The beach at night

by Brian Clarey

The tide had made full flow in the late afternoon, and by the time the sun fell low its roar loosened to a gentle sigh. The crowds had deserted the beach just an hour or so before, and shore birds fought over their leavings. Streaks of deep pink, blood orange and full-on red ran through wispy cloud cover like watercolors.

All Long Island’s beaches are cast in watercolor: the washed-out blue of an early summer sky, the muted earthen tones of the silky sand, the translucent whisper of the horizon, that indiscernible point where the sea meets the sky.

By now the sand had cooled, and the moon made its glimmer known against the dying of the light. We pushed through to the sounds of squabbling birds, of high offshore breaks and the laughter of children.

They scrambled down the beach to an ancient swing set — surely it’s been here since I was a boy, wandering these shores — and set to riding the wind. My wife, my sister and I stopped to watch, digging our toes into the chilled sand as the color faded from the sky and the beach went to sleep.

Indulge me, for a moment, while I bask a bit in my own history, for doing so is as natural as the tides when I’m back on Long Island, the place where I grew up.

My childhood is all around me here — the dog park across from my parents’ house where I learned to ride a bike, climb trees and play tackle football without the benefit of safety equipment or parental supervision; the streets I traversed on my bike and, later, in my mother’s minivan with a hard-won drivers license; the houses where my friends lived; the schools and the shops and the sidewalks. And the beach…. Every summer, every day, marking a loop from the ocean to the pool to the ice-cream shack and back, my skin bronzed like an statue, the bottoms of my feet burned into leather.

And then there are the people, many of whom are still here. We saw a gang of them on the beach just that day: Dr. Lawyer and Espo and Mary Liz and Ted, their families and friends, gathered for a weekend reprieve with surfside fun, fruity drinks and grilled meat on the bone.

It’s the annual family excursion to New York, a 600-mile road trip that fulfills every caricature of the device: car sickness, fast-food farts, arbitrary front-seat arguments and growled threats to the occupants of the back seat, who spend much of the drive invading each other’s personal space.

We broke the journey in half by stopping to tour the Skyline Caverns, one of just three places in the world known to contain anthodite crystal formations, and the only one that’s open to the public.

Honestly, the kids were more impressed with the Best Western by the side of the interstate in central Pennsylvania, with a pool as big as two hot tubs pushed together, a heat lamp in the bathroom and free HBO. We shared what we were told was the last room in town, a smoker near the fire exit on the first floor, with twin queen beds and a view from the window of the parking lot, the highway and the La Quinta Inn across the way, which seemed luxe in comparison.

But for the kids it might as well have been the high-roller’s suite at Caesar’s Palace. They even raved about the continental breakfast, which experienced travelers know can usually be a letdown.

The beach, too, where they’ve been spending their days, is as exotic to them as it is familiar to me. I grew up tackling the ocean and digging in the sand as the seagulls took their due; these landlocked kids of mine might as well be walking on the surface of the moon, so rare is this experience for them.

It’s all about the kids, this business of loading into the car and driving north for two days. It’s about creating a childhood, memories upon which they can hang the threads of their own stories. But also it’s about my own childhood, idyllic in memory, simple and pure as the sand and the sea.

After dark we made our way across the sand, back to the cabanas where we bedded down for the night. This far from shore the sand dissolves into nothingness, the ocean a suggestion, an unseen gentle roar.

At the beach, sleep comes fast and hard, the soughing of the waves a gentle lullaby, the salt air a conductor for easy, peaceful dreams. The morning light comes all at once, a sudden wipe of color before the heat sets in.