The Starboard Sea A Novel, by Dermont, Amber
- ISBN: 9781250023438 | 1250023432
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 1/29/2013
AMBER DERMONT received her MFA in fiction from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Dave Eggers’s Best American Nonrequired Reading 2005, Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story, and Jane Smiley’s Best New American Voices 2006. A graduate of Vassar College, she received her Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. She currently serves as an associate professor of English and creative writing at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia and is also the author of the story collection Damage Control.
"The Starboard Sea is a touching, beautiful and deeply wise novel, a hymn to the bittersweet glories of youth. You will be enthralled." —Justin Cronin, New York Times bestselling author of The Passage
"In this affecting debut novel, Amber Dermont reveals herself as a writer of striking and abundant talent, sounding the depths of her narrator through his actions, yes, but even more so through the rhythms of his mind, so that you truly feel as if you are inhabiting his life along with him." —Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination and The Brief History of the Dead
"The Starboard Sea is a moving story of a young man coming to terms with who he is and what he has done. Dermont creates a powerfully real world. The sailing scenes are breathtaking, and the characters are complex and fully imagined. This is the debut of an enormously gifted writer." —Robert Boswell, author of The Heyday of Insensitive Bastards and Century’s Son
"Amber Dermont’s beautiful first novel explores just what it should: the dangers and joys of emergence into adulthood. Dermont has an extraordinarily observant eye and an elegant voice, and she illuminates particular aspects of her world—sailing, gender, class—with intelligence and compassion. Brava for this impressive debut." —Roxana Robinson, author of Cost and Sweetwater
"Amber Dermont has conjured up a preppy hall of mirrors, filled with hauntingly complex characters, grand houses and borrowed art, privilege and paybacks, and friendship touched with malice. The Starboard Sea blends propulsive mystery, lost love, and mournful coming of age into something layered, wise, and completely riveting." —Michelle Wildgen, author of But Not For Long and You’re Not You "The Starboard Sea is a beautifully layered novel with an authenticity that takes the reader beyond the clichés of rich preppies and exposes a world that is vivid, compelling, and heart wrenching. With it, Amber Dermont establishes herself as an exciting new American talent." —Mark Jude Poirier, author of The Worst Years of Your Life and Goats "In a series of seemingly effortless strokes, Amber Dermont's Starboard Sea has brought to life one of America's great literary outcasts. Set adrift in a storm of his own making, Dermont's Jason Prosper takes us on a journey into the darker depths of our human capabilities. Damaged and dangerous, by turns as despicable as he is lovable, Prosper's voyage is a treasure from a writer of dazzling gifts." —Holiday Reinhorn, author of Big Cats "Amber Dermont illuminates the bizarre and insular world of boarding schools in her debut novel The Starboard Sea, and her young narrator, Jason Prosper, is captivating. His is a unique voice, searching and full of heart. The Starboard Sea is sharp, funny, smart, and vastly entertaining.” —Victoria Patterson, author of Drift (Story Prize Finalist) and This Vacant Paradise
On the morning I turned eighteen, instead of a birthday present, my father tossed me the keys to his car and informed me I was finally man enough to captain his Cadillac. It was early August. I was doomed to trade the final blaze of summer for the first days of school. Dad kept the engine running while I half-assed my way through packing, racing around our apartment stuffing boxer shorts and sport coats into duffel bags. Instead of helping me, Dad ordered our ancient doorman, Max, to ferry my luggage to the car. In his navy wool uniform, all epaulets, gold tassels, and brass stars, his kind face glistening with sweat, Max looked like the commander of a sinking ship. I told him not to worry, but Max was adamant. “Okay,” I said, “but leave the heavy stuff to me.” More than anything, I hated being waited on, but I didn’t want to cause trouble for Max. We rode the elevator to the lobby and I told him, “For wearing that get-up in this heat, you deserve hazard pay.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Max said. “I get paid to look this pretty.” Max helped me load the car and wished me good luck. “It’s your senior year,” he said. “Enjoy yourself.”
My mother was still on vacation in Maine. It occurred to me that the only soul in all of New York City I would miss would be my doorman. “Take care, Boss,” I said and slid into the driver’s seat.
Once on the road, Dad turned down the air-conditioning. I could feel the heat radiating off the dashboard as we cruised away from Manhattan, weaving along the East River, headed for the coast of Massachusetts. Dad sat beside me in the passenger seat, alternating between the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. Every few minutes, he checked the road over his bifocals. “Jason Kilian Prosper, this isn’t a race.”
My father was tall, with a good two inches on me, three on my older brother, Riegel; the Cadillac was custom-designed with extra depth and legroom. A pair of life jackets could have been stowed in the space beyond his outstretched legs. Still, my father struggled for comfort. He lifted his left knee toward his chest, wincing when the bones cracked. His blue linen pants remained crisp in the damp heat. Even in pain, Dad sat composed and pleated, looking less like a dad and more like a member of the British House of Lords.
According to my father, I was “damaged goods.” Selling me to another school wasn’t going to be easy. This was the summer of 1987, the year of damaged goods: Oliver North and paper shredders, Gary Hart and Monkey Business, record-high AIDS, and a record-high stock market. That spring, Mathias Rust, just one year older than me, eager for a thrill, had evaded Soviet air defenses and landed his Cessna 172B in Red Square. That fall, the entire country would be riveted for two and a half days, as rescue workers in Midland, Texas, plotted to pull a baby from an abandoned well. And in the meantime, I had gotten myself banished from Kensington Prep and was about to start my senior year at Bellingham Academy.
