By John Glynn
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The events of this memoir took place during a flexion point in my life. To cross-check my memories, I combed through a digital footprint of photos, emails, text messages, Gchats, and social media posts. But I never could have constructed this book without the generosity of my Montauk housemates. The individuals who appear in these pages gifted me their thoughts, experiences, and secrets from that summer. They revealed aspects of their lives to me I never before knew. Any liberties in perspective are animated by these conversations and grounded in the facts as they were relayed to me. Errors are solely my own. In some instances I changed names or identifying characteristics to protect anonymity. I hope I've done our story justice.
While Montauk became our sanctuary, we resided there only at the pleasure of its locals. My indelible gratitude to the people of Montauk, in particular Calli and Lindsay Stavola, who read this memoir with a keen local eye. Thank you to the entire community for sharing your sand-swept home with us at a time when we needed it most.
Our summer began in the winter.
Chauvin bought the tree, and Evan hung the lights. I wrote the Facebook invitation and sent it to eighty-six people. We lashed a wreath to the door. We adhered stockings to the walls with duct tape.
Caroline and Charlotte were making red and green Jell-O shots. Lizzie was bringing three handles of Svedka. We spent the day vacuuming, scrubbing, dusting, and by six p.m. our three-bedroom apartment, glinting, immaculate, was warming with scents of pine and cinnamon and the cloying multipurpose cleaner we used to polish every surface.
We lived in Tribeca on a windswept portion of Greenwich Street. Out our windows we could see a sushi den, a dive bar, and a coffee shop owned by Hugh Jackman. Our building was a brick high-rise—thirty-four floors, concrete accents, the brutalist design at odds with the modern lofts and converted warehouses around it.
To us the apartment was an acropolis, one we occupied by stupid luck. The amenities were beyond our scope of experience: stainless steel appliances, blond hardwood floors, a bathroom with a shower wand. A door opened to a private terrace off our living room with views of downtown Manhattan. Each morning we stepped outside and watched the Freedom Tower rise up pane by pane—first a pole of spires and stents, then a half-dressed obelisk, then, with its glass coats spiraling to the top day by day, a patriotic mirror in the sky.
At eight p.m. the ice company arrived with a carved ice luge. Two men in Carhartt jackets wheeled it to the terrace and removed the cold block from a taped-up blanket.
"This is the seventh one we've delivered tonight," said one of the men to my roommate Chauvin.
"And here we thought we were special!" he replied.
The man pressed a button and the luge lit up. The words Merry Christmas glowed in a pantheon of dissolving colors.
"You are," he said.
It was unseasonably mild that night—fifty-five degrees, humid, a light mist ghosting the street. Our apartment was dim and cozy, illuminated only by the Christmas lights that we'd strung across the ceiling. I poured cider into a pot on the stove. Chauvin added rum and cinnamon sticks. We set up the beer pong table in the foyer and moved the coffee table for dancing. Hung mistletoe for good luck.
Evan and Chauvin both had girlfriends. I figured I'd find someone soon.
I didn't have my eye on anyone in particular that night. Since moving to the city I had hooked up with a handful of girls and quasi-dated one. Her name was Shelly. It was short-lived and she unfriended me on Facebook.
Still, we were all at the age where dating felt real. Friends were pairing off, staying in, rising early, signing leases. Marriage, kids, thoughts of the suburbs. The previous summer I'd attended seven weddings. I ate seven plates of chicken française and danced to "Shout" seven times. I watched seven mothers dance with their sons.
I drank gin and tonics on the lawns of country clubs and flutes of champagne through awkward toasts. I guzzled wine by the globeful, making small talk with the bride's camp friend, the groom's coworker, the cousins from Kentucky whom I'd never see again. Before the dancing I ordered shots, or if shots weren't on offer I ordered tequila neat. I'd kick the liquor back in one mouth-smacking swill, ready to have the best night of my life.
It was 9:15 and our guests were supposed to arrive at 9:30. I always got nervous before throwing parties, but that night my anxiety—which had steadily increased over the past few years—grew volcanic. I darted to the bathroom, fixing my hair, tucking and untucking my flannel shirt, smiling at my reflection, breathing against the drumbeat inside my head. Chauvin was wearing a blazer. Should I wear a blazer? I decided to borrow one of his ties.
I checked my phone compulsively. My nerves crackled. Nine thirty-five. Nine forty. I sent a few desperate texts. Where are you? You guys still coming? I glommed my eye to the peephole, blinking into our empty hallway, the sight of the warped walls and doors instilling within me a silent dread.
The three of us tested the ice luge on the balcony while we waited. The peppermint schnapps a cold river. I did two in a row before I heard the doorbell.
