“Meet me at the pier at Old Orchard Beach at eight o’clock,” he says. “To the left of the roller coaster.” He provides little else in the way of directions. But I’m always one for adventure so I load up the car and hop in and drive to the green state of Maine on a Friday night, barefoot, listening to Rilo Kiley and singing the whole way.
In Maine I feel welcome. “Welcome to Maine.” “Welcome to the Maine Highway.” The toll collector smiles broadly — “Welcome!” I hear the refrain from Beauty and the Beast, “Be our guest, be our guest, be our guest!” If you actually decide to leave Vacationland, the signs mourn your loss but tell you, “Thanks for coming! We hope you enjoyed your stay. Come again!”
By the time I hit Old Orchard Beach I’m part of the family.
I make only one stop the journey there — to augment my current Polaroid project on hair salons with wacky names. This one is “Curl up and Dye,” and well worth the u-turn on the serpentine road.
I make it at eight o’clock, despite insane weekend rush hour traffic, and I can smell the cotton candy and sea spray as I park. Salt and wet wood, spilled popcorn, gasoline, cool water, moist air … there is that carnival smell, amusement distilled to a thick aroma that hangs in the wet night, not all of it pleasant but most of it comforting. It’s misting out and the roller coaster screams throw me instantly into 1986.
I cut smoothly through the main street of the amusement park between the casinos and the photo booths. I reach the entry to the pier, and there’s the boy I’m looking for, waiting. Sweet smiling as always. After I get my fill of cold sand and waves between my toes, we cross the pier and hang over the ocean and begin catching up. It’s been a few months. I’ve changed jobs and Nate’s hit a dozen foreign countries. I got his post cards and emails — Athens, Venice, Barcelona…
I haven’t been to the seaside boardwalk in a long time but the madness swallows me instantly. There are so many perfectly awful sights at the beach, and they are the same everywhere. The cheesebag airbrushing stands (I decide I want to get an airbrushed picture of us on a pink baby-t but he insists on the leather jacket), middle-aged women wearing way too little clothing and teenage girls at the temp tattoo boths, bent over, exposing their asses to make way for pink hearts and daisies. I feel, well, clothed.
Our adventure truly begins in the arcade — the mad swirling chaos of children screaming into the night, gripping sheets of pink paper coupons in one hand and crappy trinkets in the other. Nate and I rock the skee-ball alley, tickets spewing out all over the floor. I toss my balls up his ramp, trying to stump the machine. My arm is limbering up as summers at the beach flood back to me.
What do you do with those tickets? The choices are tantalizing — blue plastic dolphins, paisley plastic cats in baskets, plastic pins that say, “I’m with stupid->” What I really want is a Pet Rock. I used to get one every year. It was the first thing I won. Plastic base, statement of the obvious carved into its side: “Pet. Rock.” It cost me $70 in quarters, but it was a trophy among Spiderman key chains and fluorescent smiley rings.
They’re fresh out of Pet Rocks. Instead, we opt for superballs, mine delivered in the hands of a beautiful Swiss girl who takes pride in her job, laying out the array of colors for me to choose from. If she knew the devious destination of this ball she wouldn’t have bothered.
We begin plotting the fate of our superballs. Someplace naughty. There are dares and double-dares involved. Finally we duck behind the roller coaster and with 20 years of baseball seasoning behind him, Nate hurls the ball over the parking lot, across the street, just a few inches shy of the target balcony where diners are quietly enjoying the ocean view. He nails the metal sign above the bar squarely with a loud crack. There’s a bit of commotion among the patrons. They’re not sure whether to cheer for us or take cover. Surprised at his good aim, we squeal and run.
To finish out our attack, we covertly piece together a follow-up drive-by and I lob the second superball directly up into their martinis from the street below. We are convinced an all-points-bulletin will be issued and there will be grainy photographs of us plastered across the front page of the Old Orchard Beach Times, billed as the “Superball Bandits.” All of Maine will fear our wrath.
So we drive to Portland at midnight. Cobblestone streets between bars and galleries squatting in renovated warehouses. There’s more human traffic on these cramped alleys than I’d ever seen on a Friday night in Boston. People are singing and dancing and puking in the streets. We hear Kid Rock and punk rock and blues. The architecture is incredible — storefronts from 1912 with viney engravements and bent glass windows 20 feet across. All of this lies opposite the industrial oceanfront, surrounded by barges and abandoned fish stalls, which are at the same time surreal and gorgeous.
