Southold Revisited

The moon fading into the morning light moored Giovanni to the bluffs. In the thin cellophane air stretched over the Long Island Sound, two seagulls in flight dodged ice-age boulders jutting along the shoreline. The flight lasted but an instant, long enough to turn gulls into specks caught between the sky and sea. No moment like this would ever, could ever be matched, Giovanni thought. Re-experiences aren’t possible, even those I might have dreamed of. Yet curiosity about past girlfriends, his old neighborhood, his second wife—found courtesy of Facebook—held sway over him and from time to time disposed him to seek out the past. He had managed to relive some of it up close, the rest from afar, all of it uncomfortably. Isn’t this what I’m doing here? Reliving the past? he thought. Sentimentality took hold. A deep sigh caused his breath to sputter. He needed distraction not from this moment, this place, but from himself. Time had unleashed its full fury and left him feeling as old as the old lighthouse that persevered despite its candle having long-ago dimmed. It now flagged tourists that happened by in cars, ships out at sea were no longer relevant. Without a raison d’être, some perverse aesthetic of a culture kept the wrecking ball at bay. Giovanni was suspicious: Aren’t all things in nature entitled to perish? he wondered. Have I lingered on too long without purpose or reason?

As a fourteen-year-old he first laid eyes on the tower of bricks nestled between the duck farms and dairy barns on the apron of the potato farms splashed across the North Fork of Long Island. The condos off to his right weren’t there then, nor were there sturdy stairs leading to the rocky beach below. Back then the one-hundred rickety wooden steps to the water’s edge screamed catastrophe. No warning signs were posted. “Freedom of movement” counted for more than a slogan—seatbelts went unbuckled, motorcycle helmets unworn. A misstep here meant you wouldn’t survive. Common sense told you that, not a hundred-word advisory in red lettering posted by the township at the top and bottom of the stairs. Without reading the sign he knew the world had moved past him. After decades, what lured him back, coaxed him out of bed and into his car? He tuned the radio to the station that broadcast the minute-long weekend fishing report packaged inside twenty-two minutes of bedlam—a barrage of shootings and fires plus blaring commercials that offended the sleepless at home as well as those in their vehicles listening to New York City’s recurring apocalypse at three in the morning. He had steered his black Mercedes out of the garage and onto First Avenue, then settled into a two-hour flashback for the entire length of the Long Island Expressway. Nothing in the intervening years had changed the miles and miles of road. Tires droned as they did before; white light unfurled on the horizon as it had always done. Giovanni’s brother-in-law Pino had first discovered the place at the end of Horton La (“la” and not “lane” is how he read and pronounced it). Four or five times that summer they drove there in Pino’s red Alfa Romeo, and many times in the following ones until Giovanni turned eighteen and went off to war. Thereafter, Horton La became a twilight memory. He and Pino would head out from Brooklyn on the Long Island Expressway until the road ran out, the rest of the way zipping on swerving two-lane roads and shifting gears incessantly to reach the North Shore and Southold and turn left on Horton La. It was one of those apocryphal fishing spots fishermen spin tales about. It was Horton la, la, la, la, la before the cookie-cutter condos and the manicured park around the spruced-up lighthouse and the sturdy staircase for tourists to take down to the beach between wine tasting interludes on former potato farms re-born as trellis-dressed wineries. Untended, unspoiled, unpopulated, Horton La was once the real thing. For a moment Giovanni considered taking the stairs. The steps were now safe despite the warning sign, but his left knee was dicey. The smidgeon of public beach a mile’s drive down the scenic road along the bluffs would get him to the water in minutes. He smiled remembering it. With his back to the condos, he paused once more to breathe in the view. The sky deepened and solidified. He’d lost sight of the pale moon.

Stick-legged seabirds darted at the water’s edge pecking at unseen critters washed-out on the ebbtide lapping at the spit of sandy shore. Visitors wouldn’t arrive till after the sun cleared the bluffs, sometime past nine. In the height of summer, a bather or two might make an appearance; more likely, a dreamy sun goddess would recline in the sand barely filling the skimpy towel on which she lay, a copy of Camus’ The Fall alongside her, a freshman primer for English Lit 101 at Barnard College to come, the cover up for seagulls to see. Along the flanks of the beach amateur fishermen came and went with the roll of the hours. They cast their lines into the surf in a game of chance and departed empty-handed, thwarted by lack of skill and patience. Serious fishermen went a mile down the beach where boulders rose like humpbacks out of the sea and the bluff turned a sharp corner beyond which lay nothing but sky and ocean. That is where blackfish fed protected by rocks that spelled doom to the lines and tackle of the unwary over the years. Only seasoned fishermen could avoid the perils, and even they, only for so long. Extra rigging and extra vigilance were mandatory. Giovanni headed towards the boulders, ignoring the slight obstacle of having to cross three parcels of private beach to get there. He looked for the getaway houses belonging to the elites nestled in the high bluffs, sheltered from the surf, the ravages of storms, commoners, and commotion. He then recalled the encounter with one owner, a middle-aged blond straight off the cover of Town and Country magazine. He had not seen her before, neither had he ever seen the owners of the adjacent properties that seemed abandoned yet well-maintained sanctuaries communing only with the Sound’s murmuring waters. One day, with the sun well past its zenith descending over Connecticut, Giovanni, stunned by the heat of the day and the salt-laden air, could no longer resist the urge to sit in the beach chair he had been eyeing all morning beyond the posted sign that read: “PRIVATE BEACH. NO TRESPASSING.” He had seen no one in the chair all day and figured the owner had visited during the week and returned to the city without stowing it. He ignored the posted warning; minutes later he was fast asleep in the chair.

