I was born into a West Coast family. Every summer, we spent hours, if not most of the day, on the nearest beach. After enough surfing and boogie boarding, even as a child, we worked up an appetite. So my father would either take us to Ted’s or a nearby In-N-Out or Wienerschnitzel so that we could stuff our mouths.
Something that should be said for context, my father was not a generous person. He was not kind. My sister and I were subject to various forms of abuse. But, when it came to the beach, we were an actual family unit. I cherish those long days.
Years later, after we all moved to a landlocked state because of my father’s decisions in online dating, I found myself craving the beach. We’d go to Lake Michigan, but it just wasn’t the same. If it was a clear day and I looked to the horizon, I could actually see another state. That wasn’t the same back home. If you looked out on a clear day onto the Pacific Ocean, all you saw was more ocean.
Things were not stable with my father. While he had a well-paying job, he was bad with money. Somehow, and I don’t know how, we were kicked out of our large, gorgeous house in Palm Springs. We hotel hopped and spent nights in the car, until my father made an arrangement with one of our uncles to stay with his family for at least the summer.
They lived further south in Southern California than I was used to, but at uncle Joe’s house, we could actually walk to the beach. At this point, I was maybe five or six years old. I discovered that I was adept at silent escape.
With all of the turmoil in my life, the only place I felt at peace was at the beach. Before things went bad, we’d go to the beach. When we started living with uncle Joe, we went to the beach. No matter what, the Pacific ocean was a constant in my life.
So, at the extremely mature age of six years old, I snuck out of uncle Joe’s house. I walked down to the beach, in my nightgown, and found a place near enough to the waterline that my feet wouldn’t get wet, but I could watch the waves roll in, break, and form again.
Unlike the beaches where we used to live, I knew that at uncle Joe’s, there were no nearby islands. Where we used to live, on clear days, you could see Catalina Island. Not so here. It was just the ocean spreading out under the moonlight until the blackness of the water met the blackness of the horizon. We were still close enough to major cities that the light pollution darkened up any possibility of seeing more than a few stars. I felt lucky to even see the moon.
This became a habit of mine. I would wait for everyone to go to bed. Then I would wait another hour or so, and then silently make my way out of the house. I took the short few minute walk to the beach, where I was completely alone, and I sat in the sand as close to the water as I could.
On nights where I felt daring, I would tie the skirt of my nightgown so that it didn’t get wet, and secure it around my thighs. Then, I would put my feet into the cold, wet sand, and slowly, carefully wade into the water. I didn’t know much about tides then, which explains the recklessness of my behavior. No child should walk into the ocean in the middle of the night.
Yet, I had lost my home. My sister would barely speak with me. Uncle Joe and Dad argued constantly. My cousins gave me a wide berth. I was alone in that house. My reasoning, as a young child, was that if I had to be alone, I may as well be alone in a place that I felt comfortable. And that was the beach.
Night after night, I sat in the sand in my nightgown and looked out towards the horizon. Black met black. The moon did little to show the difference between the water and the sky.
One night, weeks into our strange arrangement living with my uncle, I saw a boat on the horizon. My eagle eyes could tell that it was a leisure boat, and saw a few little lights emanating from it. There were no nearby lighthouses, so I had to assume that whoever captained the ship knew what they were doing.
For the first time in my life, I felt desperation. I tied my nightgown skirt around my thighs, and ran into the water. I screamed and waved to the boat, hoping that they could see or hear me. I realized in that moment that I wanted them to take me away. Surely, whoever was in that boat was better than my abusive father. Surely, they had more kindness in their heart than uncle Joe, my sister, or my cousins.
I don’t know how long I stood in the ocean, screaming and waving at the boat. It moved along the horizon, towards some destination that I could only imagine. Maybe a set of parents were having a nice date night on their yacht, and once they docked, they’d make their way to their sleeping children and kiss them on the forehead. Maybe it was a single person who didn’t know that they’d always wanted a daughter. Maybe it was a social worker who would take one look at me and realize that I should be taken away.
My fantasies eventually subsided as the boat moved further and further out of view. Despite being on the mainland, I had the feeling of isolation as if I was alone on a desert island. Already a few inches into the ocean, I fell to my knees. My hands felt the sand underneath the water, and I wept. I felt foolish for believing that a boat on the horizon could hear me. Six year old me forgot all of her decorum and safety, and moved around in the ocean close to the shore to feel the smallest amount of freedom she was allowed.
After a while, I walked back up to the dry sand on the shore. I was soaking wet, but as dejected as I was, I didn’t care. In my soaking wet nightgown and my stringy wet hair, I made my way back to uncle Joe’s house. I waited outside the side door for a while, just looking at the moon and the sky, imagining which kind of people were on that boat, and whether or not they would rescue me.
I felt my hair, and it seemed only marginally damp. I crept back into the house and locked the door. I slowly crept to the bed I shared with my sister, and laid down next to it. Luckily, as she slept, she had kicked and thrashed enough that several stuffed animals were on the floor. I used them as pillows. My eyes, dry from my earlier weeping, closed for a night of tragic sleep. I dreamt of the mother and father on the boat who would have adopted me. I dreamt of the lonely bachelor or bachelorette that had a yacht but no family. Even in my sleep, I could not shake the vision of the boat on the horizon, or the idea that someone on board would have been a loving parent.
I woke up the next day, and as usual, nobody could tell that I had yet again snuck out of the house. My sister was not phased by me sleeping on the floor, since she assumed that I just fell out of bed.
As I got up, brushed my hair, and went to the kitchen to join my cousins in pouring out some cereal, I thought about the boat I saw. I wished, more than anything, that they would return and take me away from the darkness of the land, into the darkness of the horizon.