I have a love for beautiful views that began when I was a child. I’d sit on top of the monkey bars or sit in my favorite hemlock tree just to see from that vantage point. I watched setting suns and moonlit skies from this view. On summer nights when the neighbor kids were catching fire flies and eating ice cream, I’d sneak upstairs to stand there in that spot watching everyone below. I pressed my nose up to the cold screen to feel the cool air of summer nights waft in on me. And sometimes late at night, I’d sneak out of bed just to stand at that window to look out at the glowing moon that hovered before me.
When I moved to Manhattan at 18, rooftops became my new vantage point. On my first night in Manhattan, my roommates and I snuck out the fire escape 20 floors up. We were met with a dizzying scene of neon lights all around us. The city lights seemed to wail like the sirens below with colors of electric blues and neon pinks. We climbed all the way up that building’s fire escape to the power surging cityscape of Midtown, Manhattan. We were no longer on the outside looking in. We were in the middle of it all, five tiny specks amongst millions.
In Midtown, the starlight is replaced with the neon glare of skyscrapers. Windows glow with silhouettes and the avenues pulse with electricity. One particularly hot summer in Manhattan, I took a job babysitting for a family in Battery Park City. And when they invited me to stay with them for the summer in the Hamptons, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. That weekend, I packed my bags and bought a ticket for the Long Island Railroad out to Easthampton. I rolled my suitcase down to the GAP below my apartment, picked up some metallic gold flip flops, went to the Walgreens around the block for sunscreen, squeezed past tourists on 34th street to a bustling sun-soaked Penn Station. I hopped on the train with The Cranberries blaring in my ears. That evening I watched the city blur past my window until the buildings became sparse and the window eventually filled with reflective black. I studied myself occasionally in that reflection, noticing the natural platinum streaks already forming in my gold hair from the early summer sun. I was pale and slim, unscathed by the burdens of the world.
I arrived in the Hamptons unceremoniously dumped at a vacant station among the eerily loud crickets and a pale street light. The woman who had hired me—let’s call her Kate—sat in her shiny black Land Rover. I tossed my bags in the back and we drove through quiet streets with beach houses hovering in darkness. It had been quite a while since I left the city and the quiet darkness stunned me. It was as if I’d walked through the back door of a museum after it had been closed and locked for the night. Beautiful artifacts stood around me and I felt at once the power of their presence, tip toeing through—a newcomer in this glistening oasis.
We drove a winding road near the darkened bay and up toward a hill overlooking the water. At the top was a modern style beach house with walls made of shining glass and balconies along the top floor. They had a swimming pool and a dark green Porsche parked under the terrace. Kate parked the SUV out front and helped me with my bags. “Welcome home,” she said and smiled.
The house was open and airy. My bedroom was down a little hallway on the left. Kate went to bed and I stayed up for a while exploring my new summer retreat. I was 20 at the time. I had been somewhat accustomed to beautiful homes and a modest degree of luxury. My grandmother came from an old prestigious family from Virginia. But this world felt different. It was not laden with antique china dishes and tables set aside for bridge playing or afternoon tea. This world felt new and sharply in-focus. The design of the house was simple and rectangular. Inside, the furnishing was bare and open.
When I stepped out onto the balcony that night I was met with one of the most surprising views I’ve ever seen. I slid the door open and shut and turned around. I nearly fell backward into the glass door, nearly yelped, nearly fell to the floor with shock! It was the stars and all at once they seemed dramatically alive, as if they had sunk to the earth to meet me at just this moment in time. It’s not because this view is at all shocking to the average viewer, or that it was any more dramatic than any other night. Manhattan is much like an arena of light that outshines the night sky, and I realized suddenly that I hadn’t seen the stars in months. Maybe I was surprised at my surprise, which intensified that moment exponentially. It was like kissing someone for the first time, someone you’d wanted to for months, maybe even years. All at once the moment had arrived and all at once you realized you wanted it. The drama was intensified just in the daring of it—the notion that you could be suspended for that fleeting moment into breathlessness.
I watched for some time the water lapping at that shimmering panorama, reflecting back in folds of ocean the starlight. Then went to bed dreamily.
