A Provincetown collage

October 6, 2006

I wake up at 5 a.m., much too early to leave. I am returning to Provincetown, the bursting, seaside universe in which I spent the summer interning at the Fine Arts Work Center. If there was a dissatisfying part of my work in Provincetown, I don’t remember it. I do remember being surrounded by artists and writers, getting distracted in my office tasks and book alphabetizing because, well, there were so many books to look at, and workshopping my writing with some of the authors I most admire (Marie Howe, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Collum McCann, among others).

I also remember nearly running over another one of my literary idols, Mary Oliver. I was speeding along the cereal aisle of Grand Union in my pajama pants, flip flops, and socks. Literally, I just missed knocking the poet to the floor. I’m pretty sure I spoke to her, said something like “HumanauhmmanauhmIjustwantedtothankyouforyour-poetry,” but I may have just smiled, maybe tripped over myself, and backed out of the aisle clutching a granola box.

Mary Oliver is one of the reasons I am up at 5 a.m. on a Friday, ready to drive the 350 something miles from Burlington to the tip of Cape Cod—she is giving a reading, a very rare occurrence. I roll around in bed for twenty minutes. 5:20 a.m. I turn on my light, read for twenty minutes. 5:40. I start watching Free Willy, all the way to the part where he steals his foster dad’s truck to cart Willy to the safety of the open sea. My apartment is freezing. Eventually, too excited and cold to wait for that rush I always get when Willy is finally free, I scramble up and begin pacing the floor. I make lists; gather water bottles, gum, apples; spend a ridiculous amount of time debating whether to bring any poetry books with me. Undoubtedly, I will buy Mary Oliver’s newest book while at the reading, but still, I decide to bring Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems because it is the smallest on my shelf. I shove it between two notebooks and head out to load the car.��

In Provincetown, I will stay with the couple I lived with over the summer, Anna and Kathy—a pair of true Provincetown artists and their dog, Joey. In truth, I probably would have gone back for the sole reasons of seeing them and the ocean, just to be there.

My plan is to drive to Lebanon, New Hampshire, catch a bus there to Boston, then get another bus from Boston to Provincetown. That’s the plan. Soon, however, my car begins wheezing and smoking. For a while I think the sound is a sick squirrel and that the smoke might be coming from the grocery truck in front of me, as it smells sweet, mildly like muffins. It isn’t muffins.

(Now is where this story could get Pinnochio-esque if I go on in such detail. Though every bit would be true, I’m sure it would not seem so. But to arrive in Provincetown was essential—the summer there had turned me into a desperate woman. I needed to go back, I needed Provincetown.� In the interest of affirming the truth of that day, let’s consider the facts one by one.)

1. It isn’t muffins; it is my car. I call my very nice father, and he very nicely switches cars with me.

2. Listen to a Ray Charles CD (my favorite song “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” which plays twenty-one times). Get on Lebanon bus in plenty of time. Dartmouth Coach Company. They serve pretzels, bottled water, and show a movie, The Philadelphia Story. Very posh. I like pretzels, love Cary Grant, and am very happy.

3. I smell smoke. It spills through my side of the bus. I tell the driver. He makes calls.

4. We pull off the highway. Half-hour later, the Concord bus man picks us up. No pretzels, but I don’t care. My bus to Provincetown is to leave from South Station at 2 p.m. I’m getting nervous and pretzels won’t help.

5. Concord man gets lost in downtown Boston. We end up in Harvard Square in heavy traffic. The driver swears a lot into his cell phone; it keeps dying on him.

6. Forty-five minutes later we are at South Station, the driver sweating and reaching for a Snickers. I have five minutes to catch my next bus. I run. I’m pretty fast, which is good. I get a ticket to Hyannis for my Provincetown connection. (There are four buses to Hyannis, one bus from Hyannis to Provincetown).

7. The Hyannis system is first-come, first-served. The line stretches a block long before it wraps around itself; therefore, making my connection will be technically impossible. I walk up to an attendant, intending to calmly explain my situation. I am a calm person, this is not usually hard.

8. I start to sob. I smell like burnt muffin smoke. I want a Snickers. I am thirsty. I am a tiny mess in a very long line. He probably thinks I’m twelve years old and pats my back. “It’s all right, dear, just go stand by that nice blonde couple in the front of the line. I’ll pretend not to notice.” I do this, get on the bus.

9. Nothing breaks on this bus, but the guy next to me has a cold and no tissues. We reach Hyannis just in time.

10. On the Provincetown bus, everything is lovely until the air-pressure gauge breaks. This means the bus begins to make long, squealing beeps and the brake will not release whenever we stop.

11. We stop for twenty minutes before this specific problem is discovered. It turns out our bus driver is also a mechanic, and because of this, he becomes a young, gay, Hawaiian-shirted Santa Claus to me. He opens and closes the door, pumps the brake, the bus starts up again.

12. Every time we stop (every light, stop sign, traffic hold), the air-pressure system flares its warning, and the driver/mechanic must engage in his genius ritual. Total: an extra hour and fifteen minutes of travel time and approximately a full half-hour of very loud squeal beeps.

13. I read bits of “Howl” during these pauses. The words “hysterical,” and “waking nightmares” start to feel oddly familiar. I should have brought a different book.

14. I always sit at the front of the bus because of the time I once threw up in the back of one. Coming into Provincetown that evening I am close to the door, I smell the salt air gust through the cracks.

15. After gathering my bags, I walk the mile to Kathy and Anna’s little house. They aren’t home, but light from a lime-green lamp spills over the front steps. The house smells of damp carpets and incense. Two extra quilts are folded on my bed.

16. I almost cry again but decide to go out for seafood instead. I almost skip along the entire sidewalk but get tired after awhile (the prospect of poetry and fresh seafood can wear a person out). A piece of cornbread and six oysters on the half shell later, I am walking back to the house again, the extra horseradish I always add still burning in my nose.�

Provincetown makes me feel I have been chosen to be the one loved person on earth. It is home in the barest sense of the word. Even when empty-handed and alone, I feel full and surrounded, as if even the air is somehow larger and breathing. Now, walking past the chipped, white fences, the few remaining roses, the produce trucks and fishermen, past the clouded October sea, I am confused. I don’t remember. Tell me: why again, can’t I have everything?

Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue.

Next Student Voice


Alice Neiley ’07