The WideEyedSpouse and I grew up with tens of thousands of strangers joining our city every summer. For years I served them, working jobs at the drugstore, a campground, doling out aloe vera and firewood to heal sizzled skin and provide happy vacation memories. It never occurred to me to wonder what they thought about, what they talked about, what they were like. They were just people filling cars, filling the roads I needed to travel, filling lines at Wawa where I bought my coffee and American cheese with mustard and mayo on white bread sandwiches.
Now Spouse and I have joined them. We left town by 1990, we didn’t know it was forever. College, grad school, jobs here and there. We’ve walked beaches far away – other shores on continents on other oceans. In places where no one has heard or will hear of our home town and few people speak our language. Yet, when we think of going to the beach, The Beach is the north end of our home island. Everywhere else is just beach. Somehow inferior, not infused with Home.
Today, for the first time in 25 years, the Spouse and I were Going to The Beach. We flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flopped our way down 1st Street from our parking spot on Ocean Rd. Our out of state plates were an embarrassment. Our gleaming white skin, an affront. “Now we’re on my turf,” the Spouse said, swinging his new ShopRite beach chair. “PAID,” said the red sticker pasted to the side. “I logged a lot miles on these streets,” he told me.
We climbed the steps to the boardwalk and headed for the bathroom/life guard first aid station. “They fixed my knee up when I was like, five,” The Spouse looked at the grey building. “I threw myself into the surf and went down right on a broken clam shell.” Flip-flop, flip-flop. “Still have the scar to this day,” he said. (He’s showing it to me now – “that’s where I first learned about butterfly bandages.”)
The sand was too hot for my feet and I endured the flipping shower of sand around me from my flip-flops while we walked around looking for our spot among the sand castles and family compounds. The people over there Do Not have control over their umbrella. Those folks are acting crazy with their food – there’s gonna be a seagull problem. Find a spot, apply the sunscreen, listen to the noise of vacation.
“It’s a careful use of language,” the man near us explained to his wife’s friend’s husband – this was clearly a husband playdate – “telling the workers they need to give more to the job without giving them any indication they’ll be paid for the extra hours.” “It is about always asking what Jesus would expect,” a bronzed, muscled, tattooed man told his wife’s girlfriend. “Why didn’t you get the regular flavor ice cream?” a mom asked her son – he didn’t like his birthday-cake-flavored popsicle (it looked horrible, like a complex of mold species cultured together on a stick.) “I wanted to try something new,” he said, sad, the world ending, vacation no longer fun. I waited to learn if he would be punished for his taste bravery. “Ok,” she told him sweetly, “I’m sure the ice cream man will be back.”
For hours they talked, changed position, applied sun screen, cooking themselves into a salt water and sun nirvana. I looked at the Spouse, startled to see a mid 40s man instead of the teenager who sat next to me in Latin Class in the high school just up the road. I realized that we were them, the tens of thousands invading town, clogging roads and lines at the store, and relying on the local kids to serve our food, life guard our swimming, sell us the aloe vera. I am rootless, disconnected, cut free from home. Am I free or am I lost?