FROM THE ARCHIVES: "Labor Day" by Dorothy Spears
(from the Fall/Winter 2016 issue)
(photo credit: Thomas Kimp)
Labor Day weekend at the Brown family beach house was a time-honored tradition, so it only made sense that George would make the long trip up from Washington. He had called Vance’s office on the off-chance that we could meet his train, but neither Vance nor I could get off work early, so he was not with us that Saturday when we bumped into the dirt driveway of the Brown’s old cedar-shingled Victorian on Shore Road. Vance parked our Toyota in a weedy spot between a fleet of rusting Buicks; Judy only bought American, when she did buy, about once every twenty years.
George appeared under a trellis weighted with droopy wisteria. He was Judy’s only living relative, not counting her children. Five years her senior; in decent shape, though stocky; his scalp a smooth dome. He smelled faintly of cologne.
“There she is,” he said, opening his arms and tilting his chin to give me a peck. It could have been protocol, a simple ladies-first thing, but I always sensed in George’s choice to greet me before Vance a desire to mask deeper urges. “How are you, gorgeous?” he said, with a sly twinkle, as he glanced over my shoulder, at Vance probably.
“Hello, George,” I answered, coolly. I hadn’t seen him since our wedding, the night before which he had thrown an all-night party, to my deep annoyance. Judy had reserved a block of rooms in a gloomy hotel that had formerly been a brothel; she said it would save money. The only other hotel she’d considered was the only other former brothel in my buttoned-up hometown, a coup of sorts. She’d settled on the hotel furthest away from my parents’, and insisted that George and Vance share a room. George had stocked the room with all manner of booze. And I didn’t care if Vance was George’s godson. Vance couldn’t sleep there. He had promised me he wouldn’t sleep there. I’d asked our best man to make sure he didn’t sleep there.
“Oh, don’t worry,” the best man had grinned, rolling his wide eyes portentously. He knew the whole George story, having spent a summer with Vance, before all of our senior years, in Georgetown, where George lived. He and Vance had both served as interns on Capitol Hill. In the end, skirting the facts, Vance had laughed that George’s pre-wedding bash had gone so late no one had slept at all. It certainly looked that way, given how peaky he and his family and most of the wedding party looked by the time they all dragged their sorry selves into church for the service.
Vance had always maintained that he’d lost his virginity on a one-night stand when he was fourteen, five years before we’d met at Lupo’s. I remember appreciating that he was more experienced than I was, especially since he was innocent, too, in his way. He had never been out of the country, never even flown on an airplane, when he came to meet me in Paris that first time, in June 1982.
We were both a little out of our element when we went to get my yellow duffle bag at the girl’s youth hostel in the Marais, where I’d been staying. Lugging our combined luggage over the bridge to Saint-Michel, we sheepishly began our search for a nice, affordable hotel. A small, Arab-run place on the Rue des Écoles felt like an oasis with its floral-papered walls and green trim. We piled our bags into a tiny elevator and immediately started fumbling with each other’s zippers, onto the bed. The room had pretty, natural light and the same nubby, cotton bedspread that was on my own twin beds when I was a little girl.
“Sorry…” Vance said, afterward.
I’d thought it was supposed to hurt. “Sorry for what?”
Vance with his experience.
We stayed in Paris for two and a half weeks, before he returned to New Britain to work at his mother’s newspaper. I worked as an au pair, off in the countryside, two hours outside of Paris, for the rest of the summer. When school started that fall, Vance said, “You know, we could sleep with other people and it wouldn’t matter.” The remark made no sense, given that he was the only man I’d ever slept with. He said, “I mean, our relationship is strong enough.” When I looked horrified, he apologized and said he didn’t mean it, didn’t know what he was thinking. Of course he didn’t want to sleep with anyone else.
Two years later, he and I were spending every night together, either in my room at the neoclassical, brick Spanish House, or in the brown clapboard house he shared with a group of friends on Brown Street. That March, Vance took the train down to Washington to spend the weekend with George. George had invited him to an all-male black-tie event hosted by the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick. My first night without Vance I spent at a party with friends, and I ended up sleeping with an old boyfriend. “You were right!” I gushed to Vance over the telephone, that bright morning after. “Sex can mean nothing! And you were right, also, that it’s important to know this; liberating in its way.”
