Places I’ve Lived part 7 (the beach house)

The Beach House
Long Beach Island, NJ

On an island off the coast of New Jersey sits a perfect cottage on stilts. With three bedrooms, an open kitchen, living room, and dining room, the place is even more perfect for it’s lack of luxury. It’s easy furniture, sand dusted floors and sun faded curtains, the few ants on the countertops, the vhs player complete with brat pack tapes, and missing Pictionary pencils, add a leniency to this place. The front windows have an unobstructed view of the Atlantic Ocean, that great green monster along the eastern seaboard. I love the Atlantic. It is vast but you know where it’s been. It looks back, and not forward, in the parlance of Western expansion.

An overgrown sand dune sits between the house and sea. Butterflies flutter on bushy yellow flowers. Crab legs and fish skeletons lie about where birds have tossed them. The creatures of the dune are busy in the salt air. It is it’s own tidy ecosystem, a tide pool of earth.

The place is uncluttered, despite the poem about sleeping on an island that hangs in the bathroom. Contemporary folk style paintings and photographic reproductions dot the white, wood plank walls. It’s a place where reflection comes easy. It’s a place where culinary delights are shared with joy, from Ali’s cheesy shrimp grits to Dave’s 48 hour marinated Korean short ribs, to my steamed clams, or Chris Kelley’s blue Curaçao cocktails that stained the counter tops, our fingers, and our faces.

I’ve been coming to the Island since I was a baby, when my mom took me here before I could walk. She took me almost every summer for at a week or two when I was growing up. Once we had to evacuate the Island before an impending hurricane. It was a pretty sudden evac, the sirens blaring across the island, and we ran around the little red, one-story dwelling we’d rented, shutting windows. As my mom closed a front window she caught her wrist on a nail and the tearing skin made a ‘ping’ sound. We nick-named that house The Ping House and still check on it after big storms. We escaped that storm in my mom’s orange, vintage, VW bug. The car was blown from side to side as we sped across the causeway to the mainland. That was the summer I got to know my future step-father. He’s an art collector, so I painted some twenty, abstract paintings and put on a gallery show for him. I think he still has the paintings in his flat files, and if not, I’ll go on believing he does, because I like to think it. He taught me about abstract art and painting, and it was an entry into the world of visual art for which I’ll always be grateful.

Eventually my parents (mom and step-dad) bought a place, and thus began my yearly ritual of begging for as much time at the beach house as I could get. The house is rented during the peak season, but we’ve managed to score the odd summer week or two here and there. Traditionally Dave and I spend our anniversary weekend here, and traditionally the weather is unseasonably warm, and we bring friends. It would always make me nervous, these weekends we’d bring a whole party to the beach. I’d be worried we’d wreck stuff, or that we hadn’t cleaned up well enough when we left. I tried to internalize my step-father’s cleanliness standards but knew we could never live up to them.

This wasn’t just blind, unfounded anxiety. One time on a beach weekend in 1998 we had broken a window, in the garage, because we were playing football down there. In our defense, it was pouring rain outside. And we were drunk. And in my personal defense, Chris Kelley was the one who’d thrown the football, and if you knew Chris Kelley, you’d be surprised that this one little window was the only casualty. Either Dave, or A, or Alex Arcadia was the one who hadn’t caught it. They were all pretty sheepish about it. When I eventually told my step-dad about it, I was sure to mention first the part where a window had been broken, and then mention that it was one of the small, garage door windows, so that he’d at least be partially relieved that it wasn’t one of the big, ocean front windows in the main room. I don’t think it was an effective strategy in the end.

That weekend it was us, Chris Kelley, Alex and Alex’s girlfriend Trixie. Her name wasn’t really Trixie but everyone called her that anyway, because that’s how Alex had introduced her. Our old friends A and B were there as well. It was like an old-friends-meet-new-friends kind of thing, the kind of thing that always seemed to happen when college friends met high school friends and it was like an old part of yourself meeting a new part of yourself. We all teamed up for a long walk on the beach, but B and I hung back and whispered secrets into the dusk.

