Disaster is imminent. Mom is driving. The Dad’s blood pressure rising. We can all feel it. Veins in our temples. Pulsing.
Turn there! The Dad stabs at the green highway sign announcing the next exit.
We’re not going that way, I say.
Turn! There! the Dad ignores me like I’ve wet myself and he’s too disgusted to even acknowledge it.
I’m thirty-three years old.
Mom resolutely forging forward.
Get in the right lane, The Dad orders. This is the exit. Nancy! Do you hear me? This. Is. The. Exit.
We’re going the regular way, I say.
There! The Dad’s eyes bulging out of his head as we shoot past his turnoff.
We pass it.
You’re passing it!
We were never going that way, I point out.
Rainy puts her hand on my leg. Squeezes. Shut up? or Be strong? or Your family is crazy?
That was the exit, the Dad mutters. Goddamn it.
We just want to get there, I say.
Fuck! the Dad pronounces.
Simon, Mom says.
The Dad shrouds his face in the map.
Rainy unpacks. She understands these holidays with my parents are something we have to do: keep up appearances, be good people. We—and they—are all good people. But really it isn’t about good or bad, requirement or respectability. It’s a symbiosis, an ingrown truth we spend all our time avoiding. Their life is my life. They haunt me because they are me, my memory, my self, a living ghost smothering me in its ample, ever-present bosom.
Rainy is done unpacking.
You could be nicer, she says. To your dad.
He’s crazy, I say. He practically went psychotic when we didn’t stop at that chicken place. And he told us to fuck off. Remember?
We could have stopped there.
Did you see his face when I told him you didn’t like chicken? I thought he was gonna have a frigging heart attack!
I laugh. Rainy turns away. Her father died of a heart attack.
From our balcony on the twelfth floor, I scan the beach with the Dad’s binoculars. Beach is a swathe of sand packed between high-rise condos and the grey-green Atlantic. People shroud the silt, splayed out like retired centerfold models—used to displaying themselves and their accoutrements. Science experiment cellulite creeps across the sand, overwhelms bathing-suit bottoms, threatens to encompass even the spreading scope of the sky. Everywhere I look, white fleshy skin bloats toward the waning sun.
I scan for teenage girls in string bikinis. But instead I find the parents in my scope. They’re negotiating with the umbrella boy. I freeze, unable to look away. Mom gesticulates, the Dad talks loudly. I can see his lips flapping. Armed with meticulous instructions and an ample tip, the umbrella boy will no doubt be eagerly staking out our prime territory sometime next sunrise. The parents complete their transaction. The Dad shades his forehead with a hand and gazes rapaciously out at the sea, as if challenging it to an eat-off. Mom looks the other way, her eyes comparing condos for placement, value, amenities, pool size. I see her poke the Dad and they both turn toward our building, pointing and waving.
What are they waving at?
Me, I realize.
Suddenly, I’m sweating in the sea air. I can actually see the Dad’s lips forming words: Hi, son! Over here, son! The entire mass of beach-bound sun worshippers stirring from their slumber to see what that crazy old guy is going on about. The Dad’s yelling drowned out by the recurring arrival of the tide. My parents gesticulate frantically, their hands over their heads. An eternity passes. I pretend not to notice. I pretend to linger on the tight buns of a sun-kissed adolescent whose flesh has not yet turned corporeal and corrupted by a steady diet of light beer and reality TV. Where is she? Splaying her charms to the last of the late day’s heat.
Rainy says I’m ungrateful. Rainy says I’m an asshole. Rainy says I’m lucky to have parents who care about me.
The Dad wants ribs but I insist on all-you-can-eat crabs.
But the rib place is the best! the Dad half-heartedly protests.
Simon, Mom says, the kids want seeefood.
Mom decides we’ll walk the six blocks to Joe’s All-You-Can-Dismember Crab Hut. Mom is always trying to get the Dad to walk places. The Dad and I both hate walking.
Two blocks in, I realize why nobody walks in Ocean Town. It’s like going for a pleasant evening stroll on the shoulder of a highway during a rush-hour traffic jam. Three lanes each way, the main drag separates the premium beachfront high-rises from the restaurants and less premium motels. In order to stave off the ocean’s looming uncertain surety, every other possible surface has been paved over, made solid and irrefutable.
Why are we walking?
It’s good for you, Mom says.
