An environment more punishing than the beach is difficult to imagine. The shore breaks the waves, the waves beat the shore ruthlessly over and over, eroding terrific boulders to the finest grains of sand, and I cannot number the times I have returned from the beach with mysterious blisters and bubbles rising up out of my sunburn. Yet despite this violence, there is nothing that calms me as completely as sitting by the shore, because, for as far as I can see, the ocean says: “I am huge and you are not.” I smile. I take comfort in the freedom that my insignificance grants.
For this reason I often flee New York City, taking refuge on the tiny island off New England where two of my sisters live. It was at this time of year a while ago that I arrived on their shore feeling extraordinarily convoluted. I had fallen into a burning summer love so hopeless that it felt more like I had fallen into a well. I couldn’t see out; I couldn’t get out. And, worse, I couldn’t get the man I loved to jump down into this well with me, because the man I had fallen for was gay. To those uninitiated in the torment of mismatched love, I can tell you that a proper description of this affair sounds like one of the pulp-fiction covers currently gracing the walls of the Brooklyn Museum of Art: “Night Comes to the Dungeon,” maybe, or, on the good days, “Alien Abduction!”
So, in the same way one might go to a spa to drop 10 pounds, I went to the ocean to cure myself of love. The traditional New York City cure-drinking-had failed me. And so I went to the ocean intent on trying some new and varied remedies.
First I plunged into the 53-degree water to freeze him out of me. I emerged frozen and still in love. I stared directly at the sun, thinking I could burn him from me. This was perhaps the stupidest thing I had done since I was 11 years old and tried to start a campfire by dousing the wood with gasoline. I sat up and instead began to regale one of my sisters with made-up stories about my summer infatuation so I could repeat his name over and over again, as if I could talk him out of my system. Finally, sensibly, my sister said, “Uhhh, I’m going for a walk.” And then gently added, “Alone.”
I was exhausted by my hokum cures. I lay down on my stomach, watched my sister walk away and, though I am ashamed to confess it, I thought, “I’d feel a lot better if she were miserable, too.” So, lying in the sun, I thought back to an earlier summer. I remembered how she had been living in Italy and had fallen in love with a Lebanese man. He was so beautiful that she knew without a doubt that he was spreading his love among more than one lucky recipient. This just killed her, and so she thought about what she could possibly have to offer this man that his other lovers, both Italian and Lebanese, couldn’t. Finally, she arrived at her distinguishing feature: She had blue eyes, which she quickly decided to make even bluer by wearing turquoise contact lenses. Though the problem this created might be easy for those unclouded by crazed love to anticipate, it wasn’t for her. When she spent the night with the Lebanese man, she had to sleep with her contact lenses in or he would know she was a phony. Sure enough, within a week her sorely parched eyeballs became infected, and her blue eyes turned as red as a rabbit’s. Things devolved with the man, and in a moment of unbearable, infected shame, my sister snuck out the back door broken-hearted.
It was so awful that it made me feel better.
Even better, her shame gave me an idea for the final love cure, the one that worked. I offer the results of this cure here to those readers currently embroiled in a summer romance who might be seeking a salve before fall.
The first woman I approached was in her early 40’s. “Excuse me,” I started, “I have a question.” She wore a one-piece suit and had freckles. “What have you done for love? What is the oddest, saddest, silliest thing you have done in the name of love?”
She didn’t hesitate for even a moment, but calmly told me how her brother had lived in Boston’s Combat Zone in the mid-1980’s. And how she had agreed to cat-sit for him for two steamy, air-conditioner-free weeks because she had a boyfriend from Boston. Every night for these two weeks, she left the triple-security doors to the building unlocked, and the door to her brother’s apartment wide open, in case her boyfriend decided to show up. He never did. It wasn’t until after she’d gone home that her brother called. He told her that during the time she’d been cat-sitting, four neighbors had been robbed. “I never said a thing,” the woman said. “How could I explain?”
The next person I spoke to was a man from Vermont. He eagerly explained how, many years ago, he had laced up a pair of large boots, grabbed onto the bumper of a snowplow and, squatting, held on for dear life through a blizzard for 40 miles to see a woman he’d fallen for. He arrived, nearly frostbitten, at her dormitory, only to learn that she had gone home to her parents’ house in Wisconsin for the New Year. He slept that night underneath a ping-pong table in her university’s recreation center.
I was feeling better by the minute.
This man’s wife then explained how despite nursing a fever that soared to 102 degrees, she once went hiking up to a convent in the Alps with a man she had met on a train. When she reached the top of the mountain peak, she was nearly delirious. In fact, she, a nonbeliever, became convinced that God was in the nuns’ compost pile. She said she didn’t remember how long she had stared at the compost, but when she finally was able to look away from the tangle of weeds and vines, the handsome man from the train had disappeared down the mountain without her.
Another man, still visibly upset, told me how he, at the behest of a girlfriend, had beat up his own brother and locked him outside in his underwear.
Horrible. But with each story I was surfacing, because every one I met was a confirmation that seasonal flames burn out, leaving behind the ashes of a good story. Up and down the beach, these people began to look to me like scarred and retired warriors back from the fields of love. Heroes. And anyway, I thought, to the ocean we are mayflies, and who has ever heard of a mayfly dying from love?
The last woman I spoke to swiftly became my favorite. She told me how, one lovelorn evening, she wrote the name of the man she loved across her forehead with a black laundry marker: ANDREW. When she looked in the mirror, it read WERDNA and so she deduced that if she inserted herself into ANDREW, added an “I” in between the E and the R, in the mirror it would read WEIRD? NA. Which is my point exactly. Which is why the cure worked on me. We’re not so weird. Even better, almost without fail the pain we suffer at the hands of love becomes, in time, the best joke you have ever heard.