Sag Harbour by Nicole Sellew

On the beach in Sag Harbor with yet another boy, he’s from Shelter Island, or he’s there for the summer at least, and he works on the North Fork. “I’ve never been to the North Fork,” I tell him, and then I worry that it makes me seem common but then I remember that I’m in the Hamptons, which always makes me feel like I’m seeming common. 

The beaches in Sag Harbor have no waves – since it’s a harbour, I guess – and my mom used to take me here when I was a kid so that I could splash around without any danger of being swept away by the big waves that are a mark of Southampton beaches. 

The boy is telling me that he’s writing a book of autofiction poetry. He went to an art school and studied theatre. I almost ask him to please not write any poetry about me but then it occurs to me that the request would probably seem pretty presumptuous. I imagine that anyone who writes autofiction poetry and readily admits it is probably psychotic or at least heading that way. 

We pass what looks like a heap of ships on the upper part of the beach and I say, “are those boats” and he says, “what” and so I say it again, “are those boats” and he says, “oh” and then after a pause “I don’t think so” and I wonder why all the boys I end up hanging out with are so weird. 

I say we could swim, I’m wearing my bathing suit, and he says it’s too cold, he didn’t even bring one. It’s not even cold, not really. But I guess I didn’t bring a towel. I’m barefoot and he’s wearing shoes and I stop for a second while he takes them off. “Do you want to put them back in the car”, I ask, and he says no then yes and we turn around and walk back to the car. The pavement feels rough on my bare feet after the sand and I watch the boy bang his shoes together so he doesn’t get sand in the car and I say, “you don’t have to do that” and he shrugs like he doesn’t mind and gives them one last little shake before tossing them in. 

Back on the beach I look at the little cluster of people to the left and say, “grim” and he says, “what” and I say, “I don’t know, those people are kind of freaking me out” and he laughs and says he agrees, there is something scary about the little torches they have set up. They’re just far enough that we can make out their shrieky laughter but nothing else, really. I didn’t even know you were allowed to have a party on the beach but I guess maybe they have a permit or they just don’t care. We walk to the right, away from the people, and I think about how much blind trust I’ve put in this person not to kill me and throw my body in the harbour, but I guess we’re always putting blind trust in everyone, by that logic; besides, the harbour would be a pretty bad place to toss my body because it would just float there, suspended on the gently rolling tide. 

We keep walking along the beach for what feels like a pretty long time, just chatting and bumping into each other. He talks about theatre and his art school and I mostly don’t talk about anything because I remember my guy friend’s advice: “don’t say much”. I keep looking at the sky because I’m not used to seeing so many stars. I guess there were more stars than this in New Hampshire but when I’m in New Hampshire I’m always so miserable that I never think to look up at the sky. 

The sea at night has a velvet look and the boy keeps commenting about how cool it is. I agree every time and eventually I tell him that I love the sea but I’m afraid of outer space. He says he’s afraid of the sea, of the deep sea especially. I don’t really feel that way because I find the ocean so beautiful that it almost causes me physical pain to be near it sometimes. 

“Do you see that,” he says, and I say, “see what” and he points to the water and I look but it just looks like water. He rolls up his already-cuffed jeans and so I roll up my pants and then we dip our toes in the water. “It’s so warm,” I say, quietly, because I don’t know if I’m still supposed to be looking at something. “Look,” he says, and then I see a flash of something, like a green glow-in-the-dark bracelet but it’s not a bracelet, it’s probably phosphorescent plankton or bacteria or something. I don’t say that because I don’t want to sound like a nerd or be wrong, instead I just say, “wow” and then “what is that” and he says, “I don’t know” and then we spend a few minutes trying to scoop one up, but every time we try our fingers are just full of pebbly sand. It’s so strange and the glowing water is so pretty that I feel for a moment like I’m floating above myself, watching this happen to a girl who looks like me.

