Here is the mosquito-repelling candle as discussed. For God’s sake light it every time you spend a second on that deck of yours. Malaria is the last thing we need. Ignore the Sea Breeze aromatherapy nonsense. It has a high eucalyptus oil content and that is why I bought it. Don’t ask me how much I paid.
To answer your question, I wouldn’t say I’m having fun exactly. I’m not here to have fun. I’m here to look after the children. And for your information, you can imagine me quite well on the beach, because I took you countless times as a child. Let nobody tell you you were deprived. When I was a girl, we could only go to the one colored beach and then only when we could spare the bus fare, which was rare.
Don’t touch any subway poles.
Children of this generation seem determined to get themselves raped and murdered and thrown in the back of somebody’s unmarked van. That’s the only explanation I can think of for Becca’s plan to go out in public in that stripper costume she called a bathing suit. How she thought she could get away with that on my watch, I’ll never know.
I can only thank my lucky stars I caught her before she went over to the Pikes’ or met the boy-children on the beach. At one point the plan was to keep the Schafer boy on our sofa, but the Pikes ended up keeping him in their guest room. I don’t even want to know what’s happening in that house, seven boys and four girls under one roof, but I have to say I’m glad it’s not our problem.
“But I didn’t bring another swimsuit!” Becca complained. I don’t know why she persists in believing that I am a rube off the back of the turnip truck. If there’s one thing Sea City has plenty of, it’s stores that sell bathing suits.
Of course, the stores on the boardwalk carried nothing but flimsy little sunbathing costumes, all at exorbitant prices. Becca found plenty she liked. I vetoed everything and packed her back in the car. I was sure I’d seen some discount strip malls on 195.
“You won’t be happy until I’m wearing a full-body wool suit, like in the 1920s,” Becca complained.
“You’re on vacation with a pack of sex-crazed hormonal teenage boys. You don’t need to throw chum in the shark tank.”
“Oh my God, you’re so paranoid! They’re just the Pikes and Jeff and Shea. They’re my friends. And some of them aren’t even interested in girls.”
In retrospect, I didn’t put as much stock in this remark as I should have. “I know you still want to think of them as your little playmates, but the truth is, they’re changing. They’re halfway to men. And some men are wonderful, but all men are pigs. There are strangers on the beach, too, you know. Perverts are everywhere. You don’t need to encourage them. You know, black women have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously as--”
“Augh! This again!” Becca clapped her hands over her ears. “La la la la! I’m not listening!”
I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. When I was her age, I never would have sassed my elders like that. Of course, John and Janice are against corporal punishment. Honestly, it’s like trying to raise a decent child with one hand tied behind your back.
We finally found a decent selection of suits at a suburban Marshall’s. Becca refused to try on most of my choices. “Too mom-ish,” she’d say, or “Too babyish.”
“You’re acting like a baby now,” I told her. “We’re here as long as it takes. don’t care about going swimming today.”
Eventually she came to me with a perfectly acceptable suit she’d picked out herself. The pattern was silly blue stripes, but the suit itself was a simple, no-nonsense cut.
“Please, may I get it? It’s one piece, and it’s not too low-cut. You can’t have a problem with this.”
“Hmph!” I said, pleased. It was on sale, too. “Well, I suppose it will do.”
Conversation was more cheerful on the way home. We were smiling secret smiles at ourselves, each thinking we’d pulled a fast one on the other. We got home and changed and put together a nice little healthful lunch for Squirt and Jessi. As we walked down to the beach, I was proud to see her walking tall, looking classy and confident in her new suit--so much more beautiful than the shy, hunched girl shivering in her skivvies from this morning.
The whole clan was on the beach. John and Janice were sitting under a beach umbrella with John and Dee Pike, no doubt enjoying some adult conversation. Squirt was building a sand castle nearby. Mallory and Jessi were sunbathing and reading. Vanessa was going around taking pictures of everyone. Claire, Margo, and all six boys--Adam, Byron, Jordan, Jeff, Shea, and Nick--were splashing each other in the water. I was glad to see that the lifeguard today was a strong-looking man, not that skinny twig of a girl from yesterday who didn’t look like she’d be much help in an anything but a lip gloss emergency.
Becca trailed me to the beach umbrella, where I set up my chair. Once I’d sat down, I realized she was no longer looking happy and confident. Her lower lip was trembling.
“Good heavens, Becca, what is it now?” I asked.
“All the other girls are wearing bikinis!” she wailed. “Even Jessi! Even the babies!”
