“Well, this is it!” Sally says to me as I stand in the threshold of my new bedroom. She leans against the ice blue walls. “Be honest, what do you think?”
I look around- beadboard furniture, beachy décor, a hibiscus comforter on the bed, a view of the sparkling ocean out the bay window.
“It’ll work.” I nod.
Sally flicks on the light switch, and the blue, green and white capiz chandelier fills the room with light. “Pretty cool, huh?”
“The smell of paint will go away soon enough,” she adds. When I don’t respond, she walks out of the room. “I have to go to work now; I won’t be back till eleven, since its Tuesday. Help yourself to whatever food you’d like. And go to the beach, of course.”
I hear her strolling down the hall and down the stairs. The door clicks shut, and I collapse on the full sized bed.
I miss New York City. I miss the rush of traffic, the lights, the constant noise, the rude people, the freedom, everything! I flip open my cell phone- the one I pay for- and curse when I see 3:22pm staring back at me. No messages, no missed calls, no voice mails, nothing. No one calling to ask how my flight went, or how I’m liking Hampton, New Hampshire. Nothing from Cousin Michaela and Bret. Damnit.
I look over at my three suitcases, one duffle bag, tote bag and purse. Should I even bother unpacking? When will Auntie Sally kick me out and send me to another relative?
I simply pile my thick, dark brown hair on top of my head, pull off my t-shirt, leaving just the tank top, and push my sunglasses onto the bridge of my nose. Downstairs, I grab a beer, uncap it, and from the garage I take a beach chair. This is how I’ll make this summer work.
I look up at the house. It is turquoise, right on the beach. I shake my head. A three story beach house for a thirty-something year old spinster who owns a bar. What the hell is this? If I don’t get kicked out, then the house will definitely be foreclosed or something.
I walk into the “front yard” aka the beach, and plant my chair in the sand. Down the beach, kids are running and jumping into the waves, parents are laughing in a carefree manner, outdoorsy people are kayaking and paddle boarding. Everyone has a companion of some sort.
It’s going to be a very long summer.
The same people go to the beach everyday. There are three groups in particular. The first are the Asian’s. Three girls, two of them are twins, maybe ten years old, then there’s the oldest girl, around my age, who is so beautiful. I may be a little jealous.
The second group is Poncho’s Crew. It’s an extended family led by one brawny guy who looks like his name should be Poncho. There’s a bunch of young kids, and one girl my age whose (real) name is Summerlin. Everyone seems to worship her. There’s a twelve year old girl who’s kinda short and pudgy. I call her Ducky.
The third group is the Guy’s: four absolutely studdly brothers. When they stroll by, so unattainable, I sit up a little straighter and take a swig of beer, as if that will give me the courage to get up and talk to them.
I’m always tired. I eventually fall asleep at three every morning, and wake up at seven. The bed is comfier than my old one in New York, but I miss the squeaking springs. I especially miss the constant honking of horns and noise of the city. The noise here in Hampton consists of the rush of the tide and the chirping of crickets that keep me up all night.
“Hon, you should come to the bar with me one night!” suggests Sally.
I roll my eyes as I flip channels on the TV. “Why would I wanna do that?”
Sally plops down on the couch next to me. “Kiddo, you’ve gotta be lonely. Have you made any friends in the past five days?”
I smirk. “Well, I’m not exactly as fast at making friends as expected, am I?”
Sally stands back up. “You’re coming to the bar tonight. In fact, if you’re not at the bar at seven o clock, I’m coming here to get you.” She makes her way towards the door, and turns around. “I’m going to Mick’s house, but don’t forget- seven.”
“What else do I have to remember?”
“Welcome to Sally and Mick’s On the Rock’s- Hampton Beach’s premiere spot for hard drinks, fried food, and fun!!!” Sally recites to me as I walk into the crowded bar. She had spotted me immediately from her station behind the bar. “What do you think kiddo?”
I could only laugh at the irony of being called “kiddo” in a bar. “It’s surprisingly busy…for a Wednesday.” I quickly catch myself, but Sally doesn’t notice.
