Book ‘Rock the Boat’ by Beck Dorey-Stein

Read excerpt from 'Rock the Boat: A Novel' by Beck Dorey-Stein
Old friends discover how much has changed (and how much has stayed the same) when they reunite in their seaside hometown for one unforgettable summer—from the New York Times bestselling author of From the Corner of the Oval. When Kate Campbell’s life in Manhattan suddenly implodes, she is forced to return to Sea Point, the small town full of quirky locals, quaint bungalows, and beautiful beaches where she grew up. She knows she won’t be home for long; she’s got every intention (and a three-point plan) to win back everything she thinks she’s lost. Meanwhile, Miles Hoffman—aka “The Prince of Sea Point”—has also returned home to prove to his mother that he’s capable of taking over the family business, and he’s promised to help his childhood best friend, Ziggy Miller...
Publisher: ‎The Dial Press (June 29, 2021)  Hardcover: ‎368 pages  ISBN-10: ‎0525509151  ISBN-13: ‎978-0525509158  Dimensions: ‎6.4 x 1.16 x 9.52 inches

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Book excerpt

O enchanted land of my childhood, a cultural petri dish from which regularly issues forth greatness. New Jersey, in case you didn’t know it, has got beaches. Beautiful beaches. And they’re not all crawling with roid-raging trolls with reality shows. I grew up summering on those beaches and they are awesome. Jersey’s got farmland, beautiful bedroom communities where that woman from Real Housewives who looks like Dr. Zaius does not live nor anyone like her. Even the refineries, the endless cloverleaves of turnpikes and expressways twisting in unknowable patterns over the wetlands, are to me somehow beautiful.

To know Jersey is to love her.

—Anthony Bourdain

Part I

Road to Nowhere

Kate Campbell opened her eyes but couldn’t see a thing. It was the middle of the night and, like a young Miss Clavel only less French and more ginger, she knew something was not right. Recalling the details of the previous evening, however, she realized it was just the opposite—nothing was wrong, and everything was finally about to be extremely right.

Kate smiled in the dark as all the evidence accumulated to form an arrow pointing at a singular fact: Thomas would propose to her in the morning. Wriggling back under the covers, Kate grinned as she imagined what everyone would think besides It’s about time. Of course it was about time; it had been twelve years.

Despite—or maybe because of—the countless, candid conversations they’d had about how and when to get engaged, Kate was shocked that Thomas would spring this on her. It was impressive, really, to still surprise someone after more than a decade of dating (never mind those two rocky breaks when he was stressed in med school, or those six months his first year of surgical residency, or this second fellowship). They’d agreed forever ago that the only real incentive to marry would be if they wanted to start a family, and they hadn’t even discussed children in the last six months because Thomas’s fellowship was basically Kill Bill only in long, white coats and with far more blood.

But the end of the fellowship was finally in sight with an offer at the same hospital, and their conversation the night before was undeniable evidence of an imminent proposal. They’d been in a cab crossing back over the Brooklyn Bridge, Kate watching the fare tick up and up, when Thomas had asked if she’d like to go to brunch at Norman’s in the morning.

“Before New Hampshire?”

“Mm-hmm,” Thomas said, looking at his phone.

“With Aggie and Marta?” Thomas’s sister and sister-in-law lived above them in the building Thomas’s grandparents owned. They would carpool to New Hampshire together for Easter Sunday, just as they’d done every Easter since they were twenty-two.

“Just us,” Thomas had said, as he continued to stare down at his phone. This calculated attempt to plan a casual brunch without Aggie and Marta seemed odd to Kate, like inserting a key only to find the door already unlocked. It momentarily jostled her out of her midnight stupor, but she had been too tired to explore what Thomas’s suggestion might mean—until now, hours before dawn, when his odd behavior had, poof, turned into proof.

But proposing in April? Kate wrinkled her nose. April in New York was horrific—an open sewage drain of a month with damp clothes and nagging colds, everyone trudging through the office as bedraggled and psychotic as the Times Square pigeons. Kate had assumed that if this was going to be the year, Thomas would have waited for May, and asked while they were on vacation with his friends.

As the sun rose, however, Kate warmed to Thomas’s strategy: He would pop the question now so they could then drive up to New Hampshire to celebrate with the Mosby clan over Easter. She hoped but doubted that Thomas had thought to include her family in some way, which was not his strong suit, only because his family was big and fun and…a lot. All three generations and extended branches of Mosbys lived here in the city, mostly on the Upper East Side but everyone in Manhattan, or what Thomas jokingly referred to as “the only island that matters.” It was easy enough to forget that Kate did come with her own small family of four from a tiny beach town in New Jersey. Technically, Sea Point was only a three-hour drive from the city—the same distance as New Hampshire—but it felt worlds apart from her life in New York because the rest of the Campbells found the city as daunting as Thomas found Sea Point “quaint.”

