THE HIGHS AND THE LOWS OF A RELATIONSHIP THAT DID NOT EXIST
The smell of home for him, more than anything else, was the smell of a girl he didn’t know.
Home wasn’t the creaking three-story brownstone on Carroll Street in Brooklyn where he lived most of the time, but this big house on a pond that let out into the ocean on the South Fork of Long Island in a town called Wainscott. He’d spent half the weeks of every summer here and half the weekends for most of every year of his life.
Ray sat on the floor of his bedroom amid piles of books, clothes, old toys, blankets, rain gear, fishing stuff, and sports equipment, and he breathed it in, seeking her part in all of his.
It was an old smell, habitual and nostalgic, associated with the happiness and freedom of summer, the outdoors coming in. It was also a new smell, recharged every other week, adding particles of new shampoo, a new dress, shiny stuff she put on her lips.
On the achy and full feeling of it, he got up and lay on his bed, where her smell was always the strongest. It instilled old comfort, the privacy of nighttime. He always had better dreams here, almost never nightmares. In his bed in Brooklyn he had nightmares.
He lay there in his shorts and T-shirt. He let his sandy, dirty bare feet dangle, out of deference. He used to never think about things like that.
Sleep in this bed, though sweet, had gotten fitful in the last year or so. Sweetly fitful. Sweetly frustrating. The smell, with its new and extra notes, got to be as stimulating as it was comforting. He didn’t know exactly what those notes were, but they stirred his night thoughts in a new way.
“How’s it going in there?”
He sat up. His mom’s knock and entry were practically one motion.
“You’re taking a nap already?” she asked.
“No, I was just—”
“Did you empty out the whole closet?”
He glanced back at the dark, walk-in closet. “Most of it. I tried to leave Sasha’s stuff how it was. But some of it is mixed together. And some of the stuff I’m not sure of.”
“It would be easier if there was a light in there,” his mother pointed out.
He nodded. He probably hadn’t replaced the bulb in two years. He hadn’t cleaned the place out in a lot longer than that.
“Can I be done now?”
Lila gave him a look. “Seriously? You just threw everything on the floor. You have to deal with it.”
“That’s why I went back to bed.”
She retied the bandana around her head. Her pants were covered in old paint and clay stains. “You should see the kitchen. You’re lucky I’m not asking you to help with that.”
He got up, not feeling lucky. “Why are we doing this again?”
“The girls organized it.”
“The house looks fine.”
“The other family is doing it too, next week.”
“We should have gotten them to go first.”
“Just get back to work, Ray. I left trash bags and boxes in the hall. Stuff you want to save put in boxes. You can bring them out to the storage room when you’re done and stack them neatly on the shelves.”
He surveyed the shelves along the bedroom wall. He and Sasha had had their unspoken agreements over the years about dividing up drawers, shelves, and closet space and their unspoken disagreements about dividing up drawers, shelves, and closet space.
Almost all the books were hers. Her entire Harry Potter collection still stood there, along with Narnia and His Dark Materials. He’d contributed The Hobbit to her Lord of the Rings set. He’d read almost all her books except the really girly ones, sometimes at the same time as her. He got indignant when he was reading one of her books, like the last Harry Potter, and she brought it back to the city.
He got out a recycling bag for his old comic books and his random piles of school papers. Among them he found one of her old science tests (91%) and her handwritten book report on Charlotte’s Web. You would never mistake her rounded, regular script for the mess he made with a pencil.
The cabinet devoted to seashells, sea glass, smooth rocks, egg cases, and sharks’ teeth was joint property. He couldn’t begin to say who’d found what. They’d both been big hoarders on the beach. And all of it belonged to the sea, didn’t it? He got rid of some crumbling coral and left the rest as it was.
He didn’t bother with the bureau—since middle school he’d let her have the whole thing except one big drawer at the bottom with old sweaters and sweatshirts they both used. He kept his small and unimpressive wardrobe on two shelves and one hanging bar on the left side of the big closet. The medicine cabinet was at least ninety percent filled with her stuff. Granted, he had hardly any toiletries, in large part because he used her stuff. He was happy using her shampoo, taking a part of her smell around with him. He hadn’t provided toothpaste or dental floss in years.
There was a lot of semibroken or useless crap to get rid of. He spent some time going through the fishing gear. He had to admit it took up more than his share of the closet, but she was welcome to use it if she took good care of it. They had one boogie board between them and he still took it out sometimes.
Did she? He didn’t know. He found himself hoping so. He always imagined she loved this place, this pond, this beach, the weird house, this old camp bed under the skylight, as much as he did.
