Where I went through my pubescent (ew) years, people speak with slow drawls and say words like “umbrella” in an emphatically strange way. “Y’all” is the most frequently used pronoun. Everyone has at least one go-to mac ‘n cheese recipe, and everyone knows that summer days at the beach would only be more enjoyable sans tourist traffic.
On Hilton Head Island, one can walk in any direction and ultimately be greeted with foam-kissed toes. At only 12 miles long by five miles wide, the small community is described as urban cluster in the census. It is occupied by wealthy part-time homeowners, tourists from Ohio and Michigan, as well as the middle-class industrials who support the lifestyles of the aforementioned groups in their periods of residency with us. As far as the locals are concerned, any person who resides less than part-time on the isle is considered a “touron” and a parasite in our salty air.
This is what made Burkes Beach the choice family hang out for the locals. Some of my most intimate memories happened on those shorelines of adolescence, at that inspired young age when we “kids” were so angsty over issues we didn’t realize wouldn’t matter in a few years; when all we wanted to do was be in the comfort of our friends, with our heels sunk in the sand, and to capture the air and bottle it up and hold it over a light and see nothing but lavish breezes and the miscellanies of fallen stars. Burkes Beach became a symbolic notch in the timeline of my life; through different lifestyle changes, relationships, and seasons. It was where I began a lasting relationship with my first love—the person who would become my entire world for four whole years.
I remember the night I knew him best; we were sitting in the dunes. He was talking about the future and his fear of it, and I was intercepting the topic with observations on the shape of the universe and the planes that flew above. That was when he finally confronted me about my fear of embracing the murky waters before us.
Over time, I had developed a fear of the ocean and for what was in it, despite the pisces in my blood. My constant curiosity for the unknown was not a strong enough factor in my personality to lure me back into the foggy Atlantic. Maybe it was one-too-many jellyfish stings or bodyboarding incidents that historically had ruined several otherwise perfect beach days.
The first time I ever felt at home within those waves was that moment with that boy—a moment admiring the sky interrupted by an emotional adventure. Three rough knuckles grazed my cheek, before he suddenly rose to his haunches, scooped me up, and flung me over his shoulder; prancing towards the near tide pools. I banged my fists on the base of his spine. He, in turn, tripped on a jellyfish carcass. We went plunging into the puddles.
It’s amazing how easy it is not to care about being soaked in dirty water and seaweed particles when there’s nothing you can do about it except make yourself even more acquainted with them. We laughed for an hour, plastering sand masks onto each other’s faces and shampooing the aquatic plants into our hair. We became the sea creatures that I dreaded, and we were proud of it.
Over four years, nights like those maintained their luster, while dwindling in frequency, until they sizzled to a cease. Everyone remembers the first person who set their heart afloat. The sea tends to start steady, as the waters roll in synchronized rhythm with the leisurely winds. There would not be turbulence if there weren’t times of tranquility to define it.
We learn who we are in disturbed waters.
My fear of the ocean has yet to be faced. The bubbly wave tips are predatory anywhere above my knees. In my new, concrete tide pool, there is no physical evidence of waves in my back yard. Only metaphorical ones in my mind, which often are a result of the stresses that are associated with a life in Manhattan. They say you become a New Yorker after ten years (a year less for every time you’ve been mugged at gunpoint, in my opinion), which means I’m almost there. Certainly I have entered “touron” territory back down south, having been so far for so long.
My homecomings over the six years I’ve spent away have varied in sentiment. Some are for clerical purposes, like doctors’ appointments. Some are elopements, for when I need to run away from the messes I’ve made. And then, there is the rare actual vacation; for enjoying the family that still resides there, or the occasional old friend who sees my instagram story and wants to reconnect, or for bringing down a new lover with the intention of giving them a taste of the island experience that built me up as carelessly as the stormy tides which ripped me apart.
Each time I return, I wonder if the reason is special enough to bid my old friend Burke a fond hello. My most recent excursion finally sparked that reunion.
Michael and I pulled into the run down, empty parking lot of Burkes—the sand crackling in the ridges of our tires as we slowly approached the parking meter.
“You’re sure we don’t need to put anything in there?’
“No of course not. It’s offseason. We only have about ten minutes anyways. Let’s go.”
As we approached the boardwalk, I checked that the foot shower was working before sliding my flats off my feet. My toes were shocked upon their warm impact on the frozen rubber mat. He left his shoes on, hesitant at my sudden spurt of playfulness. As if it had been four hours, and not four years, I danced down the path to my former house of worship. With each stride towards the tides, my toes curled, cuddling the chilly sand granules.
It wasn’t memories that flooded my soul in that moment of revival—it was a sense of revitalization, as my lips became reacquainted with salty flavor, and my body remembered its smallness as a part of such vast space.
Michael kept a few paces behind me at all times, admiring the empty shore.
“Do you feel it?”
“I think I do. It’s beautiful.”
“Can you see how round the earth is in the shape of the sky?”
“This was my home.”
As the sea foam filled the gaps between my phalanges and flooded the high arches of my feet, it responded in a lush, flirtatious whisper.