The First Week
Sadie turned seventeen years old on top of her boyfriend, Jimmy, in the Woodbury family boathouse. It was a white wooden structure with turquoise trim, both colors frayed and chipped around the edges, on the shore of Woodbury Lake in rural Connecticut. Jimmy had a small tattoo of her name in an Old English gangster-style font cupping his right pectoral muscle, a secret hovering underneath his crisp school uniform shirt and blazer. She had gripped his sweaty hand in the tattoo shop in Boston when they’d stolen away for an hour on class trip day. He’d peeled back the bloody gauze on the bus afterwards, kids crowding around in quiet awe. A lot of students in their class had tattoos—-including a girl whose entire back was covered in a passage from a Father John Misty song—-but no one had proclaimed his devotion to a girlfriend so permanently before. Sadie thought that she’d get his initials tattooed sometime, maybe inside a tiny illustrated heart. “I can’t handle the pain,” she’d say, but it was the permanence that felt dizzying.
His watch beeped midnight as she pressed his wrists to the tarp that separated their bodies from the splintery floorboards. Her long brown hair formed a tent around his face, which smelled of sixty-proof sunscreen, an organic brand redolent of almonds. Sometimes she rubbed it on her hands to smell during the day when he wasn’t around. She made a birthday wish for continued academic success while pressing both thumbs to his radial arteries. She knew that if he had a wish, it would be to stay with Sadie forever, to suspend time so that there would be only her and him. She was a Virgo, and therefore infinitely more practical.
She curled her toes, pulled away, her lips bruised and pillowed from kissing.
“Wanna?” He wrestled his arms away from her grasp and cupped both hands around her ass and squeezed, pulling her even closer.
“Swim first,” she said, sitting up but still straddling him. “The lake is so still right now, it’s the best time.”
Outside, the September air aped mid-July heat.
Jimmy pulled her in for a pre-swim kiss and sang “Happy Birthday” into her mouth. They could hear the slight waves under the boathouse, occasionally a dog barking across the lake. Sex was a relatively new thing. An amazing thing. The primary reason for hanging out in the otherwise damp and spider-filled world of the Woodbury family boathouse.
A raccoon they’d nicknamed Conan O’Brien wobbled across the roof and pushed his face against the screened-in skylight, pawing at a rip in the seam. He had a distinct patch of reddish fur above his eyes. Sadie turned towards the noise to lie beside her boyfriend, pinning her shoulder blades to the floor. The boathouse ceiling peaked in an A-frame and was jammed with Woodbury family detritus going back to the 1970s. Between the rafters: yellowed life jackets, canoe paddles, a rusty-handled tricycle, deflated water toys, and decaying file boxes labelled with words like 1997 Taxes.
“He wants to celebrate your birthday,” Jimmy said.
“He just loves an audience.”
They’d been back at school for one week. Their senior year in high school at Avalon prep had begun with aplomb. They were both in the accelerated stream, their sights set on prestigious universities, afternoons filled with student government meetings, sporting events, community volunteer hours, making out between the rows of woody ancient texts in the school library. The week had been busy and thus ordinary. This was the last weekend that anything would feel normal until they were halfway through college.
Conan sat by the ancient weather vane atop the boathouse, watching as the couple peeled off their simple tanks and cutoff shorts. They ran naked out onto the dock, launching knees to chests in cannonballs, breaking up the swarms of night insects circling the lake in a uniform frenzy.
Sadie thought about how her body would pop up with a force equal to the weight of the water that was displaced, something her father taught her as a child that she found hard to grasp while it was happening. Her body cooled instantly. She launched forward into the darkness, a swim of pure muscle memory, with Jimmy in pursuit.
They reached the floating dock near the middle of the lake, clambering up the ladder slick with wet moss. They sat with their knees touching under the full moon, Sadie twisting the lake water from her hair and then retying it with the elastic band around her wrist. She crossed her arms over her breasts. Jimmy reached under her elbow to touch her right nipple.
“Did you know that dog bites are twice as common on a night when there’s a full moon?” she asked, pulling him towards her.
