Deborah Paul Experiences a Sea Change

For once in my lifetime, I’ve lived on the water. And I will miss it.

Awhile back, a real-estate broker in Florida told me that everyone should live on the water at least once in their lifetime. This is Realtor-speak, of course, for owning a beachfront residence; he was not selling pontoon boats.
We are landlocked here at home, and summer is when our inland locale hurts the most. Some in Central Indiana are lucky enough to have a house at Eagle Creek, Geist, or Morse “lakes,” which, if truth be told, are actually manmade reservoirs. I have always felt, though, that if you can see to the other side, you are living by the water, not really on it. There are no endless vistas, no pounding surf, no horizons. We are not blessed with views. We must go elsewhere for such privilege.
When I was a child, my parents considered purchasing a home opposite the Indianapolis Water Company Canal—no vast waterway, but not nothing. Fearing that one of their four active children might run off and drown was enough to squelch the deal. Whenever we drove along Westfield Boulevard, however, my mother looked longingly at the pretty gray cottage where someone else was living.
Through a series of lucky real-estate transactions before the bust, my husband and I were fortunate for the last eight years to own a vacation condo in southern Florida. There, on the fifth floor of a 10-story building, our unit boasted a near-perfect wraparound view of the Atlantic. We were just high enough to miss seeing the beach entirely—only waves, everywhere you looked. It was like vacationing on a cruise ship without the seasickness. Our living room seemed to float.
When older age intervened, our values changed. We hope to spend more time in the South, away from the brutal winters here, and a view—even one as spectacular as ours—does not occupy us enough. The condo, on a narrow island halfway up the Florida coast, is quite a distance from a major city—no “civilization,” we joked. On our last visit, lengthier than most, we began to crave nearby restaurants and movie theaters, supermarkets, friends, and adult-education classes. And so, with the most mixed of emotions, we sold our unit in just one day and headed to a neighborhood with tile-roofed houses, pretty winding streets, lots of friendly residents, and shopping and dining less than five minutes away. The beach is nearby but not up-close.

Kids would endlessly drag sand into the unit, embedding the grit into the floors.

I will miss the ocean, even in its anger, when dark clouds mass and vivid lightning breaks in the distance. We once spent a week in the condo when a tropical storm hit, which required lowering the steel hurricane shutters and shrouding the apartment in darkness. The wind beat against the building with such force, we half-expected the walls to blow in. When the storm had passed, crabs hurled from the safety of the deep covered the two-lane highway that runs the length of the island. We cringed as cars drove over nature’s forsaken creatures with a morbid crunch.
Even in less ravaging times, a relentless wind blows by the beach, which would tumble my balcony chairs into each other, once sending a rocker airborne and landing it on the railing. A constant salt spray corrodes the sliding-door frames and handles and tarnishes the brass light fixtures indoors. And kids would endlessly drag sand into the unit, embedding the grit into the floors and upholstery.
But then there is the sheer excitement and unpredictability of the sea. The ocean is like a moody teenager, changing without warning from day to day. One morning the aqua water is still, the beach as flat as concrete. On another day, the sea has churned up messy clumps of seaweed, the sand so soft and deep you cannot take a step. Sometimes mountains of shells delight beachcombers; once, while I stood at the shoreline gazing into the distance, a large, unmarred conch shell, rivaling those found at souvenir shops alongside chocolate alligators and coconut patties, washed up by my feet. I ran to share my precious find, as proud as a fisherman who has landed a 4-foot snook. Just as often, miles of quivering blue jellyfish barely leave room for one to walk.
After a brief rain, it is not unusual to spy a rainbow arcing across the sky, and full moons cast a silver stripe as bright as daylight across the surface of the water. If your timing is right, you might see a pod of dolphins diving far away, their slippery backs glistening in the sun. And pelicans would soar past our balcony in V-shaped formation—so close you could see their long yellow beaks and the undersides of their wide brown wings.
The best naps of my life took place in that condo, with the door open to the sound of the crashing surf, the never-ending whoosh-whoosh that sleep machines try to mimic but fail. I would drift off—no tossing or turning, no bad dreams—as if floating on the waves myself. If we awoke early enough in the morning, we could catch sight of the bright-orange sun—a color with no equiva-lent in the crayon box—coming up on the horizon.
These images will remain in my mind eternally: pelicans plunging beak-first into the surf for a fresh catch, fishermen with their poles stuck into the sand at daybreak. I will remember the pink sky as the sun set, the rough high tide rising all the way to the dunes, the low tide lapping quietly by the shore. I will cherish the times I slipped my flip-flops under the splintered wood walk and trod barefoot down to the sand, and the times I merely stood by the window in awe.
I left that condo for the last time with a lump in my throat past which I could not swallow. The permanence of the sea reminds me of the impermanence of those of us who marvel at it. This was a gift: the chance to live on the water, if not forever, at least for once in my life.

Illustration by Andrea Eberbach

This column appeared in the July 2014 issue.