The kids groan, impatient to get under way. To look at us you'd think, what nice looking families. But things aren't what they seem.
* * * * *
Every summer for the last five, Mike and I, his brother Rob, Rob's girlfriend Meg and our three girls have spent these two weeks together. I've known Mike since I was married to his best friend. Mike used to be married to mine. He split up with her to move in with Meg. Then Rob's wife dumped him and it wasn't long before Meg left Mike for Rob. That was around the same time I split up with my husband. Now Mike and I are together but only on the weekends and these few weeks in the summer. The rest of the time I live at one end of the state. He lives at the other. If that's not confusing enough, one of the girls is mine, one is Mike's, one is Rob's. None, to her never-ending dismay, are Meg's. Needless to say, the girls are all pretty screwed up.
* * * * *
Unbelievable as it may seem, for these two weeks we still try to pretend we're just like any other family. We fill coolers with food and beer, gather sleeping bags, old clothes, bats, balls, books, giant bubble-blowing machines and art supplies. We pack it all into three cars. With Mike in the lead, towing his boat, we head for the wilds of Maine.
The land where the loons are looney. The land where the moose eat mice," Mike's Hallie, the youngest, my Alba, a surly preteen, and Rob's Gemma, the oldest of the three, shoot back and forth, playing silly word games. By the time we hit the turnpike they've already found every letter of the alphabet on roadside signs and picked out words on license plates. The girls have known each other since the days when their fathers and mothers were still married. Since the days when we all lived in the same big rambling house.
Games over, Alba sulks in a corner of the back seat. There's no electricity on the island. She's had to leave her blow dryer behind. Plump Hallie, is sound asleep on the seat next to me. Rob and Meg are in the car behind, alone. Rob's daughter Gemma wouldn't ride with them. More accurately she didn't want to ride with Meg. Apparently Rob didn't want to ride with Meg either. He tried to pawn her off on me.
"What's Meg's problem?" Alba sneers. "She's so lame. Promise you won't let her try to get us to skinny dip with her again this year."
* * * * *
When it comes to Meg I can't promise anything. Meg's problem is distilled in Mexico and comes in a bottle. She can suck down more of it and still stay standing than anyone I've ever seen. But the last few years she's started slurring her words earlier and earlier and repeating herself, telling the same stupid stories over and over again. I watch Rob wince when she gets close to him. Not a good sign.
"She's just trying to be nice. You know she's crazy about you kids," I say, trying to sound like I believe it.
The fact is, I can't stand her either. Never could. I watched her snake Mike all those years ago. Then when he wouldn't get off the fence she went after his brother. I still think she did it hoping it would force Mike to marry her but it backfired. She's been with Rob ever since but recently I've watched him pull away whenever she tries to curl up to him.
What's the saying? The bloom is off the rose. In Meg's case the bloom is so overblown there's almost nothing left of the flower. All the things that made her so seductive when she was young have turned against her. Her boobs droop. Her ass sags. The fullness of her face has fallen. She's become a caricature of herself. Always a little too loud, a little too pushy. Probably more to do with the booze than anything else. Too many Tequila Sunrises to help her forget that without Rob, she'll probably on her own. For good.
But for these two weeks we all have to coexist. So I remind the kids, "White flags have been raised, all hostilities have been suspended, truces have been signed. For the next two weeks, we're at peace."
Groans roll over the front seat.
Always the diplomat, Hallie, still half asleep, tries to defend Meg, "Uncle Rob says Meg doesn't mean to be so annoying. He says it's because she doesn't have kids of her own. She tries too hard."
"She smells like a brewery," Alba says holding her nose.
"Her morning breath smells like a dead rat," Gemma chimes in.
The three of them laugh, make a few more jokes at Meg's expense, Hallie dozes off again, Alba and Gemma clamp on their headphones and the car is mercifully silent. A glance in the rearview mirror confirms two heads bobbing to different tunes.
They look OK. Their skin is creamy. Their lips are rosy. Their eyes shine. But Alba is angry all time. And it isn't just the teenage years. Gemma's too sensitive. She flinches if anyone says boo. Then there's Hallie, always making excuses, eating everything in sight. Mike doesn't seem to think it's peculiar that she insists on curling up in a sleeping bag outside his bedroom door. She says she's afraid of the shadows in her room.
* * * * *
Back when we were still together, whenever I would start in about Alba, their father would insist, "She'll all end up working it out on a shrink's couch someday when she's thirty-five or forty. I'm still trying to work out the shit my parents did to me. I haven't even made it to the shrink stage. Not yet."
No, I wanted to say, you've just been in and out of AA. A dozen times.
Mike thinks I worry too much.
"They're kids. They're oblivious," he says since he doesn't want my worrying to ruin our trip. "They don't pay attention to anything that doesn't have to do with where their next pair of designer sneakers is coming from. They could care less about who slept with who. Or who left who for who back when. I don't care any more. Why should they?"
