Everything We Didn’t Say

It began with a brass door knocker fashioned in the shape of a pineapple. An odd decorative choice, sure, but my folks have always been on the quirky side. Next came a pineapple decal stuck to our mailbox. Then the assortment of small pineapple figurines scattered along the rock wall by the pool.

On the first Friday after graduation, I stumbled out the front door, half asleep. My dad greeted me with a small nod while using a cordless drill to fasten an adjustable flag pole holder to the front porch. He stepped back, eyeing the holder. Without looking at me, he asked if I was excited about today’s camping trip. He was preoccupied with pulling the new flag from its plastic sheath. It was striped black and white. As he unrolled it, the yellow and green pineapple came into view. It said welcome.

“What is it with you guys and pineapples?” I asked.

While placing the flag in its holder, he asked what it is with me and infidelity.

I’d recently made the mistake of confiding in him that I’d been hooking up with a girl behind my girlfriend’s back. Regretted sharing that information with him more than I regretted cheating on Stef. My dad has never been the sanctimonious type, but for whatever reason, the news had really rubbed him the wrong way.

You have to tell her, he said.

Do the right thing, he insisted.

We raised you better than that, he pointed out.

So forth and so on and such.

The hard truth was that come August, Stef and I would be attending college on opposite ends of the country. She would put on her freshman 15 and fuck a bunch of upperclassmen. And me, I would move on too. Not exactly the end of the world.

He asked if I was familiar with the term cognitive reframing.

The car turned onto our cul-de-sac, then onto our driveway. Stef and my mom got out, carrying on a conversation about camping recipes. Beyond them, across the street, one of the neighbors was busy hanging a flag. A pineapple flag. The latest in a long-standing trend of Claire Norris copying my mom. I grabbed most of the grocery bags in one shot and headed inside.

In the kitchen, Stef and my mom continued their conversation about ways to eat clean during our camping trip. While washing and cutting vegetables, Stef told my mom about a video she’d seen that outlined easy ways to cook fresh food over an open flame. My mom reached beneath the center island and pulled out a wooden chopping board, then, without looking at me, told me to pack it in my car before I forgot. She then segued effortlessly into a conversation about garden gnomes, by which Stef seemed thoroughly rapt. And that was it, Stef’s ability to be so utterly spellbound by the most mundane topics, that was why I both cared for and disliked her. It had been a charming quirk when we’d first started hanging. She was fascinated by the things I was into, the music and books and movies. It soon became evident, however, that her zeal extended far beyond me and that, in fact, it really had nothing at all to do with me. It felt cheap somehow. Generic.

Meanwhile, my parents ate it up. They treated Stef like one of their own. She was allowed to sleep over and come and go as she pleased. Oftentimes, my mom would refer to her as the daughter I never had. The fact that I have an older sister, was immaterial, I suppose.

Even as we loaded the last of our things into my car, my folks doted on Stef. You would think they were her parents; not mine. And you would think Stef was leaving for Europe; not a weeklong camping trip in the Adirondacks. When they were finished fawning over Stef, they took turns hugging me.

Take care of her, my mom urged.

Do the right thing, my dad reminded.

Pulling out of the driveway, I adjusted the rearview mirror in time to see my parents kissing. It was a passionate exchange. The idea of finding love as strong as theirs seemed absurd almost. It’s a bizarre detail to remember, I’m aware, but it’s an enduring one that has always stood out, so there you have it. While many of my friends—Stef included—were products of a failed marriage, I grew up with parents who were in love on a cringe-worthy level.

I stole a glance at her, her one foot casually resting on the dashboard, sunglasses too large for her face, her right hand out the passenger window surfing the highway current, and I ached for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was the crushing realization that I’d betrayed someone who cared deeply for me. My father was right: I had to tell her. I needed to own my transgressions.

But I would own them after our camping trip.

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived at Lake Placid. Of the three couples, we were the last. Despite the grandeur of the rolling mountains and the excitement shared by our group, looming anxiety clung to me, inescapable and heavy, like a wool pullover on a humid day.

While they joked about not having adequate Wi-Fi to watch porn on their phones, I envisioned Stef smothering me in my sleep.

While we started a small fire and arranged our lawn chairs around it, I imagined holding my forearm over the flame until the skin seared away.

