The last straw: I was at a bank in midtown, getting cash for a lunch meeting with an editor who always left his wallet in his desk. A guy in bike shorts was hogging the only working ATM. He must have been refinancing his mortgage. I waited like a mensch.
My transaction took all of thirty seconds. On my way out, I held the door open for a woman trawling her purse for her card. As she brushed past me, we locked eyes. She snorted. I can’t tell you how I knew the words she muttered under her oniony breath were meant for me. Live here long enough and you just know these things. The words were “Western convention.”
I stared at her back as the door swung shut. She was wearing a black pinstripe suit, ugly but clean. Her hair was disordered, but it wasn’t the matted, feral crown you see on the homeless or the cat ladies of Brooklyn. In other words, she was crazy, but she wasn’t a clinical case. She was one of New York’s millions of functional crazies. Presumably, that morning she’d left an apartment with a bed and a shower. She’d worked all day, maybe had lunch with a colleague, maybe played brick-breaker on her Berry. She had a bank account, it seemed.
And yet some chemical imbalance had prompted her to meet my gallant gesture not with everyday rudeness—that wouldn’t have made a dent in me—but with a sociological critique, a dismissal that implied my politeness was hopelessly bourgeois, an act of imperialist aggression even. A Western convention.
Only—and I mean, only—in New York.
That was it, the moment I knew I had to get out. I’d lived in the city for twenty years, ever since I graduated from college, but that fleeting encounter was my limit. No more.
No more arms reaching into the subway car in the hope the doors will bounce back open, turning every rush hour commute into a “Night of the Living Dead” outtake. No more double wide strollers clogging the sidewalk, making it impossible to walk at the proper, business-like clip. No more granny carts full of empty cans nipping at my heels, forcing me past business-like into a degrading hotfoot. No more Jamaican women screaming at me to renounce my sins on a weekday afternoon. No more pale Hasids squinting at me in the fading light of a Friday evening, sizing up my features to decide if it’s worth asking me if I’m Jewish.
No more planning a night at the movies like it’s the invasion of Normandy because the cool theater in the Village sells out days in advance, while the one with no lines has sticky seats. No more grocery shopping that requires two hours and three stops because the bodega on the corner doesn’t stock low fat yogurt but the toilet paper at the organic market reminds you of the bark it came from. No more two-hundred-dollar tasting menus that the fucking bloggers have already pronounced passé by the time they’ve passed through your system. No more Trump in 2012 and Team Coco T-shirts. No more, enough!
I knew if I didn’t get out right away, I’d become one of them, the functional crazies, the one-in-ten who have gotten so used to the nonstop barrage, the lack of any boundary between the personal and the public, that they’ve given up on quaint Western conventions like decency, self-control, shame. Would I be the next Son of Sam? No. But I could see myself turning into the middle-aged man at the movies who, on being told the show he wants to see is sold out—of course it’s sold out, you tool, it’s twenty minutes before showtime on opening weekend!—folds his arms, smirks, and says he’s sure there must be some extra tickets back there somewhere, holding up the line while the teenager behind the glass pretends to check. Or worse, the gent in the tracksuit who yelps, “heavens to murgatroid” in a Hanna-Barbera alto every time a pretty woman passes his stoop. Could you let that happen to you? I couldn’t.
Lucky for me, nothing was stopping me from pulling up stakes. A freelance magazine writer, my work was portable. Divorced without kids, I’d gotten sick of dating a year or two earlier. Half my friends were “nesting,” a polite term for the renunciation of all topics of conversation besides preschools and 401(k)s. The rest were still chasing glory, nodding along at record release parties, boozing in Bushwick till two in the morning, reliving high school on Facebook. Both factions looked at me blankly when I asked if they ever thought about leaving the city. To them, it must have seemed like I was already gone.
The only question was where to move. And even that was no stumbling block. I knew just the place.
I’d been to Lopez Island the summer before on assignment for Saveur. I was doing a piece on wines of the Pacific Northwest and had heard good things about this small but charming vineyard out in Puget Sound. Normally, I would’ve done a little Googling, requested some PR materials, and left it at that. But it was August, the sweet smell of garbage juice was wafting on what passed for a breeze, and the neighbors were fighting like they did every summer when Jerry’s daughter from his first marriage came to stay. So I decided to check it out for myself.
