“Now, put your hair over the back of the chair,” comes a distant voice, as a small hand pulls my short, salty dreadlocks over the back of my beach chair. I shut my eyes against the scorching sunlight and make noisy relaxing sounds. The towel behind my back is dry and warm and even with my eyes closed I am aware of its pink-and-orange Caribbean brightness. #ad#”Be patient,” Phoebe says. The surf crashes, and in the distance I hear Paris yelp with joy.
“With the sand,” she continues. Eyes shut, I run my toes obediently through the hot sand.
“In your eyes,” she says softly, closer.
“Now, wait a minute–” I object, pulling up on one elbow in time to ward off a beaming almost-three-year-old with a bucketful of the stuff.
“It’s your makeup,” she explains, offended, “It’s princess makeup.”
Our host walks over, brushes dried sand off his blue plaid trunks, and eases himself into the seat beside me. Along the bright edge of the water, I see my husband poking Molly in the ribs to start a game of Tag; Paris and his friend Will are biffing about in the waves with Bali-printed boogie boards, flinging themselves into the foam and coming up with thrilled shouts and blue lips. Violet and her friend Blythe have dug themselves a watery trench and are sitting in it, lifting out little handfuls of soaking sand and letting them drizzle into tiny towers. Phoebe trundles down to them with her bucket, and there is much gesticulating and aggrieved expression to show how much they really do not need her sand.
Amidst the beach chairs there is a companionable silence. After a moment, Blythe and Will’s father speaks.
“Your daughter,” he remarks, nodding towards Molly, “has such beautiful manners.”
“Why,” I say, some time later, “thank you.”
We watch the happy beach scene a little while, tranquilized. He says, “Today when we were figuring out where everyone ought to sleep, she threw up her hands in a charming way and said, “Wherever you would like to put me, that’s where I’ll sleep.” He smiles approvingly. I smile too, and squint at the ocean.
Then, traitorously, I confess. “Actually, there is a back story.” When we first arrived, before any official bunk-bed assignments, Molly laid immediate claim to one particular pallet. “No, no,” I lectured, “You can’t put dibs on a bed. Other children are sleeping here, and you have to wait and see what our hosts want to do.” She blushed, nodded mulishly, and began rolling out her sleeping bag. Now, Molly is a child who can be relied upon to understand the nuance of such things, and so, a little surprised and annoyed, I became insistent. “No, no, no” I lectured, “You must not claim any place. We are guests, and guests should always accept with good grace whatever arrangements their hosts make.”
Our host gazes benignly at the horizon, where Molly is now kicking sand and telling a story to herself. “Still,” he nods, “She really is a well-mannered child. They all are.”
“Thank you,” I concede, experiencing a degree of surprise, for it is true.
Then we are all diverted by activity far off shore.
“Dolphins!” goes up a cry along the beach, and Paris and Will and Molly stand in the water, transfixed.
My husband comes up the sand, his face alight. “Do you see them?” I peer out over the waves. Our host stands up, and the two men scan the seas like seasoned salts, which, as it happens, they are. My husband once sank a yacht in the Mediterranean. Alas, it was not his yacht. That is, phew, it was not his yacht. Alas, for he did not have, and doesn’t have, and has no prospect of having, a yacht of his own to sink. Of course, as his wife, if he had one, and sank it, I would be cross and recriminatory, so it is probably just as well.
Fins cut the water, then disappear.
“Wow!” Paris and Molly yell together.
“Looks like they have a baby with them,” says our host.
“Um,” I venture, knowing how foolish it sounds, “Are you sure? What if they’re–”
My husband turns to his companion and says affably, “Meg saw Jaws in 1975 and ever since then she sees sharks in swimming pools.”
“Barracudas,” I correct, “I see sharks in salt water, and I always think there are barracudas in swimming pools.” But I ask you, is that so bizarre? All Egypt thinks Jews were warned not to go to the World Trade Center on September 11th. All France thinks Michael Moore is a sparkling raconteur. Surely a barracuda in chlorine is much less of a reach.
The men are murmuring and pointing saltily. “Oh yes, that’s odd–” one of them says.
“Looks like a ray,” says the other.
