WELCOME TO THE HAMPTONS!
Lewis stepped off the Long Island Railroad train in Bridgehampton on a summer Friday afternoon without a ride. He was hoping he would run into someone from Manhattan that he knew, or—maybe even someone from the house? He wondered if his friend, Fred, who'd set up the shared rental, had arranged anything. But, in a flurry of activity, reunited couples kissed, friends and houseguests clambered into cars, regulars toting handbags headed to town and, within a few minutes, Lewis found himself standing on the platform alone. Across the parking lot a taxi idled. He sauntered toward the maroon mini-van.
“I’d like to go to the corner of Bridge Lane, please,” Lewis said to the driver.
The van was empty, so Lewis sat up front. “How’s the water?”
“Haven’t been in,” said the driver.
They stopped at a light. An endless flow of traffic crawled along Route 27. Every other car seemed to be a Porsche convertible.
“You don’t swim?” Lewis asked.
The driver guffawed as he accelerated. “No time. I’m a cook at the big house they’re building by the ocean. I’m up at five. By seven, I’ve cooked 150 breakfasts. Then there’s lunch for 200 men. My days off,” he patted the dashboard, “I drive this cab.”
Soon, the driver slowed and turned left. “This is Bridge Lane.” He pulled into a grass drive next to a large barn-like house.
Lewis was doubtful. Fred, his friend who had gotten him into the share, told him the house had blue shutters. “It doesn’t look right,” said Lewis. “Maybe it’s the other end.”
The driver backed out. They drove by large houses with rolling lawns until they went over a little bridge into an open area with fields of emerald-green corn stalks. Then the fields ended and the hedges began—those high Hamptons hedges that Lewis had heard about.
The driver stopped at the end of Bridge Lane. A three-story shingle house with blue shutters sat at the corner.This was the house. The gravel drive crushed under the tires.
“What’s your name?” Lewis asked the driver.
“Nice to meet you, Marvin. I’m Lewis. Do you have a card?”
Lewis almost knocked, but the front door was ajar. His skateboard sneakers squeaked on the oak planks. He wore a faded blue T-shirt and threadbare lime-green cords. After all, he was an artist’s assistant, so even if he did spend most of his working time on the computer and organizing inventory, he felt free to dress like a creative type. He dropped his duffel bag in the entranceway, wandered through the dining room into the kitchen and then outside to survey the back yard. A picnic table stood in the shade of a thriving maple. Beyond it spread a large expanse of lawn, big enough for a tennis court, bordered by a fifteen-foot-high hedge. Chairs and chaise lounges were casually scattered about. It was homey, like an English country garden. In the deep blue sky overhead, puffy clouds crossed the horizon like slow-moving ships.
The screen door banged. A young woman appeared in a black bikini top and boy’s bottom with a rip on the side seam. Lewis found that—and her—attractive.
“I’m Lewis.” He offered his hand.
“Amanda.” She picked up a pair of sunglasses from the picnic table and dangled them like a cooked shrimp. “Do you know how to get to the beach?” she asked him.
“I think it’s just down the road. If you wait a second, I’ll come.”
Amanda rubbed the back of her neck and yawned as if she had been napping. “Sure, why not.”
Lewis found a bathroom, stripped and shimmied into his surfer trunks. He checked himself in the mirror. His chest was a mass of white skin, untouched by the sun for ten months. He threw his T-shirt back on.
Fred had told Lewis the beach was just down the road. He and Amanda passed a cemetery and veered right along Gibson Lane. A monolith of white wood soared in the distance beyond a potato field. Was that the big house, where Marvin was the cook? From afar, the “house,” if you could call it that, looked huge. Up close it must be humongous! Lewis shook his head: Welcome to the Hamptons!
The wind carried the crashing of the surf before they saw the sea. As they passed through the parking area, the asphalt gave way to sand, blown and carried from the beach—the beach which was not as big as he'd expected. The surf crashed almost at the dunes with only a small strip of sand for them to lay out their towels.