What I found was rolling farmland, winding fir-lined roads, a town as neat and inviting as an illustration in a children’s book—and all of it surrounded by slate-colored ocean teaming with otters, seals, orcas. Every car had a kayak strapped to its roof, and every driver lifted a hand from the wheel to wave as I passed. The wine was no more than decent, to be honest; but in the intervening year, the place had become an island in my mind, a promise when life was grueling, a promise it was now time to fulfill.
I found a house to rent without much effort. It was fall, and most of the part-time residents cleared out before the rain came to stay. I brought two suitcases of clothes, some books, some CDs, my laptop, and my coffee maker, which I found only after years of combing through foreign catalogs (the milk foaming attachment was a dream). The rest—unopened swag bags from countless press events, boxes full of the novel I abandoned in my twenties, some paintings my wife made but didn’t like enough to take with her—I left it all in storage. I could’ve given most of it to the Salvation Army, but that seemed too dramatic somehow. Enough of New York and its drama.
I knew exactly what I wanted to do my first day on the island. Waving at those drivers the year before, I’d been eaten up by jealousy: I coveted their kayaks, their clean living. Of course, there were rentals and guided tours; but at the time, I couldn’t bear to sacrifice my brand new suede Pumas. Now, after months of gum-studded sidewalks and swill-skinned gutters, the Pumas were wrecked, and I was ready.
Arcadia Kayaks was a mom-and-pop outfit, except mom and pop were ruddy blondes in their twenties, Lopez natives. Kelly ran the office out of the town’s old water tower. Sean led the tours. I showed up on a Tuesday, so no need for a reservation. It was just me and a retired couple from Seattle. Sean and I would share a kayak.
“Don’t worry,” Sean said as he stepped into what looked like a poncho with a wet suit inside. “This is going to be a light paddle. But if you’ve got the gear you might as well use it, right?”
He had to correct my stroke a few times before I stopped shoveling water back at his head like a convict on a chain gang. Once I gave up thrashing, I noticed how cold I was. And once I got over how cold I was, I looked around and saw what I’d been missing for so long. There were mountains bedecked in mist. An oil tanker, too—but that was all right. We were beyond politics. The howls of “Drill, baby, drill!” couldn’t reach us here. Even the bald eagle resting on a cliff top seemed unruffled by the sad state of our nation. It was just too far away to matter.
“Growing up, did you realize what you had here?” I asked Sean over my shoulder.
“Yeah, I was always on the water,” he said. “In high school, all my friends wanted to do was run to Seattle, go to shows, get loaded. I did it, too. But I knew I was never going to leave.”
I noticed we were drifting away from the shoreline. I paddled harder, to little effect.
“We’re in a pocket of current,” Sean said, correcting our course without seeming to move. “It’ll carry us to the next calm spot.”
“How did you know you’d never leave?” I said.
“Kelly’s family’s from Portland,” he said. “She moved here when we were seventeen. Once we hooked up, that kind of decided things.”
A plane whirred overhead, heightening the quiet somehow.
“That’s Steve with the mail,” he said.
“Do you ever feel like you’re missing anything?”
Sean watched the mail plane bank away and disappear behind the tree line.
“You’re a big city guy,” he said after a while. “You tell me what I’m missing.”
Had I offended him? I couldn’t detect any sarcasm. No, I decided, he was really asking me, curious about what my homeland—my former homeland—had to offer. That’s the way people are here, I told myself. Get used to not decoding subtext all the time, not questioning motives, playing defense. I thought about his question, determined to give an earnest answer.
“New York has everything, every kind of person. You hear a lot about diversity, but it’s the only place in America I’ve ever been that’s really diverse. Lots of towns have their black neighborhoods, their Latin neighborhoods, their Chinese neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, poor neighborhoods. But in New York, everyone rides the train together in the morning. You’re living with people, not near them. You learn a lot. About other people and yourself, your prejudices, your fears, your desires.”
“Sounds exciting,” Steve said.
