“An Ecstasy of Parting” by Meryl Branch-McTiernan draws its title from an Emily Dickinson poem, and like the poem tackles a dark subject at its heart. When we meet the main character, he’s waking up to the aftermath of an alcohol-fueled argument with his wife. We watch as he tries to redeem himself and regain control of the life he’s made for himself through a nostalgia-driven trip to the beach with his young daughter. Branch-McTiernan smoothly alternates the tone of the story between moments of existential dread, tenderness, and humor.
Kira ran into Adam and Danielle’s bedroom on Saturday morning wearing that ridiculous pink satin nightgown that Danielle’s mother had bought for her. “Daddy, want to see what I drew?”
“Hold on. Let me get my glasses,” Adam said. He had worn thick glasses since he was nine years old, Kira’s age now, and could barely tell his daughter from the cat without them. She had drawn a picture of a green-faced witch stirring a cauldron filled with boiling rats. It was not an artistic masterpiece, but it showed some signs of creativity.
“Where’s Mom?” she asked, panic sweeping her face. Danielle and Adam were not the kind of couple who spent nights apart. There were no fishing trips for him or girl’s cruises for her. They did everything together. Kira noticed her mother’s absence immediately.
“She had to go back to the city to help Aunt Jackie,” Adam said, pulling anxiously at his mustache. He lied to Kira all the time. He was good at it. But this lie felt bigger, since he wasn’t sure what the truth was.
“Why would she do that? She barely tolerates her.”
Adam loved how Kira spoke like an adult. She watched her fair share of television, but never cartoons or kid’s shows of any kind. The three of them watched the same programs—Cheers, Roseanne, Thirtysomething. He thought of television as an instrument for teaching her about the world, an opportunity to casually bring up the big topics of the day.
“Aunt Jackie had a furniture delivery scheduled and she needed to be at work, so mom is waiting in her apartment.”
“When will she be back?”
He didn’t know if he should commit to an answer; it might be more trouble than it was worth. Danielle and he had gotten into a screaming match after dinner, but he had been too drunk to remember what started it. Adam and Danielle bickered constantly, especially during the summer, when both were off from teaching. But she’d never done anything as dramatic as leaving him. He saw flashes of her packing her purple carry-on and threatening to drive all the way back from their summer house on Eastern Long Island to their apartment in Queens.
Knowing Danielle, she would probably spend the day talking to her friends from college on the phone or consulting with those squares she knew from high school. She would ultimately decide to come back. It’s not like she knew any single people who would encourage her to leave him, who would convince her she was better off alone.
He just wished he could remember the tipping point, so that he could better gauge how serious the situation was. But Adam had been drinking merlot in a coffee mug for hours before dinner, leaving a black hole in his recollections. Danielle wasn’t a drinker. She said it was because she didn’t like the taste of alcohol—that it tasted like urine. Adam refrained from asking her how she’d come to vet the taste of piss. He believed the real reason she didn’t drink was that she couldn’t stand losing control. Of anything. Ever. When Adam was completely sober, he also longed for control. But he drank to release those feelings. Sometimes, like last night, it went too far, and he snapped.
“Are you upset?” he asked Kira.
He watched Kira chew a strand of her long brown hair, considering. “Not really. I like it when I have one of you all to myself. Can you help me set up a lemonade stand today?”
“Where’d you get that idea?”
“Al Bundy mentioned it on Married with Children,” she said.
That was the one show Danielle wouldn’t allow Kira to watch, though Adam thought his daughter’s interest in it was endearing. One of Kira’s babysitters had shown it to her when they were out. Danielle had gotten huffy when she found out, but she was too passive aggressive to scold a teenager who wasn’t one of her French students, so she had refrained from mentioning the ban to the babysitter.
“I thought we stopped watching that show,” Adam said.
Kira grinned. “If Mom doesn’t come back by tomorrow night, can we watch it together?”
“Let me think about it,” he said.
“I’m worried we won’t have enough money to get through the summer. That’s why I want to earn my own,” she said.
