I remember I bought a blue and white striped shirt in the months before that summer, and I remember standing in my room in cold gray March and trying it on. The fabric was rough and a little loose, with a wide neck, and the sleeves hit my wrists economically. I felt then that I looked like a girl who had gotten off a boat that morning, or would get on one that evening, or maybe — since my mirror showed only the top half of my body — I was one of those long-legged girls who goes on boats sometimes, casually.
The idea lounged around my head for a few weeks before I called my uncle Neil. He runs a harbor in Maine, in the town he and my mom grew up in. We used to go there when I was little, in the summers, while my grandparents still lived there. Still lived at all, really. It was on the coast. The houses had tire swings and shutters and were once white and blue and green, but it had been years since the morning had washed them all into hues of gray. Then — in the mornings — I heard the foghorns while half-awake and the air hugged me coldly. I had goosebumps on my skinny legs, under my denim cutoffs, when I sat on their porch and was the only one awake.
During the days we went to Aunt Jean and Uncle Neil’s house (white-gray). It was tucked at the end of a long dirt road in the woods. My two cousins and I played on their long backyard, which stretched out and sloped down until it fell into a tumbled staircase of gray and tawny boulders, standing at odds with the sea. It looked to me like the water was coaxing its way in to join us, day by day, and eventually it would sweep me off the swing set and throw the grown-ups from their Adirondack chairs.
At night, the trees were black and blue and green, and when we drove back after dinner I was glad to have my parents in the front seats, and glad there was a car between us and the trees hanging overhead, leaning in.
I didn’t notice much about Jean and Neil then. If I had paid attention, maybe I would have seen signs — maybe her hand on his shoulder, his eyes in his lap. Maybe his knee crossed away. In Clueless they say that’s how you can tell if he’s interested — if his knee is crossed towards you — and now I see it with every boy: how are your knees crossed? Where are you pointing?
If I had short hair and long legs and wore that shirt, I could look like one of those girls who spends summers by saltwater. They wore their ease like their summer freckles: casually, but you can see it; it’s everywhere on their bodies.
When I called Neil I was glad he didn’t ask me much about why I wanted to go up there, because what would I have said? I have some vague romantic notion of being the kind of girl who can sail? He just told me sure, he’d find me something, they’d be happy to have me, and I could have my cousins’ room all to myself. They had families of their own now, and he said it would be good to see me; it had been a while. Jean and Neil I saw at some Christmases and Thanksgivings, still, when they drove down to Connecticut, but it was a long cold drive for my cousins to make with their little kids. I thought it was a shame — the air got heavy in our big white colonial, sometimes, and some tumbling kids could have freshened it out. Living Febreze.
We stopped going to Maine for a few reasons, around when I was ten. The first, or most nameable, was that my grandparents died, and we didn’t have anywhere free to stay anymore. Aunt Jean and Uncle Neil only had their bedroom and my cousins’ room. That’s not really a fair reason, though — the town makes a lot of its money off the summer tourists, and we could have stayed in a bed and breakfast. My parents had the money. My mom just didn’t want to go.
She’s shown me pictures from when she and Uncle Neil were growing up. He was the big brother, three years older, and she was the little blond girl following him around like a baby duck. They had known Aunt Jean even then. She and her siblings lived in the house next door, and in the summer my mom said they spent all day riding their bikes together and slamming screen doors, playing tag in the late afternoon, manhunt in the early evening. There are pictures of the kids on their bikes, with streamers on the handlebars; in lifejackets, their calves in a row, dangling off the dock; splayed on the lawn, holding stained popsicle sticks. In the pictures, my mom is always looking up at Neil, whose face is too young to look so rumpled. Jean is always at his side.
They started dating in high school. From what my mom said, everyone thought it was inevitable. I know he broke up with her before they graduated. He was leaving, going to work on a shipping boat for the summer, and she was staying, working at the harbor her parents owned until college in September. A few years ago, someone mentioned the breakup — it was at the end of a holiday, everyone was tired and a little drunk — and Jean fingered the bottom edge of Neil’s flannel and looked at him and said, “We all mess up sometimes.” Then she squeezed his shoulder and put her elbow on the table, her chin in her hand, and looked at the centerpiece I’d made in fourth grade.
They got married right after Jean got out of college. My mom was graduating high school then. She told me she cried when he told her. Neil was just supposed to be home for the summer, working at Jean’s family’s dock until he left in the fall for a job in California, at an engineering firm. But then things changed, and everyone was careful not to mention how Jean was already starting to show in her wedding dress.
