The heatwave broke that night but we were all still sleeping up on the deck, our cots pushed together, sheets and pillows splayed out like the abstract painting Dylan had been working on for the past three months. Our bodies swayed in sleep, stars bumping together on dark nights when my vision was blurred. The gentle knocking of the boat against the dock soothing, consistent.
We’d been living on the boat since the start of the season. Dylan had been in charge of signing our lease that summer, and when we arrived, he had forgotten his task and there wasn’t an apartment free on the island. It was August and I was 27, long, wiry, tan, and drunk — most of the time.
Days followed simple routines. In the morning we’d all wake to the first light of sunrise burning over the water. We’d lift our heads wordlessly to watch the colors change from blue to orange, waiting for a few streaks of red — our pillows damp with seawater and morning dew. Sam would rise first and head down into the cabin to get ready for her shift at Sunny Side Up. More often than not the rest of us would lie back down, our arms thrown across our eyes for a few more moments of sleep, until the sun lifted high enough to make us sweat.
The morning after I was fired, the last morning, I got up before the others and decided to walk Sam into work. Stepping below, I pulled my swimming trunks off the hook in the small bathroom and watched as she gathered her long hair back into a ponytail that sat even with her small, tan ears.
“Want me to braid it?” She smiled and nodded. I pulled off my boxers and replaced them with the swim trunks, tying them and stepping behind her. I split her hair into three blonde ropes. It was coarse with the salt from our swim the night before. One over the other my fingers formed the plait that reached down her back. I held my hand out around her for a tie, which she offered. “See you up top,” I said, grabbing an old T-shirt off the folded pile of clothes, holding it up to my nose. The worn cotton was smooth and it smelled like sun and sunscreen — summer in its threads.
Wes was spooning Karin, their heads on one pillow and a sheet wrapped at their waist. Dylan was face down, half his body off the cot and on the wooden deck. I tossed my legs over the side of the boat and jumped the short distance to the dock, padding barefoot to the end. The patch of dirt was cool on my feet as I searched for my shoes hidden under the beach rose bush. I slipped them on and unlocked my bike, checking the chain as Sam approached from behind. We headed into town, me pushing my bike alongside, the wheel making a faint clicking sound as it rolled next to us.
Morning on the island was always quiet. The light was bright, and I pulled my cap down as we headed up the hill.
“Are you hung over?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Liar,” she said and poked my side.
“Drink some water. Eat a bagel. Go for a swim.”
“I know how to cure you.”
“I need it.”
She stopped then and looked at me, silent and serious for a moment. We walked on. “What’re you going to do for work now?” Sam’s voice was soft.
“Not sure — I heard Tom might be looking for help on the garden. Maybe I’ll go there today and ask. Wouldn’t be much money.”
“I can ask Remy if they need line cooks anywhere.”
“Yeah, ask for me, would you?”
Sam nodded. “What happened, anyway?” she asked.
I looked down at the pavement and shrugged. “Just … something stupid,” I said. We reached Bow Street and Sam turned, heading for work.
“Good luck out there,” she said.
“And to you m’lady,” I bowed, one hand on my bike, the other outstretched. She smiled, turned on her heel, her braid swinging heavy behind her, and I waited, watching as she tied her apron around her waist. Remy unlocked the front door and opened it for her. I watched their faces as she ducked past him and into the restaurant.
I got on my bike and started pedaling to the beach, taking turns too fast and ignoring stop signs. Sand spilled out from the dunes and into the road. I slowed and hopped off, leaning my bike in the sand and kicking my shoes off and under the spinning back wheel. My feet dug into the earth as I climbed up and over, the first layer of sand warming to the sun, and below it, the cool of the night still present. My stomach grumbled and I felt the faint dull ache from the beers the night before. I stopped when I saw a figure wrapped in a sheet and laid on its side at the base of the dune, short stems of seagrass waving around it.
“Morning, Bill.” Bill slept in town after nights out now — too many DUIs.
“Jack.” Bill sat up, the blue sheet spotted from bleach draped over him like he was the Mother Mary, the image only disturbed by his thick beard and missing front tooth. “I heard about the job.” I nodded standing in front of him. “What happened?” he asked. I thought that if he had already heard then he would know the truth, but the lie formed in my mouth anyway.
“Oh, I was caught with tequila in my water bottle mid-shift,” I said, tossing my hands out to the side. “I guess the end of the season was catching up with me.”
He looked at me for a long beat, his eyebrows rising before he spoke. “Ah, bummer.”
