Once upon a gorgeous day at the beach, I sat in gym clothes, pondering the meaning of … an email. The waves seemed to pause, perfectly, on the part I love the most; you know the one, where the water curls over itself, just before it turns white and crashes? I love that. This particular afternoon, though, the water wasn’t just NJ ocean colored. No, this afternoon it was a brilliant shade of royal blue that seemed to lighten as it came closer to the coastline. Once the waves got to that favorite point of mine, you could actually see through them, and I wondered why emails were not the same in that regard.
The email I pondered was simple: “xo.” Two letters, two sentiments that seem to go together perfectly, right? The two actions, represented by the aforementioned letters, on such things as cards, candy, and a gold bracelet my first serious boyfriend bought for me — I almost flushed it down the toilet during a fight, but my mother caught it right in time, and good thing! – these two letters are the peanut butter and jelly of affection; classics. They mean so much, yet say so little, literally. And there they were, inboxed.
To the naked eye, this may be a good or a bad email, depending on how you view my story. And much like the ocean, this afternoon, the views may blend into different colors. Unlike the ocean of today, however, I could not find any part of it to call my favorite, and as I mentioned earlier, seeing through it was impossible. All I know for sure, is these letters seem to mean most when they come from this particular sender. Is it because this is the most unlikely user of this combination of characters? Perhaps, but the story does not really end there, but rather, it begins.
While sitting on the boardwalk, watching my waves break, studying the curl as closely as I could, enjoying pure contentment that is spring break and beach living on a quiet, empty, roughly 70 degree afternoon, I was thinking about the letters of affection I have lately been receiving, while soaking up the vitamin D and endorphins that come with having a week off at home, with time to go to the gym. I noticed a woman suddenly sit to my left. Immediately, I felt anxious, as I am the very worst small talker on the planet, which stems from being a really shy person, and also because I really liked my expanse of quiet to sit and think. I wasn’t unhappy to any degree, just in a thought web, and I knew she would talk to me. I just knew it! (And I hadn’t even really looked at her yet.)
I just do not feel comfortable talking to any random person. In fact, I get completely freaked out by it, and this has been since I can remember. One of my earliest memories is hiding behind my mother in an elevator in our apartment building in NY when a neighbor man was asking me questions. Of course, she made me answer, showed me how to be polite, but to this day, I still get that very same two year old feeling of wanting to hide behind her leg when someone “strange” talks to me.
“What?” you may ask, how could YOU be impacted by strange, when you are so … you know, strange yourself? But, I mean strangers; the people I will not open my door for when they knock, the people on the grocery line, the people behind the desk at the gym, the ones who run next to you and want to talk, those people at the bar, they ALL make me edgy, angsty even. This does not mean I ignore them, it just means that inside I feel slippery and anxious, the entire time planning my escape route. And I just knew, based on nothing but peripheral vision, that this woman was going to be a moderate to hardcore yapper.
Just as I was about to make my move to the cell phone on my lap, to look at THE email again (not that it was going to change, I realized, I just wanted to see it again, to find if it inspired any other feelings besides a question mark, even though it had no punctuation itself), the woman to my left began to sing. Out loud. Loudly!
No I wasn’t judging, I was thinking about how I was going to have to acknowledge her choice lyrics, which were, of course “Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away, sitting on the dock of the bay wasting ti-i-i-i-ime.” I quickly looked down at my phone then back up to the water I did not want to leave, but suddenly felt a mass amount of pressure to dart from. And then … “what a day, huh?”
I nodded, and smiled – a genuine smile, showing teeth and everything – but that wasn’t enough for my friendly neighbor. “I’m here from California,” she said as I nodded and smiled, politely yet again, “and I’m visiting my mother. She is sick.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I offered, realizing that this woman just wanted someone to talk to. And then she went hysterical, crying into her hand for about twenty solid seconds; heavy breathing and all, and then she just stopped. At first I thought she was kidding, as I had NEVER seen anyone change emotions so fast – not even myself! – but she wasn’t kidding.
“My brother lives out here, too,” she said, “but he’s all ME, ME, ME, all the time. You know, he threw out all my stuff?”
“Really?” I played with my bright pink phone, which had just died. And all I could think was that it, too, hated small talk, and perhaps this woman with the Lenny Kravitz hoop nose ring and the baby pink lace tank top, and three plastic shopping bags, one inside the other. She opened the inner most one through the hole of the knotted handles, pulled out a kids plastic cup with the red top, from a restaurant just down the street, and did not miss a beat in her story.
