Veronica sat behind the wheel, Edie called shotgun, Gina and Betts claimed the backseat windows, and Kath squeezed in the middle. We assured Siri that yes, we were sure. Unhappy but subservient, she voiced directions over crowded city blocks and down deserted sandy roads to Macy’s bungalow in far outer Queens, beyond the reach of the still-groaning subway. Not tragedy tourists but borough natives, we knew to keep the windows shut against the rank ocean stench, the radio loud against the screeching seagulls, and the doors locked against our old neighbors.
Not that most of them were still here, anyway. After the first storms, a pattern had begun to emerge. The cops who’d lived on these blocks for generations, the firefighters, the nurses and the schoolteachers, the occasional Wall Street dad: every year, more and more people left. And every year, the dwindling numbers who remained proclaimed themselves strong and declared their intentions to rebuild. This had seemed brave at first, even admirable—but now, their stubbornness more closely resembled a death wish. There were no more telethons, no more ribbons and t-shirts. The governor’s formerly vociferous pledges of support had dulled to whispers, and the federal emergency money was just an inconsistent trickle.
The five of us had gotten out over a decade ago, delivered to the great Midwest by generous college scholarship programs, and we hadn’t looked back. Our relieved remaining parents had moved on to second acts in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Iowa: inland, inland, inland. We’d think of Macy and her family during every superstorm season, our television shows interrupted with images of burning housing projects, submerged bungalows, empty rescue helicopters whirring above the glossy black water.
You can’t help people who won’t be helped, shrugged the talking heads. A place isn’t worth saving just because it exists.
We didn’t disagree. But every so often, crossing the dry streets of Iowa City, looking up at the landlocked Lansing sky or breathing the thin winter air in Telluride, we’d have the sudden uncomfortable sensation of sand between our toes, of fingers gone pruney, of salt on our tongues. In those moments, we would fight the urge to call our remaining parents, or look at our high school yearbooks, or submerge up to our ears in the tub. We’d be assaulted by memories of our fathers carefully gripping our wrists, teaching us how to bob over gentle waves. Looking at the open, untroubled faces of the Midwesterners surrounding us, we’d be gut-punched, missing everyone and everything we’d ever known.
“You beat the rain!” Macy, wearing denim cutoffs and a thin gray t-shirt, welcomed us into her kitchen. The room was small and dark, with scratched linoleum countertops free of the usual signs of habitation: no coffee canisters or cereal boxes, no fruit bowl or cookie crumbs or half-drunk water glasses.
Pulled in close for hugs, she smelled of brine and sugar cookies.
“So sorry about your parents, Mace.” Veronica held out two bottles of very good champagne, an offering that we hoped would make up for having missed the service.
“Yeah,” said Macy. She sounded tired. “Me, too.” We were all older, but Macy seemed especially so, her face ruddy and beach-weathered, her hair dry and sun-bleached. “I don’t have any glasses.” She held Veronica’s champagne by the neck, one bottle in each hand. “But there are Solo cups in the cabinet. What’s great about plastic is, when you get tired of washing it, you can just throw it away.”
We thought of the carefully sorted recycling bins in our inland apartments, those hopeful gestures at preserving a future, but it seemed the wrong time to bring them up.
Gina, balancing lemonade and carrot sticks, opened Macy’s fridge. “Oh, honey,” she said, shooting the rest of us a look. The shelves offered only a tall jar of olives floating in a murky oil solution and a large cookie sheet dotted with jiggling green Jell-O shots.
Macy laughed; if she noticed Gina’s concern, she apparently wasn’t going to acknowledge it. “I figured we could try to get it right this time; I used vodka.”
We smiled obligingly at her reference. Towards the end of our last summer here, Macy’s parents had gone out of town and we spent a night on her family’s private stretch of beach. We mixed lime Jell-O powder with gin and drank straight from the pitcher, smearing our pink and purple and orange lipstick around its wide mouth, sticking out our green tongues. The flames from the bonfire flickered light and shadow across our faces, and we tried to memorize the feeling of our arms around each other, our heads swimming and our hearts pounding. We were so lucky, we told ourselves, to be there, and we were even luckier to be on our way out.
And now we were back.
