Chapter One CHAPTER ONE Liz
Gabe appeared as Liz was zipping her backpack to leave, as he had every evening this week on his way home. She heaved the last umbrella into the box at Sun and Shade Rentals and snapped the combination lock shut. Gabe set a greasy pizza box down on a towel and passed Liz a thermos. She took a long pull and tasted the familiar sourness of lemonade with the surprise bitterness of gin.
“Cheers, boss,” he said, folding a slice and filling his mouth, grease dripping onto the towel. “Oh, and can I have next week off?” Carl had just promoted her to assistant manager, which meant an extra dollar an hour.
“Can I fire you now? I think I can fire you,” she said, taking her own slice from the box. “Except you brought me boozy lemonade and pizza, so I won’t. And thanks.” Gabe was nineteen, a year and a half older than Liz, though his fake ID said he was twenty-three. She couldn’t believe that thing worked; the guy in the ID picture had a man bun and sunken gray eyes, and looked nothing like Gabe with his short, salt-dried curls and sunburn.
Liz knew what the routine would be at home: another casserole dropped off by one of her mom Margot’s friends. Margot accepted their casseroles but ignored their texts and invitations to come to book club or yoga class. She hurried by them in the grocery store and declined their phone calls. They always lingered on the porch, reminded Margot of the particular date of an event she was welcome to join, and sighed before taking their clean dishes back and climbing into their minivans.
Liz and her younger sister, Evy, called the zitis and taco bakes they ate the Inevitable Death Casseroles, or IDCs, but only to each other. In front of their mother, they agreed they were tasty, and they scribbled thank-you notes for even the blandest cream-of-chicken-doused things. Their dad had been dying for eight months, of a brain tumor that turned him obsessive, insistent, or infantile from one moment to the next. They didn’t know if he’d act like this for another few weeks or a few months before the tumor spread, but they knew they had enough IDCs to get them through the end of July, maybe all the way through August.
Liz, Evy, and their mom took turns with him now, not at a bedside yet but out in the world where all the same rules of how to behave still applied, even if he couldn’t follow them anymore. For Liz, tonight felt stolen, and as necessary as a fresh gulp of air.
She texted Evy three pizza emojis and told her she would be late and to enjoy the IDC without her. Evy would get to stay out with her friends tomorrow, she would get her own stolen summer night while Liz took a turn at home. Evy texted three middle fingers back, then a thumbs-up and a heart.
You needed every minute before check-in time on Saturdays to get all the grime and stray hairs out of the bathroom drains, to stock the towels and wipe down the countertops, to transform each rental property from cluttered and messy to tidy and welcoming. All the E&E Rentals houses were fully booked this month, and today Margot had bleached the bathrooms, changed the sheets, and swept up the sand in four of their beach cottages. Her cleaning staff was scattered across town doing the same, texting her last-minute questions about loose screws and leaky faucets.
Margot mouthed, Thank you, Jimmy, when he dropped Brian at the house after bringing him along to Home Depot so she could clean without interruption. Jimmy was Brian’s old surfing buddy. He always disappeared for somewhere warmer in the off-season for weeks at a time, then returned for as many hours of work as he wanted. He had a shaved head and the lined, weather-worn skin of a man in his forties who’d spent decades in the sun, but the bright eyes of someone unencumbered by any real responsibility.
When Jimmy had left for Rincón last fall, Brian was fine; when Jimmy came back in April for preseason maintenance, Brian had called him a goddamn pussy piece of shit before Margot had a chance to tell him about the tumor disrupting Brian’s language, his judgment, his sense of what was okay to say out loud. That day, Jimmy’s face had fallen flat; he’d slow-nodded and made sense of it, worked fifty hours for them on a deck project, and then drove across the country again back to Santa Cruz. When Margot didn’t hear from him, she figured he was gone for good, until his truck rattled into their driveway again in May.
“Life moves pretty fast sometimes, so look around the bend before it turns,” Brian said now as they entered the rental, half-remembering the Ferris Bueller quote before he wandered away from Margot and Jimmy.
“Right, sure does,” Margot said. Brian sat down at the kitchen table with his back to them.
“He was into a lot of Karate Kid, little Point Break today,” Jimmy said. He quoted old movies to distract Brian and keep him calm, though that never worked when Margot tried it. Maybe Brian got a contact high from the seeped-in weed smell of Jimmy’s van.
“Okay, well, vaya con Dios, Marg.”
