Sunday, February 09, 2014

The off season

I WANT TO TALK about a really nice time I had with my mom last February. It all began when I took two weeks off from my job in Pennsylvania and went home to my mother’s house in Great Neck, Long Island.

At the time, I was very close to moving away to Germany, to finally joining my girlfriend, who lives there. I was to leave to Germany in two months, in April, actually. Thus, my mom and I knew that we should make the most of our time together.

My mom suggested that we go to Montauk for a few days. I think she thought it would be nice to see the seals that are supposed to migrate both to Montauk and the Hamptons during the winter and can be seen along the region's beaches.

I agreed to the trip and we set off early one morning during the beginning or the middle of the week. My mom wanted to make the time in Montauk really nice so she suggested we stay at a hotel that is well known and is right on the Atlantic Ocean. During the winter, the hotels in the Hamptons and Montauk don’t have nearly as many bookings so you can get a really good rate on a room.

We got to the hotel and even though it indeed was amazingly situated -- on a bluff, a few feet away from the Atlantic Ocean -- it was nothing too extravagant. A series of bungalows comprised the place and many of those bungalows, from the outside at least, were relatively basic and were on stilts.

As my mom checked in, I wandered over to an area in the lobby where there were display cases advertising merchandise sold in several of the hotel’s shops. In front of one of these display cases was a cocktail table and on it a glass bottle filled with water. There were several tiny cups half filled with water in front of the bottle. A small sign on the table said the cups were filled with the bottle’s contents and that I should help myself to a try.

I picked up one of the small cups, took a sip and was immediately shocked and disgusted. It was salty! It was warm, salty...saltwater! I examined the label on the bottle  -- I had only glanced at it before --  as well as the sign that told me to help myself. The label explained that what I had in front of me was local seawater, thought to be salubrious. The sign said that anyone interested in buying this particular brand of bottled seawater could purchase it in one of the hotel’s shops.

I must have looked a bit disconcerted after having drunk this liquid because when my mom finally came to collect me, she asked why I looked so strange.

“Oh, no reason,” I told her.

We wanted to go to the lighthouse that afternoon and look around for the seals but we both said that first we wanted to have a glance at our room. We walked out of the lobby, crossed the parking lot and walked into our building, "3."

The first thing I noticed about our room was the view. The room itself was smart and tidy but the huge window near one of the double beds was the pièce de résistance. We overlooked the ocean. In fact, we were so close to the ocean and on such a high perch that when you looked out the window all you saw was ocean, and sky, of course. There was a big balcony made of wood and even though it was relatively early in the day, the soft, evocative light falling on the room’s wall and carpet looked like something out of an Edward Hopper painting.

“Shall we go to the lighthouse?” my mom asked. I said yeah and we were on our way.

THE MONTAUK LIGHTHOUSE is very big. It’s also famous. It is located at the very end --  literally, at the very tip -- of Long Island, which is one of the reasons why it’s such a draw. Usually, tons of tourists can be seen mulling around the lighthouse, the lighthouse visitors center and the beach. But not on this day. The entire parking lot near the lighthouse was all but empty. My mom and I wanted to find the trail that was supposed to start on the beach in front of the lighthouse and end at the spot on the beach where the seals are known to congregate in winter, but there were no signs for it. We asked a few surfers who were hanging out by their car in the parking lot if they knew how to find this trail but they were as clueless as we were.

My mom thought the best idea would be to make a few calls on her cell phone for information. As she did this, I walked away from her and onto a promenade, where I began taking pictures with a camera I’d brought with me. It was a cloudless day, must have been around 48 to 50 degrees, and even though we didn’t yet know exactly how to find the place we wanted to go, I figured I’d take advantage of the moment. I took pictures of the ocean, of the big white lighthouse with that thick maroon cummerbund around its midsection and of the quarter-operated binocular towers that were on the promenade.

When my mom got off the phone, she was squinting because the sun was in her eyes but she was also smiling. I’m not exactly sure whom she called but she now thought she knew where to find the trail.

We found a break in the thicket separating the outer edges of the parking lot from the sandy beach and together walked onto the beach. Which, it turned out, was deserted too.

But my God, was it beautiful. The sky was a pure blue and the light was magnificent. Actually, the light in the Hamptons and Montauk, I should stop to say, is very special. It’s a very calm, warm light, which really brings out the essence of things. We walked closer to the shore and were immediately awed by the array of shells that were on the ground. Big shells, small shells, bright orange shells, iridescent shells, bone-white shells, tiny shells, shells with amethyst-color swirls, striated shells, shells with holes, blue shells.

My mom and I fight, or quarrel, a lot but sometimes when we’re surrounded by art or things that are beautiful or awe-inspiring, we get on this wavelength where we feed off each other’s passion for the objects at hand and subsequently whip ourselves into a kind of euphoria as we discuss and compare them.

This was one of those times.

There were dozens of impossibly large seagulls landing in the surf, touching down amid the palpable sea mist, and there we were, walking along a beach that was all our own, just amazed by the myriad of seashells and by all the pieces of driftwood and other natural objects.

