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Post Road Magazine #32

Going Sailing

Jaclyn Van Lieu Vorenkamp

She's sitting astern, shirt buttoned up to her neck, cap visor pulled down low, shrinking to fit in the little bit of shade offered by the strip of canvas roofing. It is very hot and there's not much of a breeze. She and her husband are motoring out of the channel into the sound. The chugging of the engine and the cloud of diesel exhaust travel with them, they are moving so slowly.

There's traffic in the harbor, in all directions. Sunfish dart among the larger vessels, their sailors blinded by their sails, headed straight toward her and her husband, then at the last possible second, they come about and skim away as if it were nothing. She imagines dark blood spreading along the subsurface currents around the boat and a smashed head bobbing like a marker in the dirty water. What would it be like to accidently kill someone? Maybe painless, without consequence, like a dream, just offer a simple Oh excuse me! and continue on. She's glad the Sunfish has escaped, although she could have found some release in feeling the impact, hearing the screams, and having this going-out-for-a-sail business aborted by the crisis and the consequent need to return to land.

He's on the forward deck, busy bringing in the lines and fenders. He misses the scene. She calls out to him, "What shall we do about these Sunfish?" He straightens up and watches another tiny craft hurtling toward them, just yards away, the sailor blinded by the sail, like a huge umbrella thrust against the wind. He says nothing. She veers the boat to the right but now they're in danger of grounding outside the channel and she asks again for direction. He is supposedly the expert, after all. She feels a kind of reckless resignation to his doubtful skill, a willful handing over of her life. She has to be willing to die so they can go sailing together this afternoon. Why does she do it? Out of love? Is it out of love that he asks her to? The Sunfish comes about and skips off.

"It's peaceful out here," he says.

She looks at his face for signs that he's kidding. He looks back expectantly.

"Perhaps when we get under way, it'll feel peaceful," she says.

He appears disappointed, even suspicious that she's being deliberately uncooperative. It's generally understood that few things are more beautiful or more calming than the sight of a sailboat out on the water catching the light and the wind.

He's not wearing his life vest. What if he fell overboard? She wouldn't know what to do. She feels he's being irresponsible by not instructing her on the use of the life saving contraption that's hanging on the railing, or what to do with the boat if he isn't there to tell her, how to find him in the waves, pull him out of the water. It's very hard to see someone bobbing in the water. What if he's unconscious and can't put the life saving thing on even if she were able to throw it exactly to him? She reads on the cover of the device that you should not tow a person who's wearing it because you could drown him.

"What do I do in case you fall overboard?" she asks.

"Come get me," he smiles.

"Yes, but how?"

"Simple. Turn on the engine, drop the sails, unfold the ladder here, and throw me this thing."

"But it says here you shouldn't lower the ladder if the engine's on."

"Then turn it off," he says.

It occurs to her that she doesn't know how to turn off the engine, which lines go to which sails, what the life saving thing looks like, or how heavy it is. She asks. He is patient. Obviously, he will not be falling overboard and all this worrying is threatening to spoil his afternoon.

"If you're unconscious and I can't pull you in, this says I should leave you…"

"Yes, just leave me." He laughs.

"No, not leave you. Good grief! Leave you tethered to the side of the boat and call for help."

"Okay," he says.

She thinks he doesn't know what to do. He has a general concept, but he doesn't really know. What if she were the one to fall overboard, not that she has any plans to move from her spot in the shade. She would probably be drawn by the current into the propeller blades and her hands and part of her face would be sliced off, possibly her whole head and she would hemorrhage to death in the water while he was dropping the sails and turning on or off the engine and lowering the ladder and throwing her the life saving device that without hands now she won't be able to grab. Bobbing in the water, face down, if it were still attached, her arms outstretched at her sides in an expanding pool of blood. Would she appear tragic, like Elaine of Astolat, dying of love on the bottom of her skiff ?

They're passing the channel towers embellished with the nests of herons and terns. Cormorants stand in rows along the jetties, spreading their wings to dry in the sun. Others swim alongside, their water-logged bodies sinking, their heads and necks just above the water line.

He scrambles aft and unties the mainsail. Then he scrambles back to the stern to release the lines. Her job is to keep the boat motoring straight into the wind, to keep from running into things, like the old lighthouse, submerged rocks, lobster pots, other boats. Sometimes she has to swerve to miss something and the sail takes wind while he's hoisting it, and yanks the boom into his chest. If the boom struck him with sufficient force, it could knock him overboard, and then she would have to drop the sails, turn on the engine—wait! the engine's already on! turn it off!—throw him the life preserver, and lower the ladder and hope he hadn't been struck unconscious or killed.

