“Huuuugo Barringtonnnn!” The syllables were drawn out, like a tired train moaning its way into the station. “What are you doing standing outside o’ my office like this?”
Ross was practically yelling as he walked towards where I was standing, in front of his office, performing as if there was an audience or a laugh track waiting for him. My feet, my fingers, my stomach were cursing me, but the conviction in my conscience said that I was certain, that I should press on.
It was a Thursday in late spring around 24 years ago and I decided that I had had enough. I was hardly 30 – he would surely think I was crazy. He would probably not even believe me, and if he did, that might scare me even more. But I had woken up that morning as sure as I ever would be, so I marched, or rather rode the subway, downtown defiantly and found myself waiting outside my boss’s office before the clock had even struck eight.
The frosted glass doors stared at me coldly, only letting through deceptive outlines of color that made my stomach tense. My feet could not control themselves, stepping forward and backward and raising up and shifting down. My hands, turning pale, were fidgety, and they were never fidgety. My brain was the only part of me that seemed unaware of what I was about to do, and so I continued on.
“How are you, Ross? How are you doing?” I stuttered. Maybe I wouldn’t be going through with this. You can go away after this, a voice in mind said out of the blue. Away! God, I would like to go away – kiss my 32nd floor apartment in the highrise uptown goodbye and skip town until the money ran out.
Ross’s stare still hovered on me as he unlocked his office and stepped inside.
“I actually have something I need to talk to you about,” I blurted out. He gestured to one of the chairs in front of his cruise ship of a desk, and I sat down.
“What could possibly be on your mind, Barrington?” he responded, his eyes squinting cautiously.
And from there I launched into the spiel I had rehearsed on the subway, expressing with just enough detail and just enough emotion how I would be quitting – immediately. How I could no longer take being a man of business, and I needed a life change, but primarily how I was just “looking for something new in my life” – the line I had heard in all the movies. No more would I wake up at dawn to respond to lengthy emails, make deals with greedy advertisers, watch the numbers go increasingly and increasingly downward. Journalism was dead. But this job had died long ago for me.
I thought his eyes might burst out of his head. My own head was beginning to rhythmically throb. I glanced out the window onto 5th avenue, wishing I could already be in one of those taxis, off to another world.
“Well I’ll be damned,” Ross said matter-of-factly, picking up a folder with his right hand and sending a call to hold with the other, “I did not expect this one.” I laughed nervously, like a massive boulder had just lifted off my back, but the boulder could come crashing down any moment.
I would have to find somewhere to go, but I could be out of the city by mid-morning. Maybe I’d just get on the commuter rail and take it to the end of the line. Anywhere but here.
“Close the door on the way out, would ya?” Ross added as if we were the best of friends, but I knew what that meant. We all did. I had decided in an instant that I was off to a new adventure, a new place where the pressure that had been building since I came to America couldn’t rule over me, and of course my head was still throbbing.
I galloped out of the office building, wishing I could throw my hands up in the air and scream. A man walking by looked at me oddly, like my father looked at me often back home. “You’ve got to get your life together!” he would scold in his tired voice, “Or else the future will just pass you by, young man!” I had always rolled my eyes and sprinted out the back door.
I found myself standing in front of Grand Central an hour and thirteen minutes later with a wallet full of cash and a briefcase stuffed haphazardly with clothes. My hands fumbled with my belongings as I passed through the revolving doors into a mass of people, many of them staring at the ceiling, letting their eyes float up and away until they were so lost they nearly collapsed. I remembered the novelty and joy of walking into that atrium for the first time. There was nothing like it.
To the beat of “Attention: Doors Closing”s and exasperated footsteps racing across the monument of a building, I stepped on a train headed for the tip of Long Island and let myself fall into a dream. My mother, my father, my siblings and childhood friends – they all danced around my mind as I slouched into a felt-y train seat. I was drunk on the toxicity of opportunity and chance, and all I wanted was the ocean and the familiar calls of birds.
Shit! How the hell did I forget a toothbrush?! My mind jerked awake. “Excuse me, sir, what stop is next?” I asked the man across the aisle, sitting up in my seat.
“Montauk, mister,” he and his beard responded. “End of the line in four minutes.”
I looked around the train to find it mostly deserted. I really was on my way to the end of the line, the end of the world.
