Fire Island is a barrier island–a skinny stretch of sand between the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s just sitting out there in the water, 32 miles long and 1/4 of a mile wide at its widest. Because it’s essentially a sandbar, it’s vulnerable.
In the famous and terrible hurricane of 1938, the eye passed right over Saltaire, the town where we live. According to town lore, the ocean met the bay that day, and the entire island lay under water. Three-quarters of the houses were destroyed and even those that weren’t were washed off their pilings and floated around like boats until the water finally receded.
There used to be a promenade–a wide boardwalk–along the ocean and there were houses on both sides of it. Ocean Prom, as they called it, was long ago destroyed and so were all the houses on either side. It’s a bit haunting to me, the ghosts of those old houses and walks, now deep under the sea. They say when a big storm is coming, the ocean pulls far back and you can see the stone hearths from those houses long since washed away.
You feel like you’re in the hand of nature there, subject to her moods. In New York City, were we live for most of the year, nature seems more like our guest. In a place like Fire Island, we are hers. It’s a dumb place to build a house when you think of it, but also thrilling and beautiful. As with many things, the curse and the blessing of it are pretty much the same.
The fragility makes it a good setting for a novel, I think. The sea-light brings on nostalgia much quicker. It conjures a state almost like deja-vu, when you feel like you are living an experience and remembering it at the same time. As a writer, I love that spot where land and sea and sky meet. I love that blurry place where life’s transitions are made without you even knowing it.