“What a difference a day makes! It’s true what they say, what a difference a day makes,” somebody says.
Somebody says: “Don’t smell any dead fish today. Not as much coughing.”
A popcorn effect of coughing rippling through the beachgoers. Listening to it nervously, listening to it like footsteps, waiting to name the danger or declining to.
Up on the lifeguard stand, the green one, between the yellow and the blue, somebody deeply tanned with bleached hair hangs an advertisement saying “lifeguards for hire.”
Down the sand, an aerobics class whose soundtrack swerves between bat mitzvah and nightclub.
A parasailer like a skyward jellyfish.
A blanket of firefighters on lunch, contending with sub sandwiches.
A plane’s drone and the whipping cuts of coast guard copters.
And the coughing, pressing outward and increasing. Previously, before loading towels and chairs in the car, reading notifications swum up on social feeds: not many spores in the air today. The water will irritate some but not others.
The mass of exercisers looks appealing to her and that is startling; she watches them punching the air and wants that, wants to punch the air. She punches the air. “What’s going on?” somebody asks. “What are you doing?” She feels irrepressible, and pressed down at the same time. Ironed by the sun and the scene, eavesdropping on somebody three towels over who is observing a bathing suit with very little cloth, saying, “Not everyone can wear something like that! I certainly could not.” And the acrid pit of that statement, which makes her feel as if she exists in parallel, on a similar but different track, or else on no track; herself an entity that registers a slight and irritating difference to others. Or worse, no registered difference? A shaming ego in this, but still: A body can wear anything, she chants to herself. A body can wear anything! “A body can wear anything!” She coughs. Somebody asks what she said, she says nothing, she says she’d been reading an interview with a dead director unrecognized in her lifetime, a last interview or a second-to-last, and that it is gorgeous and sad. Then she coughs more, dry; a sudden and unexpected rascal.
Somebody walks by in a starfish-print visor and a “well behaved women rarely make history” shirt and she cannot deny when she is living and where she finds herself. Somebody middle-aged and Mennonite in dungarees and a straw hat sits on a bench plushed by grasses and looks bereft, open-faced and caving. Everything is happening. A relentless, unaccountable simultinaity she cannot bark back.
Somebody says, “Not so many dead fish today. Just the little ones. You just move over when they float too close!”
Nearby, she hears, somebody is talking about her own bathing suit, that it is a cute bathing suit. “You should get one like it, then!” In reply: “I don’t like to show so much.” “Look at me!” somebody says, and continues, “I just let it all hang out!” A comedic sigh kites up between them. “I’m too old for that!” She herself is older than anyone thinks, but settled in a city and decontextualized by not having children and without gray hair or much, meanwhile holding a pinky out to the trends at hand, admittedly a little weird in carriage and a little wobbly in style.
“Catarrh,” she thinks as somebody says, “It smells like dead fish but the post nasal drip is salty as the sea!” She had been thinking about the word catarrh earlier, prior to arrival, she swears to herself. Thinking about a novel where everyone has tuberculosis and eats ornate breakfasts and says not much or says very much while time moves at unpredictable speeds.
“They say it’s unusual for this time of year but these days everything’s unusual for this time of year.” She finds herself holding her breath and counting down.
Somebody in a lounger laughs, looking at a text. “They want to know how the air is!” Somebody does not respond, instead blowing hard into a tissue.
The percussive warble of the aerobics class moves in and out on the wind; there are no birds on the beach, she notices for the first time. Somebody says: “Nobody’s getting younger—not even babies!”
The sand here is famous. The sand is soft as fresh dirt, she thinks, dredging her toes. Others compare it to powdered sugar, a processed component of confection. Here is the second best beach in the country, some years at least.
Somebody asks, “How much do I owe you?” And somebody answers “Five thousand dollars!” And everybody else laughs and laughs and laughs.