household of women is often trouble. It wouldn’t have been if my father and my uncle were with us. But they were men and therefore in the city, working, not down at the beach for the summer with the rest of us. It was just me, my mother and my aunt, my younger cousins Avery and Julia, and my grandmother. The house was my grandmother’s, she had inherited it from her sister, and was just beginning to make herself at home in it. My brother Dirk was the only one of us with a Y chromosome and my mother was concerned about his being bored around girls only. She wanted him doing outdoorsy stuff. One afternoon she brought home a flyer from the supermarket offering waterskiing lessons.
“This is something you could do,” she said to Dirk, tapping the flyer with her index finger.
“What about us?” I asked.
“You girls have each other,” my grandmother said. “Let Dirk have his thing. Boys need their fun.”
My mother and aunt rolled their eyes at each other.
“What?” Grandmother said.
“Anyway, it’s up to Dirk,” Aunt Joanne said dryly.
“Alright,” he said without looking up. He was searching about in the freezer for a French bread pizza.
“Chronic under-enthusiasm,” said Grandmother in a loud whisper, pointing over her shoulder at Dirk.
“Leave him alone, mother,” Aunt Joanne said.
“Darling, I’ve always left everybody alone,” Grandmother said, sounding wounded.
The next day a man with mirrored glasses drove a motorboat towards the beach, standing into the wind, his curly black hair blown back. He stopped at water’s edge and let the Whaler idle. From the deck I heard my mother yell, “Dirk, the professor’s here. Get your suit on.”
We learned his name was Ben. He gave us permission to sit in the boat while he taught Dirk how to ski. When we got out from the shore he made Dirk jump into the water.
“It’s freezing,” Dirk said.
Ben snorted, as though Dirk was a bigger weakling than he’d been led to believe. He let the skis slide into the water and bob towards Dirk. Dirk grumbled but put them on. And then, ever so slowly, Ben drove and Dirk rose from the water, his shoulders flung forward, wobbling desperately till Ben pushed the boat harder and Dirk steadied himself. I watched Dirk, impressed with his tenacity, but also I watched Ben. The wind plastered his shorts against his legs and hips. He stood very straight and very tan, driving the boat into the sun.
When the lesson was over Ben drove back to the shore and threw his anchor into the sand to keep the Whaler from drifting away.
“How was it?” my mother asked.
“Your son’s a natural.”
“Really?” She smiled.
Ben took off his sunglasses at last. His eyelashes were long. Grandmother sat on the deck pinning her hair into curls. Aunt Joanne made rum-and-tonics in the fragile globe glasses
Later that week he was invited to dinner. By the time the grownups were setting their own table we had already eaten and were wandering on the beach. It had been like this all summer, generational segregation, the opposite of the enforced togetherness of school-year dinners. I sat by the water, waiting for Ben, tossing sand from one hand to the other and listening to Julia and Avery argue softly. Avery was two years younger than Julia, and Julia a year younger than I was. Most of the time it seemed we were all the same, but every once in a while I felt much older, too old to still play satisfactorily with them. They’d been playing catch and stopped when Julia accidentally kicked sand in Avery’s eye.
“Careful,” Avery moaned, furiously rubbing her eye.
“So-rry,” Julia said, and gave the sand a kick in the opposite direction. Microscopic grains flew out, tracing a thousand arcs and landing in a shimmer. The beach club was having their weekly dinner and dance. The great hall was brightly lit and the beach-rose bushes were covered with tiny, twinkling bulbs. The grown-ups at our house never went to parties at the beach club. I wished they would. I wished they were there now and we were having dinner alone with Ben. I looked out to the ocean and saw Ben’s Whaler. I shook the sand from my hands and rolled up my pants above my knees to wade into the cold water, waiting till the boat was close enough so I could help bring it in. Julia and Avery followed, splashing each other lazily.
“Hey,” Ben said, smiling big. “My buddies.” He hopped out of the boat and tousled Avery’s hair. Walking up the path towards the house he kept his hand on my shoulder, a warm spot in the cool evening air.
Ben and the adults settled into the living room with their cocktails. In the loft above the dining room I lay on the rug with Dirk and Julia and Avery, watching television and listening with one ear to the conversation of the adults.