The surfboards they kept in the garage.
Though they slept in the same (comforting, fitful) bed, looked out the same skylight at the same moon, they didn’t know each other. They shared three older half sisters, Emma, Quinn, and Mattie, but they weren’t related. Sasha’s father had once, long ago, been married to his mother.
He’d seen Sasha’s face, very small, on the other side of Radio City Music Hall at their older sisters’ graduations. He never saw her closer, because their two sets of parents choreographed the seating and the after-parties so they would never have to acknowledge each other. His sisters’ birthday parties were like that too. Always separate, always two of them: the one with his family that involved homemade zucchini cake and craft-y presents around the Brooklyn kitchen table, and one with the other family that seemed to involve private rooms at trendy restaurants where a regular person couldn’t get a reservation. He’d never been to one of those, of course.
He’d seen pictures of Sasha in the house from when she was little. He kept his eye out for new ones, but there hadn’t been any in a long time.
He’d tried friending her on Facebook in eighth grade, and she’d declined. He’d been irritated at her for it, respected her for it, ultimately been relieved by it. He didn’t really want to see her like that—another girl clustered with bikini-clad friends flashing braces and peace signs on Paradise Island or whatever. He wanted to keep alive the idea that she was different.
By tenth grade he’d deleted his Facebook account because he didn’t want to see anyone else like that either. The projection of fake good times grated after a while. He had a tendency to harsh judgments, and Facebook made it worse. “You’re such a curmudgeon,” Mattie had told him. Which wasn’t completely true. He used Snapchat and Rapchat as much as his friends.
He knew Sasha went to an all-girls’ school on the Upper East Side where they wore uniforms. According to scoffing Mattie, there were a mere forty-two girls in Sasha’s junior class. He pictured Sasha in a little pleated skirt. He tried not to do that too much.
Ray went to a public magnet school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. There were 1,774 kids in his junior class and few pleated skirts.
The world of New York City private schools was like a club, insular, self-congratulatory, and pretty annoying, and Ray was not part of it. His sisters were part of it because their dad was rich. It was weird being from a different economic class than your own family.
So he didn’t know Sasha through any of the normal channels. He felt like he knew her in an older and deeper way. He’d played with her toys, read her books, slept under her blankets, loved and fought with her sisters. He almost felt like she was part of him. She was his ideal friend in many ways: always with him, never disappointing. She never offered him the opportunity to judge her on surface things.
When he got to the pile of shoes, he began dividing, because dividing was what they did. He couldn’t remember whose old beat-up and outgrown flip-flops were whose, so he tossed most of them into a garbage bag. He hoped she wouldn’t mind. When he was in a good mood, he always gave her the benefit of the doubt. When he was in a bad mood, his opinion of her sometimes suffered. But even his most irascible moods, apt to ruin things, couldn’t ruin anything with her.
Her old water shoes. His. When they were young their feet were approximately the same size and they could share stuff like that, and sometimes they did. But she often wore a special orthopedic shoe, which he wasn’t supposed to touch, and that had given him an unexpectedly tender feeling toward her. Something about the way they stood, season after season, a little extra puffy and ready in the closet, you could picture exactly her stance when she wore them. In the last few years his feet had taken off in size, and hers, from what he could tell, had stayed pretty small.
Her sneakers, his.
Dividing was what they all did. As set down by their parents, they divided the house, divided the year, divided the holidays, divided the food, divided the paper products, divided the costs equally—well, supposedly equally. There was contention among the parents in nearly all the divisions: housework, lawn mowing, pool maintenance. In the case of his sisters, they got divided too.
His own parents seemed to enjoy a peaceful marriage, but it was the old dead marriage and bitter divorce between his mother, Lila, and Sasha’s father, the semi-mythic Robert Thomas, that shaped their lives. Besides their three daughters, this beach house was the one thing neither Lila nor Robert would give up and couldn’t divide.
It was an uneasy truce, laced with the old poison. During the school year, changeover was Sunday at midnight, so the house had five empty weekdays to reset itself, to forget one family and remember the other. But in the summer, the house was in constant use. Changeover time moved to noon on Sunday, setting up that one witchy hour when the lives of two families bumped up against each other and strained the suppleness of the old house.
In summer there was the danger, the thrill, of seeing the other family, maybe catching a glimpse of their car on the way out. Every other Sunday, Ray imagined the house held on to their faint smells in the kitchen, wavelets in the swimming pool, maybe a little warmth in the bed. It was the ironclad rule in the summer that they never left the beach house later than quarter past eleven on Sunday morning, never arrived at it before quarter to one. They never risked a true encounter with the other family. And despite Ray’s unspoken wish, they never had one. They maintained a half-life among half a family in half a house for half the year. If you put both sides together, it would kind of make a whole. But you never put both sides together.
