Anything Might Happen
Gina Mulley once spent two straight weeks sitting by the Peconic River in Riverhead.
It was 1978, the ink was still fresh on her high school diploma, and she had something to prove. Just a few years earlier, she’d done most of the grunt work to help her older brother Dominic convert a failing beauty salon into a tattoo studio on Riverhead’s Main Street. Now Gina wanted to try her hand at tattooing—but this was before the tattoo explosion of the 1990s. If studios were a relative novelty, female tattooists were even more so. Dominic refused to apprentice her.
So began her two-week stint by the river.
In later years, she would describe this exercise in protest as “boring as hell.” Further east, the river pooled into bay after bay until it met the barbaric yawp of the Atlantic; but here, at this end, it was slow. She ate sandwiches and watched the water mope along, orange with bog iron. She chucked the crusts at gulls to see them lunge, stretching open their shell-sharp beaks.
She read her brother’s graduation present, a copy of What Color Is Your Parachute, until she “accidentally” dropped it in the river. She began autobiographical limericks in her head, but got stuck when she couldn’t think of any words besides arena, subpoena, and Argentina, and those words would probably never figure in her life anyway.
All the while, she kept drawing pictures—tattoo flash to post on the studio wall—because she was convinced that Dominic would change his mind.
Gina did go on to become a tattooist and live a colorful life indeed—but she has never drawn a breath of real oxygen. She is invented. So is Dominic. So is his shop. They are characters in the novel I began at age 19 and worked at doggedly for the next dozen years until, after six drafts and countless cycles of frustration and inspiration, I finally typed THE END on the last page. All those years, Gina and Dominic sparred and yearned and dwelt in a Riverhead that lived only in my head.
Why did I choose Riverhead as the setting? I’d never lived further east than Shirley and Yaphank. But the longer I worked on the novel, the more the story seemed destined to unfold at the gateway to the East End: It feels, to me, like a place of expectation. The place where the Island’s fishtail forks—an unfinished, rough-around-the-edges, threshold kind of place, where anything might happen. What more could you want for a coming-of-age story?
The novel is not autobiographical, but Gina’s coming-of-age story had something to do with my own.
All I’d ever wanted was to be a writer. In high school I was a moody little wench with purple hair, all snark and heartache, and naïve enough to be surprised when kids at school threw gum at me, calling “Freak.” Fine, then. Enough of suburbia’s strip malls, its sprawl, its status-seeking. I escaped to college in the foothills of Vermont.
The breathing quiet, the seething greenness, was magic. On the off chance I ever went back to the Island, I thought, I would live on the North Fork. My writing desk would overlook some inlet; the tides would swell and recede and I would spin yarns and be happy.
Dreams demand a plan, so I took a novel-writing workshop and started writing my novel. My college had a reputation as a rich-kid school, but not all of us were; if I wanted to write, I would also need to work. I taught myself Photoshop. I’d support my writing with graphic design.
It was my boyfriend, also a Long Islander, who nudged me to move back. What I hadn’t factored into my teenage daydreams was just how much money I would need—forget the house on the East End; just for a one-bedroom rental, anywhere. We found ourselves a basement apartment in Mastic. I had time and freedom; I designed occasional websites and wrote every day. It was bliss.
Eventually, though, we wanted a wedding, a house. The day I signed a contract to write a steady stream of freelance articles, money started flowing in, and my time and energy for fiction began to recede. Virginia Woolf was right: To write, a woman needs money and a room of her own.
Never mind. I scraped together what time I had. And out of this tension, something interesting began to happen. My struggles to make an adult life—to please spouse and family, pay bills, and somehow still make art—made their way into the story.
I gave Gina Mulley desires as fierce as mine. I made her tackle every obstacle I faced and a truckload more, considerably harder. Unlike me, Gina did not have the tremendous luxury of college. She dreamed of taking a drawing class, but every time she managed to put away the money for it, I blindsided her with some emergency. She fell in love, and had to figure out how to balance the demands of her beloved with her own abiding desire to tattoo—and not just to tattoo, but to achieve such artistry that she’d be worthy of festooning a human being for life. No matter what I threw at her, she persevered. She, too, was a tough little wench.
And the deeper I went into Gina’s story, the more it seemed stitched to the fates of downtown Riverhead. Gina’s heart—like mine—like the town’s—was a circus of struggle and competing interests and desires. In an odd bit of real-life foreshadowing, a few years after I set my novel in Riverhead, my mother actually moved there. I spent a few months living with her and commuting to East Hampton for a summer job.
I claim no deep knowledge of that town, none at all, but on the surface, East Hampton seemed to me meringue-perfect, sugared and smooth. As I ran errands around town for my employer, I felt clumsy, exposed, as if anyone might see I did not belong here.
In Riverhead I never felt that way. It felt unpolished, like me—unfinished, with good things yet to blossom. When the big box stores and outlets opened on Rte. 58, when the downtown stores began to sputter out, I was discouraged for the town, but I could relate to it all the more. What saddened me on a human and economic level fueled me on an imaginative one. An empty storefront asks a question, begs a dream. What might go here? The town was a crossword with boxes still to puzzle through. “Amazing things are happening here,” said the sign on the storefront church. I didn’t know if I believed them, but I wanted to.
I called the novel Inklings. When I began it, I had no inkling what difficulty was ahead of me. Thank God no one told me; I might well have quit before I’d begun.
Instead I kept writing. All through my twenties, in every kind of weather: Through three apartments and a house. A religious conversion and a graduate degree. A wedding and a baby. Through deaths and depressions, calamities major and minor—through all these things I wrote, and after 12 years, on the night I typed THE END, my husband and I broke open a bottle of cheap-but-glorious champagne.
Of course it wasn’t the end. Because what good are words until they can be read? So I began to send the manuscript out to literary agents, and—what’s this? Pregnant again, am I? So it goes. Rejoice and regroup. Even as I write these words, in my mother’s backyard in Riverhead, my newest nursing baby suckles at my breast. The train hoots its whistle, the clouds promise rain, and I write—still and ever a circus of struggle and desire.
In downtown Riverhead, I see, there is a community garden now. (My four-year-old son and I wander in to explore the rainbow of lettuce and berries.) The Suffolk Theater used to be dusty and sealed; now its marquee flashes the promise of music, dancing. Nineteen-year-olds are brewing soup at the community college’s culinary school (go in, have a taste). The empty Swezey’s boasts a farmer’s market. Sometimes the sidewalks erupt in hallelujahs of chalk art.
All is not rosy: My mother has worked at both the jail and the county clinic, and she sees the children whose parents are in the grips of addiction, whose teeth go black for lack of brushing. Tomorrow, perhaps, another hurricane will flood the Peconic past its banks. Another store (or five) will fail. Growth comes slow, with a thousand setbacks, and for some of us they come so frequently that we begin to feel destined for failure. But all the while, we keep drawing pictures, convinced that the story might change. We’re not at the end, not yet.