This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
All summer long Gideon’s nephews had been terrorizing him, waking him with wet willies, reminding him what a loser he’d become. “Do a flip!” they shouted at him in the mornings as he watched them by the pool. “Do some push-ups!” they barked whenever he came back from a run. “Come on, Giddy,” they sneered. “Do something.”
Was psychological warfare now part of the Montessori method? These were seven-year-olds with the observational acumen and interrogation techniques of veteran intelligence operatives, indefatigable in their ability to identify and articulate Gideon’s many shortcomings as a quote-unquote adult.
“What do you know how to cook besides scrambled eggs?” Sawyer asked him one morning in the kitchen as Gideon made himself breakfast.
“The halves of your bagel are really lopsided,” Henry added between bites of Kashi cereal.
And how did they even know the word lopsided?
One afternoon in July the three biked to the pirate ship playground near the inlet, and on their way home Henry’s front tire fizzed flat on a jagged bit of loose asphalt.
“You seriously don’t know how to change a bike tire?” Sawyer asked him incredulously as they walked their bikes the rest of the way back to the house. Sawyer was the brasher of the twins, more outwardly fearless when other people were watching him but also more likely than Henry to go crying to his parents in the event of a minor injury or the slightest sight of blood.
Gideon deflected by explaining that actually, the issue was he didn’t have the tools needed to fix the flat tire.
“But what if we did have the tools?” asked Henry, who was quieter and peanut-allergic, the owner of a wily lisp and slightly more sinister streak. “Would you be able to then?”
Gideon sighed and said no, even if he did have the tools he still would not have known what to do to fix the flat.
“Why not?” the twins asked together.
Why not? What possible answer could he even give to such a question? His parents had coddled him? He was the youngest child in a generation of youngest children? How did one satisfactorily excavate the origins of his own incompetence in the face of implacable rising second graders?
“What about a car tire?” Sawyer pressed. “Can you change a car tire?”
This time Gideon could only exhale and shake his head.
“But aren’t you a grown-up?” Henry cried out with maddening sincerity. “Shouldn’t you know how to do important stuff like that?”
These monsters. He was 25. Of course, he should have. He also should have majored in something more practical than American Studies and taught himself how to use Microsoft Excel and how to parallel park, and in the six weeks since he had fled Brooklyn for his sister’s beach house he should have spent far less time fixated on the many particulars of his impressively unoriginal life implosion and more time plotting what he was semi-ironically calling his life comeback. The issue was that he couldn’t. He couldn’t, it seemed, do anything.
When they arrived back at the house the boys chucked their bikes in the garage and jumped straight in the pool. Gideon sat on the edge with his feet in, looking at his phone. Already this summer one of his college roommates had gotten engaged. Another had bought a literal Tesla. His ex-girlfriend Margot was currently trying on bolo ties and going river rafting in Wyoming with Brooks, the sentient gingham button-down she had allegedly met at a boutique invitation-only meditation club. Gideon on the other hand had celebrated his 25th birthday by going back onto his father’s health insurance plan and throwing up in a subway station. It wasn’t worth getting into.
Over in the deep end, the boys balanced like surfers on teal rafts, taking turns bashing the backs of each other’s legs with foam noodles.
“Hey,” he called out to them. “Take it easy.”
“Come fight us,” Henry shouted. “Two versus one, Giddy, we’ll crush you.”
“I’m injured,” Gideon lied.
“Come on!” Sawyer said. “You never swim with us.”
“I swam with you yesterday,” he said, feeling more pride at a quick argumentative checkmate against a seven-year-old than he would ever outwardly admit.
Henry threw his pool noodle in Gideon’s direction. “You never do anything with us,” he said, sounding defeated. “You’re so not fun.”
“How about this then,” Gideon said, holstering his phone in his pocket. “I’ll pay one of you a dollar if you can get me a beer from the fridge in less than 30 seconds.”
“Deal,” screamed Sawyer, who quickly jumped off his raft and began frantically freestyling toward the pool’s steps.
“What about me?” Henry asked, still on his raft.
At various points that summer Gideon had told himself he’d limit his daily alcohol intake to one beer per day, and only on the days that he had also exercised. He looked at Henry, who was furrowing his eyebrows together and drifting slowly toward the far side of the pool.
