On the Cape by Janice J. Heiss
published in Volume 4, Issue 3 on December 31st, 1997
We were on the road three hours when we approached Cape
Hatteras, Graveyard of the Atlantic, harboring sharp,
hidden reefs, famous for disasters. We left D.C. to take
a side trip so that Jim could show me Hatteras. Why he
wanted to go to the island seemed vague. Perhaps because
I could never enter his world, he kept taking me to new
Jim and I liked to joke that our relationship was based
on a good lid of dope and occasional mescaline. We were
young, in our early twenties, in 1970. He was the first
man I had ever lived with. When I abruptly dropped
everything and left Chicago with Jim one month after
meeting him, I told my anguished parents I had gone to
D.C. to lobby against the trans-Alaskan pipeline with a
girl named Jo, which was, except for "a girl named
Jo," the truth.
The long drive down the North Carolina coast and Hatteras
Island made me melancholy. For miles and miles of tedious
highway, the sand, sea, and sky all blended into one
glaring horizontal gray. The icy skirt of the coast
flirted wanly with the hoary Atlantic.
Hatteras was one of nature's mean spots. Jim was no
comfort, a cold fish in the driver's seat. Still, I hung
onto him across the bucket seats of our unheated VW.
Every time Jim shifted gears, he forcefully shrugged me
off. "What's wrong?" I asked. He didn't answer.
When I looked into his eyes, I saw the island's
reflection; the radiant ocean blue of his eyes had turned
to slate. When "Love the One You're With" came
on the radio, he quickly changed stations. "I like
that song," I timidly muttered, soothed by the
serendipity. The waves, slashed by the serrated reef,
thought of the night he hit on me at 2 AM in the back
room of Oxford's Pub where I waitressed on the near North
side of Chicago. He seemed quite smitten. Yet, right
away, his attraction to me felt different, sort of
other-worldly, out-of-body. I felt like a Jew in a
cathedral. Eye contact with Jim was rare. Mostly, he
appeared to look right above my head, his ocean blue eyes
flitting about like lightning bugs. Once, when I asked
him about his gaze, he confided that he was
"grokking" my nimbus. Finally, reading
Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land was paying off.
He was interested, one way or another, and I was
exhausted from the singles scene. A victim of the head-
on collision between the fifties and sixties, I slept
around, ill-prepared for all the one-night stands, with
love and marriage on my mind. I was infatuated with him
within a week.
After driving aimlessly around the Cape, we got out of
the van to explore. Nothing on the island escaped the
stalking of the fog. After pinning us down under its
cold, swollen, feet, it swallowed us whole. We tried to
hike but it was too hard to see. Unlike the sun with its
kind relief of shade and shadow, the fog was
We decided to take the short car ferry ride to Ocracoke,
another island across the chalky ocean strip. Ferry-wise
sea gulls, begging for food, hung over us like obedient
targets waiting to be struck -- ducks in an arcade
shooting gallery. From the opposite side of the deck, I
half-heartedly threw them raisins as I watched Jim
meditate and pose in a secured silence.
As we approached Ocracoke, it was as if we were waiting
for something outside of ourselves to happen. And there
she was, in Technicolor in a sea of gray: blonde,
beautiful, looking like a commercial, confidently eyeing
us from stern side. I smiled weakly as I searched her
face for some reassuring flaw.
Events butted into one another after this. Jim approached
her in the Ocracoke ferry parking lot. She was all slick
and shine with a flashy, slightly disembodied smile that
bit through the bad weather. A light flooded into Jim's
eyes, that ethereal glow that appeared the first night I
met him at Oxford's. Now they were together in a zestful
each other, just like on TV.
Jim did most of the talking, asking her questions. She
lived in Vermont on a commune called Animal Farm. Her
name was Chamomile. She traveled often and alone. I got
the nerve to ask her one question: "What do you do
on the farm?" "Live," she replied and
enigmatically. I stood humbled in the presence of this
priestess. She turned to go. "Would you like to come
camping with us, we're going to --," Jim asked her.
I stopped breathing, waiting for my sentence, but she cut
him short with a gleamy grin, "Thanks, but I want to
hang loose. We can't help but run into each other here.
She slid into the driver's seat of her chic maroon VW
fastback. A life-sized Raggedy-Ann, safety belt and all,
accompanied her in the front passenger seat. "Why
didn't I ever think of that?" and "What a free
spirit!" I moaned to myself. I often wondered why
others' sense of cool was so much keener than mine. And
why did the women who didn't need men always get them?
She was everything I wasn't. As she torqued out of the
parking lot, I thought I saw her wink at Jim and
half-smile at me. As she vanished in the vapor, relief
poured into me like warm milk into a broken bowl.