“We have plenty of money, sweetheart. And I don’t think a lemonade stand would make back the cost of the lemons on this street. Nobody ever drives by.”
Had they been fighting about money? Money was always tight in the summer, since his district paid out his entire salary during the school year. But their apartment in Queens was rent-controlled and Danielle’s parents had loaned them the down payment for the house, which was just a two-bedroom bungalow, so the mortgage payments were small. Still, they found themselves richer in time than money during the summer months.
“Then what will we do? I’m already so bored, Daddy. I’ve been up since six o’clock waiting until it was time for me to come in and wake you guys,” she said.
Adam recognized this as a rare opportunity to have total control over their agenda. He wanted Kira to remember him as a father who cared, who was innovative. His father had been a movie buff, and they often spent full days together at the cinema. But when he looked back on those afternoons they’d spent together, it was the magic of the movies he remembered most, not any particular conversations they’d had.
“What about the beach?” he offered.
“We always go to the beach.”
It was true. Their summer house was a mile from the Long Island Sound, and the rocky coast was their de facto backyard pool. “How about we go to the ocean? I can teach you how to body surf in the waves.”
Kira’s face lit up. She hated being told what to do, as much as she loved receiving wisdom. She was shy around most adults, but she was an old soul who wanted to learn all the secrets to being alive. It was exhausting sometimes; it felt like he could never get a break from work.
“I’ll put on my bathing suit!” She skipped out of the room.
Adam climbed from his bed and walked through the kitchen to the bathroom. As he brushed his teeth, he caught a glimpse of his reflection. There weren’t many lines on his forehead, despite spending summer after summer at the beach. But the gray hair, which had sprouted like dandelions all over his head, deceived people into thinking he was older than 39. More distinguished maybe. Well, he’d rather be gray than bald, he decided. Although the gray hairs had a more wiry texture than the rest of his hair.
He wondered what Danielle was doing without him. She had never spent a night alone in their apartment. Was she afraid? Adam had only slept there by himself after Kira was born, when Danielle was still delirious in the hospital after her Caesarean. Suddenly, their two-bedroom apartment had felt cavernous, and he couldn’t wait for Danielle and the baby to come home, even though he’d known it would never be the same again.
The weatherman had predicted thunderstorms for the weekend, but the clouds looked friendly, and the sky was an uncompromising shade of blue. It was ninety degrees and muggy, which meant the temperature would be perfect at the beach. Many people would stay home, believing the beach would be too hot, preferring to sit inside, lured by the incantation of the air conditioner’s icy whir. That was their misunderstanding.
Adam wasn’t from Long Island; he had grown up in Buffalo, so he had studied the local weather patterns more intensely than the natives who accepted their own speculations as facts. Adam had hated living in Buffalo. While the surrounding lakes had a pacifying effect on others, he found that second-tier city unredeemable. He was bored by the summer and spent winters wanting to scream at the colorless sky that steadily pelted him with precipitation.
They bought this bungalow in Rocky Point ten years ago, the summer before they had Kira. It was not the rich part of Long Island. Not the Hamptons. Or even the North Fork. Rocky Point had been a community of summer people, but now all the year-rounders they met at the beach seemed to drive a school bus or bag groceries at Waldbaum’s. It suited them just fine, though.
He carried a Tommy Bahama beach chair outside, opened the trunk of the green Ford Taurus, and felt the sizzle of the hot metal on his hands. He looked at Kira who was staring expectedly at him, her long beach-bleached hair tangled in knots.
“You sure you don’t want a chair, honey?” he asked her.
“No, I don’t like beach chairs. Don’t you know that about me? I like to sit in the sand.”
Kira perceived his not remembering each of her seemingly immutable likes and dislikes as a personal affront.
“It’s easier to read when you’re sitting in a chair,” he said.
“Not for me. I’m almost done with this one. Can we go to the bookstore after?” she pleaded, showing him where she’d folded down a page in the latter quarter of her Babysitter’s Club book. The book’s pages were bent and darkened from either the Long Island Sound or a dip in the bathtub.
