BY CORA ENTERLINE
They’ve just finished burying me up to my neck. It’s a warm, mid-summer afternoon and the sand is glowing in the sunlight. The ocean is loud and breathy, smelly in the way that you can only really stand in the summer. Green algae sticks to the sea wall behind us and bright buoys swing where lobstermen have planted traps. Salty foam piles at the tops of the curves of wet sand that the waves leave on the shore. Sand is getting in my eyes, now. We’re all still laughing.
As a kid, I was afraid of the beach. My dad showed me JAWS when I was too young to understand that the shark was a robot and there were several summers when I would look at the ocean and see nothing but screaming swimsuits and horrible red spray. I’d stay firmly perched on my towel, socks still on. Hiding out under my umbrella, white socks gone damp and sandy, my mother’s hat flopping down over my eyes. It was glamorous, but it was also deeply silly, and the first time I stepped on the sand without socks is still seared into my memory as a deliciously freeing moment, like rolling down the car windows on a hot afternoon and breathing in gallons of fresh, cool air.
Now I love the beach, socks off and everything. Love it so much I’m buried up to my chin in it. My two nephews are kicking sand at my head as I bob helplessly. I nod left and right and Charlie starts laughing so hard I think his legs might give out. I’ve squirmed enough that the tops of my shoulders are once again seeing sunlight, but I’m starting to regret letting them do this.
My brother, the boys’ father, used to take their family here every summer. They’d always rent the same sun-washed blue-gray cottage for the week of the 4th. It was very Americana Dream: New Hampshire coast, barbeques on the beach, lobster shack lunches, the crackling pop of fireworks and the glowing awe in a kid’s eyes as he stares, face alit almost as if on fire, at a sparkler held out at arm’s length. My sister-in-law, Jen, owned these long, pastel dresses that she only wore when she was here, flowy skirts billowing behind her like sails as she biked along the coast. Memories of those summers are washed in a glowy, orange light like a flashback montage in a romantic comedy, like something seen underwater at sunset.
It’s been three years since she left. Jen, I mean. She met a man from Turkey and then she was gone. No one really likes to talk about it; when we do my brother gets so angry and ashamed his ears turn pink. I follow her on Facebook, secretly, and have spent hours scrolling her few photos, looking into them for signs of remorse. But all you can see in these photos are the shining water of the Bosporus Strait behind her and the sturdy, striking gaze of her husband, Selim. She looks polished. Foreign. Impossibly new and shiny. Her gold jewelry glints in the Turkish sun. They don’t have kids, and I can’t tell if this makes it better or worse.
This is the first time we’ve been back to New Hampshire since. Henry would rather spend every summer in his high-rise office, lost in the view of downtown Manhattan and the similarly unending sprawl of Excel spreadsheets. As I’m trying to convince Charlie and Luke to unbury my arms, at least, he’s on some teleconference call with New York and Miami. He works in finance (I’ve tried and failed several times to learn more details about his job) and refers to people mostly as the city where they’re from. It’s silly, but to be fair, it does sound more important and pressing to be on a call With London or With Singapore than With James. But it also kind of sounds like he’s calling in to a strip club for internationally minded businessmen.
“Hey, Charlie! Quit it! Come dig me up.” He’s whipping a sandy, starch-blue towel at his brother a few feet away.
“No, we have to see how long you can stay like that.”
“Well, you’ve done it. This is as long as I can stay like this.”
I can feel the strings of my suit edging sore, red lines into my back. A few more minutes and I convince them to excavate me in exchange for more and bigger fireworks after dinner. Emerging from all that cool, heavy sand into the hot sun is like shaking a mountain off my back, as if I had grown and suddenly shed a coat of fur. Some wet shell cracked open, like the cooling catharsis of peeling my socks off and feeling the ocean. I put my sunglasses on and chase the boys back into the water.
