Windward

Kelsey Robbins Lauder 

         The wind dies and strands you out in the middle of the lake, bobbing alone in your little white sabot sailboat. You’ve got oars but one of the locks is broken so you slide down into the hull to wait for the wind, resting your head on the stern so the boom can pass overhead if a sudden gust hits it. You let the sheet rope slide out of your hands. The boom swings out and the sail trembles, empty. It’s cold and silent and creepy. You’ve got a sick sort of feeling in your stomach like you’re about to start your period, so you pull your phone, zipped safe inside a sandwich bag, from your pocket to check the calendar. Another week off, so you diagnose ill-ease. The current’s dragging you south, parallel to the shoreline and no further from land so you lean back and shut your eyes. It takes ten minutes for a little fishing dinghy to trundle up beside you. Its skipper is a man about your father’s age, with a walrus moustache and dressed in slippery black overalls. He’s got, you assume, his son with him. The kid’s embarrassed and looks out overtop your head across the water.

         “Need a tow, young lady?”

         You hand him your painter line.

         The man turns to the kid and says, “what knot should I use here?”

         You think, bowline and sink back into the hull.

         When the knot’s tied, he drags you back home. You live in the converted boathouse beneath your parents’ two-story lake house. Your dog, Lolly, now fully deaf in one ear, waits at the end of the dock. She heaves onto her feet, tail swinging slow like a metronome and gives the man and his son each a soft nudge of her wet nose, a gentle thanks for returning you to her. It’s too hard on her old bones to stay steady on the water, and these days you push off alone.

         You don’t tell your parents but it feels safer with Lolly watching. You’ve capsized many times. Too many to say. Age seven, your dad showed you how to make sure the boom could swing free so the sail wouldn’t catch the water, how to climb up the dagger board and use your weight to bring the boat back around. You were a runt back then and the sabot floated there like a corpse, oblivious to the fly on its carcass until, so slow you couldn’t feel it at first, it rose back out of the water, dripping and gleaming and okay. You remember lying on the bottom of the boat, soaking wet, breathless, the sail raining on you while Dad called out, “That’s my girl,” from the dock and you felt so powerful. The same sort of power you feel when you hit a good wind and all you hear is the water slipping out from under you, ripping across the waves with only your two hands to make you go. Maybe sometimes you still feel that but truth is you need to look back to the dock and see Lolly lying there, ears perked as you swing around for home.

*

         It’s been six months since the car crash. That morning, Andrew showed you an ad on craigslist for a Catalina 30 docked at the Embarcadero in Newport. You called the number. Sometimes you dream the woman on the phone told you she’d sold it already. Or that her kid needed a place to crash so she’d decided to keep it after all. Or that it belonged to her cheating husband and last night she’d gone down to the docks, poured gasoline over it and lit a match. She didn’t say any of those things, of course. She said, come on down. Andrew drove. It’s forty-minutes to Newport from Lincoln City. You always loved that stretch of coast, even in the summertime when the tourists all cruise it real slow so they can catch the views. It gave you an excuse to catch them too. Great big cliffs that drop down to the Pacific. Miles and miles of white gold sand. Humpbacks and orcas on their commute. The blue Pacific just waiting for a pretty little Catalina to carve through it. About twenty-five minutes in, you hit Cape Foulweather. Sighted and named by Captain James Cook in 1778. Five hundred feet above the ocean, the highway cuts through the forest and loses the views until it swings back around on the way down and opens up to the cove and tiny basalt stacks that break up the waves and add perfect white accent to the sapphire sea. You didn’t make it that far. A drunk driver headed north clipped you on your way up, flipped you over the guard rail and sent you smashing through the trees at a million miles an hour. Andrew died in the hospital nine hours later. You survived. The drunk driver didn’t even go off the road. He pulled over and called 911 and waited for the police to throw away the key.

         That’s the weird thing. He couldn’t see himself slipping over the yellow line or Andrew’s little red Toyota but the fact that your lives were over, all three of yours, he saw that so clear he didn’t even try to deny it. That’s what makes it obvious he had no choice in the matter. Andrew had to die and you had to be there and God or the universe or whoever decides these things picked him to do it. You wonder if that makes him the unlucky one. Mom and Dad don’t see it like that, of course. They try to hide how much they hate him for your sake.

