"Past is prologue" here in our Featured Flashback section, and every week we feature a new selection from our archives that belongs in this very moment. This week we feature the lyric essay "Seven Mile Island," by Lauren Sanders, the "New Voices" selection from Issue 8: Nature and the Natural World, published in 2011.
Introduction by Diana Hume George
Lauren Sanders recently finished writing a book-length narrative about a girls’ middle school basketball team in Pennsylvania. Reading Viking Season, I held my breath page by page and play by play, deeply invested
in every player and each coach. I felt as though I knew these girls, and I wanted them to win. Sometimes they did. Often they didn’t. But always they were alive on the page because Sanders’s writing let me see every sinew in their legs, and like Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Madeleine Blais, she caused me to understand that in these girls, the heart is a muscle. I had no interest in basketball before Sanders made me care, just like I had no investment in shad fishing before I read John McPhee. It’s seldom the subject matter; it’s always the writing.
In Sanders I see a born writer who works to master the craft. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College in 2010, where all of her mentors knew we’d discovered someone special. The essay
here, “Seven Mile Island,” is her first publication. A lyric essay whose subject and style are leagues away from sports writing, this recollection of family vacations at the ocean shore reveal her as a writer with range as well as depth. She reminds me of Jo Ann Beard, whose book The Boys of My Youth I return to again and again. I expect to return to Sanders just as often as she comes into her own.
Seven Mile Island
by Lauren Sanders
Saturation is a process of slow violation: sweat clinging to one cotton fiber and then another until navy blue becomes midnight blue in a sudden succession of infinities, or the smell of burning that tangles with tree lines and telephone poles until it smothers an entire town. The Seven-Mile-Island sun shatters the colorless predawn in the same way—unraveling one ribbon at a time, infiltrating the uncertain sky with a vein of flush, an artery of cobalt, a web of mandarin capillaries.
At once immediate and endless, the new dawn blows open the day.
When we make the awkward left slope across Route 9 to meet the Garden State Parkway, I know. I roll down the window. I don’t ask permission. Salt and wet sunlight smack my lips, my eyelashes, and I pull their
promise deep into my stomach and my lungs. Such freedom started hours ago, standing in our Pennsylvania driveway under a sky the color of a new bruise, with a bathing suit beneath my shorts and a giddy lack of sleep sitting in my gut. We lift beach bags and cardboard boxes full of food and laundry detergent into the trunk, fitting them around our suitcases with a kind of rehearsed and unconscious precision.
In the passenger seat, I am six or eleven, or possibly fifteen. I am barefoot, with my knees folded in on my chest and my toes clutching the glove compartment of our Jeep Cherokee. This is allowed because I am ageless, because we are closer now to the coastline than to the answering machine and the unmowed lawn. I sit half-buried in all of my favorite entertainment: The Babysitters’ Club, Sweet Valley High, The
Bone Collector, a sparkling black notebook, my red CD player — they dig ridges into my hips and fall forgotten to the floor when the new and familiar bay current charges inside, releasing my hair from my neck and my cheeks. When we pass through Avalon, I all but climb through the open window.
My father drives. His hair, pale brown and feather thin, nearly scrapes the vehicle’s roof, and he listens to Frank Sinatra through a single headphone. My mother is several car lengths behind us with my little sister, driving our wide Dodge Durango and almost certainly cursing my father’s lead foot—the very reason I chose to ride with him.
We will park side by side in the 96th Street lot; together we will unload coolers, beach chairs, and the blue-and-white umbrella. All four of us will reach the sand at the same time. Anticipation shakes up and down my spine with each Shore Points billboard that rushes past, and giant stalks of corn and cartons of strawberries turn colors like a road-side kaleidoscope. My father wears sunglasses and looks straight ahead, but I can tell by the tension on the gas pedal and by the way he swings hard into the left lane that he’s racing the shackles of yesterday and last week—that ahead of us he knows there is something more. It is the tender morning warmth; it is the freeing of suffocated limbs and anxious skin. It is the final left turn onto Stone Harbor Boulevard, the drawbridge that bends into 96th Street, the tangible horizon.
Seven Mile Island bows like an open parenthesis away from southern New Jersey. It extends in length for one hundred and twenty-six streets—seven and a half miles—but is wide enough for only three. At Eightieth Street, just beyond the Golden Inn, Avalon blurs into Stone Harbor, which curves along to the Point, a cluster of fertile marshlands shaped, broken, and rebuilt by leftover hurricane winds and the transitioning tides. These storms tear the coastline inside out, flipping it over to reveal a mosaic of glistening shattered shells and ancient stones.
In the small and familiar strip of downtown, late morning rises above the cobblestones, leaving them drenched flawless in braids of platinum. Light ricochets along the blossoming main street, bouncing off glass windows, tripping on handlebars and wire baskets, glazing the teal and Radio-Flyer-red bicycles with a glittering finish.
Bells tingle below the neon awning of Hoy’s Five and Dime. A small Boy Scout sells newspapers outside of the Bread & Cheese Cupboard. The smell of vanilla lifts from the bakery, twists around faded streetlights, jostles exposed shoulder blades, and settles somewhere beyond the flat-faced rooftops. This early August hour breeds silver-haired men in long shorts and polo shirts, carrying paper cups of coffee or half gallons of orange juice, and slender young women on beach cruisers, pushing the pedals in lazy circles.
