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THE FIVE SENSES
Having exiled herself forever from her old life, she looked into this new one and found nothing to recognize.
Here was the ocean. It wasn't what she expected. Instead of the frill of blue you saw on postcards, it was this enormous swollen rolling mass, gray, like some shaggy wild animal. Jessie that was her name had not realized that the ocean was always trying to climb out of itself, out of its space, a brimming cup. And it was huge. She remembered, from school or somewhere, that most of the earth was covered in ocean. Yes, and it wanted the rest of it too.
It was cold, she hadn't imagined Florida being cold, that was another thing. She'd left her winter coat back in the room, thinking she didn't need it, so she walked along with her fingers curled up in the sleeves of her sweatshirt. The sky had no depth or shape to it. Cloud or fog, she couldn't tell which, or maybe its gray was just the color of cold. Nobody else was out walking as far as she could see. It was just a strip of less desirable, gravelly beach across the highway from the motel. In one direction, far off, were fishing piers and restaurants and the fancy hotels that had their own beaches. At the other end, a scrubby tangle of trees blocked your way. Jessie felt stupid out there alone. She wished she had a dog or something. With a dog you could at least throw sticks.
She looked for seashells, but the only shells she found were flattened, ordinary, and when she picked up one that was two halves still joined together, she could see something dead inside. Something dim, webbed, and sticky. "Oh God," she said aloud. "R.B.?"
But of course he wasn't there, and if he knew she was getting weird again, something she had promised to quit doing . . . Well it wasn't just an act, she was weird, she couldn't help it, you might as well try to stop yourself from vomiting as try to keep the weirdness from coming out. Her hands felt soiled. She rinsed them in the gray water and dried them on her pants.
R.B. was still asleep back in the room. He didn't like getting up early or walking just for walking's sake. He was full of such things, little prickly dislikes. People who went around acting like theirs didn't stink. Certain movies, the stupid ones where they didn't do anything but talk. Certain kinds of foods. It was all Jessie could do to get him to drink orange juice instead of orange soda. He only ate when he was hungry, didn't make a big deal out of it. He didn't care about a lot of things other people thought were so important.
He was proud. He didn't like her paying for things, even when it was her own money; she had to slip it to him beneath the table in restaurants. It was as if all the ordinary hungers he didn't have or couldn't be bothered with went into being proud. She understood that about him, she had reached out with her heart and soul and touched that hard, hungry part of him.
Jessie turned her back on the ocean and crossed the road, wondering if he'd want something to eat once he woke up. There was a doughnut shop a couple of blocks down, she didn't mind going into places like that where nobody noticed what you looked like or who you were. Jessie stood patiently in line, flicking her eyes over her reflection in the mirrored panels. An average-to-plain girl with long straight hair falling in her eyes, no one you'd remember, and for the first time in her life she was glad for that because nobody was supposed to know where they were. She bought six doughnuts and a large iced tea which she balanced carefully on her way back to the room. She couldn't believe they were staying in a real motel.
R.B. was still asleep. He slept like he was a puppet dropped from some great height. Arms and legs flopped everywhere. His head was flung back and his mouth was open. Watching him sleep was still new to her, so she just sat there for a while. How amazing that when he was asleep, not talking, moving, watching things and working them around, he wasn't really R.B. at all. He was this long, blue-pale, skinned-looking creature, like a shell, but she had to stop thinking about those.
Jessie drank her iced tea and ate one of the doughnuts and then because she was getting bored she made some small, experimental noises to see if he might wake up. Scootched around in her chair. Ran water in the bathroom. She had already learned that if she wanted him to get up she should go about it in this roundabout way.
Finally his eyes fluttered and he regarded the ceiling. Then he rolled over. "Hey," Jessie said.
"What are you doing?"
He meant the doughnuts. Jessie held the bag out to him and he rummaged around in it. "Chocolate. All right."
And she was happy, because the doughnuts made him happy. R.B. got up to go to the bathroom with half a doughnut still clamped in his mouth and that was both funny and awful, to think of him doing both those things at once. Well, this was her new life, she should get accustomed to all manner of strangeness.
When he got back into bed he patted the space next to him, meaning she should lie down with him which also felt strange, since she was dressed and he wasn't wearing anything. She rested her head on his chest and R.B. ran one hand down her back and underneath the top of her pants while his other hand worked at getting a cigarette going. Once she heard the snap of the lighter and smelled smoke, Jessie said, "So what do you want to do today?"
