“I’m finished,” she shouts. “I have finished my essay and I am sending it off to Dan’s Papers.“ Once again she has beaten me. Envy mixes with anger as I listen to her hit “send” on the computer.
It was bad enough last year when she received an invitation to the awards party and I did not. “You can come as my guest,” she said. How humiliating. Never mind that I, too, had submitted an essay. I kept looking for my own invite, but none arrived. “Perhaps they lost my essay,” I thought. “Maybe they don’t have my new email address?” I emailed the paper to see if they had received it.
Traffic from Westhampton to the reception was backed up to Watermill. I thought this must really be a big deal. Only later did I find out that Hillary Clinton was doing a book signing in East Hampton and the Artists and Writers were playing their annual softball game.
The reception was all it was cracked up to be. I had never been invited to an actual Hampton’s reception so I was taken by the vibe that was in the air. The John Drew Theatre was packed. Mercedes Ruehl read the winning essay. Most of the finalists had written about divorces and deaths that had something to do with East Hampton. And Dan was there in person, fresh from the softball game. He wore his signature wide brimmed fedora, looking every bit like the cartoon rendering I had seen. I was so used to thinking of writers in terms of what they had written that I was startled to see one in person.
After the presentations the crowd gathered outside for wine and cheese. I sipped white wine while my wife mingled with the other writers. It was a good dry white, the kind I liked, but that evening, as the sun was setting, it tasted a little bitter.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I was the one with the literary background and the academic credentials to prove it, not her. My wife was smart the way nurses are smart, precise and knowledgeable about medicine. I was, well not a writer, but certainly an academic who knew enough about fiction and non-fiction to make a living. “If you are so smart,” my wife had said two years before, “Why don’t you write something? Besides. You have lived here so long, you must know something about the East End.”
And I did or I thought I did. How much could I reveal without getting into trouble? My visits to the Hamptons had begun in Hampton Bays in an overcrowded cottage shared with other college students escaping New York City for long weekends, which stretched, into weeks, then months.
While the sense of place remains as it was, the place I remember has disappeared. When I first arrived, the beaches along Dune Road were hidden behind tall dunes. Crowds of young people from every part of New York stood together trading narratives that jumped from blanket to blanket. They were called “war stories,” but none of them were about war. Usually they were often repeated retellings of some incident from the night before or from a week ago, stories so loosely based on fact that even if you figured prominently in the tale and could recognize it as ninety-nine percent fiction, you were usually caught up in the art of the story teller. Each account became more heroic the further it drifted from its factual basis. At first, we city boys with our pale skin did not blend with the tanned bodies of the others on the beach, but eventually the sun made us all equal. Only much later would we realize that with color came skin cancer.
There were several popular beaches, each defined in a unique way. Hot Dog Beach began has a beach with appeal to newcomers and eventually self segregated into the domain of marijuana aficionados. Docked on the bay opposite was The Barge, a real barge made into a club, with an all black brass band whose members wore dark sunglasses and played jazz. Pop art was part of the décor both in the club and floating on the water next to the barge. Every so often someone would take the dare to dive from the second story porch into the water.
Two miles further up the coast was Tiana beach, an expanse about three times as wide as it is today. This was the in spot for most beach goers. As afternoon approached, crowds would move en masse from the beach to the one of the two bars next to the town beach, but most would drift across the street to The Cat Ballou, a small place with spectacular sunset views of Shinnecock Bay. In the years to come these clubs would follow a cycle which first gave them fame and notoriety and later led to their demise.
Drinking and romance was very much a part of the scene, the former was excessive and non-stop, the later existed only as a Camelot promise of future relationships. People met in the Hamptons, but they married elsewhere. Summer marriages were an annoyance to friends reluctant to miss a weekend at the beach. While the physical beauty of the beaches was breathtaking, the beauty of the people on them fitted the place. The women wore bikinis that showed off athletic bodies, and the men, many of whom were college athletes, matched them. They had looks, intelligence and education. Many were from prestigious colleges outside New York. A sense of entitlement should have defined these people, but there was nothing snobbish about them. My first reaction was to just suck in my flabby beer belly and gawk.
It is hard to describe that lotus land to anyone who has not felt its attraction and hard to calculate the years wasted there when all of us could have been travelling or doing something from which we would actually grow. Instead we returned, year after year, swearing that this summer would be the last, that the Hamptons fad would fade, but it never did. Before we knew it, Labor Day arrived and with it the September rip tides that warned us it was time to get out of the ocean.
“Reference the East End in a meaningful way,” the essay guidelines said, but how is that possible when the meaning of this place is so elusive, even for those of us who have lived its history? What after all do I know about the East End? I am very familiar with the topography of both North Fork and the South Fork. I have spent years sailing on the bays in between, taken in by the landscape on both shores and the pristine beauty of Robins Island in the middle. While the shorelines erode, the landscapes change only minutely. Most of what I see is what I have always seen. And while I have a very distinct sense that this place is different, it is almost as if the histories of all of us who pass through are not part of it. It is the indifference of land and sea to the human history that progresses along the surface that gives it depth.
I have a recurrent dream. The Guild Hall is full. A famous writer is talking about writing. The winner is announced. My wife makes her way to the stage to accept an enlarged version of the check that is her prize for best essay. She thanks them, but, unlike the Academy Awards Ceremony, she does not mention my name.
She is still shouting up the stairs. “I have finished,” she says.” I knew I could do this. When are you going to write something yourself?” she says.
“What would I write about?” I answer.
“Write about what you know,” she says.
“I have heard that before,” I think.
“Tell a story,” she says.
And then I realize that it is the stories we tell that make this place so special. “I am going to write something now,” I say. Our competition has ended.