The Day She Ditched Them at the Beach

"Maniacs" by Brendan Mathews, recommended by Electric Literature

Introduction by Alyssa Songsiridej

Over the years, I’ve reluctantly accepted that I do not know which events will change my life until they are long passed. Milestones fly by, an external pageantry I can barely remember. True shifts in self-awareness don’t reveal their importance until the transformation is complete. It takes a deft writer, one with instinct, skill, and restraint, to capture such a private event and reveal its true meaning.

Luckily for us, Brendan Matthews is such a writer. His extraordinary story, “Maniacs,” follows what seems like an ordinary day: 1980, summer in Massachusetts, a family trip to the lake. The opening perspective belongs to the collective point of view of the young cousins, a blended mass of joyful boyhood. They’ve been entrusted to the care of “their youngest aunt–their favorite aunt,” a recent high school grad the cousins have always seen as one of “us,” a child, and not one of “them,” an adult.

The aunt is the person who shifts the story’s trajectory, choosing to ditch the lake and drive them all out to Cape Cod for a day that deserves the whole ocean. It’s a responsible girl’s first carefree decision, a choice to pursue pleasure instead of keeping the promises she made to the boys’ mothers, and it will be the first step in steering her life through the gauntlet of other people’s impressions.

“Maniacs” is an exhilarating read, the rhythm of the sentences carrying you forward with breathless energy. Beneath the brilliant language is a hunger that belongs all to the aunt, who is, like so many young people, searching for a new way to see herself, distinct at last from her family. Such internal shiftings, the real milestones of life, cannot be outwardly perceived. Matthews, though, is able to surface this change just enough for us to witness what would otherwise have been internal and unseen. Underneath the simple action of a family beach day is a girl who is in the middle of becoming, just learning how to define herself within the structures of the known world.

Alyssa Songsiridej
Managing editor, Recommended Reading

The Day She Ditched Them at the Beach

Maniacs

The cousins are supposed to spend the day at the lake. Summer vacation, 1980, and the radio is saying hazy, hot, and humid. Their mothers pack a cooler with sandwiches and cans of soda and tell them to be home in time for dinner. Hours in the sun, swimming and wrestling in the shallows, is what the boys want, and an easy, exhausted bedtime for the whole pack of them is what their mothers need. But at ten o’clock in the morning the parking lot at the lake is already full. Their youngest aunt—their favorite aunt—idles in the lot and when she says, who wants to go to the ocean? the boys think she is kidding. Still, they yell me! and me too! and me three! She noses her sister’s station wagon away from the lake, and it isn’t until they merge on to the Mass Pike that the boys realize that she is serious. She reaches into her bag for a pack of cigarettes, lights one, and sends the first jet of smoke out the window. The boys have never seen her with a cigarette but even they recognize the dexterity of an experienced smoker. 

They play license plate bingo and the alphabet game. They sing On Top of Spaghetti. The Cat Came Back. Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall. They sing until they lose their voices. They take turns sticking their heads out the window, blasting back their hair and boxing their ears, until their aunt tells them to cut it out. She tells them she has to return them in one piece, and letting them splatter their brains on the highway isn’t part of the deal. Her sisters—the mothers of these boy cousins—treat her like a baby but now that she’s graduated from high school they’ve started to realize that she can be useful. This morning when her sister turned over the keys to her new car, a massive wood-paneled thing, she had only one condition: take the boys for the day. They are noisy but she is good at tuning out people she doesn’t want to hear. She is the youngest of five and it comes with the territory.

They eat the sandwiches, drink the sodas. By the time they reach the Cape it is almost two o’clock. The boys want to swim as soon as they cross the Bourne Bridge but their aunt insists on driving to the National Seashore. If they are going to drive all this way, they deserve tall dunes, cresting waves. She wants them to feel the real ocean. She says the bay is just a big bathtub. 

