The aerosol smell of cheap sunscreen clogs my throat, making me gag a bit. I look up from spraying my leg, for what reason I don’t really know, feeling the sticky substance dry rapidly across my skin in the early morning light. I look across the parking lot, acres of cars, families pouring from them this hot September morning, all of them arguing, talking, and running, preparing for a day of entertainment amongst the cheap tourist wares and stoned teenage hawkers of boardwalk fries and floating rubber ducks. The beach seems to be nearly forgotten in this sea of dirty humanity, clad in black socks and swimsuits too small, children darting here and about, chasing one another with plastic weapons and performing imaginary martial moves copied from endless hours of mindless animation, portrayed in 3D on High Def Television Screens.
The smell of the sea and surf is here to be found, nonetheless, hidden away beneath too many layers of conflicting odors, confounding my senses. I feel lost and sick. I push the thought of unwashed bodies in the sunlight away and turn to the task of extracting my son from his car seat. My phone rings. It’s a forgotten sound. Another remnant from a time not long since, when my cell phone rang from early in the morning until I turned it off for a few hours of interrupted drunken sleep at night. I don’t recognize the number.
I do recognize the voice. An old friend. A relative, of a distant sort. Someone met an eternity ago, in graduate school, when the world was open and beautiful and ripe and there, in our palms, taken, plucked, picked and consumed with no thought of the future or what it may entail. I glance at the toddler in my life, his blond curls framing a face so much like his mother’s that I am unrecognizable in the equation of his existence. He’s enthralled with his tablet PC at the moment, so I humor the past and allow it to take precedence, if but for a moment.
The sound of his voice, along with the still ominous scent of sunscreen, and the suddenly darkened world behind my tightly closed eyelids, transport me suddenly back, through the years. How many? Fifteen? Can it be that many? I ask him and he laughs. He tells me of Scotland and Romania, of foreign soil and geological formations and bars and beaches and women and parties and travel and South America as my head rings with the memory.
I’m on a beach. It’s barely daylight, already hot, with the May sunshine burning through the morning mist, swept in from the Gulf the night before as I slept. I’m loading drinking water and GPS receivers into waterproof bags, rolling them through the directions printed on the heavy rubber canvas. The material is so worn from use, so pliable that the bags seem to close themselves as I snap the plastic fasteners and clip them into their appropriate places. Aerosol sunscreen once again sprays close by. One college student, still a sophomore, is deep into a adho mukha shvanasana yoga pose by the pines on the beach as the sun still hangs in the east, a red ball of fire. A tattoo of a smiling star surrounded by waving blue flame surrounds the mark on the small of her back, between dimples barely covered by a triangle of orange fabric.
The other girl drags a kayak further onto the beach, then pauses to apply sunscreen to her foot, her deeply tanned body complimented by the play of light and shadow on the beach around our campsite, which resembles a combination of research station, with laptops, GPS sending units and other equipment; and party spot, with empty beer bottles stacked carefully to the side of the dying campfire. Her hair is beginning to dread up, long and blond and streaked from the sun and surf, beads sending up winks of reflection in the early morning sunshine.
Her face is deeply tanned, belying the fair skin normally acquiescent in the remnants of the early morning chill. Her bikini is of the barely there type, green and hand made. I pointedly ignore her, go about my business of marking the transmitters set on barrier islands, some of which are similar to the bikini in their permanence above the smooth Gulf water. Geo-corrected to the correct satellite positioning, their location can be monitored to within a few centimeters, allowing us to continue the tedious task of monitoring sea level rise, which even in the early days of the second Clinton administration, was well documented by scientists.
I had the feeling then of something perilous, as the sun continued its climb out of the water, of something ending. This could not last, I thought, my bare toes dug into the silt of the campsite, the laptop on my knees, a third student crawling now out of her tent, oblivious to everything save the coffeepot, stashed on a flat rock by the fire pit, which was dug into the wet sand. My legs were caked in salt from overspray and my skin was nearly black from the sun. May was nearly over. It was time to pack our gear and return to our alternate reality.
I slam back into the present so suddenly that it startled me. The voice of my comrade in crime had gone silent, questioning, in the heat rays of the blacktop as I smell a diaper that needs to be changed. “Are you still there? Hello?” I realize I don’t really know the answer to that question. I stare at my phone for a moment, tempted to stomp it underfoot. It wouldn’t be the first time a phone belonging to me had met such an end. I stuff it into my pocket instead, ending our brief conversation.
My son comes into my arms eagerly, then fights immediately to be put down, putting all thirty pounds of himself into the struggle, heedless of the state of his diaper. I feel eerily disconnected from the entire scene, but my child is real and so is the smell wafting from his nether regions.
The sun begins to waft to the west as I finish the menial task and toss the ruins of his breakfast into a trash can, pushing his stroller, laden with child and the endless suite of articles necessary to provide him with instant relief from even a moments discomfort from thirst, hunger, boredom, heat, cold, germ, bacteria, flu virus, or anything else that may make his existence less than wonderful for even an instant.
I wonder at the places unseen, where I haven’t been yet been. I scan my body, rapidly, looking for the ever-present signs of advancing sickness. I am thrilled to find not much has changed. I wonder where my wife may be. My only son spins in his stroller, looking at me with a huge grin and I slow just in time as he charges out, his small feet splaying sand as he sprints towards the water. I laugh, and race after him, my wanderlust forgotten. First and foremost, for all the rest of my life, I am a Dad.