I remember reading, years ago, that there are no happy periods, only happy moments. So how long can these moments last? An afternoon? Does an afternoon count as a moment?
I'm thinking, naturally, of one afternoon in particular, an afternoon a bunch of us spent by the ocean, on Canaveral Beach. Canaveral is not the best beach in the world—few beaches are!—but it’s wild-looking, stretches for miles, and on the Wednesday after Memorial Day, was almost entirely deserted. There were seven of us. A strong wind was blowing; the sky was bright blue. It would have been scalding hot without the wind which stopped you from noticing that you were being scalded. The waves were crashing in, though the tide may have been going out. We all spread out our towels. Josh and Anne-Marie ran straight into the sea. Josh, a former pro-surfer, had brought a pair of flippers, and everyone except me had brought a serious book to read. It’s something that happens as you get older: the last thing you want to do on a beach is read a book—and maybe that doesn’t apply just to beaches but to other places as well.
After ten minutes of just sitting there I suggested we have a running race. There was only one taker; everyone else was either in the sea or into their books. So it was just me and Paul, and it wasn’t exactly a race. I drew a line in the sand in front of where the others were sitting reading, stretching from where they sat to the sea. Paul and I did some stretches and began jogging along the water’s edge, like in Chariots of Fire, but this was Florida and not England. It was hot, windy, sea-clear and sky-bright, and the shoreline was wild and empty. The waves were crashing in to our left. I kept an eye out for dead jellyfish, unsure if they stung after they were dead or even if they were dead once they were washed up on the sand. It was hard-going; the wind was in our faces, blowing north. I don’t know how far we ran—far enough so that when we stopped and got our breath back we couldn't see the others with their little encampment of towels.
“Make no mistake,” I said, drawing another line in the sand. “We jogged here as friends but we are racing back. The winner, obviously, is the first one to cross the line where we started.”
“So the starting line has become the finishing line,” said Paul.
“We can jog, we can chat, but ultimately it’s a race. It might seem that it’s not a race or that it only becomes a race at a certain moment—”
“But it was actually a race from the moment we began.”
“You got it.”
We got into position at the new starting line and began jogging back the way we had come. It was much easier this way, with the wind urging us on and the sea pounding in to our right. I only like running on the beach and I only like running in a race. I love racing. We jogged along gently but all the time we were jogging I was also racing, conscious that the jog could turn into a race at any moment, that the jog was part of the race not a prelude to it. I began to breathe heavily, not because I was tired, but to get more oxygen into my system. Maybe this wasn't the right thing to do but it’s what I was doing. We were side by side. I was slightly more in the sea than Paul. The sand was harder, though, which seemed to more than compensate for any slight resistance caused by the water. In the distance we could see the spot where the others were, maybe two hundred yards away. I was waiting for Paul to make his move. We were still just jogging but we were no longer talking. The pace increased slightly. A squadron of pelicans glided towards and over us, tipping their wings. Paul had still not made his move. He must have been waiting for me to make my move just as I was waiting for him to make his. It was not clear who had the best sprint or if either of us even had one. I was fifty-four, would be fifty-five in a week, but it was like being fifteen, with an added consciousness of death and depression, of the ease with which the body’s numerous muscles can be pulled, and of how wonderful it is to feel like you're fifteen—way better, of course, than actually being fifteen.
We were about fifty yards from our friends— I could see them clearly enough, the world existed in sparkling clarity—and I figured that I could sprint from there. We were still just jogging. The sea was rolling in or rolling out and Paul had still not made his move. I kicked, leaving him instantly five or six yards behind. I kept glancing behind my shoulder and saw that he wasn’t going to catch me. My legs were tying up but I crossed the finishing line, which had once been the starting line, and was nowhere to be seen because the tide, evidently, was coming in.
I love winning. I just do. I am one of those people who loves to win. I would like to have given interviews about my victory because it was clear to me that I had run a great tactical race. I had kicked at exactly the right moment and left Paul for dead. I felt like Mo Farah and I stood bent over with my hands on my knees, thinking about what it must have been like to have been Mo, when he came into the finishing straight in London, in the five and the ten thousand metre finals, knowing that he’d got it, the double gold. The pleasure of winning gold here was slightly diminished by the suspicion that Paul had just come along for the ride, for the run, that despite his assurances he didn’t really believe we were racing, or, if he did, had perhaps let me win because he could tell that I love wining and was so much older than him. So it wasn’t a total triumph, but that hadn't occurred to me as I'd crossed where the finishing line used to be and raised my arms in skinny triumph.
The wind was still blowing, the sky was blue, the sun was blazing and the sea was rolling in. Time was passing in the timeless oceanic way. The sea is the perfect backdrop for happiness—for moments of happiness—because it is always there. You could have been here ten thousand years ago and it wouldn't be changed at all. The only thing special about this afternoon is that we were here.
