I was so young when it all began that the blame hardly feels like mine. But no matter how minor a part I played, mine was the most pivotal. In the end, it was a decision I made.
So though there are many stories I tell, this is the one I’ve never shared. I can’t bear to think about it, except in my most submerged recesses, releasing it in the deep deep dark of night, when it will not be evaded.
How many years would you have to go back to change your destiny? That question plagues me. Because if I can think in terms of destiny, I can afford myself a slight reprieve, a misguided waft of air in a stagnant, decaying well. If I can think in terms of destiny, I can believe that I did what I did because I had no option. It had been predetermined and I’d only acted out my role.
But destiny is the weak man’s conception. To believe in destiny is to take no responsibility for your choices.
And I won’t allow myself the luxury.
I learned a little from Trent that summer, but not enough to open the eyes of a self-involved, spoiled, jealous 17-year-old. Then, later, years later, I ran into Dana. We had drinks, both of us smoking too much, talking too much, drinking too much, wondering if the other was glossing things over. I saw a subtle loneliness in her eyes that I recognized only because it was in mine, too. She knew. And she knew that I knew. It’s scary, that loneliness, because you want so much to have someone alleviate it, yet the only people who can are those who know it, too. And when you find one of those people you’re terrified that that person can see through your carefully wrought facade, and you realize you’re naked in front of a virtual stranger, so you just run.
I learned most of it from Kyle. The details. The things I couldn’t have known. Those things pursue me. Those and the things Dana told me happened after. After I passed out of the picture. I was able to spend some uncomfortable but pleasant time with her until she told me. That was when I had to flee. I had to escape. That was when the running became all.
I’m still running.
Just as Kyle is still chasing.
Neither of us will succeed—me in escaping or Kyle in capturing.
We know this.
We don’t stop.
Someone once told me that tears water the soul. I do not believe this. If it were true, my soul would be fertile and verdant. But it is stunted and gnarled and withered and cracked.
Which is something I could live with.
If Kyle’s had been spared.
Kyle would say this is Jack’s story. But, just as this is the only story I can never share, this is the only one Kyle will ever be able to tell.
So I think of this as Kyle’s story.
Kyle first saw the Boy at the shore.
He and his friends were coming over a dune in the hazy white midmorning sun in the summer of 1966, carrying magazines, towels, umbrellas. The Boy sat a hundred or so yards away, facing the sea, reading a book. Approximately 16, his body long and thin, he sat gracefully, his honey-colored hair cut into a pageboy that nearly touched his collar. His skin was brown and though his tan was not deep, it was even, offset by the brilliance of his white, loose-fitting shorts and button-down. A pair of gold, octagonal glasses sat atop his nose. He was so beautiful he was shining. He looked like a sand angel.
Kyle, carrying a cooler, stopped, transfixed; his friends, oblivious, continued on. He didn’t breathe. It was like he had never needed to. His heart ached with sweet, terrifying longing that felt like despair.
The Boy was all.
“New kid, I guess,” Claudia Fairweather said, coming up behind Kyle, tying her blond mane into a ponytail.
“Yeah,” was all he could say.
“Come on.” Claudia’s voice was soft as she took one end of the cooler. She started forward and, reluctantly, Kyle followed to where their friends sat. Dana Weiss, in a powder blue bikini, was already supine on a beach towel, eyes closed. Trent Santangelo and Carly Salenger were unpacking. The day was warm.
But weren’t they all then?
“See the new kid?” Claudia asked, as she and Kyle set the cooler in the sand.
“Bo-ring,” Dana sang without opening her eyes.
“And if Dana says he’s boring…” Carly fluttered a beach towel before her.
Kyle glanced surreptitiously at the Boy. He was the only other person on the entire expanse of beach. Absorbed in his novel, he was unconscious that he was being observed.
“I bet his parents bought the house next to you, Trent,” Dana said, her eyes still closed.
I wonder what color his eyes are, Kyle wondered as he situated himself on a towel.
He made himself wait until he had opened a soda before braving another glance at the Boy, and that was when the Boy looked up from his book and turned directly to Kyle. Kyle stiffened in the incongruent bliss and horror of being caught, before he turned, guiltily, away.
He’d arrived only the evening before.
Like he did every summer when they returned to the beach house, Kyle Ryan Quinn caught his breath when he turned the key in the lock and the door swung open with its haunted house creak. As the stagnancy of the past rushed by him, like the house exhaling, liberating Kevin’s spirit, Kyle braced himself for a swell of emotion and horror. But it never came. He thought he’d feel the shock of it most of all in the place where it happened. And if he didn’t, what did that make him?