I am unable to recall a time when I didn’t know how to swim. My father took me to lessons at a local public school, where I clung to the cold tiled wall and practiced freestyle kicking. I remember the sterile chlorine scent, sharp in my throat even hours later. I remember how staggeringly high the ceiling seemed as I crossed the pool carefully on my back. I remember the strange quiet, trapped for a long stretch of seconds beneath a wide red foam pad carrying six or seven other students. What I do not remember is ever fearing the striped, glimmering rectangle—I have always sensed in my forearms the ability to lift me up or move me
forward in the water.
The Atlantic Ocean is not the Wilson High School swimming pool. It is a playground for climbing, for sliding, for the rush of white foam pinning skin to sand. My mother uses her contact lenses as an excuse to avoid the chilly water, but my father takes me out beyond the break, where I float on my back or scramble onto his when I tire of treading water. He creates in me an unintentional sense of invincibility, one that persists despite tangles with riptides and bare legs scouring across broken shells and seaweed.
When we are some hard and narrow age, blonde Kristin becomes my best friend between the crashing waves and the infinite horizon. She teaches me to flip into the swell, to pull my breathing deep into my chest and hold it still. She teaches me about surfacing.
Bright noon pauses to waltz with the gray-green sea before it begins its slow descent. I taste the sting on my cheeks, squint out against her pale hair and beyond that, the sprawling miles.
Catamarans bob flamingo pink and tarnished silver; yellow sails toss along in broad, certain bounds. Heat cracks across the smothering hours spent on the shore—its brilliance smears my vision, and I dig blindly, rocking back onto my ankles beside Kristin in the clinging wet sand, which sticks like gritty quartz behind my knees and between my fingers. Today we are savages, grabbing for translucent blue sand crabs that scuttle in protest against our open palms. We hold them until they are still.
Sunburnt exhaustion collects beneath my shoulders, spreads slow across my chest, and leaves a constellation of dull freckles to connect my elbows to my wrists—I watch them pop against the grapefruit background, charting their progress carefully, as though they are not my own.
The surf plucks with gentle insistence at a horseshoe crab that has lodged itself just out of grasp; the same sea plays touch and release with a team of dollar-sized sandpipers, who skirt the lapping waves on coy, skittering legs. We scan the hazy shore for the slow rise of fins and follow the dolphins’ steady gray cadence in paralyzing awe.
This was here before me, I remember at odd, singular moments, either peeling a vine of seaweed from my ankle bracelet, or shaking the coast from my scalp. This was here.
The red sun sends its final wail against encroaching twilight in shades of anguished orange and liquid copper: no, this can’t happen to me. It prays in color, in cursive, with the perpetual and hopeless strength of the dying.
Beneath the day’s dissolution, 96th Street rises like a fever. The sidewalk exhales light from the main strip, while stars spill crushed glass down the sky. These darkening hours release teenaged skin from the safety of t-shirts; exposed, awkward fourteen becomes nineteen under the low-slung release of evening.
The sudden crowd billows like a sail in and out of Pete Smith’s Surf Shop, welcomes the processed chill of Breezin’ Up and Island Pursuit, or gathers on the quad of benches outside Bellanova, where dresses gleaming with the promise of yacht parties and cocktail hours pose behind the glass.
Bending away from proud 96th down the smaller side roads, artificial illumination softens into moonlight and the graceful toss of tree branches across Coffee Talk’s front window. The minor chords of an acoustic guitar pitch through the open door, tumble across the yellow canopy of the Italian Garden, and fade out, giving way to voices that drift over grassy shortcuts and back alleys.
Here past the blonde streetlights, Kristin is as steady and inevitable as the day’s crowning benediction, as though she sprouted from the dunes like a languid reed, swaying only slightly on her deep and certain roots.
We knew each other before and after Stone Harbor. In first grade, we traded beads and buttons beneath our desktops. In fourth, we ate French toast at weekend basketball tournaments, and in sixth grade we
barely tolerated one another’s presence. By high school, I knew that her real laugh started in the base of her throat and that she hated her hands, which spread wide and generous like her mother’s.
We lie on the dock below Hall Harbor, near her grandparents’ condominiums, staring at the reflection of the black bay in the endless sky. The quivering water teases the wooden planks to trembling, and I catch my heart behind my teeth when a yellow beam jumps toward earth.
In this place we are amplified, we wear the same skin. Our growth plates fused on a walk to the Point—trapped beneath Kristin’s collarbones and mine are grains of sand, bits of quartz and broken clamshells. We grew hips together, floating on our backs over premature waves. That is to say we are always here, some part of us. In the grayest of Pennsylvania Decembers she carries 96th Street in her pale hair, and I hold the great heron of the wetlands behind my ribs.
On a damp, blustery day, we sculpt a miniature golf course by the inconsolable Atlantic. On a crueler day, we play baseball with stranded jellyfish and kayak oars.
It is the nighttime, though, that defines us, or waits quietly as we define ourselves. From the waterfront we hear the town’s bass line, the jerky rhythm of voices rising from houses whose lights nerve like cellophane across the bay. In a parallel lifetime perhaps we would provide the steady tempo of bottles opening, of liquor settling into empty stomachs, beating bad judgment and unsteady smiles in unfamiliar shore houses. We are old enough to be too young for this summer music.
The dock anchors us instead to its gorgeous silence.
Before my existence and Kristin's, before my father drove like burning down Route 55 and before the faded teal water tower spun Stone Harbor around its axis, seven miles echoed the hours spilling from darkness to awakening. Before August was our homecoming, the sun climbed through dawn, and before we called 96th Street salvation, clear morning lit the world on fire.