“The Beach House"

Fiction by Taylor Plimpton

June:

My wife is young and lovely. I am old and not. In a bathing suit, she resembles a raven-haired goddess, a ravishing nymph; in similar garb, I resemble, at best, a walrus. So it is perhaps not surprising that the beach house was her idea. The real truth is I do not care much for beach living, but my wife, she does, and I care for her greatly. Over 12 million dollars at the bottom of the market it cost me, and it’s not even a proper house. More of a cottage, really, three bedrooms, 1 1/2 baths, a bit more than a quarter-acre (the costly part) right on the ocean in Sagaponack, the most expensive real estate in the country. Not a lot of bang for your buck, to be sure, but Josephine loved it at first sight, and that was how I had loved her — immediately and without reservation — and so it went. We closed the deal on the 3rd of June — a bright, clear day with a strong, cool, early summer wind — and we decided to sleep there that very evening.

 

The movers weren’t arriving with our things till the following afternoon, so we brought blankets and pillows and spent the first night in our home on the floor of our bedroom, like kids on a sleepover. Josephine was full of plans for our new life and she looked up at the shadowed ceiling and told me about them conspiratorially, until her whispers began to fade and she slipped into a deep slumber at my side. I too felt satisfied — I was happy to have made her happy — but I could not sleep. The ocean was too close, the sound of it a roar — like the world was being torn apart — and the wind bent the timbers of the house till they creaked and whined and howled, and though I am a courageous man and had survived a war, for the first time in many years, I lay awake in the dark, afraid. . . .

 

In the morning when I opened my eyes, Josephine was standing at the sliding glass doors with her back to me, looking at the sea. She was wearing a wrap and her bikini top, and I could not see her face. But her stance, her stillness, her readiness, spoke of some age-old longing about to be fulfilled.

 

The wind had blown itself out, and it was, as they say, a perfect beach day. The sun on the water was dazzling and hurt my eyes. With my wife’s hand in mine, we crossed over the dunes and found a spot in the sand. The beach was deserted, but for a woman and her dog in the distance. My wife removed her top, and her breasts saw the sunlight for what seemed like the first time. She lathered herself up with lotion, and lay back on her towel. I am fat, and get hot quickly. “Do you want to take a swim?” I asked. A barely perceptible shake of her head was her response. Behind the big sunglasses, her eyes were invisible, but I had the feeling they were closed. I roused myself and plunged into the sea, the bite of the water still cold from the long winter. . . .

July:

One early morning not long after the Fourth, I awoke to the cries of birds. Josephine had gone back to the city the night before to have dinner with friends and wasn’t scheduled to return till late afternoon, and I was alone in the house. Through the sliding doors, I could see the gulls, a whole storm of them, circling and descending upon a dark mass on the sand. I put on my trunks and went out. 

 

As I approached, the birds rose up and off, revealing the smooth black skin of a large seal. A red gash ran down the length of its flank, the line ragged from where the birds had been picking at it. Lying there on its side, it reminded me of our family dog when I was a little boy — an old black Lab named Bello with sad eyes who spent most of his time asleep on the cool kitchen floor, and who would only arise with great effort, his legs shaky and arthritic. The memory of him caught in my throat, and I took an involuntary step back — which was when the seal groaned, and opened its long-lashed eye. “Oh, Bud,” I said, kneeling down next to him in the sand. “Oh, little guy.”

 

I went back up to the house and called Animal Control, gathered the largest beach towel I could find, and brought it down and laid it over the seal to guard him from the birds. Then I drove to town to run some errands, taking my time, and when I returned, the seal was gone. That evening, I picked my wife up from the Jitney, and all I wanted was to tell her about the seal so she could somehow make it all better, but I couldn’t get the words out.

 

August:

My birthday is August 5th, and with it came the heat. Oppressive, breathless, the air utterly still but for a great hum of insects rubbing their wings together beneath the sun. Even on the beach, there was no breeze, and in the house we kept the AC on and the windows and doors shut. The sea, too, was still — glassy and calm, with little bay-like waves lapping gently against the sand — yet it remained our only relief, and everyone else’s too, and the August crowds packing the beach spent most of their time in the water, wading about and chatting with their too-pink shoulders and their sunglasses on. By this time of summer, Josephine’s limbs had gone golden-brown, and streaks of her dark hair had been bleached auburn by the salt and sun. She hardly bothered with lotion for herself anymore, though she took the time to spread some on my shoulders and back, lovingly, as she knew I still burned easily. 

