I Want You to Follow Me Home

One night at around eight o'clock the phone rings and a boy asks if Party Girl is there and you hang up on him because you don't like the way he says it.

You're eleven years old, and your sister, Mary, is fifteen. And U2 has just come out with the song "Party Girl," and it's sort of popular with people your sister's age. And some of them have started calling her that. As a nickname.

"Who was that, Mark?" your father asks.

"Prank call," you say. But you're lying and your father knows it. He works as a lawyer for a big insurance company. He knows when people are lying.

Your father is always flying to Detroit and Connecticut and Florida on business, and when he gets home at night he just likes to relax. He just likes to take off his suit coat and sit there in his suit pants and tie and a pair of slippers, and smoke cigarettes while watching a hockey game on TV. He has olive skin. Your family is Lebanese. Lebanese-American.

When the phone rings again that night your father yanks the receiver from the wall.

"Hello," he says, hollering over the noise of the hockey game.

"Who?" he says. His face is wrinkled. He pinches his cigarette between the thumb and ring finger of his left hand. He slips one of his feet in and out of his slipper as he listens. He's wearing brown socks.

Very slowly he says, "Who. The fuck. Is this?"

And then he listens for another moment and slams the phone back in place. And you jump.

"Who the hell is Party Girl?" he says. And he stares down at you.

That summer your family goes to Cape Cod for three weeks. Every morning you get up early and head to a hot, white beach, where you spend most of the day. On Sundays you go to Mass first and then the beach. Some time just before low tide each day, a sandbar emerges about a hundred yards out in the water. And your father and Mary and you swim out to it. It's always cooler out there. There is wind and it is wet. There are sand pipers herding themselves through the wide, warming puddles of seawater.

One day you are out there on the sandbar and Mary says, "Dad?"

And your dad says, "Yeah, sweetie." He is trying to relax, but you don't think he is having a good time of it. He is chewing his mustache and his knees are sunburned.

"Can I go on a date tonight?" Mary says.

Your father takes off his sunglasses and looks at Mary. He looks spaced out. The skin under where the sunglasses have been is pale and sweaty.

"A what?" he says.

"A date."

"I heard you," your father says, and puts his sunglasses back on. "With whom?" he says.

"A boy."

"No."

"Dominic his name is," Mary says.

"Dominic what?"

"Dominic Crowe.

"Dominic Crowe," your father says. "From where?"

"I don't know. Leominster."

"Dominic Crowe from Leominster," your father says. "I never heard of him."

"They own a house here," Mary says.

"Does he have a car?"

"Yes."

"Then no," your father says.

"Daddy," Mary says. You have buried your feet in the wet sand and are trying to stare directly into the sun. A seagull screams overhead.

"No."

"Please?"

"No."

At 7:30 that night your sister Mary walks into the saltbox Cape house your family is renting and introduces you all to a tall, skinny, tow-headed boy who looks way too old for her.

Your mother has been shucking corn. Your father is fixing himself a drink.

"Well, hello," your mother says.

"Daddy," Mary says, "this is Dominic Crowe from Leominster."

Your father is wearing khaki trousers and a V-neck T-shirt. He looks at Dominic Crowe. Then he wipes his right hand on his trousers, and holds it out to this boy. It hovers between them for a moment, like some kind of threat. And then, finally, Dominic Crowe takes your father's hand. He tugs at it once and lets go. Your father leaves his hand there and looks sort of hurt. He grabs his drink and takes a long, slow sip and stares down at Mary.

Mary is wearing short khaki shorts and a bikini top. She has flip-flops on. But it looks as though she hasn't been wearing anything on her feet all day because the bottoms of them are dirty.

"Well, hello," your mother says again, breaking the silence.

Dominic Crowe then speaks up. "I'd like to," he says, "I'd like to take Mary out."

Your mother smiles and you zero in on her teeth. They are very straight, and small, and white. Except for her canine teeth, which are pale yellow. She sometimes looks at them in the mirror and calls them her coffee teeth. You stare at your mother's teeth because you don't want to make eye contact with your father, who looks angry. Or with Mary, who looks desperate. Or Dominic Crowe, who looks dumb. And old.

The ice in your father's glass rattles.

"I already told you no," he says, and walks into the living room.

Your mother frowns, and so you can't see her teeth anymore.

You hear your father sit down on the plastic-covered sofa and click on the TV with the remote just before he bellows, "Noooo."

Dominic turns and walks fast to the screen door. He lets it slam instead of holding it for Mary, who is right behind him. He lets it slam in her face. Her hair puffs away from her head when the wind from the door hits it.

