We are in our thirties now, most of us, but when we come back to Jersey for the winter holidays, everyone still goes Christmas Eve night to our old spot in the woods by the beach. Under the starless sky with the bonfire gleaming, the shards of crushed cans and broken bottles in the snow, with the sound of the surf just barely audible beyond the fire, it’s almost possible to forget that we aren’t teenagers anymore. Things seem unpredictable again.
My husband and I agreed when we got married that we’d trade off holidays. Last year we spent Christmas at his dad’s in Michigan. It was a flurry of stepchildren, sisters-in-law, and traditions I didn’t know. The year before that didn’t count, as we got stuck in an airport during a snowstorm on our way back from a funeral. So it’s been a couple of years since I came home for the holiday, and I’m reminded today of how poorly my family plans. My brother’s with his wife’s parents in Bethesda. My dad’s in Tampa with his girlfriend and her kids. So my husband and I spend the holiday with just my mother, in the apartment she rents half an hour from the beach.
She gives us each a Memory Foam pillow. We give her a motion sensor alarm; living alone still frightens her. We try to install it, but get frustrated and leave it lying in a tangle by the front door. Afterward we eat spaghetti and meatballs and drink the beer my husband and I brought while Christmas movies play at a low volume on the TV. We chat tensely about real estate, student loans, fertility (ours), and alimony, credit card debt, adult education classes (hers). Eventually, out of sadness, my mother and I grow quiet. Out of boredom my husband falls asleep in front of It’s a Wonderful Life. My husband is a sweet and generous person. He can be selfish in just this one way, really. He falls asleep whenever he feels like it.
So around eleven I drive alone to the woods by the beach. Bing Crosby croons through static as black trees zip by, punctuated by houses festooned with light. I think of the people I might see, and there is that old high school feeling, that sense of anticipation, a little torque inside me—something like giddiness, something like fear. At the shore I park in the old lot where the drive-in soft ice cream place used to be. There’s a new high rise nearby now that towers over the trees in an ominous way, a grid of lit and unlit windows looking over the dark woods like strangers. I park and step out into the cold. The uneven pavement is crumbled to gravel. I follow the light, the crackling, and the laughter.
It is twenty degrees and the fire is blazing. I look around for the old crew, and am surprised to find I recognize only about half the faces. Those I do know I know only vaguely. They are old acquaintances’ younger siblings, mostly, rosy with cold, heat, and drink. I stand a moment next to the fire, warming my hands and reminding myself that I belong.
A twenty-year-old in a hunting hat hands me a High Life, asks my name. He’s from Millville, he says, about an hour away. I say then he couldn’t have gone to Seaville High. He says no, but he’s tight with some Seaville High kids. I say who. He names a few unfamiliar names.
I am starting to wish I never came when I see, seated on a long log on the other side of the fire, three people about my own age I can name. There’s Matt Carpenter on the end, a glassy-eyed dropout who’s never left town. Next to him is Nicole Huang, known mostly for kleptomania. And lacrosse. On the other side of Nicole, holding forth with characteristic intensity and boozy, boisterous gesticulations, is my ex, Sean Martin.
Sean and I didn’t know each other too well in high school. He wore a leather jacket and smoked cigarettes. He was famous for his antics: drinking forties in the locker room, organizing pranks. One night he and some buddies wrapped the principal’s house in layers of industrial-strength cellophane. But he was tragic. He had outbursts. Sad eyes. An emotionally unstable mother. A periodically homeless father.
What I’m trying to say is we ran with different crowds. I was a good girl, basically. My parents hadn’t yet divorced. My older brother was in his last year at Penn. I smoked weed behind the bleachers now and then, but I got As and Bs. I was loyal to childhood friends. Sean and I never even spoke until we ran into each other at a party after college. Both back home for a year or so ‘figuring things out,’ which in my case meant telling my mother I was looking for jobs, but instead watching old episodes of the Simpsons in bed. It was a summer party, a kegger on the beach. I had lost fifteen pounds and felt hot in cutoffs. We spoke in startling depth, dragging our fingers over the gravelly sand, about disappointment, about feeling lost. In retrospect we were just children, trying each other on for size. But at the time we felt powerful. I don’t think it’s wrong to say we fell in love.
It ended less than a year later, quickly as it had begun. Without telling him I’d been applying to jobs all over the country. I’d never intended to stay. After a year of unemployment and strife, of living in such close proximity to my parents’ crumbling relationship, of fucking in Sean’s car and crying and smoking too much and fighting all the time, I was finally hired by a marketing agency in Seattle.
