1. When I was young, most of my friends took two-week family vacations to Ocean City, New Jersey every summer. We went to Ocean City, Maryland for one week. These two places shared a name and an ocean but very little else. As I got older, I came to resent these separations from my friends; when you’re twelve, everything becomes a personal affront, and I was sure my parents were trying to spite me in some way. Mainly what I did on these vacations was watch TV with my dad; we didn’t have cable at home and I spent months looking forward to the indulgence in what seemed like a rich person’s hobby. On the drive down, I read back issues of TV Guide cover to cover and did the crossword. During the day, my dad stayed inside and watched mystery shows—Quincy, Poirot, MacMillan and Wife, Alfred Hitchcock Presents— while we sat on the beach. When I had the remote, I watched standup comedy on Comedy Central. The comedy you encounter when you’re young has the potential to shape you for your entire life. As I watched Steven Wright spin non sequiturs into brilliant jokes, I fantasized about being a standup myself. I even wrote jokes, which I later threw in the dumpster behind the building. I never had the courage to try, or even seriously think about trying comedy. When I got home, I would repeat my favorite jokes to my friends often enough that it was like they’d been watching with me.
2. When I was thirteen, I joined my best friend on his family vacation to Ocean City, NJ. We spent mornings on the beach with his family, and in the afternoon, we watched music videos—that summer belong to Macarena, Marilyn Manson, Garbage, and No Doubt. We watched each video at least twenty times. At night, we walked on the boardwalk and played in the arcade. I’d spent months collecting quarters, stacking them in old film canisters, and planning on dozens of hours of Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, and whatever else was open. I had a searing crush on my friend’s older sister, and I kept hoping for some magical transition to occur if I were left alone with her even for a minute. One night, she and her friend came to my room to let me know they were sneaking out. They laid on my bed on either side of me, and said, “You should come!” One of them had her hand on my arm. I was acutely aware at the moment of each of my skin cells, all straining to be closer to her. I had never had a private conversation with a girl, let alone kissed one, and already this scene had accelerated far beyond any reasonable fantasies, so I panicked and said I was sick, a decision I spent the next five hours regretting while sitting on the floor and listening to Weird Al Yankovic’s Bad Hair Day, the only CD I’d remembered to pack for the trip. The next day I called my parents and told them I wanted to go home, I couldn’t spend another ten days here, and my dad drove to Ocean City to pick me up, claiming some family emergency had come up.
3. I inherited my dad’s pale skin, propensity for weight gain, and aversion to the beach. He never joined us on the beach. At some point during the day, he would step onto the balcony and wave to us before going back inside to watch more TV. I don’t think I ever saw him touch sand. The beach is bad and boring and full of people. It’s a long expanse of dirt that you pay money to lay on so that wind-whipped cigarette butts and errant Frisbees can terrorize you as you get burned nearly to death by the sun. You can try reading, but the wind keeps blowing your pages and throwing sand into your eyes. When you want to cool off, you take a leisurely swim through the ocean, which is the most destructive single force on the planet, and is filled with so many deadly creatures we haven’t even identified them all yet. When you’re a fat, pale, self-conscious kid, every anxiety is compounded, and when you’re a fat, lonely kid surrounded by unattainable girls in bikinis, the beach may be the worst place on earth. I went to the beach begrudgingly and stayed until I was allowed to go. The beach is fine if you’re just passing through and you get to make stops on the boardwalk for free samples at The Fudge Kitchen, where every day women with indeterminate Eastern European accents tell you that you’re in luck because today only they have a special where if you buy two pounds of their creamy fudge you get one pound of saltwater taffy free. The fudge is worth the trip. So is the pizza and the polish water ice and basically all of the food. The beach is a fine place to look at in pictures.
4. LauraBeth’s mom died in September 2004, three weeks after I’d started grad school in Iowa City. I canceled a week of classes to fly home and be with her. We spent one afternoon in Ocean City, partly because her mom loved going to the shore, and partly because LauraBeth wanted to be away from her house, the planning, the misery. We sat on the beach for a while before retreating to the shade, then walking the boardwalk, then eating fudge. We played two rounds of miniature golf. When I was young, I ruined many vacation evenings for my parents by throwing tantrums during rounds of mini golf, hurling my club across the course, beating on the windmill obstacles, throwing the ball off the course and onto the beach. By the time I was there with LauraBeth, I’d gotten much better, had come to understand that missing a putt in mini golf is a completely meaningless act. Sometimes I think I should be more competitive than I am, but then I remember what a nightmare I was when I felt that way. I don’t remember much else about that day, besides that it was a good day in the middle of a very bad time in our lives.
5. After high school graduation, my friends and I rented a shore house in Ocean City for Senior Week, a tradition of pre-college partying with hundreds of other graduates who descend on the town at the same time. In theory, we would experience the most memorable parties of our lives and permanently strengthen the bonds that had brought us there in the first place. I was too young then to realize how ephemeral most friendships are. My best friend disappeared after the first day, in pursuit of a girl he loved. The girl I’d been sort of dating called on the first morning to say she’d been grounded for life because an ex had mailed nude Polaroids of her to her parents, and also whatever thing we had between us was over. Another guy in the house got dumped by his girlfriend on the second night, and he mourned by taking a five-gallon tub of cheese balls and a bottle of vodka to the living room, where he sat until he’d finished both. At the time, everything we were doing seemed very memorable, but now the whole week blurs into a series of indistinguishable games of beer pong, stacks of red cups, and rooms full of drunken strangers.
6. A couple weeks after I moved home from grad school, I went with LauraBeth and her family—dad, both brothers, one future sister-in-law—to a rented shore house in Ocean City. It rained most of the week, but we sat on the porch and played board games and drank, and at night we took turns cooking. It was the first extended time I’d ever spent with her brothers; now I consider both of them good friends, but then I wasn’t sure what to expect. LauraBeth and I had gotten engaged recently, and we had to drive home one afternoon to sign some paperwork for the house we were buying. It was a time of great upheaval, and a time, finally for some optimism after several years of feeling lost.
7. LauraBeth and I now most often go to Cape May, which skews older and also offers a wider range of activities than most shore towns. We live close enough to Cape May that if we have a free afternoon we can easily drive down and spend the day there without it feeling like a long haul. LauraBeth can get her fix of the ocean and the beach, but at night we can go out to restaurants where you have to wear shoes, and we can feel more like we’re in an actual town. We spent our first anniversary in a bed & breakfast from which we could admire the ocean without all the misery of sitting on the beach itself. Most summers, we go for at least a day, and we always do the same things, many of which she did with her mom when she was young.
8. Nine years after the first vacation I took with LauraBeth’s family, we all shared a shore house again, this time in Cape May, and this time with more people: my father-in-law’s girlfriend, another sister-in-law, a toddler, an infant, and another baby due any day. Does it matter what we did there? We did the same things we always did. Cape May does offer more variety than the other shore towns, but it’s still a shore town, so you do the same things you always do. What matters is that you’re there, doing them again, and every time you do them, you’re a different person walking alongside those old versions of yourself. What matters is who you’re with. You start life with one family, and if you’re lucky someday you find another one, and they tolerate you enough to let you go places with them, even if you spend the whole time complaining about the beach.