Nate’s family has a tea company in the middle of Nowhere, Maine. On the top of a mountain, tucked into a million miles of pure wilderness, surrounded by acres of farmland. The air is so clean I get lightheaded. It is two o’clock in the morning by the time we get there, and I can smell the tea from the driveway. Chamomile, Earl Grey, apple. The whole house, where they prepare and pack the tea, smells like spices. There are flagstone floors and a wood-burning stove and they never lock the doors. He has a cat that will only drink running water from the kitchen sink and a box of kittens barely three weeks old that she sings to. If you go to the end of the street and look at Nate’s house, you’ll see it’s actually made of gingerbread.
Saturday is flawless in its cool sunshine. We drive to New Hampshire with the sunroof open, listening to Jeff Buckley and Turin Brakes and Howie Day. In this little town, in the general store, we find a display rack of his parent’s tea in little glass jars with tea diffusers shaped like stars. I have the same jars lined up on the windowsill in my kitchen from holidays past. Then, in one of those enormous old fashioned candy cases, stowed safely behind glass, I discover wax lips. We’re done for.
We ask people on the street to take awful pictures of us grinning like morons in clichéd locales. We do all the cheesy touristy things in irony. Except somehow they don’t feel cheesy or ironic.
I realize I have to overcome my deeply instilled neurosis about trains or my spiritual growth will forever be stunted. When I was little, the train tracks ran through our back yard. My sister will deny every word of this, but she and my cousin would pick me up by the ankles and dangle my over the tracks. I’ve never recovered. But Saturday I face my demons, and adrenaline rushing, place one hand on a safely parked, antique train that has been out of service for 50 years. Hey — it’s a start.
There’s something nourishing in all of this. It’s almost as vitamin-packed as the dancing banana we encounter on the way, which we have to turn around and drive past twice in order to capture the phenomenon on film.
By the late afternoon I am out of cigarettes. I see a Victorian cigar shop; it’s called “Smoke and Mirrors,” tucked snugly in between two stores on this miniature main street. The interior is dark and woody with gilded mirrors and old, ornate furniture. It smells earthy and delicious. Plush velvet curtains frame huge windows overlooking the sunny sidewalk. We sprawl on the couch beneath the window in the warm glow of the afternoon, slowly and deliciously smoking an amaretto cigar, drinking mango Italian soda. At four o’clock, in a perfect golden moment, time stands still. Curls of smoke lift from our fingers and we smile dreamily, full of warmth and light. We talk softly and languidly. A flawless hour passes. The light changes from amber to red.
The two owners are affectionately bickering about music and I cause a stir by defending Johnny Cash. This has clearly been a long-standing conflict between them and I’ve crossed the line. The two women across from us — regulars — make the “uh-oh” sound. In response to my support of Johnny, one side cheers and the other side groans. The Johnny fans lose and instead we listen to the Eagles. The music fits the afternoon in some strange way, in this Victorian smoke shop in a seaside tourist town. The owner gives me an imported cigar box with gilded letters as a momento. I want to put the day in it.
Nate’s one of those friends I can talk to for twelve hours straight, about books, love, spirituality, music, travels, and everything in between. We dig deep, and I always come away feeling fresh and inspired, with a whole new slew of thoughts to think. Questions to mull over. Because most of the time we don’t have the answers.
It’s ridiculous how full the weekend was — how much New England we had, how storybook that world is. The laze of Saturday afternoon stretched on as I napped on a hammock overlooking acres of wheat-colored fields, hoodie covering one eye, the other watching the movie script sun sink behind the trees. The laughter of Loons skimming the lake echoed through the sky. We picked Maine blueberries from the field with our hands and twirled them into vanilla ice cream. We spent the evening in the woods eating s’mores. (I may be a pale citygirl, but I build a mean campfire.) The moon was full and cherry-colored.
It blows my mind to see this boy in his native environment — in the countryside. We spent all of our time in Boston and now he lives in Washington, D.C. — he’d just stopped in Maine for a quick visit. It’s so strange how we end up, for one reason or another, estranged from what seems most natural to us. I’ve been to the beach twice in the past year, and growing up my feet were either in sand or water until I left for Boston at eighteen. Pavement is not my first love.
I kind of missed the ambulances and wrought iron, gasoline and controlled chaos of my metropolis, but weekending in Vacationland soothed my frazzled nerves and gave me a lot to think about. I’ve been a little lost lately, without a map, and driving to other towns without one can give me a new perspective.
On the way home, “Massachusetts Welcomes You…” to toll booths, taxes, and miles of turnpike construction.