end of the affair


By Phoebe Martel

At the clambake, there was a net of lavender mollusks from which an uncertain woodsmoke was wafting. The twins, Romulus and Rema, had stacked a pyre of pebbles on the sandbar below the cliff and some incantation was winnowing its way up from the lemongrass.

Tony raised a sweating shooter of Cognac XO towards the sea in question.

He wanted to know where my brother was. It turned out that, just like every summer before this one, him and Cousin Elias were sautéing on the dock of Grandfather’s crabber, letting the cinders of their pre-rolls congeal into the chipped tar of the starboard. No one paid them any mind, not even when they came inside with eyes like cherry-pie filling and cratered speech.

I left Tony to his quest and popped into our white-gold kitchen, stocked with a wood-fire pizza oven; a key-lime green mandoline; and bushels of bok choy wrapped in biodegradable plastics. There, my ten-year-old cousin, Calypso, was at work plating up lemon focaccia and made-from-scratch baba ghanoush for the amuse-bouche.

I’d seen her mother, Countess Alexandra of Liechtenstein, broiling under a chaise earlier, nursing a tequila sunrise and a double-dose of Ambien. My mother, the psychotherapist, had been bent over her, murmuring something about accepting the things we cannot change.

I helped Calypso sauté some tofu before taking the trash out.

Next to the bin, Jade sagged against the teakwood poolhouse, one foot poised on the ladder that led to the roof.

She stuck her tongue out to me in challenge, revealing the carcass of her favorite banana-cream bubblegum.

Your family is really something, she said, backing away from the ladder and collapsing into a burnished-black Barcelona chair my grandfather used to ash his cigars on.

Just you wait, I replied, bracing a hand in the divot of my hip and sitting at her feet. At this hour, all the moisture had fled the unshorn grass.

Jade fiddled with her cable chain and brandished her Marlboros, fishing through the cow-print satchel I’d bought her for a lighter. My fingers itched to graze her belt-loops.

So where’s your dad at? she asked, eyes leaden and away from me.

He never comes to these. Filming some mini-series in Montauk. I think about the Lavender Scare.

Hm, she said. You know, I’ve been thinking. Maybe they should bring back shame. About being gay.

Very funny, I said, suddenly feeling my whalebone bodice chafe against me. I had a cream ribbon in my chiffon-bun, the one she liked to unravel, and burnt-vanilla perfume, which I wished I could rub off now.

The sky, now the color of honey-dew melon rind, announced cocktail hour in earnest. My great-uncle Absalom called us all to the gazebo for a toast.

Jade slunk past me, pocketing her cigarettes and a few salmon-roulette bites en route to the festivities.

I fell in step on the cobblestone with my aunt, Katherine, the family taskmaster. She wanted to know whether I was in charge of shadow puppetry for the little ones that evening, or if she should enlist Calypso. But mostly, she was curious why I wasn’t applying to law school.

Since Columbia, I had started, then scrapped, a thesis on the specter of the dollhouse in adolescent domesticity. Mostly, I read books about Zelda Fitzgerald and peeled off mud masks that burned like tipped-over black coffee and cooked garlic kale and watched Taiwanese New Wave films with Tony until the pretense was up and I had to climb into our bed.

I told her what everyone does––I’m just re-filling my well.

After the toast, Rema brandished a robin’s egg. Romulus stood by her, doughy cheeks dirt-ridged and cherry-slush.

We’re going to turn it into a pendant, she said. And leave it for the salt goddess.

My mother cooed, how sweet. Do they have Roman goddesses in the Hamptons?

You all look filthy, their father, Uncle Mark scolded from the bruschetta bar, before turning back to harp on the fallacies of cancel culture with our family wealth advisor.

On a marble slab, under a trellis downstream from the gazebo, Jade was smoking a hand-rolled cigarillo with Tony and my older cousin, Alyssa.

Yeah, so if you want to connect with him, let me know, Alyssa was telling my boyfriend.

You’re, what, 23?

Tony had studied international relations, having completed a year abroad in Barcelona, where he met Jade, doing the same program from Florida State. He was riding on the expectation of one day cashing in on his expat stepfather’s connections with the Emirati sheik, but he didn’t really want to leave Brooklyn, never had. So he was looking for consulting work.

Tony brightened as I came over. His face, so tawny, so sculpted. I couldn’t remember the last time the crinkling of his eyes made me feel anything. Maybe senior spring at Saint Ann’s School, when we still felt on the precipice of something.

There she is, he said. Jade just turned to ash the joint over Alyssa’s knee.

So what do you do? Alyssa asked, fiddling with her braid crown.

I’m in marketing, Jade said. For a financial tech startup in Hell’s Kitchen. But I’m trying to become the next, like, lesbian influencer.

