“You’ve been to the beach by yourself before,” my husband remarked casually, as he loaded a single beach chair, and the little cooler, the one that we almost never used, into the back of my car.
I squared up and looked him in the eye.
“Really?” I demanded. “When?”
It came out more abruptly than I’d intended, more of a challenge than a question. But I’d been thinking about it for weeks, and knew the answer with absolute certainty. I was starting to understand, too, the more important fact, which was what the answer had come to represent for me; that was the whole reason I was doing this.
“During what time…in my adult life…” I continued, making my point haltingly, for maximum dramatic effect, “have I ever… had the opportunity…to go to the beach…by myself.” I could see him thinking about it skeptically, as I had done, too: Could that be right? Were there really that many years of raising kids that there had never been a time? Could I be turning fifty years old and been so preoccupied with doing things with and for other people for the entirety of my adult life that I had never before even considered taking only myself to the beach? I shut the hatchback firmly for emphasis, and abandoned my Socratic approach as abruptly as I had begun. “I’ll tell you. Never. That’s when.”
I had always loved the beach, but never more desperately than in summers I lived in the midwest; I had spent some particularly lonely days watching webcam feeds of the boardwalk and waves and fortunate beachgoers with a pathetic longing. Now back within a day trip’s driving distance of the Atlantic Ocean, I never took it for granted, sometimes taking my daughters for day trips like the ones I’d enjoyed as a kid, and my family for week-long rentals like the ones I wished I had. Both were great fun, but still involved lots of Mom-ing: making fun and making meals and making do to ensure that everyone had a great time. Increasingly I had found myself wondering: Could I ever be bold enough to go there for a day, or two, just for me, with me, only myself for company? Was that enough of a reason to go? Was that even allowed? Was it weird? Would it be sad? I wasn’t sure. There was only one way to find out.
I wish I could tell you that it was great from start to finish, but honestly, it was a little weird at first, and lonely, too; even my beloved beach felt oddly unfamiliar without the people I’d always brought along and asked often if we were all having fun. There was so little to keep track of that it was unsettling; I carried none of the enormous bags of just-in-case supplies which had seemed, over the years, to grow on me and permanently attach, changing my profile like barnacles on an oyster shell. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had forgotten to keep track of someone.
But I kept at it all day, until eventually I did settle down in the warmth of the sun, the rhythm of the sea, and the timeless escape of my book. It was strange to be following no schedule; mealtimes, nap times, and nutritional recommendations passed without notice. A craving for boardwalk fries was quenched by devouring a huge cup alone, my fingers coated with sea salt and sated selfishness. I cooled off with a giant frozen custard and returned to the beach to enjoy an increasingly peaceful and victorious late afternoon before returning to my hotel to shower and dress for dinner. I felt proud of myself for coming up with this idea. It was all going so well.
Maybe it was because I’d spoken to my sweet family at home. Maybe I was just worn out from the drive and the sun. Maybe it was just because twilight was setting in. But as I headed out on foot for dinner, everything seemed to have changed from the afternoon so awash in light of many kinds; both the sun and the victorious “high” had suddenly sunk beyond my view. Everywhere I looked, families dined happily together, friends laughed at each other’s jokes, lovers walked holding hands. I kept walking down the boardwalk, trying to decide what to do, a critical voice pushing me past restaurant after restaurant, (“No, that one’s too nice to eat at alone”, “No, no, that’s the one we always go to together”). A childlike homesickness threatened to derail the whole experiment. I hadn’t considered this part. Why hadn’t I brought someone with me? What was I thinking? I felt like a loser; it had been stupid to think I should do this alone. I was deflated now, tired and hungry and regretful.
Eventually, I settled on a familiar sports bar and restaurant. It wasn’t my first choice, but thanks to the voice, I’d already walked by my first, second, and third choices, and I was running out of options. I knew the restaurant’s menu from sports team get-togethers at locations near my home, and I thought that the elevated oceanside balcony, with its tiny tables ripe for wave- and people-watching, might be an acceptable place to sit alone. A cadre of pretty, young hostesses of high school age, stood at the ready near the entrance.
“Your name?” asked the prettiest one as I approached.
I tried to sound more confident than I felt. “Beth.”
“And how many in your party, Beth?”
Her heavily lashed eyes met mine quizzically, and she lowered her pixie chin. She seemed to think she’d heard me wrong. “One?”
“Yes,” I said again. “One”. Cringing, I weighed the possibilities. She might think my family abandoned me today, right here on the beach, and wonder why. She might think I lived alone in the world, had no friends at all, no one who would come with me to the beach. Maybe, I thought with horror, she thought I was a serial killer, or was trying to get picked up. I shuddered as I debated which was worse, and again as I considered which was closer to the truth.
“So, Beth, for one,” she said again slowly, though still somewhat skeptically, as she wrote it down in her hostess book. I could see that she was was having trouble wrapping her mind around this reality, as I had just a moment before. I had to fight not to laugh out loud.
“Right. Beth, for one,” I repeated, swallowing a giggle.
As if in slow motion, she turned to her hostess colleague. Maybe it was the odd and unnecessary formality of the exchange, or the way they stood so ridiculously close together with their youthful, made up skin and their straightened hair. Maybe it was the constant repetition, their persistent approach to seating as if it was complex algebra. I don’t know what it was that suddenly made it all seem so silly, and the distance between us so large, the ridiculousness of both the day and the scene so immediately evident. I don’t know what it was that made me lose it. All I know is that what happened next was this: pretty hostess number one turned and looked her colleague in the eye as if delivering a secret message she didn’t want me to hear, as if she was blinking in Morse code. “This,” she said, very slowly, “is Beth, for one. Beth, for one, is here.” I crunched my lips together and looked down. My shoulders shook in silent, uncontrollable laughter.
I followed pretty hostess number two to the table and asked the waiter to bring a cool glass of pinot grigio. I was still giggling to myself and it was perfect out there on the balcony, with the moon shining down and a breeze on my shoulders, the waves lapping at the shore in the darkness. I was still alone, but the loneliness was gone, chased away by my private laughter; one no longer seemed the loneliest number. I loved sitting there in the evening, watching all the people walk by, all in my happy place. I had people; they just weren’t with me at the moment. That didn’t mean I was a loser.
I was so glad I’d brought myself to the beach, and I knew what the hostess girls were thinking, because young me thought it, too: Being alone might seem sad to you now, girls. I get that. There were moments, even as recently today, that I thought it might be sad too. But there will come a day, many, many years from now when you may discover the difference between alone and its gatekeeper lonely, and, if you are very lucky, the freedom I found on that balcony. There’s a day when you realize that the voices of the people we love, which have been and remain the dearest thing to us, can, over many years, make our own voice hard to hear. When you discover that the unfamiliar and uncomfortable quiet is a waiting and faithful friend to your soul. And when you find that you’re good company, you’re enough reason to go to the beach. You’re allowed. You’ll see.
Who in the world would want to make a trip alone to the beach? Who would want to sit at a tiny table for one, on a waterfront balcony sipping wine and reflecting on the journey: to the beach, down the boardwalk, from youth to midlife, from noise to stillness? Who might rediscover there the quiet and sufficient company of the one person, it turns out, she did, for a while, forget to keep track of?
Beth, for one.