It’s the start of my first week-end of summer vacation and it’s so hot the hairs on my arms are fried. I can feel them crackling. I wonder if the hair on my head–it’s to the middle of my back, a blonde that looks bleached but isn’t–is doing the same. I go inside to get a hat. On my way back out to the patio again I hear my mother talking on the phone and stop at the sliding glass doors.
“Of course, Dorrie, you know you can count on me in a pinch.” Pause. “Yes, this is definitely more than a pinch it’s a…wound for you, of course. I understand. The week-end will be fine, if you need more days let me know immediately. And I’m so very sorry to hear of this.”
I start again, then circle back to the kitchen and grab a sparkling water flavored with lime from the eight pack in the frig. Head back out.
“She can have the guest bedroom, tell her to bring her own pillow if she doesn’t like firm ones.”
One foot out the door, I stand stock still. Beads of condensation from the aluminum can gather in a tiny pool on the fleshy bridge between thumb and forefinger. I slurp the moisture, open the can with a fizzy pop and drink. Mom is still on the phone. I want to sit by the pool and read my entertainment mag and drink my water but first things first.
Who is Dorrie? Who is taking our guest bedroom to and why? The one where I like to practice pieces on my wooden flutes?
Mom says goodbye, puts down her phone, pivots toward me. She presses her palms into air as if to fend off any questions so I drink some more, waiting. I put my straw hat on. Maybe I heard wrong.
“It’s an emergency,” she says. “I met Dorrie Kane-Kamarinsky at a luncheon awhile back and we’ve become friendly, you know, a fund-raiser, another lunch or two, bridge once.” She runs her fingers through her even blonder short cap of hair and makes a huffing noise. “Well, they moved in six months ago on Trevine Street, a fine and proper colonial, they have the biggest chestnut tree on the side yard. Her husband–Martin–is a hotshot lawyer–he’s as bald as they come but with the brightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen. Dad already knew him from somewhere, I forget. Dorrie is a sweetheart once you get to know her; on the surface she’s frosty, you know, like blue blood runs in her veins, which it does, I think.” Her finely arched, well-plucked eyebrows rise a little. “She has three children, one left at home now.” She stares out to the pool, lips pursed. “I should have run this by your dad.”
Details. My mom loves the endless details more than the point. But she forgets some of the important ones, like asking dad stuff. “Mom, who is coming and why?”
“Oh, right. Serita. Her daughter. She goes to a boarding school somewhere but is out now, too, and she’s only a year older, fifteen. Or sixteen? She’s coming over tonight to stay a bit.” She smiles and as usual it makes her prettiness so sweet you want to immediately trust her.
I sort of shake from head to toe. Mom frowns at me but it’s involuntary, maybe it’s the cold can in my tingling hand or a burst of air conditioning sweeping over the area. It’s just a medium jolt, it happens at times. But come on, this is a stranger coming to our house. That I have to hang out with.
“How can you invite a stranger here? Right down the hall from me. A girl who I’ll have to entertain on the first week-end of my summer vacation? Lin and Travis are coming over, maybe more, tomorrow night. And why does she need to be here?”
“Her grandmother–Dorrie’s mother–had a stroke this morning. She and Martin are flying out tonight. They prefer to leave Serita here since she just got home Wednesday night. Leave her in the neighborhood, that is. She doesn’t know the city or kids since she’s been in school. And you’re just her age!”
She smiles again and nods as if this is serendipity, this is a grand alignment of stars if I’d only see it. Mom tends to think in magical terms.
“Who wouldn’t want to go see their grandmother after a stroke?”
She set her head at an angle and appraised me. “I guess Serita doesn’t feel that way. Not like you. Anyway, please make sure the bed has that sage cotton blanket folded at the foot and check her bathroom for supplies.” She picks up the phone and taps the screen hard. “I’m now informing Dad.”
But I don’t go upstairs to do her bidding. I take myself out to the pool, lie down on a chaise lounge and watch the swan floaties bob about in the pool. It’s so sizzling I last about five minutes, then dive in the deep end and glide along the turquoise and royal blue tiled bottom. My own world. When I come up Mom is standing at the edge above me, still talking on her cell, then moves her mouth away to address me.
