Excerpt From Love at the Beach

by Susan Tepper

She awoke with a powerful thirst, like she’d spent the night with a vacuum cleaner hose stuck down her throat. Out of bed, down the hall to the bathroom, fumbling for the faucet, Marlene put her mouth under and gulped. Too bloated to take in anymore, she dragged herself back to bed.

Since spring it had been like that: thirsts no amount of water could quench, and chills that came out of nowhere and started her teeth chattering. Piles of sweaters couldn’t stop the shaking. She didn’t understand it. Usually she felt one-hundred-percent fine. Travis said it’s summer now, why you so cold. Or he said it’s developing hormones, the ones that will lead you straight to womanhood. Well, she’d been having her period since she was ten—so really! Marlene didn’t mention any of it to her mother; didn’t need her mother getting all crazy.

Back in bed she squirmed around and got comfy on her side, one arm tucked under the pillow. She was floating toward sleep when she heard crunching on the white stones in the yard.

“Hey, you awake?”

She rolled onto her back. Travis’ face smashed up against the screen caused it to bulge. She couldn’t help laughing, but knew her mother would be all upset because their screens were either stretched out or coming apart with rips. She slid out of bed, moving toward the window.

“Kiss me.” Travis flattened his tongue against the screen.

Placing her tongue against his, she tasted metal when he pushed back.

“Come on, Mar, let’s get outta here.”

She yanked her nightgown over her head, grabbing the same shorts and tie-dye T-shirt from the night before. His face was still pressed against the screen but she made believe she didn’t know he was watching.

“I’m ready.”

“Ain’t you gonna comb your hair?” His voice sounded hoarse.

“What for? You’ll just mess it all up on me.”

“You got a point there.” His voice was too loud.

“Sshhh. Meet me out front.”

Quickly, but perfectly, Marlene made her bed, smoothing the purple dust ruffle at the bottom. Kicking her sandals underneath, she left the room. The hallway was hot and stuffy with a smell of too many different kinds of foods mixed together. As she passed her mother’s closed door, Marlene thought she heard snoring. Her dad used to snore, but that was ages ago. Then he went to Nam, then he came home, then he left for Canada and stayed there. Now he has a new wife and baby. Her mother hates him to pieces. “Never mind that,” Marlene says.


Hardly anyone in Snug Harbor ever locked their doors. Last night nobody even bothered to shut the storm door; it hung off the front of the house like it expected a steady stream of company. Except for Travis, and her mother’s friend Claire, and a few of her brother’s punky little friends, there wasn’t much company anymore.


With the palm of her hand, Marlene smacked open the rickety screen door. She stepped out into blinding sun, shielding her eyes. It had to be close to 90 degrees already. At the bottom of the steps Travis was slouched against the wrought-iron railing. He’d put on his silver sunglasses with the mirrors.

“I hate those mirror glasses.” She skipped down the steps to meet him. “I can see myself double.”

“Double love.” Grinning, he ruffled her hair and threw a lock around her neck. “H-e-e-e-e-y!”

Squeezed up against him with her nose pressed into his armpit, Marlene felt her knees go shaky. When he loosened his grip she stayed that way, breathing him in, tasting the salt in his warm skin; unable to break away.

Whenever he had to drive north, to cut down a big dying oak, or go back to his room at the boardinghouse, she would get this terrible feeling—like waves rising up in her chest and into her throat. Worse than tidal waves, she wanted to tell him; afraid he’d mock her. So she’d just say: I wish I could shrink you down, put you inside my pocket. And she’d pat the pocket of whatever she was wearing.

“Come on,” said Travis untangling from her. “I got Old Faithful parked down the street.”

Holding her hand he led her down the gravel driveway. It was still early but already the gravel had heated up, burning the soles of her feet. Except for a couple of weak dog barks, Snug Harbor was quiet. Hand-in-hand they walked toward Old Faithful, his rusty old wreck of a Chevy that got them around. And, gave them a place to be alone at night.

Marlene slid across the blue vinyl bench seat and rested her head back, careful to stay clear of the spongy yellow stuffing spilling out of a long rip. While Travis drove, she liked picking pieces of sponge out, squeezing them between her fingers. Stop he’d always tell her, saying that she was picking Old Faithful dry, that if she kept picking there wouldn’t be any seat left. How ridiculous, she’d think, pulling out extra big chunks.

While he was pumping the gas pedal, trying to get Old Faithful to turn over, she was praying: Come on, car, come on. Twice it sputtered. About to die, it suddenly sprang to life.

Travis grinned and squeezed her knee. “So where you wanna go, babe?”

“Hell and back!”

“All right!”

It was their thing; what they always said in the car; even though it was just something they once heard in a movie.

