In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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Each afternoon at 4 PM and no later, Charlotte Wheatley, six foot tall and always with a smear of red lipstick, demanded her dirty martini — one olive; one tiny, translucent, funky onion. Without it, she would blast us with a multitude of personal insults. She’d snap at my sister, frown at my brother and me. Our father, having years earlier lost his campaign to rid our family of Charlotte, endured her presence because of our mother, who for some inexplicable reason invited her friend on all our vacations. There was some sort of decades-old stalemate at play that I didn’t understand.
So Charlotte, and sometimes her husband, Donny, came with us to the beach each summer, to the houses with worn gables and bay windows that my father rented on the North Carolina Outer Banks. She wore glasses and read The New York Times as she drank her coffee. She had the handshake and gaze of an Army officer. My father was too proud to ask Charlotte and Donny to chip in so that we might rent a place with air conditioning. Dad’s salary wasn’t enough for us to afford beachfront, either. To get to the sea, we had to pile into the station wagon and drive to dead ends and use little-known footpaths through the dunes. The sand was so hot you had to throw your towel out in front of you, run to it, then throw it out and run again, slowly making your way toward the sound of the breakers. Brilliant-colored lizards flashed over the sand before us, but we couldn’t stop to look at them or our feet would have been ruined. No one thought to buy flip-flops.
When I was around ten, at the end of our annual week at the beach, my father gave me five or ten bucks to buy souvenirs, as he always did, and I spent most of that last day haunting the gift shops with my mother and Charlotte, looking at rubber sharks and various depictions of pirates and mermaids.
“That’s boardwalk crap,” Charlotte said of a tiny scuba diver with plastic fins.
We had been at it for hours, and Charlotte was losing patience. Under duress, I bought a hermit crab in a wire cage with some cedar shavings that were supposed to pass for habitat. I found it odd that there was no food included, nor any instructions on how to keep him alive. He had enormous purple claws, one absurdly larger than the other, but he was too weak to clamp down on my finger when I offered it. I named him after Charlotte’s husband, who had stayed home that year.
For hours Donny the hermit crab didn’t emerge from his shell, but I could see his eyes in there — black dots perched on stalks — and his hairlike antennae. On television a reporter was standing in Cape Hatteras by the old lighthouse with its iconic black-and-white spiral paint job. The reporter said that storms were eroding the shore, and the lighthouse needed to be moved, or else it would be lost. This was in 1978 or 1979 — I am not sure. I am sure, however, that my father was finishing a gin and tonic that Charlotte had made for him. Limes were certainly involved.
“Good luck with that,” he said to the television. “It has no support structures. It’s impossible.” And then, though no one had challenged him, he added, “Or nearly impossible.”
The adults sat with their drinks. There was heat lightning off the coast. On a cassette player John Denver sang about Colorado. We had made it through another week of beach walks, petty arguments, and sunburn.
The cottage we’d rented was ten blocks from the ocean. Frogs chirped in ditches overgrown with wax myrtle and saw grass. There were mosquitoes. There were spiky sand spurs and what we called “Carolina foot-fuckers”; you didn’t dare walk around the yard barefoot. Night had embraced the still-hot pavement of Dogfish Way. You could hear traffic along the beach road and, if you really put your mind to it, the boom of waves hitting the shore. Someone suggested that we go for ice cream. I thought of walking to the beach one final time. Shouldn’t we savor this moment? The next day our vacation would be a memory, and I’d be back in Baltimore, in the municipal swimming pool, telling lies about the trip. I went to bed with my wire cage beside me while my father and Charlotte and my mother stayed out on the deck talking.
The next morning, as we were packing to go, Charlotte pulled me aside. She was holding my crab cage.
“He’s dead,” she said. “You have to throw him out.” Donny had abandoned his shell, and his body was curled up, translucent. Charlotte looked at him through tears and squeezed my shoulder with a force that, even decades later, still feels like love.
