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Montauk, New York, 1938
It is bizarre, of course, that this was the summer that everyone was trying to fly somewhere. Howard Hughes around the world in ninety- one hours, the luxurious Yankee Clipper boat off the water and into the air, Douglas “Wrong Way” Corrigan from New York to Los Angeles—he wound up in Ireland. It was also the summer after Superman first appeared in Action Comics and instant coffee got popular, and the last full summer before the worst war. But they’d talk about the flights first. They’d say, how odd, for everyone to have spent so much time staring up at the sky, and to still not see it coming: a hurricane so punishing that it would destroy America’s eastern seaboard, biting off the farthest tip of eastern Long Island, biting off a town called Montauk, and leaving it detached from the world, an island, alone, in the middle of the ocean.
It was September, only the last vestiges of summer remaining,when the hurricane hit. No one on Long Island knew thata storm was coming that afternoon. That the army would haveto come in to resurrect the land that had once connectedMontauk to the rest of Long Island. That it would take twoweeks before the waters receded low enough at Napeague to letthrough emergency traffic. That Montauk residents would losealmost everything.
In the end, there were only a few exceptions. Near MontaukPoint, there were seven houses tucked so tightly to the bluffsthat the wind and the rain and the water couldn’t pull themdown. Seven sister houses built by the same architecture firm in1879, lived in each summer since by the same seven Manhattanfamilies. Their steely gates and strong foundations completelyintact. Their fireplaces and oak doors and stained- glass windowsmarking them, homes like trophies, on top of the end ofthe world.
The one at the farthest eastern tip was called HuntingtonHall—Hunt Hall by anyone who’d actually visited. It was theonly house of the seven still occupied that late in September.And occupying it was Champ Nathaniel Huntington.Champ was thirty- three years old, and far too handsome,and a little too tall, and the only son of Bradley Huntington, themost successful publishing mogul in North America.When the hurricane hit, Champ Huntington was having sex.Lights on. Curtains drawn. Angry, late- afternoon sex. Annawas bent over the side of the bed, Champ behind her, his handcupping her throat.
They had been out here all summer having sex like this.They were trying to save their marriage. And they were trying todestroy it.
Outside was all water and raging dark and storm. But in hisfaded consciousness, Champ didn’t notice. He knew it was raining.He heard it striking against the roof. He heard the wind.But this was Montauk. It was September. These sounds didn’tindicate that something brutal was happening.
Other things were brutal. This first year of marriage. It waswrong. Anna’s dark hair in the sink. The meetings he didn’t reallyhave. He bent down farther, took her ear in his mouth.
“Don’t,” she said. She was focused, close. “Stop.”
When they were done, they lay, splayed, Anna on the bed,Champ on the floor beneath her. Her foot was on his shoulder.This was the only place they were touching. He almost reachedout, held her toes. But he knew it just made her mad when hedid anything tender. It made her think he’d change, or want totry for her.
Then and only then did Champ sit up and look outside. Andmaybe it was that his head was still closed off, but what he sawout there looked like a train crashing into the window. It wasthe visual that made him hear the noise. The terrible whistling,high pitched and out of control. Hearing it, he’d later say, wasthe moment his life changed.
He headed to the bedroom window, naked, and had to reachout, grip the long edge of the window frame to hold himself up.He couldn’t see the beach, or the ocean. He couldn’t see anythingat first.
Anna came up behind him, wrapped in the bedsheet, andthey stood there watching the train- wind through the window.They watched so hard that they didn’t talk. Not about the speedof the wind or the trees breaking apart or what must have beenhappening in the town center. If they had been thinking, theymight have moved away from the window. They might have beenscared that it would splinter. But they stood there until thestorm stopped, and started, and stopped for good. And thegreenish yellow sky turned purple and then black and the sun(or was it the moon?) rose up, terrifying. It was the sun. Theyhad watched through the night.
“What time is it?” she asked.