"Here I just woke up and you're already after me to make plans."
"I was just asking. Come on."
There was a little while when the smoke drew in and out, then he said, "I think I'll go get me a new girlfriend."
"Oh sure. Funny."
"Hot car, long blond hair, killer bod. Plenty of money."
"How are you going to work that, hypnotize her?"
R.B.'s hand administered a little slap. "One that's not so damned sassy."
"Oh, I'll show you sassy. Wait and see," she said, knowing that he liked it when she pretended to talk back. She kept her ear on his chest, listening to the muddy bumping of his heart as he put his cigarette down and used both hands to pull at her pants. Jessie wriggled out of one leg, then kicked the other loose. She understood what he wanted, which was for her to get him hard with her mouth and then climb on top. It was different for guys, the things they liked.
When he was done, he said, "You're sweet, you know?"
"Do you like me that way? Sweet?"
"You know that I do."
Then that was what she would be. In a new life you could start over, change your nature. R.B. was her new life. It was that simple.
He clicked the television on and Jessie figured this would be another day like yesterday where they stayed inside doing nothing and they could have done that anywhere, there was no need to come such a long way.
But R.B. got up to take a shower and when he was dressed and had his hair dried he said she should get ready, they were going out.
"Outside, Miss Worry Wart."
He was in that kind of mood, pleased with making secrets out of nothing. So Jessie put her clothes on and got herself outside. The sun was shining now, and just like that it was instantly warm and the glimpse of ocean she caught was blue, changed all of a sudden like a magic trick. R.B. was walking fast, she had to trot to keep up with him. The sun made the inside of the car hot and kicked up all its scruffy smells, vinyl and cigarettes and whatever R.B. had tracked into it. The car was the first thing her parents had not liked about him, before they even met him. Of course he hadn't bought it new, so there was another layer of grit, smells, stains that didn't belong to anyone they knew, only more of the lurking filth of the world, stupid dirty vomit-making horrible stop that. She pinched her nostrils shut and breathed through her mouth.
They followed the main road into town. With the sun out, things looked a lot more like Florida. There were palm trees and hibiscus and houses painted pink or blue or mint green in little square yards of crimped grass. Once they reached the business district, R.B. found a place to park. He led her down a sidewalk as if he knew exactly where he was going, although when they'd come here they'd driven straight through town. He was like that, confident.
He steered them into a House of Pancakes. R.B. got pecan waffles and a Coke and Jessie ordered a salad because she couldn't remember the last time she ate anything that qualified as a vegetable. She poked around in the mass of watery lettuce. They didn't talk much. R.B. didn't like talking at meals. He said it wasn't the way he was raised up. Jessie was trying to figure out a good time to ask him some of the important things like where they were going and what they were supposed to do from now on.
"So don't you trust me? Don't say yes just because you think it's what I want to hear. I can tell."
Which confused her, because if he knew that much, wouldn't he know if she trusted him? She lowered her eyes. She didn't want to look at him and have him see something she hadn't really meant.
"Yes or no. I'm not gonna get mad at you."
"Yes. I trust you."
"You better be sure about what you're saying because this is absolute, this is no halfway, half-assed contract between you and me, this means you trust me with your life and I trust you with mine and there's no going back. The bastard world hasn't done right by either of us but that's about to change. Come here. Don't be scared. Don't you know we're one person now?"
R.B. finished his waffles and shoved his plate away and got another cigarette going, his eyes shut against the sunlight. It was strange sometimes, here they were so close and yet she could examine him as if he was someone she'd never seen before. It felt disloyal to be doing so, but she couldn't help it, couldn't always stay in the zone of closeness, be half of one person with him. It was the weak, untrusting part of her. She loved his face but it was not at all a good-looking face, once you took it apart feature by feature. His skin was patchy and his eyes were too close together and his hair never sat right. But even his looks were something he could work around to his advantage. People underestimated him, dismissed him as common, underbred, some dumb hick with his head full of wrestling and beer. She'd seen them do it, stare right past him, and then be as surprised as hell when they wound up losing out to him.