When everyone had gone, Dave and I remained. We stayed up late and sat on the deck in the darkness. In the dark, with the moon over us, the waves crashing invisibly out beyond the dune, is when we could talk. Not looking at each other, sitting side by side, we talked about everything. Things we’d done, things we regretted, things we wanted to do. We talked about his mom, his childhood, mine. For some reason we still don’t understand, Dave doesn’t remember anything from before he was ten years old. I remember things from when I was three. We revealed things to each other that we couldn’t in the light. There were things we wanted to say to each other before we got married that we couldn’t say any other way. I remember feeling strongly that there were things I wanted known.

In the summer of 1996, a rental fell through, and my parents offered the house at the last minute for a mini vacation with Dave’s mom Suzanne. She had cancer, and we knew she wouldn’t survive it. Dave’s aunt and uncle brought her down, along with Dave’s brother Jon, and helped her up the stairs. Jon was just a little kid, and he look stricken. It was a sunny, beautiful few days. She spent most of the time on the deck, under and umbrella, looking out at the sea, or sleeping. Her boys just sat with her, Dave played nurse. I spent most of the time trying to stay out of the way, trying to keep the place comfortable, homey, and well stocked. We all knew that this was a chance for the brothers to say goodbye to their mother in a way that is different than in hospice rooms, different from the goodbye at the very end. Suzanne was not strong enough to stay for the whole week, and Dave’s aunt and uncle came to pick her up after a few days, Jon too. Dave and I stayed on for the rest of the week. He was bitterly sad, it was like watching him turn and turn on Kafka’s Penal Colony machine, a tattoo of grief being written across every inch of his skin so he’d never forget it.

He felt he hadn’t done enough for her, been enough to her, hadn’t been a good son, all the regrets a child feels about their parent when the parent is leaving life too soon. Now we both know that loving parents don’t feel that way, loving parents want nothing but joy and confidence for their children. Loving parents understand their children’s faults from birth, and forgive them without a thought. Parents know that their children’s flaws are the parent’s own flaws, and we’d like to wash them away, not for our own sake, but for the child’s. We know that the real tragedy of life is that these new people can never outgrow a parent’s mistakes. It makes me think of the story of Christ, who wanted nothing better than to have our sins forgiven through his own sacrifice, and here we are thousands of years later, devastated by our own inability to live up to him. How much easier it is to turn away from a parent’s love than to reconcile with ourselves that we deserve that love, despite our worst mistakes.

Suzanne had wanted us to get married before she died. Dave posed it to me, asked me if I would do it. We’d been engaged since January of that year, and it was now July. I’d refused. I wasn’t ready to get married. I was nineteen years old. I was wracked with guilt about it, looking at this dying woman, her son, how much she loved him and wanted to see him on his feet out in the world, that our marriage would mean that to her. But I couldn’t do it. Dave knew it was the right decision, and to his credit he didn’t pressure me, not once.

Once the family had gone it was just Dave and I. Suzanne’s impending death was there, surrounding us in a black fog. So we decided to create a fog of our own. We indulged in everything, including a slim bit of liquid morphine that Suzanne had given Dave to cure a headache. She was that out of it at the end. And it more than cured the headache. We ate elaborate meals and drank simple cocktails. We slept on deck chairs in the sunshine. I would lay out with a book, covering myself with a sheet to avoid the burn but to still soak up the warmth. I would go back and forth between reading and sleeping until I was dreaming the story in the book and sleeping and awakeness, dreaming and reading, became one.

In the off season I like to take a few days here or there to use the house as a writing retreat. It’s amazing to be alone in the face of the universe like that. Just me and the sea, no people anywhere. I don’t drive, so my mode of transit is a bit spotty, involving a few different buses and a pricey taxi. Once night falls it’s just me and this absence. It feels like I am a solitary being on this island, with no way off except the tide. It’s perfect during the day, but at night I always get a little freaked out. I like to have a bottle or two of wine on hand so that I can have a few glasses and crawl into bed before the paranoia creeps in. Once I was so unable to sleep that I stayed up all night and read The Nanny Diaries. In my defense, it was on the shelf, in hard cover, and it was non-threatening, unlike the murder mystery paperback beach books that line the shelves. All night I kept muttering “quit your fucking job!” at this defenseless, stupid, little book. When the sun came up, I went to sleep on the deck.