After dinner that night Mary says she is going for a walk and you follow her down the road. You stay about fifty yards behind her.

"Stop following me, Mark," she says.

There is no sidewalk so you walk on the shoulder. After a while Mary starts to run. And then you run. There are cars out on the main road and it feels dangerous. There's sand in the road.

"Stop," Mary screams at you in front of the sandwich shop.

But you keep following her. You don't want to let her get away. You try to hold something in your head. A fragile sort of emotion. But it keeps pulling away, like the seawater on the beach.

Mary runs far ahead to the Cold Harbor Beach parking lot and then she runs into the dunes. And you can't keep up with her. And you can't find her in the dunes.

You walk out of the dunes on the beach side and walk along the water. And then it starts to get dark. The light all around you is soft and blue and gray, slowly deepening into twilight. And then it becomes a deep, blue gray. You walk up and down the beach, looking for Mary. You're not sure if the tide is going out or coming in, but you know it is doing something. It is moving. Changing. The air smells of the life and death of wet, muddy, salty things. Snails mating, maybe. Or seaweed rotting.

You know Dominic Crowe is in one of the houses perched above the beach. And that maybe Mary is in there, too. You hear voices. Groups of people at a party. You see lights and moths. There have been coyote sightings on the beach. And it's dark. And you want to go back to your mother and your father.

The lights shine in the houses above the beach. They have wood shingling and are very large. They look nice. There are moths crashing into the brightly lit windows.

You head for the dunes, deciding to make your way back to the parking lot and the road. It's cool in the dunes in the dark. The sand emanates a coolness up onto your feet and around your ankles and calves. You think that the sand kind of shines coolness. A kind of cool, black glow. It makes you think of snow for some reason. And water. All that cold water.

Coming through the dunes there are shadows. You smell dog shit for a moment and then that passes and you are relieved. Relieved that you haven't stepped in anything.

There is a pale, blue streetlight humming in the beach parking lot. It brings light and shadow into the dunes. You are at the very edge of the dunes, coming into the parking lot, and there you find Mary sitting on one of the parking logs.

She is smoking a cigarette, which you have never seen her do before. She has a beer between her legs.

She is all alone. You think maybe she'll start crying, but she doesn't. She just stares off. She doesn't have her flip-flops on anymore and when she stretches her legs out you notice that the bottoms of her feet are still very dirty. She pinches the cigarette between the thumb and ring finger of her left hand.

She looks just like your father.

You walk up next to her and stop.

She smiles.

The streetlight makes you both look pale blue. Except for your hair and eyes and the bottoms of Mary's feet, all of which are dark blue like the night.

"I told you to stop following, Mark," Mary says.

She closes her legs tight around the beer can.

"Yeah, but I wanted to," you say, and she just looks at you.

"I was out on the beach," you say.

She sees you see her beer.

"Were you up at one of those houses just now?" you ask.

"Yes," she says.

"At a party or something?"

"Yep," she says.

"With that boy?"

"Yep."

"Is that why they call you Party Girl?" you say.

"No," she says. "It's just a song, Mark. It's a song by U2."

"I know," you say. "But it's not just a song. It means something else, too."

Mary smiles again. Dark blue lips and pale blue teeth. Then she frowns. Just like your mother.

"What does it mean?" you say. "That you go to parties with people like that boy?"

Mary doesn't say anything.

"And you drink and stuff?" you ask.

"Yep," Mary says. "And other stuff."

"Why do you want to be called Party Girl?" you say. And Mary is quiet. "Do you? Do you want to be called Party Girl?"

Mary considers this for a moment. The ocean sounds very loud on the other side of the dunes. You think maybe the tide is starting to come in.

"I don't know," Mary says. "I just am."

You want to comfort her somehow, but instead you decide to reach between her legs and take hold of the beer can. She lets you take it and you lift it and drink from it and then toss it into the dunes. It's the first time you've ever littered at the beach. That and the beer make you feel powerful and old. But Mary just laughs at you.

"Don't laugh," you say, and the two of you stay there like that for a moment. Just looking.

"I want you to follow me home," you finally say.

And you start walking across the parking lot toward the road. And Mary does too. She follows you. She follows you across the pale blue sand of the parking lot, and onto the dark blue gravel of the road. And the walking. The walking ahead with Mary walking behind. The sound and the weight of your bodies as you walk. The cadence of it. The sound of your feet on the sand and stone. It's like an embrace for you. A warm, blue embrace.