Oh no. Oh no.
How did she forget about this?
Yes, the Cape Cod Bryerson Family Reunion Weekend always sneaks up on you like a cardigan-wearing endangered clouded leopard, but this time, when it’s really important, she forgets?
Let’s back up.
The third-oldest Bryerson cousin, Haley, has made the fatal mistake of getting a haircut the Wednesday before the annual Cape Cod Bryerson Family Reunion Weekend. Not just any haircut. The Chop. The Slice. She has gotten a close-cropped pixie cut as a step towards asserting her lesbian identity in public. Sort of. She doesn’t want everyone to know, she just wants girls to know. Or she wants certain girls to know. Sweet mother of God, please, she would like to be given a knowing look by a painfully beautiful woman who would, with the universe’s permission, proceed to sweep Haley off her feet, literally if possible. And the haircut looks really good! And even her mom said so! Which is a really big deal because, it’s not like her mom hadn’t been accepting, but she’d been awkward about the whole liking-girls thing after Haley told her parents and brother. Her mom might just be awkward about anything related to sexuality, but it would be nice if she could be a little more chill. Which she was being more and more now! And she totally took the hair in stride without saying anything embarrassing! But.
Oh no. The cousins! What are the cousins going to say? Haley’s two nineteen-year-old twin boy cousins — AKA the Scourge of the Earth — will give her no end of hell for this haircut. Once, they called the youngest Bryerson cousin, three-year-old Matthew, a wuss for crying! Made fun of a three-year-old for crying! They are The Worst!
But. Now it is too late and they’ve loaded up the car and the key has been turned in the ignition and the four-hour drive to Cape Cod has begun. Time waits for no man and also for no nervous sixteen-year-old disaster. The finality of it all sets in when Haley’s brother Michael puts his feet up on the minivan seat in front of him and summons his 3DS to his hands. This is going to, in technical terms, suck.
Twice they have passed a Party City and twice Haley has considered asking for a pit stop so she can go buy a wig. Just yesterday she was so excited about the new hair! She took seventeen selfies in five different filters! She never takes selfies because vanity is a slippery slope! But she can already hear Aunt Louise talking to her mom after three glasses of rosé: Jesus, Joyce, why must you let the girl walk around looking like the lead singer of a boyband? The pearls Aunt Louise gave her a month ago for her sixteenth birthday are still in a wooden display box in her room, collecting dust. Every real woman must own three things (this sentiment usually expressed itself after three-and-a-half glasses) a real pearl necklace, a cocktail dress, and genuine satin lingerie. This, and many other pieces of advice Aunt Louise had offered at dinner the year before, was directed at Haley since she has no daughters, having given birth only to the Scourge of the Earth.
There’s a remarkably hot girl with a teal buzzcut working the cash register at an Arby’s off of I-95 North and Haley publicly mortifies herself by asking for “chicken chuggets” in her flustered state. Her brother will not stop yelling “chicken chuggets you said chicken chuggets” at her as she walks back out to the car with her paper to-go bag in hand. Haley stops walking for a second to look at the stain of the sunset light on the grey parking lot pavement in an attempt to distract herself, unsuccessfully, from her recent out-of-body experience in the Arby’s. Not her best work, to be sure, if she ever had any ‘best work’ to begin with. The cashier definitely winked at her, though. Or maybe she was blinking. Whatever.
“Pleeease, pleease Mom can Aunt Louise sit next to someone else at dinner?” Haley says, looking up from her tablet screen. She’s been working on a drawing of a white-tailed deer for her digital art class for the past hour. Something about the hind legs still isn’t quite right. Her parents have interrupted her artistic flow by mentioning Aunt Louise, and her stylus is still poised in her hand, hovering over a hoof.
“You know I try, honey,” her mom replies, “but she always finds her way back to you.”
“She really grilled you about all your boyfriends last time,” Haley’s dad chuckles from behind the wheel. “It sounded like she hadn’t even left the courtroom. I was really impressed when you just started making them up.” Aunt Louise is a juvenile defense attorney, and presumably she uses her interrogation skills to give prosecutors whiplash — when she isn’t using them to be incredibly nosy. Her tactics must be effective, because every couple of years Aunt Louise gets an award from a youth advocacy organization for her work.