After walking the beach for some time with our noses to the ground, we finally got to the place where the seals were supposed to be. It was a little eerie because we had walked several miles and the entire time we hadn’t seen another soul. The lighthouse was to our backs and by now appeared very small; tall grasses springing forth from sand and the odd pond were to our left, the vast ocean to our right.

I spotted a homemade sign planted in the sand that said that the path leading to the seals was straight ahead and in order to gain access to it all you had to do was first go off the beach and walk up on the large dune that was visible straight ahead

I showed the sign to my mom and said, “Look, we’re almost there.” I started to walk off the beach, into the grassy area, when my mom told me to stop, not to go. Though I protested, I knew what she was talking about: if we walked off the beach, we’d be walking away from any semblance of safety. Though by no means did it appear that we were in any kind of danger or would be if we left the beach, I sorta knew in my heart that, in this remote area, it would not be that wise to walk off the beach, where at least we were visible to others who might come on it.

I protested a little more, saying, “Come on! We want to see the seals.” But my mom said that she didn’t think it was a good idea and that she thought we should turn around and go back. I ceded to her wishes in a grudging manner but I was secretly happy that she had made the suggestion.

The sun was casting a bronze light on the entire landscape by this point, and we took our time as we headed back to the lighthouse, stopping every few minutes to look at the shells or to pick them up or compare them.

All the beachcombing really worked up our appetites and when we finally got back into town -- it’s about a 15-minute drive from the beach -- we were happy to see that at least one store was open, a pizza place. Montauk is essentially a fishing village and even though it has become trendier in recent years, there still aren’t many restaurants or stores in the old town, and whatever is there isn’t often open in February, the off season.

We walked into the pizza place and after we had had our fill -- I had a buffalo chicken slice and my mom got a corner Sicilian slice, just like she always does -- we decided to stroll the streets a bit. All the stores and buildings on the main drag in the old village are mostly two-stories, which makes you feel like you could be sauntering down some Main Street out of the1950s. I remember thinking it was curious to see a fishing shop boarded up. A fishing shop out of Montauk? Maybe those boards on the windows were there to protect the glass in a storm, I hypothesized.

We walked a little more and remarked on things like how peculiar we found it that a six-story apartment building was constructed among all the two-story buildings and how this six-story building stuck out like a sore thumb. We decided to turn into an alleyway for some reason and there we happened upon a huge seagull sitting on the roof of a car. My mom slowly took out her camera and took a picture.

BACK AT THE HOTEL, we decided we wanted to have dinner but we also wanted first to just hang out a bit. I decided I’d go workout for a few. The hotel’s workout room was within the hotel’s spa, so I walked to the building that housed the spa. There was almost no one there. A receptionist greeted me and told me how to get to the workout room. I repeated back to her the directions she had just given me, just to be sure, and then walked down this long hallway that had floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the right side and floor-to-ceiling windows on the left. The ocean was right there. The workout room was all mirrors and glass, as well. The workout machines were really nice and new and only a handful of people were working out in this room. But the best thing about the experience of working out in this particular spot, I thought, was the fact that it was possible to look out at the ocean while exercising. Again, I couldn’t help but think that in some way, because of that light, I was in an Edward Hopper painting.

When I got back to the room, my mom was sitting on her bed listening to the TV and looking at the shells she had collected. We both agreed we should go to dinner soon. But first my mom said she’d like to take a walk.

When she left, I took out some art supplies that I had brought with me. I had been learning how to paint with watercolors around this time and I sort of felt inspired. As my mom walked the darkening beach --  the sun was really beginning to go down at this point -- I sat at the desk and painted a seashell. At one point I walked onto the balcony and looked down. I saw my mom walking on the beach. The dusk was gathering and above the iron-gray horizon the sky was a band of red fading into a band of orange. You could hear the waves crashing and my mom looked absolutely tiny as she walked on this huge beach with no one else on it. She was bundled up and wearing ear warmers and the wind was blowing her hair. I went back into the room and finished the painting.

At dinner, we sat in a glass room that looked out at only blackness but by day looked out at the ocean. My mom didn’t order anything special but I had prime rib, and we sat there and talked and I felt like a real adult. I knew that I was going to be leaving to Europe pretty soon and I didn’t know when I’d be back, so I was really able to see my mom in a different light. I was able to evaluate the importance of our relationship. You don’t usually get to appreciate someone like that, at least while they’re still around. It was nice, sitting there with my mom, a candle on our table, talking over our meal and then over dessert, coffee and ice cream.

The next day we got up and drove back. It was kinda sad but OK, too. I missed my girlfriend and I wanted to talk with her on the phone. I hadn’t wanted my girlfriend to bother me with phone calls when I was hanging out with my mom, but by now I missed her and wanted to talk to her. During the car ride back, I napped a tiny bit. I also read a bit to my mom from “Moby-Dick.” I had been reading the book and I had kept mentioning how boring I was finding it, so my mom told me to read a few pages to her so she could hear for herself. She listened as she drove on the Long Island Expressway but after a few minutes she said that I should probably stop. It was too hard to drive and simultaneously pay attention to the difficult prose of that epic novel.