The anticipation was almost as exciting as the arrival. My brother and I could barely contain ourselves as the school year drew to a close. "Pretty soon," we'd tell each other in strained voices, "we'll be down the Shore."
"I'm not gonna wear shoes all summer long," I said.
"You will when the sand gets really hot," Paul said, "or else you'll burn your feet like you did last summer."
"Did not," I said.
"Did so," Paulie said.
Going to the New Jersey coast was the time that all of our family seemed to live for. It was both a release and a relief from the tedium of our everyday life in hot, gritty Philadelphia. At first, we went down for only one week; the next summer, two; then, for a couple more years, a month in the upstairs apartment of a family friend. Each year was better than the one before. I loved swimming in the ocean and body surfing. I liked being brave, plunging into the big waves, even when it meant getting knocked around and pulled under into a whirlwind of pounding water. Most of all, I loved how free I felt at the beach, wearing nothing all day but a bathing suit, the sun hot on my bare back.
Then, one day in May, Dad sat down at the dinner table and announced that he had bought us a house at the Shore.
"What do you mean?" Mom asked. "You bought a house?"
"I couldn't pass it up," he said. "From one of my patients. She's retiring and can't keep the place up anymore. She's practically giving it away. So I told her I'd buy it. Gave her a check right then and there. We'll go down this weekend to look at it." I was amazed. That was the longest speech I'd ever heard from my dad.
"And you did all this without saying a word to me?" Mom said. She sounded angry and I was afraid they were going to have a big fight about it right there at the table. I was holding my breath. But then I saw Mom's shoulders relax, a half-smile crossed her face. "So, it's a nice place?" she asked.
"I think so," Dad said. "It's got an outdoor shower."
"Cool," I yelped, but didn't go on when Dad shot me a look.
"You have to go outside to shower?" my sister Linda whined.
"There's one inside also," Dad said.
"That's good," Mom said.
"OK, then," Dad said. "Let's eat."
Underneath the table, I punched my brother in the leg. I was so happy I could barely eat the meatloaf and lumpy mashed potatoes Mom passed around the table. But I did.
The house, a cottage really, was everything we hoped for. The first thing I noticed when we pulled up in front was the shutters. They were painted black with white wooden cutouts of naked mermaids tacked on them. The cottage had two bedrooms on the main floor: one for Mom and Dad, the other for my snotty sister, who was now in high school and acted all superior. Paulie and I had the whole upstairs, which was essentially an unfinished attic with a couple of iron bed frames with sagging mattresses. We loved it. That attic felt like our own private world. Plus, if we brought down our dirty laundry and didn't make too much noise, Mom was unlikely to climb the narrow staircase to yell at us.
My dad only came down the Shore on weekends. During the week, he stayed in Philadelphia to keep office hours, then would drive down on Friday nights. Each week, I dreaded my father's arrival. Once he showed up, the entire atmosphere of the place changed. Everybody became stiffer. Even the air inside the house felt heavier. No more laughing or loud talking, no more eating at the picnic table outside. Dad didn't think that was proper, to be on display like that. At least, that's what Mom said he thought. She was always telling us all kinds of things that Dad thought. Maybe they weren't even true. How could I know?
"Shit," I said to my brother as we were walking back from the beach on a hot Friday afternoon. "I don't know why he comes down at all. The fucker doesn't even go in the ocean."
"You shouldn't curse," Paulie said. "It's not right."
"Screw you, momma's boy." I punched him on the shoulder. He was 11, I was almost 14, but the gap between us seemed wider this summer. I was no longer willing to be a good boy. Sometimes I felt like I was going to explode with all the feelings I couldn't quite name or understand.
I knew Mom was just waiting for Dad to arrive so she could report to him all the ways I'd been "fresh" to her all week and how I'd been coming home late in the evenings. Late to Mom meant any time after 8 p.m. I'd been hanging out with a new group of friends, boys and girls both, and sometimes we'd even drink cans of warm beer and make out on the beach.
As soon as my father arrived that week, before he'd even settled into his special chair, Mom was all over him. "I hope you're going to talk to that boy." She hovered around him in the cottage's tiny living room.
Dad was trying to get himself settled, pulling off his tie, rolling up the cuffs of his long-sleeved white shirt, kicking off his shoes. Tomorrow, he'd put on his droopy bathing shorts, a terry-cloth shirt and his black-billed captain's hat. I guess the Shore was his place to relax also. If Mom would only let him.
"What boy are you talking about, Isabelle?"
I was slouched down on one end of the couch; Paulie was at the other end. It was where we were supposed to be when Dad arrived. "You need to greet your father," Mom told us. "He works hard all week so you can spend your summers here. It's the least you can do."
"'Which boy'?" Mom chirped. "Which boy is it always?"
Dad was finally able to get past her and fall into his easy chair with an audible sigh. "What is your mother talking about?" He looked right at me for the first time.
"I don't know."
"You don't know?" Dad said.
"He knows," Mom said.
"Do not," I said.
"You certainly do," Mom said.
"No, I don't."
"That's enough, dammit," Dad yelled. "You'd think I could have one minute of peace and quiet, one minute to relax."
"I've got these kids all week," Mom said. "How do you think I feel?"
"All you do is sit on the beach and play Password with your friends," I said, just loud enough to be heard.
"You see how he talks to me?" Mom said.
Dad sighed, reached for his pipe. "Don't be fresh to your mother," he said without much conviction. Dad needed a shave and his eyes were red rimmed behind his eyeglasses. I kinda felt sorry for him.
"OK," I said. "I won't talk fresh to her anymore. Can we watch television now?"
"Yeah," Paulie said, "'The Fugitive' is on."
Dad took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Fine," he said. "Fine."
"No television," Mom said, looking at Dad. "Someone needs to learn some manners around here."
"No fucking way," I said.
There was a deep silence immediately after those three words escaped my mouth. "What did he say?" Dad sat forward in his chair, putting the pipe aside.
"I told you," Mom said, looking oddly pleased.
"I want to know what he said," Dad commanded.
Paulie broke the silence. "He said, 'No fucking way.' I told him he shouldn't curse."
I couldn't believe my brother had betrayed me, but I had no time to respond because Dad was rising out of his chair now. I jumped up off the couch, maybe to run, maybe to defend myself. I don't know because, almost as soon as I got to my feet and opened my mouth, my father's big hand exploded across the side of my head and I collapsed in a heap on the floor. "Don't you ever talk back to me," Dad said in a strangled voice.
"I didn't," I managed to squeak out from down on the ground.
I was angry and humiliated, but I wasn't scared anymore. I even had an urge to laugh and I probably would have said something else, but my mother rushed over and knelt down beside me. "That's enough now," she said, looking at me and not my father—like I was the one who had hit somebody.
Dad still stood above me with his hands clenched at his side. Then he let out a deep breath, almost a sob. He turned away and went back to his chair, sat down and picked up the newspaper.
Mom put her hand on mine like she was going to help me up, but I pushed it away and stood up on my own. I felt tears running down my cheeks, but I didn't cry out loud. I looked over at my dad, but he wouldn't look back at me. I turned away and went upstairs and lay on my bed, staring up at the unfinished ceiling. It was like I wasn't even in my body; I couldn't feel a thing.
When Paulie came up to go to bed a couple hours later, he said, "I'm sorry, Butchie. I didn't think he would hit you like that. Really."
I didn't answer him. There was nothing left to say. I knew I was through with all of them.