The wine hour is free, just like breakfast, or at least it is included in the price of the room. On the banquet table, where this morning a festive group of juices, coffees, and champagne (for mimosas) greeted the bustling brunchers, there are two double-sized bottles of Barefoot wine—one a Chardonnay, the other a Cabernet Sauvignon—a few glasses, a supermarket collection of cheeses and crackers, an incongruous steam basket of undefined dumplings. I have seen this before. If I forget about the ocean just over the horizon, I am at a bad art opening, I am at a bad faculty welcoming party, I am at a really bad company goodbye party.
THE ISLAND I AM ON IS CALLED: Block Island. It is off of Rhode Island, making it an island squared, or, possibly, a compound island. I am sure there is pride in this for some.
Wine-Allergic Girlfriend and I have brought her son Zane to this island for the weekend. We are a relatively new family unit, W.A.G., Zane, and I, and this is one of our first attempts at a family vacation.
So this: a long weekend to a place with beaches. Zane is allowed to invite a friend.
To get to Block Island you have to take a boat, a fact that actually takes me by surprise, me not being an island person.
“There are no roads at all to this place?” I ask W.A.G. as we pull into the town where we will board the ferry. “How can there be a place without roads?” The entire town revolves around this ferry; it is like one giant ferry terminal—all the streets, the restaurants, the hotels, all sort of slant toward the dock. People on the street all move in one direction.
The ferry idles in the dock amidst some pretty hardcore fishing vessels—all barnacles and rust. Some guys one boat over wrestle elegantly with a humongous net. This incongruity has always struck me about the boat world—how very often there will be symbols of extravagant wealth right next to examples of extravagant hardship and labor.
ON THE FERRY: some young kids who could not have been older than 19—and if they were older than 19, then, my God, I am getting old—purchased cans of beer from the on-ferry concession stand. I am surprised that purchasing beer on a 45-minute ferry ride is a thing you can, or would even want to, do. The kids walked by us gripping railings and stumbling as the boat pitched and rocked.
“I’m not even drunk yet!” one boy said. Ha, ha, I thought.
LATER: we checked into our hotel and the woman behind the desk briefed us all on the amenities. I sort of half-listened, focusing most of my attention on the two teenage boys who were outside trying to drag a bike rack into the middle of the road. I was about to run out and admonish them when I heard: “And at 4 there is the free wine hour on the patio.”
FREE WINE HOUR IS AWESOME BECAUSE: it is free wine hour.
FREE WINE HOUR IS ALSO DEPRESSING BECAUSE: it is free wine hour.
I am there right on time. I left the beaches early so that I could be there when they opened the door. Out on the patio, I pick up the huge bottle of Barefoot wine and with two hands try to pour myself a glass without spilling. The dark wet spot in the tablecloth shows me that I am not the only one having trouble. Wine hour is on the patio of the main hotel where we are staying, and this patio looks out over some very tall grass that goes and goes until the ocean. The sky is bright, bright gray, and a murder-mystery-like fog limits visibility to about 50 feet.
There are not many people here, and, unlike at breakfast, everything feels muted—laughter, talking, even the clinking glasses that this morning sounded crisp and bright. Two older women in matching pistachio-ice-cream-green shirts are the only ones on the patio when I arrive. They are talking about their kids, but not in a proud way. I am struck by a feeling I’ve had in certain dive bars—a pervasive depression and quiet underlying a boisterous, or at least talkative, surface. When I catch the eye of another woman, a younger woman, carrying her wine and a plate of crackers to a patio table, I feel something I recognize as shame. This must be how customers in pornographic movie theaters feel. Seeing others makes me more aware of why I am here. Unlike at a normal bar, where one might come for a myriad of reasons connected to alcohol, we are all here for the same reason, and that reason is because the alcohol is free.
IF YOU NAVIGATE YOUR BROWSER THERE, THE BAREFOOT WINE WEBSITE WILL TELL YOU: that the “Barefoot California line of wines have all been awarded GOLD medals,” though they will not specify GOLD medals of what. Moreover, and in all caps, the website will assure you that Barefoot wines have a “NEW UPSCALE IMAGE!”
EARLIER IN THE DAY: W.A.G., Zane, his friend, and I took bikes around the island, looking for our beach for the day.
