Silver Sands

by

12/08/2023

Neighborhood: Long Island

In the summers we would go to a cottage on the North Fork of Long Island, near Greenport. We rented the same one each year. It’s a great spot that my wife heard about from, well, I don’t remember where. She is always hearing about things, discovering ways for us to get away, do things, be a family, moving around in the world together. This is an important skill anywhere, but particularly in New York City, where getting away well is a big part of being here well. In the summer of 2020, during covid and right before the little cottage community was sold to developers, we had what would turn out to be a sort of farewell tour there.

The Silver Sands was definitely a find. Until recently, it didn’t have a website. You had to call. Call! This is now harder than writing a letter. If someone phones me, my first reaction is some measure of offense, followed by deep fear, followed by declining the call.

The cottages are the sort of place you’d expect to find at the end of a landline. Fashion shoots and indie films happen there because it’s deliciously out of style: an old turquoise Buick parked out front on a pitch of gravel, the buzzing 1950s neon sign, a screen door leading into the shag-carpeted manager’s office, wood-paneling, a ship’s wheel on the wall, and a miniature brass anchor screwed to the desk that you tap for service. It’s Flamingo Kid and Dirty Dancing. Cool in the most meaningful sense of that term: unselfconsciously. Special in its unspecialness.
 
Terry ran the show, with his mother. Before that she had run it with her parents.

A dozen or so bungalow cottages dotted around a private beach on Long Island Sound. Gravel roads. A pool for cloudy days. Picnic table in your yard. Trees at hammock-tying distance. Barbecue. Porch. Kitchen. Living room. Beds. 

Rolling in, I was reminded of the turn my father would make toward Grandma Campbell’s backyard, his mother, where the back-alley gravel gave way to green grass, and the sound of the car went wispy, as we’d glide to a stop in her yard. Before the car doors were open, her back door was, and there she stood in her green housecoat and thick white hair, greeting us with a lifted arm. 

Here the cottage greets us. 

#106. 

Green and white and waiting.

I never made too a big deal about trying to get the same one every year. It wouldn’t make much difference, since all the cottages are much the same, but of course it made all the difference in the world, too. This one was ours.

All this created a curious version of time travel — returning to the same place, partly by design, partly spontaneously. Some kind of spontaneous design, many layers happening at once. What it is to be five and ten and forty, and even older, and happy to find a familiar place to land?

I called Terry toward August that year, when the city boiled up around us when it was really time to get away. 

If we owned it–it would probably cost a million dollars—but it would be merely returning to a burden. Yes, here we are, again, #106, and the damn roof has leaked and there’s a possum living in the dresser drawers…The miracle wouldn’t have been there, not necessarily because ownership is a burden out of reach, but because that was not in the nature of this particular thing.

Going to the Silver Sands was like falling backwards, hanging in space, and then landing back in the familiar after all. 

When we’d arrive, I suppose it reminded me of what my wife once said about the Adriatic and returning there each summer with her family in Yugoslavia. It’s mine, It’s mine. And it was that all the more because one knew well enough not to grab too tight. Carpe diem, not everyone knows, does not mean seize the day. It means gently hold the day. 

And hold those days gently we did at # 106; we reclaimed it, it reclaimed us.

__________

First we unpack the car. Back and forth we go, the kids running around, from gravel drive to screen door, and my wife assembles everything into this fridge that she’d unpacked from ours at 6 a.m. that morning. “Drive was nice,” one of us says. It won’t be long before I suggest they all head to the beach. “I can finish this up, and join you after.”

I set up the fridge nicely. Meats for the barbecue on full display, the beer, the breakfast foods. Next I do the inflatables in the living room, and it’s an effort of breath, but by the end the small shag-carpeted room with the furniture from Nixon’s best days is overrun by bright green alligators and an immense police car and two enormous bright pink donuts soon to be spinning in the sea. I make coffee and grab what I can and head to the beach. 

What a walk! Is there anything more humanized than a man on vacation with his family? I can’t think of a time when a father has more purpose. Suddenly the efforts of parenting are leveled and the endless negotiations of marriage can be forgotten. You are both more and less of your real self when you are away – you’re your best self, and for me it’s good to catch this glimpse of myself coming through the trees and pine needles, laden and looped with inflated things, my family just over the grass, down the few steps, in a patch of sand by the sea.

“Hey!” Nataša waves. She smiles. My wife is easy to happiness.

I wave back with lifted chin.

“The kids?” I say.

“Amazing. Look at them.”

