Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Just A House: A Short Story

     Even my cousin merely floating the idea the beach house might someday be sold outside the family caused the donut to get stuck in my throat. I knew full well no one in my extended family made enough money to purchase what had been a savvy and fortunate purchase by my grandmother back in the 1940s of a tiny beige house two lots from a beautiful section prime Jersey Shore boardwalk. The fact my cousin was even verbalizing this potential scenario was cause for significant alarm, for it was his mother who now owned the house after my uncle, who grew up in that house with my dad, passed away. My dad’s claim to it was limited to its role as family portrait background and time capsule for rare days with his father.
     Growing up with both my parents working in schools, leaving summers free, that house became our summer ritual—the only Midwesterners in our town to take vacations, basically, and certainly the only ones to travel beyond 200 miles—and the spot for connecting with my dad’s side of the family. The trip out, usually my father driving straight through to avoid a pricey night in a hotel, was filled with more rituals: learning the CB radio codes, prepping ourselves for the lack of radio signal in Pennsylvania, and bonding with my dad as we smugly mocked my mom and sister for their tiny bladders. Pulling onto Hortense Avenue in the summer-swollen town of Ocean Beach, I would simultaneously hold my breath in anticipation of what awaited while trying to breathe in the sand, salt, sun, and ice cream just moments from my grasp. Cousins, too—cool cousins. Cousins I loved, with their hip clothes, perpetual tans, and easygoing confidence—relatives I wanted to be like, unlike the cousins in Missouri, who smelled of farm. 
     Back in Ohio, there were no beaches, or ice cream trucks, or outdoor showers. The typical evening in my little town was homework after dinner and Lawrence Welk, waving my dad out the door as he returned to school to oversee an evening function. But in New Jersey, we sat outside around a fire, or curled up in a corner of the sofa reading a book, or watched the adults play cards. Dad was relaxed and in his element, Mom was Mom but just a shade more outgoing, flirty even, loving the hostess role but hating to admit it. Hearing the surf after settling into bed on that magical first night reminded us the coming weeks would not be—not at all—like Ohio.
     The house was built when my father was around age ten—old enough to know you laid down your palms in wet cement to make your mark on the world when given the chance. Memories paired with my five senses spring to mind whenever I approach the squat, sickly-tan house: scents of suntan lotion and sea spray, the feel of hot sand under my feet and waves slapping my face, the faint clanging of the ice cream truck bell meshing with screams of happy children, salty mouthfuls of ocean water and roadside sweet corn, and squinty views of wide blue horizons dotted with clouds, far-off freighters, and sailboats.
     And now, in this diner, across from me and my donut, was one of the cool cousins, telling me the small shelter which symbolized my carefree childhood and my entire relationship with him and his siblings was quite possibly going to be liquidated so his mom could retire.
     It was as if his utterance caused a physical separation from my cousin and his family, so close was the bond that house created—the difficult pulling apart of a grilled cheese sandwich when you wanted to confirm the cheese was truly melted. Unable to speak, I excused myself to the bathroom and stared at my watering eyes under bad fluorescent lighting and mauve wallpaper with a mallard duck border. For the past fourteen years, my parents had been spending the fall at the beach house, which often sat empty after the summer crush. The house once again became the place we reconnected, now with war stories of our own children, work woes, and middle-age pains of the low back variety. That now-sacred six week block of September and October, with days still warm and nights becoming cool, would end. 
     I rejoined my cousin at the table, feeling the unease and lack of understanding in his stare.
     No preamble: “But it’s just a house.”
     Me: “But it isn’t. It isn’t just a house.”
     And my stomach churned at how he didn’t get it, not even a little, this cousin with whom I shared hot, sandy afternoons watching fine salt dry on our shins after swimming and body surfing. How could he not relate to my pain, not see this was the equivalent of a direct attack on our familial attachment? 
     It’s never just your grandmother’s favorite crystal vase, or just the pocketknife your dad used when you went fishing as a child, or just your mom’s high school class ring. Or just a house.