“But then I met a man, at Soul Kitchen, you know what that is, right?” I nodded, and she continued. “We were both volunteering, and then some of us were going out for drinks, so I asked him to come along. Then, he asked me to take a walk on the beach, so I called my girlfriend on her cell phone and made her follow us, but from afar, because you never know, right?”
“Right,” I nodded again, this time, finding myself intently listening.
“Then he asked me on a real date; we went on a beach picnic and he had two bicycles there you know the ones with the baskets?” Obviously, I nodded, again.
“It turns out he bought them for us, he told me later.”
“Wow,” was all I had time to offer before she continued.
“I thought I’d go back, but I’m still here.” This made me think of an ex-boyfriend of mine, who once put up an away message on instant messenger that said “If I didn’t wake up, I’d still be sleeping.” Hmmm, I thought.
“But I always go for the bad boys,” she said looking out at my waves. And just then, as if they heard my name, my ears perked up.
“I was in the Navy,” she said, “I had four kids, they are all in California,” she sipped her sippy cup, and continued, “and they want me to come back. It is my daughter’s thirtieth, and I am going to surprise her, so …” she trailed off.
“Will you bring him?” I asked.
“He is so nice, but I don’t know; that is still up in the air. You know, as long as I have been divorced, my grown up kids still want me to get back together with their father, and bringing a man to the other side of the country for her birthday will probably beg her to ask me ‘what the fuck, Mom?” I stared at her face, suddenly, the nose ring, the freckles, the straw-like, messy ocean hair.
“I used to be pretty,” she said, “not glamorous, but pretty, a swimmer girl next door type.” I nodded again, smiling, respectfully, thinking about where I had to be, suddenly, and about the email that had been on my mind. “But, I always went for the bad boys,” she said, again.
“I understand,” I laughed, referring, ambiguously to my own behavior, since I can remember.
“Florence Nightingale syndrome,” she said, as we both looked out at the ocean, once again. “We want to fix them, and make them good.”
“But what would we do with them once that happened?” I asked, truly wanting the answer.
“That’s a good question,” she asked. “Look at those girls, out there,” she said, pointing to the bikini clad teenagers walking on the wet, more compact sand by the water. “I mean, it’s a nice day, and all, but a bathing suit already? I didn’t think it was warm enough.”
“And speaking of bathing suits,” I said, with another smile, this one not as genuine, “I really have to get to my spin class.”
I got up, answered five more of her questions about the local gym, and walked away, thinking about the email I received, not skipping a beat from the very last thought I had before she popped my bubble with her pin-like singing. Did it mean so much to me, because of the sender?
And just then, I realized, that if I continued to like bad boys, and analyze their emails, I, too, may end up on a date, thirty five years from now, after a night volunteering at Soul Kitchen, telling some nameless girl to my right about the first time I ever went for a nice fellow.
So I walked in, responded to the email, with a flattering line, and went to the gym, wondering if I would get a response. And wondering if I would be wondering about the response that response would inspire, which unlike my ocean would not be see-through at all. Maybe bad boys are just like the ocean; an ever-changing constant that I visit to ponder, of and at, knowing it will always be the same, but different. Knowing that every little kid, no matter what technology comes out, will jump over the wave as it hits their feet, and laugh. Just like the words of a bad boy … but, wait! Maybe this wasn’t some message to me from the Gods of the Ocean, who listen to me think through every season, and have been given my actual problems, written out, just so I could relieve myself of them, because I know they could handle them (they handled the Titanic, and other cruise ships, icebergs, animals, airplanes, people, pirates, submarines, wars, etc., right? What are my problems in comparison? The ocean makes me feel small, and therefore the issues at hand small, too.). Maybe this was a bit more about showing me that we ALL deal with the same kind of things, be it a bad boy, a heartbreak, a loss, an email, a gain, LOVE, or even an analysis of a person we date.
And so, maybe I am not going to end up like the lady to my left, after all. I mean, it took me how many visits to the ocean to be able to see through it? Thirty years of visits! In all weather, and even moving to it! Maybe the letter-sender, and some of my other choice bad boys, are just like the ocean, too; going wherever the wind blows, until something feels right, or traps you under it (in a good way, of course). I mean, that is what “the bad boy” does, right? That is really why I received those two letters, and ended up getting to this point on my wave. Only I just decided that I refuse to crash when the wind turns this, or any, situation in a different direction. I am going to surrender to the air, instead of crashing and ending. I will remain like my very favorite part of the wave, instead; you know the one, where the water curls over itself, just before it turns white and crashes? I think it’s time I hang, time to pause, right there …