Yesterday a hot humid haze visibly veiled Boston in a regional steam bath, and I could not stray from air-conditioned realms without my forehead and chest erupting in beady sweat and my fingers and ankles swelling to plump lethargic lumps. I holed up in my bedroom, writing gibberish perfume reviews until the AC air’s ersatz coolness became suffocating, Dictionary.com’s cleft palate charity advertisement became depressing, and Mr. Pinault came home from his Sunday morning triathalon to whisk me away to Crane Beach in Ipswich.
It wasn’t an archtypical beach day; an opaque layer of gray clouds shrouded the sun, and a fresh sea breeze across the 65-degree water made swimming a chilling prospect. But Mr. Pinault liked how it reminded him of the beaches in Brittany, and I liked how I could bare my fair skin without fear or sunscreen. We settled in our beach chairs between a young family who was erecting a sandcastle at the behest of a barky toddler, and an odd group of determined teenaged sunbathers, splayed on a blanket, silent except for intermittent Pringle crunching.
While we eat our picnic lunch, Mr. Pinault drops his sandwich in the sand, giving me the opportunity to trot out that old chesnut about “that’s why they’re called sandwiches,” which makes him laugh because he thinks that I made it up. When we finish eating, I spend a few idle minutes digesting and people-watching, then decide to take a walk. Mr. Pinault is more interested in reading the Sunday New York Times and taking discrete sips from his beer, so I set off by myself down the beach.
Crane Beach is one of my favorite New England beaches. It is a peninsula with a long stretch of silky white sand that ribbons around an amazing beachscape of billowy sand dunes. Further down the beach, away from the crowds and the lifeguards, there is a large flat area where the ocean becomes shallow at low tide. You can wade in the ocean about 1/3 of a mile out and never get wet above mid-calf. Shoals of sand emerge everywhere, and you can stand on these islands, totally surrounded by water, alone except for the buried clams blowing air holes at your feet.
I arrive at this section of the beach when the tide is waxing, the shoals are shrinking, and waves are absorbing the clear tidal pools back into the murky sea. Further out, a man takes pictures of a woman as she repeatedly rushes a group of piping plovers resting on a shoal, scattering them in a photogenic cloud before she sneaks away and the unsuspecting birds return. I wander around the shallow flats, where the lapping tides have created pronounced ripples in the sand. I plant my feet into the yielding grooves and imagine the sand exfoliating the skin of my soles. The water no longer feel glacial. In fact, it feels perfect.
I start to walk in the water back towards the main beach, back to the crowds, to the life guards, to Mr. Pinault. The water level inches past my knees, so I step onto a disappearing shoal to remove the J Crew army-green shorts that I modestly donned on top of my swimsuit. Soon the water level touches my waist and the tides gather strength. I expand the length of my gait, enjoying the water’s renewed resistance against my legs. I have left the shallow area of shoals and flats; I have entered the ocean in earnest.
Suddenly the ocean bottom drops out from under me. I am about 30 feet from the shore. I tread water while holding my shorts in my left hand above my head, bobbing in the waves. The water is suddenly horribly frigid. I attempt to touch the bottom again, and a wave surprises me from behind, soaking my hair and covering my mouth. I continue to tread water, but I am not controlling my body’s direction — the ocean’s current is. A moment of panic seizes me, because I know this is how people drown.
I abandon the foolish effort to keep my shorts dry and start swimming backstroke towards the shore. Very soon I am back in thigh-height water. There are two fishermen on the shore, watching me continue to walk in the water back to the main beach, back to the crowds, to the life guards, to Mr. Pinault. The way the fisherman watch me, I know they saw me alone and struggling. They thought they would have to come rescue me. But I never needed rescuing. I just needed the nerve to put my shorts in the water.
[Below is a picture at Crane Beach from October 2007, taken by Mr. Pinault at low tide. The rippled sand flats are visible beneath the horse.]