Thursday

HIT HIM!

Sarah being the more dominant spouse, the Lerners tended to spend holidays and vacations with her family, not Ethan’s, the reverse of her observation that more often than not it was wives who were assimilated into their husbands’ families.
Elliot’s parents lived in Great Neck, a town whose large Jewish population and attraction to oversized modern homes Sarah found acutely nettlesome. Her mother (her father had died of a heart attack in her late teens) had a beautiful sprawling old cedar-shingled home in Southport on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound, overlooking the Country Club of Fairfield, a wind-swept links course at which Sarah and her sisters developed excellent golf games at a very young age.
Her great grandmother had nicknamed the house Everwind in the latter part of the 19th Century due to the incessant winds coming from the south and west, and the name stuck so that eventually a sign was put up at the end of the long pebbled driveway that stretched nearly a quarter mile, all the way to the Post Road. It is at Everwind where Sarah and her two young children spent the entire month of August. Elliot tried to take the last two weeks of August off, all the way through Labor Day, but advertising being what it was he often was called back to deal with an emergency – a new business pitch, the agency being put on notice by an angry client. Most nights he commuted on Amtrak. Southport station was less than two miles away.
On the tenth day of their vacation, Sarah took the two children, Adam now eleven and Allie just eight, for a late afternoon swim. The weather was stifling, humid, and still, at 5:15, nearly 95 degrees.
The little cove that made up their own virtually private beach was shielded behind a great outcropping of evergreens and oaks, and the wind was minimal. The waves rippling in were small and the water in late August cool enough to be refreshing and warm enough to keep the kids’ lips from turning blue.
As they approached the beach, Allie broke into a run. She reached the water and dove head first into the gentle waves. She surfaced a good fifteen years further out, rising up from the water in a graceful breast stroke.
“Don’t go too far out,” Sarah called, but, in truth, she had great confidence in her daughter’s ability to handle herself in the water. She was naturally buoyant, completely at ease and unafraid, much as Sarah had been at Allie’s age. Sarah had been on the swimming team at Andover and then captain at Cornell, one of a long line of powerful and accomplished female athletes in the Mansbridge family. She still swam several times a week at the Lexington Avenue Y.
Adam took her hand, for he was afraid of the water and preferred to go in with her, staying nearby the entire time he was in and getting out as soon as she did. It drove Sarah crazy, and she attributed it to his being in a highly oedipal state, eleven years old, about to enter puberty, needing to transfer his longing for his mother to girls closer to his own age. Would he make the leap?
“Ready to go in,” she said to him with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.
“Are you going in?”
Sarah looked down at his soft body, his undeveloped biceps, his plumpish middle still soft with baby fat. Although Elliot worked out endlessly, she could clearly see his shape mirrored in his son’s physique. Allie on the other hand was stringy and lean, like herself.
Quite suddenly, Sarah dropped Adam’s hand and sprinted toward the water. “Last one in’s a rotten egg,” she hollered and dove into the waves. Adam, in his awkward, tentative gait, came mincing after her.
They stayed in the water a good half hour. Then, as Sarah lay on the beach and read, the children built sand castles. Adam built his closer to the water. Shortly after six o’clock, the paper would say 6:11 p.m., the tide began coming in. Before long the waves were lapping at the base of Adam’s castle; and, despite his building an emergency moat in front of the structure, the tide soon was regularly washing over the ditch and Adam abandoned his castle to the waves. He whined audibly, looking over at Sarah. She kept her eyes glued in her book.
At this point Adam walked up to where Allie was playing, some fifteen years further from the waves than where Adam had been. Allie’s castle was large and not nearly as well shaped as Adam’s had been. But, of course, it was still standing. Sarah watched furtively as Adam, his arms folded across his chest, watched his sister as she walked to the edge of the water, filled her pail with water, then came back to her castle to moisten the sand, the better to pack it in place.
