This was the summer my mother worried about me. I was fifteen, planning a visit to Catalina Island, where my father lived. Lately, I only saw him a few times a year, and when I did, he always came to the mainland, to Long Beach; I’d never been to his new house.
My parents had divorced when I was eleven, after my father had come out of the closet, slinking nervously out at first, then later shouting, can-canning out of there. Now, he marched in parades. He gave guest lectures at the community college about gender and societal expectations. Sexuality is fluid, he told me over the phone. It is an ever-changing spectrum, he said. Had I ever read Walt Whitman? Had I? Had I?
But this visit wasn’t why my mother was worried. I was going on a boat for the first time, and I’d never learned to swim. It wasn’t that she refused to teach me or invest in lessons, it was more that she kept forgetting, and because I was terrified of drowning, I kept forgetting to remind her. My father had always loved the water. Unfortunately, he also loved men. Maybe this was my mother’s version of revenge: Let’s see how he likes it when his own daughter can’t partake in the one and only activity that—regardless of anything else—has always given him peace of mind.
In emails, my father wrote about how cosmopolitan Catalina had become. “It’s like a modern-day Nantucket,” he’d said, “everyone passing through from one place to another. Stopping in for a quick vacation.” How strange, that a vacation spot sounded to my dad like a good place to build a permanent life.
The morning of my departure, the sky was bright blue and wide open, as though shucked from a duller sky. I wore a sleeveless dress, and my arms were tanned.
I’d only met my dad’s boyfriend once. When my father visited, he usually came blessedly alone. Q was tall, Swedish, and difficult to look at straight on—like the sun—he was that handsome, a jaw so angular I averted my eyes. Q was a nickname, though I still don’t know for what. I knew he didn’t wear tank tops like my father did. He wore dress shirts. He liked to scuba dive.
We were in the thick grip of summer, and I hadn’t seen my father for six months. At fifteen, this felt like a breach of some father-daughter contract I couldn’t remember signing. As a result, I’m told, I was always moody. Mostly, my mother got the brunt of this, the parent who stayed. Everything she said annoyed me. Everything she did was either too little or too much. That’s the thing with mothers; they’re always guilty of something.
I took my seat on the top deck of the boat. I looked around, noticing something strange: I was surrounded by women. They were mostly middle-aged. There was not a single man in sight, as if I’d stepped into some alternate kind of universe. It was a relief, I think. Men made me nervous.
“We’re on a field trip,” a drooping woman I guessed was in her fifties said to me, leaning over the aisle to shout over the wind. “The Auxiliary Women’s League of Long Beach,” she said. Over the loudspeaker, I was assured the trip would be quick, less than an hour.
In the land of women, I closed my eyes and thought of Q, who was much too interesting to allow thought of anything else. Plus, after only (only!?) four years, I still wasn’t used to the thought of my father with a man. Maybe I still wasn’t used to my father with anyone other than my mother, however estranged they were, however ill-fated. What’s more, my mother was alone, dateless. Was it a lack of interest or a lack of trying? A lack of available men? There was a lack I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Of course, I registered every lack in my mother—a daughter’s singular job.
“I’ve never been very good at choosing men,” my mother had said recently, over the bland red-sauced pasta she made once a week, having decided I was old enough to have that kind of conversation. We kept the television on at a low roar in the background, accompanying us during our nightly routines.
“I’m not good at it, either,” I told her, because, though I had little evidence so far, I instinctively knew this was true.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “I’m sorry. That’s probably all my fault,” and I nodded, because it probably was.
This weekend, I planned to find out more about Q. I knew so little about him! Where did he come from? Did he also have an ex-wife? Children? Did he and my father hold hands in public? In private? I could hardly stand to think about private, and yet, I couldn’t think about anything else. What had he thought when he’d met my father on his boat—had Izzy (here, I tried to pictured my father as others saw him) seemed like an oasis to him, his own personal island, an escape?
