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Love On the Beach


The beach was small, and even when the tide was out there wasn't a lot of room. When it was coming in we'd take our books and sand chairs and move them farther and farther up the beach until we, like a handful of others, lounged on just a thin strip of dry sand.

It was an intimate beach, but never crowded. Strangers smiled and greeted each other. And, in such proximity, watching each other was a given.

There were the scuba divers: a husband-and-wife team going in for their third time that day; a bunch of out-of-shape guys who looked like slippery whales when they donned their suits; biology teachers talking shop before their next dive.

There were the little kids: a band of noisy boys pitching rocks into the ocean, within feet of another little boy who seemed to be their particular target for terror; a tow-headed toddler and her bossy big sister; a boy, maybe 5 years old, climbing on the rocks with a little girl who looked like a miniature French lieutenant's woman, her corona of long, blonde hair against her bright pink hoodie.

There were the couples: young lovers with twin tans and skimpy suits; the readers who sat with their backs to the ocean and didn't speak; the couple who had dug a trench around themselves and hoisted their beach umbrella, making a fiefdom of two.

And then there was the older couple. He wore a straw hat, she a white bathing cap. For their age they were both thin and fit. But some kind of disability made them seem, at the same time, very frail. They advanced slowly, slowly, slowly down the pathway to the beach, and then equally as slowly across the sand to the water, the man holding firmly to his wife's arm. It wasn't clear at first which one was helping the other.

They came to the water's edge and waded in farther and farther. And then the husband let go of his wife. Laboriously, she began to swim away from him. She swam at such a slow crawl it seemed impossible that she could stay afloat. She swam farther and still farther away.

“Look at how far out that woman is,” my friend said to me. "Her husband doesn't seem to be paying any attention to where she's gone."

I nodded, looked around. There was no lifeguard. I didn't want to see any more beach tragedy—a few years ago I had been on the beach when a scuba diver drowned.

All this time the woman's husband seemed utterly unconcerned, standing knee-deep in the water, straw hat on his head.

Was this some kind of an assisted suicide, I wondered? Was he going to let her exhaust herself until she could swim no more and she would drown and he would watch her and some kind of intimate pact between them would have been fulfilled?

But no. Eventually she turned around and began to swim in the direction of her husband, her white cap flashing with each stroke of her slow-motion crawl. No matter that she was disabled, she had endurance.

When she reached shallow water she stood up shakily for a few seconds, then got down onto her hands and knees. She stayed there for a long time, staring into the water. And then, as slowly as she had walked across the beach, she crawled out of the water, up onto the wet sand.

Her husband stood in front of her, maybe six feet away, towel in hand, unmoving. His wife was on her hands and knees before him. It looked as if she were reverencing him. Or groveling before him. I wondered if this was some kind of cruel submission and domination game played out on the beach for all to see.

But after a while she rose to her feet. She moved awkwardly, placing both feet on the sand and lifting up butt-first. The moment she began to rise, her husband was at her side, placing a towel around her, holding her. Then, every bit as slowly as they had come down to the beach, they walked back up the sand, joined once again.

It was then I realized what we had just seen. She had wanted to swim.

At one time she must have been an strong swimmer. She wanted to be one again. She wanted to swim as far as she wanted to, as far as she could. She wanted to emerge from the water on her own and unassisted, a swimmer, not an invalid.

And the only way for this to happen was if her husband helped her as far as he could, and then let her go. He stood there, looking to all of the rest of us as if he were heartless and unconcerned. But he was making her independence possible. For a few rare moments, her disability no obstacle, his wife moved alone and freely far out into the sunny water.

It's an image I won't forget, this most strange tenderness: The husband on the beach, watching. His wife in the sea, swimming.

--Jo Page

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