Moving Inland

Storm. Flood. Wreck. Dilemma: stick it out or move on?

I know when it’s time to leave. Now is not that time.

Three hours before Hurricane Sandy I fill thick trash bags with sand from our beach. It’s against coop rules to fuck with the communal shore, but Chairman Masha hasn’t noticed yet because she’s busy talking down to her gardener.

She packs her disabled cat in her car and tells me she’s driving to Williamsport to wait it out on her daughter’s farm. If I see anything suspicious I’m to phone the police. Not 911. Chief Coombs personal cell: (732) 423-2678. I’m to tell him I got the number from her. She’s written it down for me. Am I sure it’s a smart idea to stay?

My fridge is stocked with food. My cupboards are packed with wine and candles. Romantic meals for one.

Masha recalls her Jewish grandparents. They leave Germany in 1933. Before it’s too late.

I tell her how my great granduncle dies at Auschwitz. He drops dead in a guard tower. Masha doesn’t think this is a time to joke. Or tell the truth, I guess.

She asks about the sand. More truth. Goes down even worse. She scolds me. We’ve committed to minimal intervention in the natural coastal processes (except the retaining wall). And plastic is bad for the environment. On a side note, I should prepare to bear my share of any necessary repairs to the retaining wall. I wish Chairman Masha would bear her share of the consequences of her tie-breaking vote to accept the lowest tender from the out-of-townest contractor. But I give voice only to my plan to sand bag the inside of my sea-facing floor-to-ceiling windows. In case water comes in through the vents. She gets it. Loves it. Wants in. She summons Julio to brief him on his last and most consequential task before he’s free to drive 3 miles down the coast to collect his family and flee. Stunningly, Julio knows the English word for ‘no’. For the first time all week, I’m questioning my decision to stay. I’m happy to defy the mayor, the mob, Chairman Masha and common sense. But to see Julio prizing his own safety over $50 cash in hand suggests he’s privy to deeply troubling information. I reach for my phone and open Google Translate.

Lear’s fatal flaw is to insist that nothing will come of nothing.

Chairman Masha doesn't care to understand el mundo from Julio’s POV. She treats him to a tirade of obliguiltion.

The best day of Masha’s life

Cyril’s Fish House, Long Island, Summer 2002. Masha hates this place, but Nestor insists. He’s got some big news. He parks on the side of the road behind a long line of other sports cars with their tops down. She’s wearing heels. She’s going to break an ankle on the gravel shoulder. She clings to Nestor’s arm, through his fawn linen coat. It needs a press. Cars zoom by on their way to Montauk. Cyril’s is the worst. Why does Nestor like it? It looks like a Mexican family picnic in a parking lot. It looks like a Spring Break beach bar, and everyone’s twice as old. It’s cash only. The deep fried fish is out of the question (she’s going gluten-free to battle the bloat). Two women take their bags and leave a leaner right beside the trash can. Nestor nabs it. He bins their leftover cups and wipes their leftover wet rings with his sleeve. She rolls her eyes. He takes 15 minutes to force his way to the bar. The sun’s blazing and she’s shoulder to shoulder with people so wealthy they don’t have to be charming, beautiful or well-dressed. They all ignore her. Richard plonks two plastic solo cups on the table. Clear spirits for her. For him a BBC - Barcadi, Baileys and Coke. An alcoholic milkshake. There’s no shade. Wasps hover.

Justin called. He got us in.

In where?

The Madoff fund.

Masha blushes. She puffs. She flushes red. She grabs his face and pushes her tongue into his mouth. It tastes of coconut, chocolate milk and high school. She laps and laps and laps.

I want it to be over.

I volunteer to sandbag the inside of Masha’s floor-to-ceiling windows in exchange for a bottle of whiskey.

I sandbag the inside of Masha’s floor-to-ceiling windows and get drunk.

I stay. It storms. I wonder how hard it has to blow for the roof to rip off. Or for the house to flip. I don’t sleep through the worst of it and wake hungover. My arms are covered in hives.

I see Clara’s face in the aftermath.

2003. Des Moines. I move all my stuff out of our house while Clara is at work. I pack what’s mine into the back of a station wagon with the help of three bad friends. A desktop computer. Some books. Cotton buds. CDs? Two backpacks and a sack of clothes. Beautiful house. Very tasteful. But everything belongs to her. I place my steel wedding band on the pillow, bury my face in the comforter and weep for her and us. I pick her up from her weekend job at The Register. Some animals can feel the earth about to shake. Some people can figure other people out. Not her. She’s ether. I break the news on the drive home. It’s not so bad. I make sure she has everything she had before except me. I follow her into the house. I’m words and words and words. She turns away to breathe. She clocks the room.

You’ve taken all your stuff

She sees the open drawers. The ones she got me. Sacked. It makes no sense to her. It does to me. I feel I have to leave. It’s gut. It’s primal instinct. It’s smell. It’s the allergic reaction I have that night in bed. My arms covered in hives. Because of her, I know. My body tells me go, go, go, go, go. I’m rambling now I need to leave. I need to leave for her. (I need to leave for her.)