She turns her head, her straight blonde hair swinging in its ponytail. “It’s karaoke night- which is always a blast. Grab a drink, get some food, and just enjoy yourself, honey.”
I shake my head and take a seat at the bar.
“Hey, can I getcha anything?” says a bartender with a squeaky voice.
I look around and spy someone having a burger. “Yeah, I’ll have a burger and…a hard lemonade.”
The bartender adjusts her Sally and Mick’s tee shirt. “Do ya have an ID?”
I sigh. At some bars in New York I could get by without my fake ID. I pull out my wallet from my hobo bag, and slide the ID to the bartender, whose nametag reads Regina.
Regina examines the ID. “Melanie Fox?”
Regina hands me my identification back. “You on vacation?”
“Sally’s my aunt.” I say as if that could explain everything.
At the sound of her name, Sally strolls over and says, “Only one drink for my niece, Regina. She’s driving home.”
The bartender looks slightly confused, but fills up a glass with spiked lemonade just for me.
I take a swig and shut my eyes as the sourness and alcohol sting my taste buds. I spin around and watch drunks attempting to decipher the lyrics on one of the TVs. Everyone laughs and the drunks seem to be dying with glee. I drink more of the lemonade.
Who should walk in then but the oldest of the Asians.
She takes the unoccupied seat at the bar next to me and orders a garden salad with balsamic vinaigrette.
I sigh and stare at the small window to the kitchen, trying to avoid the inevitable small talk that is about to go down.
My burger and her salad arrive at precisely the same time, and I suddenly felt very self conscious.
“You’re new here, right?” Oldest Asian asks me.
Here we go.
I smile and nod. “Yeah, I’m staying at Sally Erickson’s house.”
Oldest Asian grins, her jet black hair gleaming under the lights. “No kidding! My house is two down from Sally’s- it’s the yellow house with the baby blue shutters.”
Of course I know where the Asian’s live. I see them all the time. And they’d seen me?
“You’re Sally’s- niece?”
Oldest Asian begins eating her salad, and I slowly dip a fry in ketchup.
“So how long are you in Hampton?”
“Cool, where do you live?”
Can we not have this conversation? “I live here now, with Sally.”
Oldest Asian didn’t see that one coming; she quickly shovels more salad into her mouth. “Oh, that’s great! My family and I stay in our house every summer, but we live in California.”
Finally, something I can actually talk about! “Where in California?”
I almost gasp. “Sorry, but why would you come here if you live in Santa Barbara?”
Oldest Asian laughs. “Because my entire family loves it here- we used to live here year round. We lived here until I was eight, then my dad got a job offer in Santa Barbara, so we moved there. But my whole family lives here, always has, and so every summer we come back here.”
“What’s your dad’s job?”
“He teaches marine biology at University of California Santa Barbara. That’s why he can take the whole summer off.”
“That’s kind of awesome.” I admit. “I actually lived in California for two years.”
“How old were you?”
I look up to the ceiling, trying to remember. “From when I was eleven to thirteen.”
It’s silent, so I say, “Do you like it better here than California?”
“Absolutely,” replies Oldest Asian. “I love everything about it- the water, the landscape, the people, the sunset, the restaurants…”
“I was living in New York City before I came here, so it’s kind of a culture shock I guess.”
Oldest Asian chuckles. “Well, you’ll learn to love it here.”
I smile slowly. “I’m Mary Jane by the way- you can call me MJ.”
Oldest Asian returns the greeting. “I’m Cambridge, but everybody calls me Bridge.”
“I think we just became friends.”
It’s eleven at night, and after spending time with Bridge walking around the streets of Hampton and talking nonstop, I’m exhausted and can’t wait to go home and sleep. I laugh as I remember one of the jokes Bridge and I had shared when I come across the spot where I had parked my car.
It is empty. No car.
“What the hell?!”
I hear the roaring of a truck as it pulls up in front of me.
“This your car?” yells the driver.
I look behind at the red 1967 Mustang convertible. “Yes, that’s my car. Why in the hell is it getting towed?”
I can’t see the driver because of the dim lighting, but from his voice I can tell he’s young. “You didn’t pay the parking meter! The police called for us to tow it. You parked in a primo spot.”
