by Robert P. Barsanti
I first came to Nantucket in the fall. I had been before. Once, when I was twelve and wearing a Campagnolo bicycle hat and a red windbreaker, I came over on the Uncatena from Oak Bluffs and saw the island briefly. Later, when I interviewed, I took a bus from Boston, caught a Hy-Line boat, and met everyone. Then, I had a burger at the Club Car, and went back.
So, when the doors opened on the ferry that September, I had only the vaguest of summer daydreams about the island. We had driven past the long line of traffic that passed under all of the bedsheets and cardboard signs. Finally, I was waiting with my mother, my college trunk of clothes, a few dress shirts, a bicycle, and her car.
In the bright romance of September, we sailed over and against the running tide of sailboats leaving the channel. Our car, the five others, and one Marine Home Center truck drove out the doors and through a parking lot stuffed to the gills. The last of the summer families were rolling on in cars fully loaded with grills, bicycles, and windsurfers. They were lined up like rejected suitors and waiting to
I was coming to a home I didn’t know. We drove to a rented house on Meadowview Drive, unloaded what belongings I had, locked the bike to a rusted rail, and had a take-out pizza looking over a duck pond. When my mother left the next morning, I was alone with the humming, buzzing silence of a September afternoon when the clouds built towers to the west and the sky sprayed constellations
in the night. Each September day followed the other with mundane awe. One afternoon, I left school and biked out to Cisco for two hours of wave riding on an empty beach in a warm sea.
Today, I have little left from that trunk: a sweater and a bow tie, perhaps. The bike was stolen, then recovered, then taken to the dump. The rest fell away in my years with the island. My mother’s car came and went, as did my mother. In the end, it returned to what it was the first night, the island and I.
When you move to the island, you marry the island. For richer or poorer, sickness or in health, you give up that individual identity that you had when you worked and lived in Reading or Needham. Instead, you slowly come to terms with your new life. You move into the new house and settle into the patterns, disappointments, and blessings that this island life has.
I lost a girlfriend by the end of October. I watched her cry in the airplane window and fly away. College brothers who had been so strong in the spring, drifted away in the winter. Or I drifted away from them. I wasn’t at their parties: I didn’t see the engagements. My skis became silly, my dress shoes rotted, and my one good suit grew a coat of mold. When the great, gray cover finally settled over the island in November, my life was well on its way to settling inside the frame of sand. Out here, you can be as miserable as you want to be. You can make everyone on the island as miserable as you want to make them. But you can’t escape. You can’t just take the beach days and the scalloping days and the nights in the windy snow and the cold spray of constellations and not give something back. It can’t be a barren marriage; what you don’t give, it will take.
The island will take. You won’t get the job you want, you won’t get the advancement you want, you won’t get the appreciation you want. You can’t go back to school easily, because you live on an island. You can’t hop to another company, because there is only one out here. And your career can fall apart in a heartbeat. You can go from restaurant owner to cashier in a week. You have to work extra jobs just to afford to stay. Find anyone who has lived on island for more then ten years, and they can list fifteen different jobs they held. The old joke is true: “What do you call a Nantucketer with two jobs? Lazy.”
The island doesn’t forget, although it will forgive. An argument at Nantucket Electric becomes a long series of conversations from Department Head to Superintendent before it settles into a joking grudge. A bad check remains a funny joke twenty years after the debt was paid. The man who fired you isn’t going anywhere, and neither are you. A peace needs to be made, even without justice.
But familiarity brings pleasures as well. One afternoon in the fall, I watched the thousands of Old Squaw fly over the western horizon. I have seen the sound freeze thick enough to shut out the Coast Guard. I have stood on the fifth tee at Sankaty, on a 70 degree day in December, and hit a ball onto the green (mulligan). The island can show you secrets that the boys of summer will never see.
One Columbus Day late in her life, my mother came to the island between chemotherapy treatments. We had a dinner of burgers and onion rings at the Atlantic Cafe, breakfast at the old Downyflake downtown, and a slow drive around the island. Near the end of that drive, I negotiated her old Chevette up the path to Altar Rock so that she could see the ocean all around. A dark cloud blew in from the north and frosted that one hill with an inch of snow. She decided to stay another few nights, although she never came back.
After enough years, the island and I settled into a familiar marital pattern of comfort and consideration. We had moonrises and sunrises, tomatoes and corn, rides when the car died, and a friendly word in the storm. I gave what I could, helped who I could, and tipped as best I could afford.
And then I left.
The island remains for us. It waits, it looms, it abides. It waits for all of us who travel away to finally come to the end of our traveling. Then we walk through the ferry doors and return to the sand. We carry with us all of our travels and all of our failures, and the island, in its great, gray bulwarks, welcomes us back to the streets we remember and the air that we forgot. We drive the familiar forgotten pattern of Hummock Pond Road out to the beach and bury our feet once again in the new