The next day was a rambunctious ordeal of swimming, soccer, tennis lessons, french lessons, and making dinner. I had two boys to watch over, Seth and Damien. They were at the ages (9 and 11) in which they form opinions of people according to athletic ability and overall adventurousness. Thankfully I grew up playing sports and could throw a perfect spiral, scoring me top marks with both of them. Kate sat by the pool, on her phone with a glass of wine. She had wild brown hair with blonde highlights, an athletic build, and blue eyes. I realized quickly that I was somewhere between a second mother and an older sister to her kids. Kate volunteered with multiple charities in the city and she was scheduled away for much of the summer. Her husband worked on Wall Street and stayed in Manhattan most of the time. I was working almost totally independently with Land Rover and summer house under my command.
The Hamptons are what I’d describe as a world apart. It’s a stretch of ocean roped off for wealthy New Yorkers and being on the inside of this world is like being in a blue-hued paradise. Beach houses bunker behind sand drifts with understated charm. With soft tones of browns and whites, the houses effortlessly blend into the sandy landscape. Life seems to loft and float like the inside of a dream, suspended in accidental beauty and unannounced perfection. The towns bustle as effortlessly as the open air and untucked shirts of its inhabitants. Even the gas stations are disguised as beautiful beachside cottages. Gleaming sports cars rumble along the main street of otherwise quiescent villages. Here, people smile easily as they sip boozy drinks by a beach campfire, a red splashed ocean beckoning the setting sun beyond.
I realized then that this was what my world had been reaching for. I had gotten a glance into something that years later I myself might reach for. It was not wealth, but beauty and the effortless nature of it. It was not the violent jerk of amusement parks or the nauseating display of brightly lit restaurants and embellishments. It was restrained at moments, fantastic at moments. Everything felt like it was just grazed by sunlight at exactly that angle that makes the world gleam in gold.
I was not prepared to have that utopia taken from me. I was determined to claim a piece of it as my own someday. I could be someone that had earned her place here, I thought. I often sat on the balcony at night imagining my method for claiming such elegant beauty. I sipped white wine and slid into bed with my imagination spinning me away.
In June, I awoke one morning to the sound of footsteps and distant chattering around the house. The boys were still in bed and no one was expected for the weekend. I peaked through the curtains out at the driveway to see a car parked out front. It was Kate’s husband, Mark, and he’d brought his friends. I quickly dressed and came out to introduce myself. Even though I rarely interacted with Mark, he was still technically my boss. I often felt a mild discomfort around Mark. While Kate was like a big sister, Mark seemed a foreign entity in this new family of mine. He was tall and dapper, with brown hair and blue eyes. Our first meeting felt almost childish when he showed up late one night after the boys went to bed. He stood across the room undoing his tie and looking at me. I started to walk forward to shake his hand, but stopped short and settled for an awkward wave. He pulled out a wad of cash and handed whatever he had, which was even more than agreed upon. I became accustomed to these random interactions with Mark. He had a friendly but distant personality. At moments he even seemed shy and nervous. And now unexpectedly, I was lodging with Mark and company—a group of entrepreneurs and execs in their 40s.
I quickly realized that Mark maneuvered around his wife, spontaneously showing up at the summer house when she was away. I offered to leave but Mark always insisted that I stay. I felt uncomfortable staying at the house with Mark, especially when his friends diminished and it was just him and his sons. I even suggested booking a train ride back to the city, but whenever the scheduled trip neared, Mark found some excuse for not being able to drive me to the station. I felt trapped on an island with no means of escape and Mark’s presence was slowly looming over my shoulder.
Summer afternoons were often spent at the pool when Mark was around. He insisted that I get my bathing suit on and come in the water. I often caught Mark’s blue eyes studying me from across the water before he’d dunk his head in and emerge elsewhere like a shark swimming rapidly around me. Sometimes Mark squeezed into the space behind the counter as I unloaded the dishwasher, once or twice morphing his body against mine to reach for a glass. These interactions would come and go, usually at random. I became obviously distant around Mark. I was never the type of person to be intimidated or flustered. As a nanny, having a sexual relationship with the dad was a ridiculous cliche that I thought only happened in movies.
Late at night, Mark’s Porsche would purr in the driveway and speed off into the night. He was the resident Don Draper, a wealthy business man with the housewife, children, and mysterious affairs included. I never knew where he went or when he’d return. Sometimes Mark texted me late at night, asking if I’d like to join him for a drink some time. I’d lay in bed and watch my phone light up, knowing that it was from him. I ignored his texts on those nights and never mentioned them later. Some mornings I heard pieces of their stories from the night before in which he and his friends spent the night on a yacht, or one of them ended up stranded on an island apparently drunk and naked. Mark and his friends murmured and chuckled softly over coffee at the table the next morning, not fully hiding their exploits.
