Marilyn’s Beach House
The little twin room off the kitchen was always sandy. The mattress covered in sand-resistant plastic rustled and squeaked. The frilly curtains blew slightly in the draft. It was a summer house in winter, but it suited us fine. My parents (dad and step-mom) shared the master bedroom overlooking the cement patio and the sea beyond. My dad said he loved waking up to the sound of the ocean crashing. The house was dark. Dark wood, bricks, lots of windows but not in the right places for sunlight to sneak in. This was my step-mom’s great aunt Marilyn’s summer house. Marilyn still lived with her mom in her childhood home in Boston, but this was the place she’d made her own. Marilyn was unmarried, no kids, and a bit of a prickly pear, to use my mom’s terminology (my mom excels at terminology). I vaguely heard some story about how Marilyn had been involved with a married man earlier on, in her twenties say, and that it ended with the man staying married, and Marilyn living with her mom.
I was in 4th grade, in a new school. I had one friend, who turned out in a very brutal way to not be my friend when she and her real friends spread rumors about me that I like Jimmy Pizzi, who still liked Michael Jackson and even wore his Thriller t-shirt, and was therefore a totally unacceptable choice of a person to like. He even shamelessly did the dance moves at recess, and while in retrospect I think “fuck yeah Jimmy Pizzi,” at the time it was terrible. I would have been friends with Mindy and Sara but they only wanted to play horses, and as dorky as I was, I just didn’t get horses as a game. I mean, “neigh,” right? That’s about it. I didn’t want to brush anybody’s mane.
We were waiting for our house in a new suburban subdivision to be built. We’d moved from N. Andover down to Hanover, and the move had taken us first to my step-grandparent’s house, where my parents and I shared the guest room. The room had been my step-mom’s childhood room. I had a fold out cot, my parents shared the double bed, and there was barely a person’s width of room to stand or move about anywhere in the room. I would do my homework stretched out on the cot. When the situation became untenable, we camped out at the beach for the duration of construction.
When you’re a kid, it’s hard to figure out what to call your step-parents. The terms mom and dad are already taken, and doubling up, like Mommy 2, or Mom-mom, or the dreaded Smom, never quite works. There’s calling the step-parent by their first name, which definitely works when the child is a little older. But I was five when my step-mom entered my universe, and the first name thing for a person who was my primary care giver was a little much. My step-cousin S had been calling my step-mom Gigi, a result of not being able to properly pronounce her full name when he was just learning to talk, so that’s what I called her too.
Jody came up to me in the lunch line on the first day of school. “Do you have any friends yet?” She asked. “No,” I replied. “Well now you do,” and she linked arms with mine, and we sat together. I was elated. This was way easier than making friends at my old school. Jody lived down the street from my step-grandparents’ house, and we’d play after school. Not long after that I met Julianne Murphy, who thought of herself as Jody’s best friend. She hated me right away and started picking on me in earnest. Jody joined in, but winked at me while she insulted me so that I’d know she didn’t really mean it.
That day after school she said “I’ll just be mean to you at school, and maybe stick my tongue out at you, but after school we can still be friends.” I was elated. I hadn’t lost my friend after all. We played, and I went home, and told Gigi the good news.
Gigi had some news of her own. “That’s not really a friend,” she said, “a friend wouldn’t pretend to not like you when other people are around.” I was wary of Jody after that, and Gigi wanted to protect me from further hurt, and wouldn’t let me play with her after school anymore. Plus I felt like a total dupe, and I didn’t feel much like playing. When Julianne Murphy and her mean girls posse of Melissa Lyons and Denise LeBlanc started doing things like pushing me off the swings, saying that I liked Jimmy Pizzi, and that Colonel Gaddafi of Libya was my uncle (Libby = Libyan uncle), Jody joined in for real.
