While many of my peers have spent their summers in other countries, I’ve been holding it down stateside. And although these past few months have been nothing but a vacation: easy summer class, waitressing twice a week, drinking a lot more than twice a week–I’ve taken a couple of trips down south. I’d like to call these “iconic beach vacations.” Am I helping poor people? Nope. Am I touring castles and other old buildings? I certainly hope not. Am I learning anything about another land’s culture? Probably enough stuff to fit in my father’s “The South was Right!” Civil War history book, but none of that’s particularly new. I’m sitting in a beach house, laying out next to the Atlantic and showering outside. I’m entirely envious of the international travelers and their 100+ photo albums bombarding my Facebook newsfeed. But after a few days in the quiet and hot of my “beach vacation” I’ve decided that Paris London and Nice be damned! South Carolina is good enough for me.
I’ve been coming to Litchfield every summer since I was three months old. My mother used to come here when she was a teenager and her family continued the tradition when their children had families of their own. There are ghosts here. I feel them when we drive up in our too full cars and see the “Welcome to Litchfield” sign. The sign has changed over the years, but the feeling has not. When I was younger I’m sure I felt the ghosts of the future, the already bittersweet memories I knew we’d be forming in a few short years when some of us would come and others would stay home because not everyone has time for the beach. Those seven days always moved too quickly; time was a blur because I loved every second of it. Sand, ocean, food, naps, tankini shaped tans. I didn’t know how to take it in any other way.
Then we grew up. The shape and size of our family changed. Aunt, Sarah, Cameron, Bo, Nana, Goggy, Mama, Daddy, Sissy. Charlie was added. Goggy left us. I’m not sure if we went to the beach that year. When we started coming back, everything was different. The patriarch of our group was now one of the ghosts I knew we’d all become one day. We would always have dinner one night at our beach house and buy balloons and write notes to Goggy and send them to Heaven. My mother, the agnostic, planned these letters with wings. Why does the word ghost scare people? There’s even been a move to change the way people feel about the word by putting “casper” and “friendly” in front of it. Goggy was and still is a loving ghost, angel, spirit. I think he’s most comfortable in a beach chair, toes in the Atlantic. Sitting, timeless, staring at something maybe a little larger than himself.
The innocent beach trips of my early childhood started to fade. Out faded these memories and in their place stepped an increasingly independent and self-aware girl. Two girls, really. Sissy and I first realized we were desirable at the beach. In clothes we were a cute matching pair. In matching bikinis we were, as my mother and father must have thought, dangerous. From 14 on, Sissy and I were, and I will not mince words: hot. Tan, thin, long haired freckle faced blue eyed twins. Of course we wore matching bikinis. We loved the attention. No longer were we one small part of the big and beautiful beach trip. We forgot food, naps, ocean, sand, and concentrated on ourselves. How we looked. How others saw us. We were naive and we tried so hard not to be innocent that our innocence shone radiantly.
Now, on this beach trip, at 20 years old, I don’t feel the days going by too quickly. Nor do I try to play up any sort of sex appeal by wearing the same bathing suit as my sister. I’m in between my 10 year old and 16 year old self and I’m older than both of them. So I can look back, but it’s fuzzy, because no younger Connelly tells me how I should be now. Does everyone do a little self-reflection when they go on vacay? I think normal people do. There’s time and there’s space. We can fill it with daiquiris (I don’t really like frozen beverages but I hear they’re popular) or we can fill it with thoughts. Litchfield is a feeling. I can close my eyes and hear the quiet of the ocean (if you really listen to the ocean it’s not loud, but eerily silent–that’s why so many people talk about it in books and poems; they’re giving it a voice) or the noises of the creek and the egrets (white herons! Mama exclaims while Daddy shakes his head). The air between the open door of the beach house: hot and cold and hot smells like sunscreen and sand and cold smells like tomato sandwiches and air conditioning.
I worry. I worry, of course, that I was thinner at 16 (I was–I was 16 after all) and tanner at 18 (I was–I had a lot of time on my hands). That’s surface stuff. I worry that I’m here and not somewhere else: Europe, if you caught my jealous rage in the first paragraph. I worry that I am embodying the bittersweet memories I always feared.
But I’m here. After 20 years and two skipped summers, I’m still here. Everyone else has lost Litchfield, or rather, Litchfield has lost them. Nana is with Goggy. Aunt and Bo and Sarah and Cam are in Kentucky, because they just couldn’t make it out here. It’s just the five of us. Mama taking pictures of white herons and Daddy drinking Heinekens and Charlie, 16 and thin and tan, realizing just how many heads he can turn. Sissy and I, talking loudly at the dinner table about our classes and what Sissy’s therapist says about “distorted thinking” and what relationships are REALLY like and then we sip our wine that the waiter gave us even though he somehow knew we were one year away from legality.
Mama still makes sure we all wear sunscreen and Daddy gives us the same two words of advice he’s been handing out for years and Charlie still hides behind couches and sprays Mama with a water gun and Sissy and I still screech in the ocean when something touches our legs because it is, inevitably, a shark.
Maybe I want to be somewhere else, something else. But I need to be here. How many balloons could I send up, notes written on them, to the ghosts of summers past? Enough to lift me up, probably high enough to look down on my happy family, moving in and out of a beach house, fluidly living a way of life we’ve come to accept only comes once a year. A plethora of balloons. A big, bulbous rainbow.
“Where are you going?” Somewhere I’ve always gone, somewhere I’ll keep coming, somewhere I need to be to keep ghosts alive and people near. “I’m going to the beach.”