“Johnny Utah?” He slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand, like, who doesn’t know every word of a nearly thirty-year-old surfer movie, unbelievable!
“Oh, riiight,” Margot said. She handed him three Coronas the renters had left in the fridge. “Well, really. Thank you.”
“Take it easy, man,” Jimmy said to Brian as he headed out the door. “You’re one radical son-of-a-bitch!” He looked at Margot, like, how about that one? But she was already starting to work through her to-do list. She hid ant traps in the corners and set the thermostats, then packed up the laundry, the dirty mop, the half-full bottles of sunblock, the paperbacks, the Soft Scrub, the screwdrivers.
She tossed an In Touch magazine into the tote bag for Liz and Evy, who had stared at her in wide-eyed worry when they realized they’d both been scheduled for their other boardwalk jobs during the week’s busy turnover time. Margot had demanded, “How did this happen?” as they walked out the door this morning.
She knew she snapped at them too much, and before they rolled their eyes and whatevered her, she could tell it stung. She knew she should take a beat before criticizing them, resist the easy, stream-of-consciousness rants her own mother had always defaulted to. She knew yelling at them was lazy and obvious and the opposite of what she intended. Snapping was something that mean, manipulative moms did to their daughters, not her. When had she given in to this way of mothering? How many times could you hiss, “How did this happen?” to your daughters before you did permanent damage?
Margot and her girls used to play Scrabble together some Saturday nights, for Christ’s sake, before Brian got sick. She would study her tiles and listen to the girls’ gossip and to their silence. She would pay attention when their sarcasm turned softer and when they trailed off, naming their worries and their wins. What another nasty trick of this tumor, to change her as much as it had changed Brian.
“Hey, if you’d rather go make the taffy at Sal’s, I’ll stay with Dad,” Evy had joked once on her way to work, but the truth was, Margot thought the idea of being by herself for a few hours, tying little white paper bags with neat bows to display in the candy shop window, sounded pretty great.
The front door slammed and Margot froze.
Brian went outside.
Her body responded the way it always did now whenever she had to chase him, find him, argue with him, or drag him away from chaos he’d caused. She ran after him, breathing heavily in the humid July air.
“Hey!” she shouted. “We have the car, right there. Come back, we have to get all this stuff home.” But he didn’t stop or turn around. He never did. She smelled the bleach and sweat on herself and said again weakly, “Come back, Brian.”
He turned toward her momentarily, but then ran back toward the street, where he squeezed between two parked cars and stuck his arm straight ahead, as if that would stop a distracted driver from hitting him. He paused in the center of the street with his arm out, like a Heisman Trophy statue, like a lunatic. His whole body had changed, from athletic and agile, strong from working and running and surfing, into someone hunched, swollen, and clumsy. As if in response to his body going softer, her own body had switched into survival mode, become leaner, always ready. When her dark, gray-streaked hair thinned, she got a quick, blunt bob at the Supercuts before she grocery-shopped, not even bothering to have them blow it dry. Today she’d tied it up and let it down again, all unkempt and wild.
A van slammed on its brakes and then gunned it around Brian, as he strode back to the sidewalk, where his shoulder grazed a splintered telephone pole. Margot noticed he was wearing an old ripped T-shirt from the New Year’s Eve 5K, when they’d all layered up and run together wearing glow necklaces. Their friend Robbie had handed out cheap champagne to the runners outside the Buccaneer bar, as the fireworks exploded at midnight above the winter-darkened pier. Brian had lost a bet with Robbie when he didn’t run a personal best, and plunged into the frigid ocean after the race, while the girls shrieked on the cold beach and the Boulevard dance clubs shot spotlights into the sky.
Margot still couldn’t convince him to get in the car. She gave up and said, “Fine, you want to walk, we’ll walk,” as he spat on a parked car’s windshield. Ten minutes later they were standing on their own front step, but she remembered her keys were still in the ignition four blocks away and had to drag him back there again.
Evy twisted a hundred saltwater taffies closed. Then she upsold a family a half dozen caramel apples, and stood outside Sal’s Sweets with the sample tray for two hours before she took her break. She sat on a box in the storage room, sipped a warm LaCroix, and checked each of her social media accounts, posting one of the thirty shots she’d taken of the new color she’d dyed her hair, a more-dramatic mahogany red, and the time-lapse makeup video she’d made where she did her eyes in shimmery-rose-gold shadow and black eyeliner. She posted one more selfie from work, with her hair under the pink Sal’s Sweets baseball cap, and captioned it CANDYLAND. Then she went to a site called GBM Wives, “a supportive forum for spouses of glioblastoma multiforme patients.”