The house was moist and dark and cool as he stepped inside, expecting he didn’t know what. He and his mother opened blinds and curtains, dispelling the gloom that had permeated the building in their absence. It was paneled darkly in wood with a large fireplace in a living room that overlooked the sea. A bi-level balcony trimmed the shore side of the house, so that it let into the living room, as well as their bedrooms upstairs. Though there were modern appliances, the place had a feel of something older. There were copies of magazines, twenty and thirty years old, bad watercolor seascapes on the walls, and unpretty, hand-knit afghans thrown over the sofas in the living room and basement. The house was well-loved, as well-loved as any of the characters who had taken refuge in it over the years. Rife with the generations that had preceded Kyle in summering, there were ghosts of barbecues and swimmers and damage withstood. There were silent cries of “Dry off before you come in the house!” and “Let’s collect lightning bugs!” and murmurings of “I love you.”
On the second level, he unpacked in the bathroom adjacent to his room: toothbrush, comb, tanning cream. When he unsheathed his straight razor, its blade was so fine he could feel its silvery sting. His father had shown him how to use it when he was thirteen. Kyle had been so daunted by it, he’d respected its power, thus it had never betrayed him.
He put it in the medicine chest, finished in the bathroom, and had placed only a sweatshirt in the chest at the foot of his bed before the roar and fall of the surf drew him to the balcony. A late afternoon breeze smelled of salt and sun. A large willow let on to the reeds and the sand. The water was green and magnetizing. It had an allure he had always felt but never understood or questioned. He inhaled deeply of the briny air, allowing the pull of the undulating sea to wash over him, drag him under, release him, clean.
He was glad to be back.
Kyle’s first memory took place at the beach house. He remembered the lonesome cry of a gull, a swatch of blue sky, and, having just emerged from the water, the breeze cool against his flesh. His beach towel was too big for his four-year-old body; it draped his shoulders, drooping to his knees. Water welled in his nostrils and ears. His hair was so blond it was almost bright white as he stepped through the sliding glass door, Kevin, eleven, behind him, brown as toasted pecans. The living room was chilled and inviting. His mother came down the stairs in a blue one-piece, a towel over her arm, her hair, then long, around her shoulders. Having fun? she asked. And Kevin told her, We’re golden. Kyle smiled. His mother squatted, opening her arms to him, and he ran to her, laughing. Kevin stood behind, water dripping from his earlobes in tiny, hesitant drops. Then Kyle began to sing. Kevin had taught him the song as they lay on the beach, making sand angels. Frère Jacques, frère Jacques. Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous? His mother smiled, then leaned in to rub noses with him. She was so proud. It was his first memory and it was what he remembered happiness to be.
He was just pulling a windbreaker over his head when he heard a horn from the other side of the house.
Trent and the girls were there.
“Don’t be late,” his mother said as he came down the stairs. Ann was a slender woman who looked like a ’40s film star, with a pretty, heart-shaped face, short dark hair and a pale loveliness. She had been a figure skater before she’d met Kyle’s father, and it had lent her a comfortable grace she bore even under the dense burden of life. She sat on the sofa with a straight spine and the slumped shoulders of a resigned princess.
“I will be and you know it.” He leaned in to kiss her cheek.
She smiled. “I’ll leave the porch light on. Be careful of deer.” They were the same things she’d said since he was old enough to go out without her. It seemed to comfort her.
Like it was a protection spell.
Not that she’d be awake when he returned. She’d take her pill and slumber until dawn.
That and her protection spell got her safely through every night.
There was a boisterous reunion when he got to Trent’s car, a Mustang convertible so dark blue it appeared black in the waning light. The girls kissed him. Carly squealed. She had been in Hawaii for Christmas and hadn’t seen him since last summer. Trent threw him a bored smile because they’d seen each other only last week at school. Dana held Kyle’s hand in the back seat where he was sandwiched between her and Claudia. Trent put the car in reverse and backed out onto the road in the dusk.
In the summer, there was a surplus of deer, so the seasonal speed limit was 45. But being invincible, Kyle and his friends—save rational Dana—steadfastly ignored the limit, cruising 80 in the rain. Trent’s tires squealed when he put the car in drive.
“Look what we have,” Carly said, turning around from her position in the passenger seat with a wide, even smile. She held up a bottle of vodka, draping her fingers down its side like a game show hostess, then presented a bottle of rum, her titian hair flapping around her face.
“Yo ho ho,” Kyle said.
“Courtesy of Simon and Brenda,” Trent said. Claudia’s parents bought them alcohol, let them smoke, and sometimes even got stoned with them. Thusly, they were the cool parents.