“Please at least make Michael talk to her,” Haley pleads.
“No!” says Michael. “She’ll try to talk to me about girls!”
“What’s wrong with girls?” asks Haley’s mom.
“They’re scary!” says Michael.
“Chicken chuggets,” whispers Michael.
The crunching sound of the car wheels on the gravel road leading up to the inn startles Haley awake. The golden light of the upper floor windows, coming ever closer through the pines on either side of the road and no doubt filled with cousins already, is comforting. For a long weekend every spring they descend like true New-Englanders upon this inn, Haley’s family along with her mom’s sister Louise, her husband Ron, and the Twins From Hell plus her mom’s parents and her brother Steve and his family. Haley is perpetually confused by her simultaneous love of this family tradition and her annoyance at many of her actual family members. Uncle Steve and Aunt Rebecca are all right, but they’re always busy with the little cousins. Aunt Louise, Uncle Ron, Grandma Maureen, and Grandpa Joe are the crunchy part of the situation. They aren’t loud, confrontational, or wildly conservative — it’s something subtler that irks Haley. She isn’t out — like out out — to any of them, but they’ve probably guessed by now, and they make it clear in little ways that they’d rather she were “normal.” It’s an odd brand of white New England intolerance — full of lots of prickly little spots of hostility that emerge when you least expect them to, like burrs stuck to your pants that surprise you the next time you get dressed.
In the morning, Haley walks down the inn’s creaky wooden grand staircase to the lobby area off of the dining room still in her pajamas, too enticed by the smell of the Sandy Shore Inn’s buttery breakfast biscuits to care how she looks. In fact, she hasn’t even looked in the mirror this morning, which is why she is caught terribly off-guard by her grandmother’s small gasp when they run into each other while both walking into the dining room.
“Your hair!” Grandma Maureen says to explain the gasp.
“Oh!” Haley says. “Yeah, I, um, got it cut.” If there is a God, Haley decides, they are truly testing her patience by allowing Grandma Maureen to accost her on the way to the breakfast biscuits. It is way too early for this.
“Well, clearly!” Grandma Maureen says with a chuckle that somehow manages to feel cold. “It looks fine,” she continues, “I just…oh, your beautiful long hair!” Grandma Maureen had always voiced loud approval for Haley’s recently deceased long, golden, appropriately feminine hair.
“I just like it better this way. Not so hot, you know. It’s getting warmer out every day,” Haley says as casually as possible, hoping Grandma Maureen will see that the haircut is not such a big deal.
“Of course dear, I’m sure you had your reasons, I just think it’s such a shame that long hair isn’t in style these days. When I was a girl, a woman’s hair was really her prized possession.”
“Well I just, I just decided it was time for a change,” is Haley’s reply. “And actually I think the freedom women have these days to choose what —”
“Ooh, do I smell biscuits?” Grandma Maureen’s attention is abruptly robbed by the wafting smell of a fresh tray of buttermilk biscuits that has just arrived in the dining room. She begins shuffling away towards the smell and Haley follows, taking their conversation to be over.
Haley has been the subject of friendly ribbing in the past over her habit of being chronically late to Bryerson family breakfasts at Sandy Shore, but the long table which runs down the middle of the Inn’s quaint wood-paneled dining room, which the Bryerson family always reserves, is only half-full. Her parents, Grandpa Joe, Uncle Steve, Aunt Rebecca, and the youngest cousins, little Matthew and Lizzie, are already seated at the closer end of the table with one open seat between Haley’s dad and Aunt Rebecca. Grandma Maureen is still out in the lobby area, Michael is likely still asleep in her family’s room, and Aunt Louise and Uncle Ron, as well as the Hell Twins, have yet to make an appearance. This is decidedly good news, since Haley is not ready to be bombarded with even the most well-intentioned family teasing, especially after that surprise attack from Grandma Maureen. It was a surprise because Grandma Maureen had managed to bring out her expertly-crafted judgment-voice at this early hour. Plus, Haley was still in her flannel Costco pajamas, making her emotionally, and physically, defenseless. However, the content of her hair-based criticism itself was to be expected. Haley knows how much her grandmother loved her longer hair.