R.B. was for Ronald Boone. She'd known him most of a month before he told her what the initials stood for, that's how much he hated being Ronald Boone. Ronald Boone was a slow learner, a discipline problem, a bad influence, a mug shot, a loser. It was a name with a permanent bad record. R.B. was somebody he could make up as he went along.
R.B. put his cigarette out and said, "You get enough to eat? That didn't hardly look like a mouthful."
"It was fine."
"I don't want anybody saying I can't take care of you. I don't want you thinking I can't take care of you."
"You know I never would. Come on."
"Because if it's a matter of money, that's the next thing on the list. I know you're used to better."
"Come on," Jessie said again, embarrassed when he brought up money and the house she'd grown up in and all the things in that house, so different from the way he'd lived, and why couldn't he believe that none of it mattered or had ever made her happy? She was afraid her old life would turn out to be something he always held against her.
R.B. put the cigarette out and dug for his wallet, fished out a twenty-dollar bill. "This is for if you want more to eat. I gotta go do something."
The worry in her started up again like a clock. "Where are you going?" she asked, knowing that he wouldn't say. The more she asked, the more he wouldn't tell.
"No place you need to fret about."
"I'll be back when I'm back. My job today is taking care of business, yours is to wait right here and eat pancakes. Now who has the tougher job? Nope, not that face. I don't want to see you getting into a mood. Try looking like you're on the vacation you always wanted to take. That's my girl."
Then he was gone. God she hated this. He'd go off somewhere she wasn't allowed to be and she'd sit for hours, maybe, never knowing when he'd take it into his head to come back.
The waitress stopped at the table and asked Jessie if she wanted anything else and Jessie said she'd have coffee, not looking up. They wouldn't kick you out if you were drinking coffee.
But what if they did make her leave before R.B. came back and she went looking for the car and it wasn't there? Even if she found a ride back to the motel, she didn't have the room key. Even if she was brave enough to show her face at the office and talk them into giving her the key, what was there in that room to make a life of? What if she never saw R.B. again? She had nothing to go back to and no way of going forward.
"Honey? I know you don't want to believe me, but he is really not a nice boy. I don't just mean that he comes from a different kind of home. I'm not even talking about manners, although those are important also and from what I've seen he doesn't have any. He doesn't know how to behave around a nice girl. You know that if someone doesn't respect themselves, they can't respect other people. Maybe it's not even his fault, since he hasn't had the advantages you take for granted. Now you think that because he's hanging around and paying attention to you, you have to pay him attention back, but sweetheart, I promise you there will be other boys, you are a wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, special girl "
Jessie stared down at the placemat. The placemat had pictures of mermaids and anchors and seashells, the kinds of shells she had wanted to find: starfish, speckled cowries, sand dollars, conchs with their openings polished to the color of a rosy sunrise. She thought about asking the waitress if people ever actually came across the really gorgeous ones on the beach, or if maybe there was a factory that turned them out for tourists. Pretty things that weren't real. What was real was the inside, the horrible stuff.
Coffee coffee coffee, she didn't even like the taste and it made her brain itch, but she kept drinking it down. From time to time she picked up the menu and frowned at it, as if contemplating another order, trying to make it look like she had some reason for staying. Not that anyone seemed to mind her sitting there. The place was dead, acres of empty tables and the waitresses off in the back somewhere, what time was it anyway? She hadn't wanted to keep track of how long he'd been gone but it had been lunch and now it was not and if it got to be dinner what was she supposed to do? Maybe he was with some girl. He made jokes about it but what was stopping him? She knew he'd had other girlfriends, slept with them, sure. Who was she anyway, nobody special. What if he stopped being in love with her, what if he already had? She knew he didn't spend every second worrying about her the way she did about him. He'd get bored with her, shrug her off. It was a lot easier to imagine this than to believe in some perfect happy life. She wasn't meant to be happy. R.B. was only the particular way she had chosen to be unhappy, the sign that announced to the world that she was a truly fucked-up person. She almost hated him, him and his big plans and the blood trouble between them.
Calm down. It was the coffee ripping through her and getting her so weird, oh sure, like coffee was the only thing wrong with her. She kept having to pee but she held it until it hurt every time because she was afraid R.B. would return while she was in the bathroom, see the empty table and walk out again.
And wouldn't you know it, she was on her way back, hurrying, and here was R.B. coming through the front door. He spotted her and waved, and when he got closer he said, "Hey Kathy, I want you to meet some friends of mine."