“Oh, D,” groaned Vance. I was surprised how upset he was, given the logic of what he’d told me those years before. When he returned to Providence that Sunday evening, I felt mortified for having misread him. I picked him up at the train station. He suggested dinner at a quiet candlelit restaurant, Rue de L’Espoir on Hope Street. Over duck à l’Orange and cheap house red, he admitted he hadn’t been entirely straight with me, either. He had not lost his virginity on a one-night stand, when he was fourteen, as he had told me, but rather with his first serious girlfriend, Carolyn. I knew he’d gone out with Carolyn their senior year in high school, and that the relationship had continued during our first semester, before he and I had met. What I didn’t know was that during our first six months together, when I was falling in love with him, he and Carolyn were still together, or that he’d slept with her after he’d returned from our first trip in Paris. That was why he’d made that “sleeping with other people” comment. It only happened once, he said, adding, “Carolyn went on the pill for me, but I didn’t care. I got up and walked away. I never saw her again.”
Neither of us had touched our duck. I was crying, not just because of his betrayal, but for all of the time I’d wasted obsessing about girls he’d never slept with, and for how I’d been right about who he was deep down; the one-night stand story had never quite made sense anyway. Why was he pretending to be someone else? We were on our second bottle of red when Vance, refilling our glasses, said, “Actually, D, there’s more…”
As a child, he said, when George would come to visit, Judy would put him in a downstairs bedroom, far away from everyone. I knew the room Vance was talking about. Now it had blue wall-to-wall carpet and was filled with Judy’s books and boxes. She called it her study.
Vance said that on weekend mornings, when he didn’t have school, he would climb into George’s bed with him. He said George would tell the most amazing stories; George had been in the navy, and after that with the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the CIA. He had traveled the world.
“He’s kind of like you,” Vance said. “He speaks French and Spanish.”
On those mornings, listening to George, sometimes, Vance said, “one thing would lead to another.”
The tablecloths at Rue de L’Espoir were red-checked. Wine was served in wicker baskets. I picked up our basket and poured, watching the wine splash against the sides our goblets, and feeling the urge to keep pouring until the wine was overflowing, its blood-red color flooding the table, spilling onto the floor and out the door like a river.
“You mean, sex?” I asked. The whole room was swimming. I asked how it happened. I asked what George—what they—did.
Vance couldn’t be specific. He said, “Please don’t ask me to remember.” He was wincing and holding his stomach, pleading the fifth, perhaps channeling President Reagan’s shaky logic—if you don’t remember, it didn’t happen. I was crying into my red-checked napkin, feeling like I’d just crashed into a tree. “So it was all a lie,” I said. “Sex does not mean nothing.”
“It only meant anything with you,” said Vance, his eyes brimming with tears, as he reached for my hand. “I loved the way you felt about it. I wanted to be like you, don’t you see that? With you it felt like the first time.”
I couldn’t pull away from my confusion. I kept wondering why it had gone this way and not some other, and why Vance had not told me the truth from the beginning. All the fun of my own fling felt deflated, like an old balloon. Vance squeezed my hand. “If I knew what I could say…” he began, again. He didn’t finish his sentence.
I started naming all the girls he’d said he slept with. Vance kept shaking his head. Carolyn was the only one, he explained. He’d been trying to make Carolyn seem less important was his reasoning. I wondered if he was trying to make the George thing less important, too, but I didn’t ask. Then he said, “Wait. There’s more.”
In elementary school, after a game of kickball, the winners would line up on the playground with their legs spread, while the losers crawled through the tunnel made by all the winners’ legs. The punishment, which was mostly a laughing matter, was known as going through the spanking machine. Sobbing at my untouched duck I felt as if I were going through a spanking machine of a more sinister sort, a mechanism that called to mind earlier spankings, and more primal pain. In the mirror behind Vance’s head, my face looked splotchy and miserable, my red nose like Rudolph’s, dripping.
Vance was saying, “Yesterday, George must have been nearby when we were talking. He seemed to know how upset I was.” I was looking at Vance’s tapered fingers, the ones he had played the clarinet with when he was a boy. I was thinking of the squeaky notes he’d made blowing into that instrument.
At the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick dinner, Vance said, he and George had both gotten shitfaced. Vance was drowning his sorrows, feeling sorry for himself. He sort of blacked out. Then suddenly he realized a lot of time had gone by. He was leaning against a wall in George’s bedroom, or maybe the guestroom, he couldn’t remember which. All he remembered was that George was touching him.
“And you didn’t stop him?” I withdrew my hand.
“I’m sorry, D. But you want me to be honest, right?”
The words tangled in my throat; the words and all the time I had lost believing Vance was one thing when he was something else. “So now you’re going to tell me you’re gay.” It was a statement more than a question.
“I swear, D. I can say this with authority. I am not gay. I probably know this better than anyone. Last night didn’t mean anything. If anything it taught me, once and for all, that I’m not gay. I was so drunk. We both were. You’ve got to trust me. Please, D. I need you to trust me.”
