“Did Maria prepare the back bedrooms just in case?” Beth quickly scans the two small rooms. “Yes. They’re ready. She does good work.”
Checking and re-checking the details, which she had explicitly written out for the housekeeper, paying her dearly to come in during the holidays, she eyes the clock, adds ice to the bucket, rearranges the wood stacked beside the fireplace, smoothes George’s thinning hair by his left temple and surveys her reflection in the full-length mirror, pleased with the way her new silk dress shows her figure to advantage.
“Beth, you’re gorgeous. Don’t worry. It’ll be much better this year. I promise.”
“But where are they? It’s 7:30 already and you know the biologists will say they can’t stay because they have to run a marathon in the morning and June will have some excuse to leave early. I was hoping they’d be here by now so we wouldn’t have to rush.”
Beth opens the door to hear the ocean, its steady roar a comfort to her nerves. She would live all the time at the beach if her practice wasn’t over the mountain and such a harrowing drive. George can do most of his business over the phone these days, he hardly needs to go to the office anymore. She doesn’t like that they live during the week in the house where Pauline and George raised their children, even though she has redecorated from attic to basement with George’s money and sanction to do whatever she liked. Although the Glorieta house now reflects her taste instead of Pauline’s, Beth still feels funny there. This house, too, belongs to George and to her stepchildren. Pauline had never been happy at the beach, according to George.
Firmly shutting the door, Beth banishes doubt about her financial and emotional autonomy in her second marriage. She had always admired George, been impressed by his strong sense of self, his carriage and presence even at the most difficult moments in their mutual history as their families intersected. Her oldest son is the same age as David and both boys had competed in swimming galas, briefly. Her son beginning competently in the opening meet of their sophomore year, David nearly drowning when he hit the water, then rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped of tranquilizers, stolen, no doubt, from Pauline’s medicine cabinet. George had exhibited considerable grace under pressure, while Pauline got hysterical. And several years later, Deirdre had been caught naked with Beth’s middle son and another boy, the three of them plastered, cavorting on the front lawn of George’s house at five in the morning. George had telephoned to report the happenings and Beth had gone right over to take care of the situation. That dawn was the beginning of her friendship and flirtation with George, when they decided, together, to laugh the incident off after delivering a brief speech on decorum, moderation and birth control. Knowing further sleep would be impossible, they drove to the diner beside the bridge to watch the sunrise over a coffee, looking east over Angel Island and a new day.
“They’re here!” George calls. “I can tell my old Alfa anywhere. And there’s the biologists’ Volkswagen. God, I hate those damn engines.”
Checking her makeup one last time, Beth takes a deep breath and opens the door.
“Welcome, Tom, Allison. Come on in, David, Tina.” They exchange quick kisses. “Deirdre, you look lovely. Aren’t you chilly? Where’s June? I thought she came with the rest of you.”
Slipping past, Deirdre reports June wanted to take a walk and said she would be in shortly.
Frowning for a fraction of a moment, Beth then regains her smile.
“You can put your coats over there. George, can you get them some hot drinks? Let’s sit around the fire. We’ve bought a stunning Murano vase. Well, they’re not exactly new. We went to that big antiques fair up in Sonoma. Have you been? ”
June’s absence makes Beth wary. The rest of them don’t affect her that much. They are ordinary people, with the same problems so many of the young are afflicted by these days, her own children included. Though David, Deirdre and June have been particularly prone to substance abuse. She has treated the offspring of the wealthy for a long time and lately finds it hard to be intrigued by their apathy. June, however, seethes with rage and that’s what makes her interesting. Beth has generally seen this brand of anger in boys. She keeps her professional assessments of George’s children to herself, however and tries to reassure them they are not under her clinical scrutiny.
“George, will you go look for June? She’s been outside a long time. It’s cold. Thank you.”
Beth observes his walk, which is just a hair off balance from all the martinis he has had to drink today, as he refuses to limit his alcohol intake when at the beach house, claiming it goes against his nature. He does love his June, and at times Beth has felt jealous, though she works at keeping those feelings under wraps, for she does not want to ally George and June against her.
