Fiction · 05/13/2015

Nights in Venice

“Hey,” we want to say to the people beside us on the train, “have you ever been to Ocean City for the Night in Venice boat parade?”

We know they haven’t. We know that nobody goes to Night in Venice unless they live at the Jersey Shore like we do. We know that people don’t travel from all over the world to see bedazzled boats glide along our lagoons, not like they travel to see the real Venice, just like we are right now, Mrs. DeNunzio’s eleventh grade A.P. European history class from Egg Harbor Township High School, bulleting out of Pisa to this place we first learned of on those sticky July nights when we were kids and our islands morphed into a starburst astride the dark unknown Atlantic we’ve just ventured across for the first time.

We want to tell the people speeding alongside us through Mestre that Night in Venice is the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen. An endless procession of vessels lit up against the darkening sky. All of the houses draped in twinkle lights just for this night, for everyone crowding the docks, mainlanders bumping against islanders from Atlantic City to Cape May. We wait for the tide to rise so that the taller boats can make their way; we pray for no rain, for the humidity to fade. The drawbridges open and stay that way. One after another the boats meander through the bay, speedboats, sailboats, banana boats, houseboats. Families and fishermen and firemen and friends, all in a flotilla that never quite ends.

We try to snap ourselves out of our reminiscing and read our guidebooks like Mrs. DeNunzio told us to, but every time we see the word “Venice” on the page, our minds flit right back across the Atlantic to that parade.

We imagine our captive audience asking if anybody can participate, and we’ll say yes, anybody and everybody. Jimmy McNally from Longport, Erin’s granddad, he paraded his Mako two weeks before he died. The year before that a troupe of fifth graders snuck through. We’ll tell them how every year we have a theme. Christmas in July. Night at the Oscars. Hawaii. And at the end of the night among confetti and revelry, those in the best-dressed boat are crowned. We close our eyes and we’re there again; we hear the boaters honk and cheer as they pass us and we cheer back, we dance in the heat to the beats of boom boxes, slurp up our melting Italian ice. We run alongside our cousins, our friends, whomever our parents know in Ocean City who can get us close to the show, we breathe in the barbeque and the custard and the swampy seaweed air that we know only to associate with these moments, when we are convinced that a little bit of magic has touched us there on the Jersey Shore.

We don’t tell the other people on the train anything, though. We throw our guidebooks in our backpacks and stare out our windows as the mainland disappears.

To get to the islands from Egg Harbor Township, you take a causeway just like the one our train’s crossing now. When we approach our Jersey islands, high-rise condos and casino towers appear, but from the train we see red roofs everywhere, the Campanile of St. Mark’s jutting above them all. We board a vaporetto to our hotel, and the gorgeous decay teasing us from the Grand Canal, why even bother describing it, when so many poets and painters have done so way more beautifully than we ever could? But we want to tell you, all of you people from all over the planet docking beside us in Venice, none of it’s as breathtaking as our parade, really, it’s not! But you wouldn’t believe us. Why would you? As we sling our luggage along the canals to our hotel, we realize there’s a tiny piece of us that believes it less and less ourselves.

The next day we tour the Accademia, the Doge’s Palace, gaze at Byzantine treasures from the Hagia Sofia in St. Mark’s. We sip Venetian hot chocolate as we sail under the Bridge of Sighs on group gondolas, tighten our scarves against the late-winter chill. We try to keep our voices down, to look to locals to imitate like we did in Milan, though the locals there were inimitable — too tall, too chic, more suave than we could ever dream to be. When we packed for our trip, we heeded the guidebooks’ advice: no sneakers, no jeans, no baseball caps! “Blend in!” Mrs. DeNunzio beseeched us. But as we ferry to San Giorgo we don’t detect another local in sight. We see fanny packs and cameras and furrowed brows.

“Where are the locals?” we ask each other. “What does a Venetian look like?”

“Like a waiter,” Mrs. DeNunzio says. “Like a gondolier. Like a hotel porter. Maybe. But mostly these are immigrants from North Africa, you see.”

She tells us there are no jobs here that aren’t tourism jobs. That the population is sinking faster than the city itself. That most young people who were born here board ferries to the mainland and never come back.

“So basically we’ve visiting a giant outdoor museum?” Erin McNally folds her arms and asks.

Mrs. DeNunzio shrugs. “Basically, yes.”

And though we’re saddened to think of this crumbling empire we’re also smug. Because at least our islands have islanders. At least they have that. We don’t need any tourists to keep our islands breathing, do we?

But later that afternoon as we wander through Santa Maria della Salute we say it: maybe nobody comes to see our Night in Venice, to see anything in New Jersey, because our islands are, well, we don’t want to admit it, but how can we not, trapped in this palazzo-lined dream — because our islands are unremarkable. Ugly. But no — we beg each other to shut up, remind each other that our islands, our New Jersey, it has people; it’s a place! Sure we have giant seventies-era condos casting shadows across the beach. Sure we have McMansions that bulge at the seams of their lots. Sure we’ve got motorboats and hoagies rather than gondolas and polenta. But when Night in Venice happens, it happens for us, by us.