There was a time when I was merely 16, across the Atlantic and deep within an entirely different life, when I reached the end of the world. It was a crisp night, not too unlike this day on Long Island, and the tides were going to be the lowest they had been all year. I woke up in the pre-morning dark, grabbed a thermos of tea, and trekked down to the rocky beach under the stars. The waves were like ink in the starlight and the smell of saltwater filled my nostrils and dried my pale skin, almost shining in the moonlight. I walked on the jagged rocks as far as nature would let me, listening to the waves crash in what was otherwise a silent world. I moved as one with the water and the night sky, and I felt for a second that I was the only person on earth, the only one to exist in the world at this moment. But then I turned to my right, for no apparent reason, and she was there. She was a jumble of shadows and faint light, but she was there nonetheless.
The train coasted to a stop in an ugly and outdated station marked with artificially-silver letters that spelled “Montauk.” I sighed. What was I doing here? Before I could even let myself think about that, a conductor marched down the aisle, signaling for the passengers to exit, and with that I began my stay on the peninsula in the Atlantic.
My first stops were the town drug store, for a toothbrush and a bottle of Coke, and the bed and breakfast I had seen advertised on a poster at the train station. I happily dumped my few belongings in my room that was complete with a four-poster bed and faded florals on every surface imaginable, and I set off without any idea of where I was going or what I would do. But I knew I wanted, needed rather, to see the water. In a tired daze, I walked aimlessly onto the street, searching for the most direct way to the Atlantic.
I knew it was her before she even took a breath; my 16 year old senses were not so adept at remembering to do my chores, but they knew June forwards and backwards. They knew her walk, her whispery voice, her love of the ocean and the wild. And so I never had any doubt that it was her standing 200 meters away, blending into the trees at the edge of the beach.
My senses for the water had not completely deserted me in Montauk, and I soon was standing on a quiet and unpaved street, staring wide-eyed through a gap between houses at the navy blue of the ocean. The water was rough that day; I could see whitecaps peeking out through the waves as far as my eye would go, but sailboats still dotted the horizon. I walked between the houses, not caring if someone chastised me, and saw a small, dilapidated wooden dock floating precariously on the water’s edge.
“Hey – what are you doing here?” a voice shouted from somewhere I couldn’t place. I spun around looking for it, but all I saw was the alleyway between the houses and onto the street. Was someone shouting through a window? I turned back towards the water, considering just making a run for it, and I saw a woman, perched on a tiny fishing boat, staring at me.
“Sorry – am I not allowed to be here?” What a terrible liar I was.
“I scared you good!” she laughed, “No, I was just messing with you. This ocean is public, as far as I know.” A smile flashed across her face, and what a smile that was! “You’re new in town, huh?”
“Yeah,” I smiled back, “Not exactly from here.”
But, deep in the depths of my soul, past all of the expectations and pressures and blinding lights, I knew this was the only place I’d ever been from. I wasn’t from the city. Never had been from that hell of a place. Before the scholarship, my parent’s succinct words, the plane rides, and the years of pretending and faking my way through life all for the pile of money I didn’t even want, I was from somewhere not unlike where my feet stood now. The ocean, the trees, the unpaved dirt roads through a place the rest of the world deemed mostly irrelevant were familiar. I was not from New York, not from my job at the paper, not from the uniform sidewalks and grids and subway schedules. Hardly from anywhere, anymore, but maybe here.
“You okay?” her voice brought me back to reality, “You kinda look like you’re about to faint.”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine.”
“Hey, you should come down here! You look like a guy who’d enjoy a good, strong boat.”
I almost chuckled. I couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not; what she was so grandly gesturing towards was far from grand: a premature infant of a boat probably about four feet across and seven feet long. Its white paint was chipped, and its blue rim was clearly worn down. Nothing like the boats back home. But I smiled anyway. She had an aura about her that commanded my presence, captured the wonder in my heart and pulled it from my chest.
We sat in the boat, anchored to the little dock, facing each other. I could see her freckles now, how they dotted her face in constellations and stories, like she knew the entire world inside and out. Constellations like the sky that night so long ago…
“Dude! You’re doing it again!” she laughed, brushing her salty hair back from her face. I just looked at her. How the hell did I end up here? In a boat with a beautiful stranger at the tip of Long Island like this?
“I’m Hugo,” a voice, which turned out to be mine, responded. A hand, also mine, reached out to shake hers.
“Nice to meet you, Hugo,” she shook my hand casually, “I’m May.”