Claire and Margo were wearing midriff-bearing two-piece suits, pink and yellow with frills. I sniffed. I’ve never approved of that particular fashion trend, but I stopped myself from saying so in front of Dee Pike.
“You’re not all the other girls,” I told her. “You’re Becca.”
“I hate being Becca!” she yelled. “You don’t understand anything! You don’t remember what it’s like to be fourteen!”
“I remember all too well,” I told her.
She stomped off back toward the house.
“Where are you going?” I called.
“To be alone!”
I spent most of the rest of the day looking after Squirt. He’s still at an age where he is friendly, curious, kind, courteous, respectful, and unselfconscious. I hope he never grows out of it, although I know he will. Teenage boys are as bad a teenage girls. Maybe worse.
Swimming continued until the lifeguard went off duty. Afterward, I agreed to take Squirt back to the beach, not to swim, but to wade and look for seashells. We walked along the edge of the water in a quiet inlet. He was looking at tidepools, scooping interesting specimens into a bucket of water which he had somehow persuaded me to carry for him.
I walked down to the water’s edge, where the shore joined with a narrow strip of rocky beach under the boardwalk. Supporting myself against one of the boardwalk’s wooden support beams, I toed off my sandal and dipped my foot in the water. I lifted my head to the sunset and watched God’s miraculous creation.
Something in the quality of the light and the smell of ocean awakened a memory in me. I was reminded of another sunset, another boardwalk. Cotton candy. A cotton dress, just the same color pink, new with a full skirt and gloves to match. Hands over my eyes. “Guess who...”
Movement at the edge of my vision brought me back to the moment and made me turn around. A couple stood behind me, shadowed beneath the boardwalk. The boy was facing me, although he was too wrapped up in his companion to notice me. I recognized him. Jeffrey Schafer was grinning wolfishly, backing some poor girl against the support beam. He leaned his head down, and she--
No, not she; Jeffrey’s companion had short hair, broad shoulders and a muscular build. Another boy! Another boy I knew, in fact. There was no mistaking it. It was one of the Pike triplets!
The triplet placed a hand on Jeffrey’s shoulder, the other around his waist. Both boys were shirtless, wearing swim trunks, so the triplet’s hands were directly on Jeffrey’s skin. Jeffrey tilted his head, as if to whisper a secret in the triplet’s ear.
Good God. Teenage boys! If they can’t find a willing girl, they’ll fornicate with each other. I shuddered. I’d told Becca as much, but it was still horrifying to see the proof: that innocent children you once knew and loved can turn, without warning, into wild, writhing, bestial creatures! Teenagers!
I started running toward them. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something. When I got close, I did the first thing that came into my mind to do. I took my bucket of water and splashed them. That’s what you do when cats are going at it, and it worked just as well. The boys jumped, turned, stared wide-eyed, and then ran.
Squirt looked up from his tidepool as the boys raced past him. “Jeff! Byron! Come look at my aquarium!”
Jeffrey paused long enough to give Squirt a little wave, as if to say, “Another time,” then he hurried to catch up with Byron. I put my sandal back on, walked over, and took Squirt firmly by the hand.
“You’ll be a gentleman,” I promised him, and myself. “You won’t be like those dirty, nasty boys.”
“Really? I’d kind of like to be like Jeff.”
“He knows a lot of cool skateboard tricks.”
I pressed Squirt’s head to my side. “Dear heart, if that boy offers to show you a trick, you just say no.”
The Pikes invited us to a big spaghetti dinner at their house. I made a salad and Janice made a cheesecake. I didn’t tell her what had happened. I’m not one for scandal and gossip. I’d already decided the most tactful course of action would be to pull Dee Pike aside during the evening and warn her that, if she didn’t do something, her boy was on a very dangerous path.
She might try to deny it. I know I would. Byron had always been such a polite, obedient child. He was the last boy I would expect to discover in a compromising, sexually deviant position. Jeffrey must be the instigator. Obviously they did things differently in California.
Whatever Dee said, I knew I had to do something right away. I decided I would volunteer to drive Jeffrey home in the morning. It wouldn’t be a pleasant trip, but I considered it my duty. Maybe along the way, I could talk some sense into the boy. I’ve been lucky enough to raise mostly naturally docile and well-behaved children (leaving aside Becca’s teenage tantrums), but I’ve always thought I had it in me to turn around a really delinquent child, if need be. Maybe Jeffrey and I were both put on this trip for a reason.
