My parents bought a house in Westhampton Dunes the year after I was born. It’s a tiny little place, all decks and railings clinging to a frame of shingles and chipped paint. The whole thing stands on old wood pilings. We got it cheap after a Nor’easter in 1991 blew out the dunes, ripped up the road, and drove most of the houses into Moriches Bay. At high tide the waves buried everything except the few places still standing on strong stilts, and you’d have to call a police boat to get you off your deck and back to the mainland. Property values were understandably low. When my parents moved in the house used to sway in the wind, and there weren’t any stairs up from the sand. My mom would carry me up to the deck on a ladder.
Years later the Army Corps of Engineers came in and reinforced the beach. They built up jetties and controlled the flow of sand. By the time I was old enough to notice, we had dunes and a road and electricity. It was almost a regular town, and the water only went over the road when the high tide and the full moon happened to line up. And even then, it was only inches. It was calm.
As a kid I loved to go kayaking with my parents around the bay. Just next to the shore. We’d watch the ospreys and keep our distance from the swans since my dad said they could take our eyes out. I believed him. When I was older I started going out by myself. I could paddle further and longer, and I’d explore all the little sandbars and islands I’d seen in the distance when I was younger. This past summer I decided to cross Moriches Bay and paddle over to mainland Long Island. About three miles in each direction.
A bit past the middle I stopped to catch my breath and enjoy the view. It was hot and still and the air was quiet. I could see Westhampton’s houses small in the distance across the water, arranged behind me in a long neat line that curved with the shore. They were only one deep on each side of the thin road that cut across the little island. It was an old road now, more faded gray in most places than black. It had been years since they put it in, since they’d dragged stones to build jetties or driven poles for new electric wires. There weren’t any boats in the water that day, but in the distance back across the Bay I heard a roar. At first I couldn’t place it. Couldn’t think what I was hearing from so far out. But then I realized I knew that sound. The pounding of water on land I’d known so long that I almost forgot it was something you could hear. But even from so far. It was always there.