Jenn Stroud Rossmann
My dad was laughing too loud again. This time it was the guy at the Water Sports kiosk, who was taking his time with the boat rental paperwork. The guy wasn’t even making jokes, he was just telling Dad where the break was, and to watch out for swimmers. “Gonna need life vests,” the guy said, angling his chin toward Catie and me, and Dad chortled like a maniac.
Dad laughed like this all day here, like he wanted us to notice how well he got along with black people, as if the reason he and mom had exactly zero black friends back home was that the black people in New York didn’t get him the way these laid-back St. Lucians did.
Dad’s laughter also said: we are having fun, Joanie. My mom was irritated with the island. Impatient with restaurant service that might generously have been called “unhurried.” We’d visited a beach where you could ride horses in the surf, which the concierge called one of their Top Excursions, and instead of joining in for sidesaddle photo ops, Mom got huffy at the pile of dung in the sand. When my dad asked what she wanted to do the next day, she said, “Oh, let’s go back to Horseshit Beach, dear.” So my dad just kept grinning.
At Rodney Bay, you could rent chairs and an umbrella, and you could hire a local to tow your whole family up and down the break strapped into an inner tube. But this was only one option on the Water Sports menu.
As far as I knew, Dad’s sailing experience was meager, but when the guy offered instructions he nodded and murmured “of course,” and “that’s right.” For a moment I wondered whether in some previous incarnation – before marriage and kids, before becoming a Senior VP at Chase, before getting laid off when everything went south – Dad piloted catamarans off the Cape. I could picture him bronzed, wind-blown, Kennedyesque at the helm. There was a possibility, still more remote, that my mom had been there too, stylish and beatific.
The guy belted us into our life vests, and Catie bristled because she was 16 and bristling was kind of her thing, especially when being treated as a child. Her Hello Kitty swimsuit, she had told me, was ironic. Explaining such nuances to her little sister was, also, wearying.
The Water Sports guy asked Dad if he was okay, and Dad bellowed, “All good, my friend,” before wading out to our boat. I splashed after him, but Catie and Mom hung back. Maybe not so ready to buy into Dad’s Hyannis past.
But he was brilliant. He sailed us straight across the bay. To our left, in the distance, lay the beach. Scattered towels and rented chairs. To our right: the teal blue Caribbean. My dad sliced through water and wind. He stood, so natural that he hardly seemed to be doing anything at all.
Fifty feet off, a family screamed as their inner tube was bounced across the waves. Not for us such undisciplined shrieks. We were elegance and glamour. We were the rightful heirs to a dynasty of legend, we were spun of gold.
This glow bathed us, forgave us our trespasses committed on Manhattan time. Catie was no longer the girl who snarled and sneered, no longer the girl who snuck out, lying about her age to get a forbidden tattoo; now she gleamed with goodness and hope. Even in the life vest. As for me, I was emphatically not the 13-year-old whose teachers had called home to complain, “Elise daydreams; Elise is unfocused. Elise is not working up to her potential.” (There was no allowing for the possibility that my earlier scholastic heights – that detailed report on JFK, say – had been overachievements, and that my current lackluster performance merely water finding its own level; I wanted to go back and tell the younger me to dial it down a notch, lower expectations so I could dazzle ‘em later.) Anyway, on the boat now I was pure laser focus: eyes on the horizon where the blue sea met blue sky. My mother smiled at the view, at the lushness of life, at the billowed white sail, at Dad.
Truly I hadn’t expected my dad to know port from starboard. Yet here we were. We had sailed easily to the edge of the cove, and were floating near a reef. The clear water was dotted with snorkels. Even from the boat, I could see the shallowest fish flitting in and out of coral formations.
So profound was the golden gleam of my dad’s triumph that my mom did not take this opportunity to reiterate that the snorkeling was lackluster on this island.
I spied a snorkeling couple, holding hands as they floated in and out of the reef’s nooks and crannies. I imagined them squeezing each other’s hands when one of them spotted a brightly colored creature. Look, I thought but did not say to my parents. See how they’re doing that, exploring the world together, enjoying their shared wonders? How hard could that possibly be?
The speedboat towing the shrieking tourists sped back toward the marina.
My Dad had brought us here, and here was paradise. He’d proposed the trip, and made his case with brochures and websites. The promises had all been true. I beamed up at him.
He had taught me to read. Together we shared nightly chapters of pioneers and wizards. He’d instructed me on the hailing of cabs, the naming of stars, the factoring of binomials. Was the only person on earth who called me Leesy Lu.
