It’s midnight, Mile Marker 63 when I feel it: The world is flat.
I sense it on the inside first–a shift in my internal wake, a settling–like sediment to the bottom of a glass; and even if I’ve been dozing in the backseat with the children, I know we’ve arrived–not quite to our destination–but to sea level.
With an exhale, I surrender my preoccupation with the descending digits down the Parkway, and begin to notice where I am. Now. Tuckerton. Beesley’s Point. Great Egg Harbor. How it is that I never recognized these characters when I lived here… settings for works of fiction, tickling the tongue and imagination.
By Mile Marker 30, the smell of the marsh finds its way through the cold air and past the tight seal of the car windows.
Just as we pass the exit for Sea Isle, my own tides steady to balancing point–like the bubble inside a level. Does the body know? Do the cells swell with memory? December 8, 1963. Mercy Hospital. My birth place.
Suddenly a hundred and sixty-nine monotonous miles of the Garden State warp speed. A surge inside rises to meet the sea. “Hello, old friend. It’s me. Kelly Brown from out of town.” (That’s how the neighbors greeted me each summer when I returned.)
As we move into the single digits, the tide recedes. I struggle to remain afloat as we speed through Court House and into an onslaught of memory… the light at Stone Harbor Boulevard, the Repici’s roadside motel, the chapel where James and Lynn were married, the road to my dear friend’s house.
Pulling back like a wave from the shore, then swept up into a sea of grief, I’m buoyed amidst life’s debris, by a child on each side, and my husband at the helm of this homecoming ship.
The boys have their own internal compass for the journey. At exit 6 as we turn off the Parkway and head east onto the strip of land that carries us to the island, they begin to stir like the tiny clams that rise in the wet sand.
I can’t drive this stretch of road, past the sewage plant, without the smell of cigarettes, stale perfume and fresh lipstick–as my mother takes a brush to our sleep-tangled hair and rubs spit against our cheeks with her thumb–preparing us for our grandparents–her in-laws.
Once over the draw bridge, past and present collide, lifting me, before tossing me like a conch to the shore. Shells fly from under the tires as we bounce over the salt-weary roads of what was once home. The grocery store where I pawned pennies for bubble gum has finally had a face lift–six years too late for my mother who shopped there even when the rest of us coined it: the Beirut Acme.
We cruise into the island town of Wildwood Crest, deep in winter’s hibernation. Pull up to an abandoned curb, and the man I love slips out from behind the wheel and opens the gate to his own childhood.
On our right, is the bay; and on the left, the sea. Straight ahead, just two blocks, is the house where my own mother would be waiting at her late night perch over a bottomless cup of coffee. Like some sailor’s wife, her voice floods with an undercurrent of longing as she greets my return, “Hi, Kel,” she’d say.
Only now, she speaks in whispers that the ocean breeze brings to me.
“You can move away, but you can’t get the sand out of your shoes,” a dockside barkeep used to tease whenever I talked of leaving. I laughed at Jim’s warnings, like the one about my hips and pizza. He’s gone now too, but was once very pleased to hear that they didn’t deliver in the mountains.
He appears to me now, like an apparition, leaning too far across the bar to pour my drink, a jester-like grin lifting his thick Caselle frames, from a sun-creased face. The grains of his words rub between my toes… as the salt and the sea tug at me.