A Beginner’s Guide to That Perfect Beach BodyJoaquin Fernandez
It will already be dark by the time you get to the beach house. The spare key will still be safe under the planter, guarded by the innumerable green, spiky tongues of the aloe your mother swears by. The air conditioner will start up with a sigh, sluggish after months of disuse. The refrigerator will be empty except for a single mummified carrot that you will never throw out and two half bottles of your mother’s chardonnay that you will let yourself drink almost immediately. When you check your phone, you’ll find a message from her wondering casually, but for the third time that day, how long you think you’ll be planning on staying. Nothing in the house will want you there, least of all yourself.
It’s important to sleep in your clothes that first night. It’s important to not eat after the six-hour drive from Atlanta to Clearwater. It’s important to drink the two half bottles of chardonnay while the air conditioner murmurs at you disapprovingly as you scroll through your ex-husband’s Instagram with shaky fingers, terrified to hit the like button. Because you don’t like anything right now. Not even your mother’s emergency cigarettes, stale and stolen from the laundry room closet and chain-smoked while you white-knuckle your phone to keep yourself from stomping out to the surf in your bare feet and bathrobe, and sending the thing skipping into the Gulf just to watch it sink. You tell yourself things will be better in the morning. Except that’s the same thing you’ve been telling yourself every night for the past three months.
In the morning, things aren’t any better. In the morning, things aren’t anything, because you sleep until twelve-thirty, and when you come to, you find yourself squinting against the scream of a headache. In the all-day sulk that follows, you order pizza and watch nature shows in your bathrobe while the ocean ebbs and flows sixty feet behind you. You check your bank account. You email your ex-husband’s lawyer. You finally text back your mother. You tell her that you’re fine because she needs you to be fine. Every year she and your father renew their membership to the aquarium in St. Petersburg and every year they get a calendar full of dolphins and otters and manatees. You take the calendar off the kitchen wall and spread it open on the coffee table in front of the TV where Martin Sheen’s pretending to be the president. Your mother has texted you a date. You flip the calendar back two pages and mark it. You look at the calendar and you count down the days until your thirty-ninth birthday. You look at the calendar and add up the days you spent married. You divide it into months. You organize it by year. You simplify the fraction of the life you’ve spent. You can’t bring yourself to say wasted. You can’t bring yourself to say lost. The sun goes down while you’re in a dark room looking into a graphing calculator.
On the first day that you run, you don’t run. At five a.m. you shuffle to the beach in the misty Florida night and find that you’re not alone. It’s summer in Clearwater and you can feel that warm petri dish breeze coming off the ocean, something briny and alive, gestating in the dark, evolving for longer than Florida’s been Florida. Growing up here, they teach you that Florida has sunk underwater four or five times while glaciers melted and refroze and the oceans rose and fell and rose again. When you were little, you would stand where you’re standing now and imagine the endless ocean flooding up to meet you, pooling above your little sandals, rising past your knees, water rushing over the shoulder straps of your one-piece while you held your breath. When you were little, you thought it would be thrilling. You thought everyone would be laughing while it happened.
On the first day that you run, you don’t run. Rather, you’re going to stand on the beach in shorts and sneakers, just past the reach of the tide, under a moonless sky while a traffic of shadows passes before you. They’re going to wave and nod, friendly in a way that’s surprising. They’re going to whisper Hi! into the foggy pre-dawn ether when they see you. You’re never going to learn any of their names, but as long as you’re there, you’re going to be one of them. They dot the beach in groups and pairs, jogging, running, limping into view, then past, away and further, silhouettes in the dark like an exercise in perspective.
After a few minutes of standing there, you’re going to walk. You’re going to put your headphones in, but not play anything. You’re just going to listen to the waves. You’re going to get lost in the dark while the ocean pulls and crashes, pulls and crashes, pulls and crashes against the beach, sighing, content, and waiting for you to walk in. When your eyes adjust to the dark, you’ll notice the crabs. They’re going to scatter as you pass, specks and shadows underfoot, hurrying home in a ceaseless diagonal. You stand and watch them for a moment, scurrying back to their burrows after a long night of criss-crossing and you let yourself feel a little jealous.
The next day you’re going to walk and the day after that you’re going to walk a little faster and faster and faster and by the end of a week, someone might even call it a jog. Everyday, you’re going to limp back home a little later and a little less breathless. Everyday, you’re going to eat bowl after bowl of cereal in front of the TV, cozy and sore in your bathrobe. You’re going to text your friend Janine, who’s really more of a friend of a friend, but her husband left last year, so you’re practically related. She reached out before you left. That is, she reached out before you put your things in storage and got in the car and didn’t know where else to go. When you text her, it feels like you’re in the same book, but she’s a few chapters ahead. When you text her, it feels like you’re allowed to scream when everyone else needs you to whisper. After two weeks at your parent’s beach house, she texts you.
She sends: It's time.
You send: For what?
She sends: For whatever comes next.