         They airlifted you both to Portland. When you finally came home, they sedated you for the car ride. You woke up tucked in your childhood bed, Lolly stretched out beside your plaster-cased legs. It’d been summer break when your car went off the highway. You still remember the first time you saw Andrew in the home ec classroom, so much flour down the front of his shirt you could barely see the Yaquina Bay Yacht Club insignia underneath. He used to say you were the only good thing at Taft High. When you both got into Oregon State, you told yourself you two wouldn’t make it through freshman year. You loved him but it wasn’t hard to love him in Lincoln City. When you came back in June, you told your friends you beat the odds. They let you out of the hospital in October and you moved down to the boathouse in January. You didn’t realize until New Year’s morning that you couldn’t go back to school. How could you? You can’t walk there. You can’t sail there. You’re stuck in this wretched little town with no way out. You hated that cliché in high school. You hated when kids said that. We live on the 101, you’d say. Drive north, hit Canada. Head south, Mexico. They’re the ones who kept stopping at city limits, not the highway. But now you can’t even get that far.

         If it hadn’t happened like this—if you’d been driving and the steering wheel column crushed your chest like a box of matches—Andrew would go back to school. Andrew would give up something else. Andrew would give up sailing and The Black Keys and spending hours in antique stores. Andrew would still drive. Even if each time he got to his destination he had to crawl into the back seat and cry out of pure relief he’d go on with his life. You hope he understands why you can’t.

*

         Mom knocks on the sliding glass door at six thirty. An hour before you normally hear the tap-tap-tap and gentle, upturned, over-casual voice say, “Liv?” She’s got her purse slung in the crook of her elbow and the usual tray with her: a steaming tea pot, two cups with saucers, a pitcher of warm milk and a pot of honey. All mismatched.  All china. All picked out at the Little Antique Mall down Holmes Road two Decembers ago with Andrew’s assistance. You wrapped them at his house Christmas Eve morning while he placed a misshapen bow on the saddlebag purse he’d found for his mother underneath a stack of dusty children’s toys from the ‘50s. He’s dead now and you don’t know if dead people remember the trivial moments so you make sure you do. Besides, you like to think about his fingers, which could move so quickly up sheet lines, clumsy and blunt handling the ribbon. Mom sets the tray down on the two overturned wooden crates you use as a coffee table and sits down on the futon beside you. Lolly flicks her eyes open from her foam bed, gives two solid thunks of her tail on the concrete floor, and goes back to sleep. You mark your place in your book—Ghost stories of Oregon and Washington—while she pours the tea.

          “Good book?”

          “Alright.”

          “How was the water today?”

          “No wind.”

          “I saw Allie at Safeway.”

         Dear Allie. Your best friend from high school—and now that you’re back for good, simply your best friend. She too managed to stick it out with her high school boyfriend, Ryan. You used to look at them and see the alternate version of you and Andrew, if you hadn’t gotten the hell out of here and instead kept your jobs at the outlet mall and moved into a crummy apartment when you graduated from Taft. You don’t think like that anymore.

          “Oh.”

          “She says there’s a party tonight.”

         This explains the early hour of your tea date. “I think I’ll stay in.” You’ve already got your Snoopy pyjama pants on.

          “You should go.”

          “Mom.”

          “She’s coming at eight. She’ll walk over with you.”

          “You don’t have to do that.”

          “You’re allowed to have fun, Liv.”

          “I know.”

          “You’re still a kid.”

          “I know.”

          “I thought you could wear that dress. That cute little ivory jumper you found at the Goodwill.”

          “I can’t wear that.”

          “No one cares about the scars, honey.”

          “I do.”

         She sighs and drags her purse into her lap. She pulls out the dress, folded neatly around a pair of black tights.

          “I picked these up from the mall today. No excuses.”

         You press your fingers into their stretch. Mom never pushes you to get into her Jeep Grand Cherokee. She doesn’t ask you if you’ve thought about going back to school. She let you move Lolly down to the boathouse. She drives an hour and a half to the closest Trader Joe’s to buy the flattened bananas you like. Every month she brings home a box of used paperbacks from Bob’s Books to occupy your mind. When you woke up in the hospital after they’d suctioned out the blood in your brain and screwed your legs back together she was there, kneeling at your bedside praying to God and the universe. She had something clutched in her hand. A little blue button she’d found outside the trauma room where they’d cut the shirt off Andrew’s mangled chest.

          “Okay. I’ll go.”

*

         You’re sitting on your yoga mat on the boathouse roof watching the sunset when Ryan’s headlights tip down the driveway. Allie’s sweet little sing-song voice calls out, “Love you,” and the door slams. Over your shoulder, you see your mother in the living room window. She flashes a thumb’s up and steps back into the shadows of the big house. Allie’s feet clomp down the deck stairs and you turn back to the sun. The evening has that perfect splash of gloom that cuts up the light waves and scatters them red and purple across the horizon. You do the sun salutations twice a day up here. When you first came home from the hospital in Portland, your physical therapist sent you to the yoga-for-gimps class. You got strong fast. The instructor, Chalise, has a voice like velvet. Those early days, she showed you stretches gentle enough for your jelly legs and swore you would sail soon. Maybe you don’t need her anymore but you still schedule your physical therapy appointments on Thursdays as an excuse to drop in.

