The school year is months shorter than the calendar's, which makes people think a teacher's job is easy, cushy.
Actually, summer vacation is a public safety requirement. Rising temperatures bring the unstable mix of teachers and pupils to a near-lethal boil and necessitate a cool-down period. Otherwise, there'd be no survivors with whom to start future endurance experiments.
Two days into my vacation, I was still on the critical list—battle-scarred and shell-shocked—and afraid the condition might be chronic.
I felt so miserable I knew I needed to do a lot of thinking about my life—lives, professional and personal—and what I was doing wrong with them. The trouble was, whenever I so much as thought about the need to think, my brain developed hives and I was filled with a sense of futility and dread.
"You look horrible," my friend Sasha said. We were taking what I had hoped would be a restorative, old-fashioned Sunday stroll through Ye Olde Colonial Philadelphia.
"Why don't you get a real job, with real people?" she asked. "What is the point of growing up if you then revisit adolescence over and over for the rest of your life? Get a job with adults!" Sasha waved her arms for emphasis.
I tried to imagine a worklife with peers. People who saw me as an equal, not as an obstacle to be outwitted. People who weren't always testing me or preparing defense, excuses, or requests. Partners. Team players.
Power lunches. Networking. Ladder-climbing.
Give me a break.
We reached Head House Square, former meat and produce market, current star of camera ready Colorful Colonial Philadelphia. A table under a cappuccino sign was available. This wasn't a stroke of luck, but indication that summer weather—even real spring weather—had not yet staggered into Philadelphia. Still, we sat down.
It was chilly for early June, and lounging outside was purely symbolic, but I was on my summer vacation and I was going to behave as such. I shivered, ordered, and looked around. The wide cobbled street in front of us was bisected by the former market-place. Where Colonial chickens and pigs were once hawked there now were objets d'craft: silver bangles, nouveau-native earrings, tooled leather backpacks, and recidivist tie-dyed garments. Whole cycles of fashions and fads had died and been resuscitated while I tried in vain to convince teenagers to punctuate.
I wondered if someday our current markets—say, 7-Elevens—would be converted into craft-laden tourist destinations, with yet more tie-dyed shirts filling shelves now holding Ding Dongs.
"I'll be fine," I told Sasha, who was urging vocational counseling. "I need to decompress. I guess I just want to be alone. Present company and present moment excluded, of course."
The waitress brought us cappuccinos and a plate of biscotti.
"You vant to be a lawn," Sasha drawled. "Forgotten your Garbo cliches?"
"But I vouldn't vant to be a lawn. Given my druthers, I'd vant to be a beach."
"There are those who think you are one already, Mandy. Present company not necessarily excluded."
A beach. The image shimmered in front of me. The ocean. Nothing was more restorative than the primal soup. Saltwater slapping onto sand while seabirds shrieked and circled...Even imagining it made me feel better. I saw myself alone, tall dunes behind me, a book on my lap, salt air and solitude rejuvenating me.
"On the other hand," Sasha said, "the plus of your job is the humongous vacation. Tomorrow, I'm back to work, while you—"
"As if ninety percent of your daily life weren't a variation on playtime, while mine—"
"Beach, beach, beach," she said softly.
"Sorry. But the trick is, we're paid too little to enjoy that humongous vacation. I have two weeks," I explained, "before I have to teach summer school."
"I forgot. Too bad. So what are you doing with them?"
I shook my head. "Nothing. Cleaning closets." I wouldn't be teaching summer school if I'd had the funds to do anything else. The seabirds circling my imaginary beach turned into winged dollar signs and fluttered out of reach. What economically advantaged sadist started the myth that the best things in life were free?
"Maybe the fuzz'll take you somewhere for R and R."
"Very funny." C. K. Mackenzie, aforementioned fuzz and one of the issues that made my brain itch, was a part of the problem, not its solution. One of the bits of wisdom I would have appreciated from those rolling waves concerned matters of my rapidly hardening heart. I know its au courant to love the process and not the goal. And even a more old-fashioned philosopher, Kahlil Gibran, had long ago urged that there be spaces in a man and woman's togetherness. As I recall, the winds of heaven were supposed to dance between them.
