The First Vacation After

Esther Crystal

For the first month or two, people were kind, inviting me out to dinner and the like. But then they went back to their own lives. I never minded being alone, even when Peter was alive. But Selma, my best friend, couldn't stand it. "You've moped enough," she said.

Selma and I met in elementary school. Since then, I've nursed her through boyfriends, two marriages, and the birth of her daughter, Judy. Selma always thinks she knows what's best for everyone, so when she decided that I had been the mourning widow long enough, I had no choice but to go along with her.

"We're going on a vacation," she said. "And I'm paying, so I don't want to hear another word about it." Selma was feeling flush, having just received a settlement from husband number two. "It'll be you and me in a cottage on the shore. We'll go to the beach, relax, check out the male population. It'll be great."

Almost before I knew it, I was sitting in the back of Selma's car careening down the Parkway with the top of the convertible down and the warm wind snapping my hair back while Selma drove with one eye on the radar detector. She wore large dark glasses and her hair was frosted to within an inch of its life.

My last beach vacation was with Peter. He had just finished his second course of chemo and he looked gaunt, shell-shocked, and bald. He was thirty-seven then, a successful engineer, making jokes about retirement. When I suggested spending the Fourth of July weekend at the beach, he agreed to go, even though we both knew at that point that nothing would make much of a difference any more. But we packed our things, found a last minute reservation, and went.

The room was small and musty and the bathtub had rust stains around the drain. But I don't think Peter noticed. All he wanted was for me to have a good time. He thought it wasn't fair that I should lose out because he was sick. So we through the motions. We lay on mats at the beach and baked in the summer sun. Evenings, he forced himself up off the sofa and took me to lovely restaurants where he watched me eat steak and lobster while he played with the french fries on his plate.

Our last night at the beach, we wandered hand in hand down the road trying to decide on something to do. At the end of the pier there was a sign for Monte's, a comedy club. By the time we made up our minds to go in, the show had already begun. We made our way through the darkened room to a small empty table at the foot of the stage. The comedian was young and bland-looking, wearing a sweat-stained pink shirt and jeans. He was in the middle of a routine of Polish jokes.

"Who has an IQ of 200? Poland..."

"What's a dope ring? Six Polacks sitting in a circle..."

"What do you call removing a splinter from a Polack's behind? Brain surgery..."

"What do you call a contaminated landfill? A Polish health club..."

"What do they print on the bottom of Polish shoes? This side up." Nobody in the audience was laughing.

"This must be a Polish crowd," he mumbled. "How about cannibals? Ya like cannibals? Did you hear the story about the cannibal on a cruise ship? Cannibal goes on a cruise and walks into the dining room. Says to the maitre d': I'm very hungry. Maitre d' goes: Would you like to see a menu? Cannibal goes: No, I'd like to see the passenger list... Well, how about that cannibal who ate his mother-in-law ? She disagreed with him...Boy, this sure is a tough crowd..."

There was some grumbling from the audience and then silence. After a few seconds, the comedian climbed off the stage and began walking around the room, microphone in hand, asking people for their names and occupations. He heckled a couple of patrons mildly and then stopped in front of Peter.

"What's your name, sir?" he asked. Peter told him.

"Ever hear of the Hair Club for Men, Peter?" he said, winking at the audience. Peter didn't answer. The audience tittered.

Like a shark intoxicated by the smell of fresh blood, the comedian plunged ahead. "Ever heard the story about the bald guy who meets a bald chick? When they put their heads together they can wear a bra!"

"He has a beautiful head of skin, doesn't he?" he asked the audience.

The audience roared and the comedian continued. "Don't you think his head looks like a landing field? I wouldn't say he was bald, but he has the widest part I've ever seen..."

Peter got slowly to his feet slowly and we walked out of the club. There was a breeze outside and Peter shivered. Behind us we could hear the audience taunting. "Hey, Peter... where're you going... don't leave now, Peter." We walked back to our cottage without talking and went home early the next morning.

Selma screeched the convertible to a halt. "Where the hell are we?" she yelled.

Eventually some whitewashed cottages came into view. Selma abruptly stopped the car and got out.

"Valet service," she announced.

In an instant a young man in white shorts came out and parked the convertible in the lot. "Nice ass," Selma announced, looking at his rear. She unlocked the door to our cottage and threw her satchel down on the floor.

"Put your stuff down and let's hit the beach," Selma said. I looked at her helplessly and followed her out. It was the late afternoon of a fiercely hot day. The sand burned under our feet and the white sunlight was blinding. We sat down on a dune covered with marsh grass and watched the lazy waves bunch up at the horizon.

"Let's go in the water," Selma said.

"Not me," I said.

"Chicken!" she yelled.

Without hesitation, she stripped off her T-shirt and shorts and dove into the water.

When we got back to the cottage, I stretched out on one of the beds, hoping for a nap before dinner. Selma looked at me in horror.

