The party was on that patio, but I wasn’t. Long-legged women in gauzy beachwear, sure-footed men in Bermuda shorts, these mothers and fathers had hauled their kids to the Cape for summer but now wanted nothing to do with us. Strangers in June, they’d found each other by July — maybe, I’d imagined, through some silent SOS known only to parents, or some whale-like echolocation that was understood to mean: Rescue me from my tedious progeny, and I’ll return the favor. Now, they forged breezy, boozy alliances over Pall Malls and whiskey sours. To my fourteen-year-old eyes, they were as confident as the steel-shaded clouds racing across the aluminum sky. They were a magazine ad for The Good Life, circa 1969. Knowing no better, I twitched with envy.
I’d been remanded to this rental cottage’s living room with half a dozen other vacation brats. We had loose instructions to busy ourselves with board games and jigsaw puzzles missing more than a few pieces. As the oldest, I’d been given tacit dominion over the brood, but I didn’t care to learn anyone’s name. I cared even less when a younger girl announced in cruel, angular tones that she was in charge because, “First off,” she was a babysitter, and, “In case you didn’t know,” her family had rented this particular house. Her hair was streaked blonde by the sun, and I decided she was less popular in school than she thought she was.
I hovered at the window, gnawing a cuticle. An easterly breeze lifted second-hand smoke and cocoa butter and clever conversations through the screen. They talked of Nixon and Vietnam, the Kennedys and the moon, in voices that rose and receded like waves lapping the Chatham shore. One woman yanked off her floppy straw hat and poofed her hair with her fingers, teasing it towards the sky.
“Teddy’s made a mess of it,” she said. “He’ll never be President now.”
“I feel terrible for that girl,” said my mother. “What if that was your daughter?” This was the closest thing to an I love you I’d heard all summer. Maybe longer. I’d made a practice of ignoring her all year unless, of course, I needed a ride somewhere.
A third woman said, “Well, that girl — which she wasn’t — should’ve known better than to get in that car.” She peered over black sunglasses the size of small plates. “The Pope himself couldn’t lift the curse off that family.”
A sunburnt man hushed the group and pointed to the transistor radio perched on a picnic table. Everyone leaned in, holding their collective breath, immovably animated, waiting for news that might change the world. I waited, too. I pressed my right ear against the window screen, but all I could hear was bratty static behind me. Right after girl-in-charge demanded I sit down to play I-didn’t-care-what, a cheer went up on the patio, and I shot out the door.
My father called me over and slung an arm across my shoulder.
“We did it, sweetheart. Goddammit, the Eagle has landed, and we are on the moon!” He wrapped my hand around his icy beer and winked. “Don’t tell your mother.” It was frothy and bitter and delicious, and my father didn’t seem to care how much I drank. I returned an empty bottle and let out a wild belch. He didn’t notice. He was slapping polo-shirted backs and laughing in a way that made him look very young.
I made a dizzy orbit around the crowd until my Coppertoned mother stretched out her arm, waving me into the circle of women lounged on folding beach chairs. She pulled me close and brushed hair out of my face. If she smelled beer, she didn’t let on.
The woman who thought the Kennedys were cursed lifted those plate-sized sunglasses. “Child, why aren’t you playing inside?” Her green-eyed interrogation threatened to drill a precise hole in my forehead, and I knew whose mother she was.
My own mother whispered to do what I was told. Aloud, she said, “Put your shoes on.” She spun me around by the shoulders and scooted me off like a toddler. As if I hadn’t already put my hand between Nate Sorenson’s warm legs in the science room after class one day. As if I hadn’t guided his shaky fingers to my chest.
Back inside, the youngest brats weaponized wooden alphabet blocks and ignored the cruel blonde babysitter’s admonition to, “Sit down and be quiet — or else.” I darted to the kitchen and swiped a Fresca from the refrigerator. Swallowing over the sink, I stared out the window, stared as if I might burn a hole through the clouds and spot those men on their Sea of Tranquility. On the windowsill was a crumpled pack of Salems. I stole one, and a book of matches, before I let the kitchen’s screen door slam behind me.
The air tasted like charcoal and grease and rocket fuel. I flew past rows of identical cottages, shingled and weathered save for snowballs of violet hydrangea blossoms by each door. Distant radio waves rippled out the summer’s soundtrack. I strode along to a freewheeling hit whose dire lyrics warned of a bad moon on the rise. Two seagulls soared above me, and I chased them through the tall seagrass down to an empty shore.
At the water’s edge, muted waves stole my footprints but left shards of purple Quahog shells on my toes. The wind whipped sand and salt and stung my goosebumped skin. My arms ached as if they were growing longer, and my hands looked like they belonged to someone else. I climbed to the top of a dune with the stolen, unlit cigarette dangling between my lips. Then I stuck it in the sand, filter side down, and wrapped the book of matches around its top, like a flag at full attention, weightless and immune to gravity.
Jean Synodinos (say it like this: sin-uh-DEE-nus) is an emerging writer whose stories have appeared in The Normal School, Los Angeles Review, and Orca: A Literary Journal. She is also the proud 2021 Writers’ League of Texas Bess Whitehead Scott Fellow in Creative Writing. When she’s not writing, you can find Jean with a paintbrush in her hand. She lives in Austin, TX with her partner and their peckish but beautiful “schnusky” mutt.