When Leah reminded her husband at breakfast that they were hosting a meeting that evening to discuss the logistics of the forthcoming annual high school graduation celebration known as Beach Week, he kept his eyes locked on the sports section of the newspaper and made a plaintive choking noise that sounded like the bleat of a sheep. A few drops of coffee sprayed from his mouth, landing on his pressed white shirt.
Charles had reacted in a similar, if less theatrical, fashion when she initially informed him of this meeting a few days earlier. Still, she had hoped for something else, some sudden change of heart that might have made him warm to the idea of welcoming into their home this group of parents whom they barely knew, to discuss a subject that had, admittedly, caused him to bristle even when it first crossed their radar as a mere abstraction on a local NBC News segment entitled "Mayhem at Beach Week" more than a year earlier, before their daughter had begun her senior year. After viewing footage of underage drinking and lewd sexual behavior, Charles had quipped that the idea of packing one's child off for a week of presumed debauchery was akin to negligent parenting.
It was unlike Leah to act unilaterally in a matter concerning their daughter, and for a brief moment she felt a twinge of guilt disproportionate to having merely volunteered to invite a few people over to their home for a brief discussion involving child rearing. She could only regard this as a sad indication of how constricted her life had become since they moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., almost two years earlier. She had given up her job as a teacher back in Omaha and had since failed to find—or to seriously look for—another. Once, an act of daring on her part might have involved challenging a contentious school board on a ninth-grade reading curriculum; now she felt like a renegade for simply inviting the parents of her daughter's friends to their home and preparing to set out plates of cheese cubes and bowls of salted nuts without first consulting her husband.
Of course it was true that Charles might have other cause for annoyance; for one thing, it probably appeared that Leah was disregarding their plan to have a meaningful, considered conversation specific to the potentially loaded question of whether their daughter would even be allowed to attend Beach Week. But Leah wasn't disregarding it. They would have plenty of time to discuss this later. Tonight's meeting was purely informational, intended only to find facts, to meet their fellow parents and hear them out.
Leah might have tried to explain this now, but she felt suddenly afraid of what she'd done to disturb their increasingly delicate marital balance, and her instinct was to retreat. She walked over to the sink and wet a paper towel, which she pressed to the specks of coffee that were starting to merge above Charles's left breast pocket into an amorphous brown cloud. She regarded with some tenderness his hairline, which was receding incrementally each day. Charles was a gentle, easygoing man who only ever raised his voice to yell at professional athletes on television, but lately he'd become somewhat mercurial. Although there were outside forces that had altered the family dynamic, Leah knew that she was not without blame when it came to the matter of his changeable moods, particularly on this occasion.
"This was one of my best shirts," he said.
"I'm so, so sorry," she said, and she was. "It's no big deal. I can definitely bleach it out."
This was not quite true; she didn't have the talent to remove this spot. She was the sort of laundress who turned whites pink and inexplicably lost socks. Why now, even in assertions to do with laundry, she wondered, was she behaving with duplicity?
It wasn't as if Leah had invented the idea of Beach Week. Kids from this community had been flocking to the same stretch of the Delaware shore to commemorate their high school graduations for as long as anyone could remember, and although there were occasional minor incidents involving citations for possession of alcohol or cases of sun poisoning, nothing truly awful had ever happened. She had done a little poking around online to assuage herself with the knowledge that this sort of thing wasn't unique to the affluent suburb where they now lived. At high schools all over the country, graduation was marked by one sort of celebration or another. Some communities called it Senior Week, and activities ranged from barbecues to trips to amusement parks to presumably more raucous expeditions to such notorious party spots as Cancún. Sharing a house with a nice group of girls from good, solid families at a beach only a few hours from home—Leah could easily imagine worse ways for Jordan to cap her high school experience.
Besides, it was Jordan herself who had proposed the idea. Their seventeen-year-old daughter had come into their bedroom late one night the previous week to say that she and her friends had found the perfect rental for this coming summer, but they had to act quickly to secure the lease. Leah and Charles had at least been on the same page in groggily suggesting the need for a proper conversation about this at a more reasonable hour. That was the extent of their discussion to date, so it was not as if Charles had expressly said no to Jordan's participation, and it was not as if Leah had put forth her own completely out of character yes-leaning view.
After a difficult transition following a move halfway across the country the summer preceding Jordan's junior year of high school, compounded by a terrifying, high-impact collision on the soccer field that had left her sidelined with a concussion and its lingering—albeit mercifully dwindling—side effects, Leah wanted, above all, to have her daughter be a happy, healthy teen. That she set this goal intellectually didn't stop her from trying to protect Jordan at every turn. Since that disorienting moment when Leah had glimpsed her daughter unconscious on the 18-yard line, the blood from her nose brilliant in the afternoon sunlight as it trickled down her white jersey, she had become a bit overzealous in her mothering, and she knew that she needed to let go.
By all indications, they were over the hump: Jordan's post-concussive migraines had largely subsided, her concentration had returned, the bursts of vertigo were now rare. She did remain a bit moody and aloof, but Leah understood that these hardly qualified as signs that something might be wrong in a teenage girl. Given the scale of disasters that might befall a family, this was clearly minor; nevertheless, Jordan, Charles, and Leah herself had all lost equilibrium, recalibrating emotions in private, and not always linear, ways. Leah had started to have bouts of What Might Have Been, with the insidious sidebar crazy mothering issue of What She Might Do to Prevent This from Ever Happening Again. If only the dangers in this world could be confined to the soccer field! Leah now had a heightened awareness of the catastrophes that loomed at every turn. There were crooked bolts of summer lightning shooting randomly from the sky and distracted Beltway drivers swerving out of lanes, cell phones pressed to their ears. She had even just seen a newspaper photograph of a bear roaming their pristine subdivision, on one occasion walking right onto someone's deck and swiping the bag of hot-dog buns that had been left beside the grill. And the environment! There were toxins galore—in food, in plastics, in underarm deodorants, microscopic carcinogens in the water and the air. From what she'd read, it was possible that some of these might even be triggering Jordan's headaches.
