Cape May

Cape May

by Chip Cheek

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“Inside this mesmerizing tale of sexual desire and discovery, naive newlyweds Henry and Effie are honeymooning in Cape May, N.J., in 1957, tentatively navigating intimacy. Then they meet Clara and Max, hard-partying lovers who dazzle the innocent pair until they’ve lost more than their virginity. Cheek’s sensual first novel leaves you wanting more.”

"Henry and Effie’s honeymoon is meant to be their introduction to the pleasures of the body, but in the company of Clara and her promiscuous cohort they lose all track of boundaries. A dozy, luxurious sense of enchantment comes over the story, until the rude awakening at its finale.... Cape May does something better than critique or satirize: It seduces."
The Wall Street Journal

Cape May is a raw, provocative portrayal of a young 1950s couple on the cusp of a sexual awakening, and the temptations that upturn their honeymoon and reshape their marriage.

In this erotic and intimate debut novel, a naïve southern couple is exposed to a group of raucous, debauched urbanites. Arriving for their honeymoon in Cape May, New Jersey, during the off season, Henry and Effie are startled to find the beach town deserted. The abandoned homes and desolate beaches make them shy of each other, and, isolated in their new marriage, they decide to cut their trip short.

But before they leave, they encounter their glamorous, sensual neighbors and become swept up by their drama. Clara, a beautiful socialite who feels her youth slipping away; Max, a wealthy playboy and Clara’s lover; and Alma, Max’s aloof, mysterious, and evocative half-sister, to whom Henry is irresistibly drawn. Slowly, agonizingly, these deeply-flawed, profoundly human characters pull Henry and Effie out of themselves and expose them to a side of desire they never expected.

While they discover new truths in each other and in their marriage, the empty beach town becomes their playground. And as they sneak into the vacant summer homes, go sailing, walk naked under the stars, make love, and drink an enormous amount of gin, Henry and Effie slip from innocence into betrayal, with irrevocable consequences.

Seductive and moving, this is a novel about marriage, love, raw sexuality, and the ways in which desire and betrayal can reverberate endlessly throughout our lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250297167
Publisher: Celadon Books
Publication date: 04/30/2019
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 105,874
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Chip Cheek’s stories have appeared in The Southern Review, Harvard Review, Washington Square, and other journals and anthologies. He has been awarded scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, and the Vermont Studio Center, as well as an Emerging Artist Award from the St. Botolph Club Foundation. Cape May is his debut novel. He lives in El Segundo, California, with his wife and baby daughter.

Read an Excerpt


The beaches were empty, the stores were closed, and after sunset, all the houses on New Hampshire Avenue stood dark. For months, Effie had been telling him about this place and the many things they would do here, but she had only known it in the summer, and this was the end of September. She had not understood what "offseason" meant. They had come up from Georgia on the overnight train. They were supposed to spend two weeks here, for their honeymoon.

"I love it," Henry said their first evening. "It's like we got the whole place to ourselves."

Effie laughed at that. A minute later, she began to cry.

"It's nothing," she said. "It's nothing, really — don't coo over me. I'm just tired, that's all." She smiled at him. "I'm glad you like it. We're going to have a wonderful time."

Before this trip Henry had never been north of Atlanta, and he had never seen the ocean. He and Effie had grown up in the little town of Signal Creek, half an hour east of Macon, and in the spring they had graduated from high school: Thomas E. Cobb, Class of 1957. He was twenty — like many people from the country, he had started school late — and she was eighteen. They both, as far as Henry knew, had been virgins.

In the taxicab from the depot they'd come out beside a harbor teeming with masts, and the sea beyond it was roiling, immense, speckled with whitecaps. From the harbor they turned into a residential area shaded with elm trees, and here were the grand Victorian houses Effie had told him about: bright colors, slate gables and conical towers, widows' walks with wrought-iron railings, porches trimmed in elaborate woodwork, trellises opening onto the sidewalks, chrysanthemums in bloom. On New Hampshire Avenue the houses were more plain — one- and two-story cottages that wouldn't have looked out of place in Signal Creek, aside from the colors. Aunt Lizzie's place was one of these: pale pink, two stories, with a deep front porch above a dead flower garden. It was disappointing. But when he stepped out of the cab and heard the ocean three blocks away, a hushed, deep roar, it seemed to him that his true life was just beginning, and that every possible door was open to him now. He scooped Effie up into his arms — she shrieked and laughed — and carried her across the threshold.