They park in a lot at the top of the dunes. The boys sprint down the path to the beach, where they shuck off their canvas sneakers and the sand scorches their feet. They dump their towels and t-shirts in a pile and race to the water. The first cold blast of the Atlantic sends a shock up their bodies but they don’t stop until they are submerged. They taste salt and bob in the water as each wave rolls in, lifting them and setting them down. The chorus of WAVE! goes up whenever they see a rind of white foam. They ride in front of the best waves, but when they mess up they get pummeled, scraped against the bottom, pushed against rocks and shells and sand. They come up gasping and dripping and go back for more. 

Their aunt sits on the beach with a fat paperback. One of the cousins picked up the book at their grandparents’ house. A hollow-faced girl peeked out from a hole cut into the cover, and when he opened it, a family of pale, empty-eyed ghouls stared back at him. He asked his aunt why she read books like that and she told him sometimes it felt good to be scared. That it was better than being bored. He thinks about the book cover as he and his cousins challenge the waves. It is one thing to look out among the heads of his cousins and chatter about the next wave and the best strategy for riding it up the beach. But it is another to imagine them all from below the surface, to see a mass of spindly legs dangling in the water like baited hooks and to wonder which one will get yanked down, and what they will do when one head disappears and a sudden welter of blood colors the water. Everyone talks about sharks, but what if it isn’t sharks below the surface, but the children from the book cover? What if they are like ghosts, drowned but still half-alive, reaching their cold fingers up to snatch at the feet of the living? He treads water and looks from face to face: his cousins are laughing and talking, immune to fears of sharks and sea ghosts. He forces himself to plunge beneath the surface and swim farther from the beach, farther than anyone else has gone. As the next swell carries him into the middle of the pack, he sees some guy, older but not old, standing over their aunt. She is using her book to shield her eyes from the sun, and the guy leans back laughing, like she’s said something hilarious. She looks out at the water once, quickly, as the cousins call out WAVE! It’s the biggest one yet, and they paddle frantically to get in front of it before it sweeps them all out of the water and scatters them on the foam-slick sand. None of them see their aunt scoop up her bag and walk away with guy.

The cousins rise up gasping and coughing, scraped by stones and broken shells. One of them has the back of his trunks yanked halfway down, his white ass cheeks blazing beneath a line of bright red skin. He staggers on the sand and before he pulls up the waistband, one of the other cousins points at him and yells NUDE BEACH! The others echo him. NUDE BEACH! they laugh and NUDE BEACH! they cry again. Even the cousin who mooned them takes up the chant, wagging his butt and laughing so hard he almost falls when the next wave hits. It becomes a game of tag: tap someone on the shoulder or slap them on the ass and say NUDE BEACH! and then scramble out of the way. The cousins chase and tag from the tide line to the soft thick sand that sprays with every step. By the time they wear themselves out they are gritty and exhausted. They plod for the last time into the water, rinse themselves, and stagger out, looking for their aunt, for their towels and t-shirts and any scrap of food still in the cooler, but they let themselves drift with the current and all of the landmarks are gone. They left their towels between a blue beach umbrella and a rainbow umbrella but both have been folded up and taken away. Though they scan the beach, they cannot find their aunt. Back and forth they walk, waterlogged and sunburned and starving. They find two towels spread out, a beach bag that maybe looks familiar, a pile of sneakers and flip flops that could be theirs. No one is willing to say for sure until they see the fat paperback half-covered by one of the towels. There is the pale glass-eyed girl but still no sign of their aunt. They snap sand from the towels, collect their shoes and shirts, and trudge up the path toward the parking lot. 

They want relief from the sun, though it’s too late to stop the sunburns that are already blooming across their shoulders.

The station wagon is unlocked but inside is like an oven. The hot creamy smell of vinyl seats. The chemical tang of carpet fibers. They open all the doors and the rear gate and crawl in. They want relief from the sun, though it’s too late to stop the sunburns that are already blooming across their shoulders. Moving in and out of the car gives them something to do while they wait, but they are so itchy, and their t-shirts feel stiff as sheet metal. Maybe they are in the wrong car? Maybe this only looks like their station wagon? Or maybe their aunt has gone to the wrong car and is waiting for them? It’s just the kind of thing she would do: one of the parents said she’d lose her own head if it wasn’t attached to her shoulders; another said she needed to get her head screwed on straight. 

