One summer, on idyllic Fern Island, Maine, three women navigate secrets and betrayals that span generations. Anxiety-ridden Justine Jenson is caught in a late-twenties identity crisis — she is disillusioned by her job, might be unlovable by the opposite sex, and the only person who ever understood her has just died. Justine’s “perfect” older sister, Julia, discovers her husband is having an affair, which totally threatens her carefully constructed self-image. And when the son of a long-lost friend returns to Fern Island, a secret that Jenson neighbor Aggie Smith has been guarding for forty years is threatened. Fern Island’s spruce-shrouded shores can help these women escape their burdens, or hold them captive within their tangled lives. Choices will be made out on the rocks.
Looking for Something
Looking for Something
I decide to get out of the house while I can.
Before I can consciously articulate my heading, I’ve arrived at the beach by the lighthouse. Here, in the imprints of ebbing tides, is where I like to treasure hunt. Caws of herring gulls reverberate off grayscale skies as I begin my search.
It doesn’t take long for me to lose the sense of time passing. Minutes or hours later, I’m surprised to see another hand reach for the same piece of sea glass I’ve spotted, cobalt poking out between shards of tumbled rock. A jolt runs through me when our fingers touch.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you,” the stranger says.
I look up to see a woman about my age, just old enough to vote. Standing in front of me, upright and stiff, she’s unsuitably dressed for the beach, in a white linen dress and thin, nude stockings. Blue eyes, the color of shallow water over sand, peer out from a halo of pale skin, above freckles that dance across her nose. Her blonde hair is stayed into a dancer’s bun, tightly bound by elastic.
I always wanted to take dance classes when I was a little girl, but Mom couldn’t afford it.
“Were you following me?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” she says.
A pause, hesitation. “I wanted to know what you were looking at. Or looking for,” she says.
I bend down, picking up the piece of cobalt. I can feel her watching me, and the glass in my hand.
“That’s why I came over, that’s why I scared you. I’m – I’m sorry,” she continues.
I don’t say anything, even though I sense she’s getting uncomfortable with my silence. But I’m out of practice talking to people, and this is all so weird. How had I not noticed her sneaking up on me? Getting so close.
She tries to tuck some hair behind her ear, but there’s nothing to tuck. Everything about her is already bound.
“I’m sorry,” she says again, looking exasperated, like a person who says things like, “I’m sorry,” and “Nice to see you,” but doesn’t mean them. She says them for the promise of an expected response, like “not to worry” or “it’s alright.” She’s clearly well-groomed, physically speaking, but I also sense she’s been taught when to speak and what to say. Weighing what I’ll say, I open my palm and move the cobalt back and forth between my hands, just out of her reach.
“It’s okay,” giving into her desires without realizing it. “Christ though, you could have yelled hello or asked what I was doing.”
“I could have, but only in hindsight.” Our eyes meet. “I’m Esther. Kennington.”
The Kenningtons live on the North end of the island, behind tall, wrought iron gates. Through eavesdropping on general store chatter, I’ve gathered that their wealth comes from oil rather than lobster.
What is a Kennington doing out here, on a public beach, conversing with me, a barefoot wife of a fisherman? There are two kinds of Mainers, those who lobster, and those who eat the finery for dinner on white gilded china.
Even the latter, the rich-y riches, should know not to sneak up on someone. A stranger, no less.
“Could you really not tell what I was doing?” I question. “Have you never looked for sea glass before?”
“Gosh, no. Girls like me,” Esther starts, then stops suddenly. “We just stay on our blankets with our nannies,” she says quietly.
“Well,” I say, turning away from her, “you’re off your blanket now.” Our differences linger in the air between us. I walk a few feet in the opposite direction. I don’t have to stay there with her.
Crossing a large granite rock that pokes out of the sand, I crouch over a new line of rubble that marks where the tide turns. I start methodically searching once again.
“Do you keep all of the colors?”
God damn it. Why won’t she leave. “What did you say?” I feel her coming over to where I’m searching.
Esther lifts a sliver of brown glass up to the clouds. She’s looking at it like it’s a piece of jewelry or something. “Do you keep the brown pieces too? Or just the blue ones?” she asks me.
I don’t bother answering. What use is it to tell her what I do? What I do is irrelevant to women like Esther Kennington.
Back to the rubble, I wipe away layers of sand, gently revealing a glimpse of white. But it’s only a piece of polished quartz.
This is a terrible spot for glass. What was I thinking?
Moving up the beach, I crouch again. The sand is rougher over here. My eye catches on a piece of green.
