Beach Week: A Novelby Susan Coll
Ah, "beach week": a time-honored tradition in which the D.C. suburbs' latest herd of high school grads flocks to Chelsea Beach for seven whole days of debauched celebration. In this dark comedy, ten teenage girls plan an unhinged blowout the likes of which their young lives have never seen. They smuggle vodka in water bottles and horde prescription drugs by the
Ah, "beach week": a time-honored tradition in which the D.C. suburbs' latest herd of high school grads flocks to Chelsea Beach for seven whole days of debauched celebration. In this dark comedy, ten teenage girls plan an unhinged blowout the likes of which their young lives have never seen. They smuggle vodka in water bottles and horde prescription drugs by the dozen. Meanwhile, their misguided, affluent parents are too busy worrying about legal liabilities to fret over some missing pills or random hookups.
For Jordan Adler and her family, though, this rite of passage threatens to become more than just frivolous fun. The teen's parents, Leah and Charles, might not let their only child go at all. Their marriage is in shambles, their old house is languishing on the market, and the bills are stacking up. With all that stress, it soon seems they're behaving as irresponsibly as their daughter and her friends.
With the wit of Nora Ephron and the insight of Tom Perrotta, Susan Coll satirizes a new teenage rite of passage, in the process dismantling the lives of families in transition. Beach Week is a hilarious, well-observed look at the end of childhood and the human need to commemorate it—expensively.
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By Susan Coll
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2010 Susan Coll
All rights reserved.
When Leah reminded her husband at breakfast that they were hosting a meeting that evening to discuss the logistics of the forthcoming annual high school graduation celebration known as Beach Week, he kept his eyes locked on the sports section of the newspaper and made a plaintive choking noise that sounded like the bleat of a sheep. A few drops of coffee sprayed from his mouth, landing on his pressed white shirt.
Charles had reacted in a similar, if less theatrical, fashion when she initially informed him of this meeting a few days earlier. Still, she had hoped for something else, some sudden change of heart that might have made him warm to the idea of welcoming into their home this group of parents whom they barely knew, to discuss a subject that had, admittedly, caused him to bristle even when it first crossed their radar as a mere abstraction on a local NBC News segment entitled "Mayhem at Beach Week" more than a year earlier, before their daughter had begun her senior year. After viewing footage of underage drinking and lewd sexual behavior, Charles had quipped that the idea of packing one's child off for a week of presumed debauchery was akin to negligent parenting.
It was unlike Leah to act unilaterally in a matter concerning their daughter, and for a brief moment she felt a twinge of guilt disproportionate to having merely volunteered to invite a few people over to their home for a brief discussion involving child rearing. She could only regard this as a sad indication of how constricted her life had become since they moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., almost two years earlier. She had given up her job as a teacher back in Omaha and had since failed to find — or to seriously look for — another. Once, an act of daring on her part might have involved challenging a contentious school board on a ninth-grade reading curriculum; now she felt like a renegade for simply inviting the parents of her daughter's friends to their home and preparing to set out plates of cheese cubes and bowls of salted nuts without first consulting her husband.
Of course it was true that Charles might have other cause for annoyance; for one thing, it probably appeared that Leah was disregarding their plan to have a meaningful, considered conversation specific to the potentially loaded question of whether their daughter would even be allowed to attend Beach Week. But Leah wasn't disregarding it. They would have plenty of time to discuss this later. Tonight's meeting was purely informational, intended only to find facts, to meet their fellow parents and hear them out.
Leah might have tried to explain this now, but she felt suddenly afraid of what she'd done to disturb their increasingly delicate marital balance, and her instinct was to retreat. She walked over to the sink and wet a paper towel, which she pressed to the specks of coffee that were starting to merge above Charles's left breast pocket into an amorphous brown cloud. She regarded with some tenderness his hairline, which was receding incrementally each day. Charles was a gentle, easygoing man who only ever raised his voice to yell at professional athletes on television, but lately he'd become somewhat mercurial. Although there were outside forces that had altered the family dynamic, Leah knew that she was not without blame when it came to the matter of his changeable moods, particularly on this occasion.
"This was one of my best shirts," he said.
"I'm so, so sorry," she said, and she was. "It's no big deal. I can definitely bleach it out."
This was not quite true; she didn't have the talent to remove this spot. She was the sort of laundress who turned whites pink and inexplicably lost socks. Why now, even in assertions to do with laundry, she wondered, was she behaving with duplicity?
It wasn't as if Leah had invented the idea of Beach Week. Kids from this community had been flocking to the same stretch of the Delaware shore to commemorate their high school graduations for as long as anyone could remember, and although there were occasional minor incidents involving citations for possession of alcohol or cases of sun poisoning, nothing truly awful had ever happened. She had done a little poking around online to assuage herself with the knowledge that this sort of thing wasn't unique to the affluent suburb where they now lived. At high schools all over the country, graduation was marked by one sort of celebration or another. Some communities called it Senior Week, and activities ranged from barbecues to trips to amusement parks to presumably more raucous expeditions to such notorious party spots as Canc??n. Sharing a house with a nice group of girls from good, solid families at a beach only a few hours from home — Leah could easily imagine worse ways for Jordan to cap her high school experience.
