Opening the car’s hood was an exercise in futility, unless a leprechaun was going to pop out and tell me how to fix a broken transmission. I looked over my shoulder. There were no leprechauns in this neighborhood. It was not the best place to break down.
“What’s up with that dude’s shorts?” one of the twins said from an open car window.
“He does it like that on purpose,” the other twin said. “He’s sagging.”
“What for? It looks stupid.”
I glared around the hood to shut them up. We had been headed to the beach for the annual family vacation. In my mind, I had already made a beeline for the water’s edge. My toes tried to dig through shoes and hard concrete as I tried to imagine wet sand beneath my feet, a cold drink in my hand, my cares tossed somewhere over my shoulder.
I had been avoiding a clogged up interstate in Mobile, Alabama, when the car stopped moving and stranded us in a neighborhood with chalk bodies outlined on the sidewalk.
With bills to pay, kids to properly raise, and a marriage to hold on to, this was already a stage in life where my personal impotence didn’t need to assert itself.
Our leprechaun ended up being a friendly Mobile police officer who seemed as intent on getting out of that neighborhood as I was. He couldn’t fix the problem, but he did get the vehicle moving.
So, before my vacation could officially start, there I was the driving around Mobile at twenty five miles-per-hour. It sounded like World War 3 was being waged under our hood. There was the mechanic who got a serious case of the giggles after I told him about the problem and asked if he thought it was something expensive. Then there was clerk who rented me the last car at the airport, for an exorbitant rate; a car that was so short I had to sit in it sideways or steer with my nose.
When I finally got to the beach I wasn’t really there. It took two days to bring my heart rate down. But, by about Wednesday, I finally reached that point a vacation is supposed to provide. The deep breaths. The relaxation of muscles I did not know existed. The empty mind. I had finally reached the edge of the ocean. My toes were in the sand, mentally and physically. I was standing at the edge of something huge. Now, unlike a mountain canyon, and the sense of vertigo it inspires, this empty void brings me peace. The ocean was a gently undulating horizon of nothing that in its very scope reduced my problems to insignificance. The waves going in and out were almost like breaths from the planet, both hypnotic and soothing.
Then something drifted into view; something that floated between my rendezvous with an empty sea, and an emptier mind.
It was a boat.
No a raft.
A life raft?
No, it was a blow up raft.
The boat was a tangle of elbows, knees and screaming mouths. It looked like some kind of plastic tenement for short people. Just as this tiny Titanic came into focus, a massive wave rose behind the boat and swamped it in a white, frothy curtain of salt water. Boat and elbows alike vanished from view.
Instead of sand between my toes, it was water to my knees as I took two quick steps forward. My eyes swept the churning surf, seizing on the orange plastic of the overturned boat. Then a head popped up. And another. And another. Until, one by one, every passenger was accounted for. They were laughing as they spit out saltwater and used words like “awesome” and “let’s do it again”.
My peace of mind had just been hijacked.
Still, wasn’t there was enough empty sea for childhood chaos and parental peace to co-exist? I turned myself twenty-five degrees starboard, and the little Titanic and its rowdy crew were on my periphery.
This would work. I would “kind of” watch them.
Except two members of that crew were mine. And I was related to all of them.
Had we gone to the mountains instead, I would not have let my kids climb the edge of a cliff. Yet there they were. Swimming too far from shore. Straying too far away from one another. And battling wave after wave, getting knocked down time and again, and always getting up and always going back for more.
Such is the case for family vacations. In my dreams, the act of standing at the edge of the sea is best experienced with my arm around my wife, my free hand holding some kind of drink with an umbrella in it. In reality, those soothing waves were accompanied by thrown sand, sunburns, seaweed in the crotch, screaming, fighting, expensive Boogie Boards caught in the wind and cart wheeling down the beach, jellyfish stings in strange places, phantom shark sightings and much, much more.
A vacation was supposed to be a chance to lose myself. And maybe an opportunity to lose my children, at least for a small portion of the day. All I’m talking about a little personal space that allows some peace. Perhaps the ocean was a messy way to ditch the kids because by its very nature it kept spitting them back.
Only what if it didn’t?
These waves were loud and powerful. They announced their presence as they approached the shore with little whitecaps dancing at the top, then enforced their will on anyone who managed to get in the way.
So toes in the sand gave way to seaweed in the crotch. I found a board with a Disney princess on it and paddled out to where my children toyed with nature’s awesome strength. We bounced in the waves, swallowed saltwater, and debated which one of us the sharks would find the tastiest.
As we played in the surf it occurred to me that the space I was seeking would be granted in a relatively short time, whether I wanted it or not. Only a few years before, I would have been relegated to the water’s edge as these same children tottered around my feet. Now they were in the water over their heads, battling the occasional wave that broke too soon and swimming against currents I could not see.
I decided then that whether we were in the water or on the shore, I knew I was standing at the edge of something huge. A place and time for looking at the horizon and enjoying the infinite beauty of nature. But it was also powerful and quick, so I needed to pay attention to what was right in front of me. It was a place that would rush you toward the shore, then slowly drag you back out, pushing you further down the beach, until the spot where you went into the water would soon be a distant memory.
This was a place where I could easily lose everything I had.
It was my vacation. I was bobbing in the water with screaming kids. And I was standing at the edge of something huge, only I wasn’t altogether sure what it was.