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Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons

The Girls of August

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To Allyson, with dearest love

 

O
f all the fifteen summerhouses, the first one was the best. That’s what we all agreed
on, for a while, anyway…until we grew wiser, more measured in our joy, more careful
with the doling out of praise. Funny, we rarely agreed unanimously on anything, but
for years there had been no doubt about the Colleton house. At first glance it had
seemed designed—brick, board, and shingle—for the girls of August.

A silly name for four women who, after a decade and a half of never missing an August
together, were approaching middle age, fretting over crow’s-feet, and reaching for
skin cream. It had seemed silly to us even when we were in our twenties, when one
of our husbands—had it been Mac or Oliver? No one could remember—coined it, the first
summer we’d taken a beach house together, back when our men were still residents
in med school. We were not girls even then. Strictly speaking, I don’t think some
of us ever were.

But it had been August. And somehow, after that first time, it always was.

Odd how that week—the second week to be exact because it gave us time to breathe
before school and fall and the holidays—had cemented itself into our lives.

“It’s like Christmas, or goddamned New Year,” Mac had said once, when we had been
invited by his friends the Copleys to spend the first two weeks in August aboard
their yacht, the
Spindrift
, cruising from Savannah to the Bahamas and back.

“Why the hell can’t y’all just move it forward or back? I’ll never get another chance
to fish for a solid ten days.” He blinked his eyes, a sure sign—I had come to learn
over the years—of his being desperate to have his way.

“We just can’t,” I said, knowing not why, only that we couldn’t. It felt to each
of the girls of August as if the universe would tilt on its axis and no one would
be the same if we adjusted the timing of our yearly gathering. “That’s just when
it is. We’ve already rented the house. Go fishing with the Copleys, by all means.
I’ll bet La Serenissima has a dozen itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny bikinis.”

Mac snorted. Serena Copley in a bikini would have been as ludicrous as a hippo in
a wet suit. She was not fat, but at six feet and with shoulders as wide as a linebacker’s,
she packed more muscle than Arnold Schwarzenegger. She was, as her dandelion-frail
husband, Dave, said frequently, every inch an athlete.

“She could easily tow the boat in her teeth,” Mac groused. But he went fishing and
I went, happily, to the Gulf Coast of Alabama.

In the early days, we always chose a spot along the northern Gulf Coast because it
was within shouting distance of Nashville and Vanderbilt’s med school, where, as
Rachel was fond of saying, we were all stationed, as if life in med school were akin
to military service. Given the long hours residents kept and the often life-or-death
decisions they had to make, her military allusion bore some merit.

But back to that first trip, taken in haste—almost hysteria—because the girls had
wanted, I suppose, to claim time as fiercely as our men did. Beautiful Point Clear,
Alabama. The house had belonged to Teddy’s first wife, Cornelia, who would ultimately
leave Teddy, a few months after he went into private practice, for a college boyfriend
whose family boasted as much money as her own, taking her wonderful beach house with
her.

Let me be clear. We did not mourn Cornelia. I don’t think even Teddy did. She was
a lazy, drawling aristocrat whose sole persona seemed to be heavy-lidded amusement
at the likes of the rest of us. But for a good long while we sorely missed her rambling
gray-shingled beach house with its endless airy rooms reminiscent of a Ralph Lauren
ad, surrounded by a picket fence drooling
Rosa rugosa
and dipping its feet into the warm green sea.

We all took turns finding the next August’s beach house, but we perpetually complained
that none were as
House Beautiful
–perfect as the Colletons’. Perhaps our affection for the place was like a first
love. It takes the long view of history to snuff out the glow.

“Old Mobile money, you know,” Teddy had said asininely when he first introduced
his rich golden girl to the rest of the group. I, unfortunately, had already met
her, but that is another story. She officially came into the group fold, as it were,
on Mac’s birthday. I’d cobbled together enough champagne and crepe paper to throw
him a proper party in our cramped apartment that was within walking distance of the
hospital.

“How nice for you,” I’d purred to Teddy. None of us had much money; the guys, of
course, were still residents. The idea of their finding practices to join, or trying
to start their own, was nothing but a distant dream. Only Mac and I were married
then, newlyweds full of blush and blather, though Rachel and Barbara were very much
in the picture. Their weddings to Oliver and Hugh followed soon after ours.