But Kahlil never deigned to measure those spaces, and in my case, they sometimes felt larger than an airplane hangar, the better to let the winds of heaven howl. Much as I have enjoyed our spaces and our togetherness, much as I have focused on the process of being with Mackenzie for the past year—when his detecting duties didn't interrupt, disrupt, and postpone that process—I would have also enjoyed the prospect of closure. Smaller spaces.
I don't like dangling threads and unfinished stories. I am comforted knowing that a suspenseful novel will have a resolution. Why should I ask less of my own life?
Except, of course, to make matters impossible, I didn't know what variety of closure I wanted. Maybe the cavernous spaces between us were my best option—or even my choice. My call. Thinking of that, admitting that, brought back the now-familiar agitated dread.
Three steps away from where we sat, a mother who looked almost as frayed as I felt shouted at a squatty kid in a hat with earflaps. "Stop eating! You'll ruin your dinner!" she shrieked. "I said no more snacks! I said it over and over!"
Whatever the kid snuffled back was obscured by the bus on the corner, which emitted a flatulent sound and matching stench as it pulled away.
I willed myself away to a beach, and allowed myself to hear only the wonderful white noise of the waves. And Sasha.
"Your parents would send you a plane ticket," she said.
"You have to be kidding. Don't I look sufficiently stressed out?" Granted, Boca Raton had a fine Floridian beach—but all the same, time with my parents could not by any stretch of the imagination be equated with a rest. Since I'd turned thirty-one, my mother's horror at my unmarried state had escalated beyond direct speech, as if singleness were the dirtiest or most classified of secrets. She used to worry about my sex life—mostly she worried that I managed to have one. Now, the euphemism for unmarried was financial security. She mailed clippings about long-term investments and, much more depressingly, about trophy wives. Nothing subtle about her message. My mission was to snag a doddering millionaire and live securely ever after.
The horrible truth was that every so often—as today, lost in my unattainable beach fantasies and not at all entranced with the teacherly lifestyle of making do—the idea didn't sound half bad. Well, maybe not quarter bad. Although where in my daily rounds I was supposed to meet the tycoon instead of his adolescent great-grandson, I didn't know.
"So maybe you don't really want a beach," Sasha said.
"Not enough to put up with my mother's nagging. I'm thinking of installing voice mail to save her breath and long-distance charges. You know, 'Press one to nag about my economic security. Press two to remind me that I haven't yet produced grandchildren.' You're lucky your parents let you lead your own life."
"They're afraid I will get married. Again. That I'll be like them." Sasha's parents had been in the divorce avant-garde. Long before it was commonplace, they split, reassembled, remarried, and redivorced unto the point of utter confusion—theirs and everyone who knew them. An inability to choose wisely or maintain relationships seemed a genetic inheritance. Sasha herself had already had two kamikaze hitchings, and her quality control, when it came to men, hadn't improved appreciably since.
"Every time I mention a man, they shudder. I told my mother about this fellow I'm going to see tomorrow—" She stopped short. "That's it! Cinderella Pepper, you're looking at your fairy godmother!"
I would have thought fairy godmothers were more petite. Six feet tall, with wild black hair, wearing multicolored layers of gauze and high-topped sneakers, Sasha didn't fit the storybook image, but I listened. "You have just won yourself an almost all-expenses paid trip to the edge of an authentic, genuine ocean! Sand included free of charge."
"I have a seaside shoot complete with room and meals. What's the diff if I share my room with you? All you'll have to spring for is what you eat, and you'd have to do that here, too."
"Are you serious?" A genuine getaway, a beach vacation for free? The seabirds struck up the chorus in my head again.
"What are friends for?"
Sasha might bemoan the lack of a regular salary or a predictable income, but she did get to take her photographs in exotic locales now and then. I thought about shoots on the Mediterranean, or the Caribbean, or even the cold waters off Maine. Anywhere would be splendid. I'd pay for the plane tickets somehow.
The boy in the earflaps had snagged a bag of chips, and his mother, face red and puffed, shouted, "Not more snacks! What did I tell you? They'd bad for you!" She grabbed the bag from the boy and pushed a handful of chips into her own mouth. Talk about mixed messages, no wonder the kid covered his ears. By the time he'd wind up in my classroom in a few years, those leather sound barriers would have become internalized and unremovable. And I'd be expected to teach him something.