Summer passed by with these random visits from Mark. Kate would come and go. Their lives were a revolving door, always circulating around each other, coordinated to remain separated. When Kate was there it felt like a moment of freedom and wild adventure. We blasted music in the kitchen while we cooked and watched movies at night. Kate seemed to be processing her own battles in the quiet corners of her life. She often alluded to some melancholic state she held, but the conversation dissolved as quickly as it came. Often she ran along the beach and came back to sit by the pool alone. It was sometimes like Kate was on a distant island of her own, searching for something she left behind. Kate shared stories of her younger years and reminisced with me over wine. She had a lioness face and she often gave the impression of someone capable of getting anything she wanted. She was kind and that kindness blended into a sort of wounded pride. It seemed to give her an imaginary limp that I couldn’t fully understand. Sometimes she was vibrant and active and then all at once she’d sink into a chair quietly and look off as if she’d forgotten her train of thought. With Kate, though, I felt a sense of goodness and pureness that showed in her ability to empathize and connect in ways most people never do. I realized on those summer days that I didn’t fully understand her. I could not imagine whatever wound had formed and how it had formed. I was at least determined to look after her sons and shelter the three of us from whatever burdens remained unlearned. Then Kate would leave for the city, with us in her wake, leaving subtle traces of her uneasiness as she went.
One July afternoon, I drove the boys to their practices and came back for a nap. I hadn’t realized that anyone was in the house until I woke to footsteps outside my door. It was Mark and he was pacing rapidly in the hallway.
I felt my heart jump forward and press me against the mattress, as if it were my barricade. I had seen pacing like this once before when my adjacent neighbor, Steve, reached out his window and furiously tapped on my mine, then paced back and forth like some wild animal. He seemed maniacal to the point of derangement. When I first witnessed this behavior it reminded me of the sharks I’d seen at the aquarium earlier that year. It was restless and senseless, beyond rational thought. I was always self-contained, giving me the effect of being unaffected by the world around me. And in direct contrast to my indifference, I seemed to inspire mania from the men around me.
Mark’s pacing began to narrow in closely to my bedroom door like a plucked string that vibrates violently and begins to hone in on its center. I crept behind the door as I listened as long minutes passed and he walked briskly back and forth. My heart throbbed and jumped sporadically and without reason. The door lock had been broken earlier that summer when Seth rampaged my room in a fit of boredom, and now there was just one thing that held Mark from entering my room unannounced. His judgement. I watched the shadow of his footsteps as he passed, sometimes stopping, sometimes speeding up. And I listened to the sharp scraping of his shoes against the hard wood floors, shuffling from one end of the hall to the other. What was he capable of and what was my strategy?, I wondered. I grabbed the car keys quietly and gripped them in my sweaty palms and carefully slipped on my shoes. It was as if Mark had sensed me on the other side of the door, nervous and alert.
I could hear nothing but my heart slamming into my ribs. It was this hallway, separate from the rest of the house that he chose to stand outside of, watchful and ready. It was at this moment when we were alone and I was unguarded. I felt cornered. My face was flushed and every muscle in my body felt rigid like it was ready to move on its own accord, ready to spring into action without thought.
Then suddenly something happened. It was a noise, high pitched and jolting. What was it?! I spun around my room frantically and realized at once that my phone alarm had gone off. I gasped and shuddered all at once, my body lurching me forward like I’d been whiplashed by some outside force. I tiptoed catlike across the room. I was in motion, gliding and maneuvering like I had as an athlete. My fingers were agile, briskly tapping the snooze button in one quiet punctuated jab. I sank onto my mattress and watched the door, knowing somehow that the moment had passed. I watched the shadow under the door shift quietly away and in a few minutes Mark was gone.
As I listened to his Porsche growl down the road, I knew that somehow I’d won whatever battle he had been fighting with me. I’m not sure what Mark had planned. Mark was strategic about getting things. It was as if he were fighting himself out in the hallway, wondering what his strategy was. From what I could tell, Mark was used to getting what he wanted and affronted when people did not yield to his careful method of manipulation. I had remained composed and distant, despite his advances. And this was the culmination of his frustration. Maybe Mark would have knocked and found some excuse. Maybe he’d have tiptoed in. I speculate sometimes, knowing that we both knew something significant had been altered at that moment. I didn’t see Mark much the rest of the summer.