Allowing Jordan to go to Beach Week was of course hugely inconsistent with Leah's recent neurotic style of parenting, but she thought it a good sign that their daughter wanted to go, that she was seeking to engage with her new Verona friends, about whom she at times seemed ambivalent. Leah wasn't completely naïve; she had some insight into teenage behavior, having been a high school English teacher for nearly two decades, but she trusted Jordan and had come to the conclusion that certain kids were going to misbehave no matter where they were, whether under twenty-four-hour guard or on their own at the beach. She'd seen bed-hopping by members of the wind ensemble she chaperoned at a school-sponsored band trip, had spied a National Merit finalist snorting coke in the bathroom at the local Dunkin' Donuts late one night, and had once walked in on two male students having sex after debate team practice—and this was in the supposedly more conservative, bucolic Midwest. If kids were going to get into trouble, they would, regardless of whether their parents kept them on a short leash. Leah understood as well that Beach Week was an important rite of passage, a dry run for the more wrenching letting-go that would by necessity take place when Jordan left for college in the fall.
Admittedly, there was something else to this whole Beach Week thing. Leah would say it was subliminal, except that she had easy access to the thought. She wanted to go to Beach Week herself. Not actually, physically go to Beach Week at the age of forty-two, of course, but symbolically, in an if-she-couldonly-go-back-in-time kind of way. Having grown up in a small town, Leah had always wished for a richer teenage experience, which in her mind would have involved going to a large, coed, racially diverse public school that was the stuff of television dramas—the kind of school her daughter now attended, minus the diversity part. In addition, Leah had grown up dreaming, quite literally, of the beach itself. She wanted crashing waves, funnel cakes, boardwalks with video arcades and Skee-Ball. She wanted to build sand castles and collect shells and look for jellyfish and sit at restaurants that served crabs with Old Bay seasoning. She was twenty-three before she'd stuck a toe into the ocean, and that was on her honeymoon. What could be better for her daughter, more healthy and natural, than relaxing at the beach with friends, breathing in the fresh sea air?
Would Leah dare say that in some private corner of her mind she longed for the bad stuff that Beach Week was known for, too? Although she and Charles weren't physically estranged, a thick layer of resentment hung over them in bed like plane-grounding fog. Marital tension might have made for better sex in theory—the release of pent-up anger and what-not—but in their case it did not. That might have been because there was nothing very arousing about the other source of anxiety in their lives, which was money. She wondered if it might have given her a charge to contemplate problems of infidelity: Charles having an affair with his severe, pretty department head with whom he played tennis twice a week, for example. More likely, not: the thought only made Leah want to impale him with the racquet—and maybe impale her, too. But that wasn't the point. The point was that they were still fielding hospital bills from increasingly arcane sub-specialists whom they could barely recall encountering after Jordan's injury. Their insurance company had yet to pay a claim without rejecting it first, requiring countless hours of aggravating, haranguing phone calls. On top of this, they had given up trying to sell their house back in Omaha, which had languished on the market for months before they decided to take it off and rent. Now their mortgage's balloon payment was coming due. They had also brought Charles's mother, Florence, with them and installed her in a nearby overpriced nursing home. But the mother of all money tension had to do with Charles's new job, the very thing that had brought them to the East Coast. A large bonus that constituted the bulk of his compensation was tied to the commencement of a project that now seemed hopelessly stalled.
After the coffee had been blotted as best it could, Leah imagined that Charles would check his Blackberry and discover some work conflict that would preclude his participation this evening, but before he had the opportunity, Jordan appeared in the kitchen.
"Oh my God, I had no idea how late it was," she said. Even though she was in an apparent rush, she didn't seem especially panicked as she moved through the room gathering her belongings. It took her a moment to locate her wallet, which Leah finally spotted on the counter by the telephone. Her keys proved more elusive, but they found them on the seat of one of the kitchen chairs that had been pushed into the table, making them hard to spot. Jordan with great deliberation studied the selection of bananas ripening in the fruit bowl and finally ripped one free from the middle of the cluster.
"I stayed up way too late working on my history paper, and I guess I overslept," she said.
She dropped into a chair and pulled on her boots, then bunched her hair into a sloppy ponytail—a wild, thick mass of dark ringlets, as hopeful and unruly as a shaggy lawn in spring. Leah could soak in the sight of her daughter, her only child, for hours, and delight, and draw inferences from details as slight as the hungry, aggressive way she peeled the skin from the fruit and took a bite. Her appetite was good! Leah was further encouraged by the sight of her daughter's rosy cheeks, which seemed to be a sign of health, although it was equally possible that her color merely reflected the thermostat, which Leah had begun to tune low in attempts to be both energy- and cost-efficient.
"Dad, can you give me a ride to school on your way to work?"
Charles looked up from the paper and mustered a smile for his daughter. "Sure. Can you wait a sec?"