Vance was my first serious boyfriend; he was all I knew. Slowly, in fits and starts, we groped our way out of that nightmare. We eventually married, believing—or at least hoping—that the George story, as we called it, was merely a little blip we’d struggled against, a hurdle that we were now all the more triumphant for having soared over and put behind us. The problem with feeling betrayed is the close attention you pay to everything afterward. You can never relax again, not fully. Nothing can ever again be nothing.
“We wish you could have gotten here sooner,” Judy was crooning, engulfing Vance in her soft bosom.
“I know,” Vance agreed, his voice full of an empathy that seemed at odds with the love we’d made the night before, after dinner at my parents’ and a late-night skinny dip, when we watched bats silhouetted in moonlight swoop down to snap up insects just inches above the clapping water. “Jorge,” Vance enthused, extending his hand and then hugging him, while dutifully turning his face away—looking for me, probably, but I had already stomped inside.
“How are you sir?” I heard George cluck, as the Brown’s dogs, Domino and Brutus, bounded out, causing the screen door to bang against its peeling doorframe. “I keep telling Dad to fix that,” Judy was sighing through the door.
Vance hurried inside after me, followed by George and then Judy and the galumphing dogs.
As a member of the OSS, George claimed he was fluent in five languages. But I’d only heard his pidgin Spanish. He could keep a secret, I’d give him that.
“I hope you don’t mind, but I gave the back bedroom to George,” Judy called, as Vance was lugging our shared duffle up the stairs. The back bedroom, where Vance and I usually slept, was the only room with a double bed. “If you’d gotten here earlier…” Judy was crowing, her injured tone saying the rest. Oh, we were well aware how on summer weekends it was like musical chairs, the best bedrooms snatched up by the earliest arrivals, often friends of Vance’s sisters whom we’d never met.
In Vance’s childhood bedroom his sister Heather and her new boyfriend were already sharing a twin. We decided to share the other one. We were so close to Heather, and we liked Philip well enough. Through the bedroom window we could see Vance’s crazy oldest sister, Amy, rubbing lotion into his younger sister Cristabel’s back. All of them down on the bright sand—the various boyfriends and friends; the friends of friends, or rather, strangers—draped in a crooked semi-circle, wearing their aviator sunglasses and black Raybans, on collapsible metal chairs or brightly colored towels—towels from the various Brown childhoods, as well as castoffs accumulated over the years.
Vance and I changed into our bathing suits, his loose-fitting and plain, mine a polka dotted Norma Kamali, purchased one slow afternoon with Lisa’s encouragement at a sample sale on Spring Street.
We were in the kitchen, filling two red plastic cups with water.
“Judy was just showing me your wedding announcement,” said George, stirring what appeared to be iced tea. He wore a silky yellow shirt, linen trousers. And he came too close, as usual. “I must say, you both look tres chic,” he said. He had recently brought his second godson to places in Europe he’d once offered to bring Vance, though Judy hadn’t permitted it. “Intuition,” Vance said. “So at least there’s that.”
“Yes, at least there’s that,” I answered, though there was Judy’s terror of flying, too. And after the sudden loss of both her parents, she wasn’t keen to let her only son fly off somewhere.
“Don’t they look wun-daful?” called Judy, lumbering in to the dining room, where The Herald’s Social News from several Saturdays ago was splayed across the dark wood table.
Vance had asked his mother about the Castelli oversight. She had explained that the paper had gone to press before she could fix it. Would a daily paper really go to press ten days in advance? I half-expected her to apologize. But Heather was in the pantry, applying Sun-In to her waist-length blonde hair.
“Spun gold,” Judy murmured.
Heather twisted her hair in a towel. We exchanged hugs. And taking a head-jerking cue from Vance, we brought our red cups down the cellar steps, out the back cellar door, across the dried back lawn to the beach, where we discussed the Robert Chambers murder, the current toast of the tabloids, ad nauseum.
“Judy-mom,” Amy’s fiancé, Paul, was laughing. It was early evening, and Vance and his sisters and their significant others and I were all sipping cocktails on the sun porch.
“Rod-dad,” repeated Heather’s boyfriend, Philip. There were various attempts to use these terms, all erupting in gulping laughter.
“Well I don’t know about you,” said Paul, a swarthy Italian from Boca Raton. “But I just turned thirty. I ain’t calling no one Judy-Mom or Rod-Dad.”
“We’re all adults here,” agreed Philip, a proud son of a philandering minister, sipping his Tanqueray and tonic.
“I like Jude-woman,” put in Vance, merrily.
Us non-Browns high-fived. “We must assert our rights,” Philip said. “I’ve been the sole newcomer for too long,” I agreed, grateful there were finally newer comers than me. I said I’d been trying to call Judy and Rod by their first names for a year, but so far I hadn’t managed.