There were two people, a guy and a girl, man and woman really, crowding in behind him, but Jessie didn't focus on them right away, wondering what he was up to. He'd told her that there would be times when they'd go by these different, traveling names. She was Kathy and if anybody asked, she was eighteen. He was Steve. Everything else she should leave up to him. So she said, "Hi, nice to meet you" to the two of them, the big husky burnt-pink blond guy, and the woman with her hair fixed in stiff curls on the top of her head and a lot of gold bracelets and a navy blue blazer with gold buttons that was supposed to remind you of sailors. Jerry and Pat. She thought he was Jerry and she was Pat, although it could have been the other way around.
R.B. said, "Jerry here's got this boat. I'm gonna help him figure out what's wrong with the engine."
Jerry said, "Yeah, we're dead in the water." He laughed, like this was the funniest thing in the world.
Pat shook her head. Her hair didn't move, as if it was made out of icing. "It's the oil pressure. The big doofus didn't check the oil."
"You're not supposed to have to on a brand-new boat. Che-rist."
"All the way from Mobile I said, what's that light doing on, that red one, and he'd say, oh, it's a new boat, don't worry. Then when he finally goes to check it he can't find the thing, the oil thing."
"Hey, it's a design flaw."
"Yeah, your head's not supposed to be up your ass either. More bad design."
They all laughed like crazy at this. Jessie figured they'd been at some bar.
R.B. said to her, "So, if you're ready to shake a leg . . ."
R.B. paid the bill at the register. Then they were out on the sidewalk, Jerry and R.B. up ahead, she and Pat behind. The sun was low and the air had turned hot and heavy, so that sweat started up under her arms and slid along the insides of her jeans, and she found herself walking slowly as if wading through water. "So," Pat said. "Steve tells me you're from Ohio."
They weren't, but Jessie nodded, wondering what else R.B. had said, what else she'd have to go along with. She hoped Pat wasn't a nosy type. What if she asked where in Ohio?
But Pat was still going on about Jerry and his boat. "I just love to give him shit about his little toy, all the money he spends on it. He tries to sneak the checks past me. Fat chance."
"I guess boats are real expensive," said Jessie, just to keep up her end of the conversation. It was so hot. They must have moved the heat in like furniture while she was inside the restaurant. Her head felt cottony. She didn't want to think about what R.B. might be planning. She guessed that Jerry and Pat had a lot of money, although they didn't act like it. They were too drunk.
R.B. and Jerry were now instant best friends, pounding each other on the biceps and yukking it up. Jessie hoped they weren't walking much farther. No one but her seemed to mind the heat. Pat was walking and talking and trying to get a cigarette out of her purse, all at the same time. She had long, silver-polished fingernails and big knuckles with sparkly rings perched on them. The rings looked cheap. Flashy, Jessie's mother would have said, but they were probably real diamonds and real gold.
Pat said, "So is Steve a good mechanic? I mean, we can always have somebody from the boatyard look at it."
"He's good with cars," said Jessie truthfully. "I guess a boat engine's not that different."
Pat got her cigarette going and blew smoke. She had a narrow face and deep, gouged wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. "Oh, Jerry's probably hoping there's some quick easy fix. He's putting off having the engine pulled and finding out he wrecked it. He thinks he can sort of ease into the bad news that way. Then maybe I won't get on his fat ass about it." Pat cocked her head and smiled at Jessie, like they were girlfriends sharing secrets. "Men. Little boys, every blessed one of them."
Jessie smiled back. She tried to imagine talking that way about R.B., like he was somebody you could be fond and jokey about.
"He's a little old for you, your Steve."
"I'm eighteen," Jessie said and watched Pat not believe it.
"Wish I was your age again. Young love, nothing like it. 'Course how would you know that, what do you have to compare it to. You plan on getting married?"
Jessie said yes, probably, just not right away. Making that up along with everything else. Pat nodded and blew smoke through her nostrils. "Well, don't feel like you have to rush it. Marriage. It's like a damn bathtub. Once you're in it and you're used to it, it's not so hot."
The sunlight was so thick, she had trouble focusing on Pat's voice, which was melting into a sloppy buzz. Where was this boat anyway? She didn't see a harbor or anything like that, just streets and parking lots and the heat deep down in the pavement where you couldn't get away from it.
