There’s a woman I used to see at on Fire Island sometimes. I don’t think she goes there anymore. I never met her, but I was struck by her, aware for some reason we are similar in age, but that she’d been coming to this beach since she was born, while I had found a place here only as an adult.
I remember one evening around sunset a bunch of us newcomers were sitting on the deck at a friend’s house. We were drinking gin-and-tonics and talking about our jobs and sounding like our parents as our various children ran around on the sand. I remember seeing this woman ride by on her bike. She made a romantic silhouette turning the corner at the bay–almost childlike–and I was struck by her native look of freedom. She wore surfer shorts over her old lifeguard bathingsuit and I could tell she’d spent a long day on the beach. Like all true Fire Island kids, she rode her bike as though it were part of her body. I looked at her for a second and she looked back at me. I wasn’t sure what I felt, whether it was pathos or envy. She didn’t have many of the things I held sacred: children and marriage and all-day accountability. She was holding on to the house that belonged to her parents, while I was raising children in my own. But she had freedom. She had a kind of lightness I didn’t have. She had solitude and the beach to herself and her own choices all day. She finished her thoughts and her sentences, I imagined. Or maybe she felt no need to start them. When she looked at me I wasn’t sure what she felt, whether it was with envy or pathos. It was almost like we glimpsed each other through the veil between possible worlds. I could have been you, I thought. You could have been me. Do I wish that? Do you?
I can’t say that she became my character Riley, exactly. I don’t know her at all. But my idea of her, accurate or not, provided an inspiration.
It strikes me that Fire Island is a great place to be a kid. It’s a good place to be a grown up and to raise your kids. But it’s almost an impossible place to make the trip between the two.
It’s funny that it’s the place I’ve chosen–not personally, but as a writer–to attempt that very trip.