By Sherri Rifkin


Summerhouse Guidelines

1. Each person is assigned a bedroom, either alone or paired with a roommate, depending on the level of share you bought, for the entire summer. Note: there will be no room switching.

2. Since everyone has their own assigned space, please respect one another’s privacy. That means not going into other people’s rooms or using their belongings without their permission. Even if the person is not out for the weekend, it is up to that person’s discretion whether or not they want to let someone else, either a house member or another member’s guest, sleep in that room for the weekend. (See Attachment A: The Guest Policy for more.)

3. Everyone has a full share, meaning you’re all allowed to come out every weekend between Memorial Day and Labor Day. You will not be refunded for unused time, so like they say about the FLEX plan, use it or lose it.

4. The house is available for you to use during the weekdays. All house guidelines still apply. You won’t be guaranteed weekday time alone, as the house is still a share house, even during the week.

5. Please keep the common areas neat and clean up after yourselves. It shouldn’t be that hard to put your glasses and dishes in the dishwasher. (BTW, putting them in the sink doesn’t count). And if the dishwasher is full, here’s an idea: turn it on!

6. I will be taking care of all the finances and paying our bills out of a house fund everyone contributed to in the cost of their share. I will also purchase basic house supplies such as paper goods, bath soap, laundry detergent, etc. If you see that we’re running low on anything, please write it down on the list I will be posting on the refrigerator. NB: Food, alcohol, and Red Bull are not included.

Chapter 1
Hamptons Unwritten Rule #1:
There is no other place to be between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I’m standing outside of Dos Caminos, the original one on Park Avenue South, my hand frozen on the cool bronze C of the DC-shaped door handle, my breath shallow and heart pounding. This should be easy. All I have to do is pull the door open and go inside-but I can’t. Even the name of the restaurant-which I’ve translated, using my ninth-grade-level Spanish, as “two roads”-seems to be taunting me. Why did I decide to do this again? Is this total immersion thing really necessary?

But it’s too late. I need to get a life. Now. Because I haven’t had one for almost two years. For better or worse, I’ve already embarked on this particular road-not necessarily by my own choice, but for my own good.

And this road continues with tonight: having dinner with seven complete strangers, only one of whom I’ve been in contact with, and that was via e-mail. It’s far worse than a blind date and not because it’s like being on seven simultaneous blind dates, but because no matter if we love or hate one another after this evening, we all have committed to a very intimate three-month-long relationship.

We are going to be sharing a house in the Hamptons for the summer.

I look down at the sidewalk and focus on a crack by my foot, trying to employ a breathing technique I learned recently to help calm me down. I start by closing my eyes, taking deep, rhythmic breaths, pulling fresh air-as fresh as it can be in New York City-into my diaphragm and exhaling to the count of four. Before I can finish my first round, the heavy glass door swings open from the inside as a group of people push their way by me without so much as an “excuse me,” knocking me back several paces from the door, causing me to stumble into an older couple passing by.

“Watch it!” the man shouts at me while his wife grabs his arm and stage-whispers, “She must be on drugs!”

Clearly, this is no time for meditation. I might as well get this over with.

I raise my head, straighten my back, turn up the corners of my mouth into a semblance of a smile, pull the door open, and step through.

Hamptons Unwritten Rule #2:
First impressions-especially when made at the Pre-Summerhouse Dinner-last a summertime . . . and then some.

The small bar is packed even though it’s a Sunday night. I scan the crowd, looking for a group of people who could be my housemates, but unfortunately, I have no reference point for recognizing them. When I exchanged e-mails with Leah earlier in the week and she told me about the dinner, I forgot to ask what she looked like. The plan was to meet for drinks in the bar at seven o’clock with the dinner reservation set for seven-thirty. My predinner panic attack set me back by only ten minutes, so theoretically everyone should be here and I avoided being the first one to arrive.

After one more fruitless look around, I ask the hostess.

“I seated them ten minutes ago. Let me bring you back.”

Strange, I think, as I follow her into the loud, cavernous restaurant. She abandons me at a table filled with a comely crowd.