C’mon, wimp. The Dad punches me hard in the shoulder. Get some exercise. For a change.
Rainy keeps trying to escape my grip on her arm. The air is exhaust saucing stolid chunks of turgid traffic-wake breeze. Cars pull in and out of giant family-style restaurants. The vehicles are oblivious to us, lone pedestrians gingerly stepping past the yawning maws of parking lots. In order to show everyone what I whiner I am, the Dad is making a big display of enjoying this promenade. The Dad doesn’t seem to notice that we are the only people walking. That the sky is pollution grey. That he is perpetually on the verge of veering off the sidewalk into oncoming traffic.
The Dad runs enthusiastic commentary on the local flora.
Look, Nancy, a bathing-suit place!
Mmm … Rainy, Ice Cream Castle!
Hey, son, Tequila Mockingbird! It’s a bar. Should we try it? What d’ya think? Wanna try it?
Sure, I mutter. Rainy catches me in this moment of distraction. Pulls out of my suddenly flaccid grasp, surges ahead to join the aggressively normal: my power-striding mother on a permanent ladies’ walkathon for breast cancer and orphans.
Rainy has escaped. Left alone, I feel like dangling legs, the view from the shark’s perspective. The Dad as Jaws. Huffs to catch up. Immobilizes his prey by hooking a weighty, hairy, moist arm around my shoulders.
How are things going, son?
Yeah? How’s work?
Good. Fine. You know.
Sure. Sure. What about with Rainy?
Good. Things are good.
Hey. Great. The Dad scans the horizon. Hey, he says after we’ve taken a few steps. We should try that bar. That one we passed with the funny name. You wanna try that bar?
I am ambling strip of little-used sidewalk. I am running shoe come untied.
The Dad reels me in. Asks the dreaded question.
What’s wrong? he wants to know.
It’s on my skin. On every pore. Can’t breathe. Grainy humid air. Grown men covered in hair. Father and son. Peninsula jutting into the sea, paved over and turned into a giant seafood restaurant. Every single dish comes with a plastic thimble of melted butter. My parents. They don’t know me. Boo hoo. They pay for everything, and everything is a relative concept. Asking me what’s wrong—it’s like sending a hypochondriac to the doctor for a checkup.
I lurch out of his grip.
There it is, I say. Joe’s.
Do they have it? The Dad wants to know. The all-you-can-eat?
Of course, I say.
The crab-and-shrimp bonanza costs $26.99 per person. Along with endless catches of crustaceans, it includes single servings of crab bisque, corn on the cob, deep-fried chicken breast, and French fries. (The parents are on some kind of complicated diet; they ignore the corn and fries but consume freely of chicken and bisque.) I succumb totally, rip little legs off little crabs and use my own ample lips—like father, like son—to suck out flecks of juicy white meat. The spices make me sweat. Rainy, long since finished with a reluctantly ordered crab-cake sandwich, wipes my brow with a paper towel.
Nurse! I growl intermittently. Rainy swabs forehead. The Dad loves this. He chortles over shrimp mounded high as the blurred night. Nurse! Ha! Nancy! Nurse!
Rip and suck. Suck and rip. I am primitive man in air conditioning. Another crab. Then another. Rainy is a good sport. Wipe! I say. The Dad laughs. I am lost in the moment. Lost in translation. Are we bonding? Is this what fun is like? More crabs!
Finally Mom says, Don’t you think you’ve had enough? She says it without conviction, torn between her motherly instinct to feed and her sense that I am engaging in excesses beyond the normal, beyond what she would want the neighbours back home to be privy to.
You’re gonna make yourself sick, Rainy points out.
I look at the Dad to see his reaction. He surprises me with a gentle, rueful, shake of his head, delicate disappointment conveying what we both are thinking: women do not understand gorging.
Leave the boy alone, the Dad says.
Mom shrugs. I motion to the waitress: More crabs!
Rainy says, You know … it was kinda … hot. You eating like that.
Hot? Like hot hot?
And being my nurse bitch?
Rainy, I think, is drunk on the sun. Unlike me, she loves the heat, can lie prone for hours, the only sign that she is alive being her uncanny ability to flip every forty-five minutes, as if following a recipe for Perfect Bronzed Glazed Girl.
She is perfect.