“What’s the drill?” I asked, breaking our silence. “Drinks with the headmaster? Nine holes of golf?”
Dad folded his newspaper into a tight, narrow column. “The headmaster is out of town. We’re meeting with the dean. Dick Warr.”
“I hope he lives up to his name,” I said.
“Try behaving for once.”
“I stopped behaving myself a long time ago.” The needle fanned over seventy-five. Before Dad noticed, I decelerated, slightly.
“Just graduate.” Dad scanned his newspaper. “Finish up for your mother. The poor woman. She doesn’t like to show her face in public anymore.”
“So I’m the reason Mom leaves the apartment in disguise. Go figure.”
“Your brother never speaks to me that way.” Dad cracked the side of my head with the Journal. His weapon of choice.
I don’t think he meant to hurt me, but the impact and surprise caused me to swerve. The corner of the paper struck my right eye, knocking it shut and, for a brief instant, I let go of the wheel. Imagined us hitting the guardrail, the Cadillac embraced by an elbow of metal.
“Get control of yourself, for God’s sake!” Dad pulled the steering wheel back in line.
For the rest of the trip, I half daydreamed and half drove, the car flipping forward and crushing Dad’s body. Leaving me to surgically excise what little was left of my dad from the wreckage. Snapping his legs off cleanly at the knees. No blood. Just bones and sockets, white as a whale’s tooth. On one knee, I’d scrimshaw the word “left,” and on the other, “right.” Neat and orderly. During long trips, the legs could be packed into one of those cases ventriloquists use to store their dummies. At last, Dad would no longer be in pain. His linen pants would drape and rest like opera curtains on the carpeted car floor.
“Pull over at the next rest stop. Time for me to drive.”
Our near accident had been his fault. For some parents, having children meant full absolution from any future mistakes. My father wouldn’t permit himself to be wrong. He shifted the blame of misplaced scissors, rising interest rates, and iceless ice cube trays all onto Riegel and me. Dad cheated on our mom and told our mom it was her fault he cheated on her.
My mother really had left our apartment in disguise. Decoyed in a rotating masquerade of ginger-haired wigs and cat’s-eye sunglasses, she’d chased after my dad and his harem.
Mom and I had spent the earlier part of that summer at our cottage in Maine. Our mornings devoted to relaxing on wicker porch chairs, watching the Iran-contra hearings, mixing champagne with grapefruit juice. As the men on the TV bragged and lied, denying their accomplishments, my mother turned the sound to mute and spoke to me about my father’s indiscretions.
“Of all your father’s mistresses, my favorite was this knock-kneed Eastern European hussy he would lug around on business trips, this woman Gayla, a dozen years his junior. Called her his ‘administrative aide.’ Gayla the Flying Whore is what I called her. I followed them once on a nonstop to the Caymans. Your father didn’t notice me in my red wig coming down the aisle to claim my seat in coach. He was preoccupied with his first-class hot towels, with brushing the white cloth against her neck. That woman took forever to get off the plane. Commandeering the aisle, prattling on to the flight crew while the rest of us cooled our heels. The way that woman laughed, with her teeth. I never laughed that way.” My mother swept the champagne flute to her lips, then confirmed that she was ready to hunt a new breed of Gaylas. From under her wicker seat, Mom pulled out a hatbox, opened the top, and withdrew a mass of chocolate ringlets. “My latest disguise.” She twirled the hairpiece on her fist and said, “When you were little, I caught you and Riegel with one of my old wigs. Remember? The hair all matted like a rat’s nest.”
“We used it to play tag. Chasing each other, then forcing the loser into the wig.” Riegel had made up this game as a way of torturing me. A brittle net material covered the inside of the hairpiece, and my brother the bully liked to pull it over my nose and push the scratchy lining into my face. The suffocation became my own definition of blindness. Not an absence of light, but a prickling concealment. A rough and painful mask.
“I guess we both played games with the damn thing,” Mom said.
Mom was wrong to tell me about Dad. To let me know that he cheated and to make me afraid of the ways he could hurt me. He was a swindler passing for a saint, and as I sat beside him in his big American luxury car, I thought, “Be careful, Dad. I’m on to you.”
* * *
My father had his wild streak, but he drove his Cadillac slow and steady like a grandma rocking a baby to sleep. It took us all afternoon to reach our destination. We exited the highway and a wooden historical marker welcomed my father and me to the small Atlantic village of Bellinghem, spelled with an “e.” Another sign, this one metal and posted just a few yards away, welcomed us to Bellingham Academy. It was impossible to tell where the school ended and the town began. A run of dorms resembled coach houses. Fenced roads between the dormitories felt like estate driveways. I’d been to Bellingham twice before for dinghy races. My sailing partner Cal and I had won our individual races but lost both regattas to the home team. They sailed high-performance Fireballs and had an ocean advantage over schools like Kensington that practiced on lakes with shifty winds. As I stared at the waterfront, the color and movement on the ocean created an optical illusion in my mind. The entire school appeared to float on water, like a life raft. I felt weightless. The rhythm of the waves reminded me of naval hymns, of songs about peril and rescue.