“Shall we swim?” Lewis suggested, and waded in up to his chest.
Amanda dipped her foot into a receding wave. “I don’t want to get my hair wet.”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” Lewis beckoned her toward him.
Amanda screeched as she tried to jump out of the way of a wave. Too late. It broke and submerged her. Lewis was laughing and didn’t see the second, larger, wave that sent him reeling into the surf. The undertow pulled them together. Coming up, Amanda brushed Lewis’s arm. Facing each other, they treaded water in silence. Underneath the surface, her darkened hands seemed to reach toward him and then pull back. Her proximity aroused him.
Amanda splashed water at his face. “Race you to the buoy.” She slapped her arms into the water. Her feet kicked up foam.
Lewis swam after her. Excited, his first few strokes were fast, but his breath became short. He assumed a slower, more deliberate pace.
Amanda was treading water. “Beat ya,” she said. “Race you back.” They were a good 100 yards offshore.
Before he could reply, she was paddling toward land. He watched her for a few strokes and then turned to look out over the open water. The ocean ran into the sky and the sky ran on forever—Europe was out there somewhere. As far as he could see, it was all magnificent blues and whites: clean, natural, pristine, but he knew from growing up upstate along the Hudson River that underneath the sparkle was an unseen world of industrial runoff, deformed fish full of mercury, a graveyard of man-made junk, and rising water levels that washed away beaches.
When Lewis joined Amanda on the beach, she was toweling off. “I’m going for a run,” he said, energized by the bracing water.
“See you at the house, then.”
“You’re not going to hang out?” he asked.
“I’m in a play and need to learn lines.”
After his jog and a leisurely dip, Lewis headed back for dinner. Fred had boasted about these huge house dinners, where everyone helped cook and then ate in a big jovial group. Lewis was ready for cocktails, local striped bass or swordfish grilled in the back yard, and mingling with his new housemates.
When he arrived, the house was empty. No cars in the driveway, no open wine bottles in the kitchen, no cocktail glasses on the picnic table—and no sign of Amanda.
He figured it was a good time to try the outdoor shower. Hot water splashed off his skin and created a small cloud of steam in the cool evening. Above the hedges, the sun was setting at the end of a vast blue vista, coloring the clouds pink. He couldn’t ask for anything more beautiful.
Later, after examining the contents of the fridge—not much food, just eggs and jelly, but plenty of juices, sodas, beers, wines and waters—Lewis decided to make a gin and tonic. His first of the season. The gin bottle was already down to the G in Gordon’s. For form’s sake, he clanked one cube into the glass before dousing it with gin. He wandered into the living room and tried a few chords on the piano. Out of tune. He plopped on a sofa, took a big gulp of his drink and grinned. The cool liquid coated his stomach with a warm glow.
Suddenly, the front door burst open. A pizza box appeared, accompanied by a fury of voices, then bodies. Five or six people, including Amanda.
“Hey, I’m George. You must be Fred’s friend.” George grabbed Lewis’s hand and squeezed it. “Let’s eat outside,” George announced to the group. There was another guy dressed like George, wearing a dress shirt, pressed khaki shorts and loafers without socks. Lewis figured them both to be golfers. Amanda spoke with two blond women, Tina and Tanya, sisters in matching sleeveless pink polo shirts and linen pants—Lewis, an only child, was always amazed when he met siblings.
Dinner was not what he had imagined. Pizza served from the box on paper plates. Beer for the golf guys, who had gone to business school together, white wine for Amanda and the sisters, and another gin and tonic for Lewis. The second one tasted better than the first—well, just the initial sip; after that he didn’t notice. He marveled at the sisters as they ate their pizza with knives and forks almost in unison, bite by bite.
“To pizza and beer in the Hamptons!” George said, lifting his glass and making a funny face. Amanda laughed, and then everyone laughed. Lewis hoped that night’s dinner would be an exception.