Besides, it was Jordan herself who had proposed the idea. Their seventeen-year-old daughter had come into their bedroom late one night the previous week to say that she and her friends had found the perfect rental for this coming summer, but they had to act quickly to secure the lease. Leah and Charles had at least been on the same page in groggily suggesting the need for a proper conversation about this at a more reasonable hour. That was the extent of their discussion to date, so it was not as if Charles had expressly said no to Jordan's participation, and it was not as if Leah had put forth her own completely out of character yes-leaning view.
After a difficult transition following a move halfway across the country the summer preceding Jordan's junior year of high school, compounded by a terrifying, high-impact collision on the soccer field that had left her sidelined with a concussion and its lingering — albeit mercifully dwindling — side effects, Leah wanted, above all, to have her daughter be a happy, healthy teen. That she set this goal intellectually didn't stop her from trying to protect Jordan at every turn. Since that disorienting moment when Leah had glimpsed her daughter unconscious on the 18-yard line, the blood from her nose brilliant in the afternoon sunlight as it trickled down her white jersey, she had become a bit overzealous in her mothering, and she knew that she needed to let go.
By all indications, they were over the hump: Jordan's post-concussive migraines had largely subsided, her concentration had returned, the bursts of vertigo were now rare. She did remain a bit moody and aloof, but Leah understood that these hardly qualified as signs that something might be wrong in a teenage girl. Given the scale of disasters that might befall a family, this was clearly minor; nevertheless, Jordan, Charles, and Leah herself had all lost equilibrium, recalibrating emotions in private, and not always linear, ways. Leah had started to have bouts of What Might Have Been, with the insidious sidebar crazy mothering issue of What She Might Do to Prevent This from Ever Happening Again. If only the dangers in this world could be confined to the soccer field! Leah now had a heightened awareness of the catastrophes that loomed at every turn. There were crooked bolts of summer lightning shooting randomly from the sky and distracted Beltway drivers swerving out of lanes, cell phones pressed to their ears. She had even just seen a newspaper photograph of a bear roaming their pristine subdivision, on one occasion walking right onto someone's deck and swiping the bag of hot-dog buns that had been left beside the grill. And the environment! There were toxins galore — in food, in plastics, in underarm deodorants, microscopic carcinogens in the water and the air. From what she'd read, it was possible that some of these might even be triggering Jordan's headaches.
Allowing Jordan to go to Beach Week was of course hugely inconsistent with Leah's recent neurotic style of parenting, but she thought it a good sign that their daughter wanted to go, that she was seeking to engage with her new Verona friends, about whom she at times seemed ambivalent. Leah wasn't completely naive; she had some insight into teenage behavior, having been a high school English teacher for nearly two decades, but she trusted Jordan and had come to the conclusion that certain kids were going to misbehave no matter where they were, whether under twenty-four-hour guard or on their own at the beach. She'd seen bed-hopping by members of the wind ensemble she chaperoned at a school-sponsored band trip, had spied a National Merit finalist snorting coke in the bathroom at the local Dunkin[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Donuts late one night, and had once walked in on two male students having sex after debate team practice — and this was in the supposedly more conservative, bucolic Midwest. If kids were going to get into trouble, they would, regardless of whether their parents kept them on a short leash. Leah understood as well that Beach Week was an important rite of passage, a dry run for the more wrenching letting-go that would by necessity take place when Jordan left for college in the fall.
Admittedly, there was something else to this whole Beach Week thing. Leah would say it was subliminal, except that she had easy access to the thought. She wanted to go to Beach Week herself. Not actually, physically go to Beach Week at the age of forty-two, of course, but symbolically, in an if-she-could-only-go-back-in-time kind of way. Having grown up in a small town, Leah had always wished for a richer teenage experience, which in her mind would have involved going to a large, coed, racially diverse public school that was the stuff of television dramas — the kind of school her daughter now attended, minus the diversity part. In addition, Leah had grown up dreaming, quite literally, of the beach itself. She wanted crashing waves, funnel cakes, boardwalks with video arcades and Skee-Ball. She wanted to build sand castles and collect shells and look for jellyfish and sit at restaurants that served crabs with Old Bay seasoning. She was twenty-three before she'd stuck a toe into the ocean, and that was on her honeymoon. What could be better for her daughter, more healthy and natural, than relaxing at the beach with friends, breathing in the fresh sea air?