Most of us who found ourselves at Bellingham had been kicked out of better schools for stealing, or having sex, or smoking weed. Rich kids who’d gotten caught, been given a second chance, only to be caught again then finally expelled. We weren’t bad people, but having failed that initial test of innocence and honor, we no longer felt burdened to be good. In some ways it was a relief to have fallen. To have fucked up only to land softly, cushioned, as my dad reminded me, “by a goddamn safety net of your parents’ wealth.” Bellingham offered us sanctuary, minimal regulations, and a valuable lesson: Breaking rules could lead to more freedom. Because the school catered to thieves, sluts, and dope fiends, it was understood that additional transgressions would be overlooked. If you could pay, you could stay. I comforted myself knowing that I’d lowered all future expectations. So long as I didn’t torch my dormitory or poison my hall mates, I was free to take full advantage of the lax standards and leniency. But all this freedom would indeed cost me something: a stain on my reputation. I’d been Bellinghammed. It was almost as bad as winding up at Choate.
* * *
Dad parked in front of the Academic Center, a modern two-story building that clashed with its traditional surroundings. While the outside walls were dressed in silvery cedar shingles, the roof wore a crown of glass. A massive arch of shiny blue windows curved atop steel rafters. A giant dorsal fin. Either the building was masquerading as a fish or a fish was moonlighting as a building.
“Monstrosity,” Dad said, slamming the car door. “How many donors does it take to screw up a building?”
“Looks like a barracuda,” I responded.
All over campus, parentless students raced about wearing Vuarnet sunglasses and Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts. Happy delinquents newly freed from their families. A tribe of boys stood in a circle playing Hacky Sack. Each one wore a brightly colored woven Guatemalan belt tied around his waist like a signal flag.
My father took great pride in introducing me to the men in charge. His way of taking care of his son. We entered the Academic Center and found Dean Warr’s office. Dad told me to wait in the lounge, so I slid into the bucket seat of a brown leather chair. At my father’s request, I’d thrown on a blue blazer and a red tie decorated with dark blue sailboats. The tie was a gift from Ted Turner, commemorating the ten-year anniversary of his victory at the America’s Cup. I’d swiped it from my dad. I looked entirely presentable except I’d forgotten to wear socks. My ankles stuck out all white and hairy, and I was worried Dad would notice, criticize me. In a few minutes, I heard laughter. The distinct sound of hands slapping backs. I stood up and pulled my pant cuffs down to my loafers.
“Dick, I’d like you to meet my son, Jason. Jason, this is Mr. Warr.”
The dean had a broad back, a narrow waist. He smelled like limes and wore the school’s colors: a maroon jacket and blue pants. The sport coat sleeves stopped short around his wrists. We shook hands. He invited me into the bright white light of his office. Dad waited outside.
The office had a view of some newly planted saplings.
“Your father tells me you’re quite the sailor.” He sat down behind his desk.
“When the wind is strong,” I said and found a chair to sit in.
“I think we SeaWolves have a lock on the Tender Trophy this year.” Dean Warr leaned forward on his elbows.
“That’s tremendous, truly.” I nodded, flashing my teeth and folding my left leg across my right knee. I covered the bare ankle with my hand.
“We’ll get you set up with Mr. Tripp, the head coach.”
The dean’s facial expression reminded me of a clown’s smiling face lacquered onto a plastic Halloween mask. I wanted to reach over, grab the mask by its bulbous nose, and snap the cheap elastic string against his ears. A reverse slingshot.
“Your father’s an important man. He’s shared his deep concern over your future. At Bellingham, we specialize in fresh starts, second chances.” The dean raised both of his eyebrows but tilted his head, so it appeared that only the right brow was lifted.
“I just hope to graduate in the spring,” I said.
“In the meantime, enjoy yourself. Our girls are grade-A fresh. Not like that monastery Kensington. I bet it can get lonely in those boys-only woods.” Dean Warr continued smiling, his lip sat caught on his teeth like a crook on a barbed-wire fence.
I said nothing in response but wondered what my father had told this man.
“Good.” He stood up. “No more questions.”
Up to this point, I hadn’t asked him any. I didn’t move out of my chair, felt welded to it. “I was wondering if you could tell me how they named the school.”
“After the town and the Bellinghem family,” he said.
“But they’re spelled differently. I noticed driving up. Thought there might be a story. Some history.”
“The ‘a’ looks better on the letterhead.” Still smiling, he opened the door of his office and checked his watch.
* * *
Dad and I said good-bye in front of Whitehall, my new dormitory. Before he had a chance to drive off, I decided to cost my family something more and reminded Dad that I needed an allowance. He slipped a leather folio from his sport coat, tore out a blank check, and signed it. “I trust you to fill in an appropriate amount.” Dad told me to open a bank account first thing in the morning and then to call his current secretary, his latest Gayla, to report the exact figure I’d deemed necessary for my financial survival.
We scanned through the car one last time to make sure I had unloaded all my belongings.
“Do me a favor?” he asked. “Try to like this place.”
“They’re all the same, right?”
“Don’t lose that check.” He looked me over. “Buy yourself a pair of socks, and call your mother.”