Chugging down the street, the muffler made a huge racket. “If they ain’t awake yet, they will be now,” said Travis.

At the Snug Harbor sign near the intersection he took the turn practically on two wheels, swinging onto the highway. Any little pause, even a stop sign, could mean death for Old Faithful. Marlene shivered. Then how would they ever get to the beach?

She stuck her hand out the window. The air felt soft and puffy like warm cotton pushing against her palm. Concentrating on his driving, Travis stared straight ahead. Strange noises could mean Old Faithful was having trouble. Only once in a blue moon would he turn on the radio. Driving, he liked to say, should be taken as serious as climbing trees. Sliding closer to him, she kissed the bend in his arm. It was early—just the two of them—heading for—where else—the ocean!

The single lane highway spun out like a long spool of thread. Follow the spool, follow the spool, follow the spool, follow the spool. She kept saying this in her mind, keeping in time with the thump, thump, thump of the car as it hit the bumpy seams in the road.

At the ocean bridge, where land fell away to water, they seemed to climb practically into the sky. The air smelled cooler. While down below, the gray Atlantic glistened under the sun’s rays, shimmering like the scales of a huge silver fish. Marlene always felt sorry for any fish that got itself hooked – flapping its brains out against the dock with the hook dug deep into its mouth. She couldn’t bear to watch. Once she begged a fisherman to throw it back. Please, please, she asked him. A couple of the other fishermen had laughed. The one who caught the fish said: Girlie, you’ve got two heads if you think I’m giving her back.

Turning to look at Travis driving, touching his leg, she decided that nothing could be worse. Nothing could be worse than being left to die on the dock.

She stuck her head out the window, the breeze beating her hair around her face. Taking some deep breaths she felt that sharp sting move into her chest. According to the latest information from her mother, it stung from an overload of iodine that swept through your lungs. Lately, nothing much her mother had to say convinced Marlene of anything.

Looking down on the white sails rocking in the water, she shouted with the wind in her face: “I’d like to go for a ride on a sailboat!”

Travis turned to her grinning, and winked.

Sometimes when she thought about leaving, to never again see the ocean or bay, except maybe on vacation, her eyes would fill with tears. When it came to that, Travis was the same. Which was why they stuck together so well. She was convinced. It was Marlene and Travis; or Travis and Marlene. Depending upon which of their friends was doing the talking. Of course he still loved his tall trees, and would make fun of the scrawny pines that grew down the shore calling them scrubbies. But the ocean had its hold over them; both of them.

Come fall, she would begin her last year of high school. That meant seeing much less of him since he’d already graduated in June. Just thinking about it made her sick to her stomach. Her mother wouldn’t shut up about college. Scholarships her mother kept saying. A scholarship in what? Marlene wondered. Acting class was her best subject. Scholarships, she tried explaining to her mother, are for kids who take foreign languages as electives. Not kids who take acting classes or sculpture or wood-working. College was the last place in the world Marlene planned on going. High school was bad enough. Four extra years of teachers and books would put her right over the deep end. All of it had been on her mind for a while. Today at the beach might be the right time to talk to Travis about her idea. She would just come right out and say it: I’m thinking of becoming an actress.


So he wouldn’t have to put any coins in a boardwalk parking meter, Travis turned down J Street, parking in front of a big, gray weather-beaten house: the kind of house her mother always whined about, and compared to the house of her childhood.

Jumping out of the car, grinning and patting the fender, Travis told Old Faithful that it did a good job. Anytime they actually got somewhere without stalling a dozen times was a miracle, but he’d never admit anything was wrong. Sometimes she thought he believed Old Faithful was human.

From out of the trunk he took the rolled up green army blanket and the white sheet. The army blanket for chilly nights, the sheet for mornings on the beach. “We’ll be needing you later,” he said, tossing the blanket back in the trunk. Then draping the sheet across her shoulders, he pulled her close. For a while they stood beside the car and kissed. And Marlene forgot it was morning, forgot there were houses everywhere, and people beginning to stir out of them, with dogs on leashes, and tennis rackets for early games. Or people just out for a walk. If Travis had said: Take your clothes off, all of them, she would have obeyed. Most of the time she felt dead. Only coming to life when he worked on her body. Sometimes he had to say: Whoa, girl, there’s people around, take it easy!

The sheet slipped off her shoulders. Laughing, he scooped it up before it hit the ground. Trailing a little ways behind, she followed him across the Ocean Road.

“Will you check out those waves,” he said, turning to grin at her.

She followed him onto the boardwalk and down the splintery steps to the sand. Gulls were squawking and picking up scraps of garbage. Otherwise the beach was still empty. Halfway down to the ocean Travis stopped, surveying the spot. “This here looks pretty good.”

