MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
People say that when you have a life-altering experience, your brain takes a picture, and that memory stays with you to retrieve again, and again, and again. Like an old snapshot, it’s sometimes out of focus.
When I was seven I almost drowned in a boat accident. If that memory is triggered, I replay it like scenes from an old movie, over and over, upside down, blackness and then light.
Today was going to be another snapshot day.
My friend Jenn and I were at the Old Port Festival. The waterfront in Portland, Maine, had closed down to traffic and opened up to musicians, artists, shopkeepers, and cooks. It was the perfect place to mark the beginning of summer and the end of my junior year.
“Kendra!” Jenn said in a low voice. “That’s your dad, isn’t it?”
“My dad?” I took a sip of lemonade. “No, can’t be. He’s in Boston.” We moved closer to the stage, where the headline group was coming back for the second half of the show. I shooed a couple of quarreling seagulls out of our way and stood behind a French fry stand.
“Look at the guy next to the amplifier.”
A tall man in a Hawaiian shirt was getting beer from a vendor. He was also wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses.
“That’s your father,” she said, turning her back to him.
“No, it’s not. I’ll prove it.” I pulled out my phone and called him. “Watch.”
Behind the beer stand, the man handed a cup to a woman in a matching cap and looked at his phone. Then he put it to his ear.
“Hi, Kennie,” he said. “What’s up?”
I looked at Jenn. “Where are you, Dad?”
“Hi to you, too. Still in Boston. I’ll be home for dinner. I had that conference, remember?”
“Dad?” I gripped my cup hard, and lemonade drizzled over the sides.
“Hang on, honey, I can’t hear you.” He covered his other ear and took a few steps away from the crowd, leaving the woman holding the two beers.
“What are you doing?” My stomach clenched and my heart began its familiar panicking rise. I swallowed, determined to keep myself from having an anxiety attack. It had been a few weeks since my last one, and I was feeling good. I handed Jenn my drink and felt for my camera around my neck. I lifted it to my eye and pointed the zoom lens at the man in the Hawaiian shirt and cap. My dad.
“I’m about to give a lecture,” he said.
I opened my mouth to speak, but all that came out was a weak “Oh.” I squinted through the viewfinder and clicked. Still watching, I said it again. “Oh.” I must have looked funny, cell phone to my ear, camera to my eye.
The band members took their places, and the guitarist strummed a chord and yelled, “Let’s go!”
The crowd cheered. Dad whirled around, looked at his phone in surprise, and backed away. “Look, honey, I’ve got to go. I’ll see you tonight.”
“Gotta go. We’ll talk later,” he said, and hung up.
“Jenn, did you see that? He heard the guitar. He knows I’m here.”
She nodded. “So what. He doesn’t know you saw him.” She got closer. “And besides, Kendra, he’s the one who should be worried.”
“Right,” I said. I watched as Dad and the woman made a beeline for the street. Now I could see it clearly: his long-legged walk, the way his head bobbed above the crowd, the sandy hair peeking out from the hat. “So, let’s follow him.”
We stayed behind a safe distance, letting a crowd build between us. At the lights, they crossed the street, got into his Saab, and turned up the side road.
Jenn’s car was parked farther down Commercial Street, so we broke into a run, my steps now matching my racing heart.
“What’s he doing here?” I asked.
Unable to keep up, Jenn slowed to a jog. “We might as well take our time. We’ll never find them now, and besides, I hate running.”
I repeated my question. “What’s he doing here? I don’t get it. He’s supposed to be at a conference.”
She grabbed my arm, bringing us to a stop. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Well,” I said, “he told us he was giving a talk in Boston. Why would he lie?”
“Kendra, I hate to break it to you, but your dad may not be perfect.”
I went back to walking, slowly this time, and let her keep pace with me. When we reached the car, my breath was as rapid as my heartbeat. The anxiety attacks I’d had since the boat accident were fewer, but when I had them, it was Dad who talked me down. It was our thing.
Jenn unlocked my door. “Hey, you have your freaking-out face on. I thought your panic was under control.”
“It was. I mean, I haven’t had an anxiety attack since the car thing,” I said, remembering how Dad helped me through the fender bender I’d had three weeks ago. He acted as if dealing with cops and insurance companies was as easy as deciding what to have for breakfast.
I shook the memory from my mind and put on my seat belt. Dad couldn’t help me with this one, because he had brought it on.
We drove around to find the side road they’d taken, but it only led us to more small streets. Finally, the neighborhood duplexes and mom-and-pop stores gave way to brownstones and specialty shops. From the bottom of Post Road, a street separated by a lush parklike median, we saw Dad’s car midway up the street. We drove past and turned down the other side of the grassy median, parking in a tiny alley across from his car. As if on cue, Dad and the woman came out the door of a brownstone and walked down the front steps, and now he had a suit on. I reclined my seat and crawled to the rear window, positioning my camera against the glass.
“Look,” Jenn said, “they’re hugging.”
I watched, hypnotized, and snapped a photo just as Dad gave the woman a kiss.