Henry is still on his call when we get back to the house. We can hear him speaking assertively into his laptop at New York and Miami. I know these are euphemisms for conference rooms in those places, but it still makes me smile to picture my brother all dressed up to FaceTime two beautiful and scantily clad women who tell him their names are New York and Miami. I let myself imagine New York is short and blonde, freckled and dressed in a mishmash of pink straps. Miami is impossibly flexible, just her face and left foot in frame, and her big, bubbly afro is full of tinsel and rhinestones, so when she laughs at his jokes her hair seems to laugh, too. So much important professional jargon for a little international companionship. The boys and I dump our towels and sand buckets and shovels and frisbees in the covered porch and emerge, loud and sweaty, into the living room.
The little cottage’s walls are covered in dark placard siding, some cartoon rendering of an old boat. Green and red plaid blankets hang from the gray couch, the worn leather armchair, the dining room table. The air is cool and bright, like that shimmering dance of blue light at the bottom of a pool in the sun. Years of ash stain the fireplace. The rugs are faded and curl at the corners. It smells like salt: from the ocean, from the memory of butter bubbling on the stove, from the sand caked with sweat to our skin. In the living room is a big chandelier made of elk antlers and the kitchen has three round, port-hole windows that look out at the woods. The walls are covered in family photos of the homeowners on ski vacations, or posed in white on the beach, or celebrating a dozen different graduations, birthdays, marriages. My favorite is one of what must be the whole family kneeled around a pair of grandparents in pastel sweaters. The frame reads “Lobster Bake 1999.” It’s always shocked me how little we know about these people whose home I could find in a blackout. The back of the house is all glass: big sliding doors that face the water. Our private strip of sand shines in the sun, bare except for the grass that sweeps the farthest dunes.
Henry met his now ex-wife twenty years ago while in grad school in New York. He was getting his MBA at NYU and she was an undergraduate studying art history. They met in Washington Square one winter while skateboarders traced fast, loud, dangerous lines across the empty fountain. She asked him to coffee and their first date lasted seven hours. I liked Jen right away, and the first Christmas he brought her home she and I stayed up one night drinking wine and eggnog from the basement fridge. I was still in high school, and she took my breath away. The coolest person I had ever met: a real New York City intellectual, I remember thinking. She had four tattoos and a nose ring, and she name-dropped famous writers like she knew them, full of the semi-earned confidence of a kid minoring in philosophy or comparative literature.
They were married four years later. I was one of her bridesmaids, all of us lined up in shimmering red chiffon near a lake in her hometown in Vermont. I had had a couple of girlfriends but no plus one to the wedding, spending the night instead getting Jen to do tequila shots with me and decidedly out-dancing Henry. I was about to graduate from Reed with a degree in Religious Studies and a minor in Studio Art and move back east to New York. Jen and Henry were living in the city and had promised me their couch until I found a job and my own lease.
Henry had insisted on writing their own vows. It’s easy to forget, now, how he used to be around her: this sweet man so different from my brother, who loved Jen in such a striking way that he sometimes seemed like a new person entirely. We were never close growing up, and he was quiet and difficult and, really, just mean. He lauded his higher SAT scores over me, fought with our mother, nearly disappeared from our lives when he moved to New York. But it was like Jen cracked something open about him, and he became someone I could understand loving. One summer, before they had moved in together, she was homesick and he spent a week perfecting her favorite meal, ginger chicken soup, calling her mother to beg for the recipe. This was the most shocking thing I had seen him do and Jen got teary-eyed when she recalled it years later.
I don’t really remember what they said in their vows, but she had one line that was so funny it was all anyone was talking about as we shuffled down the aisle and out towards dinner. He cried during their first dance and much of the rest of the night is a blur for all of us. She had cold feet the morning of, but when I checked on him in the hour before the ceremony he seemed so happy and proud it made you ache to look at him. This memory in particular makes everything that’s happened since particularly opaque, why looking at their marriage can feel like trying to read a book whose title and back cover are in English but that you open to discover is written entirely in a foreign or ancient language.
