The summer I turned sixteen, my family vacationed at Coral Cove, a narrow strip of quaint theme motels, rickety vendor sheds and seafood shacks along the Gulf Coast. We stayed at the Blue Mermaid Motel, where guests checked in at an office carved into a thirty-foot plaster fishtail.
The beach lay just across the two-lane road. An ancient wooden pier jutted out into the waves, and every day the blazing hot sand around it teemed with families jostling for space to unfold beach chairs or build sand castles. Kids like my little sister Laurie waded in the shallow water near the shore.
It wasn’t an exotic tropical paradise, like the ones in those novels I hid under my bed. But I was young and fanciful, and everything about the place—the carnival atmosphere, the pungent salty air, the distant boats on the water—seemed to hint at romantic possibilities. Never mind that real romantic possibilities (i.e., teenage boys) seemed under-represented at Coral Cove. Something magical would happen. I was sure of it.
One morning, I got up at sunrise and put on my favorite sun dress: sapphire blue to match my eyes, splashed with yellow daffodils to complement my hair. The fitted bodice emphasized what little figure I had to emphasize.
I crept out without waking Laurie, who shared a room with me. And across the road, on the beach, I met an artist who had come to Coral Cove to paint landscapes.
With his sleek dark hair and hint of a mustache, he looked old enough to be interesting but not intimidating. I was intimidated, though. When I first saw him, daubing gray and brown paint on his canvas, I stood still and stared. But he noticed me and called,
“Good morning! So I’m not the only early bird.”
“Hello,” I said. “Are... you painting?”
I could have kicked myself for asking such a stupid question. But he smiled and said,
“That’s right. I like the light this time of morning. Are you staying here?”
“Yes. With my family. I’m Linda.”
“And I’m Erick.”
That was how it began. My parents never knew, and they would have been shocked that I spent early mornings on the beach with a strange man. But there was nothing shocking about our relationship, if our pleasant, platonic conversations could be called that. Erick liked me to sit on the pier and talk to him while he painted. We never talked about him, only about me—but I was young and narcissistic, and didn’t mind.
Naturally, I thought I loved him. Perhaps I did, a little bit.
Erick told me he sometimes drove along the coast in the afternoons, and I hinted that I’d like to come along. He never asked me, though—just as well, since my parents wouldn’t have agreed.
On the day my family left Coral Cove, I gave Erick my address and he promised to write. I shouldn’t have been devastated that he didn’t keep that promise. But I was.
Thirty-five years later—my daughters grown and married, my husband occupied at work—I vacationed alone for the first time in my life.
“Maybe you should go to Coral Cove,” my husband teased. I had told him about Erick.
And because I hoped for some resolution, I went... not to find Erick, of course, but to remind myself of all that had changed.
Everything had. Hurricanes and developers had swept away the quaint town I remembered. Coral Cove had morphed into a glitzy community of high-priced condos and chain hotels.
Yet there, in my hotel room that smelled of paint and new wood, I found my sixteenth-summer self. She smiled from the framed print that hung above the bed—her bare feet dangling from the old weathered pier, her golden hair rippling around her shoulders. A small brass plaque attached to the frame read:
Summer: Girl in a Blue Flowered Dress
I asked the hotel manager, but he knew nothing about the artist.
“It’s a popular print, though,” he said. “The old pier, you know... torn down after the hurricane damaged it. That print’s in about a hundred guest rooms, and it’s available in the gift shop, too.”
I smiled and thanked him, but I knew I wouldn’t buy one. Someday the hotel would redecorate, and the prints of Erick’s painting would go the way of the Blue Mermaid’s tail. Until then, an echo of my sixteen-year-old self would remain here, an archetype of summer.
It was enough.
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