There I was unpacking 2 months of dirty laundry and dumping it on my bedroom floor. I was anxious to head on over to the beach after spending all my days cooped up in my 12×19 dorm room in the Hudson Valley, slaving over paper after paper. Weekend bike rides along the Walkkill Valley Rail Trail and hikes through The Gunks gave me my weekly nature fix, but nothing quite did it for me like the scent of the seaside breeze and a long walk beside the ocean. I never thought I would miss home, but in reality I craved the ocean like my life depended on it. Apparently 18 years living on an island, and you become a sort of sea creature yourself.
Just on cue, my next door neighbor knocked on my front door.
“Slurpies and the beach?” he asked.
“You know my weakness.” I laughed.
The two of us spent most of our childhood days at the beach. We used to walk under the tunnel at Fire Island, yelling nonsensical noises just to feel the vibrations bounce back and tickle our sun-kissed ears. We’d both grab a Mister Softee’s ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles on top, and guzzle it down before we got to the perfect spot on the shoreline, toss down our backpacks and towels, and dive straight into the curling waves. We weren’t content until our skin shriveled up like a grape in the sun, and salt water seeped into every last pore of our bodies.
We parked the car on the right-most part of the parking lot and got out. He handed me a “Montauk: The End” sweatshirt he bought the last time I was home, and I quickly buried myself in it. I started to skip ahead of him, following our usual route to the boardwalk.
“Not that way!” he yelled ahead.
“Why not?” I continued on.
“I think we’d better go this way instead,” he insisted.
“Don’t be stupid, we always go this way.” I resisted, continuing on our usual path. I stopped myself only a few moments later when I found myself facing the emptiness that lay ahead. I turned to him.
“Where’s the boardwalk?”
He did not answer.
“Where is it?” I looked around aimlessly with some false hope it would reappear before my eyes.
In the Hudson Valley, Hurricane Sandy was a joke to the locals. While it was expected to be a violent storm, the whole area around my college was untouched. I remember sitting in class one day, and a wealthy girl from Westchester County was chuckling while scanning through pictures on her brand new iPhone. She shifted the phone so I could see.
“Look at Suffolk County! They’re all drowning there!” she laughed again.
I ran out of the class crying. I felt like a traitor. Everyone back home was struggling to stay safe in the mix of the storm, and I was sitting in class without a clue in the world. I quickly called home. I never felt as helpless as when I listened to the phone ring again and again with no answer.
I walked towards the emptiness.
Just last summer, we tiptoed across those driftwood panels. Barefoot, but carefully alert we’d watch as poison ivy clung onto both sides of the boardwalk, embracing splintered curves between each set of three.
Today I step straight up to the salt water, and dip my feet into the ocean’s cold arms; I look down and find remnants of treasured days at my feet. I collect the driftwood panels, line them along a foreign shore, and walk the deadly plank with clenched toes. I ask myself, how long before they too are swallowed whole?
I watch as a man sways his metal detector across the surface of a seemingly endless beach, finding nothing but cooper coins and disappointment, yet ahead I hear reckless waves meet a fragile shore, and a familiar voice whispers, “welcome home.”