"Finally!" Evan said. "Someone's here."
I went back inside and opened the door.
It was my college roommate Mike and his boyfriend, Shane. I ushered them to the kitchen, admiring their tweed blazers. Christmas, with its bright color palette and decorous wardrobe, was the ideal showcase for their coupledom. Their hair was perfectly coiffed, their cheeks pink and smooth. They seemed to exist on a different life plane, one where people wore woven belts and vintage watches.
"The apartment looks amazing!" Mike said. "I'm normally a white lights person but I love the colors."
I took his coat and offered him a drink. "We've got vodka, tequila, wine, whiskey, beer. Everything the light touches."
"Tequila soda? Two limes."
I opened the Patrón.
Mike, Evan, and I went out to the ice luge. The three of us had formed a triumvirate in college, but Mike stood at the center, the cruise director of our social group. He organized pregames, bar crawls, birthday parties, and spring breaks.
College, for Mike, had been about building relationships. Academics were secondary to establishing his network. While Evan and I scrolled through our textbooks, highlighters in hand, Mike was playing Legend of Zelda with the guys down the hall.
Even when he wanted to study, he struggled to focus. Before an exam he'd pop an Adderall, only to waste the high manically rearranging his dorm room. As college progressed his mind grew unsettled. He'd lock himself in his room with a jug of wine and wouldn't come out until he had finished it. An inner conflict was blooming within him.
When Evan and I came back from studying abroad our junior year, Mike had lost eighty pounds, dyed his hair, and come out of the closet. He no longer drank jugs of wine by himself. Over the course of his final two semesters, we watched him make up for lost time.
On the balcony, Mike took a shot on the ice luge and lit a cigarette. Then he shut the door.
"I want to talk to you guys about something. Before too many people get here." He was peering into the living room, his hands tremoring, and it immediately dawned on me what he was going to say. Mike and Shane had been dating for five years, their lives like locked magnets. They were getting engaged. I braced myself for the announcement, prepping my reaction. I would be thrilled for him, of course, but the news would inevitably kick up my own feelings of loneliness. My friends were moving forward, but the slides of my own life weren't coming together.
I summoned my most enthusiastic voice. "So when's it happening?"
Mike looked confused. "When's what happening?"
"When are you popping the question?"
"Wait, what? Did you think this was that conversation? Oh my God, no."
We all laughed.
"Don't get me wrong, I love Shane, but we're not there yet. I wanted to talk to you guys about Montauk."
I felt a wash of relief. Each engagement signaled a further unwinding of the plurality that had defined us since college. But Montauk, the beach town at the end of Long Island, nodded toward adventure, connection. A delayed pursuit of more adult concerns. Mike had organized a share house there the previous summer. I felt my nerves unclench as he explained.
"We have a few extra spots. The girls are doing their house, too. It would make my life if you guys did it."
I'd witnessed the exodus the summer before—a vanishing from Friday to Sunday, then a weeklong recuperation period in which my friends declined to go out. I lived vicariously through their sun-washed photos, noting the influx of new faces. A single share cost two thousand dollars, which, according to Mike, was much cheaper than hotels.
"It's like summer camp for adults," he said. "There's this bar called Ruschmeyer's that plays Motown on Friday nights, and this new place called the Surf Lodge that has concerts on Sundays. Plus we spend all day on the beach."
After one summer in New York, the idea of escaping Manhattan's pillared heat held immense appeal. I'd grown up going to the Connecticut shore and loved the ocean. But I knew it wasn't feasible. I definitely didn't have two thousand dollars.
"Well, just think about it, okay? You too, Evan."
Mike turned back to admire our Christmas tree. The lights reflected against our collection of dollar-store ornaments. "Is that a Fraser fir?" he asked. "It looks like a Fraser fir."
By eleven, our apartment was a weave of color. Sixty people swiveled through our halls and onto the dance floor. I controlled the music, doled out Jell-O shots, and tossed fresh beers across the room. Little flocks of guests gathered in the bedrooms for secret conversations and other, more illicit things. I downed two more Jell-O shots and played a round of beer pong, losing terribly. The classics echoed through the speakers—Brenda Lee, Darlene Love, Bing Crosby, and José Feliciano. Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" came on and everyone belted. It came on three more times.
I heard a knock on the door and flung it open. It was Paul, another one of my friends from college and a close Gchat confidant. Like Mike, he was gay. He stood there with a kid I knew peripherally.
"John, you remember Fred, right?"
Fred was the year below me in college. We hadn't known each other back then, but our New York circles overlapped a bit. I'd seen him around.
"What's up, man?"