"Not really, Dad. School starts in . . ." She pulled her cell phone from her pocket to check the time, even though the clock above the stove was clearly visible. "Seven minutes."
He put down his paper and grabbed his coat, and they were on their way. He forgot to give Leah a kiss, but she felt a swell of warmth all the same at the sight of her family heading off for another productive day. Or maybe what she felt was just relief that she had managed to pull this off, although why she wanted to host a Beach Week meeting was a question she had difficulty answering, even to herself.
Once the parents began to arrive that evening, Leah realized that their house was not spacious enough to accommodate this group comfortably. She had given no thought to where she would put their winter coats, which she began to heap on the bed in the spare room upstairs. She had also failed to consider that those who had come straight from work would be hungry, determined to cobble together a meal from the simple and not very elegant spread of light hors d'oeuvres set out on a couple of side tables. She had worried she was overdoing it on the hospitality front, given that this was meant to be a brief meeting of the sort that she was pretty sure didn't call for food at all. Now she wished she had ordered some platters from Whole Foods, even chilled a few bottles of wine.
Leah felt like she could never quite get it right in Verona. Distance-wise it was a relatively straight line, a thousand measly miles from Nebraska to Maryland. The language was the same, the local customs no different, people looked and dressed in a mostly similar fashion, and yet. And yet . . . what, was what she was still struggling to figure out. Omaha was a cosmopolitan city, and she and Charles were hardly hicks. Not to put too fine a point on it, especially since Leah considered herself an antisnob, but they were cultured, educated people. They listened to NPR and saw foreign films, and Leah had belonged, simultaneously, to two different book groups back home and had immediately upon arriving joined one here. She and Charles went to the occasional opera and enjoyed the theater, too. So why was it she felt she didn't belong in this town? Was it simply that everyone was almost absurdly accomplished? Leah was too intimidated to mention to the neighbor next door that his teenage son frequently blocked access to the Adler driveway with his haphazard parking after she discovered that the man had recently won a Nobel Prize for pioneering research in enzymes—or something. Another neighbor had just returned from a stint as ambassador to Norway, and the woman directly behind them was a senior State Department official. Leah never knew for sure who anyone was, which could be downright mortifying. At a recent dinner party hosted by Charles's former college roommate, who lived nearby, she had asked a world-famous author what he did, and then, moments later, asked a two-term U.S. senator where he was from.
Perhaps she was overstating this, and was merely feeling displaced. Moving was right up there on the list of major life stressors, alongside death and divorce, after all. On top of this, she was unemployed for the first time in her adult life, and now an empty nest loomed. And she and Charles, once the best of friends, had drifted into some distant, difficult-todefine space. She was in a fragile place emotionally, probably just getting her signals crossed—surely that's all that was going on. It was almost certainly the case that she had only imagined a snicker, for example, when she casually inquired of another mother on the soccer field where the nearest Walmart was, and there was surely no subtext when the woman replied that while she didn't know the answer, it was probably in another state.
Janet Glover, the mother who was organizing this event, walked through the door carrying a heavy stack of folders. She had prepared a PowerPoint presentation, she explained to Leah, but just that morning her computer had crashed, so she'd spent much of the afternoon, with the help of her assistant, xeroxing and assembling these materials to hand out to the parents. Janet had photocopied a meeting agenda onto sheets of fluorescent yellow and affixed these with a single staple to the front of each folder, which made for the soothing sound of papers rustling in the wake of the ceiling fan Leah had just switched on in an effort to ventilate her living room, which got stuffy even in winter, with all the piped-in, stale heat. One of the folders blew open; the contents scattered on the floor. Leah turned the fan to a lower speed and gathered the strewn papers, finding among them a map of Chelsea Beach, a Chelsea Beach area information and transportation guide, a statement from Corporal Winston White of the Chelsea Beach Police Department, a list of frequently asked questions, and two pages of helpful tips compiled by parents who had started a blog called Beach Week Survivors. Leah set the folder back in the pile wearily, with a sudden sense of foreboding. Maybe Charles had been right and she had been too quick to agree to even considering this idea. She was apparently not alone in this sentiment.
"I think this entire idea is a travesty," said Alice Long, who was next to arrive. "What kind of irresponsible parents would allow a bunch of young girls to go to the beach for a week, unsupervised?"
This was an unfortunate way to begin the evening. Alice was widely regarded as difficult, but more to the point, she was the mother of Cherie Long, who had been charging toward the arcing soccer ball when she butted heads with Jordan. One girl walked away unscathed; the other wound up in the hospital and was still on the mend almost a year later. Who could explain these things? Assigning blame was useless; no one had been at fault, unless you were petty enough to point out that Cherie Long had been out of position and was generally considered a ball hog. These things happened in competitive sports, yet a word of apology or even of genuine concern from Alice Long, either at the time of the accident or in its aftermath, might have gone a long way to appease Leah.
Alice was arguably Verona's most famous citizen, if you took out of the equation the many politicians and journalists who lived there. The source of Alice's fame was at least amusing: she was a former television actress, best known for her long-running title role in The Winged Wife, a shamefully derivative drama about a crime-fighting suburbanite whose flying superpowers kicked in when she tapped her toe to the ground as certain serendipitous meteorological conditions collided (there seemed to be an unusual amount of hail and gale force wind in the fictitious California suburb where the show was set). A self-righteous style of parenting combined with her former acting gig had earned her the derisive nickname the Flying Nun.
Now she was better known as a helicopter mother extraordinaire, the sort that teachers feared: her daughter, Cherie, was Ivy League-bound, she told them in late-night calls to their homes to complain about grades or a too-heavy course load, and nothing was going to come between her and a 4.79 weighted GPA.