“It’s exhausting,” I said. “I mean, at a certain point, you feel like you’ve learned all the lessons, you know? New York keeps you sharp, but how sharp does a person need to be?”
“I’ve met all kinds of people in Seattle,” said the man in the other kayak. They’d drifted close enough to overhear.
I was about to say something conciliatory about Seattle’s Asian community, but then the wife cried out.
“Look,” she said, pointing with her oar, nearly decapitating her husband.
At first, all I saw was a curtain of spume. But then, there it was: the serrated fin, the white saddle patch, the sleek sable back. An orca, so close we could reach it in five minutes if we put our shoulders into it. We didn’t, though. We just bobbed there, staring. As it slipped beneath the surface, the man from Seattle broke the silence.
“Now that’s what I call diversity.”
By the time I got home and changed, it was dinner time, and I was in the mood to rub elbows with the locals. Part of my goal in leaving New York had been to get away from people, but now I realized the specific people I needed to get away from were New Yorkers. No one here was going to tell me about their movie deal, then ask with a smirk, “So what are you working on these days?” No one was going to say they ran into that sleek PR flack from the Whitney, what a shame I couldn’t make it last with her, she was the best since, well….
Years of these exchanges had calloused me. But one day out on the water and I was already a changed man, eager to meet my new neighbors, talk about the weather, ask them who made the best coffee on the island, start fitting in.
It was blacker than an orca’s back on the road into town. I missed the turn-off and had to make a uey, praying—like all those who find religion behind the wheel—no one would come streaking around the bend while I was straddling both lanes.
The parking lot in the town square had three cars in it. No one was strolling by the waterfront. The lights were on in both restaurants, though. I was drawn to Tammy’s Café. Something about the hand-painted driftwood sign made me think Tammy herself would be behind the stove with flour in her hair.
My hand was on the doorknob when I noticed the “Closed” sign, also hand-painted. I checked my watch. Eight thirty. I peered through the glass under cupped hands. A couple of customers, at least. Worth a try, I thought and stepped inside.
Tammy’s had yellow walls and bits of calico here and there. The tables and chairs were mismatched. The waitress, hipless and toothy, smiled at me but didn’t say anything.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hi,” she said back.
“Um….” I glanced at the empty tables behind her and cranked up the wattage on my smile.
A boy of no more than sixteen stepped out of the open kitchen, wiping his hands on a rag. He was tall and floppy as if his skeleton wasn’t fully formed yet. His skin was mealy, his hair shiny with cooking grease.
“Kitchen’s closed,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “Do you normally close so early? Because it’s only eight thirty….”
“You see the sign?” the boy said.
I shook my head. “Didn’t notice it.”
The waitress looked at the boy.
“Well…” she said.
“He saw the sign,” the boy said.
I looked at the waitress, then around the room. The other customers, to their credit, seemed to be neither staring nor deliberately not staring at the scene in front of them. No sign of a maternal, flour-dusted Tammy. I felt a flicker in my chest, the fight-or-flight instinct kicking in.
“Am I being accused of something?” I said.
The boy shrugged.
I turned to the waitress, showed her my hands. “I just want something to eat,” I said.
She tilted her head and her smile shrunk to a wince. “Sorry,” she said.
I glared at the boy, but he was already slinking back into the kitchen. By the time I crossed the street, the lights were out in the other restaurant. That night, I dined on the trail mix I found at the back of the cabinet in my new home.
By the next morning, I was over it. I was also starving. I nosed my car out into a cool, white fog. Apparently, it would be no easier finding my way to town in the light of day. I turned, then turned again. The farmland on either side of me looked unfamiliar behind the gauze of damp. I stopped in the road to get my bearings. Outside my window, I detected something shifting behind the low, wood fence. From out of the field rose a mass, a shaggy brown hulk. Its legs were almost too short and spindly to support it as it lurched towards the fence. This was no cow, I knew that much. But what then? A bull? A yak?
The sheer bloat of it was absurd and sad but grand, too, somehow, mysterious in a way the orca, poster child of the sea, could never be. I rolled down my window and listened for a long moment to the heaving of its breath, cowed by all I didn’t know about this place.