I took the blue Volvo up in the last weeks of May, after school let out. The GPS took me through the two blocks of town — a fire station, a library, two ice cream places, a place to buy t-shirts, Bass Harbor Fishing Supply, a gas station — and on to this sweeping road that cut between a marsh and a stretch of beach. It was made of rocky ledges jutting out into the water, and because the light was golden and I had been in the car for hours I parked on the side of the road and got out and leaned against it. There was a little blond boy holding his mother’s hand and jumping, two feet at a time, from one crop of rock to another. They had a brown and gray dog with them whose feet kept teasing the edge of a ledge, like he was deciding whether to go in. Every time the water crashed up at him he’d jump back, offended, and then lunge towards where the water had sprayed him from.
It had been a long time since I’d seen Jean and Neil anywhere but my house. Jean would come through the door blowing her bangs out of her face and hugging me with her hands full of homemade something. Neil followed, anything heavy slung over his shoulder. When I was very young I remember him picking me up in the air, and I’d laugh down on his face, loving it. There are pictures. But once I grew too big for that it turned into a hug, and now that I’m older it’s one of those obligatory family hugs, or at least feels like that, to me — arms go around long enough to get your hands touching on the other side of the person’s torso and then back they come again. He smells like that Tom’s deodorant I see at Whole Foods.
It was already dark when I found the narrow road, and I had to drive slowly to make sure I didn’t miss the turn. When I pulled up to the house I could see Neil through the window into where he was reading in the living room. I could see Jean, too, in the yellow kitchen, a floral shirt stretched over her shoulders as she bent over the sink. The house is set up with long windows on either side, so when the light is right you can see straight through from one side to the other, where there’s a porch looking onto the lawn and then the sea further back. You couldn’t have that type of house where I grew up, unless you wanted the neighbors to know all your dirty daily habits. For Jean and Neil, there were no real neighbors.
Neil heard me roll up and came outside barefoot while I turned off the engine, wearing a navy sweater and reading glasses. “Hey, Julie,” he said, coming around to where I was getting out of the car. I said “Hey, Uncle Neil!” and put my arms around his sweater, my head knocking his chin a little, and then we started grabbing my things from the trunk and carrying them around to the side door. I saw Jean through the screen washing a pot, but she let it drop into the sink when she saw me. She came over to hug me with suds on her wrists, smelling like detergent and rosemary and telling me I looked beautiful.
Neil started carrying my duffels up the narrow wooden while Jean had me sit down at their rough-hewn kitchen table.
“I baked some chicken thighs, is that fine? Have you eaten?” I’d stopped at a gas station and bought pretzel sticks and a Snapple and eventually chicken nuggets at a drive-thru (it’s a road trip, I told myself, it’s fine), but said, “No, that sounds great, Aunt Jean, thank you.” Neil came back downstairs and started pulling plates out from a cabinet. On the wall next to it was a painted wooden rooster. Jean saw me looking at it.
“Isn’t it cute?” she asked. “I got it last year at the library fundraiser. Claire’s niece made it. I thought it was kind of homey.” Neil caught my eye. “Oh, stop!” she said, punching his shoulder. “I like him!”
“I never said anything,” said Neil, and cut into his chicken.
I woke up in the morning tangled in a quilt, disoriented by the foghorns bellowing outside and the way the air came through the window screens to make my room feel blue and misty. I pulled on a sweatshirt and went down the stairs, trying to be quiet because of how early it was, but when I turned the corner into the kitchen Uncle Neil was already dressed and sitting at the table, facing me.
His gaze was focused into the mug of coffee in his hands and when he saw me he looked up, startled, and I wished I could turn around because I felt like I’d walked into his quiet. It was too late, though, and I watched him sit up, pulling himself straight and putting his cup down on the table.
“Julie,” he said. “You’re up early. Could you sleep okay?”
“Oh,” I said, “yeah, I’m good. I get up early normally.”
He nodded. “Are you hungry? We have cereal — I think there’s Crispix, and granola — and there’s milk in the fridge. We have eggs, too, and toast. Is any of that all right?”
“Oh, thanks,” I said, “I can just make myself some Crispix. Thanks.” I started opening cabinets, looking for a bowl.
“Top right,” he said. “If there’s anything you want, we can tell Jean. She should be doing groceries today or tomorrow.”
“I’m really fine,” I said. “Thank you, though.”
“Okay,” he nodded again, and picked up his mug. “I’m going to go read on the porch for a little, but would you be ready to go around 8:30?”
“Sure. What should I wear?”
“Anything’s fine. We can get you one of the staff shirts when we get there.”
