Post- Magazine

on coastlines and other beginnings [feature]

figuring out what it means for a summer to end

“You’re you, you see, and nobody else. You are you, right?”

- Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore

Because I had nothing better to do and Nina was my only high school friend nearby, I went to stay with her in Marblehead, Massachusetts for a few days towards the end of August. She was going to Wellesley the same week I was going to Brown, and we were both looking for ways to stretch days into warm limbos of memory, preserving a carefreeness we could look back on once the demands of college ramped up. 


Back in 2020, separated by the pandemic, she’d sent me snippets of the coastal town through photos she’d taken from her bedroom window—a red sky spilling into a harbor of sailboats—accompanied by a text message that read something along the lines of, “sunset today!!!” An ocean away and who-knows-how-many days into Shanghai’s lockdown, I’d respond cooped up at my desk: “WTF wish I was there.” She’d make the same comment about the view coming straight out of a Monet painting, how much I’d love to take my camera there. Now, as she led me up to her balcony so I could see for myself, I gushed because it was true. 

Something about being close to water always makes me feel like Kafka Tamura from Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. He’s a 15-year-old boy who spends the majority of the novel entangled in adventures along coastlines, trying to reinvent himself away from an omen while watching the ocean ebb and flow. I dog-eared every other page of the book, when waves crashed onto the shore. I loved the intensity of it all. I pictured my feet planted in the sand and some wonderful thing beneath erupting, like a bud I just needed to tug open with my toes. 

Marblehead was foggy the day I arrived. I held each inhale at the base of my tongue, afraid that if I were to release my breath, all the magic in the air would disappear with a pop. The grayness that stretched before me seemed like a perfect canvas. All of a sudden, I felt 11 again, sporting a holey JanSport backpack and too-big sneakers in some neon color, restless for the start of middle school and my life in Shanghai. I was hopeful, homesick, helplessly awkward. Seven years later, there I was, nervous for college on a different coast, still trying to figure out what marked ends and what marked beginnings. I’d grown out of a lot of things over time, but never that nagging anticipation for the future, the wave of longing and anxiety that would consume me before the start of anything new.

The next day, we went to visit the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, a 200-year-old home-turned-museum. The tour guide was an old man who had lived his entire life in the town and was so deeply intertwined with the place that I thought I could see the bend of Main Street in the hunch of his spine, the barnacles on the rocks in the gray-brown patches of scabbing on his cheeks. It was hot and I was getting lightheaded. I absentmindedly tracked the saliva that would foam at the edge of his mouth before disappearing with a swipe of his tongue, how even that looked a little like the white line where the ocean fell onto the shore. 

Nina, with her miraculous ability to get along with anyone in any situation, made chit-chat for the both of us. On the second floor, we arrived in a room more quiet than the rest. Miniature beds, chairs, and toys formed a lopsided centerpiece in the middle of the room, and on the walls were portraits of children, each with a neat label: Age 3, Age 2, Age 4. One of the child’s hands held a wilted flower, while the other pointed an index finger downwards. We learned that this pairing meant that they had died. The room had been a nursery. The tour guide launched into an explanation of infant mortality rates two centuries ago, as if he, closer to death than any of his visitors, had taken on the burden of subduing its senselessness to us all. I thought: nothing can rationalize an end brushing so close to its beginning. The portraits were done post-mortem, the artist called in to look at a dead child when they were still presentable. Quick, capture this little life before it dims. I tried to seek out a frenzy of brush strokes, a particularly tender rendering of a nose not yet fully formed, a breath of detached grief. But all I saw was stillness. Them, looking out. Us, looking back. 


Out in the garden, Nina plucked a little wildflower from the grass, handed it to me a little droopy. I took it with something between a grimace and a laugh. She took pictures of me holding it. As we joked, I listened to waves lap onto the shore over and over, imagining the silent rise and crest of each mere seconds before. Just as a wave peaks right before collapsing into itself, the children in the nursery must have lived every day with the want of a lifetime. And if coastlines were where this energy came to gather, I hoped, perhaps I could take part in it too.

Later, the morning’s rain cleared and we went out for a swim. I decided to jump from the dock. I imagined that such picturesque coming-of-age activities called for a burst of courage rather than a hesitant loss of control, and I, forever inclined to the latter, wanted to ride the momentum. 

The water awoke myself to my body, a thing so funnily forgotten. The coldness pressed against my limbs so that I could feel every hair I’d always pondered shaving off, and in the full of my throat a fresh thud of heartbeats gathered. I felt so alive, like I was going to drown the next second. I kept observing the way my legs appeared nimble and luminescent in between streaks of sunlight, how if I tipped the back of my head into the water just enough, a shudder would run down my spine in the most perfect way. 

The ocean’s heat waves rocked through me slowly, warm surges followed by lapses of cold. Somewhere in between, so many things had visited me like this before: first crushes that taught me a hunger in my hands, the rush of familial anger dampened immediately by an instinct to apologize, anticipation equal parts excitement and fear. I couldn’t wait for college to begin; I wanted summer to last forever. I could never really put into words what I was feeling, the obstinacy of language mingling with a deeper uncertainty, always tiptoeing somewhere in between extremes. My true identity hung on some hotel ceiling fan, spinning round and round and round, and I (the present, physical version) sat often on the bed below, watching, wondering where one rotation gave way to another. I thought about how nice it was that the ocean seemed to translate all of this into the easy dichotomy of hot and cold my body could ration without overflowing.

Nina and I spent the remaining nights watching romcoms, me in her hoodie and her head brushing my neck. We played the rain scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral over and over and laughed until it got too late to be making noise. I could trace the smell of lobster juice lingering on my hands, or on hers, or in the breeze passing through the window. I became conscious of how peace spread itself fully at the pit of your stomach, so comfortable you could lose yourself in it. We stayed up until our eyes ached to close more than our chests ached to remain open, sucking in what was left of August with the hunger of an ant and its crumb. I imagined being a kid buckled in and held back just before a zip-line, the way the world must seem to bend outwards and offer you everything—here’s the next moment of your life, it’s all yours, you better be ready. How beautifully the anticipation must expand you.

There’s a moment towards the end of the book where Kafka stands at the “edge of the world.” He’s just about to leave a time void, stripped of any personhood and responsibility, and he’s been warned to walk straight out and back to his life, to never turn around. The reader knows that if he looks back in the next paragraph, he’s lost himself. The temptation is too strong. And sure enough, he looks back. And looks forward again. And makes it out. The first time I read it, I gasped. 

It wasn’t Kafka’s strength but his momentary hesitation that I resonated with—the suspended moment on the diving board where you think it might be easier to chicken out than to jump in. Maybe you even take two steps back. My stay at Marblehead reminded me a lot of that paralyzing state of limbo. But it also gave me time to find pockets of courage in the smallest of places. I trust that if I keep digging, underneath wishes I’ve come just short of grasping and wilder dreams I’ve held onto nonetheless, amidst this lull of summer that is rapidly dimming, I know his strength too. It’s around me and inside me. I’m looking back and looking ahead, and I’ve never been more sure of anything.

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