Her stunning daughter was a nearly exact replica of Alice, and side by side they looked like they belonged in tweed ensembles in a New York Times fall fashion spread, leaning against a split-rail fence. In addition to her physical elegance, Alice put herself together well, creatively accessorizing, as evidenced by the lovely strand of coral around her neck that contrasted nicely with the long blond hair, which appeared, against all odds, to be natural, even as her peers mostly slogged, with varying degrees of grace and coherence and semipermanent color, through middle age. (Leah had stopped highlighting her hair, having read something, somewhere, about cancer-causing dye, and had since become acutely aware not only of the little strands of gray creeping into her increasingly dull shade of brown, but of the coloring, bleaching, and frosting habits of others.)
Leah wondered why Alice had bothered to come to the meeting if this was her view. Also, didn't Leah deserve some sort of hello, or perhaps even a thank-you, for opening up her home? On top of which, wasn't the very fact that these ten sets of parents were assembling some five months prior to the event to discuss logistics an answer to the question itself? These were concerned parents, not irresponsible parents. But she didn't say as much.
Fortunately, she was alone with Alice Long only for a moment, as the others arrived behind her in one parental clot that had trouble squeezing through the narrow entryway. Leah recognized most, but surprisingly not all, of these people, even though she had diligently turned up at every school event this past year. One of the fathers looked familiar. He had thick, curly dark hair, and he wore a pink cable-knit sweater that looked fresh from the Brooks Brothers box, with no fabric pilling in sight. He had the aura of someone famous, and Leah wondered for a moment if he was that political commentator on cable television, the guy who had been somehow involved in the Clinton administration. His foreign policy adviser? Or maybe not—maybe he was that local insurance agent whose face was plastered on the backs of grocery carts and buses. Behind him was a couple Leah recognized as the parents of one of Jordan's friends, but which one?
Leah had always been acutely aware of the passage of time, but now that she was facing the prospect of Jordan's leaving home, she was becoming a sentimental basket case. Interactions with her daughter lately seemed fleeting and precarious, set against the backdrop of the fraught emo music so frequently emitting from Jordan's room. Leah had once taken pride in having struck a good balance between teaching and mothering that, although perhaps not ideal, had felt right at the time, but now she found herself dwelling on every missed opportunity. If she could rewrite the past, she would have worked less, as if more time spent with Jordan in the formative years might have prevented her from having that concussion.
Now she wished she had signed up to supervise every field trip, had managed sports teams, had indulged her daughter's request at birthdays and holidays to decorously wrap every gift and adorn it with colorful bows and yards of ribbons that they would fray and curl, no matter how long it took or how late the hour. If she could only have a do-over, they would make cookies from scratch at least once a week and frost and sprinkle them with every sugary accoutrement on offer in the grocery store cooking aisle. And she'd be more indulgent: she wouldn't have tossed the American Girl catalog in the trash before Jordan got home from school in an effort to discourage materialism. In fact, given a second chance at mothering, maybe she'd even go back in time and splurge on a hair appointment and a set of skis for Jordan's one and only Molly doll that time they'd visited the flagship store in Chicago. Then Jordan might have turned out to be the sort of kid who told her mother who her friends were.
There were only about twelve people at first, but it still felt crowded in Leah's living room, and there were more on the way. A few stray spouses, including her own, were going to arrive a little late, she was informed, and the Linds had sent their regrets as they were currently in Canada scouting a hot goalie prospect to possibly sign to the hockey team they owned. It was one thing to have this many people for a cocktail party—not that she and Charles ever had cocktail parties—but in order to hold a meeting, presumably everyone needed to sit, yet one more item to add to the punch list of things she should have thought about earlier. Fortunately, no one seemed to notice, since the atmosphere had in fact begun to feel like a happy hour, albeit one with only soft drinks and lemon Perrier and her mediocre spread of snacks.
It was getting late—half an hour after the appointed meeting time. Was Leah responsible for actually calling the meeting to order? This was a terrifying thought. She had offered to host for the largely selfish reason of integrating into this community of parents, admittedly a little late in the game. She had very little actual knowledge of the subject at hand, such as the details of the beach house. Still, someone needed to take charge, or they'd be here all night and she was already running low on nuts.
She looked over at Janet, who had her back turned to the group; Alice was leaning into her, whispering in her ear. Janet was one of the region's most successful divorce lawyers, a nononsense woman who walked out on her own philandering husband years earlier with two toddlers in tow. She was the mother of Jordan's best friend, Dorrie, and although Leah liked and admired Janet, she was also a little afraid of her. She looked like one of those important Washington women Leah sometimes noticed on C-SPAN, women who wore tailored suits and had nicely coiffed hair. Leah forced herself to rise above the fleeting thought that, like mean girls in high school, Alice and Janet were talking about her. She was too old for this sort of thing. They were here for a meeting, and the point was to move this thing forward. She considered clinking a spoon to a glass or ringing a bell, as if she were about to clear her throat and make a speech.
"Welcome," she managed to say, barely audibly. Fortunately, this lame attempt at moderating at least captured Janet's attention, and with a single sharp command Janet got everyone quiet and situated, with folders in hand.