You put down the phone and check your bank account. You tap the keys of your graphing calculator. You tap them again. You go to the calendar and flip the pages back from manatee to dolphin to otter. It’s important that you let yourself pour a drink at this point, something dark and toxic, far stronger than your mother’s chardonnay. You double check the calendar. You double check your math. You need whatever comes next to come soon. You open your laptop and start through want ads for anything you can do from home. It’s important that you don’t have to leave the house. It’s important that you don’t have to see people. It’s important to pour yourself a second drink. It’s important to pour a third.
When the package arrives, you open it with a rush of panic. You feel seen in a way that reminds you you’ve been hiding. Inside the package is another package, a case of something mummified in bubble wrap and scotch tape. You open it, careful to pop as many plastic bubbles as you can, and find six glass jars along with a note.
Hope this helps, –Janine.
The jars are covered in a language you don’t recognize, bright colors punctuated by happy, cartoon fish. You text Janine and hold the jar up to the light, examining it like a code to be deciphered.
She texts: It's for your skin! I've been using it for a month and I'm practically glowing!
And: My niece gets it for practically nothing!
Then: A picture of her smiling face. Janine is a little older, on the other side of forty-five, and she looks incredible. Her skin is brighter. The crows feet and laugh lines she wears with pride in photos have receded, giving her face an airbrushed quality that makes you think of magazine covers in the 90’s. You let your bathrobe slide off and inspect yourself in front of the mirror. You do not look airbrushed. You let yourself open the jar and inspect its contents. The cream is a pale pink, smooth and speckled with a pleasant smell like ocean water and eucalyptus. You look back at yourself in the mirror. You would not be on a magazine cover in the 90’s. On the couch in your underwear, you put on a documentary about octopuses while you cover yourself in pale, pink cream. On the TV, an octopus is trapped in a jar underwater. Ocean water and eucalyptus are seeping into your pores. It’s on your thighs. It’s on your face. It’s in the air you breathe. On the TV, the octopus is unscrewing the jar underwater and making its way out.
A week later you’re doing data entry. You build Excel spreadsheets while nature shows drone on behind you. You can feel your mind going numb while you stare past your laptop, out the window to the beach, past the surf and into the slow July boil of the Gulf. You can feel your eyes shimmer with the mirage heat of the Florida summer while you bundle your bathrobe tight against the chill of the air conditioner.
By your third week of running, you actually start running. You move through the night, panting in the dark like a whispered secret. You begin to keep pace. You begin to recognize other runners on sight. When the sun comes up, you let yourself sit. You let yourself bury your toes in the sand while the ocean laps your feet clean. You let your sweat evaporate while you watch the other runners walk off the beach and back towards their real life. You watch old women in threes and fours carpooling back to their retired lives in jackets and visors. You study the curve and bounce of the sorority girls in bikinis, willing yourself not to be jealous. Even in college, that was never your body. Even when you met your ex-husband, your middle was soft and when you close your eyes, you can still feel him wrapping his arms around you from behind. You can still feel his fingernails grazing down the planted trunks of your legs. He’s never going to touch you again, but there, alone on the beach, just for a moment, you let yourself miss his fingernails.
Janine texts: You never get over it, but you get used to not getting over it.
She says: Tinder works, as long as you're honest. That includes with yourself.
And: Running helps. So does meeting new people. You can't just live in your bathrobe.
It’s almost eight am and you’re back from a run, stretching and flexing under the too-hot steam of a shower on the last day of July. You’ve been running almost every day for a month. Real running with slick hair and burning thighs and the kind of deep lung grunting breaths that send crabs and college girls scattering while you plow through. The kind of running that leaves you gasping and ugly and stronger than you could have ever imagined. In the mirror after your shower, with your bathrobe open, you smooth the pink cream onto every inch of you, your fingers gliding over every curve and crease. The bags under your eyes have disappeared, though you hardly sleep, regularly waking before five without an alarm. The skin at your neck is smooth where it had begun to sag. The worry lines under your widow’s peak are gone as is the cellulite that used to live behind your thighs. You admire them in the mirror over your shoulder while you rub them down with pink cream, smooth and strong and taut with muscle. You stare at yourself for a long time, longer than you have in years. You watch a smile bloom on your face when you realize that you have started to become unrecognizable.
You text Janine: I'm really starting to see a change!
And: I think I'm ready for whatever comes next!
She responds: I hope we both are.
In the mornings, you stretch while coffee brews, but you’re always still sore. You’ve started to love it, the spice of pain simmering in the background of your life. It feels like strength. It feels like growth. At noon you take a break from spreadsheets to crack your back after hours of sitting. Upside-down and backwards on a yoga ball, you relish the broken glass crackle of your body working itself out. In the evenings, you watch nature shows and fail to reach the two stubborn knots at your back. The more your body hurts, the more you get used to it being hurt. On the last day of July, you think about what Janice said. You get used to not getting over it. Alone after weeks of being alone, you think about what Janice said. Tinder works.
The pictures you take for your profile are surprising. You didn’t expect to look that good. You didn’t expect your smile to feel so genuine. You let yourself admire them for a minute before adding the caption Recently single, badly in need of a massage. You send them to Janine.
She responds: Whatever you're doing, don't stop!
