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By Dana Huebler Hinrichs

PMS 16 | 2017


by Judith Dancoff

Reading Dana after her death is both strange and wonderful. In a way, it is the first time I have fully appreciated her writing, free of the need to critique or give feedback. We were writing partners for years, even after she married and moved to Germany when we emailed our drafts and gave our comments in long, thoughtful telephone conversations that encompassed not only our writing but our lives. We knew things about each other that the closest people in our lives did not know, and at the same time, because we were writing partners, could hold the knowledge with the utmost care, allowing it to amplify our feedback without ever entering into judgment.

Now when I read her essays that door is irrevocably shut, and I can only stand back in awe at what remains—this writer with such a strong sense of place, firmly grounded in a reality that invariably gives way to magic. Her father dies, she dreams of Pegasus pointed east, moves to Cape Code, and finds love.

I knew Dana when she made that move, a beautiful young woman who had wandered into one of my writing classes and never left my life. For a time she joined me with Kerry in the Silverlake Writers Workshop, but she was afloat in Los Angeles, and when she asked me if she should make the move east, I’m glad I was one of the people who said yes.

My heart is broken that she is gone, this talented kind writer who read my own work with such intimacy and skill, and at the same time, I comfort myself that her writing remains. I don’t do well with death, with people I love leaving my life, but with Dana’s death, I have come to understand that the depth of my pain is a reflection of how important she was to me, and for that I will forever be grateful.

A writer is lucky to have such a friend and reader in their life—once, twice if they are really lucky. Dana was mine.

Oh My God, Cape Cod

It's the place on earth I love above any other. No matter where I am, I can always call back the smell of salt and sea, of washed-up seaweed and rotting shellfish; hear the soft roar of the ocean, the gentle lapping of the bay; and see the stubby pines, the windswept dunes, and the whitecaps rolling across the green-blue water. On the arm of land carved out by slow-moving glaciers, where ancient trails trod by the Wampanoag still wind through the woods, I found my paradise: Cape Cod.

As a child, I spent nine summers there, in a house in Truro that my parents built in the sixties, when land could still be bought cheap. Most days, we went to the beach, laying for hours in the sun or bodysurfing in the icy water. On rainy or overcast days, my mother found ways for us to reap the fruits of the sea. We fished for flounder from the shore of Ballston Beach, for bass and bluefish from a friend’s fishing boat. We walked along the Pamet River bed at low tide plucking mussels from barnacle-crusted rocks and raking the sand for sand eels, thin green fish we coated with flour, fried in butter and ate like French fries. At Cold Storage Beach in North Truro, we waded through waist-deep water digging our toes into the sand in search of sea clams; when we felt one, we’d dive down to retrieve it, fearing the “bite” of the waiting clam. Once, we scoured a sandbar covered with pebbles and shells for periwinkles, tiny sea snails no bigger than a fingertip that we boiled, speared with a toothpick and dipped in melted butter.

At night, while our parents sat on the deck drinking cocktails with their friends, their voices and laughter a low, steady hum in the fading light, we ran through the woods playing games until it was too dark to see each other’s faces. Sometimes we camped out under the trees, lying in our sleeping bags and searching the sky for shooting stars while keeping our ears open for ax murderers tromping through the dark.

Cape Cod was my second life. During the school year we lived in a cold, grim Massachusetts milltown on the Merrimac River, near the New Hampshire border. Most of my classmates were Catholic from working class backgrounds and spoke with the harsh accent of the region—with broad vowels (Bawston for Boston, lahf for laugh) and dropped “r's” (caah for car, de-ah for dear). My father taught art at the elite all-girls college in town and he was an atheist; we were being raised without religion. Both my parents came from the Midwest, and my brother, sister and I spoke more like them than our classmates. My mother sent me to school with a brown bag filled with a tuna sandwich on crunchy wholegrain bread and a bruised apple, while my classmates wielded shiny lunchboxes with peanut butter and fluff sandwiches on Wonderbread, with Devil Dogs and Ding Dongs for dessert. From the day I started first grade, I felt like an outsider, and when my parents took us out of school one or two weeks early every June (when my father's vacation began) that feeling was only emphasized. But I didn't care. Once we crossed the Sagamore Bridge, connecting Cape Cod with the mainland, my other, better life began. I felt myself again, happy and free, like I could breath and relax.

