I signed a lease, which still amazes me, considering how groundless I feel. I rented a two-bedroom place over an artist’s studio in East Marion, New York, which is out near the tip of Long Island, on the North Fork (a five-minute drive from L.B.’s). Mark Rothko is buried in East Marion, and my post office box is #73, which gives you an idea of the population. In that post office, on the plaque that tells you who, from East Marion, served in the Vietnam War, there are ten names, including three pairs of brothers.
My place, designed by Tony Smith, an abstract expressionist who lived out here in the seventies, has a cedar ceiling, and when you come down from the deck (which is on stilts) in the middle of the night with an old black dog in your arms, chances are you’ll find a bunny in your flashlight beam, or a deer the size of a horse. It is extremely nice.
I was trying to figure out why living out on Long Island makes me so happy (besides the vineyards and the beach and the the fact that there were blueberries at the farm stands last week, and this week there are pumpkins). I grew up on Long Island, though just outside the city, in two suburban towns that were mostly populated by wealthy white people. Pretty much everyone I knew couldn’t wait to grow up and leave Long Island, but I loved it even then.
There was the fat white lady who sold penny candy out of her house on Steamboat Road (the main road in the so-called black section of Great Neck) when I was really little, who sat in a folding chair without her underpants.
There were black guys waiting outside the train station in their Cadillac cabs, with the backseats covered in that bubbled plastic. Their hair was combed back in ridges, and they smelled perfumed. I spent a lot of time in the back of those caddies as a little girl, being driven around, don’t ask me why (because I don’t know).
And there was Mike Thompson. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I’d had a crush on him from afar, starting in the summer between eighth and ninth grade. I saw him. That was it. I didn’t meet him, or talk to him. For a good part of ninth grade, I’d walk several miles out of my way after school to pass by his house. No joke. He was a year older than me, tall and lanky, with curly, shoulder-length hair. He had pointy features, like a fox, and blue, glow-in-the-dark eyes. Picture Robert Plant in his youth, and multiply by a hundred.
He played the guitar. Later, when he grew up, he played for Earth, Wind and Fire, so, really, he played the guitar. When I got into high school, where he already was, I’d see him standing in a corner with his friends, playing air guitar and throwing his hair around. I’d overhear him talking about Rod Stewart or chord changes. He wasn’t like that, but that’s what he did. He had a girlfriend who had already graduated. So through the fall of tenth grade, I continued my anonymous crush.
Then our gym class went skiiing for a day. We took buses somewhere where there were hills, the freaks and the jocks and the nerds all together. I didn’t know anyone on the trip, so I skied alone, which was fine by me.
Anyway, somewhere in the late morning, I was waiting in the line for the chairlift, minding my own business, being angry at, and in love with, the world in equal measures. It was a long line. I could wait. And then—bam!—I was flat on my ass with one of my poles and someone’s leg bent between my legs.
Of course, it was Mike Thompson. He’d come flying down the hill, made the left turn toward the lift line without slowing down, and crashed into me, hard. What luck! We untangled ourselves, and dusted ourselves off, him apologizing nonstop, and laughing, his face red and frozen, his eyes the color of ice. He introduced himself. We laughed some more, and checked for tears and bruises on each others’ butts and legs, arms and backs.
Then he asked if I wanted to ride with him in the chairlift, and maybe do a little solitary high-school skiing together. There you go—that’s why I love Long Island. We sat together in the bus on the home, me a pig in shit, he a prince at the circus.
He had a car, and we drove around after that, during school hours. He taught me how to play a couple of songs on my bed in my room, while my stepfather packed up his stuff and left. His girlfriend even called me one afternoon, and told me to stay away from him.
Now, when I drive around the North Fork, I’m back there, too, living a life where everything bad happens, and all your dreams come true.