My son was born in March 2010. He was born with a skull deformity called craniosynostosis. You can google it, but basically he needed massive head surgery. After consultations with a bunch of doctors who all had been proclaimed the best in the world by just about everyone, we settled on a pair of surgeons at Montefiore, and the date was set for September of that year. We spent a bunch of time at the beach that summer. My parents (mom and step-dad) arranged it between themselves and it was really special to me. Charlie’s specialists were renowned, and well-thought-of and all that, but the fact of the matter was that the front of my baby’s skull was going to be removed and put back together and put back into his head. His face was going to be rolled down while the doctors worked. The surgery was going to take 6 hours minimum. I was freaked out.

I read somewhere that human beings, as a species, have a need to believe that others are worse off than them, that we never want to believe that we are at the bottom of the pile of decaying bodies in the mass grave, as it were. That summer I thought often of kids and parents who were in way worse shape: kids with blood diseases, or water on the brain, or just plain brain damage, or missing organs. I knew that we were not at the bottom of the mass grave, but I was still afraid my son was going to die on the table. I wanted him to have as many experiences as I could give him. I wanted him to know some fundamental joys of life, just in case. Sitting with him in my lap on the deck of the beach house in the afternoon sun, the smell of salt, his dad grilling up veggies and meat, I told my son this was up there with best things on earth, all time. I really believe that.

Towards the end of the summer, the surgery was getting close. My dad was going to be in NYC for work and wanted to stop by for a visit, but we were going to be at the beach. I told him he was welcome to come down, there was plenty of room.

For a few days, my mom, dad, Dave, baby and I were at the beach house together. Having my parents, mom and dad, together, in the same place at the same time had been an unusual occurrence in my life, one fraught with confusion and oddness and not knowing who I was under the circumstances.

This was different. For a few days I had my parents all to myself. I had my husband and my son safe with me. Having my mom and dad together, having them eat a meal that I prepared while they doted on my son, having them chat and laugh together, having them sit with me on the deck of this beach house.

I can hardly convey the sense of security this gave me. It was warm. It felt whole. It was like I knew suddenly what I felt like I’d been missing all my life. Even now, almost three years later, thinking of those moments we spent together gives me a feeling of calmness, and a sense that anything really is possible.

Mr. C at the playground by the beach house, 2011.
Me and Mr. C 2010. I cut off all my hair in solidarity.
Me, my mom, and my brother Dave. Must be 2008 or before.
Brother Nick to the left, then BW, Dave, and NT.
the anniversary party 2008.
Arcardia and BW, 2008. Sleeping on the deck is not to be missed.
My dad and my son, 2010.
My parents and Mr. C on the deck, 2010. My mom doesn’t really know how to play the harmonica.
my mom and Mr. C.
daddy and baby 2010.
My parents and my son. 2010.
Mr. C, uncle Jon, and Dave. 2010. You can see the forehead pinching caused by craniosynostosis here.
family picture 2010.
2012. digging.
me and Mr. C. on our solo beach trip, 2012.
seagulls eating the leftovers, 1996.
Suzanne 1996. Dave posed this picture so she could be as lefty and intellectual as he remembered her, forever.
Dave and his mom, 1981.
the house in 1996. it looks much the same now.
me 1996 on the deck.
summer of 1996. Terror tempered by the calm of the crashing sea.
as we were.
The house survived Sandy. There it is, the short little white house in the center, between all the greenery. I haven’t been down since, but am looking forward to it. We discovered it had made it when we saw this image on the news. You can see how slim the island is here. The distance between the ocean down front, and the bay up top, is not far. The ocean met the bay right on our street, but the house still stands on its strong, spindly stilts.

next in the series

3 thoughts on “Places I’ve Lived part 7 (the beach house)

  1. This is simply lovely. The idea that a safe place can ease the pain of life, rather than the pain of life poisoning the goodness out of a safe place is so hopeful. My favorite of the series so far.

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