"Jer and I been married eight years. I was married before and he was married before. So we're experts at it. Sex doesn't stay the same after a while. I'm only telling you because I wish somebody would have told me."
Was there any way to get her to quit talking? She couldn't believe it, this woman she only met two seconds ago. Jessie said, "Thank you."
"Oh, now you're upset, don't pay attention to me, you get as old as I am, you lose all shame."
"It's OK," Jessie said. "Really." Pat probably thought she was embarrassed. She was just tired of everybody who thought all the sex stuff was so important.
She felt Pat's hand brush against her hair, graze her shoulder. She held herself rigid. "You ever think about wearing your hair up? You have such a pretty little face but you can't see it." The hand dropped away. "Now what does that fool want?"
Jerry was waving at them to catch up. "How about a grocery run? Something to throw on the grill."
They were right in front of a grocery store. The rest of them seemed to think this was a good idea. Jessie could tell the kind of evening this was going to be, starting off in one direction, then getting distracted and heading off in another. At least the store was air-conditioned. She left Pat and Jerry at the shopping carts, fussing over what they should buy. R.B. was standing in front of the ice-cream freezer.
"Lookit that." He indicated the freezer shelves. "Butter brickle. You can't hardly find it anymore."
"Who are these guys, why are we hanging around with them?"
"Relax. I'm gonna do them a favor. Then they're gonna do us one."
"That lady's kind of strange. How old are they anyway? I don't think we should be going around with people as old as them."
R.B. opened the freezer and picked up the ice cream one-handed. "I said relax. Nobody's going to get bad hurt."
She stared up at him, trying to tell if he was joking. "What are you going to "
"You ever been on a fancy boat like they got? Mommy and Daddy have one of those?"
"I'm just messing with you, Worry Wart. We're gonna drink their beer and get their boat fixed so they can go on their merry way."
"Promise we won't have to stay real late. Promise "
R.B. made a sign to her to be quiet, because Pat and Jerry were coming up behind them with the cart. They'd already picked up different bottles of steak sauce and barbecue sauce and two jars of fancy olives. "Mesquite chips," Jerry said. "Help me remember that. Mesquite chips, mesquite chips, mesquite chips." R.B. put the ice cream in the cart and they wandered up and down the aisles, adding anything that caught their eye, a platter of cocktail shrimp, big red trays of steaks, tomatoes, garlic bread, tubs of bean salad and macaroni salad, a frozen coconut cream pie. Then Pat and Jerry got into another stupid argument about how were they going to get it all back to the boat because they hadn't even gotten to the liquor aisle yet and didn't they need ice too?
R.B. said it was no problem, he'd go back for the car and drive them to the harbor. Pat and Jerry acted like nobody in the history of time ever had such a good idea. Jessie wondered if it wasn't something R.B. had planned all along. And anyway, now he wouldn't have to help pay for the groceries.
So here she was, trailing after the two of them, Pat and Jerry, like she was their kid or something. Now that would be strange. If they did have a kid, it would be totally screwed up. It seemed that the longer they were in the store, the more reckless Pat and Jerry got about piling things in the cart, frozen waffles, cashews, onion dip, rice, nothing that made sense in terms of a meal. She couldn't imagine eating any of it. Something had come in between her and hunger lately. Jessie figured Pat and Jerry were just warming up for the liquor aisle. Sure enough, once they reached it they started hefting the bottles like pros. Jessie wandered off.
She was bored. One of the odd things about this new life was that she didn't have to do anything, school or chores or homework or anything else. It took some getting used to. She and R.B. just ended up in one place or another, doing the next thing that happened. It hadn't even been that long. A bunch of days. But already it felt like she'd never lived any other way. R.B. said it was better like that. They had made a clean break. They were born again, just like people sang about in church except it was better than church, it was their own invention, nobody but them could live like this, brand-new every minute. And Jessie believed him, except there were still those weird times when the gray and floating part of her mind got in the way.
"Now I know you are an intelligent person, so I am going to discuss things with you in professional terms. I'd like us to work on self-esteem issues. Unfortunately, our culture doesn't always do a very good job at making young women feel positively about themselves and their achievements and their futures. There are books about it, I can loan them to you if you'd like to read them. I'm offering to do this because, as I said, I know you are intelligent enough to understand them. And I'm sure you understand why your parents are so worried about you. They feel that Ron is not the sort of person who will help you reach your full potential. That even if he cares about you, even if he has the best intentions, you would be making choices that you'll "
"I beg your pardon?"