I watch her flip from my slump under a Russian-beach-boy umbrella. Third flip. Two hours and fifteen minutes gone by. The breeze a constant requiem. Never cool enough to cool. The sun eyeing me. Since about halfway to the first flip, I’ve been forced under the umbrella grove, a toadstool patch of sizzling shade strewn with parental bathing-suit bulges and a wide array of beach necessities, from cold diet drinks to six different varieties of sunscreen (S.P.F.s 4 to 400) to a paddle game no one will ever use. The parents read self-improvement paperbacks and doze, but are acutely aware of my every gesture. Behind designer sunglasses they study me for signs—evidence that I love them, or at least love myself; that I am going crazy or getting sane; that I will impregnate Rainy and give them perfect grandchildren; or that I will leave Rainy and take up with a transgendered dwarf. Anything is possible, the worst is inevitable. I am their son, a mystery. This is their week to unravel me.
They’re doing a good job.
I bound out of rented shade and over to Rainy.
Who reveals to me how hot I am when I pig out.
Instantly, I slick. Sweat gluing my chest hairs together, sweat coursing over my pilose paunch, the sand rubbing its grainy bits between the hot tight gaps of my toes.
Really? I squint at her through the blinding sunshine. You thought I was … sexy? But weren’t you kinda … grossed out?
I was. But, for some reason … Rainy trails a hand up my bare leg.
We could mosey up to the condo, I say.
We could …
Rainy is long, tight, seems fragile but is tougher than all of us. Likes it hard from behind.
Afternoon delight, I say.
Let’s go, I say.
Rainy stands up, pulls on a T-shirt. I wait, crouching in the scalding sand, for my hard-on to diminish.
C’mon, big boy. Crab boy.
Rainy pincers me with claw fingers. I squirm, giggle. I can feel the parents watching, thinking, Are they going to get married? Are they going to have babies?
My cock withers.
We’re gonna go up, I call over to them. Get some lunch … or something.
Would you like anything from the condo? Rainy asks politely.
Simon, Mom says loudly. The Dad has a bit of a permanent buzzing in one ear. Legacy of exposure to heavy machinery before they got around to the concept of earplugs. Mom talks to him like he barely speaks our language. Simon! The kids are going upstairs. Do you want something!
I stand behind Rainy, close enough to touch her. She wears a purple one-piece. Smooth back flowing down to the gentle curve of her ass. I can feel myself getting hard again.
C’mon, I say. Let’s go.
You going for lunch? the Dad says, finally stirring.
Yes, says Rainy.
Sure. What the hell. The Dad heaves himself out of an umbrella-boy-supplied recliner. I’ll come too.
When I take the Dad to a restaurant, he always tells me about a restaurant he knows that serves the exact same kind of food as the place we are in—only much better. Afterwards, my mother always slips a hundred dollars in my jacket pocket. Rainy frowns, thinks I’m weak because I always make a big show of buying dinner, then let Mom give me more money than the dinner cost.
But her father is dead, and mine is alive. When I take from my parents, I am reaffirming that they are alive, that they are strong and I am weak, and nothing will ever change, and all of us will live forever. What do I really want? Stasis or seniority? Their death or my own perpetual junior adulthood?
The Dad is restless. What d’ya wanna do tonight, kids? he keeps asking. There’s a new mall they put in right over the bridge. Wanna check it out? Or how about we drive to Duney Beach, that great boardwalk they have there. With the fudge place. Nancy? What d’ya say? Wanna go to Duney? C’mon! We’ll all go!
Day 5 or Day 25 . No time for time. The Dad is perpetually agitated. He even watches cable like a man possessed. Chased. Every channel a possible portal to escape through. Every channel a lie, a failure, a nowhere exit.
Hey, Rainy, what d’ya say? Sound good? O.K., let’s do it!
Cocktail hour. I am drinking beer on the balcony. Sunset dripping all over the ocean. Rainy sits in a living room armchair, staring into space. Rainy’s like that. She can just disappear into her own little world.
The Dad thinks she’s bored. Thinks she needs entertainment, needs a new bathing suit, needs an ice-cream sundae. We should go on an outing, for swim-wear, for a bucket of Basher’s Famous French Fries—everything comes in bucket size here.
How about putt-putt? the Dad announces. His earnest red face filled with optimistic expectation. He’s latched onto Rainy. Senses her reluctance to disappoint.
That would be … nice, she murmurs.
Hey! Rainy’s in for putt-putt!
