Montauk

By Gillian Walters


My parents rent a beach house for what they tell me will be the last time. I pretend to sleep on the car ride out to Montauk to make everything appear more charming for my mother, who periodically turns around in the passenger seat to take a picture. She tells my father how I look like an angel in the fading summer light. He tells her my weight concerns him and she should wake me up. I'm 12 and it's the last week of summer.

I open my eyes when we stop at a vegetable stand on 25A. My mother gets out of the car to buy some eggplant for the parmesan she promises to make for dinner. A man is watching my mother as she walks over. He's wearing a baseball cap and a white apron over dirty khaki shorts and filling a large plastic bag with every kind of vegetable for my mother. I'm worried as I watch this man watch her. His eyes follow her as she feels the eggplants, laughs with the vendors, and scratches her legs. I'm relieved when she doesn't pay him any attention.

Breaking the silence in the car, my father says, "I think you should know why we're not coming back to Montauk next summer." He points his finger ahead of him.

I blink and try to sit up straight so I can see where my father is pointing.

He's pointing to the man in the baseball cap and white apron. "Your mother is in love with that man."

The beach house we rent every year is too big for us. The house is split up into two levels. My bedroom is on the first floor and my parents sleep on the second. There is a spiral staircase that connects the two floors together, a staircase that I fell down when I was five. I've never been up those stairs since.

I go to my room to unpack my clothes. I hear a knock on the door and open it to find my mother standing there in her bikini. She's the only mother I know who still wears a bikini, or at least the only mother I know who still looks good in one. I try to imagine what I would look like standing there, covered only by a thin black cloth and strings. I look away.

"It's so dark in here," my mother says as she parts the blinds of my room.

I shrug and ask her when dinner will be ready.

She mumbles a reply and we just stare at each other.

"So," she starts, after what feels like a long time. "I was thinking it would be fun if we had a sleepover tonight."

"I don't like anyone here."

"Oh," she laughs. "Not anyone here. I meant a sleepover between you and me. We can camp out in your room and stay up late. I could sleep in your bed with you."

I say nothing. I can hear waves crashing onto the shore and some kid crying over sunburn. The walls of this house have always been thin.

"C'mon. It would be fun."

My mother is straining and stretching her smile taut like a tight rope.

I tell her fine and she recommends I cheer up for my father.

"He already hates vacations to begin with," she says and closes my door, leaving me alone with the decorative seashells and buoys on the walls.

My father decides not to come down the stairs to dinner. I can hear the T.V. in his bedroom. He turns the volume up when my mother starts asking me what I want to do tomorrow.

"What else is there to do other than go to the beach?"

My mother refills her glass of wine when I say this.

Through the sliding glass doors of the living room where we are eating, I notice how the moon makes the sand glow. It reminds me of the time my mother brought me back a starfish from a business trip she took to Florida. The starfish was a pale pink and had sparkles dusted all over it. She told me that she saw the starfish one night when she went to stand out on the balcony of her hotel room. She said the sparkles had gotten her attention and that it was a magical starfish. A year or so later, I saw the same starfish my mother gave me in a shop for tourists.

Stabbing the eggplant with my fork and looking away from her, I ask, "Why do you like to lie?"

My mother sighs and tucks a loose strand of her hair behind her ear. As she does I notice how everything about her is soft, like her skin, which I rub my cheeks against when I want to pretend that I'm a newborn.

"I hate when you ask stupid questions." She puts her head in her hands.

My father opens his bedroom door. He stands above us barely looking like my dad but more like a small bird. When my mother wears heels she's an inch or two taller than him.

My mother always discusses their differences. It makes me wonder why she ever married him to begin with.

Two Christmases ago, my father yelled at the sight of all the fallen pine needles on the floor from our Christmas tree. I cried but my mother told me not to be upset with him.

She said, "I remember driving around with my family at Christmas time when I was little. We would turn the heat up real high and we would drive around the neighborhood at night to look at the lights. I never felt more safe or happy. I couldn't imagine never having that. Your father had none of it, not even close."

My mother has always had love. Her parents kissed openly in front of her and her siblings. Her family wasn't rich but they were comfortable, and my mother always had new dolls. Her father died from a stroke before she was twenty, but when she talks about him it's as if he's standing right in front of her. To her, he's like a strong, clear bell. Her mother was a nurse and she was always nosing in my mother's business, but when she died my mother said she cried so hard her nose bled.

My mother said because my father didn't have a good family it messed with his head. She said it's why he can't control himself. Or why he can't love. But he tries, she said, and sometimes, "trying is enough.

The sound of my father almost falling down the last two steps of the staircase takes me of out trying to recollect my parent's past, He stumbles towards us and says to my mother, "Drunk yet?"

"No, but obviously you haven't been denying yourself any."

"Have you told her about your boyfriend?"

Mom stands up and starts clearing our plates even though I'm not finished eating.. My father grabs her wrist and twists it around so her veins are facing in my direction. Her eyes show surprise. A plate drops.

