A Day at the Beach

By Tyler C. Gore

On Thursday, I took a water taxi out to the Fire Island lighthouse museum with Lucy and her family. The museum was closed, but the park ranger was nice enough to let us in to watch a video about the lighthouse. “It’s very homemade,” she warned us as she popped it in the VCR, thus defusing my sneering cynicism before I could even get it started. Afterwards, Lucy and her family took the water taxi back, but I decided to walk, lured by rumors of a nude beach in the vicinity.

Sure enough, it was there. It was rather cold to be naked, but I suppose that naked sunbathing, like all competitive sports, has its diehard aficionados. There were more naked men than women. I noticed there that were two broad categories of people. The first were those who’d obviously invested a lot of time, labor and money in sculpting their bodies and were eager to show them off, regardless of the weather — and then there were the fat old men with greying pubic hair above their uncircumcised wienies; no longer in any sort of competition, they were happy to spend their golden years wallowing butt-naked in the sand. I saw only a few representatives of the middle-class of good looks, and I suspect they were of the hippy-ish sort who find in public nakedness some kind of obscure social virtue.

Paradoxically, I felt self-conscious in my clothing: only my hands and face were uncovered. I felt that I must look as if I had come only to ogle naked bodies, which, of course, was true, but I didn’t want to appear that way. I wanted to appear as a simple beach-stroller who happened to have wandered into a section of the beach where people didn’t bother to cover their genitals. As my concession to free-spiritedness, I took off my shoes and socks. I removed the Bic lighter from the front pocket of my blue jeans, lest its tube-like shape be mistaken for arousal. Strolling around, I tried to affect a nonchalant air, a semblance of cheerful indifference to the unclothed.

But affecting all this insouciance made it a little difficult to leer, which is what I really wanted to do. All the naked people were at the top of the beach, far away from the water, and I really couldn’t think of any plausible reason to walk along the top of the beach. I saw a threesome of beautiful unclad women frolicking there, and briefly entertained the idea of asking them for the time, but I was wearing a watch, and undoubtedly, none of them were. There was a lovely woman near the sea, naked and crouching in the sand, but I averted my eyes. She was with her buff, tanned, long-haired boyfriend and I felt a little ashamed to look in their direction, as though I were some sort of inferior petty being, an unhealthy, unnatural product of modern living which had conditioned me to view the unclothed human body as an object of lust. So, mostly I just looked at the sea. The whole experience was decidedly unerotic; a withering experience, you might say.

The worst thing is that I knew it would be this way. I’d been to nude beaches before.

All this walking around in the nude beach was actually leading me in the wrong direction. I needed to walk north, not south. I reversed direction and speedily trudged away from the naked ones. Once among the clothed, with whom I felt a renewed kinship, I began to trudge slowly, the way trudging ought to be done. I walked with my feet in the freezing tide, in order to numb them against the miles of broken shells and sand through which I planned to trudge.

Except, of course, for nude beaches, there is really nothing to see at the shore. There’s the ocean, majestic and rolling, but once you’ve seen it, you’ve seen it. It’s not going to do anything. The same with the beach itself; there isn’t that much variation, after all, in the quality of sand. So you start looking down, like everyone does, at the treasures tossed up by the sea, the shells, the rounded sea glass and stones, the driftwood, the Twinkie wrappers and beer cans and used condoms.

I saw a beautiful stone, almost perfectly round, streaked with an unusual, rhythmic pattern of translucent rose and white quartz. I picked it up and admired it as I walked. Then I saw another stone, wide and flat and lovely, spotted with black granite like a leopard. I looked at my old stone. It was starting to dry and didn’t seem so beautiful anymore. I regretted picking it up. I coveted the other stone, the leopard stone (I had already named it) but the rule is you can only take one stone, otherwise you will wind up with pockets of crap when you get home. You’re so greedy, I told myself. You had to pick up the very first stone you saw. I wanted to drop it, and get the leopard stone, but I knew that I would just see another stone I wanted later on. I put the first stone in my pocket, and trudged on, feeling its nagging, insistent heaviness weighing me down, reminding me that I had picked the wrong stone.

