The house smelled like mold because it sat by the sound. That’s why they called it The Sound Front Inn. The lace curtains resembled doilies, the wood furniture was swollen with salt, the rugs faded by unadulterated sunlight.
It was the place every summer where she’d gotten to live with Chiara. Dee’s family’s door was on the left and Chiara’s was on the right, and the girls slept together, alternating nights in each house. Dee had always loved the nights in her room the best, when the girls inhabited the little bedroom at the end of the hall past the kitchen where you could smell everything when it was cooking, could hear the outdoor showers as if they were in the room. It had been converted from a screened in porch, so it still had the feeling of being outside, floating above the ground.
They started walking hand in hand when they were eleven, before they had any real associations with the feeling, with what kind of relationship a physical touch like that went with. The cat tails that lined the yards waved in greeting.
Chiara liked to pull Dee out into the middle of the road. When they walked home from the beach at sunset, sometimes Dee knew they were hard to see. If she could have made them wear reflective hazard vests she would have. She’d always been a little bit too much of an adult.
But that was because Chiara treated Dee like a child.
Dee, you need shaving cream, you can’t just use soap and water. Are you even ready for shaving anyway?
Dee, there’s a T in Christmas, to spell Christ. Don’t you know that?
Dee, you don’t already know nine times nine? Come on. I thought you liked math.
So Dee tried to talk back. You can’t walk in the middle of the road.
Maybe you can’t. But I’m not some fragile little thing you can put on a shelf. You can’t tell me what to do.
The bell jingled as Dee opened the door of the local store. She picked up a couple of ears of corn, a bell pepper, an onion, a head of garlic. She grabbed a box of pasta and a can of tomatoes, thinking she’d have corn and pasta primavera, or something like that. She’d just put it in a pan and hope for the best.
At the checkout counter, Dee didn’t recognize the cashier. It was a younger boy, a teenager, this year. Usually it was Old Sal, who preferred to be called Uncle Sal, but Chiara always had a way of inventing bad nicknames that stuck. Her mother probably would have asked about Old Sal, but Dee wasn’t much of a small talker. She paid for the vegetables and headed back home.
Chiara had taught her to cook like that. When they were 14, Chiara made Dee’s birthday cake.
I realized that you don’t really have to measure, she’d said. You just sort of put it all in.
It had been delicious, but irreplicable. A one-time cake, never to be had again. Sort of like Chiara.
She was chopping up the vegetables into thin slices, julienning the way Chiara had always preferred.
Dee, you have to put oil in the pan first you can’t just start with the vegetables.
She tipped the contents of the cutting board into the pan and it started sizzling immediately, just as it had when Chiara cooked. Maybe Chiara would actually pull up, any minute now, and they could eat some of Chiara’s favorite food together.
This kitchen was where Dee had been kissed for the first time. They’d come to the kitchen, long after the parents had gone to sleep.
There’s beers in the fridge. So so many. I don’t know how after all the bottles Dad drank, but they definitely wouldn’t notice two or three or four. Chiara giggled.
Dee sat at the table with her dinner and popped off the cap of an IPA.
Four? We don’t need four. That’s excessive. But Dee giggled too.
Chiara propped a pajama-pantsed knee against the kitchen table. It sat in the middle of the room, counters and sink and windows surrounding it, so sitting there felt like being at the center of everything.
I guess we have to play truth or dare, right? That’s how this works when you drink for the first time?
They had gotten carried away in the excitement. The way that their parents acted at the beach, it was as if everything was permissible. They didn’t even have to steal beers in the middle of the night to drink alcohol. They were often given a glass of wine over dinner. But they made sure to drink those drinks slowly. They needn’t have worried. Part of being at the beach was alcoholism. Part of being Chiara’s dad was alcoholism. And no one was paying attention to how much two straight-A girls were drinking.
Chiara’s long dark hair was still drying from her post-beach shower, dark wet marks on her oversized t-shirt. Chiara had always been beautiful, but this was how Dee thought she looked best. Cute in an accidental kind of way. They both wore pajama pants even though it was the summer because it made them feel cozy. Everything smelled like aloe to Dee, who covered herself in it.
Chiara said, truth, just to be a bit different, to play out of character.
I bet you never thought I’d say that, she laughed.
