Long Island curves into the Atlantic and seems as though it has broken off from the rest of New York. That scrag of land on a map looks like a coiled finger beckoning the West of Ireland closer, as it beckoned me from Trinity College Dublin over a decade; as it beckons me now from my West Village home.
Long Island is the closest I feel to Ireland in New York, though I am still more than three thousand miles from the rainy green land of my birth. There is something familiar about the small towns running one into another. The tree-lined streets of Southampton could be Dublin’s Dalkey or Rathgar. The restaurants in Bridge, remind me of my days in Oxford, the shops are as sweet and expensive as they were in Summertown, when I too rode a bicycle with flowers in my basket.
And then there is The End. The tip of Long Island at Montauk, the town that seems as unsure as the locals do, about whether it wants outsiders to populate it. Maybe it is that wariness that reminds me most of the Ireland of my youth. Beautiful and savage, fickle at times, it is Montauk – the least manicured hamlet, the most rugged town, that has captured my heart.
I do not daydream of Turks and Caicos, nor Miami though they are as close by air as the drive out there. It is Montauk I want to see. Montauk whose sand I want to sink in. Montauk whose waves I will happily be beaten off a board by. Montauk, I will suggest in an email to my parents when I want to ensure they’ll book a flight.
The freckled-faced girls with their Cork and Dublin accents serve fried fish and cobb salads at outdoor tables at Bliss Kitchen. Lads on J1 visas at Gurney’s rush from front desk suitcase wrangling, to beachfront umbrella implanting good-naturedly slagging each other off when they think the guests can’t hear, and I am back on Sandymount Strand. Though the girls here are more confident in their tanned teen optimism. No buses to the beach for them, changing under a towel in a tornado of sand, white skin near blue on reaching ankle-deep water. Will my daughter grow up watching 4th of July fireworks as I watched news of the 11th night bonfires? Will she beg from a backseat, to know which towns we’re in, as I begged to know how much longer it would be before we reached the sea?
It could be the long, slow car journey out of Manhattan that reminds me of my childhood journeys across Ireland, from the north to the west, before the ‘good roads’; over the ‘tummybreaker’ potholes, waiting in line for army checkpoints to clear, through twisting traffic for six hours then, three now. The hubs of Drogheda and Sligo snarled and snaked as the Long Island Expressway snarls and snakes. And my daughter sits a little less patiently, in what was once my seat, behind the snack-delivering mother. Beside me, a hushed swearing father, talking about some mythical route he’s going to try next time that will take half as long to reach our destination. Damned Sat Nav.
Lillian has Dora the Explorer to keep her busy, where I could only guess which rain drop would win the race across the window- Ireland didn’t care if it was the summer holidays, she would rain anyway, heavier than ever, drenching my naïve dreams of getting a California girls’ tan. The rain warned:
“Don’t get too excited now and lose the run of yourself. This isn’t Beverly Hills 90210.” (even if I squinted and pretended the Ford we were in was Dylan McKay’s Porsche.)
Long Island’s optimism suits me well. Like that child I was, imagining pumpkin into carriage, this little jetty is more optimistic than my native land. New Yorkers are unashamed to enjoy themselves and that is no different once you put them in a swimsuit. This is America after all. And the pretty Hamptons towns that dot the coast -whether we stop for lunch at Tutto Il Giorno or Bobby Van’s sing at us ‘‘Have a great day’. They smile, not bashfully. They are not trying to cover a thing because they all have perfectly straight white teeth. Every cashier’s pleasant chit-chat seems to say ‘Welcome. Summer is here for you, to be bathed in, delighted in. Breathe in the elixir. Soak yourself in sweet sea air.’
Long Island is not simply an escape from city life. It is an extension of it, a rose-tinted version of the reality of life on the grid. We started with five suitcases lining a hotel room not so long ago. The old wives’ tail is true, Thursday’s child has far to go.
From Clyde the sleeping cat curled up in the Southampton Inn, to the families playing volleyball on Cooper’s Beach, The Hamptons has felt from the first time I breathed that fresh Atlantic air, as familiar and foreign as a best friend’s backyard. A cleaner, brighter version of my own childhood.
Last Sunday when the tide was out I thought I spied my grandfather waiting by the beach chairs, parading up and down, his hands behind his back, officorial and standing to attention. Did I also glimpse myself aged three- in jelly shoes? A 99 ice-cream with chocolate sauce covering my chin? In the supermarket, I’m almost sure my grandmother stands hunched over a trolley – ‘Here they call it a shopping cart!’ tortilla chips in hand where Tayto would have been. Tiny American flags line the checkouts like a scene from a Lilliputian American dream.
As I pitch and putt through the mouth of the windmill at Montauk’s Mini-Golf, my parents who have joined us in their retirement watch my daughter shriek with glee. “Mummy, you did it” she squeals and makes a run for the water’s edge where a smattering of pedalos are floating past. It is no longer me running into the water in need of rescuing. It is not me passed out with a sun-burned face and sweaty little head, hair curling round the backseat after a long day in the sun. It is my parents turn to relax in the back of our car as my husband and I take the mantle of being ‘parents’. In command. Numbers one.
It is me cleaning off buckets and spades, slathering on sun cream, nagging about the need for hats and to “cover the back of your neck!” It is me looking out across the sea thinking of those I knew and loved, who made my summer days carefree.
Is this the wave I used to crane to hear? I raise a large pink shell to my ear and think, between the swishing sounds of those who came before me here, of the ones who didn’t come. Of those whose voices I can no longer hear. I let it fall and fill with water, watch it snatched back out to sea. I raise a hand down on Ditch Plains, and wave to the other shore, though it is too far away to see.
The waves drag the sand from under me, more shells pool and are pulled all the way back from my toes, to Ireland perhaps? To be deposited at someone else’s feet. Planting the deed of a better life, a different life elsewhere.
Another weekend is over. Sated adults in front, conked-out kids in the back. We whisper ‘How wonderful all this is only a car ride from home!’
We reveled in the beach, and then in loading up the boot. No. ‘The trunk.’ That’s right. I say ‘trunk’ now.