By the time Renee Marie stepped from the backseat of the ’74 Plymouth Duster, it was nearly 9:00 a.m. Going to North Beach every other weekend the best—it’s what we do she liked to tell friends. It made the Martinos different from the others living next door to them in the apartments showed they could afford to go places. Really they were lucky to live there—if you lived in a house you’d be too comfortable to go someplace else.
She’d seen how that was true first-hand, had once been invited to a friend’s place at Auburn Woods condo development. She recalled the sensation of sinking into a leather chair so deep and rich it was like sinking into chocolate. Later when they had gone to bed, the girl’s mother floated toward them in a nightgown of raw silk. She’d bent to kiss them good-night and the chalky feel of her lipstick on Renee Marie’s cheek made her feel strangely inert.
Better to be on the move! Her mother humming along 102 East through Londonderry, Derry, and on to the 107 through East Kingston along the winding roads, no air conditioning in the Duster, just open the windows, turn up the radio and listen to the rattle of those voices coming from the static-blown speakers. That morning, Renee Marie had sat in the back, her legs stretched along a towel so the vinyl seat didn’t stick to the backs of her thighs. She’d passed the time plucking threads from her cut-off shorts to even them up and look down to admire her bikini top—red and yellow tones making it sizzle and pop, the effect of her breasts beneath the tiny triangles of slippery fabric, nearly 16, a faithful reader of Cosmo, she knew!
Now, Renee Marie tucked towels beneath her arm and carried the bag with Cheez-its and cups. Guy gripped the Styrofoam cooler and Tessa lugged her beach chair.
Tessa charged toward the dunes and they followed, the “v” of Renee Marie’s flip-flops jamming between her toes as she marched along splints of driftwood that made up the path. Guy trooped behind her, the cooler squeaking with every step.
Renee Marie preferred the waterline but Tessa hated the aggravation of pulling the chairs and all the rest from the creeping tide. Hadn’t her mother once lost a camera to the sea that way? But Renee Marie knew staking a spot in the dunes wasn’t just about the shifting tides. Tessa was single again and good-looking but available only to men willing to make the effort of scouring the mounds where she was setting her tri-fold chair now, off the path and between two dunes. She drew the line at those with the Geiger counters— funny how those men were always fat and squat as frogs and dipping their bald pates to the sound emitting from machines regular as heart-beats. Who would date someone like that?
Could she call what she had with Mike Walsh dating?
She was nearly 16, old enough she thought but her mother said, no. That hadn’t stopped Renee Marie bringing him to her bedroom while Tessa was at work. They had stripped to their underwear and then in walks Guy—he should’ve knocked first, it was embarrassing! Mike’s hand on her tit, slipping her nipple in his mouth and in walks her brother, who stares, mouth gaping like the puppeteer working his mouth had spaced out and then recovering, slamming his fist against the door jamb and leaving a smear of blood and screaming for Mike to get the fuck out or he’d kill him. For days, she’d been scared he’d tell Tessa and then she’d be in for it—her head snatched back and forth, her mother’s hands gripping Renee Marie’s long brown hair, yanking ‘til her scalp stung. But a week later, Guy still hadn’t said a thing.
‘Never again’, Renee Marie had promised.
Guy narrowed his eyes, maybe squeezing her down to little sister size once more.
How a big brother’s words could hurt!
‘In the house I mean.’
He’d lit a cigarette and stuck the match in the soil of a potted plant.
‘Mike Walsh is a dick.’
Renee Marie had wanted to say there hadn’t been enough time to tell but instead held her tongue.
A sweep of Tessa’s hand.
“Set them anywhere.”
As if they were the movers and North Beach her water-front property.
Guy shifted the cooler to the sand and Renee Marie spread their towels. Too hot already between these dunes high as the second storey apartment they lived in. She sat for a moment watching her mother stoop and untie the ribbons of her espadrilles then shake them off. Next she slipped from her terrycloth shift, spread it at the head of her chair, then squeeze Ban de Soleil onto her palms. She massaged her calves where spider veins bloomed the same as when Renee Marie was a little girl and brushed water color paints to a wet paper towel.
When she was finished with all the skin she could reach, Tessa tossed the tube of lotion to Renee Marie.
“Get my back.”
Guy lit a cigarette, the acrid scent of match and smoke drifting toward her.
She squeezed the tube, crouched behind her mother and began working the lotion into her mother’s back, trying to get it over with, using large circular motions. Touching her mother’s skin made her squeamish unlike when she was a little girl when Renee Marie had often reached out for the most embarrassing places—the belly with the scar at least two inches long and the width of a knife blade—the ridged skin where the scalpel had glanced over her mother like slicing turkey because Renee Marie had delivered just under 9 lbs. Now, she tried not to look too closely at her mother, the moles on her back, the lines that straggled like wires from the corners of her eyes.
“Under the straps too,” Tessa reminded.
Renee Marie’s fingers slipped under the straps of her mother’s black one-piece, her hands rubbing lotion into the skin above the scooped back though her eyes were on Guy smoking his cigarette in short puffs, the ember snapping a little with each pull and squinting beyond the line of dunes where the waves shone like mica.
“Hold up your hair.”
