The Record On Repeat (Montauk)
The hotel's indoor pool was on a sub level, reachable by an elevator and a hallway lined with black and white photos from the 1920s. The pool was in a white room with white walls, mirrors lined on one side and a tiny rectangular hot tub. "It's a cave," Philippa had said when I asked her what it was like.
Before 11 pm, still happy from my meal at the Crow's Nest, I slid into the bubbly rectangle in the cave, the water rising up to my chin. I then got up to my waist in the heated pool, then I told Edward I was going to sit in the sauna and borrowed his flip flops.
The sauna and bathroom were also white. There were rows of lockers and I followed the hallway to a corner where the wooden door led to the sauna, and pulled it open. It was empty. I could hear the hiss of the sauna and feel the heat. So I sat on my hands, my bathing suit still damp. A quick seven seconds passed and the sauna grew cold, I imagined that maybe its cycle had run out. I opened the door and stuck my head in the hall, looking to see that the sauna was still on. To be sure, I cranked up the heat a touch by arbitrarily turning a knob that looked like it needed turning, and went back in.
I had a feeling that is unwritable -- a strange feeling of otherness in the room. It embarrasses me even writing about it, even more embarrassing as I looked around myself in the sauna, as I slowly had the realization that maybe I wasn't alone. And if I wasn't alone, what was there? The sauna wasn't heating up, like someone was playing a prank and turning the knob. I got up and left, rushing quickly through the white-walled-bathroom and back out to the pool where Edward was sitting.
"That was the quickest sauna trip ever," Edward said. "you look pale."
"I think...I think there was a ghost in there," I said. "I just felt like I wasn't alone."
I have loved Montauk since last summer after a last-minute girls weekend. It was the kind of thing that's too spontaneous to overthink which made it perfect in its execution, and allowed us to still be surprised and awed of the things we found. We swam in pools surrounded by trees and flower bushes, we drank beer at the beach and had outdoor, bare-shouldered, sunburnt, rosé laden dinners. Perfect sunsets were in excess. The highlight of that trip was a long afternoon sail, where I cried with a sea captain, which I wrote about for this blog. I would return to New York and run into friends who would say: "I love the post about Montauk; about the sea captain."
I couldn't wait to get back.
A few weeks before Memorial Day Philippa put the gears in motion for another trip to Montauk. We'd stay at the same hotel, The Montauk Manor. The only issue was the weather, it would barely reach 60 degrees, but we could do hikes, we could have nice dinners and the hotel pool was heated. Philippa would bring her husband, Martin, and I would bring my boyfriend Edward.
On May 27th, Edward slid into a seat on the LIRR train and said: "I'm feeling rather smug." There were girls were squished together on the floor on top of their monogrammed L.L. Bean canvas tote bags and cross-legged in Lululemon pants. There were people standing the corridors, and Philippa texted me from another part of the train, "We're standing," she said. Someone spilled their Bellini on Martin.
The last time I was in Montauk the train ride was empty, relaxing. This time I was heading into a big holiday weekend: Memorial Day. The partiers were out and ready, Instagraming and complaining. People were dropping lines like, "I'll die if the one time I don't go to Spain he's there."
I'm secretly envious of the cool kids. Montauk offers adjacency to the cool kids, enough closeness that I can pretend I didn't spend high school hiding and not speaking, that I didn't have a lonely undergrad at a university that has to be mentioned up north with a, "no ones ever heard of it, it was just a state school where I grew up." I can wear a costume by going to the right beach and dining and the good spots. It's annoying to know that all those social foibles and dorkiness would still bother me at thirty-two years old.
We land at Montauk and get a cab to The Montauk Manor. When we enter the front corridor I'm met with the same beautiful hallways and soft piano music echoing off the lobby arches. We drop our bags and decide to go to Gosman's Deck for lunch. It's sunny enough to eat outdoors under an umbrella and Philippa and I recount our last trip to the boys.
A sailboat approached.
"I'll cry if its the same boat I rode on last summer," I say, seeing the sails. It turns out to be the very same boat, so Philippa, Edward and I ran to the deck to get a picture of me watching it sail away. It was a long lunch, two bottles of wine and seafood. We giggled quite a lot. We had ice cream after and took the hotel shuttle back to the manor. Our driver, I realize, was our same driver from last year, a thirty-something local named Peter who knows Montauk like the back of his hand. He had a high aversion to the rich kids who spend all their nights at the Surf Lodge or Sloppy Tuna. He always had good recommendations for the best of Montauk, he would point at a place and tell us to go there, always using the same adjective: "That place? That place is solid."