The house looked different, she said when he set her down. She hadn't seen it in three years, since the summer before her aunt Lizzie passed away. The wicker furniture was new. The gas stove, the refrigerator and freezer: none of these conveniences had existed. They seemed to trouble her. There were four bedrooms on the second floor — these looked different too — but Effie insisted they sleep in the attic room, where she had slept as a child. At the top of the stairs she slid a heavy glass door open and they stepped inside. This room, happily, had not changed a bit. The walls slanted sharply, bare wooden beams. A single bed stood in the middle of the room, a chest of drawers, a dusty vanity table and mirror. In a corner stood a small, dead Christmas tree, threads of tinsel still caught in the branches. That had been there too. She knelt down to the floor-level windows and cracked them open. From here you could see the ocean over the houses across the street; Henry crouched down for a look.

"I know it's a little peculiar," Effie said, "but you can humor me, can't you? Just for a night?"

He could humor her for the rest of her life, he wanted to say, but Effie laughed at expressions of deep feeling; she had been on the verge of laughing all through their wedding ceremony. He kissed her instead, and put his hand on her thigh, his body humming. All these months of anticipation, and here they were. They had known each other since they were children, from church and from school, though for most of that time they had not thought much of each other. He could see her standing at the blackboard in Mrs. Mobley's fourth-grade classroom, in her Mary Janes and white stockings, copying out a line from the Psalms: Mayor Tarleton's snotty little daughter. And he, one of the boys from out there, beyond the town line. Now they were here, together and alone. In New Jersey, of all places.

She laid her hand over his. "Let me take a bath first," she said.

It happened not in the attic room, which was too full of memories, but in one of the redecorated bedrooms on the second floor. They chose the one with the rose-patterned wallpaper. He drew the curtains closed. She'd just taken her bath, and while she stood still he undid the loose belt at her waist and slipped her robe off her shoulders. Until now, what little they had done had come in stolen moments back home: an afternoon at the bend in the creek, when he'd pulled the straps of her bathing suit down and seen her breasts for the first time; the night, shortly after they got engaged, in the backseat of her Buick, when he'd reached up her dress and she'd let him — the soft skin above her stockings, the elastic of her underwear, the scent that had lingered on his fingers — and every detail was burned into his memory but at the same time unreal, as if he'd dreamt it. Now, in this dim room, early on a Sunday afternoon, when they would normally be in their church clothes having dinner with their families, Effie lay naked on the rose-patterned duvet. She looked away while he unbuckled his trousers and let them fall to the floor, and after hesitating a moment, he pulled down his BVDs and got into the bed beside her. They kissed for a minute, skin against skin, smooth and cool and then warm, before he got on top of her, where he couldn't quite see what he was doing. He hovered over her, fumbling between her legs, until she looked down, took his penis lightly between her fingertips, set it in the right spot — and there she was: their intimacy deepened in an instant. His breath caught. She lay still. In a few seconds, it was over.

Afterward they lay beside each other looking at the ceiling tiles. He wondered whether he felt irreversibly changed.

"Well," Effie said. "I guess we've done it, then."

Later, as they walked down to the beach in the early evening, they held hands and had little to say to each other. What was there to say? They knew each other now, in the biblical sense. He smiled at her; she smiled back. The dress she was wearing was one she'd worn often to school, before the thought of dating her had ever entered his mind, and the familiar sight of it made her strange: she was both the girl he knew then, in the hallways of Thomas E. Cobb, and the girl he knew now, far more intimately, in Cape May, New Jersey. His wife. With whom he had already shared an indignity: they'd made a mess on the rose-patterned duvet. But Effie, bless her, had been sporting enough to laugh about it, and asked him to run and fetch her a towel. He was grateful for her.

Down at the promenade they stood for a while and looked at the sea. The waves curled over and crashed, one after another, an endless succession. All that water: it was a wonder it didn't swallow them up. The day was overcast and the wind had a bite to it. Seagulls hovered overhead, shrieking.

"It's so weird," Effie said. "In the summer this place is teeming." She pointed to a pier that jutted out from the promenade, at the end of which stood an arcade where there had been games and music, she said, where she and her friends would spend entire afternoons, until the lights came on. Acrobats and strongmen performed on the promenade, there were stands of cotton candy and saltwater taffy, and boys surfed in the waves.

"We'll just have to come back in the summer, then," Henry said.

