Summer beach romances: Some last, but most don’t

She kept stealing glances at him across the crowded aisle, amid the blaring games and flashing rides at the Rehoboth Beach amusement park where they’d found work for the summer.

He was helping customers onto the Free Fall — a ride that lifts you straight up and then drops you so fast that your heart leaps into your throat. He was tall, with tousled dark hair and sculpted arms.

It turned out that Tristan Crawshaw, the 21-year-old English boy, had also caught the attention of other girls on staff at Funland, a landmark on the Rehoboth boardwalk for the past 50 years. Adela Binderova, the 23-year-old Slovakian girl, wasn’t about to compete for his affection. She decided this summer would be about the beach and friends, not romance.

But Tristan had also noticed Adela, a pretty brunette with a mischievous smile. So they flirted a little at parties. Then came a night in late June, at the end of a long shift. The park was getting ready to close, and Adela was sweeping the concrete floors. Tristan was working at one of the games, but he had no customers. The two started talking.

Less talking, more sweeping, teased one of the managers as he hustled past. The young pair made eye contact. And Adela knew that this summer might be about more than just the beach and friends.

They fall in love every summer.

Starting in late May, the Delaware beach towns are flooded with teens and young adults arriving to work. Like Tristan and Adela, many are international students who come on temporary work visas.

Soon after they arrive, they start looking around to see who else is there — hunting for the people they’ll go to the bars with, sneak beers with, hold hands with on the beach. Take a swarm of young people with suggestive tan lines and raging hormones; add moonlight, crashing surf and alcohol, and the rest becomes the stuff of lifelong memories. Rarely, but sometimes, it becomes the stuff of lasting love.

Chris Darr, Funland’s personnel manager, has seen just about everything during his seven summers of managing 100 teen and 20-something staffers.

There are the flings that implode midsummer, revealing bruised egos in the workplace: “They’ll say, ‘Don’t make me work with so-and-so. I’m done with them.’ ”

There are the relationships that don’t survive beyond Labor Day: “There’s lots of tears at the end of the season. . . . Some of them know that they can’t sustain it past that.”

There are the couples who try to stay intact across hundreds of miles or an ocean. “But they’re so far apart. It’s too hard.”

And then there are the romances that go all the way. There’s a pink paper heart tacked to a front-office bulletin board. “Met at Funland — now they’re married!” it declares, framing 19 pairs of names scrawled in cursive.

Chris’s name is there. He and his wife, Erin, met when they were 14, working at Funland for the summer. Their version of romance was all childhood sweetness. They took walks on the beach, went for ice cream, played mini golf.

When the end of the summer came — it always comes too fast — they made plans to say goodbye the morning Erin would leave. But Chris overslept, then bolted from bed with the sickening realization that he was more than an hour late for their farewell.

The teen grabbed his bicycle and pedaled the eight blocks to her parents’ house at breakneck speed. Her family’s car was packed. They were just about to leave when he raced up the street.

She was so relieved to see him, he remembers. Sitting in his office at Funland, the 31-year-old smiles at the portraits of their two little daughters hanging on the walls.

“I made it just in time,” he says.

It was a Saturday in early July, and Adela got a little too drunk at a party. Tristan left with her to walk along the boardwalk. It was late, past the beach’s 1 a.m. closing time, but Adela bolted down one of the fence-lined pathways to the sand.

“She kept yelling, ‘Let’s go into the sea! Let’s go into the sea!’ ” Tristan says. “I said, ‘We can’t. We’re not allowed there.’ ”

The couple sit in a Baskin-Robbins, sipping milkshakes as they recount the night their romance began in earnest. The conversation is a musical back-and-forth between Tristan’s baritone voice and Adela’s alto, his British inflection and her Slovakian accent.

They’ve been dating for about a month. Other girls on staff tell Adela she’s lucky to have landed the sexy Brit. She scoffs at this, batting her eyelashes at Tristan.

“The girls are so jealous. But I tell them, come on, it wasn’t my move,” she says. “He is the lucky one.”

Adela’s unflinching confidence was effective, Tristan admits. His hand is on her shoulder.

“I did all the work,” he said. “It made me want her more.”

Adela is determined to get what she wants; she’s not the type to worry much about rules. The night she ran to the beach, a police officer saw her and looked at Tristan — who promised he’d go get her. The officer nodded. They all know this routine.

So Tristan followed Adela, who kept racing toward the surf, yelling back to him: “Come on! You’re so boring!”

Tristan finally caught up to her and walked her to a friend’s place nearby. They stayed that night together, for the first time, in their friend’s living room.

The stereotype of the summer romance — even the Urban Dictionary definition — demands that it end come September. It’s just a fling, just fun, all sweat and sand and skin, and then it recedes into rose-hued memory with the arrival of fall.

But some of the most renowned pop-culture examples of summer love (think “Grease,” “Dirty Dancing” or “The Notebook”) say otherwise. They instill the dream of a romance that doesn’t fizzle but perseveres despite the odds.

Sitting on the floor of her living room in Rehoboth Beach with her husband and toddler, Fiona Curry, 30, remembers the summer of 2002. She was Fiona Hill then, just 20 years old, one of three Scottish girls working at Funland for the summer. At first, she didn’t notice Ian Curry — the boss’s son, her friends told her, a fourth-generation member of the family that has owned the park since 1962.

