Picturebook: Beach
    Photo by Emily Chow / North by Northwestern

    What I remember most are the non-memories. I remember snapshots, not scenes, thoughts instead of actions, moments but not events. I don’t remember saying goodbye, waiting for the plane, arriving on a probably muggy day (they were all muggy, weren’t they?) in September or any of the basic scenes that accompanied moving to a tiny boarding school in the middle of nowhere on the island that once ruled the world.

    But I remember that beach. The beach, the ocean, always left me with that convoluted feeling of endless possibility and inevitable doom. Something about vast, open spaces fills me with a sense of hope and wonder, mitigated by doubts and fears, a kind of certain knowledge that options are limiting, possibilities caging. The beach asked me what I was going to do, whether I would stay or leave, whether it was home I missed or just the myth of home — questions that were met with a dreadful silence. “I don’t know,” I murmured, a shout rising in my throat. But the quiet waves rolled in, so calm a scene that I couldn’t bear to disturb it with my senseless whispers.

    The clear days were the worst. Some days were so crisp and light that you could see for miles and sometimes, far off in the distance, you could catch a glimpse of the Isle of Man. I hated those days because on the surface, I knew how beautiful it all was, how lucky I was to catch this sight, the rarity of the opportunity. I knew one day I would miss it, would remember the sunsets and the smell of salt in the air and romanticize it into something it had never been. I’d view the beach as a scene of quiet moments I would share only with my past and future selves, and wonder how I’d let it all drift away. But I resented the island for being there, for proving that I was much more than an ocean away, that the obstacles between the life I lived and the memories I’d abandoned were much too solid.

    Sometimes, the beach would overwhelm me and I’d try to stay away. I’d walk along the sea wall instead, close enough to watch but pretend that I was an outsider, one who didn’t belong, just getting from one point to another. I’d read the street names I passed: Westbourne, Shaftesbury, Marlborough — cloak myself in the identity of a traveler, a cold observer, one who saw and thought but felt only moderate curiosity. I watched as boys skipped stones into the sea, and I smiled.

    It’s been three years since I stepped foot on that beach for the first time, and my only souvenir from it now lies in a drawing, a flimsy scrap of notepaper I received the night before I left, my year abroad cut short in the middle of February. A teacher I had never gotten along with wrote me a goodbye letter, and on the bottom, she’d drawn the beach at sunset. We had talked about it once, about how the sanguine sky broke into patches of gold and crossing-guard orange, how the sun shined like a ball of fire, falling into the sea, disappearing and leaving behind a paling pink then purple then blue-black sky. I’ll never be sure why she did that.

    I don’t remember saying goodbye to the few friends I had made in my time there. I don’t remember packing, my last glance at my room, or the ride to the airport. But I remember the last breath of salty air, the way the wind blew hair into my eyes and the crunch of the sand that got stuck in my shoes as I walked away for the last time.


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