My father knew that Lorin and I objected to spending time in Fort Wayne with him and Steven, and shared our disinterest in another trip to Albany to visit his parents. He decided he would take us on a real vacation, and arranged for us to go to Myrtle Beach with his friend Sister Mary Margaret. We had always called her “Sister” before, but now she wanted us to call her Mary Margaret, as though she were our friend too. This was more awkward than calling her Sister so I avoided calling her any name at all. She was a heavy woman with short reddish hair that was thinning from years of hiding under a habit, just like my aunt Rita. Her outfits were bright flowered muumuus, a vacation uniform for relaxing nuns.
Mary Margaret talked down to Lorin and me in a sing-song voice, bossing us around, and we’d look at my dad, who would give us a subtle nod that we should obey. It was all stuff we were going to do anyway, like clearing our plates or washing our hands. Privately, we complained that she wasn’t our parent and Dad would say, “I know, I know. But we are her guests.”
The first day at the beach went fine, despite my complaints about driving from the condo. You were supposed to walk to a beach, I thought. I complained about anything that was remotely different from expectations. The fine white sand and clear, warm blue water silenced me. Myrtle Beach, when we first arrived, was almost empty, and it looked like something from a travel magazine, beautiful and pristine.
Our second day was not as charmed. I still complained about driving there, and we arrived later, so the beach was mobbed with people and it was hard to find a spot just the right distance from the water. Mary Margaret had packed our picnic lunch: chips, Capri Sun and bologna on white bread with mayonnaise. The mayo destroyed the sandwich for me even before it curdled it the hot summer sun. Hot and hungry, I looked around, and the beautiful beach from the day before was gone. Myrtle Beach’s hard white sand was impossible to craft into a castle. The water was unnaturally blue and too warm. It felt like bath water that had been peed in, and smelled like that too. There was no relief in the water from the heat or the crowds.
After lunch, we drove back to the condo and sat inside until the temperature dropped a little. We pretended to nap but the air conditioning was too cold, and my body was dirty with sand and sweat. I read instead, and listened to my stomach growl.
That night, Mary Margaret made casserole for dinner and it was disgusting. After eating half of what was on his plate, my father said, “Mary Margaret, you are such a generous host, why don’t I take care of dinner for the rest of the week?”
Mary Margaret became upset, and looked at his plate.
“Honestly, Joe, do you like my cooking? Do you like it?” she whined.
“Of course I do,” he said, and took another bite. She looked even sadder. She had escaped her convent to play house and play wife, I thought, and he was supposed to appreciate her efforts. As she sulked, my father relented and said he wanted to cook her at least one dinner this week “in appreciation.” Her dimple popped out as she smiled and I rolled my eyes.
By day three, I had read all the books I had brought and was bored out of my skull. My sister and father were too. We dropped Mary Margaret off at the condo after we left the beach, and on the pretense of looking for a bookstore, my father took us to McDonald’s. I ate three hamburgers, which I had never done before. After we ate, Lorin started to cry and asked if we could leave Myrtle Beach early. With a mixture of relief and sadness, my father said that we could.
We couldn’t leave too soon, of course, so on the fourth day, we went to the boardwalk, a strand of tourist traps and tacky crap that Mary Margaret hated, so we could go without her. For a souvenir, I picked out a hermit crab, excited to have a pet. The crab traveled back to New Jersey with me in a cylindrical mesh cage, and somehow survived the drive. It lived on the bookshelf in our bedroom in Clifton. At night I could hear “scritch scritch” as the crab walked around in its cage.
Because my crab was quiet during the day and the cage had begun to smell, a few months after our trip, my grandmother’s cleaning lady decided that the crab was dead. One day when we were at school, she flushed that not-dead crab down the toilet. I was very angry at the cleaning lady and asked Gram to fire her. Gram refused, and chalked it up to a simple mistake.
The hermit crab had been a perfect symbol of our vacation. Boring, stinky, cranky. My poor father was incapable of showing us a good time. Maybe he tried do and we couldn’t recognize it. Gram and Pop’s beach house was better than a cold condo. Lavallette was more fun than Myrtle Beach. Dad and Mary Margaret were uncomfortable with children and each other. My father’s sadness at all our distance, both physical and emotional, permeated everything. The hermit crab had been a neat memento but I barely noticed its absence when it was gone.
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