“Sometimes I like to think so. Wanna go for a ride?” She tossed me a wooden paddle from the dock and started to untie the rope holding us in place.
“You don’t find it a little weird to be inviting a stranger onto your boat like this?”
“Oh, it’s not my boat. And, should I?” She was back at it, laughing again, her eyes like lightning on a cool summer night at the campground. Back when everything was simpler. When I didn’t even have to care about the money in my bank account, my title at work, the investments I could make. We’d go camping every summer weekend, June and our friends and I, watch the summer storms in awe. Mother Nature at our fingertips, practically reaching out to us.
“Okay, okay,” I was holding us to the dock myself now, “I’m going to need some more info before I get in a stolen boat with a stranger.” But I could barely finish the sentence. The corners of my lips were no longer my own; they were hers and hers only, and it was her wish that I smile. For a second I didn’t even care that I had quit my job, run away to Long Island, found a random girl and a tiny boat, and was about to drift off into the open ocean with only her and two paddles. I didn’t care.
And so I looked her in the eyes and pushed us away from the dock with my own bare hands. She looked at me with a twinge of disbelief, but only for a moment. We both grabbed our paddles and began to row along the shoreline.
“So, May, what do you do for a living?” I asked, letting some of my usually-responsible, slightly uptight self shine through, searching for any information to assure myself that I wasn’t stuck in a drifting boat with a murderer.
“God! Why is it always that question? Why not, like, how far do you think the universe actually goes? Or do you think the dirt can hear us?”
I blinked my eyes, dramatically slow. No one had ever said anything like that to me before – save for one massive exception: another girl with a love for the ocean and a name for a beautiful month.
“Hey – seriously – why do you keep blanking out like that?”
This time my lips didn’t even answer. We just kept paddling.
I used to go years without remembering that night at the water under the stars. But then I stopped calling my parents, let the disaster of my job rule over me, found it impossible to fall asleep and even harder to wake up. And June and the constellations were my only refuge, my only direction. So, I guess I quit my job and got on a train. For her. Dear lord – I quit my job and got on a train!
“I need to go,” I panted, “Like now.” I looked around frantically, trying to see how far we’d gone.
“What’s wrong? We were just getting started!” But she was looking around too, attempting to turn the boat back towards the dock.
And it all came back to me, all at once, like a million white birds swarming my face and body until I hardly could tell I was even alive. I was standing on the rocks, breathing in the voices of the ocean and each of its crashing waves. She was by the trees, concealed by a veil of benign darkness. The universe, fate was our protector. Until it wasn’t. She joined me on the rocks. She, too, of course, had seen me on the beach, known with complete conviction that I would be there. We relished the darkness. We were safe in the dark, safe in the unknown and the freedom of its secrets. Nothing seemed to matter in the night; we could be more than friends, but still be the rambunctious teenagers the town knew well. There were no strings attached when the only light came from the moon and stars. But the sun does rise. And fate no longer was with me. In fear I bolted, letting tears stream down my face as I ran through the wooded path away from the beach, and I kept running.
She was everything I had ever wanted: a life of happiness and freedom and forever living without even a thought of the ominous future. We were just the right amount of irresponsible together, something our parents despised and we relished and loved more than life itself. But I was chasing the impossible with June; I was chasing my own self letting go of my parents’ dreams, running off as if nothing in the artificial world could possibly matter, as if I was the only one on earth. Each and every time the chance came, I flung myself overboard. I couldn’t do it, so I trudged acquiescently across the ocean and never looked back.
A hand was on my wrist.
“Hugo? Hugo Barrington?” My eyes slowly focused on a sterile, beigey hospital room. A short man in a lab coat pulled his hand away from my arm and instead reached for a plastic clipboard and a pen.
“Where am I?” I mumbled.
He pointed to a painting on the wall where each letter was depicted as an animal. “Can you read that?”
I read the words “St. Mary’s Montauk,” and he made some marks on his clipboard.
“You should be good to go,” he tucked the pen into his coat methodically, “You fainted. Dehydration.”
I nodded my head.
“Oh, but you might want to wait a bit. Someone called and said they needed to see you. They were on their way.” He left the room before I could ask any questions.
June. Like a fantastical flashing across my mind. My better self would have stayed in that hospital room. Would have waited for her, embraced her in my open arms. Would have admitted my own stupidity, my own fear.
I stood up, watched the world spin, grabbed my wallet, and got on the first train out of town.