“Upstairs, now. She’s due in a couple of hours. Then you both get to swim while I cook. I wonder what she eats? Oh, I have to remind Dorrie to have her pack her suit.” She moves away. “Yes, Dennis, I know. But it’s important to help others out and Dorrie–”
Her voice fades away. I know what dad is saying. Another impulsive, generous act on your part. What do I have to do to get more peace and quiet around here? But he’ll also say he adores her anyway, one of these days he’ll have a sainted wife. He’s what you call an enabler, I guess, of my mother’s schemes.
It sort of makes me want to heave, her eager pleading, his caving in. Plus Serita… Kaminsky, Kamrewska…whatever. Where did such a name come from, the Serita bit? But I climb out and grab my can so Mom won’t note its presence later and remind me to “keep it pristine.” Pristine. As if it ever was.
But Serita doesn’t arrive that I know for sure. I hit the bed around ten. We ate and I helped mom clean up and waited around by the pool, slipping in and out to pass the time, then talking to my best friend, Lin, until she had to get off the phone and still no Serita. Then her mom called mine to say their flight had been delayed until eleven-forty so they were just off to the airport, was that too inconvenient? Yes, I said under my breath and headed to bed. Mom and Dad didn’t hold it against me but advised I be prepared to get up at a “decent” hour, by nine. I later hear an idling car, one door then another door slam, but it never occurs to me that a kid, namely Serita, would take a cab from her home to our place.
“Caroline, up and at ’em!” Dad orders with a rap on the door.
I get myself somewhat together and go downstairs but I hear her voice, louder than what I would say is necessary and the lower side of the vocal register. A big voice so I expect a bigger girl as I enter the breakfast nook, but what I get is a thin, long-legged girl with a wavy mop of shiny ebony hair.
She’s nearly breathless. “I’m trying to wrap my mind around it. Grandmother Kane was a marathon runner until four years ago and now she’s so ill. She must have given it her best shot long ago so is just ready to go.”
“Hmm, a rapid assessment but maybe so, sorry to hear it,” Dad says.
“There you are, Caroline, come meet Serita,” Mom says, wiping her hands on an apron I’ve never seen, like a pert Betty Crocker.
I sit down opposite Serita. “I’m Caro,” I say and she nods at me as I reach for the plate of sausage and scrambled eggs.
“Hello, nice to meet you.” Her eyes are steady, surmise something of me in a fast second.
She is holding her mug full of steaming coffee close to her nose and sniffing it delicately, as it testing its bouquet, its vintage. Then she takes a long drink as if she’s dying of thirst.
Mom and Dad talk about politics and recent headlines which seem to catch Serita’s interest but she puts her mug aside. Stares blankly out the bay window. I imagine she’s thinking of her grandmother and wondering why she isn’t there with her parents. Why she’s here with me and two adults she’s never met.
“Want to swim after breakfast settles a few?” she asks me. “It already appears steaming hot.”
“Sure,” I say. “You have your suit?”
“Do I have a suit?” She whispers. “Wait till you see it!”
She excuses herself as I finish up. Mom asks what I think. I tell her she’s okay and sort of skinny but what do I know? Could be that’s what boarding school does to you so maybe I should try it.
“Very funny, fat chance,” snorts Dad.
“No puns!” I say.
“Go,” says Mom.
When I get outdoors Serita is already at poolside, in the suit that she has indicated was more than just a swimsuit. In fact, there is less to it than I have ever seen up close, a halter design that circles round her neck, then barely drapes over her unimpressive chest and falls over her trunk so her waist is fully exposed on the sides then thankfully covers all else. But the suit is half see-through mesh. And it’s black. Her skin is so white against the suit it glows like moonlight. I’m surprised by all this. I thought she would be tanned, for one thing, as in Mediterranean or Caribbean tan, I guess, being rich. But I also thought she was a sporty type, a runner like her grandmother, maybe, and would wear a comfy tank suit.
“I like your blue two-piece,” she says. “If I had a shape, I’d wear one, too, but no such luck so I have to go for fancier options.” She laughs with her head tossed back, a guttural burst of giddiness. “So tell me about your life. Is it interesting?”
