In the morning, we had no competition at the bike rack, which sat in a dusty patch where the grass had given up. The breeze off the water was already drying the sweat that made my t-shirt cling to the curve of my back. The three of us lined up our bikes and I clipped my helmet around the handlebar of my rusted bike. Humidity choked the salt-edged air, so that my fingers felt swollen, and when I rubbed them together they did not feel like my own.
Already the sun had warmed the pale wood of the stairs. The top steps were only scratchy with loose sand, but by the bottom the sand was packed so thick that only deliberate steps kept me from slipping. Sand coated the spaces between my toes, which scraped together with each movement of my feet. It was low tide and the beach stretched out for a hundred yards, pale brown fading to dull gray. Clumps of dark seaweed dotted the beach or were tucked among the rocks that stretched to either side of the stairs. An elderly man walked by, wearing a dark t-shirt and slacks rolled up to his knees. I wished that the beach would stay this empty, but soon enough other visitors would arrive and disrupt the near silence.
We walked halfway between the rocks and the ocean, where the sand was packed enough to almost walk normally. Water pooled in the heels of our footprints. To our right, the ocean swayed up and back, each wave barely big enough to break as it spilled onto the ground. My eye traced out the surface of the sea, searching for anything—an island, a sailboat—that broke it. Nothing did, and I imagined that I could walk across the water and in a few steps reach the crease between the sea and the sky.
Soon the beach curved and rose and we had to push through loose sand, dimpled by prior travelers. A riverbed, some thirty yards wide, cut across the beach. But for now the river was just a few feet wide, and it seemed a farce to think that it could feed the sea. The river opened into the marsh, a maze of waterways and neon green grass. Just behind the main beach was a half-moon of sand just big enough for three, the ocean now to our backs, hidden by the slope and a fenced-off area of wispy beach grass.
Throughout the summer, we’d been watching a dead fish decompose in another half-moon just beyond our own. Its skin had gone first, revealing dehydrated organs baked by the sun and a cracked skeleton. The black bead of the eye was still intact. It didn’t smell from a distance, but we never tested if that held true closer up. I thought I was testing my bravery enough just by looking at it.
When the tide was still low, the dark sand looked more like clay, and our feet barely left an impression in its surface. We squatted beside the infant river and tried to dam it. The task seemed easy, but each handful of sand we dropped into the water flattened along the bottom or was swept away. Eventually we resorted to building Dr. Seuss towers by scooping up sand from beneath the water and letting it drip in rounded globs until the tower became too skinny and too tall and collapsed.
As the tide rose, more and more of the marsh disappeared under the water. We walked past the site of our Sisyphean dam to a patch of sand that was saturated with air bubbles from clams. Each time we took a step the bubbles popped, the slime spreading over our skin, the weight of the sand suctioning our feet downwards. When we picked up large globs of it and squeezed, it contracted in on itself while chunks spilled over our wrists and onto the ground. We threw the globs at each other, each of us against the other two, laughing and ducking, until our shoulders and back were coated. Then we fell back into the water to wash off, noticing that the river now nearly reached our waists.
We wrote our names in the sand, digging our fingers down until we reached the cold layer beneath. Then we sprinkled other sand on top, as if they wouldn’t mix, and imagined that our names were only buried, to be discovered by someone else later.
Our beach shrank and then disappeared as the tide rose. It was our signal to leave. At the beach’s curve, the water had risen up to the fence, so we had to put our bags on our heads and walk through the chest-high water. My feet slipped on the underwater slope and the cold water threatened to pull me into the bloated river. The main beach, too, was nearly gone, and the sand clung to our wet feet as we slogged through the loose sand above the tide line. Waves twice our height collided with each other as they strained to escape the water around them. The movement rumbled like a constant gush of wind, spilling surfers from their boards. I kept an eye on the surf, afraid it might reach me and drag me away.
By the time I had biked home, the sky was a mottled dark gray, even though it was blue and cloudless when I left fifteen minutes earlier. Lightning split the sky and I jumped into the garage with my bike. When the rain began a minute later, I stood just under the roof of the garage and stuck my feet out one by one, to wash off the residual sand.