Storm Surge

by Laurinda Lind

1. The Day I Become a Countersquall

The engagement is off, so is the romance, so is the year, so is the country. After the last morning customer finally freaking decides on a paint color, I close down the register, lock the safe that is so oxidized it turns my fingers orange, leave a message for Carl—the crook who pays me– sign it “Dena,” and lock the door. I have to meet David out at the cottage to get all my crap out of there.

First I’ve got to go home and check on Claude, who is really David’s cat but who likes me better. David’s only been out of our place for three weeks, and where he’s staying right now, he can’t have Claude. Early this morning, Claude was making a lot of noise, which is not like him, and I want to make sure he’s not sick.

It turned brutally hot after David moved out, and I’ve been running a fan everywhere I go, carrying it around with me from room to room. I can’t really keep the apartment without David’s part of the rent, so I’ve been trying to talk Mack, a friend from college who is essentially renting a closet with a cot in someone’s house, to come over with me. David doesn’t like Mack: so much the better. But Mack is terminally indecisive and as a complication, his boyfriend doesn’t like the idea. Thinks I’m hot for Mack. Though he won’t have him at his own place because of snoring.

Anyway. Claude is fine. I check his water and rub the raggedy side of his little yellow face, for which his name is a pun, due to a severe catfight he got in while he was a stray. I’m really going to miss him. Maybe David won’t be able to take him, after all. Everything else is gone, David’s clothes, computer, furniture, posters, good riddance. Maybe at least I could have the cat. God. I can’t remember how I got through two years of all that criticism and control.

My stupid tan work slacks come off and my cutoff jean shorts go on with a Green Day t-shirt, and then I leave again. While I was inside, the homicidal sun has paired up with a strong wind that only blows the heat around instead of relieving it, and tries to blow my car around, too, once I get going. This pisses me off. I’ve had enough of being told what to do, so I drive faster, to shorten the amount of time any one gust can blow against the side of the car.

That anger takes me through the sixty miles to David’s camp, which is actually his parents’, but in which they have lost interest now that they are retired and can go to Costa Rica and Jamaica instead. The last two summers and falls, we lived at the camp on weekends. I’m thinking of David’s endless lectures about food preparation and boat safety. I’m thinking of endless nights waiting for David to come to bed and ignore me.

The camp road has gotten dusty with lack of rain. I arrive in a cloud. David’s Kia is already parked near the porch. Well, of course—getting here first scores him points.

It’s not as windy out this way, but the air seems so strangely hollow that it’s hard not to see it as a metaphor. David comes out onto the porch, as calm and remote as ever. He’s got cutoffs on, too, and has a new, raw-looking scrape all down one shin. I’m not even going to ask. He’s wearing the Mets t-shirt I got him last Christmas, though I doubt he remembers where it came from.

“Okay,” he says, which is not a surprising greeting from him. “Okay,” I say. He moves aside to let me in, and I go across the scuffed white linoleum through the curtain that drapes off the room we slept in.

As soon as I go through the curtain it caresses me along the entire side of my body, and I know I’m getting my life back. It no longer matters what he surprises he has.

“How long is this going to take?” he calls from the other room.

“It took me my whole life,” I call back.

So then I begin.

 2. So Now I Am a Separate Weather System

It takes me a month to untangle myself apart and then put myself together again.

Pretty damn good. It has taken my ex-boyfriend two years to pull me apart in the first place.

The day I meet David at his camp to claim my things, I start feeling my power seeping back. I think both of us forgot I had any.

I am remembering that I used to like waking up here to the river air, which smelled metallic because it came in through a rusted old screen with wads of Kleenex stuck in the holes to keep mosquitoes out. A double bed isn’t really big enough for David and one other person, but he used to sleep from corner to opposite corner, and if I hung my feet off the side, I could fit in there, too.

In the bedroom we shared, I start pulling things out of my side of the dresser drawers. A few changes of clothes, a bathing suit for if the neighbors were up from Pennsylvania with their binoculars. Really, nothing I couldn’t live without. Stones I saved from under the dock. They had been spectacular in the sun. Now they look dull. Again, metaphor.

I haven’t brought anything to carry stuff out in, but of course David has thought of that, handing me a handful of plastic supermarket shopping bags through the curtain-door. He also brings me a framed photo I had snapped of my favorite cedar, out on Speakeasy Island; I forgot the picture had hung near the porch. I almost refuse it, but realize David won’t want it, either. He finds other things I had bought—a small mirror for the bathroom, a garlic press, a soup ladle, a plant-identification book. He is patrolling around the cabin looking for more things. A throw rug. A frigging hammer.

“All right, all right,” I say, pretty fast, “that’s got it, I don’t even need most of this.”

“It’s yours,” he says in that infuriatingly neutral voice.

“Well. Then. Thanks.” Even I can hear I sound a little sarcastic. I head toward the door to get the hell out of there and get my new life in gear, but he says, “Wait, Dena.”

It is so hard to turn around. He’s pointing out through the porch door, toward the river. I look through the screen, where David’s aluminum single-hulled boat is sagging against the dock.

“You and I bought that motor together,” he reminds me.

I am turning away again. “Oh, man, keep it. What am I going to do with it?”

“I’ll pay you for your half.”

“Screw that. We don’t even know if it runs anymore.” We haven’t gotten along for so long that neither of us has been out in that boat for a year. Even the guy who opens the cottage up for David just stuck the motor on the boat transom without testing it, after he put the dock in.

