Coastal Highway Never Ends

Throughout high school, I was obsessed with stories about liminality, though I didn’t know the word for it then. I watched eagerly as Sarah from Labyrinth forged down the winding path from childhood to maturity; I devoured Madeleine L’Engle’s novel about teens who visited Antarctica and New York City and the Biblical Times, transforming themselves through conversation and sometimes a near-death-experience or two. When senior year began, I often found myself daydreaming about a liminal space that would soon be my own: Ocean City, Maryland, for a week in the middle of June.

“Senior Week.” “Beach Week.” “Sweek.” The ritual went by several names, but we all knew what it was—a period of time when, to celebrate graduation, Maryland teens would flock to the Eastern Shore with all their friends, reveling in the opportunity to escape the shadow of adults.

When I took off my crown at the end of prom night, when I snuck onto the rooftop of my high school on the last day of class and surveyed the parking lot I had pulled into for years, I was struck by the fear that the end of my high school experience would mean the end of something greater— of play, of adventure, or even of the person I knew myself to be. The thought that Senior Week was ahead gave me hope. Senior Week wasn’t quite life after death—it was life before life after death. It was the tunnel of light that you see when you are unconscious, promising at least some sliver of good fortune ahead.

***

When I was small, Ocean City was one of the most fully formed schemas in my mind. Every summer, my family would return to the beach there and, for a week or so, I would be in paradise. Say the words and a million memories come to mind: scooping up sand fleas in the sun; playing mini golf at courses with themes like “Dinosaurs” and “Lost Treasure”; watching a contortionist break out of a straitjacket on the boardwalk and wondering where he went in the daytime, if anywhere.

My childhood grasp of time always made the vacation feel surreal. When you’re five, you can’t check your phone to see if it’s 1 o’clock or 5 o’clock, and any excursion that takes place after sunset brings a special kind of thrill.

Around my 14th year, there was a shift. Every time I returned to the beach, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that something remarkable should happen, and disappointed when it didn’t. I chalked a blue streak into my hair to prove to the cosmos that I was ready to welcome some chaos into my life, but that didn’t work. I was stuck riding the “Himalaya” in circles, staring into the distance in a deliberately dramatic fashion, hoping I would see something or someone that would change my life as my cart sped around the track to the sound of Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On.”

Then Senior Week came. Gone were the days of begging my parents to take me to the boardwalk or waking up early to go to the beach with my family. My friends and I were the masters of our own kairos.  

The first night, we found ourselves without any plans at 9:30 pm. y friend had mentioned that she had been wanting to get a tattoo for a while, so we set out for the nearest open tattoo parlor,just across the state line in Delaware. When we Googled it, the only images that we could find were photos of rabbits and pastures. “Eh, we’ll find it when we get close,” we said. Soon, our GPS was leading us into a cornfield with no streetlights.

“You have arrived at your destination,” it said when we reached an unlit farmhouse at the end of the path. We hit the gas and backed out of the field, screeching as we flew through the darkness. When we got home, we decided we’d try again tomorrow.

We did. The next day, we found a more reputable location in nearby Rehoboth and headed there in the morning. My friend left with a cross tattoo she was proud of. So it was set in stone— in ink—we could do whatever we wanted to do.

Of course, up and down the beach, thousands of teenagers were taking this philosophy in dangerous directions. Everyone knows that Beach Week is a drunken haze for many—and though this wasn’t the case for us, we were surrounded by the recklessness that culture bred. Police lights flashed often; catcallers yelled at us from motel balconies; a strange girl told us that she had “popped five mollies” before disappearing into the night. And don’t even get me started on the madness in H2O, Maryland’s most notorious teen club and an object of my constant speculation since my elementary school days (it was somehow a surprise while being everything I had come to expect).

Yet this story is not about Beach Week as an occasion of sin. I wasn’t ever at risk for a hangover there; as a wacky straight-edge kid, my idea of “subversive” was pouring a blue ICEE from Burger King into a flask. (I never did realize this dream, but there’s time yet.) Hence, to me, the city’s sidewalks and sandy shores were Terabithia, without the whole thing about Leslie falling into the river.

