I come to the ending line of a beautiful essay and turn the page, flip the paper over so it lies flat on the little two-seater table in the corner of the coffee shop where I’ve made my home for the last four hours. I take a breath, suck in Midwest air, clear and fresh and smelling faintly of dirt. There’s a planter on the fence next to the table. I study the flowers, tiny buds of purple-orange-pink-red like the sunset in the middle of June, mixed with leaves that stretch impossibly upwards to the sky.
Children play on a jungle gym to my right. I hear their laughter in rhythm with the pulse of water from a nearby fountain and I remember the daycare I used to work at in my college town, all the buzzing of busy feet on concrete, the shouts and squeals and tears and bossy commands from two-year-olds just figuring out how to use their voices for the first time.
The world stands still for a moment. I’m taken aback by how comfortable I feel, almost as if I’m melting into this seat, even with the summer sun burning into my skin. I love the warmth. It reminds me of home, of the ocean, of the essay I just read that reflected on a summer break by the sea with such nostalgia it makes my heart ache, even though there is perhaps a fifteen or twenty year age difference between the author and I.
The wind picks up, filtering through my hair. I run a strand through my fingers. It feels like straw, brittle and knotted, scolding me for the haircut I skipped last week and the lazy afternoons where tanning oil and sand and saltwater were all left unwashed on my scalp.
There’s a slowness to beach life, but also a restlessness. A longing to run in the waves, to feel the shells crush beneath your feet, to let the sun beat into your skin until your cheeks turn red. There’s both a calm and a wild, the steady beat of your heart as you lay on the sand, vodka mixed with lemonade in your cup, minutes turning to hours turning to days in the afternoon sun. But then, the crash of the waves calling you forward, making you want to slip off your shoes and let the tide pull you away, flirting on the edge of danger. Making you wish the days were endless, yet just as elated when the sun dips behind the clouds and the night begins.
A voice calls for the children on the playground, bringing me out of my reverie. I listen to their feet pitter-patter across the playground, urgent and desperate for a mid-morning snack in the way little children are, not quite able to focus on more than one desire at a time. These children don’t yet know how it feels to be torn, longing for home or a place to belong, finding a strange sort of comfort and tension in being in one spot, and yet still wishing for another. These children don’t yet understand what it means to feel found in your skin, in a specific time, in a person, in a sudden moment. They simply cannot comprehend a longing for places, for people, for memories, for who you were, or have been.
I close my eyes, listen to the hum of voices, to the birds whose wings flap wildly as they fight over the last crumbs of the scone they’ve stolen off my plate. I think of how, just moments ago, I felt so content to just sit, to just breathe, to just bend over an essay and get lost in someone else’s memories. And now, I’m aching to be where her words have taken me—no longer finding familiarity in this place, but desperate for the saltwater, for my feet in the sand, for my own words spilling across my own pages, making sense of the woman I am and the woman I’ve left behind.