It was Janet who had called Leah a week earlier to say that she had followed up on the house their daughters had found online, and that if they wanted to act, they needed to move quickly. Evidently most groups of kids had secured rentals as long ago as October, and it was late to be starting the process in January. Janet had already spoken to the Chelsea Beach Realtor, and she had the lease in hand. All they needed were two signatures and a security deposit. Then Janet had called again to report that a preliminary sampling of parents indicated the desire for a group meeting. The plan was to meet initially without the girls present. There would be additional meetings later, in the spring, which the teens would attend. It was during this phone call that Leah rashly offered to host, if Janet would take charge.
Leah took stock of her living room, marveling at the way the place seemed transformed, with people everywhere, including on the arms of the love seat, on the floor, and on the fireplace hearth. She hoped her aged sofa wouldn't collapse under the weight of one father who was morbidly obese. She planted herself near the back of the room and leaned on the windowsill to provide quick access to the front door should latecomers straggle in.
"As your kids have probably told you," Janet began, "a couple of the girls have taken the initiative and found a rental at 7221 Seascape Lane. This is a single-family house that sleeps twelve and is in a quiet cul-de-sac right off Route 1. The house is within walking distance to the beach . . . I'm basically reading to you straight from the listing here . . . with parking for two cars only . . . I suppose that could be a problem."
"It's not my problem—I'm certainly not letting my daughter bring a car to the beach," Alice announced. "I think that any parent who allows a teenager to drive with other passengers is completely irresponsible." She was seated on an ottoman, her long legs extended and crossed at the ankle.
Janet skillfully cut the woman off, as if she were managing a difficult client. "Let's not worry about that right now," she said. "Let's just do the needful and discuss the lease . . . The rent for one week, June 5 to June 12, is three thousand dollars. They are asking for a security deposit of fifteen hundred, and parking permits"—she turned toward Alice as she spoke, perhaps to discourage another outburst—"are twenty dollars per vehicle."
Leah winced. It wasn't an outrageous amount, yet when you considered the various end-of-year costs—the graduation parties and gifts and related clothing needs—and factored in such Beach Week incidentals as food, gas, and pocket money, it added up. At least they were being spared the expense of a prom, which had been canceled this year as punishment for a food fight in the cafeteria that had turned violent when a group of senior boys attacked the small contingent of vegans who were protesting the implementation of sushi day; Jordan had come home stinking of the raw fish that had gotten mashed into her hair and on the soles of her shoes. Leah was among the parents who had seen this as an unfair response by the school administration, but in truth she was grateful to be spared what she'd heard could be an astronomical expense, hundreds of dollars by the time one finished paying for the dress, the boutonniere, the limousine, and dinner out.
"Jeez, that's an awful lot," said Courtney Moore's mother. Leah was relieved to learn that she was not alone in this sentiment. Millie Moore and her husband were tax attorneys who shared an office in downtown Verona. They looked more like wannabe artists than tax attorneys, both thin and ghostly pale, clad this evening in black T-shirts and Keds, and Courtney's father wore expensive-looking eyeglasses with chunky frames. They struck Leah as people who were clinging hard to a vision of themselves as bohemian; both Moores seemed eager to weave into any conversation the fact that they were just doing time in their boxy colonial in order to partake of the good public schools. Their daughter was a quiet, studious girl, an accomplished pianist who seemed to be on the fringe of Jordan's core group of friends, although given that Leah was decidedly out of the loop, she wasn't completely sure this was still the case.
"It says it sleeps twelve, and we're currently just ten, so what about defraying the cost with another two girls?" Millie Moore suggested.
"I'm not so sure about that," Arthur Moore replied. "Two more girls and you are exponentially increasing the chances of trouble." The couple exchanged a fractious glance, and Leah was glad to see that she and Charles were not the only household in disaccord on this subject.
She felt a subtle vibration, an indication that the garage door, directly beneath where she stood, had just opened; Charles had arrived home. She quietly exited the room to intercept him in the kitchen and remind him, in case he might have forgotten, or somehow failed to notice the cluster of cars parked in front of their house, that there were more than a dozen parents, at least one of them highly contentious, assembled in the next room.
She was relieved to see him looking his normal self and was suddenly overcome with gratitude. She didn't care if his nonchalance reflected a sometimes maddening ability to compartmentalize, or even just complete oblivion. She gave him a longer than usual kiss on the lips and playfully traced her finger over the faded spot of coffee on the shirt he hadn't had time to change that morning. He looked at her strangely.
"That bad, eh?" He threw his coat on a chair and went over to the refrigerator and retrieved a bottle of Corona.
"Mea culpa. You were right," she said. "This was probably a bad idea."
Leah half expected him to seize on "probably" with a snide quip, but he didn't. Instead he switched on the television. "You do realize there's a big game on tonight," he said. "The Wolves play the Wizards."
"Oh God! I'm so sorry!" She actually did feel bad. Charles was juggling two jobs right now and was under a lot of stress: in addition to his troubled development project, he was a visiting professor at the University of Maryland in the department of urban studies, where his one class sometimes seemed more trouble than it was worth, between the commute and the amount of paperwork. He unwound from all this by taking his sports playing and viewing seriously. She tried to give him a wide berth, but lately it seemed as though every game was important, and he had come to embrace any activity that involved a ball with equal amounts of passion and fierce evening- and weekend-consuming dedication. He was the pitcher on a faculty softball league, and he sometimes rose early to play racquetball, and of course there was that biweekly indoor tennis game with his boss. He had played golf in high school and college but had given it up on the grounds that it was both too time-consuming and expensive. He was a committed spectator, too. He'd grown up in Minnesota, and his family had held season tickets to the Vikings' games for three generations; he'd splurged on tickets the last time the team came to town to play the Redskins. There was pretty much nothing Charles wouldn't watch on television, and there was always something on. Fencing, cricket, boxing—Leah had recently found him up in the middle of the night watching volleyball broadcast live from the University of Hawaii.