Ok, tell me something you’ve always wanted to do but have always been too afraid to.
Dee couldn’t have answered that question herself. She tried not to dwell on things. That’s why she was going around a beach house in the off season, walking along the silver linings of memories.
Chiara kissed her. Dee hadn’t realized she’d been dreaming of feeling Chiara’s lips again until they were on hers. She’d dreamt of the maze of creases that made up the vertical lines of Chiara’s lips, where she picked at the dried skin and it was a bit rawer.
It was like déjà vu, kissing someone you’d known for that long.
You didn’t choose dare, Chiara. I thought you were trying to break the mold. Step out of your comfort zone. A beer-laced laugh bubbled up out of her, and Chiara smirked, sweeping her long damp hair up in a bun, an effortless mess.
Well it’s harder than I thought.
Dee had resolved to grow her short hair out, jealous of Chiara’s hair, but she could never wait long enough. She went to the barber before her hair had grown out, and it stayed short, about collarbone length. In the winter when her hair didn’t get caught in jacket zippers she loved it, but in the summer, she hated it. She hated that Chiara looked like a mermaid in the waves and she looked like a little girl. She hated that Chiara tanned and she burned. She hated that it always felt like Chiara walked away without a mark.
Her mom called as she was sitting down to eat.
“Dee, I think we’re gonna get there Sunday. Your dad wants to leave a day earlier. Would you want to come out and join us? I think some time at the beach would be good for all of us.”
Thunder broke from her gut up through her chest. How could they throw their plans around like that? Through the storm in her stomach, she felt her mother willing this good to be true, and so she said she’d think about it. But she was calculating when she would have to leave to pass them, ships in the night.
She decided to go for a bike ride to the beach. She could go sand crab hunting. Maybe she would find some baby turtles making their way to the water. She went out to the boathouse that was just a shed and undid the combination lock, the digits of her birthday. The old bulb flickered to life, illuminating spiders and crawlers scrambling to return to their shadows, the smell of beach and mold.
Nighttime wind tickled her, blew her long hair against her arms and her neck. It was a bit cloudy, but she loved that you could see the stars here. One of her friends in college hadn’t believed her when she said she’d seen the Milky Way. She hated light pollution, hated how the world was changing.
She used her phone flashlight to search for her bike. It was old and rusty, but it worked. The chains turned and the tires weren’t flat.
She’d learned to bike here. Back at home it was too hilly, there were too many cars and pedestrians and lights. But here it was quiet, here it was flat, here the bike had more muscle memory than she did and it knew where to go, how to move, when to turn.
There probably weren’t enough streetlights. They were few enough and far between that each occurrence felt like a spotlight, a celebration. Chiara treated them that way at least.
Look, in this one we’ll put on a performance of Les Mis, she screamed over her shoulder. She was a much faster biker than Dee.
Dee had always found it enchanting that Chiara came alive on her bike at night. But she had always had to be with Chiara. Her parents hated when she biked at night, they didn’t trust her to keep her bike lights on, but if she was with Chiara, her mom would just fawn over Chiara and shoot a look Dee’s way and that would be all.
She rode past the produce stand, its lights now dark, the vending machine out front lit by a dim overhead light so it almost looked like a phantom of the object it was.
She finally got to the public beach and there were still cars in the lot, even though the signs clearly said the park was closed. It was just like in the cities. No one paid attention when a public park was closed.
Once when they’d gone crab hunting at night, they’d come across a group of nature conservationists who were guiding a group of baby turtles to the water. They’d asked the girls to join them.
Have you heard the statistics? Chiara asked. Dee shook her head. Of course she hadn’t.
Once they’re in the ocean, baby sea turtles are in danger of being eaten by just about everything you can think of. But that’s the easy part. Very few of them even make it into the water. Only about 2 of 1000 baby turtles that hatch even make it to adulthood.
Ah, so we’re saving the turtles.
But it was amazing to watch. Most of that nest got to the water. There were about six people in total there. Two conservationists, and two more nightwalkers. They fought off curious crabs like the valiant knights they were.
At the last minute, Dee decided not to use her flashlight to look for turtles and crabs. She knew that there were no nests hatching at this time of year. She might as well enjoy the moon. She couldn’t tell if it was waxing or waning, she’d always been bad at keeping the terminology straight. Science had never been her area of expertise in school.