         You’re in your tights and your ivory jumper now though so you don’t do the salutations. Instead you sit and wait for Allie to settle on the mat next to you. She’s got a bottle of pinot and two plastic cups. You’re off the oxy now and trying to get off the Xanax so you’re clean tonight. You take a sip of the wine and wonder if maybe you shouldn’t pop one just in case but you look over your shoulder to the empty window in the big house and figure you’ve made it this far on tea and yoga.

          “There’s someone I want you to meet tonight,” Allie says after a long drought from her cup.

          “Oh?”

          “A boy.”

          “Allie.”

          “He’s nice.”

          “Allie!”

          “You don’t have to date him or fuck him or anything.”

         You take another sip of wine and reconsider the Xanax.

          “Just talk to him. Baby steps, Liv.”

          “Who is he?”

          “His name is Jesse. New in town. He came into the café with his grandpa. I guess his mom’s paying him to take care of the old guy until she figures out a home or he dies or something.”

          “Jesus, Al.”

          “He seems nice.”

          “Looks nice, you mean.”

          “Liv, you’re a babe. You deserve a babe back.”

          “Used to be a babe.”

          “I don’t accept moping. The time for moping is over. This is the time for breaking hearts and drinking too much wine.”

          “Does he know about the fake teeth?”

          “Jesse and Ryan and waiting.”

         The walk isn’t far. You clip a bike light to your backpack because there are no sidewalks. You’ve gotten used to the belly flops that accompany the whoosh of cars that glide by you on your walks to the corner store and the hospital but you don’t shake off Allie’s hand when she takes yours. Allie is a small light of relief, even when she talks to your mom about parties behind your back or tries to set you up with strange guys who just rode into town. Sweet of her, really. No one in town would ever date you. Bro code: don’t fuck your friend’s widow. Not that you’d been married but Taboo all the same. No, Allie is good. She runs hot. Touching her skin-to-skin, she feels feverish. She reminds you that you’re alive.

          When you reach the house, Allie sits at the end of the long driveway and pulls the wine out of the backpack. You each take long gulps out of the bottle and in between swallows Allie sings. She’s got that choir voice. The kind that where at first you think soprano and then you realize it can go in every direction, all at once. It’s from that old Wings album; that one you found on cassette at the antique mall and played over and over in Allie’s first car, the one she bought when she was sixteen and only had a tape deck.

          “Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell. Someone’s knocking at the door, somebody’s ringing the bell. Do me a favour, open the door, and let ‘em in.”

         She takes another gulp and you sit there in the cold air. Down at the house, someone laughs.

          “I’m being stupid,” you say, holding out your hand for the bottle.

          “No.”

          “I need to move on.”

          “You need to heal. That’s a process.”

          “I’m stuck. I can’t move.”

         She looks at you with her big brown eyes and you can’t say anything else so you get up and walk into the house.

         Allie finds Ryan and Jesse in the kitchen and you squeeze in after her. There’s already a hundred more people in this little box than it can handle. There’s a thick roar of conversation and the music is turned up too loud. You’re sweating. You try not to look Jesse in the eye because for some reason you already like him. Maybe you’re that desperate for something to change. You stay glued to Allie so no one thinks you’re here alone. It’s dark and your hair’s over your face so no one sees you and hugs you and starts pouring their drinks into the carpet for Andrew. You swear to God if anyone does that you’ll leave.

         Allie’s got herself wrapped around Ryan—tall, dark, football star Ryan who helped Andrew pin the corsage to your dress after he drew blood—so when you drag your eyes over to Jesse real quick he catches them and holds you.

          “I’m Jesse,” he shouts.

         You can hear him but for some reason you say, “What?” and point to your ears.

          “Jesse!”

         You don’t want to shout so you release the wine from Allie’s grip and head out the door, glancing over your shoulder at Jesse so he knows he’s got permission to follow. The hallway is lit by the glow of the bathroom light and you get a better look at him: dark hair, hooded eyes, taller than you by a head. The skinny sort of strong. Andrew was blond with green eyes, cherub-faced and always smiling. Perpetually tan from his days on the water. When he was at the tiller in his black Wayfarers and the sun split over him you thought even God or the universe must be in love with him, too. You take a swig from the bottle and hold it out to Jesse but he shakes his head and taps his red plastic cup. The music is still loud out here but no one else is talking.

