My parents drank a lot after my sister died, but probably no more than they did before. It just seemed like afterward they took it more seriously. My sister’s lungs failed on the third day of her life. She was born four months premature and never made it out of the incubator. Afterward, my parents treated me and each other like something delicate and expensive, as if our tentative grasp on each other would slip if too many words or too much affection were exchanged.
That was in the spring, and in the summer they dragged me to a campground on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware Water Gap for our first family vacation. My dad borrowed my uncle’s rusty camper, and we towed it to the campground behind our Malibu station wagon. This being out first family vacation and my first time camping, I wasn’t clear on what we were supposed to do, but I figured the trip had something to do with the way my parents were now. The campground was a self-sufficient community, or refugee camp, with rows of campers and RVs forming streets and neighborhoods. Each camp site included a small square of grass, in which the camp provided a picnic table and steel ring for a fire. Some campers and RVs were like mansions, while others were little more than shacks on bald tires. Many were strung with gaudy lights and had all sorts of clutter out front, like pink flamingos, tiki torches, and kiddie pools. Some families had clotheslines strung across their site, on which wet bathing suits and towels hung, even though there were coin-operated washers and dryers available in the campground. We were staying only a week and never got around to making the camper a home.
It wasn’t exactly the wilderness experience I had expected when my dad announced we were going camping, but there was a little of what he called “roughing it.” A cinderblock building with showers and toilets stood near the entrance, and every morning sandaled campers marched the dusty road clutching shaving kits and towels. I hated using the public facilities, though they were kept reasonably clean, and my parents had to threaten me with grounding if I didn’t take a shower on the third day. A rental office and market, called the canteen, stood by the entrance. Next door was a pavilion where the camp held events most nights, like karaoke contests and square dances. There was also a pool, which was the only decent thing about the place. On the first couple days we rented tubes and floated around a roped-off square of the Delaware River where the current hardly moved. Then we took a nature walk up one of the surrounding hills, but we didn’t make it to the top because it was too humid. I had an ok time, but I was afraid to show it around my mom and dad, as any outward expression of joy seemed somehow inappropriate, especially since I hadn’t seen either of them smile in months. I got the feeling that it actually hurt my parents to look at me. I became the quietest kid I knew that summer. When we ran out of things to do in the nearby parks and on the river, I had to struggle to occupy myself. I spent most afternoons at the pool, but it was so crowded you couldn’t swim a stroke without getting kicked. I went to the game room after supper. For meals, we gathered around the campfire. Lunch and dinner alternated between hot dogs, chili, and hamburgers and either macaroni salad or potato salad. The food was usually charred but still edible. Breakfast was usually a cupcake or whatever junk food I could scrounge from the box we brought. I was big for my age, and I found that I could make friends pretty easily based on that alone. I met Chris and Mark, two brothers, and Erica, a girl my age who stayed in the camper next to the brothers. Chris was twelve, and the rest of us were eleven. We never made plans to hang out; we just levitated toward each other at the pool, game room, or at the canteen, which sold everything from penny candy to can openers to bug dope. Chris and Mark and their parents had been in the campground for two weeks and were staying another two weeks. It seemed a colossal amount of time. They told me that some families stayed the whole summer, while others stayed just a night or two. I was grateful we were staying only a week. Like most boys their age, Chris and Mark were mischievous, but their penchant for trouble didn’t stem from a desire for danger or adventure; they just didn’t seem to understand the difference between right and wrong, or else they just didn’t give a damn. Chris, the older, was especially brazen. The morning I met him, he reached his scrawny arm up into the bowels of a soda machine outside the canteen and freed a can of Mountain Dew from the internal mechanisms. Then, instead of running away with his prize and sipping it triumphantly in a safe hideout, he leaned against the wall and cracked open the can and took a long, cool drink. Erica was our wispy shadow. We were at the age at which girls were odious, but she looked so pitiful in her hand-me-down clothes that even in our merciless youth we didn’t have the heart to chase her off. Besides, she had pulled down her shorts and allowed us all a glimpse of her behind on a dare, and we remained tolerant—perhaps