“Up in Smoke"

Memoir by Susan Israelson

He made a pass, pounced at the Bridgehampton drive-in on 27 while watching “The Sting.” The screen seemed hung from a glittering starscape, Magritte moon, a surreal still life with a moving picture. 

I was startled, verging on shocked. Awkward. Very. A, I’d just met him on Sagg Main beach the past weekend, and he seemed strait-laced, safe. B, A New Yorker, my first time, you could say virgin — I was there to see Newman and Redford, not neck. Okay, naïve. I somehow managed to fend him off and see the stunning surprise ending. He drove me home in stony silence, didn’t call again. No surprise.

A few years later, I, the veteran Hamptoner, was given the job of finding a summer rental for my New York posse of players 10 strong. My caveats to upbeat broker Allan Schneider were “south of the highway and Sagaponack,” an Algonquin term for ‘’land of the big ground nuts” — potatoes. After two lemons he showed me the house, actually two connected, the one-story northern section circa 1650, the southern two-story later, 1842. Allan prided himself on knowing its history. Location of locations, Sagg Main across from the cemetery behind a picket fence and huge hedges, brown shingles, blue shutters, white trim, formerly a boarding house called Hearthstone Inn. A warren of rooms inside, the floors uneven, convoluted passages, old kitchen with new appliances, what was not to love? The kicker? It was owned, converted back to a summer residence by none other than my spurned drive-in date. I didn’t mention our connection, took Polaroids. 

Easy sell, well worth $7,500, plenty of bedrooms, not all created equal, the smaller ones would go for less. Worried that I might queer the deal if he remembered the disaster, Judy, whose father was an attorney, negotiated. The only fly in the lease ointment was that he would be on the premises in the guesthouse at the northern end. 

Even so we took it. 

He gave me the cold shoulder though I tried to make nice. No dice. We kept it cordial — strictly business. 

Everyone did his or her own thing during the day, gathered for dinner at night.

Judy, the mother hen, small with a big coffee cup voice, cigarette dangling from her lips, carried around a pitcher of some milky concoction that featured among other ingredients a quarter bottle of Myers’s Dark Rum. Her job was to make sure that everyone stayed high and well fed. She did, in spades.

Oliver was a budding filmmaker, Vietnam vet. Though the senseless war had ended last year his scars remained. He walked the verdant backyard with Ken, talking into some kind of portable dictation contraption. We starred in his home movies. 

Nashua, Oliver’s pretty Lebanese wife, chopped her brains out — we never ate anything that was whole or recognizable.

Blonde, beautiful Lili, self-appointed Minister of Fun, Church of One, my caper mate, along with vivacious Venezuelan Margarita, and I were the sun worshippers. We had three of the most beautiful beaches in the world in reach, an embarrassment of riches. 

We held our beach summit at 10. 

“Sagg Main is the closest” just down the street, “and there are bathrooms.” Margarita was a comfort queen.

“Too crowded.” Lili liked privacy. “What about Gibson?” 

“Let’s go topless at Potato Beach.” 

“Fabu idea.” Hepburn delivery. Lili was in. 

“Si si. Vamonos.” 

We took off in Margarita’s cool red Benz convertible onto Gibson, passed Topping’s horse farm, and watched riders in full regalia go over the jumps, practicing for the horse show at the end of the summer no doubt. We turned left onto Daniel’s Lane, savored my favorite view, glorious golden rye fields as far as the eye could see, then took a right onto a sandy rutted road that ran through a carpet of squat potato plants. We prevailed upon Margarita, a speed freak from Caracas, to slow down to a dull 10 miles per hour.

“Fasten your seat belts, this is going to be a bumpy road.” No doubt the original.

I got a rush as we stood at the crest of the dunes overlooking beach grass and wild white roses intertwined on snow fences. The pristine white sand and sapphire sea beckoned, “Come in, come in.” The water was calm and flat — translation, cold. No waves, no aeration. We jettisoned our sandals, the sand sizzling, ran down to the right where the artists went. We set up camp: my blue striped beach towels, Lili’s lavender sheet, Margarita’s beach chair. They applied suntan lotion. I did Johnson’s Baby Oil pink from iodine drops. We took off our tops for maximum exposure — no one but seagulls and sandpipers could see us — and held hands while Lili thanked Great Spirit for our great luck. Paradise. 

