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G-rated (incomplete) Cliff Notes from my summer on Cape Cod
Remember when I said I would write to you? I believe I used the word “soon”. Turns out soon, by my standards, is three-months’ time. The United States Postal Service moves quicker than me.
I think I knew, deep down, that once I washed back on Cape, all creativity would go out the window; or, should I say, the window for creativity would inevitably constrict.
Between reacclimating to a cramped, albeit lovely, Cape cottage and applying to more freelancing gigs while trying to find comfort in a New England climate that more often than not hums to the tune of Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold”, I was also learning how to balance a tray of beer, wine, soda, and martinis filled to the brim while also learning how to mix and pour said martinis while also getting acquainted with the underbelly of a bar and a kitchen that’s older than I am. Like the previous sentence, I felt drawn out and overwhelmed with to-dos; and yet, despite being greeted with a feeling of summer frenzy, not ease, I still held out hoped that I would write like I said I would.
As the last few months proved, this was not a writing summer—nor was it a summer of soaking up the sun. This year, the sunny days of June didn’t truly arrive until August, and the August mugginess clung to us in early June and July. My days were chalk full of menial but must-do to-dos, such as laundry and grocery shopping, which beckoned me inside, before clocking-in for an adrenalin-filled or boredom-inducing shift at the local restaurant and bar I signed up to work at this summer into the early fall.
Turns out, my time working at the restaurant—a gold mine of content and stories to regale you with—was also another writing hurdle I just couldn’t jump. Not only did the late hours drain me of any energy to open my laptop, but what I wanted to write about—tales of a kitchen in disarray and the woes of the restaurant industry—were off limits. I’m fond of the owners, and it’s a small town after all. The restaurant is an institution. I didn’t want to betray industry secrets, air dirty laundry, or accidentally defame a well-known local. In good consciousness, I just couldn’t put what I saw in print just yet. I’d have to let those stories settle for a while.
So, those are my excuses. And now it’s September. The wind wafting off the bay is already sharper. Some of the leaves are already losing their vibrant chlorophyll hue, hinting at their inevitable volta from green to yellow, orange to red (if we’re lucky), and then red to brown before the frost sets in (hopefully). But before this summer truly fades away, like the colors in the sky after a brilliant sunset, and that old curmudgeon Labor Day blows the trumpet on Monday (tomorrow!!), warning us all to put our white pants away, I’m going to document my summer on Cape Cod in broad strokes, give you some G-rated Cliff Notes, per say.
Flowers petals are dappled with raindrops like a kid’s face wet with kisses. Boots and a turtleneck, a skirt sans tights—I dress like a seasonally confused school girl to brave the morning chill and prepare for the inevitably muggy afternoon. I drive less than a mile down the road to Orleans’ town center; walk from my car to the boutique, lunchbox and book in hand; and take my place behind the newly furnished counter.
Reggae hums in rhythmic sway as I tidy up racks of lace, cotton, and polyester taking on the pseudo-role of silk. Candles, gold-plated jewelry, and dried flowers snuggle on shelves. By 3:00 p.m., my eyelids puff and sag, hunger for real sunlight in lieu of the fluorescent lights I’ve been forced to bask under with no means of escape.
Once I put the mannequins to bed and turn the key to lock up all the well-curated goods, I’m free. Outside, a light mist spritzes my cheeks while a heavy heat quickly kinks my hair. The sudden humidity makes me want to rip off the turtleneck that the cool morning forced me to put on despite it being late spring.
Mom visits, along with my brother. We take a walk on the flats and sink our toes into the cool, recently rippled sand. We play backgammon, drink wine, watch the waves during overcast days. We all share a meal out in Wellfleet and cut into a blueberry pie to pre-celebrate my brother’s birthday.
