You can't go back there right now, because let's face it, you are not the same. It was always a fiction, anyway, that the beach you saw yesterday was the beach you see today. Each time a wave crashes against the rocks off shore, each time it tosses pebbles up and down again, it sifts and reorders things. Sometimes the changes are so extraordinary you can feel the past slipping through your fingers like sand.
Close your eyes and there it is, that mile-and-a-half stretch punctuated by nightclubs and parking lots and motels: Misquamicut Beach of the 1970s. The Vettes with Connecticut license plates rumble by, the parking lot attendant adjusts his mirrored shades, the arcade is alive with the click-clack of air hockey and beep-beep of the pinball machines. There they are, yesterday's sandcastles, the Wreck with its faux ship's wheel, the Atlantis with its whirling disco ball, the Blue Sands with lines of people spilling into the road. Hear the jukebox rocking with Led Zeppelin or some iconic summer song like "One of these Nights" or "Rock the Boat" (don't rock the boat, baby …). Follow the sounds of PF & the Flyers or Little Orphan Annie or Beaver Brown spilling out of the clubs' open doors as night descends.
But first put on that string bikini, three triangles of fabric, one of which has a bad habit of shifting when you dance on the picnic tables at Sam's. Find your favorite spot for the thin gray blanket, the one that sees and feels things your mother doesn't need to know about, and anchor its corners with a pair of Dr. Scholl's sandals. Open the brown plastic bottle of Coppertone, squeeze out the white lotion and slather it all over your body, slowly if the guys on the next blanket are watching. Turn up your friend's tape player when the most raucous Stones song comes on, like "Midnight Rambler" or "Happy." Now hide behind your big sunglasses and Glamour magazine so the guys to the southeast won't hear you giggling about them.
It's Paddy's Wigwam or Sam's Snack Bar for lunch, a chicken sandwich or a burger, so put on those white Wrangler short-shorts and the T-shirt that says "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" Your mother probably has never heard of LaBelle but she does speak French, and she does not approve, but you've smuggled the shirt out anyway, in the drawstring bag emblazoned with a rainbow and the name of your favorite beach. You sashay down Atlantic Avenue while your best friend swings her tape player back and forth to the beat of Keith's guitar. You flirt with the parking lot attendant at the Andrea, who is a lot older than you, or you head in the other direction, to Mr. Mirrored Shades. Either way, you are doing what your mother would refer to as "looking for trouble."
Autumn comes too quickly, washing over the beach with a sudden high tide that takes everything with it — the cute guy you'd spotted on the next blanket; your mellow tobacco-colored tan; all those summer songs on the radio. Yes, school starts, the boards go up on the windows of Paddy's and Sam's, and it will be an eternity before the beach comes alive again.
Misquamicut is about more than summer, though. You make a beeline for it in early spring, on that first hot day when the mercury rises to 60, 65, and you have hope that this long winter will finally end. You let a kite go up into the blustery sky behind the Wreck, watching it dive onto the bar's roof and get caught in all that ship's rigging up there. You wear a button that says "Come Fly a Kite," and then someone emerges from around a corner of the Wreck who will take you up on that, at least for a while. From now on, when you tell your mother you're going kite-flying, sometimes you are, and sometimes you aren't.
But always, you assumed, there would be next summer. You would dust off your Dr. Scholl's sandals (Red this year? Tan? Classic blue?) and dig out that Misquamicut drawstring bag and pack that bottle of Coppertone and your red terrycloth cover-up and the old gray blanket, and you'd find a few cassettes for the tape player – Black Oak Arkansas and BTO and the Stones – and you'd toss it all into the backseat of your '65 Mustang and head down Atlantic Avenue. When the Windjammer came into view you'd roll down your windows and the smell of salt and frying oil would waft in, just as it did every summer, and there were the Spectrum India dresses waving their indigo blue dyes from the little T-shirt shop on the corner and the guy in the mirrored sunglasses waving down cars and the yellow and maroon Vettes with the Connecticut hunks inside driving slowly by.
Because you were seventeen and the beach would always be there just as it was now, as boundless and eternal as the tide.
Betty J. Cotter is the author of the novels "The Winters" and "Roberta's Woods" and teaches English and journalism at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich and the University of Rhode Island.
The beach and nearly every business in Misquamicut are ready to open for the 2013 season. Maria's Seaside Cafe will reopen next year. And there's so much to look forward to, starting with Springfest, held May 10-12. There will be rides, games, food, vendors and other amusements. Families with young children will love the petting zoo and the rides tailored to little ones. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band will kick off the weekend's music on Friday night.
• Hundreds of schoolchildren, business owners and local residents will celebrate Misquamicut Beach's recovery in a big way by holding hands and lining the beach from the Pleasant View Inn to Westerly Town Beach during a “Hands Along the Sands” event on Friday, May 17, at 10 a.m. In the weeks leading up to this event, Westerly schoolchildren will learn about the ocean and the challenges of living in a shoreline community. Educational programs will be provided by The JASON Project, which is managed by Sea Research foundation.
• Misquamicut Beach is also hosting Bold r Dash — a challenging 5k race featuring more than 20 military-style obstacles on May 18 and 19. Three thousand racers will run, climb, crawl and slide their way to the finish line, a fun spectacle that should not be missed.
• Visiting this summer? Families will love the hermit crab races on Wednesday nights at the Purple Ape shop on Winnapaug Road and movies on the beach on Tuesdays. Music lovers will enjoy the performances on the beach on Monday and Wednesday nights. Magic shows will be back this year too.