On the Island by Nina Boutsikaris
There are a few innocent summers—before your chest starts to ache and your hips begin to swell and you don’t want to sleep in the same room as the boys anymore; before your parents sleep in separate beds, then separate rooms, separate houses, separate states; before anger comes and you forget about being a little girl—when you and your family and your best friend, Amos, and his parents and his brother and your aunts and uncles all escape for a few weeks to a little island off the east coast. You rent a cottage with an outdoor shower, a big wooden deck overlooking the ocean, and rooms for extra guests to squeeze in to. When you arrive that first day in July, you dig through the bookshelves and closets, studying the framed photographs of people you don’t know, handling the personal trinkets left behind by the owners as though you were Nancy Drew searching the intimate clues for a mystery to solve.
On the ferry, you like to get a hot chocolate and a buttermilk donut, thick like cake with white sugar glaze. If it’s sunny, you can sit up on the very top deck and watch the jagged rock islands topped with lighthouses, and the small boats with puffy sails go by. Or you can stand on the very bottom deck and look straight down at the water as it paws at the side of the ferry with foamy fingers. Or, if it’s too windy, you can take your hot chocolate inside and play cards at one of the booths and peek at the circle of tired fisherman, who are half sleeping with their legs stretched out in front of them, arms crossed over scratchy looking sweaters, their curly beards like tangled nets. If you have a question about the weather, they will have an answer.
The trip is always longer than you remember, and you might get bored if it is not a beautiful blue and yellow day. But while you are busy not paying attention, the black cliffs will suddenly appear rising up out of the sea like an ancient whale. You’ll see the curve of Crescent beach and finally the white inn that marks the center of Old Harbor. The captain will announce that it’s time to “return to your vehicle” and you will wait in a line by the doors to hurry down so you won’t miss your chance to get off the boat. Your mom and dad and brother will be there, your aunt and uncle who have just gotten married, and your cousin who cheats, you’ve noticed, when you play Go Fish. Then you’ll all pile into the car, or two cars, or three, and drive off the ferry—past the post office and Dead Eye Dick’s Tavern and the handful of gray weathered-wood inns and jewelry shops with bright kites flying from the roofs—out toward Dori’s Cove. You’ll turn onto the dirt road, bouncing up and down with every mud pothole until you see the row of mailboxes, like veteran soldiers, wise and sure on their steadfast posts. A collection of striped stones is piled at their feet, and you will promise yourself that this summer, you will remember to add to that collection. Pass the mailboxes, the blackberry bushes, and the budding rose hips, until the car makes its final turn and the navy house is there, waiting, breathing out a sigh of relief that you’ve come back.
There is a strong wind in the mornings that rattles the glass windowpanes and whistles through cracks in the doors. When you wake, it sounds like a storm is brewing, but when you pull the linen curtain aside, you can see the sun and the glistening sea with its sharp white peaks far out where the ferry is making its first trip back from the mainland. The tall grass at the edge of the beach below the house is blown about ferociously, waving at the gulls who cry in search of crabs that might have smashed against the rocks overnight.
The boys will be asleep still; Amos, your brother, and Amos’s brother, all snoring softly and turning their heads to reveal the pillow lines stamped across their cheeks. The house is chilly, so you sit up in bed for a moment with a crocheted blanket wrapped up to your shoulders before dipping your toes slowly, carefully to the floor. The house creaks. You stand at the top of the stairs twisting the strings of your pajama pants, listening for voices or padding feet, any sign of who is awake.
A newspaper is folded. A knife taps against a plate. Coffee is poured and the smell of butter drifts from the kitchen. Then you recognize your mother’s cough as she clears her throat. Perhaps you are the only two awake. You might imagine her, standing straight-backed in front of the screen door, both hands wrapped around a mug, as she watches the ocean and plans your day. You will eat cereal for breakfast, then all the kids will pack their pails and shovels, and the adults won’t forget the sunscreen or crackers and cheddar cheese or canteens filled with ice water. Then you will pile into the teal minivan, sitting on each other’s laps, screaming made-up songs out the windows until you get to Scotch Beach. There you will spread out an old sheet, using your shoes to hold down the corners, and your father will dig a hole in the sand for the rainbow umbrella. Your mother will sit in a chair in her black bathing suit reading the paper looking up to watch you do cartwheels or to comment on the sky. When it gets too hot she will jump into the water, diving deep and floating far out where you can’t stand.
“Isn’t it exquisite!” she will cry, as she wades back to where the boys jump over the cresting baby waves. You can lean over your boogie board and paddle around, falling and rising with the water, and her muddled reflection will record her movements as she blows bubbles to make you laugh.
Amos’ mama will open up the water-stained copy of The Amulet and read from where she left off yesterday, and your father might make you wear the big E Street Band tee shirt even after you’ve put on sunscreen. Your brother will build a dragon and you’ll collect slimy seaweed for fire breath. As you’re leaving in the late afternoon, Amos will lose his glasses and you will be the one to find them, buried in the sand, the sun shining off the lenses. Your mother will hug you and say how proud she is. “You’re such a good finder,” she will tell you.
