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A Boy's Own Story
By Edmund White
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2002 Edmund White
All rights reserved.
We're going for a midnight boat ride. It's a cold, clear summer night and four of us—the two boys, my dad and I—are descending the stairs that zigzag down the hill from the house to the dock. Old Boy, my dad's dog, knows where we're headed; he rushes down the slope beside us, looks back, snorts and tears up a bit of grass as he twirls in a circle. "What is it, Old Boy, what is it?" my father says, smiling faintly, delighted to be providing excitement for the dog, whom he always called his best friend.
I was bundled up, a sweater and a Windbreaker over today's sunburn. My father stopped to examine the bottom two steps just above the footpath that traveled from cottage to cottage on our side of the lake. This afternoon he had put in the new steps: fresh boards placed vertically to retain the sand and dirt, each braced by four wooden stakes pounded into the ground. Soon the steps would sag and sprawl and need to be redone. Whenever I came back from a swim or a trip in the outboard down to the village grocery store, I passed him crouched over his eternal steps or saw him up on a ladder painting the house, or heard his power saw arguing with itself in the garage, still higher up the hill on the road.
My father regarded guests as nuisances who had to be entertained over and over again. Tonight's expedition was just such a duty. But the boys, our guests' sons, didn't register the cheerlessness of the occasion and thought it was exciting still to be up at such an hour. They had run on down to the water as I lingered obediently beside my father, who caressed the steps with the flashlight. The boys were racing to the end of the dock, feet pounding the boards. Old Boy started out after them, but then came back to round us up. Now Kevin was threatening to push his little brother in. Squeals, breathing, a tussle, then release, followed by the sound of two boys just being.
As Dad and I went on down, his flashlight veered off into the water, scaring a school of minnows and illuminating bands of sand. The Chris-Craft, moored to the short end of the L formed by the dock, was big, heavy, imposing. Two tarpaulins covered it: one was a square, corners rounded, that fitted over the two seats in front; the other was a smaller, perfect rectangle that protected the bucket seat aft of the engine, which itself lay concealed, redolent of gasoline, under the double wood doors trimmed in chrome. The canvas, as I undid the grommets and gathered in its folds, had the familiar smell of a sour washcloth. Neither my father nor I moved very gracefully over that boat. We were both afraid of the water, he because he couldn't swim, I because I was afraid of everything.
Dad's most constant attribute was the cigar clenched between his small, stained teeth. Since he could usually be found in an air-conditioned house or office or car, the system under his control, he saw to it that the smoke and smell filtered evenly and thickly into every corner of his world, subduing those around him; perhaps, like a skunk parent, he was steeping us in his protective stink.
Although it was chilly and I had on a sweater and jacket, I was wearing Bermuda shorts; the wind raised goose bumps on my legs as I installed the wooden flagpole at the stern, an accoutrement patriotism forbade at night but which we needed for the white light that glowed from its top. How the electricity could run through this pole as soon as it was plugged into its socket mystified me; I dared not ask Dad for an explanation lest he give me one. The leather seats were cold, but they warmed under flesh soon enough, skin to skin.
Pulling away from the dock generated high anxiety (pulling in was worse). My father, who'd been a Texas cowboy as a young man, could laugh at twisters and rattlers, but everything about this alien medium—cold, bottomless, sliding—alarmed him. He was wearing his absurd "captain's" hat (all his leisure clothes were absurd—jokes, really—as though leisure itself had to be ridiculed). He was half standing behind the wheel. The motors were churning, the spotlight on the bow was gyrating, the red tip of his cigar was pulsing. I'd ventured out on the deck, untied the ropes, tossed them in, jumped in the boat myself; now I was crouched just behind my father. I was wielding a long pole with a hook on one end, the sort used to open upper windows in stuffy grade schools. My job was to push us safely out of the berth before my father threw the toiling motors into gear. It was all an embarrassment. Other men moored their powerboats with a single line, backed away from docks in a simple, graceful arc, talking all the while, and other men's sons scrambled like agile monkeys across lacquered decks, joking and smiling.
We were under way. The speedboat lunged forward with so much force that we were pressed back against our seats. Peter, Kevin's seven-year-old brother, was in the rumble seat, his hair streaming under the rippling flag, his mouth open to scream with delighted fear, though the sound was lost behind gales of wind. He waved a skinny arm and with his other hand clutched a chromium grip beside him; even so, he was posting high as we spanked over someone else's wake. Our own was thrown back from the prow. The night, intent seamstress, fed the fabric of water under the needle of our hull, steadily, firmly, except the boat wasn't stitching the water together but ripping it apart into long white shreds. Along the shore a few house lights here and there peered through the pines, as fleeting as stars glimpsed through the moving clouds above. We shot past an anchored boat of fishermen and their single kerosene lamp; one of them shook his fist at us.