They each held two corners of sheet, spreading it. When it was flat and even he let out a war cry, and jumped into the middle, messing it up, getting sand everywhere. Which was Marlene’s favorite thing about him—just when she thought she knew exactly what he was up to, he’d surprise her by doing the exact opposite.

He tackled her around the ankles. She collapsed on top of him, giggling hysterically, adding more sand to the tangled mess of sheet. Finally they settled down. Flat on their backs in the same position, the sides of their arms touching. The sun hitting them squarely. Almost immediately Travis fell fast asleep.

Being with him, like that, she could never fall asleep. Nights in Old Faithful, or nestled deep in the dunes, or hidden away in the woods of the Pine Barrens, cushioned by a bed of soft needles, Marlene would just lie there. Listening to him sleeping. It worried her a lot. Someday they would marry. Sooner or later a person could die without sleep. She squinted up at the sun brushing a strand of hair off her forehead. There was so much to worry about.

A motorcycle came tearing down the Ocean Road. Travis reached for her, burying his face in her neck. “H-e-e-e-e-y! Pancake Cottage should be cracking open those eggs right about now.”

“I don’t know. Maybe some toast.”

“Okay, toast. C’mon.”

He jumped up pulling her with him. They each took a side of sheet and made a dash through burning sand, stopping to cool off their feet at shade patches thrown off by the trash barrels. Under the gazebo on the boardwalk they dunked their feet in the water fountain. Then wincing and complaining they shot across scorching pavement to the car.

Travis put his hand through the open window and tapped the steering wheel. “Whoa! She’s hot.”

They stretched the sheet across the seat and got into the car. By some miracle it started on the first crank.

“Old Faithful is anxious to get her pancakes,” he said, making Marlene laugh.

As they drove down the Ocean Road everything looked clean and bright and sparkling. Sunshine bouncing off houses and parked cars, the beach and boardwalk. People coming out of houses, crossing the road to the beach seemed to sparkle, too, as they clustered under gazebos, taking off flip-flops before starting across the sand. Every beach had its own little gazebo on the boardwalk. People always wanting to know which beach you went to. The beaches close to the Pier and the rides, and all that other day-tripper crap, were considered crummy. People who live down the shore know that stuff cold, Travis liked saying. He hated the day-trippers who left garbage behind making the beaches filthy.

They chugged down the Ocean Road with the surf churning up along their right side the whole way. During winter the ocean scared Marlene with its cold, dark, flat gray color. Making her think of the surfer who drowned one Christmas day. But now the water was deep, deep blue with thick white curls that lapped at the shoreline.

“What’s on your mind, baby girl?”

“Lots of things.”

“Yeah? Like what?”

“I don’t think I want to talk about them right now.”

In his off-key voice Travis started singing Horse With No Name. As they passed one of his favorite surfer bars he pointed out the window, telling her, “The Dug-Out.”

“I know,” she said.

Next to it was Mister Donut. The sweet sugary smells in the hot summer air made Marlene feel nauseous. Pretty soon they pulled to a stop at the curb. A lanky boy was unrolling a faded pink awning on the window of The Pancake Cottage. One of a handful of places that stayed open year ’round.

As they walked toward the entrance, she noticed the geraniums in the window boxes were the same plastic ones that had been stuck there all winter.

“You’d think by now they would’ve planted real ones,” she said in a low voice.

A shiver ran down her spine. Don’t let me start freezing and shaking all through breakfast, she thought. Her being cold all the time was starting to get on Travis’ nerves; she could tell; even though he usually kept quiet about it.

Opening the door to The Cottage, he let her walk in ahead of him, up to where a sign said: We Will Be Happy to Seat You! Most of the time, in public, he had wonderful manners. Usually he remembered to pull out her chair. Knowing how her mother had a bad opinion of the Women’s Liberation Movement, Marlene made sure to mention from time to time about Travis being a gentleman—hoping her mother would sort of like him better. Isn’t that nice, her mother would say; or something. She never sounded very impressed. College men were the only types of men who impressed her mother. Fifty times a week her mother said college men. College men this—college men that. Mom, they’re just boys, Marlene would say; but it was hopeless. Her mother would just repeat that college men crap. College was her mother’s big hang-up, because she never got to go there herself. She had to stay home and watch every one of her stupid brothers go off to college.

If it were up to me, Marlene had told her mother, I wouldn’t spend a dime on college—and forget college men.

The Pancake Cottage hostess took them to a table by the window. Stuffed into a hair-net, her frizzy curls were the color of peaches or apricots. Peaches Travis mouthed silently. Marlene always argued apricots because of the yellow tint. The hostess was saying how hot it was for so early in the day, that the humidity had totally wrecked her hair. Trying not to laugh, Marlene caught Travis’ eye.