Jessie had been staring at the totally uninteresting carpet. Nubby beige. The whole office was designed to give you nothing you could really look at. "That's not why they don't like him."
A small silence while the woman rearranged her voice to be especially patient, neutral, and flat, a voice like a beige carpet. "Why not, then?"
"They're afraid people will see the two of us together, me and him, and I won't look like anyone they'd want to be their daughter, I'll look like I belong with him."
She drifted back to Pat and Jerry when they reached the checkout. Pat couldn't find Camel hard packs and didn't want to settle for soft and wouldn't quit going on about it. Jerry was puffing out his cheeks and poking his tongue around like he had food stuck between his teeth, a serious expression on his face. They were idiots, she didn't care what happened to them. But what if this was her punishment, that they would be her parents now? R.B. would disappear forever and leave her with these horrible braying fools making her follow them around.
Then she saw her father sitting on a bench at the front of the store. Even as she knew this was impossible, even as she recognized that it was just another thick-faced old man wearing a cowboy hat, something her father would never do, Jessie couldn't work free of the shock of it. The way the man in the cowboy hat kept his mouth set so nothing could get in or out of it unless he gave permission. He was alone on the bench, no one anywhere near him. He had a fierce expression, meant to let people know he preferred it this way and nobody had to feel sorry for him, nor would he acknowledge that he was old now, that he was slack and puffy and angry about everything and he was wearing a ridiculous hat that someone must have put on his head without his noticing, just to make a fool of him, Oh Daddy.
"Want some gum?"
Jerry was holding out the pack to her. He already had a big wad of the stuff working; hot sugary breath wafted from him. For a moment she couldn't remember where she was or who she was supposed to be. "No thanks."
"You sure? Double your pleasure."
She shook her head. Pat was still in the checkout line, yanking the cart around and pawing through the fifty-seven grocery bags, looking for something. Jessie couldn't decide which one of them was worse to be stuck talking to. When she looked over at the bench where the man in the cowboy hat had been, he was gone.
"This your spring break?" Jerry asked her. "Fun in the sun?"
"No, it's just . . . a trip. I'm not in school anymore."
"I went to UAB for a year," Jerry offered. "But I was a dummy."
"Ha ha," said Jessie, politely.
"You're a quiet type, aren't you. Still waters."
"I guess." It was as good an excuse as any not to talk to him. He kept working the gum around, showing all the wet mechanics of his tongue and teeth. Why were there always things you didn't want to see?
"Bali Ha'i. That's the name of my boat. Like from the movie. What's its name. You know the one I mean?"
She stared out the windows, willing R.B. to appear.
"South Pacific. That's it. Bali Ha'i is this beautiful beautiful island, people go there to get the hell away from it all. Isn't that a great name for a boat?"
He seemed to want her to answer. She figured he was one of those guys who needed somebody saying yes or uh-huh to him every two seconds. The underside of his tongue had a pulpy look. "Yeah, it's great."
"Because a boat's sort of like an island. Once you get in the middle of nowhere. Nobody watching you. Total privacy."
It was harder not to hear than not to see, because you couldn't close your ears. See hear taste smell touch. You ought to be able to shut them down when you didn't need them.
The car pulled up and R.B. honked the horn. Jessie wound up in the back seat, squished in with Pat and the groceries. She could tell R.B. had cleaned the car some, thrown out the worst of the junk. Like it wasn't still the same old wreck. Was he trying to impress them, fool them? Steve and Kathy, that nice young couple from Ohio, whose old but clean car didn't have Ohio plates although there was an explanation for that. In the front seat Jerry was telling R.B. about Bali Ha'i. There was a song too, which Jerry tried to sing in his bellowing voice, "Bali Hi-iy may call you," until Pat told him he just sucked. Jessie caught R.B.'s eye in the rearview mirror and he winked.