“We’ll see,” he said. The most exhausting part about being a father was facing the constant asks. Every day brought many more opportunities to disappoint her. She wanted so much, and what she didn’t want, she needed.
They drove towards the beach and Adam turned on NPR. The newscaster reported, “Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, have embarked on a bus tour across the United States, beginning the tour in New York City.”
“Daddy, do you like Bill Clinton?” Kira asked him.
“Not really. But I never really like any of the candidates and whoever I pick usually loses, anyway. That’s just the way it goes. Do you like him?”
“Yeah, I think so,” she said. She paused awaiting a response. When he didn’t reply, she said, “The Clintons are kind of like us.”
He let out a surprised laugh. “How do you figure?”
“Both parents have jobs. Chelsea’s an only child. And they even have a cat, Socks. But I think that Tennessee’s much prettier than Socks. Don’t you?” she said.
“Of course. I told you that Tennessee looks like Elizabeth Taylor. And you’re prettier than Chelsea,” he said.
“That’s not nice,” she said. “I’m bored of the news, though. Can we play my tape?”
They had been playing a single of the Madonna song, “This Used to be My Playground” repeatedly since they went to see A League of Their Own in the theater on the last rainy day. Madonna lamented the loss of her childhood dreams on a loop until they crossed the Robert Moses Causeway and found a parking spot in Field Five.
They found a spot with an unclouded view of the ocean. Adam set up his chair and Kira threw her Betty Boop beach towel down. Within minutes, she was covered in sand like a chicken cutlet ready for the frying pan. He opened his book, The Gold Coast by Nelson DeMille.
“What’s your book about?” she asked him.
“It’s about a mafia family who moves in next to a couple of WASPS.”
“That’s weird. Why were there only two wasps? We learned that wasps lived in colonies.”
He laughed. “Not that kind of wasp. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Like the Clintons.”
“Do you want to know what my book is about?”
“How about you tell me after you’re done. Then you can give an informed assessment.”
She nodded and took out her book. They read for a while, pages turning rhythmically in tandem with the ocean waves. It was peaceful without Danielle, who was always commenting on something: Look at that lady over there. Don’t you think she’s too wrinkly to be wearing a bikini? Adam, listen to this sentence. Isn’t it funny? Kira, why don’t you go play with that little girl making a castle. She’s about your age. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had the chance to listen to the ocean.
He looked up at the lifeguard, who was twirling his whistle on the stand. He was probably twenty years old. His well-defined pecs glistened, and his toffee-colored skin gleamed against the danger-signifying red of his swim trunks. He seemed to revel in the power he wielded, whistling even before someone thought about swimming too far out.
Adam had been a lifeguard at the campus pool in college. It was probably his favorite job. Most of the swimmers were young and healthy, so he didn’t have to pay them too much attention, unless an elderly professor showed up. When nobody was in the pool, he could read. He enjoyed the camaraderie with the other student lifeguards, many of whom worked at the beaches in the summer. He was somewhat happy that his eyesight wasn’t good enough to join them on the ocean circuit, which would have put too much pressure on him.
Now, the summer was his favorite time of year—no distressed students jumping out of windows, no stupid administrators, no need to consider the traffic from Queens over the Triborough Bridge. In fact, he hardly drove anywhere. He let the Long Island Sound buoy him through those summer months, in a way that nothing else did. It wasn’t easy to be around Danielle and Kira all the time for a whole two months. A man wasn’t meant to spend every waking moment with his wife and daughter. And sometimes he snapped at both of them. Danielle talked incessantly. And Kira, well, he worried about her. She was a weird kid—klutzy, sensitive, terrible at sports.
Red hot anger consumed him when Kira showed up at the table with yet another stained t-shirt. He studied Freud in college, and it seemed like she had to be doing it on purpose. How could one child spill so many things? But when he asked her how she managed to do that, she just started sobbing, those loud crazy sobs. And it struck a nerve. He could taste the tears streaming down her cheeks. They were his tears. He’d made her. And he didn’t want to be Scary Daddy. At least she was bright. But it wasn’t clear how she would fare in this competitive world they lived in. He had a hard enough time getting through the day without worrying about Kira’s prospects.
