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Fiction: Old Gazebos

Summer is finally here. and for Lynn and her family, this means only one thing: time to unwind at their beloved cottage by the sea. With some recent tragedies behind them in their hometown of Tolland, Connecticut, Lynn is ready to restore her family’s spirits amidst long and lazy sun-filled days. But the appearance of a handsome stranger from Lynn’s past soon threatens her much needed harmony.

Thank God it’s only an hour to the cottage. Because Doug, God love him, drives it so slowly. He’s always been extra cautious behind the wheel. I remember our first dates before we were married. He’d pick me up in that awful white station wagon that looked like a bleached tooth on wheels. How odd, I thought back then, that such a handsome man owns such a lame vehicle, and drives it at such a lame pace. We were always tailgated, honked at, and stared down for the few seconds it took for impatient drivers to pass us. It never fazed Doug. As I got to know him, and fall in love with him, I realized his car was a symbol of his personality: neat, pragmatic, careful. He was quite comfortable being so safe and responsible.

“Lynn, we’re in no rush,” he’d say, rubbing my leg.

This was always after he caught me sighing or leaning over to peek at the speedometer.

“I know we’re not,” I’d say.

Today though, I am in a rush. I need to get away from our home in Tolland, Connecticut. We all do. After the last few weeks we’ve had, we deserve this respite. Doug and I are both teachers, so we often begin our cottage countdown in mid-May, knowing we will have a full summer of waterfront sunshine and lazy cocktail hours. The anticipation is wonderful. This year, though, we were nothing but desperate to leave everything behind and flee an hour south to the Connecticut shoreline. There wasn’t the usual joy as we did our packing and planning. In years past, Doug and I would load up our suitcases and kid one another that we would never return to Tolland at summer’s end. That we would retire early and live forever in our modest cottage. This year, we barely spoke; a solemnity pervaded the air as we dusted off flip-flops and dug out bathing suits from bottom dresser drawers.

“How are you doing back there?” No response.

“Leigh, how are you doing?” I ask again, tilting my head back.

When she doesn’t answer a second time, I wheel around and find her gazing out the window with headphones on. She faces me with a weak grin and looks back at the white lines on the interstate. For a moment, I stare at her; the tiny specks of blue in her eyes appear bleary and washed out. This is the only hint of color on her pale body. Please God, give us lots of sunlight this summer, I think to myself. Some sunlight for my daughter. Dr. Pilgrim told us this would be the best antidote to stave off her depression.

“Almost there,” Doug says.

When I turn back, we pass the sign for Exit 65. Four more exits to go. Madison may be only a hundred or so miles from Tolland, but they’re worlds apart. Our hometown is quaint and pleasant, but Madison is vintage class combined with modern wealth. We don’t fit in, and that’s why I like it. We’re underdogs.
Nanny Hull, my Nanny on my mother’s side, inherited the cottage from her parents when they passed. She and my grandfather used it year-round until it burned in the early 1960s. Not wanting to deal with it any longer, she handed the deed to my folks who rebuilt a facsimile a few years later. Doug and I took it over 10 years ago when Mom and Dad moved to Georgia.

“Are you growing this out?” I ask, rubbing Doug’s sharp stubble.

“Maybe,” he says, looking in the rearview. “But I say that every summer.”

“Yeah,” I say, removing my hand. “You do.”

I turn into a giddy game-show contestant every time we make that right onto Wilshire. So begins the maze of French Manors with all their unnecessary porches and balconies, the huge Victorians boasting catwalks and widow’s peaks that require more wood than our entire house, and the occasional “cute” single level, clapboard cottage like ours.

Rolling down the window, I inhale the clean ocean air. The car is at once filled with warm and cool, salt and sweet. I turn to look at Leigh; her hair blows wildly around her face, and she lets it.

Neighbors we barely know are outside. Boats are being polished, lawns mowed, barbecues started. Open garage doors show off the status we’re dealing with here. Porches and BMWs are neatly backed in, in case their model can’t be distinguished from behind. I love it, though. I love it all. It’s like a secret club my family has found IDs for, and we haven’t had to show them yet.

As we descend down Wildcat Lane, the air whips around the inside of the car. I brace myself for what we’re approaching. Lowell and Alice’s place. Lowell and Alice’s soon-to-be old place, I should say. Our house is four doors down from them on the other side of the street. As we make the turn, I glance past Doug at the impressive estate. I don’t know what type of house it is. I don’t know why Lowell and Alice will be selling it after owning it for only three years. And I don’t know if I’m relieved or sad they’ll be gone. The things I do know are about Lowell. And they’re things I shouldn’t know.