Sasha ate the last of the biscotti. I couldn't protest or complain, given that she was offering a vacation in exchange.
An imagined sun warmed my head—but I willingly accepted a bleak beach as well. Deserted and overcast, heavy with clouds or fog—it sounded wonderful. The silence, the waves, the chance to think and breathe deeply...bliss. "Thank you," I said. "I gratefully accept."
"Thank the saltwater taffy consortium."
"Saltwater taffy? Where is this job?"
Atlantic City. Of all the beaches in all the world. My good fairy had arrived with a whole lot of small print. Sand and water, yes, but Atlantic City! Casinos and slums and junk food and all night lights and noise. More high rollers than breakers. More pigeons than sea gulls. Not the point at all.
"Atlantic City is America's Number One Vacation Destination," Sasha said. "Pure adventure, one hour away. Would you honestly rather clean closets? And by the way, my car's acting weird. I don't need it—I hired an assistant in A.C. and she's renting all the equipment there. So could you drive?"
And that's why on Monday morning, while in search of the soothing touch of nature, I instead wound up parking my Mustang in a labyrinth below several stories of steel, concrete, and glitz.
Sasha and I walked through a lobby done in Eclectic Excess, a potpourri of design history. Greek columns separated Renaissance-style murals beside equatorial waterfalls near an Ozlike yellow-brick walkway. Everything was highlighted with tiny white lights. Our bellman's outfit was Mittel European Operetta. A neo-something marble statue in a toga pointed the way to the registration area. I tried in vain to find a theme, a connecting thread—aside from blatant expensiveness.
Outside, the sky had been tight and sallow, but now we were hermetically sealed in eternal, nuclear day lit by a thousand suns. The eye-tearing indoor season had nothing to do with the existence of the clock or the solar system.
"Why a casino, Sash? Atlantic City has normal hotels. Why'd the saltwater people put you here?"
"I asked them to. I thought I'd be alone, and a place like this is more alive. No matter what hour. I was here once..." We passed the entrance to a cavelike side room called the Hideaway. Sasha dropped her suitcase, said, "Just a sec," and ducked in.
I was close to the casino entrance. I waited for Sasha, listening to the siren sounds of silvery music and money.
"He's still working here," she said when she returned a minute or so later. "The bartender, Frankie. One of the good guys."
Which probably meant she had no interest in him. It's women like Sasha who—unintentionally but just as lethally—make men think they have to be rotten with the rest of us. Nice guys do not finish last with me—unless you're being semantically sloppy and equating nice with bland or dull. But Sasha's different. Her dials are set for challenge, which often translates into danger or misery.
However, at this point in our long friendship, I was trying not to editorialize about Sasha's fondness for losers. As she was overly fond of pointing out, my own off-again, on -again relationship with the detective was no shining example of brilliant selection.
"I was here before," she now said. "Couple of years ago."
"With Frankie the bartender?"
"No, no. This other guy. Dimples. A genuine louse. Frankie the bartender saved the day, and maybe me—from jail. I didn't think he'd still be here."
"From jail? Why? Or do I want to know?"
"Because Dimples was a little bit of a criminal, and the police thought I was his accomplice." She laughed at the thought. I found it less humorous.
We had reached our destination, the registration desk, decorated in the style of medieval French palaces. I wondered which era, theme and climatological zone our room would feature. Art Deco Romanesque? Tropical French? Greek Chalet?
It turned out to be Basic Brothel. The room was small, its walls covered with silver foil. The bedspread, drapes, and carpeting were as silvery as fabric can get, shot through with metallic threads. Where there wasn't foil or silver cloth, there were mirrors. Including the ceiling. Cigarettes still sealed in their foil-lined boxes must feel the way I did.
"A money motif, do you think?" Sasha asked.
"I'd prefer the greenbacks room, then."
"The room I had with Dimples was nothing like this. But then, we had an ocean view."
We viewed neither ocean nor bay. Instead, we faced the rooftops and fire escapes of yellow-brick buildings that clashed with our color scheme. I closed the drapes. "I'll take the right hand drawers, right side of the closet."
Sasha nodded, but before either of us began to unpack, our phone rang and she picked it up. "Sasha Berg," she said midway through the conversation. "The photographer. Are you talking to the right person?" And: "The saltwater taffy association isn't going to pay for any—" Then she just listened.
