A Short Story by Aarushi Raina Bhaumik
“Meet me in Montauk.” the first and last memory of Clementine had whispered in Joel’s ear, just as the beams and planks of a stranger’s beach house they’d broken into came crashing down upon them, erasing her final existence from Joel’s sedated, yet, determined mind.
“Meet me in Montauk,” I’d remembered, suddenly, as I sat watching a wave playfully wash up to my feet, right before receding, back into the sea; the only evidence that it had touched the shore at all, being the thin line of sea foam that remained on my toes, and the cool wetness of the sand.
I wondered why I’d thought of this dialogue from a movie I hadn’t watched in years, as I observed the waves repeat their mischievous back and forth, rushing onto the shore, each time, only to rush right back to where they came from.
Were they teasing me, nudging me into joining them in their favourite game, or attempting to soothe me as I thought of broken things and forgotten memories? Maybe, they were here to remind me of the magnitude of their own home, as compared to my being. Or perhaps, they were mocking me about my life decisions, as I kept repeating the same mistake.
“Well, that’s just silly,” I concluded, “It’s just what waves do, and their behaviour is for marine geologists to study. Not for a mildly stoned 30-something-year-old like you, who couldn’t keep their marriage together,” I scoffed at myself.
“Meet me in Montauk,” I was back to the thought.
Even though I was sure I’d forgotten several important nuances of the movie, this dialogue, along with a couple more iconic ones, had remained.
I remembered how floored I had been, with the idea of two diametrically opposite people, finding love in their differences, and somehow making it back to one another, despite having erased each other’s existence from their memories. I’d found it romantic, and loyal – inspiring, almost!
“This is love,” I’d thought back then, “Loving someone so deeply, so passionately, that they were ingrained within the very core of your being.”
But, maybe, the true learnings were hidden in those nuances I had conveniently overlooked as a young, hopeful soul, only yearning for the bright side of life.
Maybe, the truth was that you need to remember how someone made you feel right till the end so that you don’t go around making the horrible mistake of going back to them. Maybe, going back to where it began, reminding yourself that it wasn’t all bad, convincing yourself to fall in love with them all over again, was the true mistake. Maybe, if people remembered they’d find a better way to be happy – if only they endured the process – the process towards healing.
“Oh, god, ‘healing’,” I thought, “What an obnoxiously pretentious word; swarming each inch of the internet. Everyone wants you to ‘heal’. Everyone wants you to ‘evolve’. Why can’t we just be as we are – broken, and in pain?” I grimaced.
“Quite a sunny day, isn’t it?” I heard someone shout from a distance, just then, breaking my internal rant.
I looked up, turning my gaze away from the waves, scanning the beach to locate the person to go with the voice that I’d heard.
And, that’s when I saw her.
Her messy, curly, instantly captivating hair, blowing in the wind, dramatically around her head, almost covering her face, while she hid her forehead with a palm, attempting to shade her eyes from the sun; a sarong wrapped across her waist, over a white plain swimsuit, her arms sleek and tanned, with a small sling bag hanging from her shoulder, bouncing lightly at her hip, as she walked barefoot, towards me, sandals in hand, from across the beach; several grains of wet sand clinging to her ankles and calves.
“Quite a sunny day, isn’t it?” she repeated, as she reached closer.
“Yeah, it is,” I agreed, uncertain of how long the small talk would continue, wondering if I wanted to introduce myself to this stranger, at all.
“Well, in that case, it’s a great thing that we’ve met today!” she quipped.
“How’s that?” I asked, utterly bewildered about where this conversation was headed. “Oh, goodness, is she going to ask me to join a cult, or is she selling something? Gosh, is she a prostitute?” I thought to myself, panicking.
“Well, because we can look back at today and say to people that the sun shone really bright on us the day we met!” she giggled, her face awash with pride at her own lame wit.