I get a kick out of knowing someone in this town. The locals never change, everyone knows everyone. It reminds me of all my vacations as a child and teen. We always went to New Orleans, and we delighted in knowing our way around, in knowing just enough to feel at home but not too much. The return traveller has a shallow sort of love, they never want to see what gears turn underneath a city so they never have to complain about the traffic on the twenty-seven -- but they want to know that the twenty-seven exists.
Back at the manor I decided to give Edward a tour, and we started walking south toward a group of trees.
"Let's go in here," he said. I hung back, a little frightened of trespassing. Edward held up a hand for me to take. "We'll just look."
We ducked under some brush and found ourselves in a graveyard. It's very minimalist, none of the plots have headstones but little discrete markers in various places. Flags line the veterans graves, and a massive stone sat in the middle of the yard that belonged to the Native American's who lived on the site. I find great peace there, and so we continue walking till we reach a cliff overlooking a body of water. Edward admitted that he felt calmed by the wild grass and trees and the silence.
We spend the next hours watching sunset at the hotel, and then went to the Crow's Nest but couldn't get a table, and instead had a a drink on the waterfront and dinner at South Edison. It's cold at night, I wished it were warmer.
The next morning we had breakfast in town, picked up beach provisions at the local market and headed to Ditch Plains. The sun came out and in the warmth we shed our clothes for bathing suits. The water was too cold to swim. Martin, the only brave one, took a dip. We went back to the room, watched a bit of TV and dressed for the Crow's Nest. I'd talked up the place so much: about the table we got under the arbor on the grass, the watermelon cocktails and scallops and ricotta with grilled bread. Is all else failed, we could count on the Crow's Nest to be beautiful and delicious.
We had a wonderful meal, and went back down to the bar by the water but the weather was cold. Edward and I resolved to go back to the pool and spa after dinner.
Up to that evening, talk of ghosts had been rampant. Every time we boarded the hotel shuttle a driver would tell us a story about the ghosts at the hotel, which was built on top of a Native American burial ground.
"Once I was in the pool after it closed, late at night," says Peter. "And I saw something in the mirror go into the bathroom. And I'm thinking, 'Who is in here the pool is closed,' so I go in the bathroom and there's no one there. It was a shadow."
Edward called bullshit on this story. Another driver tells us that the fourth floor lights every night at 4 a.m. flicker, and a waiter in the hotel restaurant says that when he was setting tables for dinner service one night the lights were flickering to the music.
"Like, to the beat," he says widening his eyes and raising his hand and lowering it like a DJ. Edward called bullshit on this story, too.
Martin and Edward did not believe in ghosts; Martin a doctor and a man of science believed it was all a figment of our imagination. Philippa and I were in the other camp. Philippa had a few experiences here or there. Me, nothing, no ghosts, no ghouls, no fantom phone calls from the dead, no devil cars following me at midnight, no rustle in the bushes (and yes, those were all real-life ghost stories culled from friends). The first time I stayed at the Montauk Manor I experienced nothing. I felt so sure that the hotel wasn't haunted that I felt comfortable enough to come back.
Edward and I put on our swimsuits and walked to the pool. After my experience at the sauna, we returned to the room, and a weak smile crossed my face.
"Philippa, something happened in the sauna," I said. She'd come right off the stairs, her eyes wide.
"What happened!?" she asked. I explained the story.
"But maybe I'm imagining things," I said.
"You're back-pedaling!" she said. "You saw something!"
Despite this, she and Martin went to the pool and I went to the upstairs bathroom and shut the door to change. I started to feel the fullness in the room again, and trying to convince myself to calm down, looked at my reflection and faked a smile.
"It's nothing," I said to the mirror.
The next morning a storm crossed Montauk on our last day. The four of us took our last shuttle ride to the train. The station platform was packed all the way down to the parking lot. We were luckily enough to get seats, Philippa and I talked about Noam Chomsky across the aisle. We realized halfway through the ride that we left all our rosé and rum in the hotel room fridge.
We rolled through Long Island for three hours, and for most of it I considered the night before. Hypothetically, if ghosts were real in the traditional sense of what we know, I considered how lonely that would be. How sad and isolating to be apart from human experience in such a concrete way. It didn't seem that far from my own life experience, which strangely made me feel more comforted, rather than afraid, by what happened. That night I still slept with the light on.
On Tuesday, I returned back to life, to work. My colleague asked about the hotel, I'd told her before I left that it was supposedly haunted. She is a horror film fan, and gleefully awaited my news, if any. I told her the story about the sauna.
"I think," she said, offering her theory on ghosts, "that it's like an energy trapped in a space. It's just like a record playing on repeat."
I liked that explanation best of all those I'd heard. It took a lot of distance from Montauk, and a few times catching myself being envious of the people I saw there, to make the connection: if I keep dwelling on the pitfalls of the past, they will continue to play for me, to haunt me. I need to change the way I think.