What If There Is a Hidden World
That We Can’t See?
by Eleanor Lerman
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2,
3, 4, 5, 6, 7
When I was growing up here, there had been rides and skee-ball parlors and ice cream stands on the boardwalk. But all that was long gone, as were the holiday boarding houses and bungalow communities that had made Edgemere a summer destination for working-class families from the city who wanted to spend their two-week vacations at the seashore but couldn’t afford to go very far.
Much had changed over the years: a generational shift brought not only higher levels of income and education but also different expectations for the use of leisure time. People now headed out to the Hamptons or flew to Europe; they toured exotic locales their parents hadn’t even known existed. That was pretty much the end of Edgemere; even those of us who lived here year-round began to view it as a place without a future, one more dead-end beach town decaying at the edge of the city limits. Many of the boarding houses were torn down, or fell down; the bungalows burned.
But some remained. On my block, a few of the old dwellings were still standing: a small cluster of bungalows and some rooming houses, like the two-story building with a flight of narrow concrete steps leading up to the first floor, where I lived. Bobby, my high-school friend from the Edgemere Surf Club, lived upstairs.
When I got home, all I wanted to do was take a shower and collapse on the couch. But, once in the hallway, my way was blocked by Emmett Johnson, replacing the ballast in the overhead fluorescent light that hadn’t worked in weeks.
Emmett was somewhere in his forties; I was almost a decade older. When I was a teenager, my best friend was Emmett’s older sister, Donna; she had moved out to California. When Emmet was in the mood, which wasn’t often, he took care of the house, an inheritance from their mother.
I couldn’t stand him when he was a kid, and I didn’t feel much better about him now: he was just a fatter, slobbier version of the younger Emmett, whose favorite pastimes were throwing rocks at passing cars and setting fires in abandoned bungalows. Now, I mumbled hello and then I waited while he finished what he was doing.
“Hey, Chrissie,” Emmett said, looking down at me from the top step of the ladder he was standing on. “How’s life treating you?”
I had always hated being called Chrissie, and Emmett knew that. “Everything’s fine,” I told him.
“I’ll bet,” he said. “Nice to be able to just hang around the beach and go surfing, right?”
Nice? I thought. Nothing was nice right now. To begin with, I was standing in the cold hallway in my wetsuit, which had enough sand in it to be rubbing me raw. And my next complaint was that I didn’t need Emmett’s sarcasm; he damn well knew that hanging around the beach going surfing was hardly the way to characterize my life these days.
“Listen,” I said, “do you think I could get by you so I can open my door?”
“I’ll be finished in a minute,” Emmett said, but then took his time fiddling with the light fixture. Finally, he climbed down the ladder, gathered up his tools and left. As he went down the front stairs, I half expected to see the weeds sprouting up between the cracks on the sidewalk burst into flames behind him, but that was probably just me thinking mean thoughts.
Well, why not? I was in a mean mood. Having to tolerate Emmett’s needling did that to me, as did the fact that it reminded me — as if I really needed a reminder — that my life had lately taken what is generally termed a turn for the worse.
A year ago, I had lost my job. I had given up my apartment in the city, because I couldn’t afford it and had ended up living back here because Bobby’s downstairs neighbors, a revolving crew that he described as dedicated meth-heads, had disappeared and the first floor of Donna’s house was ready for a new occupant. The rent was reasonable not only because Donna was a friend but because who else was she going to rent to?
No one wanted to live in Edgemere anymore except surfers, fisherman and druggies; we were all more or less broke, and we needed cheap places to live.
* * *
When I finally got into my apartment, I rinsed off my wet suit, took a shower, and curled up on the couch. A while later, I heard Bobby knocking at my door. We had different schedules, so I didn’t see him much except for early mornings, when we went surfing together. But tonight was an exception. We were going to eat dinner, drink some wine, and watch a movie.
Long divorced and equally long relocated from the Westchester suburb where he had lived when he was married, Bobby’s current incarnation looked like pretty much what he was: an old hippie with a ragged moustache and a pot belly who made ends meet — just about — by working in a bike shop an hour away, in a part of Brooklyn populated by hipsters and mommy bloggers who could afford to tour the neighborhood in 21-speed European imports.
Besides surfing, one of the things that Bobby and I had in common was that we were also relocated — to put it nicely — from our careers. He had been a writer of technical manuals, and I had been a communications manager at a nonprofit dedicated to promoting education reform. Both jobs had vanished as the economy changed, though mine had lasted a little longer. Maybe it was just because he had already spent more time off the white-collar work grid than me, but he was pretty mellow about his changed circumstances. I was not.
