Pete wanted to celebrate my return from Costa Rica with our ritual Sunday breakfast at The Broken Yoke. My best friend, Jodi, joined us.
From high-backed booths, the three of us chatted idly about how I got to the Central American country, how Pete had helped coax me to go after all those years, had even found a map that partially identified the isolated beach for which I was looking. Found the volunteer organization that took me downriver on their boat.
Pete held up a bubbling mimosa. “To empty urns and a full heart!” He grinned, showing off his chipped front tooth. He wore his favorite t-shirt, the one that read, “Ask me to call.” Swore up and down it was a bird shirt, but all of his guy friends wanted one like it to wear to the bars and he hadn’t been to an Audubon outing since his mother was in town last Christmas.
“Parents’ Ashes Finally Departed,” Jo added, her brown curls bobbing. I had met Jodi in high school, the all-girls academy I attended after my parents’ death. There, nobody knew my name, knew enough to feel sorry for me or pin me in the hallway to ask how I was doing for the ninth time that day. After graduation, Jo and I jumped in my red coupe, blared Guns-n-Roses and drove till we hit the Mexican border. We’d lived in San Diego ever since, me away from the haunts of my dead parents, and she, away from her stepfather’s temper.
I raised my glass halfway. Felt the corners of my mouth, but not the corners of my eyes, feign a smile. Not even one of Jo’s silly headlines could pull me from my funk. The dream of Donna and Summer, the one that begun the night I scattered my parents’ ashes, had come to me every night since. Each morning, I’d stare at Summer’s picture, try to pinch another memory from that day. And there she was at night, wailing behind a brick wall. The dream both made me sweat under my sheets and determined that Summer, somehow, held the memories I’d for so long suppressed.
I told Pete and Jodi about the bus ride into the sleepy town of Bataan, the burden of carting my parents around to their final destination. About the molasses-heavy heat and the canopy of laced tree limbs. Explained how I got stuck at the foot of the Pacuare river during a rain storm, consoled myself with a box of Oreos, invented a long-term holding place for my parents—the vial necklace—and about the serendipiditious events leading to the scattering of my parents’ ashes
Throughout it all though, I examined the laminate table top, let Pete do the ordering and refilling requests, let Jo provide the commentary and jokes. The eggs tasted like cardboard and I shoved my plate to the middle of the table
“I’m the one who’s dieting,” Jo said, even though Jenny Craig had, this time, already helped her shed six pounds.
Pete hunkered down at table level to look at my downcast face. “Food’s no good?” He reached across to grab my hand, which had been playing with the curl of a napkin. His fingers, always rough, his nails, always dirty. You could depend on Pete for that. The certainty of some things bandaged the doubt of others. “Didn’t sleep well, huh? You’ve got that hanging eyelid thingy.” He wagged his finger in front of his eye.
Pete noticed the little things: the way my eye creased when I hadn’t slept, how my mowed down nails meant I was anxious, how when my eyes darted across the sky, I was trying to connect through the ether to my parents. I appreciated that he saw through my ticks; it meant I didn’t have to explain myself all the time. Sometimes, though, Pete failed to see the big things, like when we first met.
We had met on his boat. Rather, he on his boat, me in my sculling shell. Or Pete in his boat and his boat in my shell.
It was the seventh anniversary of my parents’ death; I had yet to deliver their ashes to Costa Rica, had yet to learn to settle in instead of running—or rowing—away. That morning I crouched into my favorite fiberglass sculling shell and pushed off from the sandy shore of San Diego’s Mission Bay. The summer after my parents died, I had taken up rowing. One of my first coaches told me to think of the stroke as a pulse, and since I couldn’t find one of my own, I dug a steady one out of the water and never stopped.
I’d packed a lunch and water, rations with the idea that I’d row around in the bay for the day, take myself out to dinner accompanied by the memory of my parents, and have drinks with a hint of lime and a squeeze of bitter with Jodi before going home and staring, questioningly, at the two copper urns on my dresser.
I hadn’t planned on being out all day. But I hadn’t planned on pulling myself along the rocks of the South Mission Jetty, hadn’t considered the lull of the set as I feathered the blade over and over, rowing down the peninsula of Point Loma, around the curve and into San Diego Bay. Didn’t blink twice or reapply sunscreen once when I caught the oar in the wake of the Coronado Ferry or in a tangle of seaweed. I knew nothing but the smell of saltwater and the heat of the mid-day August sun on my shoulders.
Only after I’d stopped to eat my tuna sandwich and regarded vacationing families with a tinge of jealousy, drained my water bottle and headed back—it was only then that the dread weighed on me, the idea of rowing back through one bay, out into the open, rough waters, and into another bay, of being faced with the reality of my parents death. My familiar friend, Not possible appeared in white caps whipped up by impending dusk. It was a silly thing I had done, row out of the bay, and I felt sure I’d pay the price.
But before I could curse myself with too much sailor’s slang—Kerboom!—my shell scooted abruptly across the water. I spun around to see the bow of my boat, and instead, found the wood of another vessel.
“Ah shit! You okay?” A guy, youngish, my age-ish, shirtless, copper penny-ish, ran to the front of his sailboat. The angle of the hull allowed the sheets to slacken and what once looked like cooked ravioli deflated into windless sails. The boat angled enough for me to read Boatisattva, San Diego, California.
“Yeah, I’m fine, but my…”
“I know. Jesus. Sorry.”