A skinny woman with beautiful long blond hair and a great body but not a particularly soft or pretty face shoots out of her chair and stalks toward me in a suede miniskirt and sheer white fitted blouse, unbuttoned just enough to reveal a flawless, possibly surgically enhanced cleavage. “Miller! Where have you been?” She looks like the kind of girl Molly Ringwald would instantly be intimidated by in a John Hughes movie. I just wish I was feeling even as remotely confident as Molly Ringwald would be in this situation.

“It’s Tori, actually. Are you Leah? It’s so nice to meet-”

“What happened to you? You’re so late! We thought you were bailing on us.”

“Only by a few-well, ten-minutes, right?”

“More like forty.” She throws back her blanket of straight multitonal blond hair over her shoulder, then cocks her head to the side so her tresses fall right back into place. Perfectly.

“I thought your e-mail said drinks were at seven.”

“That was the original plan, but then everyone wanted to start earlier, so we decided to move it up to six-thirty. Didn’t you get my e-mail today?” She blinks at me several times.

“I don’t check my e-mail on the weekends. It’s against my religion,” I joke.

Blink, blink. “Well, the important thing is that you’re here now. And your check cleared.” She flips her hair again. “Kidding! Seriously, you’re going to have a great time this summer. It’s going to be mad fun, if tonight is any indication. So. Let me introduce you.” She spins around on her high heels, causing her hair to fan out in a wide circle and leads me toward three girls at the end of the table, all of whom are wearing versions of the perfect we-know-it’s-Sunday-night-but-this-is-still-an-important-social-occasion outfit, noting with relief that I’m in the same fashion camp, thanks to a little recent outside help.

“Abigail, Cassandra, Stacy: meet Miller.”

“Hi, it’s great to meet you all. Actually, my name is Tori. I know it’s confusing, since the name on my e-mail is Miller at MillerWorks dot-”

“Do you live really far away, like in an outer borough or something?” Abigail gives me a limp, clammy hand to shake. She, unlike Leah, is naturally very pretty, but the scowl on her face is not doing her any favors. As much as I am apt to project that her frown is for my benefit, I get the feeling she is cursed with a permanently displeased expression, since it seems to fit perfectly with her nasal tone.

“No, I came straight from home, a little bit farther downtown. Why?”

“Well, it’s just that you were so late.”

Now it’s my turn to blink.

“Miller says she doesn’t check her e-mail on the weekends,” Leah answers Abigail. This time, I don’t bother correcting her about my name.

“I didn’t know anyone still did that,” Abigail comments, still frowning. Talk about a conversation ender. I shift on my feet, unsure of what to say or do next. I’m woefully out of practice meeting and socializing with new people outside of business situations. Speaking to my three best friends, two of whom work for me, is one thing. Trying to create new friendships when you’ve been sitting on the bench for two years is another matter entirely. I was kind of hoping that this was one of the things that was supposed to be like riding a bike, but now that it’s happening, I’m not too sure.

“Hey there, I’m Cassie.” She reaches across Abigail to shake my hand with a cool, confident grip. “I am so coveting your blouse! It’s fantastic. I hope you plan on bringing it out to the house. We look to be about the same size. . . .” She gives me a wide, welcoming smile.

I feel my shoulders start nudging down from my ears for the first time since I left my apartment. “Thanks. I . . . it’s new.”

Stacy pops up out of her chair and gives me the kind of hug that little kids give. She’s much shorter than the other three girls and has a head of massive shoulder-length dark brown curls, big brown eyes to match, and a face full of freckles. “Hi, Miller! Did Leah tell you we’re going to be roomies? Isn’t that great? We’re going to have so much fun together! I have a car, which you’re welcome to use anytime because I heard you don’t have one. And if you ever need a ride out there, I can totally drive you-”

Leah cuts her off. “Stacy, Miller still needs to meet the guys. You’ll have plenty of time to bond with your new roomie later.”

Leah leads me around to the other side of the table until we’re standing in front of three very good-looking men. My heart starts pounding. They will be the first straight, unmarried, non-work-related men I’ve spoken to in two years.

“Guys, this is Miller. Miller, this is Michael, Andrew, and Jackson.”

In response to their chorus of friendly greetings, all I can do is nod. And then there it is again: the abhorrent, awkward silence.

“Cat got your tongue or something?” Michael asks with a heavy Long Island accent.

Suddenly they’re all staring at me. Maybe I can make a run for it. All I’d have to do is push Leah out of the way, jump over that baby stroller at the next table. . . .

