Monday, January 30, 2012

God's Pocket

          God’s Pocket was as far as possible from the sea, about 15 minutes by car to the crashing breakers of South Beach or 20 minutes in the other direction to Lambert’s Cove where there was barely a ripple. In the meadowed heart of the island our clothes hung, like crisp flags of conquest, blowing on a clothesline strung between two scrub oaks.  Pressing my face into a rough towel, I had expected a scent—soft, fresh, perhaps sweet—but smelled instead some musky mixture of pollen and sea air.

          The house was just a short walk from the duck pond and Alley’s General Store, where we picked up our mail, a newspaper and an occasional can of Habitant pea soup that had come all the way from Quebec.  A little further on was The Grange, a grand post-and-beam structure built in 1859.  That’s where we paid for our beach- and dump-stickers, where, on Saturday, we would go to the Farmer’s Market and where, in the evening, we shared the task of opening out folding chairs to watch old black-and-white movies, like “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Some Like it Hot.” 

          Sitting on a hard chair with my ass asleep, hypnotized by the droning oscillation of fans that didn’t so much cool the air as momentarily relieve the heat, I would feel my sunburn flush in the dark, stinging my cheeks and shoulders.  My fingers were greasy, plunged inside a paper bag of homemade popcorn.  I liked to lick the salt from my fingers.

          I was a young girl, maybe 12 or 13, observing Marilyn Monroe and Rudolph Valentino for the first time.  In that quaint room they were as mouthwatering as tomatoes warm off the vine, as exotic as the scalloped edges of a pattypan squash.

          We’d walk back to God’s Pocket after a double-feature, in the dark, through the stars and under a moon that glowed like the afterimage of a fresh thumbprint, bright now but soon fading, past banks of orange tiger lilies, withered at night, and towering mounds of shadowy hydrangeas that would be bright blue again at sunrise. The grownups trained the slim rays of their flashlights down at the road ahead of them, as if they were inscribing a map of the island’s potholes. 

          When I held the flashlight, I aimed it up at the moon and waited for my light to reach it and return to me.  Instead, the thin beam dispersed just over our heads and lit the hovering fog that was quietly descending.

          What was inside God’s Pocket?  A wide-plank floor, pumpkin-colored, sensuous and gleaming from more than a century of footfall.  A lovely round window, like a porthole, by the staircase.  A narrow bed beneath a dormer window, my child-body sinking with relief into a too-soft mattress, the sheets lightly scented with mildew and bleach. 

          Lights out meant no light at all—no difference between open eyes and closed, just blinking black.  Wide-eyed, I would imagine the nearest lighthouse and its revolving beam, illuminating the spent flower heads and blue hydrangeas, routing out from its hiding place every earwig and earthworm, its spotlight penetrating straight down to the bottom of the sea.  

          Sleep came quickly, sweet and childish.  Most mornings the wooden floor was bathed in sunlight, foretelling a day that would be spent at the beach.   Or rarely, when rain lashed at the window and the floor boards were cool and dark, a day curled up on the couch with a book and a mug of tea, or patiently adjusting the rabbit ears on the TV to get reception on one of the three channels.

          I would have been delighted to spend every sunny day at Lambert’s Cove.  To get there required a 10-minute walk along a narrow, gradually rising forest path, dark and sun-dappled, and punctuated by random clouds of gnats. To get there was to emerge suddenly in open sunlight above the sea, with white sand beneath, shimmering sky above, beach plums and tall grass around a little pond down below the dunes, almost behind you. 

         Before me lies Lambert’s Cove:  its white shore curves to embrace the ocean, calms any turmoil.  The water glimmers in an abundance of light.  If there are people, I don’t see them.  This is my place, all the way to the horizon and beyond.  All I see and feel is mine.  The wind blows for me, the sun warms me.  I take off my flip flops to run better over the scalding sand, drop my beach bag, pull off my t-shirt and run straight up to the frothy lip of the water's edge.  Stepping onto a margin of pebbles in the shallow water, and taking step after step beyond them, my feet will sink slightly, into the soft, creamy sand and stop in just the place where the water laps at my breasts. 

          Mine was the perfect spot, between waving tentacles of seaweed and a domed boulder—the rock was round and heaving, black and slick, almost submerged at high tide, exposed and nearly golden when the tide was out.  I could find that particular spot with my eyes closed.  Find it and just give up everything:  give up gravity, lose the connection, just tip back and float.  Close my eyes and make of myself an offering.  The urgent call of gulls, the heat of the sun, all loose limbs supported by the living presence of water, solid and yet not, a body suspended above the earth, rocking gently, back and forth, like the rhythm of breath. My eyes are closed, gazing at a translucent red vista that is neither light nor dark.  Salt on my tongue, sea salt, sweat.  

          This is a place I once loved.  When I grew up I used to dream, on fitful nights, that I was on Martha’s Vineyard, driving by the red clay cliffs belonging to the Wampanoag Tribe, past Aquinnah Light and on to Lobsterville, across from Menemsha, where the roseate terns come every year to breed.  Only when it began to rain did I realize there was no place for me to stay. I understand those dreams as the thrashing of small hopes.

          Now in middle age when I dream of Martha’s Vineyard, I’m on the upper deck of the ferry headed toward Vineyard Haven.  I see the harbor in the distance, and further on is the lighthouse, where the shoreline sweeps around to the mansions of West Chop, structures whose elegant white columns, at once gracious and forbidding, stand sentinel.  My hands grip the ferry’s cold metal railing and I peer over the edge into the churning wake, until I open my eyes.  

          God’s Pocket has seen another generation of footfall, and more, since I was last there.  The post office moved years ago, and Alley’s now sells shiny blue-and-white mugs imprinted with their logo.

          My father and my uncle are buried in the West Tisbury Cemetery and my mother will be buried there, some day.  There’s room enough for me, if I want.

          It’s not just that I can’t go back, or that I can’t turn time back—I don’t want to return.  I feel claustrophobic when I remember my longing for solitude. I feel imprisoned by solitude when I recall my singular desire for the island’s beauty.

          My island is my unrequited love. I’d been so certain it was just a matter of time. Just as it is when you love a man who won't love you—when you think of him constantly, when you know what is best about him and you cherish him as much for his faults, when for so long you have believed in him, believed that this secret love will be returned—love as real and solid as a boulder, constant as the sea—you yearn for your heart’s home, and you wait. You’re sure you will find a way back, a way in, till you notice, as if by accident, that you’re all  alone, and you always have been.

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A friend of mine shared a writing prompt she was given in her Creative Nonfiction class: Write about a place that has tremendous significance for you; begin from the point of view of innocence and end from the point of view of experience. I was surprised where this took me; I'd set out to write about a place I've loved and longed for my whole life. What emerged was quite different, almost sinister at times, and led me to an unexpected conclusion...a contemplation about hope and disappointment, the journey from youth to aging and death. Try it. See where it takes you.

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Twenty-four hours later, and I'm thinking, "Hmmm.  What if people don't know what pattypan squash is?"

For those of you who've never seen or tasted it, pattypan squash is round and flat, with rippling edges. It tastes great when prepared simply:  lightly fried in olive oil and garlic and sprinkled with a little kosher salt, or if the squash is on the large side, halved and then fried, and served with a dollop of homemade tomato sauce (using some of those mouthwatering homegrown tomatoes).