The salt kept showing. Little grains of white bounced up off the wet curtain like someone was shaking it clean. Our hands couldn’t keep it, we sure as hell couldn’t see its source. So, instead, we looked at each other while the distance grew.
What wasn’t there fifteen minutes ago was there now: emptiness on the tar dock. Fifteen minutes is roughly the time it takes to be exactly one after the last car, to get to the front of the line and still miss the boat. Even if you run two reds and clinch the decision to wait out a pee until safely onboard, fifteen minutes is all it takes, almost on the dot, to be alone, to be the last and the first. Five minutes had gone by and I still hadn’t peed. I squinted. The green and white ferry had made enough space where I could make out blobs of people in the windows, but I couldn’t tell you who was wearing a hat or what was an odd shaped head.
“Do you want coffee,” you said. You hung your head inside the rope that was your arms dangling over the top of the passenger door. The wind seemed lost, periodically trying different directions. It was an hour after six in the almost summer. I straightened my back and said sure even though I knew the shack wouldn’t have ice and the coffee would go straight to my bladder. I like doing things on time. Having large schedules that are more like traditions. After May Day, all coffee must be iced. I know it sounds stupid, but it’s what I do. “No sugar this time,” I said. “Yes sugar,” you said and left, without closing the door, without smiling at your own joke like it was natural to keep the door open. Even though I appreciated the gesture, by leaving the door open you just let me go there. Hey, I know, let’s not close any door we open from now on. Front doors, back doors. And while we’re at it, let’s open all the other doors we don’t even use and then walk away. No really, it’s the perfect way to clear the stink of piss from the car. Yeah, okay.
Maybe I wouldn’t have cared so much if the music wasn’t still on. If all I heard was the coast filtered through the trees. Or, I guess, if someone else was with me, if we had brought another. It was strange standing out there alone having both doors open, like the car was supplicant, some whiny soundtrack from either side. It looked like I was making a statement about how I was here. Hey, everyone, look at me, I pseudo-blast my music with both doors open all alone, so what, you wish you could do what I do.
I walked in front of my car to hide and so I could look at you through the front and back window, maybe see if I could change the way I saw you at the moment. Your tan workman coat made you into a tan lump. Nothing was different through the windows except you looked dirtier, which I knew better than to put weight on. Still the same person, more dirt. When you turned where the dock’s railing stopped and the land spilled to the sides, I saw you in profile and the coat made fun of you for ever thinking you could make the oversized coat work with your body. Two puzzle pieces you forced next to each other even though they weren’t from the same puzzle. I imagined your actual shape underneath, the straight lines and curves. We had slept together enough times for me to remember your moles. But the tan bump from your hips to your head puffed sonically out in a loud fashion statement which could only be translated, gently, as functional. I couldn’t get it. You loved that coat; it kept you warm in everything, you said. Exposed on the dock, in the early summer months defined by cold sunlight, the coat was necessary, or at least helpful. You were prepared and I wasn’t and those were the facts. My sleeveless Love and Rockets shirt barely kept my shoulders warm. I had never even noticed my shoulders as having the right to be cold until that day. Apparently anything can be made cold.
“And no milk,” I said. You were already at the stand with your hands on the little counter of the window. I felt stupid for talking while knowing you wouldn’t be able to hear. For a second, I looked around the dock like I didn’t already know I was alone. As if someone had snuck around me and was now laughing at my shivering, talking body.