You spend an hour swiping right with a glass of wine in your hand before falling into an uneasy sleep. When you wake up, your back is worse. You stretch, in bed, in the dark, in agony. You listen for the crash of waves past the hum of the air conditioner. You sit at the foot of your bed and think about your sneakers in the closet in front of you. You think about the stacked pillows behind you and the ache at your back. Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop. You don’t let it keep you off the beach. When you look at your phone in the dark, you see that Janine has texted you.
She says, Has it started? Don't worry, it's easier after the first month.
And, I took up swimming and I've never felt better.
Then, I know it hurts. And I'm sorry.
A few nights later, you meet a man for drinks. He’s younger. Younger than you, much younger than your ex-husband and when he shows up in shorts and sandals you feel like his aunt teaching him about wine. He’s nervous and boring and he drinks too much, but when you put your hand on his thigh and ask him about that massage, he does what he’s told. In the morning, you text Janine with all the details. She doesn’t text back after your run. She doesn’t text back by the time you’re off work. When you call it rings and rings until you get her voicemail.
You send: Is something happening?
And: Is there anything I can do?
You meet another man, then another. You meet so many, you forget their faces. Some return. Others don’t. You make them rub your back. You make them tenderize you with massagers. You train them to take their time, running fingernails up your thighs until you forget your back ever hurt.
Running gets harder. Your back never stops being sore. You begin to notice jellyfish in your path when you run, shimmering in the night, the delicate ocean grace of their bodies useless on the shore. When you rest at sunrise, crabs linger at your feet, suddenly unafraid. Later, in the shower, you feel yourself washing off more than sand. You turn the hot water until the knob stops, letting the water cascade over all the parts of yourself you can’t reach. The ache you used to relish is turning into something else, but you’ve never looked better. You look in the mirror and begin to notice an iridescence there. You open your bathrobe and let yourself see what’s underneath. You raise an arm to the sun, fascinated by what catches in the light. There’s a glitter there, just under your skin and it shines like a crystal in a stone, something shattered, buried and undeniable.
At night, you lay on your stomach to appease the pain in your back and listen to the steady pound of your heartbeat until your alarm goes off. When you stand up, your whole body cracks, like it’s unaccustomed to being yours.
It’s almost August when you see a chiropractor. He confirms what you’ve been feeling for weeks. When he says it, you finally let yourself admit it. You let yourself feel it.
“There’s something wrong here.” he says, and your relief surprises you.
“I’ve never seen anything like this.” he says, and you feel somehow vindicated.
“How long have you had these?” he asks, running his hands over the twin knobs growing out of your back. You tell him and he makes a few urgent phone calls. He’s sending you to a specialist. He’s telling you to go today, they’re expecting you. There’s a terror in his eyes as he walks you into the lobby, pressing an address and a phone number into your palm.
“We’re going to get you through this.”
You go home and try to crack your back on your yoga ball, but the knobs get caught. At night, you can feel them pressing into you. You can feel them growing. It feels like they belong there.
A week passes. Whatever you’re doing, don’t stop. You begin your morning run earlier and earlier, 4 am, then 3. Until it’s just you, pumping your legs alone in the night with only the skittering crabs to see you, lit by the pale of the moon and the dying shimmer of beached jellyfish. Knobs begin to form behind your calves. They appear at your forearm. The ones at your back grow flat and smooth, flexing up and down with the muscles of your back. You open the second to last jar of pale, pink cream and rub it onto yourself, paying careful attention to every knob and flap. Your skin is fully glowing now, a pale pink brilliance that pulses with the beat of your heart. You’ve never been more beautiful.
The chiropractor leaves one frantic voicemail, then another. So does your mother. So does Janice’s ex-husband. So does yours. You don’t listen to any of them. You listen instead to the crashing waves of the surf. You open the windows and fill the tub until it spills over, watching the water trickle and splash out the open door in a river you’re meant to follow. You stay in the tub for hours watching your skin not prune, breathing in the euphoria of salted ocean air.
You wait for a very long time after the sun goes down. You open the last jar and coat yourself, head to toe, in layer after layer. When you’re done, you lick your fingers clean and find that your hands are webbed. You think about Janice and hope the same thing happened to her, whe ever she is. You think about the little girl who waited for the ocean to rise and you realize that you’re laughing. You walk into the living room, past your phone, past your laptop. You don’t check your email. You don’t check your messages. You stop for a moment and look at the calendar of crossed out squares and circled dates and wonder where the time went. On your way out the door, you think about what Janice said. Whatever comes next.
When you get to the beach, the crabs are waiting for you. There are hundreds of them, perfectly still. There’s no place they’d rather scurry to. They part as you approach, glowing brilliant, pulsing in time with your racing heart. The waves beyond them pull and crash, pull and crash in time with your step. The ocean feels impatient to have you. You take one step and then another, flexing the fins on your back in the summer breeze until the water’s over your bare feet, past the finlets behind your calves until you are fully submerged, ready to let yourself be the thing you’ve always been becoming.
Joaquin Fernandez has had his work appear in Okay Donkey, CheapPop, and Pidgeonholes, among others. A recovering filmmaker from South Florida, he now lives in Portland, Oregon. He can be found on Twitter @Joaqertxranger and on his website joaquinfernandezwrites.com.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.