Of course, there were things I wanted to know that Q could never tell me. How long had my father wished for another life? I knew that he loved my mother and me. Maybe not in all the right ways, but he loved us both, I was certain. Had his love for us made him feel trapped? I knew enough about love to know it didn’t set you free. Love tied you down. Love made you responsible to people other than yourself, it made you loyal to things other than your own happiness.
My eyes had been closed, and the woman next to me, holding a mimosa in her plastic cup, tapped me on the shoulder. She looked as though she’d never seen land before.
“Look, honey,” she said, wide-eyed. “Catalina.”
“It’s bigger than I thought,” I said, thinking only of my mother now, how she’d come home from work and find the house empty; though she knew I was leaving, she would likely have forgotten it by then, surprised to find the living room dark and the television off.
I could see the small, mismatched figures of Q and my father waiting on the pier, smiling squinty-eyed up at the boat, though they couldn’t possibly distinguish me from the other passengers yet. I thought maybe it was only the sight of a boat that made my dad smile.
I filed down the gangway with the women my mother might have been friends with, at least when she wanted friends. She had phases. Like mysterious weather patterns I couldn’t comprehend, I had no way to predict their arrival. The women, in their cardigans and sensible haircuts, walked straight into the blue-painted tourist office and collected brochures and made arrangements—glass-bottomed boats and bicycle rentals, probably. At the sight of all that predictability walking away, I felt unmoored, especially when my father and his boyfriend approached.
“There’s my girl,” my dad said, wrapping me in his arms and lifting me a few inches off the ground, though I knew it couldn’t have been as easy as he’d thought it would be. In the last six months, it seemed to me, hips had appeared. I’d grown heavier. Of course, this might just be in retrospect. They weren’t hips so much as knobs on each of my sides, but still, I felt as though I were made of sand, taking lumpy, unfamiliar shapes. Meanwhile, my dad looked slighter than I remembered, though fit—slimmer and more sinewy, with no wasted space. The result of having a partner with whom he could run, swim, and bike? The result of happiness, I decided suddenly.
“Welcome,” my father said, spreading out his arms. “My island.” The possessive pronoun surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. He felt a strange ownership over Catalina, as though he’d discovered it himself. He wore a loose, knitted fisherman’s sweater and white linen pants. Instinctively, I knew they were expensive. He wrote movies for television—programming that landed mostly on Lifetime or in some recycling bin belonging to an executive—but he was paid whether or not it ever got made, or so my mother said.
“And you remember Q.” Dad placed a palm on the small of Q’s back; I could sense the trace of his hand there, gently urging Q toward me.
“Good afternoon,” I said, suddenly prim. I stopped short of curtseying, but not by a lot. I noticed for the first time that Q had a tattoo on his chest, unbelievably, especially in contrast with his starched, white-collared shirt. At first glance it looked like a smudge of dirt or a patch of tightly curled hair, creeping up from beneath his collar. But no, it was definitely a tattoo, a permanent stain from some past life. (A straight life? Had he been wild once—a drinker? In the military? In a rock band?) The tattoo was a geometric shape, difficult to decipher.
“Hello, Jennifer,” Q said, startling me with the deepness of his voice, the formality of its tone. “I hope your trip was not too long or too rough,” he said, bowing slightly. I’d forgotten what he sounded like, with his faint, unplaceable accent—a result of having moved around frequently as a child. He’d come from money, my father had once told me, in his unusually concise description. I was surprised. That used to bother my dad, the idea that someone could spring from unearned money like a sapling from the ground.
“Well, where did the money come from?” I’d asked.
“His father’s father,” he said dismissively. “Some kind of paper towel royalty. His dad owns a small private island off the Bahamas.”
“Are you excited?” my father asked now, and I wondered if he was nervous. He seemed giddy, pelting me with a barrage of questions about school, and friends, and what I’d been doing, how did Mom and I like the new house?