“Two beers,” he said. He opened the stopwatch app on his phone. Playing freeze tag at the playground was basically the same as going for a run. “On your mark, get set, go!”
That night before dinner Gideon made himself useful by volunteering to shuck the corn that his sister had picked up from a farm stand just past town. Maya was a dean at an East Harlem charter school that was keen on veganism. In the summers she decamped with the twins to the north fork of Long Island. Charlie, her husband, ran a squash nonprofit in the Bronx and came out on the weekends. At the start of the summer, Maya had invited Gideon to the beach to clear his head. Now it was July.
As he shucked he wondered what Margot and Brooks had gotten up to that day in Wyoming, if they had gone horseback riding or fly-fishing, if they had fucked on a mountain pass in half-discarded athleisure. But when he reached for his phone to check their social media feeds, he found it was missing from his back left pocket. Henry and Sawyer, he knew, had long since cracked his phone’s password and took great pleasure in changing his background photo or taking mega-bursts of selfies until he ran out of storage space. Abandoning his corn, he quickly tracked the twins to the outdoor shower on the far side of the house, where he found them crouched and giggling over the phone like little junkies. After yanking the thing free from their hands and telling them to pick on someone their own size, Gideon discovered the boys had intentionally entered enough consecutive incorrect password combinations to successfully deactivate his phone for the next hour.
“Your children are bullying me,” he announced to Maya later, after she’d put the boys to sleep and joined him upstairs on the high screen porch. They sat across from each other on old wicker furniture, drinking artistically-labeled tallboys of beer as the sun dipped down in the distance. “I am a prisoner in my own home. In your own home.”
Maya looked at him and laughed, showing off the dimples the two of them shared. She was eleven years older than him, with the same round face and chickenpox scar in the middle of her forehead. Because she was so much older—Gideon having been a mistake on an anniversary trip to Venice—their parents in New Jersey liked to joke that Maya had raised him. This wasn’t entirely true, though she had written his college essays.
She nodded toward the cans beginning to accumulate at his feet. “Take it easy,” she said. “You’re lapping me.”
“Margot’s still in fucking Wyoming,” Gideon responded. “Have you been following this?”
“I unfollowed her, Gideon,” Maya said. “At your request, lest you forget.”
“She’s either quit her job or spent years lying to me about the number of vacation days the theater gave her.”
“Maybe she got a promotion.”
“I know for a fact that she wasn’t up for a promotion. In fact, she had explicitly started looking for jobs because she wasn’t up for a promotion.” He paused to catch his breath and saw that Maya had started scrolling through her phone. “Forget it.”
Maya looked up at him and smiled. “I will gladly forget it.”
The Margot situation, it was fair to say, had received more than its share of familial airtime. The TL;DR was this: After more than two years of dating, that February she had broken up with him at the tail end of a disastrous trip they’d taken to Mexico with her family, calling him on their final night together—and he was quoting here—immature, paralyzed, self-absorbed, and in love with his own unhappiness. She then accused him of intentionally ruining the relationship (and vacation) because he was—and again he was quoting here—too weak to actually break up with her. Gideon shouted back that if he’d wanted to break up with her he would have done so, and—holy shit—he certainly would have not come to Mexico with her fucking family. To this Margot spat back that is such bullshit and you know it and began to cry into his shirtsleeve at the foot of their enormous hotel bed.
He spent much of the next several weeks on Maya and Charlie’s couch in the city, alternately crying and asking them to help him draft emails that would convince Margot to take him back. One morning Gideon realized that words meant nothing and that what he really needed to do was make a change that would actionably demonstrate to her that he wasn’t paralyzed, that he could in fact make the necessary steps to prioritize his own happiness and—he had never been sailing, but—tack his way out of this emotional maelstrom. And so he quit his job, telling the newsmagazine show’s sleazy senior producer who treated him like a personal assistant to find someone else to chaperone his son’s paintballing birthday parties, goddamnit. Gideon was now ready to admit that this had been a vainglorious and ill-advised decision. As Margot herself had rightly pointed out around Easter when she’d finally agreed to meet him for a drink, quitting his job in some perceived blaze of glory while seemingly doing nothing to look for a new job proved literally every one of the points she’d made on their final night in Oaxaca. She then excused herself for the restroom, and when she sat back down took a big sip of her paloma and told him about Brooks.