In the closet was one row of distinctly girl shoes—flat san- dals with straps, newer pairs with heels. No puffy orthopedic ones anymore. He wondered a little at those grown-up shoes, fleetingly sought to picture the now older girl who wore them, but didn’t try for long, and didn’t touch them. Because of the fitful bed problem, he’d become wary of letting his roommate become literal.
Brooklyn was his house, wholly, and his room there belonged to him alone, and yet he never felt as whole there.
He carried the first two boxes through the sliding-glass doors of the kitchen onto the flagstone path, through the fence that bordered the pool, and to the pool house. The front room, facing the pool, had regular pool-related stuff—a refrigerator, shelves, and hooks for cushions and towels—but the bigger, windowless room behind it was for the kind of storage you didn’t visit too often.
He felt for the light. He hadn’t been back here in a long time. It smelled of mold and mess.
He was struck right off by the old dusty crib. It had been his and also hers. He saw the plastic sheet that still covered the baby mattress to protect it from vomit. His vomit, to be precise.
What a history they had together, not together. Two babies who slept there, turned into people inside those bars. They used it equally but never at the same time.
Stashed under the crib were old toys. Why did they even have these anymore?
As he looked closer, he was glad they did. There was a wide plastic box full of Legos. One particularly rainy summer and fall they built a city, not together exactly, but sequentially, each adding to it week by week. He made the airport, she made the zoo. It had two amusement parks, four playgrounds, and a library, but no school, as he recalled, and not even any stores. They were naturally harmonious as urban planners. And circumstances forbade his being imperious or bossy to her. He had no choice but to be patient, to let her take her full turn. He remembered the excitement of arriving at the house and tearing upstairs each week to see what she had added.
He loved that city. He ranted and raved when a cleaning service hired by the other family dismantled it just before Thanksgiving that year. Would she remember their city now?
There were balls, and light sabers with long-dead batteries. Another box contained the plastic animals they had jointly collected and shared over years’ worth of birthdays and Christmases. There were the dusty stuffed animals she had loved gently and he had used for projectiles. There was the Barbie airplane he had publicly scorned but secretly played with a little during the long July they both had chicken pox.
He touched his fingers to the crib rail before he left.
One time when he was around nine or ten he stole one of the blankets from their bed and brought it to his regular bed in Brooklyn, hoping it would work its charm and ward off bad dreams there, too. But eventually her smell wore off and it just got to be another thing that smelled like him.
“My God, Quinn, I didn’t see you. You’re like a house fairy.”
Quinn laughed from where she perched on her mother’s bureau.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
“A few minutes. I watched you empty your sock drawer.”
Lila cocked an eyebrow at her.
“And then put everything back.”
“So you have been there a while.”
Her mother wasn’t very good at getting rid of things, Quinn observed. She wasn’t a hoarder, but one thing suddenly represented everything and she got overwhelmed and closed the drawer.
“What about your room?”
“All of it?”
“I don’t have that much stuff.”
Her mother considered. “You don’t. That’s true.”
What possessions Quinn had, she kept faithfully. She’d been the same size since she was fourteen, so that made it easy with clothes and shoes. She didn’t judge Lila—Quinn didn’t like to throw things away either. Not when they were still good to use.
Mattie loved shopping in stores, but Quinn did not. That was another reason she had few things. Indoor malls and big-box stores made her feel overlit and strangely dried out. Mattie dragged her to the Target in Patchogue, but Quinn knew herself well enough to wait outside.
There was a lot of grumbling about the cleanup project, but Quinn understood something the others didn’t know yet. Emma, oldest and bossiest, was pushing it because Emma was falling in love. Emma saw through new and different eyes now, Quinn suspected, startled out of the regular blur of habit. Emma wanted everything to look better.
Emma hadn’t confessed it yet. Quinn didn’t know who it was, but she knew it was someone important.
“Why don’t you tackle the den?” Lila suggested.
“Okay. I could do that.”
Grandpa Harrison’s mark was everywhere in the house, nowhere more than the den. It was all knotty pine walls and hunting decoys and pieces of driftwood attached to the wall by lengths of twisted wire. There was the wet bar in the corner with the 1970s ice maker, long broken. Most of the shelves bowed under hardbound books with titles like Who’s Who in America and The Social Register.