He wore a red knitted sweater with white snowflakes and fitted corduroys from J.Crew. He wasn't short, but he seemed compact. A square jaw, square head, thick-cropped jet-black hair.
"Good to see you again!"
We awkwardly went in for a bro-tap handshake. His black eyes were glazed and roving, breath infused with the buttery scent of Fireball. I brought him and Paul to the kitchen and told them to help themselves. The music toggled from holiday classics to dancing songs. Ke$ha's "Die Young" was popular that winter, and it started to play on repeat.
This was where I thrived, in the moments of haze: the dancing, the music, the collective buzz. Chaos was intimacy; distraction was intimacy. Watching a friend do blow off the dresser was intimacy. My parents were in the city that weekend, staying in a hotel in SoHo. They were planning to swing by our apartment after their nine p.m. dinner at the Odeon. Long enough to say hi to my friends, have a drink, take in the scene. My mom would consume exactly one glass of chardonnay and my dad would play a single game of beer pong. Then they'd go back to their room and call me the next morning to tell me how much they loved my New York life. They were the fun parents, the most beloved. We had a wonderful relationship, and I was proud to have them.
I dipped out to the terrace for some fresh air. A few people were smoking cigarettes by the Christmas tree. A fog rolled along Greenwich Street, gauzing the Freedom Tower in an ethereal glow. Fred walked out.
"Dude! An ice luge."
I grabbed the schnapps and offered him a pour. He crouched down, pressing his lips to the iced track.
"You're not gonna do one with me?"
I called over my friend Gabi, who was smoking a Newport in the corner. She grabbed the Fireball in one hand and the schnapps in the other. I knelt down, placed my bottom lip against the other track.
"Ready?" Fred asked. Our faces were touching.
I gave the thumbs-up and Gabi poured.
The Fireball slashed through my mouth. Fred finished the schnapps and gasped, eyes watering.
"That was epic."
Gabi went back inside and Fred and I stayed out on the terrace. He told me how he'd come from a gay pregame with Paul. He was new to the scene and still trying to carve a foothold. Out of nerves, he'd drunk more than he'd intended. He was relieved to be back with his college support system.
"I love my Boston College friends. They're, like, the best, man. They've been so great to me."
"That's awesome. I love my BC friends, too."
"Why aren't you gay?" he asked.
I thought I misheard him.
"I mean, I know you're not gay. But why aren't you?"
A smile stretched across his face. Beneath my skin I felt something like tectonic plates shifting.
"I wish you were."
"Because I like you. And we could be together."
I stared straight ahead. The glowing apartments across the way burned through the fog.
I gave him a friendly shove.
"You're drunk," I said. "Too many luges."
"It's like…the Winter Olympics."
I heard a commotion inside. My parents had arrived.
My mom, Thomasina—that was her name and she'd earned every letter of it—wore a crimson leather jacket. At sixty-two she was still a fashion plate. Blond hair, genetically gifted skin, active and fit. She could pass for forty-five.
"My parents are here. I should go back inside," I said to Fred.
My mom saw me through the living room window and let out a hyena-like yip.
We had been together over Thanksgiving, but I still missed them all the time. My dad trailed behind my mom, folding his glasses into his coat pocket. He gave me a hug. As the girls swarmed my mom, my dad pulled me aside.
"Is that a BC bud?" he asked, nodding to Fred. "I don't recognize him!"
"Oh, him?" I said, heart stammering in an unfamiliar way. "He's no one."
Shortly after Christmas, Kicki died. She was my last living grandparent, my mom's mom. She'd outlived my grandfather by a year. She died in her own bed, in the in-law apartment above my aunt Ellen's house, just down the street from my parents.
In her final hours we surrounded her, clutching Styrofoam cups of Dunkin' Donuts coffee. Kicki was our matriarch. My cousins and I worshipped her.
I went back to Massachusetts for the funeral, but in my grief left my suit bag on the train. It had contained my jacket, dress pants, shirt, tie, and belt. My dad raced me up to the Jos. A. Bank before it closed. Then he called Vladimir's Tailors and convinced them to open early the next day, a Saturday, to hem the pants first thing.
I hated myself for losing the suit bag, and my dad's instinct to kindness only accentuated my sense of ineptitude, my inability to be an adult. He was a good man and a problem solver. I felt like a hot mess.
The next day I was ablaze with insecurity. I felt awkward in the new suit and worried it was too large and boxy. I tended to avoid wearing formal clothes in general because they made me feel like an imposter, a kid playing dress-up. I processed down the aisle, the pages of my eulogy tucked in my pocket.
I took a seat in the pew next to my cousin Jay. He was a year younger than me. We'd gone to the same middle and high schools and were best buds. He was going to deliver a eulogy, too.
