Beach reading, or not
Every summer my friends and I rent a beach house for a week. Here’s what I read (or didn’t) this summer, the time I arrived empty-handed.
Sunday: An US Weekly that is four weeks old
We rise early for a Pilates class on the beach. I, at seven months pregnant, skip it, and instead invite my mom over for coffee on the front deck, enjoying the rare one-on-one time. We watch the tennis players thwack their balls on the court across the street, the lazy sailboats idling on the bay, the bikers cruising by. This will be my last beach week like this, I realize: unencumbered, unneeded.
When my friends return from class, weary and sweating with sore — but open! — hips, we lotion up and walk the three blocks to the beach. There’s a sandbar this week; you can wade out into the navy water for a solid quarter mile and still just be up to your waist in waves. In the sun, the talk never stops. It’s our first full day of vacation and we are brimming with stories and life updates and plans. By late afternoon the talk slows; we close our eyes for our daily beach siesta. I fish the magazine out of my bag and read it cover to cover, pausing occasionally to watch a wave, a seagull, a sun glare. I am now caught up on the Hollywood gossip from a month ago.
My dad stops by for a visit, creaking up from a borrowed beach chair twice to try and catch my baby’s kicks. Later, after my parents have left and we’re walking back to our rental, dripping sand, we talk about my family, how good I have it. My friends call my mom their beach mom; they rave about my dad’s new svelte physique. She is warm as sunshine; he’s a moon, solid and quiet. I’m overly sensitive these days, especially about family, and I try not to cry.
Monday: White is for Magic; Fire Arrow; Elle Magazine; People Magazine
My roommate here, an old college friend, is an early riser, and these days I am an inconsistent sleeper, so when I wake up to baby kicks I make her feel them. She lays her hands on me like an energy healer; a different touch than my doctors and nurses employ (clinical, probing). It’s even different from how most friends approach my belly — cautious, shy. “I can feel her body,” she says, amazed. We have a moment.
It’s cloudy today and the wind is rustling through the leafy trees lining our property. My bed is next to the open window, a view I quickly get used to: lush greenery, summer stones, the backs of beach houses. Lawn mower sounds punctuate the rustling. Coffee smells and kitchen noises float through on the wind. I like early morning reading, so I sneak into a half-empty bedroom where I know a bookshelf housed some titles other renters had left behind. I grab two: White is for Magic by Laurie Faria Stolarz (someone has scrubbed a message on the cover — a name and phone number — and I think about calling it; decline) and Fire Arrow by Edith Pattou.
I open up White is for Magic. A page into it I realize it’s a sequel. A gust of wind blows in my window and I fumble; the book falls out of my hands to the floor. I take it as a sign.
I pick up Fire Arrow and read the back cover. Plus: it was a Booklist top 10 fantasy novel of the year. Minus: fantasy isn’t really my thing. I decide to soldier on, but then I see it: this book is also a sequel, part two in the Song of Eirren trilogy. I can’t read sequels when I haven’t read the first in the series. Did the island know that? I put both back where I found them, send a wish to future renters that they’ll be caught up.
On the beach I’m worried about sunburn and spend most of the day under the shade, checking in on my pink arms every few minutes. I flip through an Elle with Anna Kendrick on the cover; my husband has a Hollywood crush on her, and I find her charming, too, and who doesn’t like Pitch Perfect? I haven’t read a lady mag in a long time. I can’t believe how enjoyable it is.
When I’m done I snag a People magazine so I can get caught up on Jessica Simpson’s wedding. What is there to say about her wedding, other than it is exactly what I expected?
I don’t touch a book for the rest of the day.
Tuesday: White Lies; The Secret of Isobel Key
We spend the morning watching live congressional coverage of the Act for Women testimony — two of my housemates work in the reproductive rights movement — and we don’t make it to the beach until lunchtime. I bring White Lies by Jane Ann Krentz with me; I found it in the TV cabinet, tucked between Dean Koontz and Tom Clancy books. Otherwise known as “stuff I feel like my dad reads, maybe.”
There’s a thick mist hanging over the beach today but the sun still shines through. I try to read White Lies but I get distracted, first by conversation and then by a lone seagull who has snagged a snack bag of Lays chips and is dancing with it on the shoreline. We watch with anticipation. Can he open the bag?
He can. A dozen of his flock join him. Chips explode in the air, disappear in eager beaks.
White Lies is not my style, and I can’t shake the feeling that it too is a sequel, and I wonder if I am destined for bad book luck this week. I give up on it; watch the waves instead. That night I get an email saying the hold on a library book I’d forgotten I requested is now available. I connect my ereader, download The Secret of Isobel Key by Jen McConnel, and dive in.
