I'm a local. I rarely go to the beach. But on a lazy Saturday, with my family out of town, the primordial urge toward sun and water had driven me there. Putting aside my weekday business wear, I'd plucked a wrinkled bathing suit from a drawer and with pale skin and a book, made my way somewhat tentatively for the foreign terrain of the beach.
And then it began. Mysteriously, somewhere in the parking lot, between street and sand, my inhibitions began to evaporate in the steamy air. Rather like our turtle or gull counterparts, and with about the same concern for decorum, I found myself marching toward the sea. There, at its edge, I established my territorial kingdom on a faded terry cloth towel, exposing what wanted to be exposed, and suddenly not caring who saw.
To my right, I noticed a synchronous motion. Four old men were standing in tightly stretched bathing suits. They weren't speaking, but from time to time would rotate their aging backs sunward, lean forward for a more direct hit by the ultraviolets, and then resume their silent broil. They reminded me of cormorants with outstretched wings, drying or cooling, or maybe just liking the feel of sun on parts that are usually tucked away.
To my left, two teenage girls were languidly practicing the feminine ritual of "presentation of the bathing suit." As if in a tandem ballet for little nymphs, off came the shorts, then a reconnoiter right and left; then off with the T-shirts, now a gaze left and right. In unison, the duet gathered up their curls, formed exploding buns atop their heads, and in a final lotion-smearing pas de deux, slowly sank into the blazing sand, ready for the rotisserie and pleased to have registered some adolescent male looks.
Toward the water, a covey of gulls was being raised by hand-clapping children running back and forth alternately delighted or terrified by the swoop of the red-mouthed birds. Birds screaming, children screaming, racing far from usually restrictive mothers, who this time were only raising drowsy heads to evaluate the tonal quality of the squeals, then snuggle back into the torpor of warm beach against their warm skin.
I looked at the sun-toasted figures and smelled the heat. Dull reds flared crimson, yellows seemed on fire, and the sky stretched out in a velvety cerulean arc. Here, nobody cared if your ice cream melted down your chest, if there was sand in your eyebrows, or if your cleavage — fore or aft — was showing, at least not until the parking lot. Here you could be loud, provocative, sloppy fat or dead asleep. You could talk to strangers, roll on the ground, throw things or let your salt-stiffened hair stand out like a sawgrass palm. Somehow, here, steps from the civilization that stratifies and sometimes stultifies us, there existed an exuberant intimacy, us with each other, with the brilliant water, the pulsing earth, and with all its living beings.
I've decided to come back to the beach more often now. I liked these creatures who groomed each other with ointment, pulled stickers out of each other's feet, and cradled sleepy offspring in their sunburnt arms. I liked the yin and yang of getting gritty, then washing clean; of building a beautiful sand castle, then kicking it into powder; and of old people hugging each other in the sunshine and whispering a kiss of promise. I think I've learned a secret about the beach, one tourists and travelers have known all along: There's a lot more magic on the waterside of the parking lot than you'd ever know from the street.
Marina Brown is a Florida freelance writer and journalist.