The two of them sat alone at the dinner table. The girl was fifteen. She’d only just lost the baby fat and was still figuring out her hair. It would be a long time before she figured it out.
“Can you tell me one of the stories about my dad?”
“Harry? Which one? You want the toothbrush story?”
“No, not that one—”
“Oh, I know which one you want.”
The girl’s grandmother was delicately-boned and vain. She dyed her hair dark brown and complained bitterly of her chubby youth. Really she was beautiful still, and everyone knew it. Her name was Dolores, and since she was a little girl everyone had called her Doe. Nicknames like that were all the rage when she was young. Doe, like a deer. It was fitting; she had large pudding brown eyes.
The girl, Samantha, hadn’t inherited those eyes. She hadn’t inherited anything from Dolores; not her eyes, which were small and pale and blue, or her hair, which was thin and golden and always shiny with oil, and which slipped annoyingly out of ponytails (Dolores’ hair had been thick, chestnutty and voluminous when she was Samantha’s age). Not anything. That was why Dolores liked Samantha the best. The other grandchildren reminded her too much of herself. She didn’t want to see her pudding eyes or chestnutty hair belonging to anyone else, especially when her eyelids now drooped and wrinkled and her hair had long ago thinned and whitened.
Samantha must have gotten all her genes from the other side of the family.
Anyhow, Dolores liked Samantha best. And Samantha and Dolores were sitting at the otherwise deserted dinner table, everyone else having gone off, the plates having been cleared, and Dolores was fingering her wine glass, which still held a sip of Pinot Grigio (Dolores rarely drank anything other than Pinot Grigio; it was her go-to).
“Well, you know how it goes,” Dolores said. Beatrice often requested the story about her dad that wasn’t the toothbrush story.
“Yeah, but I want to hear you tell it.” Dolores just loved hearing that. Samantha knew she was the favorite; she knew how to play Dolores.
“Well, we were down by the shore one summer. Your grandpa always insisted on wearing that ridiculous Speedo… No man should go near one of those things, in my opinion… There were seven of us. Your Uncle Ronnie must have been thirteen, which means Harry was fifteen. Helen, my sister—”
“I know who Aunt Helen is, Doe” Samantha interjected, rather brattily.
“—Of course you do, dear—and Nathan, and the Benjamins, who were very close friends of your grandfather’s—goodness, what a shame; Marty Benjamin died just a year after that summer down the shore. Perhaps the adrenaline had something to do with it…”
Dolores’ doe eyes lost focus. She was remembering how Marty Benjamin used to look at her, how his hand used to linger at her waste, how his green eyes twinkled when he played all those practical jokes. She was remembering that terrible sunburn he got, red and ugly all over his back, and how, when everyone else was at the beach, he’d asked her to rub aloe into his skin, to take the sting away…
“I think Don must have been about thirteen as well! He was there too, of course.”
Two children ran into the dining room and crawled underneath the table. “Shhhh,” they told Dolores and Samantha from behind the curtain of the tablecloth, and the women nodded solemnly in response, though the children couldn’t see them do it.
“Well, you know how your father liked to swim,” Dolores continued. “And he was such a strong swimmer. We never could figure out who he go that bit from.
“So we were down the shore, all of us, and one morning, Harry went for a swim. It was a gorgeous morning, I remember I’d looked out the window when I’d gotten up for a glass of water. It had rained in the night so the air was fresh, and the little shore animals had just begun scuttling, but the seabirds hadn’t caught on yet. Not a squeak or squawk out of any of ‘em.”
Samantha, in her mind’s eye, saw a lightly lapping pastel sea, a bright pale sky that hadn’t decided what shade of blue of it was going to be yet, and a hermit crab or two on the beach, scuttling, as Dolores had said. Soft yellow sand that looked white in the early light. A lone umbrella, striped and beachy, stuck lopsidedly in the sand, with her father’s flip-flops abandoned underneath. She could smell the salty sea air, feel the salty sea breeze stirring the downy golden hair on her shoulders. All she could taste was the bitter Pinot Grigio, which Dolores had let her sip.
“He’d told Don; Don was the only one up when he left. He’d said to him, ‘I’m going for a swim, Don.’ That’s all he said. Don couldn’t remember what time that had been. All he knew was that it was early.”
Samantha, in her mind’s eye, saw her Uncle Don, thirteen years old, kicking a soccer ball in the scruffy yard of the rental house. She heard the thwack of his bare foot against the—
“Have you seen them?” a flushed child rushed into the dining room and inquired in a loud and breathless voice.
“Seen who?” Samantha asked. She felt a small hand squeeze her around the ankle.
“Jessie! And Marissa!”
“Who’re those goons? I’ve never heard such ridiculous names in my life!” At this, Samantha felt someone sharply pinch her calf, and she sent a soft kick in the direction of the suspected culprit.
“You’re no help at all!” said the bossy child, and she huffed away.
Samantha went back to imagining the thwack of the soccer ball against her Uncle Don’s thirteen-year-old foot, and Dolores went on.
“God knows your Grandpa and I were still sleeping soundly. Anyway, Harry went out for a swim, and no one knew except for Don, and soon everyone woke up and started putzing around, and it was a little while before anyone realized that Harry wasn’t there. You know your father—he mostly kept to himself, especially around Ronnie.
