The summer that my father’s boat sank was the first time my sister and I had seen him in nearly four years. It was a used fifteen-foot outboard motor boat with a brand new Johnson 50 engine, mint green with a white stripe. The new engine looked odd mounted on the old boat that sat on a rusty trailer with jury-rigged taillights. The weight of the engine forced the stern down, tipping up the bow, as if the boat were genuflecting to its superior. Our parents had fought about whether my father should have a boat. He couldn’t swim and refused to learn. My mother thought it would be ridiculous for him to own a boat; apparently, his new wife disagreed. We saw the boat for the first time when we arrived at Dad’s house from the airport that summer for a six week visit. It was early evening, and the Massachusetts weather was still hot and muggy. Dad’s yellow Jeep Renegade had no air conditioning, and the hour long ride from Logan airport to his house capped off a rough journey.
We were tired and miserable, and the traveling clothes our mother had so carefully ironed were sweaty and wrinkled. The plane ride from California was bumpy, and Cindy had been nauseous nearly the whole five hours, finally throwing up her lunch in one of those little vomit bags. Back then, children flying alone got a set of gold wings, a cheap metal pin stuck on our jackets by the stewardess. She took us aside as we boarded the plane, a Boeing 707, the safest plane in the air according to my father. Not a single one had ever crashed. We were led to the cockpit to meet the pilot, another perk for lone little soldiers. He stood and gave us a little salute, his shirt very white and pressed sharp, his navy jacket abundant with gold buttons and insignias. He was tall and substantial, and his hand was warm and dry as he shook mine. His hair was silver, a buzz cut, under his captain’s hat. The cockpit was a wonder of buttons and lights and switches, as I imagined the inside of the Apollo spacecraft might be.
It all seemed glamorous and grown up, being inside the plane, the big door shut down tight, the mighty captain at the wheel, cut off from the world, up so high, away from my mother’s eyes. Eyes that sobbed at the departure gate, her voice whispering for us to come back home to her, the edge of desperation I had come to know. I only live for my two girls, she said. Michelle, take care of your sister. The words pressed down on my chest, and I thought of my mother alone in our apartment for six whole weeks. I didn’t really breathe again until takeoff.
We hurtled down the runway, and I wanted to cry as the engines reached their peak thrust, the loud roar and the anticipation overwhelming me, goose pimples on my arms and legs, at the moment the nose of the jet lifted off the ground. I chewed my lip instead, and focused on the clouds whisking by the window. Cindy clutched my hand, and I comforted her as best I could, her blue eyes searching mine for a sign that the noise, the rumbling and shaking of the plane, was normal. This is exactly the way it’s supposed to work, I said. We’re on our way. See, now that we’re going up in the air, it’s getting quieter. Okay, Sissy, she said. She had always called me Sissy, a habit from babyhood when Michelle was hard to say. Now she calls me Sister.
Dad put our suitcases in my stepbrother’s room. It had football wallpaper and matching bedding on the new twin beds, Patriots and Celtics posters, and a little shelf with action figures and his Pee Wee trophy. A perfect little boy’s room. I thought of the stained walls in our rental apartment bedroom, and the chipped white paint on our thrift store bedroom furniture. My mother had tried so hard to make that old wood furniture pretty, but she didn’t know that you had to sand before painting, so the paint had begun to chip off right away. My stepbrother was two when my father married his mother. To us he was a foreigner, an intruder into the life that was supposed to be ours. He and his mother were staying with her parents on the Cape for two weeks, to give us time alone with Dad.
That first night we ate my father’s homemade tortellini in chicken broth for dinner, a special treat to welcome us. Before the divorce, my family had lived in a small apartment on the first floor of my grandparents’ house. My grandmother had died long before I was born, and Grandpa lived alone in the big apartment upstairs. We had gathered to make tortellini countless times in Grandpa’s kitchen. We were Portuguese, not Italian, but my grandfather had learned to make tortellini from the Italian man who owned the little grocery store on the corner. The story goes that my father was the one who had perfected the recipe over the years, learning to roll out the supple dough until it was paper thin, seasoning the savory meat filling with nutmeg and cheese, and setting up the most efficient assembly line on the floured white table cloth. We would bend seriously to our task, cutting, folding, and pinching squares of dough over little mounds of filling, creating an unusual, delicate shape that looked like a sleeping bird. We talked as we worked, or rather the adults talked and I listened while my sister, who was four at the time, played nearby. Although I was only eight then, I could make perfect tortellini. My mother could never get the hang of it though, her Irish hands that could peel ten pounds of potatoes in ten minutes, fumbled and tore the delicate pasta. Never mind, let me do it, my grandfather would say. My mother would leave the circle of light around the kitchen table, and retreat from the conversation to wash dishes, sweep the floor, or simply disappear.