“Madison, dear, don’t worry. We’ll wait till the fuss about yours dies down,” Cornelia
had said silkily just after our wedding, a champagne glass sparkling in her exquisitely
manicured, alabaster hand. “I’d hate for Teddy’s and mine to be upstaged by the memory.”

“Yeah, right,” Rachel had whispered in my ear in her froggy New Jersey voice as she
made her way to the canapés, which I’d made myself, sacrificing sleep but gaining
pride. “You wait,” Rachel growled. “Hers will upstage Di and Charles’s.”

And in many ways, I thought that it had. Their wedding was held on a late spring
day on the lush emerald lawn of the house on Point Clear, against the backdrop of
rioting
Rosa rugosa
and green waves curling onto pearl-white sand, with eight bridesmaids (none of
us among them) dressed in billowing blue tulle and Cornelia herself in layers of
diaphanous white silk that blew in the rose-scented wind like the petals of a flower.

Teddy, startling in a cutaway and wickedly starched collar, looked as if the wind
might pick him up and whirl him into Mobile Bay. He was so pale that his relentless
five-o’clock shadow stood out like a pirate’s beard, although I was sure he had shaved
hardly an hour before. He seemed tossed like flotsam in the sea of silks and satins
and flowers and wondrous, huge-brimmed hats that surged around him.

I stood with Rachel and Barbara—our men were Teddy’s groomsmen—and realized that
I had seldom seen him in anything but green scrubs. This, sadly, was not an improvement.

But oh, the house! That wonderful, wind-riding, sea-drinking house! When it became
clear that our group, which was surviving the rigors of med school thanks to inky
coffee and catnaps stolen on the fly, would inevitably be blown asunder by the advent
of far-flung job opportunities—no more Nashville, no more “I’ll be right over” when
one of us was in crisis—Rachel, Barbara, and I had determined that a week-long getaway,
possibly a yearly one, was in order. The men’s residency schedules, we knew, would
eventually be overtaken by careers and the detritus of life. So one late Friday night,
as we chatted around a table cluttered with empty wine bottles, we insisted that
no matter where the future took us, we would reserve one week for ourselves.

“Always and forever,” I had said.

“Hear, hear!” Barbara and Rachel had chimed in in unison, and to seal the deal, we
clinked glasses.

Cornelia, who, in addition to being transparently beautiful in the way of fair-headed
blondes, was inordinately nosy, caught on to our harried plan in nothing flat. Not
to be left out, she offered her summerhouse for free. Of course, that meant she would
join us. But we could handle that. We could deal with her old-money mannerisms and,
we naïvely thought, perhaps make her a better woman.

Sadly, the Colleton house—as soon as we laid eyes on it—became the standard by which
we judged all the subsequent getaway houses. Under the spell snobbery sometimes casts,
we would find a perfectly lovely summer home and spend much of our week carping that
it wasn’t as pitch-perfect as Cornelia’s. Even though some were warm and happy houses
(and some, frankly, dreadful, like the one on the Outer Banks that had oil drums
and a defunct gas pump behind it), Cornelia’s home stalked our imaginations like
a lion in the veldt.

However, its perch among the rugosas and on the sweet warm Gulf fortunately gave
rise to a rigid criterion that did serve us well: Whatever house we would choose
in the future, it had to be isolated and on the oceanfront.

Years later—after it became clear that some of us were cursed with empty wombs and
some of us had to work harder than others to keep our marriages afloat—it dawned
on me that I had not really liked that house. Not really. Rather, it had seemed like
a duty to like it, and I could not put my finger on the reasons why.

I tried to explain it one afternoon to the
real
girls of August. Yes, the
real
girls. Cornelia had long since decamped with her old-Mobile-money scion (she’d
lasted only a single season), and Teddy, within the year, had brought Melinda into
our circle.

Melinda Marshall-soon-to-be-Patterson promptly made up for a hundred imperfect beach
houses. She was, down to her marrow, genuine and funny and smart. We welcomed her
with the unbridled satisfaction that often accompanies the phrase
out with the old and in with the new
. Yes. Simply put, Teddy did himself and us a big favor when he married Melinda.

So there we were—not knowing it was the last time the four of us would be together—lolling
about on the grand porch of a weather-beaten charmer in St. Teresa, Florida, drinking
margaritas and gazing at the languorous Gulf.

“That house just seemed to have way too many gewgaws…bibelots, I think Cornelia called
them…simply too much…no chance to rest your eyes,” I said.

“If you looked at all that expensive crap the wrong way it would break. What the
hell was wrong with us? Why have we spent so many years admiring a glass house when
we should have been throwing stones?” Rachel chimed in, rolling her blue eyes.

“Cornelia!” Barbara spit in her clear, precise schoolteacher’s voice, flicking a mosquito
off her wrist.

“Right.” Rachel bobbed her head in agreement. “Snotty little bitch.”

“The oil cans and gas pump were better,” I said, swirling my glass, the clinking of
ice underscoring my certainty.

“Pity I never met her,” Melinda murmured, staring out to sea, and I believe she meant
it.

Melinda, of the heavy coiled mahogany mane and aquamarine eyes and the smattering
of copper freckles across her nose, the only real beauty among us. Melinda, of the
laugh that rang like shattered Lalique and the tongue that could bite like a copperhead.
Melinda, of the joyous heart that held us all like a mother’s hand. Oh, Melinda…for
so long it was Madison and Rachel and Barbara and Melinda, we four, the original
girls of August, for Cornelia never truly counted. How we loved Melinda! How, the
very moment Teddy brought her into our lives, we all said, “Yes!”

And then, after fifteen summers, Melinda was gone, killed in a car crash on an icy,
rutted Kentucky back road far, far, far from the sea. Teddy had been at the wheel.
They’d gone to look at a horse he had planned on buying her. A Christmas present.
Melinda, like me, was unable to have children, so to fill up that lonely space in
her life, they had decided that her love for dogs, cats, horses, and anything else
that walked on four legs should be sated with the acquisition of a prize filly. After
leaving Rolling Hills Stable, to celebrate the intended purchase, they’d stopped
at an inn and eaten dinner. I’m sure Teddy had his requisite three scotches. The
bitch in me feels absolutely, stone-eyed certain of that.

Black ice is a killer, you know. And so is disregard for how quickly a happy life
can be snuffed out, especially in bad weather when you take a curve too fast.

He didn’t see the ice, of course, but he should have known it was there. As they
sped toward home, the car spun out on the slick surface and he couldn’t regain control.
Going sixty miles an hour, they slammed into a tree.

Teddy was basically unhurt. The love of his life was dead. I do not know what that
must have been like for Teddy. He was a doctor, for Christ’s sake, and he could not
save his own wife.

And though the tragedy was deemed an accident, I think we all quietly seethed.
If only, if only, if only

So then we were down to three again: Madison McCauley and Rachel Greene and Barbara
Fowler, women long past girlhood who were married to physicians practicing in cities
across the South, linked by nothing more than the memories of fifteen houses on fifteen
beaches in fifteen vanished Augusts.

We exchanged Christmas cards, but the long phone conversations gradually ended, as
did the letters and e-mails. It was as though, after all these years, the only thing
that bound us together was the memory of Melinda. But we couldn’t deal with that.
Her absence was as alive and painful as her presence had been alive and joyful.

When she was gone, there was no replacement. Period.

Wind whistled in my heart during those few years after Melinda’s death. I think
it did in the hearts of Barbara and Rachel too. We were lost. And besides, there
could not be only three girls of August. The set was four, even if that came into
being only through Cornelia’s selfish insistence.

So we stopped gathering.

*  *  *

“I can’t imagine having friends that long,” my niece Curry said to me during her
last visit before she departed for the North and her first semester at Harvard. She
was moving to Cambridge over the summer so she could get
acclimated
. She kept saying the word, as if trying it on, sometimes uttering it in a truly terrible
bid at a Boston accent.

Curry was almost my own child. She was, in fact, Mac’s sister’s child, but Charlotte
worked long hours and was often out of town, and Curry came to us as naturally as
the air we breathed. It wasn’t unusual for her to stay with us for several weeks,
even a month or so. By that day when we sat on the guest room bed, which had long
ago become known as Curry’s bed, talking of friends and men, I thought of her as
my own. Charlotte never seemed to mind. And when I looked into her daughter’s bright
blue eyes, I saw Mac, and I sometimes imagined that she really was our child. But
then I stopped, because the longing hurt too much.

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