even a little awed—of her from then on. Many parents become protective of a surviving child after the death of another, but I had the opposite experience. Neglect rather than overbearing protection became the norm. But I relished the new-found freedom, which had only increased on vacation. I could stay out late, run to the canteen for candy, swim unsupervised, and not have to tell my parents where I was going or when I’d be back. It was as if the campground were hermetically sealed against the outside world. My mother’s routine didn’t change much that week. She was an anxious person, and she brought her habits with her on vacation. She cleaned in and around the camper, tidied the campsite, and prepared and cleaned up after meals. Even in seeming repose she managed to look busy, whether she was fidgeting with a cigarette or picking her nails, an incessant habit that reviled me. She drank boxed white wine, which made her quiet, then sentimental, and by the fifth glass maudlin. My dad walked a lot that week. The grounds contained a web of dirt roads, dusty from a dry summer, which connected the various sections of RVs and campers to the rental office, canteen, and tent area, which spanned several remote acres on the eastern half of the grounds. We didn’t see much of the tent people; they tended to show up in the morning, hike the Water Gap trails or, and be gone early the next day. My father walked the campground’s tangle of paths and trails several times a morning. He must’ve covered ten miles each day. He wasn’t athletic or in shape, but he had long, rubbery muscles that seemed to never tire. He started drinking shortly after noon. His drink of choice was sixteen-ounce Busch Light cans. He was easiest to be around after two or three beers, when he was loose and chatty but not yet drunk. It was during this brief window that he showed affection and bequeathed to me the prerequisite knowledge of manhood, like how to build a fire, sharpen the pocketknife my grandpa had given me, and whittle a marshmallow stick. I appreciated these moments, but it occurred to me even at that age that he was just going through the motions, like he was touching all the necessary bases of the father/son relationship but that he considered it all rather pointless and tiresome. It didn’t bother me much at the time, but it instilled in me the unfortunate attitude that life was a futile enterprise, an outlook I carried until I had children of my own. By dinner my dad would be drunk and no longer showed much interest in me. He occasionally liked to antagonize my mother, as if more pleasant modes of communication were too difficult. My mother was good about not taking my father’s bait, at least not while I was around. But sometimes when she didn’t know I was listening she lashed out at him in shrill curses, as if she were trying to purge something vile from inside her. My dad was lanky and she was somewhat big-boned, and I secretly hoped she’d flatten him. Mostly when they fought I wished we could all go our separate ways and be able to take a damn breath. I slept in the patch of grass beside the extinguished campfire each night in a two-man pop-up Coleman I had gotten for my birthday and that smelled like polyethylene. It was my idea. The first night I expected to be scared, but it was the least spooky place imaginable. I could hear radios playing and people chatting and laughing until late, so I never felt alone. Quiet time started at ten, but few people followed the rule, though excessive noise was rare. There were lights along the roads, and nearly every camper and RV was festooned with festive lights like a neighborhood at Christmas. I could close my eyes and listen to the interesting noises of the campground and imagine that I was sleeping under different stars as my parents.
The Fourth of July fell on Saturday, the day before we were to go home, and the campground held a small fireworks display and then a dance in the pavilion, where people could bring their own alcohol and listen to a live band. The fireworks display was brief and disappointing and afterward my parents dragged me to the pavilion. We took a table in the back, on top of which my parents placed a twelve pack of Busch and a box of wine. My mother had brought a plastic cup with her, evidently not wanting to tote stemware—cheap though it was—across the campground. The rectangular pavilion consisted of a concrete floor and a twenty-foot ceiling supported by puke-green rafters. It was open at the sides and walled in at the front and back. At one end of the pavilion was a five-man band playing on a stage built for a three-man band. They cranked out a tune unfamiliar to me, though any music made before the video age was beyond my ken. In a moment, an obese man in overalls whom I had seen around camp and regarded as somewhat of an authority figure, came to our table and said apologetically that kids weren’t permitted at the dance. My father muttered something about the campground being a family place, but the guy just repeated that it was an adult event. To his credit, my dad offered that we all leave, but I had seen Chris and Mark hanging around the game room and I gladly offered to exit.
