by Maeve Barry
Maeve Barry lives in New York with her cat named Bone. She works at Westchester Community College and is currently a fiction candidate at Sarah Lawrence's MFA program.
Summers were cheese on toast and sand in cracks, spilling from and grating at every crevice. Skin burned: aloe vera slimed on. Sasha and Jessica de-tangled seaweed from their hair; they showered together, with wooden walls to their sides and sun overhead. All the better if it rained. Theirs were the bodies of stretched children, embellished by upward pointing mounds. The bodies which glossy magazines told them boys liked, which the men outside the Seven Eleven, the uncles who stared, confirmed. Face to face they stood and sudsed themselves, laughing until hot piss mixed with lukewarm water, until it turned to stream and dripped from long and freckled legs, slipping down the outdoor drain.
* * *
The shower stood outside the house and in a field. The house was called The Shack by those who knew it, casually, to imply a beach house on Cape Cod that was old and crumbling. It wasn’t; shining wood floors sat beneath cathedral ceilings, with windows for walls. Light gleamed in one way and out the next.
The town was sloping farm reaching to meet lolling blue, frothing as it capped to shore. The walk from The Shack and to the sea: Sasha barefoot, Jessica atop foam and flopping, cutting through the lawn that wasn’t their own. Past the house with the wrap-around porch and columns, which came with reminders of quiet! as its residents, the Wheatons, were richer than Jessica’s family. Sasha thought they were allowed through the leaf green lawn because of comradery or neighborly relations. It was neither, it was an easement. They dripped in bathing suits on their walks back to The Shack, drying in warm salt air. The girls turned fourteen and Sasha remained towelless. Jessica covered as they rounded the wrapping porch, Mrs. Wheaton could see you, she’d shush at Sasha’s body.
* * *
Sasha and Jessica escaped the peak of heat and the highest sun, ducking into The Shack at lunchtime. Lunch was hard cheese on toasted bread. Ingredients were scarce, Jessica’s family rarely ate. There was wine, always wine, and stray pieces of bread and cheese. There were grains in the cupboard with an undefined purpose, a hidden and private stash of dark chocolate. The girls ate their toast on the floor, sucking grease from their fingers and snorting lemonade from their noses.
The mother emerged; she’d been napping. The mother was Winifred, Winnie: stretched and limbed, sun-spotted and towheaded. Naturally, as a child, now with the help of professionals. She towered but slouched towards smallness. Glazed-eyed, as if recovering from bad acid at all times, Winnie spoke in a breathy whisper. She flinched if someone raised their voice to laugh.
Winnie had filled only in a ring around her center; my tire, she’d call it, reminding Jessica and Sasha just how lucky they were to be empty. Her limbs bone, her center bloated; hers was the body of an anorexic who made an exception for wine, a bottle with dinner drank up through bedtime. Bleary eyed, she rubbed at her face, could you keep it down, she whispered to the girls, stressed from a day at the beach and of resting.
* * *
Winnie and Jessica came to The Shack for two months each summer, Sasha was invited out for one. Sasha whose clothes spilled from her suitcase, who returned from the beach weighed down by shells. Sasha’s mother drove her the two hours from their home in landlocked Massachusetts, her station wagon clanking. She’d drop Sasha at The Shack and turn right back around. Sasha couldn’t watch her mother leave without going with her; she’d focused her eyes on a rhododendron bush as they hugged goodbye, watching it distort and waver.
It had been years now, years of summer spent in the tall and airy house and Sasha almost felt used to it. She called home infrequently, found her mother on their landline, and only talked about things that were pretty. I’m so happy for you, her mother said as a cool breeze blew against Sasha’s mouthpiece, while her mother sat surrounded by asphalt, sweating and humid.
* * *
Sasha and Jessica were the age at which nothing hurt, and so everything did. The cut of an invitation slighted could linger for months. But look how lovely they were! Eyes followed them down the beach as their hips swung off sand and their hair dripped pools. They moved through days with their skin warm and damp, bones toasting. Picture it! Feel the heat on the top of your head where your hair turns hot, feel the moisture that beads behind your knees. The girls smeared honey on their faces and rinsed with briny water. Shining with sprayed on sunscreen, their backs pressed flat against striped towels, their chests pointed skyward.
