On my first and only trip to Fire Island in the summer of 2001, I brought a copy of Desertion, Jack Todd's memoir of his move to Canada at the time of the Vietnam War. I was interning at Houghton Mifflin's New York office. The editor I was assigned pushed it on me. I read half the book on the LIRR, during my wait for the shuttle bus in Sayville, and the other wait for the ferry to the island. Almost everyone was silent on the ferry, except for someone who kept talking about why he went to Cornell over Columbia. The cutest guy on the ferry was a local kid who was working, tying and untying the knot for the ferry. He was reading Huck Finn. I assume it was summer reading.
When we got off the boat, I went to the grocery store. Everything cost fifty percent more than it did in Manhattan. So I left. There was an old man wearing a woman's one-piece bathing suit on the boardwalk. It is the only time I ever saw an old man wearing a woman's one-piece bathing suit. When I got to the beach, I realized that I had no place to keep my wallet safe while I went swimming, and even though the beach was mostly empty, I was nervous, so I stayed on the beach. It was a little chilly. Two middle-aged men were practicing meditation. I walked along the beach to the commercial district, where I had an early lunch at a terrible pizza place, the cheapest place in town. I walked back through the dunes, back to the beach, where I looked for someone, anyone to talk to. I found a cute young couple. I asked them if they could watch my stuff while I went swimming. The icebreaker worked. (When I went to clubs, I used to take my watch off and ask people the time. That usually worked too.)
The older member of the couple had a lot of muscles and was an idiot. The other was short and skinnier. He worked as a teacher. As we chatted, he told me his resume and that he had a really great rapport with the students. All these years later, after many years working as a TA, I get why he felt the need to tell me that on our first meeting. They had an older friend, who was either 33 or 34. He wore a white speedo. The older friend was interested in me. They said they were all going into the water together and that no one steals anything on Fire Island. We went in the water and then came back. The older man went to sleep. They thought it was funny to sprinkle him with sand while he was asleep. I chatted with the idiot. It turns out he had dated a friend of mine. A few days later, I chatted with the friend and told him that I had met someone he had dated. My friend told me that the idiot was the reason he could never ever ever take a shower with another guy again. He did not elaborate.
While lying on the beach, a man in military pants came over and invited the four of us to a get together they were having around nine pm. We accepted his invitation. When he left, my new friends made fun of his military pants. I walked over to where military pants' friends were hanging out and introduced myself. They spent a lot of time in the gym. I asked them if I could leave my wallet and change of clothes somewhere with them. This was also an icebreaker and it worked. The man who owned the house was very nice. He put my stuff in the closet of his house. I went back to my new friends, because I really didn't know who it was worth hanging out with when I was 20. We walked around the dunes, where there was a lot cruising. Everything was happening behind the trees, just ten feet away from us. Most people were having oral sex. There was a couple having anal sex. I could see a ring of people around them watching. The older man in the white speedo decided to stay there and see if he could get any action. He insinuated that he would like to do something with me. I declined. We went back to the beach. I read Desertion, while trying to maintain a semi-comfortable posture.
At nine pm we went to the party.
The house was clean. There was a photograph of Bette Davis on the wall. There was a small dog. I tried to pet the small dog and the small dog tried to bite me.
The dog's name was Toto. The fucking dog's name was Toto.
The owner of the house lived in Los Angeles. He was either a lawyer or he worked in real estate or I can't even remember. He was a 40-year-old who did everything he could to look 20 and managed a 32. He was an unnatural blonde. We ate lasagna. The lasagna was good.
There was a fat man at our table. He went to Amherst and told us he didn't like Amherst, but he went to Columbia for either business or law school and he said he liked New York. He kept hitting on the young skinny teacher. He tried to get him to take a walk on the beach. The idiot didn't seem to mind. The guy who owned the house offered to let us stay overnight, but we declined. They were playing techno. Everyone was very nice. The idiot kept talking about how everyone was really cool and he kept telling his boyfriend they should hang out with their new friends more often. None of us stayed over. We took the last ferry to the last shuttle bus to the last LIRR train for the evening.
On the subway back home, I read the last bit of Desertion. Todd described his dad as a tough sonofabitch and I remember a scene in which his dad's fingers were cut off while handling a horse on the farm and how he kept working anyway. A few months later, I read Edmund White's Forgetting Elena, a novel about Fire Island, which described a world in which everyone was fascinated by surfaces. A few years after that, I saw Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood, 1986), which is one of my favorite '80s movies. The final scene takes place at a completely empty Fire Island. I love empty beaches. Years ago, when I was in Lithuania, I saw a beach that had snow on it. It was the only time I ever saw snow on a beach.
I have no idea where the people I met were born. I've forgotten everything they might have said about their childhoods. I've never seen a place where everyone so fully and unabashedly indulged every stereotype they could indulge. I indulged stereotypes too, but I don't remember which ones.
Everyone tells me Fire Island sucks if you go by yourself and awesome if you go with a group of friends, at least one of whom is rich. I've never had that opportunity.
My Fire Island is better than your Fire Island.