“Excuse me, young man. You happen to be in my chair. Did you come from there?” Giovanni did not see her outstretched hand pointing in Pino’s direction. She stood aglow in front of him, back to the sea, a white terry-cloth robe tied at the waist, the round of her head caught by the larger ball of the sun, her hair on fire. From the way she spoke and her scowl, something made him recoil and think of the black boys in high school, the tough ones with whom he had had the bad fortune of playing on the school’s basketball team. “White guy” they warbled during practices out of earshot of the white coach. Giovanni internalized the moniker but could only speculate on what lay behind the resentment for his being on the team. They were the kind of boys that cops in blue uniforms with unpronounceable nametags stopped and questioned. Names like his. The kind with too many vowels and always one at the end for good measure, names that spelled out nothing but trouble for a black boy when jerked up against the wall for a “jawing,” and, if lucky, let go with only a “talking-to.” No one fessed up to the hatred of African American blacks among the Italian American blues.

The woman’s white face in the sun’s halo came into view as rich as angel food cake and natural as the Dove beauty soap woman on television, a pretty poison Doris Day. He stirred with instinct to flee. “I trust I won’t need to remind you in the future,” she scolded. “You realize, of course, you’ve trespassed on private property, don’t you? I could call Southold Police and have you removed!” He stood towering over her. He had reached his full height at seventeen, a liability he would eventually come to discover in a firefight, where everything except being tall and targeted is random. His Marine days and the grimy war that refused to wash clean decades after still lay ahead. She diminished some against his budding warrior profile, his lean muscles primed for the long fruitless humps into the jungle that he would experience the following year, the toxicity of it all aging him in place, the branding more invisible than the Combat Action Ribbon cast away in a drawer at home and the lost Purple Heart that cited a bullet had torn through his shoulder. Despite towering over her, he couldn’t shake off an unnatural fear. She could bludgeon with the blunt end of her voice. He felt as helpless and exposed as the Williams boy on the basketball team must have when midway through the season he departed and never returned. Giovanni heard later the murmuring rumors from the other players and pictured Williams handcuffed and quivering in front of Officer Guibelondo, hurting more from the shame his incarceration would bring upon his mother than his “code blue” condition. Innocence didn’t matter; some were predestined to lose.

Giovanni slinked away from the woman who he believed would only ever exist for him on the front cover of a magazine. Little did he know her face would trespass the sanctity of his agony as he writhed in pain the very next summer, his open wound sloshing in the jungle mud. Hers had left an indelible mark, a rogue-prowling image dislodged from memory as he howled. It was she he was fighting for and so too had the boy lying inert on the ground, an American Baryshnikov who just a muzzle flash before had danced on his toes and twirled in the elephant grass with his M16 on full-automatic, the white-hot barrel of his gun on fire. His black face nearly touching Giovanni’s slumbered now, inattentive, immune to fear, to the cries of the fallen white guy he selflessly leapt into the field of fire to protect, to the VC rustling like rats through fields of eye-high grass, to the mud on his lips caked on like a gin-soaked harlot’s smeared lipstick after turning a trick. His was a full sacrifice so that a Town and Country lady might go on baking her American apple pie for whom she saw fit and barking at outsiders who wandered on to her chair. Liberty, she dismissively called it from her perch, freedom. What the black Baryshnikov called it no longer mattered—to him, to her, to anyone. To Giovanni he’d always be a muddied face, nameless and unknown.

Giovanni reached the spot on the beach where the chair incident had occurred in 1965, fifty-one summers before. The woman was the type who would live nearly forever, into her nineties at least. He was sixty-eight now; she had to have been gone for years. He continued down the beach. The “No Trespassing” sign he passed had a fresh coat of paint. As if by instinct he found the rock with the slight concave surface on which to sit. Big boulders floated in the water as effortlessly as a pod of whales. It was an easy cast to reach the largest some fifty yards from shore. A miscast would result in lost rigging. The cast had to be just right. Closer than ten feet to the boulder and the rigging would snag; too far away and the fish sheltering beneath its craggy girth would never sniff the bait.