It was a way to escape. I left him at Newark Airport at five o’clock in the morning. We’ve barely spoken since. I guess it’s been ten years.
As I’m chatting with the twenty-year-old in the hunting cap, the fire ignites little rainbows in the diamond on my left hand. So you’re engaged? the kid says, tugging on the side of his cap. He sure doesn’t seem like he’s tight with anyone here. Married, I say. I keep glancing over at Sean.
Sean doesn’t look up. He is telling a story. He is always telling some story, as I remember. The worstthing I’ve ever done? he’s saying. His voice is loud. Its familiar timbre tugs at me. What’s the worst thingyou’ve ever done?
Matt and Nicole laugh, roll their eyes. Nicole says, Once when I was fifteen I ate an entire bottle of Codeine and tried to die.
Sean doesn’t stop for that. I mean worst thing you’ve ever done to someone, he insists. Most sinful thing.
Suicide’s a sin.
Suicide’s not a sin, says Matt.
Nicole says firmly, It is.
Sean says, I’ll tell you the worst thing I’ve ever done.
I excuse myself from my conversation, leaving the kid in the cap to stand alone. Slowly I go over to the log where the three of them sit.
I was in high school, right, Sean’s saying. And listen, how long has it been?
Ten years? says Matt.
Fifteen, I say.
Sean says, It’s been years, and I still think of this literally every time I pass Seaville High. Every time I come home I think of this thing I did. Fucking haunts me. He takes a breath for effect, glances up to see who’s just joined, sees it’s me.
Motherfucker, he says.
He stands up and gives me a hug and breathes into my neck. I smell whiskey, cigarettes, dirty hair. Matt and Nicole nod up at me vaguely. I don’t think they know Sean and I were ever involved.
How are you? he says into my neck.
I try to erase any trace of romance from my voice. Around us the kids laugh and throw things in the fire. Good, I say too loudly. How are you?
Worst thing you’ve ever done, Nicole says loudly: We’re waiting.
I wonder whether Sean and Nicole are fucking these days.
Alright. Alright. Sean unlocks from me and sits back down on the log. So we’re young, says Sean. Ninth grade, let’s say. And—remember Sunny Chaudhry?
Pain in the ass, says Matt.
We were in debate together, I say.
Pain in the ass, Sean agrees. Always with the right answer. Always scurrying around, looking sour.
Well, I’m at my locker. Taking my sweet-ass time. Punk kid I am. The bell’s already rung. And I look over and there’s Sunny Chaudhry, scurrying through the hall, pile of books in his arms. Looking like he’s trying not to attract attention, but just—making a stink of it. Just looking like a real fucking dweeb. And for some fucking reason, that pissed me off. I don’t know why. I was a dickhead.
You were, laughs Nicole.
So as he’s running by me, I have this impulse to—I just reach out a foot, like so—and boom. There goes Sunny and all of his books, all over the floor. Flat on his face.
Matt and Nicole are both laughing. Sean glances up at me.
Matt says, I can think of a hundred fucking things you’ve done that are worse than tripping Sunny Chaudhry.
Thanks buddy, says Sean. Thanks a lot, friend. But the thing is, though. I don’t think I would probably even remember this now if. So I look up. And there, right across the hall, is fucking Mr.… what was his fucking name. Mr. Weaver. Remember him?
Ugh, Weaver, says Nicole.
Right. Bright blue eyes? Just standing there, staring. Right at me. Right over poor Sunny on the floor. My leg’s still outstretched. I’m guilty as hell. I’m like, fuck, I’m in for it now. I can’t afford another trip to the principal. I’m fucked now. But instead of shaking his head or whatever, Weaver gives me this nasty, this cold little smile. Sunny’s down there, gathering up his things, and Mr. Weaver, he fucking winks at me. Goes back in his classroom, shuts the door.
Matt and Nicole aren’t laughing anymore.
What a dick, says Nicole.
Immediately, obviously, I feel like a complete asshole. I get down on the floor, try to help Sunny with his books—which, he’s like, Don’t you touch my fucking books. You don’t get to help me. So I don’t. I just get up. And walk away.
There’s a pause. We look into the fire. Matt finishes his beer, throws it into the fire, digs in a black backpack for another.
I go to Sunny’s mom to get waxed, says Nicole.
No shit, says Sean. Mrs. Chaudhry waxes your pussy?
Nicole’s laughing too, now. It’s called a bikini wax. Please.
I’m feeling very much like I don’t belong.