When Haley was younger, Grandma Maureen would sit her on her lap during the family Cape Cod weekend trips and run her fingers through Haley’s long blond hair while she rocked back and forth and recounted some story that Haley was only half-listening to, as she was more absorbed in the calming feeling of Grandma Maureen’s calloused fingers on her scalp. In those moments she felt close, not only to her grandmother but to the other women sitting around her. Her mom and aunts would trade gossip with Grandma Maureen and occasionally direct a tidbit of advice at Haley. The Bryerson women are very wise, and they are funny and self-sufficient. Haley felt special to be included in their circle, and they included Haley in all their chats, as she was the only girl in the family until her mom’s brother Steve and his wife Rebecca had Lizzie four years ago. But as much as Haley wanted, and still wants, to see herself in the older Bryerson women, there is something that stood between them even in those intimate moments, that probably had always stood between them even when Haley was too young to realize it.
“Boys!” Aunt Louise is walking into the dining area and calling over her shoulder at the twins. Jonathan and Andrew follow behind her, engaged in what appears to be a prolonged game of punch-buggy. They both recently emerged from the worst of their acne and awkward adolescent body proportions with substantial heads of gelled brunette hair and a renewed sense of confidence — perhaps more confidence than is called for given what Haley has previously observed to be their personalities. As of last year, at least, they still refused to say sentences containing more than five words at the dinner table and enjoyed coming up behind Haley and flicking the back of her neck with their fingers.
Haley has paused in thought with her hand on the back of the chair between Haley’s dad and Aunt Rebecca and has yet to sit down. As soon as Aunt Louise walks in, Haley instinctively plops down in her seat so that she won’t immediately be confronted by Aunt Louise’s frightening combination of intense social energy and phone camera roll full of screenshots of shirts for sale on Amazon with haunting slogans like “Mama Needs Wine!”
“Oh, Haley, is Michael up yet?” Haley’s mom asks from her seat to the left of Uncle Steve, with his small circular glasses and famous mustache, whom Haley is facing. He’s wearing a faded blue t-shirt that reads “Springfield Plant Nursery: It’s Party Thyme.”
“When I left the room he was still snoring,” Haley shrugs.
Her mom waves a hand dismissively.
“Whatever, if he were younger I’d go up and get him, but he’s thirteen and if he misses breakfast, he misses breakfast,” she says.
“Ooh cold, Joyce,” Uncle Steve says from across the table while getting Matthew settled into his highchair. “Oh and nice haircut, Haley! Is that what the teens are doing nowadays? I can’t keep up with what’s cool anymore in terms of haircuts. And I don’t really need to because this guy,” he points to himself, “is definitively going bald. Thanks, Dad,” he says to Grandpa Joe.
“What?” says Grandpa Joe.
“I said thanks for making me bald.”
“Ha. God made you bald, Steven, I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
Haley cracks a smile.
“Thanks Uncle Steve,” she says.
“No problem. How’s school, kiddo?”
“It’s pretty good.”
“What’s your favorite class?”
“Advanced digital art.”
“Maybe history. And bio, but just for this unit — we’re learning about nitrate fixation. I just can’t get into it.”
“Ooh, ooh! Understanding the nitrate cycle is very important if you ever want to break into the landscaping business.” Uncle Steve owns his own landscaping company. “You have to respect the natural nitrogen cycle and be aware that adding your own nitrogen to the soil is only helpful in small quantities. Otherwise it runs off and results in a little something called eutrophication, which is bad news for everybody. Bad news for fisherman, bad news for fish, bad news for swimmers, bad news for casual fans of small creeks — ”
“Haley! How’s my favorite niece?” Aunt Louise has come up behind Haley and put two freshly-manicured hands on her shoulders, taking her by surprise. “Oh sorry Steve, were you saying something?”
“Just telling Haley about the importance of the nitrogen cycle.”
“Oh please, I’m sure Haley has other things on the brain…like pro-om! Honey do you have a dress? Do you have a date? What’s the latest? This haircut, wow! It’s very brave, very Kristen Stewart! I always thought she was so pretty in those movies…what are they, the ones about the vampires. You know.”
