Idling at the traffic light, waiting to make a left turn onto the busy main road, Leah opened her window and imagined she’d just driven into some vortex where worlds collide. For a brief moment she mistook the sound of cars in the distance, whooshing around the Beltway, for the churning of the sea. She thought of ears pressed to shells, oceans rumbling inside, of a Mediterranean seaside with lounge chairs and striped umbrellas. A man across the street was even circling his arms in the air, as if he were doing the breaststroke. Her husband’s voice brought her back to reality. That was Charles, trying to get her attention. He had just emerged from a bus.
“Leah! Wait up!” he shouted. She pulled to the side of the road and watched him wade through the snarl of vehicles. It was 7 p.m.; rush hour should be winding down, but here on Verona Boulevard it looked like a movie set for the sort of traffic jam that might signal the apocalypse.
“Where’s your car?” Leah asked as he climbed into the passenger seat. She entertained the strange thought that although she’d been living with this man for nearly 20 years and had seen him in countless random situations—hunched over a drafting table, designing urban streetscapes; on any number of tennis courts, racquet poised mid-serve; and once she had even spied him pushing a vacuum cleaner—she had never actually seen him alight from a bus. Before answering, he put his computer bag on the floor of the Subaru and reached for the seat belt. “Wait,” she warned. “I’m not actually going home. But I can turn around and drop you off, if you want.”
This seemed to her unnecessary—they were only a couple of blocks from the house. It was a pleasant evening, and he could walk.
“Jordan took my car this morning, remember? I took the Metro today. But I’m feeling a bit peaked, so I caught the bus home. I didn’t really feel like walking a mile from the station, and I couldn’t find a cab. So where are we going?” he asked jovially. She assumed the “we” was his attempt at a joke.
“We’re going to a Beach Week meeting!” she said, trying to match his fake chipper tone.
“No, seriously. There’s a meeting at the Linds’ house. But don’t worry, I don’t expect you to go. I left you a voice mail.”
“Sorry, I had a bunch of meetings this afternoon, and I haven’t had a chance to catch up with my messages. But what’s the deal? Are you sneaking off to these meetings now? You weren’t going to even mention it to me?”
“That’s not it at all, Charles.” She had pulled back into traffic and was in line again, waiting to make the left turn.
“Then what is it?” He sounded hurt, which was oddly touching. But it was also confusing: Considering his negative position on their daughter’s participation, did he wantto go to a Beach Week meeting all of a sudden?
“I didn’t want to have another fight about this. Obviously this isn’t our best subject, and anyway, since I was only going for the hell of it, I figured why get you all upset again.”
“But what’s going on? Have you had any more discussions about this with Jordan? Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“No, not at all. I mean, really, it’s completely pathetic, but since I don’t have anything better to do, I figured why not go to the meeting? On the off chance that Jordan does go to Beach Week, why not be fully informed? That’s all. I’m not saying she’ll go, or won’t go, or anything at all…”
Leah couldn’t believe they were having this conversation again, particularly since she was slinking off to the meeting precisely to avoid this exchange. Why was it that other people were able to live deep in lies—conducting years-long affairs or assuming new identities as spies—whereas she got caught instantly in whatever it was she was doing, even something as innocuous as going solo to a meeting. It was as if there were some cosmic security camera pointed right at her, ready to snap her picture walking off from the pharmacy with the wrong change.
Charles seemed suspicious, which was itself a little sweet; she’d come to suppose that he didn’t particularly care what she was up to in her spare time, as long as her activities didn’t appear on the credit card bill. “It seems like you’re hiding something, or trying to cut me out of the loop…”
“No, Charles, truly I’m just going to a Beach Week meeting, and I didn’t mention it only because I’m as exhausted by this subject as you are. I didn’t bring it up because I didn’t want to have a fight about it again. And yet here we are anyway—”
“Well, we’re not having a fight about Beach Week, I might point out. Now we’re having a fight about you not telling me about the meeting.”
“Oh, the irony,” she said. “Does that mean you want to come?”
“Want is not the exact word I’d use, but as long as I’m already in the car…”
Leah had not previously heard of the Bacchus Maneuver. She leafed through the packet of materials Janet Glover had distributed to the few parents who had already arrived at this meeting, and among the items was this disturbing primer on alcohol poisoning.