We’d recently moved into a small, tidy tract home in a small, tidy neighborhood, a row of stucco-faced buildings that had appeared suddenly near a new shopping center, a segment of suburb with no built-in history and no built-in regrets. My mother was a speech therapist; she taught children how to speak more clearly and listen better, a steady salary though it wasn’t huge. Still, my father had bought the house for us, and I knew what he hoped for—that we might move into a blameless place with brand-new sinks and countertops, where we might make our own mistakes.
“It’s nice here,” I told him finally, as we walked down the main drag—fish and chips, Italian food, a candy shop with taffy pulled fresh in the window, an old-fashioned creamery, the smell of waffle cones and fried food and salt air ghosting around the whole place.
“You’ll have to get some ice cream,” he said.
“Not now,” I told him. “I’m not hungry.”
“Well, before you leave.” He was a little breathless. “They’re known for it here! They make the waffle cones fresh.” I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll have some later.” I could never hold out on what my dad wanted from me, especially when he was like this. Eagerness was not unbecoming on him. He acted like a puppy—lovable, blessed.
Q was restrained, but not at all unfriendly. “You know the history of Catalina?” he asked me. He was very tall, and I had to crane my neck to meet his eye.
I knew a little. “I know my dad calls it Nantucket,” I said, and Q laughed. I felt spot-lit with the attention.
“You know Wrigley?” he asked, and I nodded. The gum tycoon. “Maybe we can see the Wrigley mansion while you’re here,” he continued. “Or the Holly Hill house.” He paused, and looked at me again. “You know what that is?”
I liked the way Q asked questions, the pauses he took, with the assumption I might know something, as though he didn’t want to bore me with a lecture, with information I might already have. It seems to me now I knew so little at the time. “I kind of forget,” I lied.
“The Holly Hill house was built by a man trying to woo a woman on the mainland.” His accent placed emphases on the wrong words, rounding out some and cutting sharp edges on others. “It didn’t work. Not only did she not want to marry him, but she liked him even less after the house.” He half-smiled, revealing one of his very white canine teeth. “She thought him desperate.” He pronounced it “desper-it.”
We walked by the very house, curled around the edge of a bluff, all conical roofs and large, ocean-facing windows. As high as it perched, I could just make out the red trim, as intricate as lace, as though it had been cut with those pattern-making scissors. My mother used a pair for scrapbooking.
“Who lives there now?” I asked.
“A businesswoman,” my father said. “She didn’t need a man to build her a house. Independent,” he said, “just like you’ll be.” He winked, but it looked instead like a tic he’d developed.
I couldn’t help but compare Q to the one and only man my mother had dated since my father left. His name was Dan, and he was hearty and red-faced, incapable of irony. He was a real estate agent who’d also been married. Before any story he told about his ex-wife, he’d preface it with “Don’t get me wrong, we still get along great.” Also, he claimed to love practical jokes but couldn’t recall a single one.
Q was different, of course. If he’d been a dad standing on the sidelines of one of my soccer games, he wouldn’t have belonged. Not in a bad way. He would have looked like a vacationer from somewhere else—a little too young, a little too handsome—as though something so mundane should have bored him. When my father spoke, Q smiled and nodded thoughtfully, and sometimes quietly responded, as though he were usually on a higher plane of thinking but came down occasionally to spend time with my dad, a welcome reprieve. According to my dad, Q was very smart, a former marine biologist now turned charter fisherman.
“What do you want for dinner?” my father asked. He was pointing toward a golf cart in a miniature parking spot. It was painted red, and it belonged to Q. I’d noticed that about the island immediately, how few cars there were except for the occasional shuttle or taxi, mostly just golf carts and bicycles. He gestured for me to sit in the front, but I took the back, forcing him to turn around in order to talk to me. Q drove. “There’s not that many restaurants to choose from,” my dad said, “but there are a lot of gems. Most are gems,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
“Or we could eat in. Q’s a great cook!” he said quickly.