Memorial Day weekend: I, a newbie waitress, am in the weeds. I seat patrons, bus tables, take orders, run cards, run drinks, run food. I have my first seven-top, deal with a four-top who acts like they own the restaurant and the sky, and wait on a two-top who way over tip me (bless them). I spill a beer in front of the women who ordered it and do a jig as I press the towel into the damp carpet to soak up the spilled liquid. I handle the floor of a small dining room solo, like a chicken holding onto its half-severed head, and find the courage to keep going, despite the mania, solely because I have a seasoned, pot-smoking, reliable bartender as my backup. He swoops in like The Flash, clearing dishes and re-setting tables before I can even blink.
I, an amateur bartender with only a few shifts under my belt, find myself behind the bar at night, on a holiday weekend, slinging drinks. Thank goodness I made a cheat sheet and have enough charm to distract from my nerve-induced mistakes (like hitting the soda button on the gun instead of the tonic one). Thank goodness I dated a skilled bartender. Thank goodness my current partner bartends. And thank God for sweet locals who know just how to boost my confidence: by commenting on the very satisfying meniscus that forms from my steady, hefty pour.
After the rain comes more rain and no-see-ums and thorns with no pops of pink to offset the intimidation that seems to be growing up from the thicket beyond the porch. On days I’m not unpacking, sorting, and organizing clothing at the boutique, I put on my ugly black Sketchers, a t-shirt I don’t care about, and jean shorts and practice carrying water and soda glasses on a small black tray from the dish pit to the waitressing station. With practice, and my first spill out of the way, I soon gain enough confidence to walk with a full tray of wine glasses without holding my breath. On rare afternoons when my day off aligns with the sun shining in the sky, I lay outside. Just beyond the porch, the thorny tendrils of the nearly bloomed rose bushes encroach on the soft dune grasses, which become courser and sparser as they give way to rocks, shells, and sand grains that are still rough, not yet polished by the tumbling of the tide. The water glistens blue like denim, green like algae, and sometimes iridescent and speckled with gold when the light hits the horizon just right.
Some days, the world I see outside the sliding double doors of the Cape house is so monotone and flat it seems the three-dimensional world I live in might just be an illusion. On these foggy, overcast days, the water pauses, breathes only a murmur as if to hold its breath for fear the fishes will know it, too, is alive. On other foggy days, when the air howls and the sky opens up, the waves swim sideways, wave their whitecaps as if to compete with the chaos from above.
After the rain, when the clouds clear, people arrive to witnesses the renown Skaket Beach sunsets. They gather to sit in chairs, stand in the tidal pools, and walk on the mounds of sand formed earlier by the receding tide to watch as the sinking ball of life-giving light runs to the horizon line to hide for the night. In these moments, we all watch the sky like one watches a painter saturating their canvas with colors in real time. Magentas, ochre, periwinkle, slashes of crimson, and whisps of indigo run like watercolors and dance like ribbons in the wind.
While I mush ground lamb, green onion, egg, salt, pepper, olive oil, oregano, soy sauce, and cumin together to combine, I contemplate how to best split my work time. I reassess priorities, rearrange plans, and make pro/con lists as my hands roll meatballs and gently place them on a baking tray.
The bar over the boutique eventually wins out in the boxing ring of my mind, and so I dress a mannequin with the newest summer threads one last time before making myself at home at the bar and restaurant full-time. Lunch shifts, dinner shifts, on the floor and behind the bar. During the lunch shift on Wednesdays and Sundays, I pour Budweiser, mix the occasional Old Fashioned, and spend time with a cash machine older than me. Thursday through Saturday, I tie on my little black apron and run plates of seafood medley, cheeseburgers, and broiled scrod.
To combat the cortisol and adrenaline spurred by the frenzy of the kitchen, I find myself holding weights and squatting in front of a smudged mirror, surrounded by women in high-waisted, booty-sculpting shorts and Converse and men in ratty cut-off college t-shirts. I see old women in leggings and flip flops using the leg-press machine and one gentleman dressed like Danny Zuko using the squat rack. Young washashores and locals above the age of 65 all mingle and rotate among the complicated machines and racked weights. The beach town gym is a people-watchers paradise, and it proves to be the perfect place for a change of scenery and to start regularly moving my body again.