He follows me out of the cabin. “Let’s go try to start it.”

That’s the last thing I want to do, hang around on the dock while David mansplains the motor to me. But I just want to get this over with. So I don’t answer with my long sigh. I am close to being home free this evening, with David’s ex-cat Claude and a beer and maybe my best friend Mack, if his honey, Steve, will trust me with him for a few hours.

I know every bend of the path to the dock, and I’m picturing the turtles, snakes, frogs, and muskrats I’ve seen on it. Today there’s only a red squirrel giving us the evil eye. I sit down on the dock to watch David climb to the rear seat of the boat.

“It should already have gas and oil,” he says. “Wally put them in.” He fools with the choke and starts hauling on the starter cord. Nothing. He yanks over and over again. I have always wondered how David can keep up something like this, for an hour or more. He has never given up on a lawn mower, for example. It gives me a creepy shiver. David will not take no for an answer. Except from me, and that was only because he wanted out, too.

After a long time I start to unkink my legs and get ready to say I’m leaving. And that’s when the motor makes a sound I didn’t think it had in it—a gasping and grinding that say it remembers it’s a motor. It skips and sputters, but David imposes his will on it the way he does on everything, and it keeps rumbling.

There’s something to be said for being stubborn, but I’m more than stubborn. I’m simply done. Back in the city I have Claude and Matt, so I stand up.

In what feels like an act of liberation, I turn to David my long-underappreciated backside.

3. But Isn’t the Whole World a Boat

It is a big day for me, the day I can dump the boyfriend who dumped me.

I have suffered over the breakup for more than a month, and I am sick of it. This is the day it can all be over, the day I drive out to his camp so I can finish moving back into myself.

I am a few minutes from freedom. I’m just waiting at the dock for him to figure out what  shape the boat motor we bought together is in. Really, I didn’t give a shit whether it started or not, but David is OCD about stuff like this, and has gotten it going.

“Get in,” he says.

“What for?”

“I want to take it into the channel and see if it will keep running. It’s not too far out to row back if it cuts.”

I don’t really want any part of this, but now that I’m getting over David Flu, I’m trying to be civil, and I walk out farther onto the dock. He doesn’t help me step into the boat, which is good. I sit up front, where he’ll want my weight to keep the bow down. Blue smoke is coming out from the motor, though that’s not unusual from an engine that’s been sitting so long. He turns the handle to give it a little more gas and at each end of the boat, we cast the lines off and up onto the dock.

As we spin around and head to the channel, the motor keeps it up. Over the water, the air is not as hot, and after a minute or two, David yells forward at me, “I want to take it out to Speakeasy and back.”

I hold my palms up in the air. Why not. Even that’s not too far to row, and from that direction the current could run us back most of the way. He opens the motor up and I get a spanking from the aluminum seat. I let the boat shake some tension out of me.

After a few minutes, we get into the gap between Speakeasy and Spruce, and it’s like the apocalypse– the sky comes down black, the air goes cold, the wind goes vicious.

I have seen these sudden river storms, but I’ve forgotten.

So, apparently, has David.

Rapidly, the waves get bigger and bigger, but the motor is still running and David is able to turn right into them, so they won’t swamp us. Every time the bow comes down, I get a shower. There is an echoing, breaking sound starting from the northeast, and I see a first lightning strike on the far shore.

It occurs to me to get scared.

The motor still hasn’t quit, but we don’t have enough horsepower to fight this. David tries to shout something, and I can’t hear him. He points toward the shore of Speakeasy. He doesn’t wait for me to nod yes or no. He works the boat over that way, and now waves are sloshing over the stern, and he is halfway to his knees in water back there.

After a wild quarter of an hour during which each of us is poling frantically away from shore boulders, we get the boat into shallow water and we both jump out to pull it in and up onto land. We have to heave and heave to move it higher than the waterline, because the river is swelling from the wind, and David takes the anchor out and carries it up the beach to wedge it between two standing stones. The sky is a weird red-green. Wind is howling around our ears. I can barely push against the force of it.

David hauls me by the arm across the beach and into the trees, and even with branches whipping against us and my hair constantly in my eyes, I can see the little shack he has in mind, a weatherbeaten old place that I remember as a snake dorm.

When we reach it and he unlatches the door, the door almost blows it off. He pushes me inside it and fights to close the door again from the inside. Now the thunder has taken over the river, and through the broken-out windows, we see flash on flash on flash. All around us, I can hear the railroad-track sound that is tornado talk.

We lie down on the floor, which is nasty but does not squirm under me; the lightning doesn’t illuminate any snakes. The wind shoves and works at the shack so that I am afraid we are going to end up in the sky like Dorothy and Toto. The thunder is simply deafening.

I don’t want to be here and I don’t want to live with David, but I do want to live. And that makes me remember how it is to love someone, even someone I hate. “I really couldn’t stand it anymore,” I shout into David’s ear. “I mean, us.”

“I can’t, either,” he shouts back, the most honest he has been with me in months and months. I so strongly feel that I am still going to be myself, and that the storm is going to stop even though it seems like it never will, and that I don’t ever have to let David be right again.

I lean into him as if he is old, old air that I don’t have to be afraid of or hold in my lungs, and I wonder how it will look once we leave and we both start again in the washed world.

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