 

In general, she seemed happy, if a little quiet. Like if she spoke too loudly she might wake herself up, and the dream of the beach house would be no more. She had dedicated herself so completely to this new life, and with such reverence. It was indeed like a ritual, the way she did it, back and forth and back and forth between the ocean and the sand, rising from her towel, adjusting her bikini bottom with a practiced thumb, and calmly approaching the water, where she would dive in and swim gracefully out, her stroke long and easy and certain. A few hundred feet offshore, she would turn on her back and float there, her arms relaxed off to the side, her hair sinking down into the sea, a posture of pure surrender. . . .

 

One night toward the end of August, I awoke to the sound of nothing. The air inside was cold but I was sweating and breathing hard from a dream I could not remember. My wife was not beside me. I sat up in bed, and through the glass doors, outside on the bedroom balcony, I thought I saw her sitting in the moonlight. I slid open the doors; heat washed over me and into the room. Josephine was sitting on a chair with her knees pulled up to her chest.

“Josie, you okay?”

“Shhhh,” she replied, and pointed out at the water.

I looked. A yellow moon, three-quarters full and fat, hung over a sea as still as oil. “What is it?” I said. “I don’t see anything.”

“Shhhh,” she said. “Listen.”

I listened. There was nothing to hear: no breeze through the dune grass, no lapping of waves or rustle of pebbles being pulled back into the sea. It was like the whole world had stopped. I held my breath.

 

September:

The hurricane was supposed to veer out to sea, so we stayed. But the swells and wind had pushed up from the south nonetheless, and the crack and rumble of the waves was like thunder, and there was no swimming, even for Josie. We sat on the porch in our bathrobes, looking out at the rage of the sea, every now and then gasping at the sight of a particular monster rearing up and crashing down. Josephine was excited as a little girl. She squeezed my hand and giggled, and later that afternoon, when the rain began and I retreated inside, she stayed and let it all pour down on her, eventually shedding her drenched robe and leaning naked into the storm. I was proud this brave, beautiful creature was mine. 

 

The TV said these were just the outer bands, and that the main bulk of the thing was spinning its way northeast, 150 miles out to sea.

 

That night I dreamed I was the Wizard of Oz. I sat in the control chair of a great white cathedral before a massive computer system stretching up into the clouds, and I was pushing buttons and twisting knobs and monitoring the results on myriad screens, and it was as if the whole universe were under my control, and I was a good and wise and compassionate ruler, everything out there just right, a better god than God.

 

So when the wave hit the house and jarred me awake, my first desire was simply to turn over and slip back into that lovely dream, but then Josie’s hand was on my wrist and she was saying, with great calm, “Bill, I think we’re moving.” I sat upright in bed and looked out the windows, and there was nothing to see but the black of night and of the storm, but I had the strange sensation that we were slowly spinning. And then something lurched, like the ground beneath the corner of the house had disappeared, and lamps tumbled from the bedside tables, and I heard a great crack of wood, and Josephine screamed. I clung to her and to the bed and there was no doubt about it, we were moving, spinning, rolling up and down like a raft on rapids, and the one thought I kept having was, “Oh, God, please don’t be pulling us out to sea.” And then there was a terrible crash that threw me into the headboard and knocked me out. . . .

 

A rogue wave, they ended up calling it, and it had carried our beach house — and several others — a quarter-mile across the potato fields in the night, and it was only running into another house, and jarring it from its foundation, that finally stopped us. Josie remained conscious, tending to me in the storm as best she could until, nearing dawn, the red flashing of ambulances finally cut through the dark.

 

They released me from the hospital later that morning — a bright, clear, cool day, as if the storm had passed through and scrubbed the world new — and we took a cab back to Sagaponack, which had become a kind of circus. Roads cordoned off, news helicopters hovering above the disaster area. A cop waved our taxi to a halt, and only let us through after Josie pointed out our house in the distance. “That’s ours, the little one, up against the other. It used to be on the beach.”

 

It was a sight. The potato fields were still flooded, and dotted at various points along them, houses sat all akilter and half-sunk, like great battered ships washed ashore. 

 

I took Josie’s hand and squeezed it. 

She leaned her head on my shoulder. “What will we do?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Rebuild, I guess.”

“Do you like it here, really, Bill?” she asked, and it was the first time she had ever done so.

I thought about it for a moment. “Yes, Josie, I really do . . . especially now,” I said, and swept my arm across the vista of field and house and great blue sky — “September is so beautiful out here.”

 


Taylor Plimpton is the author of “Notes From the Night: A Life After Dark” and the editor of “The Dreaded Feast: Writers on Enduring the Holidays.” He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and dog.­