The first time I made the journey was on the train, one of three Irish girls with pale skin and oversized backpacks. Boarding at Penn Station, we’d been nervous, indecisive about where to sit, moving twice before deciding on the four seater nearest the door so we could watch the bags while we stood between the carriages and smoked.
My smoking habit was new, just like the Converse I was wearing that carried the rumble of the train up through my feet and into my legs. If I close my eyes, I can almost feel it, that rumble and the wind that snatched the smoke from my mouth before I even had a chance to inhale.
That’s over twenty years old, that memory, and when you write fiction for a living it can be hard to trust a memory as clear as that. But this was my first day in America, the morning I’d woken up in New York City after days and months and years of wanting to be there. At nineteen, I was finally here, my life was finally starting and even though the train ran out of track in Montauk, it didn’t feel like the end – it felt like the beginning.
At the station, a friend was waiting, a friend who already had somewhere to live and a job. Anxious to catch up, we set out the next morning, the three of us, to find work. We started at one end of town, each taking every third bar, restaurant or shop to see if they were hiring. It was an egalitarian system that had its first test when we reached the shop selling live bait. By the time we got to the restaurant where I would end up working, our initial hope had lost its sheen and conversations were on the cusp of becoming disagreements.
I didn’t like the restaurant’s tinted windows, its sign – this wasn’t where I pictured myself working. But it was my turn. I climbed the steps slowly, secretly hoping they were fully staffed.
Inside, a woman in a long dress directed me to a booth and she sat and smoked while I told her about my experience waiting tables back in Ireland. I had no experience waiting tables – in Ireland or anywhere else – and I don’t think she believed me. I didn’t believe her when she said she’d call me the next day.
She did call the next day, but not on the phone. Walking down main street on our second tour of job seeking, I heard my name, and when I turned around she was there, clasping her dress around her knees as she ran after me. Breathless, she told me they needed someone. A busser. I could start that night.
It’s funny, looking back, how the trajectory of my life, of other people’s lives, hinged on that moment, as if my response was a pinball in a machine that could have bounced a different direction. If it had, a whole other reality might have happened, a reality without a lifelong friendship that was forged in that restaurant, a reality without a blind date between that friend and another, a date that led to a wedding, to children being born.
But I’m jumping ahead. Back in Montauk, my nineteen year old self didn’t know any of that any more than she knew that this town would be the backdrop to one of the novels she dreamed of writing. But she knew she needed money. She knew she needed a job.
I don’t have space here to describe that summer and anyway, you probably had your own summer like that – the summer where your eyes opened and you saw that there were different ways of living, of being, than the ways you’d always known. And by the time I was leaving on the train in early October, I knew that I was taking back more with me than just the money I’d earned, the clothes I’d bought on my trip to New York City, even more than the memories and the friendships. I was taking home the possibility of another version of my life, a life that could look different than the way people always told me it should look.
And I knew that I’d be back.
That sunny September morning on the Hampton Jitney sixteen years later wasn’t my next journey to Montauk, but it is my next vivid memory of arriving and the first time I was making the journey alone. At thirty five, I was doing a lot of things alone since the break-up two years before that still felt like it should have a capital “B.” I was in New York alone working on a novel that was going to be published as part of a two book deal I’d just signed. I wasn’t far into the novel but part of it was set in New York and that was why I needed to be there to write – that was what I told people and it was true. What was also true was that there was something else I was trying to work out, something that had been bothering me for a while, something about my sexuality. Something that I’d kept hidden for so long, I could hardly see it myself.
Montauk was quiet that morning. Windy. Standing in the circle, the flag snapped above my head and the benches I remembered always being full were empty. A purple taxi drove lazily by and my history rose up around me in 3D. The drug store, the pub on the corner, the gazebo, the diner where my friend burned her hand toasting a bagel – all of it still there, as if it had been waiting for me. I walked past the restaurant where I’d worked, the sign the same although the owners were different, and around by the Laundromat where most of my rare days off were spent. Across the road, in between the motels, I took the path to the beach, the path I’d taken so many times before. No-one else was around that morning, just the seagulls, still as stone, and before I could think about it too much I lay down, right where I was.
Lying there, with the wind blowing sand into the pockets of my jacket and the rolled up cuffs of my jeans, I watched the light on the water, the waves. And out of the corner of my eye, I saw my nineteen year old self with her backpack of dirty laundry and her dreams; the dreams about writing books she talked about late at night over bottles of Miller Lite and the other dreams, the ones she was too scared to tell anyone about, even herself. And I took out my pad and I started to write. I wrote in a way that I’ve only written a few times in my life, the type of writing where, when it was time to go, I couldn’t make it more than a few steps without having to stop to capture the words down before they blew away, out into the waves.
I wrote over lunch in the diner and I was still writing when the Jitney took off, wrote until we were well past Southampton. And when I finally finished, my mind had a clarity, not just about my book but about other things too. Watching the sun sink red and low behind the skinny trees, I made a decision about a woman I’d met a couple of weeks before – a decision that suddenly seemed so simple. And as the sky darkened outside and the bus sped back towards New York, I felt an ease I hadn’t felt in a long time.
That book got written, as books eventually do, and another one too that I went out to Montauk to finish last Thanksgiving, editing over four days to the rhythm of the waves outside my hotel room window.
You see, journeys out to Montauk are easier these days, now that I live in Manhattan. It’s almost five years since the decision I made on that Jitney, the small decision that led to a lot of bigger ones, decisions that led me here, to today, to an apartment on the Upper West Side where I live with my wife. And even as I write that, the magnitude of that statement catches me afresh – how so much change can be wrapped up in only a few simple words.
Now and then, people ask me how come it took so long to figure it all out; what I wanted and who I was and all of that. And I don’t always know how to answer them, how to explain it, except to say that sometimes there is no shortcut.
Sometimes you need to go all the way to the end and back, to find your way home.