Read an Excerpt
All-wood construction. That’s what it said on the side of Grandma Ruth’s coffi n. I stared at that phrase while the men in Carhartt vests lowered her into the frozen ground. I stood just feet away, behind my mom, who sat in one of the white folding chairs that the folks from Bloomfi eld-Cooper Jewish Chapels had set out as part of the funeral package. There were just five of us—me, my parents, my mother’s brother, and my partner, Kiki—and sitting felt silly to me, like something to do in a crowd. I wanted us to all be pressed up together, so I stood close behind my mother, my gloved hand on her shoulder.
At ninety-three, my grandmother had outlived her four siblings. She was long widowed and friendless, eschewing company for television and mystery novels. And our extended family was not at all close-knit. Still, it was depressing and even a bit embarrassing, when our limousine driver pulled into the cemetery, to fi nd that our family was outnumbered by gravediggers—especially because there was another funeral about to begin, with a mob of mourners swarming the lawn of the front office, waiting to be told where to go. That burial was clearly for a young person, as the crowd consisted of sad-faced teens in black coats and boots, with teased hair and goth makeup. I wanted to know what happened—had it been drugs? a car wreck?—but there was no way to know. We continued along to Grandma’s plot, right next to her husband’s, my grandfather’s, a man I never knew.
The day before, my mom and I had gone by my grandmother’s room at the nursing home to gather up her remaining items: a store-bought quilt my mother had brought from home, a pair of worn-out slippers, a cheap blue sweatsuit that she didn’t like to wear. She’d only been in that place for two weeks and, after thirty-fi ve years of living alone in her small efficiency, despised every minute of it. I’d only seen her there
a couple of times—visits that consisted of me staring at her as she sat in her wheelchair, caved in and quiet, ashamed of her predicament. She had been shutting down right in front of my eyes, and I couldn’t blame her. The other residents there,
almost all women, drooled and moaned and cried out about things that no one else could see. Grandma Ruth would roll her eyes and wrinkle her nose at them and look appalled, and say to us, “I don’t belong here.”
When we showed up at her room after she had died, I felt grounded, as if I could take care of my mother—just as I had this morning, when my mom told me she hadn’t thought of getting any food for us to eat after the funeral. “What if people come by?” she had asked. I knew that no one was coming by, but I wanted my mother to feel like she’d given her mother a proper funeral day. And I knew what was expected on a post-funeral table—rye bread, egg salad, turkey, and olives. I didn’t know of a good Jewish deli nearby, though, and so settled for the Italian one I remembered from childhood,
Giovanni’s, where my mom would buy homemade marinara sauce and dense loaves of semolina bread and balls of fresh mozzarella for us to eat on summer nights when she
didn’t feel like cooking. She didn’t go there so much anymore, less impressed by the authentic array now that she and my father had traveled to Italy and all around Europe several times over, but the place was still there, across from the Little Silver train station, and I had fi fteen minutes before I had to meet Kiki, who was coming in from our place in the city that morning. I was hasty, and didn’t pay much attention to prices,
just telling the cheerful woman behind the counter that I needed a platter for ten, and that it was for a funeral. I could tell that this depressed her, because it was Christmas Eve day, but she still set about her task with effi ciency, checking in with me each time she arranged some more cold cuts or salad on the huge plastic plate. “ This OK, hon?” she kept asking, and each time I nodded. Then I pulled out my credit card and had her load the creation, fi t for a houseful of shiva sitters, into the back of my car, and when Kiki and I walked in with it my mother’s eyes fi lled with tears of relief. “You’re wonderful, Beth,” she told me, and I for once felt my age, instead of like a permanent teenager, in her presence.
I had not felt that way before when there was a death. And now, in the frigid cold of the cemetery, the rabbi, a stranger hired for the task, repeated the snippets of my grandmother’s character that my mom and I had told him over the phone yesterday: that she was kind and a good listener who could be a stubborn spitfi re, and that she was a wonderful mother and grandmother who used to bake cookies and cakes when my mother was a girl. I watched my uncle Michael, her son, during much of this eulogy, and realized he hadn’t gotten to add his own input because he’d been on a plane from
California. He looked so alone and out of place, wearing jeans and sneakers under his bulky parka because his lost luggage had yet to arrive at our house. I wore my black suit—my only suit, the one I had purchased for an interview at a magazine a year earlier—and as I stood there before the rabbi I could feel the icy wind cut through the spring-weight slacks. My mom cried quietly and nodded along with the rabbi, and when he finished she read a prayer. Then the burly gravediggers positioned themselves on thin strips of AstroTurf to lower the coffin—into the perfect rectangle they had dug before our arrival—with a basic pulley system of thick canvas straps.
