We break into the house through an unlocked window. Maribeth stands on my back and shimmies through the space while Talise keeps watch, even though no one is around. Southold is a beach town and it’s barely May; the streets are deserted, the surface of the Sound mirror smooth. Once Maribeth disappears into the house, Talise and I snake around to the front and stand on the doorstep. As we wait I consider running away from the house, chasing down the taxi that dropped us off, begging the driver to take me home. Then the door opens to reveal Maribeth’s wicked grin, and it’s too late.
“Welcome,” she says, sinking into a curtsey before leading us through the house. “I get the master bedroom. You guys can fight over the guest room.” She flings open a door, reveals an impossibly big bed. “California king,” she says, and then throws herself across it, already used to small luxuries.
This is how most of our decisions are made—Maribeth tells us what to do, and we do it. Sometimes when we’re alone, Talise and I make fun of Maribeth’s bossiness, parroting her voice and manners. When the time comes, however, we follow, never fight. It makes things easier, but it’s also how we ended up here.
“A weekend in Southold,” Maribeth told us after school last week, one hand on her narrow hip. “To relax and unwind before finals. We deserve it.”
We were standing outside the high school, waiting for the bus to take us home. Talise picked a loose thread from her coat, her long black hair covering her face so I couldn’t read her expression. I figured Maribeth’s plan probably had something to do with Jordan Walkerwho Maribeth started dating over Christmas break, and who dumped her abruptly right before Easter vacation, but I kept quiet.
“Southold is only an hour away,” Talise finally said. “If we’re going to spend a weekend somewhere, why not go to New York City, get off this dumb island?” I stared at her, surprised. Talise followed the rules, got straight As, had already earned a spot on the varsity cross-country team even though she was just a freshman. In the past, I’d been able to count on her as a voice of reason, able to talk Maribeth down from various ledges. Now it seemed that Talise was abandoning me, too.
“New York is too obvious,” Maribeth said, ignoring Talise’s sudden shift. “Plus I already have a place in Southold. It’s settled.” It wasn’t actually Maribeth’s place. It belonged to her mother’s rich boyfriend, and it was vacant during the off-season.
“Fine,” Talise said, rolling her eyes.
Maribeth instructed us to lie, and so we did. Talise told her parents she was staying at Maribeth’s house, and Maribeth and I said we were staying at Talise’s. The whole time we were hurtling toward the North Fork, first in the taxi from Bellhaven to Ronkonkoma, then on the train to Southold, I was filled with dread, sure we’d get caught. When we weren’t, I was almost disappointed. As we walk through the house, the dread bubbles up inside me again and I feel tears prick the back of my eyes. Talise notices, reaches for my hand and squeezes it.
“I can take the couch,” she said. “You can have the guest room.”
“Are you sure?”
Talise shrugs, smiles. “It’s going to be okay,” she said, quiet enough that Maribeth can’t hear.
This is why Talise and I are friends. Some people, I’d learned, were always searching out the soft meat of your body, the places that could be pecked to bits. Not Talise. Once, I asked her where the POW MIAs were from, thinking they were another Indian tribe, like Shinnecock, Montauk, Cutchcogue. Since Talise was Native American, I figured she’d know. “Prisoners of War,” she told me gently. “Missing in Action.” She didn’t make me feel stupid, even though she had every right.
I leave Talise on the couch and open the door to the guest room. It is Pepto-Bismol pink, with gauzy white curtains over the windows and a plush white carpet beneath my feet. The bed is covered in a quilt, with an absurd number of lacy pillows piled on top. I sit on it gingerly and take a deep breath, trying to keep calm. I don’t know why I’m so nervous, only that being here with Maribeth and Talise feels wrong and right at the same time. It reminds me of being seasick, but without the ocean.
We lounge around the house for a few hours, watch TV and read magazines. Maribeth is restless but I feel relieved, glad for the quiet moments, soothed by the boredom. When she can’t stand it anymore she drags us down the street to a 50s style diner, where we eat an early dinner of cheeseburgers and milkshakes. After, we go to the beach, leave our shoes in a pile at the place where the pavement meets the sand, then walk along the shore, water lapping at our feet. I am slower than Maribeth and Talise and ahead of me they’re just silhouettes against the moonlit night, an absence of stars. The cold water bites my toes and I stand still, let them go numb.
“Kerry, what are you doing?” Maribeth calls from down the beach.
“Leave her alone,” I hear Talise answer.
I stay there for a long time, staring into the night. When I finally turn around Maribeth and Talise are a few hundred feet away, and they aren’t alone. Three tall boys stand beside them. I felt the sand slant beneath my feet, my toes lose their frozen grip.
“Hey, Kerry,” Maribeth says when I finally catch up. “These are our new friends. Adam, Matt, and Thomas.” She points at each of them as she says their names, but I can’t tell them apart. They are too alike, all blonde hair and biceps. They are tan, even though it’s only spring, even though my own skin is so pale I can see blue veins weaving through the shallow parts.