The coffee at the bakery was as worthy of contemplation as pinot noir. And the little sausages wrapped in puff pastry were fucking delicious. Next door, the barbershop was already open. A small bronze plaque caught my eye: “Hank Lester, Proprietor and Mayor.”
It occurred to me I hadn’t had a real shave in years.
Hank Lester was in his sixties, I guessed, bald with neat round specs but fit, pink-skinned. He could be Sean’s dad. Even at that early hour, he already had another customer: tall and paunchy, his beard gray, his eyes grayer.
I was greeted and told to have a seat. There were tourist brochures and regional magazines on the glass table in the corner, but I wanted to strike up a conversation.
“You do shaves?” I said.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m not comfortable holding a razor to people’s throats.”
“Why do you keep running for mayor then?” the customer asked.
Mayor Hank chuckled and winked at me.
“Only politician on the island,” he said.
“Are you a politician if you don’t have to run against anybody?” I asked.
He pointed his scissors at me.
“You’re sharp,” he said. “Visiting?”
Actually, I told him, I’d just moved from New York. He did a double take, astonished that anyone would do something so outlandish.
“Didn’t I say he was sharp?” Mayor Hank asked. The customer dipped his head, but too slightly for me to tell if he was nodding or shrugging. He was watching the scissors in the mirror.
“So what do you think?” he asked me.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I love it. I’m seeing things I’ve never seen before in my life.” I tried to describe my animal encounter in the fog earlier that morning.
“What you saw was a wildebeest,” Mayor Hank said.
“Wildecow,” the customer corrected him.
“Wildecow. Sam Funk breeds them on his farm.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Why not?” the Mayor said.
“People can do their own thing here,” the customer said. “For the most part.”
“You’ve probably noticed we’re a pretty easy-going community,” the Mayor said.
“Everyone’s been great,” I said. “Except this kid at Tammy’s Café last night. Bad attitude.”
Mayor Hank rolled his eyes.
“We’ve got teens in most of the service jobs,” he said. “It’s too expensive for a waiter or a stock clerk to live here on his own. Most of them are good kids, but it gets boring for them. Not a lot to do. We built them a skate ramp last year, so that’s helped.”
“Half a million dollars,” the customer said.
“We put it to a vote.”
“Hey, whatever keeps the chamber of commerce happy….”
“Here we go.”
“The ramp’s supposed to keep the kids out of the parking lot, so they won’t scare the tourists,” the customer told me. “A half million we could’ve spent on windmills, solar panels….”
“Jack here’s the chair of the Lopez Green Party,” the Mayor said.
A hippie! I should’ve known. Mayor Hank had probably snipped off his ponytail right before I arrived. Jack offered me his hand. It was cool and soft as a sea creature.
“We meet at my place every Thursday,” he said. “You should drop by.”
“Thanks, but I’m burnt out on politics,” I said.
He raised a woolly eyebrow. “A big city guy like you?”
“In New York, everyone gets so worked up rooting for their team,” I said. “I just want to live my life in peace.”
“Well,” Mayor Hank said, anointing Jack’s neck in talc, “you came to the right place.”
“Let me at least get you our literature before the next meeting,” Jack said as he stood up to leave.
“What if I don’t see you?” I said, hoping he couldn’t hear the wishful thinking.
He clapped me on the shoulder. “This is Lopez,” he said. “I’ll find you.”
I got a quick trim in lieu of the shave and chatted with the Mayor some more about politics but mostly about the Seattle Sonics, who’d been hijacked a few years ago by Republican businessmen, moved to Oklahoma City, and renamed, preposterously, the Thunder. Back in New York, my gut churned in time with the news cycle, just like everyone else I knew. And yet, since arriving on Lopez, I’d hardly thought about polls, pundits, or Palins. Could it really be that easy?
There were more people in the square now, and though it was drizzling, none of them carried umbrellas or even bothered to cover their heads. Kelly from Arcadia Kayaks was slouching on the bench outside the bakery. I smiled, and she smiled back.
“Jack chew your ear off?” she said.
My smile turned to a grin. “I don’t mind. I like talking to people here.”
Kelly stuck her tongue out sideways. “Give it time.”
“That’s the plan,” I said.