“Oh…,” Haley begins. “I’m just going with my friends. And I was actually thinking I might maybe wear like, maybe a formal jumpsuit…or something?”
Aunt Louise taps her fingers on Haley’s shoulders, contemplative.
“I can see it, I can see it. I just think this is such an opportunity to really go all out, you know, get a big princess dress or something backless or with a slit for the leg.”
“Louise,” Haley’s mom butts in. “She’s sixteen. I don’t think she wants something with a giant slit up the side.”
Aunt Louise slowly puts her hands up and shrugs like she has just been told to back away from the scene of a smooth, jazzy crime.
“I’m just saying, you know, with the right look you could really totally devastate one of those cute boys you always post pictures with on your Instagram.”
Why did she give Aunt Louise her Instagram handle again? Probably to get out of a conversation like this.
“Those guys are just my friends.” And two of them are gay, and one of them is taken. By Haley’s friend Magdalena, whom, given all the evidence, it is likely Haley is in love with. Definitely, actually. Beyond reasonable doubt. This became very clear two weeks ago when Haley saw Magdalena kissing her boyfriend on a couch at another friend’s birthday party and then proceeded to become violently ill over the side of the back deck. Not one of her finest moments, but it definitely left no room for denial. Which is why Haley is now desperately hoping for literally any woman to parade into her life and distract her from Magdalena’s dark, soft, beautiful curls. She could just bury her face in those curls…
Aunt Louise bends over Haley’s shoulder, phone in hand, and pulls up Haley’s Instagram page.
“Well, they shouldn’t be just your friends,” Aunt Louise says with a wink. “Who’s this hunk?” She points at a photo of Magdalena’s boyfriend, Evan, in a photo with Haley and Magdalena from the spring formal back in March. Magdalena wore a low-cut powder-blue dress and she and Haley stayed up all night at Haley’s house after the dance baking late-night brownies, listening to Elvis, and laughing until they were dizzy. It was indisputably the best/worst night of Haley’s life so far. Just looking at this photo she can smell how Magdalena smelled that night. She feels nauseous.
“You’re blushing!” Aunt Louise says, loud enough for at least half the table to hear. “You like him! I know that look — you look like you’re going to throw up. That’s love, honey! You have to ask him out. What’d you say his name was?” She clicks on the tag on the photo. “Evan?”
“He’s dating my friend,” Haley says. Something is tickling her throat.
“Ugh, that’s the worst. What does she have that you don’t?” At this point much of the other conversation has stopped and Haley’s family members seem to all be staring right at her.
“Excuse me,” Haley says, getting up and brushing past Aunt Louise. Her mouth has started to fill with saliva. She starts jogging for the bathroom. How is she going to explain this? Sorry about that everyone, looking at beautiful, perfect, and unattainable women makes me sick. Why does this keep happening? And why the fuck does Aunt Louise feel the need to do this to her? What is her problem? She pushes open the bathroom door, bursts into a stall, and kneels at the toilet bowl like it’s her First Communion. Something is pulsing in her throat.
“All right, what are we doing this afternoon?” Haley’s dad asks as everyone is finishing the last of their bacon, breakfast potatoes, and biscuits. After returning from the bathroom, Haley came up with some bullshit story about how she hadn’t been feeling well last night and it must have been the chicken nuggets from Arby’s.
“Steve,” Haley’s dad says, “I know you wanted to take a lighthouse tour. Maybe some others are interested in that too.”
“Fishing!” hollers Andrew from the other end of the table.
“What’s that?” says Haley’s dad.
“Me and Jonathan brought our tackle box and gear and we wanna hit up this dope spot down at the dock.”
“Oh, me too!” calls Michael, who arrived a few minutes earlier just in time to order before the kitchen closed.
“Okay, so that’s Jonathan, Andrew, and Michael going fishing.”
“Haley, why don’t you go with them?” Haley’s mom says, making insistent eye contact with her daughter.
“Great idea,” says Haley’s dad. “So that’s all the older cousins for fishing. And I was thinking of going to some art galleries in Chatham myself.”
“Why me?” Haley mouths to her mom. Her cellphone pings.
