Re-education

I got a hook shoved through my lip as a last hurrah in Oregon and then we sped three thousand miles down mostly I​­-80 in a rickety Hyundai​­- pausing briefly in Nebraska, to bid farewell to Nigh’s parents- ­​so Nigh could meet my family in Bridgehampton. I’d met Nigh after a crummy summer out here alone. I was 23. I was working as a shopgirl at a tony boutique and compulsively attending exercise classes. When you’re living alone, and the only interaction you have with people is selling them $100+ pieces of cotton, and you hear the voice of an exercise guru chanting squeeeeze and squeeezeeeee and tighter tighter tighter even when no one else is around, you tend to burn out. I was burnt out. Then Nigh­- a drop­-dead gorgeous hippie kid (age 28) from the prairie, a self­-described anarchist with a flower tucked behind his ear and a sharpie that he used to tag DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO! everywhere­- came stumbling into my life somewhere off the Brooklyn L. He asked me to run away with him. He was seeking out places in the USA that were “free”: free land, free people. The antidote to the Hamptons. I clambered into his Hyundai, and ran. We spent the next four months chasing down freedom, hanging out with crustpunks at communes and squats out West. I had quite a bit of anxiety before we set off (“But, what will happen to my perfectly-­toned butt without Core Fusion?”), and quite a bit of anxiety once we’d started (“What does that mean ‘do what you want to do’?; “What do you mean we don’t need money to live? We’re using my trust fund to pay for gas, food, your health insurance, car insurance…”), but I got over it. I decided that I could spend the entire trip being judgmental or I could suspend my disbelief, embrace the hippie­ values, and learn. So I did. I smoked a lot of bud. I disavowed cleanliness, and sent my parents manic emails about how they had to drop everything, give up on the Hamptons and their bourgeois set­up, throw away their egos and all their cash, and learn to Love. I fell in love with Nigh. It’’s a strange game to play, to decide to believe something that you don’t, to actively try to disintegrate your old self as a method of not going nuts. Letting yourself go crazy in order to not go crazy. I played the game so well that I really did believe my old self had dissolved; I played the game so well that I forgot that newfound hippie me had been born out of a suspension of disbelief. I’d been reborn. Somewhere around Ohio, reborn Anna died. The sky was getting smaller and smaller and the houses were getting smaller and smaller and the people were getting smaller and smaller: we were East. East Coast Anna started emerging in twisted tongues like Lucifer speaking through Regan in The Exorcist. All my drab upper­-middle­-class hangups, values, judgments, all my private school snobbishness, were back. Like a body washed ashore. Like a rash that you’ve put down hundreds of dollars to get rid of but then it’s back in pimply red bumps. I did my best to ignore her. By the time we pulled up to Hildreth Road, I was trying to keep her to myself, but let’s face it: I was tweaking. “AAAAAAACKK!” my father greets me. “What happened to your FACE?!?” “Anna.” My mother pulls me aside. “Your father was very excited to take us out to dinner at National. It’s a special place, his golf club. It’s a very… nice… place. But your father is sad, because he does not feel comfortable taking you out to eat anywhere when you have that… that…” She grimaces. “My lip ring?” “Mmm. Can you, uh, remove it? So we can go eat?” “I don’t get it,” Nigh says. “It looks like Nebraska. What’s the big deal?” The two of us are walking barefoot down Sagaponack, avoiding my parents, who are probably avoiding us. “It’s no Joshua Tree,” I tell him. “But… I dunno. It’s still pretty, I think.” “So, you call this a country house? I don’t get it. Where’s the country?” And again, minutes later: “ROADS ROADS ROADS WHAT ARE THE POINT OF ROADS WHY DID WE EVER BUILD ROADS? Maaaan, why’d people have to go and ruin everything? Maaaan, why’d money have to go and destroy everything? Isn’t there at least a trailhead around? A sidewalk?” Shmaltzy vehicles speed past. I look at the houses. I remember how I used to enjoy going on “walks in the country” because I’d admire the houses and manicured lawns and well-­clipped hedges. I’d play little games with myself, choosing what combination of shapes and shingling and shutters I’d pick for my own dream-­home. I decide against suggesting this game to Nigh. There is a trailhead around here, actually, but I don’t show it to Nigh. I guess that I want to keep it for myself. Instead, I take him to the beach. He’s only seen the Atlantic once before. It’s Saturday. It’s summer. I won’t ruin our beach for you. You can guess what Nigh had to say about our beach. A confession. It’s shameful: that’s why it’s a confession. So I know that the Hamptons are ridiculous, everyone knows that the Hamptons are ridiculous, just like some know that the Hamptons are beautiful, in spite of its ridiculousness. But as I walked with Nigh, I wasn’t simply upset that he could not see the beauty in old elms and maples casting their peaceful shadows, the beauty of the sun lighting up fields in pink hues… No. I was upset because I wanted him to be impressed by the big houses, the grandeur, the wealth. This was middle-­school me sneaking in: the girl who was taught, at such an absurdly young age (when Nigh was like, still being a kid, running through cornfields), to throw in the phrase “The Hamptons” in casual conversation. Never “I’m going to my house in Bridgehampton” or “I’m going to Long Island” but simply, “I’m taking the Jitney out to The Hamptons. Do you have a house in The Hamptons? Oh, you don’t? Oh, Connecticut? Oooh…” I learned long ago to stop that. I learned long ago that having parents who are wealthy enough to summer on the East End is nothing to take personal pride in­- and that it’s rather distasteful to do so. Still. I guess that it’s not that easy to un­learn one’s cultural habits­ no matter how much one wishes the world were otherwise, no matter how romantic it’d be. It’s not that easy to be re­-educated. My aristocrat relatives in China had dunce caps secured to their heads and were made to go work the fields under Mao. Their home was divvied up so their servants got the top­-half and my relatives got the servant’s quarters. The servants continued to serve. AAACK! There’s a trend these days in remembering the Hamptons “back when”, back in the days before “hamptons” was a verb, before the land exploded and became one swank gala. This trend seems to me like another form of cultural capital; the instinct to mutter “I remember when…” doesn’t seem much different than cruising around in some fancy convertible, but whatever, man. I never knew that Hamptons. I was a kid in Bridgehampton in the 90s; all I know is the fancy-shmancy Hamptons that are full of people shopping and dining out even though, presumably, we’re out here to get away from all that. Still. I really did and do find beauty, and get some nature-kick, in this Hamptons, despite the fanciness. The magic of fireflies blinking, lighting up dusk. The toads that I’d collect – the feeling of holding this little body in cupped hands. Watching a family of deer sprint across the yard. The song of crickets, and the stillness when they suddenly stop. And stars. I know, there aren’t many stars, but when you’re a city kid and don’t have stars in your life at all, any sighting of stars- and the realization that us humans are small, small, small, no matter how large our houses are- is really big. Nigh and I spent the next week huddled in a king-sized bed as I had a continuous panic attack that I could not explain to Nigh- this overwhelming awful feeling that East Coast Anna was back and no amount of Universal Love or We Are All One, Man could get rid of the ugly blunt fact that there are cultural differences between a Nebraskan hippie and a Hamptons Summer Girl that feel insurmountable. Terribly unromantic. Eventually, I found myself acting cruel to Nigh and so sent him back on the road. I cried, removed the hook, and went with Daddy to let mucous-y oysters slide deliciously down my throat, and watch the Bay lap tranquilly against yachts.