Panama City Beach, Florida.
It is the first morning of vacation in a friend’s condo. I am looking down on the condo’s private beach from my balcony. From way up here, everyone is small, no one too fat, too sexy, too weak, too old, or too young. They are all just specks of human beings swallowed by a vast dance of blurry sandbars beneath an undulating surf. I arrived last night in the dark and went to sleep. This morning, I try to unkink from regular life stresses. I keep telling myself it’s okay if my thoughts walk away from these relentless concerns. The ocean, meanwhile, forgets with ease, content with humming a tune of waves that massage the air like an oscillating fan, a white noise sound machine rising and falling, over and over, an unending breath-like soundtrack.
I stare at the shore’s thin white line. I’ve been down there. I know the waves are crashing in and drawing back against the sand—both as white and as fine as sugar—and that a million bubbles of foam are popping in a delicate “sssh” between the waves’ coming and going, but you can neither see nor hear all that from up here. The heave and splash of the shore’s drama reads like a slow pulse on the ocean’s broad, smooth, hypnotic skin. Swimmers’ heads and bodies barely break the surface of the water. Their squawks, yells, and squeals barely disrupt the ostinato of breaking waves.
Up here, I wonder whether the ocean even notices us: from short fat ladies in bikinis to little construction-worker men with microscopic beer koozies to teensy 16-year-old girls pretending at womanhood, ripe as peaches, to small gangly white-bellied 14-year-old boys who surveil those girls from their itty bitty beach towels, staring holes into illicit feminine curves. We all seem pretty inconsequential.
And does the ocean notice the pin-sized motorboat, way out past the swimming area, towing its miniscule parasailer? I do. I definitely notice it. I start thinking about how much I want to go parasailing. I’ve never done that. I want to float like a pelican over the bluest part of the water.
But that probably costs a fortune.
It’s when I think about money that the dam breaks. Suddenly, I want it all. I want ten T-shirts for the price of five. I want a dune buggy, a Brazillian wax, and a Speedo. I want to drink margaritas tonight at a bar, to sing Jimmy Buffet’s magnum opus, “Margaritaville,” at karaoke. I want the bartender to roll her eyes when the intro starts, but then, when I hit the first chorus, I want her to stop stirring that Fuzzy Navel, look up and realize I’m totally re-inventing this tired old beach standard. I want her to hear the lyrics like she’s never heard them before, to pine for her own “long lost shaker of salt” with a deep, sensual, existential ache. I want to be wearing a T-shirt that says “I’m seeing double and feeling single,” and wink at that bartender as the song’s steel drums rattle to a close, and then I want her to stand up on the bar in her cutoff jean shorts and halter top, and announce that the next round is on the house, “Because,” she says, “we just witnessed karaoke greatness. Jimmy himself couldn’t have sung that better!” I want the people to cheer, and I want to make one new bar-best-friend after another as they buy me round upon round of Jell-O shots.
When I get back home to landlocked Nashville, I want to be tan and muscular with six-pack abs I chiseled out of a disciplined exercise regimen undertaken during my beach epiphany. I want to start using the phrase “no pain, no gain” a lot, and watch people wince at the cheesiness of it, only to feel inspired despite themselves, and vow finally to “get in shape” and “live better.”
I want to wear plastic $4.99 sunglasses with neon green temple arms because I can make anything hip. And I want the mystery of those sunglasses to make people wonder what I’m thinking. I want to smirk more. When people ask me how my vacation went, I want to say, “What happens in Panama City Beach, stays . . . ” and then I want to trail off, and wink over my sunglasses at them.
I want people to think I am cool, but later, I want them to ask each other, privately, almost conspiratorially, whether I’m being ironic with the whole Jimmy Buffett act, and then I want them to conclude they don’t even care if it’s ironic, they just love how relaxed I make them feel.
You know what else? All this talk of cheap sunglasses reminds me how expensive prescription sunglasses are, and what a pain in the ass regular eyeglasses are. You don’t want to lose them, or scratch them in the sand, and you can’t see the ocean’s beauty as well without them, so I don’t want to need my regular glasses anymore.
