So I’m feeling a little nostalgic today. During a brief moment of mental respite at work, I went to google images, searched ‘Virginia Beach’ and just stared for a few minutes. I used to live in that wonderful city, and still, nearly 4 years after I left her, she still calls to me. In a way, Virginia Beach is my Mecca, the place I will always come back to and the place I will always want to be.
Still feeling this homesickness after work, I dug up an old essay I wrote in college about Virginia Beach and I was nearly in tears for the ache I felt to get back there…one day.
I want to share parts of it here but I’ve also posted the whole thing over here, if you’re interested. I called it Mona Lisa Smile.
The place where I begin and end my morning run is quite literally surf turf. The ocean in front of me is speckled with black wet suits and shiny boards. But this is not just any surf turf. It’s local surf turf. The hotel strip starts at 4th Street, so 1st through 3rd streets are marked off with orange striped construction barrels and old road barriers with “Locals Only” spray painted on them. And for the most part, the tourists obey.
Later in the day, the municipal parking lot fills up with fishermen on the south side of the jetty and surfers on the north side. The bodies on the beach have “757” tattoos on their ankles or “Cox High School” t-shirts. They wear Roxy or Billabong suits; they don’t use sunscreen and they don’t bring towels. They just lay out on their surf and body boards, or the sand. Their hair is long and their skin is tan and everything about them says “I live here.” They know where all the other private beaches are and all the secret spots tourists never get close to, but they come here to gloat—to be the center of every stranger’s envy, like the Princess actresses at Disneyland. It is their own kind of celebrity, I suppose.
The poor, unsuspecting family from Missouri approaches 3rd street looking for less crowded sand with their brimmed hats, lawn chairs, sunscreened noses and plastic wheelbarrow full of beach play things for little Johnny. One look at the construction barrels and the long line of brown noses pointed at them, and the Missourians turn back in the direction of the Sand Castle Hotel, back towards the sea of bodies and voices and lotions and cameras.
Here, there are kids without diapers running towards open water with stolen bottles of Coppertone and moms chasing them down before the waves carry them out to sea. There are little girls crying because the water’s cold and little boys digging sand out of each others’ shorts. There are old men with bad farmer’s tans and beer bellies, and old women with permed hair in solid colored one-pieces. There are young couples trying not to have sex in the sand. Groups of high school girls strut like show horses down the beach, the neighing stallions their judges. The sound of the water is drowned with laughter and playful screams, shouting and crying, music and chatter. In the summer, it’s overwhelming.
Virginia Beach is the city that tries, in the best sense of the word. It doesn’t just exist; it interacts with tourists and nurtures locals unlike any place on earth.
So there’s the Mona Lisa of Virginia Beach. Here’s the smile: I’ve never met a person from Virginia Beach that wasn’t totally enamored by the place. People love being a part of its fabric. Sure, living on any coast has natural appeal, but a local’s love for this place goes beyond the 44 blocks of Atlantic Ave. that make it onto the postcards and travel brochures.
It’s found in the sand on the floorboards of their Hondas. It’s plastered on the “No Cussing” license plates that mimic the signs bolted to every lamp post at the oceanfront. It’s on the racquetball courts of the community centers and the trails of the neighborhood parks. It’s in the “I [heart] Jet Noise” bumper stickers and the thundering roars of the F18 jets overhead that inspired them. It’s found at the end of Shore Drive, where the naval base begins. It’s flickered in the light of Sandbridge bonfires in January and swallowed up in the pie-eating contest at the Annual Strawberry Festival in May. It sweeps across the open farmland of Pungo territory and etches its way through the lead paint of hundred-year-old houses at North Beach. Indeed, the mystery of Virginia Beach’s allure, her matronly smile, is found and felt in a compilation of moments that whisper we are home and safe.