“There are so many stories,” Carly said, still turned around.
“When aren’t there?” Claudia retorted.
“They’re all going in my book.” It was something Dana always threatened.
Though all of them had houses on the sea, they preferred to find an empty stretch of sand to be together. They thought of their summer hideaways almost as a secret club, though none of them ever spoke of them as such. They were exclusive, not open to parental scrutiny or outside interference.
They had a favorite spot, about four hundred yards from a mass of boulders that blocked them from a turn in the shoreline, with endless beach in the opposite direction. Trent drove them there without asking, parking among the reeds, fireflies dotting the dusk. The sun was setting with a slash of deep violet on the horizon as they unloaded the car and carried their items down to the shore, single file: Dana, Trent, Carly, Kyle and lastly Claudia. It was the way they always went.
Carly unfolded a blanket she’d been bringing every summer since Kyle had known her. It was so worn the oranges and reds and blacks and yellows of the plaid were muted. Beside it, Dana set up a transistor radio that Trent kept in his car solely for their nights on the beach. They had been doing the same thing for so long there was never a time when they forgot a towel or a magazine or a soda. Packing for the beach was second nature.
Kyle went to gather driftwood but it wasn’t long before he was drawn to the dark, pregnant sea. Behind him, he heard Trent say, “I gotta play a lotta volleyball to help me practice for that tournament next month.”
Dana turned the radio on and the dulcet strains of Summer Wind wafted on the gentle air. Only two radio stations were receivable on the island, an all-news station and one that played only pop standards and big band. Kyle liked to fantasize that they were caught in a time warp and that it was the ’40s, and each night when, on the all-request show, he heard faceless women (almost always it was women) phone in and ask for Someone to Watch Over Me or The Man That Got Away, he wondered if they weren’t pining for some GI fighting in Europe, if those voices weren’t really echoes from another time, simply a repercussion in a story he couldn’t know.
He turned to find Trent proffering a drink.
“Yeah. I’m golden.”
Trent and Kyle were blood brothers, confidants, partners in crime. They went to the same tony prep school, joined the same clubs, spent summers and holidays together, and would both be attending Princeton in the fall. They understood the honeycomb of each other’s lives.
But, like with fraternal twins, there were subtle and significant differences: Trent’s hair was thick, and wavy, and black like coal, where Kyle’s was fine, and straight, and soft like cocoa; Trent’s mouth was strong and square, his smile warm and wanton; Kyle had a gentle mouth, a girl’s mouth, his smile wide and accessible; Trent’s eyes had luster and were dark, like ink, giving him the bearing of a stallion; Kyle’s, brown, and sad, were limpid and vulnerable, like a colt’s, or a deer’s. And where Trent was a god, Kyle was merely a prince.
“I always wonder who’s looking back at me,” Kyle said, taking the drink.
He motioned to the horizon. “From Europe. Think about it. Someone is standing on the opposite shore of this same ocean looking back at us. And someday I might be on that shore in their place.”
Trent just looked at him for a moment, determining if he was serious. Then he said, “Baby, that’s the mainland.”
Kyle blinked, determining if he was serious. Before he could respond, they heard a scream and turned to see Carly capering from a wave. Dana had a shoe off and was submerging a toe in the ocean. “It’s freezing!” Her voice carried along the water’s edge.
“You guys!” Claudia called. “Come start the fire so we can make our first toast.”
Making toasts was one of their traditions, something begun in summers past with their parents. Those made on the first and last nights of the summer were the most important, the most special. The first was like Christmas Eve, heavy with the promise of unimaginable delight, while the last was like New Year’s Eve, ample with melancholy at the passage of time.
But then—then the summer still stretched boundlessly before them.
The wind that night was not strong, but it was brisk and sure enough that after he and Kyle had gathered wood, Trent had trouble lighting a match for the fire. Finally Carly knelt beside him, cupping her hands so that when the match came to with a breathless rasp, the wood caught fire and smoke began quivering toward the ocean.
They lifted their cups.
“To love,” Kyle suggested.
Carly gave him a look as if to say, Oh, for crying out loud. “To summer.”
“To truth,” Dana said.
“I feel like superheroes,” Kyle said.
“Or dwarves,” Claudia said. “To Grumpy.”
Trent ignored them, his voice full and resonant. “‘Drink wine, it’s what remains of the harvest of youth—the season of roses and wine and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life.’”
“We studied Omar Khayyam this year,” Kyle explained. “He rehearsed.”
“Better than that carpe diem bullshit,” Claudia said.