Back on the porch, Gideon came to the end of another beer. “I just cannot for the life of me understand how she could want to be with such a milquetoast dude,” he said. From regular and comprehensive internet research he knew that Brooks was in his early thirties, had rowed in college, currently worked as a management consultant, and spent at minimum one weekend per month mentoring a first-generation Brooklyn middle-schooler named Ibrahim, whom Gideon also happened to know had recently hit a growth spurt, considered LeBron James to be a better all-around basketball player than Michael Jordan despite Jordan’s better comparative Finals record, and had an older sister, Fatima, who had recently been accepted off the waitlist at the University of Chicago. No, he was not proud that he knew all this.
“You don’t know that he’s milquetoast,” Maya said between what he perceived to be irritatingly responsible sips from her beer.
“Come on. I will concede that I am hardly fashionable but at least I do not wear New Balance sneakers.”
“Charlie and I both wear New Balance sneakers,” she said, laughing.
“It’s different,” he said, and let out a prolonged sigh that might have more objectively been called a groan.
Maya continued laughing as she re-tied her ponytail. “Henry asked me tonight why you wanted to be with someone who didn’t want to be with you.”
“See what I mean about them bullying me?” He felt her eyes on him reproachfully as he reached for the two remaining unopened cans near his feet. “Have one more with me,” he said, opening one for himself. “I need you right now. Enable me.”
She shook her head. “I’m basically drunk. Motherhood.”
A breeze came through the screen windows. Next to him, an empty wicker rocking chair swayed softly, creaking against the hardwood floor. Over Maya’s shoulder the sky had settled into a pale shade of pink, the color of a peony. As he slurped foam from his fingers Gideon began to mull taking a photo of the sky and posting it on social media. This may not have been Wyoming but the color of the clouds was unquestionably pretty. Maybe such a photo would prove that he was fine. Better than fine! Then he thought instead about staging a photo with his beer and Maya’s. Perhaps two pretty cans framed together against a Long Island sunset would look cryptically romantic, like he’d found someone new to escape the city with. Better yet he could swap out the second beer can for a stemless wine glass from the kitchen. A glass of rosé, maybe. More of a his-and-hers look. Good God, Gideon, he thought finally. You are fucking pathetic.
Then Maya asked, “What do you think about taking the boys to the beach tomorrow?”
“Do you want to come?”
“Think I’ll skip it.”
“If I were more of a dick I might say something about how your invitation to come live with you guys is starting to feel a little less like sisterly goodwill or whatever, and more like you locking down free childcare.”
She arched her eyebrows at him and said, “You can leave at any time.”
“Hey,” he said. “There’s no shame in free help.”
“As hard as this may be for you to hear, Gideon, I do occasionally enjoy your company.”
“You just like the reminder of how perfect your life is.”
She yanked the pull tab from her can and threw it at him. “What is this?” she asked. “Are you trying to pick a fight with me?”
“Sorry,” he said. “Thank you for enjoying the soap opera that is my life. And for cooking for me.”
“Actually, you know what, no. I take it back. I can’t take you when you’re like this.”
“Like this! This whole woe-is-me act.”
“Okay, well, it’s definitely not an act.”
“Fine! You’re having a shitty year! It sucks. I’m sorry for you, I really am. But you can snap out of this the moment you decide you want to.”
“I hope you’re more sympathetic when your children hit rock bottom.”
“Oh my God!” she shot back, raising her voice. “Enough already! You’ll only get over Margot when you let yourself get over her! And you’ll find a job as soon as you decide what you want to do! But only you can do these things!”
Meekly he asked what she thought he should do.
“Be a television producer! Or a teacher! Go to law school! Jesus, go work in fucking finance if you want. It doesn’t matter! You spend way too much time worrying about what you think people are thinking about your life, Giddy. Why do you think Margot dumped you?”
“Fuck you,” he said, without conviction. “Thanks for that one.”