Speak for yourself I want say. I still care. I care enough not to trust Meg. And I sure as hell know my daughter doesn't trust you I want to tell him. It's not like she has amnesia. Her father used to be your best friend. Emphasis on the used to be.
A road sign announces, Greenville-1/2 mile. Our little caravan turns off the highway and bumps up the rutted secondary road until the lake comes into view.
* * * * *
Pleasure Bent. The island fits its name. Mike was right. It's not much more than a big rock in the water at the base of Mount Kineo. But it's a beautiful rock. Lichen and moss covered. A few trees here and there. A five foot wide boardwalk encircles it. It has it's own pier. A boathouse. A main cabin, one huge high ceilinged room with a towering stone fireplace that serves as kitchen and living room. A bunkhouse for the kids. Two smaller cabins.
I run around gathering up the dusty plastic flowers and stuff them into empty drawers. I replace them with fresh cosmos, black-eyed susans and daisies I find growing in raised beds on either side of the front door. Mike hands me a beer. Rob and Meg have disappeared. The girls are in the bunkhouse, probably fighting over who sleeps where. Mike laughs at me, wants to take my picture holding the beer.
I rarely drink."My ex drank enough for both of us." I tell people when they ask why. But the truth is I'm afraid. Afraid I'll become Meg. Afraid I'll turn into my ex-husband.
* * * * *
We started out hopefully enough. A bunch of would be hippies throwing off the shackles of the middle class. We lived in a city slum for the first few years then moved en masse to a huge ramshackle country house on the Cape. We cooked together and ate together and cleaned together and slept together and thatšs when it got weird. When we had babies within months of each other we were pretty sure we knew whose they were, but every once in a while I think I can see a hint of my ex-husband in her face when Mike's daughter Hallie smiles.
Now, when we come together to try to pretend we're a family again it's hard. Gemma doesn't live with Rob anymore. She doesn't really live with anyone anymore. Her mother rents the house they live in but she isn't there most of the time. She lives with her boyfriend. Two towns away.
"I can't do it all by myself," Gemma confides to me. She's a beauty like her mother. Gleaming hair. Almost black. Eyelashes thick as a fur coat.
We're chopping vegetables; carrots, tomatoes and onions for a salad when she complains, "I can't do it alone, not yet." She say it's the onions that are making her cry.
I want to tell her it will be all right but she'll know it's a lie. I want to tell her, "When this island reprieve is over I'll figure something out. I'll do something to make it better." But I know I can't. So I just listen.
Alba comes out of her funk long enough get a soda out of the refrigerator. She's overheard Gemma and me.
"Parents always think it's all about them. You should just tell her Gemma. It's her job. Isn't that right Mom?" she says turning to me, dragging out the "ah" in the middle of the word Mom. Her tone is acid, accusatory. Her face skewed.
"Sometimes it's not that simple," I say more to myself than to her. Suddenly I have the urge to gather the girls together to tell them, "I know how you feel. It's all our fault. We screwed up. We screwed up big time." But the truth is I don't know how they feel and I haven't got the courage to find out.
Gemma sighs, "My mom told me to write her letters. Not to call her anymore." Her voice is pleading for answers. I have none.
I expect Alba to have a nasty comeback. Instead she looks sad, stunned. She softens and becomes my little girl again. Gently, she strokes Gemmašs arm. The edge is gone from her voice when she says, "Come on, the marauding hordes will be here any minute. Let's go listen to some music."
* * * * *
Hallie arrives in a whirlwind of slamming doors. Accusations whip around the room.
"I called the top bunk first," she wails at Alba.
Alba waves her away. The smirk on her face says, "I got the upper bunk and I'm staying there."
She's moved her sulking spot from the backseat of the car to the living room sofa. She and Gemma rip through the stuff she's piled there looking for their Walkmans. Hallie spreads out paper and markers, starts drawing with one hand and scooping handfuls of potato chips out of the bag and shoving them into her mouth as fast as she can with the other. Mike and Rob burst through the door loaded down with firewood. Meg lurches in behind them. She's started early.
* * * * *
We got to the island too late to swim or motor over to the mainland to hike. It's dusk now. There's a chill in the air. The girls are hungry. I pry Alba off the sofa and bribe her into shaping the hamburger into patties. I tell her she doesn't have to climb Mount Kineo with us tomorrow because I know she'll cave in and come anyway. She won't want to be left stranded on the island alone.
Alba doesn't like to be alone. She's had enough of it. After school. At home. At the library. Waiting for her father who promises to come but never picks her up. I stay by the phone, knowing that the call will come, ready to jump into the car to scoop her out of yet another disappointment.
I do the best I can. Dinner on the table every night, clean clothes, the beds made, and I wait. I wait to see how she'll turn out. Maybe Mike is right. Maybe the kids don't care all that much. Maybe the bad weather we've stirred up is just an idle blip on their radar screens not the impending storm I imagine. We fight sometimes, Mike and I, about the kids, about what they know and what they don't know.