“So it’s true? You just picked up and moved?”
“You must get that a lot around here.”
“Not really. Island life is kind of lonely for most people.”
Like a sly kid, I dug my hands in my pockets and shrugged.
“I bet there’s a lot of people missing you right now,” she said.
I thought about it for a moment. How many did I even tell I was leaving? Twenty? Thirty? They all had the same reaction, more or less. Some predicted I’d never survive without Papaya King. Others thought I was on some kind of back-to-the-land trip and suggested I check out their uncle’s collective farm in the Catskills. But no one lay down in front of the taxi to stop me, no candlelight vigils on my front stoop. Some asked if there was going to be a farewell party, but no one offered to throw me one. Was that normal? I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t say I was surprised. Or hurt. I was just relieved to get out without complications, guilt trips.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t take a poll when I left.”
“All right,” she said. “You keep playing it cool.”
“Sorry,” I said. “You can take the boy out of New York, but you can’t New York out of the boy.”
“But you’re going to try, right?”
The rain was asserting itself now. A droplet hung from the end of her nose, like she was a specimen of the local flora. I had an urge to catch it on my fingertips, paint it on my tongue.
“Yeah, I’m going to try,” I said.
She laughed once and shook her head, disturbing the droplet, which fell just below her clavicle and was absorbed by her fleece.
“Don’t try too hard,” she said as she got up and walked away.
It rained nonstop for the next three days. You knew it would be this way, I reminded myself. And, really, it wasn’t so bad, more spitting than pouring. When I went into town to get my groceries, I walked to and from the car without an umbrella like a local. The rest of the time, I kept to myself, thankful for the excuse to avoid hippie Jack and his literature. I futzed with some pitch ideas, but they just slipped through my grasp, unwilling to take the shape—short, snappy, sure of itself—editors expect. What about the wildecow? There had to be a story in Sam Funk and his wildecow.
By the time the clouds thinned out, I was boring myself stupid, my thoughts a dull scrape against the blackboard of my mind. I was already nostalgic for my first day on the island, when everything was so fresh and promising. I had to get back on the water, remind myself why I’d come here in the first place.
I wanted to see Kelly again, too. Maybe I just wasn’t used to the local friendliness, but it felt like something had passed between us the other day. At most, it was a dead-end flirtation with a woman half my age, and spoken for, at that. Still, it was a start, a sign of life.
She was looking paler than when I’d seen her last, an effect of the weather, I assumed. Even the most outdoorsy islanders had to give up their hearty glow once summer receded. It took a moment before her eyes widened in recognition of me smiling at her from the other side of her desk. She’d been staring into space and now that space was occupied.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” she said back.
“I was wondering if Sean was taking people out this afternoon.”
“Sean left,” she said.
“Damn,” I said. “I knew I should’ve come earlier. Is there an evening trip?”
Kelly shook her head slowly. Her eyes were wet. “He left Lopez,” she said, her voice shaking. “He left me.”
“He said he felt trapped here. He said he needs to see the world.”
My thoughts went from a scrape to a screech. I swallowed, felt my throat clench.
“I told him I’d go with him if that’s what he wanted. But he said there’s all kinds of people out there, how could we even know we’re right for each other.”
She sobbed, wiping her nose with the sleeve of her hoodie.
“He said he needs to live with people, not near people. Why can’t he do that here? What does that even mean?”
“Kelly, I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s not your fault,” she said. So Sean must not have told her what brought on his epiphany. I felt relieved, then guilty for feeling relieved.
“He’ll go to Seattle,” I said, “blow off some steam. He’ll be back by the end of the week. You’ll see.”
“Maybe he’s right,” she said. “Maybe we’re just hiding from life.”
“No,” I said.
“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
“Me? I…” I started to answer, but I had no idea what I was trying to say.
“I’m sorry,” Kelly said, the tears welling up again. “That was so rude. I’m never rude like that.”
“It’s fine,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” she said. “Listen, I’d take you out myself, but I have to watch the shop. I could rent you a kayak, all the gear, give you a map of the routes we take. But only if you’re sure you can do it. It’d make me sick if you had an accident.”