It was crazy how if she turned her light on, she’d see crabs everywhere, but with no light, just wandering in the dark, there wasn’t a sign of a single one. It had always made her feel safer in the dark. That the things that you couldn’t see couldn’t hurt you.
The next morning, she heard a car coming down the gravel road that led up to the house. Dee’s heart took off at a sprint, she wondered if she would recognize Chiara’s car if it was her. She probably wouldn’t; it had been too many years. Chiara hadn’t even had a car last time they’d really spoken, face to face.
But as she got to the front window, she saw her parents’ black Subaru. She was pinned, a butterfly caught for preservation, the pin gone through the base of her spine to paralyze her, to keep her wings perfectly intact.
She was still standing there at the window when her mother opened the front door and dropped her jaw.
But after a short moment. “You came to surprise us!” She broke out into a grin and then pulled Dee into a hug.
Dee nodded into her mother’s shoulder.
“Paul, Dee’s come to surprise us!”
He followed her suit and came in to hug her.
“I’m glad you decided to come,” he whispered in Dee’s ear.
Almost instantly once they were through the door they were gone. Her parents had a system of how they did things, how they packed for their weekend at the beach, how they unpacked once they got there. It was as if their energy was on a breeze and it flowed through the house, giving Dee her cool relief one moment and the invisibility of a memory the next.
She sat in the nook of the sunny corner of the bay windows that overlooked the sound, trying to decide what to do with the day. She leaned against one window and sipped the tea that her breeze of a mother had dropped off for her at some point. She could hear her parents bickering in the kitchen about which drawer in the fridge they kept the vegetables in, because they could never agree on what they remembered.
Dee had always felt like this was the precise place where bay windows had been invented. She felt it was so rare that bay windows actually overlooked a bay and considered herself lucky to find herself so at the center of language, at the very place of genesis of a word. But it was also one of the places in the house she felt tension.
The tea was bitter; her mother always brewed it too strongly. Dee had gotten her a tea timer one year for Christmas, but that had lasted about as long as the sand in the little hour glasses took to release every granule. Some habits just can’t be broken. But Dee didn’t like to think of habits that way. Once she’d had a habit of running her index finger over the corners of her lips. She didn’t know when this had started. Maybe in elementary school when someone had made a comment about her mouth’s more excessive than normal saliva production, or when she’d realized on the bus to middle school one morning that she drooled in her sleep. Chiara had always made fun of her for it.
They’d been sitting in the bay window nook, reading.
Why do you do that? Chiara had pointed at Dee’s mouth, and Dee had dropped her hand. That had been when she still lived inside the fantasy that only we were aware of our little ticks, of our bad habits. She’d thought that only she knew herself and her mannerisms well enough to catch something like that. And then Chiara had pointed out ticks that Dee didn’t even know she had.
When you’re confused or embarrassed you widen your eyes really big. It makes it look like you’re rolling your eyes at us, but really you’re just embarrassed.
That had been a hard one to grasp. How could Chiara have not only picked up on a small mannerism like that, but also understand why Dee’s brain was sending the signals to complete the actions? They hadn’t even known each other well at that point. That was the same summer Chiara’s family moved into the duplex, the summer after fifth grade. Dee had never felt so seen so quickly by anyone before.
When they were older, Chiara had sat across from her at the other side of the bay windows, their toes touching in the middle. Chiara’s toes wiggled under her own.
So what are we gonna do today? Chiara asked with a grin.
Dee’s lungs clenched. Well I kind of want to stay in and read today.
Chiara frowned. But we’re here at the beach. We should go to the beach. She had never understood that staying home and reading in the sun had its beauties too, that you couldn’t always just sit and read at home, that the sunspots in the beach house were different and unique and stronger than any sunspots that they had at home. Dee wanted to read here because she was here, and she wouldn’t get to do that any time of the year, especially if she went to the beach again today.
Well why don’t you go to the beach and I’ll stay here.
Chiara didn’t like that idea. But we’re here together so we should be together. Come on, let’s just go to the beach.
But I’m sunburnt and tired and I just want to stay here today!
Good luck enjoying the rest of your summer vacation then, she’d threatened. The way that Dee’s anger had evaporated into fear had shocked her, made her feel helpless, without an escape.
