The Jersey shore was kitsch. It sung the body more electronic than electric; its arcades blinked like tacky Christmas ornaments, buzzed and boinked digital game scores. On the boardwalk, Springsteen blared from loudspeakers. Surf pounded in the distance, slimed forward, retreated, and went nowhere. Meanwhile, the con-artists carnies in red shirts worked the games-of-no-chance stands, and in their best baritones beckoned passersby, sweeping away lost coins with open hands. What fools people were to keep trying, I thought, but almost nobody resisted the titter-tick-tick of the wheel of fortune. Put your life down on the number 6, and spin that baby. Who knows? You might get lucky and only lose what you bet.
I met her that strange summer I turned sixteen. Slim, freckled, beautiful, she was as real as laminated fruit. Her eyes were bright like a politician’s lies, and twice as promising. Of course, at sixteen I didn’t know this. One look from her and I felt myself tingle. That’s the word—tingle—I’m sure of it, though it embarrasses me now, to say I tingled. But tingle I did– and swore it was love.
A Friday night. Near the sour, polluted ocean, this girl and I threw a blanket on the sand, laid our naked bodies on top and looked up through the long, crooked cracks in the boardwalk where people walked above us like comets, while we kissed, while we pretended we knew what we were doing and what it meant to do it.
Everything erected around us was false, except for one thing. Reaching across a sham universe, I took that one real thing and pushed it inside her, and would have jammed everything else inside her if only I could have fit it all. All my maudlin wishes, all my mushy romance, I’d have forced myself inside and stayed there, left the beer bars and beaches, left the old ladies in Skillo parlors, left the spider rides and sausage sandwiches, left the never-ending screams on the rollercoaster and those proud hands people thrust into the air as though they were being arrested by gravity.
Oh, inside her, inside her, how I tingled, tingled, tingled. Like a little bell vibrating after the sound’s been made. She rode on top, and I looked beyond her face, toward the salted underbelly of the boardwalk where dark footfalls stomped the boards, as if the shoes’ owners wished to fall through, finally, totally, and without regret, as if they could smell my sanctuary, sense my escape.
This is real, I thought. Finally, something is real.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. I popped inside her and she dropped away, smiling a satisfied smile like she’d just jumped off the bumper cars.
I looked closely at her, maybe for the first time, hardly recognizing the features through the smeared eyeliner, streaked mascara, faded blush. I knew then she was just another part of the lie, not a doorway but another lost alley, no more real than the blinks or the buzzers, a pinball beauty with a Pac-Man mouth.
And me? How real was I? Not very, I think.
Perhaps less real than any of them.
What was real, at least for a moment, was that tingle, that temporary titillation, that titter-tick-tick of maybe, just maybe, that coin thrown on love’s impossible number, and once it was gone, swept away by the con artist’s hand, nothing remained, nothing at all was left to bet, but the stink of the sea, the cigarette in her lips, and the sand stuck in the crack of my ass.