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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 inAction Comicsand 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 that a storm was coming that afternoon. That the army would have to come in to resurrect the land that had once connected Montauk to the rest of Long Island. That it would take two weeks before the waters receded low enough at Napeague to let through emergency traffic. That Montauk residents would lose almost everything.
In the end, there were only a few exceptions. Near Montauk Point, there were seven houses tucked so tightly to the bluffs that the wind and the rain and the water couldn’t pull them down. Seven sister houses built by the same architecture firm in 1879, lived in each summer since by the same seven Manhattan families. Their steely gates and strong foundations completely intact. Their fireplaces and oak doors and stained- glass windows marking them, homes like trophies, on top of the end of the world.
The one at the farthest eastern tip was called Huntington Hall—Hunt Hall by anyone who’d actually visited. It was the only 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, the most successful publishing mogul in North America. When the hurricane hit, Champ Huntington was having sex. Lights on. Curtains drawn. Angry, late- afternoon sex. Anna was bent over the side of the bed, Champ behind her, his hand cupping her throat.
They had been out here all summer having sex like this. They were trying to save their marriage. And they were trying to destroy it.
Outside was all water and raging dark and storm. But in his faded 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’t indicate that something brutal was happening.
Other things were brutal. This first year of marriage. It was wrong. Anna’s dark hair in the sink. The meetings he didn’t really have. 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 reached out, held her toes. But he knew it just made her mad when he did anything tender. It made her think he’d change, or want to try for her.
Then and only then did Champ sit up and look outside. And maybe it was that his head was still closed off, but what he saw out there looked like a train crashing into the window. It was the visual that made him hear the noise. The terrible whistling, high pitched and out of control. Hearing it, he’d later say, was the moment his life changed.
He headed to the bedroom window, naked, and had to reach out, 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 anything at first.
Anna came up behind him, wrapped in the bedsheet, and they stood there watching the train- wind through the window. They watched so hard that they didn’t talk. Not about the speed of the wind or the trees breaking apart or what must have been happening in the town center. If they had been thinking, they might have moved away from the window. They might have been scared that it would splinter. But they stood there until the storm stopped, and started, and stopped for good. And the greenish yellow sky turned purple and then black and the sun (or was it the moon?) rose up, terrifying. It was the sun. They had 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 clothes and lacing up his work boots and walking out the front door. He made his way, by foot, across his land, down the slippery bluffs and tree- wrecked cliffs onto the flooded Napeague stretch and down farther to Main Street. Three and a half miles. Into the center of the ruined village.
There were fishing boats and cars piled on small houses. Fallen phone lines pulling down torn roofs. Poles and flooded cabinets and bed frames lining the street. Water was fl owing from everywhere, making it hard to even walk down the streets—where did it start? If they figured out where it started maybe they could stop it!
Champ pulled up his pant legs and made his way to the Manor, where people were setting up shelter, where they were trying to provide relief for themselves. And Champ set to work with the other men moving cars and carrying wet wood and boarding windows and drying blankets and cleaning up slabs of broken glass.
How could he explain it even to himself? He didn’t recognize the feeling, had never known it before. But something broke free in Champ—something like devotion or commitment—to his home, to his suffering town, to everything around him. Maybe this is why, when he finished working, he didn’t head home, but down to the docks, where he sat on canisters with all the fishermen, who now had nothing, and listened to them talk about how they had nothing, and stared at his own cut hands, and watched the moon rise, white and fierce, remarkably sure of itself.
Then he followed the star- line north and east, trying to locate it. First Montauk Point, then the cliff and the bluffs, then the house itself. His house. Huntington Hall. Standing tall, oblivious.
It was hard to find his way back there in the dark. So he followed the defeated shoreline, and eventually made his way up the wooden staircase, into the bluffs, toward his home, where everything was still mostly together. Where Anna was waiting with lit candles and tomato sandwiches, dark blankets spread out on the living room floor.
When he walked in, she was by the front door. She was wearing a long, purple sweater. She had her hair in a bun. She reached for him, and he buried into her neck, smelled her.
“How was town?” she asked, her hand still on his chest. “I tried to pick up news on the radio, but there was no reception. Is there 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. It was as simple as this: he could see her. For the first time in a year, there was nowhere else he was trying to be.
Which brought him to his own questions: Why did it take fear to move him? Why does it take chaos to make us understand exactly what we need to do?
He wanted to ask her his questions, but he wasn’t sure she would have good answers, and then he would change his mind, and he didn’t want to change his mind. He wanted to stay this sure.
Later, only thirty hours since he had last been lying t here, they were lying on the floor together, facing each other. And in that strange way that we make decisions, the important decisions that ultimately make us, Champ decided that they were going 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 the truth. The main truth, at least. This house had saved them. This big, beautiful cottage, which stayed big and beautiful despite the destruction all around. Its stern banisters and wood ceilings and determined rafters. The house had saved him, and he wasn’t going to forget it.
He was going to build his life here, right here, in the name of love and honor and what ever else he was feeling, even if he couldn’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 come out 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,” he said, “will see love. This house will see everything.”