I looked at my brother again, backpack over his shoulder. Travel certainly did provide some kind of opportunity, as well as a change of scenery. Maybe I couldn’t take off to Greece or India. But I could still go somewhere.
I went over to my laptop, opening my e-mail account, then scrolled down to my dad’s message. Without letting myself think too much, I typed a quick reply, as well as a question. Within a half hour, he had written me back.
Absolutely you should come! Stay as long as you like. We’d love the company!
And just like that, my summer changed.
The next morning, I packed my car with a small duffel bag of clothes, my laptop, and a big suitcase of books. Earlier in the summer, I’d found the syllabi to a couple of the courses I was taking at Defriese in the fall, and I’d hunted down a few of the texts at the U bookstore, figuring it couldn’t hurt to acquaint myself with the material. Not exactly how Hollis would pack, but it wasn’t like there’d be much else to do there anyway, other than go to the beach and hang out with Heidi, neither of which was very appealing.
I’d said good-bye to my mom the night before, figuring she’d be asleep when I left. But as I came into the kitchen, I found her clearing the table of a bevy of wineglasses and crumpled napkins, a tired look on her face.
‘Late night?’ I asked, although I knew from my own nocturnal habits that it had been. The last car had pulled out of the driveway around one thirty.
‘Not really,’ she said, running some water into the sink. She looked over her shoulder at my bags, piled by the garage door. ‘You’re getting an early start. Are you that eager to get away from me?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Just want to beat traffic.’
In truth, I hadn’t expected my mom to care whether I was around for the summer or not. And maybe she wouldn’t have, if I’d been going anywhere else. Factor my dad into the equation, though, and things changed. They always did.
‘I can only imagine what kind of situation you’re about to walk into,’ she said, smiling. ‘Your father with a newborn! At his age! It’s comic.’
‘I’ll let you know,’ I told her.
‘Oh, you must. I will require regular updates.’
I watched as she stuck her hands into the water, soaping up a glass. ‘So,’ I said, ‘what did you think of Hollis’s girlfriend?’
My mother sighed wearily. ‘What was she doing here, again?’
‘Hollis sent her back with a gift for me.’
‘Really,’ she said, depositing a couple of glasses into the dish rack. ‘What was it?’
‘A picture frame. From Greece. With a picture of Hollis in it.’
‘Ah.’ She turned off the water, using the back of her wrist to brush her hair from her face. ‘Did you tell her she should have kept it for herself, since it’s probably the only way she’ll ever see him again?’
Even though I’d had this exact same thought, after hearing my mom say it aloud I felt sorry for Tara, with her open, friendly face, the confident way she’d headed into the house, so secure in her standing as Hollis’s one and only. ‘You never know,’ I said. ‘Maybe Hollis has changed, and they’ll get engaged.’
My mom turned around and narrowed her eyes at me. ‘Now, Auden,’ she said. ‘What have I told you about people changing?’
‘That they don’t?’
She directed her attention back to the sink, dunking a plate, and as she did I caught sight of the pair of black, hipnerdy eyeglasses sitting on the counter by the door. Suddenly, it all made sense: the voices I’d heard so late, her being up early, uncharacteristically eager to clean out everything from the night before. I considered picking the glasses up, making sure she saw me, just to make a point of my own. But instead, I ignored them as we said our goodbyes, her pulling me in for a tight hug – she always held you close, like she’d never let you go – before doing just that and sending me on my way.
My dad and Heidi’s house was just what I expected. Cute, painted white with green shutters, it had a wide front porch dotted with rocking chairs and potted flowers and a friendly yellow ceramic pineapple hanging from the door, that said WELCOME! All that was missing was a white picket fence.
I pulled in, spotting my dad’s beat-up Volvo in the open garage, with a newer-looking Prius parked beside it. As soon as I cut my engine I could hear the ocean, loud enough that it had to be very close. Sure enough, as I peered around the side of the house, all I could see was beach grass and a wide swath of blue, stretching all the way to the horizon.
The view aside, I had my doubts. I was never one for spontaneity, and the farther I got from my mom’s house, the more I started to consider the reality of a full summer of Heidi. Would there be group manicures for me, her, and the baby? Or maybe she’d insist I go tanning with her, sporting matching retro I LOVE UNICORNS tees? But I kept thinking of Hollis in front of the Taj Mahal, and how I’d found myself so bored all alone at home. Plus, I’d hardly seen my dad since he got married, and this – eight full weeks when he wasn’t teaching, and I wasn’t in school – seemed like my last chance to catch up with him before college, and real life, began.
I took a deep breath, then got out. As I started up to the front porch, I told myself that no matter what Heidi said or did, I would just smile and roll with it. At least until I could get to whatever room I’d be staying in and shut the door behind me.
I rang the doorbell, then stepped back, arranging my face into an appropriately friendly expression. There was no response from inside, so I rang it again, then leaned in closer, listening for the inevitable sound of clattering heels, Heidi’s happy voice calling out, ‘Just a minute!’ But again, nothing.
Reaching down, I tried the knob: it turned easily, the door opening, and I leaned my head inside. ‘Hello?’ I called out, my voice bouncing down a nearby empty hallway painted yellow and dotted with framed prints. ‘Anyone here?’
Silence. I stepped inside, shutting the door behind me. It was only then that I heard it: the sound of the ocean again, although it sounded a little different, and much closer by, like just around the corner. I followed it down the hallway, as it got louder and louder, expecting to see an open window or back door. Instead, I found myself in the living room, where the noise was deafening, and Heidi was sitting on the couch, holding the baby in her arms.