She decided she would just go along with things but not really be there in any feeling sense. Maybe you couldn't help seeing and hearing and all the rest, but you didn't have to think about it. She would be an island, all to herself. They parked in the harbor lot and walked past rows and rows of boats until they came to the Bali Ha'i. Jessie thought it was kind of small, though she didn't say so. It had a cabin over the wheelhouse, and some padded benches around the edges of the deck, and a ladder leading down to whatever else there was. Right away Jerry made a big deal about filling the beer cooler and getting a pitcher of margaritas started, even before he and R.B. went to look at the engine. These guys were total alcoholics.
"Come on, we'll get the groceries squared away," Pat said to her. Jessie lowered herself step by step down the ladder. Even tied up like this, the boat had a wobble to it. The kitchen was just a corner space that was instantly too small with both of them standing in it. "Home away from home," Pat said breezily. Behind them a door was half open on a room almost entirely filled with a double bed. It was rumpled and unmade. Jessie turned away from it, not wanting to see where they slept and did things to each other.
Pat handed her a plastic bowl. "There's crackers or pretzels or something you can put in here. I should get that grill started. So what do you think of Jerry?"
"Oh, he's " She stopped. Did she have to think anything about him? "What do you mean?"
"I think we can get by with paper plates, don't you? Oh, nothing. Just asking. How about a shrimp?" Pat balanced the platter and stabbed at it with a plastic toothpick in the shape of a sword. The shrimp looked like a skinned knuckle.
"We just have to get you into more of a partying mood. How about a drink? Well, suit yourself."
Then her and her big hair went back up the ladder. Jessie found the pretzels and put them in the bowl. Her stomach rocked back and forth with the boat's motion. She thought she would just stay down there until someone made her do something else. She was supposed to say she liked Jerry, the same way she was supposed to like shrimp and margaritas. Was this part of her new life? Was she going crazy, or was it just that crazy things were happening? She kept trying not to look at that bedroom, that half-open door and the wreckage of the sheets.
She must have spaced out, floated away, stopped feeling things right there as she stood. Here was R.B., his hands and arms all oiled and grimed from the engine, saying, "Babe? What are you doing?"
"You're not getting weird on me, are you? We got no time for that shit."
"No, I'm just . . . Where did they go?"
"Who, Popeye and Olive Oyl? No place. They're up there burning the ass off those steaks. Come on, we're gonna go for a little cruise."
"I thought the boat didn't work." She kept talking so as to smooth over the muffled panic in her head. She was imagining the vastness of the world, skies and oceans and the shapes of the continents as seen from space, and herself, very small, down in a hole on this boat in a place she'd never been before.
"It works fine now. What are you worried about?"
She shook her head. Nothing.
R.B. put his mouth right up against her ear so she couldn't not hear him. "You think I can't handle these guys? You think I can't take care of you? How'd we get all this way here? You remember all I done for you? Oh yes, it was for you. Anything you're too scared to do for yourself, here I am to do it for you. Now can you be sweet for me like you promised? Can you put a smile on your face and come up and eat these people's food? I want to hear you say it."
"Like you mean it."
"Yes. I can."
"What's my name?"
He gave her a nudge and she started up the ladder ahead of him. By the time she came up the stairs she was smiling, she had his arm wrapped around her waist, dirt and all, so it appeared as if they'd been down there carrying on and were just a little bashful about it. Pat and Jerry looked drunker. Funny how that was the first thing you noticed about someone. Jerry's mouth was sloppy with barbecue sauce he hadn't wiped away. Pat's hair seemed lopsided. Whatever held that stack of stiff curls on top of her head had tilted. "Lookit the lovebirds," Jerry said. He swatted Pat on her bony rear. "Were you ever that young and cute?"
"I was but you weren't. Fix yourself a plate." Her hand with its silver dagger nails and fistful of rings indicated the food spread out on the benches and deck chairs, a mess of wrappings and opened jars. One of the steaks was still on the grill. It was dry and gnarled. Jessie filled a plate with other stuff instead. It was easy to smile and tell them how nice everything was because she wasn't really inside herself anymore. She'd crawled out and left only the shell behind. It was cooler now, the sun was down and a breeze ruffled the water. R.B. was in the wheelhouse. He must have figured out how the boat worked. Jerry kept calling him Skipper.
Then the boat was moving. The engine vibrated. The dock slipped away from them. "Hey Skipper, slow down for Christ's sake." It took a while to get out past the other boats. Behind them, a V-shaped trail of water churned up white. She was no longer on land but on the enormous, greedy ocean. The shore was outlined in lights. It kept getting smaller and smaller and the ocean darker until there was just a line of light marking the edge of the world and if you took that away you could turn the earth end over end and wind up nowhere.