You are the only thing standing between your brother and a quick indoctrination to vaping the text from her mom reads. And then another: Not that I don’t trust Jonathan and Andrew, but I don’t trust them.
Haley puts on an exaggeratedly pained face, but she is aware that the fight has already been lost. She doesn’t want to keep Michael from his fishing dreams, and she certainly does not want to call even more attention to herself. She apparently forgot how completely infuriating and unhinged Aunt Louise is, or things have gotten worse, or it’s the haircut that’s making Aunt Louise more inexplicably desperate to see Haley settled into a socially acceptable niche of femininity by way of being boy-crazy. Aunt Louise’s fight has also already been lost, but she has no way of seeing that. What the fight even is and why it’s being fought Haley cannot fathom. First she threw up at breakfast and now she has to spend the afternoon with the Hell Twins learning how to catch a slippery animal on a string and then throw it back in the water. This is the worst series of events that has befallen her since the party two weeks ago where Haley puked her heartsickness all over somebody’s backyard foliage, which, okay, maybe was worse than puking her heartsickness into a toilet at a New England bed and breakfast. Maybe.
Despite her misgivings, Haley musters the strength to put on some cargo pants (reserved only for occasions when she will not be seen by any of her school peers or beautiful strangers) and an old t-shirt and meets the twins and her brother in the Sandy Shore Inn lobby to head down to the dock Andrew had mentioned, which is technically the property of the Inn and requires a short walk through the woods. Ultimately, she’s doing this for Michael, because she does actually care about his lung health and doesn’t want him to die of a mysterious vaping-related illness. And because he’s her younger brother and she often feels like a guardian angel hovering over him, even if he doesn’t really give her the time of day or ever ask for her advice. He doesn’t really need it anyway — he seems to be having a fine time in the seventh grade and appears to actually be kind of popular. This experience of middle school runs completely contrary to Haley’s. She did well academically but spent much of the time confused in just about every other sense of the word. Middle school is historically not kind to socially awkward latent lesbians who are also still trying to figure out what a thong is and why everyone’s investing in one.
Andrew and Jonathan, of course, forgot to grab the bagged lunches the Bryersons requested from the kitchen to take on their various day trips, so Haley runs that errand begrudgingly and soon the four of them are headed for the woods.
Luckily, even in late May it’s not yet hot enough outside to attract too many bugs, so Haley, Michael, and the twins only have to swat away a few gnats as they walk along the partly overgrown path to the dock. Michael tries to hack away at the thorny plants whose thin tendrils extend over the trail with his prized Swiss Army knife until Haley reprimands him for holding up the group and suggests he just step over them. He complains that his legs are too short, but tucks away the blade and puts the Swiss Army knife back in his pocket.
Upon reaching the clearing that opens onto the dock, the twins open their tackle box, bait the hooks on their two fishing rods, and let Haley and Michael take a shot tossing the lines in the water first. After ten minutes Haley remains convinced that this is a stupid sport but does have a newfound appreciation for the patience it requires and the opportunity it’s giving her to just stare at the calm, clear surface of the inlet water and the ocean beyond without talking to anyone.
After about twenty minutes and no bites, Michael excuses himself and heads for the trees because he has to “piss hella bad” (Michael’s use of words like “piss” and “hella” have been increasing in frequency ever since they left the hearing range of all adults, not counting the twins, who are technically adults but so far have been sitting on the dock and collectively listing all the synonyms they can think of for “testicles”).
Jonathan grabs Michael’s pole from him and takes Michael’s place next to Haley on the tip of the dock. He expertly casts the line out into the inlet again and it briefly makes an s-shaped imprint on the surface of the water before disappearing below.
“Oh hey, by the way,” Jonathan says, “I’m sorry about my mom giving you a hard time. You know she really wanted a daughter and she got me and Andrew instead.”
Haley shakes her head. “That’s not…you shouldn’t have to feel bad about that.”
“No, no, don’t worry. It’s not anybody’s fault, just the way things are. She’s also just trying to…”
“‘Relive her youth’ is what Dad said,” Andrew pitches in casually.
“Right. She’s been having a hard time with it,” Jonathan says. “The whole getting older thing, I mean. She drinks a lot, as you can probably tell, more than she should. At home it’s two glasses of sangria like every other night after work.”