A traditional lobster trap has two distinct parts: the kitchen, the first chamber where lobsters eat the bait; and the parlor, where they await the lobsterman. You eat your final meal, crawl in a little deeper, and wait. Lobsters are called “bugs” in the industry; there’s a whole list of lobster-specific slang, an entire world with an internal logic of lobster language to talk about size, sex, age, and shell hardness of the bugs that come up in traps. Lobsters weren’t a delicacy in the states until the 1950s, when canning brought them out of the Northeast and suddenly bugs were popping up on surf n’ turf menus across the country. And once these sweet, grimy, chewy bottom-feeders fell into fashion, they stuck. Dug their claws into the public imagination and the country’s great westward expansionist stomach. Now, men like my brother spend hundreds of dollars taking clients out to lobster lunches and impressing dates with towering silver trays stuffed with ice and plump, pink tails.
Jen never liked lobsters. That was the funniest thing about her love of the New Hampshire house. She loved seafood, ate other crustaceans, even, with abandon. But something about the cooking method of lobsters in particular turned her off of them at a young age and she never looked back. Then she read David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and it was over. She once told me about a nightmare in which she had to listen to them being boiled alive. She shuddered at the sound of their claws clanking against the pot and told me she was sure lobsters could scream. The thought of them trapped for so many days in that parlor at the bottom of the sea, then crawling over each other in a tank in a restaurant, and finally boiled alive in a small, dark pot: it all made her a bit queasy. I kind of can’t blame her; I’ve never had it in me to catch or boil them myself. And I’m fortunate in a lot of ways to be basically removed from the horrors of trapping and murdering that go into every lobster roll I bite into up here. Butter glistening on my chin, fat, white, salty morsels of bug meat gleaming in the sunshine. It’s easy enough to forget that most chefs don’t even try to kill the lobster before lowering it into that horrible rolling water; even staring out at those buoys in the bay, imagining the tussle of entrapped lobsters below, we don’t usually envision what it really entails. We talk about feeling trapped, but what can we really know from up here?
For dinner I’m making lobster mac and cheese. Lobsters have always loomed large in our family: our grandfather used to tell us that his only fear about death was that he’d get to the pearly white gates just to discover that God was a lobster. Then, he’d laugh, he would have some real explaining to do.
I leave the boys for an hour and bike to the seafood market, salty hair drying in the cool evening air. This was Jen’s bike, a minty cruiser with an iffy break and a big, cushy seat that real bikers scoff at. The market is a little concrete building that smells like you’d expect, like cold fish and citrus and horseradish-based sauces. Lobster meat costs $40 a pound. It’s on Henry’s card and I buy two pounds and a box of panko breadcrumbs in the shiny fluorescent aisles. It all fits in my basket and the sky is starting to dim as I’m biking home along the seaside concrete path. Long grass leans out over the bike lane and whips my shins as I cruise past. The greenhead flies are invasive and when you pass each low, salty marsh, you can see their big, blue, wooden box traps. They spring up in new places every summer to catch the forever elusive invasions of flies. There’s usually a bird sitting on the box, and I always imagine that they must buzz with all those bugs trapped and dying inside. Like a 1960s housewife perched on the laundry while her husband is at work and the pills she’s been prescribed too much of are turning her thoughts fuzzy and clean.
Though we were never very close, my brother and I have only ever been in one real, big fight as adults. It happened while I was living on their couch, and it was also the event that ended what Jen and I had started calling my artist’s residency on E 87th St. I was working as a barista on the Lower East Side but stayed up late anyway, curing hangovers with espresso shots and the dry, bready croissants that we sold for the inexplicable price of six dollars apiece. Jen and I were up late one Saturday, crisscrossed on the couch and drinking wine out of these giant, bulbous glasses her friend had gifted them at their wedding. Like ruby bubbles in that warm kind of light apartments only seem to have when you’re 23 and drunk. We were talking about something Jen was reading, or another horrible date I’d been on, probably, when her eyes went suddenly glassy and pink.
“He’s cheating on me.”
