he unopened bottle of gin hung slack against my leg as I squinted out into the black surf of the Atlantic. I couldn't make out anything over the whitecapped waves except the faint pulsing of green and red on the buoy lights. It was raining and the sand felt cold all the way to the bones of my feet. A fresh breeze was blowing off the water. It was 10:30 on Sunday night, six hours after the service ended.
I'd gotten into town late Saturday morning under bleak skies, and had lunch with friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in a year. There were a good number of us Breyberry grads in Newport that weekend for the Ellen Vatic, J. William Kenner wedding. It was to be held at Ascension Episcopal Church, with a reception to follow on Centre Court of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. A handful of us--Jess Bismitten, Taylor Branch, Carl Frances, Emily Watson, Pippa Longwell, and Jeremy Geld--were enduring the chilly conditions on the Young Street dock for the pleasure of sipping gin and tonic near saltwater for one last time in the year. A few lonely boats pointed their bows towards town, but mostly the harbor was a sad field of listless mooring poles. It was an odd combination of time and place for a wedding, but Ellen always had a morbid streak, and I'm sure the weather pleased her.
Taylor and Emily's discussion about which was the nicer town, Newport or Marblehead, had disintegrated into bickering and everyone was getting a good laugh listening to them.
"Actually, San Diego's better than both of them," Emily said.
"You would say something like that," Taylor sneered. "You and your family would fit right in in San Diego."
Emily was a husky sort of girl with dark blonde hair and a throaty voice. She had been a three-sport athlete whose mother Patty came to all of her games and talked about the way it used to be back when Breyberry was all boys and her alma mater, Fairely West, bred the debutantes to fill the ballrooms. Emily was tri-captain of the championship field hockey team of our junior year, and if you called her a standard issue, off-the-rack Breyberry girl, she would look you in the eye and return the compliment. When she married, she would receive enough money in a trust from Mr. and Mrs. Watson to buy a house, but not much more than that. If she ever moved more than thirty miles from where she grew up, her sense of direction would become confused, and she would wander off into the woods and starve. Emily was a stock, off-the-rack Breyberry girl, and Breyberry will graduate five or six like her until the earth falls into the sun.
Talking had stopped. The water rustled under the dock. The chill increased. Pippa Longwell leaned against me and I put my arm around her to stop her from shaking. I think someone mentioned movies.
Ten minutes later, Carrie Caswell came shuffling down the dock in sandals and a flower dress, looking every bit as inviting as she had the last time I'd seen her, four years ago, when she came out at the Holiday Ball. The wind blew the light, summery dress and her long, light hair away from her body, so that she seemed to briefly submerge beneath these things that preceded her. She was built like a candycane, skinny and straight and pink, with her hair pulled back in a tight, high ponytail that came out a good finger's length off her head, then spilled down her back. The hook by which to hang her from the tree. She walked with a coiled deliberation, as if at any moment, she might either be swept up into the air by a strong breeze, or fall through the dock into the sea.
In high school, the book on Carrie was mixed. Her coaches called her fast with good field vision. Her teachers said she was unmotivated and ditzy. Her friends said she was the life of the party, and her enemies called her a slut and a fake. There had been a time, the year before I could drive, when I had had an opinion about her, too. I would see her crossing the parking lot still wearing cleats. Shin guards around her ankles. Cheeks and forehead shining. Bag slung over shoulder. Straight to her car, no shower. It was her junior year, and she had no compunction about letting anyone who cared know that she was on her way to spend the afternoon in Thierney McCabe's room, and something about that gnawed at my insides as I struggled to sweat with the big boys. Not because I really cared, but because (in the eternal complaint of the underaged and the junior varsity) here was this beautiful girl who seemed not even to care herself what she did. It had been Barry Sonnen her freshman year, Jeremy Whitaker her sophomore year, and maybe--maybe I had nursed a desire deep down that, just once, it might be me who helped her out of her skirt on a Thursday afternoon after practice.