Should he die before she does, she gets their entire estate, apart from his family heirlooms, which she is to distribute to his children at the time of his death. There are just a few things: a family bible bound in leather, a silver loving cup, the ring with the family crest. His older son is in line for these ancient artifacts because the family still observes the rights and rituals of primogeniture, at least in this matter, but he's indifferent to them. The younger son is more interested. She's not sure how to handle this. And then there are the other things his boys will want: the prints, the books, the photography equipment, everything in his studio.

Actually, the studio would make a very nice little rental apartment if she can figure out where to put a kitchen, or it could make an excellent writing space for herself. She would want to upgrade the cabinetry and add bookcases—there's room for more bookcases on all the walls—and add some comfortable chairs and a daybed for reading and dreaming. And she would get rid of that cold slate gray he painted the walls, brighten the place up a bit, give it some warmth.

She's watched people die before, in the hospital; she's even pushed one or two over the edge—an act of mercy, people who really needed it, people who had outlived their lives. Perhaps there was only one, only one she remembers, anyway, and he knew what she was doing. It was easy—she just gave him a little more morphine than usual. It was their secret, her parting gift to him. You won't feel this, she told him, and he didn't.

Out on the sound, the sails fill with wind and the boat scuds along the surface of the water in tandem with the clouds scudding across the sky. She ponders the word "scud." A good word but easily overused. Even once may be too much. But what else are they and the clouds doing? In the distance, the underbellies of the clouds darken and a gray haze begins to blur the shoreline. The winds are gusting over ten knots. They're miles from shore and in water over a hundred feet deep. The boat leans into the water, racing along its rim, the sail threatening to dip into the waves and capsize them. She wonders if the keel can snap off; she's heard of such things happening. She holds on to the railing with both hands as sprays of water dampen her hair and her clothing. She braces her feet against the bench opposite her.

"Isn't this magnificent?" he says, looking at her in a kind of rapture. He holds the lines in his hand, like the reins of a powerful steed.

"Yes," she says. "Elemental."

What if her husband died some other way? What if he just collapsed? Once, he had chest pains in his office and she met him in the Emergency Room. The nurses put him on a stretcher, took off his clothes, gave him oxygen, put in an IV, ran an EKG, and when he said the pressure was worsening, they slipped a tablet of nitroglycerin under his tongue. Within seconds, the pain receded. This meant it came from his heart. She stepped behind the head of his stretcher so he couldn't see her eyes well with tears.

If he dies before she does, the first thing she'll do is sell the boat. Probably no one will buy it. Used boats are very difficult to get rid of. She will need to hire someone to sand off the serial numbers and sink it in some marsh somewhere.

The cloud cover has grown denser, blocking the sun. The wind rises. Rain drops pock the water's surface and pelt them in the face. A rumbling sound rolls toward them from out near the horizon.

She asks if it's time to go back.

The wind is coming at them directly from the harbor so they tack back and forth across the sound, gaining speed, cutting through the swells. The water looks cold and thick, heavy as syrup. She would not be able to push it off her if she fell in. Her shoes would fill with water and drag her to the bottom. No one would find her so deep down and the currents would drag her away, but she could leave a trail in the sandy bottom with her heavy feet, in case rescuers came to look for her. Her hair floating about her face like seaweed, fingerlings nibbling at her skin, bits of bloodless flesh suspended in the murk, her arms floating, tangling in the lines of lobster pots, the lobsters trapped in their pots gazing at her with envy, or is it hunger, as she drags a trail with her feet in the sandy bottom.

If she dies first, her husband gets the entire estate, except for her family heirlooms, which he is to give to her son at the time of her death. She believes he will fulfill this obligation faithfully and with generosity. He is a good man, but still it seems unfair that she should drown so young, with the best part of her life ahead of her. She imagines him keening inconsolably over her remains, and then when he recovers, selling the house and her gardens in which she toiled so lovingly and obsessively, and moving to the city where his heart has always been.

The weather eases. He navigates the boat toward the mouth of the harbor. It's time to start up the engine and drop the sail. He hands her the tiller, telling her to stay into the wind while he scrabbles up on deck to flake the mainsail. They pass the old lighthouse, the towers marking the mouth of the channel, the cormorants drying their wings. There are few boats in the channel at this time of day; they are among the last to come in. She keeps a sharp eye on the buoys, "red right return," she repeats silently over and over. As they slow to a chug, he takes back the tiller and gracefully maneuvers the boat through the crowded marina and into its slip, jumps lightly onto the dock and with a swift, deft motion, wraps the tie securely around a cleat.

She clambers out of the boat onto the rocking dock. Now it is just a matter of walking straight ahead to land.


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