The time we went to the beach

by Caiomhe McKeogh

We woke up in the early afternoon and decided to go to the beach. The news alerts on our phones said it was the hottest day of the year in New Zealand. I had to try on three lots of togs before I decided on my bikini, because at least my boobs looked good enough to distract people from my stomach. In my pink one-piece I looked like a child; in the black one I looked like a seal. We put our clothes over top of our togs and carried our towels around our shoulders.


We found a bare patch of beach and sat there on the sand, amazed by the black heat of it under our towels. It had slipped in the sides of our sandals and burned our feet as we walked. We mumbled ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ and then looked guiltily at the children around us.


There was a man nearby with a baby the size of his two hands. It was so young that its arms and legs still curled into its tummy and made it egg-shaped. It was wearing nothing but a white nappy, and the man was blowing on its skin to try to keep it cool. 


I was enjoying the little things, like the way my legs looked shiny like a celebrity’s legs – because I had covered them with sunscreen and then sweated a lot – and the way the sand was bigger bits than you would think, and they stuck to you and sparkled.


You perched on a rock and read Foucault, which sounds pretentious but was actually uncool, because you really cared what Foucault had to say and you thought the sound of the water around you while you read would relax your brain and help you absorb the more difficult parts of the text, like the real-life version of binaural beats.


I lay on my towel and read Coetzee, which seemed like a thin and easy summer read, because it was two-hundred-and-something pages with a nice cover, but was actually pretentious because I was only doing it so I could finally say I’d read everything by Coetzee.


Everywhere I looked there were bare buttocks, because all the women had their bikini bottoms sucked into the cracks of their butts. They would stand up and dust the sand from the rounded skin, but not pull the bikini bottom out. There were lots of shapes of butt and I liked all of them, but I was glad I was wearing shorts. Your chest and my tummy were the whitest skin on the beach, until they started turning pink.


We got into the sea, finally, when the children started thinning out, and we were too hot not to be in the sea. It was like stepping into a nature documentary, our feet suddenly surrounded by multiple varieties of seaweed and jellyfish in very clear water. We couldn’t figure out whether the big red thing was a plant that was moving in the waves, or a creature that was moving against them. Under the water, everything looked alive. Rocks were shiny like they might be crabs’ backs. Seaweed wrapped around our legs like it was trying to eat us. The dead jellyfish were forced to keep pulsing by the push and pull of the waves. 


The jellyfish were all dead; they’d drifted in that way from somewhere deeper. You and some children hit them with sticks and they broke into little pieces. It was worse to be tickled by pieces of jellyfish than by a whole jellyfish. I retreated to the sand for a while. I came back in and under the water my legs looked dead, the pale skin made paler through the illusion of the water. I had to keep lifting them out to see if they really were that colour, and they never were, but I never believed they weren’t once they’d gone back in.


You were out deep, floating on your back. I was distracting myself with worry about the colour of my legs, because really I was worried that you had died. I didn’t have my glasses on, and you were a profile between the blue sea and blue sky – so still and so probably dead. There were people swimming around you, and they would surely notice if you were as blue as you looked. I tried to see panic in their blurry faces. A wave splashed your face and you flailed for a while, then came back to the shore.


‘I’m not having a very good time,’ I said.


‘You’re cold,’ you said.


Our phones said it was 8 pm and we couldn’t believe it because the sun was still up and it usually took so long for a day to pass.


We put our clothes back on top of our togs, but now we were damp and gritty and smelled like dead jellyfish. You said that the first thing you would do when you got home was have a hot shower. Instead, we took off each other’s damp, gritty clothes and kissed and licked the saltiness of each other and had sex on the bathroom floor.


We went to bed in sheets that smelled like a fortnight of sleep-ins and sex, and added the smell of sea and sunblock and jellyfish. You kept telling me that jellyfish don’t smell of anything, and it was the seaweed that we stank of. It hadn’t occurred to me that the loose floating seaweed was dead too. The pieces of jellyfish were so grotesque that they had to be the smell.


You eventually made cheese toasties, and we watched TV on the laptop until the sun came up. We didn’t go to the beach the next day, because we felt good that we’d already done it once. We had only gone to the beach that time because we felt like it was what we should do. When we had signed the rental contract for that flat – just out of earshot of the waves – we’d imagined a life where every day was on the sand, where we turned golden and our hair was always stiff with salt. We only ever seemed to end up there in the nighttime, though, clinging to each other and listening to storms, so late and cloudy that it was too dark to see our own feet. 


It was nice being us that summer, because we sweated, asleep, in our room all day with the curtains shut, and then had the nights to ourselves. It was hard being us that summer because whenever we tried to go out for breakfast, all the cafés on Cuba Street were between their lunch and dinner menus. Whenever we wanted dinner, all that was left were the dodgiest kebab shops. I decided never to eat falafel again. I became convinced one day, halfway through a meal, that the texture of ground-up chickpeas and parsley in my mouth was like wet sand. 


I never got sick of baked-bean-and-cheese toasties. You never got sick of instant noodles. We sometimes opened the curtains in the afternoon and saw damp-haired families walking past, with such wide-eyed smiles that they looked drunk on salt, and we’d say, ‘It was nice . . . that time we went to the beach,’ but we didn’t mean that we wanted to go back again.