When we got to the Pikes’, the children were gathered in the living room playing Cranium. One of the triplets--Adam, I think--called out, “Squirt, man, we need your mad charades skills!” Jeffrey and Byron were sitting side-by-side, shoulders pressed together. I fixed them with the evil eye to let them know I was watching. Jeffrey shot back a defiant look, but Byron had the decency to squirm guiltily. He, at least, could be saved, I thought.
Dee looked up with a wounded expression when I came into the kitchen and set my salad down. She didn’t mince words. “Did you dump water on my son?”
“Is that what he told you?” I asked calmly, peeling back the Saran wrap.
“No, that’s what Adam told me. He heard it from Jeff.”
I glanced from John and Janice, who were unpacking the cheesecake, to John Pike, who was standing against the counter with his arms crossed. “Did Jeffrey tell Adam what he and Byron were doing?”
“What were they doing?” Janice asked.
“Fornicating!” I didn’t mince words, either. They had to find out sometime.
“For goodness sake. They weren’t fornicating, they were kissing!” said Dee.
I didn’t know how to respond to that. The way she said it, you would think kissing was a normal activity for two teenage boys to engage in.
“Really, Cecelia, you couldn’t have talked to them? Why did you dump water on them like they were animals?”
“They were acting like animals! What was I supposed to do?”
“Talk to them! Tell them to cut it out. They’re human beings!”
“I think maybe there’s been a misunderstanding,” John Pike put in. “It looks like Cecelia didn’t know about Byron and Jeff. I can imagine that it was a shocking way to find out that they’re dating.”
“Dating!” I repeated. “Dating!” I just couldn’t understand it. The word didn’t seem to apply.
“Yes. We treat them the same as we treat Adam and his girlfriend, or we try to,” said Mr. Pike.
I looked from one face to the next. “You all knew?”
“God, we all just thought you knew,” said Janice. “I’m sorry, Cecelia. Someone should have told you.”
“Well, okay then!” John--my John--said cheerfully. “Now Cecelia knows the policy...”
“The policy? The policy that you allow your children to be homosexuals?” I spat the word. I always knew the Pikes were permissive, but this!
“Gay, they call it gay, Cece,” said John.
“I don’t care what they call it!”
“We don’t allow or not allow it. It just is!” said Dee. “It’s not something you can control. If by ‘we allow it’ you mean we don’t try to intimidate him out of being who he is, then, yes, I suppose we allow it. We’re trying to raise him with love and acceptance.”
“Acceptance!” I said. “Kids today are raised with altogether too much acceptance. They run wild. That’s why none of them have any morals. That’s why you have a homosexual epidemic and little girls running around dressed as whores...”
“Cecelia!” said Janice.
“My sister grew up in a different time,” said John.
“Don’t make excuses for me,” I snapped.
“Don’t talk to me about growing up in a different time!” said Dee. “Don’t talk to me about a time when sexuality wasn’t discussed, and ‘gay’ was the worst thing you could call someone, because we all grew up in that time. When I was Byron’s age, ‘gay’ was practically a death sentence. Things are going to be different for my kid. But they’re only going to be different if we make them different. Some people are gay. We, as a culture, have all had the last ten or twenty years to get over it.”
“Now, now,” John rumbled, cutting me off because I could start firing off my response. “We all knew going into this trip that there would be some different politics here. Let’s agree to disagree.”
“No!” said Dee. “This is not an ‘agree to disagree’ situation! This is about my kid, and if you can’t treat him like a human being, stay away from him!”
With that she swept out of the room. As the door swung open and shut again, peals of children’s laughter could be heard from the dining room.
“A different world--pah! It breaks my heart to think of the world those children are inheriting,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s the movies and music and TV these days--it’s all so pornographic. Children used to know how to behave themselves!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said John, a twinkle in his eye. “Don’t you remember when you were sixteen, at another beach on the Jersey shore...”
John explained to the others, “The hotel manager’s son had a crush on Cecelia. A white boy.”
I sniffed. “I can’t believe you still remember those lies.”
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of. You didn’t ask for it. Anyway, it wouldn’t be a scandal now.”
“That’s right,” said Janice. “Eventually, America got on board with interracial dating, and we’re just going to have to get on board with this. I think gay and lesbian rights are going to be the next wave of the civil rights movement.”
“They already are,” said John Pike. “You know, Cecelia, Dee’s brother is gay.”
“I’m sorry,” I said stiffly.
