Granddad Bertram had the main house built first: a massive, eight-bedroom cedar-and-white monstrosity with a million-dollar view, gourmet kitchen, and antique-filled library. Next was the Ainsworth house, built for my mother after she married my father in the nineties. When her sister married Ari Caldecott around the same time, Granddad gifted them with a house as well.
Now we refer to the homes by their family names: The Bertram, The Ainsworth, and The Caldecott. The Hilliard Cottage looks like a shack next to the other houses, but Junie insists it’s the nicest house she’s ever lived in and the way Ed prunes the hedges around the front makes the place worthy of a magazine cover in the right light.
One big happy family.
The screen door swings open again, and my mother steps out, her sandy hair wrapped in a Pucci scarf and oversized sunglasses covering her face.
We’ve all been here a handful of days so far and this is already the fourth sailing trip Granddad has insisted upon.
As a child, sailing enthralled me.
As an extroverted nineteen-year-old who just finished his first year of pre-law, all I can think about are all the things I’m missing out on back home.
Granddad steps out of the house, grinning wide, his favorite white visor over his salt-and-pepper head of hair, and he slaps his hands together. He gets like this every time we’re about to hit the water, all Christmas-morning smiles and childlike wonder in his eyes.
Aunt Lorelai steps out next, an oversized Breton-striped bag hoisted on her shoulder, followed by Uncle Ari and Westley’s twin sister, Whitley. If my father wasn’t on a business trip in Shanghai until next week, the whole gang would be here.
One by one, we file down the wide steps, to the stone path that leads to the boathouse.
We’re halfway there when I catch the Hilliards coming out of their cottage maybe twenty yards away. Lila stops on the front stoop, gathering her hair in her hands and securing it at the top of her head. Almost as if she can feel me watching her, her eyes flick to mine.
It’s the craziest thing, but in an instant, I can’t breathe, like the wind is sucked from my lungs. And while our eyes hold for maybe a second or two, it feels like an eternity.
“Thayer.” My grandfather’s voice booms in my ear, and I jerk my attention away from the beautiful girl in the distance. “Did you hear what I said?”
He knows damn well I didn’t.
“Strong winds out of the north,” he says as we walk. “Might have to be a short excursion today.”
I don’t tell him I’m fine with that.
Just like I don’t tell him I’m going to invite Lila to the bonfire Westley and Whitley planned for Friday night.
It’s the strangest thing: my grandparents have called this island home for as long as I can remember, but it takes the untimely passing of my mother for them to let me actually visit.
My entire life, they always came to us. Mom would pick them up at LAX and we’d drive up the Pacific Coast Highway with the top down on her vintage BMW, showing off the agreeable weather and abundance of sunshine. I always thought it was Mom’s way of trying to convince them to move west because she hated the East Coast—and that says a lot because Mom didn’t have a hateful bone in her body.
I stand in the middle of a bedroom in the house my grandma simply refers to as The Ainsworth. It’s the last cleaning stop of the day. The weekends are mostly for cooking and food prep, but come Monday, we’ll have the joy of scrubbing the entirety of The Caldecott from floor to ceiling. The Bertram, I’m told, is a three-day job.
If you look up “pretentious” in the dictionary, I’m sure you’ll find a picture of Howard Bertram surrounded by his spawn—all of them in canvas boat shoes.
I giggle at the thought as I dust the nightstand beside a freshly-made bed. I’m not good at this cleaning business yet. As a child, I had chores. Sure. But out here, there’s a certain way things need to be done. The corners of the bed linens have to be tucked a certain way. The pillows fluffed and arranged in the right order. The floors are always last—I made that mistake the first day and I won’t make it again.
These people take themselves way too seriously. Their wallpapered and wainscoted halls are lined in black-and-white family photos spanning generations. They keep antiques in every corner of every room. They wear boat shoes like they’re the only shoes in existence. And their dinners could give places like The Ivy and Spago a run for their money. But at the end of the day, it’s almost kind of nice living on this alien planet with these strange people and their unfamiliar ways. It’s a distraction. And I’m not constantly reminded of Mom.