“It sucks! I know that it sucks! But I have been telling you this since February, Gideon. What else do you want from me? Do you want me to call her a cunt? Margot’s a cunt. There. Is that better?”
He choked a little on his beer.
“Whoa,” he said. “Did you just—”
“I am so sorry,” she replied quickly, her eyes wide. “Too much?”
“Maybe too much?”
She took a long sip of beer, her cheeks bright pink in the dim porchlight.
“Margot is definitely not a—” she paused. “C-word. She’s just a little bit more, I don’t know, certain about what she wants her life to look like.” Then she stood up and began collecting both of their empty beer cans and depositing them back into their cardboard container. “I seriously cannot believe I just said that,” she said, shaking her head. “I don’t think I’ve ever said that word out loud.”
“Is it misogynistic to say I’m proud of you?”
“Definitely.” She paused where she was and looked at him. “The truth is, Gideon, nobody really spends much time thinking about anyone other than themselves.”
He sighed and bit his lip. “I sometimes think that if there were someone out there who would just tell me decisively, like, this is the job you should have, this is the person you should date—I mean like some, I don’t know, committee that would give me some stamp of approval for my life, then I could just take that and run with it.”
“Mom and Dad really failed with you.”
He snorted dejectedly and reached for his beer.
“One of the pleasures of being an adult is that you get to do whatever you want,” Maya continued, sitting back down in her chair. “You can date whoever you want to date and you can have whatever job you think will make you fulfilled or rich or intellectually challenged or whatever it is you decide you want out of it. You just have to decide. Nobody else really cares, Giddy. Soon enough you’ll have insane children who will have no desire to learn how to read or learn math or do anything other than give each other traumatic brain injuries and ask you unanswerable questions about, like, death and dying. And then you will wish you had spent less time crying about a girl you weren’t ready to marry anyway.”
She took a final sip of her beer, craning her head all the way back for the can’s last drops. “Now enough of my sentimental speechifying.”
When they made eye contact and she saw Gideon wiping his eyes she tilted her head in that way of hers, with the look of patience and sympathy and amusement that she’d given him for as long as he could remember.
“It’s all going to be okay,” she said with a smile. “I am giving you my stamp of approval to let it all be okay.”
He took a big breath and ran his hand through his hair. “I do appreciate you unfollowing her,” he said.
“Maybe you should consider it.”
“I’m saying thanks.”
“What’s that expression? Not all heroes wear capes?”
“Why do bad things happen to good people?”
She snorted with laughter. “On that note, bedtime.”
The next morning the twins burst into his bedroom like a two-man SWAT team and began pounding his head with pillows.
“Come swim!” they shouted.
“What time is it?” Gideon groaned, reaching instinctively for his phone on the bedside table.
“We need a lifeguard.”
He registered a moderate pressure behind his temple and rolled over onto his back. “It’s 7:05? Jesus Christ, are you guys kidding me?”
“You’re not supposed to say that word,” Sawyer said.
“You should hear how your mother talks.”
“Mom does sometimes say shit,” whispered Henry.
“Now who’s saying bad words?”
He sat up in bed and unlocked his phone, then automatically made the rounds through Margot’s social media to see if she’d posted anything overnight from Wyoming. But the moment he pulled up her profile he absorbed yet another substantive whack on his side.
“Stop looking at her!” Sawyer yelled.
“It’s bad for you, Giddy,” said Henry.
“Hey,” he said. “I’m a grown-up. Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.”
“Okay but can you look at her next to the pool?”
“Fine,” he said, pushing Sawyer off the bed. “But if either of you jumps in before I’m out there I’m telling your mom about all the zombie battle royale apps you’ve been downloading on my phone.”
Outside, a few minutes later, he found them standing jittery alongside the deep end, goggles squishing their faces, their toes curled expectantly over the edge.
“Do your thing,” Gideon said, laughing as they exploded off the blocks in triumphant belly flops.
He parked himself upside down on a semi-reclined lounge chair near the deep end, his hair skimming the top of the wet morning grass. The boys immediately began trying out some complicated professional wrestling chokehold he recognized from a YouTube video he had shown them over hamburgers a few nights earlier. He’d really taught them so much.
