We trudge through the sand, which builds higher and higher the closer we approach the walkway. Clearly someone did not want us skipping leg day. I am trying not to huff and puff, as I pride myself on my athletic ability despite my frailing age, but by the time we reach the street I am winded, my hand stretching out to grab the armrest of a nearby bench.
” Really? Do you think they’ll still be open by the time you’ve recovered?” They grin, halfheartedly; the joy has been diluted and it would be a few more years before it was replenished to a resplendent strength.
” Shut up! I’ll be fine. Up ahead, there’s a little cafe. Let’s get the outside table if we can.”
A bulky woman dressed in a garish uniform of lurid pink and white zebra stripes wipes down a table. I, knowing full well at this stage that they cannot speak fluidly to a stranger despite said stranger being responsible for their nourishment, ask politely if we can take the spot. She nods and rushes to get us menus.
” She reminds me of this waitress I sort of new who was the oldest waitress at my favorite dinner. Thick, broad shouldered with poorly dyed hair that came in all shades of color every month or so. She was a talker, so if she knew you and you came in hungry, it was going to be awhile before she took your order. Often, the red order number sign would flash repeatedly before she realized she had to go, usually before taking your order.”
” Uh, should I be writing this down?” they ask.
” Yes, where is the card? I don’t see why you can’t write and eat at the same time. Besides, what do you think I’m paying you to do?”
” I didn’t think you were paying me at all.”
” Again, not in the way that is typical.”
A soft hum dances above us, assailing our ears with a sweet, sweet melody On nearly all my journeys whenever I sat down somewhere, usually in a small cafe where I could notice all the small details, there would always be a sound that I caught and trapped like a rabbit; it came so quick, the words elusive, but I waited patiently until I seared them into my memory and carried it back with me. I’ve collected songs from Iceland, Ireland, England, airports from layovers in Texas and California, and they are just as important as collecting memories or souvenirs, facts or cultural appreciation. Music is part of the surroundings I don’t always realize I take in, or should take in.
” Where we are right now, is home. My home. Do you know how long it took me to call it that? Throughout my life I’ve lived in various places, places that I never stayed long enough to develop any real attachment, especially to the people around me. In this case, I didn’t travel to escape the layers of people that can make it difficult to see but to find a place that fit for me.”
There are some places whose names don’t fit the character; they are assigned a random name that holds no real value, although I supposed the value is based on the experience, on how well a person gets to know the place. A name like New York means nothing to me, and Baltimore serves to remind me that rich people feel entitled to name everything after themselves, however I know that is not the case for some people, people whose character differs vastly from mine. I do not have to go that far to see the different characters each place carries; I just need to spend the time to look closely at the white paint until I see the flecks of green and purple, orange and blue, beneath it.
Every summer I spent my days in Ocean City gathering the most vivid memories and storing them inside a chest I didn’t know was worth more than gold until I reopened it. Through the beach I learned to surf the waves, which require a patience and respect usually reserved for a child or a dog, I learned how to have friends and what it meant to lose them, and I established a routine that defined childhood moments: by day I swam and read, playing with dinosaurs or reenacting notable movie scenes such as Titanic, The Lion King, The Lord of the Rings, and, my personal favorite, charging the wild waves while singing The Pirates of the Caribbean theme song. I ranked the waves by a color code in which blue was the largest and most death defying- to escape was to run as fast as I could out of the water or embrace doom and dive as deep as possible until my hands scraped the sand.
” Or I would get swamped, my body getting tossed and turned inside a washing machine, never knowing when the break for air would come. The times I got swamped were when my friends shared a float and they would take my hand and wrap it around the rope so I couldn’t jump when the wave came. It would take some time before I realized my friends were not real friends,” The waitress came back and took our orders. Unsurprisingly we ordered the same thing: fried chicken with applesauce.
” Isn’t it better to have terrible friends than no friends at all?” they ask.
It should be an easy answer, but I cannot give one. The words wrap around my tongue, refusing to leave in a coherent manner. ” Like I said, you have to live with yourself you’re entire life. So you better learn how to be friends with yourself before you can be friends with anyone else.”
By night I would slip back up onto the sandy shores and watch the waves lick the surface while swinging a glow stick in one hand. I would launch the glow stick, or if it was the Fourth of July watch the fireworks launch from oceanside balconies or from the park. Then I would run around, jumping from empty lifeguard stands or the beach stand that was once used to launder money. Or if I wasn’t on the beach, I was visiting the mini golf course in which I went so often the kindly old man let us go for free. I was sad the day they tore it down and replaced it with more superficial condominiums.