She took his hand again and they continued on down the promenade toward town. All along Beach Avenue, to their right, the shops were shuttered and dark, signs posted in the windows: CLOSED FOR THE SEASON. SEE YOU IN MAY!

At last they found a diner that was open and sat at a booth by the window. Their waiter was a boy with the kind of accent Henry had only ever heard on the radio. He wondered if he could tell that they'd recently had sex.

"If you're from all the way down there," the boy said, "why didn't you just go to Florida?"

"Because it's beautiful here," Effie said.

Henry ordered the meat loaf, she ordered the fish and chips, and as the boy slipped his notepad into his back pocket he said, "Well, if you came to get away from it all, you came to the right place."

They ate in silence. "I'm so glad to be here," Henry said.

That evening, they called it an early night and went up to the attic room. It was not quite eight o'clock.

She prayed the way his grandmother did: on her knees beside the bed, hands clasped, muttering to herself. Henry looked away. She wore a nightgown and her breasts were loose inside of it, but after her praying, a pious aura surrounded her that stunted his arousal. She kissed him and said, "Is it all right if we just go to sleep now?" The look of pity on her face was annoying.

"Yes," he said. "That's all I want to do too."

In the dark he clasped his hands over his chest and prayed silently. He thanked God for the day. He prayed for their happiness and future. He prayed that he would be a good husband. Then he lay rigid on his side of the bed, listening to the wind and the waves through the open windows — feeling gassy, worrying he'd pass it in the night, wishing he could be alone for a little while.

* * *

The next day was better. It was raining, but they were starving and there was no food in the house, so they had to go outside. They were soaked by the time they found the grocer's in town.

There was life here, as it turned out. Weathered men in pea coats — fishermen, maybe. A group of Coast Guard cadets, from the training station north of town. A few men and women running errands under umbrellas. They passed a grammar school, and at least one of the windows was lighted, though they didn't see any children anywhere. In the central part of town, several blocks inland, a candy shop was open, a dry goods store, the grocer's on Washington Street, and beside it a hardware store and a liquor store. The old clerk at the grocer's seemed as happy to see them as they were to see him, and Effie called out orders as if she were preparing for a banquet: a pork loin, a pound of haddock, a loaf of bread, a pound of butter, sliced ham and cheese, potatoes, eggs, peach preserves, plums, apples, strawberries — she would fill the kitchen with abundance. On the way back to the cottage the rain became a downpour and they started running, each of them hugging a bag of groceries, the paper turning soft and dark in their arms. They arrived winded, doubling over with laughter. They put the groceries away and then, up in the attic room, peeled their wet clothes off and made love, memories be damned, over a beach towel spread under them on the bed.

Afterward she lay naked against him — so casual, like it was nothing already. "I'm sorry I was so gloomy yesterday," she said.

"You weren't, Eff," he said. His penis lay tipped against her thigh. He liked how it looked there. "You were tired. We're settled in now."

She nodded, her head moving against his shoulder. He couldn't see her face. "It just feels so weird to be back here. It's not like I remember it."

He kissed the top of her head — her hair was still damp — and gave her bare behind a squeeze. "Hey, so what. We're making new memories now."

She looked up at him and smiled. "You're such a sweet boy, Henry." She kissed him soft and slow, and in a minute he was up again, and though she resisted, playfully — "I told you, Henry, I'm starving" — with a nudge she got on top of him and they found each other without trying.

After lunch they sat out on the front porch and watched the rain, which was cool and fragrant, and she pointed out houses on the street and told him about the people who had lived in them during the summers. There were the Woods, in the cottage across from them, whose daughter, Betsy, used to babysit her sometimes. Next door to the Woods, in the large house with the barn-shaped roof, lived her friend Vivian Healy, whose older brother, Charles, had died in Korea. A few houses down, on this side of the street, in the big purple Victorian, lived an older couple who always kept to themselves. She never knew their names. "You'd just see them walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, and they'd smile at you and say hello, but that was all. There was never anyone else there, no children or grandchildren. Just the two of them."

"That'll be us someday," Henry said.

Effie laughed. "Don't say that. It's too sad."

"How is it sad? It sounds sweet to me."

She shook her head. "No," she said. "You and me — there'll be no peace for us, I'm afraid. We're going to have us a roost."

