When my aunt turned forty and I graduated high school, we celebrated our adulthood with a pilgrimage. We’d dreamed of walking together since the first time she trekked across France and Spain on El Camino de Santiago when I was eleven. Ferry rides, however, cost a tenth of plane tickets and so instead of the Atlantic, we crossed the Long Island Sound. We had a purpose. During our respective childhoods we’d spent entire summers peering at Long Island from a lighthouse that marked our Connecticut shore. Now, before I helped my family move 600 miles away and went off to college alone, my aunt and I wanted to glimpse that beacon from the other side.
Our trip fell within the stretch of summer when Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” looped endlessly on the radio. Though I had avoided the song for weeks, my aunt made short work of curing me. My aunt is a writer, a traveler, and my best friend; over the years she has imparted upon me her affinity for practicing broken but earnest Spanish whenever possible, and reading sun-wrinkled paperbacks while waist-deep in water. Wandering along the highway after the ferry ride in her yellow convertible bug, she blasted pop music that made me cringe, educating me in the ways of youth. The road had farm stands stationed every half mile and we stopped at one with face-in-the-hole vegetable signs dotting the lawn. A stranger snapped a picture of us with our heads in plywood cutouts of garlic cloves, and we ate fresh raspberries and toasted “cheers” with sugar snap peas instead of our drinks.
Our destination lay on the North Fork of Long Island. Before my aunt booked our trip, she’d scoured reviews on Trip Advisor and sent them along for my approval. We sought low rates and cheap beaches, and decided on a place dubbed a “retro relaxation location”: the Silver Sands Motel. Most people delighted in its authentic, vintage charm before admitting it was “a little shabby.” No matter. My aunt backpacked and I had cheap parents; we considered ourselves accustomed to middling accommodations.
We found the Silver Sands Motel hunkered at the end of densely wooded Silvermere Road. Doused in turquoise paint, the building identifies itself with a neon sign that adorns the roof like a crown: “Silver Sands” flashes in blue script, with a curly seahorse to replace the first “s” and a starfish to dot the “i.” Below that, red block letters announce “MOTEL OFFICE.” The sign belongs firmly to the era of diners, drive-in movie theaters, and malt-shops. Unlike the revival restaurants that crowd theme park boulevards, however, the Silver Sands Motel appears in disrepair, its electric paint the only touchup since its debut in 1957. Appraising its meager effort and its earnestness despite its age, I juggled glee, pity, and a bit of fear.
After a shared, muffled chuckle and a bracing breath, we walked inside. Darkness met us first and I blinked in surprise at the contrast from the vivid exterior. Inside the entryway, a narrow counter with a basket overflowing with local potato chips stood to one side. In place of a bell, the desk had a door knocker shaped like an anchor; a confused plaque asked us to “please ring for assistance.”
A man appeared from the back room and introduced himself as Terry, the owner. Terse but pleasant, he informed us that a contingent of elderly customers had overheated in the Long Island June and needed to spend an extra night in the room we had reserved months before. Instead of staying in the motel proper, we would have to sleep in a dual-patron cottage, but he promised to waive our fee. His mother, Terry told us, would show us to our room. He apologized for the inconvenience, pressed bags of potato chips into our hands, and shooed us out the door.
“Have you ever seen Psycho?” my aunt asked as we walked back towards the bug. I hadn’t, but a quick Google search told me all I needed to know: a “remote motel,” an “intensely awkward yet docile” man who owned the place with his mother, and a brutal murder.
The clerk’s mother, frail and scraggly, met us on the gravel driveway, and led us away from the office to a neighborhood of cottages. Families swarmed the yards, pulling bags of grilling charcoal from the backs of station wagons and minivans. The license plates varied—Indiana, Pennsylvania, New York—as did the people’s ages, spanning three or four generations. Perhaps some of the sun-spotted, jowly men and women reclining in chairs were among the original customers. Perhaps they had returned, bringing new children and grandchildren, each year since. Perhaps they had visited early enough to see the original coat of turquoise paint.
Whatever brought those people back, it wasn’t the quality of the rooms. Ours, in which Terry’s mother had left us without a word, felt heavy with darkness and dust. Again I blinked, but the gloom refused to dissipate. Thin, fake wood paneling lined the walls, and battered furniture covered the floor; mildew, not deliberate design, formed the sofa’s pattern. I recalled a review we read before arriving, which told us, “If lux and polish is your thing, look for somewhere else to stay.” Eyeing the discolored upholstery, I cursed that reviewer’s delicate, inadequate warning. We set our bags on a table, avoiding the couch, and stood without speaking for a few moments. Unsure of where to look, we soon gave up and fled. My aunt justified our escape as we hurried away: “I mean, there are only so many directions to avert one’s eyes.”
We faced our motel room only in the moments before and after we slept, spending most of our waking hours outside. We explored beaches on both sides of the island, laughing about isthmuses as we crossed them, and read our books in our favorite way, waist-deep in water; swimmers complimented our bravery and sport. With a kite, we harnessed the Atlantic’s gusts and attempted unbroken loops. One afternoon, we trekked to a boulder jutting over a beach, and through borrowed binoculars, we spied across the Sound our lighthouse, our home. Each night, we returned to the Silver Sands and checked for bedbugs before we slept.
We planned to spend our last day on Long Island wandering around Port Jefferson—far away from the Silver Sands. But when the day came, we lingered. The previous day we had bought fruit from one of the stands that set up shop in Greenport: cartons of blueberries, cherries, and peaches. These we ate on the lawn, squinting in the bright sun and competing with the morning wind as we quoted J. Alfred Prufrock: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” After breakfast, we dragged heavy lawn chairs down to the shore and sat together. Telling ourselves we would leave any moment, we remained on the sand instead of reading in our usual way, not wanting to get wet. “Just one more page,” “We’ll leave after I finish this chapter,” we told each other, knowing full well neither of us had read a word since we first sat down. Instead, we savored the view and our presence together, lingering until our itinerary, finally, forced us to go.
Phoebe grew up on the shore of Long Island Sound but now finds herself on the shore of Lake Erie. Ask her about these and other places at email@example.com.