I pulled my feet out of the footstretcher, let the oars slide until they met the lock. Crawled back, carefully, so as not to capsize my shell, to inspect the damage.
The guy’s boat still bored into mine. “You gotta—” I flicked my hand to indicate get-your-shitty-big-ass-boat-out-of-my-racing-shell. My favorite, now ruined, goddamn racing shell.
“I know,” he said again, as if on rewind. “But I think it’s cracked. You’re gonna need a tow.” He squatted on the wooden deck, held onto a rope with one hand and let the weight of his body hang forward so that he was almost suspended over the sleek line of my boat.
“Yeah, I will.” What I needed was to row my shell back to the boathouse. To pour a tequila sour and shower off the sun and salt of the day. What I needed was for this guy to pay attention to where he was headed. What I needed—and I caught his eyes hanging over mine. Narrow, almond in color and shape. Wincing an apology. A crooked mouth, a chipped tooth.
“How did you not see me?” I asked later as we secured the damaged shell from the stern anchor clip.
“Must have missed you out of the corner of my eyes. Spittin’ pits.” He pointed to an empty Folgers container across the deck where misfired cherry pits lie strewn like dead soldiers. “But you, young lady, you weren’t lookin’ at all. Headed backwards, in fact.”
“Sorry to be the one to tell you that I have the right of way.” Something about his eyes, the stretch of his white shirt across his chest forced a playfulness into my voice. I couldn’t be too mad at the guy. He was too cute. And was that a Boston accent I detected?
We spent the sail back to Mission Bay talking about why rowers face backwards and the love of his life: his ’64 Cheoy Lee Frisco Flyer. Explained the play on words, boating and Buddhism, that constituted her name. “Been around the world,” he said, and he made me lie on my belly on the teak deck and run my finger over the dovetail joints he’d refinished the week before. Told me about his degree in architecture and philosophy and his fear of being a “suit.” Held binoculars to my eyes and explained the entire Order Pelecaniformes; waxed prolific about his favorite pelican-type, the blue-footed booby. Promised to teach me to sail and reglass my shell. Cook me dinner in his restored galley.
Every day since our wreck, he had noticed me, little quirks, droopy eyelid and all.
“I didn’t sleep.” I sipped my cold coffee. My stomach dropped, like when Dad used to drive the car thirty miles an hour going across the huge dip at the end of Hamlin Street. And there they were, those bees in my stomach, sharp pains. Stinging.
I rummaged through my purse. The waitress set down the bill at the same time I laid down the picture.
“Who’s that?” Jo reached out her red lacquered nails.
“You know she didn’t just kill my parents that day, right? She killed her son, my parents, her daughter’s chance at a decent life. It’s her.” I grabbed the photo off the table. Examined the blonde in front of the Fords for the fiftieth time. “It’s Summer.”
“As in, Girl’s Mother Kills Three in Shooting Spree?”
I nodded. “She was there. Saw the whole thing.” She’d remember what happened.
Pete was quiet, still confused. I handed him the photo. “It’s her daughter. Orphan number two.”
“How’d you get this? You didn’t stealth infiltrate, did you?” Jo’s eyes bugged. She loved a good scandal.
I looked up at her to make sure she was joking. “What’s that?” I pointed to an inky greenish blue blotch on her upper arm.
“Surfboard whacked me.” She pulled the sleeve of her shirt down to cover it.
“You surf these days? I left for two weeks and now you surf?” I looked hard at Jo’s brown eyes, scanning for a sign of a lie. She’d grown up with an abusive father and a homing beacon for crappy men. I’d caught her lying on more than one occasion about bad boys—boys who yelled and called her in the middle of the night to make sure she was home like she said she was. She’d rather lie about who she was with and what she was doing than hear me lecture her yet again.
Jo nodded. “Where is she?” She motioned to the picture of Summer.
“Yeah,” Pete agreed. “Where’d you get the picture?”
“In that letter.”
“But I read that letter to you.”
“In the envelope.”
He nodded, mumbled a “Huh” under his breath, took a bite of his cold sausage.
“It’s kinda creepy, don’t you think?” Jo asked. “I mean doesn’t it remind you of that day?”
“That’s kinda the point.” I’d stared at her picture for so long that I could see her at the back of my eyes. I didn’t dare tell them about the bit of retrieved memory. Like if I told someone, what little I’d gleaned would roll out with the morning fog. And I so badly needed more of it.
I’d begun feeling like an addict, the warped Polaroid, my drug. I’d tried everything: putting it back in my pocket, sitting in the water at the bay, sleeping with it. Staring, staring, staring at it. Nothing.
“Do you feel any different about the whole thing?” Jo eyed the food on her plate like she wanted more. I knew she’d eat the whole meal without a second thought if she wasn’t going to step on a scale tomorrow. “I mean, do you feel any better, or worse? Less angry?”
I felt my head shake when she said “less angry.” Is that how I came off—angry? I certainly couldn’t tell her I felt worse. Desperate. That just last night I’d traced Summer’s picture onto another piece of paper. Colored it in with broken crayons.
“Same ‘ole, same ‘ole.” Except I’m totally fucking neurotic trying to piece together the details of that day, I wanted to add.
“So what are you supposed to do with it?” Pete asked, snatching the picture from me, scrutinizing it himself.
I shrugged my shoulders, looked into the belly of the restaurant, as if it might contain some passing omen. But there was just a clatter of dishes and the persistent smell of omelets.