No matter how ardently she yearned for a weekend of sun and fun (or fun and sun, she wasn’t so intractable), Betty knew instinctively to keep her hopes lower than a cricket’s neck.
Her first trip to a Mid-Atlantic beach town occurred before Betty became Betty. She became Betty on an atypically balmy Thanksgiving Day, inheriting her mother’s hooded eyes, her father’s wavy hair and both parents’ restlessness. The young Betty never wanted to visit amusement parks or national landmarks, and it took only one underwhelming trip to Six Flags for her folks to settle on “the beach” as their go-to vacation destination.
“The beach” comprised three sites: Ocean City, Rehoboth, and Bethany. Betty named no favorite, at any age, though she often suspected her father of being one strong drink away from running out into the front lobby of whatever hotel the family found themselves in and proclaiming—in a voice unashamed to sacrifice clarity for volume—that the ruination of western civilization paraded daily (and, especially, nightly) up and down Atlantic Avenue.
Eventually, friends and family members either outgrew the ritual or found more suitable company. Betty’s pursuit of higher education temporarily convinced her that the very concept of extended rest and relaxation was, for all intents and purposes, a foreign one.
Then the power of the past began asserting itself while she attempted to type up a dissertation on spirituality in anime. The taste of sand, the smell of the sun. The sound of her mother’s smile. No better method of decompression existed, although undoubtedly best enjoyed with a companion or two.
Betty’s parents were unable and unwilling, respectively, to accompany their only child to “the beach.” Her school chums had scattered along the coast before their caps touched the ground.
There was, however, Laura. Good old (younger by a year) Laura. Virtually carefree, effortlessly pretty—and dependable as Wi-Fi in Paraguay. At worst bubbly, at best asleep, Laura showed up late for any appointment she bothered to keep. Betty didn’t mind too much, believing that acceptance of a good friend means acceptance of those quirks and kinks that in a lesser relation possessed deadly potential.
Betty never thought of Laura in terms of a “beach buddy,” though, so when the ducks inside her phone roused Betty from a post-dinner nap, she was scarcely prepared to hear those familiar chirrups: “Wanna join me at the beach next weekend?” Doubtful and dazed, Betty muttered for a few seconds before hanging up. By the time she’d thrown the Cinderella blanket over her head, the conversation had slipped her conscious mind.
The next day, the same chorus sounded—Laura confirming she’d booked three nights at the Oceanfront Inn, chosen due to its proximity to Ocean City’s legendary boardwalk and the unerring wisdom of TripAdvisor.
“What did people do before Internet reviews?” Laura wondered.
“Took chances,” Betty smirked. (Answering rhetorical questions being her idiosyncrasy.)
She’d been so stunned, so grateful to have misjudged her friend, Betty insisted it was her duty to pony up for gas and anywhere from one to three frozen custards at Kohr Brothers. She then convinced Laura they should leave at five a.m., rather than seven.
Which almost happened. The clock in Laura’s car read 5:45 when the last of a dozen bags of varying beauty and strength had been crammed into the trunk, alongside two brightly-colored beach umbrellas and a three-wheeled cooler. The quilt of blues had become a solid sheet by the time they crossed the Bay Bridge, and Betty had given herself over entirely to the well-plotted and well-aged notes of a guitar solo snaking out of the radio.
The girls spent the final ten miles planning their first day. Two putt-putt matches at an Australian-themed course, followed by a jaunt through Gold Coast Mall, concluded with a stop at Mickey’s for crabs and corn. The decision to spend the first evening in their hotel room, engaging in such undemanding activities as moaning in concert with bloated bellies and marveling at the color chart outside their window, was one made on the spot.
Lying longways on the bed, staring up at nothing as her friend practiced for a channel-changing competition, Betty was struck with her first real thought in over sixty minutes. An inundation of memories curled her exposed toes. She tried shooing the sensations away, but they refused to budge. They began to plead: Say me, blurt me. The worst result is a red face.
“Let’s go to Rehoboth Beach tomorrow.”
Restful night, restless morning. Betty’s body didn’t let a little thing like a vacation ruin its routine.
She spent her first waking hour wondering when espresso makers would be made mandatory in hotel rooms and cursing a metabolism which kept her from joining Laura at the breakfast buffet. But she was not unhappy.
She’d been pulling at the straps of her tank top when Laura’s squeal pierced the room door.
“What’s up? Did you forget your card?”
“No, listen. I just met this really cool cute guy in the lobby! He’s the son of the guy who owns Stewart’s Steakhouse on 115th. He’s super cute and really really nice and he’s waiting for me down in the lobby.”
Betty’s head swam with a few dozen questions, all of which went unasked.
“I know we had plans, but we can go to Rehoboth tomorrow, right? Wouldn’t that be an awesome way to spend our last day? Then we can make today like, the day we each do our own thing. Unless you want me to see if he has a brother, or a really hot best friend.”
Betty laid a maroon mini-skirt atop the bed and stared at the door. Off in the distance, she heard her father explaining (in the voice that always made Mom laugh) that it was illegal to feel disgruntled whilst on vacation.
“Sure, I’ll be fine. Go on and have fun.”
“Great! I’ll keep in touch!”
“Yeah great,” Betty murmured, stomach growling for want of a shot or two. “Hope a bird craps in your curls, you fickle twit. ”
The hour-long drive featured zero minutes of music, one red blown red light, two sexual propositions, and three arrogant cyclists. A standard summer clamor awaited Betty as she eased the Toyota next to a Trans Am with a pearlescent paint job. She exhausted her sighs before opening the door and taking her position as one ant of many moving up and down the Rehoboth boardwalk.