My summers in paradise ended when I was thirteen, when my parents divorced. My father got the house, and visits became complicated affairs; I had to fight with my mother for my right to go there, and when I did visit my father and his new wife, I felt like a guest.

More than twenty years passed before I returned to Cape Cod for more than a week and often, years went by between visits. During college, I left Massachusetts for California, moving from south to north and back again, never feeling truly settled anywhere, then chose Los Angeles as my home, though it never felt right. For almost everyone I knew, LA was the dream city, the promised land—gorgeous, shiny and slick, with perfect weather and beautiful people, overflowing with opportunity, but not for me. I never stopped missing the change of seasons, the cold, and most of all, Cape Cod.

# # #

It was my father’s diagnosis of pancreatic cancer that brought me back for good. Because of his illness, I took a break from my life in LA to be with him during the last weeks of his life. By then he was retired and living year-round in our old summer house with his wife and young daughter. Now winterized and renovated, the summer house we'd grown up in, with its plywood kitchen cabinets, particle board floors, and raw pine walls, no longer existed. Plush carpets covered most of the floor, the kitchen was shiny and modern, the walls painted white or adorned with metallic, mirrored wallpaper, and two fluffy white couches sat on a gleaming hardwood floor in the living room.

Outside of the house, though, little had changed. Truro looked pretty much as I'd remembered it growing up. The town center was still small enough to escape the notice of out-of-towners who often asked directions to the center after passing through it. The weather-beaten, waterlogged, overpriced Mom and Pop store where I'd bought penny candy and comic books was now an overpriced gourmet deli that sold cappuccino, wine, cheeses and jams and jellies. The crumbling one-room post office had evolved into something large and modern. On the edge of the marsh, behind the post office, a string of stores had sprung up in the sand, looking like a street in an old Western minus the tumbleweeds. Every morning, I'd walk down to the center and buy a coffee and a muffin, then walk back up the hill, breathing in the morning air as I prepared myself for another day of caring for my dying father. At night, spent and exhausted, I’d lie on the deck gazing at the panoply of stars in the unbelievably black sky, and trying to ignore my fear of what animals, or people, might be lurking in the woods, invisible in the blackness.

My father's last weeks were anything but peaceful. In the months before his diagnosis, his marriage had unraveled. His wife had left him for another man, and their ten-year-old daughter was living with him. Just a week or so after he and his wife had signed a separation agreement, he found out he had only a month or two to live, and the weeks leading up to his death were consumed with meeting with his lawyer, making arrangements for his estate, especially his body of art, and trying to settle his differences with his wife.

The last outing he made before he was too weak to leave the house was to Edward Hopper's studio, which stands on a lonely dune above Fisher Beach. His three daughters accompanied him on this final journey—me, my older sister and our 10-year-old half-sister. In more than 30 years, I had never seen Hopper's studio, had not even known it was there in Truro, just a mile or two from our house. Even worse, I had no idea until I was an adult that Hopper was one of my father's favorite artists, that he might have chosen Truro as the place to build our house on that basis alone.

The road leading to the studio was almost hidden from the main road, a sandy, rock-covered path so narrow that the pine branches slapped our car as we pushed our way through. We parked in a clearing about 30 feet above the beach and 50 or so feet below the studio, a small yellow cottage unreachable from where we were. My sisters and I played with the dog on the beach while my father sat in the car, the window open to a view of the studio above.

