Summer Skin

All those times my body reacted to the ocean.

I’ve read a lot of Italian coming of age stories describing this sensation but for me it was summers in Japan when I connected the sea and earth erotically to my body. I was young. I recall stepping outside in the swampy heat and taking my clothes off to feel the air directly on my skin. You needn’t worry about unsavory onlookers. My grandparents had a small gated courtyard. The sound of insects and the balmy colors of the sky felt like a thousand kisses. I knew I would one day experience other versions of this. Someone would one day hold me. I would one day become a lover. All of the impulses in my skin drove into parts of my brain, my soul. I knew my body was meant to feel it all the way but needed my brain, because the touch points always lit up when I closed my eyes. It took closing my eyes at some point to get there. Sometimes when I closed my eyes I pictured every human on earth connecting to the soil with me and grabbing me and it feels good until I panic at the swarming sensation, like fungus or moss growing over me.

I’m 12. I am out on a church youth group outing relatively late at night. Our group leader, Eddie, whom I have a crush on, who is probably too old for me—I want to say he was a freshman in college? Don’t worry he was not taking any advantage of a situation I was not indicating anyway. It was what you call “puppy love”—has taken a group of us in a big car (a Four Runner?), to Seal Beach, and we are left to wander around on our own. Most of the group has gone to the boardwalk for ice cream. I wander to an escarpment and sit at the top of a jagged rock and look at the moon by myself. I have never seen or felt anything this magical in my life and commit the feeling to memory. I try over and over at other junctures in my life to recreate this memory but it is impossible. I don’t manage to find the spot, or the right phase of the moon, or the combination of circumstances required to denude the space of other people. It’s always overrun with mundane sounds I do not want to hear.

I’m in college. I go on a night drive along Pacific Coast Highway from Santa Cruz to Bean Hollow. I look to my left (west) and do a double take. I cannot believe my eyes. The moon looks like a flaming cherry lozenge drowning into the ocean. I immediately park my car and watch the moon till it sets. I no longer connect the magic of watching the moon over the sea with sexual impulse. I am mesmerized to the point of rushing home to play my piano and write in my journal and smoke cigarettes. Quite the opposite of having sex, which I could have. There was a boyfriend in his dorm listening to records, probably waiting for me to call.

I feel none of these impulses when I am camping in Maine and look up at a starry sky, but train my sensory receptors to look for it nonetheless. Like training a truffle pig. I really like camping in Maine, camped all over the entire state, but never ever feel this way. This magical way.

Once when I return to Seal Beach with a different college boyfriend. We go to the sand for a romantic walk and discover a dead seal or manatee (is that even possible in orange county?). I don’t panic because I’m already scared by my relationship with the boyfriend. I never climax with him but I am convinced at this point that it is not important (ha!). Climaxing does become a thing, finally—actually with the boyfriend who listened to records all night in his dorm—I cannot believe what I have uncovered inside myself. Still. I still leave the one who makes me come, for the one who scares me.

I notice only white people on my hikes in New England and it makes me sad. Maybe this is why I don’t climax for Maine. I miss California. It is there that I fall in love with a white boy who spends weekends camping alone in Joshua Tree. I tell myself I should go there sometime. I can’t believe I have never been. He can’t believe I’ve never been. He’s not even from California and it’s all he wants to do. Maybe it takes the emotional distance of revelation not to take it for granted. Everything east of Riverside depressed me as a child and the farther we got from the ocean the less inclined I was to find any aspect of it romantic. I finally go to Joshua Tree, this time with an Asian boyfriend. He takes the most beautiful pictures of me. We have an absolutely phenomenal time. He tells me he doesn’t like the word boyfriend so we break up. The pictures disappear in an archive when I get a new computer. They’re inadvertently resurrected when I search an old hard drive for old keyboard recordings.

I go back to Joshua Tree with my husband. The campers next to us are up all night talking about the sports industry. We are about to lose our minds with how annoying they are but are scared to tell them to shut up.

The last time I traveled in Japan alone I took a bullet train to Okayama and spent the day wandering around town, for pure discovery. It was mid-August and I was so hot I could have died. I go into an air-conditioned clothing store and fall in love with the friendly clerk. I literally spend the rest of the day just staring at him from inside the store and then from an adjacent cafe. I actually spend the afternoon thinking about how we might become friends and then he will invite me to spend the rest of the night with him. I have to catch my train back to Tokyo though. That’s clear to me. I can’t afford to be stuck in Okayama.

Joshua Tree asked once if I’d be willing to quit my job and sell my affairs to spend the foreseeable future hiding from the world with him on an exotic island. I say yes but we take our flights back to Los Angeles anyway. Seal Beach asks if I’d eat a cup of my own feces for a million dollars. I say no. I ask him if he’d marry me for a million dollars. He laughs maniacally.

Istanbul is the most beautiful city I have ever seen in my life and the first time my entire body is taken over again. I attribute about half of my spiritual connection to my husband to having experienced Istanbul with him first.

I am sitting in the hottest room in my house and feel my skin looking for the same surrender from childhood. I am using my imagination. I hope I don’t become nostalgic for being naked in my grandparent’s courtyard. That would just end in heartbreak as the grandparents in question have long passed and their home has been long bulldozed. I will close my eyes in this heat and remember that the skin I feel this in has changed so many times I couldn’t possibly feel the same again but my brain still sits in the same ocean, sinking like a flaming cherry lozenge.