“How was your stay with Pauline?” she asks the others. They praise Pauline’s cooking, the apple pie she not only made her own crust but picked the apples herself in an orchard up north. She went with one of her migrant students, Deirdre reports.
“I’m glad you’ve had a good time. There’s more coffee, Deirdre, help yourself. And you must try these chocolate mints George picked up in Belgium last month. They’re out of this world!”
All politely accept, then excuse themselves to go out and smoke, except for the biologists.
The moment her children leave, Pauline begins to worry. Deirdre, who is definitely drunk, is riding with David and Tina. But June, who is probably drunk, had insisted on driving herself. In the reservoir of Pauline’s memory, where she keeps the information she hates to dredge to the surface, she knows June must drive this way often. Should she call George at the beach house to make sure they’ve all arrived safely? Visions of disaster embellish themselves as she cleans the house. The Alfa Romeo (how she despises those tiny cars!) smashed by the side of the road. June having fallen asleep at the wheel in her miniature car driving headfirst into a truck’s glare on the slippery, serpentine curves of Highway 1. A policeman pulling the sportscar over for erratic driving and June reacting violently, spitting foul language and then handcuffed like a criminal; Nervously, she checks the clock, knowing it is too soon to call, fighting the knot of deep panic growing in her gut.
Deciding to be foolish, to risk her daughter laughing at her, Pauline succumbs to her fear and flies out of the house, her apron still tied around her waist beneath the winter coat. She drives too fast on the curves, but few people are out at this hour and her car is big and sturdy. A car to protect her. Teeth clenched, her left foot tapping the floor impatiently, she surpasses the speed limit the entire way to the beach, which is not far as the crow flies, but which must be reached circuitously to get around the mountain. Flashing ambulance lights never appear, never illuminate the roadway spattered with her daughter’s shattered car another of George’s well-intentioned but foolish gifts to his children. The last miles whir by and she screeches to a halt behind June’s car, parked on the shoulder of the road near the bungalow. Relief floods her like an incoming tide, precious and unstoppable. You are a neurotic old woman, she tells herself, yet she does not regret the journey.
The lighthouse beam finds its way between the scattered houses to brighten the patch of road where she sits, taking deep breaths, inside the big car. She will go out to the beach for just a few minutes before turning around, it has been years since she was here. Passing the side windows (now double-glassed for insulation, she notes), Pauline sees her children, Beth and George sitting, drinking from demi-tasse cups. But she does not see June, who must be in the bathroom, or the kitchen. Pauline shrugs off a renewed feeling of fear and heads south down the beach, enjoying the whipping air against her cheek and the warmth of her heavy old coat. It’s invigorating here; she could never take pleasure in the beach with George, feeling in those days she needed weekends to re-find herself in the big house in Glorieta, needing all that space just for her sometimes. The beach house is cramped, squeezing the breath right out of her. These days she can breathe. Today had been especially nice, except for the last part, when June spent their dessert badmouthing her father. And even though Pauline feels ungenerous toward George’s second wife, June’s angry comments make her uncomfortable. Pauline had finally convinced June to keep her word to spend a little while with George and her stepmother. It’s not the worst thing in the world, she told her daughter; your father has been very nice with his pocketbook to all of us.
Calves and lungs aching from her lack of exercise, Pauline is heading back toward the car when she sees someone running very fast out of the beach house. Smothered panic sparks anew, and Pauline, too, begins to run as quickly as she can. Something has happened to June. She knows it in every cell. The person is now splashing into the ocean. It is Beth, slim and sure and a powerful swimmer, now returning, pulling a body. Pulling her baby, June. Pauline covers the painful stitch in her side with her hand and continues to run, lopsided and out of breath, reaching the two of them as they collapse by a stack of blankets waiting there curiously, as if planned.