We basked in our glorious moment, extending it. Then Dad turned the boat back toward the busy side of the cove, where the Water Sports kiosk awaited.
But before we’d made much progress, we were pushed back toward the snorkelers. Not just pushed backwards, but turned around, as if the wind had decided No, you’re going that way, and given us a decisive shove.
The snorkels, again. Flitting fish, again. Less miraculous, this second time.
Dad repeated the turnaround. “This is called tacking,” he told us. “Watch out for the boom, Leesy.” Then he started back again.
The boom, I guessed, was the metal rod at the bottom of the sail that swung heavily across the boat to help us change direction. Lower the boom, I thought, a phrase from somewhere, though it didn’t quite make sense because this boom only went back and forth.
Again we barely advanced before the wind had spun us, sent the boom heaving back across the boat and nudged our boat back to the snorkeling reef.
This time Dad let us float there for a moment. A minute stretched like taffy.
The sail flapped uselessly, fluttering without catching the wind.
Dad chuckled. “Just thought you might want another picture, Joanie.”
“I’m good,” Mom said.
Dad swiped at his forehead with the back of his hand. “Let’s give this one more shot,” he said, tacking hard. “Boom,” he yelled, and we ducked like welterweight boxers. We were natural sailors: we had muscle memory for it now.
But this time the boom swung so quickly that the whole catamaran lost its balance, and we flipped into the sea. My dad fell forward with a splash, and Catie and I slipped down the hull with Mom. Sudden saltwater surged into my nose, colder than I would’ve expected.
Mom shouted, “Goddammit,” and thrashed toward the sinking camera case. It dropped fast, and she slapped the water angrily. Her sunglasses had been knocked off in our fall; without them her eyes looked small and squinty.
Catie and I bobbed like corks in our life vests.
“Can we help?” I said. I half-believed he would call out instructions, that I’d learn more sailing lingo, that we’d be heroes together. First mate Leesy reporting for duty.
“Stay,” my mom said. There was no question of disobeying.
She hadn’t always been this brittle. I had memories of Mom singing, lullabies and nonsense songs and even “let’s tie our shoes, my darlings,” – everything was a song, when I was little.
Now she was a human ice cube, crackling in the warm waters of Rodney Bay.
It was partly about my dad’s lost job, I knew. Mom acted like he’d reneged on a promise, like there’d been an understanding that his ambition and his academic pedigree would be a powerful engine for the four of us. Her own job fulfilling enough, but extra, meant for just-in-case and not just-all-there-is. He was the one who’d traveled, stayed at the office late, angled for promotions. He’d let her down; he wasn’t living up to his potential.
Maybe another part of it was that Mom didn’t really want to want the things she wanted. She’d always scorned those movie princesses who waited around to be rescued or yearned prettily for someone else to make their dreams come true. She’d been raised to take care of herself; I’d learned cursive by imitating her signature on checks, arithmetic by helping her balance the books. That it turned out she did hope Dad would take care of us must’ve pissed her off.
Anyway that was my theory. Catie, for her part, suspected an affair.
“Joanie, I’m sorry,” Dad called to Mom now. He was hanging onto one of the boat’s two keels. Keel as in keel over, keel as in even-keeled.
For some reason I thought of Titanic, where Jack’s holding onto that wooden door and shivering in the ocean. You just wanted Rose to scooch over and make room for him, let the buoyant wood buy them both some more time.
As if he were thinking the same thing, my dad sort of clambered onto one keel then, reached for the second keel that was up in the air, and pulled the boat back upright. “There,” he said, not entirely able to hide his surprise that this had worked.
He reached out his hand, and pulled Mom aboard first. Catie and I climbed on. He’d saved us. Sure, we were all drenched, but we’d been wearing swimsuits anyway, and my dad had saved us. Only the camera and Mom’s sunglasses were lost.
“All right,” Dad said. “Let’s give this another shot.”
He made the turn – tacked – more slowly this time, and we stayed upright. “Now we just need the sail to-” he started, but within a minute the wind had once again spun us around, and we were facing the “Goddam snorkelers,” my dad said. “Shit.”
“It’s into the wind now,” my mom said. “All the way out you had the wind at your back.”
Dad sounded like he was measuring his breath with precision. “I know that, Joan,” he said.
“Now you’ve got to use the sail.”
“Would you care to try your hand,” Dad said, not exactly asking.