I turned around to look again for the ferry. The water looked bigger than any desire to float. God I had to pee. I’ve usually always liked water, how you can stand without touching ground, flip without falling, change so many things at any given point as long as you’re in it. That sort of freedom does things to you. There’s this one book where a girl runs straight to the sea. She has just lost her father. Her grief is on top of her. For some reason she makes a cup out of her hands, drinks the brine, and looks up. The water, how infinite it looks, how constant and serene the waves are in motion, it makes her recognize some truth in her father’s death. How he won’t be coming back. Her grief becomes bearable in sight of the forever. But the water in front of me didn’t remind me of forever. It’s waves turned my body in to shiver at my limits. Too much motion. Like a rock in a washing machine, there was no way you could stand free inside its girth. I could only imagine the ways the cold would pull my skin off. But the boat was up above the line, wasn’t it? Floating away, making its course. I still wanted to try and maybe just cup my hands and drink while standing on land. Taste the salt. A breeze crawled under what was left of my sleeve and I looked back for you. The cold was the type where if you weren’t wearing shoes, like me, it came up straight from the ground.
You had two things in your hands from what I could tell. I couldn’t tell what you were holding because you were lingering at the shack. Lingering like a teenager who lingers after making out with someone. Lingering like a teenager around a bathroom at a party. I had to pee so fucking bad. No way I’d walk over there now, though, with you flirting with the local high schooler trying to make weekend keg money or pay for unlimited texting.
The day had started as a test to see how well we’d sit together in long stretches of time. See how well we’d do with just ourselves, the radio, a couple of sandwiches and a bag of grapes bought on this side of the water where the soil was better or the hippies cared more, I forget the real words you said. Both of us knew we weren’t going to be sitting together for much longer and yet we continued. Why not try to have one last good day. Looking back objectively, one would easily blame our end on that day instead of the other days before it, because of what happened. But it wasn’t that day’s fault. At least not up until that point on the dock. We had been digging a ditch between us for awhile now. No matter what kind of ground we recovered by traveling across the water, at some point after the lonely dock I decided to throw myself in.
You came back with hot coffee and tea. Instead of walking to your side, I walked to mine. You shut your door with your foot, looking at me like I should have closed it for you as soon as you left or something—stop looking at me like that. I held my arms against me like staves on a barrel and squeezed for warmth, my feet left to freeze. The car was parked almost snug to the right railing so when you hopped up, I was suddenly filled with visions of you overshooting your gravity-mark by any combination of inches and feet and angles and gusts. But then you put your feet on your closed door, safe, the drinks upright in your hands. My coffee had spilled on you in the process, a stain on your coat. Instead of checking if maybe your hands were burned, I wondered if you’d claim the stain was oil and the I wondered if I was mud on your shoes.
“Hey, can we swing by the lake when we get back,” you said between sips. “I told Kim I’d try and see her for her birthday.”
“I thought the plan was to get dinner when we got back?”
“I didn’t say I wanted to stay or anything. I just want to say hi and then leave. It will take two minutes, tops.”
“But I’m hungry.”
Why didn’t I say I had to pee?
“Suck it up champ.”
I went inside the car to try and get out of the wind. I couldn’t remember why we had the windows down. It was never that warm. The coffee didn’t help.
Even kids know there are ends to each duration. Days are simple enough. At the very edges, you could count by the measures of awake and asleep. But for you and me, we were working on a different edge then that had one final segment. I hadn’t thought that it would be marked by the white and green ferry. Right then, hearing you, I knew once we got off the boat, our day would be over. We would be over. If the point of the day had been to prolong the moment, our missing the ferry only increased the time we had together, however small in retrospect. This was our time. Start on one side. End on the other. Here we were, together preparing for the end. “Yeah sure. Whatever,” I said. I wanted there to be something to hold in my memory from all this even if it meant some dumb little snap back on my part. But it could have been anything: a shell from the beach, a kiss. Whatever.
“Oh come on,” you said and snuck your barefeet into the car from your window, toes fiddling with the window crank. “If you’re that hungry, I’ll go back and get you something at the stand. They had some pretty good looking scones.”