Sometimes, in the most quotidian moments, like when he was inching his way across the bridge like a wounded caterpillar or scrounging for laundry quarters in the creases of the couch or cleaning the grease off the plates after one of Danielle’s ethnic chicken dinner concoctions, the thought of ending it all crossed his mind. How would he do it? He couldn’t imagine buying a gun. He was a Democrat, after all. Dr. Dever would happily prescribe him some pills he could take too many of, but then he imagined Danielle finding his limp body and calling her parents. They had never liked him. He wasn’t a trader, like he thought he might be. They had never forgiven him for dropping out of business school. A history teacher offing himself? “Well, why wouldn’t he?” they’d say. No, he’d have to find peace in this life he’d made for himself.
Whatever they’d been fighting about was probably his fault. Danielle tried. She really did. Sometimes he looked at her and thought, why me? Why the fuck did you pick me? And why did I go along with it? Throughout high school and college, he had plenty of female friends but no real dates. It wasn’t that he was ugly—maybe a little fat when he didn’t keep up with his swimming. His friends called him Bear. He was the male friend who provided a shoulder to cry on.
Danielle was the first girl to look at him as more than a brother. It excited him, how much she liked him. She saw him as a true Apollo—the most sensitive and smart man she’d ever met, because he had a knack for memorizing iambic pentameter. But seventeen years had passed since they’d met in that Shakespeare class in college. And he wondered if he’d ever feel anything again. So, when Danielle packed her bags and drove off late Friday night, he felt guilty, a little bit lonely, but mostly relieved to stretch out in the bed by himself.
“Daddy, will you come in the water with me now?” Kira asked.
“Alright, let’s go,” he said, setting down his book.
Kira ran towards the water and he followed cautiously to the brink where the waves hit the sand. The tide was calm, and it was a rare day when the Atlantic was clear and green as a barrel of emeralds.
“On the count of three, let’s run in, okay,” Kira negotiated.
“No, I’ve got to take my time,” Adam said. “You go in first.”
Adam waded through what Kira called “the scrambled egg” part, where the surf was foamy and white, until the cold water stopped feeling like little knives stabbing his extremities. Kira bobbed in the waves a few feet further out. Thankfully, she had never had any fear of the water, abandoning her inflatable swimmies by the time she was in nursery school. After fully adjusting to the temperature, he swam underwater, and surprised Kira by grabbing her legs. She shrieked with glee when he lifted her up in the air by her legs.
“Show me how to ride the waves again,” she said.
“It’s not hard, you just have to wait until the water’s about to hit you and jump up and catch it and ride it in. You have to trust it. And if you miss it, you miss it,” he said.
He had learned to ride the waves in college, on one of his beach trips with the other college lifeguards. Being stoned at the time had made the experience doubly euphoric. That day, he decided he could never live upstate again. Why would anyone settle for the complacency of still waters when the ocean was there to reward those who bathed in its mercurial bodies? Soon after, he met Danielle, who had grown up in Manhattan, and she brought him into her world. He wished he could remember what their damn fight had been about. Maybe it had something to do with the “beach babes” as Danielle sarcastically referred to the women he had met that summer. Danielle drove Kira to her theater camp in the mornings and picked her up in the afternoon while Adam went to class or studied. He was taking a summer history class at Stony Brook. Every credit over his Master’s degree meant a salary bump, but the beach was the only place where he could concentrate.
He had become friendly with the women who went to the beach every day, Sue, who drove a school bus during the year, and Marge who worked part-time at Caldor. Their husbands worked all day, while they worked on their tans. Most of the women had lived in Rocky Point their whole lives. Their husbands had been quarterbacks and band leaders. And Adam loved hearing about the ancient gossip that bound them.
Last week, Sue had pulled out a joint that she’d bought from one of the high school boys who was working on her roof. Danielle had arrived at the beach, just as Adam and Sue were walking up to the dunes to smoke it. He motioned for her to put it back in the Altoids tin before Danielle saw it. Danielle, who had arrived with Kira and her friends, was vehemently anti-smoking. She looked at him suspiciously. He told her he was helping Sue pick out a wallpaper color from samples she had in her car.
