I live on the edge, but not in the way that you think.
On the map, we are a dot on the dark border that snakes up the coast; to the right, the light blue Atlantic, to the left, our expansive continent. Growing up, I lived twenty or so miles inland as the crow flies, though by car, we were well over an hour to the best beaches. We planned day-trips to the shore as summer events. Stuffing woven chairs, towels and paperbacks into the trunk the night before, we’d leave early in the morning, our goal to beat the traffic. Driving down the highway, evidence of our arrival appeared via salt-stunted pine trees leaning like crooked hunchbacks away from the wind, a sky that rose ahead of us faded white and open.
At the beach, we’d spread out striped towels and lather up, our nostrils flaring at the sweet smell of coconut hovering on the fusty rot of seaweed. Seagulls wailed and squabbled as they latched onto high-level currents, gliding over an ocean that pounded and shuddered in an insistent warp and weft. Splayed under the sun, grainy sand rustled as we shifted positions, muted radios chattered, the calls of swimmers rose tinny with treble as the breeze pushed noise out to sea. Shivering after a swim in the cold ocean, we’d bury feet into the warmth radiating from a sun-baked earth.
In those days, a trip to the sea painted a summer highlight. Fluorescent beach umbrellas leaned back and flapped on hot gusts. Breezes fingertipped our sweating skin and lifted the salt-crusted hair on the throng standing in the line we joined to purchase late-in-the-day soft-serves. Circling our tongues around our dripping confections, we'd settled into the scalding car to begin the ride home, breathing exhaust fumes that billowed through open windows, twisting from sunburns that stung and itched. Always then, we sighed, loath to leave a fantasy world. To us, the beach remained as it was when we left, the hot sun toasting hatless heads, sea-grass sabres rattling, a shell-speckled parking lot shimmering in the heat.
It wasn’t until I moved to the coast that I understood that crowded beaches are a blip in a world where intrepid life exists all year round. In February, living at the shore means the washing-machine roll of waves churning against exposed rock after a mid-week storm; towers of water crashing and banging against a granite lighthouse serving as sentry to the barges and freighters that troll the horizon on their way into the city. It means an empty harbor, floating with ice chunks that heave and shift and stack themselves like frozen books tossed to the floor.
And, it means standing awestruck at a snow-covered jetty watching lobster men unwind ropes with gloved hands, before churning out to sea against a spray that ices up on metal gunwales. They put forth in frigid temperatures that numb booted toes, amid bitter winds that chap cheeks a permanent shade of red. How distant this is from those hot days of my youth.
Where I grew up, the ocean existed as a place to escape to, a location of eternal warmth. I didn’t live by the shore, though to someone in Kansas looking at the map; it would seem as if I did. Back then, my home was a small inch but a huge lifetime away from the sharp edges of the map.
Now, I realize that for many who live here, home rests on the line.