"For last year's words belong to last year's language and next year's words await another voice." T.S. Eliot
Montauk off-season is always an eagerly anticipated destination for The Mister and me. By the time we get to the turn off into the village on the Old Montauk Highway and glimpse the proof of ocean off to our right, the everyday news that is seemingly inescapable back in Manhattan has already been consolidated into a sign in a shop window we have passed driving through East Hampton advertising a BAGEL BAILOUT!
Having been sidelined financially to the city for the past two New Years, this year—more than ever—we needed to escape to Land’s End; to draw in as much ocean air at Montauk Point that our stifled lungs could hold. Running away at year’s end (both physically and emotionally) is something I do and have done since experiencing the first blinding insight into the obvious holiday dilemmas. I just did not have to be where the specter of painful family memories, or a disastrous first marriage and the materialistic crush was.
And just in case I had forgotten, The Mister and I got a taste of that crush this year when we ventured into midtown on the eve of our departure for a talk on the 1964-65 World’s Fair given at the Mid-Manhattan Library. I have fond memories of tooling around those fairgrounds as a teenager, devouring Belgian Waffles, oblivious then to the racial context that made this fair controversial. Despite the fact that we avoided midtown thus far, it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. Failing to heed our instincts, we hopped the bus but were soon faced with the reality that it would move no faster than a torturous crawl down Fifth Avenue. At each stop crowds of out-of-towners boarded, fiddling maddeningly with their Metro Cards as if they were meant to solve a Rubik’s Cube and not simply dip the damned thing. As I silently corrected each clueless tourist, The Mister eyed my agitated miming and knew where that would take us, so he hustled me off the bus some 20 blocks before our designated stop, knowing that on foot we would still beat the bus to our destination.
Having successfully avoided the midtown holiday madness for so many years, I was stunned at the surge that quickly engulfed us along the avenue and not a happy caroler in the lot. Nerves were frayed and tension pulsed through the crowds like a shower on the third rail.
Fifth Avenue at Christmas was once the jealously guarded realm of a childless aunt who never failed her young nieces and pursued her holiday agenda with the characteristic zeal of a surrogate parent. We shuffled along with other children past department store windows and looked up in wonder at those fairytale displays; were hurried off to the Christmas Show at Radio City and afterwards cozied up to a grilled cheese sandwich and hot chocolate behind the ruffle-curtained windows of a Calico Kitchen. The sandwiches always came with potato chips and those little beveled discs we called bread-and-butter pickles; a poor kid's madeleine.
What I could see of the displays now seemed ludicrously opulent and in no way connected to the faces pressed around me. I thought—incredulous—that I had not been inside of any of the Fifth Avenue department stores—Bergdorf’s, Saks, Lord & Taylor’s—in nearly a quarter of a century! The Mister and I snaked single file through the inhospitable openings in the crush, like soldiers on a secret reconnaissance deep in enemy territory, signaling often that we were still together.
Later that night we were accosted on our block by a bearded young man, obviously down on his luck, who buttonholed us with a tale of lost bags in the back of a taxi, wallet gone, no way to get back to his brother’s place in Great Neck where he was staying while his brother was away. His accent was British. He said that back home he was a sous chef in a Kosher Indian Restaurant in the London neighborhood of Golders Green. New York’s finest had dismissed his plight. He had been to all the synagogues in our upper eastside neighborhood looking for help. It was clear that he had been sleeping rough; his feet shod in worn Crocs, unsightly at the best of times and utterly unsuitable on a bitter cold evening. He said he needed fifteen dollars to get a train ticket and he had no other recourse but to turn to Americans for help. I could see he might have a different take on the half-empty, half-full thing. We handed him a twenty and wished him well.
Unlike me and other friends who have lived through a troubled family life, The Mister’s initiation came much later—in fact, quite recently—swiftly, out of the blue and with heartbreaking force. We look around at the holiday now and see we are neither of us in touch with our families. They are mostly dead and our siblings have very little to offer that isn’t jealous recrimination for a fabricated past. They are last year’s voices and this is the New Year. I think that without families we are half-empty. The Mister says we are our own family now and that means half-full.