“My husband the interior decorator,” Danielle said, teeth grinding.
Adam hadn’t smoked pot since college, and he found himself thinking about it obsessively for the rest of the week. One day, while Danielle was at the store, he had looked up Sue’s number and called her to see if he could buy some from her. He had left a message with her teenage son. When she called back, Danielle had answered the phone. She seemed perturbed that one of the beach babes had called him at home. But he couldn’t imagine Danielle would be jealous of a woman like Sue, who was dumb as a seagull. Danielle was smarter and prettier than any of the women from the beach, he assured her. He was just being friendly.
They swam for an hour and got out with fingers shriveled like raisins.
“I’m starving,” Kira said. “But I also want to stay here.”
“That’s quite a conundrum,” he said.
But then he remembered a restaurant his college lifeguarding friends had taken him to. It was called the Inn and was a typical beach bum hangout. He had brought Danielle there after they got married, and they had stayed out late dancing to “Love Will Keep Us Together” played by a bunch of gray-ponytailed guys wearing Hawaiian shirts. He wondered what it would be like to go back there with his daughter, if it would make him recall how happy they’d been.
“There’s a restaurant we can walk to in Kismet. It’s a bit of a hike. About thirty minutes. Are you up for it?” he asked.
“Thirty minutes is nothing. I can walk for thirty hours,” she said.
They loaded up the car and walked east towards Fire Island proper. Only residents with a special pass were allowed to drive on Fire Island. The lighthouse was the beacon in the distance, its black and white stripes puncturing the blue sky. He was excited to bring Kira to the little restaurant, before realizing it might not still be there. Almost twenty years had passed. As they walked, he wondered where all that time had gone.
The beach was practically empty. And then suddenly, he saw a man with a large stomach protruding over his waist standing alone. As they got closer, the man smiled at them and nodded hello, and Adam realized that he was completely naked. His stomach almost covered his tiny testicles, but the tip of his hairy penis swayed lightly in the wind. Kira giggled.
“Why is he naked?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I guess he doesn’t want tan lines.”
He assumed it was an aberration, but as they kept walking, they stumbled upon more naked people. There was a city of colorful tents. And out of those tents, came dozens of bodies. It wasn’t just men, there was a woman with large pink nipples biting into a peach. He’d forgotten all about the nude beach. His lifeguard friend had explained how this stretch of land was federally owned, so it fell outside of state law. It was a loophole enjoyed by people from all over, who reveled in the unbridled freedom. One time he’d suggested going there to Danielle, who immediately vetoed the idea. “I get enough sand in my rear end when I’m wearing a bathing suit. No, thank you,” she said.
It looked like the grown-up version of Never Neverland. A forty-something couple listened to The Doors and passed a big plastic jug of vodka between them. A young Middle Eastern man openly smoked a joint. He tried not to look, but his eyes darted from body to body, taking in the many configurations, the different sizes, shapes, and pubic hairdos. Suddenly, Adam began to panic.
“Let’s head back. This is getting weird,” he said.
“But I want to go to the restaurant! I’m so hungry,” Kira complained. “You haven’t fed me all day.”
“I know, honey. We’ll go back and drive somewhere. We’ll go to Friendly’s,” he said.
They turned around and practically ran into a young meticulously shaven couple playing frisbee. It was too much for him. He took off his glasses and put them in his bathing suit pocket. That was better. The people became peach-colored shapes.
“Now I have to pee,” Kira said.
Cold water would get things under control. “Yeah, let’s go in the water. The Atlantic’s my favorite bathroom.”
Swimming out against the current, he was relieved when the blood started flowing to other body parts. He was mad at himself for not packing a lunch, for leading her there, for scaring her mother away. What kind of pervert takes his daughter to observe the stripped-down version of the human form like they’re a bunch of zoo animals?
