Cape Cod looks like a muscular arm jutting into the ocean with Provincetown and all its beauty clenched in its brandished fist. I grew up in the armpit, geographically. Though it was a lovely armpit, we were the town tourists passed through on their way to the storied beaches of Hyannisport and Chatham, or to ride the Island Queen to Martha’s Vineyard. As year-rounders, my brother and I sliced bagels for tourists waiting with Ray-Bans perched on their heads; we poured their Dunkin brews and counted our tips in private. A third population flocked to our shores every summer as well—a diverse group of foreign teenagers contracted through work-abroad programs to spend a summer behind the Roach Brothers cheese counter, sell scratchers at Tedeschi’s, sling fried shrimp baskets at Seafood Sam’s, and counsel kiddies at summer camps. After the crowds thinned in August, the teens pooled their earnings, crossed the Bourne Bridge into what I used to call “the United States side” of the world, and saw what they could see of the rest of America. The workers came from Ukraine and Lithuania, Romania and Estonia, Russia and Australia (Aussie-Aussie-Aussie, Oi-Oi-Oi). I worked at 4-H Camp Farley with a sheep farmer from New Zealand, a waiter from Wales, and a British girl the spitting image of Baby Spice. One summer some of my friends met a group of Irish boys—seven or eight of them—who were living in an overpriced Hyannis two-bedroom apartment tucked behind a strip mall. This story arose from a brief visit there, a stop that couldn’t have lasted more than ten minutes, and which left me with the image of a heap of dishes in the kitchen and a living room full of bikes.
Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared in Carve, Gulf Coast, Monkeybicycle, Word Riot, and elsewhere. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.
Helena tells me to wait in the living room where seven bicycles tumble across the floor, none of them new. There’s a cushion-less couch and the news on TV. Another giant wave has swallowed some small country. A pale boy with hair the gray-blond Clairol calls “ash” walks blearily into the room. “Who the feck are you?” he says. As always, the lilt surprises me.
“I came with Helena,” I say, and point down the hall toward the bedrooms, each of which holds three or four sleepers. In the smaller one, Helena pleads with her Irish boy, something about what she claims is love.
The couch squeaks as he depresses its innards with a great singing of springs. He works at the Shell on Main, or the Clam Shack downtown, or some other place in biking distance that swells each summer with temporary workers serving temporary tourists clamoring for sun and seafood. His home is impossibly north in a green country I will probably never see.
“Don’t be shy,” he says, and clears his throat of phlegm. The Irish aren’t the only ones who work summers on Cape Cod. In Roach Brothers, the girl who cuts your cheese is from Ukraine. At Payless, a Lithuanian beauty rings up your shoes. Helena met her busboy at Pub 99.
Couch springs press into me like pointing fingers. Under my sundress is my first ever bikini. Two red triangles on top, one on the bottom, bought with my T.J. Maxx discount.
Helena said yesterday at closing, “Lynnie, why won’t you let yourself be pretty?” She took me to the fitting room and pulled my scoop-neck shirt tight against my body. “See that?” she said. “You could be hot.” In the mirror I had no mystery, just boy-narrow hips and stick arms and breasts like small, ripe pears.
“Everything’s shite,” the boy says now, flipping through channels on mute. Good Morning America. News. SpongeBob. News. The Ellen DeGeneres Show.
“We’re going to the beach today,” I say, an invitation, wondering what I look like to him.
He keeps his eyes to the screen. “I have work,” he says, and doesn’t seem sorry. At home, his father reads the paper and his mother walks the dog and his sister visits from Dublin. At home he has a ginger-haired girlfriend, a reason to smile. But now his blond hair blends into the beige of the couch until he is indistinguishable from his surroundings. He might have served me and Helena at Sam Diego’s. He might have filled my car with gas.
There’s the click of a door and another bleary boy pads softly into the kitchen. Two more shove each other each trying to be the first to pee. When Helena emerges three and a half commercials later, her eyes are red-rimmed and slitted.
“Let’s go,” she says. We wind through the jungle of wheels and spokes. I turn to wave, but my lilting ghost is still channel-surfing as if I’m already gone. Good morning, America.
by Katie Cortese