“Missy, you all set?” Doug says, tilting the rearview.

He calls Leigh “Missy” sometimes. “For what?” Leigh asks.

“For this summer,” he says. “That’s what.”

Leigh pulls the white knobby headphones from her ears and nods. We all step out of the car into the warm sunshine.

“When I spoke with Mrs. Dyson last week, she said the Kloters’ll be up this summer,” I say to Leigh. “You like their daughters, don’t you?”

“They’re okay.”

“Plus, the dairy bar might be hiring again,” I say.

We each grab a suitcase from the trunk and move to the front door; Doug looks up and down the street.

“Looks like Lowell and Alice haven’t moved in yet. The place looks deserted,” he says.

It’s true that the inactivity at Lowell’s place is striking. Lowell can often be found outside his house, strutting around his pool and hot tub, drink in hand, buzzed by late morning, eager to give a shout out to all his neighbors within earshot that summer has begun and it’s a damn beautiful thing.

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“Tell me what?” he asks, looking for the key.

“They’re selling it.”

“How do you know that?”

“Mrs. Dyson told me.”

“How does Mrs. Dyson know?” asks Doug.

“She’s president of the block association,” I say, pointing to the proper key. “She knows everything.”

“I didn’t see a for sale sign.”

He’s right. There’s no sign. I shrug. What else can I do?

After some cleaning and unpacking, I head to the grocery store. Our first night back is always special, and I like to prepare a nice meal. Tonight it will be grilled swordfish, corn on the cob, bruschetta. Some white wine, too. As I wait in line at the register, I think of Leigh when she was a little girl. She loved to grocery shop with me. We would play “buried alive.” That’s when you lay down in the empty cart and pretend you’re getting buried alive under the food. I would part through boxes of cereal and rolls of paper towel to pinch her cheeks and tickle her neck. Now she’s a 16-year-old statistic.

What a shame, too, because there’s really nothing common about her. Doug and I call her our “atypical teenager.” She’s an A student, co-captain of her soccer team, and offered more baby-sitting jobs than she can handle. Before she got into her trouble a few weeks back, she was also the most ebullient person I know. For a time, I was able to somehow reconcile what happened to her by swearing it was due to her naïveté. It wasn’t her fault. She is just a baby. It was that little prick, Zack, and his fucking hormones.

When I pull up to the house, a gorgeous two-toned red and black convertible is parked in our driveway. Its license plate says DOCTOR. The car is facing the street with the top down. I park along the curb and take two bags of groceries toward the house. Stopping in front of the car, I study its interior. A pair of sunglasses and pack of menthol cigarettes rest on the passenger seat. A box of booze shows from under a black sweater on the passenger floor. The car is obviously owned by a careless man. My heart pounds from behind the fish and flour I am hugging.

When I walk inside, I hear that familiar voice at the far end of the house. I put the bags on the kitchen table and walk toward the sun porch. I can already see Lowell through the glass doors. He’s pointing at the ocean with a bottle of beer in his hand. Fuck. All I can think is fuck. He sees me, too. I know he does. Sees me coming toward him. I slide open the door and greet our guest.

“Well, look who’s here,” Lowell says.

He puts his bottle down and hugs me. He smells like expensive cologne mixed with the cheap, probably skunked beer Doug has offered him. Doug is smiling.

“Where did you come from?” I ask.

“From a little place called down the street,” he says with a smirk.

“I see.”

“So much for Mrs. Dyson, Lynn,” says Doug.

They both laugh. Goddamn her, I think, remembering our conversation this past spring. I was so grateful when she told me the McAllister’s might be selling their place. A new summer, I thought—a new start. What a lucky, bittersweet break I thought I had caught.

“I was just telling Charles Bronson here,” Lowell says, motioning to Doug, “that Mrs. Dyson has had one too many lobotomies.”

“Charles Bronson?” I say.

“I read about what happened a few weeks ago,” says Lowell. “In the paper. Hell of a story. That was some unlucky fucker.”

Doug looks about the room, awkwardly. He’s never said it before, but I know he doesn’t care for Lowell.

“You did what you had to do, right?” he says to Doug.

“You’re in my spot,” I say, changing the subject.

“What spot?” Lowell asks, flashing his perfect teeth.

“In the driveway,” I say. “I’ve got more groceries to bring in.”

“I’ll grab ’em,” Doug says.

“My fault,” Lowell says. “I’ll grab ’em.” I try to wink at Doug, but he turns away and sits.

“You wanna drive it?” Lowell asks once we’re outside.