Just then, Andrew stands up to shake my hand. “Hey there. I’m Andrew Kane. Welcome to the nut house.” He’s solidly over six feet, has dirty-blond wavy hair-slightly longish for a guy but not hippie-ish-a strong chin, hazel eyes, and underneath an untucked striped button-down shirt and well-fitting dark jeans, a seemingly built body. Celebrity He Most Resembles: Simon Baker. But the fact that he resembles anyone famous means that he is definitely out of my league.

“Nice to meet you,” I choke out as casually as possible.

He leans in and stage-whispers, “You seem like a nice, normal person. You might want to run while you still can.” He pushes his chin in Michael’s direction, who is too busy CrackBerrying to notice.

Does this guy read minds? “I was actually just considering that very thing, but I thought I’d give everyone a few more minutes before deciding whether I’m going to need to exercise that option.”

He narrows his eyes at me and then laughs. Score one for Tori, I mean, Miller.

“You know, it’s really bad that you were late . . .”

Et tu, Andrew? “But, I wasn’t-”

“. . . because you missed happy hour. I wouldn’t recommend experiencing this awkward presummer ritual sober. What can I get you?”

“How about a margarita on the rocks, no salt?”

“A fine choice. I’ll just order it at the bar. We currently seem to be without a waiter. Be back in a few.” Andrew ambles away.

Michael puts down his BlackBerry. “Hey, Miller, why don’t you take a load off?” He cocks his head toward the empty seat next to him.

“Isn’t that Andrew’s chair?”

“He can find somewhere else to sit. Besides, I didn’t pay all that money for a share to hang out with guys, if you know what I mean.” He pats the chair. I sit. He is good-looking but in a way completely opposite to Andrew. Michael’s dark curly hair is clipped short, which is not doing such a good job of hiding a bald spot that’s beginning to appear on the crown of his head. His best feature is his blue eyes. The only thing detracting from his looks is that he’s a little puffy all over, as if he recently put on some extra poundage and it didn’t know where to settle, so it distributed itself evenly from head to toe. He leans in and not so casually drapes his arm around the back of my chair.

“So, how do you all know one another?” I ask Michael, beating him to the punch.

“I know Andrew through work. I’m an investment banker, and Andrew was the lawyer on some of my deals. We got to talking at a couple of closing dinners and figured out both of us are into tennis, so we started playing out at the beach last summer. I was in another house not too far away from where he was. Then he invited me to the famous birthday bash that he throws for himself every August, which is where I met Leah. Now that was a killer party! That guy knows more people than God. I’m sure he’ll do it again this year.”

“I hope I’m invited.”

“You’re funny,” he says without laughing. “Andrew and Leah randomly ended up in the same house three years ago and then they organized a house last summer, so this is their third summer together.”

“I thought Leah was managing our house alone.”

“She’s large and in charge for sure, but Andrew helps out by bringing in people. I guess I think of it as his house too, since he was the one who asked me to join.”

A huge margarita appears in front of me, delivered by the most beautiful man-hand I’ve ever seen adorned by a chunky silver Rolex. “I hope your cocktail is to your liking,” Andrew says, “even though you stole my seat.”

“I’m sorry! Michael said-”

“Don’t look at me. I was just sitting here minding my own business.” Michael edges away, as if I’ve suddenly been diagnosed with a communicable disease.

“Let me find another chair,” I say.

“No worries. I should probably go spend some quality time with the other female members of the household.” Andrew strides over to the other end of the table, where the girls happily make room for him in the middle of their klatch.

“I’m starving and they haven’t even taken our order yet.” Michael cranes his head to look around the restaurant. “I’m going to see if I can find any signs of life. If a waiter comes over, don’t let him leave!”

I look across the table at Jackson, who until now has been so quiet I almost forgot he was there. He is staring at me with an amused look on his face.

“So, how do you like us so far?” he says, his voice tinged with a welcome touch of sarcasm and an unexpected British accent.

“Um, good, I guess. I mean . . .”

“Try not to worry yourself too much. We’re not all Neanderthals. Some of us even know how to read.”

I’m not sure whether to laugh or not, since he doesn’t smile or give me any sense that he’s kidding. “Good to know.”