She couldn't really gauge his mood and hadn't been able to for some time now. She had recently begun to entertain the thought that the longer they cohabitated, the less well she knew him. Just a few days earlier, when she picked him up at the Metro, Leah had failed to recognize him as he approached from the top of the escalator, just a few yards away. This had less to do with failing eyesight—she still had perfect vision— than with some subtle change in his carriage. This small thing seemed profound in its implications, but it was too much to take in, so she had pushed the possible meaning to the back of her mind.
A well-timed flash of a smile interrupted this flow of negative thought, suggesting that he was not really angry, just mildly annoyed, and that they were in this particular unpleasant parenting task together.
"It's almost over," Leah lied. "But do you want to grab a quick bite first?" she asked, with a nod toward the refrigerator.
"No, I'll wait until after." He rolled up his sleeves and glanced once more, longingly, at the television. Leah hesitated when she saw him ready to enter the meeting with the bottle of beer, and she considered suggesting that he at least pour it into a glass to disguise the contents, since she should have offered everyone a good, stiff drink, but she didn't want to lose what there was of her husband's goodwill.
She was about to follow him back inside to the meeting when something at the window, a flash of movement, caught her eye. She pressed her face to the pane. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but so far as she could see, there was nothing there. She stared out at the rusting swing set for a minute and allowed herself a schmaltzy thought about midwestern cornfields, and then a more worrisome one about the wayward bear. Then she followed Charles in.
"So what exactly needs to be done tonight?" a father was asking, somewhat impatiently.
"Really, all we need to do tonight," Janet replied, "is collect money to send in to reserve the place, which is the security deposit. And then we need to decide who is going to sign the lease. The Realtor said that typically, for Beach Week, two sets of parents sign the lease."
"Uh-oh. I didn't know that we had to pay anything tonight," said Courtney Moore's mother. "We didn't bring our checkbook."
"I didn't realize we were going to act this quickly, either," said the father of Amy Estrada, whose third-generation Chilean ancestry was the only nod toward diversity in the room. "Are we going to have any discussion of the pros and cons of Beach Week? I've heard a lot of bad things happen. I'm not completely sure that I want to let Amy go."
His wife chimed in. "I think we should talk about proper behavior at the beach. We should be sure they have a buddy system so they are never on their own, and we should also talk about drinking, sun poisoning, and . . . I know this may sound a little psycho, but I've heard reports of shark attacks at Chelsea Beach."
"Hear, hear!" said Alice. "I was beginning to wonder if I was the only responsible parent in this room!"
Leah wondered if, as the host of this meeting, she ought to do something about Alice's obnoxious behavior—to intervene, maybe even adjourn for a brief cooling-off period. But no one else seemed bothered by her remarks. Leah tried to catch Charles's eye for a brief exchange of sympathy, but he was staring toward the television, which he could see through the open kitchen door.
"And as I was trying to say before," Alice went on, "I think it's a bad idea for these girls to be driving while they are there. What if we drove them to the beach, then picked them up again?
Does anyone agree with me?"
The possible Clinton foreign policy adviser was the first to reply. He spoke with a trace of an accent that Leah couldn't quite place, which sounded vaguely Eastern European. "Personally, I don't think that makes much sense. But here's a thought: I have a house at the beach, and I'd be willing to let any parents who are willing to chaperone stay there for free."
For free? Leah was confused by this—might he have actually considered charging his fellow Beach Week parents who volunteered to chaperone? She wondered why, if he had a place at the beach, he wasn't offering it up as lodging for the girls. A few moments of murmuring ensued. She was sure this proposal would be rejected out of hand; it seemed to contradict the very point, which was for the kids to go off and have a taste of independence. By summer, most of the girls would be eighteen—although Jordan had a late birthday and wouldn't be of legal age until the following December. Leah had some vague recollection of a theory suggesting that the kids who went off to college and partied the hardest and displayed the most egregious behavior were typically those whose parents had hovered the closest throughout high school. She was aware that she was guilty of hovering rather closely herself, although she liked to think it was in a different way, and was justifiable in her case, given Jordan's medical issues.
"I'd be willing to go for part of the week," Courtney Moore's mother offered. "But I don't have my checkbook with me tonight," she reminded them.
"Sure, I'll go," Courtney Davidson's mother agreed. "It will be a nice break!"
Although Leah didn't know all of her daughter's friends, she was reminded that a disproportionate number of them were named Courtney.
A few others volunteered, too. Leah looked guiltily toward her husband as her own hand began to levitate upward. Although she was generally pretty good at decoding Charles's expressions, she had no idea what the look on his face meant on this occasion. It might have been Have a nice time chaperoning at the beach, darling, or it might have been Have you lost your fucking mind?
"Excellent," Janet said. "I've brought a sign-up list, so I'll just start circulating this and you can note what days suit you best. Be sure to put your phone numbers down so I can call you to sort this out if the dates overlap. Also, speaking of phone numbers, I'm going to send around this other sheet, and I'd like you to put down all your contact information. Home phones, cell phones, work phones, e-mails, pagers, faxes, emergency contacts, et cetera."