“Is that a fact?”
“Anecdotally,” she said. Their lips were almost touching. She ran her hand along his jaw, feeling the faint stubble. “My mom noticed it at the hospital. Every full moon, a few dog bites. Then she found a study that confirmed it.”
Jimmy lifted her breast to his mouth. Could they have sex on the floating dock without being seen or heard? She moaned, cupping one hand around his head. A dog barked again across the lake. Doubtful. They pulled apart.
“Mr. Eglington,” Sadie said, giggling. He was always on his deck with the binoculars. Jimmy nodded, thankful for the darkness.
Sadie picked at the scab on her knee that had dried in the shape of Florida. A chunk of Key West broke free under her nail.
The Woodbury house was dark except for two glowing squares of kitchen light. A quarter of the way around the lake, at Sadie’s best friend Amanda’s house, Carter the family dog continued to bark ceaselessly as a police car pulled into the driveway. The red and blue lights blinkered in a lazy swirl. Sadie and Jimmy stared as though they would be able to tell just by looking why the cops were there.
“That’s weird,” Jimmy said. “Should we swim over?” He dipped a toe into the still water.
“Nah, it’s late. Let’s just call her when we get back.”
Jimmy curled up into a ball and somersaulted back into the lake. Sadie watched him tread water for a moment and then followed. When they reached the shore, they pulled on their clothes on the strip of rocky beach. Conan gripped the bark of the largest oak tree, shimmying upwards, teeth tearing a sheaf of moldy paper from 1997 Taxes, green eyes aglow.
Joan was drying the last dinner plate, about to go wrap Sadie’s birthday presents, but her husband, George, took the dishtowel from her hand and replaced it with a glass of red wine. She took a sip, turned back to the expansive bay window, trying to make sure Jimmy and Sadie were not in any trouble. She hated when they swam at night. She would get flashbacks of a teenaged girl she’d worked on at the hospital who had drowned and come back to life but remained essentially brain-dead. The image would be of the girl’s cold arm hanging off the gurney as she was wheeled down the hall at the trauma center.
George kissed her cheek. “Come sit down, the kids are fine. Remember those nine hundred years of swimming lessons? Those ceremonies with the badges?”
“Maybe I should go check on them anyway,” she said.
George gave her an affectionate squeeze. “The water is so calm right now. They’re okay.”
She joined him at the table, placing an open Tupperware of lemon squares between them. She looked at the wine, tilted her glass in his direction in a gesture of what’s up?
Marriage is so much about embedded routines. That night they’d had grilled salmon and rice noodles, sautéed greens. The same as every Sunday night. Usually George was watching the news by now, head leaned back and mouth agape with a slow, murmuring snore. Joan glanced towards the window again, unable to stop herself from getting up and leaning over the sink on her tiptoes, pressing her forehead against the glass. All she was able to see in the moonlight was a dark blur of water beyond the edge of the hill, and the tip of the long wooden dock. George made a whirring sound and a helicopter motion with his hand, gently mocking her overprotective nature.
Joan surrendered with a laugh and sat back down. George raised his glass in a cheers, and pulled at the side of his lips before speaking. “Honey, for weeks I’ve been receiving these cryptic messages in my office mailbox,” he said, handing her two scraps of torn loose-leaf paper, both folded in half, that he’d pulled from his blazer pocket. One read People Are Watching You, and the other Be Careful.
“Teenaged nonsense.” She sipped her wine, swirled it around, and set it back on the table. She was excited to see Sadie open her presents in the morning at breakfast.
“Or so I thought, but today Dorothy told me to call a lawyer. She knows everything, working in the front office all day long, of course. She said there’s a rumor you’re being set up. It was all so Hollywood movie–-sounding that I laughed at her. But she looked deadly serious. She wouldn’t tell me anything else. Dorothy was acting strange—-stranger than normal, anyway.”
“She’s such a nutbar, Dorothy. Set up for what? Did you believe her?”
Dorothy McKnight was the secretary, and she irritated both of them, especially at parties, always wanting to talk about conspiracy theories and how Barack Obama was a Muslim.