She hung up. "They're moving us to a suite." She sounded bemused. "No extra charge. I thought they only did that for really high rollers."
"It isn't possible that this upgrade is in honor of the guy you were here with, is it? The criminal? That maybe they think you're still involved with him?"
"They didn't comp him a suite then, so why now, when he'd dead? And it's not like they don't know. It was in all the papers."
"Tell me the man died of natural causes. Please."
"The man died of natural causes."
I sighed with relief.
"After all," Sasha continued, "it's pretty natural to die when there's a bullet in the back of your skull."
I've often wondered why Sasha's incredible bad luck with men doesn't deter or sour her—or leave her with the slightest trace of post-traumatic shock. She's no dummy or masochist. Maybe it's because she has so much fun until each adventure sours. Maybe she's the world's last great optimist.
"We're not supposed to look a gift horse in the mouth," she now said.
I hoped that neither the horse nor his teeth nor the walls were capped in silver. One ounce more and I'd start mining it.
The suite was exquisite, leaving me wondering. Were nickel-and-dime gamblers mirrored ceiling types, while the major players—a group I wouldn't expect to be particularly elegant—connoisseurs of all that was fine?
The living and bedrooms were decorated with Asian tansu chests, porcelain, jade carvings, Chinese rugs in soft pastels, and cushiony contemporary furniture. Shoji screens covered the windows. A six-paneled gilded screen filled the wall behind two oversized beds.
"A Jacuzzi!" Sasha called from the bathroom. "What a shame to be here with you!"
Understated and quiet, the rooms were the antithesis of the world downstairs. Things were definitely looking up. This in itself could be my retreat. I unpacked in record time, like a creature nervously establishing her turf.
Sasha dawdled. She arranged her cameras and equipment. She switched to another pocketbook and slowly decided what she'd need. She emptied half her suitcase onto the bed, then worried over the condition of her travel kit. She decided her nails needed polishing and wondered whether she could include a manicure on her expense account. "Did I tell you I'm going out tonight?" she asked.
I didn't mind. This was a place in which to vacate, to luxuriate. This was a style to which I wanted to become accustomed.
I had a four-day vacation and a choice of three books. War and Peace, which has been on every summer reading list of my life, because every autumn has arrived without my having read it. Gift from the Sea, one of my all-time favorites. And a threadbare paperback with negative literary value and title like Lust and Sleaze. A student had left it behind when she galloped off to summer vacation. Of course, I was reading it purely as research into adolescent interests. But all the same, it might go well with a Jacuzzi.
"I met this guy three weeks ago, when I was down here. At Trump's, the bar in Trump Plaza. We made a date for when I'd be back on this job. If he remembers, and I hope so. He reminds me of Cary Grant."
In what way, I didn't dare ask. More dimpled chins? An English accent? A face to die for? A gift for comedy—or, more likely, a lot of wives?
"He's elegant. Continental. A gentleman." She examined her hand, first with fingers curled toward her, then held straight, nails up. "But not stuffy, the way that might sound." She stood and tossed the nail file back onto the bed.
She pushed back the shoji screens for a view of a chilly but inviting-looking beach and ocean, sighed, and looked likely to stay awhile.
I suddenly found the room and the situation less comforting. It was too peaceful, too deliberately serene, too incomprehensible and overrich a setting for the facts of my life.
What am I doing? I don't belong here. This is wrong.
This Asian palace was no place to figure things out. Which I felt incapable of doing, anyway.
What am I doing? What am I going to do?
The angst itch began between my shoulder blades and rose through my spinal column into my brain. At such times, it's hard to sit still and impossible to endure Sasha's glacially slow progress. "How about I meet you somewhere later?" I asked. "Downstairs. Maybe in that bar we passed? I have to...I have to move around."
"Going up to the health club?"
"No. The beach, I think. See you." I pulled on a sweater and headed out.
In the living room of the suite there was an odd woodcut. A mythical beast, mostly equine, but rearing on thick bird legs. It had thick-lashed almond eyes that seemed to ask me directly, Do you have any idea what you're doing? And its mouth was open wide, revealing not horse teeth, but long and lethal fangs.
I looked at that mouth, those fangs. "Tell me you're not the gift horse," I whispered.
© Gillian Roberts.