First her head and then her feet disappeared below, and I worried that she’d shift in the box, or that she’d bang her delicate head inside. I thought how small she must have been in there, how tiny and thin, all ninety pounds of her, with her fragile arms probably folded on her chest. How I adored those arms—the silky undersides that I’d grab a piece of and rub like a Buddha’s tummy, delighting in their fragility. She’d swat me away, angry, but even so I believed that she secretly liked it.
She’d never really been comfortable with touching—hugging me for only so long before pulling away, laughing and saying I was too heavy before pushing my adult head out
of her lap. I’d place it there sometimes as she’d nap on our living-room sofa in an attempt to snuggle, but she never allowed it. She had actually let me touch her at Thanksgiving, just one month before, when I went to pick her up and she’d shuffled to the door, confused, sick, telling me she wasn’t coming over. “I’m not up to it, Beth,” she said, sighing. But when I said that I understood and headed toward the door she changed her mind. She was too weak to get dressed, so she let me help her—putting her skinny arms around my neck as she raised her bottom off her recliner to let me take down her worn and pilling pants. I saw her thighs, smooth like glassine, and her belly, fl at and soft and barely wrinkled. As I watched her go into the ground, watched my mother cry and put her hand to her face, I was struck with the incredible normalcy of this grief. This was a common grief—the kind that everyone deals with at some point. The end-of-lifecycle type of loss you don’t look forward to, but expect. I didn’t know I would feel so sane. I didn’t know I could feel so sad, so robbed, while still knowing deep within myself that my life would go on. I knew my Grandma Ruth was going to die someday, and I dreaded it because I thought it would be like when we lost Adam—like the world was falling apart and would never be whole again.
When the funeral ended, we all slid back into the limo. “The driver said he would take us to visit Adam’s grave now,” my father said to me quietly. And so it was time to return to the not-so-normal. We were all quiet as we crossed the road and entered the other half of the sprawling cemetery. It had been at least ten years since I’d gone to my brother’s gravesite, and I couldn’t quite remember where it was. Neither could
my father, though he pretended to. “Why don’t you just let me run into the offi ce and ask for the location?” I offered. My dad was stubborn. “I think I know where it is,” he said, absently pressing his tongue into the lining of his cheek the way he does when he is uncertain. “I’m pretty sure I remember.” It was as if I were little again, and Adam was with us, and we were doing our annual drive to Florida for Christmas break
and my father couldn’t remember how to get back to the highway from our motel.
“Martin! It was the other way, I’m certain of it,” my mom would say through clenched teeth. “Why can’t you just pull into the Stuckey’s and ask someone?”
“ ’Cause I don’t want to ask someone, that’s why!” he’d snap, the calm excitement over our motel’s breakfast buffet (with waffl es!) fading fast.
Adam and I would freeze, temporarily distracted from our turf war over the backseat, forgetting, for just a moment, to worry about whose hand accidentally went over the invisible middle line into whose half. I would get a little nervous—would we be lost in the Deep South forever? Would we ever get to Grandma and Grandpa’s in Miami Beach?—while Adam would ham it up, turning to me to make ridiculously distorted faces—a fi ve-year-old class clown calming me with the whites of his eyes and the red, fl aring insides of his nostrils and his wild, fi shy tongue, fl ecked with faint toast crumbs and poking out at me, making me laugh so loud that my mom would whip her head around and cluck at us. My father wouldn’t stop and ask for directions, but drive, instead, in frantic circles, cursing at the roads, blaming everyone in the whole goddamned state of Georgia for not making better goddamned signs.