Part of Charlotte’s mystique was her complete lack of fear. Even during rough-surf warnings and undertow advisories, she swam out past the green breakers, avoiding skates and jellyfish and rafts of seaweed. I’d see her head bobbing or her arms doing a demonstrative backstroke in the jade swells. She had learned to swim while growing up near Boston. “Wheatley isn’t afraid of anything,” my mother would say proudly. I never had the guts to go out that far. Nor did my father, who, when he tried, lost faith and returned to shore breathing hard, grasping for a towel to wipe his face. “Char is a true New Englander,” my mother said.
“If she goes and gets herself drowned, don’t blame me,” my father said.
At times like these I had to ask myself what my father was getting out of this deal and why he didn’t fight to keep Charlotte from coming. I’d imagine him saying something to her like “Lady, get the fuck out of our lives.” But he didn’t say a word.
Instead he made sure to open a cold beer for Charlotte when she swam to shore and stood dripping seawater on us. I could tell her heart was racing. I felt almost as if my own heart were racing with hers, as if I’d had the courage to swim out that far. Then she would go back to the house and cook a Tuscan red sauce that required six bulbs of garlic and a full bottle of wine, which my father would willingly sacrifice. At dinner Charlotte filled his plate, grinding fresh Romano cheese over his pasta. This woman, whom he had earlier sentenced to drowning, served him a plate of pasta with steaming, homemade red sauce worthy of the best restaurants back home in Maryland. And Charlotte had great legs, like my mother. So at least my father was getting something out of the arrangement: a good plate of spaghetti once a year and some beautiful legs to gaze upon.
Donny eventually stopped coming altogether. Charlotte and my mother would go for long walks on the beach while my father, coated with sunblock, sat in his chair and dug his heels into the sand. He slathered his nose with zinc, making it look gigantic. My mother and Charlotte talked nonstop as they strode along. I would see them stoop to pick up pieces of shell, study them, and toss them into the surf. For decades they’d had conversations about history and religion, seabirds and marine animals. They were both well-read. My mom impressed us with her knowledge of the Great Dismal Swamp and the Continental Shelf. Meanwhile my father went on digging his heels into the sand, the cheap weave of his beach chair stretching beneath his weight. My sister paddled around on a half-deflated raft. My brother drummed on his thighs, babbling about deceased rock drummers and recovering frontmen. And we all took occasional strolls along the sand. When someone asked you to walk down the beach, it was taboo to turn down the request, even if the person was hiking all the way to Avalon Pier. This was the vacation we waited for every year: forced marches and extreme tests of tolerance.
My father checked his watch and squinted through the haze to see if he could make out the two women in the distance. At that range you couldn’t tell them apart.
Once every vacation Charlotte and my mother would dress up, and my father would take them to an expensive restaurant for surf and turf. It must have felt incredible to walk in with two tall, sunburned, good-looking women at his side.
When Charlotte turned her wrath on my father, he usually just left the room. If it happened on the beach, he would take a dip in the ocean, and Charlotte would say something kind and generous about him almost as soon as he was gone: “Joe loves those breakers. Just look at him out there.” But later she’d be nasty to him again.
Even my mother was not immune to Charlotte’s ire when her friend needed a drink and could not get one quick enough. My mother stood up for herself, though, and their bickering unnerved and embarrassed me, two grown women going at each other like that.
Charlotte might say, “Will you hurry up already with that book — for Christ’s sake, Rita.” She criticized my mother’s driving and rolled her eyes at my mother’s constant picture-taking. No, she did not want to go see The Lost Colony. She wasn’t about to climb aboard a go-cart or play miniature golf. Wasn’t it enough that she suffered through my swim meets and my sister’s plays?
My family was Catholic then, and Charlotte and my mother doted over the priests back in Maryland. Some nights my father would come home from work and discover our living room occupied by men in clerical collars and various other functionaries from church. They drank wine all day while Charlotte served kalamata olives and complicated cheeses.
Even at the beach house the priests sometimes showed up, bringing coolers of beer and a volleyball, perhaps. They hung around until my father asked them to stay for dinner. Later, when they were too drunk to drive, he’d reluctantly invite them to crash on the couch, even covering them with a light blanket. For a few years no priests came. Then one summer they were back in numbers, showing up at the public beach access, flopping down on the sand, and grinning. I guessed they were cool enough. One of them tossed a Frisbee with my brother and me. Another spoke earnestly to my father about the Church’s literacy program. My mother and Charlotte, their legs greased with suntan lotion, strolled into the distance.