          “Are you Liv?”

          “Yeah.”

          “Nice to meet you.”

          “Allie said you’re new to town.”

          “Yeah.”

          “It’s really fucking hot in here.”

          “Do you want to go outside?”

         You think about it.

          “If I go outside I’ll leave.”

          “You don’t want to be here?”

          “I’m working on personal growth.”

          “Ah.”

          “Should we do shots or something?”

         Jesse shrugs and you follow him back into the kitchen.

         It’s not long until you find out you’re drunk. You lean against the kitchen counter, or the couch, or the deck railing, and nod at everything anyone says to you. Very drunk girls stumble over and start to cry. Most of the guys ignore you. You realize you haven’t seen anyone since the accident. Not unless you ran into them at the corner store or the hospital or saw them fishing in their parents’ boats out on the lake. Now you try to usher anyone who approaches away before Jesse notices the tears swelling their cheeks. He steps out to smoke every few minutes and even if it’s disgusting you follow him. The third time, he flicks his cigarette into the bushes and you lean in and kiss him. He tastes like nicotine and tequila and when he swings you around so the railing presses into the small of your back you think maybe he’ll fold you into his ribcage and keep you safe.

         When he lets you go, he draws his finger across your collarbone.

          “You’re beautiful.”

          “Don’t say that.”

          “Why not?”

          “Can you get me another drink?”

         The bottle of wine is long gone. He leans in and brushes his lips against yours, this time not hungry or urgent but soft, easy.

          “I’ll be right back.”

*

         Inside, the music goes wub wub wub like a migraine. You can feel the blood vessels in your brain constricting with the beat of the bass so you climb around the side of the house. The overgrown blackberries claw at your tights and mud cakes your sneakers but the air is cool on your skin and at least you can breathe. The driveway is dark; the motion-detected light doesn’t catch you and you’re halfway to the road before the screen door slams.

          “Headed home?” It’s Jesse. You turn around.

          “I hate this music.”

          “You want a ride,” he asks.

          “It’s not far.”

         He approaches, light footed like you’re a deer he might scare off.

          “Can I see you again?”

          “I think so.”

          “When?”

          “I’m not sure.”

          “Can I have your phone number?”

          “Yes.”

         He pulls the cigarette out that’s behind his ear and lights it. You don’t do anything. You stand there and watch him watch you. The way he looks at you—like he doesn’t see tragedy or sadness or baggage or ruin, but like you’re a cute girl in a movie that’s maybe going to break his heart but so what, you’ve got another ninety minutes of runtime until that happens—it’s like a promise that one day this is all going to change. Like there’s a way to get out of here that won’t kill you. So you stand there and let him look at you like you’re some other person while he smokes his cigarette. The light clicks off and neither one of you move. All you see is the cherry of his smoke.

          “How about this,” he says. “Give me your phone.”

         You pull it out of your pocket and hand it over. The blue glow lights up his face and he leaves the cigarette dangling from his lips as he types.

          “Here’s my number. You text me if you want.”

          “Okay.”

          “Just so you know, I’m not going to take it personal.”

          “What?”

          “You running out after you kissed me.”

         The screen door slams again. It’s Allie this time, Ryan with his arm so tight around her waist he’s a body splint.

          “Come on, Liv. Do a shot with me. Coconut tequila.”

          “I’m tired.”

         She sheds Ryan and pulls you away from Jesse.

          “You okay?”

          “Overwhelmed but okay.”

          “I’ll walk home with you.”

          “What about Ryan?”

          “He’s good.” She calls over her shoulder, “You’re good, huh Ryan?”

          “You’re having fun,” you say.

          “I can have fun with you.”

          “I’m fine, Al.”

          “There are freaks out there you know.”

         You lean in and kiss her on the forehead. The coconut tequila sweats out of her pours and your belly flip-flops. You turn around and walk away.

          “Call me when you get home,” she shouts.

         At the end of the driveway, you stop. They can’t see you. They can’t see anything outside of the orange glow of the light. Allie kisses Ryan while Jesse curves his heel over the butt of his cigarette. Usually you walk away from conversations as fast as you can, so you don’t hear the inevitable. This time you want to know for sure. You want to know that you can’t text Jesse because he won’t look at you like you’re some girl in an indie rom-com anymore but a Lifetime special.

          “What’s her deal?” Jesse asks when Allie detaches herself from Ryan. “Does she have a boyfriend?”

          “He’s dead.”

          “Shit.”

          “Car crash. Almost killed her too.”

          “That’s dark.”

