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Lifetimes Unfold on Scarborough's Sands

Lifetimes Unfold on Scarborough’s Sands
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One summer, I stood on a platform in the Junior Miss department of Jordan Marsh at Rhode Island’s Warwick Mall and watched my favorite stockboy wheel overloaded racks of men’s suits and women’s coats through the aisles. It was 1973, and I was a Marsha Jordan Girl, one of eight high school kids who modeled for the store. At Christmas we wore suggestive lingerie and expensive jewelry and spritzed perfume on women’s husbands on Men’s Night in hopes they’d spend lots of money on holiday gifts for their wives. In September, we walked a makeshift runway in back-to-school clothes. And in summer we mannequin-modeled, dressed in hot pants or gypsy skirts, our faces shiny with Bonne Bell blush and lip gloss, as we stood on those platforms with instructions not to move. No matter what.

I stood that summer, frozen in place, and willed my stockboy to deliver a rack of something to Junior Miss. He always did, usually with one or two other stockboys. They’d park their racks, then do their best to make us laugh. Funny faces, silly jokes. My friend Beth, standing still beside me, would roll her eyes. “Why doesn’t he ask you out already?” she’d whisper between clenched teeth when they finally left. It was the same question Beth and I debated every day at Scarborough Beach.

Scarborough is a sprawling state beach where even now blankets lie so close together you can almost feel the heat from strangers’ bodies beside you. Radios compete for attention. Kids running past kick sand on you. The air, of course, smells like salt. But also French fries, clam cakes, coconut suntan lotion.

In 1973, they hadn’t yet built the sleek new concession stands, or fixed the boardwalks, or put in showers and toilets that actually worked. In 1973, Scarborough was a crowded, hot beach. Down the road, East Coast kids emulated Californians by trying to surf our small waves. A bar called Schiller’s filled with barefoot teenagers who went there to dance every weekend night. Take-out chowder and clam shacks lined the far end of the road. And Beth and I took turns driving the hour ride there every day.

We wore matching bikinis — hers hot pink, mine lime green. We spread our blanket, letting our identical long, straight hair — hers dark brown, mine sandy blond — fan out around us. We covered ourselves in Coppertone, undid our straps to avoid tan lines, closed our eyes, and talked. Mostly, we talked about boys. I’d recently broken up with my steady boyfriend, but she still had hers, and she told me their plans: what they’d name their children and what kind of dog they planned to own.

Jordan Marsh — no, the whole state of Rhode Island — seemed to be full of cute boys that summer. The boy who worked at Waldenbooks took me sailing. The boy who worked in Linens took me to the movies, twice. I went dancing in Newport with a boy who was visiting his aunt, who lived next door to my aunt. A friend of my brother’s — a college boy! — took me to a play at Brown University. We discussed these boys, their merits and flaws. We ate Popsicles — hers blue, mine root beer — and pondered my possibilities.

Back then, a boy’s car was as important as almost anything else about him. The GTO, the Vega with the fat white racing stripe, the Opel, the Bug — they all said something about the boys who drove them. We discussed that, too. Was the boy who drove that Vega trustworthy? Was an Opel too stuck-up? We always ended with the stockboy, who drove a Mustang convertible, the perfect car. He must have a girlfriend, we decided with a sigh.

By afternoon, one of us would realize that we needed to leave: We’d have to drive back home and shower and get to Jordan Marsh by six. Reluctantly, we packed our things, shook the sand from our blanket, and walked the hot and sweaty path across the beach, along the splintered wooden boardwalk, across the steamy asphalt parking lot to our car. That was when we paused and sighed and looked back at the beach, not wanting to leave yet. Scarborough Beach was a metaphor for us — chaotic and busy and seductive. The ocean shone in the summer sun, as endless as all the hopes and possibilities our 16-year-old selves possessed. Beth looked at me and said, “He’s going to ask you out. I just know it.”

That very night, or another one just like it, that stockboy did ask me out. We sat in his Mustang with the top down in the Jordan Marsh parking lot and kissed a little and made plans to go dancing at the beach, at Schiller’s. So in a perfect end to that summer, and with perfect symmetry, we went on that date, and he held me close while we danced to a Bread song, and then we walked on the beach and kissed like crazy. That beach! That boy! Those kisses!

The next day, Beth and I were back on our blanket with our melting Popsicles while I told her every detail. We giggled and dug our toes into the warm sand. Then we raced, headfirst, into the waves, and let one, the best one, lift us up and carry us back to the crowded shore.

Rhode Island has beaches with dangerous surf; beaches so protected that parents take their little children there; pristine private beaches; rocky beaches; beaches with dunes and plovers’ nests; for a time there was even a nude beach. But for me, Rhode Island had just one beach: Scarborough.

Every summer morning, my mother and my Auntie Dora packed up one of their oversized Chevy station wagons with coolers of food, beach towels, and us kids and drove to Scarborough. They smoked cigarettes. We pretended we were married to the Beatles. AM radio played “Yummy, yummy, yummy, I’ve got love in my tummy …” and “Come on, baby, light my fire …” and we sang along, loud, our sweaty bodies pressed together. The ride took forever. We grew sluggish. Just when we believed we’d never get there, one of us spotted the ocean in the distance. We rolled down our windows and inhaled the salty air, rejuvenated.

The parking lot was already overflowing, and my mother circled like a shark, wanting the best, the closest space. They had a strategy: My aunt jumped from the car and ran to an empty spot, holding it until we could get there. The people who didn’t think of such a great plan, who simply drove to the space rather than send a squatter, beeped their horns and yelled for her to move. But Auntie Dora held fast. When my mother pulled in and we piled out, carloads of people glared at us. But we didn’t care. We were at the beach!

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Friday, June 6th, 2008

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