. . .

After we order and are settled with fresh drinks, the group’s attentions turn back to themselves and thankfully away from me.

I’m the most intrigued by Jackson, who remains quiet but I can tell keenly tuned in. As he made a point of saying, he so clearly, even visibly, is different from the rest of the housemates. He has brown wavy hair that is longish and falls into his face, like Michael Stipe circa the late 1980s, causing him to repeat the fruitless gesture of raking his hand through it to push it out of his eyes. He wears wire-rimmed glasses, which successfully-and I’m going to guess deliberately-give him a studious look. He’s medium height and thin, bordering on gaunt-looking. Jackson clearly hasn’t shaven today, if at all this weekend. His clothes have the air of being expensive, possibly even custom-made, but upon closer look, are well worn and frayed. Since there’s no smoking inside, he has excused himself more than once to “nip outside” for a cigarette. Even though we haven’t said more than a few words to each other, I imagine him and me to be the two outsiders of the group and feel comforted by that.

By the time the dishes are cleared, I’m more than a little buzzed (three margaritas apparently will have that effect) and feeling emboldened, albeit artificially. So when everyone seat-hops, I follow suit, situating myself next to Cassie. The best way to describe her is a superstylish former ballerina. She has shiny chestnut-colored hair that’s pinned back into a loose, messy knot. The few, well-positioned freckles on her nose only help to emphasize her deep brown eyes. We’re probably about the same height, but she’s clearly more graceful than I could ever hope to be. I wonder how she appears to be so comfortable with her long legs and arms, when I always feel like my appendages are something I have to fight to keep under my control. Besides being genetically blessed, Cassie has what I consider to be one of the most glam jobs: she is a beauty editor at Elle. Ironically, she wears barely any makeup, not that she needs it, which is probably why she doesn’t bother with it.

I’m fairly certain that I’ve been thoroughly embarrassing myself for the last half hour by asking her a million questions about her job and gushing about how exciting it must be. “Enough about me! I’m even boring myself. I can’t imagine how excruciating this must be for you. Save me from myself and tell me what you do. It’s got to be more interesting and meaningful than writing about colored wax and powder every day.”

“I don’t know about that . . . I’ll let you be the judge. I recently started my own business called MillerWorks. It’s a TV on-air promotion production company.”

“Okay, I have no idea what that is but it sounds good. Tell me more.”

“You know those TV commercials that say stuff like, ‘Watch our new show every Thursday at nine, eight central or you will be woefully clueless at tomorrow’s watercooler!’ or ‘Coming up next, later, or tomorrow night at eight-you can’t afford to miss this very special episode of the latest acronym-named medical drama/derivative criminal procedural’? We create pitches about what those should be, and then once a cable network buys into one of our concepts, we write, produce, shoot, and edit it. Sometimes they just air the spots on their own channels to drive tune-in, but if they’re doing a big marketing campaign around a new show launch, they run them on other networks like regular commercials.”

“That is so totally cool!”

“I think what you do is much cooler.”

“Are you kidding? You have your own business. How great is that! Even though I work at a women’s magazine, I still technically work for ‘the man.’ I’m so jealous that you get to work for yourself. And in television! That just seems so much more relevant.”

“Actually,” I respond, feeling genuinely proud, “it does feel pretty good. I love what I do.”

“Well, good luck with your venture. I’m sure you’ll be successful, especially if you’re doing something you love. Here’s to being in charge of your own destiny!” We clink glasses. My margarita sloshes all over her hand, but she doesn’t flinch. While she dabs at the spill with her napkin, I notice her catching sight of her watch.

“Woops, I better get going. I don’t want to be late for my date.” She hurriedly gathers up her belongings, including a patterned shawl and a butter-colored leather handbag that looks like it cost more than my couch.

“You have a date on a Sunday night at nine-thirty?”

She checks her face in a sleek black Chanel compact. “Marco just flew in from Rome tonight.”

“Is he your boyfriend?”

She laughs. “Not so much. He’s just one of the guys I currently have in rotation. I’m not the settling-down type, I’m afraid. I think I’m cursed with a touch of Dating ADD. It was so nice meeting you, Miller! I’m really looking forward to sharing a house together. See you next weekend!” She gives me a double-cheek air kiss. “You should help yourself to my water. It will help soften the blow of the tequila later, trust me.”