“Jeez, I…have you…talked to her about it at all? If you didn’t even want to open that total can of worms, I’d get it,” Haley says. This is not where she was expecting this conversation to go, and it feels like she’s just been thrown into the deep end of a pool. But it feels good? To actually be talking about real stuff, real problems, not just “how is school?” and “are you seeing someone special?” At sixteen, Haley finds herself wading deeper into the water, but most adults assume she just has kid problems, and nobody’s really treated her like she has both feet in the deep end before. No one except…Jonathan and Andrew? This can’t be right.
“Honestly, we’ve tried to bring it up but she just makes jokes about the drinking. Feels worse than it would if she just yelled at us for asking about it. Dad got her to make an appointment with a shrink — ”
“Mental health professional, man, come on,” Andrew interrupts.
“Sorry, yeah. The appointment’s for next week, actually, but she seems so freaked out about it she might not even go. She just needs someone to indulge her for a couple more days and then she’ll have her appointment and start to get on the right track, hopefully.”
“Wow, that…that really sucks you guys, I’m sorry. I didn’t ever really think about how you guys have to see her like that all the time,” Haley says, her face pinching with thought. She’s always sort of thought of Aunt Louise’s behavior as someone else’s problem. But that “someone else” was, and is, Andrew and Jonathan, who are only three years older than her. How do they deal with this every week — Louise’s invasiveness, her lack of self-control, her desperate attempts to connect to you, come hell or high water? They’re away at college for most of the year, Jonathan in Massachusetts and Andrew on the West Coast, but still. She has the privilege, Haley realizes, of wading into the deep end of adult problems that have formidable, complicated solutions. And she’s looking at two people who have had to learn how to swim early, even at the twelve-feet-deep mark. Something like respect blossoms in her eyes.
“Honestly, dude, don’t worry about us,” Jonathan says. “We’re dealing with it okay and we’re in it together. It’s Mom we’re worried about. Anyway, that’s why she’s been like that even more than usual. She’s freaking out and really going into full denial-mode. That’s why she can’t even understand that you’re gay.”
“That I’m…what? I’m not…what?” Haley’s still busy thinking about what the twins have said about Aunt Louise, and it takes her a second to fully register what Jonathan said.
“Dude, Haley, I follow your Twitter,” Jonathan elaborates.
Well, that would explain it.
“Last week you tweeted at Janelle Monae and asked her if she would go to prom with you. I can’t blame you. She’s pretty awesome,” he says, a small smile crossing his face.
“How do you know who Janelle Monae is?” This fishing trip apparently contains a multitude of surprises.
“I’d seen her in movies but my girlfriend Kayla introduced me to her music. Her music videos are, like, mind-blowing. And she seems so comfortable with herself.”
“Ugh,” Haley says.
“It’s just like…I wish I could be comfortable like that…proud about being into girls and, and put a flag up in my room and everything. But I just figured all of this out like a few months ago and I’m still so nervous and I want to be calm, and, and cool and suave, but instead I see a girl I really like and I can’t even talk to her or I…throw up.”
Jonathan gives Haley a concerned look.
“It’s too much trouble to explain.”
“Hey,” Jonathan says, “if you want some advice from someone who’s gone through this kind of stuff, my girlfriend would totally talk to you about it. Kayla came out as bi a few years ago and I’m sure she’d be cool with giving you some advice. I can give you her number.”
“That would actually be…really helpful. Thanks,” Haley says, still taking in everything Jonathan has said. Something heavy that had been resting on her chest since yesterday afternoon gets up and walks away. She hadn’t even realized it was there.
“And honestly, man,” Andrew says, coming up behind Haley and Jonathan and taking a seat on the dock, “I’ve never been in your situation, Haley, but that kind of sounds just like…what being in high school is like. Having all these insecurities, not knowing how to handle yourself, acting stupid, all that stuff. It genuinely gets better. For everyone. You stop sweating the small stuff, and you learn how to take care of yourself because you have to. Like, I remember walking onto UCLA’s campus my first day and just thinking ‘shit, I’m the one looking out for me now.’ And then you kinda get more comfortable with yourself over time and with the new space you have. Know what I mean? I’m not saying we can all reach, like, Janice Montelle-level —”
“— Janelle Monae,” Jonathan corrects him.