“Hi,” I say, suddenly shy.
“I was just telling them where we’re planning to go to college, after we graduate next month,” Maribeth says.
“Oh,” I reply, understanding immediately, used to Maribeth’s stunts.
She turns to the one closest to her—Adam?—and smiles widely. “Kerry is going to be a veterinarian. She loves animals.”
“Awesome,” Adam says, glancing at me before turning his attention back to Maribeth. I am not studying to be a veterinarian. I am barely passing Algebra but Adam and his friends don’t seem to care that we’re clearly younger than Maribeth claims. I catch Talise’s eye and she rolls her eyes, just enough for me to notice.
“Anyone want a drink?” asks Matt or Thomas. He holds up a small flask, shakes it in the moonlight.
“Totally,” Maribeth says too quickly. She drinks from the flask, hands it to Talise who, to my surprise, swallows an equally long sip. I take the flask next, intending only to taste the liquor inside, but I misjudge how full it is and end up with a large mouthful. It burns inside me and I cough hard, lungs on fire. The boys and Maribeth laugh. Talise smiles. Beside us the tide comes crashing in.
“So you guys are from around here?” Maribeth asks Adam. He seems to be her favorite, the leader of the pack. We’ve been hanging out with them for an hour, walking down the beach until the lights of Southold are a twinkle behind us, passing the flask back and forth. After that first disastrous sip, I’ve learned how to drink slower, but I’m still unsteady. I’ve never been drunk before, always claimed that watching my father night after night made alcohol uninteresting. Really I’m scared I’ll end up like him, that once I start drinking I won’t be able to stop. I don’t know why I change my mind tonight—maybe it’s being in a new place, maybe it’s the wildness of the ocean so close to us, maybe it’s Thomas, who I catch looking at me as we walk along the shoreline. I keep drinking. I feel bold.
“Me and Matt are from here,” Adam says. “Thomas is from the city, but he moved to Southold a few years ago.”
“The city?” I say, too loud. I’ve been to New York a handful of times, mostly on school trips. I picture the Museum of Natural History, the skeletons that towered over us like buildings made of bone and string.
“Yeah,” Thomas says. “I grew up in the Bronx.”
“Do you miss it?” I ask.
“Sometimes. I have trouble sleeping, because it’s so quiet. And the ocean makes me nervous.”
“Me, too,” I say, eyes wide. “We’re from Bellhaven, by the bay. I love the bay, it’s better than the ocean. Safer.”
“What is she talking about?” Adam says, laughing. He’s holding Maribeth’s hand. I duck my head, embarrassed, but Thomas doesn’t seem to notice.
We walk a little farther, suddenly split into boy-girl pairs and at different speeds, so I can barely see Talise ahead of me, or Maribeth behind me. I feel giddy and nervous, on the edge of something large and unknown. I imagine my life strung out in front of me, stretching into the darkness, not a straight line after all, but a piece of string that can be swept away on the wind at a moment’s notice. I am relieved, I am happy, and then Thomas and I pause near the water, and I feel the tide rush around my feet. This time it isn’t cold, or maybe I’m already numb. It’s hard to tell.
Thomas reaches forward, pushes a strand of hair out of my face. Then he leans toward me, presses his lips against mine and for a split second I worry that I might fall backward into the ocean, might be pulled under, disappear forever. As Thomas’s arms circle around me, pressing me closer, I think about how that wouldn’t be so bad, how disappearing at the right moment, with the right person, is a new kind of freedom.
And then I hear someone shouting up ahead. Thomas breaks away and steps back, squinting into the darkness. I want to reach for him, keep kissing him, never leave this place where the waves break and foam at our feet. But it’s over almost as soon as it begins. Thomas jogs away from me, toward the yelling. I follow, dragging my feet through the water.
When I catch up to Thomas, he’s standing with Matt and Talise. Matt is leaning over rubbing his eyes and Talise is standing a few feet away, arms crossed over her chest. Her shirt is torn, the collar hanging from her chest in one long, ragged piece. I stare at the fabric, the ruined shirt telling a story I don’t want to hear. A few seconds later Adam and Maribeth reappear. Maribeth’s hair is messy and her back is covered with sand.
“What’s going on?” Adam says.
“That bitch threw sand in my face,” Matt says. We all looked at Talise. She stares back.
“He deserved it,” she says.
“What the fuck?” Adam says. “I thought you girls were cool.”
“Fuck these bitches,” Matt says. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No,” Adam says. “I want to know what was so bad that you had to throw sand in my friend’s face.
“None of your business,” Talise says, but it’s clear that Adam isn’t going to back down. I realize that at some point during the night he’s become our leader, that Maribeth has slipped down an invisible totem pole. I sway where I stand, the sand gritty between my toes.
“It’s getting late,” I say. “Maybe we should head back.”
