Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Chapter 3: Jason and Jennifer, World's Apart
I dozed beneath the umbrella half listening to Carol and Cindy discuss Jason’s morning excursion to Watch Hill with Bethany and how she might be ready to come out of her shell. Cliff was standing in line at the Snack Shack and Jason was Boogie boarding with Courtney.
“If anyone can bring Beth out, it’s your son,” Carol said. “And I see Courtney is booking time with him, too. Jennifer really will have to make reservations. That ought to frost her ass. And Kris will be here on Saturday. I can’t wait. They’ll be squabbling over him like gulls over a tortilla.”
I rolled over and asked who would be squabbling over me. Carol fell into honking laughter as Cindy dragged her away.
“I’m glad you find it so amusing,” Cindy said as they shuffled along water’s edge.
“Personally, my money’s on Courtney,” Carol said. “It’s those quiet ones you have to watch for. So, did you ever think that one of your nieces might become your daughter-in-law someday?”
Cindy scooped up a handful of wet sand and shoved it inside her sister’s bathing suit.
“Bitch!” Carol shrieked and lit off after Cindy.
“Hey, Setharoo,” Jennifer said, diving beside me. “Christ, I thought they’d never leave. So, you’re bookin to Newport to hang with Carol’s ex.”
I raised my sunglasses and squinted. “How’s that, Jenaroo?”
“Ben is Carol’s former college squeeze, Dude. Ben and Cliff were roommates, back when the cavemen ruled. But Ben partied too much so Carol split. And Cliff snagged her. Cool beans, huh? Ben was captain of the varsity swim team so he had keys to the pool. He and Carol went skinny dippin every weekend. You and Cindy ever been skinny dippin? Oh, sorry, I forgot. Cindy, like, holds the world record, doesn’t she? Don’t sweat it. Carol’s right up there. Hell, a couple of drinks and she’d haul ass down the beach naked. That’d be a scary sight, huh? But you’re not into the skinny dippin scene, are you? You’re too reserved.”
“What makes you think I’m reserved?” I said defensively.
“I’m just messin with ya.” She dragged her orchid nails across my chest. “Relax. They can’t see us from up there.”
“He doesn’t care what I’m doing. He’s with Courtney. She’s wicked hot and way nicer. And she’s totally in love with him.”
“But you and Jay have always been close.”
“What can I say. Things change. Shit happens. For years I obsessed about a Jason who doesn’t even exist. A Jason who would stay up all night and talk with me because he thought I was interesting and he liked my company. Now, he can’t wait to get away from me. I’ve never been to Disney World but I sure have been living in Cinderella’s Castle. I look at people around me and I see huge pieces missing from their lives. Like Grandma. She was sixty when Grandpa died five years ago. Now she looks eighty. She stopped eating, quit work. Spends her days, staring out the window and waiting to die. She’s part of the last generation to believe in love. That eternal, all powerful, everlasting happiness crock of shit. Your generation suspects it’s a scam but you’re still holding out for options. Keep those options open. Yeah, baby. Like my coaches at school. They asked me to make a training film for them. So I show up Saturday morning and I’m like the only one there. The film they have in mind requires me to take my clothes off. I’m, like, you guys are married and have kids. They’re like, ‘Who gives a shit.’
“But that’s the world you guys are givin us. A who gives a shit world. TJ’s engaged to be married but he’s down here shaggin after every girl he sees. Uncle Sy wants to get extreme so bad he broke his ass at the skating rink because he’s married to a woman who’s afraid of her own shadow. Carol split with Ben because he was a womanizer. But she can’t let him go. Twenty years later, he’s shaggin after me. Then there’s you and Cindy. I’ve seen the way you look at her. You’re achin to sneak back to the cottage and get freaky. But she doesn’t see you because she’s still freaked out from all those years of whorin at Seagull House. Oh, don’t look so surprised. We all knew what she was doing. She got the action and you got the shaft. She lets Kris do whatever the hell she wants but hovers over Jay like a mother hen. And every chance she gets she talks smack about me.”
“That’s not true, Jen.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll go to the cottage and get freaky with you. It’ll take you a week to recover. Screw love. Sex is where it’s at. Everyone has fun and nobody gets hurt. And if they do? Who gives a shit.”
“What’re you kids doing over here?” Courtney said.
Jennifer smirked as I squirmed away.