A middle-aged man descended the stairs, fishing tackle in hand. He travelled light. Giovanni examined his reel, the gage and length of his pole. Snaring a good-size blackfish would be a contest worth witnessing on his light but top-end gear. The man was there for sport. Giovanni and Pino never fished for fun and games. They hauled fish out of that water, never disappointing the family members waiting back home for the fish-fest: baked, fried, grilled, tossed into soup—the rest wrapped in foil and put away for another day. Had he known any better back then, he would have eaten the fish raw right there on the beach with diced ginger, wasabi, and soy rather than wolfing down salami and provolone sandwiches he brought from home. The man acknowledged Giovanni by nodding his head. Giovanni returned the greeting and studied him from his perch on the rock. The first cast came perilously close to the big boulder. Quickly and adroitly the man reeled in the line before the rigging found the hazards of the seabed. He re-cast. Perfect, Giovanni thought. He knows what he’s doing. The fishing was slow. The bait consisting of green crabs had already been stolen once or twice. Blackfish are notoriously difficult to hook, Giovanni knew.

“Hey,” Giovanni called out. “Whatta you think is hitting your bait?”

“Blackfish,” the man answered confidently.

“Hard to hook, huh?”

“Yeah, sneaky mothers . . .” the man said.

“Well, ya got a slack tide. Stick around till it starts coming in. That should get ya a little more action. Anyway, be thankful you haven’t lost your rigging yet.”

“Yeah, ya can say that again. You fish here?”

“Yeah . . . long time ago. Looks like you come here a lot.”

“Yeah. Whenever I can.”

“Hope the fishing’s not always this slow.”

“Been fishing here twenty years. Ain’t as good as it used to be. Overfished. The whole effin’ Sound is overfished.”

“Yeah, nothing’s ever the same . . . that’s how it goes. Stick with it. Wish ya luck.”

Giovanni’s knee began to ache. His shoulder in sympathy acted up as well. He could move his arm well enough, but a lifetime of relying on meds got him through. Sometimes, when there were none or he became frightened of ingesting too many, he substituted booze. As though the shoulder and the pain had a mind of their own, they seemed to act up at the most inconvenient times. “We’re here, feed us, sucker,” they hounded him. More than anything, he wanted to forget, forget everything about that war. He tried, cried at times alone, a few times in front of his first wife. She had already been married once when he met her. She moved East from the Southwest looking for a husband; if lucky, a Marine like her first husband. She talked about him all the time to Giovanni. All about the Harley, the freedom, the drugs, and booze and sex. She talked about how he beat her. She covered up for him and would have gone on covering up if wasn’t for the other woman who came along. She had stumbled upon Giovanni sulking in his gin and tonic in some corner of a dead-end bar in Queens. Trying to relive her past, she’d found another Marine. They married. She divorced Giovanni when it became clear the past isn’t retrievable. “I’m bored with your crappy Vietnam, your moping! I’m young and want to live and travel. Screw you and that war!” He felt the pain of her leaving, blamed it on sleeplessness, his aching shoulder, the meds, the booze . . . the war. That was about all he could do to stop himself from ramming his car into a wall.

Then Facebook came along and he went fishing in familiar waters. Found Angela Nunziatta, a hottie Italian he dated in high school who still lived close to the old neighborhood in Middle Village, Queens. She too happened to be divorced. They jumped right back in. The marriage lasted six months. In revisiting the past, he became aware and resentful of the “yeah, yeah” and “how-Y-ya?” that spilled out of her mouth ad infinitum. All she needed was a stick of gum to chomp on to complete the picture. She had always spoken this way, but it sounded different the second time around. He walked out on the second wife, blamed the war, the wound that kept him up at night and made him morose, no fun to be with it. “So what?” she said. “Who cares?” She wanted him to stay. He finally put it to her bluntly. “Do you want me to blow my brains out in front of you? That’s what it’s gonna come to.” She got the message. He paid her off.

Giovanni stopped in front of the weekend getaway house nestled in the bluffs. Not much had changed, but the weather-beaten cedar clapboards looked better than before. Some things improve with age, he thought. He reached into his wallet and took out the picture of wife number three, a dead ringer for the woman who had owned that house, who had wagged her tongue at him for sitting in her chair, who had tormented him in that moment of jungle agony with the world ablaze and about to crash down on him, cut off the light. He wanted more light, but all he saw were red rivulets and that lady’s pure white face and the dead boy’s mud-caked black one. His wife he now realized could have passed for that lady’s daughter; she was of her stock.

He slipped the wallet into his pocket and walked toward the house. At the front door, he wedged his wife’s photo in the doorjamb. I’m returning your daughter, he said. She’s damaged goods. The kind without blemishes. For the rest of the walk down the beach, his knee felt fine, as did his shoulder. He started the car and switched off the radio. The long drive on the Long Island Expressway flew by in a flash. Everything is experienced once; everything is experienced once, he repeated in the quiet of the car like a mantra. No redo’s; no redo’s.

He nodded at the doorman and disappeared into the elevator. The apartment had belonged to her. He would be the one leaving.

“Where’ve you been, honey?” his wife greeted him, her picture-perfect smile stinging as she held open the door. “Aww, were you having one of your sleepless nights again?”

“Cameron,” he said, “please sit down. We need to talk about a woman from Southold, a place I just revisited.”

Kallisto Gaia Press, The Ocotillo Review

July 1, 2017.