No one listens to me. Maribeth reaches for the flask but Adam holds it out of reach, still staring at Talise. He lifts a hand to his mouth, then slowly begins tapping his lips with his open palm, making a strange sound that echoes down the beach. Like an Indian, I realize, immediately ashamed at my thought and afraid of how Talise will react. Ignore him, I hope. That’s what I would do. But Talise is different, in ways that matter and ways that don’t. Before any of us can move—the alcohol has made us slow, unsteady—she reaches down and throws another handful of sand, this time into Adam’s face.
I gasp, my hand in front of mouth. Maribeth laughs shrilly, as if trying to convince us it was all just another joke. Matt is blinking furiously, his eyes still red, and Thomas looks as stricken as I feel. Something courses through me, and I realize with a start that love could be as simple as fearing the same things.
Adam, after he wipes the sand from his eyes, doesn’t gasp or laugh or look the least bit afraid. Talise turns to leave, her black hair swinging behind her, but just before she’s out of reach Adam steps forward, wraps her long locks around his fist. Her head snaps back and then she’s on her knees. For a second, no one speaks.
“Let me go,” Talise finally says, her voice steady.
“No,” Adam says. “Not until you apologize.”
“Fuck you,” Talise says.
Adam pulls harder. “Maybe I should scalp you,” he says. “Wouldn’t that be ironic?”
“Stop,” I say, finding my voice. “Just let her go. We won’t tell anyone.” Adam ignores me. It’s obvious there’s no one to tell. The beach is empty except for us, tourist season still a few weeks away. We shouldn’t have come here. We should have listened to Talise, gone to New York City instead. “Maribeth,” I say, my voice pleading. She’s the one who dragged us out here. She’ll know what to do.
But Maribeth isn’t looking at me. Her head is turned toward the ocean, as if she’s searching for something. A wave to wash us all away, a boat to rescue us, I don’t know. When it’s clear that nothing is coming, she finally looks at Adam, at Matt, at Thomas, at me. But not at Talise.
“Loosen up, Kerry,” she says. “It’s just a joke.”
I shouldn’t be surprised that Maribeth would choose the boys over us. Why would she go against them? They are tall and tan, loud and brash. They will grow up and go places. Already they have power and aren’t afraid to use it, and Maribeth is ready, willing to cross over and get her share. Talise, me, we are nothing, not anymore.
A second later Adam lets Talise go, pushes her away from him as if she is dirty.
“Fuck this,” he says, and walks away. Matt follows. Thomas lingers for a split second, or maybe I just imagine that. None of them say goodbye.
We don’t leave the beach house for the rest of the weekend. We keep the doors closed, the windows locked. Once we order Chinese food and have it delivered. My fortune cookie says, “You will meet a stranger who will change your life,” and I want to remember Thomas, the way his lips felt when we were standing on the shore, the ocean loud and wild around us, but all I can think about is Talise’s hair wrapped around Adam’s fist.
Talise goes to bed early, shuts the door behind her. I’ve given her the pink bedroom, a trade that can’t even begin to make things better. Maribeth and I linger in the living room, throwing away the garbage, half-heartedly cleaning the house. We’re leaving in the morning and I can’t wait to be away from Southold. I miss Bellhaven, the certainty of docks and anchors, oars and sails.
Maribeth ties a bag of trash closed, puts it by the front door then throws herself across the leather couch. She looks at me and her face is pale, tired.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
And then she tells me she hadn’t gotten her period since she and Jordan broke up. That she’s already scheduled an appointment at Planned Parenthood for next week, that her mother will never, ever know. I try to imagine something inside Maribeth at this very moment, swimming through a dark ocean toward an unknown shore, but the image won’t come. It’s hard to wrap my mind around this idea that will remain an idea, a tiny something that will never be anything.
“You can’t tell anyone,” she says. “Especially not Talise.”
“Why can’t I tell Talise?” It comes out like a whine. I don’t blame Maribeth for rolling her eyes.
“Don’t you understand anything?” She slides down the couch, pulls a pillow over her face so all I can see is her hair, blonde and stiff. I think about how long we have known each other, me and Maribeth and Talise. We met in kindergarten, became friends before we knew better. It seems a shame, suddenly, all those years we spent building something impossible. If only someone had been there to lead us away from one another, to show us where we belong.
I slip off the couch, pad down the hall and knock lightly on Talise’s closed door, then push it open. Talise is in bed, eyes closed, but I know. When Talise sleeps her jaw clenches and she grinds her teeth, a condition caused by the kind of stress I will never understand.
“Maribeth is pregnant,” I whisper. I mean it as an offering, an apology, but it sounds like an excuse. Talise doesn’t say anything, keeps her eyes closed, her breath even. I lie down, arrange myself beside her, match my breath to hers. After a while, I can see the hard muscle of her jaw seize beneath her skin. Over the sound of the ocean outside our window, Talise’s teeth begin to grind.