         You turn around and keep going, careful to keep your feet light on the pavement so they don’t know you heard. It’s a conversation that follows your wake wherever you go. You can’t remember what it felt like to walk away from a person and wonder what they thought of you. Not get boiled down to one thirty second stretch of your life. Not have people wonder if you’re going to lose your mind right in front of them, not have them waiting for that psychotic break that’s bubbling right underneath your skin. Not slide each other concerned looks when you decline a car ride, or drinks, or a trip to the psychiatrist. Not have your mom knock on the sliding glass door of the boathouse with a hot cup of tea every night at seven thirty and pretend she just wants to hang out.

         Your timeline is Before the Accident and After. At first, it felt like a joke. Like you were all agreeing to let this reality play out when instead you and Andrew could simply slip back in time and not get in the car that day. Or leave ten minutes earlier, or later. Or Andrew could break up with you the night before, when you two had that fight about if the waitress at the Thai restaurant was flirting with him or not. He could have said, Liv you’re a fucking psycho and walked away. He’d still be alive and instead of having nine bolts screwed into your right leg you’d have a broken heart and a pint of ice cream and Allie would come over and you’d wish he’d drop dead together. You would have run into Andrew at the party tonight and maybe gotten so drunk you kissed in the blackberry bushes beside the house and the next day he wouldn’t call you and ask to get back together and you’d be heartbroken all over again. Except it wouldn’t have been this party but some other one on campus. But now—now it doesn’t feel like that. Now it feels like Before the Accident is a story you made up and everyone agreed to follow along with the crazy girl. Before Liv can’t be real. She’s not. It’s only you now.

*

         The wind is restless. It hopscotches over the lake, shifts and twists like a kid on the playground. You’re in a lull now. The sabot bobs over smooth water and you bear off so the wind is behind you, letting the sheet slip through your fingers so the sail blooms out into a run. The little whisper of wind eases you closer to the puff—that line in the water where rapid ripples topple over each other, signalling the change in wind speed. You’re alone on the lake today except for a silver fishing dinghy lapping on the east shore. Its skipper wears a sharp yellow rain jacket that catches your eye each time you tack, the only spot of colour in this grey day. You’re keeping to the west shore, circling the ‘No Wake’ buoy by the public docks so a rogue wind doesn’t blow you off course.

         The sabot hits the puff and charges forward, the windward side keeling over, the top of the boom skimming the water. You harden up into the wind and drag the sheet back in so the sail is close-hauled, fast enough for the rope to warm your icy fingers. For a moment, you hold, leaning your weight backwards to flatten the sabot out, and it picks up speed, barrelling toward shore. That momentum drives the tack. Left foot, the one closest to the stern, slides forward while you punch the tiller out, ducking your head as you stand. The boom swings overhead and you pirouette to the starboard side. There, you wait, straightening the tiller after it crosses through the eye of the wind so you don’t swing too far and bring the boom crashing back. You’re out of the puff but still clipping along so you stay there for a moment, arm yanked around your back holding the tiller, eyes on that sweet little slab of yellow raincoat, before passing the tiller and the sheets between hands and sitting down.

         You think about Jesse and the number in your phone. He’s got those black, hooded eyes like bruises in the dark and cold, chapped lips that don’t turn ash when you kiss them. There’s a grandfather, you remember. A grandfather he’s got to take care of. Three reasons right there to text him. You imagine him bundled up in the bottom of the sabot, smoking cigarettes in silence while you skipper the boat, cutting through the water like a blade while the wind scrubs your face pink and raw.

         You think about Andrew, with his golden laugh and black sunglasses. You two used to race matching sabots up the lake on hot, windy summer days. He liked to cheat for the fun of it, drawing himself windward of you, claiming the right-of-way, so he could tack and force you off course. He’d laugh as you shouted insults across the water. Once, you saw him ready to tack into you and didn’t move. Just let him slam you so hard it rocked the boat and tipped you off the side. That plunge of water, it felt so good. You got in a lungful of air before you went under and so you let the momentum push you down as the murky white underbellies of the sabots swung above, a daggerboard scraping your shin but otherwise, safe. When you came up he snagged you by your shirt and dragged you into his boat, white-faced, gasping as he sunk his fingers in your hair and felt for head wounds. And you, shivering, laughing, simply shoved him backwards, over the side, and dived in after him.

About the Writer

         Kelsey Robbins Lauder is a writer from Victoria, B.C. She has previously published short fiction in print at EVENT Magazine, online at Little Fiction, and Found Press, and is forthcoming in The Puritan. She is currently at work on a collection of stories and a novel.

 
 

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