“Or, you could just wait for the wind to change,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken. She smoothed her wet hair and looked almost serene. “This is a fine spot to hang out in limbo.”
“We’re not in limbo, Joan,” he said.
Catie sniffled loudly.
“Everything’s going to be fine,” Dad said.
For a long moment we all stared at him.
A Jet Ski’s engine whined as it sidled up to us. “Ahoy,” called the man from the Water Sports kiosk. “Lend you a hand, mon?”
“Oh,” Dad said. “I guess—”
“Thank-you so much,” Mom said.
The man said, “We use catamarans because they’re so stable. Don’t see one flip too often.”
“Hear that, Dad?” I said. “He doesn’t see one flip too often.” The wonder in my voice was sincere. What I meant was: no one expected this, no one thought you would fail, not even your pal from the rental kiosk. But my dad was staring at the deck.
“What I’m gonna do, mon, is tow you back.” The guy was looping ropes around the tie-up posts on the keel, and he shouted at us to hold on, and used the Jet Ski to tow us back to the launch site.
It was neither fast, nor glamorous, nor anything approaching Kennedyesque. It was an eternal mortification, long enough for an onboard ice age to take firm hold.
It was decided, in hushed tones when Catie and I were believed to be reading, that we would spend the next day at our own resort. No excursions to either Horseshit Beach or what Mom now called “One-way Bay.”
The resort’s hallmark was an array of outdoor activities, from tennis and golf to parasailing, and a snorkel-diving hybrid they called snuba. Yet after two days of failed adventures, this morning Dad seemed content to choose a set of lounge chairs near the water, raise the flag to request a double espresso, and stare at page 41 of the Economist. Next to him, Mom was similarly cocooned in silence, wrapped in her newly purchased pareo. Actually cocoon was the wrong word, because none of us had hope that she would emerge in any way transformed.
Wordlessly exchanging glances, Catie and I left our parents on the lounge chairs and sat in the sand. For a few long moments we watched the waves and the various water sports, letting our fingers sink into the warm powder.
On the back of Catie’s right shoulder was her new tattoo: a dark blue heart, with the letters RIS in the center, for her dead friend Rachel Isabella Stern.
Six kids from Catie’s school were in the car; only Rachel was killed, though her boyfriend Noah, the driver, had been paralyzed. Sometime in the hours after Rachel Stern’s tragic death, Catie had decided that she and Rachel had been best friends. This announcement came as some surprise to Catie’s apparently-only-second-best friend Tori. As Tori put it, “Rachel Stern’s best friends are all severely injured now, Catie, because they were in the car with her. You and I were at the movies.”
There had been a large funeral service, with speeches full of clichés about roses cut before they could bloom; it was attended mostly by girls who seemed as broken up as my sister Catie, who’d begged me to go with her so she wouldn’t be alone. This was a few months ago, and after the school counselors suspended their group therapy sessions, and once the big banner on which people wrote messages for Rachel’s family had been rolled into a commemorative tube for her parents, things seemed to be back to a kind of normal. The yearbook staff busied themselves preparing a Rachel Stern commemorative page, and everyone else moved on. But Catie had maintained a wardrobe of black T-shirts, and a countenance of pitiful woe, long after the other passengers’ injuries had healed.
“Maybe you should go visit Noah in the hospital,” I suggested with a sister’s surgical cruelty. “I heard he’s got feeling in his left leg now.”
Catie glowered, but didn’t rise to the bait. “She was my best friend,” she wailed to our mother, who did not ask why she’d never met the poor girl, and who only once referred to the late Rachel as “Rebecca” before quickly correcting herself as Catie’s eyes widened in outraged horror.
Our family’s failure to properly empathize with the loss of Rachel Stern was further evidence that Catie was doomed to be misunderstood. She started hanging out with a new group of friends and listening to savage guitars, and then she got the tattoo. My mother wept, how could you do this to yourself, how could you scar yourself this way. Catie smiled, as if she’d expected Mom to say this, and said, “This is a scar on the outside, a scar people will see.”
My dad, for his part, said it wasn’t the tattoo that bothered him, it was the fact that she had lied and broken the law. Mom said, “I suppose you would’ve taken her there yourself, and given your consent.”
On the beach, we used our hands to dig out a large moat, and mounded the sand into soft turrets. Neither of us said aloud, “let’s make a sand castle,” as if we both knew we were too old for such things, and that speaking it would’ve broken the spell.
