Three women sit beside a dock, facing a flat gray sea. They huddle in blankets in lawn chairs, sipping red wine, and shiver under the white sun. It is early spring.
They have gathered for their thirty-fifth high school reunion, not in Bristol, Connecticut, where they grew up and went to Catholic school together, but at Penelope’s summer home in Maine. Penelope has the summer home in Maine and a brownstone in Brooklyn. She is the acknowledged beauty of the group, and her unexpected ascendance to the leisure class has preserved her girlish ethereality. She’s long and languid, like a grape vine, with a thick spray of black ringlets and a thin, arching nose. Not much has changed since her yearbook photo, where she wore her hair down, no makeup, with black hooded eyes staring away from the camera, as if she were already dreaming her way out of Bristol. The only difference is that now she looks settled, without that raw, sullen yearning.
In her yearbook photo, Didi—the class secretary—had heavy bangs and a smile that turned her eyes into raisins. The years have drained and soured Didi. She sports a disorderly, faded-blonde pixie cut, with spikes of white popping out of the mess. All the sharp, odd-angled bones in her face have come forward, making her look gaunt and exhausted. She is a nurse at Bristol Hospital, where her husband is the director of security. She spearheaded this anti-reunion.
Janis is short and compact, her hair brown and thin and straight. In the yearbook, she was all circles: long oval face, enormous saucer glasses spotlighting shiny patches of upper cheek. She used to envy Penelope’s hair and skin, curse her own stubborn acne. Now she comforts herself with the notion that at least she never had looks to lose. She had that blessing. This morning, heading to the airport with her son, she caught herself in the cab’s rearview mirror and thought: I look like a boiled pot sticker. It’s a relief to age, to give in to sexlessness. She carries a few extra pounds around her waist, which makes a big difference on her small frame; she thinks of her belly as a buffer against the world.
Right now she is trying hard not to be envious of Penelope’s summer home, her twenty acres of pristine woods, the white yawl bobbing idly by the dock, the fleeting, almost bashful references to rarefied dinner parties and unknown restaurants in New York. Janis and her husband have visited Penelope’s place in Park Slope, had brunch at a tiny bistro that felt like a neighborhood secret. But this is her first time at the summer home—Penelope and Geoff built it three years ago—and somehow the fact that it’s an ugly, clapboard structure, smutty brown, no frills, strikes even harder at Janis’s sense of deprivation. Penelope and Geoff are so rich they don’t care about things looking nice. Janis knows these feelings are silly: she has done absurdly well, with her partnership in a law firm, her husband the city planner, her son about to graduate from Swarthmore, her home in Lower Merion. Considering the Archie-and-Edith house she grew up in, considering her brother the convicted felon, Janis should consider herself among life’s winners.
“Oh God,” Didi says. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. Guess who died?”
“We’re too young for this game,” Penelope says. “Who?”
“Who was Mike Napolitano?”
“Two years ahead of us. Basketball player. Dated Claire Delaney.”
“Was he the one who sang ‘American Woman’ on a table in the cafeteria?”
“Uh huh. After they broke up. Oh, I had such a crush on him.”
“How did he—?”
“Suicide,” Didi pronounces.
The women observe a stilted pause. They were best friends for four years, and they still live in rough proximity, but their contact has long been erratic: three-hour phone calls at six-month intervals, in-person gatherings every other year. At times, their familiarity feels improvised.
Janis pulls her blanket tighter and concentrates on the blurry horizon, on pale lumps of island.
“Well, you know he was bipolar,” Didi continues, chopping off a hunk of cheese with a little, thick-handled knife. “We had no idea back then. We just thought he was Italian and emotional. But yeah, he went through three or four colleges and finally ended up in an institution. And then his whole life was either institutions or his parents’ home. Working a little, I think—gas station, convenience stores—until his parents died and he moved into a group home in Fairfield. And one morning they found him hanging in his room. Isn’t that something?” Didi bites down on some cheese. She chews for a moment. “I hadn’t thought of him in years, and on impulse I Googled and—three months ago, he died. Just like that.”