Edie, who’d been a waitress, balanced the Jell-O shots; Betts took the champagne. Kath opened and closed the empty cabinets until she found the promised stack of Solo cups. “Come on, Mace,” she said. “Let’s toast.”
Macy shrugged and led us down her rickety porch stairs. “Careful.” She tapped the railing. “Splinters.”
From the time we were old enough to realize that the world was bigger than our strip of beach, we dreamed about leaving it. Where didn’t matter. Manhattan, Minneapolis, San Francisco: all seemed equally far away from here, the same place where our parents had grown up, and their parents. Here, our futures were already written: working at the same schools and offices and restaurants as our mothers and grandmothers, settling down with local boys who looked like they could be our brothers, raising the next generation to do the exact same thing, or die trying.
Early in high school, Edie pushed the boulder down the hill, but we were all waiting for it, vibrating with potential energy. She arrived at the cafeteria one morning uncharacteristically excited, set her Jansport down on a hard plastic chair and took a meaningful swig of coffee from her thermos.
“We’re screwed,” she said, happily, “all of us, completely, unless we get out.” She’d been doing some reading. Our beach, she explained, would be uninhabitable in another fifty years.
Veronica gave an exaggerated yawn. “Tell us something we don’t know,” she said. “It’s barely habitable now.”
Gina had laughed, licked the ketchup off her morning French fries. “That’s what scientists are for. The government. They’ll figure it out.”
“Nice to think so, but nope.” Edie had done her research. “They’ve basically said, now’s the time to build an ark.” She looked around the cafeteria, its clustered friend groups and tired-eyed teachers. “The information is right there,” she said, “and everyone’s just ignoring it. I don’t care what happens to the rest of these fuckers, but I’d miss you ladies post-apocalypse.”
She had a plan: There were programs in the heartland, colleges with special admissions avenues for coastal youth, relaxed acceptance requirements and, in most cases, significant financial aid.
“You know what?” said Macy. “If we divide and conquer, I bet we all have a shot.” She followed Edie’s gaze around the room. “Someone should get to go. Why not us?”
Our acceptance packets were lifeboats, and we rode them inland with showy gratitude. We threw ourselves into our new lives, joined clubs and study groups, took on volunteer hours and internships, negotiated with roommates and smiled brightly at our professors during office hours. Except for Macy, that is, who left her university even before Thanksgiving break, moved back home for “maybe a semester,” and then never left.
“It’s complicated,” was all she said whenever we asked, and so we stopped asking.
Now, as we sprawled hazy and vodka-sleepy around her living room, it was Macy’s turn for questions. She wondered if it was difficult to tamp down our coastal accents (no; in fact, we’d mostly lost them—but something about being back made our vowels turn nasal and our r’s disappear), what it was like to drive everywhere (easier than navigating the bus system, we told her, and faster than the subway), whether we enjoyed our jobs (mostly) and loved our partners (some of us, somewhat).
She stroked Veronica’s smooth hair and shook her head. “Being back,” she said, “must be just so weird for you. It was weird for me, and I was only gone three months.”
“We’re not back, though, Mace.” Kath’s voice was gentle. “You know that, right? We’re just visiting.”
“Well,” said Macy. She paused. “But you know it’s not that bad here, right? You know that they exaggerate in the media. We’re good people who are here still. We’re doing our best.”
It might have been mostly anger, it might have been a large part pity; whatever we felt for Macy in that moment was spiky and uncomfortable. “Come back with us.” Veronica’s voice betrayed her irritation. “Whatever point you’re trying to make by staying here, it’s stupid. It’s wasteful. You,” she said, gesturing around the room, “could leave with any one of us.”
Macy sucked her top lip behind green tinted teeth.
“We love you,” Betts added. “And we want you to have a life. A real one.”
“I have a life,” said Macy. “The life I wanted. Don’t act like you all know everything. All leaving means is that you left. You abandoned your home, your people. You made a choice; you didn’t win.”
We scratched our Dixie Cups’ waxy surfaces, chewed on their puffed up edges, busied ourselves with tearing and slurping. Green goo dried on our fingers. The stubbornness of these people. Enough was enough. We would leave in the morning, first thing. We’d keep the neighborhood in our thoughts, sign up for monthly recurring contributions to the Red Cross, if we could swing it, but we would not come back here again. Outside, the rain began in earnest, hard, angry droplets pebbling against the poor old roof.