“Okay,” I said, “sounds good.” He pushed his chair back — he had been half out of it already — and picked up the newspaper from where it had been resting, not yet opened, on the table in front of him. Nodding again, he smiled and said, “See you in a little, then.”
I sat myself at the table, cross-legged, the soles of my feet cold under me. Spooning Crispix into my mouth, I looked out the window to where the lawn dissolved into gray-blue haze, nagged by the feeling that I had just kicked Uncle Neil out of his morning. And that there I was, sitting alone in his kitchen.
Uncle Neil managed Lenckley Harbor. It had been in Aunt Jean’s family for three generations and her parents still owned it, living in town nearby, but the general thought was that someday it would be Aunt Jean and Uncle Neil’s. Aunt Jean had worked there, too, when she was younger, but eventually she stopped to take care of the kids and now she volunteers at the town library.
The harbor used to house mainly lobster boats and local families’ sailboats, but it had grown to include rentals and a fleet of wealthy people’s bobbing motorboats with names like Josephine and Sarah’s Promise and Good Morning, Sunshine written on them in gold-lined navy script. I was going to be on the summer staff, taking kids and their parents in dinghy trips to and from the long sailboats nodding in the cold water, helping with the rentals, being cheerful.
That first morning Uncle Neil showed me around and introduced me to the others. Some were college kids, like me, and others were in high school and lived in town. They were friendly to me, especially the boys.
The beginning of that summer blends into itself in my memory. I woke up early and went with Neil to the dock, and worked there until the late afternoon. Most days were slow, and those of us on shift would sit outside watching the dock from the lawn, waiting for calls to roll up. Then we took turns going to sit at the desk, saying hi, asking if there was anything we could help with, trotting down with them to the dock. We untethered their lines and lent them life jackets, and sometimes we steered them in a weathered gray dinghy, the salt spray landing on our ponytails and the goosebumps on our knees.
Soon we started hanging out together in the evenings after our shifts ended. The boys wore Patagonia fleeces at night, and in my memory they’re all a row of tanned calves and wrists strung with worn-out bracelets, the kind you made at camp, the once-bright string faded to match the Maine gray resting on top of all the houses and wood and air. I spent a lot of time with one girl, Katie, who wore her hair in a messy, sun-bleached braid and had a thin gold ring pierced through her cartilage.
After work we sat on each others’ porches, and when it was still early enough in the day we went to Long Pond and lay ourselves on the sun-warmed side of the lake. The college kids especially didn’t have much to do, since a lot of their friends and lives had shifted away from town since they’d gotten out of high school. I didn’t know anyone anyway. Sometimes we wandered into town for pizza, or a lobster roll, and one night Katie and I drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain. She told me it’s the first place the sun touches the United States every morning, but we didn’t stay that long.
Most nights I went back to Uncle Neil and Aunt Jean’s for dinner, in part because I was grateful to them for having me and in part because dinner was something I knew Aunt Jean put time into. Both of their kids, my cousins, lived within half an hour. They and their families often drove up to the house for dinner at the picnic table outside in the early evening. The grandkids were still very young — between four and one — and Aunt Jean was a very excited new grandmother. On the afternoons when I came straight back after work, I would help her in the kitchen, blanching peaches for a pie or running my fingers down stems of thyme so the little leaves fell in a pile on the table.
I liked watching Uncle Neil with the kids. He looked so young to be a grandfather, mainly because he was. I liked the way he balanced the toddlers on his knee, bouncing them and telling them they were on a galloping horse, holding their hands in his. His were strong and taut, gnarled and lined from his years as a sailor, and they swallowed up the kids’ perfect little soft ones while they giggled.
Sometimes I’d watch Aunt Jean watching him, and I liked that, too. She would look over from the other end of the picnic table, over the landscape of bones and crumbs from the dinner she’d cooked, and look at everyone with these soft eyes that said to me, Look what we have here. Look what we made.
There was one weekend in July that Jean went to go visit a friend for the weekend. She left us with groceries in the fridge and her number written on a post-it, as though we didn’t have it, and I remember when she left she looked at us both and said, “You two keep each other out of trouble.” Either that or, “You two keep an eye on each other.” I thought about that moment often, in the time after that weekend, trying to remember what she said exactly, if her eyes had really rested on mine for an extra pleading beat.
