It's six am, and our RV pulls into the marina parking lot a little fast. My step-dad thinks of himself as a professional road tripper and he's rented this monster for the entire month. As we are tooling around Oregon right now, he sits high on the driver's seat, a trucker, a man with a handle, a long hauler.
I hide in the back from the insanity. I'm already in my baiting suit and to my thirteen-year-old mind, it's gotta be 80 degrees in here. The back of the RV has a huge wrap around bed with bunk beds above it; there's a curtain I can pull across, and I'm sprawled across one of the sticky cushions wondering what forced march we are going on today.
While this is by far the coolest trip we've taken as our new family, I am still sure that there is no way to win the aggressive power game that our family plays again today. We all troop resignedly down the stairs and into the general store, wearing hope-with-holes-in-it that today will be better. The general store is built out onto the dock, and this feels suddenly familiar.
When I was very young, until I was six or seven, my family lived on a big boat every summer, all summer long. As soon as we'd tie up, I'd hop onto the dock and run barefoot along the berths, yelling into every boat, "Hey, do you have any kids? Do you have any kids?"
I learned early on that the sooner you find the kids, the longer you have to play with them. I guess I've always been a leaver, searching hard for big connection, cracking open and soaking up whatever love I could get my fingers on when I could get it, milking every minute for whatever adventure there was to be had.
The docks always smelled of gasoline and diesel fuel, There were always splinters in my feet and the feeling of heat radiating off my sunburned shoulders. At some point I'd stopped wearing a shirt, because I had a page boy haircut and everyone thought I was a boy anyway. I didn't care. This way, I had less clothes to keep track of, and I never had to play with teacups inside. I could be with the boys, climbing and cutting my knees, where I belonged.
On my dad's Harley in 1974
Eventually, one morning, the kids I'd been playing with would be gone, they never knew their travel schedule, and I never thought to ask. We'd played hard enough together all the long hours of a summer day until I loved them true, and then, they were gone. I'm sure I did the same thing, getting back to the boat and tucking into my bunk only to feel the engine rumbling in the middle of the night, come up on deck and see the inky ocean slipping by beneath us, and know we'd gone, and I hadn't said goodbye.
In those early days, I could walk over to the helm and climb up next to the mythic figure of my father, solid, thick and giving. I was his peanut, his bug. I fit into the crook of his arm, and the salt of the night air whispered against my face, the rhythm of the boat and the surety of his love turning my face toward whatever adventure was coming next, letting go easily of what had come before.
At the helm of La Donn'Anita with my Dad and Leslie Yarbrough 1974
In this, my thirteenth year, things are different. My dad is not my world anymore; he's disappeared. While as an adult I would come to understand that for my mother, it was a good thing to make a strong choice. She divorced an alcoholic, but to me the sound of the ice cubes and the smell of the Bourbon on the stern of our boat named after my mother, the lady Anita, was soothing.
But today, walking off the gravel path and onto the dock, I am home. Water. The sound of the clips pinging against the masts. The smell of the diesel fuel, the heat of the oily wood, the sun splitting off the water and bouncing onto the trees.
I don't know where my sister is, or my step brother. I see my step father laughing too loud and being too familiar with the woman who runs the store, and my own mother over at the coolers.
In the meantime, I've met a girl-- tiny, thin, like a drinking straw with hair. She is towheaded and pink-cheeked and she takes my hand after saying hello, and we bang out the back door and down the gas dock to the end, where she jumps straight into the early morning water.
I'm shocked, and worried, but this is her place. These are her parents, this is her world, but she is so small, is she doing something wrong? Am I going to get in trouble for not watching her? Thank God she can swim.
I jumped off a dock once when I was four because I thought I could swim... It had been a hot day and the grownups were drinking in the sun on a floating dock in the middle of a big flat water; the house was floating too, it seems. There was a sleek cigarette boat floating by the dock, and the water beneath was clear and clean. My bored sixteen year old sister was sunning herself with her friend, and I decided I wanted to swim.
And so I did. I walked right off the edge of the dock and fell happily into the water, where I must have held my breath, and sank like a stone. In my mind's eye, I see lake weed and a bent Coca Cola can on the sandy bottom, I am surprised at the murky water, I remember reaching my hand out and suddenly having the breath squeezed out of me as I was rudely yanked back out of the blissful depths and hauled onto the deck.
They tell me my sister saved my life that day, because my mother couldn't swim and everyone else was enjoying an 11:30 am cocktail hour. Hey, it was the early '70s and it was summer.
My reverie is interrupted by the sound of a ski boat, and I'm pulled back into my fourteen year old present. I look up and fall in love. Immediately. He must be fifteen. He has blond hair, he is silky tan, and he's driving this huge boat up to the gas dock.