It’s easier to move on when you’re in love with the destination.

I come downstairs in the morning to find a rime of silty muck

The sandbags are keeping a small bay of water IN my living room. Throughout the rest of the house the water’s been and gone. A king tide. The carpet’s rank. My box spring’s dank. It happened in my house. I didn’t feel a thing. The electricity’s cut. My phone has no reception. The rainwater tank is brackish. All in all, it’s fine.

Masha’s place is fucked. It’s a few feet lower than mine and it’s standing in three feet of water, but at least it’s still there. The house on the other side is gone. A bare concrete pier is all that’s left of Dennis and Adam’s holiday home.

A common misconception about manufactured housing is that it’s poorly built.

Untrue. It’s not all trailer parks and cabins in the woods. The homes in our coop are LEED v3-certified and made in a factory in Michigan by a well-paid, highly-skilled workforce who genuinely care about their mission to combine QA with efficiency and economies of scale. They truck them to site. They moor them in place over the course of a single day. Smart, green, solid. Adam and Dennis go a step further than me and build to Passivhaus standard. That means air circulates in a way that negates the need for heating or cooling. That means it’s watertight. The gentle stream behind their house forms a lasso with the sea. Their home floats 600 feet offshore, drifting off towards Atlantic City. I snap a photo.

As soon as I get some bars I text it to Adam. He gives me bubbles straight away.

Shut up…. Shut up… Shut. Up!

What he means is ‘keep talking’. I do. I keep count. We talk for 4 minutes and 27 seconds. He tells me to shut up 23 times. That’s nearly once every 15 seconds.

I need to clarify something about my Nazi great granduncle.

Dwory, Poland, 1942. He’s not technically a Nazi. He’s a Polish tradesman who works as a contractor for the Nazis. If it makes you feel even better, his fatal workplace accident occurs while fixing a hinge in the grip of an alcoholism that emerges the same year he begins paid work in the slave labor camp that makes Hugo Boss suits for the SS after an adult lifetime spent refusing any spirit other than the blood of Christ.

He’s buried on the side of a hill, unmourned and unforgotten until Poland enters the EU and a flash new motorway is proposed to open up the country and provoke the Russians. It’s scheduled to plough right through Great Granduncles’ final resting spot. Given that it’s packed with dead Nazis and dead Nazi sympathizers, the local authorities encounter absolutely no resistance to their plan to exhume the coffins and rebury them all in a pit at the foot of the hill. When the contractors dig into the ground above my Great Granduncle’s grave they can’t find his coffin. It’s gone. So’s the one beside it, and the next one and so on and on and on. An entire community of dead fascists and fascist collaborators has gone AWOL. After some collective head-scratching and a cup of builder’s tea, some bright spark gets the urge to follow gravity and sink a series of exploratory trenches in a straight line all the way down the hill from my Great-Granduncle’s tombstone. Low and behold they find him. In the exact same spot he’s meant to be reinterred. They’re all there. They’ve spent the last 60 years sliding slowly underground to the exact place where they will be of least inconvenience to the Polish contractors of the future (who are also sending the bill to the Germans).

The EU receives an invoice for a month’s wages and equipment rental for the work of an afternoon.

Chief Coombs is a champion

I drink with him every week to this day. Cam Coombs is a sworn officer, a devoted evangelical, and doesn’t give a tut I didn’t leave. If he didn’t have a solemn duty to stay as a first responder, he’d have been an evacuation refusnik too. He’s glad Adam and Dennis weren't there to float out to sea, but as a rule he thinks that when trouble brews, it’s best to stand your ground.

The sea seeps slowly through the bottoms of the black sacks - now twice the weight - as we drag them one by one back to the beach and slash the sand free. We toss the old sacks into a new sack then I dump them in Masha’s recycling bin. Coombs and me are eye to eye on this: we know that the recycling goes into the same trash compactor as everything else, but we’re hopeful that if we all get into the habit of separating the waste from the potentially renewable, some genius down the line will figure out how to turn it into something good. On the third day we rip out my carpets and sit on the floorboards, sharing a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes while the sun sparkles on the sea.

Cam trusts me to hold his gun. He tells me where he lives and I walk over the next morning to help him fix his fence. His wife Jeannie fixes us a sandwich. She’s cool too. Their newest daughter gurgles in a cot.

I don’t want Rebecca to take my name

Ditmus Park, Brooklyn 2009. It’s our first proper argument. Just weeks before our wedding. Getting married has to mean something different, she says. Otherwise what’s the point? We own a house. We’ve got Lily and Toby (reader, she named them both - I’ll leave you to separate the testy toddler from the yappy dog).

I understand her impulse. I propose that we invent a new last name and change it together. Something to symbolize our new-forged relationship. Epic or Ever or Love. She hopes I’m being silly. Then she fears I’m serious. We need to think practically. But double-barrels are gauche, obvs. Fundamentally, she doesn’t like her family name: Small. I have no attachment to mine for reasons hinted at^. Also, it was changed two generations earlier to pander to main street America’s appetite for vowels.

