Alice in Montauk
1938, Montauk, New York
The Island Club on Lake Montauk had filled up with people dining, dancing, or gambling. The air was rich with the scents of seafood and cigarette smoke, while a buzz of voices and laughter mingled with clinks of champagne glasses. Gentle tunes of jazz circulating in my brain set my mind at ease. After a third glass of champagne, we still sat at a small table observing dancing couples. Once a while someone came over to exchange greetings with Mrs. Crane, and she always made sure to introduce us. I knew no one would ask me to dance, but I enjoyed the evening, taking all in; it was so very foreign to me.
“This music is a terrible racket,” Mrs. Crane said, her forehead creased. She sighed. “My late husband, Albert, couldn’t bring himself enjoy it either.” She had buried her husband last year and still wore black clothes to mourn him. She had asked us to join her on this three-week vacation, complaining of being lonely. A very wealthy woman, she insisted on paying for our stay. We were far from poor with Papa working as a surgeon, but we weren’t able to afford such extravaganzas on the very tip of Long Island, or to stay at the Montauk Manor, an enormous Tudor Revival style hotel that looked like an English castle on a hill.
“It’s so different from the old tunes,” Mama said, the corner of her mouth quirked up as she glanced at me. “But young people seem to enjoy it.” She looked stunning in a peach silk gown with a scoop neckline, still so young for her forty-three years. I had her honey-blond hair and sunny blue eyes, but while she was only five feet tall, I had grown to five feet six. My navy-blue rayon gown, which reached my mid-calf, matched my dull spirit. I guessed everyone assumed I was older than my twenty-four years. People liked to assume things about me at first glance, ignoring my personality as if immediately labeling me with a huge sign that read “Defective.”
Mrs. Crane glanced up at a group of three men in elegant suits and a tall redhead in a white evening gown. The girl hung on the arm of a broad-shouldered man who looked to be in his early thirties. “Their tastes are rotten. Do you see the tall man next to the woman in white gown?” She didn’t wait for our response. “He is a multimillionaire industrialist following in his father’s footsteps, but his personal life stinks like a basket of rotten potatoes.” She curled her lip, and then lowered her voice. “He changes women as often as he changes his underwear.”
I laughed deep in my throat as my mother peeked at Mrs. Crane in obvious disbelief. I glanced at the man and was astonished to discover him watching me. I nervously caught my lip between my teeth and turned my eyes away from him. He is so good looking.
The older lady held my gaze and said, “Watch out for him.”
“No need to worry, Mrs. Crane. He is not going to pay me any attention,” I said, giving the lady a half smile.
“You are wrong, honey. There is no prettier girl than you in this room.” Her face had an all-knowing look. “And this man is a beauty connoisseur.”
“That is so kind of you, Mrs. Crane,” I said. But you forget I’m defective.
“It’s not kindness, my dear. It’s the truth.”
“Hello, Mrs. Crane.” The tall man had approached her. “How are you?”
The lady didn’t seem to be taken off guard. “I’m fine, Jack. How about your folks?”
“They are fine as well, thank you. They vacationed here in August, so you missed them by just a few days.”
She nodded. “I hope you’re doing well yourself, young man.” She scrutinized him and then introduced us.
“Enjoy this wonderful evening, ladies,” he said, and then addressed me. “May I have this dance?”
At first, I had a fluttery feeling in my belly, but then I felt like I was on display. As he gazed at me, a smile tugged at his lips. I detected no pity in his eyes, and he didn’t stare at my missing left arm, so I agreed. It was my only chance to dance that night, after all.
He put his hands on my lower back and we floated to the gentle music. The woodsy scent of his cologne made me to be very aware of his physical presence.
“I haven’t seen you here before.” His words came out as a whisper.
“We arrived only today,” I said.
“We?” He gazed down into my eyes.
“Mrs. Crane invited us to join her.”
He nodded and smiled gently. “First time in Montauk then?” His eyes dwelled on my lips as he spoke.
