Fire Island. I love the name Fire Island. It’s a history, a sequence, a lesson in geology: Fire Island. Because that’s how it happens, doesn’t it; that’s what I remember: there’s the raging fire, the magmas and the epilepsy from the center of the earth; then there’s the slow cooling, sort of a mineral expression of regret, and then an island forms, like a scar.
Summer on Fire Island is a fifth season. It has rules of bloom and day length, texture and light that don’t apply to any of the other four. First of all, the air is always wet, heavy, soft; it comes close to your eyes and circles your eye sockets. Second of all, the sound of the sea is constantly audible, leaving the body in a state of unceasing consciousness of itself, an anguish proximate to knowing where and what time you’re going to die; the sea, calling you back, waiting for you, patiently; waiting to claim you as you shop for black tea, as you cook, as you read on your back porch, as you sleep naked, your hands full of your own wet beauty. Third of all, there are no cars; you walk barefoot through the streets, and I don’t know about you but I hear the center of the earth through the soles of my feet; barefoot, I’m so informed I go stupid. The whole thing’s unbearable; all I want is a body on me.
Innocently enough I discovered all this. I’m shy but agreed to go to a dinner party being thrown by a colleague of mine, this handsome gay man who appreciated women like me, brainy yet not without a touch of vanity; he loved to cook and had a partner who was wildly social. The two men threw parties regularly at their summer home on the isle of fire, and had invited me a dozen times before I finally accepted. This party was special, since it was being held on July 4th, the very day our country spit like a strong young man into the face of its father, and I was invited to stay over, as the festivities were predicted to go on well into the night.
It took at least three public conveyances to get me out there, I remember a subway, then a train, then a boat. All that serves to disorient a person; to signal the presence of an alien culture; you may as well have traveled to Portugal by the time you step off the ferry. I had a stranger’s body by the time I arrived. There are different parts of Fire Island, which is so healthy; it has willfully divided itself up into social segments; part of the Island is the family-oriented area, part of it is the gay and lesbian area (sweetly called Cherry Grove), part of it is the province of heterosexual singles trying to step out of the fast lane and into the arms of a one night stand, and part of it is unnamed, and probably populated by wild, wealthy criminals. I stepped off the boat in Cherry Grove that late afternoon; I had brought some wine with me for the dinner, and felt nervous and gorgeous, walking down this strange street, white with sand, towards the house, the sound of the Ocean filling my chest. I instinctively took off my shoes, and I lost those shoes and never saw them again.
Jeff’s house was tasteful and spacious. Most of the other guests had already arrived, and were milling around, talking and laughing in small groups. I knew no one there except for the host, which aroused me immediately. I am at my best surrounded by strangers; my history disappears and I am reinventable, terrifying. I found Jeff and gave him the wine; he embraced me warmly and introduced me to several men who were helping him in the kitchen. They were jovial and engaging, which gave a safety to the thrill building in my body.
Moments later, dinner was served at a low, huge, beautiful round table. Music filled the room from a hidden source. We all sat on the floor barefoot as course after course of elegant food was served. How astonishingly intimate this was! Eating is so revealing, I’m always amazed that we do it in front of strangers so readily. I feel undressed when I eat, fully visible. The sea hissed at me through the open windows. There were some genuinely funny people at the table and I remember laughing boldly; most of the guests were gay men, but there were some lesbians as well. At one point I was asked if I were gay or straight, and I said straight without a moment’s hesitation. That has never happened to me since. Though I answer that question with the same word, I never answer in the same way.
I went to the bathroom just before dessert was brought. That moment alone with myself in the bathroom was significant, as it stood in time as the last coherent moment of the weekend, and part of me must have known it. Moments alone in the mirror have a playwright inside them; fragments of destiny fly out of those moments and into your eyes. I saw myself as others saw me: young, lean, flip but timid, unmarked by tragedy and looking for a tussle. The warm water on my hands made me tremble.
Coming out of the bathroom, rejoining the atmosphere of the room, I noticed a plate of magnificent brownies on the table, and smelled coffee, which Jeff was pouring, with a towel draped facetiously over his arm, into white cups. People’s hands were outstretched, waiting for coffee, and I flashed for a moment on those rescues at sea, where drowning people reach for help, scream into oncoming waves. I sat down and tore into the brownies immediately. Four or five brownies later, I noticed everyone staring at me admiringly, and laughing, but the sound of laughter seemed to be coming from another source, a separate track, and somehow everything seemed silent, and then everyone seemed to be not in a curve of the round table, but in a line, like a police lineup, only I alone was the lineup and they were the observers, and I thought about lines of experience, the linear way ideas sometimes come into the mind, the lines of memory forming like ribbons as I even tried to have a thought, and then I thought of crullers as linear doughnuts, doughnuts robbed of their reference to infinity, and I doughnut-twisted one of the l‘s in the word into an e and it became crueler, and I started laughing, but the laughter made a mess, smeared the air with some kind of auburn paint, the color of oak leaves in autumn, and I thought about my hair, and how I wished I could pour that color on my hair and into my head, I wanted to sing that color, and
while I was in the bathroom Jeff’s lover had announced that six ounces of killer weed were blended with love and grace into the brownie batter, but I was seducing myself over the sink and didn’t hear it.
That’s that part of the story.