Chris and Mark’s game of Mortal Kombat had just ended when I approached.
“Your parents in there?” I asked, nodding back toward the pavilion.
“Nah, but they’re going, I think,” Chris said. “Are you going?”
“Kids can’t go in. Not that I wanted to anyway.”
“Got any quarters?”
“Can you get some from your mom or dad?”
“I told you I can’t go back in there.”
“What do you want to do?” Mark asked, the corners of his mouth orange from either a soda or popsicle.
“Is Erica around?” I asked.
“Nah, she’s in trouble and can’t come out,” Chris said. “I heard her ma yelling at her before.”
I was a little sad I might not see Erica again before I left, but I let on like I didn’t care.
“Why can’t kids go in there?” Mark asked in his blubbery manner of speaking, as if he expected a thrashing at any minute from his older brother.
“They’re drinking alcohol,” I said. “Some fat guy said it’s an adult event.”
“I bet they’re dancing all sexy and that’s why,” Chris said. “I bet the girls are going like this.” He clasped his hands behind his head and swiveled his hips in a sort of awkward hula, no doubt a variation on something he had seen on MTV. Mark and I laughed, and three little girls by the Whack-a-Mole giggled and pointed. “Want to spy on them?” Chris asked. “I bet we could do it easy.”
I had little desire to go back to the pavilion, but when you’re a kid it’s easy to get swept up in another’s enthusiasm. Mark and I trailed Chris out of the game room, which was connected to the pavilion by a narrow, paved path. The music vibrated the spotlight atop the pavilion, flickering light across the walkway and making our shadows wobble. As we got closer I could feel the music thump in my chest. We circled the pavilion, looking for a place to slip inside unnoticed. I expected the fat man to pop out at any second. After two revolutions, Chris had devised a plan: we would slip under a long table, topped with a punch bowl and baskets of pretzels, that was situated along the edge of the open side of the building. Chris explained that we would crawl along the length of the table and leap behind the bandstand. We would then lie on our stomachs and peer over the foot-high wood platform and have a view of the whole dance floor.
“But the band will see us,” I protested.
“The only one who could see us is the drummer,” Chris said. “And it’s not like he’ll do anything about it in the middle of a song.”
The plan would require stealth and daring, so Chris commanded that Mark wait outside as a lookout, a task the younger brother readily accepted.
We circled the building one last time, trying to appear casual. My heart raced with delinquent joy. We were emboldened by each other’s company and aided by the low lights and the fact that everyone was distracted by dancing and drink. I stayed behind Chris and doubted my resolve all the way up till the last second when he dove inside the pavilion and under the table. I was right behind him. We crawled on our hands and knees along the cold cement floor to the end of the table, where we bunched together. The music pulsed, and the lighting effects were something out of a nightmare: blinking reds and yellows and blinding strobes. The singer growled into the microphone, and people danced and stamped their feet. When we got to the end of the table, I saw that we were a long way from the bandstand. Chris had miscalculated. We were stuck under the table, where at any moment someone could see us. We inched as far back as we could and froze, shielded only slightly by the overhanging tablecloth. I tried to make myself as small as possible.
The scene wasn’t as exciting or indecent as we had imagined. A few people danced in front of the band, though they all seemed to be dancing to a different song than the one the band was playing: one couple slow danced, another did a sort of waltz, one square danced, and several others just kind of kicked their legs around. Everyone else was seated at the tables drinking and talking or bobbing their heads to the music. Chris nudged me to start our retreat when I saw my parents walk onto the dance floor. My dad clutched a beer and practically dragged my mother by the hand behind him. He was wearing a T-shirt with a largemouth bass on it. He was clearly drunk, and my mother looked annoyed and embarrassed. Chris didn’t know they were my parents, and I didn’t say anything.
