You never really get to go home. Not to the way it was when you left. But you try anyway.
We were born with salt water in our veins.
Raised to talk slowly. Come and go with the tides. Raised by communities rather than parents. Grew up on beaches. Freckle splattered skin. Generations of kindness. Simple living.
We were raised where land met sea.
A town only as big as a thumbprint. Sandwiched between the Assawoman Bay and the Atlantic. A town run by tourism. Three months out of the year we let strangers treat us like servants. We accept their crude remarks about our dirty skin and calloused feet, knowing that they’d be gone soon and that we would live on their money all winter. We laughed when the sunburnt travelers asked us where we were from.
That’s how he met me.
Dark skin; no silhouette in the moonlight. Eyes, teeth, and tan lines glowed against the many shades of night between the sand, the sea, and the open sky. Chapped lips. Bare feet caked in sand. Dancing between and around the bonfire flames. The ocean, my chorus.
He was all strawberry hair and smooth, pale skin. Khaki shorts and a polo. He’d never been around here before; you could tell. Our eyes crinkled in the corners. Our skin, worn and wrinkled from summers spent working and swimming. Not him.
He was new.
I spent that first summer teaching him freedom. Taught him that responsibility set with the sun. That rules didn’t apply between the months of June and September. That in this town, the fact that we were young was all that mattered.
He was a fast learner. Let his hair turn blonde in the sun. Learned how to pop up on a surfboard. How to let the air out of his truck tires before tearing through sand dunes. I never saw that polo shirt again.
He taught me that life starts all over again in the fall.
Showed me how to laugh with my whole body. Taught me about real friends and honesty. That no one goes through life alone.
I always dreamed of getting out. Leaving this town for a bigger one. This ocean for a different one. Finding people with a quick wit and a no nonsense attitude. But he had found peace here. In this way of life. He told me not to go. That nothing got better than this. I should have listened. Should’ve known he’d be right. Will was always right.
Yesterday was the perfect day.
Pale skin stretched out over cool sand. Backs arched, worshipers of the sun. We’d roll over and untie the black string of our bikini tops. Our only goal, an even tan.
And when the breeze stopped blowing I would wade out, knee deep in the clear, flat water. Sailboats and windsurfers played chess across the horizon. The shock of the cold melts away after a few minutes. Numb.
I watched from my bed as the sky slipped into shades of pink and purple. Balcony doors open, curtain billowing. Flies danced between the indoors and the hazy sky, stopping every once in awhile to taste my salty skin.
We dressed up for dinner. Poured white wine over sunburnt lips. Casual conversation doesn’t exist among us. We swap war stories and show battle scars between cigarettes.
Everything glittered. Between the sand and the sea and the wine. Everything glittered.
Bryan fell in love in the backseat of my mom’s Toyota, hanging out in parking lots after school. He was fast with his heart and didn’t care that I didn’t give him mine.
It took Will longer; we’d been friends for years. One unreasonably hot night in August when we could still taste childhood, before life got in the way. The ever-present perfume of French fries clung to our clothes and escaped our pores in the muggy dusk. I stood up on the ledge of the pier and asked him to jump with me. He didn’t hesitate. Didn’t stop to take off his shirt or tell me that I was crazy. Took my hand and leaped. And when we came up choking on water and laughter, he told me. We laid on the beach underneath that pier listening to the rhythmic jingle of the Ferris wheel and the dull whir of the amusement park at work as our clothes dried in the salt air.
I could have loved him then.
Hurricane Sandy took out that pier last fall. I watched that news segment on repeat from my dorm room a half a world away. The icon of Ocean City. Of home. Of the time when I could have known love.
You never really get to go home. Not to the way it was when you left. But you try anyway. Leave some things out of place. And if you’re lucky the Earth doesn’t shift too much in your absence. At least that’s what it’s like in my hometown. A town so quiet that most things go untouched.
It was the first place I went when I got home that winter. The pier. More than half of the beach was missing. Broken pylons. Endless planks missing from their places along the boardwalk. An overturned bench, forgotten. A string of broken twinkle lights lay half in the water, partially washed up on the beach. I ducked under the caution tape and walked out onto what little was left. It wasn’t jagged like I thought it would be. No. A clean cut. It just stopped. Dropped off into shallow water scattered with rocks from the destroyed jetty. Pungent rotting seaweed. And sounds; there were no sounds.
They had plans to rebuild.
But everyone had started hibernation. Locked the shutters. Moved south. People here are afraid of snow. Of what happens when the air thins. So we shut most of it down. Turn off stoplights. Drag an iron gate across every storefront along the boardwalk.
I don’t go home during the off-season. Usually. But there I was. Stuck for three months in the dead of winter.
This essay originally appeared in Calliope.