This is something special, we decide. Untouchable. We bask in this knowledge as the girls gaze at leather boots so soft they seem to have been shorn straight off the cow. We envelop ourselves in haughtiness as we dash through puddles after sneaking out to a bar. The Campanile pounds out midnight from the square that’s disappearing under the merciless Acqua Alta. And our islands, we scream to the silent buildings — our islands aren’t disappearing, aren’t sinking, aren’t going anywhere!

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But then we go to the first Night in Venice after our school trip. And though no one wants to admit it, something’s different. Our fellow spectators seem so brusque and rowdy. So American. All of them in support of an unjust war launched by a president who can’t pronounce “nuclear.” We said we supported it too, before. But now we’re not so sure.

The strangest thing of all is that there are fewer boats this year.

“The economy,” some say.

“They’re all dying off, the ones who loved this parade most,” say others.

We don’t know what it is. All we know is that when we were kids, this was the thing, this was the place, the highlight of every endless summer of a childhood that feels enchanted now. No towers had fallen, no war in Iraq was being waged. We all felt so safe. Forget what our textbooks said; those were the Gay Nineties! Minivans and Nintendo and Nickelodeon and the worst thing on the news was Monica Lewinsky and we were the center of the universe. America. Invincible. And to see it up close, all you had to do was go to a Night in Venice, see how we all came together and celebrated. But what is there to celebrate now?

Even the weather’s gotten strange, and on this July night of our senior summer, it’s chilly and overcast. A group of us wanders onto the grandstand at the 16th Avenue boat ramp, hands stuffed in our pockets as we watch the parade pass. We usually travel as a unit, us “A.P. Kids,” but some of us couldn’t be bothered to come out tonight. And we can’t blame them, we concede, as raindrops start to splatter us. The music is bad, five years behind; the decorations look crass. One boat is Solo cup-themed. Another announces itself as “Drunkin Donuts,” fitting since its captains seem to have downed a few. And we have, too. In our opaque water bottles we’re hiding secrets from the adults. But the deepest secret of all is that we don’t want to be here anymore.

Our parents have never been to Europe, have never ventured out of the country; some of them have never even left New Jersey. We don’t think they can possibly understand. What it’s like to see ugliness seep into something you found so beautiful, what that does to you. Or maybe they can. We don’t know whether things have changed or whether we have changed. All we know is that we want to feel the way we remember feeling at the sight of the sunset over our bay. We dash off the grandstand onto the muddy ground, shoot the shit over cheesesteaks from the nearest Wawa until we’re sober enough to drive home. But even when the sun sneaks out over the thinning crowds just before the earth pulls it down, we realize we just can’t feel that way now.

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At the end of our freshman year of college, we learn that Night in Venice has been cancelled. Participation’s too low. More of the old stalwarts have died; Kyle Volpe’s Pop-Pop, the parade’s organizer, passed in the winter. The local American Legion, a major backer, just closed. Other people keep selling their boats; with every storm they’re more of a liability, they say. A few of us who room together at Rowan observe the skeletal marinas from the Margate Bridge on our way back from the beach on Labor Day. We say we’ll band together and revive the parade.

“Maybe we host a ‘Rebirth’ theme,” Meghan Callahan says more snidely than we think she means to.

“We’ll deck the boats out in diapers, light them up with birthday candles,” Dylan Lupiski jokes.

But we won’t revive anything. We’re busy. Everybody’s busy. Busy in ways we never thought we’d be.

Mrs. DeNunzio and our other teachers told us that we were the golden kids, the ones who’d escape. But only a few of us have — Lauren Senzamici to Georgetown, Steven Muldoon to Duke. Most of us, we’re at the state schools because it’s all our parents can afford. We’re taking cheaper summer classes; at work, we’re picking up extra shifts. We thought we’d skip town, jet off to big cities and travel the world. We thought Venice, those trips, that life was our future, and it made the sudden lameness of the parade feel okay. And yet we’re still here, making up excuses not to see each other, trying to forget that the Nights in Venice we remember aren’t a thing anymore. But how can you forget, we ask, when you pass the exit for Ocean City every morning as you drive from your parents’ house to class?

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When a place becomes only its past, is it still a museum if there’s no one there to see it? We don’t know. We’ll never know because pretty soon the storms start nipping away at the islands, tearing up our marinas and jetties and boardwalks. We watch in disbelief as the islands become uninhabitable, as our grandparents and our friends take permanent shelter in our mainland towns. But we rarely see them; we hole up in our houses because there isn’t anything better to do outside, because there barely even is an outside. The Atlantic laps over the islands, encroaching on us, submerging New Jersey in its very own Acqua Alta.

Who would’ve thought our islands would disappear, too? We didn’t. But soon we’ll have no islands, already we have no Night in Venice, and when the Jersey Shore becomes a memory no one will ever care to see our leftover amusement park tickets and fading photo albums and roughened clam shells, will they? No tourists ever came to watch our empire sink; before that nobody important wrote poems or painted pictures of our homes and waterways. Maybe we should’ve told those people on the train about the parade. We, the ones crossing the Venetian Causeway that day who could’ve borne witness to the place we called the Jersey Shore.

But “we.” Who is “we”? This is our final admission: we, scattered now, with only the unrecoverable past to thread us, we’re hardly a “we” anymore.

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Regina Tavani is a writer and textbook editor who lives in the Boston area. She tweets @rmtavani.