“You still back there?” I ask the nothingness. I’m sure she’s gone. What kind of person would hang around after I was so rude? But then I hear the sound of sand crunching. A glimpse of black Mary Jane shoes sneaks into my peripheral.
Well, now I’m committed. I called her back over here.
“So, there isn’t a manual for this,” I begin, “but there are rules nonetheless.” As if Kenningtons give a shit about rules. I’m sure they do whatever they want, when they want. “Brown and clear are the most common colors and make good filler pieces in a collection. I have a vase on my bureau that I fill up each summer.” I reach for Esther’s brown piece and she leans in close, handing it to me. God, she even smells rich. Who wears that much perfume to the beach? “This one,” I say, lifting my own piece of green, “with the soft edges,” I’m always amazed by how soft the sea can turn rough edges, “this is what we call ‘cooked.’ Only ever take glass from the beach that is cooked. If it’s not ready, leave it for another day.” I thumb the rough edge of Esther’s brown piece carefully, showing her how jagged it is. I give it back to her and she feels it, then to my surprise, stands up and throws it far out into the sea.
It catches me off guard, how quickly she casts away her treasure.
So what if it wasn’t cooked? I didn’t tell her she had to get rid of it. But she did anyway. I saw the switch occur. She went from love to hate so quickly, discarding that piece of brown, casting it away as if she had never loved it. Now, that love is gone. It is buried in the sea.
I feel bad, so I place the piece of emerald in Esther’s hand.
“Green is next.” My guess is that it’s a shard from a Heineken bottle, but the beauty of sea glass is that you’ll never know. Each piece hides its own history.
“Hmm,” she says, studying it. “And then?” Esther asks.
“Cobalt, lilac and seafoam. Those colors are rare. I love cobalt, but my sister preferred lilac.”
“You have a sister?”
“I had a sister.”
I continue before I have to talk about it anymore. “It’s your choice really what your favorite is. The basic rules are that no one cares about white and brown. Green is okay, you’re happy to see it but it’s common enough. Cobalt, lilac and seafoam, they’re scarce and precious. How they even get to the beach I’ve never known. It’s not like we typically see those colors in a 6 pack.”
“Esther! Jesus, where the Hell have you been?” A tenor voice calls to us from the road, interrupting the lesson. A brawny man, wearing a button-down shirt looks down on us. He has curly, sandy brown hair. His hands are in his pockets.
“Hi Andrew!” Esther waves to him.
“Everyone’s waiting on you for bocce,” he calls. I wonder what bocce tastes like, realizing how thirsty I am.
“Want to come? For bocce?” she asks me.
I turn around looking for the someone else she must be asking, but only see ocean, dotted with green and white striped buoys. I don’t have a good reason to turn down invitations these days. So, facing Esther, I say, “Sure. Yeah, okay.” I pocket the piece of cobalt as Esther Kennington walks North towards an area of Fern Island I have never been.
I wonder, is bocce served in a lilac bottle?
There are so many hydrangeas. Shades of lavender and soft rose; I’ve never seen so many all at once, and in such perfect condition. There must be two hundred bushes, spaced evenly up the driveway. It takes us a few minutes to arrive at the estate, but I don’t mind. When we get there, I feel like Alice. Like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and ended up in wonderland.
The Kennington Estate sits high up on an imposing outcropping of rocks. We approach the house from the back. It faces East and is shaded at this time of the day. I don’t know why, but to me the house has the posture of a woman, a real proper woman, with ankles crossed just so, hands laid gently in her lap. Standing before her, I feel gangly, awkward and slightly mannish. Nervous, I finger the rough hem of my cut-off jean shorts, so perfect for the beach, picking sea glass. Esther sashays gracefully in front of me. She walks delicately, yet with total precision, in that ethereal white linen dress.
The driveway leads Esther, Andrew and me to a large front door made of mahogany. It’s glistening and shows no evidence of having weathered Maine’s winters. From its heart hangs a thick, shiny brass door knocker. Its sides are flanked with pink roses, the color of the middle stripe of Jed Brower’s lobster pots. Above them hovers an overhang meant to keep any waiting visitors dry. Esther leans into the door with strength and crosses the threshold. Home. I think, following her. This is Esther’s home. This is how the other half lives.
“There you are.”
I jump at the crisp, cold voice that greets us. Out from the shadows comes a woman dressed in a maid’s outfit. She isn’t smiling.
Without hesitation, Esther grabs my arm and pulls me forward past the gatekeeper, who is standing there with her arms crossed, hair pulled back into a French Twist. She isn’t much older than me, either. I imagine what my own hair would look like in that style of updo, structured, rather than lying limp around my face. These people sure make me think about my hair a lot.