“That needs to change,” said Paul. Amy had met him down in Atlanta, where they both lived. She’d been mad at Vance for marrying before her and had hitched up with the first willing man she could find. But she’d chosen a good one. I liked Paul. We all did.
“What do you call them?” said Philip, his lush green eyes fiery.
“I call them nothing,” I said, quietly.
“Really. Nothing,” said Philip.
“Nope,” I said, sipping.
“How is that possible?”
“Believe, me,” I said, shaking my glass. “It’s possible.”
“No-o-o,” said Paul. “Uh-uh. No way in hell. They’re Judy and Rod. Always have been. Always will be.”
I said the issue had first come up the summer before, just after Vance and I announced our engagement, “Now that Dorothy’s going to be family,” Vance had said, during dinner one night, crunching his corn on the cob, “I thought maybe she could call you by your first names.” He had said it lightly, pulling a few stray kernels from his teeth. To fill the silence, he’d explained that my parents had asked him to call them Joan and Bill for the same reason. He said, in the sweetest, most heartfelt voice, “I thought you guys could do the same.”
Vance’s father had cleared his throat. His mother had stared at her plate. They were hardly what you’d call a united couple, but the enemy of your enemy, etc., and my parents and I we were their common enemy, infiltrating Vance’s mind, instilling infidel thoughts, completely corrupting him.
“Actually, I don’t feel comfortable with that,” Judy had told us, flatly. “Do you, Rod?”
“As far as I recall,” said Rod, gazing straight across the table to Judy at the other end, “You always called my parents Mr. and Mrs. Brown. And I always called your parents Mr. and Mrs. Weld.”
“We showed our respect,” said Judy. “I’ve always hated it when young people call adults by their first names. In fact, just the other day I was visiting a class of second graders, and these little children, this high”—she used her hand to indicate low—“were addressing their teachers by their first names—it was so disrespectful!”
Vance’s face was so red that for a moment I’d thought he was choking. Then in a rare show of emotion, he’d shouted, “Dorothy is not in second grade! She’s going to be part of our family!” The corncobs all stalled. The only sound was chewing. Rod picked at a lobster claw. Vance grabbed my arm and led me through the living room, past the honeysuckle and beach roses blooming in thorny late-summer glory along the sun porch steps, down and out to the concrete jetty and the gently lapping Sound. There, huddled beside me, he began crying into my shoulder, quietly, as I stroked his head. “I’m so embarrassed,” he said. I told him it wasn’t his fault. We gazed out at the waxing moon, whose path on the water bobbled toward us.
A few days later I’d received a card from his mother, telling me that since mom was the most precious word in the English language to her, and only four people called her that, I was welcome to call her Judy-Mom. I could call Vance’s father Rod-Dad, too, if I liked.
“Hello, Judy!” cried Paul, when Judy, George and Rod lumbered in with their drinks, along with a tray of WisPride cheese spread in a ceramic crock and a wax-paper tube of Ritz crackers.
“How’s it going, Rod?” chimed Philip.
The non-Browns all laughed.
George had always been George.
Vance was sitting in what was known as his banging chair, a white, iron stationary rocker, which, as a child, he would repeatedly bang against the enclosed porch wall, much to everyone’s endearment. Judy presented him with a photo album of our wedding that she’d lovingly compiled. She had hired her own photographer—not trusting my parents to provide the proper content. A Herald beat photographer, he had driven to the former brothel where they all were staying to take snaps of Vance and his family during their hung-over wedding preparations, then to the church, and finally to my parents’ reception. The album included photographs of his sisters in their bridesmaid’s dresses, photographs of his sisters opening the boxes with each of their bouquets sent by my parents. Photographs of Vance and his best man carrying his trumpet in a black case in the hotel parking lot.
The Herald beat photographer’s photographs were wonderfully candid. And they were complemented by Judy’s own snapshots and those of her friends. But because of the Herald photographer’s presence, I’d been forced to call my parents’ wedding photographer with the unhappy news that there had been another professional moonlighting at our wedding, and my new in-laws weren’t interested buying even one of her pictures.
“Refreshers?” asked Vance.
“I will, hon,” said Judy, jiggling the ice in her empty glass. She was seated in her place of honor, a regal-looking wicker rocker in the covered porch’s far corner, from which she wasn’t inclined to rise until Rod snapped into staggering action, pulling the roast and the potatoes and the Brussels sprouts from the oven all at once, and she went to hunt around for serving plates.
“I’ll have one,” said Rod, who had recently followed his son’s shift from cheap Gilby’s to Tanqueray.
“Dutchy, need a splash?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“I’ll help the maestro,” chortled George.
