Now and Then
“You from around here?”
An oft asked question that reflects the sense of place that defines us. An answer appears and gently slips between my lips.
“Now and then,” I reply with a smile.
Sunrise Highway looks the same in certain places. The scrub oak and pines maintain their dusky green and beige growth. The soil beneath, sand and bits of loam, show through the bracken inviting the deer and fox to hide in the nether land of the barrens. My eyes search the higher branches for the hawk that waits for the unfortunate who choose to wander the dried grasses at the road’s edge. The crows scavenge the remains splayed along the four lane.
At eighteen, I traveled to the end of the universe, my celestial calling a summer in Montauk. My space capsule was a nineteen sixty-three Volkswagen Beetle with bad timing, rotting ball joints, squealing brakes, and a roll back sunroof. All of this luxury was mine through insistent pleading to a nervous uncle and three hundred dollars earned at a local Carvel. My life as a pusher of black and white thick shake floats was over. A new dealer was needed to supply sugared milk to pubescent pimpled boys and red faced girls with Maybelline eyelashes and private atmospheres of Jean Nate. No one questioned my plan. In 1972 I was eighteen. Three years before, my brother thumbed his way to Woodstock and beyond. Three years before that, my oldest brother flew away to a naval base in the Great Lakes. Letting go seemed easy to my parents.
The water was always warmest in August, my young daughter dipped her toes in then jumped, a maniacal grin molesting her sweet face. The ocean, her joy, was playing loose and free with her feet. In 1991, Montauk was our haven, a condo for a week at the Surf Club, many times more costly than the Beetle that traversed these roads nineteen years before. A station wagon loaded down with supplies headed yearly to the last unfettered outpost on the island.
I turned onto Old Montauk Highway looking forward to the roller coaster ahead. Just past Hither Hills I spotted the help wanted sign. The Wavecrest Hotel’s restaurant had a sunken dining room that obscured the ocean view, but that didn’t deter me. Two days later, I began my new career as a waitress, my finances would be set. All looked good in the nomad department. I landed in the Montauk Motel bunking with friends who were surprised but ultimately pleased to split the cost of the room. I was getting good at aimless wandering.
Our car has little trunk room, our golf clubs barely fit. A day trip from Sag Harbor to play Montauk Downs is a fine distraction to keep my mind off my wayward adult children. My daughter walked away from her job in television to drive cross country and live in Denver. Her surfboard sits idle in my garage. My son, older by five years, has yet to settle down searching for something. I search my phone for a message or missed call. I have not learned the art of letting go.
My beetle seemed distressed as I weaved around the bend by Ditch Plains. The surfboard pierced the blueness as it tilted skyward through the sunroof. The potholes jarred the fragile balance I had attained with the declining health of my sand-filled ride. The Montauk Motel was a lifetime and three weeks in the past, the East Deck my new residence. A group of nuns in full habit were holed up in the next three rooms. I lived in a yellow bikini and cut-off shorts. A strange dichotomy developed as I smiled and fell into my catholic school girl demeanor with my naval and cleavage available for the world to see. I would sit on the rocks, my Nikkormat SLR ready to chronicle the interesting, the lewd, the beautiful, the solitary dawns and lavender evenings. The waitress gig was proving difficult. I was reprimanded for serving a frozen matzoh ball to a patron. I had previously worked with ice cream, microwaves belonged in Jane Jetson’s kitchen.
There are no parking spots. We circle Main Street under the watchful eyes of Sag Harbor parking enforcers. There is a tenseness in the air. Long lines spill from every restaurant. The ‘We are having so much fun’ smiles fade slowly from weary faces of sunburned linen wearers.
My beetle pulled down the rutted track to a cottage on Fort Pond. A new roost appeared after the East Deck’s time ran out. Friends welcomed me with open arms. I unloaded a bag of supplies and began the process of making the staple of Montauk rovers, tuna casserole.
Reservations hard to get in Montauk on a Friday night. The late tee time golf round over, the grill closed. Surfside Inn on Old Montauk has an open table. That’s fine, it has always been there for us. No need to be seen somewhere new.
Shagwong welcomed me like an old friend. We stopped for beers and split the fries, a splurge for the working class ended with a drive to Duryeas to pick up lobsters. A large pot and a clambake on the pond ensued. Pungent smoke twirled in the starry night; we sat on logs around the fire. A guitar arrived and we sang Ripple as the bottle made its rounds.
An old photograph tucked in a worn paperback, a young girl in overalls, long brown hair cascading down her back, looks over her shoulder at the photographer. Sea foam clings to the rocks, the spray glitters a halo around her silhouette.
“You from around here?”
“Now and then,” my honest reply.