Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

Home is where the beach is.

This past 4th of July, I found out that my boyfriend had no idea that it is required to play “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen on Independence Day. What do you mean, you didn’t grow up with Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi playing every other song on the radio all summer long? What do you mean, YOU DON’T KNOW WHO BON JOVI IS???

I played him several Bon Jovi songs in a row. I still don’t think he was impressed.

“Born in the U.S.A.” is a mandatory staple on any 4th of July fireworks playlist. Everyone in New Jersey, the state where I spent most of my time growing up, knows this. (My boyfriend also didn’t grow up listening to a playlist a local radio station curated for the fireworks show. I’m starting to think Missouri is anti-American.)

Of course, we’re ignoring the fact that “Born in the U.S.A.” is itself critical of America. That’s not important – you either play it on July 4th, or you get the hell out of this state.

This was my childhood. Heading out on our family’s motorboat to watch the fireworks over the river on the 4th. Picking up porkrolleggandcheese – all one word – to take to the beach. Late-night diners and taking pride in not pumping your own gas. Dealing with jughandles because you don’t have any other choice (you can still complain about them, though.)

Then I graduated from high school, and my family moved away.

Suddenly my summers were filled with family and Ohio corn and our psycho Australian Shepherd. Later, I didn’t even go home, opting for classes and internships during my summers instead. With the decline in trips to the Midwest came an even sharper decline in trips to the coast I knew so well.

So what happens when you go back?

I’d forgotten how cold the ocean is in New Jersey,

the kind of icy cold that cuts immediately to your bones after you were roasting in the July heat just seconds ago.

The key is to submerge yourself quickly, diving under the next large-ish wave. Your other option is to slowly and painfully adjust to the freezing temperature (which ain’t gonna happen.) Try not to think about it, take a deep breath, and let the next wave roll over your head. This isn’t Florida’s Atlantic Ocean.

It’s my ocean, though. I’d also forgotten what it was like to have my hair curl from the salt and dry from the hot sun – not the heat-rising-from-the-sidewalks sun I already knew from summer in D.C., but the yellow, sandy heat of the shore.

Sure, I’ve been to the beach in the past few years. It’s not the same as planning the best time to walk to the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street, as spending a day not particularly doing anything because you know you’ll be back next weekend, as knowing exactly where you’ll turn off to escape the horrid beach traffic on the way home.

My skin smells like “scent of sunshine” sunscreen,

and I still feel sandy several days and showers later. The beach is hard to wash away. (Some people will tell you that NJ is hard to wash away because it’s dirty, but those people are morons.)

How could you forget the name of the street you used to drive down every day to get home from school? How have you forgotten how to get to the highway from here? (Well, OK. I have always been bad at directions. Doesn’t really matter if I’ve driven the same way 1,000 times.)

There’s your old high school, there’s where your friend’s family lived before they moved, there’s where you used to get pizza on the best days in elementary school.

In a sense, it’s like I never left. We drive down the road my old house is on, pulling part way into the driveway, but not too far. Best not to freak out the people that live there now.

Hurricane Sandy came through this area a few months after my family moved, taking out a large swath of the beach clubs I grew up with and changing parts of the landscape. Most buildings have been rebuilt, but there are still signs of the storm in a few peeling structures we drive by. New renovations mean structures that feel like strangers to me in places I used to know by heart. It’s an odd feeling.

We stop into the local grocery store 3 times in 2 days. I avoid people from my high school. Some things, it seems, don’t change.

It’s crazy how a place so familiar to you becomes so far away but then comes back to you in a rush. And how strange it is to be a different person now than the last time you were there.

We don’t have time to stop for my favorite tacos before heading out of town,

but I’m still full of pork roll and ice cream anyway (not at the same time. Ew.)

I do feel like a different person now than I was the last time I lived in what I will always consider to be my hometown. I was 18, I hadn’t experienced my formative years of college, I looked at the world differently. (Not that I’m so worldly now, but I like to think I’ve improved on some things in the past 5 years.)

But part of me will always be the little girl who grew up playing rec league soccer here, who lived across from the town’s Fireman’s Fair and could hear people screaming on the rides for a week every August, who vehemently corrected people on where the cast members of Jersey Shore were from, who took the ocean for granted, who just assumed that every state across America played as much Jersey-born music as my radio stations did.

And I’m glad for that.

P.S. – if you caught the Bon Jovi reference in the title, I appreciate you.

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