I respect that Rebecca is genuinely seeking an ontological change (though not in the eyes of God. She doesn’t believe in Him). And Clara didn’t take my name. I also think she thinks my name will stand out on daycare waiting lists and applications for enhanced credit. I have a short story in the New Yorker and my first book is favored in the current issue of O: The Oprah Magazine. Rebecca and my agents are convinced I’m en route to Oprah’s book club (and its mass-market readership). It’s the American writer’s dream: to appeal to real people who buy literary books for the joy of reading them. It’s not in my interest to pour cold water, but when Oprah hugs Jennifer Egan, who does what I do better and with two X chromosomes, I mentally chill.

We get married. Our name depreciates. My next book sucks, then Toby dies in a debatably avoidable way (bad dog!). I sniff Oprah-bait. I shoot straight for the couch. I demean myself trying to pander to women-of-a-certain age with one of those books that certainly isn’t literature but it’s hardly confessional either because it’s just not true. I gain a lot of respect for Eat, Pray, Love by trying and failing to copy it. It’s embarrassing for everyone involved. A silly time. Then that ugliness with the stupid fangirl at the festival on the West Coast. Rebecca’s a trooper. She wants to stick with me for the sake of our family/ies, but I walk away the moment I feel her disgust. Relationships can survive anything except that. She keeps my name and the yappy dog.

Daniel Khaneman writes powerfully about the sunk cost fallacy. It’s virtually inescapable. Not for me. Combine Thinking Fast and Slow with everything else that’s going on in my life at this time and my actions begin to take a logical shape. Or not.

Oh: I see my name on a gravestone. That helps too.

The mediator is angry now. Imagine that. He’s paid by the hour, yet somehow I am wasting his time.

Adam’s superpower is not talking. He makes his money playing a supporting role on one of those HBO shows where you can build a massive online fanbase and generate screens of breathless praise simply by existing in the scene. 6 seasons, 11 lines and his face is on the back of every box-set. He’s turned up to play his preferred role in the climax of this slow-moving drama and I respect him for that. Chairman Masha is more obviously here too.

Everyone else wants to move inland. They’ll rebuild us inland. For free! Can’t you see? You’ll get the same house but newer in a better place.

Same lovely neighbors too?

So sell. Cash up.

I like where I live. I feel at home by the sea.

Please God. Go live on a boat. Die alone. Just don’t drag this out for the rest of us.

The mediator’s role is to foster civil discourse, and affirm and protect our individual rights within a collective decision-making process. He will not countenance abuse, and Masha’s way over the line. He wants to hear from me. I have nothing new to say. He makes me say it anyway.

I'm sympathetic to Masha’s situation and feelings. Adam’s more so, and those of every other owner in the coop. Their homes are unlivable in their current state. Mine’s not. I also appreciate that Masha and Adam are here. The others aren’t. 8 out of 10 coop members use their property as second homes or not at all (some rent them out). I acknowledge that Masha feels she needs me to change my mind so that she can move on and start again in a new place, where she feels less scared of the sea. Still, I propose we stay. Miraculously, FEMA will pay us to rebuild on elevated piers - even though they’d prefer we don’t - exactly where we were along the shore.

Soon enough there won’t be a shore.

Climate change and erosion and so on. With the greatest of respect I suggest that’s speculation (based on science), and statistically she’s likely to die before facing another Hurricane Sandy.

And what will I leave my daughter? An unsellable house. With crippling insurance?

Fair call. When Adam does speak he’s pretty frank and I feel much worse for him. He doesn’t mind where we rebuild. He just wants it done quickly. He has to sell ASAP because Dennis is sick. They simply don’t have time. That sucks. Is the fastest thing to rebuild in situ? It’s unclear. Masha keeps bringing up the insurance. I’m angry when the mediator declares himself unqualified to comment on my assertion that it’s not uninsurable, it’s just not insurable by a private provider against storm and flood - which are generally acts of God - which are basically not privately insurable anyway. Which means the government’s on the hook, which means the government wants us to move, which means the government’s piling on the pressure and pitting us against each other. Luckily, the government is stymied as usual by its own laws. And the constitution and shit. The mediator asks me not to cuss then invites Masha to reformulate my argument in her own words.

He’s confused and depressed because his child died and he raped that girl.

Here we go.

She’s my niece by a former marriage. And the only person accusing me of rape is my ex-wife. On twitter. Read the fucking thread.

There’s no mediating anything from here. He ends the session and promises to reconnect in a few days to try to move things forward. He asks us to use the time to put aside our own emotions. To inhabit the minds of other. To focus on the facts.

I don’t dispute the facts. What happened. When. I dispute the motivations and the consequences. And any confidence in the future gaze. As if anyone knows what will happen next. Scientists, advisors, people. Despite the inputs. Despite our long history of storms. There’s only one holy, apostolic and universal truth:

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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