In a few hours, we were on Long Beach Island, driving past the Ocean View Motel, Shore Bar, Bay Bank, Oh Fudge!, and the frozen-custard stands with their blazing signs in yellow or pink. Then there were just houses and a long stretch of darkness until we pulled up to the pine trees that hid our house from the road.
My father had replaced my mother's antique, practically lightless lanterns with floodlights, and the path was incredibly bright. For a moment, I forgot about my dad's illness and was just glad to be home; walking into the glare of the floodlights, I made my usual joke, "At-ti-ca! At-ti-ca!"
Inside, the three of us were drive-dazed. We stood in the kitchen. Henry opened the refrigerator.
My father came out in his pajamas and seersucker robe. He kissed my brother and me, and told Rebecca he was glad to meet her. He looked a little pale, but I reminded myself that he hadn't been able to play tennis since he'd had shingles.
My mother appeared in her bathrobe, her hair flattened on one side and poofed out on the other. In a sleepy voice, she asked if we'd like cold chicken, which was what she always offered.
Henry and I split a beer, and Rebecca said she'd just have water, which led naturally to the topic of water purifiers. Even though it was after one o'clock, she attached one to our tap to show us how great they were.
My father was coughing, and I worried that he had another bronchial infection. Then I worried about him seeing me worry. I got him a glass of water and one for myself.
Rebecca watched us drink. "It tastes better, doesn't it?" she asked.
My father seemed to be considering.
"It's triple-filtered," she said.
I admitted that I'd forgotten to taste it.
She said that I might not be able to detect the difference anyway, because cigarettes had probably killed my taste buds.
I said, "I thought the whole point of water was that you didn't taste it."
Henry looked at me. "'The whole point of water?'"
I got fresh towels for Rebecca and showed her to my tiny room, which seemed even smaller now that I had to share it with Rebecca.
I went out to the deck for a cigarette. I'd smoked outside ever since my father had quit, years ago; I was half acknowledging that I shouldn't smoke, half pretending that I didn't.
The houses across the lagoon were dark. Now that Loveladies had been built up, it felt less like the seashore and more like the suburbs. There was no more marshland, no more scrub. It was just big house, pebble yard, big house, pebble yard.
Back inside, Henry had the TV on and a seventies movie had taken over the living room.
I said, "Henry, do you have to watch now?"
"Yes," he said, playing air guitar to the chase music. "I absolutely have to watch now."
For a minute, I got absorbed in the movie--sexy girls vavooming on motorcycles down Main Street.
"Listen," I said, "I want to talk to you."
He began air guitaring again and gave me a goofy smile.
"I think you should try not to be late so much," I said. "It tells people they can't count on you."
"There was traffic," he said, and turned back to his movie.
I knew my speech lacked the power Archie's had, but I went on anyway. "We want Dad to know he can rely on us."
He turned and looked at me, and I thought maybe he was considering what I'd said. "Why don't you just say you're mad I was late?"
Then Rebecca walked in. "What's on?" she asked.
"It's either Chopper Chicks in Bikertown," he said. "Or Biker Babes in Chopperville."
She sat down beside him. "Groovy."
Her bed was made when I woke up. Henry was in the kitchen, shaking an orange-juice carton.
"Where's Rebecca?" I asked.
He told me that she was at the wildlife refuge, painting.
"She's just using you for your landscape," I said. Sounding like myself at twelve, I said, "Is she your girlfriend?"
I said, "Why did you bring her if she's not your girlfriend?"
"She's funny," he said. "And I thought it would be easier with more people around."
I said, "Easier for whom?"
I said, " You don't have to sleep with her."
"Yeah," he said, smiling. "Gross."
I said, "Does she even know about Dad?"
He said, "Of course not."
Henry and my mother went sailing, and I stayed behind on the porch with my dad. He read a book about how the atom bomb was made. I edited Mr. Putterman.
After a while, I said, "I have a question."
"How come you never told anybody about being sick?"
"It was selfish," he said. "I didn't want to think about it any more than I had to."
I said, "I'm asking so I don't do whatever it was you wanted to avoid. The reason you didn't tell people, I mean."
He smiled at me. "Well put."
Then he took his glasses off and cleaned them, which was what he did when he was organizing his thoughts. He told me that the main reason was that he didn't want people treating him like a sick person instead of who he was.
That's what made me tell him about Archie.
He didn't seem upset. He told me he was glad I had someone to lean on. That was important, he said.
Then he went back to the bomb, and I to Mr. Putterman.
We had dinner on the porch, steamed lobster and mussels, white corn on the cob, tomatoes, and fresh bread.
Rebecca was back by then, washing up for dinner.
Henry sat next to me at the table. He nodded at the bowl of mussels and said in a low voice, "Vaginas of the sea." I looked at them and saw what he meant.
My mother served. "Everything's local except the lobsters," she said.
"The mussels are local?" Rebecca said. "Is the water here really that clean?"
"I'm sure it's fine," my mother said in a breezy voice.
She passed the bowl of little vaginas to me, and I said, "No, thanks."
"Jane." My mother was annoyed. "The mussels are delicious."
We stopped talking for a few minutes, and there was only the sound of cracking shells and then my father's cough, and I wondered if this was why my mother was tense. "Great corn," I said to her.
After dinner, my father said he was tired. My mother followed him into the bedroom, and I heard her say, "Marty? Can I get you anything, sweetheart?"
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