Two of the cousins reconnoiter the parking lot. All they find is a public drinking fountain—really just a spigot rising on a long pipe from a concrete pad—but they are as excited as sunbaked legionnaires stumbling on an oasis. The water tastes like hot pennies but they gulp it until they think they’ll burst, then run back to the car to share their discovery. One waits at the car while the other acts as guide for a return trip to the spigot. They try to think of this as a game. Hide and seek. Scavenger hunt. Find the aunt. They all hope that by the time they return to the car, their aunt will be waiting for them, and she’d tell them they’ve won the game and the reward is hot dogs and tall cups of Coke full of crushed ice. 

None of them know how long they’ve waited, only that it is getting dark when their aunt returns. A car prowls into the lot and rolls to a stop near the station wagon. When their aunt sees them lying on the bench seat, with their legs hanging out the doors, and lying in the way-back, with the rear gate wide open, and lying on the hood, with their faces turned toward the darkening sky, she says shit and pushes open the car’s door. She slams it behind her, the engine splutters, and the car cruises out of the lot. 

They don’t notice that their aunt’s lips are swollen from kissing, that her cheeks are flushed and not from the sun. They can’t smell the alcohol on her breath, sticky and sweet. She is wearing a t-shirt but they don’t know that her bikini top is wadded up in her bag. They can’t see how she smothers a stab of guilt—she left the boys for how many hours?—and how it is followed by the sudden shock of the hell she’ll face when her older sisters find out: you left our boys for how many hours? 

Before the boys can say anything, she says it first. Where have you been? I’ve been looking all over for you!

The cousins gape at her, a stranger to them. They always thought of their aunt as One of Us, and not One of Them. Not part of the army of parents, teachers, and grown-ups who say no, who say why haven’t you cleaned your room and put that back where you found it and don’t touch that, it’s filthy. But now she is using their language, and worse, trying to twist them up with adult logic, making them doubt the hours they waited in the parking lot. And she is angry—so furious she can barely look at them. So mad she is shaking. Do you have any idea what could have happened to you, she says, if I hadn’t found you? She orders them into the car and with clumsy hands she fishes the keys from her bag and guns the engine. They ride in silence.

After passing the third seafood shack, the night air heavy with the smell of fried clams and burger smoke, the bright lights pulsing like a weekend carnival, one of the cousins says in a voice that borders on tears: can we get dinner? 

Their aunt stares straight through the windshield and says, I’m still waiting for an apology

I’m sorry, they all mumble. 

Sorry for what? she says. 

They start to say for…and stall. What are they sorry for? For finding her gone, for carrying all of their things up from the beach, for waiting at the car, for taking turns getting a drink in case she returned, for wondering what happened to her? They get in trouble all the time and usually they have no idea why. There are rules that adults enforce but the only way you know the rule exists is by breaking it: don’t drink milk out of the carton, you can’t dig holes in the yard, those aren’t play clothes, those aren’t church clothes.

For making you worry, one of them says, and this seems to be the right answer because she says, I was worried sick—she practically spits out the words. It is such a grown-up thing to say. 