* * *
All the way back to Kingsport, I wheezed through an anxiety attack while Jenn assured me that affairs were common and that my family was in the minority because we hadn’t already gone through a marriage crisis.
The speedometer crept to seventy miles per hour.
“Speed,” I said as she merged onto 295 south.
“Got it,” she said, maneuvering her Volvo in front of an oil truck. “Your dad’s been the good guy his whole life. He made a mistake, but he’ll fix it.”
Sure he would. He was good-looking, rich, smart, sophisticated. And cool. Everyone thought so. A car horn blared and I jumped in my seat.
“My bad,” Jenn said, swerving back to her lane.
“Watch it,” I said, trying to get my breath.
“Think of it this way: Things that look too good to be true usually are.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I lowered the window, letting my hair whip around my face. “God, Jenn, are you trying to make me feel worse? Just because your parents got divorced doesn’t mean mine will.”
“I just don’t want you to be surprised by the truth.”
“I’ve never noticed anything bad between my parents.” But I had noticed her parents fighting. It was hard not to.
“Exactly. Too good to be true.”
The image of Dad and the woman hugging and kissing in front of the brownstone flashed in my mind. “I can’t believe it.”
Click. Today was a snapshot day.
I lingered at the top of the stairs and listened as Dad greeted Mom in the usual way: a kiss on the cheek, a clink as his keys dropped onto the counter, and the shuffle of mail. Mom answered with her normal chatter about the house, garden, dinner, all the while fixing Dad’s rum and Coke. I was both relieved and angry at the comforting routine.
I wanted to ream him out right in front of Mom. I wanted to preserve her honor or whatever, but there she was fixing cheese and crackers and putting little cocktail napkins on a tray for him. And there he was looking relaxed in his suit and twirling the ice cubes in his drink, the way he always does.
If I pretended, I could be happy to see him, too. He could be the same guy if I let him.
I used to see my life as divided into two parts: before the boat accident and after the boat accident. Before it happened, I was a little girl in motion: climbing trees, playing in tide pools, and building forts with Jenn and Bo Costello, who lived next door. Most of all, I was always laughing. If I had a snapshot of before, it would be me running through the waves, head back and mouth open in a happy squeal.
The after snapshot is me with my head down and scared of everything, as if nearly drowning swept most of me out to sea and returned only the shell.
I was a kid when it happened. We were on a weekend cruise with Hal and Gail, friends of Mom and Dad’s. At first the grown-ups joked about the sprinkles of rain and the darkening sky. I didn’t mind, because the claps of thunder were an excuse for me to stay up late and be with the grown-ups. But when Dad and Mom exchanged a look of fear, I panicked and jumped from the bench seat onto Dad’s lap. “It’s just a squall, Kennie—it’ll be over in a minute.” I stayed tight under the crook of his arm, and I didn’t move while the wind picked up and the rain began to hit us sideways.
When Dad stood up and handed me over to Mom, I clung like a monkey. “Take her, Colette. I’ve got to get the sails down.” Hal and Dad moved forward, and Gail took the wheel. I could hear the whizzing and flapping of the sails and Hal and Dad yelling directions back and forth. Mom and I were partway down below when we heard the boom thudding and rattling and Dad yelling for Hal. Then everything went crazy as both Mom and Gail went to the side of the boat where Hal had been.
I started back up the ladder, and Dad yelled, “Get back down, Kennie!” He was crawling across the bow with a life ring in his hand, yelling over the rail. “Grab this!” He tossed it and went back to the flailing boom. I don’t remember the rest, but later Dad explained how the waves filled the rocking boat with water and turned it over.
I remember the turning part. I was below and held tightly to the ladder. I heard Mom’s cries for me as the ocean filled the cabin and swept me back into the bunks. Then everything was upside down. I was drowning. I’d been tumbled by beach waves before but had always been thrown back onto the shore and only mildly shaken up. This time it wasn’t just a wave—it was a whole ocean—and I couldn’t tell which way to go. I held my breath and tried not to let any water get in my mouth. I had to find the surface, find Mom and Dad before I exploded. The pressure in my chest squeezed and squeezed and pressed on me, and then there was a release. I opened my mouth, like an open jar underwater, and I filled up. Suddenly it didn’t hurt to hold my breath anymore. It was quiet, and I knew I’d find Mom and Dad behind the light. I floated toward it on a warm current, smiling because it was going to be okay now.
My newfound peace was short-lived, though, because suddenly I was in a rubber boat blinking through sheets of rain and coughing up water as Mom lay bleeding from a leg wound, moaning “No, no, no” over and over, and Gail was curled in a ball crying.
There was no Hal.
Dad held me tight and told me that everything would be okay. And it was all right for years. Even with Mom’s multiple surgeries and my paralyzing anxiety attacks, Dad was there for us.
So now my life was divided into three parts: before, after, and now. And I couldn’t decide how to handle the now.
The slap of the screen door brought me back, and I knew Mom and Dad had taken their drinks onto the screened porch. I took a deep breath and released it, letting the memory go with it, and then joined them.