“Be sure to tell us if you need something.”
I knew we weren’t going to embrace, but it surprised me that my father didn’t hold out his hand or pat my back or wish me one last happy birthday. He nodded once and settled into the driver’s seat.
There wasn’t much for me to unpack, but the thought of hanging blue button-downs in my closet and fun-tacking posters and tapestries to the bare walls made me feel claustrophobic. I decided to go for a walk.
I followed the local wind, the sea breeze, and made my way through the town center, passing a post office, a general store, a bank, and an array of restaurants and gift shops. Bellinghem was a one-street venue. Everything the town had to offer sat lined up in a neat shooting gallery. Oval-shaped wooden signs swung outside the shops. Names stenciled in gold leaf. The SINGING LIGHTHOUSE, the CHARMED DOLPHIN, the LOST MERMAID. I figured these businesses catered mainly to parents visiting their children on weekends. Quickly, I thought of my own store names in defense: the Toxic Oyster, the Slutty Sea Nymph, the Nauseated Fishmonger. I imagined a time in midautumn when my parents would drive up for the weekend. My mother would make us all wait while she picked out some overpriced silver knickknack in one of the gift stores. The three of us would then walk down by the waterfront, speaking only to point out different yachts in the harbor. In the evening, at dinner, Dad would order a bottle of his favorite Barolo and make sure that I had half a glass. This is how it had been at Kensington. Year after year. But no one in my family had mentioned any visits.
After a mile or so of passing saltbox houses, the road turned into a long camel stretch of sand. A groin made of orange and purple stones ran into the ocean and divided the beach into two sections. My best friend Cal and I had spent summers together in Maine hurdling and jumping off every big rock we could find. I always seemed to be drawn to jagged edges.
The high tide rushed in and washed over the break. That far from shore, only the sharp tips of the rocks were visible, and a strange figure stood a hundred yards out, surrounded by waves, with no discernible path behind itself. For a brief moment, I thought it was a cormorant. The tall black birds have no oil on their feathers, so they stand with wings unfolded, waiting for the sun to dry their plumage. But as I walked closer, I saw it was a person. Even closer, and I knew it was a girl. She had a bundle of curly hair streaming behind her. The wet feathers turned into the folds of a long, colorful skirt. Her arms rested at her sides. She belonged on the prow of an ancient vessel. I couldn’t see her face, but I imagined it. I’d been to Greece and seen broken statues. A tour guide told me that the heads were removed because the Greeks felt they were too beautiful for the conquering Romans to see. Had even one of those faces survived, it would have been hers.
For a few minutes, I just stood and watched her. She never moved. The tide continued to rise, and I knew that she risked being trapped. Risked being washed out by a rogue wave. With the break flooded, there would be no way for her to walk back to shore. Even a strong swimmer could be pulled out into the rip.
I waded into the cool water, pushing out with slow, deliberate steps. Waves lapped against my pant legs and sprayed the edges of my jacket. The sand fell loose, collapsed, and tried to swallow one of my loafers. Unwilling to lose a shoe, I pulled away from the suction and gripped my toes tightly into the soles. Before continuing, I thought quickly and removed my jacket, holding it above my head. I walked, pressing down with only my heels. Shivering and strutting in delayed motion, I looked ridiculous. The girl stood farther out than I had judged, and just as I thought I was getting closer, the horizon changed. Expanding the distance between us.
“Hello,” I shouted. “The tide’s coming in.”
She didn’t hear me, or else didn’t feel like responding.
“The break’s flooded,” I yelled even louder. “You’ll have to paddle in.” I was still a good hundred yards from her, but my voice echoed and rang out over the waves. “Hello. Over here. Can you swim?” If she couldn’t, I’d need to dive in and carry her back. “If you’d just nod or something to let me know.” Her face remained hidden, with only a hint of profile. A long, narrow nose and tall forehead. “I’m a strong swimmer. I can hold you.” She offered no response. Maybe she was deaf, or foreign. “Do you want me to come out? Hey.”
The “hey” got her attention. Just impolite enough. Just slightly menacing. I wanted to take it back and let her know I was concerned, not rude. She turned around quickly and looked to the beach. Then, like a gymnast preparing for a run of flips and tumbles, she skipped over the water in double time. From my view, she appeared to dance on the ocean. The rocks were arranged underneath her, just inches below the surface. Not the life-threatening flood I’d imagined. She hadn’t been in danger. Not really. I stood, wet up to my hips, watching her reach shore.
Once she hit the sand, she hesitated and looked back. I took my jacket off my head and straightened my necktie. She smiled to me across the water, waved, and cried out, “Thank you.”
“But I didn’t do anything,” I shouted.
“You have no idea.” She waved again and started up the beach. Her voice didn’t sound distorted or strained, but close, as though she was in the water beside me.
“Wait,” I told her.
I tried to run and catch up but managed only to splash myself and drop my jacket. The only untouched part of me was the inside knot of my tie. I felt like a puddle.
The girl was safe and dry and gone.