It wasn't to be, and for whatever reason, with the exception of one night, late, at a party in someone's barn (I've forgotten who), when we were the last two people awake, she and I did not get along well. But that's the sort of thing that passes between and among everyone when they're young.
Emily Watson threw her hands up in the air and squealed in a practiced way, "Oh my God! Carrie Caswell! I didn't think you were coming."
They hugged and waltzed each other back and forth and Emily squeaked again. Taylor looked at me and rolled his eyes. No one expected to see her. Carrie had been in a hospital for depression the last year, and no one had heard a word from her directly. But she seemed as wiry and bubbly as ever, so the hospital must have been the right thing for her. She and I shook hands when we said hello. Hers was warm and damp. She barely looked at me.
"Who did you come with?" Emily asked.
A group of twenty of us who weren't in the wedding party met at the NY Yacht Club while the rehearsal dinner was going on. Outside, smoking and getting fresh air, Carrie started fidgeting with her lighter.
"You all right?" I asked. I was looking down the steep green slope of the hill.
"This wedding makes me sad. Doesn't it make you sad that Ellen's getting married?"
"No, not really."
There was a silence as I tried to think about whether the wedding could be sad or not.
"When I was in the hospital, I used to pretend I was in study hall sometimes. Do you remember we had first period study hall together?"
I did. Carrie sat two seats in front of me, her shoes off, head down on the desk, her right leg jiggling up and down a hundred miles an hour.
"I pretended I was in study hall, because that was the only time I could sleep right."
"Sleep? Your leg used to--"
"I know. But I was fast asleep and dreaming. Can you believe that?"
We both laughed, and I saw the same carefree look that had seemed such an affront in high school come over her face, only now it was endearing because she seemed to be coming towards me. I understood more deeply why Jeremy Whitaker had thrown his stereo from his bedroom window when Carrie stopped returning his calls. I was struck by a calm feeling of being quite adult, and as I flicked my cigarette down the hill I thought, Well, this isn't so bad after all, this being grown up. I said so to Carrie.
"I don't know. It all seems so sad, though." She stopped for a second and her face changed. "I'm tired."
I went in for another drink. Carrie stayed on the porch. We stayed late and got good and drunk, but I didn't talk to her anymore.
At the service the next day, Carrie sat away from us in a row of old folks. She was wearing the same dress, and this was the topic of discussion in our pew. Pippa and Emily figured that she was still a little crazy, mostly a poor planner. I told them to shut up, but they thought I meant because of the service. Still, Carrie looked better than any of us with our halfshut eyes and puffy faces. She looked, I think, even better than the day before.
In the receiving line, Ellen Vatic Kenner complained lightly about the weather.
"Can you believe how hard it's raining? They've had to move the reception." This minor disaster caused her mother to panic, saying, "Ellen, I told you time and again we should not have had the wedding here at this time of year," and the result was a delighted bride. As the limousines and cars pulled away I looked for Carrie Caswell, wondering if she was still sad. Behind the veil of storm clouds, the sun had sunk into an autumn dusk, and it was nearly dark as we entered the reception hall.
Not quite sober from Saturday night, we all drank too much. It was hot and crowded and loud. The band played elevator music until Jeremy Geld pulled out a hundred dollars and made a request. Pippa and I made a scene doing our best swing dance moves, and we managed to knock a tray of shrimp out of a waiter's hand. This drew a round of applause from the classes of '90 to '94, and some nasty stares from Mr. and Mrs. Vatic.
I stepped outside for some air, and there was Carrie, standing under the awning like a white shadow, smoking a cigarette. I bummed one from her and asked where she'd disappeared to.
"I was walking around."
She was soaked.
"You're missing all the fun," I said, "it's a real scene in there."
She answered abruptly of the subject, as if a new thought had just occurred to her. "You know, Billy was my first."
"I lost my virginity to Bill Kenner. Isn't that weird? We were fourteen. And now he's married."
I looked through the thick veil of my drunkenness, trying to summon something to answer her agitation, but all I could muster was a confession.
