The first was Leon. A small, muscular boy. A midshipman at the academy. He knew about compasses, easterly winds, how to bring the boat about on white-capped seas. I went for his blond hair and his deep voice, both like honey, thick and golden and crowded, the waxen chambers, the echo in my chest.
Summer grew brighter, and I refused to go back home to New Orleans, nearly sixteen, without that first kiss. Sweet sixteen and never been. We never said it aloud. Those of us who stayed in the corners at dances, at our own tables. All girls, all the time, not too shy, but not quite pretty enough.
For the month of August I was away from that southerly place, where algebra notebooks got left behind and streetcars rumbled past and boys sat on the cafeteria steps, smoking because they could get away with it, and girls sat by them, the kind of girl I wanted to be. In that northerly summer spot called Castine, where the great aunts played games of Hearts and Gin in the afternoon, where the berries were small and bright blue, where the beaches were covered with rocks and sea glass and broken pottery, the rules seemed different. I dared myself to walk near the academy and its giant ship, moored by the town’s public dock, and when I did, the boys appeared. And then, even when I returned home, they kept appearing.
Leon with his bright curls. He had an arrow in his glance and shot me through the heart. My heart had room for so many more arrows. Little did I know.
Geoffrey with his roaming hands. Small, sweet hands that like to untie things. Apron strings, kerchiefs, the little gold clasp that held on my bikini top. His eyes were dark pieces of eight that blinked hard, sizing me up and then down, putting me in my place. “You baby,” he’d say, reaching out to pinch me.
Buzz with a laugh that broke apart the stars. He liked to drink and do it in his car. He took me to drive-ins and ordered iced cokes in paper cups that he laced with Jack. The smell of whisky on his breath and his breath against my neck. The only film I remember half-seeing is Lipstick, Margaux Hemingway looking down and me looking up through the strands of Buzz’s long hair, the vinyl seat pressed against my bare back, the twist of double-braid lashing around my ankles.
On the beach of rocks and glass and pottery shards, Leon’s hand in mine, I walked away from hair ribbons and shy smiles. He kissed me just around the bend from the gray house where the great aunts lived. I leaned against the splintering bulwark and felt his mouth on mine, warm and surprising, and closed my eyes. The weather was gray and coastal, like the great aunts’ house, like a cool hand on the back of your neck, but over Leon’s shoulder, when I opened my eyes again, the hills were blue and red, and I felt distracted. Robert Lowell had once lived in the house just above the bulwark and I could feel his lingering presence, in the crooked shutters and pale, weathered shingles, all coming apart and falling down the hill like so much poetry. And then a seagull went for us, two blonde heads too close to her nest in the tall lilac spikes of untended lupine. She drove us down the beach just in time to save us from the rising tide.
Leon’s letters arrived in the same way that the seagull’s young must have, too late in the season and demanding unimaginable things. I spread the pages over the flowered spread of my twin bed, so unlike the pale white coverlets in Castine, and read words like trace and lips and undone. Embarrassed, I put the letters away in the bedside drawer where later my mother would discover them. She said she didn’t read them, but I wouldn’t have cared if she did.
Around the edges of the lake, where bleached oysters shells were heaped, the metallic breeze carried traces of brackish water, diesel fuel, rubber boots. I had turned sixteen, saved from being all too sweet, but still sweet enough. I thought about sailing alone, then decided to sit on the shore and watch the shrimp trawlers head out, the dusk pink and violet and falling around them like the shellfish they’d soon catch. Leon was up north in that summer place where the sky was thinner, hued with blue-gray lines, and the sea carried the musk of gulls and lobster traps. For him, the summer place had become year-round. That autumn he wrote his letters, describing in slanted lines how he stood on the bridge of the training ship, still moored, going nowhere until spring, and through field glasses he looked out to the beach where we’d kissed, the gray house a smudge on the horizon.
The official end of summer and school a month in, I arrived at a friend’s birthday party too early, and the boy hosting it opened his front door in cut-offs and bare feet. A boy from the cafeteria steps, a boy with hands that gestured and lips that curved. He smiled and invited me in to a windowed room, where the floor was wooden and covered with record albums. He asked me to choose one and put it on the stereo. He went to change into jeans, another shirt, and I chose Blue. Joni’s voice headed into the slow evening like smoke and envy and wishing. When he came back, I realized not only was I early but that it was his birthday, too. I had only one gift, but he said he didn’t need anything, that my choice in music was enough.
The days grew shorter, but our shadows never seemed to diminish. The birthday boy with hands and lips and approving nods in my direction – due south – walked under the eaves between classes. And during classes. Simply leaving the building in the middle of biology, his dissection kit untouched, his partner unfazed. He bent the rules and I wished I could do the same. I noticed him more and more and stared at him out the window of our geometry class. Mr. Lê Lâm Trung chanted obtuse and isosceles in Vietnamese-French intonations and seemed not to notice my inattention.
