It’s hot and bright in Brooklyn and early enough in the season that it doesn’t aggravate me. My dress is insubstantial, equally valid as a fancy top or a beach cover-up. It looks kind of trashy in a way I realize would keep me from going onto the subway, into Manhattan. “Brooklyn is technically a beach town,” I joked, but it’s true. Actual beach aside, the blanket of Prospect Park is pinned down on most corners by traffic circles. It feels like a vacation spot standing at a red light in the middle of one. The first time I ever saw a traffic circle was on Hilton Head Island and “traffic circles are for beach towns” is one of those childhood truths that won’t quite leave me. They seemed to have a sort of power back then – round and round and the traffic circle itself is what spits you out from the normal world into Vacation. Looking kind of trashy is also for beach towns. In adulthood I managed to love the beach a few times a year, turning into a calmer, languid version of myself content to read and drape my limbs and drink stupid drinks. Certain summer days here can bring that back. Brooklyn is my home, the first place in New York where it doesn’t feel like a lie to call it that. I wonder if it’s because I needed to feel connected to an earlier home, an earlier me.
Home – my embarrassing longing for it and how often I feel without it – haunts me more than almost any other idea. I was always planning to write about my home in Hilton Head, South Carolina. There was always a reason to put it off: I needed to visit and be fully immersed in it to do it justice, or I needed to learn to write better first. I treated writing about it like going there – something that seemed inappropriate to approach with less than my best self. But I waited too long and now this is an elegy.
Hilton Head was not where I spent most of the years, went to high school, or any of the markers that would make it where I’m “from.” My family went there for vacations before I was born, driving all the way down I-95 from Ohio. It was my first contact point with the state I would eventually live most of my life. When my dad told us we were moving to Columbia, he started with, “you know the Wendy’s we always stop at on the way to Hilton Head?” The place I grew up in started as a marker on the way to somewhere else. It never stopped being that. Hilton Head never stopped being an end point.
I roller skate in Brooklyn and my body remembers what to do and how to do it well before my brain. I grew up on roller blades – the origin of my first notable scar before it got upstaged by more dramatic ones. In Hilton Head one could truly live on them. I didn’t have to go in circles on the driveway. I could actually go places on them. It was the first place that offered the sense of independence, of being able to take myself somewhere and figure things out on my own.
My boyfriend has a smile only for skating. It breaks over his face and seems to come from the most unguarded part of him. Sometimes I catch it, but I know it’s happening whether or not anyone is looking. It’s hard to be happy even on nearly perfect days, but it’s easier on skates. I wonder if I had a smile like that back then, skating to the lighthouse by myself. I wonder if I ever look like that now, because Prospect Park feels like mine in the way Hilton Head was to me as a child. Like a home I might still discover something about.
The Lakeside grill connected to the skating rink has burgers and overpriced plastic cups of wine and things I only want because it’s a good day in the heat and there are little kids running around with bathing suits and parents lugging sunscreen and party favors. “You see? It’s a beach town.”
The beach club in Hilton Head was renovated when I was in college. The damp, dark planks that made up a tiki bar, grill, gift shop, and not much else became tastefully paved stone, an upscale restaurant, and a mini market for visitors who wanted a snack and to not have to put their clothes on. It was and still is a maddening loss to me. The ramshackle grill with its hot dogs and burgers and tanned kids from all over the world making your food is cemented in my mind as what a beach should be. The afternoons of salty fries eaten while still covered in sand are the closest my life has come to full days of the emotion of roller skating. It was a world before I was aware at all times of how I looked. It was a place where eating was still easy. When it stopped existing I was superstitious and sentimental enough to believe that version of myself had also been cut out of the world.
The streets in the part of Hilton Head where we lived are mostly named after regional birds, trees, and things that validate wealthy vacation home owners. The streets here are more sweeping and evocative, named after the idea of the beach: Atlantic, Pacific, Ocean, Neptune. I wonder if I still gravitated to it on purpose. Somehow I’ve picked up something scattered from every time a home ceased to be, following the same pieces over and over in hopes I can recreate a happier time.
I save happy for passing experiences. Hilton Head is the only place it seems real to say “I was happy there.” That cliche thought has been with me in the days since learning my house there is no longer my house (so stupid to call it a house; it was us; we personified it; it was where we kept the best parts of ourselves). I can’t shake the feeling that the pre-trauma, straightforwardly good me is really, actually gone now. It was always in the back of my mind, like a precious stash I could take magic from once or twice a year. Now there are fewer homes and stashes of me and I feel that this is what adulthood means: everything converging into the sum a person I have to carry with me here, all the time.
It was in Hilton Head that I fell in love with James Taylor. The Best of James Taylor was the unofficial soundtrack of our life while we were there. It always will be. It’s painful to me how appropriate a choice it was now. You can look up videos of Taylor, now over 70, singing songs he wrote decades ago and his voice sounds almost the same. The unchanging clarity isn’t unlike how I can smell the garage of our house even now. It will always smell the same to me and I will always stubbornly imagine it unchanged. In New Mexico, my first real time out West and a place where I trend towards happy, I thought about “Sweet Baby James” and liked to think there was a line from that younger me to there, two places agreeing to treat me kindly. I don’t know what James Taylor song I would pick for Prospect Park.
I remember so many car rides on the island when “You Can Close Your Eyes” came on, but I don’t remember how old I was when I first heard it. Too young to understand anyhow. It’s a beautiful song, and sad in a way I wouldn’t actually know for years. Yet whenever I heard “but I can sing this song/and you can sing this song when I’m gone” I felt seen somehow, like I knew that sentiment I couldn’t appreciate would come for me one day. I guess it has, but not in the way I expected. I thought I would have more time. Maybe it’s better to see something for the last time when you don’t know it’s the last time, preserved as the realest version of itself free from the burden of goodbyes and rituals. Maybe that younger me in Hilton Head wasn’t as happy as I’m convinced I was. A memory is a totally new experience, after all. I know it will always be like a perfectly clear and out-of-time song to me, and I can keep choosing to play it.
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