Safe Harbor by Michael Thurston
It had been a beautiful day for sailing, her day off after six straight at the dockside ice cream shack, and she had let the wind take her farther up the coast than she was supposed to go. The storm had come up out of nowhere, one of those sudden squalls, thunderbolts from on high and the sea pitching and black, and it had taken every bit of skill she had to steer the boat into this cove. By the time things had calmed down, it was too late to head back. She wouldn’t make it before dark. She dropped anchor and put on her sweatshirt though it was damp. She was going to have to spend the night.
There had been some other boats out, caught off guard just like her. It had been, until the sky went black and the sea started roiling and frothing at the mouth, a perfect day for sailing. None of the others had found shelter with her here, but there were lots of little coves like this up and down the coastline and she hoped the other crafts had made it to their own safe harbors. You would hardly know now, as the sun reddened just over the pines. The water was placid, little waves breaking gently on the rocks now that the tide was coming in. She tucked her knees up under her sweatshirt, though it was damp, and watched the red glow, watched the foam rise on the rocks. It was going to be a lovely night.
Had the wind stayed up or the tide come in harder, she might never have heard or seen. The boy might have gone un-rescued, floated and knocked around the rocks until he was found by someone in the morning or carried out to sea with the receding tide. She saw him bob, though, and heard the feeble splashing, and though she hardly felt strong enough, she and the gaffing hook had gotten him up over the side. She didn’t like to say she had saved him, but she guessed she had. He might have been cute. He probably was cute, but it was hard to tell. His hair was plastered down over his forehead and something had scraped his left cheek, though it wasn’t bleeding. He was cold. I’m cold, he said. He was so quiet he didn’t even move his lips. She dug the blanket out from the emergency stuff under the foredeck and put it over his shoulders. He looked a little older. Maybe he was in college. He was wearing a Bowdoin t-shirt but that didn’t mean he went there. Do you go to Bowdoin, she said, but he just slumped beside the mast. Shock, maybe. You were supposed to get the legs above the heart. Lie down, she said. There was rainbow water slopping in the bottom of the boat. She helped him to lie down on the bench, cushioning his head on a life vest and propping his legs up on the gunwale. Seaweed was stuck to the hair on his legs, but his calves were nice. He was like the boys she watched from behind the ice cream counter, tan and careless. She pulled the blanket around him tighter and said shh, you’ll be okay, just rest. Do you go to Bowdoin, I bet it’s nice. He did go to Bowdoin. He was probably majoring in Bio, planning on med school. He was so quiet she had to say everything out loud for him. He used to play lacrosse but it was too hard to keep up with his studies along with practice, so now he just shot hoops sometimes with friends. It was one of those friends’ boats they had been out on, oh no, Stokesie, his name must have been, Stokesie must be out there somewhere, had she seen him, had she seen their boat. Shh, she said. I’m sure he’s fine, I’m sure he’s with his boat, there are a lot of coves and I bet he’s in one now, hoping you’re okay. He had to find Stokesie and they had to get back, he had a big Chem test, probably, he had to study. The way he went on. Didn’t he want to know her name? Didn’t he want to know anything about her? He was kind of a jerk and she almost wished she hadn’t rescued him.
She let the boy bob around by the hull for a minute, to gather her strength, of course, but also maybe he would develop an attitude of gratitude. She didn’t like to say she’d saved him, but she guessed she had, and after she had dragged him over the gunwale she said I think you’re going to be okay, my name is Alison. He was cold. With less purple lips and with his hair not plastered down over his forehead, he was probably cute. She dug the blanket out from the emergency stuff under the foredeck and wrapped it around him. Thanks, he said and when he went to hold the blanket under his chin his fingers touched hers and he let them and she let them too. Thanks, Alison. He was older, probably in college. Do you go to Bowdoin? What, he said, no. He was so quiet. I wanted to go there but I didn’t get in. Where do you go? She did not want to tell him she was still in high school, so she asked how he had come to be out on the water during such a storm. Well, I could ask you the same thing, he said. Well, I steered my boat through it pretty well, she said, as you can see, which is more than some people can say. That wasn’t fair because the storm had come up suddenly, but sometimes you flirted by saying something a little mean, she had seen it in movies. Are you feeling warmer, she said, and she helped him pull the blanket tighter. Your lips are still purple. Well, he said, your hair is a ratty mess and your thighs are fat and there’s a gap between your front teeth, but it didn’t sound like flirting.