The sentence took all the air out of the room.
“Some woman in his office.” They had only been married two years.
“Oh my god,” I finally said, “Jen. I’m so sorry,” stretching the vowels out with the right inflection to demonstrate that I was, really, indescribably shocked and that I was going to be angry but not before I was sorry. She looked so fragile and beautiful in that moment, red hair in a low ponytail and golden earrings shining in the low lamplight. Her glasses reflected, faintly, like in a dream, the room behind me, a fish-eyed version of this room he’d bought for her that now made me so sick I wanted to stand up and kick the couch over or burn down the wall he was sleeping behind. Her voice was hushed and on the verge of breaking. Our hands met in the middle of the couch, and I remember saying it over and over, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, as if it was some incantation that could undo what was now sitting in the hot, stale air between us.
I can’t really explain what happened next. But suddenly my hands were around her face, ostensibly to wipe away the tears that were worming their way over her wine-flushed cheeks. But I was also leaning in, and then she was, and then we were kissing, and her glasses were pressed up against my eyes and my nose and what I remember most was the way that cool metal felt against my browbone. As soon as it happened, I pulled away, regretting it so immediately I thought, again, that I might be sick. I apologized and she went into the bedroom. Then I actually was sick: bitter, dark red vomit splashing into the toilet as I tried to forget the way her lips felt.
By the time I woke up Henry knew.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? You sleep on my couch, in our home, and this is how you thank us? By trying to fuck my wife?”
“Henry, please—” I don’t remember which of us said this, me or Jen.
I don’t think I was trying to fuck his wife. And I don’t remember why I couldn’t point out that he didn’t really have the moral high ground here, that if we were talking about marital infidelity everyone was pointing fingers at each other but also at ourselves. It didn’t feel like it was just about that, though. I had broken some terrible rule on top of that, and I felt like if I had kissed a married man we would be having a very different kind of conversation. That if I’d only been cheating on one man with another; but there was some sharp other angle here that kept coming around and stabbing all of us in the side. Jen stood quietly in the corner of the room, eyes fixed mostly on the couch. Sometimes she would ask Henry to calm down. She was really the one I wanted to apologize to. The conversation didn’t last 20 minutes and I was out of the apartment in a week.
I stop on my way home to buy Charlie and Luke a new box of sparklers and those little balls that snap and glow when you chuck them at the sidewalk. The firework stand is run by a greasy sixteen-year-old (don’t ask if this is legal; I have no idea how it could be but I don’t care as long as he’ll take my crumpled dollar bills). He doesn’t look me in the eyes and seems so high it’s unclear if he knows what’s going on. When I get back home, lugging the heavy cruiser bike into the garage, I can hear Henry and the boys laughing and yelling in the backyard. I make my way through the parlor to the kitchen and set the lobster down on the counter, tuck the fireworks into the top drawer reserved for soy sauce packets and old mail and birthday candles, start chopping parsley. The plastic container of lobster is speckled with condensation. By now the sky is thick and pink, wild orange clouds whispering over the ocean. The sun sets away from the water, casting a bright glow on the trees and dune grass. Everything grows tall, sharp shadows that turn the landscape into a fantastic painting, all the blue water and houses and people lit for a few precious moments in glowing gold. The oven clicks on. The lobster meat is slick and pink and slides over the pan of butter like it’s liquid.
I’ve never been a kid person. Grew up telling everyone I’d never have kids, though this was definitely in part because even as a young child I could never imagine myself living with a man/husband and this was the only way I’d seen other people have children; I thought they were always a package deal. But even so, even for me, there’s something indescribably wonderful about watching a child enjoy a firework. Luke and Charlie stand in the yard, surrounded by waist-high dune grass and still-warm sand, sparklers pointed at eye-level toward the ocean, and the unfiltered joy of the moment flashes back in their eyes. The water is dark and calm, the waves slowed to a gentle whooshing. The sky is finally dark, too, and somewhere down the beach someone is lighting real fireworks that arch and explode in the sky as the boys point and yell, caught in awe at the decisive moment of each explosion. Henry is sipping scotch next to me, watching them tightly as the wind hits their sparklers.