"Hey, Oliver," says my drinking-straw friend. This, I deduce after a few minutes, is the lucky girl's brother. I am completely confused about my enormous need to be near him, to hear him speak, to watch him gas the boat, to help him coil lines, to fill the bait buckets with him, to see his teeth when he laughs.
The girl, Penny, coils herself around me lovingly and announces to Oliver that I am her best friend. Oliver nods to me. At fifteen, he is old enough to know that I'll be gone tomorrow.
A series of remarkable moments unfurl in rapid succession, which find me happily ensconced an hour later in a speed boat with Penny in my lap and Oliver at the helm, headed over to an island in the middle of the river somewhere, where there is a cooler full of beer and some hot dogs.
Swimming in Canada on the RV trip 1984
Oliver smiles at me, now that I am in the boat, I am one of them, a wild child. He's not old enough yet for the game we play to be complicated. Complicated like it will be next year when it will be enough to be easy for him and heart breaking for whatever girl is in my chair. I'm willing to believe the lie that he loves me, just by virtue of the fact that I am sitting next to him and he is happy, and he is willing to love spending the day with me, without wondering what he can get out of it.
My parents, for some reason, agreed to this. It happened fast, they walked out onto the dock with Penny's parents and saw us playing. They spoke quietly for a few minutes. Then, my mother called down the dock, "Honey, do you want to stay and play?"
Caught deep in Oliver's thick blond hair, brown where the sun didn't touch it, and his eyes, a color I'd yet to experience-- deep turquoise, green, blue and the promise of even five more minutes with him on the dock, I yelled back, "Yeah..." without even looking away.
I didn't know what he had to do that day. I didn't care. If I was stuck playing with Penny on the dock for the rest of the day it would be worth it to stand near him, wanting and trembling for nothing more than his open smile for a few more moments.
I looked back and saw the RV pulling away. I didn't know when they were coming back, they hadn't said goodbye, and I didn't care. If they didn't tell me when to be picked up, maybe I could live here forever, smelling the soggy dock of my childhood and longing for Oliver's desire to be with me, too.
Finally, after the longest, warmest, best day of my life, the sun is going down and my shoulders are an angry red, pinker than Oliver's brick-red, summer-long tan, but I fantasize that our sunburns are the same color. That my day standing on one leg, the other bent casually on the captain's chair as I looked with a long seaman's gaze over the bow of the ship, steering with what I imagined was expert technique and the touch of a person born to live on the water had inducted me into this waterlogged tribe.
We had picked up some of Oliver's friends, older than he was, and all of us had met some other boys on the island for a cookout. Now it was mayhem, it was Lord of the Flies, it is unbelievable what these kids are allowed to do.
Later in the trip, lounging in Oregon 1984
I lay in the sand, my legs browner than my shoulders, the cooling sand touching the backs of my banged up legs below my cut-offs. Oliver sits across from me and lately, his eyes have left mine less and less.
As the day progresses, I begin to realize it is important that I pretend not to care if he is near me or not. I adopt a most care-free attitude, like this is not the most important day of my life, like this is not the freest I've felt since those nights by my father's side at the helm of our boat, like knowing I was enough for him, enough for Penny, knowing I am a welcome addition. Knowing we both know the day is ending is making me want to savor every second like the most precious chocolate on my tongue.
Eventually, it is time. We climb back into the boat in the sinking sunlight and ride silently back to my doom, back to reality, out of this bliss. Ending a day that feels so free and wild and good to me usually means ending in punishment.
There is no way to live a day full and free like this one and walk away unscathed. There must be a catch. I had to be hours late, I had to have broken some rule or other-- aside from the beer, although I'd only had one.
The beer had been more about popping the top and the hiss and the coldness against my thighs and the boy tossing me one out of the cooler than about the drinking of it. Like I was his, like I had been there forever, and he knew what I wanted, and liked being able to give it to me.
Suddenly here is the store, projecting out of the marina, marking the spot where the fantasy would end and real life would collide with it. Here is Oliver, reluctantly tying up the boat. Penny climbs over the side and runs down the dock. It had been a brilliant day for her and I'd enjoyed her company, not shirking my duty entirely, while still soaking in all of the life that Oliver radiated, humming.
We walk together and he reaches for me. With the thumb of one hand. My life stops, my breath catches ragged in my throat, he is touching me. The boards of the dock fall away as we continue to move, even though he is touching me. And not because he is handing me something, but because he has reached for me. It is real. I hadn't imagined it.
Easing my loss by working with the horses for the afternoon in Oregon 1984.
His hand falls away and it occurrs to me too late that I should have told him with my body that I wanted that, that I needed that, that now that it was done, if I could just stand in that spot and replay that moment with aching thrill over and over again, I'd grow old and die on the spot.