* * *
Walking back to campus took some time, as I traveled in wet leather shoes that puckered and squeaked with the sound of warped windshield blades. I wanted to avoid being seen as this soaked bog creature, so I crept along behind trees and mailboxes, wringing out the drips in my jacket every few steps. Even wet shoes reminded me of Cal. He liked the barefooted feel of summer grass and heated pavement. His own feet had high arches that worked like suction cups, gripping better than the treads on any boat shoes. When we sailed together, he loved to hitch himself to the trapeze and move along the gunwale with just the skin of his feet holding him to the edge of the hull. I followed him always in damp sandals or sneakers.
Now that Cal was gone, the differences between us had become more evident. I’d heard that amputees had phantom pains, twitches and spasms, their bodies unconvinced that the limbs were removed, still flexing the elbows not there and extending the make-believe knees. I felt more like the severed arm or leg longing for its missing body. I was anxious for something to cling to. For years, I’d been happy to simply experience my life as an extension of Cal’s. Another limb that picked up the slack. While knowing him, I’d always searched for similarities. For anything that might make us interchangeable. Cal and I looked alike. Both of us had wild brown hair that turned woolly when our mothers forgot to have it cut. Our bodies were trim and athletic. We were sporty sailors, lean and lithe, not larded or buff. We walked with the same crooked swagger and low bent knees. Each of us had a cleft in our chin, a weakness in the muscle that we thought made us seem tough. But there were differences. Cal had broken my nose by accident and joked that my face was asymmetrical, that he had caused my good looks to be a millimeter off. I had to agree that he was the movie star and I was the movie star’s stunt double. My eyes were a dull slate gray, Cal’s were magnetic. His eyes were two different colors. One was green. Not hazel or tortoiseshell, but a rain forest green. The other varied from misty gray to violet: his mood eye. My face received comfortable, comforting glances, but people stared at Cal. He commanded an electric attention. The only other physical difference between us was obvious at the end of a summer’s day. Cal’s skin tanned olive brown, and mine turned red with blisters. Cal belonged on a postcard from the Mediterranean. I, on the other hand, would always be Prosper the Lobster. At least, that’s what he called me.
Each time in Maine was a vacation from the months we spent together as roommates at Kensington. In the summer, we sailed without a thought for competition. Read without worrying about exams. We drank Johnny Walker Red and smoked Pall Malls. Kurt Vonnegut smoked Pall Malls, and we liked him. Mornings, we would fill a deep and ancient cooler with roast beef sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, and liquor thieved from our fathers’ reserves. We sailed all day and slept out on my family’s boat at night. In the late hours, we rested together, planned trips.
“As far down as Tierra del Fuego. Recreate Magellan’s voyage.” I massaged my neck with a beer bottle, rubbing the cold glass against my sunburned skin.
“You know, they named a part of the Milky Way after Magellan,” Cal said.
“What, like a star?”
“A whole cloud of stars near the Southern Cross. It’s some kind of phenomenon.” Cal rested on his back and stared up at the night. He turned over on his side and looked at me. “You know, the tip of Orion’s sword, it’s not a star. It’s another galaxy.”
“A whole other galaxy?” I asked. “How do you know?”
“Celestial navigation. At night the stars are all real sailors ever need.”
“Sea of Tranquillity,” I said.
We were quiet for a long time, drinking our beers and waiting for the air to cool.
* * *
After changing out of my wet clothes, I made my way to the main dormitory, Astor, which housed the dining hall. New England boarding schools are a small, incestuous world. In theory, I already knew everyone I was about to meet. If I didn’t know someone personally, I knew of him, or knew his grip on the social ladder. Knew if his dad was a friend of my dad. Knew what his mother had kept in the divorce. Knew if his apartment faced Central Park from the east or the west or not at all. Knew if he wintered in Vail or St. Moritz. Knew if he summered at all, and if so, was it the Vineyard, the Hamptons, or Tuscany. Knew if his nanny had a French accent or a French Creole accent. Knew if he gave a shit about money. Knew if he couldn’t wait to self-destruct.
On the path from Whitehall, I ran into a friend from Kensington, Tazewell Marx. Taze the Dazed. He’d once bragged that he could fashion a bong out of anything: a Granny Smith apple, his roommate’s oboe, the trophy cup Cal and I brought back from Nationals. Our sophomore year, he’d been expelled for making pipes in ceramics class and selling them at the Kensington Christmas Craft Bazaar. The headmaster’s wife bought two for her ten-year-old nephew, when Tazewell cheerfully explained the pipes were “bubble pipes,” for blowing soap bubbles.
On weeknights, dinner at Bellingham was jacket and tie. As I adjusted my dress coat, Tazewell sneaked up behind me and pulled down the sleeve. He pinched my biceps.
“What’s this? A mosquito bite?” Taze let go of my arm and walked backward in front of me. He smiled with straight, expensive teeth.
I’d always liked Tazewell. His father had gone to Princeton with my dad. He lived on the West Side, three blocks down from the Museum of Natural History. In the settlement, his mother was awarded the vacation homes in Vail and Bridgehampton. Taze spoke Pidgin French, especially when wasted. He had thick dirty blond hair, an aristocratic face. Just the right combination of preppy and unkempt. One wrist showed off his grandfather’s antique Piaget. The other wrist was stacked with colored bracelets woven from embroidery floss. The bracelets were faded and frayed. Together, the watch and the bracelets were proof that Taze belonged to our world. The sun and salt water faded the bracelets. The same sun and salt water tanned his skin and burnished his hair with blond highlights. Rest, play. No one ever returned to school pale. The jacket Tazewell wore was blue-and-white-striped seersucker. I owned one. Every guy I ever went to school with owned one. I think we inherited them from our fathers. We all managed to wear them about once a year. Regattas, dining clubs, lost days.
