Boat, by Leah Christianson

On Sunday morning, we drive to the boat that my mother reserved for my grandmother’s birthday party. It sails on the state’s biggest lake—impressive, as our license plates declare we have 10,000 of them. I ask the captain for a life vest for my little girl, but he will not get it for me until everyone else has boarded. When I do not like this, he tells me that this cruise is not just for us and he has to help everyone. He turns away to greet the other passengers, and soon we are just flecks of pepper in the blonde sea flooding the dock. I try to get the captain’s attention again, and this time he ignores me. He is a real American idiot who decided he did not like us the second he heard my mother’s accent. His stomach is round and hangs over his belt, like Uncle Nicolai’s before his heart gave out. I carry my little girl and sit her down on a cushioned bench inside.

I ask one of the serving girls for a life vest, but she only nods at my request. She keeps looking at my mother, who is yelling at the other girl, a brunette, about the parking lot’s distance from the boat, how confusing it was to find, and her overall aggravations about life’s little letdowns. “I am disappoint, I am very disappoint,” she says. She has been angry since she woke up this morning. She has been angry since she was born. I turn to Elaine to complain but she tells me to hush.

Elaine is my wife, a take-charge type of lady. We met at a party at university. I told her that I was new in this country, and she said she was new to this life, the single one. She spilled her drink on her dress, then led me into a room where she pulled down my pants. We have been together since. I used to be afraid of my wife and her forwardness, but as the years have gone by she has gotten fatter, and this makes her soft. I do not much like the homely woman she has become. But she takes good care of our daughter, and that is something I value.

This boat is grand—I will admit that. It is two stories tall with dark wood paneling and a winding staircase that leads to the upper deck. Granted, it only winds once, but there is twirling nonetheless. The carpet is a navy blue, splattered with yellow stars. There are even two bathrooms in the back. Two bathrooms on a boat—imagine! The serving girls wear matching uniforms and now stand at a bar in the back. The top shelf gleams with high quality glassware that high quality people pour high quality liquor into, so they can pay high prices to have a quality time. I find a seat.

The girls walk around taking drink orders and smiling. They reach my family last. The blonde server rolls her eyes after I send my drink back. So what if I want a bigger cup? So what if I do not want ice? It is not my fault this girl is too simple to pour a glass of cranberry juice. I am about to go tell this girl that I do not appreciate her judgment, but Lilly spills the cereal we have brought for her and my mother runs over to fuss.

Lilly. My little girl, my princess. I did not know what love was until I saw her face. Sometimes I wonder how I created something so lovely, this tiny person with a head of bouncy curls. Where her papa has features carved by a knife, Lilly is round and smooth. Her mouth puckers out, while mine is drawn tight. On Fridays, I bring her desserts from the bakery by my office. Rich chocolate truffles, fluffy lemon bars, sticky caramel and coconut concoctions—they all delight her. Sometimes Elaine gets mad and says I have spoiled Lilly’s dinner, but I cannot help myself. After Elaine leaves the room muttering, I sneak Lilly sweets and she smiles a toothy smile.

The serving girls set out the brunch and my family goes through the buffet line, piling their plates high with eggs and sausages and waffles and pastries. Lilly wants a plate of strawberries and whipped cream, which I give her, but Elaine makes her take some eggs too. For protein, she says. I think Elaine should lay off the protein, and the pastries too for that matter. The brunette girl smiles at me as I walk by and I want to be angry because it can’t possibly be real. But then I notice her shirt, which has come unbuttoned at the top and now offers a glimpse of skin just below her collarbone. It is just enough to get me thinking about what else hides beneath her blouse. The brunette looks away quickly, and the discomfort flashing across her blue eyes tells me I have been staring. I return to my seat, plate full. How soft her dark locks look, while my wife has dirty straw atop her head.

We travel around the lake while we eat our brunch, looking at the houses of American people with more money than God. Elaine looks resentfully at a mansion that could fit our house on its front lawn, and I cannot blame her because I am envious too. The idiot captain speaks on a microphone, broadcasting facts about the lake and the people wealthy enough to live on its shores. One house is worth forty-five million dollars, he says. Another has a hockey rink in its basement. My mother, who is now seated on my right side, leans over and asks if I remember our basement in Vyborg. “It felt like an ice rink sometimes, no?”

