Off-Season on the Cape

I am on a small road trip with my boyfriend. He wants to go see the ocean. I am trying not to overthink things.

You’re meeting his parents?

I am trying not to let it overwhelm me.

That’s fast.

It is fast. We know what we are getting into — don’t we?

You two sure are U-Hauling.

This is my first time to meet a boyfriend’s parent.

You keep toothbrushes at each other’s place?

It’s my first time in Massachusetts. It’s my first time to see Cape Cod. It’s my first time on a bus. We are headed to Boston.

I’ve been knocking out a lot of “firsts” since moving up North: first time on a train, first time to New York, first time in a gay bar. I can knock out a lot of “firsts” in one trip, it seems. It’s not intentional, this accumulation of new experiences. It’s just the way things have played out. I’m from a small town in the South. It’s a slow-moving town, where people are reluctant (if not outright opposed) to change. I waited for my chance to dress how I like, to travel, to kiss a boy. I came out of the South, came out of the closet. I am no stranger to change.

Adam is from a small town, too. Sort of. He grew up in Lincoln, Massachusetts, a town just outside of Boston. His parents pick us up from the bus station and drive us home in the dark. When I ask about the town, his father turns to me and says, “This is the type of town where, when a stop sign was moved six feet, it was big news.”

Adam and I take a trail near his house to Walden Pond. He tells me the water has receded a bit from when he was in high school. There is only one restaurant in Lincoln, a small café near the Post Office. The place has turned over time after time, giving way to a new café every few years. It’s difficult to keep a business afloat. Things in Lincoln only change little by little, if at all: the water level fluctuates, the café turns over, the stop sign moves six feet.

I wake up in a separate bed per his mother’s request. We leave early for Cape Cod. The morning sun illuminates what was shadowed the night before. I realize that it is my first time to experience autumn in New England. Green actually does turn to yellow and orange and red. It’s just like the movies. At home, in Mississippi, the pine forests are green year round; the only signal of a new season is the grass that turns brown when it dies.

“We are going to see the ocean,” Adam says. “It’s been six months.” For him, going to see the Atlantic is like visiting an old friend. Adam worked here for a summer, lived here for a summer. He studied the changing landscapes around seaside cottages. When I ask where we are, he uses his arm as a map. “The shoulder,” he says, “is where the Cape meets mainland.” Then there is the elbow, where the highway stops running east to west and begins running north to south. At the wrist, which is flicked in toward his body, is Provincetown. We are driving on a six-lane highway, which turns into a four-lane highway, and finally dwindles into a two-lane highway. We are going to see the ocean.

Somewhere past the elbow and before the wrist — about mid-forearm — Adam pulls into Cape Cod National Seashore Salt Pond Visitor Center. There is a film screening — it’s been the same one since the 1980s, called The Sands of Time. Adam has seen this film, has talked about this film, has anticipated me seeing this film. The slow, thoughtful voice of a disembodied narrator tells Cape Cod was formed by the approach and retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. Nearly 300 million years ago, the sheet moved south, then north, then south, then north. The sheet left large, smooth expanses of earth and shed large chunks of ice which melted to become clear lakes — kettle ponds, Walden Ponds. When the sheet approached again, it brought boulders and sediment from the north, pushing the plain it had created and shearing the earth into layers. It “scoured” and “pulverized” the earth. The Laurentide Ice Sheet continued this coming and going for centuries. The climate changed and the ice sheet melted. The remaining moraines and outwash plains formed Cape Cod, and the glacial bed was filled to become Cape Cod Bay. The ocean began to rise rapidly. The coastline reshaped at the whim of the Atlantic. This process of coastal reconfiguration is still happening today, every wind and every wave creating new beaches. I learn that Cape Cod is made of “glacial sands and constant change.”

Eager to see water, we deviate from the strictly vertical and strictly horizontal highways. Adam drives down winding gravel roads and it feels like we are going in circles. We miss two turns. We park the car and take a skinny sand path through low-growing trees. It opens up to the sea. Well, technically it’s the bay. It isn’t the real ocean, it’s the bay. Our eyes can follow the land all the way to Provincetown. Adam points to the tip, to a tower in Provincetown. I mention to him that I’ve never seen the unblemished ocean. I’ve seen bays and gulfs and really, really big lakes. But I’ve not yet seen the ocean, in its entirety, an uninterrupted line between the sky and the water. I tell Adam this and he says to wait, I will.

We go to Provincetown. The town is empty, spare the busloads of retirees walking around buying overpriced jewelry. In the warmer months, this place is bustling with gay men. Ever since the fishermen left eighty or so years ago, hoards of gay men have filled beaches and bars.

I’ve read about Provincetown, about how writers and creatives notoriously find companionship in town and solitude in dune shacks. I know Tennessee Williams first fell in love here, over the summer, while scaling dunes and writing award-winning plays. I always thought when I came to Provincetown, it would be to write a novel. But I am here only for an hour and half. The pedestrian streets are full of straight, white senior citizens. Rainbow flags hanging in shop windows are all that remain of the previous pedestrians. We leave Provincetown and Adam teaches me how to pronounce Massachusetts. Mass-achoo-sits. Not Massat-shoe-sis

Adam parks on the side of the highway and we walk to Dune Shack Train. Adam and I take our shoes off before we ascend the first dune. The sand here never stops moving. The sand we step on may be miles away tomorrow, or maybe it will be buried meters below more sand. Cape Cod sheds sand and collects sand, circulating the same grains. We climb up one side and race down the other. This pattern continues until the dunes become covered with grass and trees and the sand flattens out. Mushrooms grow in the shade of scrub oak trees. The tips of the marram grass drag patterns in the sand, drawing circles around their roots. The footpath cuts into the final sand dune, two walls of sandy earth framing my first view of the ocean. The Atlantic is crashing into the shore. It is mighty and blue, just like the movies.

We walk along the water’s edge, our feet numb to the cold. I see the ocean. I’ve seen it.

Image via Getty

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