Swimming and sailing on hold, Christmas crept in and then came the debutantes and their dates. I thought of Leon, how strange this would all seem to him. How he was buried in maritime studies, while I could barely fathom the inner life of a mollusk, the pearly insides so slippery and revealing. Did he count the days until summer? Did he counterweight the months by imagining his bed covered with more than a cotton sheet, a few wool blankets? Did he walk down to the shore, now covered with snow and wonder where the baby gulls had flown?
“Reveal more,” Geoffrey said. He sat behind me in homeroom. My last name began with V, his with W. He pulled a barrette out of my hair one morning. I found it later on the floor in front of my locker with a curl of white paper in its teeth. In blue ink, two words – your shoulders. Once we kissed in a closet under the stairs where chemistry supplies were stored, the crushed box of glass beakers, bunsen burners, and scales the only hint we’d been there. And a sweatshirt on the floor. Really, it was more than a kiss.
Out on Lake Ponchartrain, moving slowly to Lake Borgne, the shrimp trawlers pushed the blue-brown water apart. The seawall – barely a wall – more like a concrete staircase, led down into the water, rather than up. I stood on the top step and considered entering the lake, but it was February and far too cold. Instead, I walked along the rise, marked by topographical city maps as below sea level and somehow stretching even with the horizon. I wondered if Mr. Lê Lâm Trung had anyone out there, an uncle or a brother who searched for shrimp and threw back the bycatch of shimmering little swimming crabs and baby bluefins. Someone who had lasted the trip from Vietnam to Thailand, who had traded the boat crowded with countrymen for one covered in nets bursting with pinks and browns and reds. Someone who each day spied the battered docks and ancient cypress trees of Shell Beach and maybe even stroked the bright black hair of a son born here, in this place of Assumption and Lafourche, bayous all around.
Sometimes when the sun rose, it had a dirty color, like oyster shells lining a parking lot, like pottery pieces littering a northern beach. Other times I slept and didn’t see how the colors reached, rose-gold and rich, desperate to find a ceiling or a way out. I’d bury my head beneath my pillow, wishing the morning would disappear. And then I’d be late for school.
The streetcar swayed along its tracks, and I leaned against the closed window and tried to read Romeo and Juliet. Inside, the row of wooden benches, the smell of sulfur and dirty sneakers, the way the driver sang the blues. Outside, standing up, pedaling a bicycle too small for his long legs, birthday boy spotted me. He tried to keep up, pedaling faster, and then rode past. Way ahead. His hair, like mine, was straight and shoulder-length and flew out behind him. I knew he’d seen me watching him. He played basketball and dated cheerleaders. Girls who, aside from yelling and bouncing at afterschool games, were pretty and elusive, who didn’t seem to see him at all. I made this up, this not seeing him part. I imagined they saw plenty of him. Arm in arm, hull to hull.
Spring raced in with wild colors. Azaleas of pink and lilac, red and white, lacey and bright and reaching, outside front porches and in the park. In front of our apartment building there were only hedges, dark green and tinged with dirt. For Mother’s Day I went for flowers and ended up with a small bubble-shaped terrarium. My mother thought it sweet and just her style – no maintenance, a miniature ecosystem that would take care of itself. Until it didn’t. Rabbit tracks and moss and a small clump of maidenhair fern were the only plants that survived. The curved sides of the bubble encouraged condensation, drops cascading over greenery, and I thought of emerald and teal prom dresses caught in a downpour.
The phone rang and Buzz was on the other end. Talking dirty into the receiver. In English class he’d had some ideas about Shakespeare that our teacher, Mrs. Newell, didn’t appreciate. Not embarrassed by words like fuck anymore, I listened with interest. He wanted to take me to the drive-in and peel off my panties. I wanted to let him. I wanted to hear a car radio, maybe his, so that it sounded like the inside of my mind, crazy and careless and not quite right. One of Lowell’s love-cars might pull up and parallel park next to my desire. The moon would surely refuse to shine.
In World History class Mr. Ferdinandez peered through his glasses at all of us. He had wide eyes and black brows and white short-sleeved shirts. At lunch he’d play chess with the freshman boys. But in second period he leaned over his desk and told us about Catherine the Great and her penchant for stallions. We’d made our way through Eastern Europe into Russia, and before I even considered the horses, I thought of the word, penchant. The liking, the longing, the wishing, the preference for dark hooves and fetlocks, the stretch of the cannon widening up into the hock, the shuddering stifle, and the warm dusty, grassy air all around. I thought of how the moon must have swung down over the stable doors, lighting up the way. How the latch on the stall must’ve caught and then slid open with the slightest pinch of metal against wood. But I didn’t go any further than that. I’d been far enough myself.
