The book I’m revising is about an island and the ocean and a lighthouse and saltwater taffy. It’s based, very loosely, on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, which is where I went on vacation every summer when I was growing up. I often tell people it’s my favorite place in the US and they ask me why and all I can do is shrug and say “it’s where I grew up going.”
But it’s more than that. When I was a kid, we moved a lot. By the time I went to college I had lived in seven different apartments. I never had a place I could point to and call my childhood home. But for the first ten years I went to the beach, we went to the same house. I had a room I called my own. I would pack up the car with things from home so that every summer it felt like mine. It was the one stable thing in my somewhat unstable life. I never knew how things would be week to week or month to month. But no matter what else was going on I could count on those two weeks every summer.
My mom married into this family so the first year we went I was seven. The weekend before, my grandpa took me to the basement of his house and taught me how to polish shells with vinegar and how to hear the ocean in them. I genuinely believed I heard it in the shell held to my ear. I felt like he had given me the world and one week later my grandmother delivered the world, which was bigger and louder and stronger than the shell had made me believe.
Every summer, in those early years, my grandpa and I would take a night and wrap all of the change we’d saved over the previous year and we’d take it to the bank so I’d have my own spending money. He’d joke that he was going to keep his to buy ice cream but he always gave it to me. And every summer he’d arrive with a new project or toy to entertain us. There was the year of stained glass light catchers and the year of puffy paint shirts and the year of counted cross stitch and the year of the boogie board. The year he introduced Christmas in August and we bought each other souvenirs that we’d wrap and hand out. We used an ottoman as a tree. After that it became a yearly tradition.
Before my grandpa retired, my mom, grandma, and I would drive in on Saturday to set up the house. Every year we’d have lunch at a picnic table on the side of the turnpike and every year, that first night, we had sloppy joes that she’d prepared in advance. My grandpa and dad would arrive the next day so my grandpa could preach one last Sunday. Later, we’d all drive the same day and I’d ride with my grandparents, sitting in the backseat with my diskman while they verbally completed the crossword together up front.
I once claimed that there were still pieces of me in the sands of LBI, but the reverse is also true. There are pieces of the island left in me. I bled in that water when I stepped on shells. I burned my feet on the asphalt when I was too stubborn to put on shoes. I fed birds on the shore. I watched sunsets and sunrises. I flew kites and got buried in the sand and showered in what was basically an outhouse. I climbed on the lifeguard chair after hours, even though we weren’t supposed to and I climbed on the dunes, even though we weren’t supposed to. I walked on the jetties, even though it was dangerous. I climbed all 217 steps of the lighthouse and looked out over the breakers.
I swam in the rain and stood on the shore during a thunderstorm as lightning struck the water. I sat at a table playing board games with my family while a nor’easter blew through and I watched my dad and grandpa chase garbage cans down the flooded street when the wind ripped them from the gravel lawn. I experimented with looks and personalities and music in the shops on the island that were so different from anything in Pittsburgh. I sat on a deck and looked at the stars while the ocean roared in the distance. I know which way is south and which way is north and I know which direction to go to find the grocery store or the candy shop or the lighthouse. I remember the bookstore my grandpa used to take me to for secret outings, which we’d follow with secret ice cream and I remember the bakery he went to every morning for pastries when he went out to get the paper.
This summer I went to the Jersey Shore for the first time in 13 years. We didn’t stay on LBI, but Carey graciously allowed me to detour there for a few hours that first day. I’d always irrationally hated Ron Jon’s Surf Shop because when I was a kid I thought they had too many billboards. But then a few years later I came across one of their stores in Cozumel and it was so important to me. The one on LBI is the original Ron Jon’s and it’s one of the first things you see when you arrive on the island and after 13 years it felt like a banner, waving me in. Welcoming me home. Because I was home. The island feels more like home to me than any place I’ve ever lived.
The house we used to stay in has been torn down and one more than twice its size has taken its place. My favorite ice cream shop is gone. Some stores are still there and some aren’t and the island felt both bigger and smaller than I remembered.
I parked on our old street in front of the spot where our old house sat and I walked to the beach. I stood in the ocean. I wore jeans and a long-sleeved shirt and everybody stared when I waded in to my knees, but I was home. In that moment, everything I’ve been going through the past few years disappeared. Everything felt right and perfect and comfortable, like the only place I belong is standing on the shore gazing out at the horizon.
That is not a picture of my shadow. That is a picture of everything of me that I’ve left behind on LBI.
I was afraid it would be hard to go back because it’s often hard for me to go to Pittsburgh. But it wasn’t. It was easy. It was the easiest thing in the world. They say you can’t go home again, but if that home is LBI, maybe I can.