Around 1983 my mother and Charlotte got identical haircuts: platinum hair helmets that framed their faces. It was a style that proclaimed they were done having children. “This area is shut down,” it announced. It said that if you wanted roast beef and hand-cut potatoes for supper, you’d better fix it yourself. My mother bought a clunky typewriter, and on certain nights I would hear her downstairs, clacking away. Charlotte had the same model. She and Donny had struck a bargain: she didn’t nag him about going to church, and he slept down the hallway in their grown son’s old bedroom with the model airplanes still dangling from the ceiling by fishing line: tiny seaplanes and Japanese Zeros. On Fridays she bought him slabs of tilefish, his favorite. It was an exchange he gladly lived with — or so I’m told. My mother and father found a similar arrangement, only without the tilefish. After my sister left for college, my mother moved down the hall, and my father suddenly had his own room, with his dogs at the foot of his bed. At night, when my mother wasn’t typing downstairs, I would hear her in her room watching M*A*S*H. As soon as the show was over, she’d dial Charlotte.
As my mother’s courtship with Charlotte intensified, my father faded into the background, but for some reason the two women continued to involve me in most of their outings. At twelve I marched with them to protest the unjust killing of a black teen. My mother’s cardboard sign bent in the chilly wind as white people and a few blacks sang “We Shall Overcome.” Charlotte was in dire need of a cocktail. Members of the clergy were marching with us, probably dying for a drink, too.
In the sweltering heat of summer I went with my mother and Charlotte to Civil War reenactments, the soldiers sweating through their tunics, the smell of cut grass and black powder, the sound of a child’s question floating up in between gun blasts. My father had retreated to the public library and his rose garden by the side of the house and didn’t pay much attention to where Charlotte and my mother went. Once, while touring a museum in D.C., I saw a man take note of my mother and her friend, lean close to his wife’s ear, and say, “There goes a pair.”
A pair of what? I thought. But I knew what he was talking about.
As my father’s income crept higher, he rented more-elaborate beach cottages, each a little closer to the ocean, until finally he splurged on a place right on the water, where he could throw open the windows and hear the raw surf crashing at his feet. At night people strolled by with gas lanterns, the sky above a starry haze. The beach house was huge, large enough for each of us to have his or her own room, even Charlotte. Donny still vacationed on his own, reading spy novels and puttering in his tomato garden. He even went to France by himself, a feat I held in great esteem. Sure, he was missing the dramatic sunset caused by a wildfire in the Great Dismal Swamp. He was missing the surf and the red sauce. He was missing his wife’s brash declarations about rip currents and Ronald Reagan. And he missed, almost every summer, a spat between Charlotte and my father. But he was learning French, and that counted for something.
That year I bought a white muslin top and a pair of drawstring shorts that brought to mind a swashbuckling pirate. I had my own money. “Grass-cutting money,” I called it. The outfit had looked fantastic at the gift shop, but when I put it on at the house, the top was too loose and open at the chest. I had to admit I had wasted my money.
“You look like a girl,” said my brother, and everyone laughed, even me. But Charlotte said it didn’t look so bad. She grabbed the drawstring around my waist and cinched it tight. She said if I were to tan a little, the outfit might come together. Then we all went to Ye Olde Photo Shoppe at a run-down strip mall in Kitty Hawk to have our portrait taken as a Civil War family. (Union, Charlotte insisted.) My father held a huge revolver, and his two “wives” donned dresses with lace bodices. My brother held a drum. “You,” said the girl at the shop, pointing to me: “you can just wear what you have on.”