But this time it was no use. We had to circle back to the office, and in I went, asking for a map, which the lady behind the counter had opened for me, pointing out the lot number of Adam’s grave and circling it with blue ink. My father was embarrassed, especially since the rabbi was following in his own car. We all kept quiet. We found the row, and everything started looking familiar—the corner of the cemetery and its
creepy reeds in the near distance, the elaborate headstones for folks who had been alive long enough to earn them. The ground was icy and muddy all at once, and we all got out of the limo and began to search for Adam. It was like an Easter egg hunt, but somber, all of us walking up and down rows of dead people, eyes peeled on the ground. Even the rabbi helped us look. I was the one to eventually spot it—a fl at,
gray slab, hidden among the tall headstones. It said, simply, adam r. greenfield. beloved son, brother. 1974–1982. I remembered the fi rst time I saw it, when I felt both sickened and honored by that word. Brother. It was for me and me alone.
I had been with the rabbi that fi rst time — our rabbi, Rabbi Priesand, from the temple we belonged to for more than twenty years but which my parents left by the time I had
turned thirty because, after years of being active members, they were tired of how the place’s politics overshadowed its spirituality. The rabbi, a woman in her forties with stiff, wiglike hair that was a bit longer than a bob and a matronly way of dressing, offered to take me to the grave several months after the accident, in the winter, because I’d missed the funeral, opting to stay in the hospital even though they would’ve let me leave for the afternoon. She had picked me up in her red Chevy Chevette from the house where my mom was taking a Japanese cooking class that day. I wondered if
the women in aprons knew where I was going, or if they found it curious that I was going off with our rabbi, but they never said a word while I was there.
The drive up the Garden State Parkway was long and awkward, me humming along with the radio and talking about junior high, answering the rabbi’s questions about how
my family was getting along. “OK, I guess,” I’d told her. “I miss them so much. But I don’t tell my mom because I don’t want it to make her sad. We never talk about it.” When we got to the massive graveyard the rabbi knew just where to go, and she pulled her small car alongside the frozen ground and past the other, larger gravestones and led me to Adam’s. That’s when I saw the word, “brother,” and when I started to cry. She held me and I said, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” into her shoulder, but I was just repeating the phrase that I’d heard my mom call out so many times, her face tilted up in anger toward the sky. I didn’t know whether I felt it was fair or unfair, or how I felt at all. I just knew it was an appropriate time to cry.
I returned only once with my parents, though I barely remember it. It was at the time of his fi rst yahrzeit—the Jewish anniversary of a death—when it felt mandatory that we
go and stand there and pray and cry, only I stood back from them a bit, and stayed quiet, and held in all my tears. Then, when I got my driver’s license, I started going to the graveyard alone. I would sneak there, never tell my parents, pretending I was going to meet a friend, or I’d go on my way to or from college, because it was just off the highway that I had to traverse anyway.
Kristin’s grave was easier to sneak off to, as it was right in Eatontown, about a five-minute drive from our house. It sat just a few hundred feet in from the road, toward the far end of the cemetery, past all of the elaborate gravestones that stood up out of the ground and formed a mini skyline in the grass. Hers, like Adam’s, sat at the edge of a sea of lowkey markers—the fl at ones, the small and simple rectangles of polished granite laid out so closely together that they made me wonder whether the coffi ns were really buried underneath them at all. The first time I saw Kristin’s, I remember being struck by its simplicity: a slice of light-gray stone bordered by a darker shade of gray, with a small heart carved, as if by a daydreaming teenager, into its upper right-hand corner. In its center it said kristin mary sickel • 1969–1982 • we love you.
My first time visiting it was also with the rabbi, who had taken me at my request right after going to visit Adam’s. I remember crying only a bit—I think I had been tapped out—and that I’d wanted to go mainly to see where it was, since it was so close to home, and I wanted to see if it was someplace where I might ride my bike to alone anytime I wanted. (It wasn’t, as there was a highway to cross.) Her cemetery was smaller and not Jewish, and it sat, coincidentally, behind the low flat building where I believed her father worked as an engineer, separated from it by only a wide, sparse fi eld that was ripe for being developed into a strip mall.