I looked back at the stand, trying to show you I didn’t have to look at you all the time. I imagined what you would say to whoever was working there. Haha, no I didn’t forget anything. My girlfriend choose not to tell me she was hungry last time, so, yeah, now I’m playing nice retriever. Go fetch girl. But then I remembered we weren’t anything. We’d been on what, a total of a eight dates? I wasn’t anything in your fill in the blank relationship mad lib. I wasn’t even hungry. I was just blank. I mean I had to pee, but the rest of me was blank. For some reason, I always had you defined in my head even if it wasn’t the right definition. I just needed it to hold onto. Holding you in my head differently from our reality was like ignoring all the upcoming exit signs on the highway when you know you’re getting close to where you need to go. Maybe I was too hopeful, too quick to connect. But maybe it’s easier, you know? To have names, labels, definitions. It might have been nice to have an answer to the unasked question of what to call that person still on the dock, in the shack, who was pumping coffee into styrofoam cups. But who gives a fuck? I knew you wouldn’t commit to me anymore than you’d take off that coat. It would be uncomfortable in this climate.
Another car pulled up too close behind my car and you took your feet back outside the window but stayed up on the railing.
I opened my door, turned down the music, and leaned out. “No. I’ll be fine. I’ll get something later,” I said, like we were still having the same conversation.
“I can’t hear you.”
“What?” I said, leaned back in, and turned down the music.
“I said I couldn’t hear what you said.”
“Oh,” I said, and turned the music back up. The car behind us made noises like a rattle after the shake. A man, woman, and kid started the process of unlocking, unbuckling, opening the doors, and getting out. The man and woman smiled at us before noticing their kid charge away from the car—legs full of direction. I got out to watch, and shut the door. The man frowned at the noise. “Dylan,” the woman said then looked at the man, saw he wasn’t going to do anything, he was still looking at my door, she went running after the boy. I was smiling; now here was a reason for leaving your door open. I looked back at you but your eyes were on him. The woman was wearing red pants with the cuffs rolled up a few inches above her flats. She ran like her knees weren’t what they used to be. The man swore loud enough for us to hear and then turned back to us and smiled below his mustache, rubbing the back of his head with his ringed hand. I leaned against my door and looked at you but you were looking at him. His shirt was tucked into his pants. Sunlight pushed his shadow a good ten feet behind him. The woman was yelling, stop come back, over and over again. The man shielded his eyes from the light to get a better look at us, and when he turned away, we all turned to look at the chase as if we had forgotten it was happening. As if him looking at us didn’t make us feel anything. But it did. It made me feel bad. You, I don’t know. The kid almost made it to the other side of the dock. You could tell he wanted to swim and would do anything to do it. His plan was obviously not thought through. He was a kid. What was he going to do? The railing was higher than his hand could grasp. Even if he did, from there, the drop would be a good eight feet and then splash like a punch. Skin clutching cold. Depths. Could he even swim? I watched the kid reach out for the railing too-high. The woman grabbed, fingers on nothing, nothing, then, there, got him, tight on his wrist and they turned back, the moment gone, the water gone, her body no longer threatening, the kid suddenly not so hurried as he was pulled back toward the car.
“How old is he,” you asked the man. I realized you were still there. Then thought I should probably turn off the music now that there were others. I opened my door, turned off the music, got out and went around the front to stand next to you against the railing. The man moved into the small gap between the cars. He put one foot up on my bumper.
“I’ll let him tell you,” he said. “It was his birthday yesterday. This, today is his present.”
The man took off his foot and walked out to meet the woman and the kid. He took the kid’s other wrist and walked back, but this time with more distance between us. “Hey Dylan, how old are you?”
The kid backed away and tried to use his arms to block his face, but since the man and woman were still holding on, it looked like the kid was trying to escape again.
“Dylan,” the woman said in a tired voice.
“That’s okay,” you said, jumping off the railing. “I was pretty shy at that age too.” There was so much space from where our cars were parked to where the kid tried to jump. Why didn’t he just go for the nearest railing? He was looking at the far one when he got out. That’s why. It must have felt like forever while he was running.
