I hover around the coffee maker, pacing in and out of the kitchen as if a moment’s disappearance would fill the pot the rest of the way—three quarters, one half, one quarter—and finally pour myself a cup before it’s finished brewing. Brown liquid sizzles against the warming plate, releasing the smell of burning, of impatience, of things in places they should not be.
Every year, the beach house is as I remember it: craft store ship wheels hanging from at least one wall per room, windows covered with mock fishing net instead of curtains, factory-distressed wood that says things like, “Welcome to Paradise,” a separate font for every word. Only the sand ground into the carpet is real. The sand between the fitted sheet and the top sheet. The sand on the bottom of the shower floor. I think that someday, certainly, the entire house will succumb to sand.
I have no plans for this trip other than to try not to become a person in a place they should not be. That is a quickly growing list—the arcade on the boardwalk, the movie theater across town, the popular crab shack, the unpopular crab shack—and it seems that perhaps the only place left is the beach. This, I assume, is because it cannot consume me. It’s long and far-reaching, moving outward and outward, the air renewed with each crashing wave.
I pack my bag carefully: sunscreen for me and for the kids (my sister’s, not my own), a book to read and a book of crossword puzzles, a beach towel, bottles of water and plastic containers of snacks. The kite I carry separately, not wanting anything in the bag to bend its delicate wings. We arrive at the beach at an odd hour, most parents having marched their families back to their respective vacation rentals for naps or lunch or both, and so it is quiet when I spread my towel carefully over the ground.
It’s easier to drift than anything else these days, easier still in the presence of the ocean. I watch the kite as it dives and shoots and jerks across the cloud-touched sky. I can hear my nephews arguing, the littlest one begging for a turn while the older ones shoo him away, hitting him with that sort of you-have-to-be-this-tall-to-ride argument. My eyes unfocus without prompting, and the kite becomes a moving absence of light, shielding one corner of my cornea and then the next. I think about ducks in the park where I grew up, hand feeding them until scolded by a teacher. I think about the rows of trees that grew behind my college, reading under them until the daylight faded. About the library back home. Safe, safe, safe.
When I blink away from the sky, everything is different in that everything is gone. I can no longer hear the boys fighting over the kite. I can no longer see dots of colorful umbrellas parading down the shore. There is only sand, and it is no longer where it should be. It is everywhere. It is below and above. It is the air and, I imagine, the ocean. It is the sky. It is me.
Perhaps, I consider, I am caught in a sandstorm. Had everyone else managed to see it coming, to retreat to their homes and shut the windows and doors? Why did no one urge me to come along? There is nothing to do now but stay still. There is nothing solid to stand on, no direction to walk in. Everything is the sound and texture of scratching. I cover my nose and mouth and return to the ducks and the trees and the library. Safe, safe, safe. In here, it is safe. Out there, it is nothing but sand, sand in all the wrong places, sand swallowing me whole.
I am sunburned, which is curious. The sun had seemed absent for—I can’t be sure how long. I sit upright, rub my eyes, take a head-clearing breath. My youngest nephew has the kite string. The kite is nose-first in the sand. His brothers have moved on, wading into the water, leaning into the waves. More umbrellas than before, an impressionist painting with a title like Out to Sea. My sister nudges me, offers a carrot stick. I take it and gnaw. No one seems startled. No one is covered in more than the usual allotment of sand.
I wonder how I will get off the beach, how I will walk across all this sand knowing that it could overcome me if it wants to, if it changes its mind. How I will live with the sand in every crevice of the house, how I will tolerate another three days here. Another place that is no longer safe. Another place where only I seem to detect the possibility of being blotted out. It is a lonely way to fear.
I pull my legs close to my body, the edges of the beach towel like the sides of an island slipping into the unknown. The floor is lava. The floor is covered in sand. I return to my ducks. Safe in here.