Restaurant signs announce Lobster Night and Belly Clams and All You Can Eat. They pass motels and a mini golf course and without saying a word their aunt turns into a parking lot that fronts a dairy bar. Glass windows are filled with pictures of hot fudge sundaes, dip cones, hot dogs, clam boats, lobster rolls. Their aunt hands the oldest cousin a ten and a mess of singles and says make sure everyone eats. The boys scramble out of the car and up to the window to order. The Meal Deal is two hot dogs, fries, and a drink for two dollars. They wait, tortured by the smell of the fry-o-later and the hum of the soft-serve machine, and when their order comes up, their trays are heaped with food. The hot dogs are served in soft silver bags. The fries are crinkle cut, sharp and salty. They eat quickly and without speaking; this is possibly the best meal they have ever had. Their aunt sits in the car, window rolled down, staring over the top of the dairy bar, and when she finishes one cigarette she flicks it into the gravel lot and lights another. The cousins are each on their second hot dog when she appears at the table and says I hope you guys saved me some fries. She looks at the boys and laughs and says you are all so red and they feel the heaviness lift and even though their skin feels stretched and ready to split, they laugh and start chattering about the beach and the waves and how one of the cousins almost lost his bathing suit and they all started yelling NUDE BEACH! and the people must’ve thought they were crazy but they didn’t care. They even show her the butt-wagging dance they made up. Their aunt tells them they’re lucky they didn’t get arrested and she says you guys are maniacs and she says somebody get me a cup of water, will you? She eats slowly and the cousins hold their remaining fries between their fingers like cigarettes, the tips glowing with ketchup, and they tap them against the paper boats like they’re ashtrays. Their aunt says that the old couple at the next table, wordlessly demolishing their twist cones, is going to think she’s corrupting a bunch of minors. She tells them if they ever want to go to the beach or the lake or anywhere with her again, they should keep quiet about disappearing today. Their parents are sure to be mad and—

But we didn’t, one of the cousins says, before the others cut him short with stares and gritted teeth.  

You were supposed to wait for me at the beach. The edge has returned to her voice. That’s why I had to look all over for you. She tells them to clean up the mess and get in the car. 

The boys collect wrappers, cups, lids, napkins, straws, and spent packets of ketchup and all of it goes into the big trash can on the edge of the parking lot. All around them moths hurl their bodies against the dairy bar sign and spin corkscrews around the streetlights. The cousins pile into the station wagon while their aunt looks straight ahead, starts the car, and shifts into drive.

She drives, the radio so low she can barely hear it. A Cape Cod station, then one of the Boston stations, then the mush of static along the Pike. The boys sleep. One is a sleep-talker whose half-sentences and garbled words bubble up from the way-back but are never loud enough to wake the others. She rolls the window down just to hear the roar, hopes it will keep her alert and awake. She does that on winter nights driving back from parties in the woods where she huddles around fires, her hair thick with wood smoke, passing around a bottle looted from some parents’ liquor cabinet: Irish Mist, Canadian Club, peppermint schnapps. Those bursts of cold air are just enough to get her home and to bed, fuzzy headed and buzzed. But now, midsummer on the Pike, the wind roars but it’s warm like blood, like a body-temperature bath that calls her to sleep. She leaves the window open just a crack and lights another cigarette. The last in the pack. When has she ever smoked so much in one day? She is wiped out and wired, like a city on the edge of a blackout. On the far side of Worcester, she turns up the radio, hoping for something she can sing along with. Jackson Browne is running on empty and she smiles in the darkness because it is a message the deejay is sending her, an inside joke shared by all the drivers on the Pike who have their hands locked on the wheel at ten and two while their heads bobble on their necks. Jackson Browne sings sad songs for old people about getting even older but she is desperate to be more than she is: eighteen and living at home with no end in sight. She talks about community college in the fall as a way of avoiding the bigger decisions about finding a job that is more than a summer job, but she doesn’t want to be a student and she doesn’t want to be a secretary or a grocery store clerk and despite what she reads at the checkout line on the covers of Ms. and Cosmopolitan, she is not going to have it all. Right now all she wants is to feel alive. She wants memories to look back on when she is older—when she is one of the people in a Jackson Browne song wishing to be young again. She hasn’t done anything worth remembering, so when that guy stood over her towel and she said, hey you’re blocking my light, and he laughed and said something funny about a solar eclipse, she stopped being annoyed and started being interested. She could feel a magnet pulling them together—it was that easy—and she wondered why she’d never felt that magnet before. She is shy or stuck up, take your pick, around the boys at home, boys she’s known her whole life, because if she ever does more than kiss them the story will be everywhere and no one will ever forget it. Her friend Melissa still gets called BJ for that one time, three years ago, but no one ever made up a nickname for the boy. Melissa said she wanted to do it but if she knew it was going to follow her forever then she would’ve just let him suffer. He could’ve sucked his own dick for all she cared. But there on the beach everything was so easy. He was cute and funny and she saw the way he looked at her in her bathing suit. Not creepy, just interested. And maybe also hungry in the same way that she was hungry. The only thing holding her back was the nephews, but they’d be fine. They were playing in the waves and shouting like maniacs and they’d be at it for hours. They didn’t care if she was on the beach or on the moon. So when the guy said hey, do you wanna go for a ride she didn’t say no and she didn’t say where she just said sure