“So am I. Not that he’s gay, but what happened to him because of it. His whole life, people told him that what he was--who he was--was wrong and disgusting. He grew up believing that. He still believes it. He married the girl everyone wanted him to, and made them both miserable. He was estranged from his parents when they died. We’re trying very hard to make sure that doesn’t happen to Byron. We don’t want him to grow up feeling like a freak.”
I raised one eyebrow. “Good luck.”
“Thank you,” John Pike said seriously.
I didn’t say much else through dinner, and nobody said anything to me. We were all trying to hide our argument from the children. When they asked to go to the boardwalk, see the Ferris wheel all lit up, nobody could think of an excuse not to.
A few groups split up on the main drag. Mallory and Jessi took Claire and Margo to look at souvenirs. Becca, Vanessa, and Squirt wanted to ride the Ferris wheel, and Janice took them. John took all of the boys to the arcade. Mr. and Mrs. Pike went for ice cream by themselves.
I followed the arcade group briefly, deciding they might need more chaperoning than John could or would provide, but the noise of the arcade gave me a migraine almost immediately, and I left to take a head-clearing walk.
I found myself back on the beach, beneath the boardwalk. I’ll admit I was almost looking for a repeat of this afternoon. If those boys had slipped off again, I wanted to know about it. I wanted them to know they shouldn’t bother--I’d always be on top of things.
But it was abandoned, and oddly quiet, although the noise of the arcade and Ferris wheel weren’t too far off.
In a spot very much like this, on a warm balmy night very much like this one, a slender sixteen-year-old black girl in a cotton-candy pink dress and matching gloves waited for a boy. Her palms were sweating and her fingers, her toes, her face, all her most sensitive parts were tingling. She was half-excited, half-afraid. If anybody else found her, she didn’t want to think what would happen.
Soon, a figure would appear, silhouetted between two poles. Broad shoulders, wild hair. The girl’s heart would skip a beat. The boy would step into a patch of moonlight, and the girl would stare. She always stared. Stanley’s face was familiar and comforting and alien and frightening, all at the same time. His skin was silvery pale in the moonlight. The girl stepped forward and brushed that soft skin with a hand--ungloved--and lightning would run down her spine.
“Cecelia,” Stanley would say, reverent, and the girl would say, “Stanley.” Stanley would say, “You’re beautiful.” The girl would be too shy to say it back.
Stanley would kiss her. They’d both know it was wrong. His hand would grip her tiny waist, travel down to her knee, up her thigh... higher... “Mary doesn’t do this...”
The next time the girl saw Stanley, she’d be standing just inches from him, pencil poised above a pad to take his order. In the facing seat, Mary would twirl her blond hair around her finger and sigh and declare she just didn’t know what she wanted, it all looked so good! Stanley would smile blandly, as if he’d never seen the waitress before, and order, “Hamburgers and shakes, please, for myself and the lady.” Mary would smile and gaze at her diamond.
The groups had changed again by the time I got back. I passed Margo and Dee in line for the Ferris wheel, and I glimpsed Mallory, Jessi, and two triplets among the midway games. Then, turning a corner, I caught sight of them--Jeffrey and Byron. At least, I assumed it was Byron, from the way he was walking close to Jeffrey along the rail. Their hands were clasped.
I must have noticed it at the same time as the burly man in the bandanna passing by them. The burly man shouted, “Faggots!”
Byron dropped Jeff’s hand, looking guilty and afraid. Jeff’s face reddened in rage.
I started running toward them. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew I had to do something. I had a feeling Jeffrey was about to run his mouth off. There was no love lost between me and Jeffrey, but all the same, I didn’t want to see him killed.
But he didn’t say anything. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stared very hard at his shoes. The burly man and his friends were laughing.
“You there! In the bandanna!”
The burly man turned to me. “You talkin’ to me?”
“Yes, I’m talking to you. Did you just call those boys a rude name?”
The burly man looked to his friends, a can-you-believe-this look. “So what if I did, lady?”
“This is a family place! There are children here! I don’t want to hear that word. I don’t want to see you think that word,” I snapped. “Phew! You reek. Go home, sleep off the alcohol. In the morning I hope you’ll have the decency to be ashamed of screaming obscenities at young boys. Good God.”
I stalked away, over to Byron and Jeffrey. I put my hands on their shoulders, guiding them away, back toward the arcade.
“Aunt Cecelia!” said Byron. “Th-Thank you!”
“Hush,” I told him. “Children should be seen and not heard.”