“I want to thank you for all you’ve been doing for Dirk,” my mother said.
“It’s my pleasure,” said Ben. “He’s a good kid, and very strong. Listen, I’d take him out every day of the week and twice on Sunday if I didn’t have other clients.”
“He’s a changed person,” said Grandmother. “Much more masculine.”
“Jesus and friggin’ Moses,” said Dirk and turned his body squarely toward the TV.
“Change is good, right?” Ben said, looking over at my mother and filling his glass with wine.
“Ben, are you from the South?” Aunt Joanne asked.
“No, Delaware actually.”
“Oh, I thought there was a bit of a lilt in your voice.”
“Well, actually my mother was from Mississippi. You’ve got quite an ear.”
It went on like this as they finished their drinks and began dinner and eventually we gave our attention back to the television. But later I became aware of a hush downstairs, rising above the sound of the TV show. Dinner was over but they were still sitting around the table, holding their wine glasses and looking over at Ben. It was dark by then and only the standing lamp in the corner of the big room was lit. I sat on the first step down from the loft to see better. Ben was making something on the table, his hands working together, his head bent in concentration. Then he looked up and held the thing between his thumb and index finger. It was a skinny rolled cigarette, pointing straight up towards the ceiling.
“I’ve never done it,” my mother protested, “I’ve never done anything like this.”
“There’s always a first,” Aunt Joanne said, beckoning it with her hand. But instead Grandmother started it off, bringing it to her lips, inhaling, pausing, looking around the room and letting out an alarmingly large bellow of smoke. They all burst out laughing.
“They’re so out of control,” Julia said, appearing suddenly beside me.
“Why?” Avery said, poking her way between us.
“Nothing,” said Julia. “They’re just stupid is all.”
“Shut up,” Dirk said. “I can’t hear the TV.”
They smoked during their dinners. They didn’t even try to hide it. Coming back from grocery shopping, Aunt Joanne wanted to stop at the liquor store for some wine. “We need something to drink. To go with, you know,” she said to my mother.
“Mom,” Julia cried from the back seat where the four of us kids were crammed together, “Are you going to smoke that stuff again?”
Aunt Joanne was quiet.
“That’s so gross,” Julia said, kicking the back window with the tip of her sandal.
She and Avery got out of the car, wanting to stay in town to shop for nail polish and candy. I went out on the boat without them.
Dirk rose easily, comfortable now, skimming over the surface of the ocean on his skis. “Let me drive,” I told Ben.
“ Just keep your hands steady. I’ll tell you when to turn.”
I clambered up and held the wheel in my hands. It sent its vibrations up my arms. It was strange how much it was my boat then, answering to me. Ben stood behind me with his fingers resting on the wheel too, his arms on either side of mine. The front of me was sharp and cold from the wind, the back of me warm and surrounded by Ben. He was like the sun pulling me towards him with his gravity. I had to lean against the wheel to keep from falling into him and getting scorched. Sometimes I forgot to breathe, the wind was sucking away all the air, rushing it past my mouth and nose, through my hair, over my skin. I felt a brief, fluttery panic and some exhilaration: would I fall? would I faint? And then I knew suddenly that I could breathe anyway. I could inhale and there it’d be, air in my lungs, filling them hugely. The cliffs across the bay advanced steadily and I wondered what would happen if we never turned, if we kept going towards them and never turned back. Then Dirk fell and Ben took back the wheel.
Later he stayed for dinner and in between re-runs we watched the goings on from up in the loft. The grown-ups talked for a while. They discussed Dirk’s waterskiing progress.
Then my mother turned to Ben. “Ben,” she twirled her coral necklace around her finger, “I think you’ve made quite an impression on Rebecca. I think she has a little crush on you.” She laughed softly. I turned cold, then hot, burning up at my own transparency.
“She’s a good kid,” Ben said and smiled.
I felt somehow like a terrible kid. Julia poked me, playfully teasing, but I felt sick and had to be someplace else.
The air outside was cool but the lights inside the beach club hall glowed warmly. Tony, my favorite lifeguard, was making drinks behind the bar, a green bow-tie at his neck. He was concentrating and his hands moved fast, from bottle to ice, back to glass. I moved quickly too, past the windows where I spied parents of kids I knew, talking and drinking, red-faced.