Older photos of Catie and me show us in coordinating outfits, even our hair styled with matching barrettes. I do not know whose agenda this suited – whether my sister and I thought of ourselves as teammates, wearing a uniform to illustrate our shared purpose, or whether our mother chose these outfits for reasons of either aesthetic sensibility or shopping efficiency – back then she and my dad both worked 80-hour weeks.
Still, the photos pleased me. They suggested a possible future in which Catie and I were once again on the same side.
For the St. Lucian moment, we continued building. We worked for another hour, fortifying the walls and closing the driftwood drawbridge. Our family had lunch at the resort’s beachside restaurant, so as I picked at my shrimp I could watch the waves come up and pull our castle back into the sea.
On the last full vacation day, everyone’s thoughts veered homeward. My mom checked her work email and scowled; my dad finally admitted that the hotel bed was too soft, and his back was killing him; Catie got out the SAT flashcards she was supposed to have been reviewing all week. Real life was waiting for us back in the city, and in our way we were anxious to return. The slower island pace was a kind of quicksand from which we would – we must – extricate ourselves.
I did not hear the conversation in which my dad persuaded Mom to go out to dinner, just the two of them. The resort concierge arranged a sitter, which annoyed Catie. “I’m sixteen,” she said, in a voice that was sanded raw.
“You are sixteen. And last time we trusted you, you snuck out and got a tattoo,” Mom said, fastening her necklace. “End of discussion. The sitter’s name is Jennifer, and she’ll be here at eight.”
“Mom, you look beautiful,” I said.
She gave me a funny look, like she suspected me of trickery but somewhere right under her doubt, powerfully wanted to believe me.
My dad backed me up: “You do, Joan.” He wore a jacket and tie. When my parents stood together in the doorway I wished I could take a picture, out of some impulse to memorialize this last evening in St. Lucia. These last moments before my mom’s tan faded. Before my dad put the tie away and lived again in his college sweats.
But the camera, capsized, had sunk to the bottom of Rodney Bay.
As they were leaving, Mom wrapped me in an embrace that smelled like my memories of her singsong days, mixed with sunscreen. I could almost hear her voice the way it used to call to me. She opened her arms to Catie, too, but Catie said, “Oh, please,” and turned back to her magazine.
Our sitter, Jennifer, was plump, with light brown skin. She wore a formal outfit that looked like church clothes, and she’d brought a large rattan handbag and an umbrella. “Aren’t you girls lovely.”
We watched the first half of a stupid American movie, a sequence of chases, crashes, and wisecracks made even less coherent by randomly inserted commercial breaks.
Jennifer’s hair was braided into cornrows, with beads at the ends that made gentle clacking sounds when she talked or nodded. “I like your hair,” I said.
She touched it and thanked me, warmly.
“Could you braid mine?” I asked.
Her mouth knit itself into a knot. “I could,” she said. “But I don’t have combs or beads with me.” She smoothed her skirt over her knees. “Another time, perhaps.”
Catie sat up straight. “There isn’t another time,” she said. “We’re flying home tomorrow.”
“Well,” Jennifer said gently, “that’s a shame, isn’t it?”
It was worse than a shame, it was a horror. Tragic. It was suddenly clear to both Catie and me, without our having discussed it, that returning home with our hair braided in St. Lucian plaits, St. Lucian beads punctuating our sentences, was imperative. More powerful than postcards, more than seashells still coated with St. Lucian sand, more than the handmade doll whose double-sided skirt flipped from flirty flowers to the national plaid.
“We can pay you,” Catie said, all steely nerve like she must’ve been at that tattoo parlor.
Jennifer protested: no beads, no rubber bands. “We should stay here, at the resort. It was such a nice hotel,” she said. But Catie didn’t let up, and the prospect of the remainder of the TV movie wasn’t exactly enticing. “But your parents,” Jennifer said. “We’ll leave a note,” said Catie. “They’re fine with it.” Soon enough we were following Jennifer out to the bus stop, riding into downtown Gros Islet.
It didn’t feel like any city I’d seen before. Gros Islet had close narrow streets, small and dirty and loud, with chickens pecking around in the dirt next to the road. Every corner seemed to have a tiny bar or roti stand, crowded with skinny black men.
There was a guy slicing coconuts with a machete just like the place we’d stopped on our excursion, only these coconuts were kind of homely looking, the ones that weren’t selected for the stand on the main road. For the tourists.