After a little while of this, the boys ran out of the water and began whipping each other with purple pieces of plastic tubing that surely had some other primary function. Maya and Charlie may have unilaterally embargoed the buying and gifting of toy guns, but no amount of parental sanctions could stop the boys from reimagining and repurposing even their most wholesome playthings as WMDs.
“Make sure you don’t poke each other’s eyes out,” he called out halfheartedly in their direction, still upside down.
He reached for his phone and thumbed his way back to Margot’s profile. When he saw that she hadn’t posted anything new, he flicked over to check in on Brooks, whose decision to keep his profile public Gideon interpreted as an act of aggression toward him specifically. Whatever, dude. Go crank out some spreadsheets for an evil petrol state. Then he saw that at some point between last night when he had fallen asleep and this morning when the twins had barged into his room to wake him, Brooks had posted a photo with Margot from Wyoming.
Gideon rolled over and sat up in the chair.
They stood arm in arm, smiling in matching cowboy hats, the Tetons rising majestically in the background. The caption read This cowgirl is my weakness and featured an accouterment of nauseatingly western emojis. Cowboy smiley face, fishing rod, mountainscape. A triptych of hearts, red, white, and blue.
He exhaled. Bullet emoji to his fucking brain emoji.
Using his thumb and forefinger he enlarged the photo. Margot’s face, he realized, exuded complete, unalloyed joy. He hated to admit it, knew intellectually like every other person in the world with a smartphone that appearances on social media did not correlate to genuine IRL happiness, whatever, and yet as he stared at her with her arm around Brooks he knew on some deeper, more elemental level that this particular photo was the exception that proved that rule. Her happiness was real. It had to be. She just—God, he thought. She radiated.
He placed his phone delicately on the grass and walked directly into the pool. No dive, no cannonball, just an uninterrupted stride and crumble, as though—if only, he thought, momentarily suspended there in the air—there was no water before him.
“Still up for the beach?” Maya asked him later that morning, standing over the stainless steel coffee maker in the kitchen.
“Look at what fucking—I’m sorry, freaking—He Who Must Not Be Named posted from Wyoming last night,” he said from beside the refrigerator, rotating his screen to show Maya.
She ignored this and locked her eyes directly onto his. “Can you please get me the milk in the fridge?” she asked, staring unblinkingly at him.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“What? Oh, yes, sorry, I think the milk is on the door? Did you check the door?”
“Seriously? You can’t say one mean thing?” He shoved the phone closer to her face. “Be a good sister. I need you right now.”
“Who’s in Wyoming?” Sawyer asked.
“Margot,” Henry said. “Duh.”
Sawyer groaned. “Can we please stop talking about her?”
Maya laughed at this and picked a blackberry off Sawyer’s plate, which had a sailboat on it. “It’s important to talk about this stuff, you guys!” she said. “Breakups are hard!”
“Mommy? Did you ever have a breakup?” Henry asked, looking curiously at Maya.
“I never did,” she said, arching her eyebrows proudly. “But I was lucky. Daddy was my first boyfriend.”
Gideon rolled his eyes into his mug. “Your mom is what’s called an anomaly,” he said. Maya had been her class valedictorian, an all-state swimmer, and had married the first guy she’d ever dated. She’d also had no difficulty getting pregnant. Twins just ran in their family.
“I’m never having a girlfriend,” Sawyer announced.
“Me neither,” Henry agreed.
“Great idea,” Gideon said. “Hey, that reminds me. I’ll give you guys five dollars if you can deactivate my phone for a year.”
After breakfast, Maya handed him a canvas bag she had loaded up with towels and beach toys and shovels. Gideon added three cold beers and a water-wrinkled fiction issue of the New Yorker that he had found in the living room. The twins, meanwhile, switched into dry bathing suits and rashguards, used the bathroom, and clipped on their bike helmets outside the garage.
Maya stopped them just before they left, smushing the twins’ faces with pasty high octane sunscreen and handing the bottle to Gideon, who had forgotten to apply any himself.
Henry complained about having to take his old bike, which was too small for him, because yesterday’s flat tire still had not been fixed.