Will you relax, I say, coming in from the balcony. Will you just relax?
The Dad ignores me.
We can putt-putt then get fries, he says.
Nobody wants to putt-putt, I say.
Rainy’s off in space. Her head lolled to one side, brown curls spilling on a bare brown shoulder poking out of a tank top. Weird toothy half-grin like she’s high or something.
I’m not talking to you, the Dad explains. I’m talking to Rainy. You can stay here and rot.
Leave the kids alone, Mom says.
So no one wants to do anything? The Dad whirls on me. You? You came all this way just to sit on your fat ass? He spits a little as he yells. It’s Grade 9 and I just brought home a bad report card.
I take a sip of beer and return to the balcony. In my mind. That’s what I do. I am calm and cool and disaffectedly disinclined to be affected.
No. Plan A is not working. Plan B explodes out of me, chain-reaction minefield tread on by a herd of wild horses.
You know what? Everyone is sick of this shit of yours! Just because you cannot chill the fuck out, doesn’t mean that we have to go fucking putt-putt!
Stop that! Mom says from the kitchen.
You don’t want to go anywhere, the Dad gushes. Mr. His Highness just wants to sit on his fat ass and drink beer!
Simon. Just leave them alone for God’s sake.
You’re all against me! The Dad has turned beet red, like the sunburnt beach-backs that coat the coast. I don’t need this crap, he pronounces. I don’t need this … bullshit!
I feel as if I’m losing the argument.
But the Dad stomps out of the condo. Slams the door behind him.
The next day, Mom sends us on a trip to the nearby state park while she negotiates a truce. She dangles the key to the S.U.V. like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
A miracle! Four hours alone! I wave away Mom’s insistent offer that we take her cellphone. Grab the keys.
C’mon, I call to Rainy. Let’s go.
I have to pack up our stuff.
Rainy is gathering hats, towels, books.
Fuck, I say. Will you come on!
In the S.U.V. Rainy is quiet. Looks out the side window at the awesome array of passing fast-food franchises.
What? What is it?
You’re rude, she says. You’re just … rude.
What are you talking about? I’m not rude.
You are. You’re a rude person. You’re worse than your father.
Fine, I say. Good. It’s all my fault now.
The park beach is famous for its wild ponies. Once a year, they push them toward the fenced-in state line and cull the herd. One day, the ponies are a hundred, the next day, they are eighty. The brochure does not say what happens to the captured ponies.
Rainy thinks it’s better if you just get along. Rainy doesn’t see the point in not getting along. I once tried to explain it to her. Reactionary rebirth. Hate as love. She had no idea what I was talking about. Her dad died when she was a teenager. Anyway, it’s different for girls. Sometimes we go to her father’s grave. She cries. I stand there.
As we pull into the park, I say, O.K., watch for ponies. You see any ponies?
Whatever, Rainy mutters.
The park beach is nearly empty. The sky unblemished by development. Blue and exhausting. Missing something. I trail behind Rainy as she stalks the beach. The water here is cold and sharp, the waves small but insistent, like the distant rumble of a lightning storm slowly approaching. Rainy collects shells, oohing and ahing all little-girly, pointedly ignoring me. Sweat rolls down my inside arms. Rainy is slim, energetic, a sun-nymph sand-mermaid in a tattered one-piece.
Dad is right. She needs a new bathing suit.
I want her. I want her completely. Why does she stay with me? Without her I am someone else.
Hey, I say. Hey, Rainy. Can we … just … sit down here?
She blinks at me.
I’m sorry, O.K.? I just … I’m trying to—
Your father is a very unhappy man, she says.
No, he’s—you think so?
You have to be nice to him.
Sweat beading on my upper lip.
Rainy kisses me. Her mouth hot and forgiving. Like it’s possible. To be forgiving.
I’m going swimming, I say.
We look at the ocean. The waves weaving tiny kamikaze multiples.
Why not? The horses do it.
You’re not a horse.
I make a made-up pony noise and canter into icy water. Waves encompass me, push me down, then buoy me up on the peaks of their salty depths.
The deal has been brokered.
I will take the Dad to Tequila Mockingbird for a father-son rapprochement. Then everyone will meet at the rib place for dinner.
Rainy hugs me goodbye. Be nice, she mutters in my ear.
