Authors: Tara Ison
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SOFT SKULL PRESS
AN IMPRINT OF COUNTERPOINT
Copyright Â© Tara Ison
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Rockaway : a novel / Tara Ison.
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1. Artists--Fiction. 2. Inspiration--Fiction. 3. Revelation in art--Fiction. 4. Aging parents--Care--Fiction. 5. Domestic fiction. I. Title.
Cover design by Debbie Berne
Interior design by Tabitha Lahr
SOFT SKULL PRESS
An imprint of COUNTERPOINT
1919 Fifth Street
Berkeley, CA 94710
Distributed by Publishers Group West
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THIS IS WHAT I'll paint, she decides: shells.
She is staying in a beach house at the last edge of asphalt before sand, a home that belongs to her best friend's grandmother, who is away recovering from hip replacement surgery. She is here, emphatically, to paint. Back home in San Diego, a gallery owner, impressed by Sarah's art store display canvases daubed with rich Old Holland oils, had proposed an exhibit. If there were some
work, perhaps. Paintings that expressed and defined who Sarah is, now. This was an important opportunity, she realized,
something worthy of focus. But can't you paint here?, her parents had asked. There are too many distractions here, friends, work, family, she'd replied, hitting the
hard, like in
You'll be fine without me, she told them. I need to do this. I need to get away.
She called her best friend in Connecticut, who'd married a millionaire and now had a country estate where they planted a garden for the pleasure of growing their own fennel and arugula. They raised sheep to knit their own lumpy, organic sweaters from. The cost of feeding and shearing the three sheep, and having their wool carded, came to over a thousand dollars a sweater. Sarah tried not to envy her friend these sweaters, but it was hard. Instead, she called the friend to request a haven.
Emily, about to have her third child by water birth, told her with kindness it wasn't a good time right now, and then generously offered her Nana Pearl's house in Rockaway, New York. Right on the beach, Emily said, it would feel like home. It would be empty for three or four months during the convalescence, except for Bernadette and Avery, the caretaker couple who lived in a studio guesthouse. She could stay there the entire summer. No one would bother her. The perfect retreat. And,
This'll be really great for you, Sarah, Emily enthused into the phone. I'm so happy you're doing this, finally.
Sarah quit her longtime default job managing the upscale art supply store in La Jolla, California, a blandly beautiful seaside town outside of San Diego where she had grown up. For years she'd shaved off ten percent of her paycheck and put it aside the way Mormons do to secure the earthly or heavenly future; she figured she'd saved just enough money to live, for a while. She gave notice on the beige, formica-and-asbestos, meant-to-be-temporary apartment she'd lived in since coming home from college, garage sale'd most of her kitchenware and furniture to San Diego State freshmen, and jammed the rest of her belongings, boxed-up and blanketed, into an 8' by 7' by 5' storage vault she rented for thirty-five dollars a month. She broke up with her shrugging, default boyfriend, David. She packed up palettes and fresh brushes and fat, unpunctured tubes of paint, solvents, primers, and siccative oils, set her email to an emphatic auto-reply (
I am currently offline and unreachable, away on a painting retreat!
), and instructed her parents not to call.
Of course we understand, they said, of
we'll be fine, don't be silly, this will be so wonderful for you, go, go!
The Rockaway houseâone of the oldest in the neighborhood, she remembers Emily telling her, 1902 or '03âwas surprisingly huge, dark gray stucco and fancy white trim, an awkward blend, she thought, of late-Victorian gothic and Cape Cod seashore glamour. The house, set
off from the sea and sand by a low brick wall encircling the property, was at the dead end of a small flat street off Rockaway Beach Boulevard, at the western peninsula tip of Long Island, ten minutes of highway and one bridge across Jamaica Bay from Brooklyn. The house's longest stretch on the second floor spanned seven bedrooms and three bathrooms linked without hallways, all with ceiling-high windows facing the gray-green Atlantic and full of wave crash and sea-tanged air. Her friend Emily's mother Leah, plus Nana Pearl's five other children, had grown up here; the house was peopled with photographs of these children, their children, and their children, including a recent shot of Emily with pregnant stomach and beatific smile, her husband and their two exquisite kids in their lumpy homeknit crewnecks. Dozens of eyes gazed on as Avery, the husband of the caretaker couple, guided Sarah upstairs, past walls collaged with grinny family photos.
“And this is Aaron, and Michael, Leah, and Rose,” he said, pointing. “And this is Rose's daughter Susan, and this is Fran's son and his girlfriend, andâ”
“I know all these people,” Sarah said politely. She and Emily had been best friends since third grade.
“Ah, you are knowing Emily? This is Emily, with her husband and the children . . .”
They eventually arrived at the largest corner upstairs room, an oblong with huge picture windows on two sides
framing the Atlantic Ocean like seascapes, gritty hardwood floors, threadbare rugs, and a queen-sized bed with a white iron headboard and flowered chenille spread. Waiting for Sarah was a large box shiny with packing tape, crammed full with the stretched and framed blank canvases she'd UPS'd ahead.
“This is a good room for you, yes?” Avery said in a booming, Sri Lankan lilt. He was a squat barrel-type man, ochre, tattooed, his bald head rooted solidly to his shoulders. “This is Pearl's room. So much sunshine. You can be looking out. It is good for you and your painting.”
“It's great. Really, thank you,” Sarah said. She swung open one of the picture windows, breathed in the turquoise light, the inviting sweep of beach, the steady seashell hum. She couldn't remember when she last went swimming in the ocean, at home, but this ocean looked richer than the Pacific, more promising, as if undersea jewels and magical, tentacle'd creatures awaited. She graciously tried to tug her bags from him, which he had insisted on carrying for her.
“And here are many rags for you, for the painting. But I am thinking, you will not be lonely here?” He looked concerned.
“Oh, no. I'm here to work. I'm getting ready for an exhibition.” She smiled gaily at him, studied the roomâthe easel, that'll go there, by that window, maybe clear off that nightstand, yesâand began to unpack her palette knives
from the small wooden case she'd clutched to her side. I have an entire summer, she thought. Today is May 2nd. No, the 3rd. May 3rd, 2001. I have three months, maybe four. She envisioned filling her blank canvases with color, form, expression, and bringing them forth into the world, the rich smells of linseed oil and turpentine mingling with the ocean salt, infusing the house with her artistry, her presence. “I'm here for the working,” she said, in response to his skeptical face. “The being alone is good. It's perfect. It's what I'm wanting.” She hoped the gerunds would make it easier for him to understand.