Saugatuck Dunes, Michigan: A Sweet Beginning at the Bitter End Coffeehouse

ShanleyBY SYDNEY SHANLEY (Grand Valley State University)

This essay was an honorable mention in the 2017 Narrative Map College Student Writing Contest. 

The exterior looked how I felt: dirty red brick, tired neon signs, a dead tree, and a lot of ashtrays. Every time I went, the routine was the same but the faces always changed. A bunch of strangers chainsmoking outside, bonding over bummed cigarettes and borrowed lighters. Huddled together on the most painful metal chairs ever created, there was an an intimacy only possible between two and six o’clock in the morning. It was the stomping ground for self-proclaimed philosophers and recluse savants; my favorites being the sidewalk savior, the socialist hermit, the flighty poet, and the cloaked artist.

One night, about a week into my college career at Grand Valley, it was the usual spread of characters. The flighty poet feverishly sold his views on prostitution to the unfortunate crowd who trapped themselves in one of his political ravings. His unassuming, effeminate demeanor always quickly unraveled in his mania. His fiery locks consuming his glasses. Darting eyes filled with equal parts excitement and desperation.

Listening in, unimpressed, was the socialist hermit. Even in his dilapidated Cubs slippers and stained pajama pants, he held a silent power over all the other pseudo-intellectuals. His best friend, the sidewalk savior, was always too busy trying to convert, pray with, or heal strangers to pay attention to anything but God. Not interested in his almighty powers, I wandered over to the cloaked artist. His small frame was always hidden by a massive pleather, floor-length coat, and I had never heard him speak, so his mystery was either very forced or completely accidental. While asking him to draw me a pinup, a lost-looking, visibly drunk man appeared, moaning loudly of a “bleeding heart.”

The sidewalk savior jumped at the sound of anguish, immediately offering to heal the stranger. After a long debate between the atheists, the spiritualists, and the Catholic, the moaning man seemed to have calmed down, or at least sobered up a little. Exchanging smokes, the Hermit, the Poet, the Moaner, and I began exchanging “what-ifs”: “What if we go to the lookout right now?” “What if we go to the zoo?” “What if we go to the dunes?” At five o’clock in the morning, they all seemed equally absurd, but none of us wanted to split up our newfound alliance of misfits. So like any insane person would, I agreed to drive an hour to the Saugatuck Dunes with three bizarre men I had known for only a few days.

An eager trek to the water instantly turned into an exhausted limp, because climbing up vertical piles of sand is exactly as hard as it sounds. I watched, amazed, as the Moaner and the Poet hopped up the infinitely reaching, eroded facade with ease, each step springing up from the sinking sand as if they defied gravity. In the darkness, I struggled to follow their figures, relying on the bouncing orange glow of a phone light. It hypnotized me, burning into the darkness, cutting through the sharp angles of the impending shadows. As the pair disappeared behind the mound, taking the light with them, I sat on the edge of absolute darkness. It felt like if I took a step I would fall into the abyss, doomed to fall forever towards the water, to watch the waves lap but to never feel them. In an attempt to ground myself in reality, I filled my lungs with the dank lake air. I watched the sand swallow my toes while the reeds tickled my legs, while the outlines of clouds drifted over the soft, omnipresent glow of the moon. I felt totally absorbed, like grains of sand were replacing each cell of my body.

I hazily glanced back towards the orange glow as the Moaner and the Poet emerged from the dunes. We clumsily trickled our way down to the beach. It all felt so vaguely nostalgic, like I had been there in a past life. Bouncing across the wet sand, giggling with the Moaner, chasing after the Poet, it felt like I had found a long-lost family I never knew I lost. Drained, I sat next to the Hermit, who had been oddly silent while the rest of us jabbered and danced in euphoria. I asked if something was wrong, and he replied in one of his cryptic mantras, “I would never want to be anywhere else but where I happen to be.” I saw the same tranquility in his eyes that I felt. The other two joined us, and we let the water wash over our pants. But it was not enough, the water was calling, and we went running. Laughing, screaming, howling, I met the water with glee, and it met me with a splash to the face. Weighed down by my soaked clothes, I had never felt lighter.

I settled into the sand, away from the others, lulled by the ebb and flow of the waves until it matched my heartbeat. In the obscurity of night, amongst the stillness, it resembled a surreal wasteland of a world lost long ago, with us being the only survivors. Expecting devastating loneliness, I was met only with a sense of wholeness. We had conquered the unsuspecting night. And as the sky became flushed with pink, the water bursting with lavender, I knew reality would set in again. In an attempt to hang onto the sweet, somber kiss of night, we all left the beach, gliding over the sand like shadows. When we all came out of our trances, I asked, “Do we exchange information or let fate take over?” and the Moaner reassured me, “I have no doubt that we will find each other again.”

I hoped that the feeling surging through me was being reflected, mending the Moaner’s bleeding heart.

Sydney Shanley is a freshman at Grand Valley State and hasn’t decided a major. She loves the beaches in Michigan because she’s from Fort Wayne, Indiana.