That Friday I went to a party at Katie’s. Her parents were out of town, which felt kind of funny — like I’d gone straight back to high school, when my rebellious nights meant staying out too late at the 7-11. We were all in the backyard, sitting around on the grass and hanging off the edge of the porch, holding beers. There was a boy there Katie had introduced me to a few weeks earlier, Ira, or Isaac, or something. Ira, I think. It doesn’t matter. We had hung out a few times in her backyard and in larger groups, elbows on sticky tabletops, bodies stretched out nearby on the banks of Long Pond. I liked the way he carried himself: broad shoulders set slightly back, knowing smile, and that air of stability I was so attracted to back then. He always looked at me for that extra half-moment before flicking his eyes back down at his hands, and that’s always a nice thing, being recognized.
We ended up leaving together. I would say it was because I was tipsy, or something, but that’s not true; I barely drank, was fine driving to his house. Mainly it had just been awhile since I’d been with anyone. I slept there, more out of convenience than anything. It was late and the roads get dark in the woods in Maine. I had told Neil I’d be out all night, anyway, thinking I’d stay at Katie’s.
In the morning the air was damp and earthy and hung over that dense smell of next-day bodies. Trying to be quiet, I pulled shorts over my legs and stuck my messy head through the shirt I’d left on the floor. It was early and I wanted to head out before his mom saw me or my car next to the house. He had told me the night before that it was only them two living there, and his mom would be asleep by the time we pulled up.
I walked out of the bedroom holding my shoes in my hand, but three steps down the hall I stopped as another door opened in front of me. At first, I just registered the movement, but then I saw the face above the white undershirt, said, “Oh,” and was backing away before he had time to say anything, turning on my heel to go back through the door I’d come from.
I watched Neil’s car pull away through the boy’s bedroom window. My skin felt dirty in yesterday’s clothes, and my teeth weren’t brushed, but I couldn’t go home because I knew he would be waiting there, so I sat on a chair in the corner and braided and re-braided my hair three times. Then I left, walked out through the kitchen, not noticing I was barefoot until five steps into the gravel. When I stepped into the car, small stones fell from the soles of my feet.
I drove to the deli and bought a bacon egg and cheese sandwich and a diet peach Snapple and drove again until I hit the park in town, next to the church, and sat there on the swings and ate my sandwich. It made my fingers greasy, and my stomach felt cold and bloated from the salt.
Ira (Isaac?) hadn’t told me much about his mom. We’d had a little bit of that funny in-bed conversation that sometimes happens with people you don’t know well, when you’re both almost comfortable in the way your joints are overlapping and that physical intimacy understudies for the real thing. His dad had died when he was young (“I’m sorry,” I’d said, running three fingers in a circle on his forearm) and his mom hadn’t dated anyone since. “Sometimes I worry about her being lonely,” he said. “Since I moved out it seems like all she does is work at the library.”
I didn’t go back home until it was dark out. Neil’s car was in the driveway, but I didn’t see him when I came inside — I just went straight to the bathroom and took a shower and crawled into my bed with my hair wet, pulling the quilt over my head to make a warm dark pocket until the morning.
When I went downstairs he was making coffee.
“Hey,” he said. “Julie.”
I looked at him and nodded, then walked to the fridge. “Morning.”
“Yesterday morning,” he said, “I’m — ” I picked the milk up by its handle and turned around to look at him.
“I didn’t expect to see you there,” he said.
I kept looking at him, holding the milk.
“I don’t want you to feel like you’re involved in this,” he kept going.
“Right,” I said. “Yeah. I’m sure it’s complicated.”
He looked at me and nodded and then looked at the coffee machine.
“When does Aunt Jean get back?” I asked
“She’s supposed to get back around dinnertime.”
“Okay,” I said. “I think I’m going to go home soon.”
He nodded with his eyes on mine. “Is there any way I can help you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m fine.”
I left that afternoon. I just told Neil to tell Aunt Jean that I got homesick, and wanted to go home for a little bit. I figured I’d come up with something better later.
I got home late that night after driving straight through. I hadn’t called my mom to tell her because I didn’t want to explain anything over the phone, and hadn’t come up with an excuse yet, anyway. By one in the morning I was sitting on a stool in my kitchen, my bags on the floor, eating a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and looking out to where a blue raft floated in the corner of our pool.
I never said anything. I don’t know what Neil did, but I’m guessing he kept it to himself. Maybe he’s still sleeping with Mother of Isaac. I don’t know.
Often I want to talk to Jean, when I see her at Christmas and Thanksgiving, but how would I do that? Hey, Jean, maybe check on your husband sometime? You might want to talk to the other library volunteers — I think they might be taking community outreach a little too seriously.
And what do I know? Maybe she already knows, or they have some sort of agreement, or something. People are weird. It’s not my life.
Last Christmas Aunt Jean gave us a rooster to match the one hanging in her kitchen, and now it stares at me from its place near the fridge. “So our kitchens have something in common,” she told us.