“Yo, Court,” Jen said. “If you’re done Boogie boardin let’s grab some eats at the crib and slide over to the water park to torture the boys. You gotta ditch that lame tank suit and wear one of my bikinis though.”
Jason came in after they left and stood over me to shake the water from his blonde curls like an ill-mannered puppy.
“Keep it up and I’ll have to hurt you,” I said.
He flashed his Tom-Cruise-I’m-really-worried grin and all was forgiven. At six foot one and two hundred pounds of soccer hardened muscle, he could snap me like a twig. But it wouldn’t even cross his mind. He was Gandhi not Genghis; he was my father not his father; he was the man I should’ve been, we all should be.
“Where is everyone?” Jason said.
“Aunt C. and Mom are chasing each other down the beach, Cliff’s been in line at the Snack Shack since yesterday and the girls just left for the waterslides to torture the boys.
“Excuse me,” a woman said, who had come up behind Jason. “Sorry to bother you.”
Jason turned and I sat up. The woman was tall and gaunt, had short brown hair, very dark eyes, wore a black bikini and held a young girl’s hand. The girl was a mini version of the woman--without the black bikini--about six or seven and wore a baseball cap backwards.
“My cart with all our beach gear lost a wheel below the dune.” She spoke directly to Jason. “The sand is too hot for my daughter so I was wondering if you could watch her while I go back for the cart.”
“I’ll get the cart,” Jason said without hesitation and knelt in front of the girl. She flashed him a shy, toothless smile and let go of her mother’s hand. “My name’s Jason. What’s yours?”
“Sabrina,” she said softly and held out her hand for him to admire her freshly painted nails.
“That’s a totally cool name, Sabrina,” Jason said. “And awesome blue nails . You are definitely the last word in fashion.”
“Thank you.” She beamed. “Are you a movie star?”
Jason hooted. “What makes you think that?”
“Mommy says you look like a movie star.”
Mommy blushed profusely.
Jason did, in fact, look like a movie star. With his clear, flawless skin, aqua eyes, square jaw and confident mannerisms, he gave the impression of royalty without the pretension.
“See the goofy looking fellow behind me?” Jason said. Sabrina peeked over his shoulder to scrutinize me. “That’s my father. His name is Seth. I’m a star in a few of his movies.” He drew close as if to share a great secret with her. “The one he likes to show the most would be me scoring my first goal in my first soccer game--for the other team.”
Sabrina snorted a laugh and bumped her head against Jason. It had taken him less than a minute to win her over,
“My Daddy’s name is Bud,” Sabrina said. “He ran away last year because he’s afraid of being my father.”
Mommy grimaced. “He doesn’t need to know that, Brina.”
“Well,” Jason said, brushing his knees off, “I’d better go fix your cart.”
“Are you going to fix our car, too?” Sabrina said.
“What’s wrong with your car?” Jason asked.
The woman groaned. “It has a flat. When it rains it pours.”
“My dad’s an expert in that department.” Jason held his hand out for the keys.
“No, no. I can’t--”
“He’ll have it changed before I get back with the cart,” Jason said.
The woman had been standing sideways, like a wide receiver on the scrimmage line, waiting for the snap before streaking down field. She turned to find the keys in her purse and exposed a long purple scar that ran down the side of her face. I would have three just like it in forty-eight hours. She saw my expression and quickly covered her cheek.
“You and your mom can stay here under the umbrella and we’ll get your vehicles squared away. There’s cold water in the cooler.” He threw me the keys. “Don’t lose any fingers, Pops.”
My father taught me how to change a flat when I was twelve. And he showed me how to check the fluid levels and where to add them if they were low. That was the extent of his mechanical knowledge. Changing the oil was beyond him so that was done at Clocksie’s house down the street. It was a semi annual event. Dad and Fernando, who formed the third prong in their zany trident, arrived at Clocksie’s with their cars, fresh oil and a case of beer. My mother said it was a miracle they didn’t drink the oil and put the beer into the cars. “That would be a terrible waste of good beer, Cara Mia,” Dad would say.
