In 1970 I was twelve years old growing up on a sailboat in Miami, Florida. Nixon banned TV cigarette commercials, Kent State happened, Doonesbury debuted, and Black Sabbath birthed heavy metal.
I crept along the deck behind Mom, fear of discovery quivering in my bladder as we played our dysfunctional family version of hide and seek.
Inches below our feet, Dad rolled his head into his pillow like a misshapen hot dog in a bun, trying to eke out another thirty minutes of shut-eye before the marina woke.
R.J. lay slack-jawed in his bunk, pale eyelashes fluttering on his cheeks, his little-boy body prepping for a day of non-stop action.
On the dock, Mom slipped her shoes over nurse-white stockings. She’d just finished eleven-to-seven at the hospital.
I hopped off the bow, landing silent as a cat on the weathered boards. We double-timed down the dock, not daring to look back to see if Dad’s head popped through the fore hatch. I could almost feel his glare burn holes in my shoulder blades.
At the coffee shop Mom always said the same thing—she was on a diet. She’d have coffee, cream, no sugar, but every once in a while she’d order a cheese Danish. I liked those days the best. Who wants to chow down when all your Mom gets is dead slug juice?
I ate my doughnut in little bites, making it last as long as possible.
We talked about Mom’s private duty case, my school friend, Jody, who had four siblings and a never-boring life.
Mom seemed to think there was a direct correlation between the fact that both Jody’s parents went to Mass and the bounteous number of children.
I pronounced two kids too few bananas for a bunch. I’d have a big family.
I licked the last of the sugar glaze from my lips and groused that Dad was so cheap he’d never spring for a gumball, much less a doughnut.
Mom conceded I was probably right, but gum was bad for my teeth.
As were doughnuts, but I kept this to myself.
We retraced our steps down Bayshore Drive to face Dad’s I’m-so-disappointed-in-you sighs and a list of chores he thunk up while he lay hot-dogged in his pillow.
Dad said not a word to Mom’s too cheery good-morning on her way to sleep off last night’s shift. Mom was in for another round of Dad’s silent treatment. His record was three weeks.
I found myself sitting on the thin, foam rubber pad of my bunk, my sheets in a wad, staring at the pile of lumber scraps that overran half the aft cabin.
Dust motes floated in white light, slicing through the crack in the hatch.
I breathed in the scent of mildew.
Today’s assignment was so awful I had only one job on my list: Move all the lumber from the head—or where the head would be once Dad installed a toilet, sink, and door—onto the main woodpile across from my bunk. I couldn’t help but think I was getting punished for being a willing partner in this morning’s insurgence.
I hadn’t seen The Spider in three days. He was gray and grew when I stared at him at night. He wanted to walk on my skin while I slept. Chances were good I’d uncover him. Or—almost as bad—a palmetto bug. Palmetto bugs, inch-and-a-half long cockroaches with wings, were the stuff of horror movies. I’d crunched my share under the heel of my tennis shoe—always accompanied by the it’s-so-gross full body shimmy.
I picked up a two-by-four scrap with two fingers and moved it to the larger stack. I’d be in here till school started on Monday at this rate.
R.J.’s feet pattered across the deck. He shouted something to his best friend, Scottie, two boats over. Scottie’s older siblings, Kate and Matt, squabbled several decibels louder. I opened the hatch halfway to hear what they were fighting about. Any minute, their father would step off their houseboat and settle the argument with the wisdom of Solomon. Then the kids would all practice watermelon dives off the end of the pier.
I gritted my teeth and stacked faster.
An hour later, Dad poked his head into the cabin. His gaze took in the three-quarter empty head. “Time for you to get over to the Sailing Club.”
Sprung! I’d forgotten Dad signed me up for a round of sailing lessons.
“Finish when you get back.”
A half-hour later I crouched in an eight-foot pram in my mandatory life jacket with the tiller and sheet line gripped in my fists. Wind and sun and sea spray kissed the zinc oxide on my cheeks. Sail and wind direction charts turned my brain to seaweed, but I knew—as if by magic—how to keep the sail taut with wind.
Dad bought me something a whole lot better than a gumball.
I rounded the windbreak island in the middle of our school of little boats.
My pram bounded through the bay and keeled over so far the tips of my fingers skimmed the water.
Adrenaline zipped around my body, blotting out the other boats. I cinched down on the sheet instead of easing off.
The boat keeled even further.
I held tight.
Salt water gushed into the boat.
Terror rose in my throat.
The mast and sail splatted flat onto the small chop of the bay.
The boat lay motionless on its side like one of R.J.’s bathtub toys. Small swells lapped against wood and sail.
Terror washed out and exhilaration flowed in. I swam around the boat to the exposed underside. I clambered onto the dagger board, a three-foot wooden tongue—just as I’d been coached.
My weight flipped the boat upright.
The mast rocked right, then left, flinging sparkling seawater until it stabilized, wobbling in blue sky.
I heaved myself into the pram, fat with success.
I tacked toward the Sailing Club, fatness waning, wondering how to right our family when we keeled over too far.
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