The next morning, Lewis dragged himself out of bed before ten, not wanting to appear too slothful, but when he stumbled into the kitchen he realized no one was up. He brewed a big pot of coffee for everybody and traipsed outside with his mug. The sun was already shining. He shut his eyes and let his face soak up the warmth. It was going to be a glorious day. By his second cup, no one had appeared, but, once he started scrambling eggs, the sizzling roused even the most hung-over of his housemates, and Lewis found himself cracking eggs for eight. He enjoyed being at the center of activity, conferring with people on how they liked their eggs, goading the sisters to butter the toast the instant it popped hot from the toaster. Amanda hovered near Lewis with her coffee as he orchestrated the morning meal. Apparently, she didn’t know how to cook, and was impressed by his culinary acumen.
After breakfast, they piled into George’s car for a beach run. He dropped them off with their canvas boat bags, multi-colored parasols, folding chairs and French bottled water. The sun was hitting the top of its arc, blasting millions of overcharged particles toward the earth.
The beach was crowded. They turned left and ambled past a cornucopia of towels, chairs and umbrellas until they stumbled upon a recently-vacated patch of sand. They set up camp. Lewis, winter white, was about to put on some lotion, when Amanda asked him to go swimming.
This time Amanda didn’t break her stride as she waded into the surf. She dove and swam underwater for a minute before surfacing. “This is why we love it here!” she declared to the open sky.
Lewis drifted toward her, close enough to see her feet move in refracted wobbles. “Nice view,” he said, watching her look up.
“I could stare at this sky all day. Who says the Hamptons aren’t beautiful?”
“Besides the traffic, high prices and showy people?” Those were the most immediate stereotypes that came to Lewis.
“Don’t be silly. The sea, the sky and sand. What more could you want? It’s perfect, I could die.”
He didn’t know about dying, but she had a point. It was amazingly beautiful there.
“Shall we swim?” she proposed.
Once they swam past the sand bar, where the surf broke, the water was no longer rough. Amanda drifted on her back; Lewis was happy to stop and catch his breath. Something brushed his foot. He shuddered. Amanda floated like a starfish several feet away—it wasn’t her. Must have been a jellyfish. Lewis scanned the surface. No signs of life, but he knew very well there was marine activity taking place underneath, not all of it benign. But why worry? To prove his point, he dove, deep down. When his ears popped, he resurfaced.
“I’m getting cold,” Amanda said. “Shall we head in?” She flipped onto her stomach and swam toward shore. Lewis, floating, shut his eyes and let the pull of the ocean bob him up and down. Amanda was right. Despite the monstrous houses and profusion of expensive cars, the beach and ocean were beyond compare. Lewis felt grateful to partake in this paradise. When he looked up, Amanda was halfway to shore.
After toweling off, Lewis rummaged through his bag for some sun block. George regaled Amanda with a story. Lewis wanted to interrupt and ask her for help. Instead, he tried to rub the lotion into his own skin, but his range of motion was limited.
“You’re going to get sun poisoning, you rube,” Tanya said, grabbing the bottle. She slapped the lotion onto his back. For such a petite person he'd expected her to be more delicate.
“Thank you,” Lewis said. “Can I repay the favor?”
She laughed at him as if he had made the world’s most awkward proposition. “Only my sister touches me!”
Lying on his back, Lewis read The Moon and Sixpence. After a few pages he grew drowsy, draped the book over his face and dozed.
Lewis was the last one from the house on the beach. By the time he walked back, the shopping had been done, cocktails had been served and the cooking started. Because of his proven facility with scrambling eggs, Lewis had been chosen to grill the steaks and chicken. He felt hot, and thought a shower would help, but there was no time. Instead, he poured himself a generous serving of gin and added a little tonic, all the while smiling. He had been chosen for the man’s job, and he liked to grill. The barbecue, a brick hearth, was tucked off to the side of the back yard behind the clothesline.
After burning through several editions of The New York Times, the logs were crackling and shooting flames. Lewis rushed inside to get the meat. The women sat around the kitchen table drinking Prosecco. Tanya stirred something in a pot on the stove. Lewis found the meat still wrapped in plastic and styrofoam. No one had marinated the chicken. No time now, except for the basics. He dumped the chicken pieces into a bowl and doused them with olive oil, salt, pepper and rosemary. He did the same to the steaks, leaving out the oil. Cradling the bowls of raw meat, he grabbed his drink and returned to the fire.