“Ah! You’re a pun person, I see,” I said to her, calming down, mildly taken aback by her unexpected attempt at humour and her giggle that reminded me of a more innocent time.
“Pun person, fun person, it’s all the same, don’t you think?” she said, as she sat down cross-legged near me, uninvited.
“Sure.” I shrugged, insincerely, slightly annoyed at this unwelcomed invasion.
“Got a smoke?” she asked me, casually.
“No,” I lied, uninterested in sharing my last joint with this absolute stranger.
“Here you go,” she said, removing a cigarette pack and lighter from her sling bag, offering me one.
I looked at her, thrown this time, by the unexpected generosity, and said, “Thanks!” as I sheepishly pulled out a cigarette and lit it. She did the same, and said, “SO! What was that deep thought I interrupted when I got here?”
I let out an uncomfortable laugh, shaking my head, looking down at my feet, surprised once again, at her candour.
“What! What was it? Come on, tell me!” she insisted, taking a puff from her cigarette and letting the smoke out.
“Seriously? Are we really doing this?” I asked, flabbergasted, almost ready to get up and leave this absurd, intrusive, woman, “I don’t even know you!”
“Isn’t that great?” she refuted, “I’m a complete stranger, who you’d probably never see again, so whatever you say to me, will remain between the both of us!” she insisted.
I searched her face for signs of malicious intent. Was this a part of some notorious scam? Perhaps, there was a second partner hiding somewhere, waiting to ambush an unassuming target whom they could rob or murder?
“I’m not a serial killer if that’s what you’re wondering,” she giggled again, my perplexed expression possibly amusing her; her uninhibited laughter breaking through my scepticism, once again.
“Right,” I said, dusting off the bit of sand stuck to my legs, as I picked up my sandals and stood up, ready to leave. “Well, thanks a lot for the smoke,” I said, curtly, “but I think it’s time for me to go.”
“Wake me up, before you go-go!” she sang in response, with her cigarette dangling between her teeth, as she grooved to her own voice, “Don’t leave me hanging on like a yo-yo!” she continued, finishing the lyric from the song, looking at me, her eyes teasing me to stay.
I don’t know what it was about her – the fact that she was being unpredictably candid, or how she emitted a sense of familiarity and joyful nonchalance, or that she was singing the lyrics to one of my favourite George Michael songs, as a segue to what I’d just said – but I considered her sincerity.
A genuine laugh escaped me, while I shook my head once again, taking my seat next to her in the sand.
“Aha! A fellow George Micheal fan,” she said, letting go another puff of smoke.
I nodded at her, paused, and decided to answer her earlier question. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” I sighed.
She looked at me quizzically, “The poem?”
“The movie,” I answered.
“Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a fucked-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” she quoted word to word, from the movie. “Gosh, how fucking amazing was Kate Winslet? Have got to watch that one, again!” she exclaimed.
“So, that’s the dialogue that stayed with you?” I asked.
“Yea, among several others, of course.” she said, “No jokes about my name!”
I laughed, “Oh yea, Huckleberry hound. Well, speaking of names, what’s yours? Mine is..”
“Not important,” she cut me off. “Let’s not do names.”
I looked at her, surprised, once more. Who was this woman? And why was I drawn to her? Why did she feel so familiar, yet, elusive?
“Let’s just do thoughts,” she continued, completely ignoring my puzzled expression.
“Okay,” I said, resigning. “I’ll play. But to what end? What do I get in return?” I challenged her.
She looked at me, gently smiled, and said, “Relief.”
“I hardly think so,” I responded, clutching at my scepticism, harder. “But as I said, I’ll play!”
“Wonderful!” she gleamed. “So which dialogue stayed with you?”
“Meet me in Montauk,” I immediately heard myself say.
This time, she searched my face for answers.
“What’s brought you here?” she asked.
“To this dialogue or this beach?” I jested, attempting to sound witty.
