I first set foot on Jersey Shore sands at fifteen years old, toothpick-thin and mid-summer sun-kissed. On the way down the shore, my friend Sara and I dangle bare feet out of car windows as her mother navigates the Garden State Parkway. Cars topped by surfboards creep past us, slogging through the requisite shore traffic, but the slow pace doesn’t bug me. For one thing, I have all the time in the world. For another, I haven’t been on vacation in five years, when I went to Hershey Park with my parents — and I haven’t been on a friend vacation since ever. The excitement in the car is palpable as we head-bang to Disturbed and KoRn and Ozzie and whatever “devil-worshiping” bands informed our teenage years. The nice thing about youth is that there is still so many first times, still so many experiments in identity to embark on.
Three hours later, we arrive at a pristine beach house, owned by Sara’s aunt and uncle. “We have to take our shoes off,” Sara whispers as we get out of the car. I am surprised; I expected her extended family to mirror her immediate one: accustomed to a parade of teenagers with dirty feet stomping through their kitchen in search of string cheese and Gushers and dad’s rolling papers, which “hid” in a decorative tin on top of the fridge. Instead, Sara’s cousins are sheltered and clean and listen to classical music. One even plays the cello. We don’t spend much time with them.
We are laying out on a blanket of gold sand watching the waves roll in when two boys from our high school come over to say hi; they’re on vacation, too. Without speaking, Sara and I acknowledge that we’ve found an escape from her aunt’s generous, but suffocating house. We head to the other side of Long Beach Island with the boys, Mike and Drew. Mike’s mom, who manages the cafeteria at my high school and has a faded shamrock tattooed on her hand, grills meats and keeps the beer flowing. We roll joints and blast Sublime from the roof deck, hoping to attract strangers.
At night, Sara and I first reluctantly and then compulsively visit Fantasy Island, an amusement park in the middle of LBI or somewhere close to it. There are boys here, we discover — punk boys in black tees with gouged earlobes. We flirt and exchange numbers even though we’ll never see these boys again. We buy hemp necklaces from kiosks and wonder aloud whether clay mushroom pendants are inconspicuous enough to wear in front of our parents (we decide they’re not). We become transfixed by the hypnotizing swirls of bowls and bongs before deciding it’s too risky to purchase one this far from home. What if Sara’s mom gets pulled over on the parkway and the car gets searched?
With three days left, Sara’s brother arrives and it feels like the first day of vacation all over again. We tear through the island in his blue Corvette, independence coursing through our veins. The downside is that we can’t talk to boys in front of him. The upside is everything else.
I am sixteen and my ex-boyfriend’s prom date. Desperate to win him back, I spend prom day primping and polishing and burning perfectly curated playlists to CD for our ride to Wildwood. In need of a pick-me-up before prom, I take a couple of Stacker 2 pills—uppers—to elevate myself to Superwoman status. Instead, the pills render me incapable of eating, making small talk, and acting human.
After prom, we head to my ex’s house for his birthday party. The plan is: Jennifer, Marie, Sara, and I will crash in my ex’s basement and drive to the shore in the morning, where we’ll share a motel room. But when the pills keep me up all night and Jennifer wants to head to the beach at four a.m., I agree to come with.
There are no cars on the road. We arrive at seven a.m. to a trashed motel room. Two of our friends skipped prom and drove down early, apparently spending the night puking and breaking coffee pots and faux china. Exhausted, we subject them to some castrated chastising and then collapse into the one bed in the room, sleeping until Sara and Marie arrive later that morning.
We have friends strewn across Wildwood the next day, all of whom are staying in motels with strict guest policies. Our motel, a shit stain on the seaside, becomes the official meeting and breeding grounds for the graduating class of 2003. We are constantly entertaining guests, breaking appliances, cleaning up. We have lost all control, despite our admittedly half-assed efforts. At one point, a senior at my school who should’ve been in his sophomore year of college shows up to our room, asks to borrow my phone, and never returns with it.
Sara has spent most of the long weekend blowing pills up her nose — a habit that is either brand new or frighteningly well-concealed. This is the latest in a series of actions that make me question our relationship. The friendship had been on the decline, but there’s no blueprint for breaking up with friends when you’re a teenager. You just ride the thing out until one of you goes to college or moves away or dies. Because of the pills and the withdrawal that comes with them, Sara is irritable for most of the trip. Her mood balloons into fury when we get kicked out of our room at three a.m. after one of our friends decides to do some interior decorating with a fire extinguisher.
With nowhere to spend the night, the four of us walk to a nearby motel where some of our friends are staying in the hopes that the night manager will be merciful and let us crash on the floor of our friends’ room. That hope dissipates when Marie screams at the fire extinguisher asshole in the parking lot, where we’ve assembled to discuss sleeping arrangements.
As Marie yells, the night manager throws his hands up in the air and shouts, “No! You do not stay here. You get kicked out of your room and then you come here yelling in the middle of the night? No. No. You girls are trouble.”
Before anyone has the chance to react, Sara chases Marie down and punches her in the face, her car keys obscured by her fist. “You fuckin’ idiot! Where are we gonna sleep now?”