She straightened her Knicks cap for emphasis.

Alyssa tittered. Well, I support you.

Jade brightened and fiddled with her chain.

I stood up and said, Don’t you think it’s time for dinner? We need to secure a spot at the kids’ table.

We ate tomahawk steak and fingerling potatoes that didn’t mix well with the gin I’d been guzzling. My family, for all their WASP-y pretenses, had never fully shaken their lace-curtain Irish Catholic origins.

My mother, as the ex-wife of the black sheep, had been relegated to the kids’ table. She was opining on the state of mental health in our generation.

Alyssa agreed, wholeheartedly. We have the keys to the kingdom now, though, she said, adjusting her sterile-white smock. My parents didn’t talk about any of this. Even just acknowledging that you’re not okay makes a difference.

Jade stood up, announcing her intent to join the pickleball match that great-uncle Absalom was refereeing. As she strode over to the tennis courts, she turned to me, burnt-sugar eyes firing on all cylinders. The first thing that I loved about her had always been her gait, the way she moved like she was moving through marshmallow-fluff and couldn’t be bogged down.

Tony stood up and walked over to the Venusian statuette by the rose brush out of everyone’s earshot. I followed.

Are you ready to go back to the city, he said.

I’m not sure, I replied. It’s funny. When I was a kid, this used to be my haven. I’d write these poems in the fishing village–

That one about me? He asked, referring to the sonnet I wrote him after tenth-grade cotillion to declare my love, then un-requited, because this was before I bloomed into myself.

Yes, and others. My dad and I would go to the Baptist church on Quogue because they don’t have mass. And we’d feed the ducks at the lake.

Sounds nice.

Yeah, it was. But that was before, you know. Before I gained consciousness and realized what this is all about.

What do you mean, he said, bending down to touch his loafers. He got antsy quite easily.

You know, wealth-hoarding. The psychological warfare of the family unit. All of the above.

He didn’t need to counter that, something we’d unspooled so many times before. Instead, he turned towards the pickleball match in which Jade was handily defeating my brother and sighed.

So how’s that going? he said, turning to walk up the hill. The clouds were cotton-candy meringue now, suggestive of a slow bleed-out sunset.

The game?

Well, in a sense. The one between you and her.

I stayed planted at the base of the hill, sunk down onto an impossibly verdant clover patch.

She was like that in Spain, he said. Scholarship kid. Always on the hunt, you know. So many women, most of them straight trust-fund girls. I guess you were the first one she pulled. But clearly not the last.

I turned away from him and towards the blackberry bramble, the one I pricked my finger on at six and first saw blood. Its edges were blurred now, under a thicket of my tears.

I thought we agreed not to talk about this, I whispered.

Believe me, it gives me no pleasure, he said. But it’s time to get real.

Later on, my grandfather emerged from the fugue he’d been in all evening, all tallow-cheeked and crepey. The first thing he wanted was to set off fireworks on the beach. My brother and Cousin Elias obliged him.

The clams’ delivery had been delayed, but now they were laid out in abundance by the fire-pit, glistening, lemon-peppered, all iridescent guts. Calypso was plating up a remoulade she’d made for the occasion.

My daughter, her mother, the Countess slurred. Just giving me hope.

Jade, all blissed-out, reclined against me on the defunct lifeguard stand. The periwinkle and magenta Roman candles backlit the planes of her cheekbones, casting her eyes just a little bit violet.

A flock of piping plovers pirouetted past, and she grabbed my knee in delight.

Talk about consistency, she murmured. They send out, like, four mating calls per second. He gets a less-than-one-second pitch, but he sure gets a lot of mileage out of it.

I didn’t ask her how she knew this factoid about Atlantic seabirds. There were so many portholes in her mind that I hadn’t yet accessed.

The trouble was that I loved all of her, even the walls.

I guess if you say something enough times, it’ll make it true, I said.

Her eyes were on the breakwaters, due west, where porpoises were known to splash.

So you’ll accept my apology, she said. It was a canned laugh, tinged with an aftertaste of finality.

Her hands ghosted closer to my hem. And come to my room tonight.

Rema’s shriek cut through the whizz of cherry-bombs then. I found the purple pearl, she said, holding up the lucky clam. Come eat it with me, Catherine, she called to me.

I looked back at Jade, still trained on the sea, and closed my eyes until I saw kaleidoscopes.

I’ve got to keep my own bed warm, I said, and jumped into the sand.

Phoebe Martel is a sophomore from Baltimore, Maryland, majoring in Media Production with a minor in Creative Writing. Some of her passions include coming-of-age cinema; fast-food drive-thrus; astrology; and amateur film photography.