At the beach

She would kill me if she knew this was on the internet. On Tuesday it stormed, bursts of rain landing on the dirty carpets, so strong we had to close the windows. We watched "Sweet Home Alabama" and made cocktails (mocktails for me) and squeezed onto the L-shaped couch, the perfect size for the six of us. This year's house liked to sway in the wind, even when there was very little of it--it's on stilts, it's normal, we're told--and as we rocked I was surprised at how many lines from the film I could quote from memory. I didn't think I'd seen it that often.

On our last full day I lay in bed a while, listening. There was a sharp breeze coming in the window next to me, a perfect beach wind, the kind you don't get on the mainland. Everyone else was up but they left me alone in my room and I felt that wind and thought about how the island is in my bones and blood, my genealogy. It's in my skin, too. Literally. On my first day of vacation I got two splinters in my palm from the deck chair; one so tiny I left it, hoping it'd work its way out. Ten days later it's still here, a beauty mark reminder of my vacation. A freckle, embedded.

One night after dinner my friends went to the local bar, an old favorite, but at six months pregnant I knew the bar stools would hurt so I visited my grandmother on her front porch; the house I grew up in, watching that special kind of island darkness fall over us. New York is never dark. I drink it in. Dark is important sometimes.

We rocked in our chairs and just watched. Earlier this summer we unearthed boxes of old photos in the attic and went through them, Instagramming the best ones, finding a sense of unexpected pride in my grandmother in her bathing suit, tan long legs, hair perfectly waved over her eyebrow. My family; the faces I'll never know but that kind of look like me. For every sepia woman we didn't recognize my grandmother would say, "Oh, that was probably one of my brother's girlfriends. He had a lot of them." And we would laugh and I would secretly be glad, because that's like my own brother, a guy who is never without a serious relationship; the antithesis of me before slipping into a marriage I now can't imagine my life without.

Later, when my friends were still at the bar but it was time for me to go, my mom drove me back to my rental. We took a detour to the south end of the island, looking through the knotty pines at the abandoned train station, dark and obviously haunted, and at her new favorite house on the bay, the one that seems too big for its lot. The streets there are wide, empty. Quiet.

This is what I always forget about when I'm not here: the space. There's so much of it for the taking.


Looking east

4788_117277103427_6224336_nIn the summer I listen to Jackson Browne because that was the music of my sixteenth summer, and even then it was old, it was the music of my boss at my summer job, but it played in our store on the best corner of Long Beach Island and I memorized every word without realizing it. My boss loved him so much she even named her son Jackson; I babysat him one winter, in the off-season, and I kept dashing into his bedroom to make sure he was still breathing. Babies are terrifying and also too simple. A few summers later her car wrapped around a tree on her way home. I can’t remember how I found out about it – I suspect my mom broke the news – but I do remember standing around the kitchen of my summer restaurant, hating the looks of sympathy my coworkers were sending me in between waiting tables. This wasn’t about me; I didn’t want their emotions.

I can’t think of summer, I can’t live summer, without thinking about her. Or this: the lingering concern that I spend too much time trying to get back to those July days when a cut of blue air would land on my heart, when the hours drifted by in a haze of cotton, a distant radio, sand tracked on tile floors. Shift work. Lunch breaks. A register ringing. Crushes on the coffee boys, a car that rarely started.

At 16 I swept the floors on an empty August afternoon on the block between beach and bay, after everything had been folded and refolded and straightened and restocked, and waited for night. The doors were open and I rested against them; frowned upon, but the salt air was too tempting, and there were people to watch in the ice cream line. I waved to my boss as she crossed the street in her running clothes. She always liked me; a treat, since I knew she didn’t like everyone. Jackson Browne was playing, of course, and when she entered the store she hummed along.

How many nights did I spend like that, watching the ebb and flow of the island, watching the girls in short shorts and the boys in flannel, watching the others, watching, listening. How many nights now am I hit with a breeze, or a scent, or a song, that swirls and swirls around me until I hear her voice singing that song?

When I go back now, of course it’s different, and of course I try to make it the same, and of course I will forever fail at that. When I drive I drive there, when the stoplights are off and the tide is high, and when I hear summer coming up my driveway I hear that road, that etched sidewalk, that jangle of coin.  In the store where I spent so many summers, after she died a plaque was hung – her photo, her dates, “In memoriam.”

The store’s owners divorced a while back; whoever ended up with the business in the settlement has changed things, renovated, redecorated. The plaque is gone. When I visit it’s so different I can’t even pretend it’s the same. I can’t even pretend I’m sixteen again, learning everything for the first time.

