Could a sixteen year old be sincerely interested in the history of New Jersey? The very existence of the Junior New Jersey Historical Society was predicated on the assumption that the answer to this question was “yes.” Realistically, the answer had to be “no.” However the JNJHS provided a haven for the nerds of the 11th grade class. And when Marcia was chosen as the only delegate to the JNJHS convention in Ocean City, she didn’t know whether to feel honored or offended.
The school could afford only one place at the convention, and she was the “lucky” recipient. It sounded okay on paper since Marcia loved anything that was seaside. Plus, she imagined luxurious accommodations in the hotel and exotic food in the hotel restaurant that would rival any weekend at home watching TV, noshing, and sleeping in late.
The Seabird turned out to be a seedy hotel, and Ocean City a pale imitation of Asbury Park minus the boardwalk, miniature golf, convention hall, and salt water taffy. Ocean City just had the ocean and next to the beach a few hotels where nothing had changed in decades.
Marcia stood in the hotel lobby surrounded by other teenaged boys and girls who were chattering in groups as if they’d known each other for years. They had been given name cards, and several other “Junior Historians” actually came up to her and said “hello.” But she could only think of a few words to say before the conversation dropped.
As she took her key from the front desk and picked up her luggage, she sized up the situation in which she found herself. It was like a bad dream, or even worse, an experience in mental torture. She couldn’t see any possibility of something good coming out of it.
Things went from bad to worse. Later that night after the buffet dinner, the delegates socialized together in a hall with piped-in music. Some had broken off into couples and were dancing. Marcia began to feel disassociated from her body. She felt as if she were looking down from somewhere near the ceiling at a gray puddle of people pulsating back and forth.
Did she look as odd on the outside as she felt on the inside? She felt like a monstrous aberration. Dizzy and sick to her stomach, she wanted to hide or make herself be invisible. She looked up to the ceiling where she envied the chandelier that simply hung there without feelings.
When she remembered to breathe, she smelled the sea air just outside the open windows. The music was getting louder as the dancing couples multiplied. She stumbled out of the hall through the herd of dancers to follow the smell of sea.
It was very dark outside, almost pitch black. Marcia covered her mouth for a moment to contain her silent scream. Somewhere in the distance, the waves made a dull splashing sound as they hit the breaker.
Oceans. Plankton, jelly fish, sea urchins, whales, sharks, white crests at the top, corral, shells, distances, depths, swirling heights, towering heights of water, walls of water, swallowing water, icebergs, shipwrecks, drowning incidents.
She reached the end of the breaker and looked down. Only a few rows of rocks between her and the sea in this moonless night. The dull, rhythmic sound of the waves breaking.
She didn’t exist, or she did. It was hard to know. She could still hear the edges of music from the hotel ballroom, but the black night and the black sea washed away the pictures in her mind of freaks at carnival shows and old broken down cars in dusty, hot lots, and arms and legs that were too long for the size of chairs and rooms. Days teeming with wrong measurements, awkward facial expressions, and flat words.
She didn’t have an identity even though she owned a name bracelet and matching necklace that cost three dollars for each of the six letters in her name in 14 carat gold. Marcia’s real identity was like the distant row of letters that she couldn’t read on the eye chart.
Its name “Atlantic Ocean” said nothing about how dark and deep it spread out before her to where she couldn’t see or know. It was unknowable.
The sea can mean many things. For the sailor, it’s the medium where he plies his trade. It turns the swimmer into a fish. And for the fish and plankton, it’s home. For the child sitting in 3rd grade geography, it’s the blue parts spreading out between all those brown land masses.
In that cold, almost infinite space, Marcia saw her painful memories dissolve in the big soup of existence from which everything emerged and where everything returns.
Enough with the couples and the music and the cheap carpet in her hotel room whose number matched the number on her key. Enough of this nightmarish Friday night in Ocean City at the Junior New Jersey Historical Society Convention and miserable overnights at dude ranches every summer at Tween Travel Camp.
Suddenly, the ocean appeared to her like a vast cold soup. She knew the water would be icy, and it gave her the chills as she stood there imagining its impact on her skin.
But entering the ocean even in her imagination saved her. It caused her to remember. She entered that ocean in her mind and remembered that she lived in another ocean whose waters were warm and life giving.
In that other ocean, she knew that she had come here to this world on a quest to find a better life, to find a life of realness, wholeness, connection, and love. So far she hadn’t found it, but she wouldn’t give up.
She remembered herself as a soul fully alive in that ocean and at home there. She remembered herself as a being with perfect proportions, not too tall, not too fat, not too anything.
She went beyond the world of the social hour in Hotel Seabird. She went beyond the dark and seemingly infinite ocean out there in front of her with its very real sea spray and salty smell. She went beyond the threatening cold. She went beyond this world, and then she came back changed.
She had left that painful ballroom world by sliding into the bigger picture of oceans.
The moment of reckoning passed. She stood a while longer, just absorbing the fact of those oceans so that she could turn around and walk back down the breaker to the hotel, to what was coming next.