The sea roses finally bloom: berries that burst into magenta flowers unfurl their papier-mâché-thin petals, and, suddenly, the thorns look less scary, though their prickers still remain sharp. The white and green striped cushions finally get a refresh at the laundromat with bleach and vinegar; the white plastic deck chairs receive a much-needed scrub with a concoction of bleach, Comet, and Dawn by Brooks’ mom. As for me, I’m put on shower duty. I stand in my bikini, scrub-brush in hand, in the all-wooden outdoor shower and get to work on the green algae married to the wood. With pink dish gloves and a lime green-handled brush, I scrub and scrub until the olive-tinted wood turns from a dark brown back to a light brown with a hint of chestnut. Almost squeaky clean.
Outside the shower stall, the sun blares down on a beach littered with plastic shovels the size of my hand and pink and green and red buckets full of crabs, snails, and sand. Children yelp and wail and laugh in the breeze. A group of beach-goers plays their music a bit too long under the assumption everyone on the beach loves Zac Brown Band as much as they do. Holes are dug, sunburns form, and sandcastles are constructed from wet sand dribbled from fingertips. And we watched it all from our perch on the deck—a deck whose wooden boards bounce, on which we have to walk with care for fear of a stubbed toe. But it’s paradise. It’s home.
At night, we look up and see the stars, jump as Fourth of July fireworks pop like Pop Rocks in the inky black sky.
In the heat of the kitchen, I assemble pre-dinner salads, dress them with parmesan peppercorn, honey mustard, or ranch and fill cups with blue cheese for those who demand it on the side. Sweat runs down my temples as my feet shuffle into the kitchen behind the swinging door, my hands grabbing plates that have sat under the heat lamp for a bit too long.
“I got a seven-top!”
“Half a dozen oysters, please!”
“I got a deuce!”
“Cape Cod IPA. Tito’s martini, straight up, rocks on the side. Glass of Hess—please!”
My cheeks hurt from smiling. My brain gasps for a moment of silence, a respite from the adrenaline and the order of operations jumbled in my brain. After the last credit card slip has been signed and the dining room has been deserted, I sit down at the desk among oil-stained menus and shovel shrimp scampi into my mouth.
Following the celebration of Brooks’ mom’s birthday over a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and buttered toast, I venture north to Maine. My mom, uncle, aunt, and I shiver on one beach, eating sandwiches under clouds that completely cover the sky and threaten to let down droplets of water. We chase the sun to another beach and manage to munch on some crackers before the sky finally opens up, and we’re then forced home, where we enjoy a meal of grilled halibut, a simple tomato sauce, string beans, and some crusty bread. The next day, we drive further north to spend a day amongst the flowers at the botanical gardens. Down winding dirt paths and across stone-covered strips of walkway, we take turns pushing my mom in a wheelchair so she doesn’t walk on her broken pinky toe. Like kids reading a treasure map, we chart our path to meet the giant wooden trolls that guard the forest grounds. We pass fairy houses, stop to smell the flowers, and walk through a garden that floods our five senses.
Birthdays galore, late nights and even later mornings, more shifts, and first swims in the bay. Finally, there is a pause to enjoy summer as it should be. August brings weeks of no business followed by a steady flow of customers as folks drive on and off Cape for their last hurrahs before the school bell rings.
On a quiet Wednesday, the wind plays with the screen door as I sit with a book propped open by my thumb and pinky. Fruit flies buzz. I’ve taken a pause from ushering them away from the beer tap—a vain pursuit indeed. The smell of old citrus married with antiseptic soap wafts up from the sinks. Time to drain and fill them with hot water before the shift change at 6 p.m.
Glasses, sparkling clean, hang upside down like clear bells that chime when rustled by my hand sliding a newly cleaned one into its rightful place. To the right of the three consecutive stainless-steel sinks sits a messy row of wet glasses patiently waiting for me to take a cocktail napkin to them before restacking and rehanging them in preparation for their next use. But I’m tired. The heat’s been hanging out with me all day like a customer that just won’t shut up. I look around, hope someone will walk through either of the doors to give me a reason to pour a beer or shake a Kamikaze. No one appears.
