The Osprey’s Fish
When I finally decided to accept the offer of admission from the tiny creative writing program in Southampton, New York—which I’d applied to on a whim and was the only program that accepted me—I was the “other guy” to a boyfriended girl. We were madly in love.
This was back in Canada. Winnipeg, Manitoba, to be exact. Heart of the Continent.
Back then, the Hamptons was a place George Costanza visited in Seinfeld, and the entirety ofLong Island was simply a blurred blipon the horizon of Google Maps—some cartographical jut tangential to New York City. I’d only applied to go to school in the Hamptons because I’d recognized Billy Collins’ name on the list of faculty. When I applied, and accepted, I had no idea Billy only taught during the summer.
My opinion of Southampton was comprised completely of hearsay. And a ten minute tour via Google Street View.
When I told my lover in late March that I’d decided to go to Southampton for my MFA—that I’d had a meeting with my most trusted creative writing professor, who informed me that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up—she was devastated. We both were. We’d been wound up in illusions of eventual togetherness. We were poets. We wrote lines, unpublishable lines together. We lived between and alongside them. I’d never loved someone like her before and she’d never loved someone like me. I thought we were going to be Canada’s next literary couple. I bought her a gorgeous old twin-lens reflex camera made in the now Czech Republic in the 60s and she swore to never let me slip away. She said the time apart would make us strong.
Our fairy tale slunk midway into summer and funked. A line, stalled by caesura.
By the end of the summer, I had nothing. The heart of the continent had ceased its pulse, and I hated it, hated every ventricle, every flat bump and every frost-fucked cul-de-sac. That summer she left her boyfriend and moved out into the small world of a bachelor suite. I gave her my old queen sized bed because I was leaving. By then she’d already sloughed me off, called me “friend,” talked to me seldomly.
That was when I learned that the “other guy” is a terminal position. For the last three weeks in Winnipeg I slept alone on an air mattress in a gutted, boxed room.
By then I’d begun to carry the baggage of her and that betrayal around with me. When I left Canada I was allowed to bring it with me on the plane and wasn’t charged extra. Despite its weight and size it was considered a personal item. I flew via Toronto to Philadelphia, then Philadelphia to Islip with the baggage impressing its weight into my lap. At the airport in Islip a girl in my program I’d met the day before on Facebook picked me up and took me to our campus in Southampton. My baggage sat in the back seat mumbling to itself and to me.
I remember there were so many trees on Long Island and that I’d never expected that. I remember being surprised at the streetlights being dangled across intersections along thick drooped wires.
The campus of my university is miniscule and probably haunted. Half the buildings are condemned due to mold. That’s where I lived for my first year, after which I vowed never to live there again. When living there I carried my baggage from one side of the campus to the other, haunting the place with the pieces of her that snuck through the seams, screaming through the long nights, after me.
But if the Hamptons have any super power it’s that they can shear any tether, even if that tether is moored in rational reality—especially. Nothing here makes sense unless you’re from here. If you’re from fifteen-hundred-miles-away Canada, you don’t think that building a multi-million dollar house on a beach is a good idea. You don’t understand the dire need for privets. You can’t comprehend how people can live so disconnected from the outside world, from their neighbours, and yet be sustained by strange, cloistered diasporas of life. But all of this happens here. Despite all the odds—despite the presence of rational thinking elsewhere in the world—all of this happens here and it works.
When I got to Southampton, I wrote. I wrote and wrote and wrote. There was nothing else for me to do. For the first semester I was trapped on campus, living in a suite suitable for eight all by myself, waltzing, naked, writing. For the second semester I was still trapped on campus, living in another suite suitable for eight but with three others now, one of which drove me to madness and exile with his constant presence, foaming ego and filthy lifestyle. For the second semester I sat in my bedroom purchasing noise-cancelling headphones, poetically mulling.
I wrote and wrote and wrote. There was nothing else for me to do.
Meanwhile I’d found in the Hamptons my own cloistered diasporas of life. I made friends in my program, pivoted, made enemies, pivoted, wrote some more. Bought better noise-cancelling headphones. In the program I somehow met a Canadian girl who was born and raised in Winnipeg and I met a gay man from Texas who wrote poetry and practiced witchcraft, who ended up tricking me into kissing him—twice—as part of a prophetic ritual featuring chicken bones and sage. The old holes and pockets were being filled up by new faces, new angles of view. The new faces dug claws into my old lover’s baggage and she began to spill through, dripping to the ground, oozing, evaporating into the night tide’s spray.
But fairy tales repeat themselves. Or—as Twain says of history—they rhyme.
Eventually my lost lover flared back her green flicker and we started talking again, and she once again consumed me. She made a new hole in my chest and climbed in, filling it halfway, peeking out. When I went back to Winnipeg for Christmas we were secret lovers again, but this time every night I stayed with her on my old bed I found myself wandering from the covers to the window in her tiny kitchen, sitting, naked, foetal, looking out into the winter streets.
When I got back to Long Island in January the Hamptons began to teach me their super powers. Once again I wrote and wrote and wrote, and while I did she started to fall away, the hole scabbing from the bottom up, plopping her out. I wrote and wrote and wrote. It didn’t help all the way, but it did help some. By the time I’d been told, for good, that the fairy tale was funked again—that us was an inarguably mythological concept—nothing was a surprise. I wrote and wrote and wrote and the baggage—which had been patched up—began to leak again.
I wrote my heart out, tacked its drooling bloom to the wall, reprimanded it, and put it back in, apologizing.
In the middle of my campus is a radio tower which is apparently owned by AT&T. On that tower is an osprey’s eyrie. Often you’ll see an osprey flying around the tiny campus, around the lifeless grounds, over the windmill where Tennessee Williams reportedly wrote his worst play, or else perched and cawing on the nest.
But that spring, when I’d witnessed the fairy tale end for the second time, there was only a young osprey staying in the nest. I knew he was young by the way he flew. He beat his wings far harder than any mature raptor would. He didn’t yet know how to dodge the sky.
On one windy day I saw the young bird try to carry a fish up to his nest. The fish was in his talons, pointing forward, and the osprey beat his wings for all he was worth. But of course it didn’t take—he couldn’t fly up all the way to the eyrie with the fish in his hands.
A minute later I saw him fly up, unencumbered.
Between those moments he’d learned that he had to let go of what he—at the time—thought most sacred in life, because it was holding him down.
So that night I let things out. I confronted my memories of her and told them our relationship was toxic. I took her baggage, which had been freshly speared, and set it on the floor of my dorm’s common area to bleed out.
Alone, completely, jostled and naked, I went into my bedroom, sat crammed in the small darkness of an armoire, and began the long Hamptonian process of cutting through all those ties, all those realities, and constructing a new kind of me.
One by one I sheared my way through, and little by little I began to float. And wrote.