As stressful and harrowing as this time was, my six weeks on Cape Cod renewed my love for the place. After my father died, I regretted having to go back to LA. Once there, I collapsed into an intense grief, entering the life transforming process that many people experience when they lose a parent. I started therapy and began to take stock of my life, determined to fix what wasn’t working. I allowed myself to finally admit that I wasn’t happy living in Los Angeles. I had always felt out of place there—an East Coast exile among so many sun enthusiasts. I hated the desert climate—the dry heat, the relentless sunshine, and the smog that made my brain feel dusty and fatigued. When the Santa Ana winds blew hot and dry from the east, I suffered from wretched headaches and a soul-scorching emptiness. I felt trapped and claustrophobic amid so many millions of people and miles of concrete.

If this is a love story about a place, then Los Angeles was the husband I’d married in haste, without thinking, the passionless marriage that I couldn’t muster the strength to walk away from. And I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel more. What was wrong me with that I didn’t love this great catch of a city?

I had fantasies of moving back to Cape Cod, but I passed them off as crazy. Unrealistic. I was single and in my 30s; I wanted to marry and have kids before it was too late. What would my chances be if I moved to a place whose population dwindled to almost nothing nine months of the year? But what would they be if I stayed in Los Angeles? Lately, my love life had been a disappointing mix of comically bad dates and seemingly promising romances that went nowhere, leaving my heart bruised and weary.

If I was going to make a move, now was the time. I had enough savings to cushion my income for a few months and, as a freelance writer and editor, I could work from anywhere. So, when old friends near Boston offered me their house and car for three weeks that summer in exchange for cat-sitting, I jumped at the opportunity. In July, one year after my father’s death, I flew to the East Coast and began my quest, visiting towns within an hour or two of Boston: Northampton, Massachusetts; Portland, Maine; Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I spent a day or two in each place and tried to imagine myself living there. And while I had no problem picturing myself drinking coffee or shopping in the quaint downtowns, passing a Saturday morning in the offbeat bookstores I happened upon, or taking the yoga classes I saw posted at the local health food stores, as much as I tried, I could not feel myself living in any of these places in a way that felt normal and right. I was certain that if I picked up and moved to one of these cities, I’d feel stranded and alone in a strange, faraway place.

For most of the three weeks, I went everywhere but Cape Cod, the one place that truly pulled me. In spite of my love for the Cape, I could not see myself living there. Truro and Provincetown seemed like my only possibilities—I knew them both well and still had friends there. But in winter, Truro’s population dropped to about 2,000, and Provincetown was an incompatible mix of an ever-growing gay community and a generations-old, shrinking Portuguese fishing community. Where would I fit in?

With only a few days left before my flight home, I set off to visit friends on the Outer Cape. On the way, I planned to check out Sandwich, a town just across the Sagamore Bridge, close enough to Boston to keep me connected to friends, culture and civilization. But the trip ended up taking nearly three hours in the summer traffic, and when I finally crossed the bridge, I had to stop at a seafood stand for a lobster roll before driving through Sandwich’s quiet downtown, with its simple Quaker aesthetic. Sandwich is the oldest town on Cape Cod, and many of its narrow, wooden houses date back to the 1700s and earlier. I stopped near an old mill and fed the geese, then drove out to Sandy Neck Beach to take a swim in the bay. It was a perfect summer day—the sky a brilliant blue, the sun glittering on the sand and water. After my swim, I lay in the sun, luxuriating in my return to paradise. But as good as I felt, I knew Sandwich was not the place for me.

My friends weren't expecting me until the next day, so in the late afternoon, I began looking for a room for the night. Until then, I had not had a single thought about how hard it might be to find a room on a Saturday night during peak season on Cape Cod. Now, I realized how foolish that was—every place I passed had a No Vacancy sign. I drove through Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, and Dennis, then dipped down and started heading west again, through West Yarmouth, Hyannis, and Mashpee, checking for Vacancy signs and sometimes going inside to ask at the front desk if anything was available. Every hotel, motel, and bed and breakfast was full. A small panic rose up in me as the afternoon dwindled away. I was driving into Falmouth, a part of Cape Cod I had never been to but which I’d always looked down on as the congested and touristy cousin of woodsy, sand-swept Truro, the real Cape Cod. I had never considered Falmouth as even a remote possibility.

