SVCinNYC's Blog

JUNE 5, 2011 6:04PM

Southampton:Reflections on a Summerhouse Sold

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It’s ridiculous for a bathroom to have such a great view. It’s not like you can sit on the john and look out and admire it, Isabel thought, as she tried to do just that.  Looking up and out beyond the peeling green paint of the exterior window frame, she could see only leaden sky through and above the burnished leaves and faded blue lace flower heads of the hydrangeas that described the cinder-block foundation and grew higher than all the window sills.  But the person who built the house, the doctor who had sold it to them and then moved to Florida, must have peed standing up, facing the other way.  Isabel stood and turned around.  Looking through the window now she felt the builder’s delight as she took in the expanse of the Little Peconic Bay from Long Beach and North Haven all the way down the sweep of the North Fork, past Cutchogue and Mattituck, to Robin’s Island, and, beyond that, to distant Riverhead. 

The sun had begun to bleed out, suffusing the sky to the west in scarlet, magenta, fuchsia, vermilion, crimson, papaya orange, and pale lemon yellow.  The bay, mercury in both color and weight, was splotched in sections with lavender wavelets here, opal and turquoise there, and shot with veins of seedling green.  Isabel once again wished she could summon Claude Monet for cocktails to witness the implausible reality of these preposterous colors.  She went to the kitchen in search of the bottle of Glenfiddich she’d found earlier in the recesses of a cabinet she’d emptied.  About to pour the amber liquid into a plastic cup,  she reconsidered and instead dug a bubble-wrapped crystal glass out of one of the moving boxes littering the floor.  She poured a neat two fingers of scotch in the glass and threw on her old green field coat and a baseball cap embroidered with the logo of an up-market real estate firm a broker had left behind.

 Isabel walked out on the bulkhead, where she stood surrounded on three sides by the crashing waves and flying spume that had risen out of nowhere as darkness started to come.  She held her glass up to the sky and toasted the living and the dead and the memories of forty years her family had occupied the house, then watched, this last time, as the curved disc slipped behind the opposite shore.  When neither scotch nor sun remained, she pitched the empty glass into the bay and hurried back across the dying grass and frozen Canada goose turds to the thin warmth of the house.

Isabel’s iPhone was doing the vibration dance on the kitchen counter. She caught it just as it attempted a swan dive into the bowl of dog water.  She’d been outside for about ten minutes and had missed five calls from Daisy, her mother.  There were five new voicemails which she deleted without listening to.  Daisy filled Isabel’s message box to capacity twice a day, and Isabel erased all the messages unheard.  Her phone bill had doubled from all the extra message units Daisy was using.  For years, Isabel listened to them, and returned them one by one, until the day she was sure that her mother didn’t remember her calling back anymore.  That te absolvo licensed her to delete without guilt. 

A piercing wail shattered the air, and Isabel jumped.   At 5:45 each evening, the fire station sirens in the entire town of Southampton --which covers the interior bay shoreline of the South Fork from Flanders to Sag Harbor-- are tested in sequence. Even after all this time, it startled her, especially in the cold and dark. It was a summer sound, at odds with the solstice.  She had named it the Martini Whistle when they first got the house because it signaled there was just enough time left to dash to the store for olives, Schweppes, limes or anything else essential to cocktails fifteen minutes later.  When it shrieked, hands throughout Southampton, in Pavlovian response --north and south of the highway-- simultaneously reached for keys and slips of paper that said crackers, brie, white wine, and feet raced to cars.  Fifteen minutes later, most residents of 11968, would be milling around ice buckets in anticipation of the daily ritual that severed summer days from nights. 

Raph Hakim, her father, was one of the last men in the 20th century to travel with both a white and a black dinner jacket and to always change for dinner.  He had very strong opinions about people who had drinks before six or dinner before eight.  Southampton matched his sensibilities, and he had bought a summer house for his family there rather than on Candlewood Lake in Connecticut where his business associates summered and wanted him to join them, and add a little class to the neighborhood.  In Connecticut, his friends drank straight from lunch through dinner, played gin and smoked, and wore unflattering shorts and yellowed t-shirts while sitting in moldy 1950’s Early American living rooms centered on fieldstone fireplaces decorated with antique warming pans, old pitchforks and oily black metal chains.  They didn't shave on weekends.  Her father was constitutionally incapable of living in such décor surrounded by the sartorially unfit drinking highballs with cherries and bourbon from thick-rimmed glasses gilded with Liberty Bells.  Southampton was far more European than Danbury, and so the Hakims settled there.

Some families play touch football together with a riot of tow-headed cousins, like the Kennedys, whose photos of a happy life teeming with toothy relatives at the Hyannis compound, not house, had deeply marked the young Isabel.  While growing up, she spent a lot of time wishing she’d been born into a different family, one that was infinitely more average and American than her Victorian Middle Eastern/Egyptian/European/Jewish, but educated by French Catholic nuns and priests and a formidable Scottish Nanny, family was.  She longed to wake up one day and find herself named Penelope Appleby, living in some leafy Massachusetts town a century earlier.  Her real family, the Hakims of Damascus and Alexandria (1700?-1953), now of New York (1955-pres) and Southampton (1969- present), did not play team sports, or any sports at all.  Instead, they had drinks and made toasts as they compared and contrasted tonight’s sunset with last night's, the one in Alexandria in ’80, Bangkok in ’87, Madagascar in ’76.  That incredible one at Coral Beach, Quiberon, la Voile d'Or, la Chevre d'Or, Southampton Bathing Corporation or Compagnies des Bains de Mers Monte Carlo.  Occasionally, if the sunset looked potentially extraordinary, the stupendous one at Curtain Bluff in Antigua in ’72 would be invoked. That night, everybody drinking rum punch on the beach witnessed the elusive Green Flash. Whenever it was recalled, everyone would settle back slightly and inhale, eyes lowered, bringing back the memory of the gigantic neon green sea monster blazing across the place where the sea met the sky, the unearthly gaseous glow gone before they’d fully registered that they’d truly seen it.  

The Green Flash is to sunset watchers what Everest is to those who have summitted K2: the final frontier.  Amazing, conveying serious bragging rights and street cred amongst other sunset watchers, but not anything you’'d want as a steady diet.  Isabel decided that tonight’'s sunset had been good, better than good for the season, but not outstanding on the overall  Great Score Card in the Sky.  Sunsets are never as spectacular at this time of year as they are in summer.  But any sunset is better than none, and this one, in bleak December, would be an acceptable end to her family’s forty years of stewardship. 



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