Two nights and three days in Montauk would straighten us right out.
In the past we’d pack up the car with a magnum of champagne, bottles of red wine, artery clogging cheeses, the disgusting but obligatory Bailey’s Irish Creme and sexy underwear. Our New Year’s Eve celebrations would entail an expensive alcohol-infused late night dinner among local revelers at The Shagwong before racing down to the ocean at midnight to gulp champagne and toast the New Year and then rock out with a band at the bar of the Memory Motel before continuing our rowdy party of two into the wee hours in our room at the Royal Atlantic.
We pack our own food now to save money, bring warm pajamas and roomy sweats, and barely get through a bottle of champagne on New Year’s Eve.
The dining room at The Shagwong was deserted this year from the many cancellations due to forecasted icy weather. Jackie K., Mick Jagger and one of those healthy American blonde models (not Christie B., the other one) stared down from their photos into empty space. A few stragglers hustled into the bar where we had stopped just before making our midnight ocean front appearance. The bar staff was clearly disgruntled; their biggest off season take had been slashed to 4 or 5 regulars and the out of town couple (us) who would not be coerced into more than one round of celebratory martinis. A glum bartender knocking back shots apologized for the drinks prices. I overheard her sad complaint: that she doesn’t belong in the real world. “I tried. I went to school for…mumble, mumble…can’t seem to get away from here.”
The endless loop of U-2 songs was finally replaced with Sinatra, Neil Diamond and that sure thing, for me anyway, Meat Loaf. We sang along, we even danced but we were out of there before our new best friends could even find out our names and we high tailed it to the sea front. It was a cold night—raw cold—and the sky was clear and bright. We made out the little dipper but had no idea where its bigger counterpart was in the constellation. I marveled, as usual, at the sea’s integrity and how it knows just where to stop. We, once again, found ourselves at midnight at the ocean bidding adieu to the old and welcoming the new. The Mister kisses me. It’s hard to be half empty after that.
Back in our corner room at the top of the stairs, the Wizard of Oz wind catches itself on the corner post outside our door with a high, demanding whistle and is the musical accompaniment all night; while we clink our Kir Royales, watch endless episodes of The Honeymooners, make love, and even while we sleep.
On New Years Day we start out for the familiar trails near the Point. It’s a place for us to isolate our old voices, inspect the words that come often, and sometimes thoughtlessly, and hear more clearly what has to be sorted out and why. After nearly twenty years of marriage we are still re-evaluating and because of an argument earlier in the day we abandon the hike. At The Mister’s suggestion, we sorted through the quarrel over steaming bowls of mussels pebbled with garlic back at the Shagwong. Restored. Friends again.
Back on the road to the Point, we discover a new walking trail and pull over. This one brought us along the top of the dunes where we spot a herd of deer. After that miracle we are treated to an Edward Hopper sunset from a vantage we have not experienced before. And then, at twilight, we returned to the Point and saw the Lighthouse, lit like an electrified gingerbread house. Intrepid tourists, mostly giggling Asian couples, were out in force; running from the car park to the café in little more than sweaters while I lurched about in puffy Michelin Man garb.
The drive back to the city in the morning had all the elements of a retreat well taken. Nothing had changed much outside of us. Where, when either of us had spied a red flag—on a beach or in a park or anywhere—we knew it to be a sign to, at the very least, pay attention—others who had invested their life savings had ignored red flags and held glasses they presumed were not only half full but overflowing. A prominent French Financier, a German billionaire had looked deeply into a glass and saw it empty and ended their lives. In shopping malls between the Gap Outlet and Buddha Express, young people are being recruited by the Army in military video arcades. In Gaza and Iraq the bloodshed continues and the games are real. Americans await another voice.
“Half-empty.” These are last year’s words.