Before I could tell what you were doing, you were walking forward. I didn’t want you to walk past the trunk of my car, up to the kid and start talking to the man and woman like you were their babysitter or niece, but that’s what you did. And then I had to do it too. Walk right up to them. Really, I just wanted to be back in the car, we could have talked about whatever, whatever we were talking about before you mentioned Sarah and we missed the ferry and the coffee wasn’t cold even though it was summer and goddamn it coffee should be iced any time after May 1st. Then I remembered we weren’t talking before. We were listening to the radio in silence.
“This is Dylan.”
“Happy Birthday Dylan,” you said.
“Yeah, Happy Birthday,” I said. The man was studying me in relation to you. Where I stood. Which way I leaned. My skin around and under my shirt compared to yours. The jacket you wore was not one he would wear, but maybe he wanted to.
I turned to look for the ferry. It had shrunk to a dot on the otherside. Maybe it was unloading, maybe it was already unloaded. I hoped that it was turning around, maybe already moving back. I wanted the day done, over. I was ready for it. Maybe it was already over, and I didn’t know it. I walked right up to you and was about to grab your waist with both hands to show you that I still wanted you.
The man stuck out his hand in the empty space between you and him. “Mike,” he said. You stepped forward, shook his hand and then moved onto the woman. I pulled out my own and offered it, but the man just looked at my armpit which was where my hand had come from before I tried to hold you. The woman split the deadlock and took my hand with the hand that didn’t hold Dylan’s. “Julia,” she said.
More cars had pulled up behind our cars until there were headlights coming at the man and woman from the next line over. It seemed early to have headlights on. The woman took Dylan into the car even though the ferry was still a dot, though a bigger one. I tried to force myself to go back to the car, but I couldn’t.
“Did you guys see the eagles on your way down the hill?” the man asked, closer to us, again moving between the cars.
You said. “No,” your hand in your hair. I realized that I hadn’t said anything to him. Not that any of the questions were for me. Your other hand tugged your coat’s zipper three inches down. I measured while I waited.
“There were two huge eagles circling above the tree line above the hill over there,” the man said and pointed to where he thought over there meant, I don’t know why. “Such beautiful creatures. They really are beautiful powerful creatures.” You were nodding your head in this very stupid way. “Then out of nowhere this smaller bird came into the picture. I don’t know what it was, a swallow maybe. It tried to fly with them and then,” the man hit his hands together.
“What?” you asked. Your hand stopped zipping.
“Well, let’s just say there were a lot of feathers.” The man’s smile was now competing with his mustache and it made me wish I believed in violence. I felt like a gutter with too much shit in it. Fuck draining. I will make it flood. “I guess nature is always pretty even when it’s raining blood.” All day, little frustrations had been running their course and stopping inside me, forming an ugly structure that was almost ready to be inverted.
“Oh, uh huh,” you said, zipping your coat back up. It was what your mouth did when you were scared. I turned to go back into the car. The man didn’t care. He wouldn’t miss me. I didn’t care then if you missed me or if you were scared in his presence. At that moment, all I wanted was to open Dylan’s door, unbuckle his child seat and lift him out of the car, aim him at the railing and tell him, “Go for it, I’ll keep them off you until you get to the water, go.” I’d even kick him in the ass if I had to. Instead, I turned on the radio loud and watched the big dot on the water turn into a toy boat that turned into a bigger more detailed toy model into a real but small boat into a ferry with passengers and boxes popcorn and wind of its own. Next thing, I heard the men in the orange vests walk by me to unclip the chain and start to get the dock ready. I heard this over the voice of you laughing with the man. For a second, I was impressed you could laugh that loud. That your voice could still get to my ears. A succession of engines turning over told me it was getting close to the end. I thought it was a drumroll, not in how the engines sounded, but that they were expecting. I looked in the rearview mirror to see if I could see what Dylan was doing. But you were up on the trunk, blocking the view. I closed my eyes. The ferry bumped into the dock. Schedules and decisions. Your door opened. I heard you fold yourself in and your hands rubbing themselves together after you turned off the radio. It sounded like you had leaves between your hands. “Your car is going to suck in the winter,” you said and I could hear you smile. I thought that was more than reaching on your part.