The hostess pulled out a chair for Marlene. Disappointed that it wasn’t Travis doing it, she hesitated before sitting down.

“I like when you do it,” she whispered as he sat opposite her.

Through the picture window was a clear view across the Ocean Road. Behind an abandoned Sunoco gas station the dunes rolled for miles. Low, brown wooden fences snaked through tall dune grass. No houses could be built on those dunes. Small white signs with green writing and funny green stick-birds told people the dunes were a bird sanctuary. Listing the names of birds Marlene never heard of. At night they would sometimes sneak into the dunes. Keeping an eye out for cops. They would step over the low fences sunk in the sand. Carrying the army blanket between them. They’d search till they found a flat sandy valley, big enough for them to lie down. Far enough away from the road to be safe.

“Ready to order?”

The high-pitched voice snapped Marlene back to reality.

Hi I’m Carol! her badge read. Grease stains smeared across the top of her yellow apron made Marlene feel queasy. She had to look away. She rubbed the silky tassel on the menu while Travis ordered the works: double stack of silver dollar pancakes, scrambled eggs with Velveeta cheese, sausage patties (not links!) done extra crispy. Whenever he had a climb scheduled, he ate like a lumberjack.

“Top that off with a large pineapple juice,” he said.

“You Miss?” said the waitress.

“Ummm… toast with orange marmalade.”

As soon as the waitress walked away, Travis shook his finger. “You’re gonna get mal-ignition,” he said, repeating some old joke from TV.

“Do you think you could ask them to turn off the air conditioner?”

“Marlene, it’s a hundred outside! People will go nuts if you mess with their cold air.”

In a little while the waitress came back carrying a round tray heaped with food. Each time she put something on the table she made a speech: “Beautiful eggs, just how you wanted them, not too much cheese. The patties perfect, nice and dark and crisp. Here’s your golden stack. Your chilled Hawaiian pineapple juice. Your toast, Miss. Anything else?”

Travis dug right in, smashing the butter balls and smearing them between the layers of pancakes. Pouring syrup out of a glass pitcher, he emptied more than half onto his plate. Marlene used to eat the same way. Shoveling in truck-loads of food, never gaining a pound. Lately it sickened her to look at so much on his plate. She could hardly swallow her toast.

He held out a forkful of burnt sausage patty. “Want some?”

Making a face, she shook her head.

“You cop one like that, Marlene, I ain’t offering to share anymore.”

“I had cereal, already,” she said.

“How could you have gone and had your cereal, when I was watchin’ you snooze through the window?”

“I got up and had it and went back to bed.”

“Babe, right now you’re a lying bitch. And you know I hate that.”

She put down the slice of toast and stared out the window. The same skinny boy who’d unrolled the awning was stuffing trash into a dented garbage can. He climbed in, jumping up and down to flatten the garbage. With one finger she pushed the half-eaten toast around the plate. Could she help it if she never felt hungry? It was bad enough that she had to eat when her mother was home. Lately, Travis had been getting on her case too.

Last week, at the dentist, Marlene read an article about a special diet using grains. Boil them, fry them, mash them and mix them with milk; even water—to eat cold. Grains don’t require a lot of chewing, said the article, so they’re highly recommended for people with problem dentures. Even for people without teeth! And it said you never have to worry about gaining weight. She thought it sounded like the way to go. No meat blood floating on the plate. No damp chickens that looked like naked babies before they were roasted.

To keep the peace with Travis she picked up her toast and finished it off making smacking sounds with her lips. “Yum! Delicious!”

Squinting, he was watching her more carefully than usual. Then he pushed his empty plate away, belched, and stood up. “Gotta take a whizz.”

“Want me to go in with you? I could hold it.”

He grabbed his crotch and groaned. “Stop it, Mar, you hear me. It drives me nuts when you say that stuff.”

“Hurry up, then, we’ll go to my house. My mom’s left for work by now.”

She had him back in the palm of her hand. Knew he was as crazy to get at her, as she was at him. In their hurry he forgot he had to pee. He tossed some cash on the table and followed her out to the car.

It could go on like this for a long time, thought Marlene; one way or another it could go on like this.

Some clouds moving in covered the sun. She began to shiver. Pushing all that aside when he put his hand in her shorts, the feeling building in her body, the surf pounding, all the way down the Ocean Road till they reached the bridge. One way or another, she thought. Her dad crossed her mind. He’d kill her if he knew what she did with Travis. Then a break in the clouds sending down spears of light.

SUSAN TEPPER is Second Place Winner for the storySouth Million Writers Award 2014. She is the author of five published books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry and has received 9 Pushcart nominations. She pens a monthly column about all things writerly at Black Heart Magazine, and is the founder/host of FIZZ reading series at KGB Bar, NYC these past 8 years.