But not for long. Jim motioned me to join as he jumped
into our van to pursue her. Please, please don't let us
run into her again, I prayed. Please, make her disappear
from this tiny spit of land. The thick island air sucked
my wish up like a sponge. Jim sped dangerously, though we
couldn't see an inch ahead. The hash that we had smoked
took hold and I was suddenly very stoned. My body seemed
to compress from the speed of the van; thoughts raced
through me like highway markers. My arms and legs
suddenly looked foreign, like strange branches I had just
found on the ground.
Then I saw the lights: red, yellow, and blue. Barely
visible through the fog bank. This must be it. The men in
white coats were coming to take me away. Next, I heard
sirens. They became louder and louder. "God damn it,
the cops!" Jim swore. We bounced wildly
to the shoulder of the highway.
"May I see your driver's license? Do you know how
fast you were going?" the Carolina Highway Patrol
man, in a stern voice that sounded like a recording,
asked Jim. He hardly noticed me, as he accused Jim of
speeding and reckless driving and gave him a big ticket.
My attention wandered in and out of the rest of the
conversation, though I did hear the officer say: "If
you don't care about yourself or anyone else on the road,
O.K., but don't you care about your girlfriend's
Before leaving, he looked across the front seat at me.
"Are you OK, miss?" he asked in a dulcet,
slightly Southern accent. Almost, as if I were his honey.
For a moment, I wanted to run into his uniformed arms. I
nodded politely, yes.
We meekly drove off. I knew I had pulled myself together
when I pictured these newspaper headlines: Chicago Girl
Dies In Car Crash Accompanying Lover in High-Speed
Pursuit of Another Woman.
Police out of sight, Jim turned to lecture me. He blamed
me for the entire episode. I had obstructed his view,
slowed him down, etc. I actually agreed to pay for half
of the $100 ticket!
At least the chase was over temporarily. We had lost her
in the isolating drizzle and shifting sand. Yet the
island crawled with Chamomile. The outline of her face
appeared everywhere, a mirage in the sand and fog. There
was no avoiding her. The more I willed her to vanish, the
more she popped up. And why not? The island was so tiny,
we might as well have been locked in a closet
Looking for something to do, we stopped to see the famous
wild horses, a surviving herd locked behind a fence
looking docile and scrawny. "Aren't they
beautiful?" I said, wondering at my words. Jim
Every day before dusk, Jim insisted we go to the cliff
where he knew she would be for the enchanting island
sunsets. This was the special part of the day when the
fog lifted. As the sun took its final bow before the
orange curtain it had demurely hung on the horizon, we
three sun worshippers sat in a row, Buddha style, sharing
a joint, reverently facing west. As if blessing the
blonde, the sun ran red ribbons off her gold head.
Silence was strictly enforced as nature did her thing. We
wrapped it around us like a sacred shroud, proud to be so
evolved, to have such a deep, mystical relationship to
The vibes were heavy between Jim and Chamomile. I felt
like a tattered toy doll, thrown into a garbage can. Were
they going to make love right in my face? But I would
rather die than reveal my jealousy, one of the vilest of
emotions, as I had learned by reading Heinlein. Just as I
was about to grab Jim's arm like a little girl pulling on
her father: "Gotta go, we gotta
go now, Daddy!" Chamomile would call it quits and
disappear like the Cheshire cat leaving her lingering
For a respite from camping in the fog, Jim and I luckily
found a vacancy at the dreary Honeymoon Hotel. We got a
room with a broken fireplace we didn't try to fix. Jim
was obsessed. He called the wizened inn-keeper at least
five times to see if "a blonde girl in her twenties,
a friend of his," had checked in. I lay, frozen,
fully dressed, on top of the bedspread, invisible to him.
I gazed at Jim across the room as he carefully surveyed a
map of the islands for his new muse. He looked like a
I was trapped in an elevator going down, down. It
wouldn't stop. Way past the bargain basement where I had
nothing left, not even spare change, down into bedrock. I
was done for.
After a week, Chamomile disappeared without a trace, like
fog gives way to a sunny day. Jim never quit looking for
her. On our last day on Hatteras, we ate lunch on the
bleak, windy beach. Jim wanted to create a makeshift
picnic table so we wouldn't have to sit on the mushy
sand. We found several large driftwood stumps with which
to make a table, but they were too heavy for us to lift.
"Three could move this easily," Jim complained
and scanned the dunes. I got the clue not to move. I
followed his lead and earnestly looked around too. I was
relieved to see nothing except for sand crabs diving for
cover into the sand. I begged the
sand to swallow me too.
We waited and waited for something to happen. The fog
horn bawled relentlessly; it sounded like a very old
baby. Nothing, nothing happened.
Later that day, we left the coast to return to D.C. Jim
was still after the blonde phantom, while she was looking
for adventure and solitude mixed up with the sea, and I
just wanted to flee this foggy maelstrom where the sea
tears the land into bits and pieces, wearing it down wave