It takes me aback. I ease into the water and walk about, arms afloat by my sides. “Not really. I finished eighth grade so now I get to go to ole high school. My grades were good but I’m relieved it’s summer. I play flute, that’s something, I guess. I have two best friends who are coming over tonight. The greatest part of summer is I can swim every day, something that really matters. I want to be on swim team next year. What about you?”
“I don’t do sports if I can help it–please, the effort strains all my nerves and brain. And I’ve been going to a boarding school the last three years. More or less. Right now I’m glad to be here. I did not want to go see Grandmother Kane. Not right now. She has too many expectations–it’s a family defect– and she’s been disappointed in me. Like, she wants me to run, too. And be a star student. But all I really like is being social and a little outrageous when I can. Mother dear says I have what may be a fatal interest in theater.”
“But don’t you worry about her?”
“I guess, sure. But we haven’t been close for a while. I’ve been gone–and Grandmother lives in Vermont. I used to visit her in summers but… I don’t have the rosy, cozy family you apparently have. Guess I can’t have it all!”
“True, all my grandparents live a hour or two away. I guess I’m lucky.”
She jumps in the pool with a giant splash that crests over me. I splash her back and she gives it back and this goes on until we are drenched in water and sunshine, laughing like idiots who have known each other far longer than a few hours. Mom and Dad poke their heads outside and then retreat, relieved, no doubt, that Serita and I have no problem.
When we settle down and climb out to dry off in the June breeze, she wipes down face, arms and shoulders with my big fluffy towel. Then she says in that low, stout voice of hers, “And guess what? I’m a drug addict.”
Mom bursts outdoors to join us and I endure a good hour of chitchat that Serita manages with surprising ease, then my Dad comes out and takes a swim and invites us in. I keep looking at her and she throws me an oddly amused glance, then says we sure have a nice little pool and lovely swan floats while I just am dying to hear what else she has to say.
Over a bowl of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, peaches and cream–our impromptu lunch– she talks to me like she hasn’t talked in ages, so she says. I am trying not to stare at her with mouth open but it all sounds crazy. Then less crazy as she goes on. More sad.
“It started with pot at eleven, then alcohol, then it was more or less Oxy–you heard of it? Pain pill, Oxycontin? I broke my ankle playing tennis, took a hard swerve and fell harder. Soon that wasn’t the problem. I liked being high, not feeling much, that’s the benefit. The rest isn’t so great. I ended up in rehab twice. The first time it was an accidental overdose on my prescription. The second time it was just…well, I couldn’t take enough to get high enough, it was just trying to avoid withdrawal, trying to stay well as we call it. But I go sicker than a dog…It was fast, the addiction. It’s the drug. So back to treatment, last time for six weeks and went back to school again. Soon I was called into Headmistress’ office and told I can’t come back next year. This was just last week. So now I have to go to public high school here unless they get me into another boarding school with a big bribe–a nice donation, they call it.”
“Gosh. Holy cow.” I feel confused by her outpouring, shocked. Then bad for her. She seems so smart and funny. But I hardly know her. This openness is intense and I don’t know what to do with it. So much truth sits there like a third person.
She laughs. “That’s the best you can do? Holy cow? I didn’t even know people said that in real life.”
“What can I think of it? I’ve tried beer a few times and I knew of someone who got deep into bad herbal pills from online for weight loss–stupid, if you ask me–but not this kind of thing. My friends have been around my whole life. They’re like me, I guess. I know them so well it’s always the same, not much drama. Their parents know my parents. It’s pretty tame, no one in terrible trouble, nothing worth a headline other than a few things the grown-ups do…” But I am starting to become nervous, like there’s this overload of thoughts and I just need to keep quiet now. I feel, I realize, a little scared.
Serita pushes her bowl far away as if she has eaten too much.”I’m not from this everyday Smallsville, Caro, it’s different for me. I am supposed to have it all, right? My dad’s work as a corporate lawyer has taken us to different countries. I get private tutors to learn at home sometimes. We live in–alright, it’s true–gorgeous houses. I never played flute, though, or even ukulele for that matter, never had slumber parties unless my mother threw fancy parties for my birthday with kids I barely knew. My mother runs an interior design business that caters to big names I don’t even feel like dropping. Neither of them are around. Now I’ve been gone awhile, what do we say to each other?. I’m not sure what it feels like to miss people. Probably it’s messy. It’s sure inconvenient and embarrassing that I’m back home….but I don’t really care.” She nearly glares. “I do not care.”
