the air out there

Oceanair-1 The summer between my freshman and sophomore years in college my friend Sarah and I drove to Charleston, South Carolina to stay with some friends of hers from school. Charleston has always been one of my very favorite places in the world. It still is. I'd spent many childhood summer vacations at the beach at Isle of Palms, and it felt neat to go back there on our own. We planned to spend the first part of the visit with Sarah's friends and the second part at the beach hotel where my family had spent many a week. We felt very grown up. We were nineteen.

Oceanair-2 We had so much fun. I don't even remember all that we did. We rode in cars. We went to the beach. We watched movies. It was hot. Sarah's friend had an older brother, and he hung out with us too. That was cool. I don't even remember the friend's name. Was it Liz? All I know is that when I read this book it was Sarah's friend's house that I had in my mind when I pictured the main character's house in Charleston. One night, we all went to dinner at an awesome Greek restaurant (And somehow I was still stunned to see that people really live at the beach, with strip malls and restaurants where you can order stuff other than fried shrimp.). When we came out after dinner, it was hot. Lowcountry, South Carolina hot. The sky was hazy from the humidity, the sea gulls (in the parking lot!) were keening, and there was that particular tang in the air that comes only when you are close to the sea. I felt so full and wonderful that night. I'd eaten an ethnic meal, bravely ordering new food for the first time. I'd shared that meal with a group of boys and girls and we'd talked of things without devolving into giggles and iced tea-laden snorts. I wasn't shy. I'd held my own. I was on the cusp of growing up, and right then, growing up felt good. And there, outside of it all, was the smell of the sea. I remember looking up at the street light and thinking that I would give just about anything to be able to smell that particular hot-salt smell anytime I stepped outside.

Oceanair-3 Here in the Tidewater, we're moving into the hottest days of the year by far. On Friday the actual high is supposed to be 100 degrees. Yikes! Most evenings after dinner, Neel and I can sit outside in the front yard, but I'm not sure I can manage 100 degrees. Last week, during a preview of these upcoming hot days (I think the high was 92), I had a cocktail with an old friend one evening after dinner. Afterwards, as I was coming in from the driveway, I got out of the car, stood there for a moment before going into the house, and I breathed deep. There it was. That hot, salt water tang. The smell of the air by the sea. We live near the ocean, but not all that close. Our drive for our beach days is measured in car minutes, not walking minutes, but nonetheless the sea is there. Just around the bend from me. The little gray house and our neighborhood is bookended by rivers instead of the ocean. Our down-the block river is salty and tidal, and we are in lowcountry of our own. The smells when I step outside can range from brackish to tangy. This morning, as Neel and I took a walk together, we watched the sun rise over the river, and it smelled more like river than anything else. But more often than not, it's there. The heat and haze. That salt-water sense.

And that night last week, in the gathering twilight as I stood next to my white-hot car, was the first time that it really, really dawned on me that my dream had come true.