Evy had discovered that her mom had an account on this site one day last fall, when she was looking to intercept an email from her tenth-grade history teacher, early on in her dad’s diagnosis. Here in the GBM Wives forum, her mom wasn’t afraid of real talk. She was still funny and gave her full attention; here she didn’t zone out or get distracted or snap or run down to-do lists instead of asking if her daughters were okay.
When Evy finally joined in the discussion, she chose the username Pamplemousse7, after her favorite LaCroix flavor. She gave vague details about her made-up self and her situation, saying she lived “in the suburbs,” and had “a few kids.”
It wasn’t her first time adopting an online persona. At sixteen, she’d had years of practice making fake accounts; she and her friends messed around with dating app profiles, swapping in different stock photos to see what would happen. She had two Reddit usernames, one to talk back to some QAnon maniacs, and another to ask some stuff about sex after her friend Hailey showed them all a Pornhub video that evoked follow-up questions she had been too embarrassed to ask anyone she knew.
At first Pamplemousse7 posted links to articles and said some generic encouraging words to the other ladies like, Everything will be ok, xoxo! But then she became braver, feeling that these women were the same as her. They really got all the stories of her “husband’s” temper tantrums and fist-flailing tirades in the middle of the Wawa coffee station. When she tried to tell most of her real friends about those, they blank-stared back at her until she changed the subject.
Why spy on her mom this way, why sneak into an online support group and invent a username to talk to her and to strangers twenty-five years older than Evy? Maybe it was because between the screen and the keys, she got brave, she got an extra second to think, she could say what she needed to say. Maybe it was because it felt cruel to call her mom out in real time when Margot forgot what she was saying midsentence, or because the week in October her dad got sick, her mom had stopped wearing makeup or remembering to turn off the TV when she left the house. Maybe it was because her mom’s temper was impossible to figure out. She would ignore six missed curfews in a row or weeks of unfolded laundry without so much as an annoyed reminder, and then let loose with shrill, wall-vibrating bouts of accusations and catalogues of Evy’s wrongs when she walked in three minutes late.
It wasn’t just her temper. When she sat on the couch, Margot never sank all the way into the cushions, leaning her spine ten degrees forward and holding her breath, and then letting it out like she was blowing through a straw.
In almost every tragic story Evy had been told as a child, both parents died before the movie or book even started, leaving their children orphans in Depression-era New York City to beg on street corners or to sing and dance about the hard-knock life. She had no buried back catalogue of big-budget musical lessons to tell her how to deal with two parents who were technically still here but definitely not themselves. In the GBM Wives forum, Evy tried to gather evidence that the mom she missed might still be in there somewhere.
When she wrote her posts, Evy’s fingers flew across the keys, and she felt a frenzied need to get it all out. She wrote in rules or rants, lists or warnings; she wrote long, angry, disguised stories and one-line questions. When she posted as Pamplemousse7, Evy felt a lightening in her shoulders and a loosening of the muscles that wrapped around her spine.
Almost every day before her shift at Sal’s Sweets, Evy wrote or responded to posts by women wondering whether it was too late to trade in their husband’s brain tumor for some malady that made him shit himself or weakened his heart instead.
She often thought back to those first few weeks her dad was not himself. She was sure it would have helped if someone had given them all a heads-up. There were things she would have wanted to know, things she’d already figured out:
If you’re new to this group and you want to know how it’s gonna be, I’ll tell you. I’m not being mean, I’m being real. Honestly I wish someone had told me all this.
If you don’t want to know then skip this post and go on Pinterest instead, look at macramé wall hangings or muffins! Still here? Then you must want to know:
Everything he does from now on goes into these four categories: Toddler, Zombie, Jerk, Rain Man. He’s these people now.
Go ahead and get your Googling out of the way: glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor. Click click, scroll scroll, go ahead: weedy tentacles are gonna keep growing in his brain, even after they cut out the big pieces and poison and radiate the rest. They’re dulling and then obliterating, in our case, the quote-unquote social and emotional function, which means everything important about him, all the humor and patience and normalness. Byeeee! Yours might be different though—depends where the thing decides to burrow in—yours might be quote-unquote motor skills, speech, anything a brain does!
Whatever you do to try to stop it is just the medical version of cheering for the band at the end of a concert, stomping your feet, screaming and yelling for another encore.