“Whatever’s fine,” I said. My father’s nerves relaxed me a little, as though only one of us could panic at a time.
Q shrugged and touched my father’s wrist, even while he navigated the windy, narrow road up the bluff toward their house. “If cooking’s what you want to call it,” Q said softly. “I can boil something in a pot, or put it in a pan.”
My father went quiet, as though he recognized this touch as a signal—relax. I was struck by the intimacy of the gesture. More so, I was struck by the two of them as a couple, a couple who communicated without words, who’d probably communicated in every kind of situation, probably in every kind of way.
Lately, at home in Long Beach, I’d been clutching my virginity loosely, in one hand, as though waiting for someone to drive by and snatch it like a purse, a robbery for which I’d be prepared. In two weeks, I would turn sixteen. That particular birthday loomed on the horizon, my own ship at a distance; it held all my dreams on board.
What I knew of sex was mostly cinematic, dreamlike in atmosphere and orgasmic in sound. Much like the rest of life, I thought, it would make more sense once I was in the midst of it—once it was too late to stop what had already begun. I pictured sex the way I pictured speeding down a hill, propelled mostly by momentum if not desire. I had no way to know yet the myriad of ways it could go right, or wrong, or just okay.
The sky turned gray, just a sliver of clouds, my father said, just some baby clouds passing through, he said, in a singsong voice. Q touched him again, this time on the upper arm, and my father blew a stream of air through his mouth and rearranged himself into quiet repose in the seat. I looked at the sky—stormlike and prophetic in its grayness, somehow more profound than the sky I was used to seeing. I could smell my floral-scented deodorant. Wasn’t it too hot for those thick, wet clouds? I looked at the backs of their heads in front of me—my dad and his boyfriend—and I thought of all the things about the world I didn’t know, but vowed to learn.
Their house was one story, all blond, polished wood and wide, ocean-filled windows. Q carried my bag to the guest room, which was done up in blue-and-white fabrics, nautical-themed. I wrote a quick text to my mother: all good so far, and she responded: have fn, be safe. Tell dad I saiipd hi.
Tonight, they’d decided, Q would cook dinner and we’d eat at home. “So you can decompress,” my dad said, as though I’d been through a great journey. He showed me to the “scenic shower,” an outdoor enclave connected to the guest room, where I could see the ocean, but no one could see in. There were no other houses on the same level, on the same bluff. When viewed from sea level, the houses on this side of the island looked like multicolored boxes stacked one on top of the other, layered sloppily.
I was still nervous about being unclothed in open air, and I made my dad reassure me of the privacy three times over. At fifteen, I treated my nakedness like a disorder—something to be covered up, and once uncovered, apologized for. Once I turned sixteen, I thought, it might all change. I’d become a butterfly after having shed my cocoon, freed of my awkwardness, surprised at the brightly colored wingspan I hadn’t known I had. Or else, I might only be slightly taller and my breasts slightly larger, and there’d be another year for me to live—to shudder through, half-winged or wingless—without incident.
In fact, the shower was spectacular. Surrounded by all of that expansive blue, it was like being suspended in a giant, graceful drip. I was humming something tuneless and off-key as I shampooed my hair, digging my fingers into my scalp, thinking of what I most often thought about while in the shower at that time: adulthood. More importantly, what future happiness adulthood would bring me: college, boys, love, money, success, hopefully in that order. The details of the plan were done in watercolor—haphazard and bright and abstract. Regardless, I had faith that everything would come together in the best possible scenario. Even after my parents’ marriage ended, I saw how lives could be reordered in a way that made sense, at least to the people living them.
I turned off the shower, but still stood inside it, toweling off distractedly, still warm with my future thoughts, when I saw him: Q. Completely naked.
