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By Anne Schroeder
Illustration by Christiane Krömer

From Radiance Summer 2000

WITH FULL HANDS I STRUGGLE across the burning sand, racing for the wet, hard-packed stretch where tiny crabs burrow air pockets in the sand. I arrive winded but the trek is worth it for a front row seat to the Pacific ocean.

My chair sinks into the sand as I settle back to watch the vacation energy of a hot July day. Roller-coaster screams come from children who bob in the foamy green waves while mothers watch from dry-sand perches. Sea-otter boys in black Neoprene ride the surf, shackled to boogie boards that skim through the spray. Seagulls bully their way through a maze of beach chairs and frayed bedspreads. Not satisfied with a crumb or a grape, they stalk with necks drawn and eyes hooded: soldiers on a raid of the enemy’s camp. I watch as the head honcho gull grabs an open bag of Dorritos. He struggles to get airborne and then settles for spilling the contents over the beach while his soldiers pillage the spoils. Emptied, the bag tumbles to the sand.

The Dorritos owner returns and looks about for her chips. She glances over and I sense her suspicion. “The gulls ate them,” I offer.

“The gulls?” There are no seagulls in sight. It doesn’t take a psychic to interpret her look. Wordlessly, I turn back to the water.

wo teenage girls, round-breasted and golden in their sleek swimsuits, play Frisbee. A couple strolls past with a terrier on a leash. The woman is very Grace Kelly in her straw hat and huge sunglasses, a long scarf wrapped about her neck. The man, in white clam-diggers and a damp sweatshirt, follows. He grips the terrier’s leash and pauses while the dog sniffs a clump of seaweed. I imagine myself escorted by such a man, strolling the beach, maybe to dine on wine and cheese from a hotel’s picnic basket.

Then the shadow of a woman skims across me. I catch only a fleeting glimpse of her face: strong, with wide, arched eyebrows and bright eyes. Late middle-aged, her body is dimpled and sagging. She pauses, her full breasts swaying as she races to the water’s edge. She wears a tailored swimsuit, well used it would seem, by the sheen of the fabric. Black, with boy-cut legs and a fitted oversheath, it is a swimsuit with a personality, like the ones that starlets wore for G.I. pin-up posters when I was a girl.

I watch, certain that she will halt when she reaches the water. When she doesn’t, I’m sure that she’ll stop when the water swells about her ankles. Instead, she dives through the first wave and comes up on the other side to continue on, with a breaststroke that gracefully swoops through the water. She hesitates on the cusp of each downstroke as if to maximize its power as she swims past the breakers to the midpoint of the pier.

Finally, just as I begin to fear for her safety, she turns back. Her return seems easier, for she is aided by the surf. Bobbing and treading, she paces herself so that she catches the biggest wave and rides it halfway to shore.

She stands, water dripping from her body like waves draining off the pier supports. Her hair is gray, long past shoulder length, and she squeezes and twists it, sleeks it behind her ears. Advancing, she stoops to retrieve her towel. Our eyes meet and I feel compelled to ask, “How’s the water?”

“Wonderful. You should try it.” She walks away, drying her hair with a brisk, sanding motion.

head, the sun begins its descent, spreading hues of orange and red across the water. All around me, people load ice chests and fold towels, call to children who are reluctant to obey. Finally, I stand and stretch, my legs grown numb. I see her, the swimmer, donning an ankle-length dress and then slipping into flat sandals, not bothering with the heel straps. Bending to collect her things, she straightens and strides off in the direction of the parking lot.

Before me, the Pacific beckons. The swimmer’s words—“You should try it”—lure me with each crashing wave. Trepidation swells inside my chest; I feel the need to act quickly before my nerve fails. The day’s heat has waned, making the water seem warmer. I walk to the water’s edge, gathering my long skirt above my knees, like a pearl diver of Ceylon, tucking the fabric into my waistband. I meet the next wave, feeling buoyant and salty as the surf pushes me back to shore. Again and again, I return. The waves seem stronger now, one rolling over the next, and I choose my rides as the distant surfers do. Here, near the pier, I am alone with only a few fishers silhouetted against the paling sky.

Finally, darkness comes. One by one, the surfers depart, and I must also. The cooling air is shocking; I trudge toward shore, waterlogged and shivering. With no towel, I can only twist my skirt into tight coils, but I refuse to be concerned about the wet consequences, for my cloth car seats, for myself as I pick up the groceries, or to worry about how I will make it into my apartment unseen. Instead, I concentrate on the way my legs tingle, the rush of blood inside my body. Living is good, I think. I must try it again tomorrow. ©

A fifth-generation Californian, ANNE SCHROEDER lives in Atascadero, where she writes women’s fiction of the West. She is making the decade of her fifties the best of her life, teaches writing through her community college, and believes that we must “bloom where we are planted.”

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