“Well, you’re drug-free, right? Your parents must be so glad, Relieved.”
“Yep, clean as a whistle, how’s that for a corny saying? You’d have to ask them what they think; they’d rather not talk to me.”
Serita looks across our pool, into the back yard of a house where the twins are playing with a cascade of water from a hose, screeching, running around, their dog barking at their heels. Tim and Heather, the seven-year old twins, make me smile. I babysit for them sometimes.
They annoy her or maybe life annoys her as her eyes narrow and turn darker. Her face seems to age, seems haunted, or maybe it’s just changed by the telling of her story. She runs to the pool, dives in deep. I suspect she could swim well if she wanted to– she has that long lean torso, broad shoulders. I, with a body fuller thus heavier, have to labor to power the muscle and slice and slip through water like the dolphin I once wished to become. But she doesn’t care about swimming. Right now I’m not sure what she cares for but it’s been a weird day. I already know too much to act like I don’t when my friends come over later.
I join her in the pool and we swim around and about each other a few minutes like playful creatures cooling off on a summer’s day. Then I start my laps as she dives again so it seems we’ve moved on when she climbs out and takes off with a small wave. I do five more, then lie back on the swan, close my eyes. Think of my predictable friends and a dance next week at the golf club. Think about my mom and dad, what life will be like this summer. And I wonder if Serita regrets telling me. If she will stick around. If I even would want that.
Travis and Lin each bring other friends, Grant and Maddy, so it’s an even six. This makes playing pool volleyball that much more fun. We go to it as Serita complains she may sink her team and she does, eventually. But she’s in a lighter mood and laughs it off.
“It’s summer!’ Travis shouts and rushes me with his awesome butterfly stroke. We’ve been good friends and a little more than friends but lately it’s friends again.
“What’s she all about? I mean, I know the basics–but is there something more? Like, does she have a boyfriend?”
There’s the barest sting as his words hit me. “Ask her. She is very open.”
“Yeah, don’t be shy, Trav,” Lin agrees and pushes him toward her.
He gets out of the pool to sit near her on the other side. She’s talking up a storm with Grant and Maddy; I try to overhear but they’re acting jokey so all must be well. I decide to shelve the earlier conversation unless Travis decides to fall in love. Lin and I swim underwater and come up under all their feet.
Serita is stunning in that suit, skinny or not. Grant and Trav hang on her words.
“Boyfriend? I have had dozens–just ask my classmates at my old school. Really, quite impossible since I was at an all girls school. I’ll have to make up for lost time. If you want I can start with you–or Grant!”
“Great–how about the golf club dance next week?” Grant offers.
“You guys are trouble. Be forewarned, Serita,” Maddy says.
“Oh, good!” She claps enthusiastically and jumps in, followed by the boys.
The lights around the pool and above the sliding doors come on as the sun lowers swiftly. I can hear the distant staccato sound of voices from the living room overlooking us. It’s early, I think, but it is Friday night. I walk over to the patio area but when I get to the living room, it is quiet, the room empty but heavy with something. I think about going inside and seeing what they’re doing but the boisterous sound of my buddies lures me back. Still, I go in and find a big bowl of chips. I load a few sodas onto a tray, balance it all and start back.
Then it comes.
“Cassandra, stop. We have a whole pool of kids and Caroline will worry, be embarrassed. We have Serita here! Can’t you–”
“Can’t I…what? Can’t I be an even more efficient mother and wife? Can’t I be more hard-working and more generous with time and affection? Can’t I can’t I can’t I…oh come here, handsome…”
I cringe. I hear her stumble and his muffled words, then a door shut. A frisson rushes up my spine. I hold chips and sodas carefully, exit the house.
We’re eating and drinking, talking about our summer plans, the lake cottage that Travis’ family owns but we all visit and how Lin and Grant and I love to camp. How Serita will spend time at her family’s summer house in the Adirondacks “that is, if my Grandmother stays alive, well, I hope she does but she’s seventy-two and this stroke…” but though there is a hint of deeper sadness, she quickly moves on. Then we submerge all together in the cool of silken water again. The darkness around us is a balm.
