Together at Jacob Riis Beach

by

07/18/2021

Neighborhood: Jacob Riis Beach, Queens

Jacob Riis Beach 2012

It was my first time going to Jacob Riis Beach and it was with you. 

We’d been together for two years. The first year, we were too new, and I felt a last minute anxiety about shedding my clothes in front of you and lazing in the hot sun, an anxiety that I hadn’t felt as much before with other lovers. The second year, we were trapped in my studio apartment and could only reasonably take trips to Coney Island, riding on the Q train that stopped right below my apartment and dropped us off in front of Nathan’s Hot Dogs. 

That was its own adventure. My favorite time at Coney Island was on a weekday. I’d leave my work desk half an hour early at 4:30 and get on the train. Coney Island would be a bit deserted, just the right amount of people, and we’d eat a hot dog on the blue knit blanket. Sometimes I’d bring my $20 watercolor set, and you’d bring the joint. 

But back to Jacob Riis Beach. You were excited. I hadn’t seen you this excited for a long time. You were happy, you were giddy with joy. We had gone to Rockaway just a week before on a mini vacation that I had booked for us, and I could tell you hadn’t had a good time. Later you would tell me that it brought up memories of your nana, and childhood summers in Rockaway with your grandparents. You have a lot of quintessential New York City memories, memories I didn’t have, even though I also grew up in New York City. I had booked us a surfing lesson, both our first times. You were uncomfortable in the wetsuit, and we were both tired after a few rounds of paddling into the rough waves that morning at 9 am, sitting in the sand long before the session even ended.

You told me to look up the history of Jacob Riis Beach. I looked on Wikipedia and there was no mention at all about its history as an important queer beach site. The gay beach. The Peoples Beach. The only mention of resistance was the persistence of topless beach goers, even after a law was passed that banned this. There was also the mention of washed up needles that had closed the beach and the abandonment of the beach during periods of neglect.

I was moody as hell that day. The bus heading out to Jacob Riis was crowded, and though we got seats, it was all the way in the back where the heat of the engine blew hot air. I was PMS-ing and my low simmering irritability would latch on to any small remark. I could be a monster, although a monster that tried to hold onto human empathy and an awareness that I was acting badly. Perhaps part of the reason I was so moody was the hour and a half bus ride. Perhaps it was because I didn’t eat enough.  

Maybe it was that I didn’t feel like a day at the beach, but I knew how much you wanted to go. When we got to the sand, there were so many people, our towels and stakes so close to each other to be a part of the scene. But perhaps my mood was the reverse in power of our relationships once we stepped foot onto the queer and trans-centric space. I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I was used to the straight male gaze, thin bodies, white skin, bikinis that cut high on the hips, the swim shorts that men wore. Here though I had a sudden look into a world that took all of that and shredded it like old news, and what was left was this. What does it say about me to be comfortable with the very things I hated, the standards I despised publicly? 

You tell me I’m braver than I think. I’m Korean American, Asian American and Korean and Asian and American too. I grew up rewinding tapes in my parents’ video store and watching Jumanji and Heo Joon. I listened to z100 while singing praise songs by Hillsong Church and belting out hymns while playing the piano. A product of my environment, yes too, as much as my lineage.  There is also my self-taught history of radical Asian American organizing and activism, queer and trans activists, solidarity work, the Rainbow Coalition. You taught me about Jeanne Córdova, Lesbian Avengers, the history of ACT UP. This is a part of me, too. 

“Let’s go into the water,” I said to you as a peace offering. 

“Fine but you owe me a nutcracker,” you said. 

We walked down to the shoreline with Bad Bunny blasting around us. The line of the shore kept creeping up as the tide was high. People’s towels were getting wet as the waves crashed. You had the beginnings of a cold, your nose runny. Along the beach to the black rocks and the sand dunes, I saw the altar to Ms Colombia from Jackson Heights, the spray painted “Know Your Power,” and “Queer + Trans Power” on top of the building. 

When we got back to our towels the water had almost washed up on them. But this also meant that we were now on the front lines, and had unobstructed views of the foaming ocean. The Black gay couple next to us had dug a trench then promptly got back to making out. We dug our heels in to create our own trench. Finally, I let my guard down.

***

Julie Ae Kim is a writer from Queens, NY. She is a former Kundiman Mentorship Lab Fellow in Creative Nonfiction and the co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective.

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§ 2 Responses to “Together at Jacob Riis Beach”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    i love this story! so full of life and humor and everything that forges that bond that city kids have with the special thrill of a city beach. def brought back memories of when I used to take my son on the subway from the Bowery out to Brighton Beach. thank you for bringing back those days…

  • susan t. landry says:

    my apologies for above remarks. i posted here by mistake — thinking i was responding to previous story (Brighton Beach), sorry. but i just read THIS story, and although the tone and memories of course are different, i salute the image of another iconic beach, so important to so many NYC dwellers. Thank you!

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