Visitors, people you love, come and go over the weeks, but the house is always full, smelling of the ocean, cool tiles, and air-dried sheets. Sandy and burnt, you kids ride your bikes and pick wild blackberries for cobbler. You run around in the prickly grass in your underwear. You will remember Amos’s body years from now, pudgy and tan, always flailing, always dancing, naked next to you while you brushed your teeth, scratching the dust out of his curly red hair—they had to force him to put on clothes at the dinner table. Your dad boils lobster and the moms grill sweet corn. On the deck at sunset, you and Amos and your cousins put on plays set to the comforting sounds of grown-up ice cubes clinking against glass. You collect velvety lamb’s ear leaves and press them between the pages of old books, take showers in rainstorms with cakes of soap, and scare yourselves with your imaginations, crouching along the mowed paths and walking the hills at dusk, lit like a dream. Time hovers, and for some years, it is the same.
The change is slow at first. You watch your mother and father, their bodies hunched in surrender, side by side at the bottom of the hill in faded T-shirts. Their backs face the house like two great heaving walls, the beginning of a divide, a moat you cannot swim. Once, in the middle of the night, you wake up thirsty and hear your father talking low. You can just make him out through the banister spindles. His head is in his hands. You sit at the top of the stairs holding your breath, already knowing how life will go from here. The soft yellow light from below is not warm. There is a night world you knew nothing of.
“I don’t know what to do,” he keeps saying. “What am I supposed to do?”
In the morning, Amos’s dad takes you kids to the lighthouse. He says your parents need to be alone, and he ushers you away from the back door where you stand with your face pushed against the screen, waiting for them to return from wherever they’ve gone.
It is cloudy. Gray mist lingers late into the day and you collect empty mussel shells all afternoon. You were ten years old, and you remember saying things with false precocity, things like, it was only a matter of time. Soon you will develop a habit of chewing your lips and the insides of your cheeks, hypochondria, and an obsession with counting things like the number of pancakes on your plate or the rings on your fingers, a neurosis you will never truly be able to let go of. You will become superstitious and fearful of things that once seemed harmless. For the family created here proves not to be enough. It starts to shimmer, shake, and vanish in front of your eyes, like that legendary flash of green the moment the sun sinks below the horizon.
That same summer, a small plane crashes into the only gas station in Old Harbor. You stand together—your mom, your dad, your brother, Amos, his brother, their mom and dad, your aunt and uncle—on the beach a mile away and watch it fall, burning, from the sky. The sun is hot and the weekend tourists make it all the more crowded; hundreds of bright umbrellas line the shore like wild mushrooms in a fairytale forest. There are the usual noises: the drone of chatter and laughter, the wind, the waves, the gulls. Then there are only gasps. The plane propeller buzzes much too loudly, too high-pitched. People scream. They run to each other and point, staring with open mouths, mid-dig, mid-swim, straw midway into a juice box.
A boy from a local family is killed in the crash, and for more than a week, an enormous tent sits far up at the top of a hill where the memorial service has taken place. Every day when you drive past it on the way to town, you ask your patient father what it is. This large looming addition to the landscape is terribly sad and mysterious. You wonder if you’ve ever seen the boy who died. You wonder what kinds of things go on under that tent.
In late August, the tail end of a hurricane has made its way up the coast just in time for your ferry ride home. You are frightened by the howling winds and beating rain, convinced the ship will capsize. Your dad circles the deck with you, telling you not to worry, making up rhymes about how he can barely stand up on the swaying ship.
There are some salty fishermen heading back to the mainland that day.
“This isn’t that bad, is it?” your dad encourages them while he squeezes your hand.
“Oh no, no. Seen much worse than this. We’re barely vertical yet,” one man replies, laughing. You feel better. But the ferry bucks and reels for two hours, and you are so seasick that you have to stand outside in your poncho where the savage ocean spray smacks your face and keeps your head clear.
Within the year your mother moves out for the first time. This is just the beginning, for the separation between your parents ebbs and flows, truly like the tide, in and out she comes, in and out he goes, from room to room, house to house, coast to coast. At dinner one spring night, when they tell you and your younger brother what is happening, your tongue freezes and you almost choke on a piece of pasta. Then you go to the bathroom and cry. Your brother can’t stop giggling.
“It’ll be fun,” he whispers later when you are putting on your pajamas. “We get to have two TVs.”
You will never go back to the island together and the embrace of your extended family will begin to loosen. Those who used to include you wonder which parent to invite to parties. They don’t want to take sides. They can’t figure out how to love you without it being complicated for them. How inconvenient divorce is for everyone else.
The boys you were raised with fall away and lose interest as you hide your growing body, your changing thoughts, your need for more. But once, when you are twelve, your father and Amos’s dad take you and the boys back one last time for the long Labor Day weekend. The weather is still warm and the beaches freshly deserted, apart from the last of the day-crowds savoring their final swims. You stay at a friend’s place in a secluded cove, empty now that they have returned to New York for the fall. Your face and shoulders get badly burned, and by Sunday afternoon, you have a runny nose and a fever. You wake up in the middle of the night on the Island having peed the bed in a room that you aren’t sharing with anyone anymore. Then you are sleepwalking down the hall with your soaked nightgown stuck to your legs, searching for your father to tell him that it’s time to go down to the water before it’s too late, before you miss the boat home.
Nina Boutsikaris is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Non-Fiction at the University of Arizona, writing instructor, and staff member at Sonora Review. You can find more of her writing in Brevity and Phoebe.