On my late morning walk, I spy a skinny blond girl in a pink bathing suit sitting on a green striped porch swing. She props a cell phone against one ear.
“So,” she asks the receiver. “What do you do?” From my place on the sidewalk I slow, watching as she listens intently. “You help people?” she asks. “Why?”
Why indeed? I have no idea. It is, strictly speaking, none of my business, but I can’t help but pay attention. I’d like to run up and find out who is on the other end and what it is that she does. Nurse? Bus Driver? Poet?
But I don’t. It would break some sort of unwritten rule.
Although it’s deep July and everyone in Bradley Beach is living outside, I am a creature of suburbia where privacy rules. So I keep my questions to myself.
But it’s hard to ignore the beach world of the porches: Eating, drinking, laughing, screaming, blasting Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” The girl’s words are but one of the fragments that fill my ears as I head to the main part of town.
“I told her not to do that…” a Long Island inflected voice trails off as I come upon a conversation about ISIS.
“He doesn’t have a clue,” argues a male voice while another asks, “Does she?”
“Everyone wore green,” another story begins. Two men huddle together over cards and cigars; a family gathers around plates of barbecue.
“What do you want from me?” screams a tall man with a bun and a full sleeve tattoo.
As I walk, I think about other, older porches. My first memories of Atlantic City, my mother and father getting ready to go out with us for the evening, posting the four of us kids to wait for them on the wraparound porch of our Jewish boarding house, each of us scrubbed clean of the day’s sand in a boiling shower until our skin glowed pink. Dressed in our best summer clothes, ankle socks and black patent shoes, our hair pushed wet behind our ears, we wait to go out with my parents to dinner at that Italian place we all like on Atlantic Avenue or maybe to Captain Starns with oyster crackers and horseradish, after which we will fall into line for a promenade down the Boardwalk under the Mr. Peanut sign.
But first we sit, restlessly rocking on grey white wicker chairs, picking petty fights over two well worn comics of Richie Rich and Caspar the Friendly Ghost, surrounded by old ladies who are probably the age I am now, painted with bright red lipstick and sporting bobby-pinned curls, who gossip about the neighborhood, housing prices, Elizabeth Taylor and her latest beau and whether tomorrow will dawn sunny or dim. The price of corned beef.
“You’re a very pretty girl,” they tell me. “But you fidget too much.”
“Busybodies,” my mother rules.
On the porch in our rented house this summer, we fill the four plastic chairs – my husband and I, our two grown sons. We prop our feet on the small table to read our big beach books, sip gin and tonics and Dogfish beer, eat coal fired pizzas and keep pace of the action at the mini-golf place across the road. Conversation ebbs and flows: We talk about whether my son will get back with his old girlfriend, whether my other son will be able to play softball after a knee injury, whether we will sell our house in Elkins Park to move to Chestnut Hill. We play Bananagrams, listen to my youngest strum guitar.
After a day or two, we form a private cocoon.
But then it happens, a man on the sidewalk stops and lets his dog Ginger come up onto our porch, uninvited. He does just what I did not do: he ignores any semblance of privacy. He climbs the steps, leans on the railing, and joins our conversation. He asks questions, he fills us in on his life. He tells us about his daughter, Holly who broke up with her boyfriend, eyeing my two boys as possibilities. When he asks my oldest what he does and hears professor, his ears perk up like one of his pups. When he asks where, and we tell him, hesitantly, Harvard, he steps down the porch steps in pretend obsequiousness.
He brings out his daughter’s picture at once.
When he leaves we laugh. The next day he comes again, bringing us his wife. Our conversation circles lazily and when it turns to where we are from, she asks about the convention and Hillary. I say: “She has her problems, but she’s the best choice.”
When she doesn’t answer, I realize I’ve made a mistake.
On my chair I lean back. I think of the cacophony of porch voices rising in the air, mixing above my head. Ordinarily, I’d say something, try to convince the woman otherwise, but after a second, I don’t. And it’s because of the porch. It’s different, I realize, than if I’d invited her inside. Inside, she’d be on my turf. Here we’re strictly outside, part of the wider, public world.
“We don’t have to talk about it,” I tell her.
She smiles and nods. Soon after that, they leave. We wave goodbye.
On the porch, we discuss dinner plans. People pass by. Some nod. Some don’t. We sit there until the day turns into night. And then we sit some more.