B is for Biddeford Pool, Maine

Maine, 1993The summer before my senior year of college, Amelia and I moved to Maine. It was her plan – she needed to take a couple of courses over the summer – and I came along to keep her company. Amelia’s grandmother owned the house, an old gabled summer cottage just across the road from the ocean. We drove up – not from the college where we spent most of the year together in Indiana, but from my mom’s house in Maryland. Amelia in an old rusting Subaru wagon with a plastic bag around the gearshift to keep the noxious fumes out and holes in the floor that allowed a view of the asphalt whizzing by. I drove my old rusting Honda Accord. It was a summer caravan, full of possibility. Amelia had brought walkie-talkies (no cellphones back then) and under my mom’s worried gaze and shower of last-minute advice, we set out. Breaker, breaker, this is Roscoe Pico Train we called to each other, laughing. 10-4 good buddy. Hot air balloons drifted over us somewhere near Scranton and we pointed out deer along the highway once we’d crossed into New York state. Copy that. We stopped at a college friend’s place in Poughkeepsie, where Amelia’s key broke off in the Subaru’s ignition. That car didn’t have an 800 mile trip in it but we didn’t care. A garage worked on the wagon while we drank beer and played pool. The next morning we were off again and when we hit Maine my rusty Honda seemed smaller, somehow, next to the dark spires of evergreen and birch along the interstate. They were exotic, they were relentless and full of solitude, and they made for a boring drive. Roscoe, good buddy, where are the moose? We’d watched “Northern Exposure” and we dreamed of a moose walking down the street in front of Amelia’s grandmother’s summer cottage. Never mind that we were headed to Southern Maine, not Alaska, and that the house was practically on the beach, not in an insolated forest upstate. I was convinced I’d see a moose that summer. I anticipated his arrival, saw him take a long drink from the swamp and shake the moss tangled in his antlers.

Biddeford Pool was a spit of land extending into the sea, with the “pool” between the peninsula and the mainland. The extreme tides drained the pool to muck daily and sucked sailboats in and out at the height of a change. The town was a market that specialized in lobster and fresh blueberry pie (the best I’ve ever tasted). We rode old bikes around the point, past mansions that people called summer homes, past rocky outcroppings and bayberry bushes. The sea was very cold and a rich bright blue. We lay on the beach letting the sun warm our skin, then waded in and screamed when our legs went numb. The only other beachgoers in June were French Canadian tourists who seemed oblivious to the chill in the air and the frigid water. Our far left liberal arts school taughts to be accepting of all cultures, but we made fun of them, hairy older men in Speedos, and later, when we’d come to know that Canadians tipped poorly, we made fun of that, too.

Amelia found work as a restaurant hostess at a nearby inn. I got a job in Kennebunkport, at a small-family run lunch place right on the water. I knew from the photos of George Bush (the first) on the walls that it wasn’t going to be a good fit. My daily duties included peeling and slicing buckets of onions for the onion rings, making lobster salad for the Maine-famous lobster rolls, and slicing lemons for the fish dishes. After a few days, running a bucket of onions I’d peeled through the slicer no longer made me cry. I opened can after can of lobster meat – the restaurant told customers it was “fresh” – and sifted the thick rounded claw meat from the rest, then removed the cartilage. I’d never handled (or eaten) lobster in any form and one of my co-workers had to show me how to take the cartilage out without slicing my fingers open. I had band-aids on constantly, and when I sliced the lemons the juice burned. At night I washed and washed my hands but they still reeked of lobster.

I soon left the job for another kitchen gig in a summer-only restaurant on a dark forested highway between Kennebunkport and Biddeford Pool. I prepared lobster salads, lobster rolls, steamed lobsters, stuffed lobsters, lobster alfredo. I never wanted to see a lobster again. I pulled them from the tank where they sat on the bottom looking forlorn, their claws banded to prevent revolt. I placed them in metal trays, slid the trays into the steam oven and shut the door. I heard them clawing the sides of the tray as they cooked from blood-black to brick red. I learned to handle the fryers, make salads, and sometimes, on the breakfast shift, man the griddle. I washed dishes, slid plates on the counter between the kitchen and dining room and yelled to the waitresses, who were older and mean and stingy about sharing their tips. I became a trusted sous chef. I became involved with the chef. After work the staff drank – White Russians, Black Russians, beer, rum and cokes, whatever there seemed to be a surplus of at the bar.

