All the Feels
It smelled like vanilla cream and fish parts. The minute the car doors opened, heat and sunlight flooded our bodies, along with the heavy scents of those two things, and we couldn’t quite tell if we were hungry for the Ben and Jerry’s we’d made the trip for or not. But we still walked out towards the harbor from our parking spot, walked into the ice cream shop,and decided, yes we were still hungry after all.
Memories of Montauk frequently wash over me, coming in twos and threes. Occasionally a stronger one makes its place in my mind like a piece of driftwood, lodged solidly in my brain as the rest washes back out to the deeper parts once again. I don’t ever really have a full story, but the vignettes are poignant and heady, filled with heat and sunshine and smelling of salt, feeling like laughter and exhaustion. There is always an interesting texture to them. There never one single emotion or feeling but layers of feeling that maybe don’t on the surface go well together, but I welcome them anyway. I crave them now.
I learned how to write out on the island. I learned how to play, to be a teenager (a bitchy one, I will admit). I learned how to listen to the waves at night and thrill at the idea that the waves could at any moment crash over the dunes and into our tents, yet still somehow be rocked, smiling, to sleep by the pattern of the sounds. I read my first romance novel at Hither Hills from the little library/book exchange and made my first “questionable” friends out there (some good eggs, too). And I learned how to write.
Back when we used to go, you could still actually reserve a spot at Hither Hills camp ground without doing mental and internet acrobatics or knowing someone. Every year, we drove out to the camp grounds in a mom car, complete with trunk “seats” that were considered too dangerous really to use for any length of time. It was packed to the roof with comic books, snacks, towels, tents, sleeping bags, “real” clothes that would never be worn, bathing suits that would fill with sand and shrimp and seaweed, and a little charcoal camp grill for grilling vegetables for dinner.
The same year we discovered the Ben and Jerry’s out by the Block Island Ferry landing, it absolutely poured on our way back to the camp. There was not a cloud in the sky until we returned from our ice cream trip. As we drove back through the gates, the skies opened up. We weren’t really in a rush to get out of the car- all it would mean was sitting in our tents in the damp. At least inside the car there was a radio. No one could agree on a channel- my sister and I were into Blink-182 and other “rock” music while my parents had lived through the true rock age and couldn’t stand it. So we settled on a radio interview with Frank McCourt. My mother, the one in the family who usually “discovers” things, had heard of him but none of the rest of us had. He had just made best seller lists with Angela’s Ashes, and was all over the news and radio on interviews. My sister and I reluctantly agreed to listen because he sounded so charming. I don’t know how long we stayed in the car, listening to that interview, but when the rain stopped we refused to leave until McCourt had finished talking.
The next year, my best friend and I had both been accepted to a writer’s workshop for teenagers at the University of South Hampton. We made friends with other writers- city kids whose lives sounded completely exotic compared to our small town lives. We were there only for a week, but all of us moved in as if we were going off to college for the year. We decorated the cinderblock walls and rearranging the beds, moving extra beds into the common room so we could all stay up too late and talk, rather than write. We walked through the campus singing aloud together Bright Eyes songs (that unifying emo band that all of our fathers hated and who we all, as tortured teens, could identify with).The program had managed to get Frank McCourt to visit and speak to us. We sat around in a huge circle, listening to him and afraid to ask any real questions but also, not knowing quite what we wanted to ask. I remember wishing I could take him home with me. Irish charm and wit in a grandfatherly package. My best friend and I came back home from that trip and decided to actually read the book he’d become so famous for. We took turns reading aloud to each other on my couch and were introduced to a much more difficult life than we had ever had, written so beautifully, with such wit, you could not understand how he managed to do it.
I think the reason McCourt resonated so well with me, and the reason my memory of him is always so heavily laced with the sounds of crashing waves, buzzing mosquitos, and slick sun lotion is not just that my first discoveries of him were out in the Hamptons and Montauk. He is not by any means my absolute favorite author. But I think there is something there, in his writing, in his interviews, that almost mimic beach time.
While playing in the water, you can feel incredible power mixed with other very distinct sensations all at once. There are cold water, rough sand, hot sun, stinging eyes and mouths. There is shrieking laughter mixed with fear and ending in pain as I dive head long into the sand after riding a wave, and that pleased exhaustion after a day of salt and water and sun while my skin flaked off with peeling sunburn. There is still terrible sadness for me in knowing that we would never again see or keep in touch with all those kids who sang Greenday’s “Time of Your Life” with me, all in our own tents since we’d been forced to bed, our voices flooding the campground as one. There’s a strange mix of beauty in spontaneous song among strangers, and tragedy that in a time really before Facebook or Instagram or iPhones, that singular moment would only ever be in my own memory bank.
This kind of thing is what McCourt, and in fact, many Irish writers and singers do well, this beautiful tragedy. My dad always jokes, when I’m listening to something terribly sad but terribly beautiful, that I should be careful, that “my Irish is showing.” Wry humor about something terribly sad is, I think, something you can see in the ocean as well. It’s a force that can be incredibly dangerous, but we all court that danger during our playtime, as kids and adults, because there is nothing more healing, more pleasing, than when the ocean has been your friend and when it has laughed with you- even as it has toppled you and scraped your chin on the floor. I did not intend, when starting this piece, for it to turn into a piece not only on the Hamptons and Montauk but also on an Irish writer, but that seems to be what it turned into. I find I cannot change it, because I think the beauty in all of these memories is that they have been incredibly informative, and influential, over the direction of my life. There doesn’t seem to be any separating the two, once together.
I don’t think I will ever forget one of the last lines of McCourt during his radio interview that year we waited to head back into our tents for the night. He’d been speaking about his life in New York City as an English teacher for some inner city kids. Their lives, like his, had been incredibly fraught. But what I remembered most was not his tragedy, or his students pain, but a lively banter between damaged humans.
A student had asked him “Mister McCourt, Mister McCourt, did you date girls back in Ireland?”
And he responds “Nah, we dated sheep.”