A Spoiled Question

In a small shore town in New Jersey, my family has a condo with a trapezoid of water visible if you lean off the porch. We’ve vacationed in this town since I was a baby, renting each summer for a week, then when we were older, two, always with my mom’s parents. When I moved to Philly, about an hour away compared to the six-ish from home, my parents decided it was as good a time as any to plunk down seven figures for some real estate (a good excuse to visit me, or vice versa) rather than renting someone else’s whitewash and awnings every year we came down.

It is half heartwarming and half uncomfortable how excited my grandparents are about this new address. They came here first: some time in the fifties, they honeymooned here for a weekend. Then they brought my mom throughout her childhood. They stayed at the cheapest places and zeroed in on early bird specials and, from what I gather, going on a trip at all was a big deal. They weren’t poor, exactly, but there was one GI-bill college degree and one tiny ranch house, where they still live, between them.

These grandparents have always said things like, “You girls are so lucky your dad works so hard and can give you such a nice life.” On one hand, it’s true. And on the other hand, it saddens me if they feel, even a little bit, like whatever hard work they did on assembly lines or over the stove was inferior. Bothers me that, had my mom married a carpenter instead of a surgeon, some of their secret hopes would have gone unbuilt.

Dad’s side has memories here too. His family used to own a house in a neighboring town where the women would spend summers. At some point they sold it all. (Overheard mutterings tell me they lost their old-money padding in an alcohol-fueled, well-hushed, and denial-shrouded cascade, but who knows. And I’m not about to ask.)  Now Dad has his own flag in the ground, and he’s not going to have to sell it, not unless it’s to buy a nicer one down the street. He has paid off everyone’s demons, it seems, and takes a great and quiet pride in his stability. Not extravagance–the man still buys his clothes at K-Mart–but success. Capital S.

When I was younger, the beach was completely spliced from reality. Instead of the daily school-sports-study shuffle, we woke up, sat in the sun, ate boardwalk treats, and watched movies. Thoughts of any substance dissipated and the place didn’t mean anything other than vacation. Now, I spend moments and days of actual life here, using it as a surrogate homebase whenever my string of apartments feel too alien and cardboard and not nearly enough like something that’s mine. The place is decked out in blue and yellow, with little seashells on the walls and starfish paperweights on the coffee tables. A few times a year, the whole family congregates for a weekend. I am grateful. But–and odd, I know, it took me this long to notice–this is not mine either.

I’m the generation, finally, that can be anything I want, pain- and debt-free. I can go a step higher. If not medicine (as is not-so-secretly wished—but I’ve finally stopped apologizing, out loud anyway) I can go to law school and be loaded by the time I’m 30, or get a double Ph.D. and dazzle acquaintances with my honorary chairs.

My choices and my gut tell me that is not going to happen. Call it a waste of AP classes, but my line of work does not come with second homes or even (and this kills me)  any letters after your name.

In a movie, this would be painfully romantic. I would look at the stack of J.D. acceptance letters over there. Then we’d pan to my writer’s notebook over here, full of scribbles that, though humble now, will one day (the audience knows) be the novel that sells a million copies. And hearts would swell when I leapt sideways from a stifling trajectory of heartless rat-races and missing kids’ soccer games to be myself.

Really what happens, though, is I choose the writing job and tell the schools no, thanks. But in the same click I realize the car my dad bought me for 22 years’ worth of straight As is the nicest car I’m ever going to have, and that I will not turn out half as fancy as my family hopes. (Maybe I’ll marry a doctor, at least, they think.) And, maybe worse, I will never feel fancy, though I do feel loved, in a room full of friends.

I don’t know whether this is liberating or pathetic. What a spoiled question.

When we’re here together in the summer, Mom points out where her favorite boardwalk game used to be or where she used to stay. Sometimes, we drive past Dad’s family’s old place to comment on the paint job or spy on what kind of people are having dinner inside. The warm months buzz with the same coziness our childhood weeks here did.

In the winter and spring, I come here often on weekends, just me. The house is sometimes a reminder of shortcomings that are only beginning to show. But it is also, cruelly, my favorite place to write. Do you want in, or out? breathes the wind at the sliding door.

Words come uncluttered in front of this window as I watch the tiny waves churn, then pull. (Tick, tock.) Maybe it’s the quiet, maybe the aloneness. Sometimes I write stories for work, sometimes pages in a journal, often letters of love and hate I will never send or poems that I’ll lose before they’re read again. I like to bundle up and take walks on the cold sand. This can be mine. It’s silent and empty but the sky is somehow luminous, and my mind is as clear as the water is inhospitable.

I think, and sometimes know, it will have to be enough.