“I want you to meet somebody.” Tazewell turned and called back to a large lumbering figure wearing a yellow necktie knotted around his head. He looked like a cross between a frat boy and a chieftain.
“Jason Prosper, this Sasquatch here is my best buddy, Kriffo Dunn.”
The curves of Kriffo’s forearms were visible through his sport coat. He pulled the yellow necktie down over his head and around his thick neck, keeping the tie loose, his collar too tight to button. We shook hands and my fingers disappeared inside his fist. He had short black hair, his cheeks like a pair of round strawberries.
“Very pleased to meet you.” For a big guy, Kriffo had a gentle, almost mellifluous voice.
“I was psyched to hear you were coming.” Tazewell walked behind me and tried to step on the backs of my shoes.
“Not half as psyched as your girlfriend.” I stopped short. Taze ran right into me, and I elbowed him in the chest.
Kriffo laughed. The two boys made for an unusual couple. Tazewell, tall and trim, the handsome prince, always prepared to charm. Kriffo, the laconic and oversized knight-errant, willing to shield. I knew that Tazewell played soccer, and, for an instant, I saw Kriffo on the soccer field, geared up in a giant football jersey and shoulder pads, thundering down the sidelines, guarding his friend, and knocking down opponents. Kriffo’s family owned a sporting goods empire. DUNN was emblazoned on lacrosse sticks, across kneepads, under chin straps, and on the backs of crash helmets. His family had its own catchphrase: “Tell your opponents, they’re Dunn.”
We entered the dining hall, a spartan room with long, dark tables, captain’s chairs, and low-hanging brass chandeliers. The walls were covered with portraits of sour-faced elders. Taze and Kriffo took off in pursuit of other distractions, leaving me lost. The line I thought I needed to stand in didn’t move and only seemed to get wider as more bodies filed in past me. I decided to force my way up to the front by saying, “Excuse me,” pretending to know where I was headed. This didn’t work. Students carrying trays of food seemed to be coming out on one side of the hall. I entered through this exit.
My New York sensibility kicked in. I felt myself hailing a cab. Cutting through a crowd of people, I reached over for a tray and silverware, then picked up a plate of chicken with roasted potatoes and a bowl of red gelatin. Just as I was leaving, a gangly boy wearing an apron and carrying a ladle accosted me.
“You … you can’t do that,” he stammered.
“What can’t I do?”
“You cut. I saw you cut.” The boy had a small patch of acne on his left cheek.
If I’d been smart, I would’ve kept walking. I would’ve ignored him completely, but now I was trapped.
“Look, I’m just hungry, that’s all.” Balancing my tray with one hand, I gestured with the other.
“Everyone’s hungry,” the boy said.
“Hey, Plague. You causing trouble?”
I swung around and saw Taze and Kriffo. For a moment, I worried that they were calling me Plague. Then I turned and caught the boy slowly backing away.
With his lilting, saccharine voice Kriffo asked, “What’s the disease, Plague?”
“This guy cut everyone.” Plague looked away.
“Jason.” Tazewell put his arm around me. “I want to apologize. Plague is a wombat who sometimes forgets he’s a wombat.”
Wombat was a term we used at Kensington to describe the servers, cooks, and janitors who waited on us. It felt good to hear a familiar term I could identify. Part of me enjoyed being an insider. But another part of me hated the meanness, the smallness of the word. Wombat. The kid looked completely normal, even the acne on his face was nothing special, but he wasn’t a student. A local kid paid by the school to serve us. I wondered what his real name was.
We—Tazewell, Kriffo, and I—sat on the far left of the dining hall, beside a wall of French doors that looked out onto the crowded harbor and an island across the bay. The only movement on the water was a single rower gliding by on a scull.
“Senior privilege,” Tazewell told me. “Underclassmen can’t sit by the windows. Hey, Race, don’t you have a home to go to?” Taze picked up a roasted potato wedge and pitched it at a boy with shaggy orange hair. “Fucking day student. Fucking day flick.”
“I missed you too, asshole,” Race said. His orange hair had splotches of wine red in it. The fur of a bleeding fox.
“My good friend, Jason Prosper.” Taze tipped his head toward me.
“I know this guy.” Race Goodwyn held out his arm. “I competed against you in Tortola. This kid kept me sailing inside his wake. Cutthroat but smart.”
I put my tray down and shook Race’s outstretched hand. “I’ve never been to Tortola.”
Cal had spent his final vacation there.
“Well, the guy sure looked like you. Do you sail?” Race asked. “I’m the captain of the team.”
Taze spoke up. “Prosper is going to save the day. Win us the Tender.”
I didn’t like the idea that people were relying on me to win something for them. I wasn’t even certain that I wanted to keep sailing. Since Cal’s death, I’d developed a nasty habit of capsizing.
Race squinted at me. “So, Prosper, sounds like you’re a cause for celebration. You want to crew for me?”
