After my parents divorced when I was around 10, my mother lived in New York, and my father bought a house in Branford, Connecticut, on the Long Island Sound, which must have been the first time I fell in love with the sea. The fact that I could see the Sound, across the street from the house, meant swimming and sand and dreaming awake in that other world of the sun beating down on me and the gang of other kids I ran around with every day. In its mysterious way, having a landscape made it incapable for me to think of living someplace else — except that I did, when I visited my mother in New York two or three weekends a month.
I had to wait another 50 years to see the sea again — in Provincetown, where I was on a writing fellowship and working on my first book of poems. Then, after the fellowship ended, I moved back to New York for a teaching job and it would be another 10 years until I could be on the Cape again, living in a one-room cottage that my husband and I were able to buy that sat at the edge of the bay side where the air smelled of beach roses during the day and at night, the smoke of bonfires lighting up the strip of shore that connected the end of Provincetown to the beginning of Truro. A lot of my primal longing feels palpable when it gets tied up about missing the sea. Still, I wonder if it could even be considered longing, if it’s something that only wells up in the present—facing the ocean right now, sentient and insignificant.
With or without the sea, most of my life has been spent living in New York. But when a job opportunity came up in May 2020, to move to Newport, Rhode Island, we decided to go for it and leave the city.
Before we moved here, the few friends we had in the building back in the city were sure it had to do with the virus. But really, Covid had nothing to do with it. And besides, I’m most definitely a go-down-with-the-ship kind of guy. The quarantine didn’t cast any pall over being isolated — just the opposite. We’d become punch-drunk recluses who loved staying indoors, watching movies, reading, writing, making meals at home, and experiencing an almost languid and metaphysical dismantling of time. How does one enter a field like that — a practically cosmic field of scrambled time? Time was elastic to the point where we, like many people, were never sure what day it was. We were living in the year of Sunday.
We’d been to Newport before, a frigid weekend years ago, off-season, soon after our first time meeting in Provincetown, where the town was wet and gray, precisely the same weather we found that day in Newport. We stayed at Gurney’s, a luxury destination spot, I guessed, seeing it connected to town via a bridge across the harbor that led to the mysteriously named Goat Island.
We took in the town’s famous cliff walk — a 3.5-mile walk along the ocean on one side and mansions from the Gilded Age on the other. Those mansions for the rich and the dead were even more dramatic that day, painted against the storm-grey sky that made them all look haunted, whether they were or not.
Tourists love to traipse through the “cottages,” as they are preposterously called, and walk through one room into the next with the practiced solemnity of mourners lined up to view the decorated statesman lying in state. I know how much people seem to enjoy a sunny walk through an empty mansion, but for me, every room looks about as comfortable to live in as being in a straitjacket. There’s an overwhelming sense I have of being too alive for anything like the cloying stillness of a room where nothing has changed for more than a century, too alive to sleep in the bed in the room or sit at the desk to write a letter or manage to pull back the curtains to look at the ocean — curtains, as heavy the ones Edward Hopper painted in First Row Orchestra and New York Movie.
The furnishings in these bedrooms look either fossilized or like something that could kill you slowly. A hairbrush doesn’t look clean, or there’s a piece of the handle broken off in such a way that animates it, so it could now be used as a shiv; the throne quality of a simple chair, I am sure, will try to eat you alive, absorbing you in its sucking, brittle velvet. And if you’re standing at the door, not going in, restless now from having seen enough, the rooms look as if they’ve been ironed and spray-starched into the irreversible seriousness of a still-life. An empty mansion today seems more like a tomb honoring the architectural ideal of its famous era, The Gilded Age— which was as much about the materialism of the rich as it was about the more disturbing social ills like poverty and political corruption that were just a scratch away in the gold gilding.