A family was walking toward us, the parents each carrying an overloaded canvas bag. They looked haggard and angry. The husband and wife hissed under their breaths at each other. The smallest kid, a little girl in the back of the group, dropped her pink pail in the sand and stood above it, her face ready to wail until her older brother stepped over, picked it up for her, and put it in her small palm, closing the pudgy fingers around the handle. She smiled at him, toothless. “Time to get goin’,” Bill said, gathering his sheet. “Don’t want to spoil the view for the tourists.”
“How were the stars?” I asked as he mounted the dune. He stopped, turned, and grinned. The sun illuminated him from behind, making the edges of his shadowed body glow. His tooth gap beamed out, a black hole amongst his constellation.
“Incandescent.” He turned and the sun struck me in the eyes as he descended.
The family trudged by me and I nodded a greeting in the direction of the parents, who, out of exhaustion or rudeness, did not reply. As they passed, the little girl held up the pudgy hand not in charge of the pail and waved. Her brother looked up at me, his eyes sad and wary. He smiled at me too — small, glancing tentatively back at his sister. They continued on and I started down to the water. It was low tide and the surface of the ocean was flat without wind. I wondered if Karin and Wes were up yet, and how Dylan was feeling. I wondered if people were being nice to Sam at the restaurant and if Remy was flirting with her. I waded deeper out, far into the bay, passing by boulders half emerged and covered in a shag of swaying seaweed with small fish scuttling past.
The water finally touched my hips and the cold reached my groin, sending my balls up into my neck. I inhaled and dove under the surface, pulling my way deeper along, grabbing handfuls of sand from the bottom before emerging and taking a long, clear breath.
I was thinking about how I lied to Bill about the tequila. Lying came easily to me at that time — I shuddered in the cold water when I remembered the day before. I always thought it meant something that the last book I picked up before I dropped out of college was East of Eden. I wouldn’t finish it until much later on, but the first few chapters stuck with me then and I often wondered if something was broken inside of me, like Cathy. If I was a monster born unto humans. I remembered Jim’s look of disappointment. I looked at my hands coated in seawater and ran them through my hair, trying to forget, to move on. A sense of dread wiped through me. The whole town would know by mid-day — there were no secrets on the island. Bill seemed to already have known and I lied anyway.
When I got back to shore, the beach had started to fill up with families. I weaved in between the blankets, no towel in hand, saltwater falling down my tanned skin in rivulets. Over the months the hairs on my body had turned white — bleached from all the sun and salt.
That body — it feels so foreign to me now. My swim trunks were always hanging almost too low, my thin chest swimming in large T-shirts. The guys in the kitchen nicknamed me Skinny Legs and often slapped me on my back so that I lurched forward. It didn’t matter what I ate or drank then. My wiry calves carried me around the island three times over without protest — the ever-rusty chain on my bike holding strong.
That island — I loved it in a physical way. I’ll never forget the time I biked off the road after the Fourth of July parade one summer, my head swimming in rum. I was swerving my way back to the house, fireworks exploding overhead, and I lifted my blurry gaze to watch. My front tire hit a rock and sent me flying over the handlebars. I landed on my back, the wind knocked out of me and the concussion blacking me out on impact. After a moment I came to, the explosions in the sky booming and reverberating through my thin chest, my bones. I lay there, supine, for what seemed like forever. The back wheel of my bike was still spinning, whirring behind my aching head. I stayed there, shocked, the colors of the fireworks filling my vision — spectacular — my body pulsing from the pain, from the fireworks, and I felt a connection with the island I had never felt before. I felt it fill me, the life of it vibrating above, within, and below me. I lay so still for so long that a cricket started to chirp, next to my ear, its own reverberations joining with the chorus. The island was showing me something, our lips locked in some shared experience. The sky widened, the cricket chirped again, and sudden nausea swept through me. I wrenched over and vomited in the darkness, my whole body aching — that body.
This day, I got back on my bike and threw the worn T-shirt over my still-wet body, and started pedaling again, out the long road to the lighthouse. As I pedaled, I contemplated my fate. Wes had said the night before that Uncle Rick was coming to the island next week, so we should all start looking for couches to crash on — the boat would be off limits. I wondered who would take me in when they heard the news, who would hire me — if Sam would look at me differently.
It only happened twice. I needed a pack of cigarettes and the tips weren’t counted yet. I took five dollars from the cash register and slipped out before close. When I returned, we all had one, sitting on the crates out by the kitchen, the smoke thick in the humid air. I was planning on putting a five back in there when I got my tips, but when the time came … I didn’t.