My insides quivered. “Yes. What about you?”
“I like to visit at least once a year to go fishing.” The song ended and he walked me back to my table. Mrs. Crane and Mama had another visitor, so they didn’t notice my return at first. When I turned my head, I saw Jack was back with his friends, and they were all laughing at something. They are making fun at my expense. Hot tears welled into my eyes. It always ended this way.
When Mrs. Crane made her way to the gambling tables, my mother felt obliged to accompany her, but I excused myself, complaining of a headache. I found Mrs. Crane’s chauffeur, Henry, and asked him to drive me back to the hotel.
I was relieved to enter the grand lobby with its multiple fireplaces and stone flooring. I waved to the male clerk at the desk and entered the curving stairway that led to our spacious suite. As I shuffled up the stairs, I heard rapid footsteps behind me and quickened my pace.
“I see you are back early as well.” At the familiar voice, I paused and turned back to see Jack catching up to me. The very man I’d cursed in my mind minutes ago stood in front of me with the most earnest look on his face.
“I’m tired, but I’m surprised to see you here.” I yawned and tried to sound lighthearted. It was safer to hide your true feelings and insecurities, not risk becoming someone’s laughingstock.
“I have to be up early tomorrow morning. Care to join me for one more cocktail tonight?” He smiled, showing his bone-white teeth.
My jaw stiffened. Enough was enough. I was done acting like a silly, little fool. “Why? So you have more things to brag about to your friends? How you were so charming to that naïve, limbless girl?” Fury poured through me. “Get lost.” I turned away and raced up the stairs, making sure to lock the door behind me. The well-known numbness wrapped my insides like a creeping ivy. My only solution for it was to go to sleep, to wake up the next day with a new strength, new acceptance for my imperfection.
The spacious breakfast room of the Montauk Manor smelled of freshly brewed coffee and cinnamon. I savored the bittersweet taste of my black espresso and its aromatic scent. I wasn’t hungry. Instead I looked around the room, but much to my relief, I saw only unfamiliar faces of people filling the tables with conversations.
“I suggest we spend the morning in the health spa,” Mrs. Crane said, her spoon clanging against the side of the gold-rimmed porcelain cup. “What do you think, ladies?”
Mama brushed her lips with a white napkin. “Sounds wonderful to me.” They both looked intently at me.
“I was hoping to go to the beach near the lighthouse today.”
“Alice plans to make a drawing of the lighthouse,” Mama said, taking a sip of her coffee. “Why don’t you relax with us today, honey. You can go there tomorrow.” She had a meaningful look in her sunny blue eyes.
“That’s okay, Bronka. She is young. Let her enjoy the time here on her own terms,” Mrs. Crane said and took a bite of her English muffin. “I’ll have Henry drive you there, sweetheart. But don’t forget to tell him what time you want him to come back for you.”
I sighed with relief. “Thank you, Mrs. Crane.”
“Sure thing, darling.”
An hour later, I was reclining inside Mrs. Crane’s red Mercedes-Benz, unable to contain my relief for an upcoming opportunity to spend a day alone, far from the crowded resort.
I asked the driver to come for me at five o’clock, and then I shuffled down the steep and narrow trail near the lighthouse, holding a wicker basket filled with sandwiches, a plaid blanket, and drawing paper and pencils. Then I walked along the rocky shoreline and inhaled the briny sea air. My ears were attuned to the sound of crashing waves, my skin enjoyed the kiss of warmth and gentle breeze. I found a sandy spot with a distant but gorgeous view of the cylindrical towering structure of the lighthouse with bushes and greenery near its base. Except for a fisherman in a green shirt far in the distance, I was pretty much alone. I drew the view of the lighthouse until it was completed.
