“Aah,” the fireman said knowingly, looking me up and down. “You’re a Summer Girl.” We were beside each other in line at a Morningside Heights market I frequented. Blocks from the nursing home where my father now lived. When the fireman noticed my sweatshirt, white with ‘Southampton’ in felt navy letters, he smiled; he grew up in the town and asked if I knew a roster of unfamiliar families. I admitted the sweatshirt was purchased on one of many trips over the years – I’m from Manhattan.
His firemen buddies noticed our exchange. Recognition passed between them with smiling eyes and thick New York accents.
“She’s a Sum-mah Girl!” they sang. They got a kick out of pegging me so easily.
I knew the women they meant: the summer girls, young city women who descend upon the Hamptons for frivolous escape, a warm weather playground to be used up. Summer Girls conjure enough wild nights and disposable romances to fill seasons of reality shows, full lives lived in eight or ten weekends away from city routines. My Hamptons experience was low-key in comparison to this stereotype: grilling dinner before a night swim, roadside farmers’ markets with dirt-encrusted vegetables, intimate Thanksgivings. I didn’t relate to the Summer Girls.
Despite my wardrobe, right now Southampton felt a universe away. Thoughts were on my father, waiting for me in the nursing home’s dining room. Our regular lunches in a restaurant whose diners wore diseases ranging in severity, where my father never felt he belonged but his rapidly escalating disease and degenerating strength told us he did. But all of this was unknowable to the firemen who gently chided.
It was November when I next found myself heading to Southampton. A year’s routine -subway, market, nursing home- had been abruptly replaced with a new, brief routine of urgent doctor consults, tracking the rhythm of monitor beeps. And then routine at all, everything I knew, expired. It was two months since my father died and my mother and I needed something to look forward to, a vacation to induce temporary amnesia. I found us a beautifully appointed colonial inn in Southampton Village, and we boarded a train to the Island.
My father never liked Long Island much. He found it “too flat,” preferring Maine’s rugged coastline. But the evenly pitched roads were conducive to miles-long strolls, which my mother and I both enjoy. The morning after we arrived we decided on a brisk walk to Cooper’s Beach, visits to which had become our ritual. Dressed for crisp air and exercise, we set out down Main Street.
Walking, my mother and I didn’t speak much, our nostrils relishing the recent transition to fresh air. Over the months I’d spent so much time with held breath, oxygen still refused to transform into exhale. Instead it brewed beneath my skin in constant simmer, pressure hidden beneath the surface but unyielding. Even through this tension I began to absorb Southampton’s peaceful environment, tightness in my shoulders experimented with release.
We reached the heart of town, its pulse slower at the advent of winter but still alive. Animated chatter wafted from restaurants with smells of breakfast, lampposts draped in seasonal pine and red bows. I was struck by a familiarity that, for so long, eluded me: I was here, in Southampton, with customs I could rely on. Mornings at Tate’s eating muffins filled with plump summer berries no matter the season, local newspapers omitting reality beyond fisherman and fundraisers. Life in a gentle microcosm.
I was nine or ten when my mother first brought me here, the summer of my parents’ divorce. My memories of that time focus almost entirely on the acre of land behind our rental house. To a city kid raised in concrete it was a kingdom — thrones of lush greenery, unobstructed nightly constellations — and it was all ours. I’d lay on my belly in the low evening sun, braiding blades of grass between my fingers and feeling the breeze on my arms. I’d anticipate that, inside the house, a boiling pot separated sweet summer corn from its blonde silk. These special sensations of summer outdoors made it impossible to think past immediate surroundings, my thoughts happily penned within that acre.
Our walk approached Jobs Lane, my skin building heat. It was here, just before college, an unexpected run-in with a high school crush culminated in a stolen rowboat. He and I floated past a stranger’s dock, into the open bay, and a bright sliver of moon illuminated a boy whose face I knew but who I’d never known. He confessed years spent too nervous to ask me out, a discovery that filled me with such pure excitement, for weeks it pulled me from fearful anticipation of moving to a state I barely knew, an adult journey far from parents and childhood.
Now Main Street transitioned from storefronts to hidden driveways and we hung right. Walls of greenery shielded our periphery, only asphalt road ahead. My mom and I pushed on, growing tired. The walk was longer than we’d thought through. Sneakers rubbed the back of my ankles raw; it was uncomfortable but I savored feeling it.
I remembered the freedom I’d once experienced driving this road, after college graduation. My roommate and I rode a packed car from Michigan straight to Southampton, intentionally bypassing the city. By avoiding my eventual destination, not stopping to unload possessions accumulated over four years, maybe the friendships and comfort I’d found in college hadn’t just ended. It was a futile protest to the inevitability of change.
Mom and I rounded a curve and the sound of waves rumbled past. The ocean, before only glimpsed between high hedges on Gin Lane, was unveiled. Stretched beside us, it had been there all along.
We stopped at a small bulbous inlet off the road. Here a narrow walkway leads through tall grass and finally onto sand. After I moved to California, on visits home I’d bring my Yorkie here, the years before she died, to let her off-leash. Even in winter she’d explode down the shoreline, galloping like a wild pony, while my mother and I watched in thick wool coats, laughing happily at her freedom.
We stood overlooking the empty strand, alone, exhausted. Sand peaked and dipped in small mounds, its pattern a soft heartbeat. I nestled my shoes in, searching for traction. The ocean’s grey winter hue met the cloud-filled sky to weave an unbroken blanket. My mind tossed with the waves until a moment of calm settled over the water’s surface. A small swoosh of tide broke, tiny bubbles held together with thin cartilage of white foam. Its strength and fragility had the power to take my breath away.
In this moment of peace, reprieve from preoccupied thoughts, I was overcome. Lungs heaved in salty air and I let out a sob, shoulders collapsing to thighs. Wails, that come only a few times in your life and surprise you, rolled through me like ferocious waves foaming with rage in a storm I was forced to wait out. I finally felt my body, bones and organs in their proper place but broken. An awareness I’d suppressed to hold myself together now tore apart at the seams.
From my throat escaped sounds I didn’t recognize. With them, the shock of watching my father’s body deteriorate, from the strong man who held me up to the man I held in a hospital bed. Outside the hospital window, my hometown streets were saturated with a reality no longer there, dissipating into atmosphere like steam from a subway grate. Here, on the beach, I had distance. My mother stood beside me while I cried, understanding I needed room to expel the pain of stepping one foot into memory, the other rooted in disbelief. I don’t know how long we stayed, but remember walking away less tired than I’d arrived.
That evening, dinner felt light; my attention devoted to the restaurant’s lively crowd, flavors on my plate. Afterwards we returned to our inn. My mother, armed with a book, pulled an armchair before the lit fireplace. I relaxed into the chair beside her, its high back supporting me as I unloaded my full weight. To my left, windowpanes frosted with chill but I watched only the calming fire, its direct heat drying my eyes. Hours earlier, a Christmas parade marched down Main Street. In my head drums still beat and the laughter of children floated, intoxicating my mind with simplicity. The rest of the world, my world, was far away; past asphalt elbows and bends, tollbooths and trees, over bridges and down a highway to a city that from this window I could not see.
The fire danced, small sparks popping from orange flames and disappearing quickly, like fireflies on an August night. Floating ash settled on my skin but I didn’t notice, overcome by the warmth I was enveloped in, matching my warmth within. I sat content, soothed. A Summer Girl.