I do love houses, though — even big houses — and there is an extraordinary array of different kinds of houses all over Newport and the rest of Aquidneck Island, in Middletown and Portsmouth. The house that Andrew and I found had a great apartment, and we took it right away, based only on the pictures we saw online. It’s the first floor of a small Victorian, flooded with light and mainly in the room I write in, which is the first and only room I’ve ever had to write in. Every writer I know has their own devoted space, and now I see why it’s so important. This is the place where what you know best—the things that matter to you — books, paper, photographs—and in addition, for me, a framed letter from William Maxwell after I wrote to him asking if he would read the memoir I had written about life on the racetrack and caring for Swale, the colt won the 110th running of the Kentucky Derby. Maxwell’s letter contains this sentence — which feels, whenever I read it, like the breaking open of a place where a great truth has been lying in wait: “But once, when I was in my early twenties, I had the experience of riding on a lovely horse, a mare named Diana, in a stable in a suburb of Chicago. I lost my heart to her and — because this is a true love story — never saw her again.”
To get a better lay of the land and to see the rest of Aquidneck Island, of which Newport is one of three places — Middletown and Portsmouth being the other two — I got a job delivering pizzas that took me everywhere and gave me what racetrackers fondly refer to as “walking around money” — which is slightly more than chump change.
Here’s what I discovered about Newport and Middletown during my short-lived pizza gig:
Almost all the houses have front doorbells that look like they wouldn’t work and actually don’t work — hanging off the house or in a disarray of shattered plastic cracked enough to let the circuitry through.
Almost all the houses are unnumbered — as though the towns were small enough for everybody to know who lived in those houses without needing an address.
Almost all the streets — except for Thames and Bellevue and Spring — run in both directions, which is confusing as to how and why — as those streets are almost too narrow to hold even one-way traffic. The few streets that are one-way, amazingly permit parking, but only if you can get half the car to sit up on the curb.
There’s more to find out about the place where I live — and especially about the house I stumbled upon the other day on my almost daily ride along the spectacular Ocean Drive, where I look for a place to meditate for 20 minutes. It was a shell of a house, really; maybe the owners ran out of money to finish its renovation. The house had what felt like a private view of the ocean and I found, amazingly, an open door and went inside and turned my phone’s video camera on to capture the vastness of the space which consisted of gravel floors, and fireplaces, cathedral heights, and gorgeous beams. And it made me think, again, of William Maxwell, who in his glorious novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, talks about walking through an unfinished house from his childhood:
And I had the agreeable feeling, as I went from one room to the next by walking through the wall instead of a doorway, or looked up and saw blue sky through the rafters, that I had found a way to get around the way things were.
The way things are in Newport includes having a deck that oversees birds and squirrels, a profusion of daily rabbits, and the occasional opossum. I’ve never been so close to daily encounters with house finches, tufted titmice, sparrows, and the more than occasional cardinals that come to the feeders we hung like lanterns around the backyard. The first couple of weeks after moving in, two or three birds on as many occasions, suddenly swooped through the mouth of the wood-burning stove in the living room. One bird — a sparrow — stayed frozen on a nearby windowsill long enough for me to take it in my hand, go outside and sit with it for about 15 minutes until its heart relaxed again and it suddenly flew out of my hand — back into its soaring life. But then, as if to cancel the memory, two days later, a house finch hit the glass door to the deck so hard that it died.
Of course, the two summers I’ve had so far here have been glorious, and the winters have been short, without biting too badly. And, when birds aren’t arriving via the wood-burning stove, it’s a great luxury to have a fire whenever we’ve needed a fire. Andrew lit the first one while I was in another room, and then came to me and told me to close my eyes. Then, ceremonially, he took me by the hand and led us into the part of the house that I could feel getting gradually warmer. The tenderness of the ceremony matched the sight of our two cats and French bulldog sprawled across the floor, hypnotized by another light besides the sun falling on them with heat.
“Do you want a fire,” I asked Andrew, on one of the coldest nights we had here. “Sure,” he said, but still had to be the one to get it going in his butch way I never can never manage to duplicate. The stove and its blazing I think have probably given us a closer feel of the strange intimacy about pandemic life — a way of seeing the people we live with, if we live with people, that’s more solid and necessary. And somehow I’ve gotten to be the age where people start living in retirement country — if only as a state of mind. For me, it means that Newport has become the place where, after living those years in Provincetown, I can pick up with the sea again at the place where we left off.