Just because I didn’t see much of the city’s dark side doesn’t mean I didn’t see it in the dark, though. I loved staying up late, and I was ready to stay out late, too. Most nights, that would involve the boardwalk.

***

It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that the boardwalk was where I first learned to love people—not individually, but as a concept. The passersby there fascinated me: a teenager wearing my favorite band’s merch, a girl consoling her friend during her panic attack, an amusement park employee on his way to his shift, and hundreds more, all against a backdrop of arcades, ocean waves, and roller coaster tracks. I watched them, envisioned their stories, and wondered what they might say if I were ever to approach them.

Lucky for me, at Beach Week, everyone wanted to talk. Not have long conversations—but interact, if only to experience a spontaneous moment with another human being. Casual, passing exchanges abounded; I strongly got the sense that we were all much younger kids on one big field trip together. Sometimes, a particularly bold teen would yell, “Sweek!” to the sky, and all around him, other teens would yell “Sweek!” back at him.

When we went to the boardwalk, we rarely had a plan for what to do. We were happy to stroll up and down, stopping wherever and whenever we pleased. On our first walk, we passed a minor Ocean City landmark—the giant tire outside Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Museum. A friend and I had taken a photo there years ago, trying to strike a cool pose in our 6th  grade attire; we rushed over to recreate the image. The second the flash went off, two teenage boys dropped down from the center of the tire. We screamed; then we laughed. “We had been in there for a long time,” one of the boys said. Then they said something along the lines of “Have a great night” and ran off, expecting nothing.

Antics and goodwill became common themes. When we saw some girls struggling to get on top of a whale sculpture for a picture, we tried to help them figure out the best way to mount it before giving it a try ourselves. When I wore my Yale sweatshirt, wanting to make a statement about my phase of life more than I did about the university itself, passing seniors would give me shout-outs: “You’re going to Yale; shit, congrats!” “You’re going to Yale? You’re smart as fuck!” No obligations at play; just sincerity. Then we’d go our separate ways.

I never learned any names; nor did anyone learn mine. This was part of the week’s charm. In high school, we had worked and played within narrative structures that had been established over the course of four years. Cliques and conventions were set in place, and of course, school rules would prevent us from hanging from the ceilings and dropping down to surprise our peers. During Sweek, we were detached from the settings and people we had known—except for the little islands of our friend groups, of course. We could populate our stories with whatever characters we wanted to.

One of my favorites was a boy who was riding the boardwalk tram. His hands were held out to high-five passengers, so my friend and I ran up to him—but by whatever cosmic agreement, we didn’t stop after one high-five. We ran alongside the tram slapping hands for a good while—and then we ran out of breath, and he faded into the distance, and so did we, I suppose.

***

About halfway through the week, after a few hours at the boardwalk, my friend Candice decided that she wasn’t ready to get in the car. She wanted to walk home.

“You’re crazy,” most of my friends said. I said I’d join her.

Like high-fiving boys on boardwalk trams, walking home wasn’t exactly something you could do in Silver Spring. Everything is spaced out there, and not every street has a sidewalk. The chance to stroll home instead of riding home, watch the world rise before you instead of seeing it filtered through a passenger seat window, was too alluring to pass up.

Thus, we walked. When we reached the end of the boardwalk, we switched onto Coastal Highway. From there, it was a straight shot.

The streets weren’t as crowded as the Boardwalk had been, but people were out and about. The general vibe was grittier, though—graver, almost. Gas stations dotted the path ahead in place of tacky shops selling “Senior Week” hoodies. Teens carrying blasting speakers were nowhere to be seen; our new background music was the sound of footsteps, and whirring cars, and the occasional shout from a drunk man. Instead of girls laughing about whale sculptures, we encountered figures like a guy with bags under his eyes who asked us, “Do you know where I can get a cigar? My friend just punched out all the windows in our apartment,” as if no further explanation was needed. Stunned under parking lot floodlights, we told him that we didn’t know. He replied, “Thanks for being real with me, guys. Positivity is important.”

Many of the businesses were closed, for it was well after 1 am. We tried to get into a karaoke bar, but we were turned down; at 18, we weren’t old enough. That was okay. We were in the mood for conversation, anyway. We talked about all the same things we had discussed in the cafeteria and after school—movies we wanted to see; our dreams of the future; blink-182. The world was surreal, but we were still exceptionally normal.