“To this moment in your life,” she said, sounding genuinely interested; her eyes now gazing straight into my own, as though peering directly into my soul.
“Let’s not do feelings, just thoughts, shall we?” I responded, feeling uncomfortable once again.
“Okay,” she agreed, still gazing, “What were you thinking about when you came here, then?”
I looked away, considered her question for a moment, and said, “I think some peace and quiet? Isn’t that what most people come to a beach for?” I asked, looking back at her.
“Well, I came here for the stories,” she said.
“Oh, are you a writer?” I asked, assuming she was finally opening up.
“Nope.” she said with a light laugh, “Just an avid reader.”
I looked at her tiny sling bag, still hanging from her shoulder, too tiny to hold a full book. Perhaps she read stuff on her phone, I concluded.
“So what was the last most interesting story you read?” I asked her, partially determined to get to know her better, but mostly to get her away from questions about my personal life.
“I’m still reading it,” she said, with a mischievous grin, that spread warmth across my face.
“So you read, people, then,” I said, my face feeling flushed.
She nodded, letting out another puff of smoke.
“What does that do for you?” I asked.
“It enriches me,” she said. “What did you want to run away from?” she asked, as casually as you’d ask someone about the weather.
“What..I?” I blurted, taken aback, once more. “How are you so sure I ran away from something?” I shot back defensively, mildly offended by this immensely intrusive line of questioning.
“You wouldn’t have come to the beach for peace, and quiet, if you weren’t running away from something.” She shrugged. “So, what were you escaping? Your job? Your family? Your boyfriend? Your girlfriend?” she continued.
“Myself,” I blurted out, unexpectedly, again.
She simply looked at me, almost as though gesturing me to go on.
I suddenly felt a wave of intrepid candidness wash over me, and decided to say the one thing I had tried hard for years to never say out loud, “I feel lost.”
“I feel as though I’ve been at sea, amongst raging storms, in a ship that’s falling apart, but each time, I dock it, I repair the same ship and head out to sea, only to find myself in the same storm, my ship sinking and falling apart, all over again. And I’m lost, and tired!” I erupted, startled at my own vulnerability.
She looked at me, seemingly amused by my sudden outburst of honesty, and so playing into the metaphor, she asked, “So why don’t you call for help and abandon ship?”
I thought for a second, about what she’d asked. Why, indeed, wasn’t I abandoning ship? Why couldn’t I give it up? What made me keep going back to it – the pain, the conflict, the drama, the arguments, the heartbreak?
And then, I realised.
“It’s all I’ve ever known. The ship, the storm; they feel like home. I haven’t known anything else. I know every nook and cranny of the ship. I know which part of the deck creeks, and which sail has a tear in it. But most of all, it’s the storm that keeps me going. Navigating the storm in this broken ship is what thrills me the most. Without it, what would I do? It makes me feel alive.” I admitted.
“Because it’s all you’ve ever known,” she repeated, as I nodded. “But you’re lost now. And tired. So what do you want to do?” she probed further.
“I don’t know!” I cried out, standing up suddenly, and walking into the waves out of sheer frustration, each step taking me deeper into the sand. “I feel like, all my life, I’ve only been chasing storms, and I want it to stop! I need it to stop! It has to stop.” I let out loudly, feeling as though a massive weight had been lifted from over me, just by saying the words; just by admitting what I wanted out loud.
I heaved a sigh, turned around and wiped away the wetness of my tears from my face, or perhaps they were the droplets from the powerful waves splashing around me.
That’s when I finally saw her clearly for the first time, sitting on the sand, the sun blazing right onto her face, her curls still drifting in the breeze, and her smile lending a joyful glow to her very aura.
“Well, it’s a good thing, then,” she said, standing up, “that it’s quite sunny, today.”
And with that, she gave me a familiar look, her smile still gleaming, as she walked away, in line with the crashing waves at the shore, leaving no footprints in the sand, but relief in my heart, just as she’d promised.