Bobby had brought some Taco Bell with him, which I heated up in the microwave while he sat at the kitchen table, looking out the window. I knew that he was trying to play the old mariner’s trick of judging tomorrow’s water conditions by the fading light, but that doesn’t always work. Tonight, a late March evening gave us a sky laddered with iron-colored clouds darkening to black as night overtook the east coast; not much of a clue there.
Besides, Edgemere is a peninsula, and the moon’s pull on the tides and the weather fronts bumping up against our long, narrow spit of land can change wave and water conditions from hour to hour.
When the food was ready, I carried it over to the kitchen table, opened a bottle of Shiraz, and we started munching our tacos. It was chilly in the house, so I turned up the thermostat. After a minute or so, I heard some banging in the pipes, a sign that maybe we’d get some heat tonight. I hoped so; I didn’t want to have to call Emmett again. I mentioned to Bobby that he’d been here today, and his one-word comment was, “Asshole.”
“Yup,” I said. “And you’re not going to like the next thing I tell you, either.”
Bobby raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“I went surfing this morning.”
“You’re right.” Bobby took another bite of his taco and made me wait for the scolding I knew he was deciding whether or not to deliver. He decided he would. “I told you when I sold you that board, it’s dangerous to go out by yourself at this time of year. The currents are just too unpredictable. A rip tide could pull you out to sea in thirty seconds flat.”
“Hey listen,” I said genially. “You’re not the boss of me.”
“Don’t make jokes,” Bobby replied. “You’re not twelve.” He pointed a plastic fork at me. “You violated the prime directive.”
“Now who sounds like they’re twelve? I don’t remember enlisting in Starfleet.”
“First of all, don’t diss Star Trek. Second, I’m not worried about you interfering with alien civilizations, I’m talking about surfing by yourself in rough conditions.” Bobby poured himself some more wine, and then decided it might be useful to talk to the wallaby on the bottle of Yellow Tail, which was his way of pointing out that maybe talking to me was useless.
“There always was this streak in her,” he told the leaping animal on the label. “Nice enough looking, a little on the quiet side, good grades in school so you think she’s not going to be all that interesting but then bam, once in a while she’d just go and do something weird. Scary.”
“Like what?” I demanded. “Name something.”
Bobby turned his attention back to me. “Like I’d say, let’s cut school and you’d come with me. Just like that. You, in your little pleated skirts and that flippy little pageboy haircut. I mean, okay, I was a slacker, but you were on the honors list and all that crap. But man, who was the first one to trip? And that one time I got my dad’s car, who drove onto the runway at JFK and tried to race the planes? The cops chased us all the way back to the Belt Parkway.”
“Well, they didn’t catch us, did they? And after that, they patched all the fencing so you couldn’t get near the runways.”
“See?” Bobby said. “You’re still proud of yourself for what could reasonably be considered criminal activity.”
We had finished the tacos by now and had opened a second bottle of wine. It was so dark outside now that it was hard to see anything outside the window; the glass reflected our two silhouettes, sitting at a scarred wooden table in a chilly room.
“You’re saying I’m not a nice person?”
“Honey, maybe it’s just me. I mean, to me, you’re great. My BFF. But... I don’t know. I just bet you could kill somebody if you had to. Annihilate a planet. You’ve got that in you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Like my self-esteem isn’t low enough.”
“Self-esteem,” Bobby scoffed. “When did they invent that? People used to just live. Nobody even had self-esteem.”
“Well, listen,” I said, “while you’re on the subject of what a major weirdo I am—”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Yes, you did. But never mind. So...” I began, but then I wasn’t sure what to say, exactly. Or if I wanted to say anything. But in the end, I just blurted out what I had been holding back all evening. “Don’t lecture me, okay? But something happened this morning.”
I told him about getting shoved around in the water and finally being knocked off my board. “It was like something was following me,” I added. “I mean, I must have walked half a mile but then when I got back in the water, there it was again.”
“All right, I did mean it,” Bobby said, wagging his finger at me. “See? Spooky chick.”
“It was spooky.”
“Honeypie, everybody who’s ever been on a board has got stories.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Not like this.”
But I guess at that point, Bobby had said as much as he wanted to say about anything for one night and was ready to just veg out in front of the TV and drink. So that’s what we did; we went into the living room, with the old stucco walls peeling all around us, and watched cop shows until around eleven, when I had to get to bed because I had to work Sunday. Bobby took the last of the third bottle of wine we had opened and went upstairs to his apartment.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Eleanor Lerman