conjured than, say, sitting quietly in a garden? Or is it that, in our collective imagination, the beach codes for carefreeness, for ease?
I remember, when we lived in Chicago, there was a book I would read to the elder when he was a toddler. It was called Skip Through The Seasons. Every page was about a different month. The picture for August was of people on a beach like the Santa Monica beach. I would linger on that page when we read the book during the Chicago winter. I would imagine the feel of the hot sand under my feet and the sun on my skin, and I would long to be in that picture, where my body, surely, would slowly unfurl from the curled up position it reflexively assumed in the cold. It seemed miraculous, during those winters, to imagine that there might be a place and season in which humans ventured outdoors with next to nothing on.
I carried around that picture in my mind like a talisman.
But now, here I was, in the picture; I could be in the picture every day, if I wanted.
I didn’t say any of this.
Instead I said, “where I grew up is just … really different from,” I gestured around, “… all of this,” I concluded.
“How was it different?” the younger asked.
She was sitting a couple of feet away from me shoveling sand into a bucket.
“Well … you’ve been to England, what do you think?” I replied. “How is England different from here?”
She thought for a moment, and I wondered what she would say. Something about the weather, I guessed, or maybe about people’s accents.
“Well,” she said, finally, “I guess one big difference is that the stores in England are a lot worse. Like, they don’t have “Aahs” or “Rite-Aid.”
Evan started laughing.
“That is true … that they don’t have those things there,” I said, smiling. “That is very true.”