For as far back as I could remember, my family spent two weeks of every summer on Orcas Island in the archipelago of Puget Sound. We always took the same two-bedroom cabin along the waterfront, number four. My sister and I shared the double bed in the smaller bedroom, while my parents took the larger room for themselves. We rented a small motorboat to speed about in or to take us on day excursions to one of the other islands—Guemes, Lopez, Shaw, among the many others—where Mom shopped for island novelties and Dad took my sister and me to see the sights, bought us ice creams and cotton candies. Nights we sat around bonfires on the beach with the families of the other cabins and sang songs, roasted marshmallows and told ghost stories. Invariably the other kids drifted off to sleep and the adults turned their talk to the lives they had left on the mainland. I pinched myself awake long after the other children had given in to the effects of the sea air and the crackling fire. I suppose I was waiting to hear something scandalous in this adult talk, or the answers to life’s many questions I still believed adults possessed but were loathe to share. I was certain that if I were to fall asleep, at that moment the conversation would tread into new, exciting territories; it would be then that all of the things we were promised in on when we became a little bit older would be disclosed, like the seeming endless complexities of life and sex and our relations to one another.
When I was fifteen, my family made our final trip to Orcas.
On the day we arrived, Mom casually informed my sister and me that there was to be a change in the sleeping arrangements this year. “The boys,” she said into the ether as she Lysoled the kitchen, “will sleep in the small bedroom. And the girls get the big room.” And with that, she ordered us outside while she made the cabin into our home.
“I don’t want to sleep with Mom,” Kristin said when we were out of earshot. “She kicks in her sleep and her toenails hurt.”
“How would you know?” I asked.
“I had to sleep with her when we went to Aunt Carol’s. It was no fun.”
“It’ll be okay,” I assured her. “Put a pillow between you.”
“But I like sleeping with you.”
Kristin was nine and hadn’t yet discovered that for months Mom and Dad had been sleeping apart.
“We’re too old for that now.”
“We just are. Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“Because. Because after a certain age, boys and girls shouldn’t sleep together anymore.”
“Mom and Dad do.”
“They’re married.” This seemed the place where an adult would say—you’ll understand when you’re older—but I couldn’t do that to her. Instead, I took her hand and we walked along the beach toward the only store on the island. Without her having to say so, I knew she was dying to buy the first of many candy necklaces of the vacation. She was quiet as we walked along, and I hoped that meant the end of our conversation. But Kristin was always rather pensive, so it was of little surprise when she slipped her hand out of mine and stopped in her tracks.
“It’s about humping, isn’t it? That’s why we can’t sleep together anymore.”
I laughed. “What do you know about that?”
“I know all about it,” she said, retaking my hand and walking with what seemed to be greater confidence. “Jennifer Malone told me.”
“What exactly did she tell you?”
Her hand pulsed and she spoke quickly. “The daddy puts his weenie into the mommy’s hole and moves it around until the mommy screams and that’s when a baby is made.” She turned her head up to me and blinked in the sun through strands of blonde hair. It pleased me that she looked for my approval. Even though growing older meant we would have secrets from one another, I still longed for her to trust me.
“I guess you’ve got the basics,” I said. “But remember, that’s only for mommies and daddies.”
A rabbit hopped out from a spray of dune grass right across our path. Kristin broke free of my hand and ran after it; for her, our conversation was now ancient history.
We met up again at the store. I was not yet ready to show myself to Ross, should he be inside, so I sat on the bench outside and waited for Kristine.
“Don’t you want any candy?” she asked when she reemerged.
“No. Not right now.”
“What are you going to spend your money on?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You can have some of mine,” she offered, pulling at the candy necklace that left a many-hued pastel ring around her neck, inviting me to take a bite.
“No, thanks,” I said. “Not right now.”
That evening at dusk, Dad and I walked to the end of the ferry wharf and studied the spectral lights of the mainland and other islands. “Never seems to change,” he said, sipping from his bottle of Rainier Beer. “Year after year, always looks the same.”
“Can I have a sip?” I asked cautiously.
He eyed me, then handed me the bottle. “I suppose you’re old enough for a taste. But just a taste. The last thing we need is to go back to your mother smelling like a couple of old Irishmen.” This was not the first time I’d had beer. In fact, this was not the first time my father and I had had this very exchange about it. But the invocation of my mother, this time, made it feel different, like it was the last of something. I took a respectful sip and handed him the bottle. He reached inside his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of Doublemint. “Here,” he said with the flick of his wrist, “chew this.”