And then came the invitations to late bonfires, and after that, parties. Winnie didn’t mind that the girls were gone, didn’t care what they did, as long as The Shack was quiet. As long as sand stayed outside and glasses of lemonade were accompanied by coasters.
Parties were at the lifeguard’s quarters, at the nearby beach club surrounded by cliffs. Nights smelled of fish and lilac as Sasha and Jessica walked the starlit beach towards the club, stumbling, dodging shards of bottles and of shells. Music thumped, how old are you, the life guards asked, home for the summer and sleeping on bunked beds. Freshmen, Sasha and Jessica replied in unison, leaving off high school and implying college.
Returning from behind the shed: sandy and ruffled. Him 24 and Sasha 14. You look like you just got raped, Jessica laughed. He was studying to be a veterinarian. Jessica helped Sasha find her underwear behind a barnicled rock the next morning. I swam and swam and jumped from the bluff, Sasha told her mother on the phone. Then later on we all went for ice cream.
* * *
Fathers weren’t at the beach, really. Only for long weekends. They’d arrive in Suburbans with their top buttons open, carrying new gadgets for grilling and a rudder for the boat. With fathers came groceries, came an excuse for eating. So did brothers. And there was a brother: Jason. Older, he didn’t often come to The Shack. Only for a week and then, teenaged, a weekend. Afraid of sand, he could stand no sensation between his toes. He burned tomato red in a matter of minutes.
He toed the line between looking handsome and like someone who killed squirrels for fun. But he didn’t kill squirrels! Her first summer at The Shack, Sasha watched Jason fill plastic terrariums with periwinkle snails. Sasha and Jessica peered at them, shell-shocked and still. Jason then tore the soft and gooed bodies from their curled homes with a satisfying pop!, like blackheads extracted from his nose with a sewing needle. He lined the bodies on The Shack’s light wood floor, then pressed his thumb into their softness one by one, felt them splat and ooze.
Winnie returned to her dirtied kitchen floor. She sighed, audible and long, and filled her wine glass to its rim. Later that night and parched, Sasha headed for the kitchen, blind and palming walls. She nearly tripped over Winnie, in the dark and on her knees, drunk and scrubbing at stained wood.
* * *
A different night in The Shack: Sasha and Jessica in the full-sized bed, legs tangled. Face to face with the windows open, the sea rolled in and wet the lavender sheets. Waves crashed as background to their chatter. Jessica fingered Sasha’s hair loosely, twining it around her wrist into a bracelet. Sasha was still, not wanting to interrupt, to stop it. Their smells merged: strawberry and the copper of their periods. Sasha’s period synced to Jessica’s; Jessica was more assertive, biologically and otherwise. Jessica pressed her boobs together with one hand and decided she wanted a push up-bra for her birthday.
Sasha’s birthday had passed in May, with a present delivered weeks later. She opened the package and her mother’s front hallway filled with piped tobacco, puffed and repeated. It was a picture book: Tom and Tammy: A Tale of Two Lobsters. It told the story of Lobster Tom and Lobster Tammy who held claws and were set to mate for life. From my grandpa, Sasha told Jessica. What a freak, Jessica laughed. Her grandfather in title if not in practice; Sasha’s mother’s father was named Tom. His new wife, coincidentally, was Tammy. Jessica’s fingers coiling her still-wet hair, Sasha thought of her grandfather’s claws that wandered, that remained on and inside of his descendants. She told Jessica. His hair was white, his skin was paper. People called him Red because his hair once was. Jessica’s hands were gone, a moment of wide-eyed recognition. Then Jessica flipped on to her stomach and began to kick her feet up behind her, one foot and then the other, as she planned her birthday aloud. Her phone buzzed, a text from Winnie, asking them to keep it down. Jessica shut off the light and said nothing. Sasha lay awake and watched patterns on the ceiling move, the smell of ocean replaced by tobacco.