The next time she headed toward the water, however, Adam walked forward and stepped on top of the castle, stamping his feet back and forth and reducing the castle to ruins. As she headed back from the water, Allie suddenly took in the razing of her edifice, dropped her bucket, and came charging at Adam. Sarah put down her book.
“Noooo!” screamed Allie. She did not burst into tears. When she reached Adam she began pounding her open hands upon his back. He turned around and slapped her hard across the face. Out of the corner of her eye, Sarah picked up Ethan walking down the path toward the beach, his sports jacket slung over his shoulder. Sarah knew that it was urgent that she stop the fight immediately, but she was mesmerized. Allie, in a frenzy, was continuing to pound her hands on Adam, his ribs, his chest, his arms. He was laughing at her, and this seemed to further incense her. She reached up and raked her fingernails across his cheek, and now he wasn’t laughing any longer.
“Hey, guys, cut it out,” Ethan hollered. He was now less than thirty yards away. “Sarah, stop them, for Christ sake.”
Adam brought his right arm way back and again slapped Allie across the face, harder this time. Allie winced, drawing back, her jaw quivering, on the verge of tears. “Hit him!” Sarah screamed. “Hit him back!”
Suddenly, Allie leaped forward, forward and up, timing her jump perfectly so that the momentum of her 58 pounds in synch with the sweeping forward of her right arm crescendoed with full force as the heel of Allie’s hand met with the bridge of her brother’s nose. There was the audible crunch of cartilage tearing, then Adam’s terrified scream, followed predictably by a great gush of blood spurting from both his nostrils.
The doctor at Westport Hospital’s emergency room stemmed the flow of blood but recommended that they have their reconstructive surgeon back in the City set the nose. That night, after the kids had gone to bed, which due to the several hours spent in the emergency room, wasn’t until after one o’clock, Ethan made Sarah and himself tuna sandwiches. She drank a beer, he an iced tea.
“I was a little surprised you didn’t try to stop the kids from fighting,” he said.
“Oh, go fuck yourself,” she replied.
Ethan was silent for a while. He got up and put his plate in the dishwasher, then took a container of sorbet out of the freezer. “Believe me,” he said, “I’m not accusing you of being callous. I was just thinking if you’d stepped in a little sooner, maybe Adam wouldn’t have had his nose broken.”
“Ethan, face it, our son’s a wimp. If you’re going to step in and protect him every time things aren’t going his way, he’ll never develop a set of balls.”
“But to scream for your own daughter to hit him – you were like Madame Le Farge.”
“Don’t think you’re getting laid tonight,” she said and headed straight up the steps, leaving her husband to do the dishes.
To have Adam’s nose attended to, they returned to their Central Park West apartment for the rest of the summer, well before Labor Day. It was a particularly hot and humid August, and Sarah found herself feeling increasingly resentful toward Ethan. If he provided Adam with a more traditional male role model, perhaps he wouldn’t have let his little sister break his nose and they’d still be out on the Connecticut shore.
Adam had his nose set. His nostrils were stuffed with gauze and a web of bandages emanating from the center of his face gave him the look of a hockey goalie or a creature in a horror movie. There were large purple rings under each eye.
School started right after Labor Day. The first day Adam received only a minor amount of ribbing. But that night a boy in Adam’s class at Collegiate learned from his little sister who was in the third grade with Allie at Trinity that it was, in fact, Adam’s kid sister, not banging into a door, that was the source of his broken nose.
The rest of the school year Adam was the butt of endless teasing. The story, in fact, followed him through all his years at Collegiate, and Sarah concluded it was the genesis of his social isolation, his lack of friends, his status as outsider, nerd, klutz, weirdo.
Sarah often thought back to that August evening on the beach and wondered if Allie would have managed to land such a lethal blow had not her mother urged her on so. There was no way to tell, of course, but Sarah didn’t feel guilty – not really. Adam was a Jewish male, heir to Ethan’s genes, a Lerner, not a Mansbridge. So however he was to turn out, well, it wasn’t her fault, was it? It was destiny.

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