A unique migration can be observed on Labor Day, and perhaps for a day or two before and after. The official season concludes on the eastern end of Long Island. The cars loaded up like a caravan of Jed Clampetts, with pillows and coolers and beach towels, cranky hot children, hipsters sweating under their straw fedoras, all the 20 and 30 somethings, the middle-aged and the retired, snake their way towards parkways and expressways and reality.
That was the time when my husband Don and I would head precisely to the source of this exodus. The wind was at our backs, well, our hatchback, and no other cars were in our lane.
I was an advertising copywriter. However, I yearned to do something more. Could I ever come up with something longer than: 30 seconds?
“ If only I could sit and stare at the ocean with no distractions, no time-stealing, though well-meaning friends, I would find my voice.” I thought.
We couldn’t afford the high prices of renting on the beach during the summer. But we had found a house that was available from September through April that had a manageable rent.
The dynamics of the agency business was beginning to change. Some of my friends had been let go. Experience was not valued very much. When they described me as a “seasoned pro” they meant, “hack.” Youth was venerated. The expressions “new blood” or “fresh thinking” were always being bandied about, but not about me. In my field one does not age well like a fine wine. You wither on the vine and eventually find yourself on the compost heap. The issue wasn’t only age, of course. There’s a way of thinking and solving problems that was becoming obsolete. People throw back fish that are too small. Suddenly my talent wasn’t big enough to make me a keeper.
My husband Don and I would drive towards Amagansett after work on Fridays and stop for dinner in Bridgehampton or East Hampton. I would describe how people in my group who had once liked and admired me suddenly got very quiet when I entered a room. Some were gratuitously cruel and disrespectful. One day I was a star winning awards; the next day I was a black hole to be avoided, lest I suck someone into the void.
Don offered good counsel. The dinners became part of our new ritual. But the best part was the moment we pulled into the gravel driveway. Already we could hear the timpani sounds of the roiling water. I would walk up the deck and look at the whitecaps playing with the dark surf. Each time was like the first. The salt air and mist enveloped us as we stood in the dark. Sometimes I forgot to breathe. Manhattan was far away. As I let the sound and feeling of being so near the ocean purge me of my psychic pain, the misery drifted away. It was unutterably beautiful. I was whom I believed I was standing there. Nobody else’s adjectives defined me.
Every morning, I would stroll out on the deck, my tan mug of black coffee steaming in my face and watched the waves smack onto the shore. The wind teased my curly hair into my eyes. Sometimes my sunglasses had to be wiped of mist. But, I could not tear myself away. The coffee would grow cold, I would grow cold. I stared at the crayon-blue sky and the pounding sound filled my head. Perhaps tomorrow I would write. I had the whole weekend. Today, I would take my shoes off and feel the water tickling my toes.
The house next door to ours was called “The Sand Castle.” It became imperative to me that we meet whomever lived in such a magnificent house with such a magical name. But how? This was not the sort of neighborhood where one shows up with a casserole. Nobody shows up at all. That’s the whole point. The perfect privacy. Privet hedges conceal the people and their dreams and hopes and flaws. I wanted in.
One day a policewoman walked around our deck and asked me if I was a certain person. “No, “I said. “That’s the house next door,” as I pointed towards The Sand Castle. Yes, I had found out who lived there.
I hoped nothing was wrong. Fortunately, I was able to get their phone number, and left a message saying that, “the police had received an alarm, was everything ok?”
The woman who lived in the castle eventually called. A guest cat had tripped a motion detector. My neighbor’s name was Inge. I had never heard such a mellifluous voice. Inge invited us over for drinks the following weekend.
“We’re in baby!” I shouted to my husband. The next Sunday evening, I dressed with some care.
Inge’s husband Gene greeted us at the door, a big glass of red wine in his hand. He looked like an angel, white-haired and beaming blue eyes. Inge was as beautiful as her voice, light and airy and magnificent. She wore her blond hair short and stylishly slicked back. Her slim figure was shown to great effect by her black leggings and crisp white shirt. Both of them acted genuinely happy to meet us.
Inge and Gene had been owners of one of the largest and most prestigious New York executive placement firms specializing in marketing and advertising. So we spoke a common language. But it was more than just a connection due to knowledge of a specific business’s culture. There was a lightening bolt of immediate affinity. I spoke easily about my work. They showed us pictures of their home in the Caribbean. We talked about our daughters.
The Sand Castle, though right next door to our rental, faced the ocean in an entirely different way. The entire interior of the house was painted white, including a wainscoted bar and kitchen. The chairs were covered in dazzlingly white cotton. We gazed out enormous round and domed windows. I felt part of the ocean, not just a spectator.
Through Inge, we made many new friends. The isolation we had envisioned turned out not to be what we needed. There was a great deal of parmesan cheese and crisp baguettes, creamy pates, salty smoked salmon on dark pumpernickel slices, soprasetta and shrimp to be shared with others. We could no longer just bring out a bottle or two of Pinto Noir for the weekend. Cases needed to be wielded.
Every September brought the anticipation of cool days and warm friends. Year after year we rented the same place. Often it was suggested that we buy the house already.
But, the truth was, though I enjoyed being directly on the ocean, I was always afraid of it.
Even as I remained in awe of the idea of living on the beach, I often thought of the leap of faith:
“Ok, I’ll put the house here. The ocean will stop there.”
Storms would make me feel as if the surf would come roaring right up the dune and proceed into the house. The moisture would gather on the screens and the sky would turn black. The waves looked like the manes of a herd of mad stallions in the wind. No, this was not my dream house. Though I felt completely at home.
Whenever I despaired of how my self-esteem was becoming eroded I listened to the sound of the waves. The beach always returns even after the worst Nor’easter.
We throw lifesavers into the sea to rescue people. But it turned out that the ocean had saved me.
I walked up the steps of the subway every Monday morning and swam against the current for a very long time.
We rented that house for nine years. Eventually we built a home in Montauk, though not on the ocean. I had a story to write.