He didn’t answer her.
“What do we do now?” she said.
Champ was already in motion. He was putting on clothesand lacing up his work boots and walking out the front door. Hemade his way, by foot, across his land, down the slippery bluffsand tree- wrecked cliffs onto the flooded Napeague stretch anddown farther to Main Street. Three and a half miles. Into thecenter of the ruined village.
There were fishing boats and cars piled on small houses.Fallen phone lines pulling down torn roofs. Poles and floodedcabinets and bed frames lining the street. Water was fl owingfrom everywhere, making it hard to even walk down thestreets—where did it start? If they figured out where it startedmaybe they could stop it!
Champ pulled up his pant legs and made his way to theManor, where people were setting up shelter, where they weretrying to provide relief for themselves. And Champ set to workwith the other men moving cars and carrying wet wood andboarding windows and drying blankets and cleaning up slabsof broken glass.
How could he explain it even to himself? He didn’t recognizethe feeling, had never known it before. But something brokefree in Champ—something like devotion or commitment—tohis home, to his suffering town, to everything around him.Maybe this is why, when he finished working, he didn’t headhome, but down to the docks, where he sat on canisters with allthe fishermen, who now had nothing, and listened to them talkabout how they had nothing, and stared at his own cut hands,and watched the moon rise, white and fierce, remarkably sure ofitself.
Then he followed the star- line north and east, trying to locateit. First Montauk Point, then the cliff and the bluffs, thenthe house itself. His house. Huntington Hall. Standing tall,oblivious.
It was hard to find his way back there in the dark. So he followedthe defeated shoreline, and eventually made his way upthe wooden staircase, into the bluffs, toward his home, whereeverything was still mostly together. Where Anna was waitingwith lit candles and tomato sandwiches, dark blankets spreadout on the living room floor.
When he walked in, she was by the front door. She waswearing a long, purple sweater. She had her hair in a bun. Shereached for him, and he buried into her neck, smelled her.
“How was town?” she asked, her hand still on his chest. “Itried to pick up news on the radio, but there was no reception. Isthere a town left?”
He didn’t answer her, but he was looking at her strangely.And he knew that she knew he was looking at her strangely. Itwas as simple as this: he could see her. For the first time in ayear, there was nowhere else he was trying to be.
Which brought him to his own questions: Why did it takefear to move him? Why does it take chaos to make us understandexactly what we need to do?
He wanted to ask her his questions, but he wasn’t sure shewould have good answers, and then he would change his mind,and he didn’t want to change his mind. He wanted to stay thissure.
Later, only thirty hours since he had last been lying t here,they were lying on the floor together, facing each other. And inthat strange way that we make decisions, the important decisionsthat ultimately make us, Champ decided that they weregoing to stay in Montauk full time. No more New York City.This had become their home.
He turned and looked outside at the slowly recovering world.At the backlit colors in the sky, on his lawn. And he knew thetruth. The main truth, at least. This house had saved them.This big, beautiful cottage, which stayed big and beautiful despitethe destruction all around. Its stern banisters and woodceilings and determined rafters. The house had saved him, andhe wasn’t going to forget it.
He was going to build his life here, right here, in the name oflove and honor and what ever else he was feeling, even if hecouldn’t name it for what it was: exhaustion.
He was, finally, exhausted.
He looked Anna right in the eye. “Things are going to be different,”he said.
“I’m staying,” he said, because they’d talked about the opposite,earlier, before—his leaving her, and here.
“Why?” she said.
“I want to,” he said.
She got quiet. “You’re going to disappoint me,” she said.
“Probably.” He was trying to make a joke, but it didn’t comeout that way. He tried again. “I think it’s going to turn out okay,”he said.
“Starting when?” she asked. “Ending when?”
Then, as if it were an answer, he pulled her in close to him,without reluctance, without anything like fear. “This house,” hesaid, “will see love. This house will see everything.”