He turned to locate Kira, who was closer to the shore. As he swam in her direction, a gigantic wave came hurdling towards him. Before he could decide to duck and let it pass him or ride in, the wave swept him up. Struck by its strength and its velocity, he was thrust downward. His skull was propelled toward the ocean’s floor, and he imagined the headlines in the newspaper: Long Island Man Drowns Leaving Daughter to Fend for Herself Amidst the Wilds of the Nude Beach. He had a flash of Danielle’s parents spitting on his grave. This couldn’t be the end. When his head finally met the packed sand, and he remained conscious, he knew it would be okay. Shaken up, he emerged, coughing up salty water. Kira stared wide-eyed at him.
“That was a big one. I thought it might be the end of me,” he said. “Come on. Let’s go home.” He took her hand and held it, as they walked back to Field Five. They didn’t normally hold hands, not since she was much younger, but it felt right.
After a few minutes, she squeezed his hand. “Daddy, where are your glasses?”
He patted his pockets. Empty. His glasses were gone. At the bottom of the ocean or carried away on a one-way trip to Portugal. And so were the two twenties he’d brought for the restaurant. How the fuck was he going to get home? He didn’t even have money for a cab.
“Motherfucker, fuck, shit,” he sputtered.
He saw Kira’s eyes tearing up and he struggled to gain control of himself.
“We’ll find a pay phone and call your mother. She can come get us,” he said. He had plenty of quarters in the car. He always kept quarters for emergencies.
“It will take her hours to get here. The sun’s already going down,” Kira said, her voice quivering.
“We’ll figure it out,” he said. He knew his job was to stay calm.
They walked to the car in silence. He imagined what Danielle would say if he called her and told her what happened. She would call him an irresponsible asshole. She would leave him for real. The courts would declare him an unfit parent. He thought about calling Sue or one of the other ladies from the beach. But they thought so highly of him. They were always commenting on how he did things for Kira that their husbands, those strong muscle men, would never do. Besides, he didn’t know any of their phone numbers by heart.
Rifling through the glove compartment for quarters, an idea occurred to him.
“What if you were my eyes?” he said.
“I have perfect vision,” Kira said smiling. “Twenty twenty-five.”
All they had to do was take Route 27 for most of the way, avoiding the highways. He would drive slowly. The roads would be quiet. He hoped.
“Are you comfortable with helping me out?”
She nodded. “How much can you see?”
“Not a lot. Outlines and blobs,” he said.
“Colors?” she asked.
“Not when they’re far away,” he said.
“We can do it.”
For the next forty minutes, Adam gripped the steering wheel like his life depended on it, waiting for Kira to shout, “Red light, stop! Green light, go!” It was the most high stakes game of “Red light, Green light” ever played. Adam asked Kira if she wanted to listen to her tape, but she declined, saying that Madonna’s perfect voice would be too distracting. There was no music and no chatter on their trip home.
The sun was almost gone, when he pulled onto Hallock Landing, a mile from their house. He loosened his hold on the wheel and looked at his daughter, who was deep in concentration. So often, he felt overwhelmed by the pressure of being an adult, of being in charge, and he resented it, this life sentence of worry. But together, they had gotten home. And already, she could see better than he could. She wouldn’t always need his protection. This was only temporary. He imagined that someday, he would miss being the grownup in charge. Maybe sooner than he thought.
“Did you finish your book?” he asked.
“No, but I’m pretty sure it’s gonna turn okay for Jessi,” Kira said.
“I don’t know Jessi,” Adam said.
“She and Mallory are the newer members of the BSC,” she said.
“What’s her story?”
“Jessi’s a ballet dancer, but she ends up doing a synchronized swimming contest and it’s pretty hard.”
“Sounds like it would be,” he said.
“Can we maybe not tell Mom about this when she gets back?” he asked.
“It’ll be our secret,” she said, grinning.
He parked the car, and they went inside. There was no wine left to drink and no way to get to the store. He thought about calling Sue and seeing if she would bring over the pot. But when he picked up the phone, his fingers dialed their phone number in Queens. And he hoped that Danielle would answer.