I slipped into the bathroom, hating the feel of the damp Astroturf, stepping as much as I could on the outer edges of my feet. For a long time I stared at myself in the mirror, wishing that I looked like someone else. I pulled the bottom of my shirt up through the neck and back down again, revealing my tan tummy. I seemed older that way, almost a grown-up. In one of the stalls there was a rusty nail on the floor by the toilet bowl. I picked it up and scratched paint chips off the door with it. I scratched a heart then scratched at its edges until it was just a beige blob. I started to outline a horse’s head when I heard Tony’s voice outside the bathroom and for an instant I thought I would go see him. He would be happy, I imagined, to see a kid after all those pushy, drunk ladies. But then he was in the stall next to mine, and there were a woman’s sandaled feet on the floor next to his burned and pink and flip-flopped ones.
“We shouldn’t be doing this,” the lady said.
“You’re right,” Tony said, his lifeguard voice turned soft, and they both laughed. I felt alert to all the tiny changes in their breathing, in their shifting weight against the wall, in my own breath that seemed crazy-loud, so loud I wondered they couldn’t hear me. Tony’s feet moved between the lady’s. I pictured his mouth against her neck, his fingers counting the freckles on her shoulder. I saw her lift one foot. Then it disappeared from view and I pressed my ear against the partition and I wanted badly to pee though I hadn’t before. I was afraid whatever I did they’d notice me. They began to giggle like mad. I opened the door, just enough so I could slip by and tiptoe out, wetness squeezing up between my toes. I saw the woman’s jeweled hand clutching the top of the stall door and for a moment I regretted I didn’t stay for what would happen next, for the sound and feel of how these things ended up.
The next morning I woke up before Julia and Avery stirred. I went to the living room where the grown-up mess was still out: dirty plates, cloudy wine at the bottom of glasses. I saw the bag of pot under a chair. There was a joint in there too, rolled tight. I held it between my thumb and index finger and pretended to smoke it. I scrunched up my face a little while holding in my breath, then exhaled deeply. I looked around. No one had seen me, everyone was still sleeping. I put the joint in my pocket and the baggy back under the chair.
Up on the roof I stretched out on my towel and let the sun dry me. It beat down hard, warming me under my wet bathing suit. I opened my book—between its pages lay the joint. I rolled it in my fingers then put it back. I wanted Julia to see and was pleased when she did.
“What’s that?” Julia said.
I took a little fake puff
“You’re nuts,” she said.
“Well, if I am, so is everybody else.”
“Yeah, but they’re grown-ups.”
“So it should be okay,” I said, opening the book again and taking out the joint, twirling it, pressing its dry papery feel against my mouth.
The logic was irrefutable. Julia laughed, “You suck.”
“You suck,” I said and tugged a strand of her blonde hair.
Avery was climbing up the stairs with a book between her teeth.
“Avery, go get us a lighter,” I said. Avery shook her head. I took the book gently from her mouth. “Please.”
She sighed and disappeared down the stairs.
“By the way, you can’t have any,” I told her when she came back. She shrugged.
“That’s not fair,” Julia said.
I looked at her sternly.
“Why do you get to decide everything?” Julia said
“I’m older,” I said, wondering why I had never exercised this prerogative before.
I passed the joint to Julia after I’d puffed but now Julia was mad. She took it but didn’t bring it to her mouth. She just held it pinched between her fingers, looking at it as though she wasn’t sure how it had gotten there.
I stretched out again. The inside of my arm, off the towel, burned against the hot, gravely tar of the roof. I moved my hands under my chin at roof’s edge and looked out at the ocean. It was dipping, bobbing, flaring up in brightness, melting back to blue. I imagined driving my own Whaler. I would go to the cove behind the lighthouse where it was shallow, and jump out and swim and wade in the warm water. I had gone there once with my sailing class. We beached the little Prams and splashed each other and swam in our shorts and T-shirts and our life jackets too. I tried to dive deep, fighting helplessly against my life jacket, then giving in and bobbing up mechanically.
On the deck below my mother lay in a chaise lounge, oiling her skin as she talked to Ben. He was wearing yesterday’s shirt and pants and his feet were bare.