I stood up and stretched. The fisherman was no longer in sight. As I inched toward the ocean, the touch of cold water made me shiver. I felt a pain from stepping on the sharp rock, but it subsided as quickly as it came. I wished it would be the same with the pain inside me, that it would just disappear. But it didn’t, and in that lonely moment, it was unbearable. I stepped forward, feeling the water reaching my belly, my chest. I held my breath and closed my eyes. My mind sank deeply into nothingness. And then, the moment I felt no sand under my feet, someone grabbed me and carried to the shore. I opened my eyes and stared at the fisherman’s green shirt, the one that had disappeared.
“Alice,” he said, his voice familiar. Jack. “Are you okay?” His voice was laced with concern.
I sat upright, burning with humiliation. “I’m fine. I think my foot slipped, and I can’t swim.”
“Oh, God, I thought you were trying to—” His voice throbbed. “I thought—” The look in his eyes was blank.
He knows. “Thank you,” I said, forcing a smile.
“You’re shaking. Let’s cover you with something.”
When we returned to my belongings, he snatched the blanket out my basket and wrapped it around me.
“Really, I’m fine,” I said in a choked voice and looked up at him. He knelt in front of me, his eyes widening as if to say, You are lying.
I braced myself to come up with more assurance, but suddenly something broke in me like an erupting volcano. Unable to control the outburst of tears, I covered my face with my hand. The emotion stored in me for so long refused to stay in its place, and for the first time since childhood, I truly cried. He pulled my hand off my face and laid my head on his shoulder, and then he hugged me tight and so reassuringly. I had never cried for so long, and then there was this silence interrupted only by a crash and fizz of departing waves. Lightness spread within me as if I had cast off a heavy load.
I raised my head and distanced myself from this stranger who had suddenly became so close to me. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”
“Don’t.” He turned away.
He is feeling pity for me. “I should explain some things to you, so you don’t think I’m completely insane,” I said.
He turned back to me. “You don’t need to worry. I won’t tell anyone.” He held my gaze, and the only thing I could see in there was compassion, no pity.
“I’m not how you think I am. It’s only since the last week that I’ve been feeling so lost and numb.”
He picked up a stick and drew a heart with it in the sand, but he was silent.
“You see, even though I was born without one limb, I still grew up thinking of myself as fortunate. My parents taught me to accept myself and believe I was, in a way, very special, and that physical defects are unimportant. They taught me how to deal with people’s reactions toward me, how to not pay attention to them. They taught me that only what’s inside me is truly important. And they succeeded, at least most of the time. Of course, I had my little moments, but they made me so strong inside that I always ended up fine.
“But last week I took a blow, and it’s still so fresh.” I looked at his drawing. Two hearts. “I was engaged, and our wedding was to be today. I’d known Arthur for two years, and I trusted him. He seemed not to pay any attention to my physical imperfection.” I shrugged and gave a nervous laugh. “I caught him cheating on me with my half-sister. . . .”
“You still love him?”
“He was so very caring that I believed we could have a happy, dignified marriage, that one day love would grow out of respect.”
“You are a beautiful woman, and one day you’ll find someone who truly deserves you,” he said with a sober expression on his face.
Every fiber of my body was taut with appreciation. “Thank you for your kind words. Maybe one day, indeed, but now I need a long break from romantic involvements. I don’t want to be hurt anymore.” Was there a hint of disappointment in his eyes? “And you sure sound different from the way Mrs. Crane described you.”
“Mrs. Crane is not fond of me, but I’m sure I’m not as bad as she thinks.” He paused, amusement glinting in his eyes. “Last night I asked you to dance because you took my breath away the moment I saw you, not because I wanted to brag to my friends.” His voice was quiet and tense. “You are so beautiful.”
My cheeks burned. “Mrs. Crane thinks you are a seducer.” I stood up and reached for my basket.
He laughed lazily but didn’t comment.
I busied myself with the contents of the basket. “I have some sandwiches. Are you hungry?”
“Sure, let me just get my bucket from over there.”
While he was gone, I spread the plaid blanket on the sand and unwrapped cold lamb sandwiches.
