Steven Axelrod is a former student, a painter of houses on Nantucket, an inveterate blogger on Open Salon.com. He also won the 2010 Memoir-in-a-Box contest with a gorgeous piece on the demise of a marriage. Herewith another in an infinite series of Numéro Cinq “What it’s like living here” pieces, in this instance, Steve’s elegiac homage to his adoptive hometown.
What it’s like living here
By Steven Axelrod on Nantucket
Closed for the Season
You walk around your island, stunned by the sudden fair weather, the giant wheel shifting the wind from north east to south west, the air like silk against your face, the town moving into full dress rehearsal mode for the coming summer: painters sprucing up the store fronts, renovations scrambling to completion, pot holes patched, grass cut, hedges trimmed, waiting for the first boats full of Memorial Day tourists, the first surge of Range Rovers and boat trailers as the summer people take their seats and the curtain goes up.
Your son Tom graduates from high school today, and you feel ambushed by your own emotions. For years it seems you’ve known every possible sentiment ahead of time, shrugging as they trundled towards you: this is going to make you angry, that will be fun; whatever. But this comes at you from too many directions at once. It’s strange and troubling to have a feeling you can’t identify.
You grasp just bits and pieces of it at first. You feel a tug of genuine suspense when your son was crosses the stage to pick up his diploma … as if something might happen to screw it up, as if the diploma itself might be blank. You know other people feel the same way: You make the joke with a few of the parents you know, and see the nervous smile of recognition on their faces. Then comes the relief.
You call your ex-wife and you talk for a while. Later, you say to your Mom, “No one else knows what this feels like.” And she says, “What about me? I’ve been through it, too.” You hug and you find that you’re crying. She says: “For twenty years you’ve been putting yourself last; now you can finally put yourself first. You can finally do what you want. But what is that?” And you really have no idea. But you feel like some huge changes could begin now; as if you had graduated, not your son.
But even that isn’t all. The graduation unplugs you from a whole community that you didn’t even know you cared about. You weren’t really part of it, in any big way: You didn’t volunteer, or chaperone or substitute teach. But you know these kids, and through them their parents and through those families the real life of the island you live on and the town that had somehow, almost against your will, become your home. Now that living connection is gone, too. The next bunch of kids will be strangers to you; the next crazy teacher won’t be your problem. So this rite of passage isolates you. It makes you feel your age. You finished my fiftieth year, your first real novel and your children’s high school careers, all in the same week. That’s a lot of endings.
At the senior ball you looked around at the kids dancing and felt so much like one of them. Your own delirious prom – on a different continent, almost a third of the way back into an earlier century, in a long-extinct world of bell-bottoms and LBJ – was so close it seemed like it was still happening. Then you looked around at the baggy, graying adults jostled by the vivid pulsing life around them, shaking their heads and taking pictures … and you realized with a thud, it was actually as if you had dropped something, that you were one of them: just one more beloved but marginal Dad, too old to matter at that moment, on your way out, letting them have the night to themselves.
It’s happened at last: they’re all grown up.
It’s disorienting: something huge and minutely detailed, a whole world, really, has disappeared in an instant. The secret core of your identity has become a technicality. Of course you’re still a parent and always will be. But your job is complete. This is the moment you were striving for. And you’re happy about it, just like you’re supposed to be. Still, the sadness under that triumph is all around you, pervasive as the weather. This moment feels like a picnic in the rain, and it’s raining hard on Nantucket today, in the middle of the wettest late spring on record. Despite the joy, you feel displaced, like an executive forced into early retirement, but given a seat on the Board. Your status may be the same, but my daily life will be permanently diminished.
The Long Way Home
You remember visiting Nantucket in 1979, walking down Main Street. Cool, interesting-looking people greeted each other in the cross walks, or chatted by the Gardiner’s Circle sign on Washington Street. The sign is a compass with the distances from Nantucket to everywhere else inscribed around the circumference – east to Bombay, west to New York, north to Iceland, south to Buenos Aires. There should have been a small marker for you at the bottom, you felt so distant from this closed, convivial world.
You grew up in cities. In New York, where such chance encounters were rare; and Los Angeles, where you moved sealed in separate cars and never saw anyone, except at assigned destinations. Nantucket reminded you of a big college dormitory and made you nostalgic for the ease and adventure of those casual friendships and romances. There was even a phrase current on the island at that time: “See you around the campus.”
It was a remote idyll for you. Adult life as you knew it seemed designed to keep people apart or at least put formal barriers between them. There were protocols and routines and strategies, phone calls and dates. Activities had to be planned. Appointments had to be made. On Nantucket, it seemed as though you just stopped your car to chat with someone going the opposite way, while two amused and lengthening lines of cars settled in patiently behind you. No one honked. No one was in that much of a hurry.
When you moved here four years later it was more or less against your will and you felt no remnant of that collegiate bonhomie. Just the opposite, in fact. You worked with a bunch of troglodyte carpenters all day, and came home to a crying baby and an angry wife. You had no friends and no chance of making any. Workmen called Nantucket “The Rock”, a reference to Alacatraz that you heartily endorsed. For years you told people you were just visiting; You were sure your writing career would take off and you’d be gone.
