It was a late-summer morning as I sat facing the bay in an Adirondack chair, drinking my first cup of Barry’s Irish tea. I was at our summer rental cottage. It was the beginning of the hurricane season. The temperature ominously dropped 10 degrees and the wind picked up, indicating an approaching storm. I could see what looked like a tornado enveloping me in its dark fury, its funnel shape passing directly overhead.
The Weather Channel said there might be a hurricane coming up from Florida. The charcoal mass of trailing clouds was threatening and had blocked out the scorching sun a few minutes earlier. The wind blew the umbrella into the bay. Then raindrops fell on my head like sharp exclamation points. I got wet but it felt good in the heat.
It turned out to be just a summer storm, not a tornado or hurricane, but I was scared by its intensity. It roared quickly over and around me. It was good to be in the weather, surrounded by it, and not just watching it from a window. But of course hurricanes are a very real danger to this narrow peninsula of land. Last year the water rose six feet above normal, stopping inches from the backdoor. The cottage could easily be flooded.
One morning while in bed I thought we were under an air attack, but it turned out to be seagulls dropping shells on the roof to break them so they could eat the succulent clams inside. The seagulls make a racket with their “Aawk, aawk, aawk” announcing their arrival or departure, and the geese at the end of the summer honk in unison.
The cottage doesn’t have air-conditioning, but with the lively cross-breezes from North Sea Harbor and Davis Creek it doesn’t need it. The antithesis to the hermetically sealed McMansions air-conditioned to an arctic chill.
Sometimes small is better. The Latin phrase “multum in parvo,” a lot in a little, tells the story. This cottage is perfect for the summer. It’s what the Hamptons used to be: a small paradise. The rustic hunting and fishing shacks were used only in the summer during the 1920s and ’30s to hunt wild turkey and Long Island duck and to fish the plentiful waters and harvest oysters, clams, scallops, and crabs. The simple cottages were passed down from generation to generation of the same family.
I keep a large rubber inner tube with a rope that I tether to the steps so I won’t float away. In the afternoon I sit in the water and read in my bikini, rear end in the water, legs draped over the edge. I wear a big straw hat for protection from the sun as I bob in the water. The rhythmic sound of the bay lapping against the dock lulls me and I doze.
The front yard of the summer cottage is beach grass, so no lawn to mow. A rabbit family, maybe the Flopsy Bunnies, lives in the tall warren of spiky leaves. A baby bunny poses like a garden statue and then flicks his ears and wriggles his nose as if to receive a satellite transmission. The soil is too sandy to grow much so I fill pots with thyme, rosemary, basil, chives, oregano, and mint and use them as my kitchen-cutting garden. Terra-cotta pots of red geraniums on either side of the front door add color.
Out the back of the little house is a weathered wooden deck bleached by sun and wind to silver-gray. Wooden steps to the bay. The backyard is fenced so my dogs won’t go marauding in the neighborhood, stealing steaks off neighbors’ barbecues. Clammers appear in small boats every Tuesday, and sometimes we buy right from the baymen to throw the clams on the barbecue and watch them hiss open. This year blue-claw crabs were back in force.
A swan family comes every day to be fed. I give them multigrain pita and leftover scones and old sourdough bread. They gobble it all up. The huge father hisses at the dogs and fluffs himself up to an imposing height. I wouldn’t want to mess with him. The mother is more sedate and hisses delicately. There are five cygnets, three white and two gray. I’ve heard that swans mate for life, an appealing thought, being a long-married person myself.
Another afternoon I was watching the tide go out and people wander in, playing on the sandbar. I could see a golden retriever sloshing through the water, shaking off a stream of wetness and making a water rainbow. A seagull’s footprints in the sand looked like scratchy Egyptian hieroglyphics. Small motorboats were anchored to the shore, people clamming with strenuous strokes to find the bivalves for a dinner of linguini with clams. Bodies walking in and out of view like a William Merritt Chase painting come alive. Then I looked up and the tide was in and the people were out. Gone.
Across the bay is Conscience Point Marina, so watching the boat traffic on weekends is theater. I saw a Lab sitting proudly at the prow of his boat, ears blowing in the wind, guiding its master to shore. Flotillas of red, orange, yellow, and blue kayaks come close enough for the paddlers to say hello as they pass.
Friends come for dinner by boat and then sail off into the sunset afterward. Our cottage comes with a two-person kayak that we use to explore and pretend we’re Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn on the African Queen. There’s a nature preserve just opposite, and we launch ourselves on its waterways and listen to birds talking. No people-sounds at all. We are only 10 minutes from Southampton Village but we could be on a remote island off the coast of Maine.
One evening at dusk I walked to the end of Towd Point Road and saw clusters of prickly pear cactus. I thought they grew only in the desert in Arizona. The land is a nature preserve, so no one had planted them — they must be indigenous. But how could they survive the harsh winter? A protective microclimate must shelter the cactus, because when I walked by in June, I saw big, showy yellow blossoms thrusting themselves into the salty air on the prickly pear plants.
The interior of the cottage is all whitewashed beams and studs. There is no insulation or heat. There’s a downstairs bedroom and a loft bedroom upstairs where we set up his and her offices with dual computers. A simple wooden farm table with a bench and a couple of chairs is all that’s needed if we want to eat indoors. A small, light-filled living room has windows on three sides for a constant breeze. You can smell the marine life. Some days it smells very salty and fishy and other days it smells clean, like the inside of an oyster.
The cottage has one and a half bathrooms but my favorite is the outdoor shower, one of the greatest luxuries of summer. This one’s not fancy, just functional. There are hooks on the outside to hang a bathing suit and a towel. It’s rustic looking but fully enclosed, with a marine hook-and-eye.
It is my sanctuary, my outdoor temple and shrine to the pagan gods. I bow my head to apply shampoo. I suds up in a religious frenzy with bubbles bursting, water splashing everywhere, frightening the resident spiders. In my devotion and liberation I celebrate the ritual of getting clean.
I love the feel of the air on my body. It reminds me that I am alive in my summer chapel. I am free. I can be naked during the week when no one’s around. I am a druid dancing around the monolithic stones at Stonehenge on the eve of the summer solstice. I can splash and sing. The vibration in my chest empowers me and resonates through my head.
The light changes every day and sometimes fog veils the opposite shore in a hazy cocoon. I marvel at the glorious sunsets and toast them with a glass of white wine. Some evenings it looks as though someone took a paintbrush dipped in raspberry jam and streaked it across the sky. As I watch, the colors change into abstract compositions.
Votive candles are used for outdoor lighting, and I prepare simple suppers of local corn and grilled whole fish. In the sandy backyard we made a stone circle. I feel atavistic, like a cave dweller, as I gaze into the driftwood bonfire. A few conch shells decorate the perimeter. For dessert we roast marshmallows for s’mores and talk late into the night with the full moon illuminating the water. Stars tell us when to go to bed.
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Summer’s over. It’s the end of showering alfresco. The church closes its doors for the season. I pray for an early spring. The spiders take over and build their webs with abandon, knowing I won’t be disturbing them until next year. It’s back to the old tub for me. But all winter long I can remember my freedom and look forward to that first warm day at the end of May when the weather changes and I can revel like a sybarite in my outdoor shower at Camp Paradise.
I only hope the cottage isn’t washed away.
Joanne Pateman is a former advertising art director. She has an M.F.A. from Southampton College, and her writing has appeared in The Star and The Southampton Review.