“Friendly drinking games and celebrations can and sometimes do kill people,” she was warned in a weird Gothic typeface that seemed designed to convey terror. By way of further visual aid there was a poorly drawn man with hair so wiry it looked like it had been photoshopped from the end of a broom. He lay prone, his abdominal muscles bulged, his hands stretched above his head as though he were about to do a sit-up or a crunch. But nothing quite so salubrious was going on, because on the next page the man was rolled onto his side in the eponymous maneuver that was meant to prevent him from choking on his vomit. Leah felt a pang of shame, but she wasn’t sure if her embarrassment had to do with the indelicacy of the act being depicted or with this twisted invocation of the Roman god.
Wearily, she looked at her husband. It was nearly 8:15.
Charles’ gaze was fixed somewhere beyond the gleaming swimming pool outside the picture window. Perhaps he was focused on the ninth hole of the lush golf course adjacent to the Lind estate. Tiger Woods had once played here, and Leah couldn’t help but wonder if this might have had something to do with Charles’ otherwise inexplicable decision to accompany her this evening when she’d given him a clean pass.
The 10 girls planning to share the beach house were also meant to attend this meeting, and Leah could hear them in the next room, talking and laughing against the backdrop of one of those cooking, or dieting, or fashion-designing reality shows. Jordan was not among them, or so Leah surmised from the absence of her voice and also from the fact that Charles’ car wasn’t parked out front. Leah sent her a text message reminding her of the meeting and of her earlier promise to appear.
At least Leah had had the good sense this time not to have offered to host. She decided not to avail herself of the opportunity to chill some expensive wine and set out platters of sushi and homemade baby quiche in an effort to erase doubts about the Adler family’s solvency, demonstrating that they still occupied a house in which electricity flowed and that their cars had not been repossessed. Yes, they had bounced a check for the security deposit on the second Beach Week house, after the first house they had agreed to rent had fallen through. So what? Capitalism was in crisis. Banks were collapsing left and right. There was no shame in bouncing a check—it was practically in vogue. It made them one of the people, if not necessarily one of the people from Verona.
Leah had by now read the Bacchus Maneuver brochure three times and had moved onto the highlights of the “Twelfth-Grade Parent Peer Meeting: Surviving Beach Week” pamphlet when, at last, a few more members of the group arrived.
“Jesus, what a nightmare,” said a father Leah couldn’t immediately place. “That’s the worst accident I’ve ever seen up close.”
“What happened?” Leah asked.
Another unfamiliar mother stumbled through the door and shook her head, looking like she’d just come off a battlefield.
“It was horrific!” she said. “Right near the entrance to the Beltway, there’s a car that’s overturned, and two more cars slammed into it.”
Now Millie and Arthur Moore walked through the door. “Did you see that body?” Millie asked. “It was like, on the complete other side of the road…”
“I know! I saw that. But did you see…the leg?”
This question was met with a buzzy excitement. Evidently a few people had seen…the leg.
All this talk made Leah more concerned about Jordan. Where was she? That their daughter might have been somehow involved in this roadside carnage was too awful to even privately contemplate. She looked at Charles, wondering if he’d had the same thought, but he seemed to be engaged in animated conversation with Martin Krazinski about college basketball.
“Let’s get started,” Janet said. She waited a minute until everyone settled down. “I’m assuming the others are on their way. I don’t know if we lost anyone to the other meeting, though.”
“What other meeting?” Charles asked.
“The Alternative to Beach Week meeting,” Janet replied. But she said this in a sort of dismissive way, not as though she was seriously suggesting there might be any crossover between these two sets of parents.
“There’s an alternative?” he asked. Leah was a little embarrassed by the seriousness with which he posed the question, as if there were only two choices in this matter and you had to register as either pro or con. In truth, she had shielded Charles from this knowledge. She didn’t want him to understand that the opposition to Beach Week was so fierce that an actual splinter group had formed and had recently held its own anti-Beach Week meeting in the school auditorium. The anti-Beach Week manifesto apparently advocated that the children (as they were quaintly called) do something socially useful for the seven days in question, such as volunteer in inner-city schools or clean the towpath along the C&O Canal or work in animal shelters. Someone had even proposed that the children spend the time learning to knit. A seven-day Mediterranean cruise with stops in Athens and Crete was also being organized by one of the history teachers as an educational option, although it was hard to imagine that was likely to produce less parental anxiety when it came to controlling teen behavior. As anyone who had ever watched 20/20 knew, bad things happened on Mediterranean holidays: Children disappeared from their beds at night, people drowned, stray hookups occurred and, eventually, unwed mothers gave birth, abandoning their young on bathroom floors. It was as bad as Beach Week, and even more expensive.
