I grew up in a place called Pleasure Beach. It was the ideal setting to be a boy. Our house was a block from the ocean on the Connecticut coast. The neighborhood beach had a raft, a boat launch and a crab pond. A little store sat between my house and the beach. My mom would send me there to get cold Pepsis and genoa grinders with oil and provolone cheese. With the change I could afford a pack of baseball cards.
Once you live near the ocean, the ocean never leaves you — the smell of the air at low tide; the taste of salt water; the sound of seagulls. We wore bathing suits from Memorial Day to Labor Day. We even wore them playing whiffle ball in the back yard.
Those memories are in me forever. But my best memory on Pleasure Beach happened in the summer of '88. I was 22, home from college for the summer, and infatuated with a girl from Seattle. Even her name — Lydia — turned me inside out. She had the most captivating eyes. The rest of her was pretty captivating, too. Better still, she was my best friend.
She flew out to visit me and see the East Coast for the first time. When she got off the plane in Hartford, she had on a white linen jumper she had picked up in Mexico. It was gathered at her ankles and had thin straps that tied over her bare shoulders. A colorful sash was tied snug around her thin waist. Her tan was as dark as brown sugar. I was so smitten that I got lost driving home from the airport. Seriously.
I took her to Pleasure Beach on Aug. 6, 1988. It was a Saturday night, muggy and hot. An ocean breeze cooled our skin. Moonlight rested on the water. We spread a blanket on the sand. No one else was on the beach. I had a diamond ring in my pocket. I forget what I said. I just know her ring finger sparkled when we left the beach that night. And I was on fire.
That summer my anthem was Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love." The album — my personal favorite of the Boss' — explores love gone wrong and the doubts and struggles of married life. But when you're young and in love you don't think about that. The power of new love is sensory, like the intro to the title track with all of its sounds of a summer carnival. Then these great opening lyrics: "Fat man sitting on a little stool takes the money from my hand while his eyes take a walk all over you. Hands me the ticket, smiles, and whispers good luck. Cuddle up angel. Cuddle up my little dove. We'll ride down, baby, into this tunnel of love."
I entered the tunnel of love on Pleasure Beach. That was 24 summers ago. Last week, while Lydia and I watched "Meet Joe Black," I thought back to that night on the beach. The scene where 65-year-old media mogul Bill Parrish, played by Anthony Hopkins, remembers his deceased wife always gets me.
"Everything reminds me of her," he says. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about her. One day she was here. The next day she was gone."
The angel of death, played by Brad Pitt, asks Parrish about the first time he met his wife. Parrish begins by describing — in intricate detail — what she wore. "You could have put her under glass and I would have just stood and looked at her," he says. "But when she spoke — I loved the sound of her voice and her laugh." Pause. "I couldn't get enough of her — and gradually — or maybe it wasn't gradually — I realized I couldn't live without her."
I felt that way on the beach in August 1988. I feel that way multiplied by a hundred now. She gets more irresistible with age. I find it impossible to look away — over dinner, at the beach, even just working together in the yard. But when I stare at her now, I stare to remember. If I outlive her I want to remember the majesty of it all.
"Meet Joe Black" ends with a grand party celebrating Bill Parrish's 65th birthday. It's his last night on earth. "I'm going to break precedent and tell you my one-candle wish," he says in a speech to partygoers. "That you would have a life as lucky as mine, where you can wake up one morning and say 'I don't want anything more.' " He pauses. "Sixty-five years," he continues. "Don't they go by in a blink?"
He walks off while the band plays Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." That's great cinema. It's also true. Life is unjustly fast. This summer I'm trying to slow it down — going to work late, coming home early, staying up late with my kids and even later with Lydia.
In July we headed to the Jersey shore for a week at the beach. We did it on a whim. Our friends — Rob and Gwen Wallace — opened their home. We have kids the same ages. Our families camped at the beach, riding waves on boogie boards, eating cold watermelon and building castles. It reminded me of my childhood.
I got to thinking about my oldest son, Tennyson. He turned 16 last week. He'll be a college freshman in September. Lydia and I are proud, but sad. Our first-born is growing up. Sorry, I don't like that.
Toward the end of our week at the Jersey shore, Tennyson and I took a boat to lower Manhattan. It was a Friday evening and most people on board were headed to Yankee Stadium to see Roger Waters. But we were off to see "Wicked." It was sold out and we didn't have tickets. No matter. We waited in the will-call line for an hour and ended up with orchestra seats 10 minutes before the curtain went up.
I've seen "Wicked" numerous times. But no previous show was as much fun as seeing it with my teenage son. These are the years when parents and kids tend to disconnect. Sorry, I don't like that either.
We cheered wildly as Elphaba defied gravity to close Act I. We cheered even louder after she sung "I'm Not That Girl."
Hands touch, eyes meet
Sudden silence, sudden heat
Hearts leap in a giddy whirl
He could be that boy
But I'm not that girl.
It's great having a boy who prefers the theater to a football stadium. It was past midnight when we bought pizza on the waterfront before catching the last boat back to Jersey. Warm summer air whipped against our faces on the top deck as we went down the East River. It was so late that it was early. Yet I was exhilarated. I was with my 16-year-old son and we were happy.
August is here now. My wife is sitting next to me on a beach chair. She's wearing a bathing suit and a white sun hat. I think I'll pull up "Tunnel of Love" on my iPhone and stare. I've got time. It's summer.
Jeff Benedict is a contributor for Sports Illustrated and a writer for SI.com. He is the author of "POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."
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