We bob like corks in the sea. Forever and forever. Time passes slower between waves as a single deranged seagull circles overhead. So. Maybe only an hour passes. The pier is in the distance to the left – a long finger poking into the ocean. Grizzled fishermen with poles and lines stand sweating in the sun along the rails. The most grizzled fishermen with faces withered by the sun and burnt brown arms are arranged at the end of the pier as always, trying to pull in big fish with confidence and high test fishing line. You can’t make out a single fisherman from where we bob and rise. But I feel them over there. My wife Robyn steps on a fish. What kind of fish was it? I ask. I don’t know, she says. What kind of fish did it feel like? I ask. She can’t tell. It felt fishy. I bet it felt slimy, says my 16-year-old son Avery. We all bob gently. The swells are mostly low and manageable. A few rogue waves threaten to wash over our heads, but they don’t.
This was our beach once. A place we were sunburnt and sand-coated. Freckles formed here. Primitive sandcastles erected. Messages scrawled in the sand. Shells meticulously gathered. The shells sat in a big, sandy plastic bag on a counter. We should make an art project from those shells, we told ourselves. But we never did. We shook sand from our hair after we finished burying each other in the sand. Fine grains flew everywhere. We tasted gritty bits of sand in our mouths and spit them out. We blasted each other with ice cold water from garden hoses and stood in outdoor showers to come clean again. But this is not our beach anymore. Now we are visitors.
It’s funny to visit a place where you once lived. Things you took for granted suddenly gain a new imperative. Fireworks and a performance by a live band are a standard summer feature at Carolina Beach on Thursdays. We watched fireworks when we lived here until our eyes glazed over from the lights, and their boom and pop echoed in our ears always. Then we stopped going. It happened all at once. What’s that noise? one of us would ask. Fireworks again, another of us would reply. Damn, I guess it must be Thursday then, the first one of us would say. We bothered to glance out the window to watch the display for a few moments. Then, one Thursday, we didn’t even bother to do that. We would clean a dish or go do some laundry while fireworks shot high into the sky, crackled like rapid gunfire and finally burst into a million tiny stars in the night.
Sometimes we’d drive past the bandstand while the bands played. We’d roll down a window. We’d get a blast of heat as a reward. Hear the drums and bass. Maybe some lead guitar. We couldn’t quite make out the words to the song as we drove past. We were on our way somewhere important. So we rolled the window back up and kept going. We cranked the air conditioner into a higher gear to make up for the hot breath of summer that entered the car in that moment when we listened to the band in passing. And then we turned the radio back on and forgot all about the band playing in the little bandshell. We forgot the children twirling like mad tops in front of the stage while families smelling of sunscreen sat in dozens of beach chairs eating doughnuts and ice cream. We forgot the way the band turned shades of purple and green under the colored stage lights as the darkness gathered. Lights from the Wheel of Fire, Merry Go Round and Ferris Wheel blinked red and gold in the dark, and we saw only a faint glow from distance as we drove past.
But since we returned to the beach as visitors, we do the things visitors do and leave the daily chores to others. We drift in the ocean on boogie boards near Kure Beach Pier. Eat doughnuts from the famous Britt’s Doughnuts on the boardwalk at Carolina Beach. Sit in beach chairs in front of the bandshell and listen to live music from L Shape Lot, a contemporary bluegrass band from nearby Wrightsville that’s been playing the boardwalk here for years. Take pictures of the Thursday fireworks.
Time moves slower here than in Manhattan. Even the slowest day in New York City goes by faster with more noise and potential for chaos. I am trying to gear down while we are here on vacation. But after living two years in Manhattan, it’s as hard to gear down for a beach vacation in our old stomping grounds as it was to gear up for life in the big city after leaving our beach town home.
What are we going to do today? We make a plan. We go do it. We get back. Ok. Great. Lovely. What are we going to do now? I remind myself to drink more sweet tea and stop worrying about what to do next. Soak in the sun, float in the water and be here now in this sun-splashed beautiful beach town in the moment that will only last forever before vanishing in an instant.