Worrying is a way of life

There's a photo taken of me from two summers ago, standing in tree pose on a ledge overlooking the southernmost tip of Long Beach Island; a 20-foot drop to a rocky bottom. The late August sun burned into my shoulders. We had driven down to the end of the island just to show off the view to our friends -- a faraway Atlantic City skyline -- and to dance in a different ocean for a few moments. I saw my opportunity, eager for an audience, and stepped up; a one-legged balancing act, looking out to the sea. I inherited the panic gene from my mother, who wears it like a bracelet, jingling with every flick of her wrist. And I've come to terms with it -- the tingle in the stomach, the train of adrenaline that rushes by and pools in my fingers. So at odd moments - the breath before sleep, the split second before the phone rings -- I find myself always back on that ledge, considering the drop, remembering the sun, squinting my eyes. What a foolish act, I think, getting up on there and standing like a tree, breathing in deep, trying to find an om somewhere on the ocean. What if my balance had been off that day? What if a gust of wind, a rogue wave, had taken up more space than I had accounted for? How much damage could have been done?

Worry is a funny friend. I can laugh at some of the things that used to pinch my insides with fear now, years after the fact, but there's a danger in cockiness. Just when you think you have both shoes in the ground, a third one comes falling out of the sky. So I've learned to like my panic, or appreciate it, at least; a little anxiety is preferable to a fall over a ledge, to a broken bone, to a gun pointed at your stomach in a foreign country.


In between

After dipping into canned hurricane provisions for lunch today I realized it was time to go to the grocery store. And not the bodegas across the street, which, while lovely and have served me many a pint of ice cream in times of need, only offer so much (and little to no fruits or veggies). The neighborhood is weird today, three days after the storm, like I'm looking at it through a wobbly plastic filter that's making everything seem slightly off-color. The grocery store was crowded but poorly stocked, missing things I didn't expect -- cheeses and black beans and eggs. I am not complaining; just observing. An old 90's Gin Blossoms song was playing and I started to tweet "Grocery stores always play Gin Blossoms. #notcomplaining" but I stopped myself, feeling too frivolous.

Yesterday was the first day I really left my apartment, going for a long walk along the East River and up through Brooklyn Heights, bolstered by the rescue mission of my sister out of Hoboken, a town still in desperate need of help and evacuations. I felt positive yesterday, now that she was safe, like we were through the worst and things were back on the "normal" meter.

Today is different. It's November 1st and my concerns have shifted. I am worried about the fact that "normal" is gone, replaced by something new. I'm anxious about the election; that many people who would have voted can no longer, or that it will no longer be a priority. I'm worried, selfishly, about how I'm going to get to work once power is back on. And I'm thinking about my hometown of Long Beach Island, and the city I lived in for a decade, Hoboken, and the city I live in now, New York. And how all of them will be different now. And how change is hard.

Everyone's talking about rebuilding better than ever and how we'll get through it and sure, all of that is true, no doubt. But just once I'd like us to be allowed to mourn for a while, to at least acknowledge the sheer weight of what is now different, before we have to "be strong." I don't know the state of my family's house on Long Beach Island -- the home in which I grew up; the home my ancestors built in 1921. I've only been able to see its rooftop, taken from an aerial photo. At least it is still standing, I told myself. At least there is still a roof to be seen.

And they are just houses, a part of me knows. But most of me knows they are more than that. That house is love and history and family. That house is a front porch and an outside shower and the attic stairs where my boyfriend fell down and fractured his foot just last month. That house is gin & tonics and friendly ghosts and a secret closet I've never even seen inside. That house is news of my baby brother's arrival and a recurring nightmare I had as a kid and Cabbage Patch Dolls under a Christmas tree.

We are all safe and lucky, always, just by sheer nature of being born Americans, where we have things like FEMA and insurance and a general, collective agreement that destruction like this cannot stand. I know all this, and you do too, but still, we're caught in between normalcy and non-normalcy, and I've always been bad with in-betweens.





There are risks no matter where you live, and this week I'm thinking about my island hometown, which is currently underwater. Living on the sea is always a gamble. Today, on LBI, the bay has met the ocean. It's not the first time and it won't be the last, but it always breaks off something inside me. When I was in middle school a(nother) big storm hit my town. My family lived on the lagoon for a few years, in a rental on a quiet street way at the edge of town, where you could see the Atlantic City casino skyline on clear days. We watched the water breach the lagoons, creeping up our backyard. We were so busy watching the back I think we forgot to watch the front, where the water surprised us, dribbling under the storm door, turning into a river.

About six or so inches came in that day. I remember leaving for higher ground -- our neighbor, just a few houses down, wasn't flooded, so we hung with her, eating weird canned soup with a metallic aftertaste and trying to keep ourselves occupied. We lost photos, but nothing else irreplacable.

A few years later, the island flooded again and lost power. I was at my summer job at Fantasy Island. We all got to leave and I joined the gang of 14-year-olds tramping through thigh-high water to the 7-11 where we could get Slurpees, because priorities. That day felt wild and free; it felt like being 14.

Now my grandmother has left our island home; my parents on the mainland have been evacuated, and people are tweeting pictures of my beloved hometown streets -- the mini golf courses, the closed seasonal shops, the restaurants and dunes, covered in a mix of ocean and bay, waves overlapping.

So, yes, the sea is always a risk, but is it wrong that I find it a preferable one to anything else? I can't imagine a tornado; I don't want a basement to hide in; the fault lines in California make me nervous every time I'm there and it's too quiet. No, I'll take a sea any time. The water always recedes.