“Well what am I supposed to do?!”
“Hop in, I’ll bring you down to the shop.” He replies.
Even as I boost myself up into the truck I say, “Can’t you just unhook it?”
The guy presses the gas and we’re driving down the busy street. “That is a sweet car you’re driving.”
I grin despite myself. “I know.”
“May I ask how you acquired such a fine vehicle?”
“My grandpa used to drive it- it was his baby. He gave it to me when I was sixteen. I couldn’t have been more thrilled.”
He laughed. “Your grandpa must really like you!”
“He does, and I was living in New York City at the time so he was super hesitant. But I take good care of it.”
The guy chuckles. “Yeah, clearly, seeing as I’m towing it as we speak!”
We pull into the lot of the shop and park. I jump down onto the sand and run to the back of the truck.
“You better not have scratched it.” I mutter as I give my Mustang a once over.
The guy, who is getting something from the truck laughs. “Yeah, you’ll be lucky if I didn’t. Maneuvering a tow truck through these streets isn’t easy.”
“You’re preaching to the choir,” I scoff. “I drove my baby in New York City and he’s still in perfect condition.”
I walk around my car and almost collide with the guy, who steps back. “Hey, I know you!”
My heart stops. It’s only the most handsome of the Guys from the beach. The tan one (well, they all are tan) who is about my age, with the dark brown hair that is a bit too long so it’s messy and curly, dimple just under his mouth. And even with his Mike’s Garage shirt on, I can see his abs that are oh-so well sculpted. He is hot.
“I know you.” He says.
“You do?” I reply, trying to play it cool as I readjust my purse on my shoulder.
“Yeah, you sit on the resident’s beach everyday and drink a beer. You sit in front of Sally Erickson’s house.”
I run a hand through my curly hair. “I guess you’ve really noticed me.”
He nods. “I thought you were so cool.”
I snicker. “And now you don’t.”
“Well, you’re a client now. And you’re an underage drinker that doesn’t pay the meter.”
“Oh, please, like you don’t drink.”
He shakes his head. “I really don’t.”
“Typical popular guy. You’ve got the looks, the job at a garage, the grease on your arms that some girls may find sexy. And you have a posse that you walk with at the beach. From that, I can safely assume that you drink and party.”
He crosses his arms. “And you- the new girl, you’re missing whatever it was you left behind. The city, maybe. You pretend to be so aloof and independent, but really you’re lonely and you want to have fun but you don’t want to actually like it here.”
I suck in my cheeks. Am I really that easy to read?
“I am independent.” I hiss.
“Ok then, Miss Independent, let’s get you your car back.”
I roll my eyes and follow him into the grimy office. He stands behind the counter and passes me a slip of paper which I begin filling in rapidly, eager to leave.
“How much?” I ask, and when the hot guy hands me the bill, I wince. I pull out my debit card and give it to him.
“Who’s paying for this luxury?” he asks me.
“I am. It’s my bank account.”
“Uh huh. Are your parents gonna flip when they find out about your little incident?” he gives me my card back.
As I place it back in my wallet, I say, “If they find out, I don’t think they’ll care too much.”
He pauses, “Are you staying with Sally Erickson?”
I spin around, “Yes.”
He nods. “I’m Landon. Nice to meet you Mary Jane.”
“It’s MJ, and thanks for taking care of my car, I guess.”
“I’ll see you at the beach,” he half asks, half states.
“I’ll be the one with the beer.” I turn and push open the glass door.
I look back at the handsome guy standing there. “See you, Landon.”
I sway back and forth in front of my full length mirror, trying to decide if I look attractive or not. I am wearing a black string bikini and aviators; my hair is piled in a messy bun on top of my head.
I touch the bottom stone of my belly button ring.
I finally am satisfied and so I trot down the stairs, over to the fridge where I grab my usual beer. After picking up a towel and chair I plop down in front of the house.
“MJ!” it’s Bridge, who is wearing a neon green strapless bikini.
“Hey!” I yell as I walk over to her.
“MJ, these are my little sisters, Mau and Blu.” She says, referring to the two identical girls next to her. They both have almond eyes, tan skin, and shoulder length black hair.