The sight was like being drenched in cold water—a kind of giddy surprise. I’d been so concerned with being exposed in front of unknown neighbors, I hadn’t realized the outdoor shower also had a view of the sundeck off of Q and my dad’s room. The sundeck ran along one entire side of the house, but you could only access it from the master bedroom, down a small, narrow stairway. Q, apparently, hadn’t known I’d been showering, though I’ve never been able to confirm that fact. He lay stretched out on a chaise lounge with his arms above his head, eyes closed, face angled toward the clouded-over sun, his legs splayed. I couldn’t seem to draw my eyes away from his body, and later, I would replay the scene over and over in my mind. I don’t mean the lines of his figure, taut and smooth as they were, were sexually compelling to me so much as emotionally. This man: he shared a bed with my father. My father: he shared a bed with this man. I thought of my mother. (How could I not?)
I had not yet seen a man’s penis in real life, so here was the first. I’d seen them online, of course—I wanted to be prepared. But those men were always very aware of their audience, leaning against an outdoor shower, let’s say, their muscles flexed, their eyes drifting up toward the camera, faux-innocent, sly. This was something different: Q touching himself absent-mindedly, bending to scratch at his toes, at the pale, tender skin of his inner thigh. It was something else to watch a man without his knowledge, and the intimacy of it was almost too much to bear. Finally, the last thing I noticed about Q’s naked body: His tattoo was much larger and more intricate than I’d originally thought.
I worried about dinner as I dressed. Where would I direct my eyes? Nowhere seemed appropriate now. I blushed even at the thought of my new knowledge, let alone parading it in front of my father. What to wear? I laid everything out on the anchor-patterned bedspread. I needed something demure, yet casual. Something that didn’t shout: I’ve seen my father’s boyfriend naked! I picked a pair of white denim jeans and a navy, pilling sweater. As a result, I blended into the nautical décor. Better to blend, I decided, than somehow expose myself.
In the kitchen, I could hear my father and Q—now dressed—discussing dinner. My dad had always been a good cook, confident and patient, never second-guessing his instincts. I doubted Q could possibly cook as well as he did. The probability that my dad had found someone with so many of the same interests (likes boats: check; likes cooking: check; likes men: check) seemed impossibly lucky. And did he deserve that luck, when my mother seemed to have so little?
In the kitchen, Q was chopping vegetables, while my father sat alone at the table, eating a string cheese. Sunlight pooled around him. The peculiar dignity of a man seen eating alone. The line came to me suddenly, a fragment I’d once heard someone say, probably my dad.
“Do you want something, doll?” he asked, when he saw me standing there, nautical-themed and pawing at the doorway, like a skittish animal. “Hummus?” he asked. “Olives?”
Q looked at me over his knife, the serrated edge glinting under the overhead light. “We’re having crab legs,” he said softly. Jazz played in the background, oozing through the state-of-the-art speakers.
“I’ll just wait for dinner,” I told the floor.
When I finally looked back at Q, he was dropping individual crab legs into a pot of boiling water. I thought they would make the same sound as lobsters—air escaping from shells, like a prehistoric scream—but they made no noise at all. I realized eventually that it was Q who was imperceptibly hissing through his teeth.
I stared at my plate through most of dinner, addressing the empty shells, while my dad asked about my favorite school subjects, if there were any boys I liked.
“Only the principal,” I said. “Mr. Adams.” I meant it as a joke, but my dad just smiled nervously and moved the conversation smoothly along. I wondered if he was self-conscious about our shared preference for the same sex. Suddenly I was.
I asked for the salt, and Q held it out to me from across the table. Our hands brushed together—a moment so long, it seemed suspended in time, as though preserved in amber—and I immediately looked up at my father, guilty. Of course, he was oblivious, chewing happily along, relieved, probably, that I hadn’t yet cried. The last time he visited, I’d felt unexplainably moody, all welled-up like a human tear. Before he left, I’d heard my mother exclaim from the next room: “Well, what do you expect, Izzy? She’s upset. She’s fifteen, for God’s sake.” Instead of appreciating my mother’s understanding, I found it only made me angrier, just one more injustice to add to the pile. How dare she try to explain my moods away. Partly, I knew, I’d wanted my dad to react to me, and when he didn’t, I’d felt worse, and caused a scene.
