On the last day of vacation, I crept down the stairs of our rental house after everyone else had gone out for mini golf and ice cream. I ate the last corn muffin and a handful of Hershey’s kisses for breakfast, and took my book out to the patio.
It was sunny and awfully hot for just barely July in coastal Massachusetts. My childhood memories of Cape Cod are grey clapboard tinted - storm clouded skies and slate colored ocean. But this week had been quite the departure, and I found myself squinting into the pages of my book and sweating on the patio furniture before noon. I shifted my chair closer to the house, into a band of shade, feeling a certain contempt for the sunny weather that so brazenly opposed my nostalgia.
The house, too, was all wrong, though it was beautiful and huge. There didn’t seem to be enough furniture to fill the place and I missed the creaky, cluttered, knick-knacky cottages of my childhood. Here, my bedroom was bare, with the exception of a full size bed, a large wooden dresser, and an Ansel Adams print of a waterfall on the wall. To make up for the emptiness, I filled it myself, leaving the contents of my suitcase strewn about the room - dresses, sandals, and five extra books I wouldn’t have time to read.
Reading outdoors is a distracting exercise for me. I am rarely comfortable in a position other than horizontal and for this reason I prefer to spend my mornings (and afternoons and evenings) in bed. When on occasion I force myself into the outside world, I tend to spend the whole time twisting my legs into awful contortions and becoming preoccupied by my intrusively alive surroundings. This place in particular was lousy with birds. The lawn was spotted with grackles, pecking at the ground and chattering amongst themselves. Every tree was noisy and fluttering. A single cardinal flitted from bush to bush, which delighted me. There was even a nest cradled in the underside of the balcony above me, although it appeared abandoned.
I’d been tired and irritable to the point of tears all week, and I treasured these hours to myself. It wasn’t a vacation at all, really, or even a family reunion, as I had described it to my coworkers before leaving. Rather, it was 4 nights and 3 days of waking up early to make polite conversation with people I didn’t know very well (my father’s girlfriend, my mother’s fiance, my still new brother-in-law, my two month old niece, and a soon to be step-brother I’d never even met, to name a few), mostly to make my mother happy. It was exhausting, as so many things seem to be these days. And to be honest, I was failing rather miserably at the task (both the polite conversation, and the making my mother happy).
I remember my first visit to Cape Cod after my parents divorced. I was 11 and my mother brought my father’s new address on a scrap of paper so my sister and I could copy it onto our postcards. That was the week I got my first period and there was no air conditioning in the cottage. One afternoon, I broke down on a sidewalk in Chatham and angry, hot tears ran down my face. I decided then that it was miserable to be a woman. Fourteen years later, and I’m still crying about the same things, and still as utterly resistant to change.
Curling up on the patio with unwashed hair and bare feet was a relief. I looked up again and again, placing my book in my lap to lean back uncomfortably and shut my eyes. For years, sleep has chased me this way. I’m rarely able to relax without slipping quietly into its clutches. The sunlight pursued me across the patio as the morning wore on. But as the sun moved, so did I, dragging my chair back into the narrowing strip of shade, always escaping that which seeks to envelop me.
I felt rather acutely as if I had gone on someone else’s family vacation, and now even that was almost over. In order to focus on the words in front of me, I was trying not to think about so many things - not only the bird cacophony, the ant trail in my peripheral vision, and the feeling of the iron patio chair’s pattern imprinting itself into the backs of my thighs, but also the deep, awful dread of the impending plane trip home, and the gnawing empty feeling of the family I still could not accept completely.
I was equal parts despondent and relieved to have missed the family beach portrait, in which all of my extended family members on my mother’s side posed in white shirts and khakis in the sunset, like so many Land’s End Catalogue models. It was taken the day before I arrived and afterwards I kept thinking how strange it would be to see it hanging in my grandmother’s house, or framed in my mother’s bedroom: my family and my sort of strangers and no sign of me at all.
There’s a shark problem on Cape Cod this year, caused by the overpopulation of seals, which is in turn caused by the overpopulation of the fish the seals prefer, which is caused by the fishermen catching too many of those fish’s predators. My grandmother was convinced I was shark bait the day I went swimming at Marcony Beach the morning the newscaster reported a shark was seen just 30 feet from shore. For my part, I was sure I was far more likely to die from riding shotgun while my mother attempted to use the GPS and drive at the same time, than from any old shark. But in the end I lived, so we were both wrong, I guess.
The water at the National Seashore is so cold is hurts down to your bones. It’s not so much a matter of getting used to the temperature as it is a gradual numbing of your entire body. Once you put your face under, it’s all over and you’re free to move about painlessly, but it takes about 15 minutes to get up that kind of courage. It’s this way with a lot of things, I suppose, and yet most days I’m still waiting for the numbness to take over. Always waiting for the raw ache of things to give way to a placid anesthesia that never comes.
At Corporation Beach near our house, the water was warmer, murkier, and still. I walked there alone, sticky with sunscreen and sweaty hair, and stripped down to my black one piece bathing suit on the shore. In the seaweedy shallows, I floated on my back and imagined I was an F. Scott Fitzgerald character. Sand dunes always make me feel like someone fictional, which is a perfectly nice way to feel for an hour. Any more, though, and you begin to feel like something disappearing.
When I saw my mother coming down the wooden steps to the beach, I was relieved. We sat for twenty minutes and talked about love until the sun was too hot to bear. Then we shook the sand off our clothes and left the green water behind as we made our way back to the too big house. I was comforted and I want to tell you it was enough, but there are spaces that are too big to fill. There are mornings where you draw yourself closer and closer into something that’s disappearing, or maybe never existed in the first place.