"They're preoccupied with other stuff," Mike said one night after we'd made love, "But they're not dumb. You think Alba doesn't already know her father is a fall down drunk or that Hallie hasn't noticed that her mother has a revolving door on her bedroom? Or that they don't know about Meg? How Meg's played Rob and me and them. Why the hell do you think none of them can stand Meg? Or maybe they take it out on Meg because they can't take it out on us. Now that's a thought isnšt it?"
I couldnšt bring myself to answer him. When I got up to go to the bathroom I tripped over Hallie, asleep in the hallway, before stepping on the half eaten bag of cookies lying on the floor by her side.
* * * * *
Rob settles the fight between Hallie and Alba. They'll alternate nights sleeping in the upper bunk. Hallie has found the marshmallows and settles back into drawing. Gemma and Alba are plugged into their headphones, dancing around the kitchen to the inaudible music of their favorite bands. Meg suggests we play monopoly after dinner. The girls boo her down. She excuses herself to go refresh her drink. Mike sneaks up and grabs me from behind. I scream and nearly drop the bottle of salad dressing.
"The All American Family on vacation," he laughs as he scans the room.
Mike has the ability to laugh at everything. Rob is the more serious one. The worrier. The shyer younger brother. The truce between them has been at best, uneasy. Rob looks nervous, jittery when he's around Mike. But Mike shrugs it off.
"Why take anything too seriously," Mike always says. "It's only bound to change."
So I haven't taken anything too seriously when it comes to him. He lives in one place. I live in another. We see each other a couple of weekends a month, these two weeks in Maine. We tell each other we like it this way.
But once over dinner I made a joke about how we probably could never stand to live together, expecting him to laugh at the idea along with me, and when he didn't I just changed the subject. And once, when he said he didn't think I could stand to live with him, that I wouldn't like his quiet life, I wanted to say, no that's not true, but didn't. So we spend weekends at his house. He never comes to mine. He's afraid my ex-husband will show up while he's there and punch him out. Our dogs get along fine.
Meg buzzes around the kitchen. She corners Gemma and Alba, trying to impress them, making a big show of some sort of fancy napkin folding trick. The girls suddenly turn rude.
"Come on," Gemma winks at Alba, "Let's go pick up the living room."
Meg looks pathetic standing all alone at one end of the kitchen holding what looks like a pile of the Pope's hats. She holds one up, smiles at me then staggers a little. It must be hard being the one who never quite belongs. The outcast. The childless one. I take guilty pleasure in it. The fact that it's her not me. I can afford to be charitable so I smile back.
Mike walks through. Meg straightens up. Tosses her hair. Catches his eye. Gives him a look. Coy. Flirty. I hate her again.
* * * * *
It's dark. Dinner is ready. Rob comes in carrying a tray. The charcoal grilled burgers. The girls dive for the food. Paper plates, plastic forks, and spoons fly everywhere. Meg distributes the napkins. Hallie isn't hungry.
After dinner everyone goes outside to find sharp sticks, skewers for whatšs left of the marshmallows. We toast them over the bonfire Rob and Mike have built in the fireplace.
Hallie goes outside. Soon she comes running back in.
"Hey, check this out," she says pulling Mike to the door.
We follow them out onto the boardwalk. They're on their hands and knees stroking the water. I kneel down, dip my hand in. It's bathtub warm.
"Please." the girls begin to squeal. "Please, please, please."
Gemma has found a pile of inner tubes in the boat house. She and Alba look like Michelin men carrying them.
"Oh, all right," Rob, Mike and I say all at once.
The girls head for the bunk house to jump into their suits before we can change our minds.
* * * * *
In the brimful lake our three girls bobble like cork floats on a fisherman's net cast wide. Sad Gemma. Short tempered Alba. And Hallie who eats too much. They've each found their own space in the night blackened water. They don't speak. They don't splash. They stare out at the stars and listen to the loons. We sit side-by-side in wooden chairs. Mike and Rob smoke. The tips of their cigarettes glow red in the dark. We don't have much left to say to each other.
"Are you ever sorry?" Meg asks Mike and me, her voice ragged, sloppy from the drink in her hand. "Are you ever sorry that all those years ago, you and Mike didnšt get together. That you didnšt get together at the very beginning."
Mike and I don't have to think about the answer. Don't even have to look at each other for confirmation.
"No," we say in unison.
"What I'm sorry for is that we aren't all here together. Just the way we started out. All still married to each other..."
Mike finishes my sentence, "...with all the girls. Just like this. Floating out there on the lake."
Rob drags on his cigarette. I think I can hear a quaver in his voice when he says, "That would be something, wouldn't it?"
Meg makes a hiccuping sound, "But what about me? Then where would I be?"
"Nowhere," a small cold voice answers from somewhere out on the water.