The seven a.m. sun burned through the open hatch and baked my shoulder as my eyes blinked open. I rolled into the shade under the deck, the nape of my neck already damp with sweat. My feet hit the floor next to my swim suit bottoms lying in a sandy wad. I snatched real clothes from the pile of clean laundry at the foot of my bunk.
July had rolled over slowly into August like a fat cat stretching in the sun.
Thick, salty air stuck to my skin, weighing me down with lethargy as I descended into the scent of mildew and last night’s fish in the fore cabin. I saw sun spots until my eyes adjusted to the dimness.
Dad said he didn’t install portholes because they’d leak and be more trouble than they were worth. Mom liked the dark cabin for sleeping after her night shift at the hospital. Installing portholes wouldn’t dispel the darkness inside us anyway—my failure to please Dad, Mom and Dad’s contentious relationship.I could never get off the Annie Lee fast enough.
This morning I ate my Cheerios and swabbed the cockpit, hoping Dad would count it as my morning chore. As I poised to bolt the boat, Mom padded down the deck in white-stockinged feet.
She smiled—too wide, too bright like the sun—and hugged me against the soft ribbing of her uniform. She tried to give us a happy childhood by the sheer force of her will.
My cheek pressed against the cool plastic of her name pin. Jeannette Fetterman, R.N. I breathed in Chanel No. 5 and love.
We talked in quiet voices as R.J. shoveled cereal into his mouth at the table below and Dad slept in the triangle bunk in the bow. Then, she climbed down into the gloom, and I walked the gunwale like a balance beam and dropped onto the dock. Free.
But even off the boat, I still had the Annie Lee’s darkness inside me. I was Annie Lee, after all. Would I be less entangled if Dad had taken my suggestion and named her Boo Boo’s Boat after my brother?
As though we’d strung tin cans and string between our boats before tumbling onto the dock, the four of us kids turned out in shorts and T-shirts, not a swimsuit among us.We sat on the dock constructing the day’s agenda, sun beating down on our scalps.
I glanced at Kate’s wavy mane, Matt’s bed-head. Their once-brown hair bleached white in hanks. I envied the Italian complexion they’d inherited from their mother, their zinc oxide free existence.
R.J. loped off the bow of our boat, sporting a peeling nose and this summer’s crop of freckles across his cheeks like mine and Scottie’s.
I pulled my knees up to my chest, grateful for my backside’s reprieve from the wet sand and suit grinding into delicate skin. My mind drifted to Dad’s hated nickname for me, Annie Fanny. I glanced over my shoulder, hoping Dad would stay asleep until we got out of sight.
“Get your dinghy and we can explore underneath the pier,” Kate said.
I jumped up, not wanting to waste time arguing with her. I balance-beamed to the stern of our boat, untied the dinghy’s line, and rowed for the tee.
I nosed the dinghy’s bow under Kate’s outstretched foot, and she clambered into the boat.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Matt settle in the shade of Pat Thornburg’s houseboat with his fishing pole.
Under the dock sunshine lasered albino lines across the spider webs and army green water.
Kate and I pulled ourselves along while Scottie and R.J. fired somebody’s discarded sea shells between the boards into the dinghy. We skirted around the barnacle-encrusted pilings, scrunching our noses at the rotten-egg smell, ducking under a discarded fishhook dangling from twine through the dock.
I wanted to stay here in the shade all day. School wouldn’t start for a month and I was already tired of swimming, tired of sun. But the tide was coming in, and we had to get out from under the pier.
Twenty minutes later the five of us screeched to a halt inside the door of the Dinner Key Marina office. The air conditioning shocked our sun blistered skin, switching our bodies into slow motion and lowering our voices.
After we collected our families’ mail, dawdled over the notices on the bulletin board, exhausted our cache of questions for the dock master’s assistant, we traipsed over to the glass front of City Hall, gathering our courage for another dose of air conditioning.
We slipped through the heavy door and tried our best to look like we had important city business to conduct while we headed for the ice water dispenser. We each downed a white paper cone of water and walked sedately out the front doors. We broke into a dead run for Pier 1.
Scottie and R.J. laid on their bellies, laughing at their reflections in the smooth water behind the Canfield’s houseboat.
Matt rolled onto the top of their triple-decker beds with a book.
Kate and I clapped, “Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack. All dressed in black, black, black. With silver buttons, buttons, buttons. All down her back, back, back…”—each rendition faster than the last until we collapsed in a hot mess on the pier.
I asked Dad for the marina shower room key and held my breath while his forehead wrinkled. Would bathing fall under play or work?
He held out the key, and I scavenged my bathing suit, Ivory soap, a towel, and skedaddled before he could change his mind.
In the windowless cavern under City Hall, I watched Kate soap her hair into bunny ears.Our brothers’ voices echoed in the tunnel as they raced their bikes end to end.
Today I welcomed the coolness, the usually creepy buzz of florescent light, the novelty of my third shower this summer—probably three more than the boys had. I let water the temperature of six a.m. sun run over me.
Even the blazing whiteness of afternoon sun couldn’t dispel the darkness so deeply rooted in the hulls of our boats, our families, in us. A confluence of light and darkness propelled us into adulthood. And the kindnesses of God. Our what-we-did-last-summer essays earned us green daggers of envy from our classmates. We grew up sheltered by our parents’ imperfect love. And we had each other.
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