“Two weddings in one year,” Judy groaned drolly, after they’d left. But I could tell she was relieved. Amy, her troubled oldest, had threatened suicide a few years earlier. Once married, her melodramas would probably subside, or at least be someone else’s responsibility.
I found Vance in the pantry, mixing drinks. George was standing at his side, holding a small gift box. He was naming all of the cities he and his other godson had visited—London, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Rome. In a letter to Vance from earlier that year, George had noted that his travels would coincide with our honeymoon, except that George and the godson planned to stay in Europe much longer than we did, and to visit more cities, cities neither Vance or I had ever been to.
When he returned from some faraway place, George would typically pay the Browns a visit, his suitcases brimming with souvenirs. The most interesting and expensive, according to Vance’s sisters, were always saved for Vance. The gifts—penknives, watches, a gold Cross pen Vance had once kept in the breast pocket of his Oxford shirts (until I gave him a Mont Blanc Christmas) —had an enchantment about them, a whiff of far-off lands Vance longed to visit, knowing full well that, due to Judy’s flying issue, his family vacations would always revolve around summers at the Clinton shore house, or, in March, the pink Don Cesar hotel in Saint Petersburg, Florida, where his grandmother had died so long ago, and which they reached by overnight Amtrak.
Vance opened the box. The cufflinks were from Sevilla, George said, remarking on their traditional filigreed pattern, twenty-four karat gold on a black ground.
“You said you’ve started wearing French-cuff shirts.”
“Like Dorothy’s father,” said Vance. “Isn’t that right, Dutchy?”
I knew Vance was angling for my approval. And out of a combination of competiveness and confusion, I obliged him, telling George, “Oh, exclusively. In fact, every day.” Then, to Vance, “Now you can have a little variety.”
George was gazing at me appreciatively as he touched Vance’s elbow.
“Aren’t they wun-da-ful?” cried Judy, coming to check on her drink.
“Dutchy, sure you don’t want a refresher?”
“Not before you refill mine,” called Judy, who favored lime daiquiris or the odd whiskey sour made from a powdered mix.
“What’s happening with the drinks?” asked Rod, who was followed in by everyone. The narrow pantry suddenly seemed too crowded, and besides, I’d had enough.
“Wait, D!” called Vance, passing me my drink, which I drank in a few quick gulps on the sun porch, remembering how in college, before he’d told me the whole George story, Vance had said George and I had a lot in common—we both loved exploring the world. But my travels, unlike George’s, had then been dominated by family trips, to Norway, for example, where my father and his cousin had navigated a boat through spectacular fjords, or to Colorado or Wyoming, where we would breathe in the blue valleys before skiing down our favorite trails, or to England, Scotland, France, and Denmark, where we had toured historical museums and sipped delicate vintages at Michelin-starred restaurants. It wasn’t until the summer after my freshman year in college, the summer after I met Vance, that I discovered the wonders—and terrors—of traveling alone.
At dinner, Judy seated George and Vance together. I was down at the far end of the table, near the other relative newcomers. I was happy there, so all was light and convivial, until the end of dinner when George whipped out his travel photos, and I saw Vance’s face sag seeing all the fun George and his other godson had had, and also that George’s and Vance’s arms were discreetly touching.
“Oh, pass them around! We all want to see!” cried Judy, who, being a member of the press, seemed to love nothing more than visual proof of this event or that get-together. George’s fingernails were perfectly buffed moons. To his silk yellow button-down, he’d added a red silk ascot. I had moved on to wine by then and was feeling the alcohol.
During the heyday of American newspapers, George’s branch of the family had wisely cashed in their Herald stock, so he had never felt much pressure to earn a living. He had friends from Rome to Rio, men and women of his social rank—a Lady This-or-That in Dorset, and even an American bullfighter, John Fulton, in Sevilla, then the only American bullfighter in history. These pedigreed people would open their villas for George’s seasonal visits, meticulously timed, so the gardens would be at their lushest, sprinkled with birdsong, the trees in bloom, and the weather glorious. George was “soave” and “de-boner,” Vance used to laugh. His sisters all admired him. And unlike their mother, who was notoriously stingy, George was generous, and fun.
At some point I began regaling my side of the table about the honeymoon, the amazing hotel Vance and I had stayed at on the left bank in Paris, in the same suite where Oscar Wilde had died.
“Well, doesn’t that sound morbid?” shuddered Judy, who espoused the view that everything experienced in Paris could far more amusingly be read about.
I said she was right, it could have been morbid, but it was really quite beautiful, the walls papered in pretty chintz, the suite including a sunny terrace lined with pots of red geraniums. Vance and I had drunk our morning grands crèmes there, amid the soft flutter of pigeons flying from gray rooftop to gray rooftop.