After a while we get to a spot and I ask the boy if he wants to sit down. He says, “sure” but does not seem very enthusiastic about the prospect of sitting. I feel like it, though, so I lead us to a flat expanse of sand without any rocks or seaweed and throw myself down. It’s easier to talk this way, and to look at the sea and sky. 

He asks me if I smoke and I say I left my cigarettes in the car (which is true even though I don’t smoke, not really, it’s taken me a whole summer to smoke half a pack of American Spirits and I’ve been sharing them) and he says that’s okay because he has some. I ask, “what kind” and he says, “Marlboro 27s” and I scrunch my nose and even though it’s dark I think he can see because he says, “what do you smoke usually” and I say, “American Spirits” and he nods and says those are good. “They are,” I say, and then I let him hand me a Marlboro 27 and a lighter. My first-ever cigarette was a Marlboro, back in high school, smoked out the window at some kid’s fancy apartment in New York City. It wasn’t a 27 but I can’t remember if it was a Red or a Light. I think a Red. When you’re sixteen your body regenerates so you can do things like smoke Marlboro Reds. 

The poetry boy is not looking at me at all, but rather looking out at the water or across the beach into the misty dark as though those places are more interesting than me, with my warm body and actual human presence. There’s a green light that flashes gently and of course right away I think Gatsby but I don’t say anything. Men will always do this thing where they pretend like they know what you’re talking about and then you have to pretend like you don’t know they’re pretending. Not that he wouldn’t know Gatsby, because I’m sure he would. 

I ask him about hikes on Shelter Island and then I say I kind of hate hiking so I don’t know why I asked and he laughs. I like his laugh, it’s unselfconscious and gasping and it reminds me of a friend I had in college who was also very calm with a braying laugh. 

There’s a splashing noise and then the velvety water breaks out into frothy ripples. “Did you see that,” he asks me, sounding almost afraid but mostly detached and amused, like a child’s imitation of someone who is afraid. 

“Yeah,” I say. “What the fuck was that.” 

“I don’t know.” 

We keep sitting but now instead of reclining on his side the boy is sitting fully up. I’ve been sitting with my arms wrapped around my knees pretty much the whole time but now I unravel and press my palms behind me, into the sand. 

There’s another splash, a bigger one this time, and this time I see something black and scaly roll out of the water. It looks like what I always imagined the arched back of a sea monster would look like, even though I know sea monsters aren’t real and it’s probably just a fish. The noise of it freaks me out and I lean into the boy almost involuntarily and it’s the first time we’ve touched each other. 

“Oh, fuck no,” says the boy, and he scrambles to stand up and back away from the water. He seems less sure than I am that sea monsters aren’t real. I laugh and follow him, towards the part of the beach that backs up to people’s houses and a bunch of lounge chairs that look like they belong to some rich family that hasn’t used them all summer. 

“What do you think it is?” I say, and then I regret speaking. 

“I have no idea,” he says, and then laughs, and now his laugh feels too loud compared to his quiet voice. He’s poking around the lounge chairs and he nudges someone’s discarded shoe with his foot and I ask, “what are you doing” and he says, “let’s throw something at it” and I laugh because that’s kind of what I was thinking he would say. 

We spend a long time watching whatever animal it is splash and dart underneath the water, and I think about how at night ordinary things seem strange and then I think about how monsters are probably real. He finds someone’s discarded Pro Kadima set and we take turns throwing the little plastic balls into the water. I throw mine and nothing happens; he throws his and the creature zips toward it, disturbing the surface of the water. He grabs my arm and leans into me a little bit, then backs away from the ocean. 

Eventually his curiosity about the mysteries and wonders of nature seems to wane and we sit down on the sand again. He starts to tell me a story about a girl he ran into in the North Fork who he knew from high school. He said, when he knew her, she was dating his friend and she tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills. When he saw her, he said, “hey I know you” and then she looked at him blankly and he said, “I know you overdosed on pills”. We both laugh even though the story is kind of strange and depressing. “That’s so grim”, I say, still smiling. 