We did not anticipate the hills, nor did we think about what those hills would mean for the beach-cruiser bikes we had rented for the boys. Zane had looked cool standing astride the bike in the middle of town, but he now looked exasperated and angry, helmet a tad askew, cheeks flushed, voice cursing as he pedaled in a struggled staccato. I tried to remain upbeat.
“We’re halfway there!” I told him at the bottom of one hill.
As it turns out, “halfway there” is actually not very encouraging to an exasperated teenager.
NOW, LET ME BE CLEAR: It is not that I do not like islands per se. It is just that I am not really an island person. I do not particularly like boats. I definitely do not like fishing. Sand sort of annoys me, and though I like the water, I’m a little so-so on the whole salt-in-my-water thing.
But if I am honest with myself, and, more importantly, if I am honest with you, it is really this: there is a particular kind of island-vacation culture that really makes me say: No thank you.
FOR EXAMPLE: Down the street from our hotel, there is a bar called the Pirate’s Cove. We are already on an island—is the pirate reference necessary? There are skulls and crossbones; there is nautical netting; happy hour is a nightlong affair. Outside: tanned men sporting sunglasses, mustaches, and ridiculously large tank tops. On these tank tops there are pictures of frogs also wearing sunglasses. These men talk about their boats; they listen to a band whose lyrics explain just how hard they party on the island. This kind of thing is everywhere. It is all weirdly reflexive and all-encompassing. Everything, it seems, is merely an extension of being on an island.
BUT HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO A NEW ENGLAND ISLAND? Because there is something else going on there. At breakfast, alongside the sunglasses-on-frog T-shirts, and probably more at home on this very nice patio, are the yacht people—the “blue button-down, sunglasses secured with fancy neoprene, four generations at the family reunion, mimosas at brunch, sweaters for every season” people.
AS WINE HOUR FILLS UP: the mood brightens a bit, though the mood always brightens when people join you in your depression. There is the guy who talks too loudly and too theatrically to his wife, a couple with a backgammon board, an older man, alone like myself, and eventually some kids as well. (I will later hear two of the kids have this conversation: “Oooh, look, a swing set!” “Not now, I’m eating my dumpling.”) Conversations are struck up in that instant-camaraderie vacation way: “Oh wait, you are on vacation!? That is amazing, because guess what? I am also on vacation! Let’s talk for two minutes about where to get the best seafood!” I actually hear someone say this: “We wanted to keep it simple, you know, just do it at the yacht club.”
AT ONE POINT: from the patio, we see a small group of people emerge from one of the hotel buildings. This group marches to the grass below the patio, to a spot obscured to us by an awkward moment of landscaping in the middle of the lawn. I am sort of anticipating an outdoor theater performance. Very quickly, word passes around that two people in the group are actually down there getting married.
“Wait, right now?”
“Are they practicing?”
“Are they getting married now? Behind that tree?”
These are things that I hear.
AFTER THE BIKE RIDING, WE DID EVENTUALLY FIND A BEACH, BUT IT WAS: not so much a beach as it was an enormous pile of rocks spread out along the ocean. The boys took this opportunity to throw rocks at each other. I checked the map again to make sure we had stopped in the right place.
“I guess I didn’t know that I was supposed to take ‘Black Rock Beach,’ like, literally,” I told W.A.G. Now it was her turn to be exasperated.
WHEN THE WEDDING PARTY EMERGES FROM BEHIND THE TREE: the people at wine hour start clapping for them. The wedding was real, it turns out, and the couple hold hands and wave awkwardly up at the patio. “Raise your hands if you just got married,” one of the women in the pistachio-green shirts shouts. Again, an awkward wave from the couple and laughing from the patio.
“Hey, we’ve already started your reception up here!” another person calls down. It is like this for the couple’s entire walk across the lawn, a recessional in front of the peanut gallery. Eventually, the father of the bride turns to take pictures of us. People pose; I try to hide, not wanting at all to be a part of this memory for the newlyweds.
ONE OF THE SLOGANS OF BAREFOOT WINE, PERHAPS PREDICTABLY, IS: “Get Barefoot and Have a Great Time!” It is unclear if this slogan is a part of, or was instead the reason they needed, “A NEW UPSCALE IMAGE!”
CAVEAT: W.A.G. would like me to say that we actually had quite a nice time on our vacation and that the boys didn’t intentionally throw rocks at each other on Black Rock Beach.