They drove along the beach road, climbing and dipping down the hills like a roller coaster. The radio played “More Than a Feeling” and she’d never really liked the song but with the sun shining and the wind in her hair, the salt smell of the ocean and a stranger at the wheel, she started to feel like it might be her favorite song of all time. They hadn’t even done anything yet and already she had goosebumps on her arms. Where they were going was a mystery, but she was willing to surrender to the not-knowing because it was exciting and when was the last time she was excited? About anything? Her friends will say she’s crazy, but they’ll also be jealous. They’ll wish they were her, and she’ll tell them about the magnet and how good it felt to follow its pull. 

Her other personality was some kind of maniac who did whatever she wanted and didn’t care what anyone thought about her.

They drove to a bar that sat on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffett pumping through the speakers. Blenders whirring nonstop. Beer came in cans, in bottles, in plastic cups. The place was packed with girls and boys her age, locals and college kids on the Cape for the summer, everyone tanned and skimmed with sand. The guy who’d driven her here nodded his head at the bar and she said Jack & Coke because she thought it sounded cool and because at her friend Lisa’s they’d mixed Jack Daniels and Tab and it had tasted pretty good. He whistled and said expensive tastes and when he reappeared he had a plastic cup for her and another for himself so full of beer that the foam slid down the side. Friends of his came in—girls and guys in tank tops and cut-offs, all tans and Ray-Bans. She told herself that she was only going to stay for one drink and then get back to the boys but she didn’t want to be the first to leave, and didn’t want to make him leave, and that first drink went down so fast. She had a second drink—rum and Coke like the other girls, with lots of limes—and when the guy slung an arm over her shoulder and played with her hair she was okay with it. More than okay. It was late in the day when they left, probably later than she would guess so she didn’t bother guessing. Before she could get in the car he walked right up to her and said hey and she said hey what? and then he kissed her and she kissed him back. He pressed her against the door and she yelped and almost bit his lip—that’s how hot the car had gotten, roasting in the sun. He said I know a spot that’s a little more private and then the car rumbled and they were on the beach road and he pulled down a side street that dead-ended near a stand of scrubby pines. When he parked beneath the trees she thought about how dark it was getting, though there was still a pale light in the sky. Not night but getting there. In the car they kissed and when his hands went beneath her bikini top she untied the knot at the nape of her neck and let the top fall open and he said oh yeah under his breath and kissed her harder. She was leaning halfway out of the passenger seat, one hand on his leg to steady herself, and when he stopped palming her breast and moved her hand to his crotch, she was okay with that too, feeling how hard she’d made him, but when he plunged his hand between her legs she pulled away and moved his hand back up her body. He tried again and she said hey, cut it out and he said cocktease and she said oh really, because her hand was still on his crotch. She squeezed harder and he gasped and she laughed like those girls in the bar, wild and a little too loud, and she popped the button on his cutoffs and slid the zipper open. She was daring herself and her answer was yes. She saw the white flash of his briefs, her fingers under the waistband, and she went down on him right there in the car. He made gasping noises and when he came he said oh shit oh shit oh shit. It didn’t take long, but when she sat up it was dark—like dark-dark—and she said oh shit and told him she had to get back to the beach right now. She found her top in the footwell and instead of tying it back on she reached into her bag for a t-shirt and shrugged it on. Her whole body was buzzing from the kisses and his hands and the heat of his skin but beneath was an acid mix of adrenaline and fear: What if something happened to the boys? What if they’d called their parents?

