Somewhere in the darkness over Newfoundland, you turn to your friend, who is wrapped in his red polyester plane blanket, mesmerised by Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady. You say: shall we take a trip from New York? Shall we? And that is that, really. You are just doing what you always do when faced with a stretch of time ahead in a big city - Nairobi, Marrakesh, Marseille, Jerusalem, London – you plan your escape before you even arrive. Big cities, particularly the nerve-centres of big cities, always make you feel as though you are in a small room without windows or a child locked in a parked car on a summer’s day.
You are too fragile to handle New York now, in any case - the elevators, the subway, the strong sunlight. You just want to crawl back to a cool, dark hotel room and drink gin and tonics in the afternoon and smoke packets of cigarettes. After this break-up, you think, putting your breathless guidebook away and scrutising exactly where you are on the screen in front of you (Southern Greenland, still hours to go) one should fly somewhere benign, somewhere easily manageable in small doses; where you can gingerly go out into temperate sunlight and sample safe, inviolable hours on a beach. Or lie in the shade of an Italian olive grove, by a pool, in a shimmering afterbirth-film of Ambre Solaire. Somewhere with softly spoken, deferential staff who ask you if you would like another towel, another cocktail, a new ashtray. Somewhere you can monitor how you’re doing hourly, take sleeping pills; a holiday from yourself.You are not interested in travelling the way you would usually travel. Right now, you’d be happy with a resort compound, a big bed and CNN. A place to lick your wounds in peace.
Not the smoked glass edifices of high-rise office buildings, interminable avenues, the suffocation of crowds and queues and undergrounds. Not the kind of city where the crowd parts and you think you see him, even though you know he is in London, even though, clearly, that man has blond hair and shorter legs and looks nothing like him. And New York is hot and humid and everyone is either angry with you or pleased to see you, neither of which you are feeling particularly receptive to. New York dwarfs you; you are in solitary confinement within yourself. You can literally hear the echo of your own heartbeat, going too fast, way too fast, the sweat at the nape of your neck. It is a city of tiny dogs walked on the sidewalk without irony, a city of too many facelifts. A place where you are offered white cashew milk in place of juice. There is too much of everything – fabulous food, when you don’t feel like eating, too many peonies and cherry blossom, too much candle-light and neuroses. And the humidity level keeps rising.
At night you lie on top of the sheets with your knees bent and your palms flat on the bed, trying to breathe. You open all the windows. There’s no air. It’s 3 a.m. You go to the kitchen and pour yourself a glass of water. The cat looks at you. You feel like you are slowly going mad.
Somewhere bleak, you say, vaguely. With strong weather, unsheltered, unpopulated. Somewhere with water and the dark outlines of trees. And rain, preferably rain when you fall asleep at night. Hireth, again. You wrote about this before, another summer ago - that longing for resolute storms, for home, black granite and cow parsley.
Your friend sits at the breakfast bar on his laptop, surrounded by the Barneys tags torn from your day’s shopping, weighing up whether to drive the 100 miles north, upstate, into the mountains and the wooded Catskills. There are maps and the strange names of ranch cabins and cheap motels. You tell him you’d like to see bears; he looks exasperated. You know you are being unhelpful. But the truth is, you don’t care where you go, as long as it is out of New York. You look out of the window; clouds of blossom are blowing across the street like confetti. You wonder what your wedding would have looked like, if you hadn’t run away. But the mental image has slipped, misted, like an out of focus photograph. It is becoming harder to recall the daydream of yourself, smiling in exquisite Chantilly lace and those glittery shoes. Much better to be here, still feeling like a runaway bride, drinking beer and chain-smoking in America.
In the end you head East, early morning, along the South Fork of Long Island. Your friend drives, you are wearing denim shorts with the windows down and listening to some sanguine American boyband on the radio, knees bent, your feet on the hot plastic dashboard. You are happy.
Inlets pass, straits of white beach and boats and the thin, reedy sound of spinnaker ropes. It is perfect, here – it is exactly what you wanted, but didn’t know you wanted. Deserted towns, white Evangelical churches, pretty houses and porches. Lighthouses, yellow cornfields and windmills. Bleached reeds. Pick-up trucks parked outside empty shopping malls.
The Hamptons are Stepford towns, peripheral settlements of expensive beach houses inhabited only by waitresses and gardeners before May, quiet, eerie, too shiny and ordered to be welcoming. The streets are flanked by shimmering boutiques, selling a lot of very expensive white muslin. You nod at three photographers in tight black t-shirts shooting a fashion spread on the pavement - a gamine teenager languidly scowling in leather. You smile at a botoxed Manhattenite wearing lipstick in an unflattering shade of apricot. Her high heels clatter along the sidewalk. Clearly, it is okay to be out of your mind here.
You wait for your friend outside Ralph Lauren and smoke two cigarettes, one after the other. The blow-dried shopkeepers look on with disapproval – no-one smokes in the Hamptons. Everyone here is dewy skinned and looks like an Armani model. To your right is a blue sign that reads ‘visitors to Southampton must be dressed appropriately at all times’. You look down at your frayed denim shorts, which are almost definitely too short to be deemed appropriate by people who wear beige cashmere twinsets. You walk into one of the expensive stores and buy a pair of very sexy, very high-heeled black Italian sandals you’ll probably never wear. What the hell.
The motel is a timber clap-board hut, built for surfers, right on the beach. It is empty now - nobody there but you and a group of diminutive Portuguese cleaners. You walk past them in the hallway, the slap of your bare soles on the reed-mat rugs and you can feel them watching your back retreat. Montauk; just empty rolling dunes, and misty dusk-light and suddenly you can breathe again.
You run along the beach at twilight, scattering pale gulls. The sand is very white and slippery under your feet. The taste of iron rises in your throat. You’re crying, a little. At least you think you are crying – is this the right time to cry? Is it the right stage in the process, the clearly defined schedule you set yourself for convalescing? You had meticulously planned this in January, predicting that you would fall apart, a prevention against the complete breakdown you were expecting. You had allocated yourself two weeks to take ‘personal time’ off work and grieve, like they do in the films. Two weeks of wearing no make up and hiding under the duvet. But instead you had gone numb. There were no tears – once, perhaps, early in the morning, in secret. But you carried on; buried yourself in specific, well-planned tasks – work, lunch with friends, drinks, dates, reading, exercising. And time passed, and still you haven’t cried.
As you run, you think about the boy at home who kissed you against the fence in the early hours of the morning before your flight – even though you promised you wouldn’t think of him, not once, not ever. You were drunk that night, deliriously tired. You held onto his wrists and there was that irrational pang of fear in the darkness that you would never see him again, that once your plane had lifted off into the afternoon, he would disappear like dust. But that was Oxford, and Oxford couldn’t be farther away now. You’re here, on the beach at Montauk, and you’re sad about endings and happy about beginnings and crying, finally - you can taste the salt on your lips, mingled with the sea-spray. You don’t know it yet, of course, but tonight you will get drunk and feel lonely. And tomorrow you will make seaweed bracelets on the beach and collect pink, creamy shells and drive back into New York barefoot, with tanned legs, Montauk sand at the bottom of your rucksack.