Swaddled, wrapped in a soft, warm cloth, sleepy, still, June lies back into the arms which enfold her. Mother. Her mother is pulling her in, tight, pressing her to her breast. She looks up to find not her mother’s limpid hazel eyes but the sharp blue of Beth’s and at that moment, when she is gathering energy to shrink from Beth’s embrace, she feels a drop of wetness covering the invisible, tenacious mole June despises so. Part of June is still bobbing in the water, a comfortable, buoy-like rocking which makes her lean back against her will into the soothing arms. When she opens her eyes again she sees the hazel irises of Pauline, who is regarding her through lashes aflutter with tears, her lips white; it is a look June imagines a mother would give a new born child before it cries and proves itself alive. Tears course down Pauline’s cheeks and the way she clutches June, pressing her desperately to her breast, makes June feel as if it is she who must rescue her mother, rather than the other way around.
“It’s all right, Mom. It’s all right.” She manages to wrestle her arms out from the blankets to stroke her mother’s grey hair. Pauline’s body shakes as if keening for the dead.
“Shhh,” June whispers and closes her eyes. The soft warmth of down caresses her feet, which are being rubbed through a slippery fabric, heat passing from the strong hands into June’s skin. It must be her mother who is spreading this heat, but her mother is still weeping, her head there on June’s belly. The face looking at her with kindness is Beth’s, Beth who is rubbing life into her numbed feet. She sees now that Beth’s hair is also wet and she, too, is wrapped in a blanket, and June wants to laugh at the absurdity of the scene. Why are they both soaked?
“How are you feeling, June?” Beth asks and June says that she is fine, for she feels very good, sleepy and warm with the two women beside her, and though she remembers she is supposed to hate Beth, she feels too tired to do so just then. When she opens her eyes again there are a thousand faces around her, George’s looming largely in the foreground.
“June, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave you out there.” He crouches on the other side of her, opposite Pauline and he pulls June to him, his cologne as powerful as ever, but she is too weak to resist and succumbs to the way he holds her with all his might.
“I’m okay, Dad. Sorry if I scared you.”
Gently, he lays her head back on the sand, his big palm cradling her head.
Deirdre presses a rolled-up towel beneath her neck and offers a mug of steaming coffee, which June manages to drink while propped up on one elbow, surveying the faces of her family, her sisters-in-law hovering with her brothers in the second tier of faces around her.
“Jesus, kid. You scared the shit out of us!” says David, and Deirdre stage-whispers, “Loonytunes, girl.”
Everyone laughs, hard and loud, releasing the tense laughter of slaked fear, even her mother, who has stopped crying. Even Beth, who has stopped rubbing June’s feet. Tom checks her pulse with his glow-in-the-dark watch and touches his lips to her forehead.
“I think you’re out of the woods now. Your body heat seems about normal.”
Allison hands her some gloves. June’s head begins to throb and she is wondering what kind of danger she might have been in when her mother says, “What’s all this?” and pulls out the contents of June’s jacket pockets, dumping the Seagram’s whiskey bottles onto her daughter’s lap. There are six green bottles, with yellow and red labels, gold caps. All empty but one. Pauline and George look at her as if she has committed some heinous crime, their faces taut with shock and shame. They exchange a glance, shaking their heads in unison.
“Oh, June,” her parents are saying, clucking their tongues, “Oh, June.” Her mother and father begin to talk to one another as if no one else were there.
“I didn’t know it had gotten this far,” and “I’m absolutely appalled, just appalled.” They are looking at her as if she has deeply and purposely disappointed them, when Beth’s voice pushes through their murmurings.
“Maybe we should ask June what she needs and see if we can help. Can you walk now, June?”
“Let’s go inside then.” Anticipating Pauline’s forthcoming protest, Beth adds, “Please, Pauline. Don’t say no. Some hot tea will do you good.”
All rise, her brothers and sister helping June to her feet, everyone carrying something: Beth’s shoes, an article of June’s clothing, Beth’s coat, June’s shoes, George holding three of the bottles, still staring at them in disbelief, Pauline carrying the other three. Deirdre supports her sister’s left elbow, whispering into June’s ear.
“You sure know how to get everyone’s attention.”
June apologizes, saying she didn’t mean to do what she’d done, and all during the walk back to the beach house, she is aware of Beth’s silent presence beside her, and it is only now, as the two exchange a nod in acknowledgment of their shared escapade in the sea, that June begins to understand that Beth has rescued her and what it means to be saved.