Kate closed her eyes and hoped the sleepless night wouldn’t show on her face when they asked a stranger to snap their picture after she’d said yes—or maybe Thomas had hired a photographer to hide in the bushes for candids? She wondered if he had thought to size his grandmother’s engagement ring just before emitting a low groan: She had become the kind of person she despised, and she wasn’t sure whether to blame her work, her generation, or herself.

As a rising star at Artemis Public Relations, Kate’s craft was bending stories into taglines. Recently, she’d caught herself treating her own life like a client’s portfolio, and her online profile reflected her professional life’s permeation into the personal—her photos were flawless, her captions simple and clever. Kate envisioned colleagues, acquaintances, and ghosts from the past viewing her engagement photo with envy, even googling Thomas. In two days, she’d post a cute photo—the ring tastefully included but not prominently featured—with a low-key caption, something along the lines of: We did a thing.

Three hours later, Kate encouraged Thomas to take his time in the shower so she could strategize her caught-off-guard look. Each hanger held a jacket or sweater that wouldn’t be good enough for her future mother-in-law, Evelyn, who would apologize to her friends for Kate’s poor taste as they pinched her phone screen and zoomed in to inspect every inch of the engagement photos. But here, this wasn’t bad—a blue-checked dress Thomas had once said made her look like a sexy Raggedy Anne. The dress showed effort without letting Thomas know that she knew.

“Almost ready?” Kate yelled through the bathroom door.

“Done yesterday,” Thomas called over the high-pitched groan of the pipes. The water pressure was barely more than a sad dribble, but Kate wasn’t about to complain after four years living rent free. Then again, Kate thought, maybe she could raise the issue once she became a Mosby.

Running a brush through her hair and a rake through her thoughts, Kate found herself feeling triumphant rather than joyful—or maybe joyfully triumphant. She’d put in so much time, given all of her twenties to this relationship, and endured a decade’s worth of saccharine smiles from ancient strangers inquiring, “So when do you think you’ll…?”

The imminent proposal felt validating in a way that probably wasn’t especially feminist, and yet, wouldn’t anyone feel victorious when they finally saw the big return on their risky investment? And it had been downright dicey at times—after twelve years, the bottom had dropped out more than once, usually in direct correlation to where Thomas was in the medical gauntlet. Even last night at the party, Kate had worried they were heading toward the red when she’d gestured to the spinach stuck in his front teeth and Thomas had rolled his eyes before skulking off, leaving her alone in the kitchen.

Now, Kate gave herself a once-over in the mirror: Her strawberry-blond hair rippled down in obedient, tame waves, the freckles across her nose were visible but not chaotic like they would be by mid-June. The dark, pronounced eyebrows she’d hated as a kid were cooperating today, and after she’d drawn a bronze rim around her wide green eyes, Kate took private delight in the double takes that her heart-shaped face so often invited.

Just last week, she’d been confused for the breakout actress from that Netflix show while ordering at Barney Greengrass. Kate no longer blushed when she disappointed strangers bold enough to approach her—in fact, she wore big black sunglasses to encourage such speculation. Tourists came from small towns like hers to gawk at the city’s glamour and so Kate indulged in their celebrity-sighting fantasies not only because it was fun but also because it proved just how far she had come since arriving in New York fifteen years ago as a college freshman.

The toilet flushed and the bathroom door opened.

“You look nice,” Thomas said, checking his hair in the mirror.

“Where’s my putty?”

Kate handed him the hair product half hidden under her brush—it arrived every month from a tiny shop in Vancouver and cost more than their utility bills—but he wouldn’t know that. Thomas dropped his keys twice before successfully tucking them into his jacket pocket. Nerves, Kate deduced, flashing him a well-glossed grin. “We haven’t been to Norman’s in ages!” she announced to Thomas’s reflection in the hallway mirror.

“Back to where it all began,” he replied, slipping his bare feet into the walking loafers to which the entire Mosby clan subscribed.

The spring of their junior year of college, Kate and Thomas had met in the bathroom line at Norman’s just after two a.m. According to Kate, he’d complimented her purple Shark watch and according to Thomas, he’d made fun of her purple Shark watch. Several hours later, they’d staggered out of the diner and straight into each other’s world.