I slide off the wooden stool, which is slightly too high for my short stature, and stretch my citrus-puckered hands above my head. My sneakers stick to the bar mats on the floor that do a piss-poor job of making the floors look clean, though they do help capture and corral the fragments of broken glass from being kicked about by feet that move in haste from one end of the nine-person bar to the next when it gets busy…if it gets busy.
One glance past where the mats end, and my eye settles on a puddle of black goop, saturated paper debris, popped beer bottle caps, and thin red cocktail straws once dropped and now forgotten. I dry the glasses that have been waiting patiently and drain the sinks before turning the faucet on to refill them with fresh, hot water. Water seeps out from the faucet and spreads across the stainless-steel dash, dribbles down into the unreachable corners to pool on the floor, eventually joining the black puddle of goop.
Soon, the pre-dinner crowd starts to gather. The infamous $3.00 drafties are poured along with glasses of Simi chardonnay and Josh rosé. I mix a Manhattan and am soon asked for another. I smile to myself, filled with a sense of pride that I’ve done something right. Menus are requested, and I set them in front of those who ask. Soon, I’m relieved from my post and sneak out through the kitchen’s back door. The cicadas whisper from in the woods as I shuffle into my car and head home to eat a steak lovingly being grilled by Brooks.
Runners gather at the start: former high-school star athletes, seventh-grade boys with abs and pre-pubescent faces, college superstars, washed up jocks who just laced up their sneakers for the promise of a free cold one. The flag is raised, the national anthem is sung, and the gun is sounded—they’re off.
A thirsty crowd starts to encroach around the keg on wheels donated to the charity event. Sweating and thirsty, the runners huddle close to the foldable plastic tables, which are already covered with a healthy sheen of Budweiser foam. My fingers are starting to prune and the runners’ thirst won’t let up. They clutch their bibs for proof of their free beer earned, hold out an empty hand and look at us with thirsty eyes. Locals in flip flops, holding someone else’s bib, try to convince us that they, too, ran and earned a free beer.
I haven’t turned off the tap since the first pour. Quickly, I reach for another plastic cup to hug to the spigot, tilt it slightly to let the foam roll off the lip of the cup and into the catch drain. Cup after cup I fill with liquid gold, liquid bread. Pour and pass, pour and pass.
The college kids leave and all is quiet once more.
Dad visits, and we toast his arrival with lobster rolls and fried seafood before visiting a place of my youth: Bud’s Go-Karts. The following day, I put on my golfer’s best in an attempt to look the part and distract from my lack of skill. Dad says I have a good swing, but this “good swing” of mine always hangs right and forces me to double, triple, quadruple bogey each hole. Despite my abysmal golf display, the weather puts its best foot forward: no clouds in a sky that’s so blue it almost looks cartoonish. It’s a temperate 70 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chases away any sweat I may break. After four hours of my best effort, I return home with a V-shaped sunburn on my chest, ready for a filling meal of fresh seafood. Sandwiched between my dad’s first and last day on Cape, we grill scallops, eat ice cream, and visit The Beachcomber twice to drink Goombay Smashes and Piña Coladas. I redeem myself playing mini put-put, but even then Dad out-shines us all with a hole-in-one (x2).
On sunny and rainy afternoons alike, my fingers clack at the keys of my computer as I do the menial writing of a job I don’t necessarily know if I want but that I don’t protest enough to quit just yet.
After a night of a rumbling tummy, I’m finally enticed by the peaches on the counter to pause and make myself a summer toast. I toast sourdough and slather it with Philadelphia cream cheese (pawned off to us by the renters next door) before topping my toast with sautéed peaches (cooked in butter and seasoned with a dash of salt and ginger powder) and fresh mint.
Summer is sweet.
This summer was a hummingbird.
This summer felt like trying to catch sunlight in a bottle.
Aside from the little tomatoes that Brooks’ mom’s tomato plant continues to produce, these bites of my peach toast are the last true bites of summer I may taste before the cooler air blows more steadily, the sign of another summer come and gone.