The lake narrowed. Over to the right lay the nine-hole golf course (I knew it was there, though I couldn't see it) with its ramshackle clubhouse and wicker armchairs painted green, its porch swing on creaking chains. Once a month we showed up there late for Sunday supper, our clothes not right, our talk too distant and forthright, the cigar a foul smudge pot set out to ward off the incoming social frost.
Now Dad's cigar had gone out and he stopped the boat to relight it. From our high windy perch we drifted down, engine cut to a mild churning. When the exhaust pipe dipped above water level, it blatted rudely. "Boy, I'm soaked!" Peter was screaming in his soprano. "I'm freezing. Gee, you sure let me have it!"
"Too much for you, young fellow?" my father asked, chuckling. He winked at me. The children of visitors (and sometimes their fathers) were usually called "young fellow," since Dad could never remember their names. Old Boy, who had been squinting into the wind, his head stuck out beyond and around the windshield, was now prancing happily across the cushions to receive a pat from his master. Kevin, sitting just behind my father, said, "Those fishermen were mad as hell. I'd've been, too, if some guy in a big fat-ass powerboat scared off my fish."
My father winced, then grumbled something about how they had no business ...
He was hurt.
I was appalled by Kevin's frankness. At such moments, tears would come to my eyes in impotent compassion for Daddy: this invalid despot, this man who bullied everyone but suffered the consequences with such a tender, uneducated heart! Tears would also well up when I had to correct my father on a matter of fact. Usually I'd avoid the bother and smugly watch him compound his mistakes. But if he asked my opinion point-blank, a euphoria of sadness would overtake me, panicky wings would beat at the corners of the shrinking room and, as quietly and as levelly as possible, I'd supply the correct name or date. For I was a lot more knowledgeable than he about the things that could come up in conversation even in those days, the 1950s.
But knowledge wasn't power. He was the one with the power, the money, the right to read the paper through dinner as my stepmother and I watched him in silence; he was the one with the thirty tailor-made suits, the twenty gleaming pairs of shoes and the starched white dress shirts, the ties from Countess Mara and the two Cadillacs that waited for him in the garage, dripping oil on the concrete in the shape of a black Saturn and its gray blur of moons. It was his power that stupefied me and made me regard my knowledge as nothing more than hired cleverness he might choose to show off at a dinner party ("Ask this young fellow, he reads, he'll know"). Then why did his occasional faltering bring tears to my eyes? Was I grieving because he didn't possess everything, absolutely everything, or because I owned nothing? Perhaps, despite my timidity, I was in a struggle against him. Did I want to hurt him because he didn't love me?
Within a moment Kevin had made things right by asking Daddy how he thought the hometown baseball team would do next season. My father was soon expatiating on names and averages and strategies that meant nothing to me, the good spring training and the bad trade-off. When Kevin challenged him on one point, Dad laughed good-naturedly at the boy's spunk (and error) and set him straight. I rested my arm on the rubber tread of the gunwale beside me and my chin on my arm and stared into the shiny water, which was busy analyzing a distant yellow porch light, shattering the simple glow into a hundred shifting possibilities.
The baseball talk went on for some time as we rocked in our own wake, which had overtaken us. We were drifting toward an island and its abandoned summer hotel, moth-white behind slender, silver-white birches. The motor wallowed, the sound of an old car with a bad muffler. My father usually felt uncomfortable with other men, but he and Kevin had now found a way to talk to each other and I half listened to the low murmurs of their voices—or rather of Daddy's monologue and Kevin's sounds of assent or disagreement. This was Dad's late-night voice: ruminative, confiding, unending. Old Boy recognized it from their dawn walks together and circumspectly placed his nose between his paws on the cushion beside Dad. Little Peter crawled up over the hatch and listened to the sports talk; even he knew names and averages and had an opinion or two. After he'd been silent for a while I looked around and saw he'd fallen asleep, his head thrown back over the edge of the cushion and his mouth open, his right hand twitching.
By now we'd entered the narrows that led into a smaller, colder branch of the lake. The lights of a car, after excavating a tunnel out of the pines halfway up the shore, dipped from view and then suddenly shot out across the water, which looked all the blacker and choppier in the brief glare. I had rowed laboriously over every mile of the lake; it was a mild sort of pleasure to see those backbreaking distances beautifully elided by the Chris-Craft. For Dad had gunned the motors again and we were sitting once more on our high, thundering throne. We passed a point where the clipped lawns of an estate flowed down from a white mansion and its lit, curtained windows. Late last Sunday afternoon, as I was pulling hard through the turbulent water at the point, I'd seen a young man in a seersucker suit and a girl in a party dress. They had sauntered up the hill away from me, he slightly in the lead, she swinging her arms high in an exaggerated way, as though she were a marionette. The sun found a feeble rainbow in the mist above a sprinkler and made the grass as green and uniform as baize. The light gave the couple long, important shadows.