It’s worth it, isn’t it, to buy a few more months even if he isn’t himself, even if he can only see in tunnels and splotches? But IS it all worth it, if Toddler Zombie Jerk Rain Man mindfucks everyone around him by forcing them to try to guess what kind of person will show up each day? If it’s a person parading around who looks like your husband but who’s acting like an agitated stranger you wouldn’t want to sit next to on a bus? If it means taking care of a person who is not a person you know? Even then?
Done Googling? Good.
Evy felt a little psychic and a little wild when she typed as Pamplemousse7, but she also felt free and wise, relieved and connected to these women. Margot responded to all the other Wives’ posts, and today she responded to Pamplemousse7 with this message:
Thank you for sharing this—maybe it’s ok to think of him as all these different people. You have to make categories, don’t you, make some order out of the chaos, wake up to a stranger and say to yourself, I don’t know what to do, so I put his medals from all the 5Ks and marathons in a bin in the garage.
“Rough crowd today,” Liz told Gabe, taking another sip. “But I still love this job.”
She’d applied for a job at Sun and Shade because it was outside, because you worked mostly alone, and because the shifts didn’t go until after midnight like they did at the soft-serve stands and arcades; Liz and Evy still worked a lot of mornings at E&E Rentals, helping their mom with turnovers, but Sun and Shade’s hours were more regular, and the pay was better. Her parents swore they put half the girls’ E&E wages into a college fund, but she knew from what she overheard that they had a lot of debt, and that renovations on the rental houses were expensive. She wanted to make some more money of her own.
“What’s your favorite thing about Sun and Shade?” Gabe asked. He’d started there the same week she did. After they’d worked together at Sumner Avenue on Fourth of July, he started bringing her coconut iced coffees and waiting around for her after their shifts. He had brought her boozy lemonade after work once before, but she’d had to go home after a few sips to help her mom. “You like it more when creeps hit on you, or when a seagull takes a big crap on an umbrella and you have to clean it up?”
She recognized this sarcasm, this dismissive teasing, this addicting, frenetic attention, because she had studied the patterns of how straight boys did this to girls day after day at school. You couldn’t escape it in the fluorescent-lit hallways or on the bleachers at assemblies, the way the girls responded with high-pitched airy come ons and shut uuuups.
“Yeah, I know, it’s so crazy,” Liz said, “how those guys know yelling down at me from the boardwalk that they like my ass is exactly the way to get a date with me.”
“Is that all a guy has to do?” Gabe asked, fake-serious, typing into his phone. “Cool, yeah, I’m noting that here. Okay.”
She reached over and tried to swat his phone out of his hand; then he flipped his screen around and showed her what he’d typed, gibberish he read out loud: “YELL. ABOUT. ASS. Got it,” he said, and Liz laughed.
She was starting to understand that life was too short to be a tiny, tight-lipped version of yourself. But the rules the shut uuuuup girls followed were still the ones she knew best, even if she hated them; you had to rearrange the pieces of what you already knew before you went inventing new ones for yourself.
“Don’t stop there,” Liz said. “There are sooooo many things you can yell across the boardwalk to make girls fall in love with you.”
All summer she’d teased him back, for arriving late to work, for living with his mom in a town a few miles over the bridge. She accused him of pretending he’d made up all the cool Brooklyn stories about his band and suggested he wasn’t really going back there in the fall, and she made jokes about him mooching off his aunt, who let him stay for free in her Seaside house whenever she didn’t have any renters.
“You want to add that hot tip to your notes too?” she asked. “I’ll wait.”
He took a long drink from the thermos, then passed it to Liz. Her friend Sonia thought for a while that Liz had made Gabe up. Sure, tattooed Brooklyn band guy shows up right when I leave, Sonia had texted. Oh yeah, there’s one of those guys here too, he’s my grandma’s neighbor, we hang out all the time. Sonia was at her grandmother’s house in Florida until August, forced into playing bridge on Beverley’s screen porch instead of Cloud Campaign II on Xbox or Frisbee on the beach with Liz. It wasn’t the same, texting Sonia with ten exclamation points the first time Gabe brought her coffee, or texting my dad was so tough today almost every day, as it would have been flinging herself onto Sonia’s bed and telling her everything, but it was their only option.
“You know what else works great?” Gabe asked. “You find some girls minding their own business, and you tell those girls to smile.”
Liz was used to ignoring those creepy smile guys on the boardwalk. She was used to the constant carnival in this town from May through September, to hearing the sounds of smashing bottles and exploding fireworks through her bedroom window. She knew the deep, tired quiet that descended after Labor Day, the way a town could be two different kinds of places.