Once I got my driver’s license and began making frequent trips to her grave, I would sit there in the prickly, dusty grass, talking to her like she’d simply been away on vacation and had missed lots of action, and I would gaze over at her father’s building, wondering if he could see me from his office window and if he might be impressed that I was visiting his daughter, or if he might even come over and join me there. It never happened—I never ran into anyone at Kristin’s grave—and, unlike at Jewish cemeteries, there were never any stones left behind letting me know if she’d had any recent visitors. It felt like not, like she’d been abandoned there in the quiet dirt, where the only sounds were of cars passing or pulling in slowly to deliver a hunched elderly person to visit his or her loved one, or of an occasional lawnmower at the far end of the cemetery, where the fancier patches of graves were being tended to.
The fi rst time I went to her grave on my own I was in high school, driving my mom’s boxy gray Ford sedan with the license I had received only a week before. I didn’t have much time, as I’d only gotten the OK to go pick up a few things from the Pathmark. I raced through the supermarket to grab a couple of items I didn’t really need—yogurt, tampons, a magazine—and then continued down the highway toward the cemetery, which was only about a mile or two farther. Something about this ability to go to Kristin’s grave all on my own was thrilling, and gave me a rush of freedom that even
surpassed, at that moment, the ability to drive to the house of my boyfriend, Joey, or to a party on a Saturday night. It was as if I would actually see Kristin again, like I would reconnect with her after several years apart; but my excitement faded quickly enough, when I pulled into the narrow gravel driveway and sidled up to the row where I recalled her gravestone to be, and got out of the car and strolled until I found it—
inanimate and worn looking, with a gossamer fi lm of dusty earth, surrounded by silence. Her loss would hit me anew as I sank down to the ground to trace my fi nger across her name. “Hey there,” I’d say aloud. “Long time no see. I miss you.” And then I’d just cry, careful not to sob in a way that would make my face and eyes look red because I didn’t want my mom asking any questions.
That afternoon, after my grandmother’s funeral, when I called out to everyone that I’d found the headstone, they all crept over to where I stood and looked down. My parents
clung to each other. Michael stood just slightly to the side. Kiki stared at it. I hung back a bit, not ready to get as cozy with everyone as I’d been just fi fteen minutes ago at Grandma’s grave. This was different. This loss had baggage. The rabbi said a short prayer in Hebrew, and as he spoke my parents sobbed. Such raw grief still inside them—such different tears than for Grandma. When he was done my mother dropped to her knees, put her small, peach-colored hand on the smooth stone, and my father dropped down with her. It’s like they had to collapse, letting all those old wounds in. And I, once again, closed myself off to it.
I wanted to throw myself down there with them, just like I had always wanted to do, even back then. But like then, I did the opposite. I stood erect, not crying, observing with horror and fear. Holding my breath until it was over. I imagined how different his funeral must have been from my grandmother’s—the huge crowd of mourners, the teachers and neighbors and temple members and relatives. How many had stood there, graveside, half crying and half staring with curiosity, thinking, thank God it’s not us, as Adam was lowered into the ground? I missed it, too frightened to go. But I imagined the spectacle—his first-grade teacher and his kindergarten teacher and the
principal, the parents of all his little friends, our neighbors and a clutch of temple folks and an array of family members. My mom. My poor mom. I was both relieved and regretful about missing it.
The rabbi said good-bye and drove away, and we walked back to the limo. The driver left slowly and got back on the highway, and we all stayed quiet for the start of the drive. But then something lifted, and everybody breathed. And we started talking, timidly at first. “ The rabbi did a lovely job,” my mother said. I admitted that I was hungry. My mother said she was too. So did my father. And I realized we had made it. We had always made it, of course. It had just never been so clear before.
Grandma Ruth was wearing her lightweight pink slacks when we picked her up that night. I remember because the pants were the color of raspberry Junket, and for a fleeting moment I could taste the packaged custard my mom used to make when I was little.
“Hello, darling,” she said to me, climbing into the back of our silver Ford Fairmont station wagon, its crimson seats warm beneath my thighs from June’s late-day sun. We were headed to my annual ballet recital, and as she planted a kiss on my cheek she asked, “How’s the ballerina?” I inhaled her pressed-powder scent and giggled.
Grandma’s slacks were wide at the bottom, the hems brushing the tops of white, low-heeled sandals, the waist high on her short-sleeved white blouse. She always managed to pull off a cool and easygoing look, which was funny because she was not easygoing at all, but anxious and insecure, with an almost paranoid distrust of the world. She clutched her purse tightly to her chest when we were out, and lived a simple, safe life of watching television and trekking to doctor appointments and doing errands at the mall—and of spending lots of time with us, at our house. I loved that she came over frequently, for random dinners or afternoons and always for special occasions, like birthday parties and Halloween and Passover and the fi rst night of Hanukkah.
