It is a summer evening in Indiana, cicadas and crickets buzzing, swifts circling ferociously through the sky, swooping up insects. Because it's summer my thoughts turn to the beach town that I love, where I try to spend a week every summer, have managed to do so four out of the last six summers though once I couldn't manage a full week. It amazes me to be planning for the ocean. I am the first one in my family to make regular visits to the ocean, though I grew up reading books about people who did. But that was for rich people. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a rich person. And yet here I am, making lists and reservations, shaking a bit of sand out of last year's suitcase. How did this become my life?
Growing up, I didn't know the ocean. I'd never even caught a glimpse of it until I was twenty. But I was fascinated by it, dreamed of it as only a landlocked girl can dream of it. I imagined what "the taste of salt air on my tongue" might be like. I imagined it the way I imagined sex, in just that hushed a tone. When I was ten my family moved to Indiana, and some months later we made the hour's drive to Lake Michigan, my first sight of water that went past the horizon. I was entranced, I collected rocks from every beach we went to, I climbed up the dunes and went running tumbling down. Gray water, small waves, the smell of dead alewives washed up on the sand. I dreamed of brine and seashells and the real ocean. I listened to Heart's album "Dreamboat Annie," with its bits of seagull-and-crashing-wave soundtrack. I remembered the album my parents had when I was a little little kid, Hawaiian music and the sounds of ocean surf. I could almost daydream myself there.
Years later, thirty-two and head over heels in love with a woman who lived near the beach, I visited her and for the first time slept within walking distance of salt water. It was October, sunny and just warm enough. While she went to work I walked along the beach, caught sight of a pod of dolphins traveling, leaping through the waves. Years later, offered the opportunity to take a vacation, I remembered those dolphins and thought that I might like to go whale-watching. That's how I found myself in Provincetown for a week in June of 2001, alone, incredibly at peace.
The softest animals live in the ocean: jellies, anemones, velvety rays. Cetaceans, smooth and sleek and rounded. Squirmy cephalopods moving freely in every possible direction, no more solid than mercury. Seals with their huge liquidy eyes. It's like the water that surrounds them enables them to be that soft, that vulnerable. I know what that is like. And I'm kidding myself, of course, because the ocean is also full of jagged teeth and spiny things, shells that cut your bare feet on the beach, rocks you can't even stand to walk on.
I'll probably always come back to the midwest, always be the landlocked girl with the landlocked heart. But I'll keep going back to water, back to salt. It's a small pilgrimage, a kind of prayer. When I first get to the beach I walk to the water, let it lap around my feet, do a little dance because it's cold. I cup my hands, bring salt water to my lips. Every time, the sweetness of it surprises me.