I thought about last time, my first time, the sudden pocket of current that yanked us away from the shore. Now Sean had gotten carried away on a different kind of current. Could I handle the ocean’s tricks and mood swings without him?
“Maybe next time,” I said. “When Sean gets back.”
Kelly smiled weakly. “You’re a nice guy,” she said.
Then why did I feel like a low-life?
“Motherfucker!” I screamed when I saw my car. The words, “Go home, asshole!” had been scratched in block letters into the black paint under the driver’s side window.
I spun around, searching the square for the culprit. Everyone eyed me like I was the criminal, my outburst the prelude to violence. I was about to march into the barber shop and get Mayor Hank on the case—I hadn’t seen a cop, I realized, since I’d arrived on the island—when Jack the hippie sidled up to me, shaking his head.
“That’s terrible,” he said. “Ignorant is what it is.”
It struck me that Jack was not above vandalizing my car if it gave him an excuse to talk.
“I know a guy on San Juan who can fix that up for you good as new,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said, ashamed of my own paranoia. What the hell was wrong with me? I’d undertaken a radical change in lifestyle with the express goal of protecting my sanity, but now I appeared to be losing it anyway.
“Maybe this isn’t the best time,” he said, signaling me closer with his eyebrows, “but I’ve got an idea for you.”
“A protest,” he said. He folded his arms across his chest and leaned back as if giving his vision space to manifest.
“What do you want to protest?” I asked.
He made a sweep of the square with his arm, taking it all in. “The war, the thieves on Wall Street, the lack of progressive leadership on Lopez. If we get enough people, we could circle the whole island in kayaks, stop the ferries from docking.”
“To wake people up! Start a conversation! You know that big oil tanker right over there?” He pointed at the horizon.
“A bunch of us could sneak on board, run up a green flag.”
I am going crazy, I realized, my vein pushing against my temple. This man is making me crazy. “Got to go, Jack,” I told him.
“What’s your hurry?” he called after me.
“Sundown,” I said, jerking a thumb up at the sky. “I’m going for a paddle.”
My car didn’t have a roof rack, so Kelly offered to swap with me for the evening. No doubt about it, the girl was something. Sean was a fool. Who knows, I thought, as I tore down the back roads on my way to the launch point. Maybe if I got the hang of the kayak, I could start leading tours. No more editors, no more contrived pitches, empty words. Just me and the open sea. And Kelly, too, if she could look past the age difference. Hey, if Sean didn’t want his life, maybe I could take it off his hands for him.
Everyone seemed to be heading home for the evening. As each car passed, I raised my hand from the wheel, returning my neighbors’ greetings, proud to be one of them. The simple decency of the gesture was a balm for my troubled mind. I’d been right to come here after all.
The launch point was a sandy spit of land at the north end of the island, not much wider than the car. As I unloaded the kayak and gear, I noticed a skateboard poking out from the scrub. I listened for the rattle of empty beer cans tossed on the rocks, the squeal of animals being tortured, but all I could hear was the placid caws of the gulls and my own shallow breathing. Back to business. I wrestled with Sean’s wet suit for a few frustrating minutes, then decided I could do without it. I slipped the tarp-like outer apron over my clothes, wiggled into the kayak, and tucked the elastic hem of the apron around the edges of the cockpit, sealing myself inside. It took me a moment to realize I’d left the oar leaning against the car and would have to go through the whole process again. That’s okay, I told myself. This is how you learn.
I pushed off with the tip of the oar and paddled out a few yards from shore. So far, so good. I consulted the waterproof map, tested the foot pedals that controlled the rudder, and set off at a measured pace, rotating the oar in time with my breathing, letting the quiet seep into me.
My arms started to ache, but I found I enjoyed the sensation. I could feel myself paddling deeper and deeper into the state of peace that had eluded me my whole adult life. This will always be here for you, I told myself, as I watched the pale sun pool like melting butter into the purple water. From now on.
I had stopped thinking altogether when the whole kayak shuddered and groaned. From the way my spine shook and the boat spun, I figured I’d hit a submerged rock. But then I caught sight of the other kayak. I’d been rammed from behind.
“Sorry, daydreaming,” I said, though I guessed the rules were the same as driving: the one coming from behind is always at fault for the accident.