Tessa twisted her bleached hair from her neck where Renee Marie spread the excess lotion.
She handed the tube back to her mother.
“You want me to…”
“I’m good,” Renee Marie said. She sat at the edge of her towel, pulling at the fringe of her cut-offs again. She didn’t want her mother’s hands running along her body! Besides, unlike her, Renee Marie seldom burned.
She heard the paper bag rustle, Tessa reaching in for a cup then lifting the lid of the Styrofoam cooler digging past apple slices and Canada Dry to pluck a miniature bottle of gin and plastic bottle of tonic water. Tessa fingered ice cubes into the cup, mixed the drink with her finger and squeezed a wedge of lime she’d packed in a plastic baggie. She sipped, rummaged in the bag once more and pulled out a paper-back. A Stranger in the Mirror, by Sydney Sheldon Renee Marie read. Tessa stretched the length of the chair, the plastic tubes hammocking her ass.
Renee Marie reached in the cooler for a ginger-ale, setting the lid back in place then stripping the tab from the can and sliding it in the drink. She gave the can a swirl, hoping the tab had hit bottom, then lifted the can to her lips, felt a tickle at her nose, liked how the liquid bubbled along her tongue. It was good they were here together, cramped as it was in this place, Tessa’s chair dominating the space between the dunes, Renee Marie on her towel and pressed up against a slope of dune. Guy was kneeling toward the foot of Tessa’s chair, screwing the butt of his cigarette in the sand. He stood, stripped his t-shirt over his shaggy brown hair then kicked his Chuck Taylor’s from his feet.
“It’s better without the caterpillars,” Renee Marie said.
Guy looked down at her, shrugged. He began walking from the dunes to the shoreline, his heels sinking in the deep sand, his progress slow.
They were gross those caterpillars—their hair black and ticklish, an oiliness to the movement of their bodies. They’d grow into Japanese beetles shiny green like this can of ginger-ale in her hand in the right light then chew the rhododendrons, the roses, whatever came before their hungry mouths to bits. Already the damage so bad they’d been featured in the Mason Telegraph which was stupid—Renee Marie would rather read about Farrah Fawcett, Evil Kneivel more than a bunch of bugs.
It was great to be at North Beach too because she was free from the pervs who invariably came to the side yard of the apartments where Renee Marie preferred to sun-bathe. She would build a barrier with Tessa’s chair and between the wall and rhododendron bush but they barged over anyway, eyes roving over her slender body, no more than 105 lbs with a stomach as flat and clean as flank steak. They murmured to Renee Marie like coaxing a skittish dog, especially the old men who bored her with their stories of World War II, the Battle of the Bulge, all the pretty nurses they’d dated before settling down—as if she cared!
She wanted to read Seventeen and Tiger Beat and listen to her radio dialed to 104.1 WBCN where Aerosmith and Led Zepplin growled everything she hated about living in those apartments, glad to get out whenever she could. At the beach she was one of a hundred other girls though her coppery skin and long, brown hair looked especially good against the red bikini.
She reached for the box of Cheez-Its, rattling the paper bag.
“Watch the sand,” Tessa said.
Her mother peered over the paper-back.
What tone? Renee Marie rubbed her hands on her shorts, not a speck of sand but she wasn’t going to say it, wouldn’t even look at her mother. Anything could set her off—the red bikini for instance. After she’d brought it home, set it on her bed and went to the bathroom to wash her face—Seventeen recommended washing three times a day to clear up break-outs—she’d found Tessa beside her bed, pointing.
‘What is that?’
As if there was a pile of shit in the center of the daisy-sprigged bedspread rather than a bathing suit.
In such moments, Renee Marie had learned if she stood still, held her breath, her own sheer force of will might keep her mother from flying into one of her rages and cut the cloth into strips as with the tube top she’d made the mistake of purchasing weeks before.
Tessa slipped a long fingernail under the hip strap connecting the front and back panels of the bikini bottom. It dangled before Renee Marie’s eyes. She was close enough for Renee Marie to whiff vodka the sure sign that Tessa’s weekend had begun. It was a Thursday.
‘What the fuck were you thinking?’
Renee Marie had slackened her facial muscles into an expression of innocence, blinked her wide blue eyes and gazed at the red bikini.
‘I was, I…’
In that moment it came to Renee Marie that her mother was jealous. Tessa still looked good but lately the men she dated stared boldly at the daughter too, sidling close before Mrs. Mautino had left the room to freshen their drinks.
‘This thing…’ Tessa began.
The telephone rang.
Renee Marie held her breath; whatever came out of Tessa’s mouth next would be final.
The phone shrilled.
‘…is for common sluts.’
The bikini slipped from Tessa’s lacquered nail to the floor. She kicked it across the floor and ran to answer the phone.
She hadn’t said, ‘no’, ‘forbidden’, ‘not in my house’.
What she had said didn’t matter.
Now, the wind sneaking through the alley of dunes, sand whipping against Renee Marie’s face abrasive as a slap.
She stood, brushed the sand from her face. The dunes were making her claustrophobic, she could hardly breathe.
“I’m going with Guy,” she said.
(Note: These are the first few pages of a longer story).