"I can tell you something weird. Want to hear it?" She looked at me vaguely. "You were the first girl I really had a crush on in high school. When I was a freshman and you were a sophomore. I would watch you at practice. From the sidelines of the soccer field."
"But you were always so mean to me in high school," she said, starting to smile a little. I shrugged.
"That's all right."
She was shivering. "It's cold out here," I said, "do you want to go inside?" Her eyes were glassy, her hair was plastered tight against her head, her dress was translucent from the rain, and she was breathing hard. I felt a knot growing in my stomach. I hoped she would stay outside.
"Did you really like me?"
"Before or after that time--"
"Before." I put my cigarette out in a small puddle of rainwater. "I hated all those guys you used to--"
"Sometimes," she said. The word hung like a rock perched at the edge of an overhead cliff. "Sometimes, I really hate thinking about those times."
I stared at her, silent.
"Sometimes, I can't stand coming home. But where else can you go? You can't pretend anything when you're home with all your friends. Do you know what I mean?"
"Yes," I said, though I didn't.
I waited just a moment, staring at the bridge of her nose. I stepped towards her. But I'd waited too long.
"Do you think," she started. "Do you think...we could steal a bottle of liquor from the bar?"
"Yes," I said, and I was sure I could.
"Go steal a bottle of liquor, then meet me at the beach." And she was gone, seemingly in that instant.
Back in the reception, Mrs. Horne was explaing to the bartender--very slowly--what was wrong with the Manhattan he'd poured her.
"Now listen to me, Pablo, and please, do listen closely."
"Are you listening?"
"Like this." Mrs. Horne measured her fingers against a highball glass.
"And dash of bitters."
"A dash, ma'am."
I moved around to the side of the bartenders and affected my best impression of a sea captain confidently examining his ship. I put a broad smile on my face...rested a finger on the table--
"So, how is school?" It was Margaret Albright.
"Well, I'm--I graduated, Mrs. Albright. How are you?"
"Wasn't it a nice service?"
"Oh, yes it was."
"I thought Ellen looked very nice. What about a wedding for you? I guess pretty soon there'll be one for you, too."
"Oh, haha, maybe not too soon, Mrs Albright."
"Do you have a girlfriend these days?"
There was such a heat in the place, I felt like I might be sick. It smelled of boiling perfume, spilt vodka, and plastic chairs. The band played on and on and on, and Mrs. Albright was breathing right on me and her breath smelled of dead fish. Carrie Caswell was outside, standing and shivering on the beach. How long? I couldn't think how long ago she'd disappeared from the back step and into the dark towards the ocean. Fifteen minutes? Half an hour? I looked the bartender in the eye, showed his a fifty, then grabbed a bottle of gin and ran out the door, down the steps, racing down the sandy road, back the way we'd driven from Newport. She would be at the closest part of the beach, not two hundred yards from the hall, through the sand dunes covered in dune grass, pocked with the rain and down onto the beach to--
I stop. Carrie is nowhere to be seen. On the ocean side of the dunes I realize that it's raining hard, and the wind has shifted completely from the afternoon and is now blowing hard onshore, even as the tide recedes. I wipe the water from my face and lick my lips, trying to separate which shapes are just shadows and spray, and which one is Carrie. Drunk, I trip in the sand and get up laughing as I make my way down to the water. When I find her, I promise myself, when I find her I will not hesitate. If I didn't miss my chance to finally grab ahold of Carrie Caswell, eight years after I first watched her chase down a field hockey ball, I promise myself I will not hesitate.
I nearly trip again.
A light cotton dress, underwear, sandals, neatly placed in a pile. The fold of the dress flops up briefly, then plunks down in the wind.
In the ocean, I can see nothing but the white tops of the waves rolling in, one on top of the other, depositing seaweed and rocks as the tide rolls out. The rain falling on the ocean. I stare out, because there is nowhere else to look. Dark sky. Cold glass bottle. A steady sea breeze.
Email comments to Devin Burnam
Copyright © 1999 by Devin Burnam.