“Who wants a drink?” Aunt Joanne called to them from the house.
My mother rubbed tanning lotion into her tummy. A tiny strip of white skin flashed between the edge of her suit and the shiny nut color of her tan. Ben edged nearer on the bench that surrounded the deck. He put his feet up on my mother’s chair. He leaned towards her and his fingertips grazed her thigh. She ran her hand through her hair and looked at him. He moved his hand between her legs. They stayed this way for a while, and I froze, watching. I sensed Julia and Avery behind me, talking. I turned towards them.
“Look,” I tried to say. The word came out slow and quiet.
I saw Avery with the joint in her hand. There was a little crease in her forehead. My lungs felt heavy.
Stop, I said inside my head. “No, really. Stop,” I said aloud. Actually, it surprised me how loud it came out. So loud it seemed to make everything move.
I could feel my mother and Ben look up to the roof and Ben pull his hand back into his own lap. Avery flinched and slipped backwards a little. She steadied herself, finding her balance, putting a hand out to one side. But then she was falling again, slowly at first, her head pitching forward and her arms grabbing at the air and her legs strangely still. Then she was over the edge and there was a short dull crunching sound that could only be her body against the gravel.
It was quiet everywhere. The birds stopped peeping at each other, the crickets weren’t chirping, even the waves stopped lapping at the shore.
Julia and I peered over the edge of the roof at Avery’s still body, one leg straight and one bent, her pale hair splayed across the gravel, her mouth ajar.
Julia scurried down the stairs. Ben carried Avery into the Volvo. I was shivering violently under the beating sun.
I walked into the house.
“Call Dad,” I told my mother.
She was looking in the freezer for an ice pack or a bag of peas to give to Avery in the car.
“What?” she said. Her hands were shaking and frost spilled onto the kitchen floor.
“Call Dad,” I said again.
“What are you talking about?” She slammed the freezer door shut. We could hear the Volvo, peeling out of the driveway without ice or peas.
Grandmother walked in from the deck, a sheer scarf over her curlers, her face white with worry.
“Call Dad,” I told my grandmother, beginning to feel it was the only thing I could say anymore.
* * * * *
At the hospital they treated Avery for shock, three broken ribs and a lot of bruising. She was given a doll and a pair of roller-skates and a half-promise of a future puppy, as a reward for not dying or getting brain-damage or anything like that. The roof was forbidden. My father put a gate up by the stairs, and Julia and I had our allowance suspended for the summer. Privately, we agreed we were the same amount to blame. Julia, for giving the joint to Avery—against my wishes, I made the point. Me, for bringing it up to the roof in the first place—the origin of the problem, Julia argued. Grandmother would go on every once in a while about how close we came to killing Avery but my mother and aunt would tell her not to be ridiculous, it was all an unfortunate accident.
Ben stopped coming around. The fathers drove down from the city for weekends. Dirk was enrolled in the nature camp past town. He got mosquito bites up and down his long brown legs. He made plaster imprints of animal tracks, learned to identify the coastal birds, and spent a night outside in a tent. He got a terrible case of poison ivy—so bad he had to spend the next night at the hospital where they controlled his temperature and covered his body with calamine. Nobody had any idea he was so violently allergic. He also made friends with a boy named Chip who would come to the house for dinner and occasionally sleep over. My cousins and I would go into Dirk’s room in the middle of the night and watch Chip sleeping in the guest bed, illuminated only by our little flashlight. You could see the outlines of his muscles in his shoulders and arms. He looked like Ben only leaner and younger.
He climbed back into the Whaler and started the engine. We watched from the sand as he pushed the boat into gear and drove away. We watched as he became smaller and smaller. I wondered if he would keep on shrinking till he was nothing more than a speck, and then finally nothing at all, at least to the naked eye. But once he passed the lighthouse, he turned sharply left to hug the shore and disappeared abruptly from view.
The last time Ben took Dirk out on the water again we didn’t sit with him in the Whaler and he wasn’t offered a rum and tonic after the lesson. He just gave Dirk a sad ruffle of his hair.
“Well, see you ‘round,” he threw out to all of us.
“Yeah,” Julia dimly replied.