I am a city girl to my core. The first time my parents took me outside of New York City to visit my uncle in New Jersey, I was standing on the front porch of their lovely suburban home when a fast-moving shadow caused my three-year-old heart to damn near beat out of my chest, and I shouted, That’s the biggest rat I’ve ever seen. My uncle calmly responded, That’s a cat, sweetie. And I shot back, Oh yeah? Well what’s it doing outside?
My parents figured there were some things you just couldn’t learn from New York City. So every summer we migrated out to Montauk, Long Island—the easternmost part of New York State. My father only got two weeks off from work a year, so whenever August rolled around, we packed everything we could into the company van and followed that yellow spotted line of highway out until we couldn’t go any farther.
This is where I learned to swim; where I heard the word shit for the first time, from a bunch of surfers down at the beach. This is where I learned to ride a bike, swerving around puddles on rainy afternoons. This is where I learned to drive a car in the hardware store parking lot; how to kiss a boy with sand between my toes.
Time goes to Montauk to take a break. It loosens its belt, takes a seat on the front porch next to my father and his Weber grill. It putters around the kitchen with my mother while she kneads her homemade sourdough bread, and chuckles when it catches her speaking out loud to herself—telling nobody in particular—We should roast some peaches tonight. I’ll bet oatmeal would be delicious for breakfast tomorrow if we roasted some peaches tonight.
Time stalls in Montauk. I am seven years old. My little brother is three. He splashes in a baby pool, while I brave the full-length Olympic sized one by myself. Chubby in my one-piece, my thighs brush against each other as I tread water in the shallow end. I look up and see an older girl: perfect in her bikini, tall, and tan, and probably on her way to meet her handsome Prince Charming boyfriend. She glows as she glides past me, tosses her hair like she has all the answers, and I wonder if I will ever be a woman like that. That summer, I learn how to wish on stars.
I am twelve years old. My little brother is eight. He can surf better than I can, and I hate it. I wait until he and all the other surfers are done for the day before paddling my fat sponge of a board out past the breakers. There is nobody left in the water. The setting sun makes the water glow golden. I tuck my legs up. That summer, I learn how to be alone.
I am sixteen. My brother is twelve and at the beach. I am reading magazines on the couch when my mother appears in the living room holding her laptop, the only computer in the house. My brother has downloaded his first porn video, and my mother is trying to decide what to do about it. That night when I go to check my email, I discover she has made a new folder on the desktop and labeled it, PK’s Porn. That summer, I learn how to love my parents.
There are some things you cannot learn in New York City. There are places where fishing nets do not mean stockings, where the learning happens in between moments, like after a wave passes, and you break the surface gasping for air.
I am twenty-two. The landmarks are the same. The same stretch of beach, same hardware store parking lot. Some of the names have changed. The pool hasn’t. I make my way to the shallow end and wade in slow. In Montauk, I can take my time. I look up to see a little girl, chubby in her one-piece, gripping the wall and watching me enter the water, her eyes the size of summer tomatoes and just as red from all the chlorine rubbing. I almost speak to her. But before I can, there is a splash behind me. A woman well into her fifties—chubby in her one-piece—has cannonballed into the deep end. She comes up coughing, flailing; water in her nose. She comes up laughing. The little girl giggles. And me? Well, I am laughing too.