She was a doting grandma and she loved me dearly. Only after squeezing me that night did she greet everyone else: my mom and dad, up in the front; Adam, sprawled with clownish indifference in the back hatch, barely trying to avoid the mound of my net tutu; and Kristin, my best friend, perched next to me and fanning herself with a Teen Beat magazine that she’d brought along for us to pore over together later that night, when we were to have a sleepover back at my house. And as we pulled away from Grandma’s yellow-brick, lowincome high-rise in Asbury Park—wedged between Deal Lake and the ocean in the old resort town’s long-faded glory—she pressed a small cardboard box into my palm.
“For good luck,” she whispered conspiratorially.
“ Thanks, Grandma.” It was a pair of blue heart earrings edged with gold-tone silver. I kissed her and put them in the small space of seat in between us. I would’ve rather worn them, but no one was allowed to wear jewelry onstage for the recital, and this was just the kind of real-ballerina rule I loved to follow as I liked to imagine that I was just as serious—and lithe and dedicated and talented—as the American Ballet Theatre dancers I liked to read about in Dance Magazine. This was especially true on Thursdays, when I had my after-school ballet classes at Mrs. Carroll’s studio, when I would lose myself in the classical music, delight in the gritty scraping of rosin powder under my feet and watch my moving body with fascination in the huge mirrors that lined each wall. I loved the cold, musty smell of the studio, and pretended during each class that I was a famous prima ballerina, like Gelsey Kirkland or Allegra Kent, and that every plié and rond de jambe was perfection.
“We’ll go for ice cream after the show, OK, girls?” my mom announced as we drove along the ocean towards the Long Branch church where the recital would be.
“Mmmmm, cool,” Kristin said with a smile into the balmy wind that gushed through her window, making her high ponytail flip like a happy cat’s tail. She was thirteen, just a year older than me, but wiser about all the things that mattered—flirting, fashion, beauty products. I had invited her to come and watch my recital three years before, and now she came with us each year, our own little tradition. Just as my mother would be helping me with my makeup and bun each year, she’d be walking over to our place, cutting through the two neighbors’ yards that separated our houses from each other,
to leave her pillow and overnight bag—and, this year, a fluffy stuffed monkey—before heading out in the car with my family for the evening.
I always envied how Kristin looked, her pin-straight caramel-colored hair swept back into barrettes, or wound into a coated rubber band that left loose wisps to hug the
frame of her face. She was lovely, and knew how to flirt with boys, and had an endless array of trendy clothes. That night she wore tight Jordache jeans, brown leather clogs, and a white sailor’s blouse that had a wide red satin ribbon, which was tied into a loose bow just below her clavicle. I felt a stab of jealousy when she showed up at our door that night, but when she looked at me—my long red hair slicked into a tight bun, face done up by my mom in our own amateur version of stage makeup—her glossed lips formed a tiny O and then a wide smile.
“You look so pretty!” she squealed. “I can’t wait to see the show.” Sometimes I’d feel insecure around her, because she was cooler than me—it was possible that we would have never become friends at all if we had not first been neighbors, but she never let on. And though I sometimes secretly wondered if we were alike enough to even be friends, I only allowed myself to think about it occasionally, because I loved her so much.
The previous winter, Kristin was at our house for a sleepover, the two of us watching The Elephant Man on Cinemax. As we watched the movie—boring at first because it was
in black-and-white, but quickly compelling in its rawness—a snowstorm began to churn up outside. We kept the backyard light on so we could watch the layers accumulate through the sliding-glass back door, and even though snow always won out with me when it came to any other competitor for my attention, this time it was actually less interesting than John Hurt’s portrayal of this lumpy-headed man, with strange tufts
of hair and impeccable clothing. It was so desperately sad, and near the end, after his “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” declaration, I felt my temples throb and a huge sob well up in my chest. I held it in, though, because Kristin kept laughing uncomfortably, imitating his slurred speech and trying to make light of the whole thing.