“What are you doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

“I thought you and Alice were selling your place. Where is Alice?”

“San Franfuckingcisco,” Lowell says. “Why?”

“Because it’s as far away from Connecticut as she could get, that’s why,” he says.

“You split up?” I say.

He nods while playing with his chest hair. He and Alice, he tells me, flirted with the idea of selling the Madison mansion. They spoke with Mrs. Dyson about it, as well as a realtor. But Lowell decided to keep the house for himself and sell the place in Brookfield instead.

“Alice will be moving to the West Coast.”

“I’m shocked.”

“The papers are being drawn up as we speak,” he said.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say that you’re concerned for me and you’re able to offer whatever solace I seek.”

There’s a glint in his eyes when he says this. I’ve seen that glint before and it’s easy to be taken in by it. Rolling my eyes, I tell him I need to get back to my family.

“You didn’t say anything about the car!” he yells as I ignore the rest of the groceries and walk toward the house. “It’s a ’59 Austin-Healey 3000! A Mark-1!”
After dinner, Doug checks all the windows, doors, and locks in the house. I bring him a glass of wine. He has a look of embarrassment, like I’ve caught him in a lie. My smile and stroke to his back reassures him. Poor guy, I think; security has turned into a guilty pleasure for him.

“I’m gonna check on Leigh,” I say, clinking our glasses together.

Outside her room, I listen at the door. A steady lull from her TV whispers sophomoric romance. I knock quietly. Her voice invites me inside. I open the door to darkness. The TV silences and goes to a commercial. White and green light makes her bed a little stage. She lays atop the covers—balled up, head at an angle: center stage. She looks like the opening scene of a dramatic one-woman show. She looks like she did three weeks ago when I found her in her room back in Tolland: lights off, blinds drawn, fetal position.

I ask her if she’s settled in and unpacked. Looking around, it’s obvious she’s not. She says yes anyway.

“How’re you feeling?” I ask.

“Fine.”

“Because you’re still not eating much.”

“I’m fine.”

“Do you wanna go to the outlets with me tomorrow?”

Clinton Crossing has become a regular summer tradition for us. She nods while focusing on the TV. Her show has returned. It’s some teen drama with beautiful, fresh-faced actors trying to sound witty. One of the boys reminds me of Leigh’s friend, Zack. They all do, though,at that age: the forced look of rebellion, the clear, bright eyes that haven’t seen shit yet, and the baby face that’ll get them whatever it is they want.

“We’re gonna have a big lunch tomorrow, okay? Bradley and Wall sound good?”

“Fine.”

“Dr. Pilgrim wants to see a weight gain,” I say. “And so do I.”

The next morning I’m up at five to air the place out. It has been sitting in its own dust and darkness for most of the year. Cooking fish our first night back didn’t help any.

Doug has drawn every blind and curtain, and locked every door and window before bed. As I open things up, early morning enters and redecorates the house in a dim two-toned light. A nice breeze finds its way around. I make a fresh pot of coffee to combat the stubborn fish smell in the air.

As I drink my coffee, I think about Gretchen Murphy. She’s a woman I teach with at Tolland Middle School. She and her husband Phil have a painting business in the summer. Marty Powers, one of the math teachers, waits tables at The Whitebirch Café. One of Doug’s colleagues in the history department at Tolland High, Andrew Burke, has two jobs: chef and martial arts instructor. God bless the many hats thing, but I still say they’re damn fools. Summers are for the family, Doug would always say. Early on, we had both decided that we wouldn’t work once the school year ended. The cottage made this easy. We would come here with our daughter every summer and show her how lucky we all were. Then someday, we hoped, she would do the same with her children.

“Knock, knock,” a voice behind me calls.

My coffee mug slams the glass table as I jump back from my forward slump. Only a few drops have spilled.

“Relax,” Lowell says, entering the kitchen. “Isn’t coffee supposed to relax muscle tension or something?”

“You scared me,” I say, reaching for a napkin to wipe up the mess.

“You’re an early riser. But I guess I knew that already.”

“Could you keep it down, please? Leigh and Doug are sleeping.”

He pulls a chair from under the table and sits across from me. He rubs his unshaven neck with his hand and smiles at me with his mouth closed. Even at this early hour in the morning, Lowell is a damn handsome man.

“I’d love some coffee.”
“Sure. Where are my manners? You barge in here at five-thirty, scare the hell out of me, and I forget to offer you your morning beverage.”

I hate the way I’ve talked to him. I’ve talked to him like he’s an old lover. He closes his eyes hard and shakes up and down, that smile still on his face: Lowell’s laugh. I pour a cup for him.

