Sober Summer Shares
I stopped being polite and starting getting real—by playing beach blanket bingo in Montauk.
My best friend Becky and I decided we were not going to spend another summer boiling over in New York City. We were five years sober—brains back, supposedly—and ready for some out of town adventure. I’d heard about a sober share house run by a tall, handsome, surfer gentleman, we shall call Jackson; it was right on the beach in the little fishing village of Montauk. The same Montauk, that now, 10 years later, is a hot hipster destination.
Over dinner in the city, Jackson told us about shared sober beach living—cookouts, clambakes, surfing, beach bonfires, running trails along the bluffs, and trees choc-full of blue jays and cardinals. By desert, we were writing checks.
Becky and I took the train out early Thursday morning of Memorial Day weekend. I was a little nervous about joining a house full of strangers. Even though I met strangers every day in AA, I could leave them at the end of the meeting. In a share house, I was potentially trapped with those people, whether I liked them or not. So I wanted to stake out our territory before the others arrived. Insecure, competitive alcoholic that I was.
I used to cry on my birthday like clockwork, but this year I had my feet buried in the sand—laughing around the bonfire, toasting marshmallows.
It was a cloudless brilliant day when we arrived. Montauk spring comes about two weeks later than the city, so it was in full bloom; sprays of pink and white blossoms and new bright green leaves everywhere I looked. It was as if the chlorophyll dial had been turned to 10, the countryside extraordinarily vivid and lush, shimmering like an acid trip. As we drove toward our house, the roar of the ocean immediately comforted my frayed NYC nerves, and I knew I had come to the right place.
That night the fog rolled in, the temperature dropped and we slept in all our clothes because we didn’t know how to turn the heat up and were too shy to call Jackson. The next morning, we came upstairs for breakfast and there was a man sitting on the couch in his boxers eating my grape nuts. We’d bought food at the IGA and marked everything with our initials as Jackson had suggested.
We introduced ourselves. “You don’t mind,” he said pointing to his cereal bowl. I said it was fine and he continued. “I got in late last night. I made some coffee.” Also ours.
Maybe I made a face, because he said, “Communal living. We all buy our own stuff but we also share. You ask permission...but you weren’t up and I was starving.” And he smiled, cutely, for his sake.
The man in the boxers, whom we’ll call John, told us about the meeting that everyone attends in town. “Then we all go out to dinner. I can drive you.” We didn’t have a car so I accepted, even though I wasn’t sure I trusted this grape-nut poacher.
Later that day Jackson, Deb and Laura came laughing through the sliding door. I got a little spooked by all these chummy pals and bolted to the bluffs for a run. From high on the cliff, the ocean stretched vast around me, dappled green and blue and grey, all the way to the horizon. It was like being on top of the world. When I descended down a rocky hill, a sublime floral smell hit me; there were wild fuchsia roses sprawling over the surrounding scrub. This was an enchanted place, with its own micro-climate, flora and cliffs. I just hoped I could get over my shyness with my new housemates.
When I got back, Jackson was cooking up a storm. I’d bought a hot cross bun from the Ditch Witch, the beachside food van.
“Oh good, you’re back. Blueberry or plain?” he asked pointing to the pancake batter. Jackson was the house Papa, always pulling people together. Everyone had gathered on the deck and Deb, Laura and Becky were yammering away excitedly about all the things they were going to do together: surfing, yoga, the walking dunes tour. I sat down with my bun, and picked at the frosting, thinking how quickly Becky had become BFFs with the other women.
Jackson placed a giant stack of pancakes in front of me first and looked at my bun. “What? You can’t eat that. I mean you could, as long as you share.” I cut my bun into six pieces and set it in the middle.
“Thanks,” said Deb snagging a piece. “We’re gonna go to the beach after breakfast.”
“Yeah, it’s warming up finally,” said Becky, who’d already told everyone how we’d slept in our clothes.
On the beach, I burrowed into a book, but Becky, Jackson and John hauled me off my blanket into the freezing water. We dunked and came out laughing and screaming. It felt great. I put away the book and played Scrabble with them. Still smelling of sunscreen, we piled into the guys’ cars and went to a meeting.
The meeting in town is where we met the locals—fishermen, surfers and guys who worked on the docks. There were many lined faces, beards and gravelly smoker shares. I was afraid of them at first, but after going a few times they began to greet me with strong handshakes and big smiles. Pretty soon it felt like a home-group.
Sitting alongside my housemates in a meeting, we spoke confessionally about things we didn't talk about in the house. One had a bad day surfing and was beating himself up. Another talked about being uncomfortable being close with others, so she compensated by talking too much. I shared about running away whenever I felt like the odd one out. It was like being in a meeting while your boyfriend talked about your relationship, too intimate and revealing and uncomfortable. But it also drew us closer. It was a safe place to stop being polite.
Afterwards, and every night, we went to John’s the homemade ice cream joint. Strong coffee and ice cream were our only remaining vices. John played the Kinks on the drive back and we all sang quietly at first, but by the time we rolled into the driveway we were singing full throttle. My inhibitions were slipping away.
But it wasn’t all rainbows the whole time. Diane was loud and bossy and needed to be the center of attention. When I wasn’t shy I had a tendency to be a bossy pants myself, so of course she annoyed me. She rearranged my food in the fridge and pushed it to the back. Then she swiped the wetsuit I’d ordered. I’d organized gear for all the girls to surf. I was the tallest Amazon so I’d ordered a size 10 for myself, smaller sizes for the others.
“I think that’s mine,” I said to Diane who was wiggling into the neoprene suit.
“I’m a 10. That’s my size,” said Diane, shorter but rounder than me.
I got the suit back, but from then on out we were frosty.
One weekend, while making a smoothie, Diane said, “At the end of the summer, we should do a blood-bonding ritual, as a way of releasing our resentments.” She was dead serious. We didn’t mingle our blood, but we learned to tolerate each other and share the refrigerator. We even went for a run in the bluffs a few times and I realized her intensity was a result of her own insecurity, much like me.
By the Fourth of July, I didn’t mind that John always ate my grape nuts because he got out late; he always shared his ice cream. It was my birthday weekend and Becky got me a supermarket vanilla sheet cake—crack cake she called it—my favorite, and John got the black cherry ice cream. I used to cry on my birthday like clockwork, but this year I had my feet buried in the sand, laughing around the bonfire, toasting marshmallows, surrounded by John, Jackson, Becky, Laura—and even Diane.
Katherine Cooke is a pseudonym for a writer in New York and Montauk.