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The summer after my senior year in high school the family went on a vacation to Florida. Before going scuba diving in the Florida Keys, we spent several days in Miami Beach, at a very fancy hotel called the Deauville. We had never before stayed at an expensive hotel; we always camped, or stayed in cheap motels. But this year Dad was the secretary of a very large scientific organization called The Biophysical Society. He would be deciding where to have their annual convention.

During the planning stages of the trip to Florida, Mom hit on the idea of Dad writing to the manager of the Deau-ville that he was considering having the convention at that hotel. Since Dad had no intention of holding the convention there, he said that writing this letter might be a bit unethical. Mom pointed out that people planning conventions always shopped around for hotels, that hotel managers expected it, and we might have something to gain by doing this. Dad wrote the letter. As a result, the manager offered us a very large suite for free, and one free dinner at the hotel restaurant. But only the room and one meal would be free; our parents would be charged for all other expenses.

Mom felt vindicated by this response. Vicky and I were excited about staying in this ritzy hotel. Dad was not as comfortable about it; I wonder now if he might have even felt a little guilty. Guilt, an emotion he was unaccustomed to dealing with, might have had something to do with his unusual behavior on the trip to Miami.

The drive to Miami was long and boring and hot. Mom had prepared a big jug of delicious ice water, which she kept on the floor in the front seat. But, as usual, Dad was obsessed with conserving the water, and wouldn't let her give us any if it had been less than five hours since our last stop. Perhaps his attitude toward the water had the same psychological roots as his perverse inability to throw anything away, however useless it might be. Mom said he had learned this horror of wasting things from his mother, who--before the days of environmentalism--saved short pieces of string, and ironed used wrapping paper and ribbons so she could use them again.

To be fair, Dad's water-hoarding also had a very practical motivation. On a previous summer vacation he had become so dehydrated during the drive across the Mojave desert that he had developed very painful bladder stones; one could hardly blame him for not wanting this to happen again.

But we were especially thirsty on this trip, and kept asking for water anyway. Dad calmly told us that the next time he heard the word ``water'' he would stop the car and throw out whoever had said it in the middle of nowhere.

Tycho, who was seven, believed him, and started crying. He might have stopped soon enough, but Danny, who was nine, hit him. Tycho wailed for the next half hour or so; Danny's threats to hit him again if he didn't stop only made him cry harder. Dad, raising his voice slightly, suggested we try to make Tycho be quiet by separating the two of them. In an effort to distract Danny, Vicky and I attacked him in the back of the station wagon and tickle-tortured him. We pinned him down, I held his hands over his head, and Vicky tickled him under the arms. Danny was the most ticklish person in the world, and though he couldn't help laughing, he was in agony. Tycho didn't realize Danny was hurting. It made Tycho happy to see his adored older brother--who had so recently been threatening him--having such a good time. Danny fumed when we stopped, but at least Tycho wasn't crying any more.

Vicky and I then entertained ourselves--and tried to keep Danny and Tycho apart--by asking them to choose which one of us they liked better. This didn't last very long, because the marvelous rewards or terrible retribution each of us promised for being chosen or not were never carried out, and Danny and Tycho quickly lost interest.

``I'm thirsty. I want some water,'' Danny said. He knew this would irritate Dad; that was probably his major motivation for saying it.

``Don't you remember what I said?'' Dad coolly reminded him. ``The next person who says 'water' gets thrown out of the car.''

Tycho's face clouded. In an effort to prevent another outburst, Vicky and I quickly moved on to a new questioning game, asking Danny and Tycho to choose between two fates. The choices were pretty obvious at first. Even Tycho had no problem coming up with the answer to: ``Would you rather inherit a huge mansion and be insanely rich for the rest of your life, or die without any money at all in a sewer among rats?''