In the next few days we made the rounds and saw all the relatives, aunts, uncles, and cousins upon cousins. We ate the food everyone made in our honor, the Portuguese fried doughnuts and sweet breads, salted cod with boiled potatoes, pork with clams, chicken roasted with a lemon tucked inside. The food was strange and familiar and wonderful all at once, and we were lulled into a peaceful rhythm of visiting, eating, napping, and watching television.
On that first Sunday we called our mother. She was weepy and weak, that fearful edge in her voice, and I pictured her pacing up and down the hallway, across the flattened avocado green shag carpet. I felt like a traitor, comfortable, well fed, and cosseted by the very people who had turned on her. Don’t worry, she’s just high strung, my father would say. It’s not for you to worry about her, she’s a grown up, and this is my time with you. It had been a long time since he had seen one of her fits of rage that ended in a flood of tears and self-retribution. He did not know that her doctors had given her bottles of pills. He did not know my worries, or he had learned how to forget them.
My father planned an excursion for us in the boat. We would take Grandpa out fishing for the mackerel that he loved, just the four of us. The oily fish reminded my grandfather of the old country, of the bounty of fish off the rocky shores of his beloved home island of San Jorge, in the Azores. Most people in the Azores earned their living by fishing, but my grandfather came from a family of cabinet makers, and like my father, could not swim. Superstitious about the water, he and Dad had mocked my mother’s penchant for swimming, her visits to the YWCA, our daily trips to the beach in the summer, the swimming lessons she insisted we take at Long Pond. Her swimming seemed to remind them of her native ties to California, where working class New Englanders generally imagined everyone knew how to swim, in sparkling, frivolous swimming pools, further proof that she did not belong.
Rather than launch the boat from the town harbor, we took it to Saquish Beach, a small private strand on the ocean a few miles north of my father’s house. Saquish was cut off and had no direct road then, accessible only by four-wheel driving over the sand dunes past Duxbury State Beach. A friend of my father’s, Mr. Morgan, had an old beach cabin there. No power, no phones, no plumbing, just candles, an outhouse decorated with fishing nets and buoys, and a battery operated two way radio Mr. Morgan used to check in with his buddies about tides, weather, and fishing hot spots. We had been to Mr. Morgan’s cabin many times when our parents were still together. Mrs. Morgan and my mother would barbeque fish and ears of corn over hot coals in a rusty barrel on the sand, laughing in their plaid bikinis and floppy hats, while the men drank cold bottled beer from the giant cooler in the back of the Jeep, which was a shiny new novelty then, swatting at the giant green horse flies that proliferated among the washed up seaweed. Cindy and I and the Morgan kids would dig clams and bury ourselves in the cool sand, laughing and playing made up games until it got dark, and then Dad would put driftwood on the fire and we would toast marshmallows. Once during that last summer we were together we all slept on the sand in our sleeping bags, Cindy and me tucked between our parents, waking to the seagulls cawing overhead.
We picked up Grandpa on a hot, humid Thursday morning, and drove to Duxbury Beach pulling the boat trailer behind the Jeep. It wasn’t crowded on a weekday, just a few mothers spreading out their blankets, kids screaming and running in circles. We drove past the parking lot, and headed over the dunes towards Saquish, the boat trailer bumping behind us as we bounced and wove through the soft sand. We brought our fishing tackle, a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice for the fish, knives and a wooden cutting board to gut and clean them on the spot, and some sandwiches, cans of soda, and snacks in a paper grocery bag.
Saquish is a smooth, flat beach that arcs out into the ocean to create a small peninsula, a picturesque lighthouse at its tip, a secluded cove within. The tide was low that morning, and Dad backed the trailer straight into the water. He and Grandpa undid the metal buckles holding the straps and slid the boat down into the gently bobbing waves, the new engine gleaming in the sun, their pants wet to the knees. He pulled the Jeep and trailer further up onto dry sand, near the Morgans’ cabin, while Grandpa steadied the boat. The next-door neighbor, Mr. Pereira, stood on his porch with a coffee mug, waving at us. I remembered that he had always smelled like mothballs, and was hard of hearing, but he used to give us lemon drops and knew everything about Saquish Beach and its history. He lived in his cabin full-time in the summer, his son Benny bringing out supplies once a week and staying over most weekends.
The rest of the beach seemed deserted. Dad waved back to Mr. Pereira, who went inside. He jogged down to us, and lifted Cindy and me into the boat, and gave Grandpa a hand in. He started the new engine on the first yank of the cord, and we puttered off. The cove at Saquish is somewhat shallow, with sandbars here and there, and the ride was smooth. Cindy and I peered over the edge into the green blue depths, clear like a swimming pool, the water breaking white and clean over the sides of the boat, the spray cold and bracing under the hot July sky.