I excused myself at the end, just as the credits began to roll, and hurried into the bathroom, where I could cry and cry for the Elephant Man among the wicker towel racks and still-wrapped guest soaps and the walls covered in their blue and gold flowered wallpaper. I felt a mixture of embarrassment over my emotions and bewilderment at Kristin’s lack of empathy. Eventually I pulled myself together—rinsed my face and chose one of the tiny bottles from Mom’s collection of Avon perfumes, all displayed on their own hanging bamboo shelf, to dab on my wrists—and when I headed back out,
found Kristin joking around with Adam, who had gotten out of bed to watch the snow.
“Who wants to go for a walk?” my father asked, standing at the edge of the laundry room, one booted foot in the kitchen, his arms already stuffed into his winter jacket, a navy knit cap already pulled down over his balding head. It was the best idea—to walk in the fresh snow, to see our old neighborhood in the dark, looking all new in its coat of white.
Kristin and I got into our snow jackets, giddy over the idea of going out at night; it was like something was finally happening here in our little suburban development. Mom helped Adam into his snowsuit and his sneakers, put his sneakers into plastic sandwich baggies, and his baggied feet into white rubber boots, and we were off.
My mother flicked on the side-door light, the one just outside of the laundry room, and we piled out, clumsy in our bulky coats and mittens and boots—clumsy except for Kristin, who was willowy and unencumbered in her Jordache jeans and boots with little heels, and short, snug ski jacket that cinched tightly around her middle, just above her hips. Her hair was down, exposed—“No hat?” my mom asked her, and she crinkled her nose up and said, “No! My hair!”—and when we stepped out into the triangle of light through the open door I could see the falling snowfl akes sticking to the gently curling tendrils at the edge of her face, which seemed to glow in the magic of the storm.
The neighborhood was so hushed, and so were we, all five of us awed into silence. It was a light snow, the kind you could kick up into the air as if it were made out of soap flakes or grated wax and meant for the set of a TV show. It was not good for snowmen or snowballs, but perfect to traipse through. We followed my dad, with some trepidation, into the middle of the street, which glowed golden from the streetlights, and then we fell into some sort of line and started strolling down this path, covered in virgin snow, past our neighbors’ quiet houses. It was thrilling to be in the road, to
walk in unsafe territory, and to have it all to ourselves. And it was wonderful to be able to look into the bright interiors of people’s kitchens and living rooms—to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Littman wiping down the empty dinner table, to see the eerie blue TV glow fl owing down the steep front yard of the Levesques’, to wave to Mr. Caviglia, who was already out sprinkling salt on the driveway, and just keep on walking, with no discernable purpose.
When we were halfway around the block and approaching Kristin’s house, she shushed us all and started giggling, and whispered to me that we should try to spy on her family, and to try to see if we could catch a glimpse of her sister Tracy so that we could tell her the next day that we had seen her from out in the snow, on an adventure that she wasn’t a part of. We told my parents the plan and my mom made a face like we were really naughty and said, “Oh you girls,” and Adam said, “OK,” and grinned, like he was fi nally in on something.
But when we got to Kristin’s house we just stood there in front of it for a minute or so, until Kristin—either guilty for plotting against Tracy or disappointed that no one seemed to notice we were there—said, “OK, let’s go,” and we all continued on our way, the TV shine the only thing bouncing around in the windows of Kristin’s still, dark house.
Back at home, everything felt different, more a part of the world, more grown-up. I had a new perspective of our suburban development, Woodmere, and I had walked down the middle of Thornley Road and Weston Place and Sandspring Drive. Together, Kristin and I had had an adventure, and it had made up in spades for our divide earlier in the evening. Still, she was older and much more visible to guys than I was.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” she said one afternoon, the fall before the snowstorm. We were walking from her house to mine, the long way, past the four houses that sat in the curve in between our own two. Leaves and acorns popped beneath our feet on the cement sidewalk. It was not long after Kristin began junior high without me, leaving me behind, in sixth grade, and we had been hanging out at her place, me listening to tales about cute junior-high boys and gross science-class dissections, before heading to mine, where she would join us for dinner. But then she began her announcement, warning me fi rst, which made my stomach drop and my pace slow just a little. “It’s about Scott,” she added. It had to be about Scott—a thirteen-year-old from our beach club who, in my eyes, was as muscular and as mature as a grown-up man. He had light brown hair that parted in the middle and feathered back on both sides of his head, a few perfectly errant strands falling into a tanned face that was warm, handsome, and a bit devilish. He had braces on his teeth and wore OP-brand surfi ng trunks and had a strong chest, which looked broad and proud whenever he carried his surfboard down to the ocean’s edge, where he would paddle around for hours, determined to catch a massive wave, though there rarely were any. Still, every small one he caught made me suck in my breath—and Kristin too. Both of us had painful crushes on him. And though he was always nice to me (and kind of had to be, since our families were friends who spent time together on the beach all summer long), it was clear that he was only truly interested in Kristin.