And while my friends planned the next day’s activities, I pictured myself in the lake being drowned by a gaggle of sea hags.

Later that night we had uninspired sex. Felt like we’d forced ourselves through the motions. I thought about what college would be like, which led me to ponder all the things I was leaving behind. For better or worse, a seismic shift was on the horizon and I wasn’t quite sure what that meant to me. My dad’s words played on my mind like a mantra:

You have to tell her.

Do the right thing.

We raised you better than that.

I was up before the sun. Started a fire. Boiled water for coffee. One by one, my friends wandered out of hibernation. Stef joined us eventually. We hardly made eye contact. Barely spoke. Nobody seemed to notice.

We moved through the day like that, Stef and me, quiet and aloof. During the morning hike and afternoon swim, neither of us said much to each other or anyone else really. I wondered idly if she felt a similar weight sitting on her chest or if it was simply my conscience screwing with me.

With our backs to each other, we changed out of our wet bathing suits and into dry clothes. She grabbed my hand, asked me to sit for a moment. While looking me dead in the eyes, she told me that it was over. She had hooked up with someone and thought enough of me to cut me loose instead of dragging things out.

I asked who he was even though I didn’t care to know.

She said that the who is unimportant.

That’s fair, I admitted.

I told her that I’d been hooking up with someone, too.

She already knew.

I asked how.

That too, she said, is unimportant.

That too is fair, I admitted.

Neither of us really wanted to stick it out for the remainder of the camping trip. Decided to cut our losses and drive back home where we could part ways amicably. No need to ruin everyone else’s trip, we agreed. It was the mature thing to do. We were no longer high school kids. So we said our goodbyes, Stef feigning a family emergency.

The drive home dragged forever. We could have filled a book with everything we didn’t say. She spent much of the time on her phone, texting, while I flirted with the idea of driving back up to Lake Placid the next day, this time alone. But the prospect of being the fifth wheel was altogether unappealing. Considered bringing along Layla, the girl I’d been seeing on the sneak, but it felt like a dick move no matter how much cognitive reframing I attached to the idea.

Dad would be so proud.

A part of me looked forward to breaking the news of our breakup to my folks. To rub their faces in it just a little. They’d been such fans of Stef. Two pom-poms short of a full-blown cheer squad. What they failed to understand was that their sort of bond was the exception, not the rule.

It was dark when I parked in front of Stef’s house. We got out without a word. I pulled out her camping gear. Left it piled at our feet. Didn’t seem like either of us had anything meaningful to say.

Never one to stand on ceremony, I mumbled a curt, “See you around.”

Yeah, she said. Maybe.

During the ride home, I put on Interpol’s first album and cranked the volume. I felt vaguely liberated. Who the hell needs to be tied down the summer before college?

Turning onto my cul-de-sac, what was strange was the number of cars parked in our driveway and in front of our house. Funny, my folks had neglected to mention anything about hosting a party in my absence.

Too tired to schlep my camping gear inside, I left it in the car and cut across our manicured lawn, playfully slapped the pineapple flag on my way up the porch stairs. The music was loud. Perhaps, I thought, I can make it up to my bedroom without being noticed.

Inside, I nearly made it to the stairs before I saw the feet. The wiggling toes, they belonged to our neighbor, Claire Norris, who was on her knees, choking on my dad’s penis. In his clenched fist was a handful of her red hair. Not five feet from them, my mom’s face looked like she’d just stepped on a Lego. She was bent over the side of a love chair while one of Dad’s friends took her from behind. There were several couples swinging throughout our large living room. People I’d known forever. Family friends.

My mom was the one who noticed me. A mask of horror as she grasped for a throw blanket or a pillow or somebody’s random article of clothing. Everything after that is still a blur. Coping mechanisms and what have you.

I got back into my car and drove nonstop to Lake Placid. In my mind was a motorcade of unanswered questions. Along the way, I called my sister and told her everything. She was unperturbed by the revelation.

I asked how long she’d known.

Ignoring my question, she asked, “What do you think the pineapples are about?”

Pineapple flags and door knockers, she explained, are a subtle broadcast to others in the lifestyle.

My parents.

Jack and Mary Lou.

Swingers.