There was a knock at the door, then, an insistent pounding. We thought of her feral neighbors and cursed our stupidity in coming here, wished we’d thought to bring weapons with us, or men.
Macy stood. She smiled with what looked like relief.
“You can’t get that,” said Kath, her voice rising in alarm.
“Watch me,” she said, and we swear we tried.
Macy’s visitor was dark and smudgy, difficult to look at directly. He stood in the center of the living room and held a finger to his lips.
Veronica sat back against the cushions, a shock running through her limbs. When her brain caught up to her body, she realized that the visitor was a dead ringer for the oldest McCluskey boy, her longtime childhood crush all grown up, with gray-flecked stubble and kind-looking crow’s feet. He wore a blue dress shirt dotted with watery splotches, held a police cap in his hand. She’d heard he’d entered the Academy, heard he’d done well there. She’d heard he’d been killed responding to a robbery call on her old block, probably an ambush. She tried, and failed, to meet his eyes.
The eyes were what hit Betts the hardest. They were a clear bluish-green, with such long lashes. She was struck by how young he looked. He had delicate, shapely eyebrows, pink lips, a hairless chin with skin so soft it seemed as though the air might cause it pain. He reminded her of the only boy she’d ever loved, a poncho-wearer and boardwalk guitar player with dirty floppy hair and thin-soled shoes who’d gone missing in the floods of ’17. She wanted to lick him, but found that she couldn’t rise from her chair.
To Gina, the visitor looked like a fireman, one of the disposable young recruits obituaried in local newsletters after warehouse arsons or building collapses: close-cropped red hair; suspenders over useful muscles; ash-smudged cheekbones on a wide-open face. The bottom of a Celtic cross tattoo peeked out, tantalizingly, beneath the edge of his shirt sleeve. But so many axes in his pockets! She didn’t like the way that he kept feeling for them, running his fingers along their edges.
Edie found it difficult to look at the visitor directly. How, she wondered, did Macy know Tony? He had been her best secret: older, married, angry, the cook at her family’s diner. She shuddered, remembering his hand, the skin a patchwork of healed burns and calluses, slipping under her bra, into her jeans. The diner was gone now, the regulars and waitstaff scattered. Tony, she realized uneasily, hadn’t aged.
Kath blushed as Mr. Cassidy, our beloved English teacher, began unbuttoning his brightly colored Hawaiian shirt. “You,” he whispered into her ear, “were always my favorite.” He winked and swayed his hips like Elvis. His shirt dropped to the floor, and, so vividly her skin tingled, she imagined, as she had through four years of Huck Finn and Thoreau, the subjunctive mood and the semicolon, the wiry feel of his beard against her own cheek.
She watched, lit with jealousy, as Mr. Cassidy bent down and scooped Macy into his arms. Thunder rattled the furniture; a crack of lightning sent a metallic buzz through her teeth, and the room went dark.
We sat, stunned and blinking. An afterimage—Macy, held like a child, her arms cradling the visitor’s neck—played on our eyelids.
One by one, we illuminated the room with the faint light of our phones, all directed at her empty seat.
Veronica recovered first. “What the actual fuck?”
Gina’s face glowed blue, her phone held to her ear. She bit her lip.
After a beat, Macy’s cheery ringtone sang out from behind a cushion.
Gina shut off into the dark again. The rain pounded against the roof, the walls, the windows. Someone’s breathing filled the room, jagged, unsteady.
“You know what?” Betts spoke up, ever hopeful. “I bet this is a joke. I bet he’s a friend of hers. Maybe they think this is funny.”
“Macy has no friends,” said Veronica.
“Even if she has friends,” said Gina, slowly, “just for me, personally, there’s nothing funny about all the axes in his pockets.”
Veronica snorted. “There were no axes, you weirdo. Gun, maybe.”
“Weapons,” said Edie, “were not the concerning part.”
“Um,” Kath asked, “do you guys remember Mr. Cassidy?”
