May in the Hamptons–at the beach. The wind still cuts across my face. I wear my jacket, my sweater and my beloved flannel pants, but my feet are bare and the sand is warm, and I press my heel down and I am content that the unholy blue sky with its streaks of silver cloud is both canopy and expanse, an umbrella hinting at eternity. Gulls screech over the surf, a sole tern does its Charlie Chaplin bent-leg skim across the wet sand. The ocean, brilliant in the sun, is calm and tame, curling against the shore.
Everywhere, smashed shells; beak holes; jagged, eaten things; tiny sarcophagi lying among the pebbles and the driftwood logs. I walk. I pass a tall red-haired boy with his paunchy bald father and the father’s probable young new wife and their new baby. The boy walks backward along the water’s edge. A wave catches him, and wet sand clings to his ankles. He laughs. Is his mother collecting alimony, or has she run off with a lover to Los Angeles? An Hispanic family calls across the flat windswept sand to each other in Spanish as the oldest daughter tries to braid her mother’s hair. A man with The New York Times under his arm, with a cell phone against his ear, squints into the sun. Wet-furred dogs run back and forth in a frenzy of freedom. A small apricot poodle stretches out in the sun beside a sleeping woman.
These are the Hamptons, and the crowd is coming and the body heat has already arrived. The Hamptons are not a place for the social justice types. They will spend the summer in tight-lipped righteousness. The Hamptons are not a place for the slow and the leisurely, the dawdlers and dreamers. They won’t get into the movies or secure a reservation at Nick and Toni’s. They will never get a parking place at the beach and they will waste their vacation days, circling the steaming lot with beach chairs rattling in the trunks of their cars.
I sit, my back against the rising, pale grass-tufted dunes and stare ahead at nothing and everything. This is the place, here at the Atlantic Ocean’s edge, to steady my wobbling convictions and prepare my sanity plea. Ambition is in the air, the way the salt scent drifts up and mingles with the rotting things and penetrates every pore of the skin. Ambition and envy are scouring the kitchens, sweeping up the gardens, planting the annuals, getting the houses ready for rentals or the return of owners. The Spiders of Comparison, Humiliation and Loss of Face are spinning their webs behind the spices in the cupboard, in the garage with the badminton set and the abandoned, rusty bikes with sagging tires. These are the enemies of mental health, peace of mind, the glory of the summer that I am determined to drink to the dregs, to enjoy as if I were still a child aware only of the warmth on my back, the rush into the water, the hole I dig with my own hands.
Here in this place, it is clear to the naked eye, or to the Gucci-shaded eye, that almost everyone knows that someone has a bigger house than they do and almost everyone knows that whatever kind of car they are driving, Steven Spielberg has more of them. Everyone knows that glamour and glitz, celebrity, social power and weight is in abundance but always measured out more liberally to someone else. Here in this place, as you drive to meet a friend or have an ice cream cone, you pass parking valets in white jackets, and expensive cars lined up along the road as far as the eye can see, like the long freight trains that travel across Arizona.
Someone is having a party, and you haven’t been invited. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the owner of the house, or couldn’t afford the benefit ticket, or have something better to do. There is a flash, a weak moment: Who is that, who is going to that party?
The Hamptons are like that: Whoever you are, someone is more wanted, more beautiful, richer, a better writer, a more popular lawyer, cuts a wider swath across the social sky. Who cares, you say. What does it matter, you say. It doesn’t. Not a bit. But for those of us who suckled at some ill-spirited faerie’s teat, the salt of this sea burns. Ambition and its companion, rue, are like mildew in the bathroom, returning season after season despite our best efforts to banish them forever.
It happens to most of us sometimes. It has happened to me recently. It comes clear that the boss finds someone else more golden and invites him to go golfing instead of you. You look around and realize that you’ve gone as far as you can go, and you’d better treasure your memories because success, like Lady Luck, is no lady at all and doesn’t stay with the fellow she came in with. You realize that whatever small trophies you want, you might get some (they won’t be as important as you thought) but you won’t get others, which is just too bad. There comes a time when power, whatever portion of it you had taken to your breast, fades with age, with time, with comparison to what others have. And so it is. Ambitions are unmet, whether it is money or art or safety or security or admiration or love you are chasing. The chase is fine, the goal is often elusive. Someone else will win the lottery. Most of us reconcile ourselves to limits. So I won’t be insulted if you don’t find me charming anymore, and I will admit that sometimes I have valued prizes that had no value. Sometimes I have chased phantoms that would laugh in my face if I ever caught up with them. It’s a small but real consolation that if I hadn’t played in the game, I would be a very dull person indeed.
I sit on the beach thinking about my toes. Should I put bright red polish on them or should I leave them natural, worn, bent, like the sea things left by the tide? I sit on the beach and am grateful for the stretch of the blue in the vast icy water, in the sky that is mine to walk beneath. I think of the approaching time I will be shell and husk and shine no more. It’s all right. I am calm. This will be a summer to put my arms around those I love, plant marigolds in the garden, go to the movies if I can get in and let the sand gather at the bottom of my sneakers and the floor of my car.
In bald defiance of the dermatologist, I lift my face toward the sun. Some of the things that are bad for you are also necessary.