by Sarah Baughman
That last summer was full of good water days, no wind, a little cloud, warm enough that even so far north you could stand in sun and heat up fast. Driving over, I’d actually roll the windows up, let light beat the dashboard, let us sweat— me up front, my son in the backseat, shovels and towels jammed in a canvas bag, the air thick and bright, the beach not far.
Today, in Germany, I loop a scarf around his neck. We pack mittens. It’s cold, and no beaches for miles anyway; I’m taking him and his little sister, born last month, to the zoo. “Zoo!” he calls when I tell him. “See sea lion. See eagle. See elephant.” I hold our ticket up at the gate and he’s off, squirming beyond my grasp, running towards the sea lions, pointing. “Look at this!” he cries. “Look at this!” Sunlight flashes on the water of their moon-shaped pool, making it crystalline.
Back home in Michigan, I never got tired of that first glimpse of water. My friends and I met at the beach almost every clear morning that summer, but whenever we pulled up, I’d get out of the car and stand there before anyone saw us, before I had to wave, and just look: Little Traverse Bay, ringed by sand and pine, cupping the mouth of Lake Michigan. During our last beach trip, the week before we moved, I shaded my eyes, eyed the blue, and swallowed hard. I didn’t know when I’d see the lake again. It didn’t feel like mine anymore. My son crawled towards it anyway, knees digging gullies. My friends’ kids were already dipping their buckets in the bay. We settled at the edge, where water left little pools in wet sand, grasping at our toes, pulling us in.
During our last beach trip, the week before we moved, I shaded my eyes, eyed the blue, and swallowed hard. I didn’t know when I’d see the lake again. It didn’t feel like mine anymore.
Now, at the zoo, we lean against a cement wall circling the tiny ocean where swirls of black spin through blue, then surge up to rest on sunny rocks. There are no sea lions in Michigan so I can’t understand at first why the creatures rolling below seem, suddenly, so familiar. Ever since we moved to Germany I’ve been missing water; even on the most beautiful days, when sun bathes the vineyards rising above Stuttgart and the spires of the church at Schlossplatz shine against dark wooded hills, I feel strangely empty. But it’s not until a sea lion slides off a rock, sinking like a black stone, that I realize how much I miss, specifically, the sound of water. I miss the gentle pop and suck as it yields to a heavy weight, the soft clatter of waves as they claim ground, then retreat. My son doesn’t remember our beach, and the daughter strapped against my chest has never seen it. But standing there, listening to the way water closes around the sea lion and splashes against stone, I feel swollen with longing.
I’d tried, that last day on Lake Michigan, to remember everything—the doughy smell of my son’s head coated in sunscreen, the gritty sand stuck to our palms and toes, the way the lake looked golden green up close and blue far away. But I forgot about the sound. We moved across the ocean, a day and a night away from everything I loved, and the boy stopped crawling and started walking, and a girl grew inside me and emerged, but suddenly I felt there had been no change at all. The sound of water is the same, everywhere.