Dee looked out the window. She saw Chiara’s hair in the soft waves that the bay offered to the rough, shell shore. She was enchanted by the drifting sun, and her gaze blurred to the heat of the tea and the light.
This time she decided to stay in and read.
She was still reading on the couch when her father asked if she wanted to join him at the beach. She closed her book.
She hesitated, but the water did look beautiful, and it was unexpectedly warm that day. So she caved, easily, as though she’d wanted to go all along.
Both in swim shorts and t-shirts, they biked in silence to the beach, but it was a silence Dee couldn’t hear. It was only ever with her dad that the white noise of the world could fade into the distance.
But it also meant that her thoughts were louder. She couldn’t wave back at the cattails and the overgrown beach-side grass, wasn’t paying attention to the houses she was passing or the highway they rode down, the little airport landing strip that was only used for private planes, the turn off to the private beach you had to pay for.
Chiara never really spent time with Dee’s dad the way she had with Dee’s mom. Dee’s mom had been like an unofficial godmother to her. Dee’s dad had been virtually a stranger.
I don’t like men older than twenty two.
Dee had balked at that one. But what about your dad?
Chiara shook her head. Hate him.
Dee got scared, knowing that she might.
“Dee!” he called out to her. She was about to miss the turn off.
They spent the afternoon in the water together. Her father bodysurfed, and she floated on her back with her head pointing out to sea, so that even if a wave took her by surprise water wouldn’t go as easily up her nose. Her father had always been good at turning his body into sea foam. Even as a child, his favorite stuffed animal was a fish. He loved that thing. His mother had tried to bribe him to leave it at home, tried to offer him playdates, ice cream, cookies, a birthday dinner with mac n’ cheese and mashed potatoes even though they were both starches. But in the end, she had to take it from his bed in the middle of the night before trash day, and let it be taken off to the landfill.
There was a dead moment, and they were treading water side by side, riding the occasional swell as it lifted them off their feet. The harshest waves were much more forgiving.
“Are you thinking about Chiara?” he asked.
She knew he knew she didn’t want to talk about it.
“It must be hard to be here without her, is all,” he added.
“Not as hard as you might think,” she said.
They watched the sun glint on the waves, changing the color of the water. There was a sand bar not too far off, but Dee knew it was farther than it looked. She tried to measure the time of day by the sun’s position in the sky. She’d done it when she was younger, and she’d always been surprised by how far off she had been.
How could people have ever told the time of day by where the sun was in the sky? She’d asked, incredulous.
No, no they didn’t tell the time of day, just the general time. Like afternoon, morning, evening, Chiara had told her. Hours of the day are invented.
“Wanna ride the next wave in?” her dad asked. “One more good ride?”
“Ok,” she said.
Sunday arrived, but Chiara didn’t, and Dee decided going back into work would be better than another seven days like this. That morning, Dee went with her mother to the produce stand and the drug store to get things for a final dinner together as a family.
“We’ll make your favorite dinner,” her mother carried the basket down the short aisles. “Corn on the cob, collard greens, and pork chops—but you don’t eat pork chops anymore, I always forget.”
Dee shook her head. “But I can make tofu chops instead.”
At the checkout counter, her mother made conversation with the cashier. It was an older woman, someone Dee didn’t know but her mother seemed to.
“Dee, remember Sarah? This is Uncle Sal’s niece, she used to work in the summers when you were very young.”
Dee lifted the apples of her cheeks in an open-palmed smile.
“Where’s the other girl who was always with y’all?” Sarah asked.
Dee’s mother smiled. “She’s with her parents up in Vermont where they live. She just got back from living abroad.”
Dee frowned. Sarah smiled.
“That sounds like a blast. I hope you get to see each other soon. Like peas in a pod y’all were,” she said to Dee.
Dee’s mother paid for the food and then wished Sarah a good day.
“Dee, come sit with me while I make dinner,” her mother called from the kitchen.
Dee managed to raise herself from the sun-soaked bed, which seemed a shame, and went to sit at the kitchen table. Her mother was shucking corn, putting all of the hairs and the stalks in a big metal bowl.
“How are you doing?” her mother asked.
