Tuesday, August 26, 2014


In late July, my family spent a week in Fenwick Island, a lovely coastal town sandwiched between the romantic charm of Ocean City, MD and the austere beauty of Bethany Beach, DE. We were joined by my sister and her two kids, aged 10 and 12. After lying on the sand on a particularly sunny morning, we dared order a "Snoball", which is shaved ice topped with flavored syrup served in a styrofoam cup. We were hoping it would taste like a Sicilian granita, the heavenly inspiration for what you call "Italian ice": It did not.

Because of my sugar-free credo, I didn't order a Snoball for myself. I did, however, taste everybody else's: watermelon, orange, chocolate, and bubble-gum. As the kids sprinted to play in the water under my sister's watchful eyes, I slipped into a nauseated sleep. I'm sure it must have been the combination of the sugar, the synthetic flavoring, and the heat that introduced a strange and unsettling vision that haunts me to this day, and that I will recount to you now in this post.

Shortly after falling into my sugar coma, I woke up to find a plump, tanned woman in a black bikini sitting right next to me and looking towards the ocean. I had no idea what she was doing there, and I thought she was sitting a little too close, but there was something reassuring about her so I didn't protest. She was sitting against the sun in silhouette, so I could only catch glimpses of her face. What I could see is that she was probably in her mid-sixties, with long wiry grey hair and thick dark eyebrows. Her belly was big, round and smooth and the color of a cappuccino, and so were her thighs and arms. I remember thinking she actually looked like a giant smoked scamorza.

"There are lots of dolphins in the water today," she said, still looking at the ocean. Her voice was familiar somehow and carried a faint Italian accent; it reminded me of my mother's voice, but with a more deadpan tone.

"Are you Italian?" I asked.

"Yes, but I moved here a long time ago," the woman replied.

I asked her where in Italy she came from, but she didn't hear me, or decided not to reply. Instead, she started talking as in her own private conversation.

"The beach here is so different from Italy. It took me a long time to understand the waves."

"I know!" I exclaimed. "My husband put me on a body board four years ago, and I almost died. Two giant waves swept me off and I must have spent thirty seconds rolling underwater like a rag in the spin cycle. I haven't gone in since. I miss the Mediterranean Sea... calm and flat and unchallenging like an infant tub."

"And what about American beach food?" she asked, and I think I saw a complicit smile.

"Oh god! It's just burgers and pizza everywhere!" I replied. "And funnel cakes and fries! I think I'm getting tanned but it's just liver spots. No prosciutto e melone, right? Or a nice gelato."

"I miss the fresh fish," she said. "Not the frozen, chewy stuff they serve here. A big tray of fritto misto, to be shared with friends."

I was still trying to see her face through the blinding light of the sun, when I was distracted by my son calling me. He wanted me to go play in the water with him. I waved to my sister to take care of it. After the Snoball sampling, I wasn't sure I could move my legs.

"Is that your child?" she asked me.

"Yes. I have another one at home. He's napping with his dad now."

"I also have two boys. They're big now. They still come to the beach with me sometimes, but they have their own ideas of vacation now. They want better waves, so they can surf."

"No crossword puzzles under the umbrella for them, I bet!" I joked.

The woman shook her head slowly in response. She looked again towards the ocean and smiled at my son, but I knew her mind was elsewhere. My son was now happily running around his cousins, who were burying each other in the sand.

"Another thing that scares me," I started again, "is looking at families here, when they stroll on the boardwalk. Loud kids running all over the place and eating junk food into the night; their parents clothed in fluorescent T-shirts and khaki shorts, staring into space, just putting one foot in front of the other until they reach the next gadget shop. All the while the most god-awful music from ten years ago is blaring through all the speakers, canceling all their thoughts. Is my family going to look like that one day? Chilling, really."

The woman turned her gaze to me, and said, "Do you really think your family will be any different?" I could pick out a hint of a mocking smile on her face, and I immediately felt like an idiot.

"It will" she continued, "But only you will notice."

She moved her head to the side a little, and a ray of sunlight momentarily blinded me. I rubbed my eyes with one hand for a second, and when I looked back to the woman, she was no longer there. I looked around in the semi-deserted beach, but she had disappeared.

My son called me again from the water. I stood up and went to play.