“What happened with Alice?”

“What happened with Doug?” he fires back.

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I don’t.”

“It’s always the quiet ones, too. They’re the ones to watch.”

“Don’t be an asshole.”

“Well, it looks like this badass business is a family business. Is that daughter of yours on the team, too?”

“Her name is Leigh.”

“You’re wondering if the reason Alice and I aren’t together has anything to do with you.”

I am. My curiosity gives way to astonishment over his insight. I never would have given him that much credit.

“Lower your voice,” I say.

He sips his coffee behind that cocky grin of his. I wonder how old he is. I wonder what type of doctor he is. I wonder what a good analogy is for making a mistake: a stupid, careless, colossal mistake.

“So what do you think Doug would do if he ever found out about last summer?” Lowell asks. “Do you think I’d end up like what’s his name—mister unsuspecting home invader?”

Teaching seventh graders has taught me much about staying calm when I want to lose my wits. Balling the soiled napkin, I toss it to my side on the counter. Lowell exhales deeply and drums a tune with his fingers on the table.

“We’re neighbors, right?” he says, suddenly rising from the seat. “Let’s be neighborly.”

He walks to the screen door and opens it. I stay put, my back to him.

“If you feel cooped up at around 10 tonight, I’ll be where the old gazebo used to be,” he says. “I think you remember where that is. You spent some time there last summer, didn’t you?”

Leigh lightens up a little on the drive to the outlets. Pulling the visor mirror down, she even fixes her hair and makeup. I haven’t seen her do this in weeks. Not that Leigh has much to worry about in this area. She is a natural beauty. I find a summery station on the radio and keep it low enough to talk.
“What kind of suit are you looking for?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Aubrey has this really cool two-piece with a sarong. Something like that, I think.”

“Well, we’ve got the new credit card, so who knows what we’ll come away with.”

She smirks and flips the visor back up.

“Your dad is thanking the Lord he’s home right now,” I say.

“Dad’s so cute. He loves all this.” “All what?”

“The shoreline. Madison. Us coming here every summer.”

“Someday, you’ll do it with your children.” By the time the word “children” resolves, I realize what I’ve said. Too late.

“What color suit are you thinking?” I ask quickly.

The outlet mall is packed as usual. Leigh’s stores are of course the most crowded. Packs of well-dressed teens inspect merchandise with expert scrutiny. Locals. The overzealous ones—such as Leigh and I—are the “summer bums” as I’ve heard us called. Leigh takes bras and underwear while I’m on shoes. I hold up a pair of black, leather slingback sandals for her consideration. She squints for a moment to see them and shakes her head. This is our system. She holds up a huge, purple bra under her chin; it covers most of her stomach. I nod and stick up both thumbs. Just then, an older boy approaches Leigh’s direction. He pretends to be lost. Dragging his hands across the wall of silk and satin, he stops next to her and looks her over. Aware of his presence, she glances at him before replacing some black underwear and walking past him toward swimsuits.

The boy stares dumbly in my direction, smoothing his sideburns with his fingertips. A group of skin-baring girls wedge past him and whisper to each other, giggling. A young couple to my right examines eighty-dollar flip-flops, the girl tilting her head onto her cell phone.

This is what Doug will have to once again endure when summer is over. High school students. Staring. Whispering. Making remarks under their breath. They have no doubt spoken with their parents about Doug’s incident; and they have gone online to read the weekly news updates on the matter. They must now view their teacher in an entirely new light after what has happened. That’s for sure.

Not to mention Leigh. Sharing the halls of Tolland High School with her father, she is just as infamous. The last few weeks of school had her eating lunch in Doug’s classroom every day. Two pariahs. Two victims of unfortunate circumstance.

And though the summer is a nice break from this reality, it is nevertheless fleeting and in fact one big tease. As for me, well, middle school kids are far more myopic; they are too young and selfish to be concerned with such matters.

When I look up from staring at a heinous pair of maroon boots, Leigh is holding up a light-blue two-piece in front of her. I nod and walk toward her.

“Perfect,” I say.

“I think I like this one better than Aubrey’s,” Leigh says through the dressing-room door.

I pace the narrow corridor, waiting. Leigh’s feet kick her beige shorts into the corner of the changing stall. A woman in the next one complains about her tummy. Pairs of feet opposite us step in and out of outfits. Several others wait in the vestibule with piles of clothes draped over them.

“How does it look, babe?” I ask, stopping in front of the door.

When she doesn’t answer, I knock softly.

“Does it fit okay?”

I back up and look under the door for her feet. They are awkwardly pivoting on their tiptoes. Her clothes lay in a bunch to the right.