“Boys! Away from the grass!” he yells when they start to drop their arms to their sides. “You have to stop buying them these things,” he whispers to me. I just laugh.
“Oh, please. They love it. We’ll be out tomorrow.”
Most of our family thinks Jen’s move was terribly cruel. Medieval, even. Biblical. When they think Henry can’t see, I catch them looking at him with an upsetting combination of pity and rage, remarking often how horrible—how deeply evil and even sociopathic—someone would have to be to abandon their children. Jen sends child support money, more than I imagine any court would require. Not that he needs it, really. It does take something unimaginable to move around the world and stop calling your children. And, yes, I was mad for a long time when it happened. At Jen, at Henry, at myself. I spent the first year replaying that night in their old apartment. He didn’t ever stop sleeping around, but I learned to stop asking either of them about it by the time Luke was born. And now her departure seems so horrific that it’s hard to imagine anyone would be mad at him for an affair or two. I wonder often how he’ll explain this history to his sons when they get older. They seem to have been instructed to never bring her up. It’s like she was erased in entirety from their lives, lasered off the surface in a scorching moment then buried and scarred into nothing under layers of tight, sterile bandages.
It is funny, a little, how finely attuned Jen was to the suffering of lobsters, of all things, when she’s certainly inflicted plenty of pain herself. But when you trap lobsters in those cages, and one rips off another’s claws, whom do you blame? The lobsters? The reckless fisherman, the profit-hungry restaurateur? What wouldn’t we all do to avoid being boiled alive?
The oven dings inside and Henry and I jump a little at the sound. I take a last look at the boys, still staring in awe at the now finished fireworks show, willing the lights to start up again. The mac and cheese comes bubbling out of the oven, bits of lobster as red and shiny as little jewels. The whole house smells like cheese and butter and thyme and heaven. Charlie and Luke run in, blackened sparklers in hand. I set the casserole dish down and scoop the first rich, gleaming mound of cheese and lobster onto Henry’s plate. Pour myself another glass of his nice red wine, a dry, bitter thing that tastes like pencil shavings. Luke spends dinner telling us about his plans for tomorrow: to swim out to the island we can see at the edge of the horizon. It must be five miles from the shore, but he insists he’ll make it in time to eat lunch on that foreign, glimmering beach. I laugh and shake his hand as he swears to me he’ll do it, like we’re business partners who just got off a successful conference call with Chicago and Buenos Aires. He looks just like his mother and he laughs the same way, and it sometimes hits me in such a sudden and tender moment that it winds me to look at him. Birds ruffle and cry out on the water. I offer the boys two more sparklers and they’re back outside, snaking golden, crackling arches across the night sky. Henry is in the kitchen, bent over the sink in a striped pink apron.
“Henry, can we talk?”
I see his shoulder blades tense through his sweater. No answer.
“What do you tell the boys about her? Charlie asked me yesterday if she was coming with us next summer.”
Steam is billowing up from the sink and I wonder how much longer he’ll let the noise of the faucet run. We sit in the quiet for a few minutes. I’m starting to feel the wine around the insides of my temples, hot pink splotches growing across my cheeks and down my throat.
“Please. Don’t do this right now.”
The boys are squealing in the yard and I can see them dart back and forth across the driveway through the open front door.
“Henry, I think—”
“Just fuck off about it, would you?”
It’s so quiet I almost don’t hear him over the hot water still pouring into the sink he’s nearly elbow deep inside. I almost don’t realize he’s cut me off.
He turns around, splattering a neat arc of suds across the dark tile.
“You think you know what my sons need? You don’t ever think about us. You just crash on my couch, kiss my wife, buy sparklers from that illegal shack run by that fucking idiot to give to my children. And you think that because you can play the nice aunt for a week you get to tell me what you think I’m doing wrong? You have no idea. You are so selfish it drives me fucking crazy.”