A carload of people comes into the clearing. Sean and Matt and Nicole all know them, and get up and go over to greet the group. I stand alone by the fire a moment, feeling Sean looking at me from the conversation he’s having with a couple of guys in North Face. I look back at him, at the bulk of him. He’s gained weight, but his face is handsome in the firelight. Our eyes do not make contact, though. We miss each other, once, twice. I throw my bottle in the fire. I leave without saying goodbye.
Driving home I leave the radio off. I’m preoccupied thinking about Sean’s story. The worst thing he’s ever done, he said. Which, let’s start with the fact that it wasn’t even half as bad as the worst thing he ever did to me. Which I won’t recount here. I haven’t even told my husband.
But all his inflated rhetoric aside, I’m thinking, what’s wrong with the act itself? Kids trip each other. Big fucking deal. What made him feel guilty about it was the way Weaver winked. Inculcated him into some fucking secret bullies’ club. The real sin in the story was Weaver’s. The real sin was the wink. If Sean sinned at all, I’m thinking, it was by telling a story that was ostensibly a sort of confession, all the while knowing it would make him look as if he had repented. As if he were a decent man.
And then a thought occurs to me. No, I’m thinking, the real sin is that if Weaver hadn’t winked, Sean might never have remembered tripping Sunny Chaudhry at all.
We commit so many sins that, later, we don’t remember.
Like take Sunny Chaudhry, who—it was true—was a pain in the ass. I’m sure he doesn’t remember this, but I do: once, after a particularly heated debate about abortion rights—which he lost—he made me cry in front of all his horrible friends when he said, I support abortion rights for girls like you. Nobody wants you to pass on that busted face. Helpless, ashamed, furious, I felt my face go hot, felt tears bloom in my eyes; I couldn’t manage even a strangled ‘fuck you’ before Sunny and his friends walked away laughing. This is the sort of detail kids like Matt and Nicole can’t know. They remember Sunny Chaudhry the skinny kid in brown corduroys. They remember his pinched mouth, his armful of books. They’d never have guessed what I knew—and Weaver probably knew, too: that Sunny Chaudhry was just as awful as the rest of us.
Really, I’m thinking, I’m glad Sean tripped that little fucker.
And then I’m thinking about Sean Martin the high-schooler, dreamy Sean Martin who smoked cigarettes, Sean Martin with the fuck-up half-homeless dad. And I’m remembering the first time I saw him—or, at least, the first time I saw him and put it together: that’s Sean Martin—that’s the kid who got suspended for drinking beers in the boys’ room, the kid who almost had to repeat seventh grade. It was a cold bright day in early spring, and I was waiting for my own mother to come pick me up. Maybe I was going to the dentist or something, maybe I was feeling sick. It was the middle of the day. My mother was late. The only other person around was some other mother, sitting in front of the school in an idling, beat-up gray Pontiac. She was strung out. She was crying. Just crying there, into her hands.
I was leaning against the stone wall, watching her baldly, when Sean darted out the front door of the school, pursued by the security guard. You need a dismissal slip, the guard was yelling. You can’t just leave! Sean flew down the stairs as if escaping from prison. Threw open the gray Pontiac’s passenger side door and looked back at the guard with enormous glee. Just did! he belted out at the top of his lungs, and threw up his middle finger, and laughed like a maniac.
The woman at the wheel wiped her eyes and started to drive away. She didn’t look at Sean. He didn’t look at her. As they came closer, heading into the street, I watched Sean’s expression change. Watched it fade, day to night, his grin replaced by something like—what? Something like resignation. Something like emptiness. Something like grief.
I pull into the cul-de-sac at my mother’s development. Just barely, it’s begun to snow. The flakes fall on the windshield like a fine mist. If I, a self-absorbed teenaged girl, saw that in Sean, that flicker of misery, Weaver must have seen it too. I park by the curb and kill the engine, sit there a minute in the quiet as miniature flakes melt on the glass. Maybe all Weaver was saying with that wink was, You’re okay, kid. You’re angry, but you’ll be alright.
Inside all the lights are off. I skid on the tangled cords of the uninstalled motion sensor, almost stumble. My husband is still asleep on the couch, his head thrown back, his mouth open. An afghan lies rumpled in his lap, doing nothing at all to warm him. I sit down next to him and watch him a moment before laying a hand on his arm to wake him up. This unconscious, lightly snoring animal. His receding hairline, his beer breath. All the subterranean dreams that swim in his hidden mind. All of it, it’s my husband. And it is all mine.