There are interstitial moments in this narrative that I can’t account for. The next thing I was aware of, I was not in that company any more. My howling world was sound, the beating of drums, and a steady bass, a stride bass, some kind of jazz heartbeat. My glasses were gone, and my eyes had that hot crazy air circling around them, petitioning for light. And there was light: torches, staked in sand, burning madly in a wind which seemed to descend from the sky, and I felt the Ocean, much nearer to me than it had ever dared be, even in the ferry, even in my mind. I was barefoot, having lost my shoes earlier, and I had a package of cigarettes in my hand, and some matches. My shirt was gone, and I was standing in my bra; my feet were taking Morse code from the ground, my body was twitching like the plates of the underworld before an earthquake. I was smiling, insanely; hallucinating, unafraid. No idea how I had gotten there, no idea where there was. Denuded of ideas. I was seeing beautifully, newly. In water, the nearsighted person sees better; something about optical density, the movement of wavelengths into the eye. This was like seeing underwater, the muffled sound, the strange, exquisite identities. There were people everywhere, naked and writhing; couples of inexplicable gender, ravishing bodies melting in the firelight. There were also people dancing, and that seemed so quaint. All my thoughts were like things you could touch or give to someone else. I thought:
someone touch me
and immediately a ravishing, muscular young black woman, dressed in a dark red bikini, appeared and said:
dance with me, lovely
and I started laughing madly, but crying also, and she said:
and put her arms around me. I was aware of holding these cigarettes in my hand, like a number I had taken at a deli counter, and I said
And held up the cigarettes for her to see. She took one and put it in her mouth, lit it somehow, I don’t know how, fire in her hand, and said:
And blew the smoke from her long drag into my mouth. It tasted sweet and dark. Then she said:
We’ll put everything here
And took my cigarettes and matches and whatever other thoughts I had made flesh just by thinking them and lay them on top of the cigarette machine, which was standing like a robot in the middle of the sand, and then she murmured:
Now . . .
And put her arms around me again. She was tall, and had a kind of power in her arms that was like music, like the music that was playing, and I felt myself fading into the experience and tried to pull away from it, saying:
You don’t understand . . . I don’t know this . . . I can’t do this . . . I’ve never had this . . . I’m just some . . .
And she murmured
Silly girl: it’s just a dance
And started pulling me closer, and then kissing me, deeply and tenderly, and I just gave way. I remembered that image of the bridge in San Francisco, collapsing layer upon layer onto itself, during an earthquake. We became another source of sound and light, all those couples finding something in the sand like that; we kept laughing between kisses, and that rhythm translated into my whole body. There was sand in my mouth, and her. A moment came when the experience modulated upward, and our arousal became intense, less social, more driven; a moan came from me I hadn’t heard before. My bra was gone now and my nipples were rising into the palms of her hand. She was on top of me and my spine was impressed upon the wet sand with a force that must have made a fossil for someone to find a thousand years from now. It felt like the whole Ocean came from between my legs, moving me very quickly away from myself and towards some desperate implosion.
Just then I saw people I recognized, faintly, as if from a dream, and I took my mouth away from hers to look at them. All the people from Jeff’s house came walking down the beach, and from the dense heat of my experience I heard giggling, and one man said:
There’s the straight girl you invited to your dinner party!
And they all burst out laughing again, and so did I. The laughter seemed to offend my beautiful partner, and as if in defense of her honor, she yanked me up off the sand peremptorily and pulled me toward the water, yelling something into the sky. Halfway there, finding me too lovely and too slow, she lifted me and carried me the rest of the way, crashing through the shoreline and into the wet spray. In another magical ellipsis, I found myself making wild love to this woman, gasping for breath in water deeper than I was, still in my jeans, halfway between that beach and Europe. She broke apart in my hands and started telling me she loved me; orgasm makes some people talk that way, but I know such moments are prayers, and the speakers are talking to God. I think we were drowning. I heard hard new voices, yelling and urgency, and saw a new kind of light, forensic and purposeful light, and I was torn apart from her by arms even stronger than hers, and that’s the last of that night I can tell you.
I woke up in the bed of a lifeguard. Imagine: there are men guarding our lives; he was brushing my hair out of my face and trying to get to my lips. A messenger from my brain scoured my body and came back with recorded messages from the night, sensations of repeated touch and coming, an ache of use that can rekindle itself in a second. I looked up at this stranger and could tell from his manly banter that he was proud of having “saved” me and that in his mind the salvation he had provided wasn’t just salvation from the Ocean, but from life in the arms of women, and maybe he was right, I have no idea. I thanked him profusely, and I kissed him, pressing my whole body into his, arching backward like a C in the mirror, my tongue leaving shadows on his, and I left his house braless, in one of his shirts and my own wet jeans.
On my way back to Jeff’s house, which I found the way an animal finds food, I saw that beautiful woman one last time. She was sitting alone on a sand dune in the far distance, and as I approached her she looked at me with tragic indifference, as if she knew everything; as if she knew where and how I’d spent the night. I’m transparent, I tell you; so easy to see through, and I love that, I’m grateful for that, it’s my stock in trade.
Every year, on July 4th, I go out there and seek her again; I search for my shoes and my cigarettes. I try and try to find her; I want to hear her laugh again. I want to ask her to dance.
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