I want this: you remember the bar where I sang karaoke and flirted with the bartender and made all those friends? Well, I want one of my new bar-best-friends to turn out to be a LASIK surgeon, and for him to confess to me that he and his wife’s marriage has been quote, unquote really struggling, but that when they heard my “Margaritaville,” they realized they’ve always been each other’s lifelong salt shaker, that they should hold on tight and never let go, and then I want him to say “You know what? After all you’ve done for us, the least I can do is fix your eyes for you. Would you like that? Can I treat you to some surgery?” And I want to say yes.
I am totally getting excited just thinking about all of this. My resistance to this fantasy is melting away. I don’t care about what non-beach people care about anymore. All the regular guy things are draining out of me. It’s starting to feel like this is all definitely going to come to pass. All of it. The whole world will change. It’ll be paradise. No more condoms, calendars, or emergency rooms. No more stitches from bar fight beatings. No more bar fights. Shoot, man, no more blood. All menstrual cycles everywhere will come to an end. We’ll all be non-stop chillin’, rollin’ down the main drag, just tans, T-shirts, and cheap sunglasses everywhere. There will just be all-day-all-night friggin’ awesomeness all the friggin’ time.
One other thing: I will be a totally amazing swimmer. I will be able to hold my breath forever, and swim super deep, and I will commune with sea creatures: fish, clams, dolphins, and crabs will be my friends . . . even the majestic manta ray.
And it’s the manta ray that snaps me out of my revelry. The mere thought of the graceful gray ray taking her aquatic flight over the sea’s dark floor disrupts the fantasy: the karaoke, the LASIKS surgery, the Jimmy Buffet-flavored end of all human suffering, all of them dissipate with a single wave of her mysterious water wings.
I saw a real manta ray at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago once. The cadence of her movements hypnotized me. There were tourists all around me with aquarium maps and gift shop bags, but they all faded away once I saw that slow motion muslin ripple swim-dancing in the aquarium waters’ breeze. As I stared, I tried to understand whether she was moving quickly or slowly, but I could not tell. She was beyond measurement, beyond quantifiable criteria, beyond logic.
And now, I am thinking about junior high boys and how their bones developmentally outpace their muscles, which is why they’re never any good on the dance floor or the basketball court; and about how two people can be right on the brink of forgiving one another, but then someone squints at the other fearing more harm and the moment collapses into a petty grudge; and about how a woman will pull her shirt down over her exposed sides after a co-worker whispers the words “muffin top” a little too loudly near her in the break room. The manta ray was unlike any of these things. She was elegant, stately, perfect; she moved the way you hope angels move, if you ever get to see one.
That’s when I realized I don’t need to get a tan. I got really burned on a bicycle trip in college, I’m sort of fair skinned, and I should just use the SPF 30 sunscreen my wife packed for me. I don’t want skin cancer. And I’m not going to explore Panama City’s commercial real estate market either. We don’t have that kind of disposable income.
I’m not even going to try to seduce any karaoke bartenders tonight with my “Margaritaville,” because—while it’s true that menstrual cycles continue unabated, and that 14-year-old boys still lie on their towels, boner-down, trying not to make embarrassed eye contact with sexy 16-year-olds, and that bar fights still crank out cuts that need emergency room stitching, and that the real Jimmy Buffett still nets an astonishing annual profit off his songs, restaurants, and parrot-themed merchandise—it is also true that somewhere on the ocean floor, the prehistoric manta ray is gliding freely through infinite water, both fast and slow in anonymous glory. While the wide hypnotic night-ocean rolls under, over, and around her, the ray’s slow-sliding leathery gray wings caress the ancient deep with unconscious grace.
And from sixteen stories up, the ocean continues her effortless breathing tune, noticing none of this any more or less than she notices you and me.
Don Chaffer formed a band, Waterdeep, with his wife, Lori Chaffer, several years ago. After that, they formed a family, which features a son, Miles, and a daughter, Ruby. The family turned out much better than any of their albums. Don has written/produced/engineered/mixed a bunch of albums for others, and written/arranged/music-directed several musicals as well. He lives in Nashville, TN, with his family, and a pair of stray cats.