I paddled faster, but before I could put any distance between us, the other kayak rammed me again. I dropped my oar in the water. The kayak tipped as I reached to scoop it up; my elbow came up drenched. I had a sinking feeling that what was happening was not an accident. I twisted around to glare at my attacker.
The kid from Tammy’s Café stared back at me with almost autistic concentration.
“What the fuck?” I tried to push him away with my oar. The boy chopped at the oar with his own, kicking a splash up between us.
“What’re you doing?” I said, blinking the salt out of my eyes.
“Go home, asshole!” he screamed at me, his voice a pubescent melisma of shrill and guttural notes.
“You keyed my car, you little shit!” I said.
“You got me fired!” he spit back.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, you fucking psycho!”
“You’re a liar! Mayor Hank came and talked to Tammy.”
Uh-oh. If there was one thing Mayor Hank couldn’t abide in his town it was local businesses being rude to visitors.
“You saw that sign! I know you saw it!”
This can’t be happening, I thought. Just apologize to the kid, tell him you’ll talk to Hank and Tammy, forget about the car. But before I could say anything, he had wedged his oar under my kayak and was pushing down on it with all the weight he could throw behind his scrawny shoulders, trying to lever me into the drink. He’s going to drown me, I thought, and in a flash—animal, mechanical—I’d smacked him in the chest with the flat of my oar.
I looked back once to make sure he wasn’t badly hurt, then paddled like a maniac, like I had that first day with Sean, hurling water behind me. I didn’t have a game plan. The last splotches of daylight were fading from the sky. My map, I realized, was gone, floating in my wake somewhere. Coal-colored clouds were knitting themselves together into a mass that promised more rain. And behind me, the chop of the boy’s oar was growing louder.
“I told people where I was going,” I called out to him. “If you kill me, they’ll know.”
“Oh my god!” he said. “It’s just water. You’re not going to die.”
Could it be I was freaking out over a harmless prank? For all I knew, island boys flipped each other’s kayaks all the time. But I was no island boy. That much had been made clear. Truth be told, I was no kind of boy at all. Well, I thought, if you have to be a grown-up, might as well take advantage.
“Kid,” I said, “you’re in so much trouble.”
I heard my pursuer stop, so I stopped, too, and maneuvered myself around to face him. Teary and pink with rage, he grunted and flung his oar into the water between us.
“I hate this place!” The boy was still screaming. But I could tell he wasn’t screaming at me anymore. Progress.
“So,” I said, “you’re going to run to New York, too?”
I might as well have called him a fag, judging by the face he made.
“Fuck no,” he said. “I’m going to San Juan.”
“San Juan? Isn’t that the next island over?”
“No,” he sneered. “It’s three over.”
I’ve never been a laugh-out-loud kind of guy, but now I couldn’t help myself.
The boy folded his arms. “What?”
I waved him off until I could speak again.
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s just, you know, that’s quite a statement.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “The bars there don’t card.”
Well, we all have our reasons. I paddled close enough to hand him back his oar.
“Listen,” I said. “You were right. I saw the sign.”
“No shit,” he said.
We sat in silence, watching our breath cloud the air.
“I wasn’t trying to kill you,” he said after a while.
“How long have you been kayaking?” I said.
“Kelly’s going to need some help with the tours,” I said. “I can talk to her for you if you need a job.”
Finally, it was official: I’d gone crazy. How else to explain this vision of domestic bliss I’d conjured: me, psycho boy, and another man’s wife, floating into the sunset in a kayak built for three?
Before he could answer, our attention was drawn to a change in the current just a few strokes ahead of us. At first, I thought it was an eddy. I kicked at my foot pedals, hoping I could steer around it. But as the water whitened and frothed, I understood that we were in the presence of something, that our little flailing drama was disturbing its evening.
I looked at the boy in the dimming light, and he looked back at me. Together, we waited to see what would emerge from the depths.
Daniel Browne’s fiction has previously appeared in Slice and Gulf Stream magazines and will be featured this fall in Stymie. He has also written about culture and the arts for The Believer, Mojo, and an upcoming issue of The Oxford American, among others. He lives in Brooklyn.