“So I called Bennie during my spare this afternoon—-he’s the eldest son of my father’s lawyer. You know, they’re always at our Christmas parties?”
“Isn’t he a kid?” asked Joan.
“No, he’s forty, if you can believe it,” he said. “I called him again tonight. I’m on edge, Joan. I just wanted to tell you this. I don’t know what’s happening.” He took another generous sip of wine.
“A practical joke? It’s so strange.”
George shook his head. “I really don’t know.” This was a phrase George—-learned, stoic, opinionated—-rarely used. He prided himself on knowing the things that mattered.
Sadie and Jimmy jogged up the dirt path, wet bare feet on the stones between the bramble that curled into the sloping backyard. They were breathless when they reached the plateau, pausing where a row of kale and lettuces grew, waiting to be culled on her mother’s gardening day the following weekend. The rectangular in-ground pool that bordered their back deck made its usual hum of white noise. A circular hot tub, currently on the fritz, faced out onto the lake, edging out over the sharp lip of the hill. Ornate gardens sculpted carefully to appear wild surrounded the pool. Sadie leaned down and rubbed some lavender between her palms, cupping her hands around her face to inhale the warm scent on her way to the side entrance.
They snuck up the back stairs, rubbing their wet heads on the threadbare sunburst swim towels hanging from the coat hooks by the door to the basement. Jimmy traced a finger along Sadie’s spine, causing her to pause, shiver, and bat his hand away before she stepped over Payton, the fat sleeping tomcat on his designated fourth-step nap space. She headed for the kitchen barefoot, in search of iced tea. The plan to sneak up to Sadie’s room and finish what they had started was immediately thwarted by the unusual presence of her parents, seated at either end of the kitchen table.
The Woodbury parents were the academic sort, floating brains in denial of the body. Sadie reasoned that it was better not to talk about sex with them, to ensure that both she and her parents retained the privacy they both needed. It was less denial, she reasoned, more maturity. The same way that they all went to church on Sundays but never talked about God. Some things were meant to stay inside our own heads. When Jimmy stayed over, she was never sure if they knew or not. She did know that neither party was eager to discuss it.
When they entered the kitchen, the adults reacted with a sudden and uncharacteristic silence. Her mother’s brownish-gray bob was pushed back behind her ears with the help of her glasses. Joan usually had two facial expressions—-tired from work or happy to have a day off. Her face betrayed a sense of resigned incredulity. She never drank after dinner.
“What’s up with you guys? You’re not usually up this late.”
“Nothing,” Joan said, in a way that sounded the opposite. She picked up the container of lemon squares and held them out to Jimmy, who put a whole one in his mouth and grabbed a second, grinning appreciatively while he chewed.
“It’s past midnight . . .” Sadie sing-songed expectantly. Joan stared at her daughter for a few moments before realizing what she meant.
“Oh, happy birthday, darling!” Joan said, half present.
“Yes, happy birthday, beautiful daughter,” said George, standing up to give her a hug.
Sadie felt a brief moment of birthday excitement, and then the house seemed to shake with a pounding on the front door, followed by an insistent baritone call: “We’re looking for George Alistair Woodbury!”
“What’s going on?” Sadie said, peering through the kitchen entrance and down the hall to the foyer. Red and blue flashed through the open windows, a light show for the symphony of cicadas. She approached the door tentatively. George sat back down at the table, staring into his glass of wine.
“Sadie, don’t. I’ll get it,” Joan said as she approached the door, peering through the peephole cautiously. She opened it slowly to find two plainclothes detectives and several uniformed officers.
“Hello, ma’am, is your husband home?”
They made it only a few feet down the front hall before spotting him through the living room, still at the kitchen table. He stood, knocking over his glass. It pooled, then slowly dripped onto the kitchen floor.
For months Joan would replay this moment, trying to decipher the look on her husband’s face. Was it guilt? Confusion? Indignation? Stoicism? Acting? But nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George. He became a hard statue, an obstacle, a symbol.
The father and the husband, from that moment, had been transformed.