the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night




On Shinnecock Beach
by Carolyn L. Whittle

Photo by Carolyn L. Whittle

He lived in Southampton in a spectacular three-story gray shingled structure with striped awnings on every window overlooking the beach near Shinnecock Bay. The house commanded the dunes spiked with grass and the wide level sandy beach that met the sea. A twelve-foot wall of privet stood guard at the road, and the circular pink gravel driveway lined with roses crunched with frequent arrivals. From any vantage point it showed the world that he was rich, that he could afford the best.

He did not walk his private path through the brush to the beach, however, because it frightened him. He told his wife and his many guests that he was allergic to the sun, that they should go on and enjoy themselves without him, but this was not true. (And they never pointed out that he tanned easily on the tennis courts and the golf course.) The first time he had the urge to visit his beach by himself, after they had moved in and everything was perfect, he had wandered alone toward the sand, glowing in the moonlight. The moon was full, and the pounding of the waves grew louder and louder as he drew closer to the Atlantic Ocean.

It was a struggle to walk in the dry sand for the equivalent of a city block, but he trudged on, remembering that he would be able to walk easily on the water's edge, where the retreating waves left the sand hardpacked and firm. But when he reached the shore, he had felt a squeezing so hard in his chest that he thought he was having a heart attack. His throat closed down as breathing became painful. He felt alone and vulnerable and staggered back to the house as quickly as possible, but by the time he reached the dunes and stepped onto his soft and crewcut lawn, he felt fine and silly. He never ventured to his beach again after that.

For years he thrived, hosting many guests who came for a weekend or a week. They all complimented their host on the solitude and beauty of that part of the beach, rarely walked on by tourists because it was miles from the nearest public access road. He watched his guests saunter to the beach from his third-floor office, where he said he must go, with its sweeping views of the sparkling ocean and the flags on the tall flagpoles snapping in the breeze. He was pleased to see his guests sprinkle the beach with their rainbow colored towels and the dark blue umbrellas.

One warm fall night he was alone in the house. His wife had returned to the city in their helicopter early on Monday morning. She had a busy social life at this time of year. But he had stayed on with an excuse about finishing some work on a deal in peace and quiet. When he looked up from his desk, the moon rose in the east over the ocean and laid out a silver path across the water. Its shining sparkle seemed to beckon him. A whisper told him to go to the beach.

At first he thought he was crazy. Hadn't he almost had a heart attack the last time he had gone? Or had he? He tried to read, but soon he decided that he had to try it again. It was just too beautiful a night to ignore, and hadn't he worked enough? Didn't he deserve to enjoy the best feature of his gorgeous home? He descended three levels of marble staircases, crossed the patio by the pool, and began his journey in the night toward the sea.

The path through the dune grass felt alive, and, indeed, he could see in the moonlight the tiny footprints of mice and even the larger pawprints of a raccoon. Something else left the mark of a meandering line with toeprints on either side from dragging its tail in the sand. He thought he even heard the rustle of feathered things stirring in their sleep in the beach plums.

When he reached the edge of the ghost white sand where it turned dark from the gentle waves, he was alarmed to feel his throat begin to ache again as it had before. And he felt as if someone's hand had a grip on his heart and was again squeezing it to the point of pain. But this time he suddenly remembered an evening when he was a young man with a woman he really cared about, before he had become rich. On a Caribbean island they had driven away from a little thatched restaurant on the water because she wanted them to find a stretch of sand all to themselves. After twenty minutes they had found a crescent of sand so soft that it felt like poured sugar. And the moon, like tonight, had laid a sparkling path right up to their ankles, standing in the water.

He remembered how she had spread the full skirt of her dress on the sand, how he had lifted the front and entered her. Afterwards, he had rolled over beside her and felt how warm the sand was, still holding some heat from a day of cloudless sun. And then he knew that what he had felt, the gripping of his heart, was sadness. He thought he would try to look her up, to thank her for their time together, but that was forty years ago, and he had treated her badly. All he really wanted was to feel how he felt when he had been with her. Slowly he realized, as he lay alone on Shinnecock beach with his arms spread out, looking up at the moon, that at long last he knew how.


Carolyn L. Whittle earned an MA in English from the University of Chicago and MBA from Columbia University. A former college teacher, environmentalist, legislator, and officer of a global bank, she writes poetry, fiction, and screenplays to prevent her left brain from taking over. She is author of two books: Conversations with the Squid (poetry collection), All Rivers Press, 2008, and A Trip to the Yosemite by Caroline G. Vander Burgh, ed. by Carolyn Lansden Whittle, Yosemite Association Press, 2002. Her poetry has been published in Margie Review: Journal of American Poetry, Byline Magazine, Tiger's Eye, Yale Poetry Circle (Vol. I and II,) and Rattapallax. Her work is included in the poetry anthology Letters to the World, Red Hen Press, 2007. She was a finalist in the Margie Award for Poetry, 2005.