We walk next to each other, I feel like I must be eighteen or twenty at least. Suddenly, it is over.We had lived an entire love affair in that one touch, an entire unlikely day in the making.
This boy, who drove up in a boat at the moment he did, my parents choosing this marina randomly, Penny making her appearance and pulling me to the dock, my parents leaving... this seemingly random chance meeting of someone who vibrated me to my core. How could I leave? How could it be done? How could it be over?
If something felt like this, shouldn't the world stop and make it possible to feel it again? Shouldn't we have a meeting to figure out how I could live here, work on the dock, learn a new trade and devour this moment over and over again?
We get to the end of the dock and Oliver sits down across from me. He is going to wait. He doesn't want it to end either and now that the end is so close, there is no consequence to admitting it. We stare openly and longingly at each other. Safe in doing so because we both know there is no cure.
Penny comes outside and plays under the table, waiting with us. They are late. They are never late. An hour at least we sit there, unable to do anything about this growing, insane aching want inside, because his parents are inside, his sister is under the table, and my parents will pull up any minute. We are captive of their whim, we are children, we cannot say no, I don't want to go. I choose to stay.
In any minute of the next sixty, my world might end. And so we sit in breathless understanding that were we older, were we alone, his thumb would brush my chin, his fingers would go into my hair, his palms would trace my burning shoulders, I would wear his sweatshirt as the light faded and he would kiss me.
My toes squirm under him, his under me, we sit on each others feet, as intimate as we can be and look casual to the rest of the world. Feeling all the want that is present, and holding it, wondering how long it can be sustained. I pull his love off of his feet, I sit there and feel it radiate into me, all this unspoken desire that I can hear as clearly as if he is speaking words.
"I wish you didn't have to go," he says, finally. His eyes are up, open and bold when he says it. He does not look away.
Only that. The most beautiful sentence I've ever heard. I wish you didn't have to go. Confirmation. I am not alone in my longing, I am a worthy playmate, he wishes, just like I do, that there were more. He wonders what would happen if I were the one who ferried the people to their boats while he worked the gas dock.
At just that moment, as I am opening my mouth to tell him I would stay if I could, the RV pulls up. Reality is here. I stand up, Oliver's toe prints on the back of my left thigh, and my heart breaking into a hundred pieces. No one has felt with the ferocity that I feel before or since, I am sure of that.
Oliver stands up abruptly and says, "See ya!" and walks away, as I mount the steps to the RV. Wait, what? Don't go so easily, love it into the nano-second. Why had he been able to walk away?
I knew inside what he'd known when we met-- that I was a leaver. He was already turning his face to tomorrow. And it wasn't worth it to wish, because tomorrow someone else would come and sit on that island wearing his over-sized sweatshirt.
I walk into the RV, hating my parents for picking me up rather than loving them for dropping me off, and I walk, sullen, to the back, pull the curtain shut and watch my heart break in my chest for the first time ever.
I feel it acutely, waves of enormous, wrenching pain, desire and anger, loss and a huge empty hole, I am howling inside at the injustice; I am watching the miles slip away behind the wheels, watching the shadows of the pines cross the road and I know I'll never ever see him again. My love.
And it wasn't that we were soul mates. It wasn't that it was perfect. It was that it held possibility like I'd never experienced and I felt robbed at the loss of the opportunity to have another adventure with him tomorrow and see what it felt like, to the merry detriment of whatever had been planned.
My mother comes back to see what is going on with me. I can only imagine now what the conversation must have been like when I walked into the RV, after having had the best day of my life, and looking like I wanted to commit suicide, unwilling to talk to anyone other than to mumble "You're LATE," with all the force of venom I could muster.
I can't stop myself, my mother is my heart, and here she stands, and I am breaking in a way I did not know was possible. I had no idea this was the consequence of love, and I look at her, lost.
"Oh, honey, what's the matter?" she asks, eying the pages and pages of writing scattered all over the bed in the back of the RV. I'd been spilling my guts, trying to get it all out to ease the pain and make myself understood. If only he could read it, he would know I didn't want to take him or own him or keep him, I just wanted to stand next to him and feel this thing, whatever it was, grow like a tsunami in me.
I look at her. "I loved him, mom." I sob, for the first time in my interminable fourteen years. Understanding breaks over her face, and I flinch, waiting. Puppy love, silliness.
She gathers me in her arms and hugs me true, and whispers into my hair, somehow understanding that this was real and deep and honest, "Oh, baby. I'm so sorry. I didn't know." And she let it be true, and she let my heart break as it should from a love so large.
Eventually, Oliver faded from my memory, but even now, my body still wants the water and those magic words, "I wish you didn't have to go."