“That looks delicious,” he said taking a seat beside me. “I didn’t realize how hungry I was until now.” Joy filled his face like sunshine.
My heart leaped. “What do you have in there?” I motioned to his silver bucket.
“Just some butterfish.”
I handed him a sandwich and took one for myself.
“I like your drawing of the lighthouse.” He raised his hazel eyes and smiled at me. “You should shade Abigail the Ghost into it; it would make it much more interesting.”
“Abigail the Ghost?” I picked up my drawing. “Tell me more about her.”
“A captain’s young wife, Abigail was the only survivor of a ship that wrecked here on Christmas day of 1811. She was washed ashore but died soon after, and since then her spirit has roamed the lighthouse.”
“Does the legend say what she looked like?”
“I don’t know, but I imagine her as a blonde beauty in a sapphire dress.”
“No. A sexy girl in a white dress with flames of red curls. That’s more your type.” I met his eyes and gave a nervous laugh.
The first week of our stay in Montauk I spent either with Jack learning to swim and fishing on the empty beaches of Montauk, or with Mama and Mrs. Crane exploring various attractions within the crowded resort. Shortly after September 5th, Labor Day, most of the guests left, and so did Jack’s friends, but he stayed. He never explained why, and I never asked. Deep inside, I was happy he did.
Wednesday, September 21st, was our last day, as we were scheduled to leave the next morning. After a sleepless night, I sneaked out of our suite around seven to take a walk. The crisp touch of a breeze on my cheeks revived me. I paused on a hill in the far back of the resort with a view on the fishing village on Fort Pond Bay. White fishermen’s houses, warehouses, docks, and three piers sprang up along the shore.
I knew Jack planned to join some local fishermen on their boat this morning, so by now he was far out on the ocean. I turned away from the view, but I froze at the sight of Jack bearing down on at me, his eyes burning with something I couldn’t quiet place. Desire. An internal alarm went off. “Good morning,” I said, putting on a cheerful smile. “I thought you were to fish today?”
“Hi.” His voice seemed distracted. “I’m actually on my way now.” He motioned toward the village and looked back at me. “I’ll be back around noon, if you want to have a picnic at the lighthouse beach.” He walked toward me and paused just a few inches away. He smelled of a fresh soap.
He electrified me. “Mama insists I spend the last day entertaining Mrs. Crane.” I turned my eyes away from him, toward the bay.
He reached for my hand and curled his fingers around mine. My nerves tingled through my body. “Let me make myself clear.” His fingers tightened on mine. “I want to keep seeing you when we are back in the city, but not just as a friend.”
I looked him in the eye and forced a laugh. “I can’t believe you are proposing this.” I snapped my hand from his. “Friendship is the only thing you’ll get from me. I’m not going to be one of the many women you take to bed and then discard once you are bored.”
His expression hardened. “You are a spoiled little girl, Alice, who puts herself ahead of everyone else. You cry that people label you and they don’t care of who really you are, but then you do the same thing.” He paused, his hazel eyes blazing down at me. “You labeled me from day one, regardless of my behavior or my actions.”
“You are wrong,” I said, feeling cornered by his bluntness. “I’m just not ready for a new relationship, for new heartbreak. And it’s clear that you’re a philanderer.”
“People change, Alice.” He didn’t wait for my response but trotted down the steep path.
Do they? Do people change? While I liked him and was attracted to him without a doubt, I was also afraid of him. Deep inside, I knew that he would get bored with me the moment he saw someone prettier or more intriguing on the horizon. Hell no, there is no way I would entangle myself in such an arrangement.
“Are you sure, Alice?” At first, I thought I heard my own voice in my head, but then I realized it was my mother’s voice cutting across my thoughts. She spoke in Polish. “I’m sorry I overheard your conversation. You were so taken with each other that you didn’t notice me.” She put her arm around me, and we looked at the distant figure of Jack, who soon completely disappeared from view.