But now, as I drove past the Stop & Shop and Starbucks, down a long and busy Main Street, something began to stir in me. I could live here. This was not a city, but it was a far cry from the empty desolation that Truro offered in winter. There were coffee shops, restaurants, a large library, a gym. I drove around, turning randomly on side streets, making my way down Surf Drive, past Nobska Lighthouse, and into Woods Hole, where I parked and walked around. The architecture was a blend of modern brick and concrete buildings and classic Cape Cod shanties: tucked between two world-renown research institutes were T-shirt shops, art galleries, and seafood restaurants. Houseboats and sailboats swayed on their moorings on Eel Pond, a picture waiting to be painted. On a community bulletin board outside the general store, I saw announcements for science lectures, yoga classes, and auditions for the community theater.

By now, night had fallen, and I realized I would have to drive off the Cape to find a hotel room. And as I did, something strange happened. As I headed up Route 28 toward the Bourne Bridge, Cape Cod called me home. I felt a quickening in my heart, an electricity charging through me. My entire being pulsed with conviction. I could live here.

Driving up the two-lane highway, I watched the moon rise above the trees, the sky turning darker shades of blue before collapsing into a blackness jeweled with glittering stars. The breeze blowing in through my open window carried the smell of pine and sea, and I breathed it in deeply, each breath amplifying the feeling: I could live here. I could make this my home.

I found a vacancy in a worn out motel in Marion, a nondescript town on the other side of the bridge. The next morning, I returned to Falmouth and Woods Hole to explore as much as I could in a few hours. A sense of rightness kept growing stronger, and I booked a room at the Sleepy Hollow motel in Woods Hole so I could return in few days and spend more time in the area. The feeling of rightness never left me.

What had begun as a fantasy, a pipe dream, a fun excursion for the summer had become real. I could see myself moving to Cape Cod, if only for a nine-month adventure in a winter rental. I told myself I could always go back to California if things didn’t work out.

When I returned to LA, I agonized for another couple of weeks before finally allowing myself to say yes. Yes, I would make this move. Yes, I would take the leap and embark on the most exciting and risky adventure of my life. In the next five weeks, I had a garage sale, moved out of my apartment, packed a few pieces of furniture and boxes onto a moving truck, and loaded my tiny Nissan with clothes, artwork, a box of vintage Christmas decorations, and Mickey, my nine-year-old black cat.

On my last night in Los Angeles, I dreamed about a Pegasus: the winged horse in Greek mythology who sprang from the blood of Medusa. The horse in my dream was not a living horse, but a symbol, a red horse with wings enclosed in a circle. I realized, upon waking, that it looked like the winged horse on the Mobil gas station sign; but my Pegasus faced in the opposite direction—its nose pointed East instead of West. I took the dream as a reassurance that this was the right move for me.

One week later, on Columbus Day, I pulled into the driveway of my winter rental in Woods Hole, a sixties A-frame with worn but modern-looking Danish furniture, a white brick fireplace, and wall-to-wall windows looking out over a sea of trees, all just steps away from a private beach. I felt like I’d won life’s big lottery. As I unpacked and settled in, I reveled in the cool October weather—sunny skies, bright and blue, the air apple-crisp. I took long walks every day, and at night, watched the sunset from my deck. Mornings, I drove into Falmouth and drank lattes at Coffee Obsession with all the locals. And with the help of friends in Boston and Truro, I began to meet people.