At night in bed, though, I find it difficult to sink into the book. Not for the first time I wonder what’s happened to my reading stamina, my patience. Is it my pregnancy? Is it the fact that I’m here at the beach, on vacation, beholden to no one, no projects, no deadlines? A lightning storm is approaching and I can feel the change in the air, the drop in temperature, the warning noises the trees are making. We close the windows against the rain, and I fall asleep.
I won’t pick up Isobel Key again; back home in New York, my library loan will expire, the file disappearing from the screen of my ereader.
Wednesday: Glamour Magazine
The storms last all morning, but I welcome the break. Maybe we all do. We eat pancakes and lounge around, talking, napping, curling into down dogs in the living room. We sit on damp couches and flip through magazines. I read Glamour (“The Denim Issue”), where Katie Holmes tries to convince me she is living her dream life. What do I know? Maybe she is. Maybe her plan worked out perfectly.
It doesn’t turn into a beach day until mid-afternoon which by then is too late, so some of us walk the shops. We browse my old haunts — my favorite summer job from when I was a teenager, the coffee shop and bakery I used to frequent. I know this island, the most important parts of it, anyway, like the back of my hand.
At night we host a house dinner, complete with homemade guacamole and margaritas. (I skip those.) My mom escorts my sweet grandmother up the deck stairs; a dear high school friend swings by. The house is full of food and conversation and energy. We talk about where we’d like to move, to settle, to raise kids. I don’t know; I don’t have answers. Like everyone else, I’m flying by the seat of my maternity jeans. What would Katie Holmes say?
Thursday: The Fever
This happens every summer: the week feels long and smooth until we hit Wednesday, when it speeds up and crashes. Today is the first truly perfect beach day, and we get there early and set up camp. Beaching is an art. You have to know how to place your chair and towel, how to keep the sand from sticking, how often to reapply sunscreen. You have to know how to keep yourself occupied just enough so that you won’t make a run for it, diving into the waves and swimming until you’re on the other side, escaping.
Today there are dolphins, schools of them riding the waves, jumping. They draw crowds of onlookers. I feel proud, momentarily, that this is where I’m from, that this beach is my childhood. As if, because the dolphins like it here, it somehow reflects well on me.
After lunch, though, I am restless. I can’t get comfortable. My sister takes pity on my lack of reading progress this week and lends me her ereader, where The Fever by Megan Abbot, which has been on my list since the deal memo was signed, is winking at me like a secret. I temper the flutters in my stomach, reapply my sunscreen, and feel normal again as the words wash over me. Now this is summer reading. I spend the afternoon under the sun, captivated.
We go to dinner at our favorite place for the second time this week and afterwards everyone departs for the local bar, but I’m done for the night. I stop by my grandmother’s for a quick visit and we watch the darkness settle its jacket over the street. My mom brings me some juice to tempt the baby to dance for her but, like me, she’s quiet tonight. Sated.
I go home alone and fully intend to read The Fever some more, but it turns out “Practical Magic” is on television. I have an unwritten rule that dictates I watch that as often as possible, and plus, it’s based in a book, so isn’t it practically the same as reading?
Friday: US Weekly (current issue)
Our last beach day dawns perfectly clear and crisp; a postcard. The waves coast over the light breezes and occasionally batter us with a welcome mist. To my regret, I realize I left my borrowed ereader at the house; I make do with an US Weekly — a current one — and realize I’ve read more magazines this week than I typically do in three months.
We break for lunch, stroll through the old drugstore. I used to have my ear infection prescriptions filled here; now there are fancy soaps and oils and gourmet chocolates. I snag a copy of Ghost Stories of the Jersey Shore, because why not? At the beach I tackle it. There are too few commas, but I plow along, certain I’m trolling myself at this point, desperate to find flaws that will make me put down the book and continue my blissed-out beach gazing. I guess I need an excuse, or permission, to stop reading, even if just for a day, or an afternoon. Even if just for an hour.
I set aside the ghosts and stare at the sea. In the distance are sailboats and speedboats, surfers and stand-up paddle boarders. I wonder where they’re all going; from where they came.
That night we drive to a fancy dinner up-island, where everyone has cocktails and I sip ginger ale and cranberry juice and eat scallops, and then we come home and pack, clean, bemoan how quickly a week passes.
Saturday: The bus schedule
Mom drops us off at the bus station. We leave her with our eternal gratitude, a thank you card, and a stack of our old magazines.