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THE ZEN THING
Each year, the family unpacks itself for a weekend on a beach and pretends to have a good time. This summer they are in Rhode Island, on Scarborough Beach. Everyone is staying at the Sea Breeze Motel down the street. Expectations are low. It is the kind of setup where doors open onto a courtyard, which is carpeted. In the middle of the carpet is a pool. In the middle of the pool, submerged, are a bikini bottom and a swimming noodle, which has somehow drowned like a piece of plumbing pipe.
Penny, Anita’s sister, who is thirteen and has Down syndrome, has spent the morning dipping a red bucket into the pool and watering all of the plastic plants with it: the scheffleras in the corner, and a few palms slouching under the exit signs. She wears an industrial measuring tape clipped to her bathing suit and has measured the diving board several times and the circumference of the doorknobs to their rooms. Anita adores Penny.
“She’s really concerned about maintenance these days.” Anita’s mother sighs. “And penises.”
Anita and her boyfriend, Luke, have driven down from Maine for the day. Five months ago, after their two-year affair, Luke left his wife for Anita, and they fled to a friend’s empty cabin in Harpswell, where they have been staying ever since. Luke is twenty-five years older than Anita and was her art professor. As it is with this kind of thing, Anita is finding the narrative of an affair much more reasonable than the living of it, which is, when you get right down to it, a clusterfuck. She is twenty-three. Her period is late. It is an unfortunate and terrifying thing, much like the six-pack Luke has taken to drinking each morning before he calls his daughter, Matilda, who is eight, and who, because he cannot bear to tell her, and because his wife is certain he will come back, still thinks he is on a business trip.
Everyone is supposed to meet in the courtyard and head down to the beach, which is across the street and over the rock wall. There are a dozen plastic lawn chairs by the pool that have yellowed like teeth. Anita’s grandmother is sitting in one of them. She is dressed all in white—pants and sweater and shoes—and is breathing heavily. She is staring at Luke. Since his haircut, which makes him look like an Irish cop, he seems to be grayer than ever, especially around his temples.
“You look like that actor,” Anita’s grandmother says to him. She has already said it twice.
“Oh, I doubt it,” Luke says, but she nods. She has already complimented his eyes and his chin. She doesn’t know he is married, or really anything about him at all. Her husband, Frank, is there, too. When Frank speaks, he leaves little white spots on the shirt of whomever he is talking to, and he says, “I was going to say the exact same thing,” after anyone speaks. He and Anita’s grandmother are eighty years old. They met five years ago, at Twin Rivers Casino. Her grandmother loves Frank, and everyone is glad for it, especially Frank, who seems to have no family to his name whatsoever and will now, he knows, have his ass wiped by Anita’s parents when the time comes. He has already asked Anita’s mother, who is a nurse, to be his medical power of attorney.
“You okay, Gram?” Anita asks. Her grandmother has been moaning and belching all morning.
“I’ve got, you know, the dysentery,” she says. She is reattaching her Italian horn pin, which Anita has always thought looked like a little dick on a chain.
“It’s just diarrhea, Ma,” says Anita’s mother. “Not the trenches. Stop eating all those goddamn fried scallops.” Anita’s mother is turning sixty next month and is not doing well with this. She has been talking a lot about her own father lately, who left the family when she was eleven and later died before she could get around to forgiving him. Once a week she has been going to Boston to see a psychic, which, Anita knows, has less to do with death and more to do with Anita. The offense, however, is unclear: the affair or simply moving out of the house. Now that her older daughters are gone, Anita’s mother says, she has no one to talk to, and Penny, God love her, sometimes makes her want to get the gun. She also still gets hot flashes, which she calls HFs, and which make her stop whatever she is doing, unhitch her bra, and whip it out of her sleeve like a rabbit from a hat.
“She’s a complex woman” is all Anita’s father has to say about any of it. He is still having difficulty processing that his daughter is having sex with a man five years younger than he is. Anita knows this because her mother told her so. She can’t blame him, really.
