Summer Reading: New Jersey’s Books and Authors — What I Had Before I Had You

A layered tale of the Jersey Shore, told by the same narrator at two different points in her life

While we’re on summer hiatus, recharging our batteries and coming up with new story ideas, we want to make sure that you have plenty to read. That’s why we’ll be posting excerpts every day from New Jersey books and authors. We’ll be back, rested and ready, after Labor Day. Meanwhile . . .

Sarah Cornwell’s “What I Had Before I Had You” takes place in the fictional Jersey Shore town of Ocean Vista, and the setting is integral to the novel. The author, who grew up in Philadelphia and spent many summer days on down the Shore, told “The Austin Chronicle” that she was drawn to the setting because of its “sense of possibility . . . Shore towns, like all tourist spots, interest me because of their dual nature — public and private, bright and dark — which feels right for a story full of dualities and polar extremes.” Indeed, the story has a dual narrative and is told by both a 15-year-old on the cusp of realizing her family’s secrets and the same girl as a grown woman, returning to the Shore with her children after her marriage has disintegrated. It’s an engrossing tale that explores the complicated landscapes of bipolar disorder, adolescence, family relationships, and the ways in which the past revisits us.

The first time I see my sisters, I am fifteen years old. It is June, and the ocean is just warm enough for swimming. I am floating on my back out past the farthest buoy. If I turn my head, I can see the beach, glutted with tourists, rising above and dipping below each wave swell. The world appears and vanishes, is and isn’t, is and isn’t. Sometimes the lifeguard is sitting, and sometimes he is standing up on his white wooden tower, shading his eyes. The closest swimmers are some forty yards off, a few old ladies doing the crawl, their crepe- paper elbows rising and falling. A wave breaks against my face, and I sputter under the water, come up coughing.

Yards away from me bob two pale redheaded girls. For a moment, we watch one another. Our shoulders work as we tread water out of rhythm. They are so familiar. They look like someone I once knew and have forgotten. Their noses are narrow, and their mouths turn down at the corners. Their cheekbones make high planes that hold the sun. At first I think they are identical, but then I see that they are not— that one is made of sharper angles, and the other has a slight pouty overbite. Their eyes are green, and though their hair is dark with water, I can see that it is my mother’s hair.

“Sorry, we didn’t see you,” calls the sharp- angled girl. Her voice is a buttery alto. “Courtney was splashing me.”

“That’s okay,” I say. I kick harder to keep my head above water. I know they are my sisters with a sureness of intuition that I have never felt but have heard my mother describe all my life, like the sureness of the ground to a falling thing.

This is it: my first vision, my birthright.

Courtney turns to her sister, and they are caught up in each other. “Race me?” They dive and disappear, and though I watch for them, I do not see them again that day.

This is what I think of as I lane-weave up the Garden State Parkway in a rented convertible: my sisters in the water that first time. Heat blurs the horizon, where cars become indistinct and then vanish. Ahead, too far to see: Ocean Vista. I am expecting this fate for us, too; when we get close enough, we will flicker and fade. By the time we arrive, we could be totally invisible.

Carrie is rhythmically kneeing my seat back to the beat of whatever she’s listening to on her iPod. Beside me in the front seat, Daniel sits with his two small hands twined together in his lap, index fingers pressing acupressure points on his inner wrists to stave off carsickness. His father taught him this, and Daniel believes in it so firmly that it works. His eyes are closed, and he looks like a little yogi. I chose the convertible from the rental-car menu because I thought it would be fun, but the kids complained until I put the top up — Carrie afraid of messing up her hair, Daniel afraid he would somehow get sucked out of the car.

“It’s impossible to get sucked out,” I tell him. “Gravity holds you in your seat. Otherwise you’d be floating right now, and you’re not, right?”

“No,” he says, unconvinced.

Carrie whispers to him, “That’s ’cause the top is up.” I try to catch her eye in the rearview mirror. She is wearing giant tortoiseshell sunglasses. She is supposed to help me. Carrie is discovering her power, now that it’s just the three of us, and I don’t like the devilish tilt of her mouth in the rearview. Who is this spiteful sunglassed person?

I have promised the kids a trip to the beach before we continue up to New York, part of a larger campaign of fun detours and ice cream for breakfast with which I am trying to buy their complicity. I thought I might score points by showing them where I grew up, as if sole custody means that I owe them more explanation, more background, more proof of myself. I thought: We’ll buy a box of taffy, we’ll chase the waves. It’s something I can give them so easily. But now, as we near Ocean Vista, I am starting to feel squeamish. That sound, tires on asphalt. The slack gum-chewing boy who pumped our last tank of gas. The white globes of dandelions in the tall grass. I can almost see myself, a wild, skinny kid, sepia-tinged, running alongside our car behind the guardrail through the untended highway scrub.

We are traveling light, having failed to pack all kinds of necessary things: Carrie’s mouth guard, my reading glasses, Daniel’s favorite dinosaur. These things will be waiting for us at the Seventy-third Street house in a moving pod, but for now, we miss them acutely; we let them stand in for other things. In Austin we kept a henhouse and two cats. The cats are being schlepped up to New York by a pet transportation company, but the hens have been left to individual and varied fates. We named them for old Hollywood actresses: Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, Jayne Mansfield. I wonder which Sam has sold and which eaten.

“Are we going to see your house?” Daniel asks.

“No,” I tell him. “They tore it down. It’s a Wendy’s now.”

“What about your school?”

“Nope, that’s gone, too.” This time I’m lying. I think of the stone turrets, the uniformed girls lining up on the lawn for fire drills, the shrill, doughy teachers.

“What if Dad tears down my room now that I’m gone?” Daniel asks me. I know he doesn’t really believe this will happen; he just wants me to confirm for the millionth time the fixed nature of the world. He is worried, lately, by the concept of solipsism, though he wouldn’t know to call it that. That the whole world dissolves when he closes his eyes.