I knew what she had implied. “I’m sure, Mama. I don’t want to be hurt ever again.” My voice held a bitter note.
“And you are sure this man intends to hurt you.”
“He is just a ruthless millionaire. You should know firsthand how men like him treat innocent women.” The moment I said it, I regretted it. “I’m sorry, Mama. Please forgive me.”
She frowned but kept silent. She was nineteen when she came to Ellis Island on the steamship from Poland, and she was six months pregnant with me. It was too late when she learned that pregnant unmarried women weren’t welcome in this country. My biological father was from a Polish noble family, and she was just a peasant girl, so his family forbade him to marry her.
“Witold was young and weak,” she said in a quiet voice. “And what we had was just an enchantment.”
I couldn’t help staring at her. “Enchantment?” Just when my mother was labeled as an undesirable to be sent back to her old country, she met my stepfather. He was the doctor who examined her in the small room on Ellis Island. She spoke only Polish, but he had been born to a German father and a Polish mother, thanks to whom he spoke quiet good Polish.
“I found true love with your papa.” He helped her to be admitted into this country, but as he did, he memorized the address of the great-aunt she was to stay with. He visited her shortly afterward and asked her out. Once he told me that Mama had captured him from the moment he entered that small room on the Ellis Island. When he laid eyes on her, she took his breath away.
“Jack is an independent man who makes his own decisions. He does have a reputation as a seducer, but people change,” she said.
“Maybe they do, but not Jack.” I took a step back.
“I see the way he looks at you, like you are the only one in the room. And I see how your face lights up every time he is near you. That redhead wanted to stay after Labor Day, but he told her he needed time alone. I overheard their conversation.” She paused. “I know you are afraid of being hurt again, and I don’t have to remind you how I warned you that Arthur wasn’t for you.” She captured my face in her hands. “Let your heart speak this time. True love comes only once in a lifetime, and whatever you have with Jack is definitely special.”
At first it seemed as it would be a sunny day, but around ten o’clock in the morning, black clouds arrived and the rain began its dance. Mrs. Crane complained of a headache and took to her bed while Mama dipped into James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. I was free to do whatever I wished, so I waited for Jack to come back, to have lunch with him, to talk, even though I knew he was upset with me. I already felt lonely without him. I wanted him in my life, but not on his terms. I wanted him as a friend, but at the same time, just the thought of him going to bed with another woman made me want to cry. I glared out the window at the fog rolling in overhead. What a sad, rainy day. What sad, rainy feelings inside me.
By two o’clock, Jack had still not arrived. He didn’t want to see me, and I didn’t blame him. He’d accused me of being selfish, because I refused to be naïve and believe he was capable of being faithful to one woman. Could he really change his bad habits because of me? Would I be enough for him? I saw the way women looked at him, trying to get his attention. I didn’t want to be one of them.
I watched the wind strengthen, picking things up along its way and swaying trees, whimpering like a sick animal, while bursts of rain crashed against the windows. And then, it all happened at once. Something shook the earth so hard that for a moment I thought it was the end of the world. I was thrown backwards and bumped into the heavy frame of the bed. My thumping heart caused pains in my chest, but I sprang to my feet and looked through the blurry window. I focused on the fishing village below along the shoreline. Huge waves were sweeping houses into the bay, shuffling boats, piers, trees.
I ran off to find Mama. She hovered near the window while Mrs. Crane clung to the chair. “Thank goodness we are on high ground, so the flooding can’t reach us,” Mrs. Crane said in a strangled voice, her face pale. “I heard pieces of roof falling down.”
“But what happen to the people from the fishing village?” I asked in a daze. What if Jack is still out on the ocean?
“Let’s go to the lobby to find out,” Mama said, moving away from the window and striding toward the door.