Ours was a working class neighborhood of small ranches and colonials, car ports, swing sets, and vegetable gardens. There were no Porsches or BMWs hunkered in our driveways, just Detroit iron, station wagons with Mohawk Trail bumper stickers, pickup trucks with CB radios and one Willys Jeep with a snow plow which belonged to Fernando. He would rise at three AM if there had been a snowfall during the night and plow everyone out. People wanted to pay him but he said to put an extra dollar in the collection plate on Sunday for those folks who really needed it. So they would sneak over at night and fill the Jeep’s tank with gas. In all the years that Fernando owned the Jeep, it never ran out of gas. It was a miracle. Most of our neighbors worked as machinists at Pratt and Whitney Aircraft. Dad sold insurance. He had an impeccable reputation, treated each person with respect and was often targeted for promotion to management, which he declined, because he wanted to stay “in the trenches” with his people. Fernando, who was from Madrid, had a small restaurant on Main Street. He served hearty Castilian cuisine--the food of shepherds--and captivated his patrons with colorful stories in his heavy accent without a single vulgarity, leaving them in stitches. Everyone went home feeling it just didn’t get any better.
Dad was a was simple man--by simple, I mean he was uncomplicated. He worked hard, was loyal to his wife, family and friends, and loved the Boston Red Sox and fly fishing, in that order. He tried to interest me in fishing but it was far too boring. I’d rather spend the day throwing rocks into the stream to scare the fish away. If Dad was disappointed, he didn’t show it. He’d pat my head and say, “With an arm like yours, Son, you’ll be pitching in the majors one day.” I did pitch in the town little league and was outstanding. For two years, I was in the newspaper constantly for throwing no hitters and shutouts. Dad displayed the news clips around the house, in his office and from the visor of his beat up Chevy Impala. He would carry the latest one in his wallet to whip out and show a client or close friend. I always pretended to be embarrassed and would scold him afterwards. I could paper my entire house with newspaper accolades Jason and his twin sister, Kristen, had collected through the years for their athletic and academic prowess--but they were inside a cardboard book in the closet. The scrapbook they would be displayed in one day would be the ideal coffee table companion to the journal I would write one day. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
My reign as baseball god was brief. Since I was always pitching, even during practices, I rarely got batting practice. Consequently, I never learned to hit a fast ball. I made the varsity high school team as a freshman but struck out every time I was at bat. It was so humiliating I dropped off the team and threw my glove in the garbage. I’m sure it broke Dad’s heart.
The woman in the black bikini couldn’t have parked her car any further from the beach and still have been in Rhode Island. I dashed across the fry pan of a parking lot, stopping briefly in the shadows of RVs to cool my feet. Her car was an old, dinged up Toyota Camry with rusty rocker panels and a cracked windshield. But it was clean inside and out. Take pride in the small things. I placed the jack under the frame in front of the rear tire and popped the hubcap. My sweaty hand slipped off the wrench while loosening the second lug nut and four inches of skin peeled off--figures.
I grew up in Manchester, Connecticut, went through the public school system as a shaky B student, graduated from UCONN with a degree in computer science and was recruited by an insurance company two weeks later. It is where I met Cindy. She was painfully shy in an endearing sort of way. I liked her from the start because she was unpretentious and never bad mouthed other people. I don’t know why that impressed me because I was pretentious as hell and bad mouthed everyone. Mom and Dad loved Cindy dearly and Fernando fawned over her every time we visited his restaurant. One time he brought out a guitar and sang a Spanish love song to her, shocking everyone with his beautiful voice and haunting guitar riffs. Dad said I was the luckiest guy in the world when Cindy agreed to marry me. It took me twenty years and a bullet in the back to realize how true that was.
Dad had his first heart attack three years ago. After triple bypass surgery and a long rehab period, he gained back his strength and sparkle and looked forward to fly fishing in the fall with Clocksie. They drove up to the Catskill Mountains Columbus Day weekend and that was the last time I saw Dad alive. Vowing to land a trout of epic proportions--Clocksie and Dad were catch and release guys--Dad made his way upstream in search of a sweeter spot. After a half hour, Clocksie set off to check on him and found his best friend face down in the water. Dad had slipped on a rock, cracked his head and drowned.