We motored out a few hundred yards from shore, where the water was a bit choppier, but deep enough to get lots of fish. The beach cabins were well within view, like little Monopoly houses lined up on the white strip of beach. Cindy gripped the side of the boat. I could see she was nervous and queasy. Dad threw over the anchor, his back to us. We had on our stiff, brand new orange life vests, and Cindy looked tiny, her long blond braids trapped under the puffy vest. Grandpa patted Cindy on her bare leg, smiling, his teeth brown and old. He had aged, in a way that seemed overnight to us in our long absence.
All at once I realized that Dad was stooped down looking around at the base of the engine instead of unpacking our tackle. There was water in the bottom of the boat, my Keds getting sloshed, my feet chilled. The water was a couple of inches deep and I could see movement in it, a tiny current coming from somewhere near the engine. “It’s the damned motor mount seal,” my father said. “Okay, we’ve got a small leak. It’s nothing to worry about.”
My grandfather emptied a Tupperware container of pretzels over the side, and started bailing water. Fish swam up and nibbled at the pretzels, like the angel fish and guppies snapping at fish food flakes in the little five gallon aquarium we kept on a table between our beds in California. Cindy was wide-eyed, clinging to my sleeve. She looked at me, and then at Dad, not yet panicked. I stood up in the boat and looked at the shore. More water was coming in. No one could hear us if we yelled, we were too far out. No sign of Mr. Pereira that I could see.
“Michelle, sit down,” my father said.
“Daddy, can we make it if we go back real fast before too much water comes in?”
“Yes, of course. Now sit down before you fall down.” He yanked on the cord to start the engine, but nothing happened. He tried again, no luck. Grandpa was bailing faster.
“Oars?” my grandfather asked. My father shook his head, a small gesture. I was ankle deep in water.
“I can swim for it,” I said. Cindy was shivering despite the heat, and she started to cry.
“You’re out of your mind, honey,” Dad said. He kept yanking on the cord, his arm flailing, sweat tracing down the back of his neck, darkening the collar of his blue polo shirt. He pulled out the foghorn, and ripped out the plastic tab. It made a weak fizzy sound and went dead. “Damn it,” he said as he threw it down into the little hold area. “I didn’t think to buy a new one. Why didn’t I buy a new one?”
Cindy sniffled, quiet and pathetic; Grandpa patiently bailed, not looking at anyone, deferring to his son. Dad dumped the ice overboard out of the cooler, and tested it for bailing.
“I could call the Coast Guard from the cabin radio,” I said.
“There’s no way, you’d never make it.” Dad shook his head, lips pressed together.
“Dad, I’m twelve. I can swim as well as Mom now. She takes us to the lake and I can swim all the way across to the other side, a long way, and pretty fast too.”
“A lake is a hell of a lot different from an ocean.” He and Grandpa kept bailing, making some progress, but the water was about four inches deep. It seemed to be rising.
“I’m doing it.” I unzipped my vest and threw off my sneakers.
“I’m your father, and I’m telling you that we will be okay, it’s summer, more people will come, someone will help us. Maybe if we wave, old Pereira will notice us and call for help. We can keep up with it by bailing, and help will come. You will not leave this boat.” He gripped my arm, his hand cold, his shirt soaked through under his life vest, his hair standing up.
I looked at my father, this man with more gray in his sideburns than I remembered, this man who had become a voice on the phone, a check in the mail, this man who had never come to visit us because his new wife was too afraid to fly and he was too stubborn to come alone, this man who let years slip by and blamed my mother for taking us so far away, this man who left me alone to be the breakwater against the tidal waves of my mother’s emotions and fits of depression, to comfort my sister, to protect myself, to figure it out.
Cindy grabbed at me, “Don’t leave me here, Sissy.” Her face was blotchy and slick.
I smiled at her, and slipped my free hand under her life vest and cupped it around the back of her small, tender neck, giving her a little squeeze. “It’ll be okay, you know it will, I promise. Just help Grandpa.” Her watery eyes bore into mine.
I wrested my arm out of my father’s grasp, dove over the edge, and swam. I swam, through the shock of the cold, the salty water burning my eyes and my throat, my arms pumping, telling myself it was just like the lake, four beats like the words to a song, just like the lake, my arms pumping in a four count, just like the lake, until the words left and only the beat remained. My sister’s face, the water like the color of her eyes, swam in my mind. The water icy, the sun hot on my exposed shoulders, my hair plastered across my face like wild kelp, endless swells and then white churning water, and when I scraped onto the sand, my arms and legs were numb. I stood and fell, and stood again, turned and waved my arms overhead to the boat, and they waved back, a little family of dolls in the distance, the white Styrofoam cooler like a tiny Chiclet, moving in a steady arc back and forth as Dad bailed. I stumbled to the cabin, through the unlocked door, and turned on the radio, which whirred to life emitting nothing but static. I turned the dial, frantically back and forth, found the emergency channel, marked on the dial with a tiny bit of old red paint, hit the call button, and yelled, croaking to the voice on the other end that my family was sinking. My family was just off Saquish Beach, and we were sinking.