Leah had heard from Janet that disparaging things were said at the anti-Beach Week meeting about the permissiveness and irresponsibility of the pro-Beach Week parents. Leah had been surprised to learn that there was this much divisiveness among a bunch of parents who were essentially like-minded on most major political and social issues.
When it came to the subject of raising young adults, it was easy to find levels of discord and vitriol unrivaled even in the last presidential election.
“OK. Well, it’s getting late,” Janet said, “so regardless of the few who are missing, I think we should get started. Does anyone want to summon the girls?”
Leah volunteered and went into the next room to invite them in. Not for the first time in recent weeks she braced against a complicated wave of emotion that was grief, joy, pride and envy as she took in the sight of the young women, Jordan conspicuously not among them. At this point, Leah was beginning to bore even herself with her observations of these adorably clad teenagers variously perfumed and bedecked with hoops and jangling bracelets, palms invariably clutching tiny electronic gadgets that beeped and vibrated and spontaneously burst into song. Oh, to be 18 again. She would wear a miniskirt every day and communicate only in SMS!
The girls came into the living room and settled onto the floor at the feet of the adults. Four men had reassembled in a corner of the room and were looking at some golf trophies on the Linds’ mantel. Charles was laughing and smiling, and Leah saw him slap Martin Krazinski on the back. She was unsure what to make of this.
“So…let’s recap here,” Janet said. “We have a lot to jam into this one meeting, since we’ve had to reschedule this darn thing so many times and now it’s late. We have a lot of ground to cover. One, we want to review with the girls certain rules involving safety at the beach. We also want to talk about logistics—who is driving, who is chaperoning, who is bringing what in the way of supplies…”
“We took care of the supplies already,” Dorrie said. Dorrie was Janet’s daughter, and Jordan’s best friend.
“Oh, great. Excellent. I think, also, Alice wanted to say a few words…”
Leah hadn’t noticed her arrive. Alice had once been the star of a campy television series called The Winged Wife. The convergence of certain meteorological conditions enabled her to fly and fight crime. Now that her acting days were behind her, she channeled these superhero powers into grooming her daughter for the Ivy League. She stood in the corner, leaning against a Corinthian column that looked like the backdrop for a Victoria’s Secret commercial; with her long, still-natural blond hair, she remained stunning in middle age. Leah’s earlier speculation that Charles’ willingness to attend this meeting had to do with the six degrees of separation from Tiger Woods was suddenly superseded by the wild card that was Alice Long.
Although Leah refused to dignify this with too much thought, she had found her husband several times in the last few weeks asleep in front of the basement television in the middle of the night, and it had been tuned to TNT. Maybe he’d been watching Law and Order reruns, but maybe he’d been watching The Winged Wife, which she couldn’t help but notice had been on a couple of hours earlier. It was a question of how long he’d been lying on the couch in his T-shirt and boxers, two empty beer bottles and a contraband can of Pringles beside him on the floor. She wasn’t about to start creeping downstairs to spy on her husband sneaking junk food into the house, but she could see how swiftly a person might descend into some emotionally messy place that involved stalking one’s spouse as he watched television in his own home.
“Also, there are still a few matters we need to discuss about the house itself,” Janet continued. “I’ll get to that in a second. But first, I believe that Faye Andrews has brought her addendum to the rental lease for us to all sign. You know, the one that spells out our individual responsibility should anything unfortunate come to pass. Which, of course, it will not.”
“Actually,” Faye said, clearing her throat, “I’m afraid I’ve blown it. Should I confess that I completely forgot about the addendum? I’ve been unusually jammed up at work these last few weeks. I’m extremely sorry, but no worries, I’ll do it this week and…how about if I just e-mail it to everyone. Then you can sign it and send it back to me. I mean, I suppose it would be better to have one document with everyone’s signatures, but—”
“Can’t you draft an addendum explaining that the 10 individually signed documents essentially stand as one binding agreement?” asked Arthur Moore.