© Carlos A. Gustavo
That night my brother and I took a flashlight from the utility closet and went to look for teenagers screwing in the dunes. I was still in my all-white island wear, the drawstring just barely keeping my shorts up. We were teenagers ourselves, and by catching other teens in the act, we hoped to come that much closer to losing our virginity. The year before, we’d discovered a used condom, and we believed unquestionably in the magic of that mysterious rubber. It gave us hope that we might find people engaged in hand jobs, blow jobs, or more. We found nobody, though we scoured the beachfront and followed a set of footprints we took to be female. In the beam of our flashlight we saw ghost crabs skittering across the snowy sands, and we hunted them, stunning them with the full intensity of the light, then dispatching them with whacks of our open palms. We collected more than thirty lifeless bodies and took them back to the cottage, where we arranged them like trophies from biggest to smallest. We thought we were alone, but Charlotte was tottering on the deck, having a nightcap, and she discovered us.
“That’s disgusting,” she said, her voice ragged with anger. “You should be ashamed of yourselves.” She stared me down until I did feel ashamed, until I knew it was disgusting to kill things just for fun. Then she went back into the cottage and flipped off the outside lights, leaving us in the dark. She seemed, by then, the sole captain of our lives.
“God damn her,” my brother said.
“Yeah,” I said, holding my pants up with one hand.
“Bitch,” he said. But I wouldn’t go that far. I was actually worried that I had ruined things forever between Charlotte and me. I was afraid she’d never forgive me.
The next day, at cocktail hour, my mother, my brother, Charlotte, and I drove down the coast to meet the returning fishing fleet at Oregon Inlet. On the wet dock were mahi-mahi, swordfish, tuna, marlin, and wahoo that must have been five feet in length. The amberjacks had markings like bank robbers’ masks, and they regurgitated tiny sand eels and flying fish upon the docks. There were blueline tilefish and black sea bass. Shirtless men tossed the stiff bodies of game fish upon the wharf while crowds of tourists snapped pictures.
All of these beautiful, formerly living creatures disquieted my mother, but she took a few perfunctory pictures anyway. Charlotte, her eyes tearing, was there to get a good deal. She knew how to flirt: the youthful cock of her head, the particular way her voice trilled when she talked to the boat captains. Charlotte waded in among the restaurateurs purchasing their daily specials, and she haggled and charmed until she exchanged a wad of cash for a length of ahi loin.
“Lady, you’re getting tuna at amberjack prices,” said the fisherman, but he was smiling as he took her money.
My father was still on the beach when we returned. My mother and Charlotte cooked the ahi two ways: sautéed in garlic butter and grilled with Old Bay seasoning. They let me take sips from their salty margaritas.
More than a decade later, even moving thousands of miles from the East Coast could not rid me of those two. They hunted me down in Montana, Charlotte driving a Honda stick-shift while my mother unfolded and refolded maps. I had not invited them. They wanted to see where I lived, but I met them at a small brewpub instead. Charlotte was nasty to the waiter after her drink took an eternity to arrive and they still got it wrong. The next day she complained to my mother about altitude sickness, but I suspected gin. When it was time to leave, Charlotte presented me with a leather-bound blank notebook. She advised me to fill the ninety clean sheets inside with wonderful stories. Then she gripped my shoulder again, and I was caught off guard by the emotion I felt. Two touches and twenty years, and I was left reeling by each.
Recently I was at my sister’s house in Annapolis, waiting for her to take me to the airport, when we began telling stories about my mother and Charlotte, such as how they used to go to Catholic conferences and record the lectures of old, incoherent priests. We had an entire box of tapes filled with the dry digressions of deceased clergy. My sister suggested it had all been a ruse to allow our mom and Charlotte to travel the country together, renting hotel rooms and buying pints of liquor. It had been, my sister said, a coverup.
“I can’t believe Dad put up with that shit,” she said. “And Donny.”
Donny had died years earlier, when I was living in Nebraska. My mom called to tell me how she had gone over and sat by his bed. She’d brought lasagna and limes. She described his labored breaths, the way he’d hung on for days. He didn’t want any priests. He had fought to the finish — or, at least, his body had; I don’t believe Donny ever feared death. He died right there in front of my mother and Charlotte.
Before I could hang up the phone, my father came on the line and said I shouldn’t travel back to Maryland for the funeral, that I should just send a card. And then, after a few days, I should call Charlotte.
“She’d really appreciate that,” he said. “But for now, just a card.”
