Chris and Alyssa picked me up and we drove to Montauk Point to watch the sun come up over the very edge of Long Island. It's tourist season on the east end, and the four-in-the-morning partiers crowded into the streets of the Hamptons, making us slow down for the people stumbling into traffic like a game of Douchebag Frogger. It's usually a quiet drive, no one around except cops waiting at speedtraps. County Road 27 always feels like it's yours if you're driving on it at night.
We got there when it was still dark. Chris lit a cigarette in the parking lot and looked up, saying you could see the Milky Way. I have never really understood what I was looking at when it comes to constellations, but I stared up at the sky anyway. I can point out the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper, but if I stare long enough, everything becomes one huge overlapping Dipper, a trippy velvet poster brought to you by astigmatism and overactive imagination. The beam from the lighthouse cut the sky at the horizon and we walked the path down the dunes to the beach.
I am skeptical of nature and afraid of the ocean. Sea and space are the two last undiscovered frontiers. I “get” space. It's infinite. There could be aliens. They might want Reese's Pieces, or they might want to probe us with Bob Barker microphones like they did to Christopher Walken in Communion. I can fathom supernatural attack, but there is something about the ocean I can't get down with. The possibility of wild animals nibbling your feet. The freak shark attacks. The undertow. I grew up in a town with a lake, and that lake also has a mythical Indian Princess who claims one swimmer every summer- Lake Ronkonkoma's answer to Jason Voorhees. Nothing is sacred in nature. There is no talking a Great White into giving you your hands back, no reasoning with a Man-O-War over whether or not to sting you. But here I was, at the ocean with two of my favorite people, taking deep, salty breaths and sitting on a blanket under a perfect starlit sky. Chris and Alyssa have been through a lot as a couple, a rough few years they have weathered together. They always find room for me to tag along with them, and I am glad to be there, even if I am privately terrified of finding a body washed up on shore like the first five minutes of Special Victims Unit.
Chris and Alyssa held hands, and I stared out into the void, flipping through the cesspool rolodex of memories, listening to the waves roll in and out, seagulls calling somewhere down the sand. This reminded me of something, something buried way deep in there. I squinted and zoned out to the sounds of the tide until, finally, there it was.
The seventh grade was easily the worst year of my life, as it is for most people who don't turn out to be the sort of person who drives a Hummer or yells “fag” at pedestrians. I laid awake night after night, staring at the glowing red eyes of my rooster alarm clock until I finally fell asleep around five in the morning. Then I woke up forty minutes later to be at the bus on time, ready for the looming ass-kicking and emotional stress that had me going gray when I was seventeen.
I finally worked up the courage to say something to my mother, crying like a hysterical person about my insomnia and anxiety until I was snotting on myself, unable to muster the dignity to wipe it.
And then my mom did something remarkable. She got up from the couch and turned off the television and she said, “Get in the car.” And then we drove to the Sam Goody in the mall and she said, “Do you want Lightening Storm or Sounds of the Sea?” And I said, “Sounds of the Sea...I guess.” And then we drove back home. Every night after that, as I lay awake in my own personal shark attack, listening to the sounds of an imaginary beach on a compact disc, I knew in my heart that everything was terrible and it would never, ever change.
“I think I hate the ocean,” I said, back in the present day. It was more of an affirmation than directed at anyone in particular.
But then the horizon turned cupcake pink. Chris picked up a dead eel that two crabs were fighting over and Alyssa took pictures. Then a gang of bikers came down the path and watched the sunrise with us. Alyssa said I should talk to them, but the surrealism of talking to bikers with the sun coming up was just too much. Instead, I looked for shells and stared longingly at their leather vests and long, gray ponytails. When I realized that no sand had gotten in my sneakers, I finally thought, “Maybe the ocean's not so bad.”
Alyssa said there was a place that made coconut pancakes back in town, so we left the beach and the bikers ended up at the pancake house, too. We seated ourselves and watched from the window as a BMW parked across the street from all the Harleys lined up at the curb. The man who got out closed the car door with one hooked metal hand and held his keys and a newspaper in another. Then he came in the pancake house and took a seat at the counter next to us. He unfolded the paper, manipulating the pages with the shiny replacement hands. The waitress said, “Hi, Steve,” and took his order and then our orders and she said it would be all out in a minute, like this was the most average Sunday morning ever and we were all lucky to be there, eating pancakes like people who know they've beaten the undertow.