I watch them glinting in the water for a few moments, Levi, diving and rolling near the shoreline, and Hana, beautifully limbed, like a mermaid, turning in the water.

The first time we came Levi had taken a day or two to accept the water. That is his way. He’d had a small cut on his foot from before and made pains about not wanting to lose his band-aid by going into the water. “My band aid, my band aid, my beautiful band aid,” he cried when at last it was lost. But now he is more of the water than not, turning like an otter and smiling with his happy teeth. 

“My beautiful band aid!” I call out to him. We’ve made a joke of it now.

“My band aid, my band aid,” he repeats, running full speed into my wife’s arms. Nataša gathers a towel around him and he spins to sit in her lap.

“Can I have a cookie,” he smiles.

And I know now the coming week will pass in the ease that can only happen near water.

We spend the best of that day at the beach. Around noon I volunteer, magnanimous yet again, to drive to town and get us Ruben sandwiches from the place by the side of the road that we like. I enjoy climbing my heated body into the air-conditioned car, pulling out from the wooded street into the main road, following the strange meaningless sights of the familiar but unpenetrated town around me on my way to the Fork and Anchor. 

The sun is blazingly hot at the order window and I wait on a bench for our food, feeling a terrific sense of well-being. A very strange thought comes over me, about all that had to have be assembled for this old wooden bench to be in this particular spot, alongside the road, just out of the sun, with the cars parking and men and women coming out to order their sandwiches at the window. I touch one of the rusted screws holding this particular part of the world together. Where were the screws made? I touch the Philips grooves of its head. 1930s? 50s? The bench’s paint is flecked away enough to show at least three more layers of color, once red, once brown, once white, now green. What forest, the wood? What horse’s hairs, the paint brush? Don’t know…but how real the real world is, and how much effort has been made to put everything into place. 

It’s hotter still at the beach now and we eat our sandwiches in the sun, a man, a woman and their two kids, as if life were the simplest thing imaginable. In the evenings we go out to eat. When there are clouds during the day, we go to the toy store, the bookstore, the cafe in town. A week passes pretty fast. That’s what vacation is: wake, play, eat, rest.

__________

The second day back home, my wife says that something doesn’t feel right. As if everything had been cut off too quickly. I wonder…should we go back? Is it even possible to Jenga the credit cards into another few days at the Silver Sands. And anyway, what would be the sense of it? What’s done is done. 

But she misses something and I do too, though I can’t say what, except to say that everything had felt better that week at the beach than it had all year. And then my wife does what she does better than any of us: points to the truth that is plainly before us.

It feels as if we move as one, like a ball, everyone together, she says. We are standing in the living room, still un-unpacked. 

Isn’t that the best way to say it? Like a ball. 

She rotates her hands together while saying it, making the shape of a ball, and I realize at once that she isn’t saying it from happiness or, she is, but it’s the peculiar happiness that comes from a thing that has been too soon lost, that should have never been lost at all. She’s near tears and her voice cracks and I know then at once the difficulty of the intervening year, and I know, too, that we have to go back, that there’s another few days left of the summer. One way or another, we’ll find a way. 

And so we load the car up, all over again, two days later to go back. I watch the kids scrambling to pull their suitcases, to grab one last stuffy, and Levi shouting “I gotta pee!” and Hana rolling her eyes and Nataša with bags all around her, and me pulling the loaded up cart out the door, barely fitting through– in the elevator, and down, and out the front door, and up the ramp toward the car–like a ball–and into the car. Rolling out of Stuytown–like a ball–under the overpass and onto the FDR and the expressway and out to the Island, the kids listening to Coldplay, the traffic easy and light around us, moving quickly through it–like a ball–and breaking around one last bend, until suddenly all is yellow and blue and we pull in and they get out and go toward the cottage, toward the beach. There they are, the three of them, my three, beneath the sun and before the water rolling over the horizon, down the blue hill of it, like a ball. 

Plato said that children at play are the purest form of being. This seems true to me at the beach, watching Hana and Levi in the sand. I am struck again by how much it means to be a parent, how vague and silly the other parts of my life had been without them.

Around the time Hana was the age Levi is now, she used to ask me if we can just move the time back. When it was time to leave for school or to go to bed, she’d ask me if we can’t just move the time back — not be late, but just slide the time back, like it’s a glass on a table. 

Let’s just move it back, she says. 

What? The time? 

Yes. Just put it back.

Ok, I say. Let’s put it back.

***

Trevor Laurence Jockims has a PhD in Comparative Literature and teaches at New York University. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Times Literary Supplement, Descant, Anderbo, Kino Kultura, and elsewhere.

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