“I’m good.” Dee had read once in a language textbook that in English, especially in the US, ‘how are you doing’ was used as a greeting phrase rather than as an actual question. She hadn’t understood that at the time, because she always responded to the question, but in this moment she did feel like it was more of a greeting than anything. Because she wasn’t good. And they both knew that.
“Is Dad still at the beach?” Dee asked.
“He’s not going to help you cook dinner?”
Dee’s mother smiled. “I know your generation has different opinions on this, but your father and I pull different weights in the house. I cook dinner. He unloaded the car, and he’ll be loading it again.”
Dee had heard things like this before, but she still couldn’t exactly square it for herself.
Her mother looked back at Dee over her shoulder and laughed while she dried her hands on the dish towel.
“What?” Dee protested. “I just don’t agree with you.”
Her mother’s eyes crinkled. “You’ve always made that face you make when you’re thinking hard. Where your eyes get all big and it looks like you’re annoyed but you’re really just thinking.”
Dee’s brow made a row of vertical lines. It was the same face Chiara had always made fun of. “I make that face when I’m embarrassed.”
Her mother shook her head and started chopping the corn. “Where’d you get that idea? What would you be embarrassed about right now?”
And Dee didn’t know what to say.
How had she thought Chiara could know her better than her own mother knew her?
After a moment more of silence, Dee asked, “Have you heard anything from Chiara?”
Her mother stiffened slightly but then relaxed and kept working with the garlic. She was obsessive about how small she got the pieces. She would spread it out with her knife and chop it again, then spread it out and chop it again, until it was practically a paste. Her fingers would smell like garlic for days afterwards, it had always been Dee’s favorite thing.
“She’s doing well, honey. Just like you are,” her mother said.
Dee sighed. That’s all she would say, she knew, but it had taken her so long to ask. Couldn’t she just afford to give a little bit more information? Just a little?
“She’s still at her job? Still with her boyfriend?”
Her mother shook her head. “I don’t think it’s worth asking these questions, Dee. It’ll only hurt more.”
Dee closed her eyes. Chiara was sitting next to her.
Why don’t you and your parents talk about anything?
We do talk about things, Dee said.
Sure. Like the weather.
The weather is very important. It’s something we all experience.
Chiara laughed. Sure.
You don’t talk about feelings with your dad, only your mom.
Yeah but my dad’s not a real person.
Dee sighed. “I just want to know she’s alive and what she’s up to, you know?”
Her mother shook her head again. “I just don’t think it’s productive.”
Dee’s jaw clenched, just like it had the first time she’d heard it.
“I don’t need to see her, Mom.”
Her mother picked up the garlic with the edge of the knife and dropped it into the hot oil in the pan.
Under the sizzling, Dee said “I see her every day.”
Evelyn Burd is a writer from Austin, Texas. She is interested in questions of language, friendship, and loss, as well as speculative and modernist writing. She is graduating with her MFA in Fiction and Literary Translation from Columbia University.
September is the best time to find a new flat. You escape high rent by living in neighbourhoods the tube doesn’t reach. You remember moving from student halls to Friern Road and how obscene the train journey felt to Brixton because it was followed by eighteen stops on the bus. But it didn’t matter because South East London was finally going to be more tangible than The Windmill. And even though the fridge was empty, the room unfurnished and the call unreturned, your first night was happy and unintellectual: sitting cross-legged on the floor eating mango sorbet while it thundered. It would be the first and last time you’d meet your neighbours, the last time they would see the kettle you borrowed. And by the end of the contract, you’d learn to bleach the bath and your hair and to forgive the acerbic tongues of your friends. As you flattened the cardboard boxes, Paul mentioned you were an ingénue and that living on a street with a telephone booth meant good luck.
ON A VISIT TO HASTINGS AND RYE
You realise the churning pit below your ribcage has nothing to do with New Brutalism or the vague blue of the Thames. And even though you needed the city to be your scapegoat, you can’t help submitting to a sunny indifference when reading a billboard with William the Conqueror’s timeline or queuing for fish & chips. It took you looking at the English Channel to realise you’d rather be aimless in London if you have to be. You think about everyone who’s left and come back just to leave again. The Marylebone bookseller speaking about the Lamb House. How sunset happens at lunch for most of the year and the autumn summer is holding.