“Dorothy sunbathed topless,” Vance put in proudly.
“Not in Paris!” cried Judy.
“No, on the Île de Ré.”
“That’s right, they do that there,” said Heather, who was still poking at her potato.
“Well, sort of.” I told them I wouldn’t have dared, but the beach was deserted.
“Tell them about Eugénie-les-Bains.”
“Best meal ever,” I said. I still remember the juicy grilled lobster served in its own shell in an herb cream sauce with julienned vegetables, the crispy duck, cradling a foie gras in its webbed foot.
“The château in Bordeaux was pretty nice, too,” said Vance, who went on to describe his purchase of several Bordeaux reds from 1982, later believed to be one of the best years for Bordeaux wine of the twentieth century.
“Didn’t you guys go to Biarritz?” asked Philip.
“We stayed at an old Hemingway haunt. The Hôtel du Palais.”
Judy slumped in her chair, her face deflated, as she fed scraps from everyone’s plates to the dogs. Rod was curious to know how wine was made. No seemed to know. Judy said, “George, did you know that Dorothy got a job at the Caspari Gallery?”
“No, I didn’t,” said George, fingering the stem of his wine glass.
“Mom, it’s called the Castelli gallery,” said Vance.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I keep thinking it’s the Caspari gallery,” continued Judy, her vowels elongating, drunkenly, as if the pleasure of the misunderstanding were something she were only too happy to extend. “But there is a famous Caspari gallery somewhere, isn’t there?”
The only Caspari I’d ever heard of was a stationary company. They made the notecards I’d written my wedding gift thank yous on.
“I think I have Caspari stationary!” said Cristabel, who was, like so many youngest siblings, charged with keeping family peace. And with that, the conversation happily drifted to the Brown family’s individual notepaper preferences.
The following morning, Heather and Philip’s snores were sonorously entwined in the twin bed against the far wall. Vance mumbled that he was hung-over and pulled a pillow over his head. He and his sisters and their significant others—and, of course, George—had stayed up smoking cigars around a bonfire, the charred remnants of which I could still see smoking from the bedroom window. The sky was azure and flat. An offshore breeze signaled the bittersweet shift from summer to fall.
Downstairs, the kitchen floor had a gritty feel, and there were empty bottles everywhere and bags of marshmallows and slabs of Nestlé chocolate. Rod was in the dining room, peering through a pair of binoculars in his bathrobe. “Bet we’ll see some stripers,” he chuckled good-naturedly, adding that he’d just seen schools of tiny jumping baitfish out off the neighbor’s dock. I poured myself coffee and headed down to the beach with a copy of Justine, the first in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria quartet, which Judy had recommended. As I kicked sand onto the smoking ashes of the fire, part of me regretted not being “a team player,” as Philip had teased. The revelry had obviously been fun, and they’d melted marshmallows for s’mores, which I had loved as a child. A bigger part of me, though, was glad I missed it. The word “mendacity,” repeated to incantatory effect by Brick throughout “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” always came to mind at the Brown’s. Judy, ironically, loved Tennessee Williams, loved “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” for whatever reason. I identified with Maggie, although Vance and I had pretty lively sex, when left to our own devices.
The beach was wide; the tide low. The summer haze had lifted, giving a clear view of Duck Island, whose name seemed derived from its shape—a slightly submerged duck’s head with a long, flat beak extending outward. With each gust of wind, glittering trails of sunlight scattered like coins across the water. The sand warmed my feet. Toward the lower part of the beach, I picked my way through broken shells and stones. Clumps of seaweed draped the pooled shoreline. The gulls patrolled the toppled boulders of the Brown’s decrepit jetty in search of stranded crabs and garbage. In thigh-deep water, I again struck sand. Then the water became shallow, and my feet sank luxuriantly as I clambered up the slope of a spongy sand bar. This was where all the sand had gone. A neighbor one beach over had rebuilt their jetty in cast concrete and added a wooden dock that Vance and I liked to run down and dive off of when the tide was high. The sand on their beach was rising as the Brown’s washed away.
“They’re richer than we are,” Judy would often scoff, referring to the fact that the Brown’s eastern neighbor, Mr. Chaney, was the CEO of Tiffany. Vance had dated one of the daughters in eighth grade and accidentally yanked the wheel of his Boston Whaler the wrong way, knocking her into the Sound, where she cut her arm on the outboard motor —but not seriously.
Enjoying the quiet of the morning, I continued down the far slope of the sandbar and lay back in the cool salty water, my feet rising like mountains against the faded blue line of Long Island. As I paddled my body around toward the Brown’s beach, Vance appeared on the steps. I stood up and waved.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said, setting down his towel.