I take her advice and start downing her glass of water while signaling the busboy for a refill.

Hamptons Unwritten Rule #3:
The rules you really have to watch out for are the ones you didn’t even know about.

Before dessert comes, I end up sitting between Andrew and Michael, who have commandeered the end of the table after Jackson went out for his last smoke. When Jackson returned, Leah extended what I thought was a bit of an obvious invitation-since she had been watching the door like a hawk until he reappeared-for Jackson to sit next to her. Between the two of them, there is a whole lot of hair-futzing body language going on: her flipping to his raking.

“I’m so glad Jeff and Rachel didn’t end up doing the house this year. This group is much better,” Michael is commenting to Andrew.

“I know, they’re nice people, but they would’ve thrown off the whole house vibe we seem to have going on,” agrees Andrew as he digs his fork into the communal flan in front of us.

“Jeff was more fun before he started dating Rachel,” Michael adds. “Now he’s just whipped.”

“Who are Jeff and Rachel?” I ask.

“They were in my house last year. They didn’t come in as a couple, but they left as one,” responds Andrew.

“And from what I hear, Jeff totally choked on the August First Rule,” Michael says, aiming his fork at the last bits of flan. “He was lucky it didn’t backfire on him. That could’ve been a disaster.”

“I’m lost. What’s the August First Rule?” I ask.

“Should we tell her?” Michael asks Andrew. “The information could be dangerous in the wrong hands.”

“Good point,” Andrew answers, sitting back to size me up. “We don’t know her very well. . . .”

Even though I switched to water halfway through my third margarita, the tequila is still yielding its influence over my actions. “Come on, tell me! See! Look at these hands! So not dangerous!”

Andrew leans forward to pretend-inspect my hands. “It’s okay. She’s clean.”

Michael turns back to me. “The rule is that you should never hook up with anyone in your summerhouse before August first. Think of it as a social safety net. Let’s say you fool around with someone in June, and then you decide you’re not going to keep things going for whatever reason-you were just horny and drunk when it first happened and you don’t really like the person more than as a friend, or you meet someone you like better, or you just want to date around-whatever. For the rest of the summer, it can make things awkward in the house. And then if you meet someone else, you feel weird and guilty about bringing them around.”

That makes some sense, but a part of me can’t help feeling somewhat dismayed that people actually police themselves in this regard until a certain date and are comfortable being so blatant about wanting to keep their options open. And that there’s a rule for it. A rule with a name.

“I think we freaked her out,” Michael says to Andrew.

“No, I’m just trying to understand,” I say. “So, what if you really like someone in the house? You have to wait until August first to do anything about it?”

“Yup,” Michael answers. “It actually works out much better to wait. It gives you a chance to get to know someone first as friends. And it’s not as if they’re going anywhere-they’re going to be in your house all summer-so what’s the rush? Not to mention, the Pre-August Hookup isn’t great for the house dynamics all-around. When something happens in the house, it becomes everyone’s business, whether you like it or not. I’ve seen situations like this spin way out of control. One summer, these two people in my house hooked up, just once but on Fourth of July weekend. Within a week they stopped talking to each other, and it even caused a rift in the house for the rest of the summer, because the girls took this girl’s side against the guy. It became a major drag for everyone.”

I narrow my eyes at them. “Is this a guy thing? Because you think girls can’t handle being casual? It sounds like you’re implying that it’s always the girls who get upset.”

“No, not necessarily,” Michael answers. “It works out for both sexes. I mean, yeah, nine times out of ten, it’s the girl who’s looking for more and is all bummed out when the guy wants to keep things cool, but if everyone just waited until August to act on their impulses, then the chances of a situation imploding are far less. Or, at least, even if it implodes in August, you only have a few weeks left to suffer the consequences.”

“Sounds like you’ve broken the rule once or twice,” I posit.

Michael and Andrew exchange inscrutable glances. “Nope, not me. I wouldn’t be that stupid,” Michael replies taking a last swig at his beer. “I never shit where I eat.”

“Andrew? How about you?” I ask.

“Me?” He laughs. “Sorry, ma’am. I don’t kiss and tell.”

Copyright © 2008 by Sherri Rifkin. All rights reserved.