By Emma Goldenthal
For most of every year, the ocean exists only for me in photos, memories, and scattered conversations. Yet in all the strangeness of these past weeks, I have found myself paying early visits to the Westerly beaches I grew up alongside. They feel exactly the same, yet also different, distant. The sand is still the sand. The water is still frigid, the current forever ebbing back and forth. But it will be months, if not longer, before the dunes are reacquainted to vacationing families, sunbathers, and unoccasioned fireworks. This is the ocean in its off-season, unobserved but by a few habitual beachcombers and local fishing enthusiasts, who stand atop the rocky jetties spaced just nearly six feet apart. The waves are unridden and unsplashed. The tides wash away fewer footprints. But the water is still as big as ever, cupping the sky in its muted embrace.
Last summer was supposed to be my last summer here. I spent most of my days and some evenings working as counterstaff for a small seafood restaurant, a little ways away from the public beach. Basically, I romanticized all the non-work parts of my job like crazy. I rode my bike there every morning, watching the grassy marshes change to tacky surf bars and sandy parking lots, where the price of a day pass changes with the weather. Still in the early stages of on-and-off vegetarianism, I often snacked on fried shrimp during my lunch breaks, where I sat out back overlooking the miniature waterslides in the nextdoor lot. After our shifts ended, a few coworkers and I would occasionally buy “Hawaiian shaved ice” from the makeshift stand across the street. It was just another summer job in a coastal town, but one full of character all the same.
My favorite part of Westerly in the summer is how good it feels when I’m not working. The freedom of loosening my bike from its lock in the ever-growing glow of sunset and the balmy air against my bare arms as I take off for home is almost unparallelled—until I reach the beach. If there’s any light left in the sky, and if the waves aren’t too unruly, I can quickly change into my swimsuit, pile my sneakers and uniform t-shirt in the sand, and wade into the ocean for a slow swim. The beaches are usually pretty quiet this time of day, the precise opposite of a lunch rush that routinely lasts until close. Once I’ve gotten over the initial gasp of cold, I can close my eyes and float. I feel the day’s stress dissolve, the sticky spilled soda, loose-change metal smells on my skin washed away by the water. There is just one of me and an absolute endlessness of it. When my concerns that I might be floating out to sea convince me to open my eyes again, I let my hands rest on the surface of the water and look around at all the color, the once deep blue that has now faded into cool misty greens and, if I’m lucky, lilac purples and pinks to match the clouds.
When I finally emerge from the ocean, I like to think that a bit of its residual grace and strength sticks with me as well as its salt. The ocean, like the sky at dusk, changes by the minute. But it’s always the same ocean, the same water, the same beach colored by a different time of day. This place will always be my place, those evenings mine to cherish, even when I’m hours away from the coast, or here in Westerly now when I’m really not supposed to be. I walk along the beach when I should be walking to class. It’s an in-between time, an off-step visit. But even though I tell myself it’s still too cold out, I can’t help but wonder how nice it’d feel to take a quick dip in the familiar-unfamiliar waves of spring.