As if Janet had made it so by merely speaking the word, a phone somewhere began to ring. Several people checked their cell phones, embarrassed, before Leah realized that it was her own landline. She excused herself once more and ducked into the kitchen. Why she still hadn't trained herself to check the caller ID was a mystery, since the vast majority of calls, including this one, were from telemarketers, and she was unable to just hang up, often taking pity on the poor person who was trying to earn a living at some call center somewhere. When she returned to the living room after a couple of minutes, she could tell that the conversation hadn't advanced very far.
"Hang on . . . What do you actually mean by chaperoning?" Courtney Greene's father asked. "I mean, obviously if the chaperones are staying at the Krazinski place, they aren't going to be there twenty-four seven. And I suspect if there is any trouble to be gotten into, it's going to happen in the wee hours of the night." Krazinski, Leah thought . . . was this a name she ought to recognize?
"Of course that's true," Mr. Krazinski replied, "but the point is really more to just have some adult presence down there. If anything bad were to happen in the middle of the night . . . particularly in the middle of the night . . . someone would be close by, and we wouldn't all be scrambling to drive three hours."
"Two and a half hours," Mr. Davidson corrected.
"I've actually made it in two hours, without traffic," Mr. Estrada countered.
"It depends how you go. Obviously there's no avoiding the Bay Bridge, and that's always a crapshoot, traffic-wise, but once you are on the Eastern Shore, you can avoid Route 1 and cut through the back roads and . . ."
Jordan's entry into the room silenced the debate. Everyone turned to look at her, as if they were students caught with a bottle of Jack Daniel's.
"Sorry!" she said, clearly mortified to be the sudden center of attention. "I was about to start my homework and realized I left my backpack in here." This appeared to be true—it was in the corner by the window. No one said a word as she made her way through the crowded room to retrieve it. She had changed after school into a hooded black sweater and sweatpants, and even in sloppy, baggy clothing she looked quietly ravishing. Leah hated that a roomful of people were noticing this, too. The relief she felt each time she glimpsed her daughter looking so vibrant after these difficult months nearly mitigated the loss she felt for her own youth, but not quite.
"Hi, Jordan," one of the mothers said as Jordan crossed back through toward the kitchen, her heavy bag now slung over her left shoulder.
"Hey, Mrs. Cooper," she replied. "Tell Courtney hi from me!"
Leah was momentarily confused—was there yet another Courtney in the group? But no, it seemed that Mrs. Cooper was probably married to, or at least partnered with, Mr. Greene.
A few other parents greeted Jordan as well, and Leah felt proud of the way her daughter responded to each one politely, despite the fact that she clearly wanted out of the room. She hadn't even reached the kitchen when she pulled her cell phone from the front zipper of her bag and began tapping at the keyboard.
"Okay. Well, this sounds like a good start," Janet continued. "Now, really all we need to do before we adjourn is get two volunteers to sign the lease. If you open your folders and thumb through to page seventeen, you will see a xeroxed copy of the agreement. You might all want to take a moment to review this."
Leah glanced at her watch. The meeting had already lasted ninety minutes and they hadn't even begun a proper discussion of trip logistics. How many more meetings might this possibly involve?
"If we're having chaperones," Alice Long interjected, "then I really don't see the need for the girls to drive." The room was silent except for the turning of pages as everyone skimmed through the document. "Certainly I don't trust my daughter to drive. She's a complete space cadet. A total moron when it comes to traffic."
Leah thought she could detect some surprise at this public derogation of her daughter.
"I know exactly where Seascape Lane is," Mr. Krazinski replied evenly, "and there's really no way the girls will be able to get anywhere without a car. They can't even walk to the grocery store from there, never mind to the boardwalk. I for one have no problem letting Marta take her car. She's a good, safe driver, and I'd prefer to have her behind the wheel rather than worrying that they might wind up stranded somewhere, hitching rides from strangers or some such."
"I agree completely. I'm speaking hypothetically here, since I'm not convinced that I want Jordan to even go to Beach Week, but if she were to go, I'd rather have her driving than hopping into cars with less responsible drivers."
It took Leah a moment to process what she had just heard. Was this really Charles speaking? Indeed it was. His jaw was clamped tight and his chin slanted forward like an angry child's; he was staring purposefully at Alice Long. Leah felt a jolt—of what, she couldn't quite say.
"Okay, this is good," said Janet. "We are off to a good start. Already we've got two drivers,
which, depending on the size of the vehicles and how much stuff the girls bring, may be all we really need. Now there's just the lease and the security deposit."
Silence ensued, which struck Leah as the only reasonable response. Who in their right minds would put their names on this lease, assuming legal and financial responsibility for whatever might occur?
"I'm certainly not signing the lease," Alice said, which seemed a good thing; surely no one wanted her in a position of control, even if it absolved the rest of them of responsibility.
"I'll sign the lease," Krazinski volunteered. "Marta and Deegan—Deegan's her twin brother—are my second and third kids to go off to Beach Week, so I've been through this before. Honestly, I think this is much ado about nothing."
Leah looked across the room to Charles, somewhat worried. Now that he was riding a wave of Beach Week cooperation, or maybe just a surge of Alice Long agitation, perhaps he'd second the offer before they could discuss it. Mercifully, he seemed to have lost interest and was back to staring into the kitchen at the basketball game.
"That's great. Perfect. Thank you," said Janet. "Any other volunteers?"
"What are the legal ramifications if, say, something really awful happens, like the house burns down?" Amy Estrada's mother asked.
"Then we're all screwed," a Courtney mother replied. This remark was followed by some nervous laughter.