Some time in August we were back in Manhattan and school was beginning again. Life went on swiftly in an orange haze and bone-chilling air conditioning. I sat at the Anderson’s kitchen table with a bronze summer tan and sun bleached hair. The boats puttered below in the Hudson River there and I often opened the windows while I waited for Kate to come home. The warm breeze swept through the room bringing exotic smells of salt water and street vending with it. I liked to listen to the buoy ding in the water and watch its red blinking light move up and down.
One night she arrived later than usual, somewhat drunk and beautiful as usual. She slumped down in the chair next to me, purse plopped on the table and hands in lap. “Mark and I are getting a divorce,” she said with her voice shaking. “He’s been cheating on me with countless women.” I felt the blood drain from my face and crawl down to my legs, which became two unmovable lead pillars. Kate pressed her face against the glass table and all at once she began to sob.
And from there Kate told me the story of all that I’d secretly sensed in her life, explaining through gushing waves the pain she felt inside.
When I climbed to my apartment in Midtown later that night I felt an exhaustion I often felt after long trips. It’s the kind of feeling that makes you want to wrap yourself in blankets and sleep for days and to get up only to eat heavy meals that send you off again to heavy dreams. I was beginning to understand something of the world that I hadn’t yet seen. I understood for the first time that such perfect and vibrant places were not safe from the harshness of people and their mistakes. Those mistakes—though they paraded down the road in high polished shine—were treacherous. And the paths they took spread like tentacles in multiple directions at varying speeds.
It’s not that the paradise wealth brings is always corruptible or that utopia has that guarantee. Maybe paradise is like the tightrope at the circus or the dimly lit rooms of museums. One has but to tiptoe in and not to disturb it. To respect the perfect balance that set it in place and made it seem more like a dream than a place. To hover in to those places and hover out unannounced and unimportant in its midst, a bystander that looks on with love and humility and never abuse.
It used to be that I walked home after school in the freezing cold in a small town without internet or cellphones. I stared out at pitch black nighttime, star-flecked and delicate like glass scattered in a field. I hovered under street lamps that cast light but little warmth. And I felt gravel crunch under my shoes, my feet frozen within. I spent evenings in the screened-in front room, fingers numb, and I played note after note of Mozart and Beethoven. I was accustomed to silence then and miles of darkness. With rolling hills grazing soft sherbet colored sunsets. Oranges and pinks blended to meet me in that cold nostalgia. I was a silhouette with an exaggerated shadow and we all danced like witches to see the shadow play, puffs of breath softening our edges.
I could only describe that time in my life as a hibernation much like the heavy sleep feeling I felt in Midtown. It was like being cocooned in refractive light, redirected from the cities and the world outside but never fully touched by it. To be in that town was to be at the edge of whatever rugged wilderness America had left. The native tribes had all been sent away, but sometimes the tales would echo out at bonfires. A man was dragged by a Native warrior in this field once, someone would state. Then we’d all sit in silence, closed and distant from one another even in the midst of a group. My hometown felt like a secret, as though it did not want to be found out. When news of the world travelled to us, it came as a reminder that that place held nothing but disruption and it dissolved inconspicuously the next day. Most people wore camouflage there, that they might blend into the environment rather than stand out. It was a sanctuary of trees and rugged nature that caused people to speak in hushed voices as to not disturb the silence. But even in that place there was pain and discordance—the same kind that those people attempted to avoid. I promised myself I’d leave that place one day and grow bigger in a better place.
I realized after my time in the Hamptons, however, that it was not the ground on which I stood that clarified rank or importance, but the lens in which I viewed the world. To see beauty in the desolate places and the uncomfortable ones, as well as marvel in the brilliant ones. And to see in perfect clarity the precision it takes to form. I’ve been determined ever since to tiptoe into those spaces, but never claim too much of them. And every beautiful sonata, breathless performance, and blissful dream hangs in suspense, teetering at the edge of a disruptive moment that makes it all come crashing down.
Kate and Mark divorced that year. Kate and the boys left the city. I’m not sure what happened to Mark, but I’m certain whatever he was looking for was not found in the Hamptons.
The word Utopia means “no place” but I’m not sure that I agree. Maybe it’s implausible, but I’m not convinced that it’s impossible. I view it much like a belief I have. An understanding that exceptional places happen first within the mind and the imagination and spring out from there at unlikely moments. And they occur through exceptional effort and dissolve when that effort is abandoned.
To become a servant to that cause.
And to hover in the beautiful place from which it springs.