“See,” Gideon said, rubbing it in his nose. “Your mom also doesn’t know how to change a bike tire.”
“But our dad definitely does,” Henry said.
“Yeah,” Sawyer agreed. “Our dad knows how to do everything.”
“And he’ll fix it when he gets here tomorrow,” Maya said to them.
Gideon rolled his eyes. Perhaps the secret to a successful relationship was having one person that knew how to change a bike tire.
“Thanks again for taking them,” Maya said. “If they get hungry they can have hotdogs.”
“And soda?” Sawyer asked.
As they sped through town they found it alive with late morning activity. An abundance of tote bags and espadrilles, seersuckered children and freshly-groomed doodle mixes as far as the eye could see. Outside of a new place that sold expensive espresso drinks and hosted vinyasa yoga classes—or whichever was the hot one, climatically speaking—Gideon noted a double-parked Range Rover with a Bernie Sanders sticker smacked resplendent on its back bumper. Momentarily he considered stopping to take its photo. Perhaps this was the sort of wry observational humor he could post with a clever caption—when you contain multitudes, maybe, or pick a side, bro?—to remind Margot of his wit, what she’d once referred to lovingly as his Gideonness. But the twins had zoomed too far ahead of him and, anyway, he knew the optics of not posting anything since February and then posting something less than 24 hours after Brooks had posted his inaugural photo with Margot would be pathetic, even for him. He couldn’t actually believe this was the sort of inane bullshit that he spent his time obsessing over.
They came to the beach a half-mile later, tires inflated, collar bones unbroken. To their surprise, as they surveyed their surroundings they found people everywhere, chair to chair, striped umbrellas and small tents and other assorted wind- and sun-repellent structures pockmarking the beach’s every possible sliver.
“Whoa,” Sawyer said. “Where did all these people come from?”
“Let’s go back to the pool,” Henry added at once, his face scrunching with disgust. “I hate this.”
“Why don’t we walk down a bit?” Gideon suggested, fearing Maya’s reaction if they returned home so soon. “It’ll be more fun out there anyway. None of these losers.”
“But there’s no lifeguard all the way down there,” Henry said.
“Don’t I lifeguard for you every day?”
He saw them exchange unusually cautious looks.
“It’s fine,” Gideon said. “Just don’t tell your mom.”
They settled into a spot far enough from the lifeguard stand that they had plenty of room to sprawl out. The boys immediately staged a controlled demolition of the canvas bag and began digging a sand structure with an ambitious irrigation system down closer to the water’s edge. Gideon pulled out his magazine, dug his feet into the sand and—oh, but really, who was he kidding? He opened a beer instead, keeping an eye on the boys while he looked around at the broader beach scene. A paddle-boarding couple ate spinach wraps, a dad with the thinning haircut of a junior GOP congressman tried unsuccessfully to teach his son to throw a frisbee. He settled his gaze on a pair of girls almost certainly in high school, who took turns photographing each other in their high-waisted bikinis and then giggling as they inspected the shots on their phones. Then he began to wonder if perhaps they actually were in college and if he’d be able to find them if he downloaded Tinder, or if he played charmingly enough with the twins then maybe they’d see him and—skipping several steps—would want to have a threesome with him, at which point he felt such profound disgust with himself that he stood up and joined the boys near the water.
“Don’t touch anything,” said Sawyer matter-of-factly as Gideon approached with his beer in one hand and a miniature football in the other.
They had, in what seemed to be no time at all, built an elaborate city in the sand: different sized and shaped sandcastles and drip-castles, helixing moats and aqueducts filled with water and ringed with shells. The entire structure sprawled outward in a semicircle from where the boys stood, crouched and working diligently in the middle.
“Holy shit,” Gideon said, reaching for his phone from his bathing suit pocket and taking a few photos for the text thread he was on with Maya and their parents. “This is super cool, you guys.”
Sawyer rolled his eyes. “It’s not even our best one.”
“Where did this idea even come from?”
Sawyer shrugged. “We just decided to do it.”
Gideon continued snapping photos, genuinely impressed with the boys’ work. Then he noticed Henry, who was squirming and pulling at his crotch.
“Can we go in the ocean?” Henry asked. “I really have to pee.”