“How awful,” Penelope murmurs. And then, with a slight adjustment of her narrow shoulders, she seems to cast off everything Didi has told her. She turns to Janis. “Do you remember him, J?”
Janis shakes her head. But she does remember Mike Napolitano. She remembers his moussed hair, black and stiff; his mayor-of-the-halls swagger; his impression of softness beneath that. She spoke probably two words to him in high school, but for a good year he was the star of her fervent inner life. She wrote poems for him. She imagined sitting in the dark, in an air-conditioned movie theatre, his hand warming her knee. She got over him—she had plenty of hopeless love to spread around in those days—but she thought of him occasionally over the years, and when she did, she pictured some steady, dull sort of person. He was a dentist or an account manager; he had a mid-life gut and thinning hair; he still had his soft smile. Now it turns out he never had any life at all.
“Some people have phenomenally bad luck,” Janis says.
“Who are you talking about?” Penelope asks. She brings her calm, velvety gaze to rest on Janis’s face, and Janis thinks of the faint acne scars that linger on her cheeks, a reminder of the adolescent self she has mostly eliminated.
“I guess I’m thinking of my friend Charlotte,” she says. How they must look in this bright, merciless light. “I was just visiting her in Wisconsin.” She talks about how Charlotte’s eldest daughter went to Princeton to become a junkie and thief. How her son decapitated himself at nineteen, racing down an Interstate. How now Charlotte herself has Stage IV colon cancer and has been given six months to live, at best. Janis tries to paint Charlotte for the other women, the way she sat on her sofa, sipping green tea, her head covered in a kerchief, her colostomy bag bulging under a blanket.
“Can you imagine?” Janis says as a harsh, angry wind sweeps in across the water, agitating the surface. “How can all those things happen to one person? I don’t think I could even—but Charlotte was just sitting there drinking tea.”
“She’s trying to enjoy the time she has left,” Didi says.
“I know she was. I know that. But I think—there are other people I know. Just this parade of tragedies. It’s not like one bad thing happens to them. Twenty bad things happen to them.”
“And then there are the people,” Penelope says, her voice like soft snow, “who nothing ever seems to happen to, bad or good.”
Janis frowns. “Well, I mean—what do you mean?”
But Penelope is waving at something over Janis’s shoulder. Janis turns and sees three people walking out of a clump of bare ash trees towards the house, which squats on top of a rocky hill behind the dock. They march in single file, like condemned prisoners. Leading the way is Geoff, tall and hunched-over, in a jean jacket, staring at the ground. Behind him is Nick, Janis’s son, absorbed in his phone, and trailing Nick is Rachel, Geoff and Penelope’s daughter, who is about to finish high school. Like her father, she has developed a relationship with the ground before her.
“Boy, they look like they had a great hike,” Didi says.
Nick glances in their direction, smiles and waves. He says something to the others and starts to make his way down the rocky hill, to where the women sit. Geoff continues up the steps to the back porch and into the house. Rachel, after thinking it over, follows Nick. She takes the footpath down the hill, while Nick scrambles over the rocks in his white shorts, bare knees wobbling and yellow curls bouncing.
Watching him, Janis feels that Nick has been possessed by a surge of boyishness, a ghost of how he used to be, before an adolescent glaze of surly opacity settled permanently over him. He’s been performing since they got here, flirting with the other women. Janis is flattered to know her friends find her son attractive (“Bob Dylan circa 1965,” Didi whispered to her when they all met up at the Portland airport), but his beauty also unnerves her, makes him seem like a stranger—a houseguest she must try hard to please.
Further up the hill, Rachel edges along the footpath sideways to maintain her balance. She’s a tall girl, with black hair and wide glasses covering a long, ascetic face. She has a sturdy body that she treats as an inconvenience, an obstacle to be negotiated. Her khakis are stained with mud from the woods. Is it too horrible, Janis wonders, too crass, to be proud that she has Nick to show off, while Penelope has only gloomy, grumpy Rachel?
To read the rest of Mark Labowskie's story, purchase issue 27.2 here.