I felt a stab of jealousy in my gut and steadied myself for what I knew was about to come. “Just tell me,” I said, wanting to get it over with.
“We kissed,” she blurted, unable to contain her delight.
“We made out!”
“When? Where? How was it?” I was torn between an unbearable envy and a burning curiosity; I had never known anyone to kiss a boy before, and was fascinated that this
friend of mine had done it. My wonder actually outweighed any anger—especially because summer had ended, and, since none of us drove, I knew that Kristin wouldn’t see Scott again until school was out and we were back at the beach club. So it would all be OK until then.
My stomach lurched as we pulled into the church parking lot. It was a new location for our recital, with a grander stage and audience hall than the puny one we usually danced in that was closer to home. But this building was older and creepier than that one, with so much space that it held pockets of cold in its dark corners and had the moldy smell of a basement.
It was called Our Lady Star of the Sea, and though I found the name ridiculous (humiliating, actually, to say out loud), it rolled off the tongues of the other girls in my dance class—all Catholics, with a few who went to parochial school. They’d show up for ballet class in their plaid uniforms—kilts and sweaters and knee socks and crisp blue oxford shirts—and I’d be fascinated by how serious they looked before changing into their pink tights and leotards.
Mrs. Carroll ran the ballet school out of a small studio in her house—a massive white Victorian that sat on a busy corner in Eatontown and at the edge of a sprawling yard with a barn and a couple of horses. I liked to gaze out at them, watching their tails swish back and forth while I stood at the bar, gripping on too tightly as I tried to lift my pointed foot off of the high-gloss wooden fl oor, and hold it until the music ended and Mrs. Carroll clapped her hands and motioned for us to start on the other side.
“One, two three, lift, two three, hold, two three! Higher, Beth!” she’d call out, sometimes moving toward me to hold my leg to the height she wanted. I loved how that looked, such a gorgeous extension, but then it would drop to the floor when she let go. I wasn’t such a great ballerina after all—my turnout was poor and extensions were mediocre, and I’d often forget the whole ballet posture, reverting to sticking my butt out until I caught myself in the mirror and sucked it all back in and up. But I had excellent timing and a great memory—I could see a combination once and repeat it back without cues, often earning me a place at the front of the bar.
Mrs. Carroll must have already been in her seventies then, but in impossibly waifl ike, muscled shape, and with a stamina that put us to shame as she danced the whole class along with us—as well as the ones before and after—and never seemed to perspire. She wore short sweaters that knotted at the waist and tied long wraparound skirts over her leotards, and kept er near-magenta–dyed hair in neat Princess Leia side buns that never slipped out of place. She made herself up in what appeared to be garish stage makeup—bright lipstick at midday, powder so thick you could see it under the low studio lights—but she was a real grande dame and she knew it. She smoked only when she thought no one saw her, but every once in a while I arrived at my lesson early, and caught her, puffing like a toughie out in her yard as she did chores around
For our recital she usually chose a classic, like Swan Lake or Giselle, but this year she decided on a strange combo: fragments of Sleeping Beauty, with costumes of long blue tutus attached to satin bodices, along with parts of the obscure Frankenstein, for which we had to wear long, shapeless muumuu-type outfi ts made of fi lmy orange polyester. Our costumes were always rented, so nobody’s fi t perfectly, and they smelled subtly musty, the tutu’s netting creased in sections and the orange pieces losing stretches of their hems, trailing loose, long pieces of thread that my mom had to break off with her teeth before leaving for the church that night.
“Swan Lake’s outfi ts were much better,” I said to my mom backstage. She was helping me to guide the muumuu over my head without disturbing my bun or smearing my makeup.
