Laughter fills our lungs with January air as the path in front of us begins to fade into darkness. The walk feels endless. We follow the wooden staircase that zigzags down the rocky hillside, and the planks creak under our collective weight. The growing sound of waves crashing below indicates our direction.
We pass a sign that reads, “beach closes at 11 p.m.” Matt pulls his phone out and announces that it’s 11:15, but the six of us keep moving without pause. I can see the end of the staircase now, the wood transitioning into grass which meets the sand. Laura insists that we pause for a picture, and we comply, huddling together and doing our best to look candid as she advances the lever on the disposable camera that she brought to commemorate this adventure—my 18th birthday. Warmth radiates through me when we move in closer to fit into frame. She clicks the shutter, freezing the moment onto film.
We reach a patch of grass where I unlace my boots. When I take my first steps onto the sand, the dampness sends chills through the soles of my feet. Kevon and Max climb over a dune that leads to the lake while Megan and I follow behind. Lake Michigan, a mass of darkness from which the reflection of the moon provides the only light, comes into full view. Focussing our gaze on the invisible horizon, my friends stand alongside me.
Matt reaches into his backpack and pulls out a box of sparklers and a lighter. We form a circle around him as he slides his finger across the flint wheel. A flame shoots into the air for a second, and then it’s gone. We move in closer, shoulders touching now, arms spread over each other’s backs, hoping our wall will keep the flame alive long enough to light each of the sparklers in our hands. Another flick of the lighter, and this time the flame stays up. We lean in with our sparklers and a chorus of crackling begins.
“Run!” Kevon and Max yell, but we’re already in motion. As we all sprint down the beach, I look up and see a parade of embers dancing off the tip of the flare in my hand. I look over my shoulder and see my friends’ faces glowing under the sea of sparks. The ground starts to feel uneven, and I look in front of me to find a steep dune just a few feet away. Losing my balance on the incline, I collide into the coarse sand. My friends fall down with me.
A destination-less drive led us to the beach that night, and we embarked on countless other journeys to nowhere in the months that followed. We found release in coasting the tree-lined streets around our hometown, where everything closes at nine except for bowling alleys and bars. We watched as rows of townhomes and streetlights glided across the windshield in the hazy nighttime fog like a kaleidoscope of suburban scenes. When we grew tired of the aimless roaming, we often found ourselves returning to the beach.
However, as evenings like these became a common occurrence, I became aware of the fact that it would all have to end in a few more months when we all go off to college. I tried not think about it too much whenever I stood on the shoreline, and I convinced myself that the beach existed outside of my normal world. I found relief in the fact that I could share this escape with my friends as if we claimed this place as our hideaway.
Now that I am a month into my freshman year of college, I no longer have that sense of security to rely on. Although I attend school just forty-five minutes away from my hometown, the distance between my old life and my current one seems so much further. At night, as I sit alone on the thin, lumpy mattress in my dorm room, I look up at the wall next to my bed where the memories from my 18th birthday hang: my empty boots laying in the sand, the reddish sparks floating in the air and our silhouettes all illuminated by the fluorescent camera flash. I yearn to revisit that place where I felt comfortable being myself, surrounded by the people who allowed me to have that rare comfort. I have grown restless during these past few weeks, trying to find something similar in an unfamiliar environment with people who I barely know yet.
Unable to sit still, I leave my room and step outside. I start walking up the road and reach a mile-long path that leads to another beach on lake Michigan. The unsettling silence makes me want to turn back, but I follow the urge to keep going when I hear the reassuring rising and falling of the tides. I allow this consoling sound to guide me until I see the edge of the water.
Being here channels a familiar sensation as I take off my sneakers and submerge my toes in the frigid lake, the same lake we used to spend hours looking at. I see the same invisible horizon, the same moon reflected. I imagine that I could hear the echoes of our laughter miles down this shore and could feel the closeness I have been searching for. While I can not go back to that night, I realize that my friends and I will always have plenty of good nights to remember on the ones we must spend alone.