Paradise Beach

Reflections on a small stretch of sand along the American River

a Sacramento native and New York-based writer, who still returns to town once in a while for a dose of Paradise Beach

Paradise Beach, a bank of sand no wider than 200 feet along the American River in Sacramento, is a misnomer. Or so it seems at first glance.

That’s because the shore is littered with used condoms and abandoned tighty-whities. Twice I have had the misfortune to stumble across a man pleasuring himself in the bushes. An old baby sitter swears she found a human hand once in the water there. And yet my friends and I return year after year in the summertime, to bask in the sun and count the number of children that lack a supervising adult.

This is primarily due to limited options. Sacramento, unlike the stereotypical California town, has no picturesque expanse of white sand sprawled along the dazzling Pacific Ocean. So, on sleepy August afternoons, we river rats grab a raft and a six-pack and head to the only beach available. Once you’re on the water, the sounds of domestic dispute are carried away by the wind. All you hear is the lapping of water. And in those moments it can feel like paradise.

I remember one such evening several years back. My best friend Lilly and I lay bobbing in our raft, watching the sun dive into the waves. Cool streams of sweat slithered down our backs, and Lilly wondered aloud, “What happens now?” It was the last summer of childhood. How could we let it go?

Soon our bedrooms would be packed into boxes, shoved into trunks of minivans and awkwardly reassembled in strange dorm rooms. Hundreds of miles apart, we wouldn’t be able to sneak over to each other’s houses in the middle of the night or conspire ways to ditch cross-country practice. There would be no more late-night talks over coffee. No more practical jokes on mutual friends. No more Saturday mornings spent tanning on her deck.

This calculated transition to adulthood birthed childish anxieties within me. Would she miss me as much as I’d miss her? What would time change? Who would we be by next summer?

For many years I had anticipated my escape with eager restlessness. Now that it was on the horizon, I found myself treading in nostalgia. Once I left, I could never really return home. Like an old friend, Sacramento would always be familiar, but as time went on, I would not fully recognize it. The city would change, as new developments rose, friends scattered and old haunts disappeared. What would Paradise Beach mean to me in five years? Would it still offer solace?

For now, I simply held Lilly’s hand. A syringe floated past. “Call me motherfuckin’ Mya!” echoed from the shore. Our raft rocked as a half-naked sunburned man splashed toward us, disturbing the calm waters.

“Can I take your picture?” he asked, throwing a soggy blond braid over his shoulder. My curt “no” did not dampen his spirits. Struggling to stand still against the current, he grinned and invited us to smoke with him and his friends back on shore. “It’ll be fun,” he promised us. “I know almost everyone who comes to this beach. Seriously. ’Cause I’m here every day.” He whipped out his waterproof disposable camera and squinted through the viewfinder. “Come ooooon, pretend you’re Cindy Crawford.” We bared our teeth and snarled at him as the shutter clicked. “What’s that supposed to be?” he laughed.

“Grizzly bears.” We sat up and began to paddle away.

“Look me up on MySpace!” he called after us. “I’m the one and only motherfuckin’ Mya!” We laughed as the current picked up, and sent us spinning and bobbing downstream.

Every few years bring renewed paranoia of the river. Newspapers describe in gruesome detail how a teenage girl fell victim to a riptide while whitewater rafting. Stories break of toddlers who went for a swim and drowned. I’m not so sure the river is at fault in these situations. In the papers, the river is depicted as a malicious, cunning creature, bent on taking the lives of innocent children. Little attention is paid to the negligence of parents who allow their 2-year olds to get into the water alone while they drink Natty Ice on the beach.

Nevertheless, the crowd at Paradise Beach has dwindled over the past few years. My friends and I still return occasionally to view the summer sunsets and watch the Smirnoff bottles wash up on shore. It’s a trashy, dirty beach, but each time I return, I remember floating along the water, holding hands and scoffing at life. Paradise Beach may be littered with shards of broken glass, but it still has moments of serenity.