"Did you tell her about the receipts I found?"

I've never seen my father put his hands on my mother and it scares me. My mother is probably stronger than my father, but I've heard rage is unpredictable. I don't want him to hurt my mother.

I jump off of my chair and pull my father's shirt but he takes me with him as he holds my mother's wrist.

Then, my father shouts. My mother has her teeth in his arm. He doesn't fight back. Instead, he lets go and steadies himself. He walks out to the deck and sits in the beach chair. I can see the wind gently moving his hair to the side.

After I take a few minutes to catch my breath, I ask, "Is he telling the truth, Mom?"

"Get a dust pan for this plate," she commands.

I come back with the dust pan but my mother is gone. I hear the bath turn on and she calls out, "We're still going to have that sleepover. Mom just needs a little alone time right now." The wine bottle that was on the kitchen table is now gone. I imagine my mother slowly raising a glass of red to her lips. I know that my mother will be dumb and needy in about an hour or so.

I try to decide whether or not I should go to out on the deck with my father. I remember the time he took me to the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn and the pained look in his eyes when he pointed out a group of flowers that he thought weren't getting enough sun. I also remember when he promised to take my mother out to dinner one night and then at the last minute decided against it. My mother was all dressed up and she cried to my babysitter while my father watched T.V.

A day later I heard my father crying. I always thought he couldn't cry. I thought he couldn't cry. He was in the bedroom with my mother and I repeatedly heard him say, "One more chance," and "I love you, I'm trying."

I couldn't hear very well but I know my mother sounded frustrated. She talked about patience and how she couldn't live like this much longer. "Always on edge," she said. "Having good days and bad days."

My mother's smart and she can always tell when I've been snooping. She told me to forget what I heard that day. I asked her if my father regularly cries when I'm not around. She said no and that she has only heard him cry twice, once that day and once before they were married. Sometimes I lie on my bed and try to imagine those times.

The glass door is heavy when I slide it open. My father doesn't turn around. I smell the salt and feel the cool air of the Atlantic.

"Daddy?"

My father moves over in his chair and I sit down next to him. "Do you sometimes forget that there are stars up there," he says, pointing towards the sky.

"No."

He says he's surprised considering I'm a city kid.

I start to cry because this is not what I had wanted to talk about. What feels like a fist in my throat forces me to ask, "Can you please stop being angry with Mom?"

"I'm not angry with her. She's been angry at me for a while, that's all."

He pulls me closer and I smell his leftover cigarettes. "I love you, doll face."

He hasn't called me doll face in what feels like a very long time.

I'm digging holes alone at the beach. All the other kids here are too young to play with or they think I'm a snob because I'm from the city. All the real snobby kids are in the Hamptons so I'm stuck here, watching my mother lather herself in baby oil. My father is reading the paper inside.

"Are you getting enough shade over there?"

I hate when my mother reminds me that I burn easily. The only part I like about burning is that my mother will sit with me and rub aloe onto my back.

I see a man walking over to me and my mother. As he gets closer, I recognize him as the man from the vegetable stand. I automatically stiffen and grip my shovel tighter in my hand.

"Hey Rachel," the man says.

"Oh, hey, Tony," she replies casually. My mother looks over at me with a big smile on her face. "You remember Tony, right? He owns that restaurant that you, Daddy, and me, used to like going to. The one with the baked clams you love?"

I remember the clams but I shake my head no and go back to digging a hole I care nothing about.

Tony tells her he's going for a walk on the beach before he has to go into work. Tony has a thick accent. I stop digging my hole and look up through sun to Tony. He's very tan. He's also loud and waves his hands around a lot when he speaks. He compliments my water shorts that I wear instead of a bathing suit.

My mother taps my leg and tells me she's going to go on a short walk with Tony. She says I should go in the ocean.

"A little sun should do you good," Tony says. "My kids love to body ride the waves."

I barely look at Tony. "I like the sun fine," I say.

Tony laughs and tells me he hopes I enjoy the rest of my summer.

I don't go into the ocean as my mom and Tony walk away down the beach. I just walk up to the edge, to the gentle lap of water against my feet. The water feels cold as it weaves itself in between my toes.

As I step out further into the ocean. I imagine myself drowning. I see myself pulled under the surface, my mouth wide open in shock. I walk back to our beach umbrella. I look at my body underneath the shade. My legs are bright pink and I have some new freckles. My father and mother used to connect my freckles together with markers. When they first did it I didn't find it funny, but then my mother told me they wanted to make some constellations. "You can pretend to be the night sky," my father had said and laughed.

For a moment, I remember how my parents used to laugh so hard together they would sometimes forget that I was there. I see pictures of my dad sitting around in hospital scrubs opening Christmas presents and smiling wide. Once, they shared secrets instead of keeping them from each other.