“Oh, Beth,” she said, trying not to laugh. “You’d look adorable in a paper bag.”
Onstage that night I was nervous, as always, but I knew that my fans were in the audience, on my side, and it made me smile, even as I missed a turn and panicked for a moment during our Sleeping Beauty number, when the scratchy record playing in the wings skipped and made us giggle. But I saw my family out there in the sea of bridge chairs and, though there were white lights in my eyes, I thought everyone looked still and mesmerized and happy.
My favorite part of it all, though, was when it was over, after Mrs. Carroll had received applause and an armful of roses, after I had posed for photographs with the other dancers backstage, when we were at Beach Plum Ice Cream on the ocean, me basking in my post-performance glory, eating my cup of coffeechip ice cream knowing that my sleepover and late-night whispers and morning of pancakes with Kristin was still to come.
“Show me the positions again?” Kristin asked, taking a big lick from her dripping chocolate cone before holding it out to her side, readying herself for my lesson.
I loved teaching the ballet positions. “First is where your heels are together,” I told her, holding my soupy dessert in an outstretched arm as I moved to second, and then third and fourth and on to the hardest, fi fth, with feet squeezed tightly together, heels to toes. My parents and grandma watched us from a nearby boardwalk bench, the three of them working their plastic spoons and waxed paper cups in a quiet rhythm,
while Adam darted all around us, impish and slap-happy, globs of chocolate-chip mint in the corners of his mouth.
“Plié! Plié! Poop-ay!” he called out to the sky, laughing and leaping and skipping, melted rivulets of pastel green seeping out over the rim of his cup and down over his fi ngers. “Look at me! I’m a ballerina! I’m so pretty! Beth’s so ugly! I mean pretty! I mean ugly!”
My parents shot him stern looks, and I tried to ignore him, just rolling my eyes to show that I heard, but that I wasn’t going to get mad. He was all wound up and amusing
himself, his thick head of red hair slightly shaggy and in need of a trim, the cowlicks in back sticking this way and that, holding their own in the strong breeze. Then he was singing to himself, some pop song or other, his face all tough and contorted and intense just like someone in an MTV video, ice cream dripping, staining his lips. I watched him as I held fifth, pulled my arms up on either side of my face.
“Let me try it,” she said. She drew in her cocked hip, standing erect and slamming her heels together. Her hair, set free from its rubber band at some point during the recital,
whipped across her face in the summer wind. She wobbled during fi fth and almost spilled her ice cream and laughed really hard, which cracked us up, and we both cackled and howled in that adolescent-girl way—exaggeratedly, to let anyone who’s listening know that they’re not in on the joke—until my father said, “Let’s go, silly girls,” and we all piled into the station wagon to bring Grandma back home to Asbury.
My father pulled up to the back entrance and I kissed Grandma’s cheek and she kissed mine back, getting a vague smear of frosty maroon lipstick, I knew, on my face. She told me, “ That was a beautiful recital you gave,” and made sure I had the earrings she had given me. They were in my dance bag, and I fi shed them out to show her, and then she was gone, standing slightly stooped behind the sliding glass door, smiling wide and waving good-bye, her small hand flapping up and down at the wrist instead of side to side, in the excited, exaggerated way you’d wave to a baby. I blew her a kiss.
“Only four days of school left,” Kristin said after a few minutes of driving.
“I know, I can’t wait!” I told her.
“ Then the beach and Scott and then junior high, you and me together.”
The mention of Scott made me wince, but I wasn’t going to dwell on it. Not tonight. We zipped along Route 35, where there was barely another car on the road, passing gone-dark strip malls and our favorite Carvel and an old steak restaurant with its neon cow-face sign. When we passed the little furniture storefront I gazed longingly at the groovy lounge chairs in the window—huge hand sculptures with cushioned palms for seats. The early summer wind tore through the windows and through our hair, and I imagined the whole of summer—hot and salty, easy, fi lled with days at our beach club and late nights of cookouts, fi reworks, movies—spread before us with no end, practically as wide as the ocean itself. Adam lay in the back hatch of the station wagon, humming to himself and tapping his sneaker-clad feet. My father drove on, under the
amber glow of streetlights, just ten minutes from home.
From the Hardcover edition.