Margarita and Lili liked warmer water. I managed to get in after a half hour of dawdling. At first brisk, then invigorating. I did laps, rode waves, seventh heaven — eighth. Later, burnt to a crisp, especially boobs, we gathered up, shook out, returned to find mighty dinner preparations. Judy was frying, Nashua chopping, the refectory table set. We’d do clean-up.

I said hi to Boris, a green-eyed advertising art director at Bates. He’d arrived late due to a typical client crisis, the whole agency held hostage Saturday till 5. “I made it out in two hours. No traffic.” 

I commiserated. Been there.

Showered, slathered with After Tan and aloe and a white off-the-shoulder number, it was time for the main event, cocktails and dinner . . . Saturday night was Saturday night.

Oliver took charge of sounds with yet another contraption, a cassette player he called a boom box. To avoid the usual Stones vs. Beatles tussle I’d brought Paul McCartney’s latest Wings with “Silly Love Songs” — “dinner music.” We’d see.

Judy had made placecards with a flower, joint attached, assigned seats. She announced in that gravelly voice, “We’re having stir-fried nasturtiums, raw ones in the salad — super healthy, vitamin C and lutein. Delish. Peppery.” 

I’d admired them in our garden, brilliant orange, round leaves, never in a million years would think of eating them cooked or au naturel.

Lili had brought “champers.” We went around the table toasting — mine was, “To salad days,” Shakespeare, “Anthony and Cleopatra” — being green, innocence, synonymous with Sagaponack.

In medias res our landlord popped in scowling.

“Care for a nasturtium?” asked Judy.

Oliver pulled out a chair. I rushed to add a table setting. He’d come by to complain about harvesting his nasturtiums, and was now forced to eat them — hoisted by his own petard. To his credit, he accepted. Good for him —they were good for him. And us.

Forty years later, after shopping at “The King,” as in Kullen, dropping into T.J. Maxx — mecca, at the Bridgehampton Commons, on the grounds of what had been the drive-in — I noticed a bed of nasturtiums, had a moment of nostalgia remembered the halcyon summer of ’76. 

I’d stayed in touch with Lili in Hawaii. Judy lived in California and was widowed. Oliver had made it big in Hollywood. Last time I’d bumped into him was at an art opening in New York wheeling Ron Kovic. Way back. I’d lost track of the others.

I decided to check out the house, had passed by often over the years. I drove down Sagg Main, passed the general store owned by generations of Hildreths, leased by others, now in the hands of Pierre of Pierre’s restaurant. I was musing about how things change, Sagaponack found, lost. Gone was the sleepy farmland hamlet. An incorporated village since ’05, 11962 was the richest ZIP code in the country, Daniel’s Lane the most sought after and expensive address in the Hamptons, if not the world. At Potato Beach next to Rennert’s obscene oceanfront compound, I mourned the 63 acres of potato fields that he’d gobbled up — outraged forever — then I suddenly realized I’d missed the house. Why? 

Something very wrong. I turned around and crept back, parked, cautiously peered through the bushes — nothing there. I had that same sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach I’d had while watching TV on 9/11, waiting for the dust cloud in front of the World Trade Center to clear up so I could see it — but I didn’t. I called a friend a few houses down and learned I had somehow missed the disastrous fire two years before, the whole house up in smoke, destroyed. Distraught, I Googled it, saw dreadful pictures, read the dark story. A gas can and gasoline-soaked rags found in the cemetery. Arson suspected. Poor, poor rich man. 

I drove by yesterday and saw enormous yellow machines, major mounds of sand, a mammoth cement foundation, contractor and architect signs, called my friend. 

“What’s the story? Developer?” — dirtiest word in the dictionary.

“No. Finally got all the permits, he’s rebuilding.” 

Sigh of relief, release. “Hooray.”


Susan Israelson writes poetry and plays tennis between East Hampton and Paris. She is the author, with Elizabeth Macavoy, of “Lovesick, the Marilyn Syndrome,” and of “Water Baby,” a novel that is soon to be published.