“Better get a good night’s sleep,” Q said, stacking the dishes with the skill of a former waiter. “We’ll leave bright and early. Take a short fishing trip. See if we can’t find him.”
“Find who?” I asked. My father made a tsk sound with his tongue, like a teacher.
“There’s a whale I’ve been after—” Q began, before pausing with his lips slightly parted, as though considering the best way to proceed. My father’s mouth tightened, and I wondered if I’d stumbled over the first crack in their shared happiness. Was this a sore spot, the source of a previous fight?
Q kept on, as though he hadn’t noticed my dad’s reaction. “Well, it’s actually a fish, but it looks like a whale. I’ve been trying to study it for years,” he said.
“Study’s one thing to call it,” my dad said, giving me an exasperated look, as though we were suddenly on the same team. Isn’t that annoying? the look seemed to say, when your boyfriend’s obsessed with a fish? I nodded.
“It’s an oarfish,” Q continued, “eighteen feet long. The only one known of its kind.”
“I thought you gave up biology,” I said, and Q stopped short near the sink, his hands thrust into the soapy water, considering my face as though I’d just appeared.
“Says who?” he asked.
“Dad, I guess,” I said softly. He’d told me at the same time he told me about Q’s moneyed past, his father of the paper towel empire.
“You said that, Izzy?” Q asked.
My father cleared his throat. “I only meant you’d given it up as a profession. As a way to make money. Of course, you still study whales—fish. Whatever.”
“It only looks like a whale,” Q said, addressing only me now. “Bony fish, the species is called. It’s the largest in the world, and it’s been spotted off my—our coast.” I looked from Q’s face, to my father’s face, to Q’s face, and back again. Were they in a private fight right now, at this very moment? I hoped I’d be able to hear any arguments from my room. I felt differently than when my dad had fought with my mother. Then, I’d felt only the need to escape, a bristling at the back of my neck at the deadpan sound of their passionless disagreements: My mother, her voice tightening, trying to stay quiet; my father, the consummate pacifist. As it turned out, his passion had just been invested elsewhere.
“Well, I hope we find it,” I said quietly. I was the pacifist now, the referee. I’d claimed my position on the sidelines, and I looked from Q to my dad and then back again, as though watching a tennis match that refused to take place.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I thought of Q and the mysterious fish. Insomnia hooked its claws into my shoulders, tightened its grip, refused to let go. I heard the faint ocean sounds through the window, like a recording to induce relaxation. Instead, it made me tangle up in the sheets, sweaty, dreading tomorrow. I was too warm and then not warm enough. I considered masturbating. I’d tried it before, with varied success, but the process always felt in equal parts vaguely arousing and vaguely hopeless, as though I were trying to complete a puzzle while missing an integral piece. I think the problem now was a question of narrative. I needed a story, one with emotional resonance, in order to induce pleasure. I thought of Q, my palms laid primly on my thighs, until the breeze through the open window passed over the plane of me and carried the room into sleep.
The next morning, we took the golf cart to Lover’s Cove, a private marina used only by locals. Q’s boat was smaller and less impressive than I’d pictured. No yachts here, no masts gleaming in the sunshine. That was in Avalon, where all the tourists’ boats were, where all the money lay out beneath the palm trees, sunning itself. Q’s boat seemed to distinguish itself as a utilitarian vessel, as opposed to a cruiser—a pleasure-seeking vessel. I didn’t recognize all of the equipment rusting near the bow. The boat had a tower, maybe ten feet tall, where the captain (Q, I supposed) sat and steered. There were a few fishing poles, and maybe a sonar, leaned up against the railing, though I wasn’t sure what a sonar even looked like, let alone what its function might be. It might have just been an electrical box. I made a big deal about walking the length of it—thirty-six feet, I was told—making impressed-sounding noises in my throat. It seemed to satisfy my dad. Q, on the other hand, became immediately immersed in preparing the boat for departure, reeling in lines and adjusting knobs. He moved more quickly than usual, his typical calmness replaced by a new, vibrating intensity. I tried not to seem nervous, though of course I was. I shrugged off the idea of a man-sized orange life preserver. If nothing else, I’d try to look the part. I didn’t remind my dad that I’d never learned to swim, and I wondered if he remembered. Maybe he thought I’d picked it up somewhere.
