At 17, beaches in February make the world feel infinite.
You remember the drive like it was yesterday. Warm bodies perched behind the dashboard of your first car, paint peeling at the edges, flying down I-495 faster than you would ever dare to drive during the day. Nobody heads east at midnight. Not in February.
Growing up there, you never really noticed the distinct feel of a New England winter beyond slushy sidewalks and an ice scraper in the trunk. But here you can remember the way that everything about a midnight drive in February reeks of Massachusetts, the same way all of the tour guides and travel essays promise that it will. The trees stretch on in a straight line, flat, endless, shoulder to shoulder. The cold air buzzes in your nose, but the way your shoulders instinctively curl into your body and your hands stretch your coat pockets into your stomach makes you feel a kind of comforting warmth one would never associate with an often brutal winter. It’s the kind of cold that makes you blast the heat and crack a window.
At 17, beaches in February are a choice without reason, yet there you were barreling towards the state line. It wasn’t running away, you just wanted to see how far you could fly before you hit the ground again. It’s not leaving, it’s just the next best thing.
You hummed along to Aqualung, because it was brooding and you wouldn’t hear it on the radio. You wanted to get the soundtrack right. It’s high school, it’s desperation, it’s a steady, rhythmic longing for something bigger than homecoming and midterms and even the sound of your two best friends calling up to you from the backseat of this ’95 Cutlass your dad bought off the side of the road.
(Today, you remember that he found that car in the middle of a hailstorm, dented in a few places but still in working order. Funny how that happens.)
The boardwalk you’d always seen stacked 4 deep with yelping children, young lovers, and tattooed bikers on their way back from Laconia was barren. The lights were out, the concrete sidewalks quiet, and it seemed the life of a beach town you knew like a second home had disappeared with the sun. So you cruised into the parking lot, and left the meter empty. Nobody would question another blinking red light along the fence. Besides, your favorite fried dough stand was, miraculously, still open. And even midnight rebels get hungry.
Its neon orange lights bounced through the sky for what seemed like miles, but the old man behind the counter still looked startled when you jogged up to the window. A band of hooligans in mittens and plaid pea coats, hurried along by the wind. What a sight you must have been as he fired up the fryer and made the same pizza fried dough you’ve been trying to convince your parents for years actually counts as dinner. When he handed them through the window, the hot steam filled the still winter air around you until it was almost impossible to see, and you laughed.
Turns out that sometimes, on beaches in February, you can breathe life into the night.
As you ate, you kicked off your shoes by instinct, leaving heavy socks tucked neatly into your high tops by the car. The sand was almost as cold as the air, and once you hit it, you broke into a sprint by necessity. Frostbite on a beach – an oxymoron made even more peculiar by the fact that you didn’t stop until you were in the water. First your ankles, then your shins, and by the time it reached your knees, your squeals were mixed with the squawking of the errant seagulls fleeing the scene. Your toes had gone numb pretty much instantly, but by way of some weird phenomenon (one you now assume you would have understood more thoroughly if you’d actually paid attention in science class) that absence of feeling had awakened something else. The wind bit a little harder at your noses. Your hands dug a little deeper into your pockets. And as you looked out into the waves, the dark blue skies blending seamlessly into the winter sea, your eyes could suddenly see so much farther into the darkness.
That’s all there was, you had realized, just forever and ever into the night sky until you reach land again somewhere new. The same ocean, different shores. You imagined it must have been England, or Ireland, where at the moment, the sun has already risen. If you drifted far enough, it could have been the same grey shores of Northern France that hosted the tales of history long before you were even a hope or a prayer. Talk about a midnight drive.
Beaches in February are a choice without reason, but that same icy Atlantic water slowing the circulation in your legs to a crawl had traveled thousands and thousands of miles from every corner of the Earth to be there anyway. With you.
The girl, you had thought, who can’t manage to get out of bed in time to beat first bell in the morning, and who trades in parties and boyfriends for chalk dust and taped ankles. Even your parents, God bless them, couldn’t understand you, and you wondered more often than not if there was anything still left to you that was worth understanding. You were scared, you were pissed, you were dying to get out, and you swore there wasn’t a pair of jeans in the goddamn world that would ever fit your abnormally short legs.
But there you were, at 17, on a beach in February with the entire world dancing in circles around your feet.
Here, now, the empty sand ahead is comforting. You’ve been living in California for two years, just long enough to know that 75 degrees on a Saturday morning will soon bring with it the bustling crowds – families with their yelping children, bands of 20 and 30 somethings with their surfboards and volleyballs, and a steady stream of bicycles and rollerblades. Even in February.
You wanted to see the world back then, to run and never look back, but now you’re just waiting for a few seconds to find your bearings again. It’s harder, here – you don’t remember ever having to take so many deep breaths in a day. But the sight of the Santa Monica Mountains stretching up and down along the water in the distance makes you chuckle and chalk that one up to the LA smog.
Flip flops dangling from your fingers, you keep walking. Slow, long enough to let the sand cover your feet with each step. You know now that the trick is to burrow your feet just deep enough to hit the sand underneath, because it’s still holding it’s warmth from the sun. You take your time.
It’s hard to remember exactly how you got here, or at what moment you finally tired enough of the sunrises to leave them for the sunsets. But here, in the warm sand, it isn’t hard to remember pizza fried dough and I-495, and that your old Cutlass never made that trip again once you left for college. You stop once your toes hit the chilly Pacific water and you glance up to try and find where it ends and the cloudless sky begins.
At 17, beaches in February make the world feel infinite. At 23, they make the infinite feel just like home.