Vacationing with the In-Laws

He was gone so suddenly. One minute, my mother and I window-shopped at Saks, and the next we huddled on the Manhattan sidewalk, frantically dialing numbers on Cape Cod, because my father hadn’t called, and he always called. The trail led to a hospital ICU. When the surgeon said, “A fall…head trauma…very, very grave,” I felt a sucker-punch to the soul. I was forty-one. My dad was sixty-seven, as hearty as a boar.

Losing a parent, I came to realize, was the natural order. Nearly everyone endures the loss, and I was hardly a child. But one thing that brought out the brat in me was vacationing with my husband’s parents.

The upcoming trip returned me to childhood vacations on Cape Cod. A weeklong musty Falmouth rental meant early morning treks up the beach to the mom-and-pop store. My dad would get the Herald. Giddily, my sister and I loaded brown-paper lunch sacks with strips of pastel candy dots, ruby Ring Pops, and giant Sugar Daddies. A bald man who hated direct sunlight, he’d spend the rest of the day indoors. On these vacations, I remember him more behind the newspaper than visible: his olive ankles on the ottoman, his wide flat feet, the Herald spread before his amber eyes and slightly hooked nose. I’d hear the slurp as he sucked on a peach pit, and the tap as it hit his teeth. Jealous of the paper, I’d form a tiny fist and punch against the wall of it. It rattled but held. He rattled it again, amused.

As an adult, I vacationed with him once. During retirement he volunteered for a year outside Orlando with AmeriCorps. Alongside nuns he taught Citizenship to immigrants, and avoided the Florida sun. I waded in his rental’s dingy pool while he called to me from behind the screen door: Want a Diet Coke? Several nights we walked to an Italian restaurant in a strip mall. Ball cap on, track pants swishing, he outpaced me each time.

I married a man whose parents own a vacation home, an ocean-front condo in Key West. The year before he died, my father, sick of the New England snow, asked if he could use it for the month of February. My in-laws, refusing money, agreed. It was to this condo my husband and I were to travel for New Year’s to vacation with his parents. Storming through the tiny airport with the Tikki lamps and Jimmy Buffet tunes, I tensed beneath my winter coat. His father helped me with my bags. I wanted my father.

At the condo I stood on the balcony where he’d stood, studying the Atlantic. I peered into the master bedroom just to see the bed on which he’d lain. In the living room, I told myself, he’d watched this same TV. He’d sat on this very couch. He’d only been gone sixteen months, and I could only conjure the vaguest sketch.

Reluctantly I changed into khakis, t-shirt and sandals. The four of us were going to lunch. It seemed the mundane act of getting a meal with them was pulling my dad further away from me.

We walked toward a seafood place up the beach. My husband and in-laws were discussing fish tacos. Every detail annoyed me. “Will you order fish tacos?” my mother-in-law asked me.

“I don’t like fish,” I said, which is only partially true.

My husband glanced at me meaningfully.

But I added, “I actually feel like pasta.”

We dawdled on, and I turned toward the ocean. My dad was gone. What did etiquette matter?

Several homeless men were lying on the sand, heads resting on green garbage bags. I was surprised when my mother-in-law pointed at them. “Oh,” she said in sudden recollection. “This is where your father gave the homeless his summer clothes before leaving.”

I stopped and stared. In that spot I could see him in direct sunlight. Tall and bald, wide feet planted in the sand, he cast off t-shirts and cargo pants. He sensed he’d never be back this way again. He sensed too that love, in all its circuitous ways, returns.

Jennifer Alessi’s work has appeared in over a dozen publications, including, PANK and River Teeth. She teaches English at Los Angeles City College.