“Bridge, I have to tell you what happened after I left the bar last night!” I say, and we begin strolling down the beach with the twins trailing behind us.
I recall every last detail to my only friend, who says, “Mike’s Garage? A hot guy named Landon that goes to our beach? Oh, MJ, no…”
I stop in my tracks. “What do you mean, Bridge? Is he dating someone?”
She urges me to move forward as she whispers, “Landon Ryan got a girl pregnant last year- he’s a dad.”
Just like my first legitimate confrontation with Landon, my heart stops. “What?”
“You fell for him, didn’t you?” Bridge sighs.
I shake my head furiously. “No, I don’t fall for guys- I just thought he was hot. And now I don’t because he’s a father.”
He is a typical popular guy.
“But tell me about these Ryan boys.”
Bridge nods, “There’s the oldest- Justin, who’s nineteen. Then John Myers Ryan, he’s eighteen. You obviously met Landon, he’s seventeen. And the youngest Ryan boy is Drew Ryan, he’s eleven.”
“John Meyers Ryan? What’s the deal with him?” I ask.
“Oh, the name. Well no one calls him John. Everybody calls him Myers. That’s just how it is. They say that only a lover will call him John. I don’t know about that. Anyways, their dad, Mr. Ryan, writes a new novel every year, and so he goes on book tours every summer with Mrs. Ryan and little Drew.”
I laugh as waves splash over my feet. “So the boys have a beach house to themselves all summer? Do they have parties?”
“Hell no.” Bridge replies.
“Imagine it this way: your parents give you a million dollars and your job is to watch over it for them. It’s tempting to spend the money, of course, but a lot is at stake, so it just wouldn’t be worth spending in the long run. That’s how it is with the Ryan boys. If they had parties, it’d be a good- no, a fantastic idea at first, but the effects of the party would be treacherous for them- no college, no cars, no life. Their dad’s reputation is at stake.”
“Alright, that makes sense.”
“Look who it is…”
Poncho’s Crew is walking towards us. Well, Summerlin was, along with her little cousins and Ducky.
“Ok, what’s the deal with this bunch?” I ask Bridge.
“Summerlin, I’m sure you’ve heard her loudmouth mother yelling it at one point or another. She’s sixteen. The chubby girl is her step-cousin, who stays here each summer. She’s from Massachusetts or something. I think her name is Lauren, she’s like twelve years old.”
“Do they know you?”
“Summerlin and Lauren? Of course!”
“So everybody knows everything about everyone but you don’t even hang out?”
Bridge nods. “Well, when I was thirteen I dated Justin for like three days.”
“You dated a Ryan boy?!” I gasp; they had suddenly become royalty in my mind.
“His brothers convinced him to break up with me, but before he could, I broke up with him. We really haven’t spoken since. And Summerlin and I used to be great friends- well, for one summer. But the next summer, when I came back, I was fourteen and everything just seemed totally different. A lot can change between two summers.”
I smile weakly. “Believe me, I know.”
From a distance, I can see four shirtless figures making their way down the beach, more specifically, in my direction.
“Bridge, that’s the Ryan boys.” I say.
“Yup, you’re catching on fast!” she grins.
“Should we say something to them?”
“It varies. If they’re wearing sunglasses they’ll check you out and keep walking. If they’re not…well, I don’t know.”
“MJ?” Landon says as the boys draw nearer.
“Landon, hey!” I reply and suddenly I wonder if I look fat or he likes my belly button ring or my aviators or my other piercings or if he liked anything about me.
“Guys,” he says to his brothers, “this is the girl I was talking about!”
My heart skips a hundred beats.
“Right, the girl with the 1967 Mustang!” says Justin.
I smile. “It’s actually the-girl-who-doesn’t-pay-the-meter, right Landon?”
Landon laughs. “I had the opportunity to tow an amazing vehicle, so no regrets.”
He’s a dad. He has a child. He loves a girl.
“Bridge, how are you?” says Justin.
Bridge cocks her hip and replies, “I manage, Justin. How’s college? I heard you’re going to Bentley?”
“You heard correctly.”
