For both of us, the sea and ocean shore are sources of comfort and of souvenirs—not the kind you buy on the boardwalk, but the memories of being in certain places, at certain times in our lives. We think of water as a connector of moments-past to moments-present. In water, like in vivid memories, you have the feeling of weightlessness, yet hyper-awareness: of your breathing, of undersea sounds, of your body. These recollections are bracketed by the changing of the tides.
When I was 12 we went to the Baltic Sea, where my mother had spent summers as a girl. When she was young, amber littered the shores. By the time I visited, there was none left above sea level; people had collected it all. But that year, as if the beach remembered her, there was amber in the froth at the waterline—orange and brown butterflies that had lost their way and ended up washed up, quivering, among the seaweed. I scooped up the butterflies and carried them to safety on the dunes where my mother had once run barefoot. —Monika
Growing up by the seaside, you get accustomed to a lot of rituals surrounding family trips to the beach, even if they don’t make sense at all. When I was a little kid, we always brought the same food and consumed it in the same dramatic way. There were hard-boiled eggs (all my outdoorsy memories of the early ’90s include hard-boiled eggs). Sprinkling them with beach sand instead of salt was the funniest and “fanciest” thing one could do. And the only way to eat dessert was to run around our towel-padded, beach screen–surrounded pit, with a glazed donut in one hand, and apple juice in the other, trying to get away from the swarms of bees that had been attracted by the sugary treats. —Emma
“Do you know how the Baltic Sea smells in the summer?” my mother asked me once. I shrugged. Of course I did. Everybody knows the sharp smell of fish and algae coming from the shore. “No, the water! The water smells of watermelons!” she said, and to my surprise, she was right. I just couldn’t name it before, that scent of the invisible border where the watermelon pulp loses color and turns into pale rind. —Emma
This past winter I visited the United Arab Emirates, where my boyfriend grew up. We went to a beach resort in Ras al-Khaimah. It was the off-season: The hotel was mostly vacant and the beach was empty, rows of skeletal chairs and plumped-up umbrellas. I found a space between the rocks where the water swirled in and out like a hot tub. I sat there and felt a hesitant calm come over me, as if it couldn’t really be that quiet. The next day I went snorkeling for the first time and discovered my suspicions to be correct: Offshore and undersea, life was teeming. There were pufferfish, rays, and radiant plants in all different colors. My boyfriend spotted small sharks. We bathed in this secret world and came back up in time for dinner at the restaurant, where we were, once again, the only guests. —Monika
At six I convinced my friends that I controlled the ocean, like Ursula. We were staying in a huge house on stilts in North Carolina with two other families. Us five kids spent our time running into the rough waves and getting spit back out. I stood on the shore like a conductor, waving my arms around as if the ocean was following my directions, performing spells that I refused to reveal at bedtime. One day, Daniel went in and under, disappearing for too long. When he washed up, he had blood on his teeth and a raw chin where he had been dragged along the bottom. We all stood over him, but he looked up at me, as if I were responsible. —Monika
There’s always this one day near the end of the summer—it’s the last warm day, you can feel it in your bones. That day, my younger sister and I never brought our swimsuits to the beach. We’d say it was already too cool to get in the water, but we knew we’d end up taking one last wild dip of the year in our printed cotton underwear, the kind that only children and grandmas wear. The year I hit puberty—the last summer I spent braless—we decided it was too cold to swim, and it has been too cold to swim on that day ever since. —Emma ♦