Now, as Kate clutched Thomas’s hand on the walk back to where they’d first met, she surrendered to the overwhelming affection she had for New York, the greatest of cities that she’d come to see as hers. In the West Village, beautiful strangers swirled around her like gorgeous pieces of moving furniture—enriching the milieu with their statement pieces, their curated indifference. The anonymity among other well-heeled intellects is what Kate loved the most—even more than that woman’s vintage handbag as they crossed Greenwich. Her hand in Thomas’s, Kate smiled at ten-year-old twins clad in thousand-dollar down jackets and beamed with the knowledge that she’d never felt more at home than she did here, among the ambition and creative genius that charged the city with its own electricity. Joan Didion had been right when she’d written, “New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself.”

Kate knew that each one of these power-walking New Yorkers would arrive at the café or yoga studio or sound bath and untuck their scarves as they shed their aloofness, exchanging it for the cultivated mindfulness they’d been practicing in therapy. Changing identities in New York was easier than renting bowling shoes in New Jersey, though both would give you break-in blisters. The birthplace of the rebirth, the key to making it in Manhattan was believing you belonged—along with easy access to a dependable dry cleaner.

“I’m so sorry to bother you but aren’t you—” a tourist in her early forties asked as she grinned at Kate while they waited to cross Hudson. The woman was gripping her phone and Kate saw her camera app already open, the lens in selfie mode.

“No, she isn’t,” Thomas interjected; he had zero tolerance for out-of-towners, except for his West Coast friends and the easily placed Eaton type.

Turning the corner and spotting the diner’s iconic neon sign, Kate sped toward it, appreciating how her future was waiting inside her past—she’d have to play around with that idea for subsequent content captions or maybe even her vows. Like the city itself, the best thing about Norman’s was that it weeded out the weaklings. The diner achieved this through an impossibly heavy glass door that, like everything else at Norman’s, hadn’t changed in the last seventy years. If you were a regular and of a particular age, the hostess would hit the handicapped automatic button from the inside—if you were anyone else, you were on your own. Kate ignored Thomas as he swore under his breath and used both hands to yank open the door. Inside, while Thomas massaged his shoulder, Kate scanned the room and approached the hostess stand with a request: “May we have that corner booth?”

The hostess followed Kate’s finger past the servers and bussers racing around with big brown trays, narrowly avoiding collisions. Thomas had once joked that navigating Norman’s reminded him of driving in Rome—harrowing, and safer to do a little buzzed.

“You know them?” she asked, looking at the two willowy blondes sipping coffee through straws, occupying the booth to which Kate pointed.

“No,” Kate ceded, “but we’ll wait. We’ve done it before. It’s kind of our booth.”

At this moment, Thomas looked up from his phone and met the hostess’s disgust with an apologetic smile. “Kate, they haven’t even gotten their food yet.”

Acquiescing only to disguise her comprehension of what today meant—would mean forever—Kate followed the hostess to the vacant, freestanding table by the jukebox, closest to the restrooms. “First time for everything,” she sighed, forcing a smile and ignoring a man’s phlegmy cough at a neighboring booth.

Glenda, the notoriously grumpy server who seemed to despise Kate as much as she adored Thomas—who was never Thomas but always Baby or Honey or Honey Baby on especially frisky days—asked Baby what he’d like to drink and walked away without looking at Kate. Until The New Yorker had featured what they termed “The Glenda Phenomenon” in their “Shouts and Murmurs” column, Glenda had been unaware that she’d starred in so many ungraduated short stories that the NYU English Department had unanimously voted to place a moratorium on the use of her likeness.

Glenda returned with two coffees, two orange juices, and the infamous attitude that made her so vital in preserving the city’s folklore. After ordering their usual, Thomas leaned forward and said he needed to ask Kate something.

“Are you,” Thomas began, reaching across the table for her winter-white hand. Her caramelized skin from Mexico, Kate silently lamented, had blanched as soon as they’d touched down at LaGuardia. “Happy?” Thomas stared at her, waiting for her response, with the bluest eyes Kate had ever seen. Mayflower blue, she liked to joke, because his grandmother never missed an opportunity to mention their Plymouth forebearers.

“The happiest,” Kate crooned, arching her back to sit up straight, basking in the moment like a cat in afternoon sun.

“Really?” he said, drawing slow circles on the back of her hand with his thumb.

“Really,” Kate said. “I am the happiest.”

She felt Thomas’s hand retreat to retrieve the ring from the pocket in his jacket. But he didn’t reach for the pocket. He just sat back, his eyes so wide that they became two Mayflower blue islands surrounded by an ocean of white shock.

Thomas held out his hands again and she met him halfway, ignoring some primordial sense of panic. He flipped her right hand over and traced the lines of her veins across the pale underbelly of her wrist. Kate waited. She felt light-headed before realizing she hadn’t taken a breath since she’d said “happiest.” Leaning forward and speaking slowly, in a low voice that would haunt her for months, Thomas confessed: “I’m not happy. I’m really, really not happy.”


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