“The drawer is five dollars off,” Leah said, looking around, confused. She shrugged, took five out of her own stack, and put it in the drawer. I only watched her, afraid to speak.
About a month later, I did it again. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was thinking I would pay it all back. We were going to a party out at the lighthouse and needed beer. We turned out our pockets in the street,
“Empty,” Dylan said, holding them out like pathetic little wings.
“I don’t get paid until Friday,” Sam said.
“We have cash, but it’s back at the boat,” Wes spoke.
“We could just go home,” Karin said. I pulled out the contents of my pocket and saw the key to the restaurant. I’ll pay it back in the morning, I thought.
“Give me one second,” I said, turning to run down the side street toward the restaurant. It was closed, the windows dark as I went down the alleyway toward the back kitchen door. The key clicked it open and I fumbled in the darkness, praying no lights would turn on. I stumbled through the kitchen with the pilot lights as my only guide, and I pushed open the door to the dining room. I could see the orange streetlights from the road through the legs of the upside-down chairs lining the bar top and tables. I crouched so I couldn’t be seen from the road and headed to the safe behind the bar. I punched in the numbers I remembered and the small box clicked open. Riffling through the bills, I first pulled out just a twenty, and then I remembered John Tully saying something about having a bag of coke for me next time I saw him. I pulled out a hundred and zipped the bank bag closed, placing it back where I found it and closing the safe door. I forgot to relock it. Garbled voices made me jump, but it was only tourists stumbling home on the street. I hustled back to the door, locking it behind me, and ran back where they were still standing, looking at me with eyebrows raised. I held the money up.
“Where’d you get that?”
“I took it from my tip envelope.,” I lied. “I forgot to take it home the other night.” Karin, Wes, and Dylan shrugged.
“Cool! Let’s go.” But Sam stood there looking at me under the streetlight.
“What?” I asked. She shrugged like the others, and we started walking off to the party.
Thinking about it now, I can remember the way my fingers tingled holding the cash, the way my brain was already foggy with the weight of my action. I can remember the way Sam looked standing under the streetlight. I remember already feeling that I missed her.
Jim pulled me aside the next day and played the security footage. I looked at the thin frame sneaking in the back door and after a few moments saw it step out holding a small fan of cash. My body was stone in its chair, watching this person steal — this person that was me. After a long break of silence, I spoke.
“I was going to pay it back today,” I said.
“Okay, do you have the money?” Jim pushed. I looked up at him and shook my head. He nodded.
“You’re fired, Jack.”
The memory filled me with hot shame, and my hands felt shaky on the handlebars. The sun was growing stronger as I put my bike against a rock and kicked off my shoes. The lighthouse looked warm sitting from that angle in an ocean of seagrass, all swept to the side in the gentle wind, the subtle beginnings of a comb-over. I set off, my bare feet first picking over the rocks on the path, their calloused bottoms tough and unconcerned. I forged onward, the sand growing thicker and denser, the rocks thinning away. Seagulls flew overhead and sat, perched on the edge of the grass, their blank eyes pointed at me. I rounded the corner to reveal the lighthouse in full, the pink brick of the building against the copper roof, stained green from salt and splattered white with gull shit. Mandy stood on the patio, wrapped in a colorful shawl, her hair long, gray, and curly. She held out a small piece of food and a seagull by her shoe jumped the short distance for it, its wings fluttering only once before its webbed feet hit the ground again.
“Good job,” she cooed before looking up. “Jack,” she said warmly, “what’re you doing here? It’s early for you.”
“Just out for a bike ride, Mandy.” She nodded and looked me up and down, pulling her thin shawl over her spotted shoulders already red from the sun.
“How’s Sam doing? I haven’t seen her in a while.”
“She’s doing well for all she lets on.”
“Still in love with Remy?” She asked.
I shrugged in response.
“Well, I hope you’ll be there for her when that all blows up.” The directness shocked me, and I thought about Sam. Would I be there for Sam? “I was at Eli’s the other night and Kristen was saying some … more aggressive things than usual. I walked her home … Sam’s a good girl.”
I nodded again and Mandy started walking around the edge of the building. The seagull and I followed her.
“How’s the restaurant? Jim’s a great boss, huh?” She opened the back door and stepped into the shade. The seagull took flight toward the ocean.
“I quit, actually,” I lied again. She nodded, her eyes focused on me. My cheeks burned.
“Well, I’ll keep an ear out for you, okay?”
