Oh, the summer night/ Has a smile of light/ And she sits on a sapphire throne. — Barry Cornwall
It had been a lackluster evening. Our waiter was unnaturally perky. The bare-wood acoustics made for stunted conversation. David’s pork was too sweet, Ency’s crab cakes were “so-so,” Robert had pushed his bland gnocchi to the side of his dish and ate only the mushrooms. My steak was tasty enough. After our hit-but-mostly-miss meal, we polished off a slice of Carnegie Deli cheesecake that was roughly the size and density of a brick.
The four of us — David, his parents, and me — had dined in this room many times before, though never twice with the same name on the door. Few restaurants can hold on to primo real estate in Vineyard Haven for more than a season. Restaurant Week had drawn us out of my in-laws’ Chilmark home and over to the touristy town where, nine times a day, the ferry docks to deposit hundreds of vacationing mainlanders onto the island of Martha’s Vineyard. We’d fought the traffic and crowds to sample overpriced and underwhelming food, and now that dinner was over, the plan was to head home to watch a rented movie about Tolstoy. “Unremarkable” was an understatement.
“Do you mind if I peek around the back?” I asked. The rear wall of the restaurant was barely ten lady-sized feet from the harbor shoreline. The sun had already set, and the cloudless sky was painted blue, orange, pink, and purple. The warm, humid air felt like velvet brushing against my bare arms. “It’s gorgeous out,” I said.
“It really is,” said David. He followed me onto the sand, his parents close behind. “Why don’t we sit for a few minutes?” David gestured at the four Adirondack chairs facing the water.
I hesitated, figuring Ency and Robert would be in a hurry to get home. But they nodded at David and walked past me, selecting seats next to one another as they reached out to hold hands. David and I settled beside them, and the four of us sat and watched as the water caressed the shore.
“Why don’t we go to Lucy?” asked Robert, his Hungarian accent, like Ency’s, turning Ws to Vs. “That way we won’t have to smell the food,” he added.
“The gate is up at Lucy,” said Ency. With the gate blocking the road to Lucy Vincent Beach, we knew it would be a hike to get to the water. At this revelation, I expected Robert’s proposal to dissolve — no grain of intention is ambitious enough to outlast an ocean of habit, and Robert, of all people, is a creature of convention. Or so I thought.
“Well then, we can go to Squibby,” said Robert, surprising us with his spontaneity. Squibnocket Beach was just a few miles farther up the road. “Of course, we first have to stop at home to grab beach chairs.”
At the house, I half expected Ency to remember her movie and for Robert to decide that sitting in his recliner with the dog on his lap was preferable to venturing back out. But when I emerged from the restroom, everyone was already in the Jeep, waiting for me.
Robert pulled the SUV into the small lot of the residents-only beach that borders the old Jackie O. estate. While David and Robert carried the chairs onto the sand, I stood back to marvel at the sight, unaccustomed to a nighttime vista free of artificial light.
Ency kicked off her shoes and set them beside the guys as they settled into the low beach chairs. The air was balmy but damp — Ency and I preferred to stand, a hedge against the incrementally falling temperature.
A waxing gibbous moon had risen over the water and cast a wide, sparkling path to the shore. “I just cannot get over how gor— whoa! What’s that? There! There’s another one,” I said. “Are those what I think they are?”
“Fireflies? Yes,” said David. In the grainy moonlight, I could just make out his dimples — David takes as much pleasure in my moments of delight as I do. “Look, there’s one by your feet,” he said.
The sand appeared black. I stared downward, allowing my eyes to adjust to the dark. Gradually, I caught sight of cadmium-yellow flickering not just at my feet, but everywhere — bits of bioluminescence flashing on and off in the inky night. A warm breeze washed onto the shore, and I breathed it in, the salty-sweet freshness filling my nostrils, my lungs. I held on to it as long as I could, not wanting to lose the moment in an exhalation.
“Look behind you,” said Robert. “See that?” I turned to face the water but saw nothing. “Keep watching, you’ll see.”
A moment later, a veiny streak of lightning lit up the horizon, the distant clouds glowing pink when it flashed.
“Shall we walk?” Ency asked, her toes wiggling in the sand amid hypnotic blinks of light from the otherwise invisible bugs. David and his father stayed seated. As we wandered off, their intermittent reports of lightning grew fainter; I turned my head to see that they had disappeared in the darkness.
Ency and I followed the shoreline until we came upon Squibnocket Point. After watching the moonlit water repeatedly cleanse a cluster of stones, we turned back and went the other way, passing our husbands, feeling our feet in the sand as our conversation naturally drifted to the most favored of mother and daughter-in-law topics — the man we have in common.
After a few laps, Ency and I reunited with our men. A moment later, I was blinded by headlights. It’s a small island, and a private beach, so I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was to see our friend Ben among the group of people that emerged from the shadows. Ben, who lives on the island year-round and knows David’s parents and their habits, was more bewildered at the chance encounter than we were. After confirming plans for the following evening, Ben set off to catch up with his crew.
Five minutes later, we observed their silhouettes in the moonlight — three men and two women — as they waded into the shimmering obsidian water. Ency sighed wistfully. “There is no better feeling than swimming in the ocean,” she said.
The four of us grew silent, allowing our senses to soak it all in — every beachy scent, each peripheral sparkle. The moon was high in the sky when the air turned chilly. We finally tore our gaze from the water, collected the chairs. We gathered images of the evening, tucked them into our memories, and filed them under the word “wonderful.”