“Hey, Kennie,” Dad said. He put out his arms, and I fell into the familiar embrace, but it made me go stiff and I turned away. He pulled me back. “Hey, wait,” he said. “Come on, tell me everything.” It was his usual end-of-day question. Other days, other years I would have gone on for a half hour telling him every detail of my day, and then I’d ask about his day.
“Today was—” I began, and then stopped. “Hard. Today was hard.” It was the truth. I noticed Mom was wearing pants even though it was late June. She’d wear pants whenever she could to avoid showing the scars and having to explain what the long jagged marks were “for the umpteenth time,” as she put it.
“Sounds like my day. You first,” Dad said. He motioned me to sit next to him. I did, but still wasn’t able to speak, so I shrugged and stared at a scratch on a flagstone.
“No, you,” I said. This should be interesting.
“You called me, remember?” he said. I looked at the side of his face while he took a sip of his drink. The aroma wafted up. I used to like the smell of rum and Coke, but now the sweetness was too heavy. Everything was too much. I felt like a little girl who just learned that there was no Santa Claus.
“It’s too complicated, Dad.”
Mom was writing a list of names for the next night’s dinner party. “John, we still have to invite the Hubers. It’s not Carla’s fault Kevin’s so arrogant.”
He mumbled something and then said, “It’s your call, but I can’t promise to be on my best behavior.”
My mind made itself up. Now wasn’t the time to talk to Dad about today. I got up and popped a smoked oyster into my mouth and headed for the door. “I’ll grab something to eat with Jenn, and then we’re going to the island.” Before they could bring up my using the car, I said, “She’s picking me up.”
“Wait. Your mother and I have been talking.”
I stayed put in the doorway. “Dinner party tomorrow, I know. You probably want Jenn and me to help.”
“Yes,” Mom said. “And we’ve been thinking. It’s been a few weeks since the fender bender.”
My stomach flipped as I remembered the way I’d panicked in the middle of Market Square, turning right and then second-guessing myself and then triple-guessing and then braking and getting rear-ended by a tourist.
“We really think you need to get back out there before you make it harder for yourself,” she said.
Her eyes were soft with compassion, and I knew she understood how hard it was for me, but she didn’t waver.
“Kendra, not driving isn’t helping you in the long run,” she said.
“I haven’t panicked since—” I cut myself off, and then shook my head. “No, that’s not true. Today I had a little anxiety.”
Mom looked concerned and Dad kept his eyes on his drink.
“Was it the crowd at the festival? It can be too much for me, too,” she said.
Dad took a sip without looking up. I tried to imagine what he was thinking. Was he talking himself into acting calm?
“Mom and I discussed it, and we think you need your own car, Kennie.”
“What?” Way to get the focus off the festival, Dad.
Mom nodded. “We were going to wait until you went off to college, but—”
“I have just the car in mind,” Dad said.
My mind exploded with different thoughts. The first one was Why now? Then Did he see me? Should I confront him? The answer to all my questions was yes. But then I saw Mom. She wants me to be able to move on, to get over things easily.
“Kendra?” Mom was talking to me. “What do you say? Are you ready?”
I nodded. “Thanks,” I said. My own car, I thought. Freedom. I looked at Dad, and said, “Wow. I didn’t expect this.”
Back upstairs I texted Jenn about the dinner party. From my bedroom window I could see the Hannons’ manicured lawn and the Costellos’ rambling house and watched Jenn explode out her front door and back her beat-to-shit Volvo out of the driveway past her brother, Bo, who was tinkering with something under his truck. I was still watching him work when I heard Jenn pounding up my stairs.
I whirled around and held up two shirts. “This one,” I said, “or this one?”
“The purple. It’s more Will’s type.” She came over to the window and looked out. “Yup,” Jenn said, shaking her head. “He won’t give up on it.”
“He’s coming, isn’t he?” I asked.
“Yeah, but he wants to take his truck.”
When the Costellos moved next door in the middle of second grade, Jenn and Bo joined my class. Mrs. C. decided it was best to keep her two youngest together in the primary school.
It used to be the three of us doing everything together, but Bo had kept his distance since the time Jenn dated his best friend, Matt. It got complicated with their breakups and make-ups, so Bo just stayed away. Now her love interest was Doug Jacoby. Bo didn’t like Doug—and that seemed to make Jenn like him more.
Doug was a summer guy most girls had crushed on at one time, but now I considered him unavailable. He was way older than us—in his early twenties—which used to be part of the attraction, but now it bordered on creepy. He didn’t really have a goal, which was his goal, he said. After three universities, he couldn’t find the right fit. He wanted to go to “the school of life” because it provided more of a challenge. This wouldn’t bother me except for his cocky attitude.
Jenn said her skin tingled whenever he was around. He was it.
I sighed loudly as we pulled away from the house.
“How’d it go?” she asked.
“I chickened out. It was too awkward.”
“Good. It’s really their thing.” She roughly shifted gears, and I grabbed the dashboard.
“Dad’s getting me a car,” I said.
“And Mom’s good with it.”
“See, they want you to have a Breakout Summer, too.” She slowed down and looked at me. “Or shit, Kendra, maybe he did see us.”
Maybe, I thought. Maybe.
Copyright © 2017 by Robin MacCready