But soon I was to feel another nagging insistence. As everyone knows, there are no bathrooms on Fire Island’s beaches. I had forgotten about the frequent demands of my kidneys when I so cavalierly decided to forgo the water taxi. I had no idea how far I had to go. I tried not to panic. I had been walking for quite a while; I was probably fairly close to Ocean Beach.

“Excuse me,” I said to a woman walking her dog. “How far is Ocean Beach?”

“Ocean Beach?” she said, incredulously, as if I had asked her for directions to Osaka. “Oh, you have quite a way to go.”

I nodded morosely, and watched her and her dog slowly recede towards the south. I looked around. To the north, there were the tiny forms of children prancing around in the surf. To the south, the lady and her dog, and farther on, a few prone bodies in the sand. Behind me, though, were the forbidding windows of a half-dozen beach houses; who knew what condemning eyes gazed from within?

Oh what the hell, I thought. I unzipped my trousers and opened the floodgates. Right into the foamy sea. No need to feel any guilt, I thought. It’s not like it’s a swimming pool. It took a little longer than I thought. I could see a jeep coming towards me from the north, possibly a police car. Come on, come on, I said to myself, pushing with muscles I don’t even know the names of. I zipped up in time to see the police car roll pass me. They waved. I waved. They moved on. I moved on.

Farther on, I found a horseshoe crab on its back, just beyond the reach of the tide, its spiny legs squirming in the air. I stared at it in horrified fascination. Its spiny tail wobbled futilely in the air. I will save this creature of the sea, I resolved, in spite of my revulsion to it. The problem was I didn’t want to touch it. I looked in vain for a nearby piece of driftwood. Finally, I took one of my shoes out of my bag, and tried to gently turn it over. I got it partway up and slipped. The crab panicked and tried to cushion its fall by bending its pointed tail into the sand. Now it was propped up by its tail, forming a kind of crustacean lean-to, legs wiggling furiously. I tried again and managed to flip it right side up, and it immediately begin to crawl in circles. “No, no,” I told it. “The sea is that way.” Round and round it went. I began to wonder if I had somehow broken it. But I didn’t know what more I could do to return it to its ancestral home. Some people approached, and I guiltily abandoned the crab to its own devices.

By the time I saw the blue water tower of Ocean Beach in the distance, my feet were raw, eroded, as it were, by the surf and sand. I decided to put my shoes on, seemingly a simple operation, but nothing is simple at the beach. I wanted to get the sand off my feet before I put them in my shoes, which involved the complicated operation of sitting on my butt, sticking my feet in the very tip of the tide, and then drying them off with my sock. The problem was that the rising tide came in so quickly that I barely had time to wipe off my foot before I had to scuttle back to avoid getting soaked. I was also distracted by a nearby woman sitting cross-legged, apparently attempting to meditate. I worried that my butt-scuttling presence was somehow corrupting her spiritual growth. I eventually managed to get one foot shoed and socked, and then, while holding the finished foot in the air, clumsily dressed the other. I hoped the woman would think I was practicing some form of yoga.

As always, I felt much happier in my shoes, and though I walked near the edge of the water, I was careful to avoid getting my feet wet. I finally spotted a landmark I knew, an elegant wood-paneled house with a large circular window featuring a telescope. I knew that house, not only because it was near the entrance to Ocean Beach, but also because I coveted it. I thought that if I lived there, I would learn the secrets of the stars. While I was standing there looking at it, the tide sloshed over my shoes, so that my feet made sad, squishy noises all the way home.

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About Tyler C. Gore

Tyler C. Gore, a native New Yorker, received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College, and has taught at Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and for Gotham Writers Workshop. His essays, short fiction and columns have appeared in many publications, including Literal Latte, MeThree, Lungfull, Opium Magazine, The American, The Fire Island Express, and Rosebud. He has been cited four times as a Notable Essayist by The Best American Essays annual anthology, as well as a citation from The Best American Non-Required Reading anthology. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for Creative Writing. He is also a graphic and web designer.

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