Some time later we all repair to the beach house and my husband leaves us to return to the city. Everyone else drifts off, and I find myself alone with the newspaper and the two four-year-olds. The two girls are nipping furtively back and forth between a plate of red grapes in the kitchen and the dining room table, where I am sitting. They keep glancing uneasily towards the stairs.
“These are grapes with chicken in them,” Violet confides, climbing on to my chair and wrapping a soft arm around my neck. She pops one in her mouth and darts a look at the stairs.
Blythe comes over with a handful, and eats them rapidly. “But they taste the same,” she says.
“No chickeny flavor?” I ask, wincing my way through an aw-shucks book review of Bill Clinton’s autobiography. She nods, chewing, then says, “Don’t tell Mommy.”
“I don’t want to get in trouble,” says Violet.
“Children don’t get in trouble for eating fruit–” I say, looking up from the paper, “Why–”
“She thinks we’re only having one,” Blythe interrupts, popping in another grape,
“Very well, I won’t,” I promise, impressed at her mother’s skill with child psychology.
A few hours later, the children evidently having performed a trick of adult psychology, causing me, at least, to behave in an uncharacteristic way by using the words “okay” and “boardwalk” in the same sentence, we are surrounded by tattoos, bellies, sunburns, corn dogs, arcades, and vendors selling salt water taffy, and are reeling cheerfully out of a shed full of rides known as “Funland.” Paris is faintly green around the edges from riding something called the “Parachute,” and I am faintly green from watching, but everyone else is in fine fettle and ready for fried food.
“Six corn dogs, please,” says our hostess to a sweaty man in a white peaked cap behind a high counter, “And some fried crabcakes, and French fries and– anything else?”
“Wait,” I say, “Let me get this. Just have to dash back to the ATM,” which, with a quick encompassing gesture towards the children, I do. Jog through the throng, nip inside an arcade, punch the ATM buttons, slip the cash into my wallet, and sprint back. I am just opening the wallet again when my host asks worriedly, “Do you have Phoebe?”
What do you mean do I have Phoebe? Why, she was here a minute ago. I thought you had Phoebe–runs through my mind like one of those scrolls on CNN but all I can say is, “No.” Immediately he dashes back along the boardwalk. I go in the other direction, turning this way and that, exuding calm.
“The police are on their way,” our hostess says, circling the other children. “Funland is on alert,” her husband calls back. Molly’s face is red and streaked with tears and it dawns on me that Phoebe has been missing for several minutes already.
No problem, I’m sure she just wandered off to see the ride-em ponies. Hmm…no sign of her there, what about over here? Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe, oh God, Phoebe– Don’t be silly, everything is going to be fine. But what if it isn’t? Dear God, I will never be irritated with her ever again if only she– “Phoebe!” I call in a strangled voice.
An anxious woman emerges from the crowd, “What are you looking for?”
“Two year old, bright blonde hair, about this tall–” I gabble, looking past her.
“Oh,” she says, “I know how it feels, once I–”
A car door slams and someone guns an engine, close by. My heart contracts with a sharp pain. What if–I find myself running into a nearby parking lot, my hair in my face, hunting frantically. Dear heaven, she could be anywhere, and as I sprint back into the crowd, dimly aware of two policemen talking to a curly-haired man and taking notes, the anxious woman emerges again and grabs my arm, “I think they have her.”
“Oh, darling–” is all I can manage.
“I want a gumball!” demands the prodigal toddler.
“Why are you crying, Mummy?” Violet asks.
“A pink one!” Phoebe insists.
“Everyone can have gumballs,” I weep happily, handing Molly a ten-dollar bill and crushing Phoebe to me again. It transpires that she had slipped into a shop not ten feet from where everyone else was standing, and had stood, fascinated, behind a huge glass barrel of gumballs. Her identity was revealed only after a kind woman asked the curly-haired man in the shop whether she could buy a gumball “for your daughter.” “My daughter?” he had said to her, recounting the story for us afterwards, “I thought she was your daughter.”
The next morning, there’s a small false-alarm item in the Washington Post. “Swimmers at Rehoboth Beach were evacuated from the water briefly yesterday morning while officials investigated a possible shark sighting,” I read aloud, triumphantly. “See?”
“In the end,” I continue, after a sip of coffee, “Authorities believed the animal was a ray that was possibly sick or wounded.” Just as the old salts had said.
–Meghan Cox Gurdon, an NRO columnist, lives in Washington, D.C.