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small towns

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rewriting the past

Rhode Islanders live in microcosms of quiet, marine, farm, and urban communities that remain isolated from one another despite the closeness and intimacy of our tiny state.

North Kingstown, Rhode Island, is my microcosm. The beach is a five-minute walk from my house, my closest friends are one elementary school bus stop away, and marinas are like second homes. The air smells like the ocean. The green beans from my favorite local restaurant taste like the ocean. We Rhode Islanders have salt water in our blood. Sometimes when I’m in Providence, when the night is warm and misty, I get a waft of the sea. I do not know if anyone else smells it, and I hope no one else does. This is an intimate exchange between my home and me. I breathe in hellos and exhale goodbyes.

The two-lane road that centralizes North Kingstown traffic travels through quiet streets spotted with local businesses, gyms, grocery stores, and colonial houses. White Christmas lights that are two months too old for the holiday season peak out of overgrown, bristly bushes. White paint chips from doorframes, peeling away from wood soggy with salt, seaweed, and water droplets. Drip drip drip from the gutters cluttered with debris from hurricanes and bonfires and kids drunkenly throwing shit into the air on that snow day we had. I’m one of the few drivers on Post Road tonight. I roll down the windows and blast the music, taking in the intimacy of the night and breathing in the ocean air.

We walk to the beach at 6 a.m. It’s not really a beach. It’s sea and shoreline before architects manufactured the beach and carved boundaries in the sand between populated and natural space. He grabs a seashell and we hold hands. We close our eyes and make a wish. We open our eyes and promise one another that we’re starting over. Together we throw the shell into the oncoming waves, alleviating a weight that never truly went away.

My sister and I scratch our nets against the wooden pole that grounds the dock. We gaze down at the creatures lurking on and around the pole, digesting molecular pieces of underwater nutrition to feed their translucent, meaty bodies. Our nets scrape against the archive of vegetation that planted roots, like veins, in the wooden pole. We bring shrimp, minnows, and crabs to the water’s surface, feeling their slimy bodies with our waterlogged fingertips. In a fit of that satanic delight so characteristic of childish exploration, we unravel the contents of our net on the hot dock, watching the creatures flip flop under the blazing sun. We watch the hue of their scales turn pinkish, like a white shirt that turns colors in the sun. We collect the creatures and gently release them into the cool water, letting the chilled saltwater gradually heal and nurture them.

I wake up to the melodic slapping of waves against the bow of the boat. The boat sloshes side to side, rocking its sleeping passengers like a mother rocking her baby. I crawl out of the cabin and onto the deck of the boat. At 8 a.m., the ocean feels holy. A light mist covers the tops of bins, the cushions of chairs, the steering wheel of the boat. I sit in a damp chair in the cool, fresh air that moisturizes my skin with the nutrients and the wholesomeness of the sea. Today is a fresh start.

The white mailbox protrudes from the driveway, drawing my eye from the road to the mailbox, to the driveway, to the house, to the dogs who nipped at my ankles, to the old station wagon I learned to feel at home in, to him. Rhode Island is too small to leave memories or people behind. Nothing is untouched. Rhode Islanders rewrite their homes and write over the past. But overlaying new experiences in familiar places does not erase the bottom layers, the first interactions I have with a space. Old memories resurface, bubbling up and popping in my eyes. They seep through cracks, from drunkenness or a familiar smell, in porous surfaces.

I sit in the backseat of the mini van next to the boy with the white mailbox at the end of his driveway. My body is tight and clenched, afraid to move too far one way or the other in the packed car filled with people who are older than me and seem cooler than me. He reaches for my hand, feeling my slippery, clammy palm. I brush him off and say my hands are wet because I was holding a water bottle beforehand. But nothing gets past him. She drives over the curb and makes a U-turn in the middle of street. Her boyfriend turns up the music and praises her for her confident driving. The music is loud and the car is fast and the people don’t give fuck. We finally get to Sakura and we’re seated at a table in the back. We tell everyone how we met in Chemistry class. And how special I feel for dating some with the last name Valentine on Valentine’s day.

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The four of us sway drunkenly into Sakura, belting the words sake bomb! He grabs my waist and I entangle my arm with his arm and together we make our knot. We indulge in mochi, bubble tea, fried ice cream, shrimp tempura, and cups of beer and sake that fuzz our brains and distort our visions. We take pictures of one another to commemorate our drunken double date. I lean my head in and he leans his head in and we smile goofy smiles into the camera lens.

I run into the waves, kicking away the friction and the pull of the current to the shore. Deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper. Then submergence. My body feels absolved in the ocean water. It coats the nooks in my body, the round surfaces and the sharp edges. The water is between my toes, under my arms, down my back and washing the back of my neck. The ocean knows intimate parts of me. The waves coach me to let go, surging me back and forth and tousling my hair and kicking at my heels as I lie back onto the mattress of salt. I stare up at the blue sky, salt suspended in the air above me, falling into and floating out of my lungs as I inhale and exhale my aliveness. I feel everything all at once.