“Right. Anyway, you get what I mean,” Andrew says.
“Yeah…thanks, you guys. Really,” Haley says, surprised she is thanking the Hell Twins. “And…I’m not trying to rag on you, but you guys were literally just listing all the ways you can say ‘balls.’ Did that not get left behind when you became mature with ‘time and space,’ or like…?”
Andrew punches her lightly on the shoulder.
“Man, that’s a timeless activity,” he says with a smile. “Anyone can do that. It’s simple and fun.”
“Yeah, okay — wait, something’s tugging on my line.” Haley thought for a second she might have imagined it, but there’s definitely something on the other end of the fishing line, pulling against her.
“Pull back, slow and steady. Don’t fall in,” Jonathan counsels.
Haley snorts. “I’m not gonna fall in.” But the fish is definitely not giving her an easy battle. She strains and leans back, moving the rod back with her but keeping a firm grip on it. At Jonathan’s suggestion she gives the line a single, steady hard tug. Suddenly she feels the tension in the line release and out of the water comes flying a beautiful, glittering silver-blue fish.
“Hell yeah! All right!” Jonathan yells.
“Women want you, fish fear you!” Andrew shrieks.
Women want me, fish fear me, Haley thinks to herself. Women want me, fish fear me.
After five hours of fishing, mostly unsuccessfully, and surprisingly insightful life advice from the Hell Twins, the cousins reel in their lines, pack up the tackle box, and head back to change before family dinner. Michael, as it turns out, got lost on the way back from his treacherous journey into the woods to find a place to pee far enough away from all human beings that he wouldn’t be self-conscious. He came back to the dock fifteen minutes after he had left, wielding his Swiss Army knife and confessing that he may have a poison ivy rash on his ass without elaborating further.
Over dinner, Michael, Haley, and the twins pass around phones with photo proof that they actually caught some fish. When Michael is asked why he’s vigorously scratching his pants, the story comes tumbling out and elicits uproarious laughter from everyone around the table. This prompts Uncle Steve to ask Grandma Maureen about her days as a park ranger when she was just out of college, and she tells the gnarliest poison ivy stories she has. Past stories seep back into Haley’s view, stories Grandma Maureen has told about her twenties and ones Haley has heard from her mom, involving daring wilderness rescue missions, bear encounters, fending off flirty tourists… She used to be so tough, Haley finds herself thinking. But then she looks up at Grandma Maureen’s face, the eyes that have seen more than Haley can imagine, the hands that have lifted logs off of trails, held babies, put food on the table, and run themselves through Haley’s hair. She’s never asked about what her grandmother’s eyes have seen or what her hands have held. Grandma Maureen doesn’t know much about Haley, but, Haley realizes, she doesn’t know much about Grandma Maureen. And something has to give — someone has to start knowing, start listening. So when Grandma Maureen moves on to her next story, Haley pulls her chair in closer, rests her elbows on the table, and really listens.
The golden light of the room and the darkness of the windows seem to invite a sense of warmth and good humor, and as at every Bryerson family dinner, favorite stories are shared, inside jokes are made, and things seem to glue themselves back together.
Of course, this comfortable feeling is challenged when Aunt Louise moves onto her third glass of rosé (Uncle Ron made it quite clear she would be capped at three). She reaches across the table diagonally to put her hand on top of Haley’s.
“You know what,” Aunt Louise says sleepily, “you should just let that Evan guy go. Let him go, you know, girlfriend? Move on. Isn’t there someone in one of your classes you have your eye on? You can tell me, I’m very good with this kind of stuff. Very, very good.”
Haley sits back stiffly, trying to think up something, anything to say that will satisfy Aunt Louise. Suddenly, Haley feels Michael scoot his chair closer to hers and look at Aunt Louise and then at her. He nods solemnly like a soldier about to fall back on his sword.
“Actually,” he says, “Aunt Louise, there’s a girl in one of my classes who’s really cute…”
“Oh my GOD oh MY God tell me everything…”