They call it the shoulder season: that time in September when the rental houses are cleaned up and closed out, when the striped tents disappear from the sand, when the gate to the pier creaks on it hinges. The sky still shines blue, the ocean water still laps warm. But the little kids who once hopped like sand fleas across the beach are gone, safely back in school, hunched over desks, pencils in hand. The little tykes no longer dream of ocean waves, they’ve abandoned seashells for the latest cute guy. Their absence leaves to us the empty beach.
In the shoulder season, restaurants curl their awnings, the beach museum closes its doors. Only children, the museum believes, want to gape at shark’s teeth; only kids want to learn how the tide flows as fall appears. Only those who must strain to peep over the counter covet whale-shaped erasers, only babies cry for sand-filled octopi. They rule the world, these kids. So the museum locks its doors against our pressing adult noses. Inside, the demonstration tide churns in Plexiglas silence.
With the children gone, the arcade pinballs chime desultory, no one to punch their buttons. But the seagulls cry, the waves crash, the sea oats rattle in the breeze.
Before us, the beach stretches pristine: no young surfer boys lurk like wet-backed seals beneath the pier; no young girls stroll three together, heads bent, bare feet in lock-step; no fat-bottomed babies plop their diapered behinds onto the sand. No snuffling, over-eager dogs lick our legs, traveling to more interesting parts, making nuisances of themselves.
We have the beach to ourselves.
Do you miss them?
No spurting of covetous tears for neon Noodles or blue Boogie Boards or green flip-flops with black and yellow bees buzzing on the toes. No whining, no wheedling, no holding up the line while, for God’s sakes, pick one!
Do you miss them?
No naked jiggling bellies, no loud pumping boom-boxes, no motorcycles revving too heavy for skinny adolescent arms but, cool!—she looked!
Old ladies in skirted swimsuits, black.
Old men selecting seashells, dropping them.
It is the shoulder season. Press your shoulder against the salty air, see if you can halt the heavy thud of time. For even one minute, see can you push it back—unyielding, obdurate time.
Loneliness, what have you done with our luxurious solitude?
Obnoxious death. You know you’ll win in the end and yet you cannot wait, you worm your way into These Best of Times.
The tide rises, washing away that which once was and will never be again, not on your watch.
The season ebbs, recedes.