I think the most tragic thing about this place is the way its history is slowly suffocating from the layering of trash. Retro hotels rebranded to try and pull in drunken tenants- cheap rooms, a place to sleep off the liquor. A boardwalk, once the first of its kind, now lacking real meaning. Old, loved wooden planks are now lined with repetitive junk shops (as my grandfather would call them) displaying trashy tee shirts with trendy slogans and airbrushed hats with scenes of a much prettier sunset than the one at our disposal. “It’ll all be wiped out in a few decades anyway,” people constantly tell me. Ocean City has become “Ocean Shitty” to Marylanders. But as sad as the place makes me, I don’t like the thought of losing it entirely. Family vacations, trips with friends, the hometown of my first love, and there’s perhaps the most confusing reason I don’t want to lose it. It bears the burden of housing my first encounter with sex.
Sometimes I find myself drifting off into images of that apartment complex sinking and crumbling under the weight of invisible winds and insatiable waves. Every image I have of that place might finally be able to sink into the depths of my consciousness as well.
But if anything, I think I benefit from the building’s structural integrity despite the storms. Because of its resilience, I have four physical walls I can lock those feelings and fears and traumas up behind. If they cave in, I’m afraid I might too.
I read somewhere, though I unfortunately can’t remember where exactly, that the shoreline began to recede and since 2002 attempts have been made to replenish the beach. The city drudged up land from somewhere offshore to dump it on the beach, and they also developed dune lines that limited the construction of high rises from building further out towards the water. For safety. And preservation I’d suppose. Like rumble strips, but much quieter. I remember a church service I’d attended in high school once. The preacher was giving a sermon about maintaining a healthy relationship or marriage. “Every relationship needs rumble strips, a sign that there’s a possibility of danger. This includes your relationship to yourself.” I liked this analogy and wrote it down in my little notebook I kept at the time, but haven’t thought of it until this moment. Perhaps I need to identify my own rumble strips, or rather define my own dune lines. My therapist referred to this once as “stop-thought” I think. When I told her how I’m afraid of being alone with myself for lengthy periods of time (in the car especially), my mind drifts off into melancholy notes. “As soon as you notice yourself doing it, force yourself to stop. Listen to podcasts. Change the music. Try and recite the plot of a movie you like. Run lines for whatever show you’re in. Do whatever you can to keep yourself from indulging in weighted thoughts.”
My parents recently bought a beach house in south Ocean Pines, just over the bridge from Ocean City. It’s my mother’s escape from her own work-related nightmares that she’s dreamt about for years. It’s a sweet little cottage tucked back into some suburban neighborhood that’s a short fifteen minute drive from the beach. About twenty from Assateague Island; where we spent Memorial Day weekend most recently. There normally isn’t much cell reception on the beach there, a national park, but somehow a text message slipped through. “There was another flood in Ellicott City," it read. The last flood was difficult enough for the historic city. Everybody knows somebody who was affected by the flood. But nonetheless, the little city’s spirit was unbroken and the community rebuilt as best as they could. I told my mother that there was a second flood.
“It’s apparently worse than the first one,” she responded after fighting the bad service to gain further knowledge on the subject. I couldn’t wrap my head around this. How could this happen not only a second time in two years, but how could it be worse? There had to have been some sort of precautions, right? Were there? Currently the Army Corps of Engineers Baltimore Division has created new plans to help reduce flood damage, but these are costly burdens that fall on property owners. No help from the local government. Property owners are on their own; and thus we're witnessing the slow death of Historic Ellicott City.
On the 22nd of August 1933 a storm tore up the east coast, barreling through Ocean City, swallowing buildings and streets on its journey. But as the backbays swelled from the continual four days of rain prior, and the ocean incessantly beat against a thin piece of land toward the southern end of the boardwalk, an inlet was created. The swallowing of fisherman’s homes, railway and roads by the relentless water proved quite the spectacle for locals who bravely emerged from their hiding places. “I watched the rushing waters of the ocean draw closer and closer to the fish camps and I watched as a large building fall into the water. Several of the shanties were torn from their moorings and demolished. Several sections of the boardwalk were torn up and washed away by the swirling tide,” local Irma Jones Jester recounts on the OC Life-Saving Station Museum’s website. The storm destroyed homes, businesses, and livelihoods. But this new inlet proved to be quite the monetary benefactor for the little resort town, transforming it from a sleepy ocean getaway to what it is now. Funny enough, cunning OC businessmen begged the city for a manmade inlet, aware that the influx of fishing business would boost the town’s economy. After being consistently rejected, the storm of 1933 gave these money men their wish. A beneficial inlet.