"No, really. I'm serious. I mean, let's say the house is worth one million. There are ten of us. So is the extent of our liability then one hundred thousand, give or take?"
"No, no, no . . . I mean just imagine if someone was injured, or God forbid died. What if there was a party at the house and it burned down and there were multiple injured parties? The litigation could go on for years. Decades. I know, I'm a partner at Weiss and Schraub," said Faye Andrews, Courtney Davidson's mother.
"Well, at least we'll have free legal counsel," Amy Estrada's mother joked. "Of course John is a lawyer, too, so we're in doubly good shape," she said, evidently referring to her husband.
"No, she's absolutely right," said Mr. Greene. "I'm an attorney as well, and I mean, we don't want to get carried away here, but I do think we need to really impress on the girls that this is serious business. I agree these are good girls, and I don't see them behaving badly, but we need to be realistic about the kinds of things that can happen even if they aren't at fault. I heard a story where, at Beach Week somewhere in New Jersey, a balcony collapsed during a party and three kids died. Never mind the liability—three kids died!
"Before the girls go off, I think we should have a meeting with parents and girls and kind of scare them straight," he said.
"Look," said Mr. Krazinski. "I'm a lawyer, too, and I think you are all making too much of this." Leah wondered if his being a lawyer negated her foreign policy adviser theory. Probably not. She also wondered if it would be completely inappropriate to ask for a show of hands to tally the number of lawyers in the room. It wasn't irrelevant, given the possibility that, from the sound of things, they might be sued.
"This just doesn't add up," Alice Long said. "If this whole Beach Week thing is so bad that we're sitting here talking about kids dying and parents being sued, why are we letting our kids go? This just seems irresponsible to me."
"You've mentioned this a number of times, and while I confess that I have my own reservations, it leads me to wonder, if you don't mind my asking, what you are doing here? You seem a little . . . negative." Again, against all odds, this was Charles speaking.
"What do you mean, what am I doing here? I'm being a responsible parent," said Alice.
"Yes, but you haven't come here to discuss so much as to accuse. You are clearly opposed to the whole idea of Beach Week. As I said before, I can't say I'm sold on it myself, but it seems that you've come here with your mind made up, to judge the rest of us . . ."
"Who are you to judge me? I mean, look at you, so eager to let your daughter take responsibility for the lives of others, behind the wheel . . . And you—standing there with a beer in your hand while your daughter walks in and out of the room! What a fine example!"
Leah listened, slightly stunned. Had parenting mores grown so severe that a father was no longer supposed to drink a beer in front of his child? But it was more than this that Leah found confounding. Here she'd been trying so hard to fit into this place, to gain acceptance, and now when she looked around at this group, what she saw was a roomful of bickering, overregulating, overindulging parents. That said, here she was among them, and she couldn't say that her own behavior, or concerns, were really any different.
"I don't feel the need to explain to you that we have certain policies in place for our daughter regarding her driving, as well as rules about drinking," Charles retorted, "and I'm quite comfortable with those. I don't need to be told what's responsible parental behavior by someone I've never even met before."
Increasingly, Charles made pronouncements that puzzled her. When she recently pondered aloud whether their money tensions had led to what felt to her a subtle disconnect, he had made some elliptical comment about how any long-term marriage involved patches of distance, as if this were a known fact. And now here he was referring to some driving policy, and some particular set of rules having to do with alcohol, that she was unaware of. Was he privy to information, aware of great truths that she was not? Or did he just make this stuff up as he went along?
Alice Long unfolded herself from the ottoman and walked across the room, her eyes locked on Charles as she theatrically poured what was left of the Perrier into her cup. She then dropped a melting ice cube into her glass, creating a small splash. The room was uncomfortably silent. Awkward, as Jordan would no doubt say.
"Oh . . . kay," said Janet. "It's getting late. I think we've covered enough ground.
"So let's just get another parent to sign the lease, and I'll collect the checks—actually, make them all out to me so that I can write one to send to the Realtor, and then we can reconvene in a few weeks."
Courtney Moore's mother reminded them for the third time that she did not have her checkbook.
"I'll cover for you," Leah heard herself say, "and you can drop a check off tomorrow." She avoided looking in Charles's direction as she made this offer; surely they were the last couple in the room that should be volunteering Beach Week bridge loans, but she was tired and willing to do just about anything to move this meeting toward conclusion.
"That's great. Thank you so much! I'll stop by on my way to work tomorrow," Millie Moore said.
"Okay, the lease . . ." Janet repeated.
This was truly beginning to feel like a bad dream. Who would ever sign this lease without duress? Although actually the whole evening was a subtle form of duress.
"Look," said the Weiss and Schraub partner, "here's what I think we can do to alleviate everyone's anxiety, at least as it pertains to the lease . . . I'll go ahead and cosign just so that we can get this show on the road, and then I'll draw up an addendum to the lease, spelling out our shared responsibility. All of the remaining parents will sign the addendum, and then there is no issue of anyone getting stuck or being financially or legally responsible on their own. I concentrate on family law, but I'll ask one of my colleagues for advice. It's pretty straightforward stuff. How does that sound?"
There was a bit more back-and-forth on this subject, the upshot of which was that there were at least two more lawyers in the group, bringing Leah's informal tally to eight. Eventually there seemed a consensus that this was a reasonable solution, but Leah couldn't help but think that really, everyone was just worn down. Hungry, tired, and bullied by Alice Long, they'd sign any piece of paper if it meant they could just go home.
Excerpted from Beach Week by Susan Coll. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Coll. Published in June 2010 by Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.