The boat's engine stopped. There was a light in the wheelhouse where R.B. and Jerry stood. Pat was sitting next to her now, saying was she tired, did she want to take a little nap downstairs? Jessie said she was just fine. "Oh come on," said Pat. "I want to show you something. Jerry needs you to help him with something downstairs."
"No," she said. That bed and those disordered sheets were the insides of everything, the last place she wanted to be. Pat lit a cigarette. She snapped her lighter shut and took little mad puffs. Then she went away. Jerry was standing in front of her now, saying, "What'sa matter, huh? What'sa matter with the party girl?"
R.B. was gone. Pat was gone. She'd spaced out again, missed something. There was only Jerry. He was too close to her. He was blocking the light and she could smell him more than see him. He held out a drink. "Here you go. Jump in."
She took the glass but didn't drink. Although she had not moved, her skin began a slow, shrinking retreat. "Where's R.B.?"
"Around somewhere. He's a nut, you know? Regular hell on wheels."
"Why're you so sad? You always sad like this?"
"I'm not sad."
"Or scared. Don't be scared. This is Bali Ha'i."
He kissed her. It wasn't like she would have expected. His mouth tasted sweet, from the barbecue sauce.
Somebody screamed but it wasn't her. Jerry staggered and his weight and heat landed on top of her. The boat caught a wave and the deck heaved up. Jerry tried to get himself on his feet. ". . . the fucking . . ."
Pat's head appeared in the hatch of the staircase except there was something wrong, her hair was gone, the tower of curls. Her hair underneath was short and slick, wet-looking, and her nose was bleeding. She opened her mouth and you could see blood there too, dark and glossy, and then before she could scream again, something pulled her back under.
Jerry cursed and struggled to get himself upright. Finally he was gone and she closed her eyes and ears and lay face down on the bench, seeing hearing feeling nothing nothing nothing
"You don't have to do nothing, just get me in the house. Get me in, then stand aside or go on back to the car. This is no chickening out, you know it's the right thing to do because they're never gonna let us be together, never gonna let up on you, you'll never be good enough for them and their big-shot life. Don't you trust me?"
Because there was no chickening out, she unlocked the door from the garage and led him in through the kitchen with its ticking clock and the refrigerator that even in the darkness was busy with its humming work. The house slept, the shadows breathed. At the foot of the stairs she stopped and let him go ahead. She couldn't go any farther. She saw R.B.'s face turn back to her as he climbed the first step, couldn't read its expression, just its paleness, although she thought he raised his eyebrows, a question. She nodded her head, yes. But she didn't want to watch him climb those stairs. She fled the house and its shadows and went back to the car to wait. How could she see without eyes, hear without ears, but she did, as R.B. approached that dim room at the top of the stairs where her parents slept, their shapes curving toward and away from each other, the sheets like veils breathing in and out. R.B. aimed the gun and made the sheets jump and scream and bleed. After a little while he came back out to the car and said that was it, everything was over.
The boat was moving again. Or else the ocean itself was moving and carrying the boat along with it. R.B. was calling her. She raised her head and the shoreline was close enough to tell one light from another.
"Come on over here," he said. He was in the wheelhouse. "I need you to watch and tell me if you see another boat coming. You can do that, right? Am I asking you to do something hard?" R.B. cut the engine and swung down the ladder and stayed out of sight for a long time.
She had left her old life behind her and this new one was like the ocean. It took you places without your knowing. When they got back to the dock R.B. said, "If you see anybody, don't look at them." He was wearing a leather jacket she hadn't seen before, and carrying a duffel bag. She wondered if Pat's hair was in it.
They got in the car and drove. R.B. said they weren't going back to the motel, in case somebody saw them. They drove and drove. Jessie felt sleepy. She curled up in the front seat with her head resting on the leather coat.
"Didn't you like them?"
He wouldn't answer right away. Then he said, "I don't think of it that way. I just think, they're somebody who isn't you or me."
The car was a boat, the night was the ocean. She would fall asleep in one place and wake up in another. The only thing that stayed the same was R.B., the only one she would know by sight or skin or anything else was him.
Copyright © 2007 by Jean Thompson