The boy’s face bumped against the hull this time, which probably hurt but whose fault was that? She didn’t like to say she had saved him, but she supposed she had and so when she had gotten him aboard and he thanked her she said of course, anybody would have done it. He was probably cute, but it was hard to tell with the way his hair was plastered over his forehead and his cheek was scraped, the skin there raw and livid, though there was no blood, the salt water must have washed that all away, and his lips were purple. Here, she said, digging the blanket from the emergency stuff under the foredeck. You must be freezing. She helped him to hold the blanket closed under his chin and they let their fingers touch for a long moment. His eyes were half closed, but she could see that they were blue, kind of the watery blue of the sky right now. Your eyes look like the sky, she said and he said her cheeks looked like the sunset, had she gotten sunburned but no, it was that she was blushing. Whatever it is, he said, it’s beautiful. You didn’t have to say mean things, it turned out, but then she did not know what to say at all. Do you go to Bowdoin? But before he could answer, their lips were touching and his were cold and tasted salty. I thought maybe you needed mouth-to-mouth, she said. He did not go to Bowdoin, had borrowed the T-shirt from a friend. It’s soaked and sticking to you, she said. We should take it off of you so you can warm up, I can let you have my sweatshirt. He was still cold, shock maybe, she would have to help him lie down in a minute, and he let her pull the wet shirt up and over his head. His skin was pale and a patch of damp, dark hair shivered in the middle of his chest. She put her hand on it. I can’t feel your heart, she said. Shock, probably. You should lie down. She helped him to stretch out on the bench and she curled beside him to warm him. His lips warmed under hers, and his eyes, when she pulled back to look at him, were dreamy and blue. He was a gentleman, too. She had to put his hand under her swimsuit top to let him know that she was willing. Oh how she had longed all summer for a boy to put his hand there, one of the boys she liked to watch at the dock as they prepared to go out for the day or as they tied up to the cleats and laughed, their teeth glowing white from the deep tan of their faces, but they only bought ice cream from her and then went off in their laughing groups, no doubt to grope the rich girls they knew from school. His hand was cold. Are you not interested, she said. Are they too small? Your cheeks are like the sunset, he said, and she said thanks, but you’re too cold, too cold.
She didn’t like to say that she had saved him, but she had, and it had been hard, too, no t-shirt to grab hold of and his pale skin slick, his arms flapping and useless, shock probably, she would have to let him lie down, feet over heart, and he’d need the blanket. Her back was getting sore and she hoped things went well. He was undoubtedly cute, though it was hard to see it through his plastered-down hair and with a scraped-up face. His half-open eyes were the salt-washed blue of the evening sky, but there was no time for small talk. She helped him to stretch out on the bench, a life vest under his head. There was seaweed in the damp patch of hair in the middle of his chest. She picked some of it out and rested her hand there. He needed to warm up. She slipped her swimsuit top over her head and lay on top of him, willing her body’s heat into him, kissing his jaw and the little hollow behind his ear. His arm was draped over her and the hand that touched the small of her back was cold, but it was okay, she said, they would warm up together. Do you believe in love at first sight, he said. I thought you must be a mermaid, he said, or a siren. I had just given up when there you were, you saved me. She said yes, yes, she did, she was, she had, and though it took both of her hands working at the wet knot of the drawstring, she got his trunks down to his knees because the storm had brought them together and it was meant to be. She had never seen a boy’s thing and expected something, she didn’t know, else. It was a slug nestled in the scraggly garden of wet hair. She stroked it and scraped the hair and the wrinkled skin with her short nails. It was supposed to be different. I thought you loved me, she said. What, am I not beautiful enough for you?
She didn’t like to say that she had saved him, but what else could you call it, he had given up and would have sunk to the bottom and let the fish and crabs and things go at him if she hadn’t hauled him, slippery naked, battered, and helpless, into the boat. There was no need for words. It was fated, wasn’t it? They were meant to be. She laid him on the bench, his head cushioned on the life vest and the blanket from the emergency stuff tossed over him. He had been cute, you could tell, but his weedy hair was plastered over his scraped face. She’d had to use the gaffing hook to rescue him and it had slipped, carving a jagged line up his smooth cheek and into his sky-blue eye. He didn’t even feel it, though, he was so overcome with passion and relief. He wanted to say how beautiful, your hair is like the sunset, your skin is like cream, your lips, your breasts, but she said there is no need, I know, I know. He was cold and so she pressed her nakedness against him. He was cold, and so she kissed his salty lips and whispered her warm breath against his ear and neck. He was cold, and so she took into her mouth the shriveled penis, sucked into her warm mouth the balls cradled in his wrinkled scrotum. It was fated, if salty. They were meant to be. Don’t you believe that, she said, and he said without words, as his finger entered her, yes, yes, all summer he had longed to touch her, his lips cold against her nipple, all summer he had longed, and oh, she said, his palm hard against her and his finger on the spot inside where she had longed to feel him, longed all summer, oh, my love, my love.
They watched the sunset together, wrapped up in the blanket. She had put her sweatshirt back on, though it was damp. The mosquitoes didn’t bother him, he said. It was so nice to be here. Oh yes, she said. It was going to be a lovely night.
Michael Thurston lives in Northampton, Mass. He has published some stories in some magazines, including one in apt, and is a Contributing Editor at The Massachusetts Review.