It turned out that people from the village walked over through high water and blowing wind to our hotel on the hill. The enormous lobby was crowded with villagers, hotel guests, and worried-looking employees, some calling names of their absent family members who were still somewhere outside. I reeled around trying to find Jack, but I had no luck. I went upstairs to his suite, but there was no answer to my knock. The desk clerk confirmed my worst fear, that Jack had not been seen since very early this morning. Dizziness swept through me. I held onto the counter, waiting to regain my balance.
The rest of the night I spent in the lobby curled on the floor surrounded by other people. Prayers, sobs, curses, and children’s whimpering sounded among the candles that were now our only source of light. And still, no Jack.
The next day, people rejoined their families after waiting out the storm elsewhere. Homeless families reunited and found temporary shelter in our hotel, and the fact that there were not too many guests at that time of the year was in their favor. But Jack was not one of them, so I kept asking around and waiting. He had surely sailed toward land at the first sign of the terrible storm, and he was somewhere safe. But why wasn’t he here?
More news arrived. It turned out that water had flooded the bay, and Montauk was now an island; we were isolated. The entire fishing village and Montauk’s Main Street were in ruin, roads and train tracks flooded and covered by sand, broken trees, and poles. Reports of bodies found in the water buzzed around like unwanted insects.
On the second day, I felt only numbness. I had less and less hope, as if I were half dead. I felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing. One immense nothing. And then the realization of my true feelings toward Jack hit me hard. I cared for him more than just a friend. I ceased denying it. I begged for another chance for us, for his return. I made several attempts to leave the hotel in search of this man I so wanted, but Mama wouldn’t let me go and watched me with her troubled eyes. Mrs. Crane instructed her driver, Henry, to keep an eye on me as well, so I was never left alone. “If he is dead, there is nothing you can do, sweetheart.” Mrs. Crane paused and looked up at the wood ceiling beams. “But if he survived, with God’s help, there are crews out, and they will find him.”
By the third day, the roads were cleared enough that we could leave, but I begged Mama to stay longer, as I believed Jack would eventually get through to us. There was still no electricity, nor working telephones lines, and Mama didn’t want Papa to worry about us any longer, but she stayed with me, entrusting Mrs. Crane to pass the news to Papa, my two sisters, and three brothers—and to Jack’s family about his disappearance.
The fact that there were no more corpses found outside kept my hopes up.
“He’s alive, Mama. I feel it in me,” I said on our way to the kitchen, to help prepare food for the people sheltered at the hotel. We stopped in the lobby to check for mail, even though we suspected there would be none. I looked for distractions, so the waiting would seem shorter.
“Alice.” The so familiar voice called from behind me. I froze, but then my heart leapt with joy. He stood just a few feet away from me, wearing clean clothes, and with no sign of filth or fatigue, untouched by the storm. But as he got closer, I saw his face was pale, and there were dark shadows under his eyes, like he hadn’t slept in days. His expression tore at my heart, he seemed so vulnerable.
“Alice,” he said again, his voice throbbing, “you are okay.”
I couldn’t take my eyes away from him, but I couldn’t speak.
He cleared his throat. “You know, that morning you rejected me, I canceled the fishing and drove to the city to get something very important to me, something that had once belonged to my grandmother. Before she died, she gave it to me and told me to put it on the finger of the woman I was sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life with.” He reached inside the pocket of his khaki sport jacket and took out a small box with a gorgeous sapphire ring. He knelt down and looked up at me. “Alice, you are the love of my life. I knew it at first sight at you. The last days were the hardest in my life because I had no way to come to you or even call you. I had no way to protect you. Despite the fact you’ve known me for such a short time, please find it in your heart to trust me. Will you marry me?”
I felt drunk with happiness and didn’t fight back my tears. “Yes,” I whispered, my voice drained of emotion.
Gosia Nealon lives in Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, with her husband and two sons. Her work was recently awarded Fourth Place in the Genre Short Story category in the 89th Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition. Her previous work had appeared in the Polish former magazine, Eko Swiat and (mac)ro(mic).