I start to think about drowning again. From my comfortable spot beneath the umbrella, I see another version of myself begin to have trouble with the waves. My other body tries to swim back but the current is too strong. She looks for my mom and Tony, but they are just small dots on what is an empty horizon. Barely anyone is out on the beach, and if they are, they're not anywhere near where she's swimming.

My other self is above the surface now. She screams but then she's under again. She's too afraid to open her eyes. She thinks she's dying. She tries to imagine something safe, like my mother singing my favorite lullaby, "I love you in the morning and in the afternoon. I love you in the evening and underneath the moon."

Then, a big wave spits the other me back onto the shore. My father and mother appear in the distance and they run towards her body. My mother kneels on the sand and tells her that she looks beautiful, like an angel, and then cries. My mother's tears feel warm on her toes.

My father pets the back of her neck and says, "I want to go back to the city."

My mother nods. Her face is still crinkly from crying and it looks, like she has been out in the sun too long.

For a second, everything looks like it should. Together on a sunny beach, my parents fawn over my ghost.

None of this happens. I'm just the one person and I haven't drowned. A few minutes pass and my mother walks back towards the umbrella without Tony. She looks neither happy nor sad, just tired. It's the same look she gets when my father gets angry. His moods are a pendulum-- never coming to rest. My mother once said, "It's like love is a type of blood his body keeps rejecting."

I don't know if it's my father's body that's rejecting love or my mother is simply rejecting his love.

I rub the locket that hangs from my neck. My mother gave it to me this morning. It was her mother's necklace and inside it was a picture of a tiny Blue Jay. After I put it on, she cried; I don't know why. Later, she wanted to play hide and seek, a game we hadn't played together since I was at least seven. We played, but everything felt wrong.

"Well," she says as she starts to fold up our beach chairs, "I guess it's about time we go back to pack up the house."

She looks up past the sand dunes and up at our house. For a moment, it looks like she's not sure if we actually live there. Her gaze is distant and confused. I grab her hand and together we walk up the mountains of sand.

In a few hours, everything is packed away. I'm still happy from my imaginings of the afternoon as my father locks the big glass sliding doors together, the sun shining so brightly that the glare on the glass makes it impossible for me to look back at the house I'll never step foot in again.

We pull onto the high way slowly, and our car is a plane gracing the runway, prepared for takeoff. My father and mother are both silent as I hum along to the radio, watch the other cars drive past us, and stare back at sad kids holding boogey boards on their laps. I'm the only kid who is happy to leave Montauk.

"Michael, I have to pee."

My father snorts.

"You mean you have to use the restroom?"

"Yes, Michael."

I feel the car speed up and try to watch my father's expression in the rear view mirror. He doesn't look like a living person anymore. He just stares straight ahead at the road and he doesn't even bother to look behind him when he switches lanes.

We pull up to a gas station. My father says nothing still.

My mother unbuckles her seat belt and asks me to hand over her beach bag. My mother then gets out, but before she goes inside the store of the gas station, she taps on my window.

I roll it down and as soon as I do I'm taken aback by the smell of engines and sun tanning lotion.

"Will you miss me while I'm gone," my mother sings.

I wonder if she's drunk.

"Yes," I say, strangling the last bit of affection I have out of me.

She plays with my hair and says, "You're my sweet baby."

"Rachel," my father says.

Her head pulls back from inside the car and she's standing on the outside again. I roll up the window and look away.

We watch my mother go into the gas station.

But now we're going backwards. The car is in reverse. I ask my father what we're doing but he doesn't answer. He looks to see if there are any cars pulling in behind us. I begin to cry. I start screaming and banging on the window because I don't want to leave my mother on this highway alone. I don't want to leave my mother at all.

As we start to drive away, I unbuckle my seatbelt so I can see behind me, so I can see if my mother is running after the car. Through my tears, I watch my mother walk out of the station and put her sunglasses on. I see her walk across the road in small and soft steps. Before she's out of sight, I see her lift her head towards the sun as she sticks out her thumb to all the cars passing us in the opposite direction.

I don't know who will pick her up. Maybe it's another woman on the run. A woman, who, like my mother, has long hair that she puts up in a messy ponytail when she goes to the beach. On the car ride back to Montauk, this woman and my mother sing along to the radio, something my father would have never allowed.

Once in Montauk, my mother finds Tony. They make a big bonfire on the beach at night. The sky looks like a bruise. My mother wears a loose sweatshirt over her bathing suit because it's cold but I know her body is warm with anticipation. She tells stories to the people who've gathered around the fire. They believe her exaggerations and laugh at her imitations. She digs her toes into the sand with pleasure at this acceptance.

People start to leave. Bottles and cans pile up in a trash can. The fire fades slowly, like the flash lights that move farther away in the distance, leaving my mother and Tony alone. Tony places his hand over my mother's. She smiles a smile that could crack the world in half. They leave for Tony's house.

Tony falls asleep first. My mother checks his pulse because she can't believe that any of this is real. She can't believe she is real. She lies awake for what I imagine is a long time. When she wakes up her eyes look like they've been crying, but she can't seem to remember why.

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