“Yes, we can probably do something to that effect,” Faye said.
“OK, perfect. Thanks,” Janet said. “Now, moving forward, I believe that Courtney Greene has volunteered to speak on behalf of the girls. Yes, Courtney?”
Courtney Greene smiled sweetly and stood up. She reached into her back pocket and unfolded a piece of paper and began to read from the pledge the girls had signed a few days earlier. Leah was beginning to panic, unable to concentrate on what Courtney was saying. Where was Jordan? Had she struggled through these hellish couple of years only to get into a car crash on her way to this stupid Beach Week meeting, which would weigh on Leah guiltily for the rest of her days?
Courtney read from the list of things the Beach Week girls had promised to do, which included having a buddy system, not having parties, not allowing boys to spend the night, not drinking or otherwise using controlled substances, taking digital pictures of the rental house when they first arrived, checking out the town ordinances in Chelsea Beach, knowing the local emergency numbers, using sunscreen and watching for the warning flags and swimming conditions posted on beaches near lifeguard stands.
There was a burst of applause when Courtney finished reading, as if she’d just performed at a piano recital. This seemed to Leah a bit unrealistic. She was not alone in the thought.
“This is all fine and well in principle,” said Alice Long, “but I don’t believe it for a minute.”
“No, really,” said a sweet-looking girl whom Leah had not previously seen. She joked that they had pricked their fingers and smeared some blood onto the document as a symbol of their sincerity.
Leah, too, was skeptical. She would have personally felt more comfortable if the document had said something about always using condoms, or included the promise of no “binge drinking” or keeping the drinking under control, having a designated driver—anything to acknowledge that bad things were likely to happen, but the girls were at least on top of the situation. She couldn’t believe that she, Leah Adler (a potential closet Alternative to Beach Week splinter group member), was entertaining these thoughts.
“We’re serious,” said the girl, whom someone had just referred to as Rene. “We all met at Starbucks and sat for more than an hour and hammered this out. We just want to go to the beach and have a good time and be together with our best girlfriends and have one last wonderful bonding experience before everyone goes separate ways. We’re going to bring board games and have a big blowout game of Monopoly!”
A sound of something like an angry puff issued from the fabulously red lips that belonged to Alice Long.
“OK, look, this isn’t our last meeting anyway,” Janet said. “We’ll have another conversation about this before the girls go—a real heart-to-heart about the consequences of misbehavior. There’s also a meeting next week at the school with a couple of representatives from the Chelsea Beach Police Department that you should consider attending with your daughters. But for now, we have one more thing that we really ought to discuss before we call it a night…
“There’s a little something that’s come up concerning the house. As some of you know, the house was owned by Clara Miller—the woman who wrote Peeper? And…this is really silly and even embarrassing and probably, Lord knows, politically incorrect to even talk about, since all the charges were dropped…”
Charles gave Leah a look that said what the hell, and Leah shrugged her shoulders as if it were no big deal, whatever this was, even though she was thinking the same thing.
“Well, see, we thought it was her house. Which it was. Not that it should matter, but since Craig Lind has a friend who knows her sister, we felt like there was at least this personal connection. But the place now belongs to her husband. And he had a little, um, incident that some of you might have read about in the papers—”
“Oh my God,” shrieked Amy Estrada’s mother. “Didn’t he do something really creepy, like—oh, I wish I could remember. Did he rape someone?”
“No,” Janet said. “He didn’t rape anyone. It’s not clear that he ever did anything at all—the only thing we know for sure is that he had some sort of accident. His wife wrote a book about a Peeping Tom, and now everyone assumes it’s him—the poor guy. I’d say he should get himself a lawyer, except that it’s fiction, so I guess she can get away with it.”
“I read the book, too,” said Millie Moore. “And I saw her on the Today show. She went out of her way to say it was fiction.”
“Of course she said it was fiction,” Martin Krazinski said. “They packaged it that way for a reason, and I’m sure her lawyers told her to say that. I’ll bet they went through the whole book changing every detail that could possibly get her sued. I know. I handle a bit of libel law, even though my specialty is bankruptcy.”