Before I had a chance to answer, a short guy with a big blond head approached our table. With his oversized head he looked like he’d managed somehow to stunt his own growth. He carried two dinner trays and placed one in front of Race.
“They ran out of Jell-O,” the blond kid explained.
“Did they run out of silverware too?” Race asked.
“Eat with your hands,” Tazewell said. “Like a man.” Taze pulled off the remaining skin on his chicken and folded it into his mouth, laughing as he chewed.
“Stuyvie, this is Jason Prosper, my new crew,” said Race.
“I’m Stuyvesant Warr,” Stuyvie said. “Race’s sidekick.”
Stuyvesant Warr. Dick Warr. Faculty kids were the worst. They spent all of their time trying to prove that they weren’t snitches, and then the first chance they got, they narked on everyone.
Race had the build of a sailor—slender, not overly muscular—but he was too tall to be swift footed, or at least he was taller than me. Together we’d be a cumbersome and awkward pair. I imagined the two of us tacking, scrambling across the boat and taking on water. Plenty of sailors believed in the classic hierarchy: The helmsman gave orders while the crew took orders. But Cal and I both understood that the roles were less about power and prestige and more about being right for the job. Still, I couldn’t help toss attitude at Race. “Sorry,” I said. “I’m a full-time helmsman.”
Tazewell and Kriffo snorted, while Stuyvie looked down.
Race stared at me the way a patient father looks at a disobedient child. “Unlike you, Mr. Helmsman, I’m what you might call a good sportsman. I’d crew for a girl if it was the best thing for the team.”
That night at dinner, my friends were all trying to act older, more confident, more aloof, and yet I knew or would soon learn their boyhood secrets. At twelve, on an Outward Bound trip, I had listened to Tazewell, red faced and hysterical, cry for a good twenty minutes because he was frightened of riding a chestnut Tennessee Walker down a nature trail. Our guide eventually persuaded him to saddle up behind me. While the old mare kept her smooth four-beat walk, Taze clung to my waist with anxious, clawing hands. Kriffo’s real name was Christopher. According to Tazewell, Kriffo spent his entire childhood insisting he was the real Christopher Robin. Kriffo, eighteen and gigantic, still tucked his pillows into faded pillowcases illustrated with cartoons of Piglet, Owl, and Eeyore. Kriffo would confide to me that all of the men in Race’s family died in their forties from the same congenital heart defect. Race’s dad spent his forty-third birthday with his son fishing for blues on their Boston Whaler, then, without warning, dropped his pole, grabbed his son’s wrist, and collapsed. By the time Race taxied the boat to shore, his father was dead. Race asked his algebra teacher to help him devise a formula that would tell him the exact number of days he had left until his own forty-third birthday. I’d learn from Race that Stuyvie, the dean’s son, had applied to Bellingham twice before finally being accepted. We all had our own private humiliations and heartbreaks. The trick was pretending we didn’t.
Our dinner conversation stalled on how to improve the basketball team’s chances that winter.
“I’ve been telling Stuyvie he’s got to get his dad to start recruiting some brothers to help us out.” Race raised his fist and mimicked the black power sign.
“Next time you come to the city, I’ll drop you at 125th Street. You can catch a gypsy cab and scout for talent,” Tazewell said.
“I don’t know why Chester won’t play.” Race scrunched up a bunch of paper napkins. He played imaginary basketball, shooting his napkins over Tazewell’s head.
“Chester’s too good for us.” Tazewell smiled. “He’s waiting to go pro.”
“No way.” Stuyvie blocked a shot. “Dude can’t even dunk.”
Sitting across from us, at another table but within earshot, was Chester Baldwin. His father was a federal judge and Chester’s family owned a summer cottage with tennis courts in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. I’d met Chester on the ferry from Wood’s Hole to the Vineyard and accepted an invitation to play a few sets at his home. I’d never been in a black person’s house before. The rugs were all cream colored, and I’d been asked to remove my shoes before entering the foyer. I stood in his living room, holding my racquet, desperate to hide the holes in the toes of my socks. On the fireplace mantel, there was a framed photograph of Chester as a little boy shaking hands with a thin-lipped Vice President Bush. On our piano, my mother kept a similar photo of Riegel and me meeting a red-lipped President Reagan.
While everyone at my table joked, I glanced over at Chester. A deliberate look, and Chester was prepared for it. He expected people to scrutinize his reactions. Holding my stare, he reached down and picked up one of the crumpled pieces of napkin that Race had thrown. Chester smiled at me. He balled up the napkin into a tight sphere, aimed, and shot the basket. The napkin ball landed in my water glass and quickly expanded. I looked at the glass, then picked it up and toasted Chester. He nodded his head.
“You know what we should really do?” Taze asked. “Go to Jamaica and bring back some Rasta men. Buy this school a greenhouse and get our ganja farmers to work their magic. You should see this new poster I have up in my room. Huge blowup of Bob Marley, kicking back, smoking a big spliff.” Taze reached into his pocket and pulled out a flat metal cigarette case. “Speaking of which, let’s hit the Flagpole.”
We got up and headed outside. I started to pick up my tray, but Kriffo knocked my hand.
“Leave it. Gives our pal Plague something to do.”
