Sorry this is so late, I just drove back from Rochester and I’m fried. Enjoy.
The thing I remember most about Mrs. Cahill was the set of rings under her eyes. I think I thought of them as tree rings; they told me her age – her real age, not the one she pretended – the way nothing else did. Especially not the make-up that ran with the tears she told me was ocean water.
On the night I walked her home she wore a tight black top and jeans. Her arms were bare and under the light from the boardwalk I could see the blemishes on her tanned skin. I didn’t like them. Although I knew it was mean, I couldn’t help but think Mrs. Cahill looked like she was rotting. Her hair was bleached so blond it looked ghost white.
This was all before Sandy. Before the boardwalk got taken away and the roller coaster got dismantled. This was back when you could buy a beach house and host parties where other people who had beach houses came. To them I’m sure it was magical. I don’t think I cared much. I had two game consoles in my room – a Playstation 2 and a GameCube – and my summer nights were spent playing Metal Gear and Resident Evil 4.
My parents threw parties where everyone got drunk, complained about Iraq, and pretended they were younger than they were. I mean, I’m not even thirty yet and I can’t even drink as much as I did in college. I can’t imagine the hell these people put themselves through to keep up the masquerade.
The shore was a paradise for them, though. They may have faked their happiness, but at least they faked it together.
I spent my nights blessedly apart from what occurred downstairs. Unless someone went a little too far. It was ritualistic the way they cut someone away. First the room would turn their backs. I saw this happen once. It wasn’t Mrs. Cahill, but a guy named Bill or Brad or something. He started shouting something about the banks, and when his friends tried to quiet down, he just got more agitated. Like the Wave at a ballgame, the people turned around until no one saw him.
Then they would send for someone to take him home. No one would call a cab. Usually, they called me. My parents would insist I walk so and so home. “They just need a leg to stand on,” they’d say. “It won’t take a minute.” They always acted as if they were bad parents for asking. I never thought so. I’m sure others would disagree.
After they had left, they would begin to talk about the person. Never in a good way. Even their significant other would join in. That always made me mad. You shouldn’t talk shit about the person you’re married to. Or rather, you should, but only to their face. That’s how relationships work. It’s okay to badmouth them to their face, but not to people you’re pretending are your friends. I think they did it for the attention.
Some of those people really got off on giving a short, pitiful shrug and saying, “Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m going to do with him/her.” People would flock in and say, “Well, you know…” and then that would be that.
On the night Mrs. Cahill had to be walked home – by me – her husband cheated on her. I didn’t find out until later. Years later.
Anyway, my parents pulled me from my games and told me to get dressed. “You know where Mrs. Cahill lives?” They asked. I did. “Do you know the way there across the beach and boardwalk?” I did. “Good, then you need to take her there. It won’t take a minute.”
I pulled on some jeans and a beat-up sweatshirt I’d gotten at Mesa Verde and walked downstairs. Mrs. Cahill – her first name was Madeline, Maddy for short – sobbed on our porch. Everyone had their backs turned, and Mr. Cahill was chatting up a slightly younger woman and saying, “Sometimes I just don’t know what I’m going to do with her.”
Mrs. Cahill was looking at the near black waves when I came outside. “Mrs. Cahill,” I said. “I’m supposed to take you home.”
“You’ll be drafted you know,” she mumbled. “You’re too young now, but someday you won’t. You’ll be drafted.”
“Okay,” I said.
“No, it’s not.”
I took her hand and led her down the steps and onto the sand.
One thing these walks helped me develop was tough skin. There are some bad people on the beach. Not a lot, but they’re there. They sit by bonfires and spit curses at whoever passes for whatever reason. I always thought they were scared, like a younger version of the people who came to my parents’ beach house. Not that that made me like them any better.
We passed one group not three minutes into our walk. I got called a faggot, and someone asked Mrs. Cahill for a blowjob. I had to drag her away as she yelled back at them. I guess those walks let me get used to that kind of thing, so later in life when I heard the similar thoughtless insults, I brushed them off.
Some thought I was scared. I just didn’t care.
We walked past the hecklers and eventually their voices faded away. For a bit we stayed silent under water-reaching lights of the boardwalk. Mrs. Cahill sniffled. I’d let her hand fall, and had mine shoved in my pockets. I said these walks had helped me develop tough skin, but that didn’t mean I had it at the moment. Words have always gotten to me. Far more than actions ever have. Someone insulting me to my face has always been more painful than someone actually betraying me. I guess I sort of expect the latter to happen, while the former is like a bad dream coming true.
“Your parents don’t like me,” Mrs. Cahill said after a time. “They don’t talk to me like they talk to the others.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “They wouldn’t invite you if they didn’t like you.”
She laughed. “You only invite people you don’t like to these things. You stop having friends at a certain age. You’ll see.”
“I used to have a lot of friends.” I think that may have been the most terrible thing I’d ever heard. “I don’t know where they went.”
“Maybe they’re at home,” I said, hoping the words would spur her to hurry up. They didn’t.
“I used to have control, you know? Something would happen and I’d know what to do. Everything was action, now it’s just all reaction.” She looked at me with eyes begging me to understand. I just nodded.
She kissed me then. She put her hands on my face, came in close and kissed me full on the mouth. She tasted, I later found out, like vodka. I’d like to say I did or didn’t kiss her back, but I can’t remember. I do remember the look of shame on her face, and fleeting jeers from a distance away. Those last I think I imagined. I don’t remember what I said either, if anything.
We were walking again, then.
“You know how people tell you that one day you’ll blink and you’ll be old?” She asked.
“That’s bullshit,” she said. “I remember every bit of it. Nothing goes away.”
While we had walked, we’d passed six houses with their lights off. They were magnificent things, and gave off a certain wealthy laid-backness. I used to think I wanted one for myself. Every time Mrs. Cahill looked at one, she bit her lip and stared at her feet. I don’t know why.
Eventually we got to her porch. That night, I was surprised by how simple her place looked. Just a regular house. The kind you pass every day and don’t notice.
“Are you alright by yourself?” I asked.
She looked down at me, and though she didn’t seem happy, she at least seemed resigned and clear-eyed. “I suppose I am, now.” Mrs. Cahill put a hand on my head. “Thanks.” Then she patted my head.
“Goodnight, Mrs. Cahill.” I left her then, and walked back down the sand towards my home, next to the boardwalk.