Shelter Island

Written By: Clark Griffiths

Shelter Island

Ann, Liam and I drove out Sunday morning early; there was no traffic. After getting off the Shelter Island ferry we stopped in the Heights at the Stars Café for lunch, then made our way down to Crescent Beach. ‘I don’t want to go here’ said my teenage son.

This being the only beach on the island with a ‘scene,’ Liam didn’t want to be with his uncool parents here. It was fine by me. I drove out to Bootleggers Alley, a favorite spot of ours over the years, with never more than four or five cars parked there at any time. I pulled down to the end, parked facing the bay.

Three umbrellas were on the narrow strand, spaced out with plenty of room in between. I set us up and went right into the water, surprised it wasn’t colder. In past years Liam would follow me in, but today he sat in a beach chair watching.

Later the three of us took a walk. It is a shell filled beach, hard on the feet. There were many of the thin translucent shells that run in color from deep amber to orange to pale yellow scattered in irregular lines on the sand.

We walked to where the beach turned, then around the corner. It was farther down than we’d gone before. There was a natural cut where the tide was rushing in to a wetland. The water in the cut had a strong current; it was clear and deep. I jumped in.

When Liam saw me being pulled by the current he came in and we drifted together, allowing ourselves to be taken by it. We rode it in and then stood in the shallows to walk out and do it again, blue crabs skittering away from our feet.

The third time Liam started to wrestle with me, his strength now almost a match for mine, soon to eclipse me. He sat on me, dunked me, we tackled each other, all the while carried along by the ever moving water.

Ann walked back up the beach, leaving us to it. I was tired but kept going because these moments were rare now and I knew they would only become more uncommon.

‘Let’s float in as far as we can.’ I said. We drifted face down side by side into the shallows, eyes open under water watching our shadows, slightly ahead of us, running across the rippled sand of the creek bottom.

We did it over and over, this closeness, floating suspended in the water next to each other without speaking. I did not want it to end.

That night we had dinner at the Vine Street Café where I watched Liam eat a large steak and thought to myself, ‘My boy is gone.’

Later, stretched out on the king size bed at the B&B in Greenport, we lay side by side and watched TV together. He surprised me, putting his head on my stomach, ‘I wish they made pillows soft like this’ he said, staying that way for a long time. Ann was downstairs reading. When she came back up she told us we could have the bed, she would sleep on the fancy cot they had prepared for Liam.

After a while I thought of my father, being with him in the big salt water pool at the Larchmont Yacht Club. The thick cement wall with a rounded top that separated the pool from Long Island Sound, the white glossy paint on it so layered it always made me think of ice cream. At the other end were two sandy beaches, divided on land by a rocky outcrop and in the water by swim lanes. One beach for children with a buoyed rope and a lifeguard, the other for adults only.

My father would pick me up and place me on the rocks that jutted into the water on one end of the beach and I would jump in. Over and over I would do this until the lifeguard blew his whistle.

After swimming we would walk up the grey painted boardwalk to the grill, my brother and sisters and I jumping over the spaces between the sisal mats to spare our feet from burning. On the cement patio were metal chairs and tables with blue and white umbrellas. A line of dark green wooden planters holding rows of red geraniums made a fence on the side facing the Sound. The grill itself down a couple of steps in what felt like a cave, smelling of charcoaled meat and fried potatoes, mixed with the scent of salt water or the sulfurous odor of low tide.

Later I would shower with my father, watch him soap up then pull his buttocks apart while rinsing. Every time I do this now, I think of him naked, bent forward slightly, covered with suds, letting the water run down his back. It was perhaps the closest I ever was to him.

A couple of years after he had left, my mother, not knowing what to do with me for the summer, sent me to Boy Scout camp. I failed the basic swim test of two full laps.

My father drove up to Camp Siwanoy. ‘You know how to swim’ he said to me annoyed. He arranged for me to take the test again, brought me down to the lake and told me to swim the two laps. I did. ‘Why didn’t you do that before?’ he asked.

I had no answer.

When the counselor came I swam the first lap then turned and stopped. My father, looking small from that distance implored me ‘Come on John, you can do it’ then turned to the counselor, ‘He just did it for me.’

‘Goddammit John’ he yelled. It echoed on the empty lake. The counselor looked at his watch, shook his head and walked away. I dog paddled back to the dock and pulled myself up.’Why didn’t you do it? You can do it.’

I had no answer.

When we turned out the light Liam lay face down, his long muscled arm draped across my chest, the warmth of it filling me. I closed my eyes and saw again our shadows moving together, slightly ahead of us, through clear water on the uneven surface of the sand at the bottom of the estuary.