“Leigh, what’re you doing?”

A little whimper escapes her. Her breathing gets heavy as she swipes her clothes from the floor. I knock louder.

“Open the door, Leigh.”

A few girls waiting nearby grow interested in me and the door I’ve been talking to. My head suddenly feels warm. I try the knob, but it’s locked. The woman with the tummy problem exits her stall. She gives me an annoyed look and heads back to shop. A tall redhead leaps forward and enters the empty changing room.

“Leigh!”

At that moment, her door swings open, slamming the interior wall. Her lower lip is trembling, eyes huge and scared shitless; she’s is wearing her own clothing.

“What’s going on?” I ask. “How come—”

Darting past me, she fishes her way through the onlookers. I stand there for a moment. A busty girl with freckles and a sourpuss walks up to me.

“Are you two done?” she says, cradling a heap of outfits.

When I peer into the changing room, I see the top to the swimsuit. It’s clipped hastily to a hanger, swinging back and forth. The bottoms I don’t see at first. Then stepping inside, I pull them out from a corner under the wooden bench. They are balled and bloody. Throwing them on the floor, I push my way through to find my daughter. Behind me I hear shrieks of disgust from that freckled bitch. It’s a warm evening. Thankfully, Doug set up the air conditioners while we were gone. The house is all sealed up, cold chemical air bouncing off the walls and into our lungs. Doug says he didn’t see Lowell or his new car all day. I pretend I don’t care. But I find myself parting the curtains, looking up the street toward his weathered mansion. Nothing. No light left on, no doors opening, no activity. Doug asks Leigh about her date with Mom. He’s shocked, he tells her, that we didn’t buy anything. But, he says, the summer has just begun; we’re probably warming up.

“If I know my girls,” he says, “and I do …”

Nothing is the matter, Leigh tells him.

She’s just tired, and maybe she’ll get to bed early. Doug teases her about it being only eight-thirty. She musters a limp smile and kisses him goodnight. When she comes to me, her eyes look half drawn. Like they need to escape into a hundredyear sleep. Pulling her down to me, I hold her face and bring it to mine. I kiss her forehead and tell her to sleep well. I know her dreams are already there for her, waiting in line. They will be of Dr. Pilgrim’s office and of words like mifepristone and misoprostol and of light-blue swimsuits. They will be innocent dreams and not so innocent dreams. And I can’t change any of it.

Doug and I watch part of an old movie we’ve seen before. New darkness outside dims the house. As I fall in and out of sleep, Doug lowers the TV before shutting it off. I feel his stare. He must be thinking of his family. And why not? His wife of almost 18 years loves him. They’ve had their ups and downs, like everyone. They own two nice homes and cars, have well-paying, respectable jobs. His little Missy sleeps soundly in the next room. She’s a Daddy’s girl: a sensitive and thoughtful young woman. All doors and windows are locked. Nothing bad can happen. Right?

It’s a night just like the one last month. Leigh was asleep. I was half out of it until Doug woke me and told me to stay put.

Then he rummaged his bottom dresser drawer and left me. Waiting was strange. I remember thinking of an assembly I had the next day. I would be speaking to the entire school. That always made me terrified. As I was thinking of this terror I would have to endure, an explosion went off downstairs. It sounded like Frank Singer’s Chevelle in high school. After a moment, Doug shouted up that he was all right.

“I love you,” he says, kneeling beside the sofa.

I let him stroke my face for a little before opening my eyes.

“I love you, too.”

“I’m sorry,” he says. “You know I’m sorry for everything.”

“You don’t have to be sorry.”

“I just don’t think I’ve said it. Not since it happened.”

“It’s okay,” I tell him, squeezing his hand.

I know what he’s going to say next: those words that force his mouth into such strange shapes and humble his already soft voice. I say them for him:
“You were just protecting your family.”

This eases him. Pressing himself up, he smiles down on me. A thankful, wispy smile. Circling the sofa, he heads into the kitchen. I sit up and lean back, peering in at him. He’s checking the locks on the front door. When he turns back, he sees me watching him—that embarrassed look on his face.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Were you going out?”

I turn to the clock above the fireplace, then back at my husband.

“No,” I say. “I’m staying right here. Let’s go to bed. On the sofa.”

I’m not sure if I’ll dream of old gazebos or new summers. Or of Leigh as a child, or of her now, sleepy and troubled, but still sweet. Probably, I’ll dream of it all. Doug flips off a lamp on his way toward me. Then he grabs a blanket and settles in next to me. It’s a small sofa, but we’ll manage just fine.

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