“I think it was Ronnie, actually, who realized Harry wasn’t there. I just remember him stomping up the stairs and barging into our room, saying, ‘Harry told Don he was going swimming but Don thinks it must have been two hours ago and we can’t see him anywhere.’
“It was eleven o’clock then. The sun was already beginning to burn the sand—it was the middle of summer. The dead of summer. I remember because I’d grabbed the binoculars and run out of the house in my bed clothes, without bothering to put on shoes, to try to see Harry in the waves.”
Now Samantha saw her grandmother, attired in her elegant pajamas—she imagined a silk paisley sleeveless top and matching silk shorts—rushing through the scruffy yard and over the path on the dune that led to the beach and the sea. She saw the lifeless, empty sea beyond, the calm waves of early morning now frothing under the nearly-midday sun. The sky had decided on a deep, shiny blue without clouds, and the sun was beaming down on everything and making it all too bright, too hot. The scene was muted—the sea’s frothing was a whisper, and no one else was saying anything. That great big sea, whispering its secrets. Had it swallowed Harry? Dead before the sun reached its zenith?
She saw her grandmother wading into the water, waves crashing against her legs and soaking her paisley silk pajamas, cramming the binoculars to her face. She saw there was no wind, and that her grandmother’s naturally dark hair (she would have been in her mid-thirties at this point) hung still and lank against her neck. The soft sea breeze had burned off with the nearly noon sun.
Samantha saw, through the lenses of the binoculars (so it was blurry around the edges and rimmed in black darkness), the seething, empty sea and she didn’t see anything resembling Harry’s bobbing head or his strong, swimming limbs.
“Then Jimmy, that is, your grandfather, went barreling past me on the hot sand, stumbled through the surf, and dove. I watched him through the binoculars, all his inelegant splashing, until someone grabbed my arm and pulled me away. I only realized later it was Mrs. Benjamin. My sister and Nathan had still been in bed, they had no clue what was going on, no one had woken them up and they’d slept through the commotion.
“Mrs. Benjamin took me into the house and closed all the blinds. She made me a cup of tea that I didn’t touch. They all thought someone had died. They thought someone was going to die. Harry, or Jimmy, or Mr. Benjamin, when he went in to save Jimmy when Jimmy was flailing and gasping for breath thirty feet from the shore (it was a cramp, he told me later, trying to be heroic).
“Mr. Benjamin dragged Jimmy onto the beach and no one noticed when Harry came back. He just walked right out of the water, like a phantom, like some creature of the sea. Jimmy was the first one to see him, and he thought he really had drowned, and then he thought Harry was a ghost.”
Samantha saw her fifteen-year-old father, gangly and awkward like the boys in her class, rising from the sea. She saw it from the perspective her grandfather must have had at the time—lying down on the beach with everyone crowding around him, blinking sand and salt and sun out of his eyes and coughing up the sea. And there was this black, glistening shadow, and the shadow stood over her, blocking out the sun…
“Harry was fine. Not a scratch on him. He even thought he might have seen a sea turtle. He said he was sorry; he’d swum very far without looking back, and when he had finally looked back, he couldn’t see the shore in any direction. So he turned right around and hoped he was going in the right direction. That had spooked him a little bit. When he’d caught sight of land, he’d relaxed and slowed down. Taken his time, he said. He promised he’d never do it again, but then he went and moved across the country!” Dolores clenched her fists in mock anger.
Samantha laughed at this.
They sat quietly together at the large wooden dining table, in the large wooden dining room, listening to the clanging of dishes and the running faucet in the kitchen. Dolores had finished her wine at some point during the story. Samantha was glad. She didn’t like the taste but always felt compelled to accept whenever Dolores offered a sip.
Dolores liked Samantha because Samantha, unlike the other children, didn’t feel the need to fill every waking moment with chatter. The truth is, though, Samantha thought she should probably say something to fill the silence; she just couldn’t figure out what.
“You know, Samantha, I have a theory,” Dolores was the one to break the silence. She had both her hands wrapped around her wineglass, and her head was tilted down so she looked at Samantha from under her finely-tweezed eyebrows. It was a knowing look.
“My theory, is that every person has this one summer. This one, incredible summer, during which all of their dreams come true, and they have no worries, none at all, and they’re surrounded by their favorite people, and the future looks bright and full of promise. And they spend the rest of their lives trying to replicate that summer, trying to live up to it. That golden summer. Their golden summer. Do you think that’s true, Samantha?”
“I dunno, Grandma. Maybe.”
Samantha bent to look under the table. The children, Jessie and Marissa, were fast asleep on the hardwood floor, curled around each other.
“Of course you don’t. You haven’t been on this earth nearly long enough to understand what I’m saying. But what I’m asking you, is, do you think you’ve had your golden summer yet?
Samantha thought back to last summer, the summer after her freshman year of high school. She certainly hoped never to recreate that summer.
“No, I don’t think so,” Samantha said.
“No, I suppose you wouldn’t have.”
When Samantha didn’t ask, Dolores explained, “Mine was when I was twenty-one, just after I married your grandfather.”
Now Dolores saw herself as she had been fifty-five years ago. Bronzed, perched on the precipice of her newly married life. Jimmy was there too, also bronzed, somewhere in the background. There was a swimming pool. She stood tall on the diving board with her arms out, face towards the sun, eyes closed, wearing a content, close-lipped smile.
“What happened that summer?” asked Samantha.
“Oh, nothing much,” Dolores said, and she pursed her lips.