” They were monstrous, showing off their size and wealth, using the beach as a luxurious getaway, a privilege to gloat, instead of humbling themselves like the little cottages hiding behind the bay, afraid to be sold and replaced like so many others for something less down to earth, less genuine. For I can see, when I ride my bike between the roads that slither and twist like a snake, which places are happy with the way they are built and which need more space, forever unsatisfied with how they look.”
” Yeah. There always were two separate classes; the bums who knew how to have real fun and the rich who knew how to make everyone dress the same in those white polo and khaki polos while sipping on tasteless wine,” they fail to disguise their bitterness, which I understand. I had never felt comfortable in an environment beyond my worth.
” Well with any place there is a mixture; there are flavors that are spicy and exotic, some fruity and tame, while others more eccentric and wild. We can dabble with the flavors, but if they don’t taste right we don’t have to keep trying. We move along, smiling and still acknowledging the flavor, but if we don’t try it at all we might miss out on something great. It is possible to discover that a taste you thought you like has grown bitter, or else developed a salty after taste you didn’t was there until you spent the time tasting it over and over. My point is, you never really know something until you explore.”
No matter how often I explore, even a place as familiar as the back of my hand, there is a few cracks I slip by, missing because I am not looking, or I am looking too hard in the wrong places. I had forgotten about the tiny park tucked behind the water tower, as well as the cozy trailer park sitting across from the bay, whose own beauty is equal to the ocean, especially when the sun blazes a brilliant orange in an evening still and silent except for a wispy cool breeze. Oh, the trailer park. When I finally ride by it a remember a boy with brown hair and an infectious smile. I met him at soccer camp and of course could take him on. I don’t know why but I called him Sparky, and he lived the trailer park. I wondered what happened to him because one day, after he came over- the first of two boys I have ever brought home- and I was supposed to meet him at the park but never made it, he disappeared and I never saw or heard from him again.
They drop the pen and it rolls from the table and onto the ground. The waitress in the pink and white zebra stripes passes by and stops, picking it up while flourishing a smile. They say nothing and keep their head bowed.
” Thank you,” I tell her.
” You’re welcome. Is there anything else I can get for you?” Her voice is soft and smooth, like felt, and I fall headfirst into the whirlpool.
” Do you have one of those word searches? We- I mean I- love them,” I giggle as my shoulders relax.
” I”ll see what I can do,” she disappears behind a door with a wooden sign carved with the phrase: No shirt, no shoes, no problem!
” So is this better than your backyard game?” they ask, resuming their scribbling on an overcrowded card.
” It’s different,” I say.
It’s true, if only because I have finally had to chance to think about it, usually as I ride my bike over and over the veins until I have seen and found them all, my knowledge expanding with each discovery and rediscovery. I have found a place I can say is irrevocably home; the feelings and memories running deeper and more vivid than any other place.
” Do you think I will ever find a home?” they ask me.
I pause, unsure how to answer because I do not want to disservice their own choices.
” It’s possible. It’s also possible that home doesn’t have to be a place, but people who make it feel like a place; people in which it doesn’t matter where the place is.”
They stare at me, their face caught between pensieve and hope.
The wolf howls in the night Where darkness consumes even the Littlest of lights And the wind blows through Hollow trees that shake and creak And crumble anew. "Where are you, where are you?" The wolf calls to the pack Who left him to wander through the Great Plains alone. The pack do not answer, They do not call to the wolf They found to be too small and too Gentle with fur not the same Dark grey as their own and teeth not Sharp enough to dig into raw Bone. "Where are you, where are you?" The wolf cries into the night Before running after the the sight of Burning light Where two wolves standing on two legs Instead of four Dance and sing and eat in a pack made Of their own galore. " Come here, come here!" The two wolves howl And the wolf inches closer and closer Until their paws scratch behind the ears Not grey enough for the old pack But plenty enough for the new one.
The speaker above us sizzles and pops, the unpleasant static nearly spoiling our good mood. We press our hands to our ears, cutting off the direct route and forcing the unpleasantness to circumnavigate around, but the static fades. The waitress in the pink and white zebra stripes shouts an apology, although all I care about is whether she is bringing the word search or not. Priorities.
” Can you tell me about them? Those people you found? Those people you call home as well?”
My cheeks nearly burst as I smile as wide as I can. ” Yes. Yes I can.”