Perhaps this is your first time bringing a friend home from college, and it didn’t take much urging: Southampton Shores, you say, but he hears the Hamptons, and digs his nose into old issues of Town and Country, consulting it like like an almanac. Their requests for places to visit seem ordinary. (Fresh cookies at Tate’s!—boating up to the Lobster Inn! —and beaches smooth and warm as a gauzy shawl in the sun. And you do your best to not say Kathleen’s Bakeshop, and that the Lobster Inn has been seized, and the beaches will be too cold.) You’re taking him to Southampton Shores, not a Conde Nast feature. You are going home.
The Jitney isn’t packed, which is about as inauthentic as it gets.
“I thought you said they served you little wine bottles on these things,” he says.
“That’s the Ambassador line. We’re steerage today.” You look out the window. The sun crowned when you arrived at the bus stop for the earliest bus, but the pale light still stains your friend’s skin a slight yellow-pink. “You want wine at 7 AM?”
He shrugs because he most definitely does. The attendant comes by with the usual selection of beverages: little bottles of Poland Spring wet with their own dew, and three-sip cartons of Tropicana.
You grab a water for yourself and hand him a Tropicana. “There. Halfway to a mimosa.”
Of course you begin with Tate’s, for a second-round of coffee and to kick off the visit with a sugar high. The bakeshop isn’t too crowded at all, which is nice: your friend has a good look at the glass display, the baskets behind the counter abundant with fresh pastry, the little shelves of canned goods and fine syrups, the table stacked with Kathleen’s famous cookies. You order a coffee, he orders something sweet and milky.
“Now what do I get?” your friend asks you, wide-eyed in front of the cake counter.
“When I was little,” you begin, “I’d get this enormous chocolate cupcake with a sunflower made out of buttercream.”
He looks at you quizzically. “Sounds great, but I think you’d have to special order it.”
You are drawn out of your reverie and realize that the sunflower cupcake has been pruned, so to speak, from the collection. When this happened, you have no idea, because you stopped eating cupcakes a long time ago.
“I don’t think you can go wrong with anything here,” you say.
True enough. If anyone has ever complained about their Tate’s order, they don’t have a pulse.
The beach is cool and windy to the disappointment of anyone hoping to wade in the water. Nonetheless, it puts on its best theatrics as though expecting your guest. Despite the salted air throwing your hair into choppy disarray, the water is smooth and so brilliantly blue that it forms only a pale seam against the sky on the horizon. The clouds, dollops of white-gold cream, melt just at the vanishing point. The sand swallows your bare feet in a way that feels tender, cleansing.
Although this is your favorite sort of vista—the ocean chilled like berries just taken from the fridge, not yet ready to be consumed—your friend is ready for the next one. The day has scribbled away from you. Before warm sunlight flees the sky, you tell your friend it’s time to head to the Southampton Shores.
Every time you come home (which is probably far too often—you may have spent much of your childhood in Manhattan, but its energy doesn’t agree with you for long before you have to retreat somewhere restive and quiet) your grandparents seem so much older. They are past ninety now. Each moment with them is a gift and bitter reminder that this house won’t always be standing. Nearly all the saltbox cottages have been torn down; even theirs has been bumped out to accommodate a lovely living room and an upstairs bedroom and study. But too often you’ve seen properties like this snapped up for a king’s ransom and then leveled by the next day, as suntanned builders lay out the frame for a big house with five bedrooms and a chef’s kitchen and radiant heat snaking beneath the cool marble flooring.
Your grandparents sit in the sun-gilt living room finishing their milk and cookies. Your grandmother immediately asks you to pick up a fresh gallon of milk at the Country Store down the road. She gives you too much money and won’t accept the change later. She says there will be a party next door and that she looks forward to seeing you there.
You take the long way through Turtle Cove.
“See that pond there?” you ask. “I used to go with a bucket and catch frogs, little ones. All the kids did it.”
“The owners didn’t mind the intrusion?” he asks.
“Turtle Cove is sort of the ‘new’ part of the Shores,” you explain. “No house.”
“But,” and he points a little down the way, “you said they stopped building the saltbox cottages a long time ago. So it was all undeveloped when you were a kid?”
You grow confused with your own story, suddenly. “No…I mean, they started building here when my mom was a teen, I think. These houses have always been here for me.”
“So, your mom used to catch frogs here.”
Huh? The memories are vibrant: squatting in the mud, waiting for the slight twitch of a frog’s eye to reveal itself beneath a film of sediment— lurching forward, always too late, as the would-be captive pounces into deeper water. Or…is that someone else that your mind conjures, the skinny limbs your mother there with her brothers as they fling salamanders at each other deep in the still-untouched forests around their summer home?
“She definitely did,” you admit carefully, not quite willing to believe you wove those memories from another person’s vivid weft.
A bit down the way is a house with a small shed in disrepair. You want to say, That’s no shed; years back, they kept a pony in there. The memory of its large flaring nostrils and hot breath on your hand is too vague. It could’ve easily been steam from a boiling pot. So you pass it by, because you aren’t able to convince yourself that there ever was a pony that you endeavored to touch.
The Country Store is charming as always. It’s still the same inside the store. If you could be content with limited choices, then you’d never have to leave the neighborhood: they have the milk and a range of sodas, crunchy and smooth peanut butter, an ice box full of summer treats. While you purchase the milk, your friend lets out something like a sob.
You collect your change and the cold plastic jug, drawing closer.
“Nooooo way,” he continues, reaching into the ice box for a Flint Stone’s push-pop. You remember the sweet, milky orange sherbet and familiar feeling of accomplishment when the plastic push-bottom met your tongue.
“I haven’t even seen these since the nineties,” he says, but puts it back, doesn’t buy it. “They were my favorite, hands-down.”
You smile. “Mine too.”
Upon your return, the party doesn’t disappoint. If anything, it typifies the Hamptons’ relaxed elegance like an episode of Barefoot Contessa: somewhat informal but not really. Everyone has their perch on the large patio, everyone has their drink and every care has been taken to put the right wines on ice and to arrange the appetizers here and there. Your aunts are laughing over something and they look so chic: one understated with her cherry-blond hair pulled half-back, the other a Park Avenue glamorpuss in Chanel flats. Polo-shirted uncles motion with their tumblers, talk about their boats. Even the usual complaints take on a prettier tone: Can you believe the wait at Silver’s already? Why does the landscaper always come at cocktail hour?
Your friend is delighted. This is what he came for.
You see him off on an evening Jitney. Perhaps you should’ve extended the invitation to stay during the long weekend, but these private moments home are too dear.
The memories, they are from grandma-to-mother-to-you: they are saltbox cottages, they are cows roaming over from King’s Farm across the road, they are sultry days without air conditioning with all the windows thrown open. Even if you never lived it, even if you can barely remember, it’s a legacy that you clutch as close as the sheets you sleep under.
As people age, as things change, the whole community could someday close to you. But simple summers; your family all settled nearby; the wash of shells on the bay and your fingers picking through them, your face smeared with orange sherbet—it’s not in you to forget what it all once felt like, what it all once meant.