The house hummed back to life, and we compared recollections. He was young or he was old; he was light or he was dark; he wore a suit or jeans or work pants. He was a cop or a fireman or a high school teacher; he was someone we’d left behind or someone we might have loved. He’d held Macy in his arms. They’d been right in front of us, we all agreed, close enough to touch, and then they were gone.
“Well,” Edie offered, carefully, “but, did anyone actually see them leave?”
“Of course,” said Veronica. “Let’s check the bedroom. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
We moved, amoeba-like, down the hall, our shoulders pressed together.
The door opened easily, into a cool darkness that smelled, like Macy, of sea-dipped sugar cookies. Veronica fumbled for the switch, and the light revealed Macy’s bedroom, unchanged since the days of our high school sleepovers.
We crowded inside and took in the familiar daisy-patterned wallpaper, the Starry Night poster over the bed, the same old snapshots taped to the walls: Edie and Veronica, their heads together and their tongues sticking out; Kathy, Betts, and Macy high-kicking outside our high school, uniform skirts rolled high; Gina blowing out candles on a half-eaten pan of birthday brownies, colorful swirls of melted wax mixing with the crust; our bathing-suited mothers lined up in beach chairs, flipping through magazines and smiling behind sunglasses.
We looked around.
Behind the photos, the long sheets of Macy’s wallpaper had split at the seams. The edges curled inward, the dried glue on the back yellow and brittle.
Her white wicker dresser remained, its top littered with broken seashells and sharp-edged crab husks.
Above Macy’s full-length mirror, a garden of mold bloomed, hundreds of clustered furry black dots pulsing and growing. She had stuck a photo in the corner, herself smiling and dewy, standing by the edge of the shore. Lacy seafoam licked at her toes; the ocean waves triangled behind her into choppy shark teeth.
We examined our own reflections. Five chattering figures, hair long and ropy, skin taking on greenish-yellow undertones. We appeared sickly and chastened, eyes swollen and bloodshot, lips red and raw.
Behind us, a fist-sized chunk of plaster fell from a water-stained crater on Macy’s ceiling. It hit the ground and rolled, finally settling in the swampy corner by the closet, where dull gray mushrooms poked through the wood floor’s softly decaying planks.
Edie fell to her knees, crawled to the corner, cradled the plaster in her hand. “This isn’t right,” she said. “Macy shouldn’t live like this.”
Betts stroked a curling wallpaper seam. “We could fix it for her.” Our own fingers itched; our eyes cheered her on.
The first rip was satisfying and layered, like a long zipper coming open.
When we were through, the floor was littered with soft confetti. The wall looked gashed and angry. Our fingertips were raw, our nails black with mold. Our eyes felt grainy. A throbbing headache licked at our temples. No one could live like this. Macy would have to come with us now.
Veronica flicked a tiny piece of mushroom off her shoulder.
“We could take her by force,” Edie said. There were therapies available, constructive ways for her to spend her time. Kath had connections.
Gina batted a ball of wallpaper back and forth like a kitten. “Well,” she said, “the thing is, we’d need to find her first.”
We were so tired, all of us, so spent from the adrenaline. All day, we’d eaten nothing but carrot sticks and Jell-O shots, drunk nothing but champagne and vodka. Macy’s mirror lay cockeyed against the dresser. In the cracked glass, we were shiny and fragmented, sharp and hard.
Our reflections multiplied and grew smaller. The room twirled and the furniture began to spin. The air tingled electric, and we ran. Out of the house and over the dunes, we ran until we were swimming, far and fast. Our eyes wide open against the waves, we could see all the way to the ocean’s sandy bottom: sharp coral, stinging eels, blind fish with terrible teeth. Macy was down there, we could feel it, just behind the waving fingers of poisonous anemones.
We dove to her, down and down.
If we could just get deep enough, eventually, we would reach her.
And when we did, we’d be saved.
RoseAnne Cleary says
Whoa! Carol! Your story instantly whisked me out of my warm room watching post-Christmas snow falling, into that cabin in Rockaway. “We want you to have a life,” “…shouldn’t live like this,” lines fed to all of us, perhaps, by people who have found their answers away from the mold, from risks, from meaning. In connections.
There are depths here that exceed the cold Atlantic outside Macy’s door; I know I will come upon them in time. And I thank you for them.