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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 ones. 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, hissed back.

I 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 fixed.

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 commercial, craving
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 smiled
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. See ya."

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 life?"

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 together.

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 looked annoyed.

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 cosmos.

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 grin.

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 distant relative.

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 after wave.

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