When living by the beach was new to her, she’d thought it was her salvation. Every day she made her way down to the sand, digging her toes into the damp cold, letting waves splash over her feet and wrap themselves around her ankles.
That had been twenty years ago. A lifetime, it seemed. Certainly a generation ago, when people respected public places.
Now, she could hardly bear to go out there unless the wind was lashing and rain pouring, chasing everyone back to their presumably chaotic homes.
Their homes must be chaotic, because so many of them wrought chaos on the beach. Their children threw rocks, not caring if someone was strolling past in the shallow water. And they weren’t pebbles, they were rocks the size of Idaho potatoes, and larger, rocks they sometimes couldn’t close their small fingers around. They let their dogs shit in the ocean and continued walking, not caring that soggy turds were floating around, waiting to swim into another’s face or brush past the tender skin of a child.
They played their music so loud that no one around them could hear the crash of waves. They spent the day throwing balls and splashing in the surf, riding on styrofoam boards onto the sand.
When the sun went down, they walked away. They left cigarette butts that found their way into the water. Swallowed by fish, the filters swelled and blocked the intestines until the fish starved to death. They left plastic bottles and cups, aluminum cans and bottles half filled with beer. They left water-logged sandals and broken plastic shovels and buckets. They left brand new sand toys. They left t-shirts and shorts, underwear and socks. They left aluminum foil wadded into balls and plastic bags and dirty diapers wrapped up like small, fat torpedoes.
Did any of them know about the plastic mass floating in the ocean, a mass that would outweigh the fish in a few decades? When they squealed over seals and dolphins passing by, did they realize they were killing them with their garbage?
Then, in August, everything changed.
She walked toward the cliff above the beach. Fifteen or twenty people lined the edge, holding up phones, shooting videos and taking photographs. She walked closer.
In the water below, were two humpback whales — sixty- or seventy-thousand pounds of whale flesh bursting through the surface as they scooped up sardines and anchovies. They let themselves fall back down with an enormous splash. In a single breath, the crowd sighed ahh.
Water vapor shot from their blow holes, dorsal fins cut the surface and disappeared. A few minutes later, they flung themselves into the air in a beautiful dance of pure pleasure.
After a while, she walked down to the sand for a better look. They were so close, less than a hundred yards from shore. In twenty years, she had never seen them come so close.
A man turned to her and smiled. Several minutes later, two women approached her and asked her what she knew about whales. What kind are they? Do they always come so close?
A family with Northern European accents asked her to take their picture. An elderly couple walked slowly past and stopped at the edge of the water. All down the beach, the sunbathers stood at the edge of the water, looking out, talking and admiring the magnificent creatures who had no idea they were being watched so closely by so many.
The whales stayed close to shore for over a month. Every day they performed their dances, slapping their tails against the surface of the water to drive fish to their companions. They leaped and dove and glided through the water.
Everyone talked to each other, locals and tourists. Most days, before she even reached the top of the cliff someone passed by, asking, Are they still here today?
It was evening and she stood on the cliff with only two or three others. They didn’t talk, only smiled, keeping their gazes focused on the water.
She wondered — maybe other things could be found. Things that would get them smiling, talking, looking at each other. The shouting that echoed across the entire country would subside to civil conversation. Maybe, the trash would be picked up. Not something like the eclipse of the sun that passed by for the first time in thirty-eight years, causing the same effect — strangers talking to strangers, finding common ground — but something every day. Every hour. Every minute.