After the cars coming onto the island were off and gone, a new man in a green vest and orange rods waved us in. We went along the right side ramp up to the second floor of the ferry, then back down to the very base of the ramp. A woman came over with two fat wedges of plastic that looked too heavy to be carried in each hand. She put the right one down and kicked it under the left wheel, and then went over to the right wheel. She was so strong holding those wedges I tried to catch her eye while she made her plastic staircase, but she had a job to do and was quickly gone. Cars came behind us and beside us and turned off. I watched through the rearview mirror as some people stayed in their cars, newspapers and books pulled out. Most waited until the cars around them had parked, and then got out, moving through the steel and rubber maze to find a door that led up to the warm quarters.
“Do you want to stay or go up?” I asked. It was hard to say the words. You were still rubbing your hands together and periodically breathing into them. I was still not looking at you.
“There’s no way I’m staying down here without heat. I’m going up.” I rolled up and down my window like an annoying teenager. I wanted you to say something else. I wanted you to say there’s food upstairs and I’ll go get you some food and we can watch the birds disappear on the dock, sorry I forgot to get you food from the highschooler, I was stuck talking to those horrible people who forced their son to sit in the car like us now when all he wanted was to touch the water like you did, I’m sorry, let’s get you a sandwich or some chips, whatever you want, it’s on me.” But no, you didn’t say anything else.
You got out first and went down instead of up. I almost laughed. We were going to have to go up sooner or later, but you went down to the bottom staircase, turned the corner, and opened the door, waiting for me while your eyes looked up the staircase. Did you not notice I hadn’t left yet? I got out of the car slow, like I was being careful not to disturb the dust that lined the dashboard. I didn’t want to go straight to you. I heel-toed toward the fore of the boat with its stiff mesh fence protecting the ends of the ferry on the pretense of checking if we were moving. The water looked calmer here, maybe because I was higher. The curtain of blue folded in multiple layers softened by the wind. I could swim there. That water looked inviting. I could drink my fill. I tried to breath in a sip. Finally, when I knew you’d be past the point of anger, I turned and made my way toward you and guess what? You were already gone. You were always sometimes smart. The steel door up to the deck was heavy enough for me alone to miss you for a brief second, to stop grinning like I had created a future.
Upstairs and inside, people in sweaters and shorts were walking around with their mouths open or frowning. Those were the only options from what I could see. I hated them. I hated that you left me. I hated that I had to open the door alone. I was burning. I hated the stairs that smelled like a freshman soccer team was hidden beneath them. I hated that we were here together but not, and I hated myself for wanting to find you. I hated that I had forgotten I had to pee and that I currently wasn’t peeing. That was your fault too. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t shake this hate. The feeling was located nowhere, where ever is beyond your bones. A hidden cove only seen in the moonlight of May. Fuck May. So maybe it wasn’t real. Maybe I was making it up. Maybe we had nothing to lose and never did and I was just emotionally hyperventilating. I could tell nothing would change. So what was the point? The old women, the grandmothers with their knitting balls, all sitting together, I hated them. The workers, their brooms, their upright dustbins and uniforms, I hated them. The men who pulled their beards and shut off, heads tilted against windows to watch the cloudless reflection of the sky, I hated them all because they were ugly to me and I hated them as I walked to find you. The kids running around each other outside the one lucky bastard in the bucket seat of the race car in the arcade, I hated each one of those kids. The couples wearing impressively stiff clothing, I hated. I hated because they looked at me and they smiled like they knew I had no reason to hate them while they had every last card in the deck to stuff in my face. Go find your girlfriend. Oh wait, she’s not even that. God, look at me still at it. I’m horrible. I really don’t hate people. Not everyone. Not all the time. But I did then. There wasn’t a single one I didn’t hate in my scorched path to you. Especially you and especially that man and by dumb proxy that woman. If only I could find Dylan and sit across from him in one of the booths, stomping our legs two at a time into the ground until we’d laugh at how stupid everyone was. How stupid the world was. He knew. Suddenly, like swallowing water and coughing, I knew I needed to find Dylan. Where was he? I thought back to my car and their car behind mine. What did they do? Was Dylan still in it? Even if the man and woman were down there with him, I’d tear through them until I had less teeth than fingernails if it meant I got to Dylan. I couldn’t remember seeing him, but I couldn’t remember them getting out either. “I forgot my gloves in the car,” I said, turning my back foot.