“Stay out of trouble.” She shut the door behind her and I was left among the tortured cries of the gulls and the shit-splattered brick, the sound of the ocean shifting behind me. I turned and headed back into the dunes on the way to the water.
When you’re young, you think you’re an island. You tack experiences onto you, not expecting the weight to change. Everything will balance out, you think. But now I was feeling the scales tipping into a descent. Away from possibility, away from an endless swath of nights spent bobbing against a dock, carried by the ocean. I was feeling the scale tip away from things that used to not matter. They seemed to all hold more weight now and I was slipping, off the edge, off the island, out to sea.
I reached the shore past the lighthouse, sat on the empty beach, and laid out in the sand. A seal lifted its head out of the shallow waves and looked in my direction before slipping back under the ocean, its gray hide a hump above the water until it vanished. I closed my eyes, the sun hot and red against the back of my eyelids. I could get another job. I could go on a clamming boat or farm with Tom. I would be here for Sam when everything went up in flames. I would get out of bars and restaurants. I’d shake off this feeling like I was losing the island. I’d shake off the feeling that it was never real to begin with.
I woke up as the sun was slanted, blooming at full evening glow, the water sparkled with licking gold. I felt a deep sense of urgency and an anxious heaviness to move. I checked my watch — 4:15. Sam would just be getting out of work. I pushed myself off the ground, the sand falling from my shoulders like glaciers breaking away into the ocean, and I turned to run back the long way to my bike, all the while the heaviness growing more frantic with each desperate step I took. I ran down the dune so fast that I fell into the sand, my cheek hitting the ground. I reached the lighthouse as Mandy was locking the back door but I didn’t stop and kept running over the shit-stained brick and back over the rocks, stubbing my calloused toe so that it began to bleed; I still have the scar. Fumbling to put my shoes on, I winced as the sand hit the open wound and kept running.
Skidding to my bike, blissfully still there, I climbed on, the heaviness pushing into a feeling of elation as I pressed each pedal down and away — away, away — the jade green maples in the yards of the millionaires blurring past me, my eyes tearing up at the pain in my burning lungs and muscles. Crickets started to buzz and the sun was fading at my burnt back, my oversized T-shirt rippling behind me — a luffing sail. The harbor came into view. I saw the road leading down to our dock, the boat shaking in the summer evening. I stopped short as a Jeep full of drunken tourists came too close and I only laughed, all notion of anger gone from my mind. I checked my watch again. I sped into town. Wes tried to wave me down and I ignored him along with all the shouts from angry tourists. I turned onto the street where I had dropped Sam off. The sun was bowling down the road, illuminating her in orange as she stepped out of the front door and looked back at Remy, smiling small. She put her hands up and started to untie the braid I wove just that morning. I could still feel the familiar sensation of my fingers moving over the strands. She shook her hair loose and she was beautiful, radiant, so young. My eyes burned from staring into the sun and my heart burned to watch her watch him. He said something and looked down abashed. She reached for his hand and brushed it, lingering there. She turned her head. She saw me. The heaviness returned. I felt unmoored. I started walking my bike slowly in her direction. She said goodbye to Remy, who closed the door and disappeared from sight.
“Where have you been?” she asked, looking at my burned, sand-encrusted body, the blood seeping through my thin shoe — I wanted to cry.
“It’s all ending, isn’t it?” my breathing was heavy and she grabbed my arm, concerned, leading me away from the restaurant. We sat on the curb. The tourists walked around us and the sun caught her face intermittently through the gaps in their legs.
“Our youth,” I said to her. She only smiled. Her eyes were sad, so much sadder than when I had first met her. She nodded.
“Maybe,” she replied. Sam was good about not asking questions. I wonder what would have happened if she had. I wonder what she thought when she found out I was gone.
“Let’s leave the island. We can go anywhere.” She looked over my shoulder at the restaurant and took my hand.
“Not yet,” she said, and I saw how she was beyond saving, that her heart was gone and that it would ruin her for a short while. And I saw that she would be okay. She would always end up okay. The sun started to fade from our faces. I wondered if I would be okay.
“Let’s go home,” she said.
The morning light on the water was blue and calm as the ferry pulled away. I looked back at that island, quiet and asleep, the mist coating the benches, the grass, the buildings, as it all grew smaller. I thought of the ones asleep somewhere on a borrowed boat and imagined them growing smaller, too. I checked my watch. Sam would be getting up about now. I leaned on the railing and felt the heaviness settle into its home in my chest. It would be a while still before I figured it out — the importance of what I had. The importance of having it.
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