“All aboard!” my father yelled cheerfully, and I sent a text to my mother before we were surrounded only by sea and I had no service: on boat now. There were two lawn chairs on the deck, and my dad gestured for me to sit down with him. From the captain’s seat above us, Q put the boat in reverse, and steadily backed away from the slip. It felt not all that different from being in a car, and I wondered if the rules of the sea were at all similar to the rules of the road. Another thing I anticipated about my sixteenth birthday: the freedom of a driver’s license.
The day was the blue-dream color of poetry. Seagulls swooped and cawed. My dad held a Corona, sipping it slowly. The island shrank as we glided farther away, until it appeared like the hump of an exotic animal, lowering itself into the sea. The rush of wind in my face felt good, refreshing, like a baptism. I felt a fullness in my chest at the presence of my dad next to me, the glint of sunlight off the boat’s silver railings. He and Q had both taken off their shirts, tying them around their belt loops in an eerily similar fashion.
“You want a beer?” he asked.
“You’re on vacation,” he said, springing up from his seat to go get me a bottle from inside the cabin. “Sip slowly,” he said, as though I’d never tasted beer before. I didn’t want to wreck it for him. If he wanted to think he was offering me something new, then let him. I could have said, You have sex with a man! There is nothing newer to me than that.
The beer was cold down my throat. I felt immediately relaxed. Maybe that had been my father’s goal. I felt the effects after only a little while, sitting jauntier in my lawn chair, my whole body looser. I looked over at my dad. He didn’t look bad, I thought, for his age. I was glad Q was not in my line of sight so that I’d have to draw my eyes continuously away—what effort that might require.
“So, Dad,” I said, leaning closer to him, “what’s Q’s obsession with this fish?”
He sighed, as though he were the long-suffering spouse. “It’s awful,” he said. “I can’t even describe to you. I mean, the level he takes it to.”
The boat bucked over a wave, and I splashed beer onto my white tee shirt. Did this mark the moment when our relationship would change? Were we something else now—a father and daughter who confided in each other about men, about boys? The thing my mother always wanted, I realized, sad for her all of a sudden.
“How so?” I asked.
“He has a personal vendetta,” he said now, his voice lower, as though Q could possibly hear us over the sound of the outboard motor.
“What did the fish do to him?” I asked.
My dad shook his head. “Ruined his career,” he said. “Nobody in the scientific community believes him. The whole,” and here my dad made those air quotes with his fingers, “‘charter fishing company’ makes practically no money, not that he needs it. It’s just so Q has a reason to hunt down that fish.”
“And when he finds it?” I asked.
My dad looked at me. He reached over slowly and touched my hair, brushed it out of my eyes. I felt the blood rush to my face. “You look pretty with your down hair like that,” he said.
“When he finds it,” he continued, “I guess he’ll try to study it. I guess he’ll try to prove he wasn’t nutty.”
“People thought Q was nutty?” I asked.
“Oh, honey,” he said to me now, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes against the sun, “the world is full of people having the wrong impression of you.”
After a while, Q yelled from the captain’s seat, and we both jumped, as though we’d been caught badmouthing him.
“A little rough,” he said. “Just warning you guys to hang on.” I wished the seats were cemented to the ground. The boat tilted, and my chair slid across the deck. I yelped—an embarrassing noise, like helium escaping.