“Hate to break this up, guys, but we’ve gotta go…” says Meyers.
They nod and say “see ya” and we go our separate ways.
I am sitting on my bay window, watching the ocean glitter under the moon, when I finally convince myself to do it.
I pick up the metallic blue Crosley desk phone and punch in the numbers I know by heart.
It rings eight times before that familiar voice answers.
“Michaela, it’s me.” I say.
“Sorry, who is this?”
I sigh. “It’s MJ.”
“MJ! Sorry, girl, I didn’t recognize your voice at first. It’s a different number, too.”
“Yeah, it’s one of those vintage phones. My aunt went all out for my room. She painted it and everything.”
I could hear Michaela walking around the apartment. “How’s it going? I feel awful that I didn’t call you sooner.”
I shake my head. “I guess I left on a bad note.”
Michaela is silent. “MJ, you’ve gotta know that you’re my cousin and I care about you so much, but I’m in love with Bret. I didn’t want to make a choice between you two, but I had to.”
I twist the phone chord around my wrist. “I miss you, Kay. But it could work here in Hampton. My aunt is never around so I do whatever I want. I like it.”
“Please don’t lecture me, Michaela.”
“Mary Jane,” my cousin says in a solemn voice, “I didn’t know how to be a guardian. I gave you too much freedom, and now I just want you to be safe. Are you being responsible?”
Not this conversation… “I haven’t done anything irresponsible, Michaela. I haven’t been drunk, I haven’t gotten any tattoos, or hooked up with strange men and I haven’t smoked once since I’ve been here. Happy?”
“You haven’t been drunk? But you’ve been drinking, haven’t you?”
“Yes, I still drink. But I’m not your problem anymore, remember, Michaela?”
She sighs. “MJ…”
I slam the phone down onto the cradle and crawl onto the ground. My hand slips under the bed and I feel for the box, which I pull out. I growl and pop open the lid of the wooden jewelry box. My last few cigarettes are hidden beneath pictures, a dried up corsage, old Yankees tickets, a tube of lip gloss, and an old sock. My metallic purple lighter is shining beneath the chandelier’s light.
I suddenly feel tears running down my cheeks. I immediately catch them with my fingertips, and inspect them. I haven’t cried in what feels like forever- maybe not since I was eleven when I broke my wrist. So why am I crying now? I run my fingers over the paper of the cigarettes. Oh right, I quit this. Smoking had become a nervous habit of mine, something that could easily distract me from my problems. I absolutely loathe the smell, the taste everything about smoking but a friend in New York had taught me that a cigarette could take away any pain you had. And I’d really wanted to believe him.
On that note, I grab one of the few remaining cigarettes, my lighter and run down the stairs, out the door and don’t stop moving until I feel the sand underneath my feet. My mind is instantly flooded with relief, and I light the cigarette until the butt glows orangey-red. I inhale and exhale, quickly going into a coughing fit. But it is a great feeling.
I walk down the beach, staying on the wet sand that keeps me cool during the breezy-warm night. I stop at the waters edge. It is the most stunning sight- the crescent moon hanging low over the glimmering water that gleams the reflection of the moon, like a promise.
I stick the cigarette in between my teeth and try to avoid breathing in the disgusting tar.
“And she smokes!”
My eyes widen and I spin around to see Landon Ryan walking towards me. “Seriously? Why do I keep seeing you?”
He laughs. I notice that he is wearing plaid pajama paints and a white tee shirt. “Maybe because you’re right in front of my house, MJ.”
I look past Landon’s shoulders to the house directly behind us- the biggest one on the beach. “Oh, I had no idea that you lived there.”
He shrugs. “But come on, you smoke?! Tell me your story- please, I’m begging you. You’ve got me so curious.”
I fiddle with my cigarette. “What do you wanna know?”
Landon grins. “Everything. Starting with why you’re such a punk.”
I laugh out loud. “Easy enough.” And then I remember that it really isn’t… “I guess I was just living in New York, trying to rebel and one thing led to another and I got into smoking and drinking and just doing anything I could…”
“Anything to do what?”
I blow smoke into the crisp, salty air. “You’ll make fun of me if I tell you…You’ll hold it against me.”