Sometimes when I’m napping on the shore, just north of the inlet, I find myself walking up the boardwalk behind my eyes. I see the now non-existent 19th century Atlantic Hotel, with is gorgeous and inviting wrap-around porch; ladies’ hair dancing across their shoulders from the ocean breeze. I walk a little further north and see children and their parents coming in and out of the old Wax Museum that now houses Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. I see five year old me, on my dad’s shoulders enchanted by the headless host at the haunted house ride, erected in the sixties. A little further up there’re a few teens clumbering their way across the boardwalk out of a little cottage, thick surfboards in hand and 70’s bowl cuts strapped onto their heads. I pass a waterfront restaurant, a conversation between a few elderly people discussing the legend of Zippy Lewis, her collected treasures, and her alleged fiery death. And finally, much further up the beach, a frail pale body stretched out on the sand. It’s lying in miniature below a new high-rise pea-cocking between two others, similar in aesthetic and attitude. Here I find myself asleep with earbuds tucked in, dreaming of memories I was never a part of.
I’m constantly uncomfortable here. Caught in some sort of poorly crafted metaphorical riptide. A past I wished I was a part of, and my past that I struggle to remember clearly. I want to be just arriving at a small hotel with my family, exhausted from traveling for two days from Baltimore, in a 1918 Chevrolet sedan. But instead there’s a man- a boy leading me to a dark back room in a complex I search for across the water every time I cross the route 90 bridge. I wish I was with the teens holed up on Assateague Island around a bonfire, discussing the new movie “Jaws.” But instead I’m waking up in his bed, dizzy and nauseous, with missed calls from my parents and friends. A stumble to the shower and a silent car ride home.
So what are my dune lines? Dune lines; the word making me think of tan lines. Tan lines leading me to think of his clear tan line. I remember that clearly. I don’t remember mine. Seeing my face, but not remembering my eyes in his mirror the next morning. Purple circles on my neck. I have to hide that with makeup before I drive three hours home to my parents. A little speckle of blood in the crook of my nose. I can’t remember my eyes. Though I don’t have on mascara. What happened to my mascara? My hair’s greasy and matted, sand and strange residue under my nails. He comes into the bathroom. He has a similar speckle of blood on his cheek. Where is that blood from? He starts the shower and I notice his hand on my wrist. My rings are gone. Where are my rings? Tan lines from my rings. Dune lines I saw the day before. Dune lines, what are my dune lines?
Rumble strips. Thought stopping. Stop thought.
But what about the storm of 1933? Devastating, but it left a beneficial inlet. I’m aware I have no inlet. I refuse to really let people understand parts of me. I have my outlets- my art, my writing, my acting, my music. But why can’t I let anyone or anything in? I used to have panic attacks when I’d hear people talk about sex. I left a party in Parkville once. A group of people sat around telling sex stories, and I, nudged by alcohol from my tightly sealed and closely held flask, stood, threw open the sliding glass door and took off across the parking lot. “Christy!” a friend tore out of the apartment after me.
Where are my rings? He pulls me into the shower and pins me against the wall. My shoulder blades hit the cheap tile and send shockwaves through my body. Not enough to wake me up. Where’s my head? Why am I not reacting? I'm still dressed in my underwear. I'm embarrassed and worried about having to somehow sneak my wet undergarments back to the house. He kisses my neck.
“Jesus Christ… Christy! Wait!” I kept running until I was in the middle of an elementary school field. I collapsed into the grass, inviting the blades to slice at my bare thighs, hoping the bugs would jump onto my neck and run around my collarbones. All I could hear was my heartbeat in my ears.
His pressure against my body is the loudest thing in that bathroom. Where’s my head? I turn the faucet to sprinkle cold water down on us. He’s surprised. A break in memory. I’m changing in his room, in front of him. He won't look at me, but won't let me be alone. My head is throbbing and entirely empty at the same time somehow. I shove my underwear, wet from the shower into my purse, embarrassed. I’m going home. I say goodbye, I don’t know why, but I say goodbye. He’s lying on his bed staring only at his phone as I leave.
“What’s wrong?” My friend sat down next to me and pulled me up into her arms, and I could smell the Jack Daniel’s on her breath too.
What happened to the way Ocean City was when Ella Phillips Dennis was around? A woman that moved to the coast in 1890 to “regain her health” and ended up the proud owner of a successful hotel and the reputation of outspoken. What happened to her Ocean City? “Ocean City is seventy percent built by women, run by women and the men are all henpecked.” Instead…
I guess at this point I’ve crossed the line I drew in the sand. I don’t like to identify it. Just another layer of shit burying Ocean City’s beautiful, true history under the sand. I hold hostility towards the poor place- a place my mother finds her solace in, like so many other women of its past. I want to see it the way she does and sometimes, I do.
If anything, Ocean City is a test of patience for change, understanding and interpretation of the past, and an evolving definition of closure. I'm trying desperately to close this on a positive note; that's what people like right? In this format at least. But how do I properly end something if I feel that there's no real ending to this yet? I reiterate, it's a test of my evolving sense of closure. So I continue to try and see that strip of land the way my mother and women of its past do- as a place to rejuvenate. A place these strong women ignored the noise just before the dune lines and allowed their breathing to sync up with the in and out of the tide.