It had been a long, intense day of travel, after airplane maintenance delays (two of them), several cancelled flights (at least three), an unscheduled tarmac layover without A/C, and an impromptu decision to get off the plane in another city, rent a car, and drive three hours to our destination.
So by the time a pal and I made it to the condo on the beach in Corpus Christi for our friend’s bachelor weekend, we were both wrung out and exhausted. The guest of honor and several other gents were still in transit, but a few guys had already settled into one of the condos from our reserved block of rooms, and were drinking beer and making a giant pot of spaghetti. By the time we’d unwound over brews and food, it was nigh on midnight. Someone suggested we head down to the beach with a cooler, and I jumped at the chance to get to the sand.
My luggage was somewhere between San Antonio and Houston, and nobody could really say when it would finally arrive. I borrowed a pair of board shorts, zipped down to my assigned condo unit to change, and emerged from the room barefoot, hoping my flip-flops would find their way to me sometime soon.
The early morning south Texas air was hot and humid, smelling sweetly of salt and jacaranda (I think?). An unending breeze blowing in from the gulf swiped at my shorts as I left the room. The soles of my bare feet were sensitive to the harsh poured concrete of the external hallways and breezeway steps as I walked to the other condo, as if I were walking on sandpaper.
I actually smiled at their tenderness, at the minor discomfort. Summer had truly and finally arrived, and soon, very soon, my soles would toughen up, their sensitivity would abate, and my toes would re-connect with the earth. It wouldn’t be long before my winter feet became summer feet.
My soles would harden, but my soul was softening. Summer.
I’ve written often about what summer means to me, but that first magical moment when I’m able to walk barefoot, in nothing but shorts and maybe a t-shirt (in this case, my own undershirt), to breathe in warm air and absorb the heat of the day through the soles of my feet, well…that’s the moment when I can finally believe that the season has arrived.
We drank beers and talked while digging our toes in the sand, a few remnant campfires flickering down the beach, and I finally couldn’t resist any longer, quietly drifting away from the conversation and walking down to the ocean. At first, I couldn’t even quite tell if my feet were getting wet in the darkness, because the gulf was so warm. It wasn’t until it washed between my legs and almost up to my knees that I felt it for real. I could have melted into the sea at that moment.
The weekend was mostly spent in a haze of beers and beach, lounging on the sand or on cloth chairs, having long conversations while letting waves crash over our shoulders, body surfing until we were heaving up salt water. Although the gulf coast would never be the first choice for my beach house (always windy, too many trucks parked on the beach, no surfable waves to speak of), being with a bunch of smart, kind, and polite gents while enjoying the sand and the sea was a balm after a stressful spring.
And all I could think was that, in a just six weeks or so, Simone and I would have our own beach escape in Maui.
I wouldn’t start counting down the days, because I was in no hurry for July to arrive, but I could still envision us chilled out under an umbrella, reading our books, horsing around in the water, and doing a bit of snorkeling when the mood hit.
Simone had mentioned an interest in scuba diving, but I didn’t want to push her on it. So I let the conversation come up here and there organically, and then found a Groupon for the classroom and pool work at a local dive shop. Simone was enthusiastic about me putting down the full payment, and said she didn’t have a problem giving up a weekend to get the initial work done. Once she completed the course, I’d sign us up for open water certification dives in Hawaii.
She was nervous the first morning of class, starting to make excuses about maybe not going while we ate an early breakfast. Not for the first time, I had visions of our snowboarding attempts dancing in my head, so I told her that the class was non-refundable, and that it was designed for nervous people.
And Simone mastered the two days of classes and pool dives with minimal drama, so we celebrated by buying high-end masks and snorkels (“Renting a snorkel is like sharing a toothbrush, Dad.”). I called the shop in Maui the next day to set up our dives.
By the time we were on the plane to Hawaii, Simone hadn’t been home for more than two days at a time since school had ended. One trip after the other (mostly not her choice) had left her tired and frustrated, and her lack of excitement for our adventure made me sad. But I figured the natural beauty of the island, tons of fresh fish and fruit, and warm ocean water tickling her feet would bring her around.
But here’s what I learned about my daughter on our nine-day trip to Maui:
Simone is not a beach person.
The couple of times I could get her to hang with me by the water, she was miserable and uncomfortable, and nothing I did or said would help. If she preferred to be back in the room listening to the ocean and texting with her friends, then forcing her to stay with me on the beach was just making us both miserable.
For the first time as a dad, parenting a teenager was difficult and frustrating. I know I’m fortunate that it took this long for it to happen, but it still left me feeling sideswiped. Re-jiggering my expectations, making my own enjoyment a priority, and resigning myself to hanging on the beach alone were difficult pills to swallow after months of planning and anticipation.
But I knew I had only myself to blame.
When I picked Maui over a daddy-daughter summer adventure to a distant country, it was expressly to allow us an easy, low-key escape. I thought, rather than do our normal non-stop itinerary, where we bounce from new city to new city, we’d just lay low and enjoy a restful escape punctuated by the occasional excursion. Simone has always been an excellent travel buddy, but this time I didn’t take her actual personality into consideration when plunking down deposits and making reservations.
Almost every morning, I’d get up and head down to the water to snorkel around the reefs by the shore, taking photos of butterfly fish and sea turtles while she lay in bed, listening to the ocean, phone in hand. I could occasionally get her to stand near the water to watch a sunset, but no matter how many times I asked, she just wouldn’t go in with me. She wasn’t scared or apprehensive…she just wasn’t interested.