On the drive to the beach he said maybe they could get together sometime, but she was already changing back into someone who would never disappear with a guy when she was supposed to be watching her nephews. Maybe she was crazy. Maybe she had a split personality, and one personality was the youngest in a big family who no one ever paid attention to unless they wanted free babysitting. Her other personality was some kind of maniac who did whatever she wanted and didn’t care what anyone thought about her. This personality would meet a guy on the beach, hook up with him in his car, and as soon as he started babbling about seeing her again, she could flip a switch and look at him like, oh, do I know you? She wasn’t even sure if his name was Mitch or Keith or something like that, but not that. By the time they reached the parking lot he had stopped talking about seeing her again because he must have realized that he was embarrassing himself. She saw the station wagon with all its doors open and for a split second she thought the car had been robbed and stripped for parts but then she saw legs poking out here and there and she knew it was the nephews and all she said to Mitch or Keith was here is good and then she was out of the car. Whoever that girl was who’d gone down on him, now she was just a ghost in his car. As the nephews’ faces appeared in the rear windows and from the back seat, she stifled the urge to apologize or play the flighty aunt who had lost track of time. She spawned another personality, and this one was fueled by righteous anger, and all she had to do to make her real was to say it before the boys could: where have you been? I’ve been looking for you for hours!

Nighttime on the Pike. The road, the headlights, the ticking of the tires. The sign tells her she’s twenty-two miles from her exit, but she feels like it will take years of driving and never a moment of rest to get there. The radio has been no help. Nothing but soft songs about love and heartbreak but none of it is about her or who she wants to be. She’s not in love; she’s not heartbroken. There are things bigger than love that she wants from life but she does not know how to name them. 

Her head bobs, the car drifts—and as she snaps awake, her foot stabs the gas pedal. 

The station wagon shudders. She laughed at her sister when she bought this car; her sister, who had driven a Karmann Ghia in high school, now behind the wheel of a parade float. But she let the wood paneling fool her: under the hood, the car is seething, desperate, and she can tell that it wants to go fast. The needle sweeps past seventy, eighty, ninety before the car hesitates—she can feel that, too. Are you sure? it asks, and she is. There are no taillights in front of her and no headlights in the rearview. The boys are asleep, unaware. She is alone in the darkness. She pushes it past one hundred but she is not showing off. She wants this only for herself. She has been up and down this stretch of highway all her life, but it has never felt like this before. The road is the same. The difference must be in her.

The car seems to float, the ticking of the seams on the highway coming faster and faster. Like her pulse, racing. Like a clock, counting down to zero.

When the car crunches into the gravel driveway, her sisters shamble out of the house and extract their sons, sweaty and limp, and lay them down on the sleeping bags upstairs. Tomorrow the boys will wake up burned and blistered and by the end of the day they will peel their skin in papery sheets, like snakes. Their aunt is becoming someone new—this is what she hopes, desperately—but that night as she brushes her teeth and spits in the sink, she’s not sure who that is. In the morning she tells her sisters the truth: how it was a perfect day, how they were all a bunch of maniacs, and her sisters say how lucky the boys are to have an aunt like her, and how lucky she is to be young, and free to do whatever she wants. 

Years later, when she’s older—thirty or forty or fifty—one of the cousins asks her about the time she ditched them at the beach: where’d you go, anyway? And wasn’t there a guy? In a car?

And she says, what are you talking about? I would never. And she means it.

Or she says, oh god, you remember that? I was such a bad influence!

Or she doesn’t say anything. She tries to remember but so little comes back: beer and sweat and Coppertone and salt, but not the rum and Coke, or the kiss outside the bar, or scorching her leg against his car. Not driving home on the Pike, the songs on the radio, the needle sweeping past 100. 

She remembers the station wagon, its doors wide open, and she catches her breath just thinking about it. Sometimes she pictures it empty. A shell, abandoned. Sometimes she imagines it on fire, and herself, alone in the parking lot, the heat full on her face. But mostly she sees it as it was: full of nephews and sisters and parents and strangers, staring back at her like they don’t even know her, waiting to see what she does next. 

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