Of course it’s pretty much impossible to succeed in Hollywood while painting houses 60 hours a week three thousand miles away; it might have been impossible under any circumstances. And so you stayed on Nantucket. You had another kid, you went off on your own as a contractor. Writing became your hobby. You told yourself you’d try L.A. when the kids were out of high school. But by then you were almost fifty. The odds seemed daunting, the benefits of success, increasingly ephemeral. You had come to enjoy your little scribblings.. You had a lot of books you wanted to write, and not much time left to get them all done.. Pitching movies you didn’t want to write anyway to a bunch twenty-year old studio executives began to seem like an idiotic waste of time.
So, once again, you stayed on Nantucket.
Getting Off the Rock
You had your first inkling that things were changing when you worked a paint job off-island. You walked into a Boston hardware store and were quietly startled by the experience. You didn’t know where to find anything you needed, but that was the least of it. You weren’t welcome behind the counter. No one who worked in the store knew you; all of the customers were strangers. That hadn’t happened in years. Normally, when you go into Marine Home Center, you greet everyone who works there, grab some stir sticks from under the counter, hit on a carpenter you know for a job, discuss a recalcitrant customer with a painter friend, help an acquaintance choose the right gloss for their trim. There are occasional unexpected reunions, complete with hugs and reminiscences. You see old customers, old friends, old crew members. You’ve signed on for local plays by the rosin paper shed and pitched screenplays to local b-list movie actors over the caulk bins. It’s more of a social club than a store, but it took a trip to an Ace hardware outlet in Brookline to make you realize it.
And it’s not just the Marine paint department. When you paddle out to go surfing you meet your friend who’s supposed to replace a gutter for you but only wants to talk about when your writers’ group is meeting next. You see his sometime girlfriend (she’s tiling the new house next door) and all your son’s friends and the guy who shaped your surfboard and the old school long-boarder with the earring who it turns out was married to the girl who ran your local literary magazine, back in the day. It’s a dense weave of social interactions, so unlike the chilly, territorial world of surfing in Los Angeles.
When you went into the hospital for a minor operation last year, the doctor had operated on you on several occasions and saved one of your fingers after a bad job-site accident; the receiving nurse was the mother of Tom’s girlfriend; the floor nurse had been your baby sitter fifteen years before. It couldn’t have been more intimate or comforting. You didn’t need three hours in a Boston hospital emergency room for comparison.
It all came home to you last week when you were driving with Annie and you stopped the car on Broad Street to chat with a friend. Cars lined up amiably behind you and you realized as you gunned the engine again, that you had become one of the people you envied so much on your first visit.
This is your town now. It’s claustrophobic sometimes but it’s good and healthy and nourishing, too – like the Atlantic sea air and the first taste of the scallops in November. You live here and so do your friends and acquaintances and your ex-wife and your ex-girlfriends; your old bosses and employees. You stop and talk on the street and if some tourist pauses to listen and wonder how he might find his way into this closed circle, you could tell him: it’s easy. Just move here, planning to leave, take a job you expect to walk away from for something more glamorous as soon as your ship comes in, while you ride the real ships, “the big ships of the Steamship Authority”, the Nobska and then the Nantucket and the Uncateena and finally the Eagle, in and out back and forth in every season; raise some kids, go to the band concerts and the high school plays and finally the graduations and let the dense briny truth of human community rise around you like the tide.
It takes twenty years. But they go by fast.
And they did. They roared past like the scenery out a train window. One minute Carrie was sleeping on your chest on her first night in the world; the next minute you were sitting in a Boston rain squall, watching her graduate from Wheelock College. One minute Tom was a petulant five year old you had to carry up Mount Batty; the next minute he was dancing at his senior prom.
Head of the Harbor
The next day he takes you out to Great Point in a friend’s beater four-wheel-drive Jeep Wagoneer, its bumper plastered with off-road permit stickers going back to the eighties, its running boards half eaten with rust, smelling like dogs and cigarettes and rotting foam rubber inside. You get stuck in the soft sand, miles from anywhere. You panic but he rocks and gentles the car out of the trough, laughing at you. “You’ve never been out here before,” he says as you head back, with the tiny roofs and spires of town etched against the blue sky, across the harbor in the rear-view mirror. “I spent half my life out here. This is my place, not yours. You’ve lived here for twenty five years and you’re still just visiting.” Maybe. But he’s off to college, and you remain, staring across the water at Coatue, missing the short-cuts, a tourist to the bitter end, though you stubbornly refuse to visit the Oldest House and the Whaling museum, waiting for your world traveler (he’s in Amman now, and headed for Washington D.C.) to come home and show you the sights again, and tell you the stories (Those wild beach parties at 40th Pole), and set your bare feet in the pale green water and make your little island feel like home.
—By Steven Axelrod, winner of the 2010 NC Memoir-in-a-Box contest.