Would Leah dare say that in some private corner of her mind she longed for the bad stuff that Beach Week was known for, too? Although she and Charles weren't physically estranged, a thick layer of resentment hung over them in bed like plane-grounding fog. Marital tension might have made for better sex in theory — the release of pent-up anger and whatnot — but in their case it did not. That might have been because there was nothing very arousing about the other source of anxiety in their lives, which was money. She wondered if it might have given her a charge to contemplate problems of infidelity: Charles having an affair with his severe, pretty department head with whom he played tennis twice a week, for example. More likely, not: the thought only made Leah want to impale him with the racquet — and maybe impale her, too. But that wasn't the point. The point was that they were still fielding hospital bills from increasingly arcane subspecialists whom they could barely recall encountering after Jordan's injury. Their insurance company had yet to pay a claim without rejecting it first, requiring countless hours of aggravating, haranguing phone calls. On top of this, they had given up trying to sell their house back in Omaha, which had languished on the market for months before they decided to take it off and rent. Now their mortgage's balloon payment was coming due. They had also brought Charles's mother, Florence, with them and installed her in a nearby overpriced nursing home. But the mother of all money tension had to do with Charles's new job, the very thing that had brought them to the East Coast. A large bonus that constituted the bulk of his compensation was tied to the commencement of a project that now seemed hopelessly stalled.
After the coffee had been blotted as best it could, Leah imagined that Charles would check his Blackberry and discover some work conflict that would preclude his participation this evening, but before he had the opportunity, Jordan appeared in the kitchen.
"Oh my God, I had no idea how late it was," she said. Even though she was in an apparent rush, she didn't seem especially panicked as she moved through the room gathering her belongings. It took her a moment to locate her wallet, which Leah finally spotted on the counter by the telephone. Her keys proved more elusive, but they found them on the seat of one of the kitchen chairs that had been pushed into the table, making them hard to spot. Jordan with great deliberation studied the selection of bananas ripening in the fruit bowl and finally ripped one free from the middle of the cluster.
"I stayed up way too late working on my history paper, and I guess I overslept," she said.
She dropped into a chair and pulled on her boots, then bunched her hair into a sloppy ponytail — a wild, thick mass of dark ringlets, as hopeful and unruly as a shaggy lawn in spring. Leah could soak in the sight of her daughter, her only child, for hours, and delight, and draw inferences from details as slight as the hungry, aggressive way she peeled the skin from the fruit and took a bite. Her appetite was good! Leah was further encouraged by the sight of her daughter's rosy cheeks, which seemed to be a sign of health, although it was equally possible that her color merely reflected the thermostat, which Leah had begun to tune low in attempts to be both energy- and cost-efficient.
"Dad, can you give me a ride to school on your way to work?"
Charles looked up from the paper and mustered a smile for his daughter. "Sure. Can you wait a sec?"
"Not really, Dad. School starts in ..." She pulled her cell phone from her pocket to check the time, even though the clock above the stove was clearly visible. "Seven minutes."
He put down his paper and grabbed his coat, and they were on their way. He forgot to give Leah a kiss, but she felt a swell of warmth all the same at the sight of her family heading off for another productive day. Or maybe what she felt was just relief that she had managed to pull this off, although why she wanted to host a Beach Week meeting was a question she had difficulty answering, even to herself.
Once the parents began to arrive that evening, Leah realized that their house was not spacious enough to accommodate this group comfortably. She had given no thought to where she would put their winter coats, which she began to heap on the bed in the spare room upstairs. She had also failed to consider that those who had come straight from work would be hungry, determined to cobble together a meal from the simple and not very elegant spread of light hors d'oeuvres set out on a couple of side tables. She had worried she was overdoing it on the hospitality front, given that this was meant to be a brief meeting of the sort that she was pretty sure didn't call for food at all. Now she wished she had ordered some platters from Whole Foods, even chilled a few bottles of wine.
Leah felt like she could never quite get it right in Verona. Distance-wise it was a relatively straight line, a thousand measly miles from Nebraska to Maryland. The language was the same, the local customs no different, people looked and dressed in a mostly similar fashion, and yet. And yet ... what, was what she was still struggling to figure out. Omaha was a cosmopolitan city, and she and Charles were hardly hicks. Not to put too fine a point on it, especially since Leah considered herself an antisnob, but they were cultured, educated people. They listened to NPR and saw foreign films, and Leah had belonged, simultaneously, to two different book groups back home and had immediately upon arriving joined one here. She and Charles went to the occasional opera and enjoyed the theater, too. So why was it she felt she didn't belong in this town? Was it simply that everyone was almost absurdly accomplished? Leah was too intimidated to mention to the neighbor next door that his teenage son frequently blocked access to the Adler driveway with his haphazard parking after she discovered that the man had recently won a Nobel Prize for pioneering research in enzymes — or something. Another neighbor had just returned from a stint as ambassador to Norway, and the woman directly behind them was a senior State Department official. Leah never knew for sure who anyone was, which could be downright mortifying. At a recent dinner party hosted by Charles's former college roommate, who lived nearby, she had asked a world-famous author what he did, and then, moments later, asked a two-term U.S. senator where he was from.
Excerpted from Beach Week by Susan Coll. Copyright © 2010 Susan Coll. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
Susan Coll is the author of the novels Acceptance (FSG, 2007), karlmarx.com, and Rockville Pike. A film adaptation of Acceptance, starring Joan Cusack, aired on Lifetime Television in 2009. Coll lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, the writer Steve Coll.
Susan Coll is the Events and Programs Director at Politics&Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C. She is the author of the novels Beach Week, Acceptance, Rockville Pike, and karlmarx.com. Acceptance was made into a television movie starring Joan Cusack in 2009. She lives in Washington, D.C.
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