Amelia and I compared notes on our co-workers. We got invited to parties held by the rich blonde kids she worked with who’d come up from Boston, and we stood, awkwardly, trying to relate. Indiana didn’t hold much sway. We began to understand how small our tiny-liberal-arts-college world was. Grandma’s house was empty for much of the summer, until August, when she and the rest of the family would arrive, but we shared one bedroom anyway, unable to discard the closeness of school life. We cooked macaroni and cheese and made cookies late at night. We sat on the deck behind the house and smoked and watched the lights across the pool. We got out the family sea kayaks and paddled around the point then got stuck in the outgoing tide near the pool and had to swim our kayaks to shore to get out of the current. Amelia knew how to sail and we got the family boat out of its winter dock and she took us out to sea. The wind tossed us easily and the waves were bigger than I was used to. I held on tightly, scared and exhilarated. We rode a creaking tandem bike, Amelia careening down the street, me on the back, screaming.

Amelia’s family said we could adopt a cat, and so we picked up a Maine coon kitten from a woman living in a trailer. We named him Fat Kid, for reasons I can’t remember, and we scampered all over the house with him, pulling feathers and string for him to pounce on. We took Fat Kid to the beach and someone took our picture: two college friends and their cat, ocean waves crashing behind us. Our hair looks dated and we are a little chunky from college food and beer, or maybe baby fat. We look impossibly young.

We were both still underage but we went to a townie bar in Biddeford anyway, and they let us in. We bought songs on a jukebox and challenged local boys to pool games we probably lost. We giggled over the accents and then repeated the offending words as often as possible. Lobsta! Wicked! One night under a full moon Amelia and the chef and I ran into the sea, then sat on the beach, our teeth chattering.

One night on the way home from the restaurant, my high-beams caught a monster in the middle of the dark road, and I screamed as I swerved to avoid hitting it. It was the size of a large dog, with huge claws and a thick, touseled coat. I drove on terrified, taking deep breaths. I later realized I’d seen a porcupine, and I wished I’d slowed down to look at his quills. It was not a moose, but it’d have to do.

The arrival of Grandma and the family suddenly curtailed our free existence. We tried to be on good behavior, not staying out to late (don’t wake up Grandma!) not drinking and smoking in front of adults who wouldn’t approve. Grandma didn’t approve of anything. We sat down to big lobster and blueberry pie dinners with a dozen family members. Biddeford Pool was crowded now, and the water was warm(er) and we babysat for all of the rich families who’d arrived from Boston and New York and New Jersey. The adults were eager to leave the kids with someone else and we raked in cash. We were in demand. We saw into lives and didn’t like the vision: a father involved with a Swedish nanny, kids who had never combed the rocks along the sea for shells and living creatures, men who had David Duke bumper stickers on their Volvos. Parents called me — a stranger, a kid myself — after I’d put their kids to bed and asked if I could babysit all night—they wanted to stay out in Boston. I felt sorry for small children who clung to me when I tried to leave.

By the end of the summer, a guy we both knew from school had visited after hitchhiking across the country. He’d someday become Amelia’s husband, but we didn’t know that yet. My college boyfriend came to visit and I knew that it was over; knew that I had known it even before the chef. The future hung before us all, and the past seemed to be on the other side of something much wider than a summer.

When we left I looked for moose in the woods all the way down I-95, only giving up when we hit Massachusetts. The Subaru’s radiator overheated for much of the trip, and Fat Kid yowled in a crate in the backseat.

Back at school for one more year, Amelia and I had long talks in the kitchen of a house I shared with four other women. Fat Kid stayed there, too, without the landlord’s knowledge. The chef wrote me letters asking if he could come visit, which I ignored with much bravado. It was just for the summer. Get over it. Amelia began dating our friend the hitchhiker who would someday become her husband. I broke up with my boyfriend. Fat Kid, home with Amelia over winter break, ran away and never came back.

________

Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous posts:

A is for Aaron

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