“Come on,” Chris said. “Start backing out. This is lame.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Wait till the song is over.”
My father stumbled about, rotating his hips and stomping his foot like he was trying to stub a cigarette out on the floor. Although he was more animated than I was used to seeing him, I detected something sad and desperate in his spastic movements, as if he were trying to shake something off that pained him. My mother did a shy two-step. She wore tight jeans and shook her hips, mortifying me. I felt like I was looking through a telescope at something incomprehensibly distant.
In a moment, my dad’s gyrations pushed him toward the center of the dance floor, leaving my mother at the edge of the floor. A man in clunky work boots and a camouflage hunting cap emerged from the crowd and started dancing with my mom. He had a big stomach and wide shoulders. He sidled up to my mother and tapped his foot, his thumbs hooked into his hip pockets like men sometimes do in line dancing. My mother turned away and stepped toward my dad, but the man followed, staring her up and down. My dad was too drunk to notice. He mostly stared at his footwork and threw his head back every few seconds to slug his beer. Then the man in the camouflage hat placed his hands on my mother’s hips, and she swiveled around and then stepped away. The man let out a throaty laugh as if he enjoyed the chase. My mother tried to move towardmy dad, but the man took her by the arm and pulled her back to him. She pushed away. My father finally noticed, and he took my mother by the arm and guided out of the man’s reach. The guy covered the distance between himself and my dad in one long stride. I don’t think my father ever saw it coming because he had a stupid grin on his face right up until the man’s fist met his chin. I could hear the sickening smack over the music and then a collective gasp from the crowd. My dad fell backward and landed in a pile. Several men in the pavilion rushed over and pushed the man away, who threw up his arms as if he hadn’t done it. The band stopped playing, and the singer said something about everything being ok and that it was all over. Chris and I were silent and shocked. He had no idea it had been my father who was hit, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell him.
Chris and I started to make our escape when the crowd around my dad cleared, and I saw my mother kneeling beside him, dabbing his lip with a napkin. My father was rubbing his jaw, shaking his head, and trying to collect himself. I was uncomfortably pleased. I wanted him to stay down, where he looked so harmless, but my mother took his hand and helped him up. Once he made it to his feet, they put their arms around each other and shuffled off the dance floor. The band picked up again, but everyone still stared at my parents.
“Let’s go,” I said to Chris and emerged from under the table, no longer caring who saw me. We ducked outside the pavilion and hurried back to the game room. “Did you see that?” Chris laughed. “That guy got demolished!” He was talking loud enough so that all the kids in the game room would know where we had been and what we had witnessed. “Just like it was a movie!”
I parroted his enthusiasm and soon invented an excuse to go home for the night. I walked back to camp feeling like I no longer had any grasp on the world. It wasn’t the punch that shocked me, but my mother’s tenderness. I don’t know what I expected her to have done, but I never conceived of her falling to her knees to aid my father. When she dabbed his lip it was the first I had seen them make physical contact since before my sister died. It was as if the gesture contained all their love and suffering and everything that had been missing from our lives. I felt like I could finally breathe, as if I had been waiting to see them that way for a long time. When I returned to the camper, I found that my parents had doused the hot ashes of the fire and were inside the camper. As I sat alone outside my tent, I became conscious of the fact that they had had a life together preceding my birth, and although I was inextricably among them I was also somehow peripheral to them, which both hurt and fascinated me. I sat there a long time but never heard a single noise from inside. I heard none of the fighting or grieving I had come to expect behind closed doors. They were just two wounded people trying to be ok again. They died two years later in a car wreck. A pickup skidded on black ice into their lane as they drove home from a parent-teacher conference. I was home in bed the night of the accident when my uncle came to the house and woke me up. After I dressed in my room, I lifted the shade and saw that it had begun to snow.