While the others were reading I kept thinking about my victory in the running race. It would have been even better if we had been running with our shirts off—I didn’t take mine off because I am too skinny, but the other guys all had their shirts off, including Josh, the ex-pro surfer. A few days earlier we’d all posed for a photograph together. I'd been standing next to Josh and when I put my arm around him my long thin arms were barely long enough to reach around his shoulders. I sat for a while on my towel, in my t-shirt. I hadn't brought a book, but I had brought a tennis ball so I suggested that we play catch. I'm like a dog—I love to run and play catch— but a dog with a voice, who can suggest races and games of catch, rather than just sitting around looking hopeful, waiting for someone to rattle a leash or hold up a chewed-up old ball covered in dog saliva.
Playing catch with a tennis ball is one of the world’s most underrated sports; it’s way more fun than Frisbee or any of the other throwing games people play on a beach. Five of us played, three men and two women, close together and far away, always changing positions, trying to make sure that someone else had the sun in their eyes. We caught the ball one-handed and hot-potatoed it to someone else. Or three of us bunched together while the thrower walked back and threw the ball far and high in the sky so we had to jostle and jump for it and quite often the result of all this jostling and jumping was that no one caught the ball and it came splashing into the sea like space debris falling out of the earth’s atmosphere. It was also fun to throw the ball hard at someone’s face from a distance that was only borderline safe. It was just the guys who did this. It’s a guy thing, flirting with the possibility of hurting or getting hurt, and we never threw the ball aggressively at Connie or Ann-Marie, only at each other. When another flight of pelicans came by I threw a ball at them and missed. I didn’t want to injure a pelican but it is always a challenge, trying to hit a moving target. I didn’t even come close and the pelicans didn’t take evasive action; they just cruised on down the beach, indifferent and maybe not even interested, heading south. We humans threw the ball back and forth and it was great even though I was conscious that in addition to pulling a muscle slightly in my left calf during my victory in the running race I was aggravating a long-standing shoulder injury. Throwing is terrible for the shoulder. Palestinians must have constant shoulder and arm problems from all the stone-throwing they do. My left arm— my throwing arm—soon felt like it was several inches longer than the other one. Then it felt like it was attached to the shoulder by only a few sinews. I wouldn't have been surprised to see the ball flying off with my scrawny arm still attached, like a hammer thrown in the Olympics.
I had not taken off my t-shirt but Connie had taken off hers—a blue Kurt Cobain t-shirt—so she was wearing just a bikini, a yellow bikini. It occurred to me that one of the great things about beach life is that you get to see women in bikinis, get to see their limbs, to see them nearly naked, and you don’t have to remark on this or avert your eyes but the deep truth is that those unaverted eyes are seeing things they don’t get to see on a city street in winter when everyone is wearing coats, and these things your eyes are seeing are the things nature has spent tens of thousands of years making you want to see, backdropped against a blue ocean that has been around for even longer, for millions of years before we slithered out of it, with gills for lungs and no eyes to speak of, when God himself could never have dreamed that the bikini would one day become a much-looked-at fact of modern life.
Connie had long tanned legs and arms, bony strong shoulders. We were all playing catch, our attention was focused entirely on the ball but this did not mean that I did not have some surplus attention with which to observe Connie in her yellow bikini, catching the ball in hands that were at the end of long arms which led smoothly to the rest of her, hanging on to the ball despite getting thumped over by a big wave. She brought a supple intensity and slinky single-mindedness to throwing and catching but not so much concentration that she did not have attention left over to notice that Josh had these incredible surfer’s shoulders or that I was still wearing my t-shirt, ostensibly to keep the sun off my back but also, and obviously, because I was so skinny. The t-shirt wasn’t fooling anyone: in the process of fumbling a catch I too had been bowled over by a wave so my soaking-wet shirt hung from me, stretched darkly by the weight of seawater like a very short dress. The tide kept coming in. We were all in the ocean, up to our calves and knees.
Connie was an excellent catch and the combination of sea, sun, limbs, and wet bikini added a crucial element to the happiness of the moment: desire. Desire for what was happening in this moment to lead to other moments and curiosity about what those moments might be like and where they might lead.
No one took any photographs but the happiness of the afternoon was all contained in a single moment, in the way that a photograph might have done if one had been taken. Or maybe not. It’s difficult to catch the moment of catching a ball. Without the surrounding frames, the moments leading up to and following on from the catch, it just looks like someone holding a ball. You can show someone about to catch or having just caught the ball, not actually catching it. The photo removes the element that makes a difficult catch so exhilarating: the possibility of the ball being dropped, of the caught moment spilling unnoticed into another moment, dissolving into nothing.
The ball is in the blue air. An arm goes up. The ball smacks into fingers which curl around it. You hold it even as a wave crashes in and bowls you over but you hang on to it and your arm appears above the wave, still clutching the ball: a yellow fruit plucked from the blue sky.
For Moment to Moment, we asked Geoff to create an essay focused on a simple moment.
Geoff Dyer's many books include Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, But Beautiful, The Ongoing Moment, and Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It.