“Bankruptcy? Good for you—you must be billing a lot of hours just now,” said one of the fathers.
“Amazing. I billed 80 hours just this week!”
“OK, let’s stay focused,” Janet said. “The thing to keep in mind is that the lessee won’t even be on the premises. Plus, whatever charges were filed, and I’m not at all clear what those were, they were dropped, and that’s all that matters in the eyes of the law. Besides, we have no legal grounds upon which to tear up the lease, so we’d lose our deposit, and it’s too late to find another house…
“Look, it’s getting late. I had hoped to go through these handouts together, to read some of this aloud in front of the girls, but in the interest of moving this along, why don’t you be sure to read the Parent Peer Meeting tips with your daughters. Pay particular attention to the advice as it pertains to renting a house. Our girls are inexperienced in this area and need to be reminded of things like taking out the trash or knowing where to locate the fire extinguishers. You should note that three groups of Verona High School students were evicted last year for not obeying some of the specifications in the lease. One group had too many kids in the house, another group brought a dog, I think another had some sort of illegal bonfire in the backyard. There was also an incident in which a few of the kids wound up in jail because they had alcohol in the house—”
“This just gets better and better,” said Alice Long, interrupting. “Just to recap: We are sending our daughters, largely unchaperoned, to a beach house owned by some sort of pervert, to engage in activities that may land them in jail, and here they are comically pledging to behave like saints—”
“Saints in bikinis!” one of the girls—Leah couldn’t see which one—blurted out, eliciting giggles.
Alice ignored this. “Honestly, am I the only one here who thinks there is something wrong with this picture?”
Her daughter, Cherie, sat expressionless, and Leah wondered if she went into some sort of protective mental deep freeze when her mother transformed into her fierce, superhero persona.
Janet waited a beat to see if anyone wanted to follow up with Alice, but the room was silent.
“OK,” Janet said. “Let me just run through this chaperone list again. We’ve had a couple of changes. It turns out that the first two nights, Saturday and Sunday, Martin Krazinski needs to be at the house, so we don’t need whoever was going to chaperone. But what we do need is backup, and probably a dad would be best, just so…well, you know. In case Martin is there, but in case he’s not…”
Leah could not believe this. She had signed up for those first two nights, and although it was ridiculous, she felt as if she might start to cry. She had gone bathing suit shopping already, and had taken the radical step of buying a two-piece.
In the midst of this, Jordan had quietly slipped into the room and inserted herself on the floor between two of the three girls in this group who were named Courtney. Jordan seemed a little subdued. Leah wondered if she’d been crying. It looked like her mascara had run, and Leah wasn’t sure which was more upsetting—that her daughter had begun to wear makeup, or that something was wrong.
“Great timing, Jordan,” Rene said loudly. “The meeting is just ending!”
“Don’t worry, Sweetie,” Janet said. “Dorrie can fill you in. Oh, great…Arthur Moore is volunteering. Excellent. OK, it’s really late. I’ll send out another e-mail soon with updates. Hey, everyone, don’t forget your handouts. Be sure you’ve got both the minutes from the Parent Peer Meeting and the Bacchus Maneuver brochures!”
Alice Long held her papers aloft and waved them ominously, like the town crier warning of plague. “Now we’re handing out primers on alcohol poisoning? Truly, this is the most irresponsible roomful of parents I’ve ever seen!”
Leah stared at this woman, at her own daughter and at the entire group, confused. Was this parenting at its worst or at its best? Had her parents sat around agonizing like this about her own high school antics? No, almost certainly not. Maybe the stakes were higher these days, the dangers more extreme. Or maybe the parents were just crazier. Either way, she felt just about at her limit with this Beach Week enterprise. She entertained the delinquent fantasy of one-upping Alice Long on the drama front, setting fire to the Bacchus Maneuver brochures and the “Twelfth-Grade Parent Peer Meeting: Surviving Beach Week” pamphlets, then stepping back and basking in the heat of a massive, cathartic Beach Week conflagration.
Excerpted from Beach Week, to be published in June by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. www.fsgbooks.com. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Coll. All rights reserved. Susan Coll is the magazine’s Fiction Editor.