“Yes, we act like we hate it,” Liz said. “But we love random men telling us to smile, we’re always forgetting what to do with our faces. Shhh, don’t tell any other girls I said that.”
“Too late, I already texted all of them.”
In Gabe’s social media posts, there were pictures of girls from his other life, hauling amps onto stages, standing in front of paintings in museums, balancing a round of beers in their hands, staring out the windows on long train rides. She didn’t know if they were his friends, or if they’d been more than friends. She wondered what simple, generous gestures he had made for them, like he had for her.
“Hey, come here,” he said, angling his phone to get both their faces, and the lit-up rides on the pier behind them, into the frame for a selfie. He would post it later, along with a photo of a new tattoo he’d gotten this summer on his forearm, of Odysseus tied to his mast. “Okay,” he said, “now make whatever kind of face you want.”
While the casserole cooked, Margot poured a glass of wine and worked through the payroll, the insurance, the cleaning crew’s schedule, the emails; she set up some Google ads and cross-listed the open August dates on Airbnb; she assured a fancy family that their rental was in the town NEXT to the one where Jersey Shore had been filmed and that the wildest thing on their street would be the ding of a bicycle bell. She replied-all to a group of construction guys from Bayonne and said their condo WAS in wilder Seaside Heights, right next to the clubs, a perfect location for them. She read posts from the GBM Wives forum before returning to her inbox full of E&E renters’ constant questions.
She did not return texts from the Seaside moms’ group chat about the next book club or to individual messages from any of them (thinking of you, are you around tomorrow for me to drop off a lasagna?). She had returned texts and attended book club through December, when the women had all complained about the Christmas gifts their husbands had bought them, between talking about The Five Love Languages. “Brian is such a words-of-affirmation,” she said, “and I’m definitely an acts-of-service,” because everyone else had explained what their love language was and looked at her expectantly. “He’s doing really, really well,” she assured them. The head nods and silence lingered until she realized it was her job to change the subject, because it would be rude if any of them did.
Brian was in the shower, one activity he would consistently agree to without a fight. Tom Petty singing it’s good to be king echoed in the bathroom on repeat, so Margot knew he would be in there awhile. She felt the light shift to the sunset glow-up and closed her laptop, slipping outside with her wine.
A small crowd gathered along the edge of the bay to wait for the late-evening sun to slip below the bridge, ready for the shared ritual, staring west until the last sliver of red disappeared and left the sky bereft. Margot let herself remember her life with Brian, before, but only in controlled doses, testing out her tolerance for the ache each time.
Last summer, Brian had been here with her, absorbing every subtle shift in the warm bleeding-out light, saying, They all have to go home and we get to stay right here.
They’d grown up in neighboring towns beyond that bridge, though they hadn’t met until they got jobs after their high school graduations at the Cranky Crab, a fish restaurant here on the barrier island with nets and rusty traps decorating the walls. Their hometowns were close enough that a ten-mile drive to the restaurant was worth it for the summer-crowd tips, but far enough away that a lot of people who lived there went years without seeing the ocean.
A fleet of Sunfish traced paths along the water’s surface, their sails against the airbrushed sky. The breeze shifted, and the wind chimes outside the garage apartment behind their house played their metallic, dissonant song. They used that apartment now as an office for E&E Rentals, but it had been their very first rental property. Brian taught high school economics and history then, and Margot taught fourth grade; their salaries and their second jobs at the Buccaneer paid the mortgage on their own bungalow but didn’t leave any extra, so they spent two hundred dollars on a gallon of seafoam-blue paint, a white duvet, fresh towels, a yard sale watercolor of waves, and secondhand brass lamps they scrubbed clean. Then they listed the apartment. If it hadn’t rented, they would have had to move to one of the anonymous 1960s split-levels on the other side of the bridge, or keep working every weekend and summer at the Buccaneer forever.
They were trying for their first baby then, and they hoped income from the rental would help money feel less tight. One winter morning in her first trimester, Margot had miscarried, the red-black clot sliding out of her in a faculty lounge bathroom stall, her back and belly aching in its absence. When Brian arrived home that evening, he sat on the edge of their bed. He brought her a lemon tea and her softest pajamas and turned on a Friends rerun, clenching his eyes shut until she melted into him and wept. Margot sweated and cried and slept the next day; when she awoke, she craved some distraction, some temporary focus on an ambition that did not have to do with her body or its failure or the bright-cheeked children she would return to teach. She thought she could distract herself with lesson plans, but her notes blurred and smudged as she stared at the same page for fifteen minutes. Her tea went cold. When her friend Deborah Ellsworth called, Margot was digging her dull pencil into the cardboard cover of her plan book.