“Sure,” Gideon said. “Let me just put my phone away first.”
He walked back to their beach chairs and dropped his phone in the beach bag. As he turned back toward his nephews, he saw two women—a mother and, presumably, her daughter, about his age—walking toward the boys. Then his stomach dropped.
It was Juliet Aaron, one of Margot’s college roommates and a guarantee to be a bridesmaid whenever Margot hypothetically, or inevitably, got married. Her parents, he remembered, had a house out here not too far from Maya’s, and even though he hadn’t spoken to her in at least a year he knew from social media that she had just moved back from San Francisco. Her boyfriend, Alex, a generic Connecticut prep school—oh, forget it.
Gideon put his sunglasses on and sat quickly down in his beach chair, lifting the magazine so that it covered his face. Aware that his heart was now racing, he tried to regulate his breathing, willing Juliet and her mother to keep walking down the beach without noticing him.
Except then the boys began shouting his name.
“Giddy! Giddy what are you doing? Hurry up!”
He lowered the magazine just over the top of his eyes and saw Henry squirming and looking at him with real discomfort. In horror, he saw too that Juliet and her mother were now only a few feet from them. He weighed his options. Either he could sprint past her and jump straight into the water with the boys, or remain hidden behind his magazine until she passed. The problem was that the boys kept yelling his name.
“Gideon! Come on!”
He stayed frozen, unsure what to do as Juliet turned to look at him, looked back at the boys, then looked back in his direction and began waving hesitantly.
“Gideon?” she called out, taking a few steps toward him.
He had no choice now but to look up from the magazine and pretend that she’d seen him before he’d seen her.
“Holy shit!” he called back, standing from his chair and raising his arms in his best attempt to feign genuine surprise. “Juliet! Hey!”
“Oh, it is you!” she beamed. She began to walk toward him. This, he realized, was his nightmare.
“I was wondering if I might see you out here,” she said after they’d hugged awkwardly.
“And here I am,” he said. He gestured over to the twins, who were still looking at him with annoyance. “I’m here with my sister’s kids.”
She looked over at them and smiled. “They’re insanely cute.”
“And total fucking demons.”
She laughed and asked him how his summer had been.
“Oh you know,” he said, taking his sunglasses off. “Just living the dream.”
“Are you working then, or—?”
He began to stumble through an answer and then paused, aware that every subsequent word out of his mouth would soon be relayed in painstaking detail to Margot. Perhaps he ought to tell Juliet that he’d started seeing someone new—she’s French actually, yeah—or that he’d just been hired to teach English at a refugee camp in some impressively fucked-up country.
“Mostly just helping my sister out for now,” he said instead. He couldn’t actually bring himself to lie. Margot was too smart to believe any of that nonsense anyway.
“How fun,” Juliet said.
“Well, we can’t all be in Jackson Hole for the summer.”
She laughed and rolled her eyes. “This hardly seems terrible.”
“But how are things with you?” he asked, attempting to veer the conversation back toward safer terrain. “Are you still in California then?”
“Alex and I actually just moved back to the city,” she said. “He’s starting law school at Columbia.”
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “That’s fantastic.”
She joined him smiling and said, “Yeah, thanks. We’re living together uptown. It all still feels sort of fake, honestly, like we’re play-acting adulthood or something. And we still don’t even have a couch.”
He smiled again and nodded his head knowingly, not allowing himself to consider just how many times he had been on the receiving end of this exact goddamn couch anecdote.
“Well,” he said, feeling the conversation arrive at its natural endpoint. “Say hi to him for me.”
He smacked the sides of his thighs and rocked awkwardly forward on his feet.
“It was great seeing you, Juliet. Small world, et cetera et cetera.”
“Look, Gideon, I know I’m probably the last person you wanted to run into on the beach today. But we’re adults. And so I do just have to tell you that I really am sorry about you and Margot. It’s—well, it’s a shame how many good couples don’t make it.”
He brushed his hand through his bangs and looked at her. “Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.”
“Your nephews are very lucky to have you.”
They hugged again and Juliet began back in the direction of her mother, who waved at Gideon. He raised one arm in return and smiled, then felt a familiar anxiety metastasizing behind his chest as he began to wonder what Juliet and her mother might say about him.