In Word Power Made Easy there was this word with several meanings. We all hated this book, but Mrs. Newell made sure it was on everyone’s desk in her afternoon classes. “Mark it up, commit to it. Your SATs will be all the better for it.” She enunciated each it so that the t’s flew over our heads and out the windows. Outside, the days were sunny and new, breathless. Inside, I stared at the list of words on page 212. Obstreperous, belligerent, bound, cantankerous, unpropitious, bellicose, inimical. I focused on the little one-syllable word, crowded in by bullies. Bound by the nylon dock line in the back of Buzz’s beat-up Chevy. Bound for glory, for that closet under the stairs, for a rocky beach where scraped knees were traded for kisses. Bound to end up with more homework and detentions and trouble than I’d ever be worth. Without any limits we might leap through the open windows into all that boundless blue. I considered my options, all of them out of bounds and stupid, and then realized birthday boy was leaning in through the doorway, his hands on the doorframe. Behind me, Geoffrey breathed down my neck, asking for the answers to numbers 7 and 9.
On the lake directions were like sins, cardinal and complicated. The wind came at me, warm, south by southwest, up from the oil rigs out in the Gulf. If I ever sailed there, would a roughneck dive from his platform and swim parallel to my boat? Some boys liked land better than sea. Would the one who leaned in through the doorway finally loop his arm in mine? I’d only discover his feet on solid ground, landlocked, guided by the edges of a court, call it tennis or basketball. Games geared to gardens and gymnasiums. There were clear boundaries on land. Out on the water, they weren’t so clear. Joni’s words cluttered my mind – sea and sail and song and sinking. Though I thought I’d known, I’d lost sense of all I wanted. I’d lost all sense of direction.
At the drive-in BUtterfield 8 was showing. The coming attractions lit up the night and Buzz spilled a good portion of his Jack Daniels when he pushed me into the back seat. By the time Elizabeth Taylor had written No Sale in red lipstick across the bedroom mirror, I had rope burns around my wrists and ankles. I thought about how it all started with lipstick, and how it kept on going that way. Above me Buzz had his eyes closed, his breath tight and insistent. The Chevy’s ceiling was torn, as ragged as the feeling inside me, as rough as the nylon wringing my hands. I thought of boating knots. Rolling, clove, Lighterman’s hitches. A round turn and two half hitches. A bowline. But Buzz only knew about the bitter end of the rope, the one he held in his teeth. I stared up at the screen and listened to Liz, her voice sweet and melodic, how she sounded lonely even though she pretended she wasn’t.
Leon long ago gave up writing letters. I never answered, and his last note was short, never questioning, simply giving in to give up and maybe even forgive. I doubted that last bit, but went ahead and gave myself permission to keep on not responding. To keep on looking past corners into the odd light of winter and then spring, green and airy, and then summer, vast and muffled and loaded with free time. Geoffrey had taken up with a freshman girl who wore her hair in pigtails. I didn’t know whether to wish her luck or pity her. And then, right after the last day of school, I broke my right arm. “Fractured, honey,” my mom reminded me. Right after birthday boy waved to me from his too small bicycle and pedaled into the dusty, maze-like traffic and I waved back and thought about him the whole ride home. At my stop, I stepped off the streetcar and tripped. The driver who hummed the blues acknowledged me. First time ever. Face down on St. Charles Avenue and I hear, “You all right, baby?” I sat up in the middle of the paved road and tried to gather my scattered books, the junk that fell from my open satchel, and realized I couldn’t. I thought of halyards gone astray, bouncing off the mast, instead of pinioned tight. That was my arm. Or whatever held it together. “Well, honey, that’s just your second mishap in life.” My mother was clueless. She remembered my green-stick fracture, how at the age of barely a year I’d been reluctant to nap and jumped out of my crib. She had no idea then and she’d no idea now that her daughter was bored beyond dreaming. Until the doctor asked about the marks around my wrists.
Why is there is no such thing as north by south or east by west? Why does direction turn only slightly, instead of leaning full tilt into another place, another time, another anything? I wished for an island to occupy. Only the North Star, or a magnetic pole, to show me where I’d landed. Without doctors or mothers or boys. I ended up on a peninsula with great aunts. I supposed that was good enough. The ship was still there, hulking, its heaving sides a battled hint of gray. I walked down to Castine’s town dock and studied the slackness in the cabin cruisers’ hitch lines, how they looped through rusted cleats, and the tension in the bowlines that might fall around a girl’s ankle just so. My arm was in a sling and a tall midshipman, Stanley stenciled onto the back of his blue work shirt, stopped to admire my cast. His smile was too much, and like an idiot, I smiled back. There was no more poetry to Lowell’s hill, to the house that slowly fell down its slope, to the kisses that happened one summer ago. And there was nothing as pink and transparent as skinny little shrimp to catch in these waters, their currents too cold and secure for such fragile fish, shell or no shell. And in the boats heading out to sea, there were no promises. I wasn’t allowed out on the water anyway. I looked back at the tall midshipman and his smile. “You play Hearts?” I asked. “Sure,” he said. And we walked down Water Street, just above the rock-covered shoreline, a half moon rising into the early evening, its direction set and sure.