The Great Luxury of Life

by Robert P. Barsanti

It took all summer, but I finally put the kayak in the water. It took one little white lie, one big bald faced lie, and a lucky parking place in Monomoy, but I was able to settle into the craft, deal with pegs that weren’t quite where I wanted, and head off for a longish paddle.

I am good with any activity that involves cup holders. Bicycles, ellipticals, baby carriages, golf carts, and kayaks all include the ability of holding a cool beverage without spilling it. Now, the kayak involves some tricky arrangement of bungie cords and placement of the cupholder on top of a rear bulkhead, but it can be done. Unless you do an Eskimo roll.

In fifty some odd years of living, I have finally learned that the great luxury of life is not wealth but time. You don’t measure real riches with a bank book but a calendar. When I was young and saw a long parade of calendar pages lining the road into the future, I was happy to trade time for money. I spent afternoons at photocopiers creating packets that students looked at for thirty minutes and then buried in binders. I stood attentive at jobs where I could calculate how much money I made every ten minutes. But since wisdom has slowly worn away the common sense I once had, I have found that time is the great expense that we blow through.

I spent this summer in profitable ways: I cleaned gutters and emptied trash cans; I made dinners and vacuumed up spiderwebs; I scrubbed toilets and cashed checks. But in that time, I didn’t hit enough golf balls, surf enough waves, read enough books, or put the kayak in the water. We only regret the sins we never committed or the golf balls we didn’t lose.

I dipped the paddles and headed away from the beach and into the mooring field. Since the end of Race Week, the path has become somewhat clearer out here in the floating parking lot. On a beautiful late summer day, I paddled past empty runabouts and empty sailboats and aimed at Coatue. Labor Day comes with a sad accounting. Somehow the captains, mates, and lowly swains who owned these boats had something better to do on one of the peak days of summer than come out to their floating investments and zip about the sound. Instead, their boats crossed their arms in an accusatory and lapping silence, one my kayak knows well. I fear that my house has a full attendance of accusers. I have a stack of books sitting on a table that were bought in anticipation of a long bubble bath of words; yet they still have receipts and Mitchell’s Bookmarks in them. Both the books and the boats show the glutton’s regret; our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Or, really, bigger than our calendars.

It’s Labor Day: the house guests are gone by now. They have returned to jobs and lives and commutes on 495. The work is slowing down; everyone is sick and sick of it. The restaurants with the longest lines and the busiest phones are throwing parties for their remaining workers and then cutting the hours down to a more sedate September pace. The phone doesn’t ring as often. We are not needed to bartend a party in Sconset, fix a porch in Madaket, or unplug a drain on Bartlett Road. The invoices are out, the checks are coming in (slowly), and the calendar pauses after eating up the weekends and afternoons.

My kayak guilt pushes me to cross beyond the big boats past the end of Monomoy and head over to First Point. I paddled up the beach a foot or so, then made an awkward and hopping exit from the boat, but without spilling my beverage. I dragged the kayak above the seaweed, unpeeled the spray skirt and life vest, then dropped them into the cockpit and walked over the dunes to the north side and the Sound.

Civilization strips itself down and goes swimming out there. Coatue remains a place apart from the season and society. Nobody has left any footprints on the beach, nor has it been raked or made pretty for a visitor. Which isn’t to say I was alone. On an electric afternoon, sailboats pushed towards Great Point, and then swung away. Far up by the lighthouse, the Jeeps and pickups backed up to the water and the ant-sized fishermen cast into the tide. Two super yachts waddled at anchor in the midst of the motorboats and jet skis running a game of tag through their wakes. One boat was moored a mile up the beach, with three kids jumping from it into the water, then climbing back up the ladder and jumping again. Above it all, three long feathery clouds stretched down from Canada.

The Eagle blew three blasts, then emerged over the dune and around Brant Point. The passengers filled the top two decks; headed back to work, headed back to school, headed back to a mainland life. The Lynx sailed the other way, bringing the young sailors back to parents and pizza. Far behind them, the Endeavor also returned, spinnaker set and a full load of passengers hiked out over the water. I was glad not to be on them.

There are no bars on Coatue so my phone was deliciously and selfishly sending messages to voicemail. Solitude is the luxury that you pay for with time and, in my case, lies. Everyone wants you to be where they can call you, if they have to. They want to check on their investments. Obligations are generous and solitude is selfish. Books and boats demand that you leave your obligations in other peoples hands while you sit alone, either in a chair or in a kayak. The accounting comes hard, but you can only settle accounts by yourself, in the quiet office, where the columns are on the calendars not counting dollars but days.