I wanted to say, “Man, when you’re 20something, you’re going to kick yourself for not enjoying the clear, gorgeous, warm water here.” But I didn’t. I only shrugged and went off by myself.
That said, she absolutely loved scuba diving. She still did the nervous thing the morning of our first dives, and seemed dangerously close to backing out as she struggled to fit into the first wetsuit she tried on (it was damp and a little too small, the room was sweltering, and she became more and more frustrated). But as the instruction began by the water, her recent classroom and pool experience gave her comfort and made her the top student of the group — while the grownups on our dive struggled to answer the dive-master’s questions, Simone showed sophisticated understanding. She was ready.
I’d thought a shore dive would be less intimidating than jumping out of a boat, but tide, current, and waves can make just getting into the water nerve-wracking. So I was stunned when Simone didn’t hesitate to follow the instructor into the roiling Pacific, inflating her buoyancy control device, turning sideways to an incoming wave, and then pushing herself out, laying on her back to don her fins, mask, and snorkel. While others coughed and freaked out, she paddled past the breakers and stuck her face in the water to see what fish were swimming around below.
Honestly, it was the biggest surprise of the trip.
Once we’d swum out to the dive site, the instructor escorted me down to the sea floor first, because I was the certified diver in the group. I watched as he floated back up, prepped Simone, and helped her slowly drift down to my side. She gave us both the OK sign, and the instructor went back up to get the next person.
But there must have been some drama up there, because Simone and I hung out on the sandy floor between two reefs on our own for quite some time. Which was pure magic. Perched there together, we spent the next several minutes pointing out the array of fish that flitted around us, Simone enthralled by the sea life so close she could almost touch it. It was one of the finest father-daughter times we’ve shared — so intimate and exciting, without the possibility of words to get in the way of the moment.
Simone’s experience with diving was fundamentally different from that of snowboarding (and I don’t just mean because you don’t fall and it’s warm). She felt competent and in her element.
“I’m good at this!” she told me. Which, really, was the best possible thing she could have said.
But it raises a bit of a conundrum for me — she wants to go on more dives (and even get advanced diver certification, so we can explore undersea wrecks), but she doesn’t have any interest in hanging out on the beach. How can we go on dive trips without leaving me stuck at the beach by myself the rest of the time?
At first, I tried to hide my disappointment with preference to stay indoors (“I just don’t like being outside.”), but after awhile I felt like she should know the effects of her behavior.
When we were driving down the west coast of the island, away from the condo where we’d spent the second half of our vacation, I couldn’t stop myself from snatching glances at the perfect shoreline, wishing for another chance to stir up the sand with my feet then swim out and play with the waves. I was feeling heartbroken to leave and heartbroken that I didn’t get to share that joy with Simone.
At that moment she said, “We need to come back, so we can dive the crater and also the place where the white tip sharks are.”
I was silent for a moment, not sure how to answer.
And then I said, “I’m surprised you’d want to come back here. We lived on the beach for the last four days, and you didn’t go in the water once. You hardly left the condo. I’m honestly not sure if I’d want to bring you back.”
“Okay,” was her only response.
Look, I know she’s a teenager. She’s not fully-formed, and she’s supposed to be self-centered and focused on things that don’t have anything to do with me. Maybe this is me as the father feeling the loss of letting her go be her own person. And I know part of this is the endless struggle of letting her be her. If she’s not a beach person, that’s just how it’s going to be.
I don’t have any choice but to love her for who she is, and I do. If I can figure out a way for us BOTH to enjoy a trip that includes diving someplace magical, I will.
But in the meantime, the trip was a not-so-subtle reminder that my one-right-woman should probably love the beach as much as I do. That’s so much more important to me than whether she likes winter mountain sports, eats meat, lives for the next sci-fi blockbuster, or appreciates a well-crafted negroni. My beach time is sacred to me, and I’m tired of enjoying it alone. With the beach house as a real goal, my next companion should feel as excited about the idea as I do.
If you don’t relish the idea of spending whole days laying by the ocean with a book and a cold drink and lots of sunscreen, taking breaks to swim and splash around and make out while chest-deep in the sea, then you’re probably not right for me. I know how reductive that sounds, but I also know now, more than ever, that beachy compatibility is going to be essential to my happiness.
That last morning of our trip, I was awake long before Simone. I put on my damp suit, grabbed my mask, fins, and snorkel, and slipped down to the water, which was heartbreakingly beautiful. It was as clear as I’d seen it, just cool enough to be refreshing, and gentle, knee-deep waves were crisscrossing each other at angles just before they reached the shore. As I strode into the sea, one of those waves gave me a gentle caress before a larger one knocked me down as I was putting on my fins. I laughed out loud, said a little prayer of thanks, and swam out to the reef for one last look at the wildlife feeding there.
When I was done, I ran my equipment up to the condo, and noticed Simone was awake in her bed.
“Hey, I’m going back down for one last splash before we pack up,” I said. “You sure you don’t want to join me? The water is so warm!”
“I’m good,” she said, before turning back to her phone.
That final trip down to the ocean, I left everything behind — didn’t even take the waterproof camera — so I could just be with the sea.
As I lay there in the water, my tan, floating summer feet breaking the waves as they came in, the islands of Lanai and Molokai shrouded in wispy clouds to the west, I took a few deep breaths and settled into the present. I moved my mind away from my disappointment and loneliness, letting the water hold me and rock me, tasting the salt on my lips. If I hadn’t had the beach vacation I’d really wanted, at least I had this moment of perfection. It would be enough until next time.