* * *
Winnie was less bothered with each year that passed, with each of Jason’s visits and their subsequent incident. She slept through the night when Jason peered through slatted wood while Sasha and Jessica soaped themselves, when he tugged Sasha’s towel until it dropped. Winnie rubbed her temples at Jessica’s noise. Winnie began to speak of Jason only in whispers. To her sister: he’s been having, not the easiest time. To the women on the beach: Jason will try to make it for a weekend this summer, he’s so busy with college applications. Bates, we’re hoping! as she raised a wine glass to her lips. She left out the court ordered fire safety course, prompted by a kitchen fire, started with equipment stolen from his prep school’s chemistry lab, inspired by an online article: Cook Meth at Home in Two Days! But Jason was driving out for the weekend, along with the father. Jason came with his usual complaints that he was unwanted, that he was stuck with little bitches. This called for a nice dinner that you could dress for. The family and Sasha clamored into the Volvo, the father driving and Winnie complaining that they’d miss their reservation. Jessica’s thigh sweated against and stuck to Sasha’s as they leaned towards her side, away from Jason as he spread and moaned.
The restaurant was the sort where the rich played casual. Shorts were acceptable and no one wore a tie. But the waitress! She had another thing coming if she expected a tip, after confusing a Riesling with the Merlot? They passed through the dining room and out to the patio that looked over the bay, where boats moored before sputtering to life, disrupting glassy water. They passed towheaded children and families sunburned beneath pastels. Men’s arms were loud on the table, their yelled laughter came with spittle accumulated in the corners of their mouths, like yellowed sea-foam stuck to shore. Their wives chewed behind cloth napkins. Sasha remembered a story from Jessica, the story of a woman who choked to death at a restaurant like this one. She began to choke and went to the bathroom to avoid making a scene, then died quietly, preserving the gauzy daze of a Sunday meal cooked by somebody else. Later, a waitress found her, slumped over the porcelain sink. It makes sense, Winnie said solemnly when the girls had balked.
Waters were poured, Winnie swirled and confirmed white wine. Beer for the father and for Jason, who glared at the waitress, daring her to mention an ID. They all eyed the menu, thumbed its laminated listings. Expensive fish, mostly; nothing without eyes. Jason and the father ordered the surf and turf, Winnie got the halibut, it was fish and chips for Jessica. I’ll just have an order of fries, Sasha shrugged, the family stared. I’m a vegetarian, Sasha reminded, their eyes all rolled. She always had been; her mother was. This was a time before the rich were plant-based, before vegan alternatives appeared on every menu. The father, loosened with beer and familiar: How many summers has it been now, Sash? How about the calamari? Oysters? Those don’t have a face! The same conversation repeated over: the father who wants you to taste whatever it is that jiggles on his plate, to swallow the whiskey when you can stomach no more. It’s only a bite! they insist. Don’t be a bitch, Jason reminded. She’ll have the lobster, the father told the waitress who avoided Sasha’s eyes. Jessica and Winnie sat silent.
* * *
The lobster arrived, there it sat. Head to tail, it outsized the ceramic plate. Look at the body on him! the father congratulated. The family had nothing to say to one another, but in the case of lobster, a united front. Circled around the table, they fixed their eyes on Sasha. Look how they stare! Smiles across their small mouths, frothing towards their prey. They watched, Sasha poured butter over. She lifted the lobster, body in whole, utensils forsaken. It crunched, meat slimed.
Into her mouth and then stuck, Sasha gagged, the hard pressed the back of her throat. Grating and dry, like the Body of Christ, the communion she choked down the last time she saw her grandfather. The calloused skin, the gooed softness. Down it slid. The family salivated, their hands gripping the sides of the table and their seats. And then Sasha was hungry. Then her hands tore flesh from the exoskeleton, coated in butter. It slid from her chin, it shone on her face. Dripping, she took it all in, pushing deeper and further, not pausing to breathe, barely taking the time to chew. The other diners faded, their chatter subsided, they blurred with the dark and light-stroked water. Sasha tore paper skin with her teeth, finally devoured. She finished. She paused, wet-mouthed, and sipped her Coca Cola from its sweating glass. See how the family sits! Slack-jawed and waiting. Quiet, for a moment. And then vomit. Projectile and streaming, red chunks and white meat flew. And Sasha didn’t raise a hand to stop it.
The vomit continued. No retching involved, Sasha’s body expelled with ease. No lobster left, and still she poured out. How could so much liquid live inside one person? The taste of salt, of the sea. She emptied herself onto the white clothed table. Once finished, Sasha sat. Her vision focused: Jason dry heaving over the side of his chair, the father sheet white, Jessica screaming. Only Winnie stared head on, her face blank, making no movement towards a napkin. Sasha met Winnie’s gaze and she didn’t wipe off her face. The corners of her mouth turned up, and Sasha didn’t look away.