Theresa, Anita’s sister, has been applying suntan lotion to her chest with one finger, careful not to smear any on her bathing suit. She is wearing sunglasses that are too big for her face, which seems to telegraph just how expensive they are. Theresa is thirty-one, and after a decade of casting about in pills and low self-esteem in Belize, she has suddenly pulled a life together for herself. She has moved back East with her new husband, Trey, who makes lots of money reselling life insurance policies. He has several life-size oil paintings of George Washington in their house.
“They change hues depending on the time of day,” Trey explained earlier.
“That must really be something,” Anita said.
Trey makes many dishes with truffles and drinks only German wine. He is considering pursuing a PhD in economics at Brown. Or Columbia or Harvard or Dartmouth. He also is a Libertarian, and though no one really understands what that means, they know it is scarier than a Republican. Theresa and Trey have one child, Francine, who is two and apparently has a lazy eye, though no one knows what Theresa is talking about. The corrective surgery is scheduled for next month at Mass. Eye and Ear.
They all make their way across the street and begin to climb over the rock wall because Anita’s father does not want to pay the ten dollars to park for the day. Luke hands the beach bag to Anita and helps her grandmother navigate a boulder.
“Thank you, Luke,” says Anita’s mother. Anita can tell by the way she looks at Luke that her mother is mourning for Ben, Anita’s boyfriend of seven years, who lived down the street and came over for dinner almost every night. Anita’s mother has written Ben several letters and has told Anita that, though she knows it is inappropriate, she hopes sometime he can come over for dinner. She has no idea that Anita cheated on him for a year at the Best Western two blocks from the house. Neither does Ben, who emailed Anita last week to say that he is still in love with her. She has been thinking about this situation more than she would like to admit. She has been trying to remember what was so bad about him in the first place. True, he pronounced supposedly “supposably.” He gave her noogies sometimes. Once, when she asked him if he found her attractive, he said, “I like the buttons on your jacket.” Still, when she is fifty, he will be only fifty-two.
“Isn’t he lovely?” her grandmother says of Luke, who is wrapping his arm around her hips and hoisting her over the wall. Anita nods. He is. Sometimes she cannot believe she is finally with him. Her friends are all excited for her. They consider it a fairy tale, and while Anita agrees that it is remarkable, they were not with her in Maine, in December, trying to start a fire with used Kleenex, while Luke sat on the kitchen floor and asked her over and over if children of divorced parents ended up in mental institutions. They have not been there when he goes for long jogs in the dark, so long that she sometimes drives around looking for him, like last night, when she found him on the side of the road, sitting on half of a blue buoy, sobbing into his hands.
Anita’s father is already down on the beach, setting up umbrellas. His technique is to stick the pole in the sand and then hit it hard with a hammer. Penny loves to help with this. She has taken out her tape measure and is measuring the pole and their father’s feet. Her father is the only one with truly olive skin, but when he sits down, his stomach folds in on itself, and so it has tanned in a marble effect. He is kind and quiet and loves her mother more than Anita can ever imagine being loved by anyone. The few times he has met Luke, he has been cordial. Last month, Anita’s parents invited Luke and Anita over for dinner, where everyone talked about the Gulf War except Anita, who smiled and knew little about the Gulf War because, Jesus Christ, she was two.
The family is setting up its own stations, laying down blankets and unfolding beach chairs. Anita’s mother grabs the hammer from Penny, who has been offering to check people’s reflexes with it, and throws it into the rocks. Luke is still lagging behind with Anita’s grandmother and waving his arms in the air the way he does when he is talking about something that excites him. He is the most earnest person Anita has ever met. He is gentle and curious and frequently undone by factual tidbits from the BBC. Luke quotes Rumi sometimes about how “love is a madman” and says anyone who doesn’t get that can go fuck themselves. Sometimes, he just stares at Anita and sighs. She loves this, but when she considers his fifty thousand dollars’ worth of credit card debt, or the beer bottle caps strewn across the floor of his car like scabs, or the picture of his wife and daughter that fell out of his wallet when he went to pay for gas this morning, Anita marvels at how quickly she has fucked up her life.
Copyright © 2021 by Emma Duffy-Comparone