Growing up, I swore to myself that I would become as distanced from New Jersey as the horizon is from the sea. Maybe that meant California, Ireland, or a never ending string of destinations far away from Cape May County. Winters here are characterized by an oppressive emptiness, and summers are stolen by swarms of tourists. Tourists who take our parking and our beaches and our sun, but tourists who I miss once winter rolls around. Spring and autumn are the only seasons which I feel belong to me, but what is six months of begrudging content compared to a complete year of unbridled happiness elsewhere? And so, I made the vow that I would leave the small world of the shore as soon as possible.
It’s funny how, when people picture New Jersey, they see factory buildings and busy cities and maybe sometimes casinos, but this is not the New Jersey that I know. When people say that New Jersey is the worst state, that New Jerseyans are second-strand New Yorkers (Half of the state is closer to Philadelphia. I hate the Mets and the Yankees more.), that we are drunkards and gamblers and partiers without an ounce of etiquette, I feel offended and misrepresented and angry. How can they say that about a state with my hometown of Ocean City, a dry island, with not a plume of factory smoke in sight? How could they complain about the everpresent flaws of New Jersey and still vacation here every year, making us work for them? If all stereotypes are rooted in truth, then rude tourists perform their stereotype like their life depends on it. Then I realize that maybe I am not so much better than those out-of-state speculators. Did I not promise to leave, in what is in my mind, this hellhole at an early age? Do I not hate what the majority of the Shoobies and Bennies love? Do I not hold my nose while driving through Elizabeth, do I not hold my breath while walking through Caesar’s Palace? I must be a hypocrite for feeling so defensive over these stereotypes that I perpetuate. Or maybe not.
Defending New Jersey is like defending a sibling: I am the only one who can say these things about it. Anyone else aiming to land an insult must be mistaken, because I will rise with angry words that have been waiting, just waiting, for someone to pluck up the nerve to dare to try me. No one would argue that defense over your sibling who you relentlessly tease and bother is a foreign concept, so why does it feel like that when I perk up at the slightest hint of distaste towards New Jersey? Defense of a sibling is formed from unconditional love, and I have made it quite clear to myself that I love nothing about New Jersey, that I need to leave, that if I don’t leave, I will have failed my one mission in life. You will never forget your sibling, but I’ve done everything in my power to try to leave New Jersey in my past.
But there’s a pull from the tides to stay, and the hateful people push me to remain a loyal guardian. A deep desire to correct the misunderstandings about my home roots me here, and I suppose our beautiful beaches don’t hurt, either. But still my brain petitions my heart in favor of my vow; it knows that I can never accomplish my dreams if I don’t muster up the courage to leave New Jersey in the hands of just as apt of a defender (certainly there are many). But deep down I know that it isn’t just love that has me wavering on my promise, but fear. How can I not want to stay, when there’s so much I don’t want to change? And what about everything I want to change that might not occur without my presence? If I go, life will stay the same and it will be different and I can exert no control over it. If I go, I can never return, because I would not know how to deal with walking an unrecognizable strip of land that is supposed to be my home. I could not swim in the oceans when the beaches will undeniably take such a different shape. I could not drive up the Parkway with the inevitable new exits and new rest stops and new everything. I would be forced to make my home somewhere else, away from the sea and away from familiarity. And that is what scares me.
It can’t be an original feeling, or a sentiment local to New Jerseyans, and I can’t be the first to write it down. But as the resolve on my promise slips away, the words have slipped out of me. I still plan on leaving New Jersey, but I no longer plan on leaving it behind.
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