People watching: Self-care

Oct. 27, 2022, 8:18 p.m.

Christy Wang’s column ‘People watching’ reflects on experiences and interactions she has witnessed or been a part of that illuminate a deeper message about humanity, loss and life.

Damn. I am SO gonna get sunburnt.

I squint up at the sun, trying (and failing) to reciprocate the glare it gives me. I can still turn back. I’m only a third of the way down the beach, a vast expanse of baking sand between the ocean and me. For a moment, I’m frozen in place, overthinking the simplest decision I’ll probably ever have to make. It’s supposed to be my self-care day. A million reasons to shrink back into my apartment, binge-watch TV in bed and still be able to gaze out the window at the ocean view briefly flashed through my mind. Perhaps out of sheer rebellion against my unoriginal desires, I begin to feel the allure of the water.

I go on, trodding through the warm, cushiony sand with a tote bag in one hand and sandals in the other. A budding anticipation forms as the water slowly reveals its dancing form. The ocean here is layered: a weave of jade green, crystal blue and aquamarine.

I’m pushed by the wind toward the cool refuge of the lapping waves. The breeze coaxes my hair and tugs my shirt toward the water. I slip and slide down to the wet sand in hurried steps, my legs a few strides ahead of my thoughts.

It’s only when I’m ankle-deep in the water, shivering from the initial chill of the sea and a childlike thrill of adventure, that I realize how much I want this. The next thing I know, I’m kicking up sand and seaweed, splashing clumsily in the shallow tide pools. Besides joy, a singular emotion tugs at me. It is my amazement at how simple and sporadic this feeling of ecstasy can be.

Without thinking, I move with the ebb and flow of the waves. Sometimes, I’m doing high knees over a big wave, other times I’m trotting along the lines of foam that disappear as soon as I step into them. I’m knee-deep in the ocean, shorts splotchy and strands of hair in my mouth, when I spot another sign of human life.

Well, precisely, two other signs of human life who, for good reasons, decided to take advantage of the crystalline waters. I made a move to turn the other way, but one man’s erupting laughter reeled me back. I took a not-so-discrete peek at the duo, making out their balding heads and round, shirtless forms in waist deep water.

A hard chuckle left me as I understood the details of their situation. Both middle-aged men were doing facial masks. Did they know that the recommended absorption time is 20 minutes before most masks should be taken off?

“A fine place, really… if only apartment prices were cheaper…”

“I’d look across the shore…”

He dropped his voice and I tried to whip my head back as fast as I could without being suspicious, but the unguarded laughter a moment later convinced me that I had not been caught.

Wait. Do I smell smoke?

Led by the currents, I had unknowingly moved closer to them. Mortified at the failure of my conscience to assess the situation discreetly, I pretended to look for clams.

“Hi!”

I unbent myself and shed the poorly disguised facade of clam hunting. A green, jellylike face and a hand waving a cigarette greeted me.

I returned the greeting, my voice splitting in the wind. Seeing no more need for acknowledgement, the men turned their backs to the sun once again, apparently unaware of its scrutiny or determined to get blistering sunburns.

“Want to get noodles tonight?”

“Are your wife and kids coming?”

“Of course not! It’s just you and me today, buddy.”

More cackling laughter ensued. The wind, as if beckoning me ashore, carried the cigarette smoke over my face and through my hair.

I walk back in a slight trance. The sun’s rays no longer draw as much attention. The water is slippery and elusive around my feet. I lid my eyes and walk at a steady pace up the stretch of sand. I don’t turn back until the ocean is a gradient ribbon in the distance and the only reminders of my ecstasy are the sand between my toes and the thoughts in my mind. 

I think about this day a lot. The intensity of the sun. The naked, cloudless sky. The emerald waves gurgling frothy foam. All of it reminded me of a children’s book, the colors vibrant and the intentions in plain sight.

The two men whose faces are blurred but remain imprinted in my memory — they don’t seem to fit this picturesque scene. How odd, I had thought as I walked back across the sand, that two balding men would stand in the water having a spa day and a smoke at the same time. 

But with time, I’ve realized how liberating the peculiar situation I witnessed was. It was an instance of unfiltered joy that’s becoming rarer in my adult life. The imagery of the sunbathing men is a reminder that my childhood nostalgia can be remedied — perhaps not by cigarettes and sunburns — but certainly by a day on the beach.

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