Once we got about 100 yards down the beach, he and I were basically alone. We scanned the sand for skipping rocks and rifled them into the surf. He chased after the seagulls and laughed in the whitewater banging on the shore. Saturday afternoon in San Clemente, our third day there. We were both hot and tired, walking away from the crowds and noise, just me and my son.
AJ's life has been pretty crowded lately. For two weeks, he's shared an apartment with 11 other people. His days with me have been a relief. Just the two of us. But we had plans for this past weekend. More crowds. Lots of kids.
On Thursday, we drove down to San Clemente State Park with Emet for a weekend of camping at the beach. The weather broke just in time. Southern California experiences what id known colloquially as "June Gloom." Overcast skies, humidity, a tenacious marine layer. It's not cold, but there's not a lot of sun. Thankfully, the gloom ended a few days early.
Beach camping is a yearly tradition for Emet's family. They've been doing it since she was a kid. It's far more involved than picking a site and pitching a tent. Elaborate meals, arts and crafts, beer. Throwing in friends, we numbered close to 80 people, more than half of them kids, all of them full of summer energy. Right down AJ's alley, of course. He's met all of Emet's nieces and nephews, idolizes the older boys, is curious about the younger girls. When he found out two of the nephews, just entering high school age, would be in the tent right next to ours, he was beside himself.
Still, on Saturday afternoon, all the stimulation got to him.
He looked a bit forlorn, sitting there by himself. He mindlessly packed sand. I suggested he join a group of other kids building a castle. He declined. A boy came and asked if he could help. AJ sent him on his way and returned to his task, whatever it was. The wave came and drenched both AJ and his pile.
He started to cry. Was inconsolable. I sat him down next to me under the shade of an umbrella, out of the heat, cool down, a 15-minute timeout. I tried to talk him out of his meltdown, but kids that age, when the injustice just feels too great, can only offer "but!" So I ignored his sniffling sobs.
Easier said than done. Parental reaction #1: Make it better. So I asked if he wanted to walk down the beach. Just he and I.
He stopped crying, but started talking about his new step-brothers. About how they tease him, say he has a "funny face." News and insecurities flowed out of him, complaints against the sound of the waves. I pulled him to my hip as we walked, my voice even as I listened.
This is the way my child communicates. Not in answer to a pointed question, but randomly, when comfortable. It's how I know what is going on with him. It's a helpless feeling sometimes. As with most parent-child relationships, those lines of communication are less apt to be open as the kid grows older, learns to keep his own counsel, a fact exacerbated by the time he spends away from me, at his mother's house where I have even less idea of what the fuck is going on.
But as soon as he started, he stopped. He was unburdened for the time being.
Behind us, the umbrellas got smaller, the shouts of the children turned to silence. AJ was himself again, finding wonder in a sand crab, delight in jumping into the steep angle of the shore. His face shone with a sunshine smile and we just walked, sometimes together, sometimes apart, but always tethered. His laughter buoyed us and, when I finally noticed how far we'd gone, I asked him, "Do you want to turn back?"
"No," he said, as he reached for my hand. "Not yet."
So we kept walking. Just my son and I, certain with each other.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I got for my birthday this year.