If I had a house by the sea, it would be white and wood, at the very edge of town.
Years ago, my parents divorced amicably. They told us—my brother, sister, and me—one night around eight, before bed. We were assured the separation would be just a summer of respite: “Something like an intermission,” I remember them saying. I was very young. I can’t recall any distinct understanding of the moment, any hold on how the conversation might be realized. But I remember a big uneasy shift in the room, like the couch had suddenly vanished and we were squatting sore-thighed in the living room.
Afterward, when I returned to my room, I looked up the word “intermission.” Twenty minutes, I thought to myself, that doesn’t sound so bad.
They got on with it fast. Divided their assets in good spirits. She the tufted chaise; he the mahogany desk. She the dishware; he the silver. She the abstract art; he the paintings of ancient Kings before their nearly nude, bowing following. For some years, too, they remained friends.
Nowadays, my parents live on opposite ends of Manhattan, and over summers, on either fork of the Island. My mother’s stilted two-bedroom is just off Dune Road—that physical and figurative underscore of Long Island—in Pond Point. Each wall of her shingled cottage is painted a different color—turquoise, tangerine, lavender, and coral. Photos of summers past adorn end tables, a mirror bordered by seashells hangs in the corridor, and placed about is signage indicative of a mawkish interior designer: “Live. Laugh. Love.” “The best antiques are old friends.” “Family.” Guests sleep in the beds my sister and I slept in as kids.
Outside, the neighborhood is the optimal representation of the word. The streets are spry with children learning to ride two-wheelers, women weeding their gardens, and couples, drunken and old, falling in love again for the warm months. There is a peace to the place so aseptic that it becomes, to an extent, implausible. There’s nothing ugly or mean in the girdled little community—nothing against which to measure the charm of Pond Point, and so even when I say it, the silky alliteration can’t help but roll from my tongue with tinctures of resentment. From above, the enclave resembles a wave at the top of its ascent; it hooks into the bay as if to keep the water safe.
My father lives a couple miles north. Across Sunrise Highway and past Indian Island Park, his home is a representation of the wealth that has come to define eastern Long Island—albeit an unconventional one. On an acre, three separate houses, each with a theme culled from eras of my father’s past, make up the compound. In the Africa House, a giraffe’s jaw bone is mounted next to a painting of Muslim eyes beneath a Burka. The ’60s House bears newspaper clippings of the Vietnam War beside photos of my dad at Woodstock, a braid to his waist. And in the China House, an ancient herbal apothecary chest is offset by a traditional Chinese wedding bed. The backyard is rife with adult toys. Boats and an aqua-lodge, a pool and a hot tub, a playground, a sauna, a refurbished Airstream trailer, an oversized charcoal grill, a tank of coy fish, a fire pit, a deluge of antique statues, and, etched into the entrance stairway, which is flanked by two-ton granite lions, the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”
The house, though, is more ignorant than it is youthful. It is a Gatsbian portrayal if ever there was one, inspiring in visitors the sort of calculated awe my father intended. One has no choice but to gasp and dote at the unreality of it all. But his fervent intension, corroborated by his proud tours, tends to diminish the pleasure; the flamboyance to sully the beauty. The house’s jagged stone exterior seems always to be sighing a great sigh of superfluous effort.
In the last year, my parents have grown intolerant of one another. Their rift—presupposed it felt by the very separateness of their bodies; that same separateness that allowed them to be touched and held by each other—has grown so very wide. I look at their lives now, at their homes, and I wonder how they ever sustained a marriage for twenty years. How was there ever enough likeness to make a family? But likeness, they’ve both taught me, has little to do with love.
On this end—that of their offspring—I wrestle with the irreconcilable legacies of that bemusing love: the value of empathy and sentiment versus the value of knowledge and history. I sit in their spaces clutching for my own ideals. But the more I sit, the more I realize that often, it is not the contents—the things—that offers answers, but the emptiness between, the schism that defines so many pairs these days. The realization has taught me where I feel most comfortable. In the middle, the gap, where there is space to stretch.
From the edge of my parents’ properties, the views are astonishingly similar. The reeds, growing tall and regal, stretch out the wetlands like animated limbs. Obedient to the wind, they point toward the bays—Moriches at my Mom’s and Flanders at my Dad’s—whose shimmering surfaces solicit my eyes for hours. I kick back in a lawn chair and I look around, reminded that these places, despite coming from them, are not my own. Then I imagine what it might look like if I had a house by the sea. A wooden shack with white walls, near quiet flaps of water and an eventual sunset.