Fiction by David Portz
I hadn’t fallen out of my boat before I met Humboldt.
He stepped astride my boat when I was launching straight from a bank, steadied it – I didn’t know this man from Adam - and Ploop! I fell right over sideways and was wet the rest of the day. (Stifled laughs from other club members.)
Humboldt apologized like an outdoorsman – only once, and then he forgot about it. But he floated up to me later. Talked about mussels.
Later we ate oysters together. I was still a little wet. Humboldt tipped up oysters into his mouth and during conversation spit out little bits of shell. I liked to carefully mix horseradish and cocktail sauce and dredge my oysters around with the tiny fork. Shellfish disappeared into that man greedily. Beer in frosted mugs.
My small appetite and his large one appeared to dovetail.
We kept paddling together with the club but I avoided his gallant assistance.
A clammed-up man, Humboldt became boisterously happy when out-of-doors. On shore he was overly helpful, carrying half of everyone’s boat, only shooed off by touchier manhoods. On the water he was full of puns, and stayed in range of those who found them laughable. Most times I was willing to throw him a bone when others weren’t. He was always at my port or starboard.
To my yellow sit-on-top, a Sun Dolphin, he countered with a red enclosed kayak, a Pyranha. I went Teva watershoes and he went Keen. Then he affected those black Vibram V-Aquas with segregated toes. He’d stroll up when I was loading my cockpit and I wouldn’t recognize him. He kept a camelback strapped to his deck. A blue thermos rolled round below me.
When he penetrated my apartment he could not help but notice I had a kayak smack dab down the middle of my living room. He wiggled toward improved living arrangements.
The sex. We had both been married before. It’s nice to be touched again, the body craves it. (People know this who have gone without.) We were well past expecting that we qualified for others’ excellent bodies.
It was weird to stay in bed a long time Saturday mornings, and then it was natural. Ravenous on the way to breakfast we’d look into shop windows cross-eyed, dull and happy.
Naturally we married. We bought matching Current Designs. He chided to be careful about scratches.
Being a lobbyist for a funeral home chain meant Humboldt traveled and drank. Being a special education teacher meant I stayed put, temperate. Humboldt rediscovered vodka, craft beer and bourbon as the younger generation discovered them. Around the house he’d drink when things went well or awful. I trailed behind with spritzers.
His mother and then his father died, and the funeral home business offered no consolation. I tried to be present for him but he was taciturn and soused. He squabbled with his sisters over estate matters. Money that had been looser became tight.
I began to go out with my girlfriends Wednesday nights and that didn’t make him happy. “What do you talk about?”, he said. “Just about ourselves and what we’re doing,” I answered. “I’ve known these women a long time.”
His lobbying junkets became extended absences. I’d get with my girlfriends Friday nights. Saturdays I’d do club paddles without him.
Humboldt stopped pretending to like Vietnamese food.
We couldn’t watch the news together or even hear the same radio. We no longer read the Sunday paper at the table. Humboldt streamed talk programs to stay current.
He began making remarks when I mentioned women candidates.
We each ate instead of loving. Humboldt suggested we sell the tandem kayak.
Early on we joked about children’s names. We’re water people. We tried to come up with names for daughters, named after beaches. Myrtle of course. Shi Shi, Waikiki. A biblical-sounding name, Rehobeth. If we had a boy we’d name him Big Sur. Children’s names from rivers were just too easy, Issippi – a girl, St. Johns – a saint, so we confined ourselves to Canada. Skeena, Kootenay, Babine, Morice. Ultimately he fixed on “Zymoetz” whether a boy or a girl, and I realized it wasn’t a joke. We shelved the whole concept.
In the front seats going to dinner every time: “Where do you want to eat?” “I don’t know, where you want to eat?” Then more time in the driveway, shooting down each other’s suggestions. Driving to the Italian place we were both tired of, ‘because it’s quick’.
Therapy, therapy. If what one says to the other doesn’t matter.
My events with the children and their parents, Humboldt’s events with the undertakers. Begging off, each of us. Others: “I didn’t know you were married!”
We both felt it was near the end.
Humboldt came up with what he called the “Hail Mary Pass”. Humboldt had always wanted to go to Newfoundland. Rivers and brooks in Newfoundland that seem relevant to broken relationships: Half Moon, Old Woman, Bald Head, Piper’s Hole, Famine and Burnt Island.
I thought yes to Newfoundland. We’ll go to Newfoundland, a driving vacation on the Atlantic coast. Newfoundland was for us virgin territory. Newfoundland away from the US national politics, loss of parents, same old restaurants, workplace pressures, supportive girlfriends, being stopped at a traffic light with the wipers going frenetically.
I said yes, yes and arranged for a substitute. Then everything was all Newfoundland.
We flew up laboriously to St. John’s, the provincial capital. One hundred and ten thousand people, roughly the population of our neighborhood. In “Hail Mary” thinking, one hundred and ten thousand deliriously happy people. In our rental car, getting out of the city, we were stopped at a traffic light.
Humboldt did the driving up the cold coast. We went the long way round but were headed for Happy Valley/Goose Bay, then Fogo Island. We had nothing to talk about. We rode along for miles with the Atlantic out my closed window. Though together a long time I now felt awkward. I took photos out my window. A flat iceberg floating out there in a grey ocean.
We knew what we had to do when we got back, and we did it.
I go to movies I like with my friends and we have big laughing dinners. I feel stable in clubby Saturday paddles. My children, named by other people, are my children after all, growing up. I got a Labrador.
Humboldt moved to Minnesota, lobbies for farm-raised turkeys. Lakes in Minnesota that may be relevant, for all I know: Superior, Bad Axe, Bachelor, Hanging Horn, Embarrass Mine Pit, Winnibigoshish.
|The author, David Portz