A Heartbreakingly Perfect Day on the Beach By Diana Bletter
The morning that my best friend Herb’s daughter, Jesse, took the train from Penn Station for a day at the beach in Montauk started out dismal and gray. Jesse—dark-haired and slate-eyed—was 20-years-0ld and on her summer break from the University of Michigan. Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, she got in my car at the Westhampton train station, placing a white tote bag at her feet. When Jesse was 10, her mother, Aimee, had died from multiple sclerosis; her brother, Matt, was severely autistic. And in her white tote bag was sunscreen, a towel, a wallet, and a container wrapped in silver that held her father’s ashes. Jesse wanted to scatter those ashes on the beach in Montauk, the beach that Herb had loved and where they’d spent a week each summer.
I didn’t turn on the radio and Jesse and I didn’t talk much. After the Seven-11 in Southampton we could see the land suddenly unfurl like a banner, like a dazzling green carpet. The Milk Pail, the Poxabogue golf course, the corn fields, the Bridgehampton School with its plum-colored bricks: everything promised some kind of permanence which was as comforting as it was disconcerting. Because there was Jesse sitting next to me, as orphaned as an orphan could be. Those she loved, who’d loved her, had left her, and she had to live the rest of her life on her own, without them.
We drove down Main Street in East Hampton where the sun flickered against the shop windows and then past the windmill, where we followed the road to the right. The tall trees holding up the sky disappeared and the land reverted to its scruffy and wild and untamed self. At another fork in the road, Jesse said, “Go right. My Dad used to drive us here and we called it the Roller Coaster Road.” It was the Old Montauk Highway and we drove past Gurney’s and the ocean tumbled off the side of the cliff, breathless and vast and unstoppable.
The road dipped and turned. Rose and fell. We drove through Montauk, passing Memory Motel and Herb’s Market which I didn’t want her to notice—but how could she not have noticed?—and then into Ditch Plains where the Ditch Witch truck was plunked down at the edge of the beach.
By now the sun had conquered the clouds and the beach was dotted with sunbathers, melting ice cream cones, translucent beads on the fuzzy skin of local peaches, kids with plastic shovels digging to the other side of the earth, a mother nursing her baby under a bright orange shawl. Surfers perched like pelicans out past the breakers. Every now and then a surfer would paddle furiously, pop up, and then a rugged ribbon of white toward the shore. Jesse and I spread our towels on the sand and I lay under my striped umbrella and she lay down just past the scalloped edge of shade.
I’d known Jesse since she was born and I’d met her father years before that. Herb was my best-guy-friend, the brother I wished I had: barrel-chested, athletic, outrageous. Once, in the crowded and hushed elevator going up to the second floor at Tiffany’s on Fifth Avenue—we were both exchanging gifts—I blurted out, “Herb, how could you even think I’d marry you when the ring you gave me was so small?”
I glanced at him sideways, feeling the other passengers leaning in, listening to our conversation. I didn’t think Herb would ever come up with a line to match my own but without missing a beat, he said, “If I hadn’t spent all that money on your bail I could have bought you a bigger ring.”
“Tell me everything you remember about my Dad,” Jesse said now as I smeared sunscreen on her back.
I remembered meeting him at a college preparatory program the summer I was 16 and then meeting up with him again as freshmen the following year, and how we’d remained close for something that would have seemed like forever to Jesse—39 years. I remembered lying on this same beach with Herb two years earlier when he told me he had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and how he said he was scared to die. I couldn’t say that to Jesse now. The line from the Emily Dickinson poem came to me, “If I can stop one heart from breaking…” and I fumbled for the right words but Jesse was crying into the sand.