“Was it fun?”
“Aw, you didn’t miss anything, Dutchy.”
Blackened cigar stubs studded the sand. The dogs clamored down the crooked wooden steps. Then Judy’s straw hat appeared above the wall. She descended the steps one at a time, her feet so large she needed to turn them sideways.
There was the mind-splitting roar of a chainsaw.
“I see you’re reading Justine,” Judy shouted above the noise. “I think that’s my favorite.” Her penchant for romance in exotic locales amused me, given that she had left the country only once, on a glasnost trip to the Soviet Union organized by the American Association of Newspaper Editors a few years earlier. Now she served tea from a samovar.
The houses along the shore were only a few yards apart. The nearest neighbors sat in a circle on their lawn, passing around a newborn infant. “We should go over and say hello,” said Judy, shading her eyes as she peered over. The chainsaw revved up again.
“Maybe later,” shouted Vance.
“But the baby may be napping,” said Judy mournfully.
“Not with that racket,” Vance laughed. He closed his eyes.
The dogs—a Springer Spaniel, Domino, black with white spots, and a larger mutt, Brutus— were heading down toward the sandbars, loping and sniffing. Judy waded in toward them, her blue sarong billowing behind her until it suddenly collapsed in the water.
“So nice to be alone!” I shouted.
“How peaceful!” Vance shouted back. He rolled to his side and began arranging warm stones in a path on my arm.
“Well, who do we have here?” said George. He was wearing a bronze button-down shirt and paisley swimming trunks. He was followed by Amy and Paul.
“Dad, could you cut out that racket?” shouted Amy. “Jesus f-ing Christ!”
Somehow we extricated ourselves. We were searching for a safe place to have sex. But there seemed nowhere to go. At the far end of the lawn, Rod stood on a ladder, naked from the waist up, carving his privet with a chainsaw. At the back of the house, a door led to the cellar and stairs led up to the kitchen. Vance took my hand. We ducked inside. There was a bathroom on one side, with a dressing area, but someone was using the shower. “Drat,” said Vance, heading back outside. From a small shed at the back of the house, he pulled out a green beach ball.
“Game of catch?” he said, smiling ruefully. The absurdity of our situation made us laugh. From the far end of the yard, Vance hit the green ball with a bat. I caught it in a 10-foot fishing net. The beach ball was unpredictable, the net unwieldy. We didn’t care. We were united, if not in pleasure, at least in frustration—our activity, by its very stupidity, a comment on our situation.
But then Rod put down his chainsaw and strutted over, his craggy face grinning, his furry white chest and shoulders covered with snippets of hedge and grass. “Can I see that?” he said, his friendly potbelly quivering as he reached for the green beach ball in my net. I handed it to him. Rod pitched the beach ball to Vance, but his tosses were off, Vance kept hitting the ball wide, where I couldn’t catch it.
Rod asked me if he could try hitting the beach ball to Vance, so I surrendered my net to Vance and went to pick some honeysuckle, feeling the grumpy way I had when I was a girl and my brothers wouldn’t let me play army men with them. Plucking the bud of a flower and pulling down the stamen, slowly, slowly, I placed a tiny drop of honey on my tongue. I wanted to grab the green beach ball and hit it as hard as I could, all the way out across the Sound. “There’s nothing wrong with me!” I felt like shouting. But by then the dogs were leaping up the lawn. George and Judy appeared. Judy suggested a game of croquet, for old times’ sake. Vance waved her off.
“But Vance, you love croquet,” she reminded him, adding that Vance had been a proud member of the Brown croquet team.
“You’re the reigning master, as I recall,” murmured George, giving Vance a wink and tossing the ball to him, the better for Rod to catch it.
“Well, the mallets are in the shed,” said Judy, heading inside with the dogs.
Rod had played basketball in college and now worked with his hands. He asked Vance how he was keeping in shape now that he was sitting all day at a desk.
I wandered across the yard to Judy’s favorite shrub, a tamarack bush with green feathery fronds and pink buds. There was too little of Vance to go around. People craved whatever was there, completely. My parents, for instance. They both loved Vance! He had two fathers now, two mothers. He was beloved wherever he went, unlike me. Caspari gallery, I thought. I was all on my own, I thought, watching George, in his softly aging body, lob a wild pitch to Vance.
“Hey, I hear you’re working at the Caspari gallery,” teased Philip when I stormed up the sunporch. He and Heather were reading the paper. She was swinging on the couch swing, one of her long legs dangling down.
“Yes! We’re exhibiting a new line of note cards. You should see it!” I cried, escaping upstairs, away from the politics of Vance’s family, escaping with Justine, whose purple prose I found oppressive, like overbearing perfume, like Judy herself.