Yes, Mama. The cold was another tenant in our house during the winter, slapping us awake in the morning and grabbing at our bare feet when we rolled out of bed. Even the trees hid, shriveling into crooked wires that only served to hold tiny bits of snow off the ground. When Grandmama moved in with us, I was made to sleep in the basement so she could have the warmer room. On nights when the chattering of my own teeth kept me awake, I would wish for my grandmother to die so I could escape that frozen cave. Terrible, yes. But people do not understand what cold like that can do to a person.

My grandmother is still here, seated on the other side of my mother, watching birds fly above our little ship. She is ninety-five today. Mother has brought a cake, but it does not look good. The frosting is runny and I can see the sugar crystallizing as it sits underneath its plastic wrapping, slowing coming apart.

I walk up to the bar this time, hoping to talk to the brunette girl. But she leaves for the second level and I am left with the blonde one who is too simple to pour juice. This girl is skinny and smiley, but she has a face like a horse. I order a Bloody Mary and do not leave a tip, even though she gives me all one-dollar bills for change.

My brother, Gregory, chastises me for buying a drink when I return. “What a waste of money,” he cries. He produces a flask from his hip and takes a substantial gulp. Lilly crawls onto my lap, and I began absent-mindedly stroking her hair, wondering how much money one must earn before he decides it is a good idea to install an ice rink in his basement.

Suddenly Lilly is spitting and crying. She drops Gregory’s flask and it empties all over her lap. Gregory curses under his breath and grabs it back, but it is too late. Elaine and my mother flock to us in an instant, asking what is wrong, but it is apparent once they see the wet dress and catch the biting scent. Mother yells at Gregory and Elaine yells at me. They are a fearsome team, with the fat wobbling under their chins at they squawk. The dark-haired girl comes up quietly behind my wife, and silently leaves a dry towel on the table next to us. I try to wipe my daughter clean.

Elaine gets Lilly to stop crying by offering her Grandmama’s cake. My mother eagerly runs to cut it, and slaps a big piece down on the table in front of me. It looks even worse than before. Even the strawberries once perched atop the cake have wilted into sickly red blobs. I barely touch my slice, instead watching my family inhale their slimy dessert. I look over to the bar, hoping to get another smile, but the girls are talking to each other and laughing. About us, no doubt. Why would they not? Gregory and his wife argue, flinging their arms wide and almost smacking people at the neighboring table. My mother mutters under her breath, spooning cake into my silent grandmother’s mouth. Elaine licks frosting off her fingers before bending over to reveal a spongy lower back that spills over her pants. I move to pull her shirt down, but she slaps my hand away. I look to my Lilly for solace, but she is busy with her cake.

The girls have finished washing the brunch dishes, and the brunette rolls paper napkins around the now sparkling silverware. She stands behind the bar, working quickly. She begins talking to Lilly, who has been playing peek-a-boo over the plastic counter. I expect Lilly to run away, as she’s usually shy around strangers, but she talks back and even smiles. The girl folds a napkin into a hat and puts it on Lilly’s head, giggling along with my daughter. And I am overcome, again, with the urge to take her in my arms and never let her go. I see the way it could have been with her, with any other girl, instead of deciding to stick with the first one that did not run from my thick accent. My friends at home teased me before my family left for America. “You think American girls will look twice at you? You?” they laughed. “If you don’t jump in bed with the first girl that lets you, you’re a fool.” Well, I did just that. I jumped right into Elaine’s bed and stayed there. But now I do not know if this was what my friends meant. There are a lot of things I do not know anymore.

“Look, Daddy!” Lilly twirls, the only lovely thing in the world.

Elaine walks over and acts delighted over Lilly’s napkin hat. She thanks the girl for her kindness. I watch the sort of smile she gives back. It twinkles. Elaine gives me a strange look as she sits back down, and I wonder if my wife can read my mind. I’ve considered this before, when she glares at me after I think of how much funnier she was at university or how large her thighs have become. I never say these things out loud, but I get the feeling that my wife knows them anyway. Her eyes get full.

Start packing,” she says and my stomach leaps towards my throat. But then I glance at my watch and see that our two hour boat cruise is coming to an end, and she is simply referring to the small bag of toys we brought along to keep Lilly entertained.

At the dock, the brunette jumps off the boat in one graceful leap, quickly wrapping ropes around thick wooden posts and pulling us close to the panels that will lead us ashore. My family quickly exits the boat. Gregory’s face looks like a ripe tomato. He is drunk at one in the afternoon, and eager to get home and fall into bed. His wife clucks her tongue like an angry hen as he stumbles toward their car, and Elaine rushes to walk with her. These women have bonded over their mutual dislike of our family’s men, and they affirm their aversions whenever they can. Elaine pulls Lilly along, not noticing that I am still on the boat, picking up a toy that Lilly dropped in her rush to keep up with her mother. I never got that life vest, I realize as Lilly wobbles on the dock.