We stood leaning against the railing, and our shadows fell out over the waves. Dad began to quiz me on the names of the other islands spread out in the distance. As he pointed, I could name them all. He asked if I still liked coming here, if it was still fun for Kristin and me. He sighed.
“You’re getting older, Kid. Pretty soon you won’t want to come here anymore, at least not with us. That’s natural enough. You might not think so right now, but it will happen. You’ll get your driver’s license, a job. A girlfriend. Hey, and all of that’s okay, in fact it’s great. It’s as it should be. Just don’t forget about your Old Man, okay? Not completely. Will you do that for me, Kid?
This is what I heard, although his actual words were probably more vague, more self-conscious. But I understood what he was trying to get at, and we both understood he was right. Neither of us acknowledged it with words. Instead we allowed the silence to speak for itself, as it so often had between us, drawing out over the Sound and into the setting sun. After a while, he spoke again, his tone changed to that of a buddy.
“Seen Ross yet?”
“You guys not friends anymore?”
As the sun dipped and then quickly disappeared into the water, the lights of the other islands grew brighter. My father took the last swig of his beer and turned from the railing. “Well, I guess that’s our cue,” he said. On the beach in the distance, in front of the low row of cabins, blazed the nightly bonfire. As my father took off along the wharf, I tried to keep in step with him, to walk directly at his side. It was easy to notice how our thin, moon shadows were nearly identical as they overlapped on the broad planks of the wharf, and it made me feel close to him.
I didn’t join the others around the fire. Instead, I took the opportunity to be alone. For a while I walked along the beach and smoked one of the cigarettes I’d smuggled in my duffle bag. Once I was certain it would be empty, I returned to the cabin to take a shower.
When I was much younger, Mom would bathe me in the cabin’s big kitchen sink. There was no bathtub in the cabin, and I’d been afraid of the shower. Now, the shower drew me like a siren’s song. It was my sanctuary, my confessional, my den of iniquity. I felt safe and invisible from the rest of the world in there. Whatever I did, whatever I thought, in the end would be rinsed away with so much baptismal water and carried down the drain.
Only one thing ever transcended the fantasied longings of the shower, and that was Ross.
He was nearly four years older than me and, as of the previous fall, a college student. His father owned the store where Kristin bought her candy necklaces and where at one time I bought baseball cards and candy cigarettes, paper kites and balsam wood airplanes. It was in the store that we met when I was six and Ross was almost ten. We became friends over a chocolate Coke. Summer after summer when I returned to the island, Ross would resume his position as my friend, confidante, as the older brother I didn’t have. He was a playmate, a co-adventurer, and much of the time, my idol. But more than that, he provided me with the wonder of connection and deep feeling for another, even in the face of absence. I thought of him frequently through the other months. And yet, when he began writing to me from college, I failed to return a single letter. In fact, his letters felt invasive to me, and I soon realized that although I carried a fantasy of Ross with me home each year, the reality of Ross was something I wished to keep only as a part of the island, like the rabbits and bonfires and midnight swims. In more recent years, a kind of unspoken love had entered our relationship. I could convince myself that such a thing had a place on the island, while deluding myself in the resolve that my real life was lived elsewhere and otherwise – in little league baseball games I pitched, in the girls I roller skated with, in the boys I called my friends back home.
A quick knock came on the bathroom door.
“What!” I demanded, curtly.
“Hey. I saw your parents at the fire. They said I could come up. Can I come in?” he asked.
“Wait just a second. I’ll come out.”
I had imagined it so differently. I was to go to him after a few days on the island, casually. I’d wear the linen pants Mom bought me “in case we go someplace nice” and my new black All Stars without socks and one of my concert t-shirts. If no adult were around, I might have a cigarette placed behind my ear. All of this was to speak volumes as to how grown up I was. And nothing said grown up quite so much, it seemed to me, as aloofness.
Instead, Ross was going to see me with wet hair and scrub-faced, and bare-chested and wearing a too-small towel around my waist, as I hadn’t brought a change of clothes into the bathroom with me.
I washed the soap from my eyes and turned off the water. I strained to hear his movements, but there was nothing, no hint of his racing heart, or his slight dizziness.
