Rain splatted against my calves and chin and one elbow as I turned cartwheels across the beach. Planted right-side-up, I shot a grin at Kate who had been throwing sand balls into the channel between our island and Pier 1.
Kate dove into the water, her salt-stiff hair morphing into a mermaid halo as she swam under water.
I followed, three steps behind and dove.
We treaded water, delighting in the cool rain pelting our faces while warm sea cocooned our bodies.
Across the channel, Matt careened off the end of the dock, his legs bicycling until he hit the water.
Our younger brothers, Scott and R.J., hustled down the ladder to the water beside the pier and dog paddled toward us.
I floated on my back, scanning the sky, making sure no lightning lurked in the clouds.
The others played seal, tumbling, twirling, tucking their knees to their chests and turning like tires. Kate stood on her hands under water and poked her feet into rain-tickling sky.
Fat fresh-water drops washed my face. I licked their sweetness from my lips. I dove back and down, chasing my toes like a human Ferris wheel. Round and round I went, rain, oxygen, and shouts of glee greeting me each time my face broke the surface.
Even in this blissful spin of hot and cold, salt and fresh water, sunshine and purple clouds, the melancholy in me logged the chill, the salt, the shades of indigo.
I dove toward the bottom, thinking I harbored heaviness because I was three and a half years older than Kate, four and a half older than Matt, and six and seven years older than Scottie and R.J. Maybe I was the only one sucked into the undertow of our families’ dysfunctions.
I took a breath, then swam along the sand, savoring the safety and warmth.
My mind drifted to the house on 11th Street near 27th Avenue where we’d lived when I was Kate, Matt, Scottie, and R.J.’s ages.
A stone crab casing, cowrie shell, and quartz ashtray we’d brought back from Mexico sat on an end table in the living room. Dad, taking a break from building the Annie Lee in our back yard, pounded dough into a tortilla on the dining room table that he’d propped up with a cement block.
I slumped in a straight-backed chair in front of the fan, considering climbing into the arms of my banyan tree for the afternoon or clearing more brush from the fort I’d hollowed out of the overgrown bushes behind the bones of the boat. I brushed a hand over R.J.’s blond head as he crawled past.
“Sit up straight.” Dad’s voice startled me. I soldiered my spine like I’d done a million times before. In this family Dad was the one with eyes in the back of his head. Now that I was on Dad’s radar, I slid out of my seat, grabbed Dad’s fish knife off the kitchen counter, and slipped out the back door before he could think up a chore to deliver me from boredom.
I didn’t need that kind of help.
I tromped through the scent of gardenia and heaven and stopped at the sugarcane field next door to hack off a stalk. Sweat dripped in my eyes and I wiped it away with the crook of my arm. Five minutes later I sailed down 11th Street on my Dad-made scooter, sugar cane dangling from my lip like a cigar.
I came up from the bay for a breath and pursed my lips. Even when I was younger, my mind recorded things like Dad nagging me to go barefoot to toughen my feet. I felt the sear of the cement on my soles—fresh like I’d ridden my scooter down the 11th Street sidewalk minutes instead of years ago.
Instead of the taste of sugarcane, I focused on Lordes and Pupe’s mother who made us play in the courtyard of their duplex where she could keep an eye on us.
A few houses down, Cindy Rose, who would grow up to be a ballerina, was the closest thing to royalty I’d ever met. She wore pretty dresses and never got dirty. On rare occasions when she wasn’t pirouetting at ballet lessons or doing homework, we played paper dolls or Barbies for an hour in the air-conditioned haven of her house or her leafy back yard.
My friends’ folks feared my white-trashy feet would smudge their white gardenia children. Long after the boat years I blamed Dad for their distaste. Dad left his lifeguarding livelihood and let the lawn go till it lapped my knees. Instead, he raised me and R.J. and an ark in the yard. In the 60’s “Mr. Mom” meant a man was less than a man. I knew differently. But in the 60’s—thanks to Dad’s naming and numbering my faults, the neighbors inventing more—I was the one who felt like less than a girl.
I breast-stroked parallel to the beach, my head ottering up for a face full of rain.
First grade at Shenandoah Elementary roused a better mix of memories—my shiny red bike stolen, the sixth graders choosing me for flower girl in their play, a D in music for being too shy to sing; and Steven Redgrave.
Mom had accidentally dropped me off an hour early for his sixth birthday party.
As embarrassment pooled in my belly, Steven’s mother smiled into my eyes. “You’re the only girl Steven wanted to invite. I made him invite his girl cousin.”
I felt special like Cindy Rose.
She shooed us into the yard and Steven yelled, “One, two, three, go!”
We sprinted for the Buick parked on the far side of his yard.
He out-touched me.
Since it was his birthday I guessed it was okay that he beat me. Back at the starting line my eyes beaded on the Buick. I bet I could beat him this time, birthday or no birthday. I did the count and we took off. I pumped my legs as fast as I could, Steven matching my steps. I lunged for the back end of the car. My foot caught on a root and my face smacked into the bumper. Hard. Surprised tears spurted from my eyes.
I went home from the party still smudged with princess, despite the ice cube pressed to my temple. Steven is partly to blame for my epiphany at the end of third grade.
From the third grade portable, I’d looked out the open door, away from the boy comically flamingoing at the pencil sharpener, so I wouldn’t giggle. Dust flew around the playground, as a shiny new thought blew around me—boys were different. Different good.
I peered at the Canfields and R.J. as the sun shouldered between the clouds and the rain shut off. The commingled scent of outboard fuel, mildew, and fish would always bump me into the barnacle sharp edges of Dad and my parents’ busted marriage. The others would recall simple joy. I didn’t begrudge them their
happy. Kate, Matt, Scottie, and R.J. would field their own heartbreaks in life. Pain doesn’t leave any of us alone for long.
The five of us deep-down liked each other, a respect born from peeling back each other’s strengths on our myriad adventures. We all scored more fun living the life of dock rats than we’d ever had—before or since. Today as I write down my boat days, a lifetime later, I sense an epiphany almost as significant as the one in third grade: The friendship and fun fueled divine comfort during the final breakdown of my family.
Pat Thornburg, a teacher who lived on the houseboat across from the Canfields painted each of us beautiful rocks in exchange for a kiss on her cheek. I suspect we’ve all lost the mementos, but the years themselves—for Kate, Matt, Scottie, R.J., and finally, me—are stacked treasure in the chest of our lives.
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