I always like a little quiet time in the big sandbox.
A beach can defy the very definition of solitude. Even when a beach is crowded, the experience tends to be personal. We read books. Or listen to music. Maybe we snooze. Some of us still swim. What we don't do is chat up neighbors. It might have something to do with the skimpy dress code. People just tend to be chattier when they're at, say, a baseball game. And wearing clothes.
Such social cues mean squat to a 2-year-old. I'm here at the beach foolishly thinking I can teach The Kid the sublime joys of tossing a blanket, book, snacks (and yes, shovels) into the backpack for a few hours in a more relaxing corner of this flip-flop world. He dutifully removes his sandals and grabs corners of the blanket to help me spread it out. After 2.8 seconds of bliss, some kids at a summer camp catch his eye and he wanders away.
Before I can say, "Wait, that's not how it works ...," he settles in beneath a grove and starts playing cars with a boy about three times his age. Dozens of children swirl around us.
I am paralyzed. There is not a chapter on this in my beachgoers handbook. I used to be a camp counselor and the concept of crashing another camp still sounds like a cable-TV sequel to a 1970s Bill Murray flick. Doing it as an adult is an invite to the police blotter. But there really isn't much choice. I plop down in the sun-dappled sand ("dappled" is the most inviting of sands) and wait for someone in a camp shirt to shoo us away. Instead, an 8-year-old reaches over, pours said sand on my arm and pretends to scrape it off. I don't know this game.
"I'm shaving you," he explains.
I'm fearful he's prepping my left wing for surgery.
Meanwhile, another lad of some 7 years stops by to engage me with the "Infinite Jest" version of his tale about how "when I was a kid, my sister bit me in the back."
I suspect The Kid is once again mocking that I make my living trying to get strangers to talk to me. In past episodes, he's grabbed a kite from a stranger, crashed soccer games, plucked ear buds from a young woman doing stomach crunches and grabbed my hand to dance salsa in front of a group of tipsy men. He's writing the plots, and I'm the comic relief. I have no clue how escape this shorefront operating room. If I could just get to my phone, maybe I could send a Twitter message to Miss Manners seeking advice.
Right on cue, an adult spots the stranger in their midst. Before I can stammer an explanation, she recognizes The Kid.
"Look, it's The Kid," she says (yes, I'm maintaining the allusion). "And The Kid's daddy."
It turns out the camp group is from his playschool, where the counselors have worked with him. Apparently, his contact list is already a lot deeper than mine. He probably has more Facebook friends, too.
After a while, he is vexed by the toy cars his new pals are sharing with him. They aren't off-road vehicles, and keep getting stuck in the sand. He flees to create anarchy elsewhere.
He runs a few laps around the main building, pausing to play hide-and-seek. Turns out you can lose at this game. I've lost him. The Kid's mommy will not be happy about this. The ladies room is the only place left to look. Just as I contemplate my next move, he jumps at me from behind, declaring victory.
He scrambles over to check out the menu at a nearby counter. When I reveal that I have to retrieve cash from my backpack, he points at me, tells the vendor, "No money," and resolves the matter by sitting with another family and sampling their cheesy fries and remnants of their hot dogs. He seems to think a la carte samples are free. Thankfully, these new friends also welcome the opportunity to share.
We circle back to our blanket for another 4.6 seconds of bliss before the beach boys are broken up again. A large family settles nearby. The children run to the water, giving The Kid the opening to wedge himself in the center of eight women clad in saris and tunics and sitting in a half-moon. It looks like a scene from Disney Junior's first Bollywood movie.
The Kid is entranced. He looks over at me as though he's ordering his favorite beach cocktail, aka, watered-down apple juice.
"Ouchie?" he inquires, pointing to one woman's foot.
"No, that's a toe ring," she explains.
He seems to be learning something. I seem to be learning, too. Not all strangers in life are this welcoming. On other occasions, he has approached children with the offer of a hug and been greeted by a mom's hand in his chest and a screech of "No thank you."
I get it. We need to respect personal space. But if we all saw the world through the eyes of a child, we'd figure out that we are never alone in the big sandbox.