He went on and on about cards and selecting the right sentiment. When I finally hung up, I dashed out for a walk, fearing he’d call back.
The Cape Hatteras lighthouse is 210 feet tall. They say it can be seen, under normal conditions, from twenty-eight miles out, and on exceptionally clear nights its 7.5-second burst of illumination is visible from more than fifty miles. In 1998 state officials decided that the lighthouse had to be moved, or it would soon be history. My father followed the story in the newspapers, still skeptical about the possibility of relocating the structure. He kept saying that it was likely to collapse and tumble into a pile of bricks and dust. None of us challenged him. But he was wrong. Engineers constructed a rail system and coaxed the lighthouse inch by inch away from the sea to the more inland spot where it stands today, its lens sweeping over the shoals to the south and east.
On vacation that year, my father read The Baltimore Sun in a room filled with natural light from windows overlooking the dunes and sea oats. In this latest house the surf almost rolled right into the living room. Loose knots of beachcombers wandered by outside, glancing up once in a while as if to listen to my sunburned father’s sermon about the lighthouse. He was on the deck now, fussing with the cooler, a doughnut in hand, preparing to descend to the beach.
The house was so spacious that all the other places we’d rented could fit inside it. Music seemed to seep out of common objects, like the dishwasher and the ice-maker. No one could figure out the stereo’s remote controls, so we could only listen helplessly to an endless mix of soprano-sax solos. It was the kind of place we had always aspired to, but there were few of us there to enjoy it. My brother dropped by for two days but had to get back to Maryland to coach swimming. My sister and her husband had to stay home. So it was just me, my parents, and Charlotte.
Charlotte came down to the sand with gin on her breath. The surf was up. Whitecaps etched the incoming waves, but she didn’t take notice. She just put her towel down and walked into the ocean. My father said something to me about keeping an eye on her. Never too fond of rough water, I went down to the wet sand and watched her wade out. She ducked under the first few waves and reached the sandbar, but then she stumbled. The next set knocked her to her knees, and I rushed out, half running, half swimming.
When I reached her, her blue eyes were full of fear. She had lost her glasses, but her lipstick was still in place. I had to get down on my knees to pick her up. My father was out of his chair, marching along the beach like a general and giving orders, his words lost to the sound of the surf. When I lifted Charlotte to her feet, she was light. She had withered to almost nothing. Though I had her, she was not convinced the danger was over. She reached for something to steady herself. She coughed and gasped, confused by what was happening to her.
Back in her beach chair, Charlotte composed herself and tried to relate a story about Coney Island, but lost the thread in the telling. There were sandpipers all around, but nobody commented on them. My mother convinced Charlotte to go up to the house with her and have a drink. They didn’t come back.
“She’s nearly eighty,” my father said, looking at a guy prying a wriggling fish from a bottom rig. We talked about the fishing, how it used to be better. He mentioned the time my brother and I had caught fifty croakers, and he had scaled and gutted them all at an outdoor sink on Dogfish Way.
“I didn’t plan any of this,” he said. I think he was referring to the last forty-some years. The sea oats leaned in the breeze. A lifeguard motored by on an ATV. My father said we should let my mother and Charlotte be alone.
Later, when we returned to the house, Charlotte had packed her things to go back to Maryland. Her bathing suit was dripping on the deck. She was leaving it behind. My father argued that she should stay and leave in the morning. Without her glasses she shouldn’t be driving at night. She agreed, and he went out for pizza so that no one had to cook. None of us ate much. I poured my own drinks, each one stronger than the last.
That night a storm came in, and we lost power. My father pulled all the cars under the house in case it hailed. Charlotte had gone to bed early, so it was just me and my parents in the living room, the surf crashing just below the deck, in the sort of house we’d always wanted but could never afford. The storm rattled the glass, and the surge came up to the first porch step. When the gale cleared the coast, thunder boomed offshore. We sat not talking. I was aware of my parents’ breathing, the slightest movements of their bodies in the dark. I believe we were all thinking the same thing: Man, life goes by. I could see the lights of Avalon Pier twinkling in the distance. I wondered how long it would take to walk there, and if anyone would go with me if I asked.