Unlike the other clippings included with George’s letter from that spring, the Ann Landers column bore no underlining in red ink. No guide of how or what to read into it, only the year it was published, 1986, written in George’s blue pen.
Dear Ann Landers:
I was interested in the letter from the man who enjoyed making love in the car. His wife felt guilty and wanted to know if it was the “Christian” thing to do. You said so long as it was private, not dangerous, and reasonably comfortable, it was nobody’s business.
I married one in a million. She was totally uninhibited, willing and eager to make love any place at any time. I must say we dreamed up some mighty unusual situations. We traveled quite a bit and it was not unusual for us to pull off the road in the middle of the day if we ran into a wooded area, a vacant house, a sandy beach, a calm lake or an inviting motel. On occasion, when the mood came upon us and none of the above was available, we just used the car.
This kept up until we were in our sixties, when my beloved wife passed away. I always felt as if we had the healthiest sex life of anyone I knew, because we never stopped turning each other on. Our sexual compatibility spilled over into all areas of our life and we were divinely happy. You can print this letter if you want to but no name or city, please. Just call me—Beautiful Memories.
One night, decades later, Vance would call me on the telephone to tell me about a night on which he had accompanied George and his mother to a newspaper party given by Joe Pulitzer in Washington. George had plied Vance, who was only twelve then, with his favorite drink, Coca Cola, but he had laced it with rum. It was an easy drink to disguise, if you thought about it. A drunk Vance was a more willing Vance must have been the logic.
After the party Vance and his mother had staggered up to their shared hotel room. Vance couldn’t walk a straight line, let alone stop vomiting. His mother, who loved to drink “like a man,” as she once put it, was flushed and happy from cutting rug on the dance floor. George was a wonderful dancer. He would strategically pass her on—to Tony Ridder, the CEO of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, or to the handsome Jim Hoge, Publisher of the Chicago Sun Times. The men were always so complementary. I imagined Judy changing out of her party dress, laying her mother’s pearls in their little zippered bag on the hotel dresser, when she saw Vance’s head in the toilet. She’d yank a bath towel from the rack and gently lay it over his shivering shoulders, slurring the only words she wanted to tell herself, the only ones she would let herself believe: “Oh, my dear, you’ve caught a bug.”
I sat on the twin bed gazing out the window of Vance’s childhood bedroom, until I heard his voice, calling softly, at first, from outside, and then up through the stairwell. “Hey, D. Hey, D.” But George had followed him inside. George seemed to be everywhere.
At lunch Vance ate a turkey sandwich beside me. George came up from behind, jiggling his hips. Judy was serving tea in her samovar, and George was holding a cup. “Is the crème in the refrigerator, Vance?” he asked. “Vance, is the crème in the refrigerator?”
Why should Vance know if the cream’s in the refrigerator? One would assume it was. Why did George stand over Vance, rubbing Vance’s shoulders and breathing on him, as Vance ate his sandwich? I thought about how he used to kiss Vance fully on the lips—before the confession, before I knew; before I’d insisted Vance turn his face away, as I had learned to do as a teenager, not wanting to encourage unwanted attention.
“Is the crème in the refrigerator?” George asked again.
I looked over at Vance. He refused to meet my eyes. Nor could he answer George’s question. He refused to look at anyone. Not me, not George. He simply chewed his sandwich, staring out the wide plate-glass dining room window toward the glittering Sound, or maybe even further, toward the distant cluster of white clouds that surrounded Duck Island. By some strange effect of reflection, of white clouds on water, it appeared as if Duck Island were floating, floating above the glinting, salty, and yes, depressingly murky, brown water—the brown water of the Sound. I wondered if he were looking for baitfish, then I wondered about the part of him that didn’t follow rules, the part that had once existed freely with his cousin, whose loss had been so abrupt and conclusive, a loss much like Eve’s, brought by self-awareness. I knew what it meant to long for another’s love, and to lose oneself in daydreams of them. As Vance’s gaze hovered somewhere out there, over the baitfish and the island where all lost hopes laid discarded like unclaimed corpses, I wished I could go there with him, that together we could locate his former self, that innocent young boy he had once been—the unprotected boy who needed his mother; I wished we could turn over all of the skeletons until we found the promising young boy—still plump with Good Man Charlie Brown song and openness, and ruddy—and embrace him, and embrace each other.
Dorothy Spears’s features and profiles appear frequently in the New York Times. A regular contributor to Art In America, she is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). She worked her way from front desk girl to curator and sales rep from 1986-90 at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. She lives and works in New York.
For Epiphany’s recent interview with Dorothy, click here.