"God help me," Henry said. She'd made it clear to him that she wanted five children at least, all boys if she had her way, that she wanted a house that never rested, that she and Henry, into old age, would be at the center of a maelstrom of life (she wanted dogs too), and though he didn't care one way or another about children, or dogs — in fact her idea of the future had alarmed him when he really thought about it, in the weeks before their marriage — now it made him feel light and for a brief moment radiantly happy. They were going to be all right.

"What are you smiling at?" she said.

"You," he said.

"Quit it," she said, and she kissed him before he could say anything more.

They drank some of Uncle George's brandy. In the house instructions he'd left for them on the dining room table he told them they could help themselves to his liquor cabinet, but if they drank more than half of any bottle he expected them to replace it, and he provided them with the address of the liquor store on Washington Street. "We should leave exactly half of every bottle," Henry said, and Effie laughed. This Uncle George, Aunt Lizzie's widower, lived in Philadelphia and wasn't a blood relation. Effie had never had much to say about him, aside from the logistics of the trip and when the cottage would be available. Henry had the sense she didn't like him very much.

She made the haddock for supper — it stuck to the pan and crumbled to pieces, but it was good — and afterward they turned the radio on, found a hits station that wasn't too fuzzy with static, and danced in the den to "Chances Are." They played a game of checkers, which Effie won handily. They passed the halfway mark on the bottle of brandy.

"What's he going to do, bill us?" Henry said.

"To hell with King George," Effie said. "Bottoms up."

On Tuesday the sun came out and the streets and squares in town were spangled with light. They walked out to see the lighthouse, which stood near the point, on the other side of a wetland. This spot, according to Henry's understanding of the town, marked the southernmost tip of New Jersey. Ahead of them lay open ocean, to the left of them lay open ocean, and off to the right somewhere, on the other side of the peninsula, lay Delaware Bay. Now that the sun was out, the sea was royal blue. "Just think," he said, pointing to the horizon ahead, "about ten thousand miles down that way is Antarctica, or South Africa, or something. We could just swim and swim and never see the end of all that water."

When she didn't answer he looked at her and saw that she was frowning. She'd been grumpy that morning. They'd both had too much to drink. "That's not right," she said. "That way's west."

He felt a prick of annoyance. He'd only been trying to put a little wonder into things. "How is that way west? It's ocean as far as you can see."

"No, it's Delaware," she said. "You can see it with binoculars — I'll show you a map when we get back to the house." She pointed off to the left of where they were standing. "That way's south. If you swam that way, you'd run into Antarctica or South Africa or what-have-you. Actually, I think you'd run into Venezuela first."

Never mind. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed the top of her head. "Fine, Rand McNally, south is west and east is north," and she pushed him away, smiling.

* * *

They made love every morning, before they got out of bed, and again in the late afternoon. They were gentle and considerate with each other. He caressed her between her legs, shy of looking too closely at it. He kissed her breasts, her soft, plump belly, her impressive nest of pubic hair, which smelled of linen, but he went no further, afraid of offending her, afraid that she would recoil or laugh or call him a pervert. How could he ask what she wanted? How could he tell her what he wanted? Sometimes she held his penis lightly and he lifted his hips to encourage her — he wanted her to hold it more firmly (but not too firmly), he wanted her, in his dreams, to put it into her mouth — but she shied away, afraid of hurting it, or else wary of it, or revolted. He didn't know. But they made love, no words necessary, and it seemed to go a little more naturally each time. He took it slow and easy, holding back the tide for as long as possible. The headboard tapped the wall. She breathed close to his ear, her fingers in his hair.


Excerpted from "Cape May"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Chip Cheek.
Excerpted by permission of Celadon Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

CAPE MAY BY CHIP CHEEK Discussion Questions

1. How does the anonymity provided by a mostly-empty seaside town contribute to the story?

2. How does the time period inform the characters’ interactions and decisions throughout the book?

3. Henry is only 20 years old, and Effie just 18. Do their ages change how you feel about them? Why or why not?

4. What role do wealth and status play in the characters’ perspectives on life and on each other?

5. Discuss how you feel about Alma.

6. Marriage involves both give and take. What does Henry give? Take? How about Effie? What can this tell us about their relationship from beginning to end?

7. Is it possible to define a “breaking point”

for a marriage? What factors have to be considered? Do you think it is possible to truly forgive?

8. Would Henry and Effie’s marriage have been different if they hadn’t gone to Cape May for their honeymoon?

9. Discuss how you feel about the epilogue.

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