Quickly he turned his back to the water and pretended to search for something in the bag, if only to distract himself until they had disappeared down the beach. At the bottom, he felt his fingers graze something small and unfamiliar. It was a keychain, circular and ringed with yellow and blue and red beads — a trinket, he quickly remembered, that Margot had brought back from her trip to Kenya last summer. She had gone to visit her oldest childhood friend in the Peace Corps; when she landed back in New York Gideon had picked her up from the airport in Maya’s car and together they had driven straight out to Long Island for a weekend at the beach. At dinner that night she had given everyone presents: handcrafted earrings for Maya, wooden salad tongs for Charlie, matching beaded keychains for the boys.
For Gideon she had brought back a big red Masaai blanket, which—it came rushing back to him now—they had sprawled out on the next night, deciding after dinner to bike to the beach and split a bottle of wine under the almost-full moon.
“This is so cheesy,” she had said, lying next to him and picking pills from his sweater. “I can’t believe how cheesy this is.”
“At least I didn’t buy you a star,” he responded. “Is that still a thing?”
She sat up and looked seriously at him. “What the hell, Giddy, why didn’t you?”
They laughed together, and as she poured wine into clear plastic cups he took in the sound of the waves crashing nearby in the darkness. And for a moment he considered commenting on this, saying something about how reassured he always felt when he thought about waves, about how they never stopped. He knew she would tease him for this, so he stayed silent for a while, but then he finished his wine and told her anyway, and she stopped picking at his sweater and kissed him.
“I’m so happy,” she said. “I’ve never been this happy.”
What was the half-life of happiness? Had she meant this when she’d said it, or had it been something she’d only said in an effort to convince herself it was true? Was there actually that much of a difference? Gideon sighed. Probably it was just something you said when you’d had too much wine on the beach with your boyfriend.
And this, he knew, was his problem. Nothing in his life came without caveats of his own making. His was a mind entirely lacking in faith or conviction. For as long as he could remember an awareness of his own unceasing internal monologue he had done this: wondered what others said in theirs. What individuating thoughts allowed people to make choices, to commit to jobs and to cities and to people, to whatever they believed was for them the correct life. Gideon defaulted to the counterpoints, to circuitous and mealymouthed rationales against everything. He could take nothing at face value, instead talking himself out of every possible outcome, forever skeptical of everyone else’s silent stipulations.
But he didn’t have to be this way. There was nothing neurological or physiological that was keeping him stalled like this. Maya was right. He just had to let himself get out of neutral. Feeling a sudden and unprecedented certainty about what he needed to do, he dropped the keychain back into the canvas bag and dug around until he found his phone. It would be the first step, the one that would catalyze not only a life comeback but a life. He navigated his way to Margot’s profile and unfollowed her, then deleted her number and, for good measure, blocked Brooks so that he could follow along no more. With a newfound weightlessness he decided to open another beer, spilling foam onto his fingertips. And when he looked up and saw Juliet waving toward him with both arms and bombarding the waves like a lifeguard he waved back and smiled, feeling a further thrill knowing that when she spoke to Margot she would say that she had run into Gideon on the beach and Gideon had seemed good. Maybe Margot would feel a pang of jealousy, or nostalgia, or she would feel nothing at all. Maybe she would check his social media and discover that he’d unfollowed her. It didn’t matter. What mattered was accepting that actions have consequences and that some choices you make are binding, and having the faith to make them anyway. He looked up again and saw Juliet’s mother now charging into the ocean. Funny, he hadn’t thought of them as the swimming sort. But that was exactly it: people surprised you. And he would surprise everybody. He would go back to Brooklyn and figure out whatever it was that would come next. And Juliet would tell Margot that she had seen him on the beach and actually he had seemed good. He was reading the New Yorker and he was playing with his nephews. Then he dropped his beer. His nephews. His nephews.
EMMETT KNOWLTON grew up in Montclair, New Jersey and graduated from Amherst College. He is a former staffer at HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” and has also written about sports for the New York Times and Business Insider. His fiction has appeared in The Masters Review. He lives in Missoula, Montana, where he is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana.