A Cape May Weekend

Since it’s vacation time right about now, I figured I’d tell you a vacation story. Cape May, New Jersey prides itself on its painted ladies -- Victorian homes and guest houses with froofrooed details and counterintuitive color combinations that all but shout charm from their wraparound porches.   Howard and I were still living at home, though both about to fly off to almost-adult lives in graduate school and college, when he decided it was time for the two of us to have a proper Victorian holiday.

Although this may sound like an odd thought to some, in the world of my brother, it was just another good idea.

We packed clothes, paint sets and sketchpads, novels and plays and set off in Dad’s decrepit Plymouth.  The Plymouth would soon endure a cross-country trip to Indiana University where Howard and his boyfriend, Stuart (at the time, he was simply referred to as Howard’s friend) were about to enter grad school.   Dad figured this would be a decent warm-up for Howard and the car.

We made one stop – our ritual bathroom-and-Brownie Sundae stop at the Hot Shoppes in Delaware – and arrived in Cape May by late afternoon.

We found a guesthouse a few blocks from the beach.  The season hadn’t started yet and it was still too cold to swim so there were plenty of vacancies. The owner of the guesthouse was glad to see us – she was glad to see any paying customers.

“Sure, I’ve got a room – just one, though. The rest are being painted,” the owner showed us up the stairs, stopping to point at an oversized and ornate chair of dark carved wood with claw feet and deep maroon upholstery.

“Ever heard of Zasu Pitts?” she asked as we stood looking at the monstrous chair.   “She gave me that. She used to come here in the summers. Last time she was pretty sick and she wanted to be able to sit and look out the window at the water. So she had this chair sent all the way from California.  She’d sit here for hours, watching the waves. She told me to keep it, because she loved this place and this view. She said she’d be back but then she died.” Our new friend, whose name she told us was Joan, stroked the chair’s arm. “Don’t sit on it. It’s an antique.”

Howard and I stood in respectful silence, looking at the chair.

I didn’t know who Zasu Pitts was but as we followed Joan down the hall, Howard whispered to me “Movie actress from the thirties.  Did some TV, too.”

“ She your girlfriend?” Joan said as we reached the room, motioning to me, smiling sweetly and a little suggestively.

“No,” we both shouted.

“This is my sister, Sarah. I’m Howard.”

“Oh, okay, cause the room only has twin beds.”

“Oh, yeah, well that’s good.”

The room was simple, twin beds covered in yellow flowered spreads with a bedside table and lamp between them. There was a small window dressed in white cotton gauze over the table and a bathroom down the hall.  The turpentine of the painting project mixed with the salt air of the ocean, giving me a headache along with a slight high.

We unpacked, put on our sweaters and headed to the beach, toting our art stuff.   Neither one of us was particularly excited by, or good at, art but it seemed like the thing to do in a place like this.  We spent most of the day drawing, Howard with watercolors, me with pastels.

That night we went out to dinner which, besides making like artists, had pretty much been the point all along. Howard ordered for us -- lobster and drawn butter and soft rolls. I stuffed myself and Howard had me drink a cup of coffee to help me digest.  Howard smoked while I sipped and attempted to look content.  I hated coffee.  Still do.

We spent the rest of the night analyzing and dissecting our favorite subject, Mom and Dad and our grandparents, Nana and Pop Pop.   Howard also told me the plot of

the Jacqueline Susann novel he was reading, giggling over its excesses and camp, teaching me irony and youthful cynicism by example.  Then he told me I also had to read Siddhartha and advised me on what classes to take at Southampton, the college I had chosen.

Rain was predicted for the rest of the weekend so with both thunderstorms and

boredom looming over us, we packed up in the morning and headed home, stopping once more at the Delaware Hot Shoppe, incapable of driving past.

By September we had gone our separate ways – Howard to Bloomington and me to Long Island.   In my naïveté and with a shaky grasp on geography, I had thought living on the tip of Long Island meant I’d be running into New York City every other day.  After I finally made it in, I wrote Howard a triumphant letter about my sophisticated tour of the city.

I still have the letter he sent me in return:

Well kid, any person who visits the Algonquin to see the roundtable is OK in my book.  I knew that trip to Cape May would pay off. What a family of sentimental slobs we are. There ain’t many of us Pre-Raphaelites left, Christina.