Deborah wasn’t the kind of friend Margot would tell about a miscarriage. She was a real estate agent in town who had referred a few renters to them. “When I heard about this, I immediately thought of you,” she said. “How would you and Brian feel about being property managers?” Deborah’s client Carol wanted to rent out her oceanfront Victorian for a few seasons before she sold it. She told Margot how much Carol was offering to pay. “And there’s a bonus if you rent it the whole season.”
“Definitely, yes,” Margot answered, knocking her tea over onto her lesson plans. The idea of spending time in that house and finding people to stay there wouldn’t feel like work in the same way Buccaneer bar shifts did. She got excited imagining the geraniums and impatiens she would plant in pots on the Victorian’s front steps, imagining a family arriving and reading the welcome note she’d leave them.
Managing the Victorian, they had learned to anticipate the whims and demands of wealthier clients, to respond to their expectations for convenience and attention. They provided French-roasted coffee and fresh flowers, a pitcher of premixed cocktails made with high-end gin, and a hand-drawn map of their favorite spots for fish tacos and pizza and the only fancy restaurant on the island. They made themselves exactly as available as each family’s subtle cues told them was necessary. The renters called them with small questions, like where to make a dinner reservation or sign up for a surf lesson, and for strange requests, like whether they knew a place for a secret girlfriend to stay nearby (their garage apartment rental, on a rare vacant night!) or for help finding a lost antique bracelet in the sand.
They’d built their bungalow empire one fixer-upper at a time, one signed sheaf of mortgage papers at a time, one magic-sounding listing and booked-up summer at a time, until they owned dozens of properties. They’d had Elizabeth, then Evelyn eighteen months later. They named the company E&E, LLC, one E for each of their girls, and their red signs appeared all over two towns until they were successful enough to quit their teaching jobs.
Whenever Margot had said it was too much, whenever she was overwhelmed by in-progress projects or unbooked dates, Brian would slow her down and pick one thing they could do right away, to kick-start the momentum that any project took on once it was begun. When a problem seemed too big or complicated, his shorthand for reminding her was to say garage apartment.
They were finally back in the black, after Hurricane Sandy’s destruction seven years before had drowned everything in foamy brackish water. E&E Rentals had been featured on cable news on the two-year anniversary of the storm. The producers had juxtaposed the footage of Margot and Brian showing off their raised and renovated properties with clips of the sunken Star Jet roller coaster. The reporter had to talk to them separately because of how often they interrupted each other’s versions of their rebuilding story.
The music in the bathroom shut off, and then there was Brian, standing on the porch with a dish towel half covering his penis. He sat down on a deck chair and said, “There’s bird shit on the pergola,” handing Margot another Post-it with the word embark scribbled on it. This was the third penis thing this week. And he was obsessed with writing words that started with em on his Post-its: ember, embark, embolize, embarrass, empathy. She found them everywhere: in his pockets, stuck to the TV screen, inside paperbacks. This morning, she’d found one that said empty staring back at her from the bathroom mirror.
“Somebody ought to do something about that bird shit,” Margot said. Running E&E alone was unsustainable. Everything they had built together didn’t feel like a proud fought-for empire anymore but a crumbling, unwieldy thing. The renovations, the repairs, the mortgage payments, the money hemorrhaging then accumulating again, the marketing, and the maintaining were drowning her.
E&E had been a shared dream, a long conversation, an idea borne of necessity and naïveté. Before they were old enough to buy beer, Brian had asked her to move to the shore with him, in an email from a thousand miles away. He’d bought her an emerald engagement ring years before he gave it to her. Then Brian had strapped their babies to his chest and hummed you are my sunshine while he replaced faucets and rusty screws.
E&E, and her life with Brian, was inseparable from Seaside. Carrying the half-formed grief for the versions of him who had already Irish-exited had changed her, stolen her heart and grit, transformed the pride and hustle she used to feel running E&E into dread and an attempt at good enough.
Coexisting with a stranger was not possible without imagining escape. When he died, she would sell off every bungalow, and she would take the girls to live somewhere the sun set below a mountain instead of a bridge, somewhere safe from offshore storms, somewhere every wind shift, every gull caw, every bright-red E&E sign, would not remind her of what she’d lost, again and again.