Ian had spotted Fiona, though. She was hard to miss — long blond hair, big blue eyes, a lilting brogue. But when he saw her walking to her apartment with her friends on a warm June night, he tried not to seem too interested.

“I tried to play it cool,” he says, smiling at his wife.

A decade later, Fiona says she can still picture what he looked like that night, the handsome 19-year-old American boy with the green eyes who strolled out of the Royal Treat ice cream parlor, holding a cone, asking her a casual question: “Are you going to Ricky’s party later?”

She played it cool, too. “Maybe,” she said.

But she did go to Ricky’s party. And when she and her friends slipped out, Ian went with them. After that, they were almost always together.

Both their mothers asked them — nervously — “This is just a summer romance, right?”

Fiona laughs. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’d say so.’ ”

On a hot night, the Rehoboth boardwalk is packed with people ambling past the blazing neon storefronts. The air is heavy with the scent of saltwater and sweat and sunscreen; the tepid breeze carries drunken shouts from a nearby bar (and the faint sound of someone retching). But there’s still a certain woozy enchantment to the scene.

A couple of teenage boys are playing guitar on a nearby bench. Down on the sand, beyond the reach of the boardwalk lights, someone has lighted a Chinese sky lantern. The candle flares, and the lantern becomes a tiny hot-air balloon — carried by the heat of the flame, rising in the black sky over the sea.

The drifting light catches the attention of a couple walking by. They stop to watch. The pretty young woman in a long cotton dress asks what it is.

“It’s a paper lantern,” her companion says. He puts his arm around her. “It goes up and up, until the flame burns out, and then it falls.”

She smiles. “That’s very romantic,” she says. It is.

Above them in the dark, a waxing moon beams like the Cheshire cat’s grin.

On a muggy Friday afternoon, Adela and Tristan flee to an air-conditioned theater to catch a movie before their evening shift at Funland.

Inside, they sit entwined as the previews roll. Adela’s legs are draped over Tristan’s, their fingers laced together in her lap.

Despite the escapism of a summer by the sea, the world beyond sometimes forces its way in. A teaser for the new James Bond movie flashes across the screen.

“Ah — we’re not going to be here for this one,” Tristan says.

“Yeah,” Adela says, wistful. “November . . .

A summer romance must abide by the words of the poet Philip Larkin: “Always is always now.”

Before the years of jetting back and forth between Scotland and the United States, before the countless hours spent talking on the phone with cheap international calling cards, before the big Scottish wedding and the birth of a baby boy, there was a goodbye at the end of a summer.

Ian drove Fiona and her friends to the bus stop in Rehoboth on a clear September morning. He helped the girls with their suitcases. Fiona was in tears. Ian says he wasn’t — “Well, not really. But there was just the sinking feeling of goodbye . . .

It was a few months after the movie “Shrek” — the animated classic about the grouchy ogre and his beloved princess, Fiona — had appeared in theaters. So Ian gave Fiona a giant stuffed Shrek, one of the prizes from a game station at Funland. It would be his replacement, he joked.

After the last of their embraces, Fiona climbed aboard the bus, clutching the enormous stuffed ogre. She cried and waved to Ian, but the windows were tinted dark; Ian thought he caught one last glimpse of her before the bus pulled away.

There has been some talk about what might happen between Adela and Tristan at summer’s end. Some of their co-workers are leaving in the next couple of weeks, before the end of the season. Adela says: “It’s like, oh my God, it’s coming. It’s already coming.”

“It’s gonna suck,” says Tristan, gulping a Long Island iced tea on a rooftop bar after a closing shift at Funland. “It’s like this is the best time of your life, and you know it.”

Tristan leaves on the weekend of Sept. 9 to head back to England. Adela will stay and travel for a couple of extra weeks. She’ll be in Slovakia by the end of September. On her way home, she’s planning to stop in London for a couple of days to see Tristan, she says. They’ll stay in touch, see how things go.

Both have one more year at school before they graduate and big plans for the rest of their lives. Tristan wants to be a commercial airline pilot. Adela wants to manage a business, maybe be a chief executive someday.

All that’s far away. Now, Tristan’s talking about how he “saved Adela’s life” the other day by rescuing her from powerful waves at the beach. Adela recalls how sweet it was when Tristan won her a colorful squishy ball from one of the Funland games. Tristan says he loves that Adela makes him fried-egg sandwiches when they get home from the bars.

Maybe they’ll stay an extra few days in Rehoboth, after the park closes. They haven’t booked flights yet.

“Well, we can talk about that later in the season,” Tristan says, looking at Adela. She smiles, noncommittal.

After a few drinks, they head home. They’re staying at Adela’s tonight, an apartment she shares with three roommates, in a neighborhood halfway between Rehoboth and Dewey Beach.

As soon as they’re outside the car, they reach for each other’s hands. The night is hazy and warm; the soft breeze whispering in the trees betrays no hint of autumn. The couple walk to the door slowly, their shoulders touching. There’s no hurry. Here in the always-now, their flame is still aloft.

Caitlin Gibson covers Loudoun County for The Washington Post.
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