I remember standing at the lectern, hands trembling, staring out at the two hundred or so people who filled the church, but I have no memory of the speech itself. Instead I have an overmemory. I'm sitting in the pew, watching myself deliver the eulogy. I'm separate from the person in the pulpit. I am not that person. That is not who I am. I am the person in the last row, by the door.
There were sixteen of us, and we arrived in three waves. Five older cousins, eight in the middle, and three babies at the end.
I was the middle of the middle, a fall baby, born on the feast day of Saint Jude. When I was a kid my mom encouraged me to pray to him. He was the patron saint of hopeless cases, and I absorbed his iconography. Every year during the last week of October, Holy Name Church in Springfield held a weeklong novena in Saint Jude's honor. My mother attended each night after dinner, sometimes with a sister or two, often with Kicki. One evening my mom brought me back a prayer card. On one side stood Saint Jude, haloed and barefoot in an emerald meadow. On the other, a Catholic prayer, which I read while kneeling. I tacked the card to my corkboard and asked Saint Jude to intercede when I needed it.
I held a liberal interpretation of hopeless cases and often prayed for frivolous things. A win for my basketball team. A Super Nintendo. An A on a science test I hadn't studied for. But mostly, at night, I prayed for a sibling.
I was an only child, the only only child I knew. At five I wrote a story, dictated to my mom and illustrated by me in Magic Marker, called "The Wishing Turtle." In it, the Wishing Turtle wishes for "another him." One day, as the wishing turtle is basking by his lake, another him appears in the water. The two meet and are instantly inseparable. They play a game called "splash the knocky turtle" and are together forever. The end.
Even at five I was thinking about the mystic connection one could discover in another. The idea that you could travel through life with someone seemed to me like the zenith of happiness. Life, like a double-sticked Popsicle, was meant to be cracked down the middle. Here, I'd say. One half for you, one half for me. Red's my favorite flavor, too. When you finish, keep the stick. There's a joke written on it.
My mom had me when she was thirty-five. She got pregnant again at thirty-seven. In a beach photo she wears a loose nautical shirt, her body freckled and lithe save for the smallest melon forming beneath her hand. I'm in a diaper, holding on to her leg. There was a miscarriage. I don't know if my parents tried again.
The eight cousins in the middle had been born in a three-year cluster, and of those eight, seven were boys. In the summers we were herded through life together. Each morning we swam at the town pool, competing for Red Cross cards and pieces of bubble gum wrapped with stick-on tattoos. My mom and aunts took turns making lunch. Eight PB&Js lined across the table. Eight small glasses of 2 percent milk.
On Fridays we had cousin sleepovers and watched Indiana Jones and Home Alone in my aunt Ellen's attic. We ate pizza and washed it down with orange soda. At bedtime we rolled our sleeping bags across the attic floor and sang the theme song from Stone Protectors.
As the others drifted to sleep, I'd lie awake, breathing in the scents of my pillow from home. The windows were open and my ears were like conch shells, amplifying every noise: crickets and joggers, insects battering the screen. Then the baleful moan of a distant train, a sound that, for reasons I didn't understand, made me miss my mom, my own bed, my stuffed animals and blanket. I snuggled next to my cousins, even in the heat, and tried to be brave.
I was in a pig pile, physically surrounded, yet somehow I felt dislocated. Different. I didn't understand the loneliness. I just knew it was there. Like the moon gone dark.
The next morning there was a rush of light. My cousins yawned and stretched and cracked their ankles. The air had gone cooler, a dew clung to the screen. I felt a jolt of anticipation knowing my mom would pick me up in a few hours. Everything was better in the morning, even the leftover brownies, which Ellen let us eat off the pan with our cereal because she was the youngest, hippest aunt.
Kicki had come over that morning, too, and was sipping tea from a clear mug. She watched us eat and feigned concern.
"Oh my word. Brownies for breakfast. What will your mothers think?"
Our mothers shared the same maternal gaze. They were the Kelliher sisters—five of them, one in each grade, the loud laughers, the popular ones. They had all been champion synchronized swimmers. Good girls. Bad Catholics. They'd grown up with nothing, but had all they needed.
My mom was the fourth girl. Named Thomasina, Thom for short, because my grandfather's name was Thomas, and my grandparents were certain they'd never have a son (they did two years later, my uncle Jim, whom everyone called Kell). Growing up she disliked her name, but she eventually learned to love it. In a town of Barbaras and Lindas, she was a Beyoncé. But I was given a short, plain, one-syllable name for a reason.
- On Sale
- May 14, 2019
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing