Wyatt’s e-mail was brief and to the point, though not without heart. He knew what this meant.
He’d bought the plane ticket. Justin would leave in a month. Wyatt pointed out that mid-August was already pushing things. In Chicago the private high schools started in late August. Their son needed to arrive for his senior year on time. No wandering into third period with saltwater dripping out his nose. Ha ha.
When she and Wyatt were in graduate school – Wyatt at the University of Chicago for business; she at Purdue for ocean sciences -- they had written each other every day, old fashion letters where the ink smudged and she doodled hearts and smiley faces in the margins. Wyatt hadn’t been much for things beyond the margins, but he had written beautiful letters, pages long, telling her how he missed her every breath and movement, the way she unfolded drowsily from bed, waking as she rose, the light growing in her eyes as if someone were ladling it in, turning them greener and greener still, like those time lapse films of blooming flowers.
Was a time she would have told him about her wet dream, even coached him along, hoping he might make dreams come true.
But that time, like so many, was gone.
Cedar stared at the life-changing e-mail, four paragraphs in all.
Cedar waited until Justin came home from school. She waited until she fueled up the Wendell Holmes, Santy oddly evasive. She waited until Justin came back from listening to music with Issy (was that a euphemism?). She waited until he finished doing his homework on the foredeck, the soft evening light turning his rapt face even younger.
She waited until she stood at the kitchen counter scooping brown rice on to their plates, Jonathan balanced hopefully a few feet away.
“I heard from your father.”
Justin was at the table. He stopped, salad dressing tipped just short of pour.
“Your flight leaves August 15th.”
It was a face you saw at funerals; lost and hopeless and stamped full with dull resignation. It would be so easy to make him happy, but making him happy was not her job.
“It’s time to go home,” she said.
“This is home.”
“We’ve been over this before.”
He put the salad dressing down harder than required.
“I left when I was six. Other than Dad, I don’t know the place. Since when is that a home?”
“Since it has good schools with enough tennis players to field more than one doubles team.” She hated this. She pretended to stir the rice, the steam warm on her face. “We can talk about it again and again, but it the answer is simple. You can’t live your life here.”
“It’s simple for you because it’s not your life.”
She felt herself growing angry. How much was she supposed to take?
“You want to run a dive boat for the rest of your life? Really? Maybe Jonathan could be your first mate. You can bartend at The White Squall at night. Listen to your divers tell you what you saw that day and every day for the past ten years. Tell the same jokes during the dive briefings and when it’s time for tips.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to run a dive boat.” It was meant to sting, and it did. “I said I want to run my own life.”
“A good education gives you a better chance of doing that. You need to spend your senior year at a good high school to better your chances of getting into a good college.”
Just like that her anger died, but Justin’s didn’t.
“I don’t want to spend my senior year in Chicago. I want to spend it here. Then I’ll go to college.”
She placed the plastic serving spoon in the sink. It seemed like yesterday that she had bathed him in this sink. How did that happen? She tried to keep the thought from rising into her face.
“I want you to go back. Your father wants you to go back. It’s what’s best for all of us.”
“You decided to leave Chicago. You decided to leave Dad. No one else decided that.”
“That’s completely different. And unfair.”
She didn’t know how much longer she could hold on. It was like the pushups her high school lacrosse coach used to make them do. Okay, ten more. Okay, now ten more because you know you can. One by one everyone on the team had eventually collapsed. Not once had she quit. She had thought it was the hardest thing she’d ever do.
“Mom, I appreciate what you’re both trying to do. I want to go college. I appreciate the opportunity you’re giving me. I just want to finish high school here. I work hard in school. I do all the extra credit work I can and then some. You’re not in class with me. I’m getting a good education here.”
Okay, ten more.
“How many members of last year’s graduating class went to college?”
“That’s unfair. They’d rather fish. They’d rather stay with their families.”
She ignored the second statement.
“You want to be a fisherman?”
Because we are wiping out the oceans. First the great whales, then the cod. Now Chilean sea bass, orange roughy, walleye pollock and salmon. Even here in their little world, ostensibly tucked far away, nets came up empty. Ninety percent of large wild fish, already gone.
Both she and Justin had read a recent United Nations report forecasting the possibility of a fishless sea by the year 2050.
She didn’t say any of this. Justin knew.
Her hands shook. It was too hard. She wanted to quit.
“There’s nothing here for you, Justin. It’s a dead end. No future you would want. And yes, no future I would want for you.” She hesitated. “Issy’s going to leave eventually, too.”
“She leaves in five weeks. Her whole family’s leaving.”
This blindsided her.
“They’re moving to Ocala, Florida. It’s where her mom’s from.”
Cedar had been to Ocala once. It was filled with hard-partying, sun-wrecked Conchs who had fled the Florida Keys after the Keys got too expensive. She tried to imagine Issy’s parents in Ocala. Plenty of empty pew space to fill on Sunday mornings.
Jonathan had shuffled to the lip of the kitchen sink. He leaned forward like a slow toppling bowling pin, pink tongue tapping a water droplet suspended from the spigot. Rising, his eyes bored into Cedar.
“I didn’t know they were leaving,” she said.
“There’s a lot you don’t know.”
There comes a time in a parent’s life when they can stop acting. If she knew everything she wouldn’t be in the galley of a dive boat in a remote jungle outpost, facing a dubious future and losing a staring contest with a fruit bat in the present.
Her own failings firmed her resolve. This, she thought wryly, is what parenting often boiled down to. Don’t be like me.
“You can argue all you want, but it’s decided. You can decide how you’ll handle it.”
She came around the counter with the plates. She put Justin’s plate in front of him and then moved to her chair.
Justin always pulled out her chair.
She sat and picked up her napkin.
“See?” she said. “I’m already learning how to be self-sufficient.”
She was surprised to find herself fighting back tears. Finally, one push-up too many.
A chair scraped.
Justin bent and kissed her cheek.
“I’m a jerk and an ingrate. You’ve done everything for me. I know how lucky I am.”
Goddammit. Now she was crying.
She hiccupped, her smile gummy.
“You are a jerk, but you’re my jerk.”
The boat rocked. Her son stayed bent, his arms around her neck. She wanted it to last forever.
After dinner she stayed at the table while Justin washed the dishes, surreptitiously passing Jonathan scraps.
“What say tomorrow we go for a dive, just you and me?” she said. “We can even bring your garbage disposal.”
Jonathan loved being on the boat but he rarely came along. Being on the boat excited him and excitement stirred his bowels. Fruit bats made a mess that was hell to clean up.
She didn’t care if Jonathan shat his way from bow to stern and back again.
Justin gave her a sly look.
“Sloppy Joes for lunch?” he asked.
Sloppy Joes were Justin’s favorite, and Jonathan’s too. This ran counter to a fruit bat, but there it was.
“You’re taking advantage. Sloppy Joes too.”
“And we dive Water Whispers.”
Her stomach dropped.
“Never one to stop pushing your luck,” she said, trying a smile. “Why do you want to go there?”
“There’s something about the place. It’s not just that it’s beautiful. I can’t really put it into words. The closest thing I can say is it feels comfortable. Like home.”
“It’s almost as far as Chicago,” Cedar said.
“If I got a good job I could help you pay for fuel. If I got a really good job I could buy Santy out and he could retire with Heidi Klum.” He placed the last dish in the rack. “Chicago isn’t home. But I guess I could learn to make it home for a little while.”
“You’re manipulating me.”
“Fine. Water Whispers.”
Justin held out his forearm and Jonathan hopped nimbly aboard. Boy and bat started walking away.
“Wait a minute.”
“You know that was a sucker punch,” she said.
“Maybe. But I threw it for both of us.”
She tried to look indignant.
“I hope you suffer children one day.”
She smiled at him.
“You see, don’t you?” she asked.
“Sometimes you do get to choose.”
After they left she sat at the table, unwilling or unable to get up.
Just the words sent cold creeping through her limbs.
That night she walked up the hill to Shirley’s. She was late. Marty sat on his prescribed stool. Two tourist couples sat at one of the patio tables drinking pina colodas. Their faces were redder than their straws.
A Red Rooster rested on the bar.
“One day you’ll do something that surprises me,” she said, sliding on to the stool.
“That seat is taken.”
A steady breeze was blowing. A napkin flopped off a table. Marty went out to the patio. Retrieving the napkin, he carefully situated the silverware on the remainder of the napkins.
He walked back to the bar. She loved to watch him walk. He moved like a dancer, his steps graceful and light.
A pretty girl stood behind the bar near the kitchen door, wringing her hands. Cedar didn’t recognize her.
“Did Henry hire a shy bartender?” she whispered.
“Not exactly. At present, Henry has difficulties.”
“Ah. Damsel difficulties?”
Marty carefully folded the napkin and placed it on the bar, leaning close as he did.
“A former flame. She arrived on the mail boat this afternoon. I believe Henry is in the back, trying to flush himself down the loo.”
“Just like a man to take the sensible approach. Is your sister aware of this newcomer?”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
The girl walked down the bar, stopping opposite the small television affixed to the ceiling beneath the row of rugby banners. Pretending to watch TV, she kept glancing back toward the kitchen. When Henry finally came through the door, she lit up like a roman candle. The pleasure on her face made Cedar a little sad.
“Apparently Henry has not yet acquired the gumption to inform her of his current relationship status,” Marty said.
Henry, carrying a bowl, passed by the girl quickly, giving her a sickly smile.
Placing the peanuts on the bar, he whispered, “Help me.”
Cedar saw the girl making her way back toward the kitchen. When she disappeared through the door, Cedar said, “Be sweet, but be honest.”
“Lord,” groaned Henry.
“He won’t help you,” said Cedar, “but we can get our own drinks.”
Henry groaned again and slouched off slowly toward the kitchen.
She turned to Marty. She wondered if he had ever slouched.
“I can’t let go of him,” she said.
“Henry has enough female problems already.”
“Ah. I’m sorry. You heard from your husband?”
Marty always spoke as if she was still married. It irritated her, but she ignored it this time.
“Yes. He booked the flight. Justin leaves in a month. I’ve lost a piece of my heart already.”
“It is a good thing you are so well endowed.”
Her grip on the bottle relaxed a little.
“Do you ever say the wrong thing?”
Marty spun the ice in his glass.
“No need to waste my breath,” he said.
“What am I going to do?”
“Have you considered other interests?”
“Beyond your son.”
He delivered it gently, as kindly as a priest, as expertly as a tuxedoed waiter.
She looked out across the patio. The world was dark sky and sea, but all she could see was the pinprick of light in the cabin far below.
“In one year I’ll be putting that son through college. I don’t have time for hobbies.”
“There is always time if you wish to find it.”
“Fine. I’ll stop before I lose this argument too.”
“It is not an argument.”
Marty raised an eyebrow.
“And?” he said.
“You already have a proposal in mind.”
“Correct. I propose you learn to fly.”
“I can’t afford to go stateside to find a competent pilot.”
“Only one port in this particular storm.”
It just popped into her head.
“Fine. And you learn to dive.”
Apparently Marty could slouch.
Something smashed in the kitchen. Followed by several somethings in quick succession. Next came high pitched screaming.
Marty turned to the startled tourists.
“The dishware is insured,” he said. “Did you know that my best friend here is going to learn to fly?”
Walking back to the harbor, Cedar saw a limping figure approaching in the dark. As the figure drew close, the limping stopped and Santy’s nephew veered off into the brush.
Maybe a small place made everyone queer.
Author / Speaker