“Okay,” you said. How did you come into my life? Were you there the whole time? At some point, had I found you and not even realized it. “I told Mike and Julia, you remember them from the dock? They were parked behind us? Well I told that I’d meet them on the observation deck. Come find us after you grab your gloves.” You tried to kiss me then, which you rarely did in public. I turned away, defeated, already gone, knowing the man and the woman wouldn’t leave Dylan in the car so they could stroll the deck alone.
There were never any gloves in the glovebox. I stopped wearing gloves after March, which was another rule. You knew this. I didn’t wear gloves then no matter what the temperature was. Call me stupid. But still you let me go, and I went. I had to or else I was going to do something dumb and hateful. I couldn’t believe that you actually wanted to spend more time with that man. Didn’t you sweat around him? Didn’t his voice make beads of grease break through your skin? It didn’t make sense. I could see you, wind hitting your face and your hair, hands on the railing laughing about whatever the man was talking about, with him probably casually sliding his hand from the woman’s to yours and still have everything be okay with everyone. You’d be unmoving. Another part of the passing scenery. But I didn’t care about you any more than I cared about my clothing or the coffee. I had reduced you to something I put on or put in me.
When I got to my car, I reflexively reached into my pocket for the keys, but before I got to them I saw that the lock was up, unlocked. I never forget to lock my door. You made me forget to lock my door. You affected me. See that? Do you want an award? I got in and slammed the door, completely taken with anger. The noise ricocheted off the steel walls of the boat in a sound I could live in forever. From the corner of my eye to the corner of the rearview, I caught movement, and my vision slowed. I turned back and there was Dylan, through my back and his front windows, rolling his fists in his eyes. I had woken him up. Fuck me.
I decided then to cry. I didn’t just start to cry. I decided to, first. I thought about the man on the dock staring at my armpits with my brown hair and how, if I had shaved them, maybe you would have properly dated me or felt more comfortable around me or something else beneficial to two people cohabiting the same expired time. The only thing between you and me was some hair and your beauty opinions it seemed, sometimes. God, I sounded like a college kid taking her first Sociology class. I replayed the woman snatching up Dylan right before he got what he wanted. It would have been simple to walk him back to the beginning of the dock and down the trail to the beach and the water, to see the tidepools and his joy brought forth. There was time then. The ferry had still been a dot getting smaller then, plenty of time. Now it was the shore that was decreasing in size. I wiped my face hard, got out of the car, barely able to see through the standing water covering my eyes. I went to Dylan’s door and opened it. I unbuckled his seat, took him out. “Happy Birthday, Dylan.” He was wearing a green sweater over an orange shirt. His feet could only be small inside such small shoes. I broke deeper. I took him to my chest and led him to the front of the boat to the mesh. I could feel he was looking up at me, but I couldn’t look at him for fear of losing my momentum. I had to do this. I had to let someone drink from the sea. I hugged him close and said, “Look. Look at all this water. Do you want it? Do you want to taste it?”
The blue rolled out in a line and from below I saw a thousand salt candles extinguish over and over, over and over.
Matt Nelson started Mellow Pages Library with his friend, Jacob Perkins. He’s there on the weekends.