One month after landing in Woods Hole, I was invited to dinner by a woman I’d met through the friends whose house I’d stayed in that summer. Together, they’d cooked up a plan to introduce me to Kai, a German post-doc who worked with my new friend’s husband and who'd recently broken up with his girlfriend.

Love happened faster than I ever could have imagined. By Christmas, I knew Kai was the person I wanted to spend my life with. We were married almost one year to the day of my arrival on Cape Cod, and now, ten years later, I am happy to be sharing my life with him and raising three children together.

By following my heart back to the place I loved, I found love. But finding the love of my life ended up taking me away from my other great love: Cape Cod. Even though Kai and I tried to make our home there, doors kept closing on us. We searched for a house in a market where prices were rising by the month, very quickly beyond our reach. Then Kai got an offer for a professorship in Germany, which came with tenure and the opportunity for him to lead a research group. The offer that was too good to pass up.

And that’s how I find myself living on the other side of the ocean, in northern Germany, a world away from my beloved Cape Cod. We live in a hundred-year-old townhouse near the center of Bremen, a city that dates back more than a thousand years. The city has a river flowing through it, a dynamic culture, a world-class soccer team, and bike paths everywhere. We’ve made a life here and it is a good one; I can honestly say I'm happy.

But it is not my paradise.

Yes, I am sometimes charmed by the riverboats that float down the Weser, impossibly long and flat and carrying strange cargo—gray pebbles, logs and sand piled in pyramids—but it has never taken my breath away like the sight of Nantucket Sound on a sunny day. The water, a different shade of blue depending on the time of day and season, sparkling in the sunlight or gray under a heavy sky; whitecaps rolling to the shore; seabirds diving; a ferryboat faintly visible on the horizon on its way to Martha’s Vineyard.

In winter here, at twilight, the trees along the Osterdeich can resemble a painting, their black, naked branches etched into a sky that changes from pale blue to dusty pink to deepening shades of blue as the sun sets. But no winter vision will ever come close to what I saw one frigid January night walking along the beach on Buzzards Bay. For the first time in years, the bay had frozen, and the water near the shore was covered with deep, craggy snow speckled black with shells and seaweed. The snow looked purple under the night sky, and I felt as though I’d stepped out of time, into a prehistoric world.

Of course, in the dead of winter Cape Cod can be a desolate, lonely place, and the region has the highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse in Massachusetts. The last time I visited, during a particularly wet, cold spell in February, the girl who took my order at Starbucks was so out of it she could barely complete the simplest task. I saw a pizza delivery car screech into the parking lot of a nursing home, driving treacherously fast past old people teetering on walkers. High on meth, he had to have been. And there were bored teenagers in sloppy jeans and bad hair cuts shuffling along Main Street smoking cigarettes and talking into their cell phones. My husband has never forgotten the bad taste of the water on the lower Cape, virtually undrinkable and possibly toxic; and whether there’s a connection or not, the breast cancer rates are 20% higher among Cape Cod women than for the rest of the nation.

But still, when I think of Cape Cod, I think of the warm sun shining on the blue Atlantic, the rolling dunes, the endless pine trees, the promise of a warm summer day. On the walls of my new home, I’ve hung several Edward Hopper prints to remind me of the place I love so much. One, which my husband got on ebay soon after we moved here, shows a man in early middle age standing at a gas pump on the two-lane highway running from the Sagamore Bridge to Provincetown. There are no cars in sight, no customers at the station, just the lone attendant at the pump. It took me years to notice the red Pegasus in the painting, the blurred Mobil sign hovering near the corner. There was the red winged horse from the dream I had the night before I left California for my new life on Cape Cod. I can only guess at the connection between the painting and the dream, but I can get lost staring at the Cape Cod that Hopper captured with his brush: the mystery hidden in the deepening darkness between the sand and the trees, the sun-yellowed grass beside the highway, the watery gray of the twilit sky. But it is the man at the center of the image that holds my eye; so alone but not lonely, he could be anywhere in the world.

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