The house was her mother’s dream: wood floors, a thick banister, and railing leading to the second floor, a porch wrapping around and overlooking the grey water of the North Channel. Her mother’s dream of drinking her morning coffee watching the boats float by, or sipping her evening bottle of wine to the sound of lapping waves, embedded in the grain of the wood, in the dust of the plaster. It was her mother’s dream that yanked her from her school, her friends, from comfort and community, to here, here where nothing but the water comforted her.
“Lindsay! Go! Bike into town and make friends.” Her mother said, leaving for work. Her mother’s false enthusiasm a film across her teeth, bright red high spots on her cheeks; it was painful to watch.
There was something almost endearing about her mother’s naiveté as if walking up to a group of strangers her age and introducing herself would solve all of her problems. They would adopt her as some long hoped-for friend, the perfect missing piece and become one of those gangs that got together every year after graduation until they died. Lindsay sat on the porch rail instead, looked across the lawn to her mother’s car disappearing down the dirt road, and the dark water beyond. The dream house was on an island in a Great Lake. A big enough island that most places one could forget the moat surrounding, but not at the dream house. At the dream house, you could see water from all but three windows.
At dinner, Lindsay looks over her father’s left shoulder, past the floral curtains, and counts the waves breaking against the stony shore. Lake Huron is mysterious; grey, cloudy, concealing its depths. She shovels food into her mouth without tasting it. It’s better this way, her mother is a poor cook, to begin with, and a new obsession with health food has emerged that Lindsay can’t help but notice coincides with an increased softness beneath her own chin, and a roll above the waist of her jeans. She is happy to solve the problem herself with over sized t-shirts and boxer shorts stolen from her father’s drawer. Her mother says things like “I’m worried about your health,” but only in the presence of skinnier girls wearing more feminine clothes.
Her father doesn’t speak. He too crams food into his face, the ball game calling his name from the other room. Her mother looks from father to daughter and sighs. She takes a bite and puts her fork down. Lindsay can almost hear her counting her chews. Swallowing, her mom rests her forearms on the table, leans forward and asks:
“Where do you go on these nightly walks of yours? Maybe I should go too. I could use the exercise.”
Lindsay’s mother does not need the exercise. She is a skinny bitch.
“Down to the dock.”
“That’s it? You’re gone for hours! You could walk there in five minutes!”
“You’re not swimming are you?”
Her mother’s mouth opens a number of times, but no further sound comes out. Lindsay resumes eating but can’t help the smirk that tugs at her upper lip. Her plate clean, she turns to her mother whose brows furrow as she pushes rubber chicken around her plate.
“May I be excused?”
“I don’t want you in the water.”
“I’m a good swimmer.”
And she was. Unlike the popular girls, Lindsay was strong for fifteen. “Sturdy,” her father said. “Fat,” said the mean boys at school. Years of swimming lessons and an affinity for water made the lake feel like home.
“This is not a discussion,” her mother said.
Lindsay put her plate in the sink. Hands in her pockets she walked down the drive, gravel crunching beneath her sneakers. It was cold for August, the fall coming early even for Northern Ontario. She turned right at the bottom of the driveway and then left three minutes later into the municipal property parking area. The old dock tipped wildly to the right. To walk to the end was dizzying, but the dock jutted so deeply into the channel that separated her island from a neighboring land mass that Lindsay felt she could walk on water.
At the end, she lay flat on her back. Slivers from the weathered wood poked through the fabric of her sweater. She closed her eyes. Waves lapped at the side of the dock, deck boards creaking as the water slurped and splashed. Here, she could forget. Here, swallowed by the roll and the rumble of the waves she wiped her mind clean and started over.
She felt the deep rumble in her belly first, then the electricity in her skin. The change in the water and the air as the boat neared was tangible; she could almost hold in her hand. She stood, anxious to catch the first glimpse.
Before moving to the island, she’d only seen freighters from a great distance while crossing the bridge into Michigan from the Sault. They were unimpressive from that height, tiny men milling around like ants, toy boats in a bathtub. Now she saw a dozen freighters a day, sliding their way up the channel to the Sault locks and Lake Superior beyond. Standing on the dock, she was close enough to see the facial expressions of the crew, to call to them and hear their laughter.
It wasn’t the men that intrigued her, but the boats themselves. Their hulls, some shiny black, some brightly colored and marked with rust, called to her like the skin of an animal wanting to be stroked. She stood at the end of that long, grey dock and her fingers itched. Tonight it was a shiny black one, turning the corner and humming up the channel. The waves lapped harder and began to crash over the side of the dock, wetting her feet.
The urge was insatiable.
One deep breath and she was in the water. Kicking off her shoes, vaguely aware that the depth assured she’d never see them again. Her strong arms stroked, pulling her deeper into the channel. Wide palms and thick wrists shot out and paddled the water past her face. Her father said her hands were like his mother’s, perfect for a farm wife.
The vibration in the air was amplified in the water. The black around her carbonated; tiny bubbles clung to the hair on her arms. The pressure in the water squeezed her chest, her lungs were trying to expand to make room for air but failing. Breathless, she ignored the pain and swam into the middle of the channel. Vigilant, she awaited the approaching mountain with the anticipation of a groom watching his bride walk the aisle. Treading water as it shook and roiled around her, her heart beat fast. The water breaking against the hull as it loomed above her roared and deafened.
The boat, so close, she could see the rings of rust around the rivets, she swam toward, hypnotized. Her arm reaching, the sucking began at her toes. Her wrinkled fingers met the black, surprisingly rough side of the ship, and the texture bit her tender skin as it flew past. The vacuum slid up her leg and pulled her under.
She watched the cola colored bubbles rise as she was pulled by the current through the black water. Her mother was right to worry. Lindsay let the undertow pull her further from the surface. Maybe now, maybe in allowing her mother to say “I told her so” Lindsay had gained her elusive approval. She closed her eyes and wondered if any of the sparkle would be rubbed off the dream house.
She awoke on the beach with a mouth full of grit. Her lower legs and hands were numb. Night had fallen, disorienting her, but the light from the channel markers showed that she was on the wrong side. Lights from the dream house shone across the water. She lay back in the wet sand, and hot tears of disappointment burned her cheeks.
The rumble of another boat interrupted her pity party. Her mother would be waiting. She watched the approaching ship’s lights until the appropriate time. She stood on legs like wooden stumps, pushed her soaking hair out of her eyes and waded out into the water.