To Long Island

July 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

I went to Long Island, a place connected in my mind with The Great Gatsby, without my ever being sure that’s where the novel is set.

Before leaving, I planned and wrote notes, using the internet in my rented apartment, knowing the roaming charges would be high and that my phone would likely run out of battery anyway (it did).

It was clear the journey would be long. If I’d known how long I might not have set out; and so, sometimes, it is better not to know.

First was a walk to the Subway, and a circuitous route to Queens on the F-train, travelling into Manhattan in order to get out of it again. At Forest Hills, I changed stations, and caught the Long Island Railroad, destination: Babylon.

On the platform, eating muesli I’d made and packed earlier, I thought about missions, and the pull of the sea. I’ve found myself on so many station platforms, down so many unfamiliar streets, trying to get somewhere, only because I’ve decided to. The act of deciding, and then making it happen, is powerful. I’ve done this across cities, even whole countries. I don’t know why, except that it is a search for something, even if that thing is only the feeling of having searched and completed a search.

On the plane to America for this trip I watched three films, chosen quite randomly, but with oddly overlapping themes: love, and its preculsion because one of the two people involved is married; travel, usually to Europe, in search of something. The one that I’ve thought about most since is Summertime, in which Katherine Hepburn plays an American woman in search of something in Venice.

Hepburn is a strange actress who I’ve never quite got: beautiful, in a skull-beneath-the-skin kind of way; abrasive; fascinating and unwatchable by turns. In Summertime, she does one thing brilliantly, which is to portray the hopeful, receptive loneliness of someone open to all life’s possibilities, but unable deeply to encounter them. She’s alone in Venice and, we get the sense, slightly too old or too odd to fit in with any specific ‘scene’. The city’s beauty charms her, and she flings herself at it like an exuberant bird, and bounces off stunned, and still outside.

I know this feeling so well – of being overwhelmed by an emotion, in unfamiliar places, that is partly made of happiness, and partly of a kind of despair at being unable to share it.

The Long Island trains are buffed steel and bullet-like, painted with the slogan We Serve With Pride. After the hot and boring subway, the view was refreshing, but not really pretty – an endless urban sprawl, almost unchanging for an hour. We arrived in Babylon and waited in a huge car park as buses arrived and left, sometimes dropping off passengers but resolutely never picking any up. There were no timetables, no signs. As the group of obvious beach-goers grew, we started exchanging smiles, a few words of encouragement. We waited the best part of an hour.

I’d finished one book, an account of a massacre in Angola by the journalist Lara Pawson, and was feeling discomforted and sad. I would have liked to go for a walk, but the bus would come any moment, wouldn’t it? Pawson’s writing is very detailed, like a film. After you put the book down you notice more: the stickiness or dustiness of tarmac, the hues and pores of peoples’ skin.

The S-47 arrived, at last, and someone gave me his old ticket because, after all that planning, I didn’t have change. On plastic blue seats, and with thick plastic windows fractured in places to a matrix of internal edges, glancing with light, we trundled through suburbia.

my neighbour and I remarked to each other, This is nice. But we really only meant, nicer than waiting.

I would start a new book on the beach, David Copperfield, as inconcruous a read in affluent America as Pawson’s recreation of 1970s and modern-day Luanda had been. The gray flats of Great Yarmouth in my head, and the pale sand reflecting the sun around me.

After twenty minutes on the bus and without warning, the highway turned into a bridge across the sea – nothing on either side but water, the openness extraordinary after hemmed-in New York and the bottled-up trains, and the bus and the Babylon car park. We dipped onto land, and then off again, another bridge, out to Robert Moses State Park, which I only found out later is also called Fire Island.

The bus turned, stopped, let us out to wander into the dunes, drop our bags and city shoes in the sand, strip. Three hours of travel made entirely worth it by five minutes in the sea.

No pictures, as my phone by that time had died. No way to text friends, and tell them about how the waves broke over me, or the shadows of the gulls, or the taste of the cherries I brought and which were warm from the sun. Just the excess of feeling to store, to recall, to try and describe in sentences that formed and fell away for the three hour journey home.

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