Landon shook his head, but his whole body swayed. “I never would- I promise.”
I nod and bite my lip. I think I believe him. “Anything to make someone care. I wanted someone to save me.”
I turn away- I don’t want Landon to see me cry.
“MJ, what happened to you?”
I take big heaving breaths as I try to maintain my composure. “You talk like you knew me before all this.”
“You’re living here in Hampton now, right?”
I nod and kick the ocean water, willing myself to stay away from the tobacco that I hate so much; I finally chuck the cigarette into the water.
“Do you mind me asking,” Landon starts slowly and quietly, his voice soothing my soul, “what happened to your parents?”
I am shaking, sobbing, trying to control myself, but I say to Landon, “My parents died in a car accident when I was eight years old, and I was supposed to be in the car with them.”
I can’t control myself any more, and so I press my hands to my face in an attempt to hide my shame, my pain from the world.
And then the strangest, most wonderful, most magical thing in the world occurs. I feel Landon’s arms around me, pulling me into him. Despite myself I lean into him.
“That is the first t-t-time I’ve said it out loud.” I manage, and he puts his chin on my head.
“It’s ok, MJ, you’re ok.”
I sit up in my bed, just woke up, with a smile on my face. I toddle down the stairs, into the kitchen and greet Sally who is pouring herself some coffee.
“Morning,” she says, “Coffee?”
“Please,” I say, and fill up a sailboat mug with the hot liquid.
“So I was thinking that you and I could have breakfast together.” Sally says. “I feel bad- you’ve been here for two weeks and we haven’t had one meal together.”
“It’s ok, Aunt Sally. I know that you have to go to work…”
Sally shakes her head. “In the morning I go to Mick’s house and do business type things. The bar doesn’t open until five.”
I nod, and Sally takes out a mixing bowl, skillet, pan, and several ingredients. “How does pancakes and sausage sound?”
“Great, Sally. Why aren’t you going to Mick’s today?”
She begins mixing together the pancake batter. “Mick’s busy. No big deal, we’re together the entire day.”
“Who is Mick, anyways? I’ve never met him.”
The sausages sizzle in the pan. “Mick is the co owner of Sally and Mick’s. We grew up together and reconnected here in Hampton when we both were at a party. He had majored in business in college, and I had taken some culinary classes at the community college.
Mick and I got to talking about what we wanted in life and where we though we’d go from there. I was the manager at a restaurant; he was working at some insurance company. One thing lead to another, and Sally and Mick’s On the Rocks was born.”
I nod. “Do you mind me asking if you’re dating Mick?”
Sally giggles. “That’s a tough question. Mick and I both know that we’ll end up together eventually. It could happen in the next ten years, or when we’re eighty and wanna retire and Mick says I’m gonna spend the winters in Florida, why don’t you spend them with me? For Mick and me, it’s always been the right love at the wrong time.”
Sally places a platter of pancakes and sausage in front of me. “That’s really depressing, Sally.”
Sally sits down next to me at the counter. “Not really. Now and then he’ll find a girl, or I’ll be with a guy, but no matter who comes between Mick and me, it’s inevitable. We’ll always end up together, no matter what.”
I smile at my aunt. “That’s actually a wonderful way to think of it. So you don’t get jealous when he’s with someone?”
Sally cuts her pancakes. “Of course I get jealous. But it’s the thoughts that ease the pain for me.”
We both are silent as we eat breakfast. “What about you, MJ? Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, I’ve only ever had one, and it was when I was living in Texas, when I was thirteen. He broke up with me, but I was ok with it. It was mutual I guess.”
“But what about here, in Hampton? Are you making any friends, any love interests?”
I take a sip of my coffee. “I’m friends with Bridge Yang, who lives in the yellow house. And I think I’m friends with Landon Ryan.”
Aunt Sally’s eyes widen. “Landon Ryan? Wow, a Ryan boy. Word on the beach tells me that they’re quite the catch.”
I shrug. “Landon is kinda nice.”
“Then why do you only think he’s your friend?”
I pick up my empty plate and walk into the kitchen and gaze out the window to the beach. “He is my friend.”