Alice Apologizes


"I came up with the opening line standing at my stove, then went up to my computer and pretty much wrote it," says Elinor Lipman about this story. "I liked the sound of the 'Jews-on-the-beach' theme, with its suggestion of something slightly comic and (sorry) fish-out-of-water-ish. If the assignment had been 500 words on just anything, I don't think I would have been inspired." To see what else the assignment inspired, read Dara Horn's "Song at the Sea," Neal Pollack's "Mr. Pacific Beach," and Danit Brown's "Jews at the Beach."

It is absolutely not the making of amends, nothing 12-stepish or externally imposed, merely Alice, on her 50th birthday, promising herself she'd apologize to those whom she thinks she's offended. Her list is short. There is a sweet boy from tenth grade whose sexual overtures she had rebuffed for a prudishness she now regrets. There are playground and roommate insensitivities and a Thanksgiving meltdown over a dropped chafing dish that didn't even break. But first: her 30-year-old discourtesy, a week's worth, from her whitewashed lookout, Red Cross lifesaving badges sewn proudly to her orange tank suit, whistle between her straight front teeth.

They were a whole family: mother, father, two boys, unmistakably Jews on the Edgartown beach, needle-pointed yarmulkes bobby-pinned to dark hair. Their lunch was the same every day: hard-boiled eggs, carrot sticks, grapes, cheese, crackers. She knew the boys' names because their mother called to them unabashedly, "Dovey! Shmuely! Not yet! You just ate! Another ten minutes!" Had Alice heard accents? Were they from New York? Were they even Americans?

She had studied this family, and had noted a failure of fashion in their bathing suits and motel towels. Her fellow lifeguards knew them, too. Dovey and Shmuely were ecstatic and squealing little fish, requiring attention. Between car and sand, they'd drop whatever bundles had been assigned them, and run into the water, regardless of temperature, of sand castles, of tides.

Their chosen spot hardly changed, in the shadow of the lifeguard's chair, umbrella never planted with any athletic grace. Despite the smiles and waves offered to the handsome college students on duty—we're here; please protect us—Alice pretended that her job was ignoring those on sand, while staring conscientiously out to sea. Who had recommended Martha's Vineyard to these Bernsteins, their name shouted in Magic Marker on their red-and-white cooler, their rations kosher, their skin pale?

And finally to be reckoned with: An impulse within Alice that had allowed Mr. Bernstein to flounder for—how long had it been?—ten seconds longer than the fastest leap she was capable of from chair to ocean? "You have no business out here in rough water if you can't swim," she had scolded.

"I can swim," he had answered. His wife, throwing a towel and a protective arm around her husband's shoulders, had given Alice a condemning stare. I know the person you are, it said.

They hadn't come back to the beach. "Embarrassed," said the blond Duke senior who shared Alice's shift and who lived on his own, unchaperoned, that summer. "It's Saturday," she might have said.

In order to apologize, she would have to find them. The Bernsteins of where? Dov, David, Shmuel, Sam? 

Alice remembered the overhead buzz of planes towing banners, aerial declarations—"I love you, Brenda, marry me, Vinny." What would hers say that was adequate, and over what crowded beach? "Dear Bernsteins, wherever you are. Forgive me. I didn't hate you. I knew you. Your lifeguard, Alice Eisenberg, coward."

Click below to hear Elinor Lipman read "Alice Apologizes."