The wood glowed red and blue. His hand burned as he dropped the chicken and steaks on the grill. He had forgotten a fork. The steaks and chicken sizzled, smoke blew in his face. A wave of nausea overtook him. He rubbed his forehead, his skin painful to touch. Underneath his T-shirt, he could feel his back burning. When he moved, the friction between his T-shirt and skin became unbearable. All that sun was catching up to him. Flames shot up around the steaks. He needed something to move them away from the fire. Lewis moped into the kitchen.
“What’s the matter?” Tina asked, looking at his expression. “Are you a closet vegetarian?”
“It’s hot out there,” Lewis said, and rummaged through the utensil drawer for a serving fork. In the kitchen light, his arms were crimson. He had gotten too much sun. The only thing he could find was a dinner fork, but he had to get back to the steaks.
In the dark, he moved the steaks to the side of the grill and flipped one. The top was a thick crust of carbon. At least the chicken looked good. He turned over a breast. The skin was crispy brown. The back door banged. Flip-flops padded through the grass.
“I thought you might want some company,” Amanda said.
Fork in hand, Lewis crouched, battling the flames and braving the smoke, trying to keep the meat from burning. Amanda put her hand on his shoulder, but he winced at the pain and stood. She held out a plate with a fig wrapped in prosciutto. “Thank you,” he said. Her presence made him forget how awful he felt. “How do you like yours? Rare or medium rare?”
“Amanda, your telephone,” someone shouted from the house.
“Sorry, be right back.” As she headed toward the house, she turned to Lewis. “Rare.”
Lewis had forgotten to bring a knife, but the fork pierced the meat with little resistance. It was ready. He piled the plate with steaks and circled them with chicken parts.
When Lewis sat down, he realized how much he had been in overdrive while cooking. His head ached. He felt his face flush. His body was drained of energy. Someone poured him a glass of red wine. It was a young cabernet and the tannins hit his head like a baseball bat. He cut a piece of meat, hoping the juicy steak would stabilize his system. No luck. The mushy fibers skidded to his stomach and rebelled. Was he going to be sick? Should he excuse himself? He tried to think of something pleasant. He looked at Amanda whispering to George and thought about his time swimming with her that afternoon.
“Are you all right, Rock Lobster?” Tanya asked.
Lewis nodded. “Be right back.” Amanda, laughing with George, didn’t notice him get up. Tanya and Tina simultaneously looked over at him with curiosity as he backed out of the dining room.
After Lewis shut his bedroom door, he belly-flopped onto his bed. His back was afire. Gingerly, he peeled off his T-shirt, while cursing himself for being so stupid about the sun. The muffled voices from the dining room provided only a dull distraction from his burning back. Eventually, he fell asleep.
In the middle of the night, a thumping woke him. At first, he thought someone had dropped a book or slammed a door, but there it was again, coming from George’s room. It was the repetitive thumping of—of sex. It sped up to an intense squeaking and then exploded into silence, followed by giggles. Lewis, trying not to think about it, drifted back to sleep.
It was nearly eleven the next morning when he awoke. His body had worked through the sun poisoning, but his skin was still sensitive. Pulling up the shade, he blinked. The sun was brighter than the day before. He slipped into some shorts, but putting on a T-shirt was out of the question. He had to settle for slinking into an unbuttoned Oxford.
Standing in the doorway, Lewis surveyed the back yard. Everyone was gathered around the picnic table, munching on bagels and sipping coffee—everyone except George and Amanda. “I might go back to the city,” he said to no one. Then he phoned Marvin.
Twenty minutes later, Lewis was waiting by the road with his duffel bag. When the maroon mini-van finally appeared, Lewis was relieved to see that Marvin had a few passengers with him—there were others not going to the beach that day, too!
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