It took less than a minute for bitterness to dissolve into pity. Wherever Laura and the red meat scion wound up, it wouldn’t be a place where men holding hands passed elderly couples sharing a shaved ice. A place where a family of four dawdled behind a quintet of teens with teardrop tattoos and insecure mohawks, while boxy bodies in bikinis giggled and shrieked.
Betty didn’t fit in with any group, content to walk the boards with her head on a swivel, the nylon of her skirt sweetly tickling her thighs with every stride. The boardwalk scene for her meant the most gorgeously involved form of exercise. Over half of the shops held scant or zero interest for her, what with the grim preponderance of shirts she’d outgrown emotionally. Others were more inviting, selling a myriad of items decorated with the Maryland flag and/or a crab. Whether snow globe or ball cap, oven mitt or scarf, these wares unfailingly poked a smile from Betty.
Browsing in one such shop, she’d needed to maneuver around a trio of young men who didn’t realize they were gaping at the goddess of gaze avoidance. She stepped deftly past the leers, pitying the men even as she cursed their parents. (She thought of sending her own folks a card. Did Hallmark have a “Grateful Only Child” section? Did Rehoboth have a Hallmark?)
On she went. Sometimes, in she went. The queer-friendly bookstore, the begrudgingly friendly record shop. She decided to save her cash (much to the consternation of gimlet-eyed counter-pounders). Laura and her new friend were probably in Ocean City, ducking and dodging fat children. The thought gave her no small joy.
The deliriant, decadent crashing of aromas demanded a decision.
Betty refused to compromise her principles. The seafood and pizza joints were too popular, too heavy. The new taco joint with a 4.7 on Yelp, too new.
Only one option existed.
The same summer he taught her to swim, Betty’s father initiated her into the crispy golden world of Thrasher’s Boardwalk Fries. Furthermore, he instructed her in the art of eating Thrashers Boardwalk Fries, and Betty, twenty years after her first lessons, prided herself a virtuoso.
The line stretched ten bodies long when Betty took a spot. Newcomers might have pivoted; veterans knew to stand their ground. Soon enough, she was transporting her small “bucket” past a fracas between siblings, chuckling as the combatants’ shrill cries scared off seagulls.
Betty parked her butt at a bench less than ten feet from the kiosk, her back to the two squabbling boys, who needed the accompanying adult to impart lessons about the joys and pains of equal distribution. As with true love between paramours and pals alike, as with eating Boardwalk Fries.
She’d just begun reveling in the starch when honking emanated from the depths of her handbag. Betty kept chewing; were the call important, the flock would sound off again.
A frown creased her face. Perhaps it had been Laura. She’d managed close to one hour without a second thought of her flaky friend; and now, seconds after her first Boardwalk fry in over a year, Betty’s brain boiled with visions of a sandal-clad entrepreneur regaling his rapt arm candy with tales from the grill, bemoaning the bitterness of the food business, deriding “well done” and its clueless adherents, explaining that you didn’t need to complement a strip with anything more complicated than a baked potato crowned with a single pat of butter, before announcing that both Ruth and Chris were terribly overrated.
Whatever amor fou developed between the pair would pale in comparison to the lust humming between Betty and the twice-fried treats in her clutches.
She wanted to turn and see if the boys had even doused their fries in vinegar; you couldn’t trust kids any more than kids could trust adults. Surely they were generous with the Old Bay seasoning. Surely they understood why ketchup wasn’t even an option. At the very least, their disrespectful behavior must be addressed.
Betty turned, but the boys were gone, replaced by a white-haired man doing his best to place an order while also placating a squirming child.
She shoved an unequal pair of fries into her mouth as she recalled her one and only beach tantrum. It was at Ocean City. Betty wanted a sip from her mother’s Pepsi, knowing she was permitted soda on only very special occasions, and her mother refused, explaining her reasons yet again in language appropriate for an average child. When Betty’s father returned from the ocean, shiny red and reeking of salt, she began pleading her flimsy case, only to be ignored.
Back and forth, in excess of a minute, she ran in an imperfect circle around the blankets marking the familial territory, intermittent whines escaping every several seconds, until at last the small lass collapsed at her mother’s feet. And still, both parents ignored her. And Betty stopped asking questions with well-established answers.
Betty wondered about Laura. She guessed that Laura’s mother dreaded no prospect more strongly than that of parenting. Betty decided, depending entirely upon circumstantial evidence, that Laura did not have a mother inasmuch as she had a much older female friend in a relationship with a much older man who seemed frightened of them both.
So the blame, at the base, did not belong on Laura. But lessons needed doling, better later than never, and better Betty than some other friend lacking the patience and thoughtfulness.
As the fifth fry broke apart in her mouth, Betty switched lanes.
Last summer, en route to a local nightclub, Laura suggested a competition to see who’d collect the most phone numbers by night’s end. Betty agreed, guessing her friend would forget about the whole thing, only to wind up with frying egg on her face when it became clear Laura had not forgotten about the whole thing, nabbing eight phone numbers to Betty’s zero. Betty personally referred to it as “The Night I Lost the Numbers Game,” and it needed a sequel.
Whether later that night, or early the next morning, Laura would be bursting to gab about her day with the meat heir. At the first break in the gossip stream, Betty would suggest the rematch, to take place on the third and final day of their vacation, and Laura would gleefully accept, and Betty would triumph. Her phone would contain more numbers than a calendar warehouse.
She sighed and plucked free a fry the length of a dollar bill. She had a lot of apprehensions to bite away.
Jennifer Benningfield’s stories have appeared in several publications, including Black Dandy, Sonder Review, Vagabonds, and Fiction On the Web. A lifelong Marylander who has been in the (mostly) benevolent thrall of words since receiving Green Eggs and Ham as a birthday present, her writings can be found online at www.trapperjennmd.blogspot.com