A horrible boy named Chris Honan lived next door to my step-grandparents’ house, and he went to my school too. He tried to shake me and S out of the tree that stood between the two houses. He would say it was on his property and we couldn’t climb it. But my grandparents said it was their tree, and it had perfect branches for us climbers, so we climbed it. A few years later, in middle school, Chris would approach me by the garbage bins in the cafeteria and say “let’s get naked,” then his friend Tim called me a slut. That’s exactly when I started eating lunch in the library.
Once we took up residence at the beach house, I didn’t have to take the bus anymore and got rides to and from school. At the beach house in Hummarock I played alone. I played in the cold sand, in the cold surf. I darted in and out of the icy tide pools at low tide. I took Marilyn’s perfectly round kitchen spoons down to the sand bar and dug perfectly round holes that I could reach my hand in to up to my shoulder. TV options were limited: no cable, wobbly antenna. In the winter the wind roared past on it’s way inland from the sea.
I liked it. I liked that it was isolated. I liked how when we’d arrive home at the end of the day there was no going back out. We’d get everything we need and hunker down as the darkness rolled over us, the sound of the ocean seeming to intensify with every diminishing ray of sunlight. I liked how much my dad liked the ocean, and I liked taking walks on the peopleless beach with my parents in our wind breakers. I liked playing in the sand dunes in my hat and gloves. I liked how I was the only kid I’d ever see.
Most of our stuff was in storage, and when we’d been packing up, Gigi said I could take a few of my stuffed animals, but not all of them. I very specifically sat my favorites down and told them I couldn’t take them, that I had to give giraffe, bunny and lamby a chance. I lived to regret not taking my teddy bear. But giraffe and bunny and I got pretty close. Lamby was always on the outs because she was fixed in a weird shape: lying down with her legs played out in front and back. You just can’t snuggle with something like that.
I liked how we were in transition and it didn’t feel like anything real could happen. We were just waiting. Nothing big happens while you’re waiting. And it didn’t.
Years later, when I was in college, but before Dave and I were serious, well after Gigi and my dad had split, but while Gigi still had my brother N living with her, I went to visit. Gigi and I were only vaguelly in touch, it had been a hard break-up, but she invited me to the Hummarock beach house for the annual Fourth of July party at Marilyn’s house. Gigi’s Grammy had made her famous baked beans, Gigi’s sister had made her famous sweet and sour sticky chicken wings, all Gigi’s cousins were there, and my step-cousin S, who’d been my close friend since the tree climbing days.
I’d been part of the family for a little more than ten years, but I wasn’t part of the family anymore, and everyone knew it. People were interested to see how I’d changed, what I was up to, but it was basically just curiosity. I wanted to see if people still cared about me, and if I still cared about them. It’s a strange thing when a family gets divorced. It’s hard enough to keep track of people in your immediate family never mind tracking down divorced step-cousins or step-nieces. Gigi was the only one of her family I’d been in touch with, and of her family, I missed her mom and my cousin the most. Her mom was glad to see me at the beach house, and gave me one of her long hugs that had always made me feel snuggled and loved and special, but everyone else just sort of said hello, and that was that. After the divorce they’d successfully closed the circle, and I was decidedly on the outside.
My cousin S and I tried to go back to being friends, but it wasn’t one of those things where you see each other and suddenly it’s like you were never apart. He was a few years younger than me, and there’s a big difference between a college sophomore and a rising high school junior. I mostly hung out with Gigi’s cousins, who were about my age. Two brothers: DM who was a little older and didn’t like to be called DM anymore, and Patrick who was a little younger, just starting college that fall. I had some grass with me and snuck off with Patrick to go get high. When we came back, everyone bust out laughing. I don’t know if they’d wondered where we’d gone but they certainly didn’t wonder where we’d been. I was embarrassed for a second, until I realized it barely mattered what they thought. I probably wasn’t going to see these people again, and with the exception of running into Gigi’s brother at my brother’s senior art show, that’s been true.
Waiting for the Independence Day Parade. L-R: Gigi, S, N, Gigi’s mom, me, Dotty, Dotty’s husband, Marilyn carrying a chair down the road.
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