He’s staring right at me, shoulders heaving as if he’s been running, hands hanging stupidly at his sides, slowly dripping water and white, glistening bubbles of soap onto the floor. I realize with a sharp pain in my chest we’re still having the same fight. That we’re staring at each other across a divide at least ten years wide. He looks ridiculous, and I imagine telling him this, that he looks dumb standing there. Like a toddler who has just grown six feet and had a tantrum and now has to stand there, dumbly, huffing hot, stupid air into the silence of the room. I look at him, up and down, and settle on his eyes before standing up and making my way upstairs. I hear him mutter, “bitch,” at my back and think, coward.
After the boys have gone to bed, I crack my bedroom door and can hear Henry pacing downstairs. Eventually he settles in the leather armchair and for a while there is no sound but the whirring of the dishwasher and the wind in the dune grass. He doesn’t look up as I make my way to the back door. The evening air is still warm and the ocean has quieted: I can hardly hear the waves against the shore. There are a few lawn chairs around a fire pit, and I pick one that looks out at the water, where bright moonlight shimmers in a shaky line toward the horizon. I can hear that someone is lighting fireworks again but can’t see them. The other houses by the water are lit up and they look warm and inviting, almost like they should have cartoon plumes of smoke pouring from their chimneys. I imagine I can hear music coming from one of them. Peering back over my shoulder, I see that our house has only the living room light on; Henry’s silhouetted head is turned away from me and there is no music.
Looking back out at the water, I’m calculating what time it is in Istanbul. Wondering what the water looks like this afternoon, if it’s too hot to be lounging out like this. I went to Istanbul, once, for a weekend in college. I was by myself and my phone didn’t work, so I spent the three days memorizing the city on foot. On the second day a man offered me a tour of a mosque and cemetery, lifting my scarf over my head as we entered. He insisted I visit his family’s rug shop, where his grandfather served me mint tea and told me about the history of Turkish rug making. He kept telling me to wait for him, that he would move to America and make me his girlfriend and we could be together. I laughed in the winter sun and just said, maybe. I bought a miniature rug to hang on my wall, and I remember how much Jen loved it. It’s beautiful, she said. Turkey. She told me I was brave for going alone, and I laughed. It’s not that hard, I told her, once you get yourself on the plane. That moment echoes back to me from across the bay. A bird cries somewhere down the beach.
What feels brave, now, is turning around, going back into the house and waking up tomorrow and taking the boys to the beach again so that Henry can get on the phone with Paris and Tel Aviv. Sometimes the bravery is in staying, in forgiving him even when I know he will not apologize. It’s harder not to forgive someone when you can’t get away from them. But I also guess she’d already done a lot of forgiving by the time she got out.
And would I blame another lobster for escaping, if they could? What can the rest of us do, de-clawed, left behind in a narrow tank? What do you do with the kind of guilt that buries you up to your neck in it?
What I really, inexplicably want in this moment is to thank him for the vacation. For the $80 of lobster mac and cheese congealing in the fridge, for the red wine burrowing deliciously into my liver. I start writing out a thank you note against the dark, wild sky—thank you, I forgive you, a new incantation to repeat into the empty air between us. I think longingly about the cigarette I’m going to smoke when I get home.
I dig my feet mindlessly into the sand, the top layer still warm from the sun, and the grains run over my skin like water. In a week we will shut the garage door on our bikes, which aren’t even ours or hers but just the same bikes that are always in this house when we visit, and take the train back down to the city. Someday I will ask him again. Someday, maybe, I will return to Istanbul. But for now I sip my wine, feel the hot acidic gulp of it in my chest, and listen as the water gently laps sea foam onto the shore. Dozens of buoys block out perfect circles of black in the watery moonlight and I wonder how long a lobster might sit in one of those cages before a lobsterman heaves the contraption up and over the side of his faded white boat. What it feels like to be pulled, suddenly, into the air and the sun, hoisted like—well, like a freshly caged animal.