“Mrs. Kennington has been waiting for you,” says the woman as we walk past her.
“Always.” Esther turns, stares at her coolly. “How many martinis in is she?”
“Four,” replies the housekeeper, not taking her eyes off of Esther. It’s freaking me out a bit.
The stilted conversation is interrupted by the slamming of a grand, glass door at the opposite end of the room. I jump, but no one else seems unnerved by the noise. In the living room in front of us, it looks like the cherry floors are actually extending outwards and touching the sea itself. The ceilings are at least twenty feet high. I don’t think the highest rigging on Arnold’s fishing boat would even brush the chandelier.
“Jesus Christ, Esther.” I look towards the new voice, thick with a New York inflection and a subtle slur. I recognize the sound of a drunk from the bar, and I presume from her sway that this must be Mrs. Kennington. She has teased, caramel hair and huge gold jewelry. Bracelets clang as she walks toward us, taking heavy drags of her cigarette.
“Mom, this is Aggie.” Esther appears unnerved. “I recruited her for bocce.”
“Hmm.” Mrs. Kennington takes another long, deep drag, then blows the smoke out in a steady stream over her daughter’s shoulder. She eyes me up and down, assessing me like I had done to Esther, just an hour before at the beach. Now it’s my turn to be uncomfortable in the silence. Imagining the gracefulness of the house, I cross my ankles, then clasp my hands in front of me.
Mrs. Kennington looks back at her daughter. “Fine, just make sure you play on Perry’s team. I’ll be watching from the sideline.”
Andrew grabs my hand and pulls me towards the front lawn. His gentleness surprises me, especially when he says, “You can be on my team.”
The fresh air smells good, like something I actually know. The sea. The salt. The island.
“Who is Perry?” I ask Andrew, once we’re outside and out of earshot.
“Perry Pershing,” he says, looking a little disgusted.
I shake my head, turning my lips down to show him that it doesn’t ring a bell.
“Of Pershing Oil? He’ll inherit the whole business when his dad croaks. And judging by Mr. Pershing’s size, he’s headed for a heart attack any day.”
Andrew looks towards the house. Seeing that Mrs. Kennington and Esther have not yet reappeared, he grabs the pack of cigarettes from the table on the patio, lighting up with familiarity.
“She’ll never know one’s missing. Want one?” he asks.
“No, thanks,” I say. Not without some water first. I can’t ever smoke in heat like this. The gray skies of this morning are long gone, but the humidity still hangs in the air.
Andrew shrugs. “Pershing is Mrs. Kennington’s latest plan for Esther. Phi Delt at Princeton. Day trader. And then the big oil money.”
There are so many words that I fail to recognize. I reach for a change in subject.
“So, what’s bocce anyway? Can I have some?”
“Bocce. I came up here to try bocce? I’ve never tasted it before.”
Andrew looks confused, then a burst of clarity crosses his face. “Oh, no! No. No, no, no. Bocce’s a game.” He smiles and gestures toward the flat green lawn. Blue and red balls are scattered towards one end.
I can feel heat in my cheeks. If I run now, will they forget all about me? I don’t belong here.
“Oh, right. Of course,” Andrew says. He grabs my hand again. “Come here, I’ll show you.” He leads me to the grass where the game is played. “A year ago, I had no idea what any of this was either. Esther’s really opened my eyes up to some things.” He points to the grass. “You play on two teams. You’re trying to get your team’s ball as close as possible to the white ball. You can knock the other team’s balls out of position if that gets your ball in the winning spot.”
“Like pool,” I say, thinking back to the bar. I think I understand.
“Exactly,” he says. And then, “We’ll have to teach Esther and Pershing how to play that sometime.”
I look at him smiling at me. He’s inviting me back. Even though I so very clearly don’t belong here. “So how do you know the Kenningtons?” I ask him.
“I’m friends with Esther. To be honest, our families have nothing in common. If she wasn’t so determined, I doubt her parents would allow me to spend so much time here. But what Esther wants, Esther gets.”
“And she wants you?”
“For now,” he says, looking back up towards the house. Esther and Pershing are coming down to join us.
“Levitt! You ready to get your ass kicked?” Pershing calls.
Levitt. I look at Andrew, bewildered. Arnold, my husband, told me to stay away from that family. But Andrew has already put his arm around my shoulder, as if we’re old friends.
“Dream on, Pershing, I’ve got an ace down here I think,” he calls up the hill.
“Yeah, yeah, we’ll see how that goes,” says Pershing.
We’ll see how this goes, indeed.