Silently, Jennifer and I walk across the street to the parking lot where Sara and Marie kept their cars. We both linger next to Marie’s Honda, imagining we’ll spend the night sleeping in it. The night manager takes Marie to his office and gives her ice for her face. Sara walks over to Marie’s car and demands, “So, where are we sleeping tonight?” No one responds. “Fuck you bitches, then,” she spits. Then she gets in her car, peels out of the parking lot, shoots off north toward home.
The night manager has a change of heart, allows us to share a room with our friends. The caveat: we pay fifty bucks a head and leave by eight in the morning. We are three or four to a bed amid snoring and sleep-talking boys and though we get no sleep, it’s better than sitting upright in a car, breathing each other’s breath.
In the morning, we pack up and depart from our failed experiment in youth a day earlier than planned. Our teeth and hair are unbrushed and we wear oversized sweatshirts and each other’s socks. We talk feverishly about our breakup with Sara during the ride, feeling free but also frightened of what awaits when the long weekend comes to an end. KTU is playing their annual Memorial Day countdown, which features the best pop songs of the eighties, the nineties, and today. We sing “Life Is a Highway” at the top of our lungs as the shore fades behind us.
We don’t see the ocean once.
In college I meet Shannon, one of a handful of girls I consider my Best Friend even though neither of us really use that terminology. We spend the summers together, a time when most college students fall out of touch. Shannon and I take an oceanography course at the community college and contemplate the merits of moon rock-as-engagement ring. We drive through the scenic and winding roads of Mount Vernon just because we want to listen to Spoon a bit longer. We visit her parents in Bergen County and mine in Rockland County and take road trips to see mutual friends who live in desirable hometowns. Fifty percent of our friendship unfolds in her car over Dunkin’ Donuts ice coffee and low-fat cream cheese bagels.
When Shannon invites me to spend a week in Long Beach Island with her family and some friends, I immediately agree. I’ve seen lots of the shore in the years since my induction — Point Pleasant and Seaside Heights and Ocean City — but none have left a mark like LBI. I want to flirt at Treasure Island and deck my neck in puka shells and hemp jewelry, even if I never wore it off the island; I want my naked feet to catch a breeze as the wind whipped past our car.
We don’t do those things, though. We go to the beach in the mornings and read; we go to the beach in the evenings and play whiffle ball. We sip wine and sit contented on the deck, teaching Shannon’s dad the drinking games we learned in college. We go shopping and to karaoke, where I sing “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About” almost completely sober and don’t die of shame. Shannon tries to teach me how to ride a bicycle, which doesn’t work out, but it’s the thought that counts. We buy something like seventy crabs for dinner one night, and when a couple of us give up on the labor-intensive feat of eating them, we order delivery instead. Shannon and I walk the remaining live crabs to the ocean and set them free, cheering as they scuttle into the saltwater. “Go!” we scream, shooing them with our hands. Then we pose for a post-liberation selfie, which weren’t called selfies at the time, and we walk back to her dad’s house.
On the one night I convince Shannon to give Treasure Island a try, we arrive and it dawns on me that everyone there is fourteen years old. I guess I hadn’t realized that hunting down hot punk guys at an amusement park was not a thing that registered on my “ideas of a good time” list anymore. I had been changing priorities and friends and preferences all these years with such little fanfare that the differences were invisible, even to me.
If you look at growing up as an experiment, you could call this vacation the control. I was in the same beach town, staying with a friend’s family, stretching youth as far as it would go. That makes me the variable — mutating and shifting and proving that a person can change. It doesn’t matter if no one is paying attention when it happens.
It’s winter when Marie, Jennifer, and a bunch of our friends from high school pile into an SUV headed for Atlantic City. Going to the shore in the wintertime is atypical unless you’re going to AC, where there is no such thing as time, or temperature, or law.
The occasion: Jennifer’s bachelorette party. She isn’t the first of my friends to marry, but she’s the one I’ve known the longest. Long enough to remember the night she overdid it with the Bacardi O and four of us had to grab a limb apiece and carry her limp body to the car as it drooped in the middle like the world’s heaviest jump rope. Long enough to remember the afternoon we took some mystery drug from Russia together and ended up “dropping by” her job so we could use the bathroom to puke our brains out. Long enough to remember the ride back from Wildwood all those years ago, when we rejoiced over the valid reason we had to end our friendship with Sara. “I mean, she punched Marie in the face. That’s PSYCHO!” Jennifer said. “Yeah, you really took one for the team,” I told Marie. “Great, glad to be of service,” Marie deadpanned. She had a cut on her face where Sara’s keys had made contact.
Years have passed since that day, and we’re all departing from better physical, emotional, existential places as we make our way to the shore for Jennifer’s bachelorette party. We’re about twenty minutes into our journey when I get a notification from Facebook — a message from Sara. The photos and status updates surrounding the bachelorette party must have caught her eye.
But she doesn’t mention it. Instead, the message is a remember when — a specific memory had wrestled itself loose in her brain and wanted company. A primal frustration causes me to blurt, “Sara just messaged me. How about that timing?” And while the girls in the SUV hypothesize on what compelled her to reach out while we’re all celebrating together, I chalk it up to manipulative behavior. It’s something the Sara I knew ten years ago would do.
Of course, there’s a chance she’s a variable, too. There’s a chance we’ve all done some changing.
This post was originally published on Medium.