by Debbie Slevin
First published July 4th issue, Dan’s Papers Literary Contest 2012
I bought a painting recently in Philadelphia. It’s a beachy picture of a woman and her dog. They are walking along the sand at sundown. There is only a hint of delineation- they are just a few strokes at the end of a cove- but they appear through the floating palette the way people do in watercolors. Like ghosts in dreams. Yet real as memory.
It appealed to me immediately and I stood in front of it a long time as other browsers at the art fair crossed my line of vision, wove around me. I moved it into the sun, viewed it in the shadows, from across the sidewalk. It felt so personal. It stirred something deep. “It’s a beach in Montauk,” the artist said. “Montauk- that’s on Long Island.” I know where Montauk is, I told him, and I know this beach.
I have photographs. I have walked alone there many times as I have sorted out the tangled strings of my life and re-rolled them into a useful little ball. I have taken many pictures of other people at this spot. But only in twos. I am interested in relationships Their relationship to each other: do they sit close? Do they touch? And their relationship to the sea. I take pictures of their backs while they look out to the water. I imagine their stories but I don’t want to see the lifelines on their faces. I don’t want to intrude and I don’t want to know their sorrow. If I know it, I will own it, and I have had enough sorrow of my own. I come to the beach to set it down for a while.
My favorite photo is of two bikers sitting on a driftwood log, their broad bare backs to the sun, a big bulldog between them. One man fondles the dog’s ear. They are at peace in that singular moment. Another is of a young couple. His hand holds the end of the long black braid that grazes the bare skin at her waist, peeking through her sari. He does not touch her body. Their heat is palpable, their patience evident. They are content to co-exist and wait.
This is why I come to the beach: to find that singular moment, if only for a moment.
I have reached that time in my life where I see the finite everywhere. Good friends die. People move away or don’t care or can’t forgive. Children grow up. Rather than be frightened, I am choosing to stop and regard each particular instant, to try and drain it of every possibility before it fades. Soak it up. Absorb it. “Life turns on a dime,” my husband is fond of saying, and that dime is spinning so much faster these days. The beach slows it; it reminds me that I am but another speck of sand in the eternal tides. That this life – my life- is part of the continuum. It makes me more accepting of what is, more grateful and less afraid.
I have been coming to the Long Island beaches for most of my life. And now I finally have a home of my own here among the sand and seagulls. It is a huge life-shift and a series of tradeoffs. Being blessed but not wealthy, I gave up the home in which I raised my children (when they heard the plan was a beach house they actually started packing!) I left the neighborhood of my youth and told my friends I would see them less often, hoping the lure of the sea would bring them to me.
Having a career that still necessitates city time, we maintain a small home ‘in the real world’ but the ties loosen with each passing season. I don’t want to miss the blooming of the magnolia trees the kids gave us as a housewarming gift. Or the asparagus at the farmer’s market. And the tomatoes need pruning. The kayaks are waiting. Pumpkins. Thanksgiving pies. A prediction of snow.
Another season is whirling by- I am thinking about a Labor Day BBQ and it is not yet 4th of July. I am worrying about how to hold on to it, slow it down, take the time to really see each passing day. I hold my new painting in my hands and look at it. I am the woman on the beach. That is my dog. Those pastels have replaced the vibrant colors of my youth. I mark its place on the wall, the wall of my longed-for beach house, and I drive in the nail. I set my painting in a place of pride to remind me that at day’s end, I, too might walk gently into the sunset.