“I know,” he says. “I can’t believe I said that to her.”

For what feels like a while but is probably only fifteen seconds, we both shift uncomfortably on the sand and don’t say anything to each other. He says, finally, “are we both waiting for the same thing” and I laugh and say in a breathy voice that makes me sound awful “I don’t know” and instantly I wish I were behaving differently but then he leans in and kisses me so I guess, like always, the specifics of my behaviour probably never mattered that much to begin with. 

We make out for maybe five minutes, shifting uncomfortably on the sand. The nice thing about smoking a cig with someone before you hook up is that you know you both taste like the same gross thing, as opposed to tasting the last thing someone ate or their stale, milky-mouth sourness. I’m trying not to think about anything but I keep opening my eyes and looking at the sky which makes me feel like this doesn’t matter, and also about how if this boy wants to make his ferry back to Shelter Island, then we should probably get going. 

Eventually he says something about the ferry and I check the time and he says, “oh shit”. I was kind of figuring that he would miss the boat and I’d bring him back to the house, but he seems to think we’ll be fine. I’m vaguely wondering why we didn’t have sex but I guess not everyone wants to have sex all the time; either that or maybe he’s just polite. While we walk back to the car, he tells me about how he has the day off tomorrow and then the next day he has to work at Kendall Jenner’s tequila launch party. He says that it’s not really his thing, and I say “what, tequila?” and he says, “no, Kendall Jenner”. 

We end up making it to the ferry on time and I say I’ll wait with him, since I don’t want to leave him standing in the dark with his bike. He asks me when I leave and I say in two days and he asks if he can take me out to dinner tomorrow night and I’m a little taken aback but I say, “sure, I’m going to be alone tomorrow night anyway”. He kisses me goodbye which is also kind of startling to me and then he clambers out of the car and laughs a little bit and then goes to get his bike from where he hid it in the scrub. I start to feel – I usually do when things like this happen – like I’m never going to see this person again in my life. 

The next morning my grandma and I are walking down the main street in Southampton and there are a few beautiful TikTok-looking girls sitting outside the shitty bistro eating Cobb salads and wearing those necklaces that look like little kids made them at summer camp. They have a horrible little designer dog sitting underneath their white-tableclothed table, and when my grandma walks by, she says, “I have that same breed of dog” and one of the girls replies, in an affected New York City girl drawl, “aren’t they the best breed”, and immediately I feel terribly inadequate and depressed. 

I text the boy and tell him I’ll be free around four thirty if he wants to do something, and he says he might have to go on a boat. I tell him no worries and then frown into the sun. My grandma buys me a breakfast burrito and I eat half of it even though I’m hungry enough to eat the whole thing. All the rich people in town are exuding a malevolent energy and it makes me feel ugly and strange, and all I want to do is distract myself from the fact that I’m surrounded by seventeen-year-old girls wearing jewellery the aggregate cost of which probably equals that of most people’s college educations. 

Eventually my grandma leaves and the boy tells me he didn’t end up going on the boat but he needs to do errands and can’t hang out with me.

I love to be alone and I’m alone almost always but I wasn’t expecting to be alone, not tonight, and now I’m pacing around the house with its ugly, too-big posters and mismatched décor and feeling like slitting my wrists with one of my uncle’s expensive Japanese knives. I feel like a total brat for wanting to kill myself just because someone won’t have sex with me but that’s not what it’s about, not really. It’s about being forced to confront the terrifying spectre of my own profound loneliness. I snort to myself because even inside my brain I’m being melodramatic in a way that isn’t cute. I imagine telling Cassie or Anna in a detached voice with extra vocal fry that I bet that guy from the Hamptons is writing a shitty poem about deciding not to fuck me, and it’s the only thing that makes me feel a little better. 

About The Author

Nicole Sellew is a writer and student currently based in the UK. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and is currently a Master of Letters candidate in creative writing at the University of St. Andrews.

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