All around me—at the post office where we had a box, in the general store, on docks, sailboats and water skis—young people with iodine-and-baby-oil tans, trim bodies and faultless teeth were having fun. A boat would glide across the setting sun, the shadow of a broad-shouldered teen inhabiting the white sail. At the village dock I'd look up from my outboard to see two young men walking past, just a sliver of untanned skin visible under the hems of their shorts. As I sat high up the hill on our porch swing, reading, I'd hear them joking as they sunned on the white diving raft below. I'd see them up close at the country club suppers—the boy with the strong chin and honey-brown hands, in blazer and white cotton pants, seating his mother, her nose like his but pointier, her hair as blond but fogged with gray. These were the women who wore navy blue and a single piece of woven yellow and pink gold, whose narrow feet were shod in blue and white spectators, who drove jaunty station wagons, who drank martinis on porches with rattan furniture and straw rugs and whose voices were lower than most men's. Up close they smelled of gin, cocoa butter and lake water; we sometimes sat next to such a woman and her family at a communal table. Or I'd see these women at the little branch of Saks Fifth Avenue in a town not far away. They pretended they were bored or exasperated by their children's comings and goings: "Don't even bother to tell me when you'll be home, Scott, you know you've never kept your word yet." I saw it all and envied those sons their parents and those parents their sons.
My father was never tan. He had a huge belly; his glasses weren't horn-rim or translucent pink plastic (the two acceptable styles) but black with bronze metallic wings; he seldom drank cocktails; he didn't act as if he were onstage—he had no attractive affectations. Although my stepmother had risen socially as high as one could rise in that world, she'd done so on her own. My father never took her anywhere; she was as free as a spinster and as respectable as a matron. When she was with us at the cottage during the summer, she forgot about society and helped my father with his steps or his painting, she read as much as I did, arranged for good meals and rusticated. Once in a while, one of her elegant friends would drop by for lunch, and suddenly the house was electrified by the energy of those women—their excitement, their approval, their laughter, their thrilling small talk, an art as refined (and now as rare) as marquetry. My father would beam at these guests and pat their hands and pour them thimblefuls of brandy after their doll-size luncheons. Then they'd limp away in a broken-down car, millionairesses in old cardigans covered with cat hairs, their wonderful vibrant voices their only badge of breeding.
My father was courtly but dim. I was even dimmer. I read so much in the house (on the bed in my room, on the couch in the living room, on the shaded bench at the foot of the dock) that I hadn't gotten a tan. At least my clothes were right (my sister had seen to that), but I felt all dressed up with no place to go.
Unlike my idols I couldn't play tennis or baseball or swim freestyle. My sports were volleyball and Ping-Pong, my only stroke the sidestroke. I was a sissy. My hands were always in the air. In eighth grade I had appeared in the class pageant. We all wore togas and marched solemnly in to a record of Schubert's Unfinished. My sister couldn't wait to tell me I had been the only boy who'd sat not cross-legged on the gym floor but resting on one hand and hip like the White Rock girl. A popular quiz for masculinity in those days asked three questions, all of which I flunked: (1) Look at your nails (a girl extends her fingers, a boy cups his in his upturned palm); (2) Look up (a girl lifts just her eyes, a boy throws back his whole head); (3) Light a match (a girl strikes away from her body, a boy toward—or perhaps the reverse, I can't recall). But there were less esoteric signs as well. A man crosses his legs by resting an ankle on his knee; a sissy drapes one leg over the other. A man never gushes; men are either silent or loud. I didn't know how to swear: I always said the final g in fucking and I didn't know where in the sentence to place the damn or hell.
My father was just a bit of a sissy. He crossed his legs the wrong way. He was too fussy about his nails (he had an elaborate manicuring kit). He liked classical music. He was not an easygoing guy. But otherwise he passed muster: he was courageous in a fight; he was a strong, skilled athlete; not many things frightened him; he had towering rages; he knew how to swear; he was tirelessly assertive; and he had a gambler's good grace about losing money. He could lose lots of it in business and walk away, smiling and shrugging.
Excerpted from A Boy's Own Story by Edmund White. Copyright © 2002 Edmund White. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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