"What do you think this is?" she said. "A vacation? Get up, get dressed, we're going out to dinner, it's man-hunting time. Here put this on," she ordered, handing me a slinky red lycra number. I looked at it, laughed, and handed it back at her. She threw it right back at me.

"Let's pig out," she said, as we were ushered to our table in the restaurant. Several glasses of wine and a full meal later, she set out to show me how to cruise for men. We walked along restaurant row, going into whatever places appealed to Selma. We'd go into a place, sit down at the bar, order a drink, wait five minutes, and if no interesting men showed up, move on to the next bar. Most of the time, I'd sit quietly and watch the men flock around Selma. But that wasn't good enough. According to Selma, we both had to wind up with a man or it didn't count.

The last place we went to it happened. Selma was talking animatedly to a portly man and someone came up to me.

"Great weather we've been having," he said.

"Yes, it is," I said politely.

"Where're you from?"

"New York," I said.

"Great, great. I'm from Jersey, Morristown. My name's Bill, by the way, what's yours?"

I told him and he nodded.

"Great, great. I'm an importer you know, ties..."

I smiled and looked up at him. He had a swarthy complexion and dark, greasy hair. If I had to guess, I'd say he was past middle age. He wore a navy shirt, open at the neck, and the ugliest yellow striped tie I'd ever seen.

"Where are you staying?" he asked.

I told him the name of the cottages.

"Nice place, I know it. Expensive. Hey, how about you and me get out of here, go back to your place so we can be alone..."

"Sorry," I said, "but I'm with someone. He just went out to put money in the meter. He should be right back."

"You're some tease, you know that?" he said angrily.

I stood up briskly and went over to where Selma was sitting. "We're getting out of here right now," I told her.

"Sure, sure," she said.

"What happened?" she asked as soon as we were outside.

"Nothing happened," I answered. "I just needed some air."

We walked down the street in comfortable silence. It felt good to be out in the open.

After walking a while, we came to a place called "The BeeLine."

"You want to go in?" Selma asked.

"Sure, why not," I answered. "I've spoiled enough of your evening already."

"Don't worry about it," Selma said.

We walked into The BeeLine and sat down at the bar. There was a small stage at the back of the dark room next to the bar and a scattering of tables around it. A comedian was on the stage telling jokes. He looked familiar. His face was white and pasty-looking and his jowls sagged. Time had not been kind to him.

Aside from Selma and myself, there were only a few other customers watching the show, and most of those looked drunk.

The comedian was doing wife jokes. "My wife... she just had her face lifted. Trouble was, there was another one just like it underneath. When she goes to the beauty parlor they give her an estimate. She's so ugly her Polaroids refuse to come out of the camera."

Nobody laughed. In desperation, he picked up his microphone and started walking among the tables, heckling. Soon enough he got around to our table and stopped in front of Selma.

"Some hairdo, Miss," he started "Fleas must love it in there. You remind me of a story. Woman comes into the den where her husband is watching television. Her hair's all done up in curlers. Her husband looks up at her, puzzled. So she says to him: I just set my hair. So he says to her: When does it go off?"

Somebody booed. "Boy, this is some hostile crowd," he mumbled.

I stood up and pointed a finger at the comedian. "You know why nobody's laughing?" I said loudly. "Because you're not funny... You're going to spend the rest of your life in bars out in the middle of nowhere playing to drunks - that is, if anyone will ever hire you again. And do you know why? Because you're stupid and you have no talent."

He turned to look at me, his eyes opaque with panic. He didn't remember me or Peter, but somehow that didn't seem to matter now.

Scraping my chair loudly across the floor, I got up and said to Selma, "Let's go."

Selma looked at me quizzically for a minute and got up to go. The comedian didn't move. He stood rooted to the floor in front of our table, slack-mouthed and gray. It took him a few minutes to get back on track.

"Whoa, would'ja get a load of those of those two women's libbers?" he said to whatever audience he had left.

We could hear him shouting insults at us as we walked out the door: "Why don't you come over to my pool I'll give you drowning lessons. Why don't you go down to the shore and pull a wave up over your head..."

"Go to hell," I said in parting.

I crossed the road and made my way to the beach with Selma tagging along behind me. The surf was way out. I hadn't noticed before but the moon was nearly full. Small white-tipped wavelets glowed as they lapped the darkened shore. The day's heat still lingered in the night breeze and fireflies dappled the tall marsh grass with specks of orange light. I took a deep breath and stopped abruptly, staring up at the night sky. High above me I could see clusters of white stars and constellations.

"I'm taking my shoes off," I announced to Selma. Shoes in hand, I began to run barefoot down the endless stretch of beach that lay before me. The night was young and the sand was warm as a smile.

© Esther Crystal

Esther Crystal is a writer who lives and works in New York. She has published stories and poems in magazines and anthologies and is currently working on a novel and a book about feminist art.

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