***

The next three nights, we returned to the boardwalk; the next three nights, Candice and I walked home. When I made my final trip there, I had a goal in mind: I was going to play a carnival game. I wanted some sort of souvenir, and why buy one when I could win one?

I played the Balloon Pop game and scored a neon green bear. What to name him? I wanted something with significance, so when I couldn’t think of anything on my own, I approach a ride attendant and asked him. “Alex,” he said.

That wasn’t enough. On our final stroll home, we passed a group of hippie-esque seniors and asked for their opinion. “Pablo Escobar!” they said; we thanked them.

About twenty minutes, we heard footsteps behind us. They got faster and faster, until we were sure that we were being followed. Just as we were about to cross the street in a panic, we caught a glimpse of our pursuers. The Pablo Escobar kids were back.

“Wait!” the ostensible leader said. “We want to tell you something. We were just joking about telling you to name your bear Pablo Escobar. What you really need to name him is Jaxx. J-A-X-X.” In perfect timing, the light changed, and the three boys crossed the street, where approximately twenty other teenagers were marching in a line. The leader yelled “Hey!” good-naturedly, and then all twenty-three of them started hugging.

We didn’t cross anymore. We had no need. But we watched the spectacle from afar. The whole deal seemed almost dystopian, but in a heartwarming way: boys and girls at the end of the world coming together, finally realizing the precariousness of their positions on the planet.

Around 3AM, we were a few blocks from our place. We stopped to get fries—and while we were sitting on the patio of the snack shack, scarfing them down, Candice said, “What if we went all the way to Delaware?”

The Delaware state line was about fifty blocks down the street—and that was one way. If we were in this, we were in it for the long haul.

My phone was on 1%. I was exhausted. But it was Beach Week—and I could be exhausted any old night. “Let’s go,” I said.

As we got closer and closer to Delaware, and farther and farther from the Boardwalk, the signs of life surrounding us decreased. Cars were infrequent; people were fewer. The only forms that stared at us were the dinosaur sculptures adorning a mini golf course. Yet every hotel had its lights on. Knowing we could dash into a lobby in the case of an emergency made me feel slightly farther away from death.

That might be the day I lost all fear of the dark. What we were doing was dangerous. If we needed to call 911, what would we do—borrow a phone? (Whose?) Find a payphone? (Where?) Yet there was something empowering about charging through the shadows and claiming them as my own. As a child, I had sometimes been startled out of sleep by nightmares, and found myself looking at a clock that read 4:00 AM, jarred by the feeling of being out of my element. In the moment, though, I was awake and enjoying myself. The dinosaurs didn’t scare me; they were smiling at me.

The state line was not momentous. No celebratory theme played as we approached it; we observed no change in the terrain. Coastal Highway gave us no closure; it extended into the black horizon, which only the eyes of our minds could paint. Did it ever end? If we followed it, where would we find ourselves? I liked not knowing the answer; I liked leaving the mystery unsolved, the loop unclosed. Another story for another day.

Soon, the sky turned from black to murky blue, and we were mere steps away from home. We weren’t ready to turn in yet, though; we needed some catharsis to close our ritual. We found a playground, which was ready to welcome us and us alone at 6 AM, and flopped ourselves out on the slides. “We need a song,” I said. Candice chose “It Ends Tonight” by the All-American Rejects. We weren’t surrounded by fireworks like the band is in the video, but I could hear the explosions in my mind.

We hit the beach in time to watch the sun rise for real. Sharing a lifeguard chair, we stared into the waves; then we returned to the house, where we realized that we still had to pack and clean up our messes. So that was the catch; living freely on one’s own had consequences.

No matter. We slept for only an hour and a half that morning, but that hour and a half was blissful.

Brittany Menjivar is proud to hail from Silver Spring, Maryland. Her favorite ride at Ocean City is the Himalaya. When she’s not riding it repeatedly to the sound of “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco, you can find her interviewing bands for The Young Folks, writing plays, or watching psychological thrillers. 

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