Men stood around talking, laughing. I’d never seen St. Lucians more relaxed, although they seemed less likely than anyone else I’d met on the island to smile at me and say Hello Pretty Girl What Can I Do For You.
“Elise,” Catie hissed and grabbed my arm, keeping me from stepping in a pile of something dubious.
“Thanks,” I said.
She didn’t let go; her nails dug into my skin.
Catie was scared, I realized; the tattooed girl from New York City who had suffered through the heartbreaking loss of Rachel Stern was not as tough as she wanted the world to think. These noisy, unlit streets unnerved her.
A chicken strutted menacingly past us, and the coconut seller’s machete landed with a thunk.
Jennifer hurried us past another bar and into a tiny drugstore. We waited for a white-haired woman to move aside so we could choose small packs of beads, a pack of small rubber bands, and a comb with a long, pointed handle. The prices were astonishingly low.
The cashier glared at us: at Catie and me, and at Jennifer for having brought us here. Back home, in the city’s dirtiest bodega or the darkest corner of a downtown subway station, I had never felt so unwelcome.
But I couldn’t help smiling back at the cashier.
The smile confused the cashier, who peered more closely. We stared at each other, and I kept beaming like one of those kids on Broadway stages, poised and coached to project to the upper balcony.
Back in the hotel room, we sat in straight-backed chairs watching TV while Jennifer braided our hair.
It was more painful than I’d expected. She had to pull our hair tight, strand by small strand, and my eyes began to water. I blinked hard. Catie’s hair was already done and I couldn’t let her be stronger or braver than I was.
Jennifer sang softly, under her breath, a song I didn’t recognize.
One afternoon last spring, a couple weeks after Dad lost his job, I had been walking home with my friends after school. They were all talking about some movie that I hadn’t seen yet, so I was sort of half-nodding to conceal my ignorance, mostly tuning them out. We were on a street that was mostly Korean barbecue restaurants, and the air smelled like roast meat and sesame. In between the restaurants was a tiny, throwback arcade, with anemic-looking guys hunched over ancient consoles.
At one of them, I saw a guy I was 80 percent sure was my dad. Maybe 85. Inside the saddest, loneliest place I’d ever seen.
I shifted so my friends – gesticulating wildly as they acted out a key scene from the movie – would block the view. Didn’t give another thought to the forest green hoodie the guy was wearing, just the same shade as Dad’s college sweatshirt. And at dinner, when my mother asked us all about our days, I didn’t raise my eyebrows when Dad said he’d been pounding the pavement, passing out resumes, and had a promising lead at Citi. He was our golden captain, and if he’d spent the afternoon at the arcade blasting away it was to keep us safe from alien invaders. I would never stop believing.
We were brushing our teeth in our nightshirts when our parents returned, flushed with sun and rum. They held hands and my mom was smiling. But when my mother saw our hair her mouth fell open. After a long moment she said, “Well, I see that you’ve been busy,” and she paid the sitter extra, as my dad laughed a loud goodnight.
Dad sagged against the door after Jennifer left. He looked back at us again and sighed.
Mom went to wash off her makeup, and the lock on the bathroom door clicked.
My dad just shook his head.
Until that moment I hadn’t appreciated what a tremendous distance yawned between what Mom and Dad had hoped for, and what they’d got. But watching my dad take us in, two girls who’d spent all evening getting cheap plastic beads knotted into their sunbleached hair, while he’d been coaxing our mom back to a precarious joy, I saw his disappointment.
“Leesy Lu,” he said, “what have you done.”
I knew then that it might take two months, or six, but in less than a year it would be the end of our personal Camelot. My mom would talk to us about marriage and evolving priorities, and the challenge of growing apart, but I would remember the wounded way Dad looked at me in that hotel room on our last family vacation. He couldn’t fix it, or he was too exhausted to try.
Catie would leave for college in the fall. I would take the subway to see my dad in his new place, a dormlike hive of divorcees and recent graduates: his mattress on the floor, with a milk crate for a nightstand. He would try to cook, and fail, and order takeout. We would become regulars at the coffee shop downstairs; we would sit and talk in a booth in the corner, and oh how we would laugh.
Jenn Stroud Rossmann is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. Her stories have appeared recently in Hobart, Cheap Pop, Literary Orphans, Jellyfish Review, and failbetter.com, and have garnered four Pushcart nominations. Her novel “The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh” was published in fall 2018 by 7.13 Books. She writes the essay series “An engineer reads a novel” for Public Books.