“Be right there,” I called, instantly regretting it. I sounded uncertain, juvenile.
“How have you been?” Ross asked.
“Good. Good. You?”
“Great,” he said. “I’ve missed you.”
I didn’t say anything to that. Did I miss him? I supposed, but the idea of telling him seemed risky.
“Hey,” he called, “just so you don’t freak out, I should warn you that I’ve changed a bit since last year.
“Well, see for yourself.” The bathroom door opened as I was bent over drying my feet.
“Christ!” I cried.
“I’m sorry,” he said, closing the door partway. “I’ll wait out here.” I heard both apology and disappointment in his voice as it drew further from the door.
My mind went to the kiss we’d shared at the end of last summer, for I was certain that it, more than anything, swayed how each of us was behaving now. I had sensed that for Ross, the kiss was something both longed for and cherished. His letters from college, though never explicitly referring to it, marinated in what had transpired: the end of last summer made me realize something, something about and for me, and something about and for us. I had turned that line over in my mind many times in the ensuing months, never certain what I felt about it, or what it might mean about and for me. Although we had been physical in other ways over the years, kissing Ross and the memory of it conjured an uneasiness that resided deep within, that popped up unexpectedly and stopped me cold, catching my breath, and making me feel, for reasons I could not put my finger on, a real sense of shame.
“You surprised me,” I called, proceeding to wrap a towel around my waist and another over my neck.
Even though he’d warned me, as I stepped into the cold main room of the cabin, I was surprised by what I saw. He had grown a beard. His hair, which I had only ever seen in a crew cut, was now curly and something of a mess that nevertheless looked good on him. A small looped earring adorned his left ear.
He greeted me with his Big Ross Smile. He spread his arms. Was he asking me to fall into them, or was he simply asking, “what do you think of my new look?”
“Wow, you look great!” I said, going to get a drink from the faucet.
“Water?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
I wanted very much to be wearing a shirt. I was conscious of my nipples being too small, and I hated my lack of any trace of chest hair, except for a smattering around the said micro-nipples. My torso was too white for summer. Ross was tan. He was wearing cutoffs and the hair on his legs was translucent against the brown of skin that was taut over muscle I didn’t remember.
“So, what do you want to do?” he asked.
“I,” I said. “I want to put a shirt on.”
He laughed. “Of course. And might I advise some pants, too?” Big Ross Smile.
I went into the bedroom to dress. I left the door ajar and heard Ross walking about.
“You know,” he called, “your family has a way of making this cabin your own.”
“I’ve seen it when other families have stayed in here. It never looks like this, or feels like this. You guys are always cozy. I guess it’s all about a mother’s touch, huh?” Ross grew up in the apartment above the store with his father. It was clean and utilitarian, but not what I could have considered a home. It was without the touches that would be considered warm, maybe feminine. There were no fresh flowers on the table, no nice smells or soft edges. The idea of growing up without a mother was so foreign to me, it left me without a reference point.
“So, how about we take a walk? I’ve got beer out on the porch,” he said with a wink as I reemerged fully clothed in my previously intended outfit.
“Sounds good to me,” I shrugged.
We went down to the bonfire and told Mom and Dad we were off for one of our adventures. Over the years they had come to know and love Ross and they trusted me in his company. Ross ran back up to the cabin and grabbed the six-pack of Oly, which we carried with us to the duck pond. Ross said at this time of night, there would be fewer people there than along the beach.
He talked about college and how great it was to be away from the island, while admitting that he also missed it. “People know your business too much here. Bellingham isn’t exactly New York City, but for the most part, people don’t give a crap about what you are or what you do or who you’re with.” We found a spot of grass along the pond and lay back. We each pulled the tab on a can of beer and drank. He asked me if I thought he’d changed.
“Not really. You look a little different.”
“Just a little?”
“Okay, a lot. But I like it. You look good. How about me? Have I changed?”
I wanted him to say I seemed older, more grown up. Instead, he said: “You have. You seem distant.”
“Just a little. I guess you probably had a long trip today. You’re probably tired.”
“Yes, I am a little,” I lied.
We lay back in the grass, almost touching, and stared at the clear night sky, each of us sitting up slightly from time to time to sip our beer. Otherwise we were still, and quiet. After a while, Ross took my hand, and I let him.
“Look,” he said, pointing to the heavens. “There’s Ganymede. Do you know that story?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Ganymede was a mortal, and he was supposed to be gorgeous. The most gorgeous. In fact, he was so beautiful Zeus couldn’t help himself, and he turned himself into an eagle and swooped up Ganymede and flew him to Mount Olympus, where he turned Ganymede immortal, and made him the cup-bearer to the gods. Sort of the first bartender, I guess.”
“What’s it supposed to mean?”
“I guess it means that even the most powerful god in the heavens would want to preserve the things he found most beautiful.” Ross’ hand twitched slightly in mine. “Hey,” he said, “how about a swim?”
“Not tonight,” I said. Ross released my hand, rolled onto his side and looked into my face.
“What’s wrong?” he asked sincerely.
“I think my parents are splitting up.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud. Ross rolled onto his back and then handed me another beer.
“God,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
I got in after everyone else had gone to bed. Ross had wanted me to sleep over with him above the store, but I insisted on getting back to the cabin. I was feeling tipsy as I crawled into bed and I screamed at the furry object next to me.
“What!” came Dad’s startled voice.
“Oh,” I sighed, relieved. “It’s you! Sorry about that, Pops. I was expecting Kristin.”
“What time is it?”
“Late. You should be asleep. Shhhhh.”
“Christ, you reek like a sailor. What the hell have you been up to?”
I giggled. “I was with Ross. We went to the duck pond and just sat around the duck pond and talked and stuff.” Blah-blah-blah. I knew I should shut up, but my mouth just wouldn’t stop. Finally, Dad started to laugh.
“You’re not sleeping in here smelling like a bum. Go take a shower and brush your teeth.”
“Don’t wake your mother or sister.”
“And, by the way…?”
“You’re a lousy drunk.”
“Hey,” he said as I started to trudge toward the bathroom, “did you have fun?”
“Yeah. It was fun with Ross. Ross, he’s a good guy.”
“Go clean up.”
In the bathroom I looked at myself long and hard in the mirror. I tried to recognize any Ganymede traces I might have inside of me. Ross had a way of making me feel as though anything were possible. “Maybe,” I whispered, looking myself straight in the eye. “Maybe.”
Newspapers from the mainland arrived each day on the 8:30 AM ferry. Dad avoided the news while on vacation. But Mom was at the wharf each morning, waiting. I began joining her. Not for the paper or because I particularly liked mornings, but as a way of spending time with her. She’d go inside to get a cup of coffee from Ross’ dad, then come join me on the bench to wait for the deckhand from the Fort Bragg to deliver the bundles of the previous evening’s editions.
“No sign of Ross inside this morning. Just thought you’d like to know,” she said.
“Can I have a sip?” I asked her.
“I drink coffee,” I informed her.
“You know, you don’t have to treat me like a kid all the time. I’m not Kristen.”
“I’m terribly sorry. Here you go,” she said, handing me the Styrofoam cup. “Knock yourself out.”
“Oh yeah, BIG coffee drinker,” she said, taking back the cup.
“You put sugar in it. I only like it black.”
“That’ll put hair on your chest. Speaking of which,” she put her hand to my chin and turned my cheek into the sun, “when the light hits your face just right, I can see whiskers. Better get your dad to show you how to shave.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“No. Why would I be kidding you?”
“Because I’ve only been shaving for over a year.” Mom shrugged her shoulders. “Besides,” I said, “maybe I’m thinking of growing a beard.”
“Oh I see. Trying to be like Ross, then?”
“No,” I answered. “Trying to be like you.” I stood and walked some distance from her, pretending to look for the ferry.
It was hard to talk to Mom sometimes. She was mostly no-nonsense, although that didn’t mean she was without a sense of humor. That combination made it hard to know when and how to be serious. On this particular morning, I had come to the wharf with a plan to ask her what was going on with our family. Maybe she sensed it, and was deflecting.
I came back to her on the bench and asked her pointedly: “What’s the worst thing in the world I could ever tell you?”
“That you don’t love your mother.”
“All right. Second-worst.”
“What have you done?” she asked.
“I haven’t done anything, really. But, what would make you not love me anymore?”
“Darling, nothing, nothing would make me not love you anymore. Nothing in the world. But,” she said, folding her arms and tipping back her head, “I guess if you told me that you had seriously hurt someone, or yourself, on purpose. That I wouldn’t like very much. That would be about the worst I could imagine. But even then, of course I would still love you.”
It made me shiver, silly as that sounds, in part because it made me feel loved, and in part because I didn’t entirely believe her.
“That said, I want to know what you’re cooking up,” she said.
“Why nothing, Milady. Nothing at all.”
* * *
Toward the end of the week, Ross came by the cabin while my father and I were lounging out front, half-listening to the Mariners game on the radio. He was walking a ten-speed bike with two flat tires.
“Hi-ya Ross,” said Dad. “Don’t think you’re getting very far on that thing.”
“Yeah, I know. I finally got around to pulling it out of the shed behind the store. Trying to keep in shape this summer.”
“The Kid here tells me you’re on the cross country team at school.”
“Yeah, I am.”
“I ran track in high school myself,” Dad said proudly. “It’s good for the mind. Healthy body, healthy mind, and vice versa. That’s what the Greeks taught us, right?”
“Sounds about right, don’t you think, Ganymede?” Ross winked at me.
“And it works off the beer you drink on the weekends,” Dad said, trying just a little too hard. Both of the men laughed. It was the kind of friendly banter I had come to expect from my dad, but I hated that Ross was taking part in it so willingly.
“Listen,” Ross said, “I’m about to take the sailboat over to Friday Harbor to see if I can find the right tires for this heap. You gentlemen want to come along for the ride?”
“Sure,” Dad said enthusiastically. “Nothing important going on here. Just let me grab my sweatshirt.”
As my father went inside, Ross took his chair.
“So what’s new?” he asked.
“Haven’t seen much of you this week. Everything all right?”
“In fact, this is about the first summer I can honestly say I’ve seen Kristin a hell of a lot more than I’ve seen you. At least she comes by the store every day to buy her necklaces.”
“She really likes those things.”
“I don’t give a crap about the goddamn necklaces,” he said, his voice rising. “I want to know what’s going on.”
“I told you. Nothing.”
“Why are you acting like such a little twerp?”
“Don’t call me that. Don’t ever call me that again.”
I stared straight ahead and Ross sighed.
“I just want to understand why you’re avoiding me,” he said. “Did I do something? Did I say something? Whatever it is, I’d just like to know.”
“It’s nothing,” I said.
Dad returned with his sweatshirt and a couple of beers and the three of us started for the wharf. I stayed several feet behind them as Dad prattled on to Ross about nothing. Once on the boat, Ross used the little outboard motor to guide us out of the slip into open waters, at which point he hoisted the jib and the main and set us sailing. Even in my snit I had to admit he was magnificent to watch in his element, calm and sure-footed, as though tacking were as natural to him as walking. He managed to keep an eye on everything at once, pulling and releasing, easing and hardening. It was hypnotic to watch him. Halfway there, Dad even fell asleep, his empty beer bottle rolling with the wakes on the bottom of the boat. I sat sloped over the side, my hand playing in the spray until it went numb from the sheer force of the water.
When we arrived at Friday Harbor, Ross took his bike directly to the shop. Dad and I followed and waited on a bench out front, licking at the ice creams he’d bought us.
“Listen,” he said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you something. Now probably isn’t the best time, but, well, I’ve been thinking about it all week…the thing of it is, I was wondering if you have an idea about the stuff your mom and I are going through?”
“I think so.”
“I figured. And Kristin?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. She hasn’t said anything.”
“Well, if she hasn’t said anything.”
There was a silence during which I assumed Dad was thinking of what to say next. After a while it dawned on me he felt finished with our talk, which left me feeling angry and unsatisfied.
“Are you getting a divorce?” I asked. He let out a long, flat stream of air.
“I don’t know,” he said finally. “How would you feel if we did?”
“How do you think I’d feel?”
“I would say probably not so great. Huh. You know, you and Kristin mean an awful lot to me and your mother. Well, everything. We don’t want you to think that this has anything to do with you. That it’s your fault or anything.”
“Are you unhappy?” I asked.
He took some time to answer. When he did, he spoke slowly, cautiously.
“I think that I am unhappy. More important, I think your mother is. I don’t say that as a way to try to put the blame on her. It’s just what is.” He slipped his hand onto my knee, probably unconsciously. “And what about you? Are you happy? You know, I don’t mind telling you, you worry the hell out of me sometimes.”
“Me? What’s to worry about?”
“You’re too smart for your own good for one thing. Always thinking. I can always see the gears grinding away up there. That can get you into a lot of trouble.”
“How would you know?”
“Very funny. Seriously Kid, let yourself off the hook every once in a while. I guarantee, it won’t burn.”
“I am if you are.”
In a while Ross rejoined us, wheeling out his bike with its brand new tires, wielding a Big Ross Smile. “Where to now, gentlemen?” Ross asked. My father jumped to his feet, full of vim.
“Seems to me there used to be a pool hall around here. How about we beat it out of this sun and go delinquent for a while?”
For the remainder of the afternoon we stowed ourselves away from the rest of the world to pursue a little black ball around a sea of green felt. Dad won every game until he announced he was retiring to the bar, leaving Ross and me alone. As Ross began to rack our game, I told him I was sorry.
“No problem. We’re okay then?”
“I am if you are.”
Nights on Orcas produced a certain magic. The tide, teeming with phosphorescence, made the waters sparkle in the darkness. Dad used to tell me it was the sirens that made the waters glow, and that I shouldn’t look at it for too long or I would be hypnotized and forever held under their wicked spell. I was now old enough to know better, but on nights like this I still made a point of staring into the depths for only so long before looking away.
In the distance, perhaps even from another island, a coyote’s howl sailed in on the wind. Naturally, I looked up. The moon was half-full and bright white; the surrounding stars provided a brilliant canopy under which to walk along the beach. Ross led the way as we departed the others around the bonfire, but I knew where we were going. When we were out of sight of the campers, I took his hand.
“Pretty night,” he said.
“I love nights like tonight. Ross?”
I asked what he’d meant in his letters when he said last summer had taught him something about and for himself, and about and for us.
“That I’m gay.” He said it so directly and quickly I couldn’t help but feel he’d been waiting to be asked.
“Last summer made me realize it wasn’t a phase for me. I want to be with boys. Men. Does it bother you to know that?”
I didn’t answer right away. It didn’t bother me, I was pretty sure. It was the first time I had ever heard someone refer to themselves in that way, openly, without shame, so it was new and unfamiliar. The truth was, I felt happy for Ross, and happy I could have been a part of his discovery. What still was unclear to me was what it meant for us.
“No. It doesn’t bother me at all,” I said. We walked on, still hand-in-hand. I knew the question but couldn’t form the words.
Ross stopped and turned into me, putting his hands gently on my shoulders. “It means,” he said, “that for me, this isn’t just play anymore. It can’t be.”
I got it, I understood, and simply nodded, looking into his eyes.
We walked on, again hand-in-hand. It felt very comfortable now, like the gorilla in the corner had finally been identified as smaller and less threatening than previously thought.
“Do you know where we’re going?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“Do you mind?”
“No. It’s a nice night for a swim.”
Ross first brought me to The Pools when I was about Kristin’s age. At that time we played in the tidal pools and collected starfish and the other flora and fauna that thrived in them. Later it would become the place where we skinny-dipped among other things, and later still where he kissed me. The Pools lay far beyond where any tourists would venture, and so we had the nerve to be naked. We were still awkward now, as we shed our clothes and stood before one another. But this time I could see there was something lovely in the awkwardness, in that we were not afraid to share in it. We slipped into the water and swam out a ways in different directions. In the darkness I could not see Ross but only hear his body push through the silky still water. We gasped and laughed at the coldness of it.
“Hey, come over here, Ganymede,” he called, and I swam to him. He splashed me in the face as I approached and I splashed back. “Hey,” he said, resting his hands on my shoulders. “Will you promise to write me this year?”
“Sure,” I said, and guided myself into his arms. I kissed him. And it was beautiful.
* * *
In that final week Ross and I were together almost constantly. We met each morning for a jog together the long way around to the duck pond. These were lovely times that bore witness to a doe and fawn coming to shore, as though they’d been out for a morning swim. Another morning we watched from the beach in front of the Rosario Resort as lifeguards saved a flailing woman. When I looked back to Ross, his eyes were swollen with tears. “There’s something about someone dropping everything to save another that gets to me,” he said. During the day we hung out at the store, or sailed around to the other islands looking for seals or whales, or found quiet sea caves to explore. Each night, we returned to The Pools, hand-in-hand. In the cold silky waters I held him tight and kissed him, this time without shame.
When it came to our last night on Orcas, for the first time since our arrival, my entire family sat around the bonfire together. New families had arrived since our first week so Dad found a fresh audience for his ghost stories. Watching Mom, I marveled as she smiled warmly at his tellings. She had heard these stories a hundred times, just as Kristin and I had. It made me profoundly happy, and hopeful, that she could still find glee in bearing witness to Dad’s enthusiasm. There was no delusion of things ending happily-ever-after, but that didn’t detract from a loving and genuine moment, around the bonfire, all of us together.
I rested my head on Kristin’s legs and she whispered to me that she had seen two rabbits “humping” in the bushes down by the boat launch earlier that day.
“What were you doing down there?” I asked.
“I went with my friend, Jonathan.”
“Is he your boyfriend,” I teased. Kristin rolled her eyes.
“Well you shouldn’t be watching those rabbits,” I said. “It’s an invasion of their privacy.”
Kristin thought about it. “I guess you’re right,” she said. “Still,” she covered her mouth to stifle her giggle, “it was funny.”
Then I closed my eyes. She pinched me to stay awake.
“No,” I said. “Not tonight.”
I felt no need to overhear any adult conversation, and I wanted to rest just a while before meeting Ross at The Pools.
The next morning my family was scheduled to leave on the 8:30 AM ferry. I rose before anyone else and ventured to The Pools one last time, for the first time alone. I shed my clothes, and slipped into the water. I swam with my eyes shut, and then flopped onto my back and floated. I floated as still as I could, wanting the water to form perfectly to my shape. And when it did, I wondered how one could hold onto to such a thing. I licked salt from my lips; the water had filled my ears and I heard my own heartbeat; and my head swelled with the words of the song from the night before:
There is a town in north Ontario…
That last night with Ross, we lay at the water’s edge tethered by the earphone wires from his Walkman. We talked very little, and the words we did speak above the weeping steel-guitared reverberations of Neil Young’s haunting lyrics were broad and non-committal. “What do you want to do with your life?” Ross asked. I said I simply wanted to survive my family, graduate high school, get myself to a big city, maybe L.A., or Chicago, or even New York. Ross’ dreams were bigger. He wanted to see the world – sail solo around Cape Horn, live in Venice and Prague. He didn’t want to take over his father’s store, he knew his time on the island, like mine, had an expiration date.
…Blue, blue windows behind the stars…
The song played through to the end and we removed the earphones and took off our clothes. We returned to the water, and although I believe we both sensed this was our ending, we did not dwell on it. The overarching sense of the last of something had remained with me since that walk with my father to the end of the wharf. In that final week it had hovered around us all, my parents, Kristine, me and Ross, but unobtrusively and for different reasons. Even as I stood in the darkened Pools, my hands draped over Ross’ shoulders, there was already a dawning sense that, whatever happened from that moment forward, none of us was completely helpless to our futures.
It was in these waters that I began to become visible. That’s the piece of the island I carry with me these many years later. As I float here, naturally I think of Ross, about where he might be, what his life might have become. I hope he made it safely around Cape Horn and is living out his life with love and reasonable happiness, whether in Venice or Prague or wherever the world took him. It is only natural I let myself believe for a moment time hasn’t passed at all—that time is as fluid as The Pools themselves—and it is Ross swimming up alongside of me, whispering a now-ancient song in my ear, and asking me to sing with him.
Then I let it go, and look up to see a handsome man, standing waist-deep in the water, his chest hair glistening in the sun, a ring on his hand that matches the ring on mine: David.
He smirks. “I know that look. You’re in your faraway place again.” I laugh, not only because I’ve been caught, but because he’s right. “What is it this time? The rabbits? The old musty cabins? Ross?” I smile again, for it pleases me to know he’s been listening after all.
Last night I had leaned against the wharf railing and taken David’s hand in mine. We stared out over the water as the spectral lights from the other islands began to shine and I pointed: Guemes, Lopez, Shaw.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Soundings Review.
J. Edward Kruft received his MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. He lives in Long Island City, NY and Asbury Park, NJ with his husband, Mike, and their Keeshond-mix rescue, Aine. When he dropped high school physics in order to write for the school newspaper, he was told he would rue the day. He hasn’t. His work has appeared in Soundings Review and Eunoia Review, among others. He is currently at work on a novel, Playing at the D&R and Other Stories.