It was the first time I cried since I was a child. There was no one I could go to now when I didn’t know the answers, no wealth of male experience and wisdom to plumb. I was truly alone. Clocksie was devastated and never fully recovered. He passed away two days after Christmas that same year. “From a broken heart,” his wife said. I visited Mom the following spring and saw Clocksie’s kids holding a tag sale in the driveway. The mother of all defibrillators, the bellows and even Fernando’s Jeep, which he gave to Clocksie because diabetes had ravaged his eyes, were up for sale. The sadness seared through me like lightning. If the Jeep, which symbolized the Andretti Team’s unselfish desire to help their neighbors, held no value, how could there be any hope for us? Later that night, as I sat alone in our living room, I realized how much of a disappointment I must’ve been for Dad although he never expressed it. I was a talented pitcher and I gave up. I could’ve done better in school and gone to a bigger college but I coasted. I was determined to write a journal after the twins were born and discover the secret to becoming a good father. The pages were still empty. Yes, the road to Hell…
After tightening the last lug nut, I put the damaged tire and jack in the trunk and realized I didn’t even know the woman’s name. I climbed into the passenger seat and closed the door. Her car smelled of coffee from a commuter mug still half full and a Midnight Jasmine air freshener. Sunglasses hung from the rearview mirror, Sabrina’s Little Mermaid flip flops were beneath my feet, a CD jewel box belonging to Springsteen’s The Rising was on the dash and a brochure from Mystic Aquarium was tucked into the console. I opened the glove box and carefully lifted out her registration. She was Gwendolyn James, 28 years old, from Norwich, Connecticut and lived in apartment 21-C. “Daddy got scared and ran away.” A strip of faded blue paper taped above the radio carried a message from St. Luke: “Unto whomsoever has received much, much shall be required.” I sat back and closed my eyes. She was abandoned by her husband, drove a twenty five year old car, lived in an apartment in Norwich and she was reminding herself to help others because she had received so much? Of all the people on the beach she could’ve asked for help, Gwendolyn James entrusted her only daughter to a teen boy she had never met. There was a message there but I was too dense to see it. The jewel box on the dashboard rattled. I opened my eyes just as a very low, very exotic sports car rumbled past. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. It slowed in front of me as if questioning my right to be there. It had California plates, two letters, one number, AC-1. A group of young people were passing in the opposite direction, standard formation, guys in front, shoving each other playfully, girls behind, checking their phone messages.
“Sweeeet Enzo,” one boy crooned. “Half a mil?”
“A buck and a quarter, Dude,” his friend said.
“The driver looks like Scarlett Johansson,” one girl said while snapping a photo of the departing prancing horse with her iPhone.
“Scarlett was driving an Aston Martin the last time we went out,” one boy cracked.
When I returned to the beach, Gwendolyn’s cart and beach paraphernalia were on our blanket. The wheel had been snapped back into place. Smart boy. Jason, Sabrina and Gwendolyn were at water’s edge building a sandcastle. Cliff was still in line and Carol and Cindy were nowhere in sight. I plucked a water bottle from our cooler and perched on the blanket. Sabrina was fetching buckets of water to fill their castle moat, most of which landed on Jason’s head much to her screeching delight. Gwendolyn was buckled over with laughter.
It was right there in front of me. Served up on a silver platter. Life was both perfect and absurd. Perfectly absurd was Gwen’s cart, the Super Deluxe Beach Comber, thin plastic wheels forced onto a hardened steel axel. Roll it over a hundred yards of super-heated asphalt then through another hundred yards of sun baked silica and the wheels softened and snapped off, stranding its cargo of towels, blanket, cooler, umbrella--mother and daughter. Absurdly perfect was Gwendolyn watching Sabrina recharge her batteries in the glow of Jason’s undivided attention. No wonder 90 of the 100 girls at Jason’s soccer camp signed on for his session. I looked around at the other fathers, diddling on their smart phones and pecking at their laptops, not a one interacting with his children. Poor deluded souls, searching for Golden Apples in cyberspace while priceless life unfolded all around them. They looked like the gulls hunkered near the trash barrels, foraging for food scraps. As other teens passed Jason, who now had Sabrina attached to his back like an octopus, the boys frowned at him disdainfully and the girls smiled adoringly. What was Gwen thinking, that was the question. Did she delight in the moment like her daughter, who was absorbing Jason’s goodness like a sponge, or did she see the absurdity of finally meeting the perfect man who treated them with kindness and respect but who wasn’t even out of high school yet.
I wanted to hug Jason and tell him how proud I was of him and how much I loved him. Looking back, it had been easier to jump in front of the bullet. How pathetic is that. I don’t know where Jason came from or how he turned out so good. At seventeen, he had become the role model for manhood I had been searching for all my life, and I was too ashamed to tell him.