And my mom is coming in, too.
I hear her calling my name and my dad calling hers before she reaches us. She’s put on her new long coral sun dress but this doesn’t concern her. She runs, stumbles, almost catches herself, leans backwards and I think my dad will get her but then there she goes, forward motion into the inviting water.
“Grab her, honey! Hold her up, Caro!”
I know what this means–it isn’t the first time–so I swim fast to her just as Serita gets there too, and we take a firm hold on her wiggling body and then hold her up by the armpits. Travis and Grant push through the side-lit, glimmering blue water. For some reason, I look up to locate the watchful moon for an instant, then look down to find our legs reflecting the watery depths, see my mother’s dress lift and swirl and tangle about her thighs, a brilliant design of fabric and flesh half-drowned. Her breath stinks of alcohol, likely rum. Her champagne-colored hair is plastered to her head and mascara is streaming down her cheeks. She’s batting us away, laughing at me as if I should know better, this is how she can have some real fun, why can’t we leave her alone?
“I can swim, I taught Caro to swim for goodness’ sake!”
They all help move her to the water’s edge, then get out and assist my dad in pulling her forward and upward, out of the pool and onto dry land and into safety.
“What’re you doing? Can’t you see this is the best night? Summer fun! First night, more to come!”
She twists in my dad’s arms and he holds her very close until she quiets, then slumps against him. He walks her into the house and they disappear.
We get out and sit. No one speaks. My friends know my family, know this story. We don’t name it, don’t process it, don’t comment much, anymore. They could. They could tell me they’re worried and care about us and wish they could do something. Or they are disgusted by a middle-aged woman coming undone. I’d listen and accept it. But they have an aunt or a cousin or a brother-in-law who drinks too much–damn it, Grant has gotten drunk and more often. And what can we do?
In a little while, Lin turns on the radio my dad keeps in the modest pool house, just an oyster white-painted shed. It’s music to dance by, and she and Travis get to it, then so do the others. Except Serita.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Stop, please. I just met you,” I say, looking away from her intense gaze.
“That’s not why. I told you my truth. But you sat there and said nothing. You acted like you had it all tied up, happy little home life, the prize family. Like you had no insight.”
Tears slide down my face. My long hair is heavy over my shoulders and I want to lie down but I sit tall. Chin up. “It’s kind of a mess, alright? I hoped tonight she would be okay. Some week-ends she is more okay, even good. All week she’s fine, more or less.” I wipe my nose on the back of my hand. “It’s not the same as you.”
Serita takes me by the forearms and pulls me around to face her. “It’s the same, it’s just alcohol but it’s the same only worse. It can be bought at any store, anytime. And she’s your mother. She’s been at it longer than I have. And she is your mother.” She gave me a little shake.
“I know, I know!” I whisper and put my head down, hair falling forward. I stay there behind the sodden curtain, then fall forward until my head reaches my lap. I feel her hand on my back. It doesn’t pat me reassuringly, doesn’t even move. It stays right between my shoulder blades like a cool rock that holds me in place. Keeps me from falling deeper into the morass.
“Well, we both know some of the reality now, not lies. I’m an addict in recovery, your mother is likely an alcoholic needing recovery.” She sighs as if she must reach deeply to find a breath of air big or fresh enough to keep such talk going. “So how about I stick around?”
I’m not sure what she means. I turn my head and peer through my hair, wiping the tears with a few damp strands. “Can you? A few more days? I’d like that.”
“Yes, Caro. I mean, I get it, right? I’ll be here a long time. And you can be here for me. If that’s alright with you.”
I sit up so straight my backbone aches. “Okay.”
It’s a superior early summer night. There was such promise. It hasn’t vanished, not quite. My friends and I play a last silly game in the pool, keep it easy, light, simple. We’ll all clean up the squashed cans, broken chips, scoop up the towels. We won’t mention my mother’s drinking. They’ll go home; we’ll get together sometime soon again. But when I go to bed and cannot sleep, if the entire mixed up, unhappy truth of it hurtles down upon me–if I lose what’s left of the beauty and I need to scream as the beastliness makes its way into the night, Serita will just be down the hall. I will not be alone with the truth, not anymore.