* * *
The Flagpole was a narrow stretch of lawn next to the seawall that served as the designated spot for illegal smoking and drinking. I thought it would have made more sense to hide in the woods or sneak off to the beach, but everyone seemed comfortable smoking under the cover of an oversized American flag. In the dark, I could see several orange embers pass back and forth between hands like swinging rows of Japanese lanterns. The cigarettes looked too big for our young faces.
“Brizzey,” Tazewell shouted. “Move your sweet ass over here.”
I’d forgotten about Bristin Abbington. She was from Greenwich and liked coming into the city for parties.
“Kriffo, are you going to let him speak to me that way?” It was nighttime and warm out, but Brizzey wore purple sunglasses with violet lenses and a fawn-colored fur coat that skimmed her knees. The coat was buttoned all the way up to the collar, and by the careful way that Brizzey shifted and teetered, I suspected she wasn’t wearing anything underneath.
“You lighting up, or what?” As Race spoke to Tazewell, he reached over and ran his hand down the sleeves of Brizzey’s coat. “Our naughty chinchilla,” he said.
“It’s tanuki, silly.” She spun around and laughed. “Japanese raccoon dog. Very rare. I should probably be arrested for wearing it.”
Bristin was the girl my mother wanted me to date. I’d kissed her first, at the Gold and Silver, an annual dress ball in Manhattan for the predebutante set. She’d talked Cal and me into going with her on a triple date. Bristin was my girlfriend for a while, I suppose, although we never really did much except listen to Beatles albums and make out on her little sister’s bed. She would stop me whenever “Dear Prudence” came on, abruptly sit up, brush her hair, and try to hum or whistle. She never sang the words. If I was a shit to her, and I know I was, it’s probably because she couldn’t find the melody.
That night at the Gold and Silver, I did a lot of fondling and groping. I slobbered over all my dance partners like some wet and hungry puppy. None of this was discreet, but then everyone date swapped. That was kind of the point, I guess. You drank either vodka and orange juice or rum and Coke. You tried not to mix the two. After a certain blindness set in, you saw how many people you could mess around with. It was careless in the most deliberate way. Learning the fast art of infidelity. Most guys were proud and comfortable as they moved from date to date, but I felt clumsy. Like I was playing charades using somebody else’s hands. On top of that, I lived in constant fear of running into one of these girls again.
“Brizzey knows Jason.” Taze blazed a joint and tried to decide whom to pass it to.
“We went to the Gold and Silver.” She opened the top two buttons of her coat, revealing a swath of tanned skin.
Girls like Bristin never let you forget that you messed around with them. They’ll hold it over you, as though there’s some residual source of pleasure remaining to be paid. The wind blew my hair across my face. I wanted to be in my room unpacking.
“The Gold and Silver is très juvenile.” A girl in shiny black pajamas and pink ballet slippers strode over to us. She held a silver lighter in her hand and flashed the flame off and on as she approached.
Tazewell leaned over to me, his eyes glazed. “Diana’s got a body built for two.”
After four years of being co-ed, Bellingham still didn’t have many girls. Demand far outweighed the supply, and the economics of the situation necessitated that the guys trade off with one another. All of the girls lived on the top floor of Astor Hall—the only place that was off-limits for guys. We weren’t allowed to visit them in their rooms and I thought of the girls tempting us like so many Rapunzels, hanging out windows and letting down hair.
Diana had white eyelashes that glowed in the dark. She greeted Tazewell and Brizzey by kissing them on both cheeks.
“Somebody was in France this summer,” Race joked.
“Ugly American.” Diana stood in front of Race, lifted her hand to his chest, and slowly wrapped her fingers around his tie. She pulled him in close, and then, before any of us could stop her, she set the point of his tie on fire with her lighter. The material didn’t flame so much as melt and smolder. Diana let go and jumped back.
“Crazy pyro bitch,” Race yelled. He pulled his tie loose, whipping it over his head and casting the thin snake of material to the ground.
Brizzey clapped her hands and laughed. “Synthetic meltdown.” Her laughter was infectious. With the exception of Diana, who calmly hid the lighter in her hand, stroking the igniter with her thumb so that a long lick of flame appeared to rise from her fist, we all began to laugh, not knowing why.
“Is someone going to control her?” Race unbuttoned his collar.
Tazewell sneered at Race. “Don’t be such a dick wagon. Go home. It’s past your bedtime.”
“You know she started it.” Race was already walking backward toward the pier. He hopped into a Boston Whaler and geared up the engine.
Kriffo explained, “He lives across the harbor, on Powder Point. Throws a great party, so we keep him around.”
From there, things began to break up around the Flagpole. I was glad that I wouldn’t be the first to leave, but I didn’t want to wind up going to someone else’s dorm and hanging out. Most of the senior guys lived in Whitehall, but they were all heading over to Squire to watch Platoon. My clothes still needed to be put away, and I had to throw some sheets on my bed if I didn’t want to sleep on a plastic mattress. Classes were beginning the next day, and I wanted to check over my schedule.
As I crossed campus, I looked up and tried to find Orion. Celestial navigation was never my strong suit, and as I stood on the lawn in front of my new dorm, a sudden loneliness hit me. Cal was dead and I was at a new school, running around, wearing shoes without socks, and picking stars out of the sky. I stood there for some time, with my face up, not really searching for anything.
Copyright © 2012 by Amber Dermont