The Dad’s been reading up on Tequila Mockingbird. As profiled in the latest edition of the Ocean Town freebie, Ocean Town Living.
They’ve got fifty different types of tequila! he tells me. He claps his hands. He does that when he’s excited.
Cool, I say.
We take stools at the bar.
It’s still happy hour. We order buck-fifty bottles of Mexican beer to sip while we peruse the tequila menu.
The best are one hundred per cent pure agave, the Dad says.
It’s like, cactus, the Dad says.
Tequila, the Dad tells me conspiratorially, is the new Scotch.
To please the Dad, I randomly pick a fourteen-dollar tequila. Hundred per cent pure blue agave from the foothills of the San Somewhere. Smoky with a hot-sour effervescence that evokes civil war, Pancho and Lefty, burro dung—cactus!
The Dad tops me with a rare eighteen-dollar vintage, aged twenty-six years in a fermenting adobe barrel lined with rattlesnake skin.
Don’t tell your mother, he says, producing a fifty-dollar bill.
And two more beers, I add.
The bartender compliments our choices, free pours huge servings into ceramic goblets reserved for the higher-end orders.
Cheers, I say.
We cheers. Our goblets thunk.
I gulp an ounce and a half, barely making a dent.
So? the Dad says.
It tastes like tequila, I say. Only better, I quickly add.
Mine doesn’t taste like tequila, the Dad says.
What does it taste like?
We exchange goblets. Why not? His disease is mine too.
Wow, I say. Yours is great!
It tastes like tequila.
Yeah. The Dad is clearly happy.
Here. I hand him back his drink.
No. You have it. I’ll drink yours.
Naw. You picked better. You have it. It’s yours.
The Dad orders up a happy-hour snack of lobster quesadillas.
So … the Dad says.
I gulp at both my drinks. Me and the Dad. Alone at last.
Feeling it now. The urge to run. In my thighs, in my chest.
Be nice, Rainy tells me. I take a deep breath.
So … uh, yeah, I say. So … uh … how ya doing? I mean, you’ve kinda been, you seem a little … stressed?
Ah, he says. It’s, I dunno. It’s … I’m on these pills. Your mother, she wanted me to try these pills.
Ah, you know. For depression and stuff.
Ah, well …
Hey, no biggie, I say. I mean, me too, right? Must run in the family.
I do the double-drink dance.
So, um, what do you mean … stuff?
Ah, the Dad sighs. Like, anxiety and crap. I’ve been getting, the doctor says … agitated.
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s working.
You think it’s working?
C’mon Dad. You’re all right. Just a little … hyper.
The doctor said they would take a while. To kick in.
So they’ll take a while. Stick with them. See what happens. You should stick with them.
I dunno. The Dad gloomily swirls his goblet. Doesn’t drink.
Afternoon alcohol. The bar fills up, floods with scorched couples, Macarena music, empty piñata shells swaying from the ceiling, stirred by the air conditioning.
Maybe I should try them, I say hazily. Those pills.
You? What do you need them for?
I’ll do it for you. Right? Like father, like son. Ha.
I slurp at my beer.
Stop talking like an idiot, the Dad says.
I catch the bartender, motion for another.
The Dad says, It was hard for me. When I was a kid.
Like in Russia and stuff?
He nods. Your grandmother. My ma. She was one tough lady.
Yeah, I agree. You miss her?
He doesn’t answer. Looks away. Looks back at me.
I just want to be happy.
You will be, Dad. C’mon. You will be.
Quesadillas arrive. We eat.
Last day of vacation. The sun again. Umbrellas and deck chairs set a few feet back from the encroaching tide. Rainy lies on her front. Soon, I’m guessing, she’ll flip. Eyes shrouded in sunglasses. Soaks up the sun, precise in her relentless restfulness. Most of the time, I have no idea what she’s thinking.
I’m alone in the shade. Parents on a stroll down the beach.
It’s hot. Hottest day yet. The air swirls in ripples. Behind, the concrete bakes, cracks, crumbles. In front, the ocean, afternoon placid, end in sight.
I break camp, stride by Rainy, who gives no sign of noticing my existence. Crouch in the tide, the returning waves sucking my feet into the sand.
Gradually, I go deeper. Walk in until I can’t touch bottom anymore.
I close my eyes, let the waves take me toward the distant horizon.
Sure, why not?
Close your eyes.
(Originally published summer, 2007.)