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Summers in New Hampshire

The air hung thick and sticky in New Hampshire. The house was filled with whirling fans to sweep the heat away, like dust. Beck and I never cared much though; we spent our time in the water.

The cool, refreshing water of Lake Half Moon invited us in every summer. We were small and thought swimming was for those clear pools with thick red lines, visible on the bottom. And Beck was sure that the sea-monsters would get her if she strayed too deep, so we stood at the edge, collecting the jagged rocks and shiny stones that littered the soft ground. When it got too hot even for us to stand it, we ran and played in the two feet of chest deep water.

Mother thought of the lake as a big bath tub. Every morning she and her friend, Mrs. Bailey, (owner of the lake house,) clad in their tight bathing suits, would march out to the dock, towels, shampoo and conditioner in hand. 'Cuz their bodies were covered, their hair got the best washing; and later, when they sweated pools of water, they'd be forced to bathe again, inside. I once asked my mother why she didn't just go naked into the lake; she looked me in the eye, giving off a laugh, and saying, "you're too young to understand."

My father spent his time as far away from us women as he could get. Mr. Bailey, his friend from high school, owned a boat: a wide, white boat called Minerva, with real leather seats that stuck to you like seatbelts in the summer. Beer cans were her most prominent decoration.

The men would sail and swim and water ski but never invited us to come along. Mother preferred to sit in her navy cloth beach chair, reading cheesy romance novels, and Beck and I were never considered. I grew to be afraid of that churning machine within Minerva, the engine, the life force which took my father so far away from me.

In the evening, when cool winds pushed the heat aside, we had cookouts on the dock. Eating fried chicken and drinking real Coke, Beck and I watched the sun go down and drape the blanket of night over us. We imagined it suddenly popping up in Asia and all the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and countless others beginning their days.

But before star constellations dotted the heavens, Mother would suddenly appear, declaring "bedtime!"

My sister would whine "I wanna see the stars come out! I wanna see the stars come out!"

"Honestly, Rebecca," Mother'd snap. "Do we have to go through this every night?" I often thought to myself, If she goes through this every night, why is she so cross? But I dared not say it aloud.

Now the screaming would start. "NO! I DON'T WANNA GO TO BED!"

Daddy'd glance up from his beer cans and high school reveries to look warily at his daughter and lock eyes with his wife. She returned the stare before dealing with Beck.

Sometimes she would simply haul my sister off to bed. Rarely, when she was quite fatigued, she'd say "Fine, just sit there," and ignore my sister for the rest of the night. Hours later, when Beck was so tired that she nearly fell off the dock, I had to cajole her inside. But mostly Mother would look around frantically and latch onto me like a lifeline. "Look at Eve! She's not whining or complaining: simply waiting for you to stop your foolishness and join her in bed. You want to be as grown up as your sister, don't you?"

"Eve's a butt-head!" my sister'd declare, making a hideous face at me.

"That's it," and Mother would loose her temper. "If I have to drag you to bed myself, I will!" Thus she proceeded to carry a kicking and screaming Beck into the house. I never understood why she had to haul me into this as well, if she'd end up forcing my sister to bed anyway. If she'd have skipped over the big sister praise, my nights would have gone a lot easier.

"Goodnight, sweetheart," Mother cooed and turned off the lights. Once the door was closed, it all began.

"Butt-head. Sissy butt-head. Sissy butt-head fatso! I hate you! I wish you were never born! I wish you were dead!"

But my sister didn't mean what she said in those days. I learned to accept that the next morning those words would mean nothing between us. On the outside, anyway. Internally, those words pierced a hole in my heart that never seemed to be mended.

***

My mother and I were always likely to get hurt. Me, letting my sister's words settle into the pit of my stomach and slowly eat me alive; Mother, burying insults and pain deep inside until she could vent them out to a pillow, or Daddy. We were fair skinned and blond haired, the golden, perfect girls in our family, but always likely to get burned.

My father and sister were stronger. Lanky, dark and Italian, they dealt with fear straight on, turning on the nearest person or simply ignoring it all together. I envied the way they could so carelessly brush off insults and make it seem to reasonable that it was your fault, all along.

Despite my hurt feelings, every day of those summers was special, from the time spent in the water, to our growing rock collection, to the cookouts and sunsets. But one day always stood out as the most special of all.

On August 25th, 1989, Mother burst into our room with three packages under her arms, mouth already forming into her baby girl tone. "Happy birthday, sunshine! How's my precious, sweetheart, angel, baby girl? Mommy loves you so much!" She attempted to hug me as I struggled to sit up in bed. "I know! Why don't my babies get all dressed up in their cute, summer dresses that Mommy got them?"

I tensed under my mother's imploring glance. No was on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to spend my birthday in a swimsuit, at the shoreline. My friends would come over and we'd collect rocks and build sand castles. Silky lavender dresses with ruffled sleeves and big bows didn't quite fit into the description.

But my friends were miles away in Baltimore and I was to spend the day being sung songs and hearing my mother recount stories about my infancy. I didn't want to disrespect her. "I I like the dresses."
***

We found Daddy and the Baileys sitting at the kitchen table, hosting a breakfast of eggs, sausage, muffins, juice and chocolate milk. "Jake, say hello to your seven year old daughter!"

"Happy birthday, Pumpkin!" He held out his arms and I overflowed with joy. This was the special day when Daddy would talk to me as he did when it was just the two of us, when adults, memories and beer were far, far away.

"Look at my golden girl!" He spoke gruffly, playfully, as he bounced me around and tousled my hair.
***

Later I opened my gifts, clothes from Mother, a doll from Daddy, stuffed animals from the Baileys and nothing from Beck since she was too mad at me the night before to make a card. Mother got to sing her songs and tell her stories, we ate the pink frosted home made birthday cake, and Daddy even attempted to teach me how to fish.

The cold winds did not accompany us that night during our cookout. The air was thick, even as the sun set over my seventh birthday. But the day had gone smoother than any other that summer. Daddy had stayed instead of leaving me, Mother didn't spend the day in her beach chair and the Baileys even talked to me, not just to my parents.

But just as I acknowledged this din of happiness, the lightening bolt came. My sister made her way over to Mother and demanded as loudly as ever I heard her, "Hey, why didn't I get a present?"

Mother took a breath before answering. "Well, Rebecca, you're five years old now. When Eve turned five, she stopped getting presents at your birthday so now that you're five you can accept the same. You don't always need to be the center of attention on someone else's special day."

Of course, none of this registered with Beck. "I WANT A PRESENT! I WANT A PRESENT!"

"Rebecca, Rebecca!" My mother scolded her but she paid no mind. Mother demanded, pleaded and even screamed but nothing could stop my sister's incessant greed.

"THAT'S IT!" My father suddenly burst out of his chair. "I am sick of your goddamned whining and complaining, Rebecca. You get that child under control, Barbara; I've had it! C'mon, Steve, get the boat."

Mr. Bailey looked hesitant but stood by his friend. Like acrobats, the two men jumped on board that big, white boat, looking relieved as usual to get away from us problematic women. As Mr. Bailey pulled up the anchor, Daddy suddenly looked at me, as though he'd forgotten I'd existed. "I'm sorry, baby- I'll be back soon, I promise."

Take me with you! I wanted to shout but of course I didn't. That was the way it had always been, Daddy escaping, Beck demanding, Mother slowly breaking down under her navy beach chair and cheesy romance and me, standing on the edge of the dock, watching Minerva shimmer in the distance.


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