It’s Mother’s Day, and raining. We call our moms, and I feel far from home. But I’m actually closer to one than I’ve been in a long time. We are driving again today, and will be as far into the ocean as we’ll get.
We don’t see Connecticut. It’s raining, and we’re on the interstate. Looping around a web of overpasses out of New York City, cars splashing water over the sides like a log ride. It is not fun. We are the parents who are paying too much and we are the kids having meltdowns, covered in water that has been touched by too many people, too many chemicals. We are the hourly employees telling everyone this place is fun even when it’s not.
And today, the ride is not fun. We are cutting across Connecticut, we are staring at the rain outside the Whole Foods. We hate Whole Foods and we love Whole Foods. I eat a bagel I bought in New York in the parking lot of the Whole Foods.
To avoid tolls in Rhode Island, we take a circuitous route through Providence and a corner of Massachusetts, learning later it would have cost us $4 to go an hour faster from the mainland to the small and drizzled island. I am flipping the pages of the atlas and getting confused about which state we are in. I am confused about the state I’m in.
We are taken into a town that is designed for tourists, that looks a bit chagrined about its fudge shops and galleries, here in the cold gray May. It reminds me, in eerie deja vu, of the time I went to Martha’s Vineyard: a guest on a family vacation, witness to the same brightly painted Victorian houses and bungalows, gas stations that still seem precious, the exhausted feeling of a place where the rich have played for generations, shifting the focus and priority to a population only visiting in the sunny months or the holidays. A glittering Christmas shop, a few ice cream parlors, a Life Is Good store. Uniquely the same. A regional duplicate.
Newport, Rhode Island, is the farthest into the ocean we are going, and it feels in parts like it wants to drift back over to England. A gray that doesn’t let up. A strong, cold wind that keeps us dressed conservatively. Mansions line the coast, hidden coyly behind enormous, imposing fences, but visible through their large front gates: an aspiration toward England, toward class, toward royalty. Old money, old titled aspirations. I kind of don’t believe I’m in America for a moment.
We run on the cliffs past throngs of tourists and a University in the midst of a renaissance, oscillating between freezing cold and much too hot in my thick sweater. We pet dogs that look like sheep rolling around the floor of a home that looks out on the ocean, a home that was a revenge purchase. We work until our brains are done. We drink vodka poured freely by someone who winks and says that I must like my drinks light on the seltzer.
We drink every night we are here and are treated to meals out. We are shown a studio that used to be a carriage house and it is so beautiful, I want to throw a party there. But here, we are not the hosts. We are the guests, we are the visitors, we are the tourists. We came too late, or maybe too early. We missed the good weather. I wince at the vodka on ice and listen to reminiscences on road trips to warm places: Santa Fe, the desert, a scooter ride across Europe. Sometimes, this is not our road trip. Sometimes, we are less here than others. I look out at the gray water and can’t see a lighthouse, even though the atlas says there are five.
We walk to a thrift store in desperate search of new clothes because we can barely stand the sight of what we’ve been wearing for the last 40 days. The thrift store is tended by an older woman with a smoker’s laugh and a shaggy rocker mullet with a rat tail she braids while asking after shoppers’ family members. She vacuums the store, and seems to be playing in a mock vacuum fight with a much younger employee covered in tattoos. As we check out we are told a secret deal, that we will get $5 off if we spend $20 so I buy the Ashlee Simpson CD I had my eye on. This deal seems arbitrary but we don’t question it.
As a child I felt as though I was in the wrong state – as if being born in Massachusetts and living there for the first three months of my life was the true indicator of where I belonged. I had a fantasy that I had forgotten soulmate friends that were still on the East coast and if only I lived there, instead of horrid California, I would be happier – my life radically different. As I grew into my teens a fixation on Massachusetts in particular melted, but the fixation on the East Coast – Rhode Island – remained.
What was it that I identified with? At the time, it seemed like people cared more about the way they dressed, there was more art and culture, the weather changed – I don’t know. Now it seems as though all I was lusting after was the aesthetic of a different life, a difference which promised difference. Now, just like the rest of the East Coast, Connecticut and Rhode Island feel strange because they are not new for us. Much of it feels like a life I could’ve lived, a world I might’ve been folded into. Perhaps this makes it feel more alienating, the ostranenie more palpable. The life once lived in fantasy in stark opposition to the world we see spread before us.
We buy stamps, we drop off mail. We spend many days here, but when we decide to leave, it takes twenty minutes to be out of the entire state. Like the whole thing was a single postcard.