Questions like that weren't much of a challenge, so we quickly began making them more difficult: ``Would you rather be impaled on a bed of nails and take three days to die, or have all your arms and legs cut off and live?'' Tycho was quite bothered by this question. He pondered over it for awhile, then began whimpering, then crying in earnest again. Danny smacked him again--which resulted in another session of tickle-torture for Danny. It still makes me shudder to remember how mercilessly long we kept it up that day.

But this time, tickle-torturing Danny didn't make Tycho stop crying. On the contrary, Tycho now began to understand that Danny was suffering, not enjoying himself at all. He felt sorry for Danny, and seeing him in misery only increased the volume of his cries. But as soon as we stopped tickling Danny, he smacked Tycho once again, and Tycho's wailing went up a few more decibels.

``Make him stop,'' Dad said through clenched teeth, after half an hour of unceasing bellowing from Tycho. Mom took Tycho in the front seat and tried to comfort him. ``But I'm thirsty!'' Tycho screamed, squirming in her arms as he tried to reach the so-far unopened jug of water.

``Please, Bill,'' Mom said.

Dad looked at his watch. ``We just left,'' he muttered dangerously, though we'd been on the road for half a day.

``Oh, Bill!'' Mom moaned.

Dad was annoyed by her tone, as well as by Tycho's continued howling. ``You'll just be training him to cry whenever he wants anything if you give in now,'' he said, his face red. He took his left hand from the wheel and squeezed Tycho's mouth shut. This muffled Tycho only slightly. Even though he could hardly breathe he continued to squeal piteously, choking and gasping, tears streaming town his cheeks.

Vicky and I and especially Danny--who picked on Tycho himself but never let anybody else hurt him--were all appalled by this gross injustice. It was particularly shocking to see Dad behaving so unreasonably. We threw caution aside. ``Water, water, water!'' we all shouted in Dad's ear, leaning over the front seat.

Dad removed his hand from Tycho's mouth, swung around and began punching us, not looking at the road, the car swerving wildly. ``Stop it, Bill!'' Mom shrieked, grabbing the wheel and trying to steer the car herself.

The three of us quickly scrambled out of Dad's reach. He turned back to the road, breathing hard. Mom, her mouth in a hard line, leaned over, unscrewed the jug, and gave Tycho a drink. He gulped it down, then asked for more, still crying.

``That's not fair! I want some too!'' Danny demanded.

``Go ahead, drink it all up then,'' Dad said icily, his uncharacteristic rage abating. ``But we are not putting another drop of water in that jug until we stop for the night.'' And we didn't. We drank as much as we wanted. There was still plenty of water left when we checked into the cheap motel, which had cracked linoleum floors and a tiny bathroom with a grimy tin shower stall.

On arriving at the Deauville the next day it seemed wonderfully luxurious to emerge from the stifling car and find ourselves staying in this spacious, air-conditioned three-room suite with two large, plush bathrooms and a balcony eighteen stories above the ocean. We tested the beds and the bathrooms, rode up and down in the spiffy elevator, and swam in the ocean and the gigantic fresh water pool.

But our initial excitement began to pall when Vicky and I noticed that almost everybody else at the hotel was even older than our parents. There was no one our age there, and no one the least bit glamorous. Maybe these elderly, fat, card-playing people were rich, but that didn't mean it was any fun to be surrounded by them.

And no one in the family particularly enjoyed the free meal in the hotel restaurant, which we took advantage of on our first night there. We were used to diners and truck stops. We weren't wearing suits and ties and expensive clothes like the other people, and felt conspicuous. And the black-suited waiters wouldn't leave us alone, hovering around the table expectantly, watching our every move, refilling our glasses of water every time we took a sip. Danny soon began putting his hand over his glass and scowling whenever a waiter approached, but they still wouldn't leave us alone. We couldn't wait to get out of that dining room.

