She could feel the salt that saturated the air like a layer of film across her skin. She watched as her youngest dug in the sand, his hair curling from underneath his hat. The sand stuck to the insides of his elbows, the backs of his knees, places where the sunscreen was wet and thick. He tossed heaps of it over his shoulder, sending it flying into the wind, scattering it across the towels that she had carefully placed on top of the sand. They had come to the beach to get away, to remove themselves from the lives that they had filled with appointments and timetables. It had felt overwhelming, even planning to leave for a few days –But can we miss this? Reschedule that? Eventually, they had managed it, and here they were, all four of them in swimsuits and covered in sunscreen that left streaks of zinc across their skin and smelled like coconut.
Last night, when they arrived, they had taken the boys to a small strip of beach outside their hotel. The water had been cold and dark, and the wind had ripped the hats from their heads, but, the moment their toes touched the sand their eyes had gone glassy and wide. They had run at full speed, jumped into the surf where it broke on the shore, and doused their heads in the briny water until their clothes clung to them like saran wrap. And, even then, they had yelled and shouted for more. They had thrown their wet bodies down on the sand until it covered their limbs like grains of sugar. They had dug trenches, tossing the sand at one another until the sun started to set. The could have stayed there all night, watching the sun melt into the ocean. Only when she mentioned tortilla chips had they acquiesced to leaving, their mouths already tasting that first bite -- dripping in salsa and grease. Neither of them ever ate a proper meal, just filled up with chips and tortillas – leaving pieces of each strewn across the floor in their wake. They always tipped well. She knew how hard it was to clean up after them, how they ground their food into the floor until it left a greasy ring after you had scraped it up.
They had decided to have them so close together, she always wondered what had prompted them to do that. Their lives had been consumed by diapers and wipes and bottles for so long, it felt like it would never end. After the first, she had wanted to have a second one close in age, a built-in friend. Instead, it mostly meant fighting and jealousy, battles over who got to play with the hairbrush or the pink straw or her purse. Then, however, there were days like today – where they were each so consumed by the sun and the sand and the water that they didn’t notice what the other one was doing, didn’t see when the other one got a snack or had the red shovel. They had salt in their veins now and that was enough. It was all they could think about. They ran through the waves with their dad, her husband. She watched as the three of them wandered up the coastline, stopping to splash or dig or just sit in the wet sand until the water knocked them onto their backs, filled their noses for one panicked moment until they snorted with laughter and all was right again. She watched as the younger one waddled behind and the older one ran ahead, and her husband stayed between the two like a tether. Each one would come in for a minute, only to bounce off again. He had infinite patience for their whining, their disobedience. Where she would cut them off, refuse to hear it, he would bend down, patiently listen to their stories, their pleas for attention. Where she would respond curtly with anger, he would respond with a hug, a cajoling remark that would send them on their way again, disagreement forgotten. She envied that about him. The ease with which he could fall into their rhythms – the syncopation to their downbeats. His affection came easily, while she had to cultivate it; rummage around, scrape it all together into a pile to pull from throughout the day.
But, here, it all felt different. The waves coursed through her body, washing everything else away until she felt the smallness of it all, like a fragment of a seashell no bigger than the nail of her pinky. She wanted to put down roots, right there on the beach, bury her toes and fingers into the sand and suck up the lifeblood of the place, of the ocean. The sun beat across her shoulders until they felt loose and light, the knots softening into her muscles, smoothing themselves out under the hands of the sun’s rays. Her youngest ran to her, a shovel in each extended arm. His hat hid his face as his body rocked back and forth with the rhythm of his feet. He tackled her, flinging the weight of his body into her chest, burying his head into her neck. Then, as suddenly as he had come, he retreated, back to the call of the surf.