“Don’t worry,” my dad said in a coaxing tone, “just a little rough patch. Just a little rough patch of waving waves,” he said, in that singsong voice, as though I were a child. I didn’t resent it just then. If anything, I missed my mother—her endless capacity for holding me in her arms, for treating me like a child who needed comfort. Maybe that’s exactly what I was, what I always had been.
“What are you doing up there?” my dad shouted, because Q seemed to be ignoring the waves—ignoring the path of least resistance—scanning the ocean with his large, heavy-duty binoculars, his gaze somewhere far off, knee propped against the wheel.
“I might see him!” he shouted.
My dad sighed, his feet planted firmly, while my lawn chair skidded across the deck and I made another yelp, reminiscent of a terrier.
“He always thinks he sees it,” he said. “Hold on, Jen.”
“It’s him, Izzy!” Q yelled. “I’m pretty sure it’s him.” The boat was bucking now. I didn’t know if it was the ocean, or Q’s poor driving, or both. I felt nauseous. I could feel myself perspire in all the weird places sweat didn’t belong, my pulse banging in my wrists, my throat. I thought I’d vomit.
“Shouldn’t you go up there?” I shouted at my dad.
“Q,” he said, “don’t make me come up there.”
Another large wave struck the side of the boat, and Q made his own, deeper unadulterated yelp. I stood up, trying to see what was going on. Q made another sharp turn, and the boat pitched deeply to one side, and with it, me—thrown overboard.
The water was colder than I’d expected; it took the breath right out of me.
In the water, I flailed my arms. I remembered an image of myself as a child, making this same gesture when I’d wanted my father’s attention at the park. He’d sometimes pause, waiting with his perfect posture, as I kicked a soccer ball. At the time, he was consistent in his air of distraction. What did that make me? The heir of distraction.
Now, I bobbed up and down, the water sliding over my head and into my mouth. I tried to float, but it was difficult to get on my back, to do the dead man’s float I’d done before. I swallowed gulps of sea water. As I fought for higher positioning, my arms growing tired, something new occurred to me: Q’s tattoo was the whale-fish, curled up on his chest like a burden he carried.
What I didn’t know at that moment was that Q would not be my dad’s boyfriend for much longer. It was not an arrangement that suggested permanence, my dad told me later, though at fifteen, I hadn’t known that. It hadn’t occurred to me that my father The Leaver could be the one who was Left. It didn’t occur to me that Q wasn’t the exotic—my father was, a family man, a stable enterprise.
Later, when I was in my twenties, Q would invite my father to his wedding, and Izzy would take me as his date, and the man Q married would be built very similarly to Q, a yachtsman and an athlete. They look like they could be brothers, I’d whisper to my dad, when the groom kissed the groom. Eating his salmon filet, Izzy would look pale and out of place, like a teacher at a school dance. I’d wonder then what Q had said about him to his friends while they were living together: “I’m dating this old guy with a kid. But he tries awfully hard. He’s very sweet.”
At the wedding, my father and I would dance to Why Do Fools Fall in Love, Izzy leading me smoothly around the dance floor, complimenting my hair. By then, I’d be firmly planted in a bad relationship—a man my mother hated for me—in which he was always leaving and I was always trying to lure him back, or else to coax some love out of the empty space he left.
“I saw you naked,” I would tell Q that night, drunkenly, my breath hot in his ear, as I pretended to congratulate him. Later, I’d wish I’d said something else: Did you really love my father? maybe, or Did you ever find your fish?
But here, right now—I choked on sea water and felt dizzy, flapping my arms uselessly, sun/sea/sun/sea, until I couldn’t tell up from down. Strangely, I called for Q, thinking he would be the one to save me.
Instead, my father shouted directions slowly and calmly from the deck of the boat. “First one arm, now the other,” he said. “Kick your right foot and then your left,” he said. “Take a little breath,” he said, in his singsong voice, teaching me from afar how I might survive.