By the second day there Vicky and I were bored. And being teenagers, we were naturally obsessed with what was going on with our friends at home. That morning our parents were busy with maps and travel books in the suite, planning our itinerary for the Keys. Vicky and I snuck down to the lobby, picked up a phone, and told the hotel operator we were placing some long distance calls which were to be billed to our room.

Vicky talked to Ann for the unheard-of length of half an hour, and I talked to Bart for almost as long. While we talked we smoked cigarettes, which of course was absolutely forbidden by our parents. Ann told Vicky that she and Emily had just met some really interesting college boys; Vicky was not pleased to be missing out on this. Bart told me matter-of-factly that the person I was so unhappily in love with had immediately started going out with someone else as soon as I had left town. (Bart had a special talent for being subtly sadistic while at the same time coming across as merely realistic and rational.)

We finally hung up, both feeling dejected, put out the last cigarette, and stepped away from the phone. At that moment Danny and Tycho emerged from behind a group of potted palms nearby, where they had been hiding, and watching and listening, the entire time.

Danny had not forgotten how long we had tickled him in the car. ``Okay,'' he said, his manner very businesslike. ``We heard the whole thing. Either we tell Mom and Dad about the phone calls, or we tell them you were smoking. One or the other. We'll do you a big favor and let you decide which one we tell them.''

``Oh, come on, Danny,'' I tried to reason with him. ``If you tell them they'll just get mad and be in a bad mood and make everybody miserable.''

``They'll be mad at you, not us. We're telling. Aren't we, Tycho?''

Tycho nodded, his eyes wide. He wasn't a spiteful kid, but Danny's approval was much more important to him than ours.

``You're not telling them a thing!'' Vicky said angrily. ``If you say one word about what we did we'll throw you off the balcony.''

Tycho paled at this, and looked back at Danny. But Danny knew it was an idle threat. ``You will not! If you throw us off the balcony they'll be much madder at you than about the smoking or the phone calls. So which do you want us to tell them?'' He looked at his watch. ``They told me and Tycho they wanted us all back up in the room by now. Hurry up and decide.''

Danny really had us this time, and he wasn't going to back down. We had to make a careful and difficult decision. ``We'll be right back,'' I told them, and Vicky and I walked across the huge lobby, with its marble columns and deep red carpeting, to discuss it out of earshot. The phone calls were pretty bad, but Mom and Dad would find out about them when we checked out of the hotel, whether Danny told them or not. And we also might be able to pretend we had thought phone calls were included with the free room. But if they found out we had been smoking we would not hear the end of it for weeks; they'd be nagging and chastising us for the rest of the trip.

We walked back to Danny and Tycho. ``All right, you stupid yellow BM, tell them about the phone calls,'' Vicky snarled.

``That's your decision? Fine,'' Danny said. ``Come on. They're waiting for us.

``You understand, Tycho?'' I asked him. ``You can tell them about the phone calls, but they're not supposed to know we were smoking.''

Tycho nodded earnestly. He was basically good-hearted. ``We promise to only tell them one thing,'' he assured me. ``Just about the phone calls. Not the smoking.'' He turned to Danny. ``Right, Danny?''

``Uh huh,'' Danny said. ``Come on, we're really late now.''

``How responsible of you to suddenly start worrying about being late,'' Vicky said. She sighed. ``All right. We might as well get this over with.''

Danny and Tycho raced across the lobby, eager to get back to the suite. We trudged reluctantly behind them. Danny was so pleased with himself that he gave Tycho the privilege of pressing the elevator button.

Danny banged on the door of the suite, and burst inside ahead of us as soon as Mom opened it. ``Where were you?'' Mom said, obviously in a bad mood. Dad, who also seemed angry about something, was scowling at a map.

``Billy and Vicky made all these long distance phone calls downstairs in the lobby!'' Danny announced triumphantly.

Mom and Dad turned on us.

But before they had a chance to say anything Tycho gravely assured them, ``And they didn't smoke at all.''

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Daniel Sleator
Wed Jan 14 17:24:59 EST 1998