My mother helps Grandmama off the boat; a challenge as the uneven boards keep snagging her cane. She looks back for a second and I am struck by the idea that, in all her years, my grandmother has never done anything like this before. After we left Russia, she rarely found reason to leave the house. Her skin is so thin that the sunlight seems to pierce to her bones. I consider grabbing her other elbow and helping her along the rickety dock. But I use the bathroom instead.

When I exit the restroom, the boat looks different. The linens are gone from the tables, the bottles of alcohol have been covered, and a bottle of cleaning solution sits on the counter. The brunette girl stands behind the bar, counting money.

“Oh!” she exclaims. “I didn’t know anyone was still here.”

Her eyes are the color of the sky. I stare for a moment, knowing these few seconds I have are precious, knowing that she will soon ask me to leave her boat. That is, unless I say something that stops her. I wonder if I could convince this girl to run away with me. Elaine would be devastated, of course, but she would find another. An American man who eats at McDonald’s and doesn’t spill vodka on his daughter’s new dress and has enough money to put an ice rink in his basement, or at least buy a decent cake. We would take Lilly, of course, who adores this dark-haired wonder as much as I. Then we would leave forever. Perhaps I could take her back to Vyborg and show her to the men; let them know that I, Alexi, was able to get one of the American girls they said I never had a chance with. She would be the subject of the small talk in my small town, and we could build a small life together there, complete with a vegetable garden and a church around the corner. I could stroke her dark hair anytime. And maybe she could love me.

“Sophie—” the blonde girl enters the lower deck where the brunette and I stand, and stops in surprise to see me. The boat has been untied, I realize, and we are drifting away from the dock with them as they travel back to wherever they make port. Sophie moves quickly towards the door, and I understand that she means to tie the boat back up and send me on my way. When she brushes past me, I catch a whiff of something lemony—a combination of perfume and Windex. The boat shudders. I begin to feel claustrophobic. The dock is still close—I can make it. I mutter an apology as I duck past Sophie, open the sliding door, and jump.

And I am submerged by the cold combination of embarrassment and regret in the moment before I hit the water, because I know I should have acted sooner. My family stands on shore—I am sure of it—mother shrieking for her boy, wife shaking her head at her husband, and daughter gaping at the churning water that has just swallowed her papa. I’d like to think that the brunette is worried about me, but I think I hear faint laughter above the surface. Murky somethings grab at my ankles. The rippling ceiling doesn’t get any closer.

If only I could get out. If only I could go home. My arms move slower, thickened by the cold. I was never good at swimming. Will no one help? The lake stings my eyes as I take my first gulp. I feel calmer now, and decide that Sophie’s eyes are more like water than sky.

That is interesting, I think. That my last thought should be of her.

There is a splash, a push, a rush of white.

Unsanded wood greets my face, and the rest of my body lands a second later. My arms still have no intention of hoisting me up. The captain crawls out of the water and squats in front of me, his face only inches away. He pulls me up roughly so I am in a seated position, breathes heavily as water dripping off his nose. I smell tuna on his breath.

“Looks like you were the one who needed that life vest, weren’t ya?” he slaps me on the back, but I cannot feel it. The high water rocks below my feet, no doubt feeling cheated.

“Hey, you ok? That was a joke. Say, you hear me? Hey, hey. You don’t need to cry.”

But I cannot stop. My head lolls forward onto the captain’s shoulder, and I feel a bulky hand press on my back. Trails of heat run down my cheeks. I can’t imagine how we look—two soaking men on a splintery dock as one cries onto the other’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry,” he mumbles. “Your little girl didn’t see a thing.”

Over his sloping shoulders, I see the specks of my family, almost to the car. They haven’t noticed my absence. I debate hurling myself back into the water and then realize it wouldn’t make a difference.

I tell myself to shake the captain’s hand. I ask my legs to carry me away. But my head will not leave his shoulder. Eventually, I stop trying.

***

Leah Christianson‘s work has appeared in Storm Cellar Quarterly, River & South Review, Westwind Literary Journal, and received the Ruth Brill Scholarship for fiction. After completing her undergraduate degree at UCLA, where her thesis in short fiction received highest honors, Christianson began working in healthcare consulting. She currently resides in Los Angeles and various airports.

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