Quinn never felt the living presence of Grandpa Harrison in this house. Because he was dead, for one thing, but that wasn’t the main reason. He was repudiated, bankrupt, outmoded. It was just his stuff they contended with, and as stuff it was docile and easily ignored, holding out for a better time.
She turned to the cardboard file boxes piled in the corner behind the desk. Here were pictures, almost all negatives and prints. She took out the various envelopes and sat cross-legged with them on the ground.
The first box was mostly packed with photos of her grandparents at the country club with their friends. It was clear that what they loved was golf and cocktails. A few of them were heavily posed family pictures, where tiny Lila and her tinier brother Malcolm stood in stiff clothes looking uncomfortable.
Now Uncle Malcolm lived in the desert in New Mexico with his Vietnamese wife and their two-year-old son, Milo. Malcolm said he hated the East Coast and came back as little as possible. You could see in the picture, from the tight top button of his shirt to the thick wool romper and dark boxy shoes, how that might have happened.
The next box had pictures of Quinn’s own parents, the brief moment their life longings intersected. One photo taken on the lawn of this very house showed Lila with her straight blond hair down to her belly button and dark Robert, young as a boy, wearing jeans and a T-shirt. But they were heading in opposite directions, wanted different things. You could see it in the picture if you looked carefully—she is strident, he is eager. She wanted to use him—his Indian-ness—to shock her parents’ system. He wanted to be part of the system he was supposed to shock.
A few months later Lila was pregnant and they got married, swooping into the next phase of life, where the big choices were made before they even meant to make them. Grandpa Harrison was predictably shocked and horrified that his daughter got pregnant by a brown-skinned young man with a presumably brown-skinned child when they weren’t even married.
Years later, when Robert “saved his bacon,” Grandpa Harrison came around to him. In fact, Grandpa came to treat Robert like a hero. Even after the divorce. Robert was the success in business Grandpa could never manage to be. “Robert thinks he can buy anyone” was what Lila said. Lila liked Robert better when her father hated him.
Once the shock wore off, the marriage faltered. Quinn had the feeling of it more than the facts. She was the wide-eyed, oddly patient kid who hung around beneath tables and in corners, taking the information back to her room or under her tree and sorting it out when she could. For a time there were accusations between them, cursing and shouting, three police officers at the house after dark, a custody war. There were no pictures in the box of any of that. Her sisters didn’t seem to know or remember those parts, and she didn’t want them to.
Then came remarriages, two new babies born in the same month, happiness on either side of the divide. The long, bitter silence set in between her parents. The fight raged on, but crooked and quiet.
There was one photo in the bottom of the box that seized Quinn’s attention. It was small and square with a scalloped white border, of a different quality than the others.
The face was young, slightly turned away, almost too shy to smile. Quinn’s hand began to shake as she held it. She’d never seen this before and yet it was something she had always imagined. The girl’s dark hair was held back in a bun; her eyes were large and dark and deeply expressive. A dot glinted in the side of her nose; a bindi was pressed between her dark, strong eyebrows. She wore intricate earrings of worked gold.
Quinn ran upstairs as fast as she could. “Hey, Mom. Who is this?”
Lila studied it carefully. Turned it over looking for a date. “You found this in the den?”
“In the bottom of one of the photo boxes.”
“Wow. I don’t know what it was doing in there.” Lila studied it closely. “That, as I understand it, is a picture of your biological grandmother. It came with your father’s adoption papers.”
“I knew it was. It had to be. Look at her face.”
“God, she looks like you a bit, doesn’t she? Those eyes?”
“A little Emma, too, in the proud mouth?” She was beautiful. She looked eerily like Sasha, but Quinn didn’t say so.
“I see it. I really do.”
“I’ve wished so many times I could see her. What a strange piece of luck. Do you know her name? Do you know anything about her?”
Lila’s expression turned careful. “Of course you should be asking your father. He must have the papers from the agency in Canada that handled the babies from Bangladesh after the war. There wasn’t much, but I do remember a few documents and that picture.” She studied it again. “I haven’t seen it since you girls were tiny. I didn’t realize the resemblance. God, it almost makes me cry thinking of her.”
Quinn was moved by the clutter of feelings she saw in her mother’s face. It was hard keeping the love and hate separate in their family. Lila’s love for her daughters and their origins, her desire for their happiness, could never quite be washed free of their father, whom Lila resented and avoided. For all the boundaries Quinn’s parents had constructed between their lives, the really important ones couldn’t always be held.
“I’ll ask Dad,” she said.
Lila had a warning look. “Well, it’s not something your father likes to talk about. He didn’t used to, at least.”
“I know.” Quinn held the picture protectively. “But I need to anyway.”