The splash woke me up. Or was it a shout? Ripples lapped against the fiberglass hull. I reached for my 69-year-old husband, Mark. Not in bed. Had he jumped overboard? It hadn’t occurred to me that he might try to wander when we were at anchor. Doctor Preston had prescribed a tracker for home, but sailing had never been a problem before.
I sprang from the berth, past the galley and climbed through the companionway to the cockpit. Naked and shivering in the morning fog, I grabbed the boom for support. A peasouper had shrouded our anchorage. The early light made ghostly silhouettes of trees on the shoreline thirty yards away.
Cold vinyl cushions in the cockpit, damp with dew, were pocked with puddled footprints that led astern. The swim ladder was up in its locked position. Mist rose around the boat from water slick as a mirror. The fog smelled salty and damp, close with marshland and mussels.
No answer. Not a sound.
Not even watermen puttering around in their deadrise workboats working the crab lines nearby. They always started before dawn. If you dropped anchor too close to a trotline you were guaranteed an angry encounter at dawn, a lot of wake and engine noise. If someone were swimming unseen out there in the fog, I thought, and stopped myself.
I unlocked the ladder and it splashed down into the dark green water.
“Mark? Mark, where are you?”
I slipped the horseshoe life preserver from its cage and made ready to throw it.
Eight feet off the stern, the inflatable dinghy strained at its line. An arm flopped over the yellow side and held on.
Mark hung there shivering. His eyes were closed, his gaunt cheek pressed against the rubberized hull. He seemed unaware of me. From here he looked okay. His breathing was calm, not panicked. I relaxed. The wet vinyl cushion felt cold under my legs.
“We should have put the Bimini up last night,” I said, trying to bring him back. Trying not to scare him away. “Remember all the stars?” No answer.
I shifted, uneasy on the cold cushion. “It’s wet up here. But it’s much drier than where you are.” No reaction. “Are you taking an early swim?”
In September the water temperature around the Chesapeake stayed in the seventies, but I worried about hypothermia and the weight he’d lost. I worried about a lot of things like getting him to eat, keeping the knives behind childproof locks, keeping my job for the next two years, three months, and eighteen days until I could retire. We had planned to travel, to sail for a few years up and down the inland waterway until we returned home to drop anchor for the last time.
He loved skinny-dipping and he’d always been an exhibitionist. Whenever we had some privacy, he would drag me in for a swim and a smooch. At night in August, the diatoms and sea walnuts would skin our moving bodies in phosphorescent slips and flashes so that every game of tag sparked a trail of stars. I doubted he remembered any of that now.
I imagined him standing on the stern, holding onto the backstay and looking out into the fog.
Oh. “Did you fall in while peeing?” I could see myself doing that.
A guilty grin surfaced, his eyes still clamped tight. I laughed, and he broke into a smile. Yes, he had fallen in. An accident. Nothing more.
“Okay, Big Boy, the ladder’s down. Climb on up when you’re done. I’m going down to make coffee.”
Below, I toweled off and pulled on boxers, lit the propane burner, and filled the teakettle with cold water. Heat chased condensation up the metal sides of the pot. The stove would take the edge off the chill and the damp, but not right away. I pulled a t-shirt from his duffel and slipped it on, then went to see about eggs and toast with jam for breakfast, and stopped to listen. He should have been aboard by now.
Where was he?
Grabbing a few towels, I went back up to find him gone. He wasn’t clinging to the dinghy. He wasn’t hanging on the ladder. I checked the anchor line off the bow. He wasn’t there either. There was nowhere else to get a handhold, so he had to be swimming in the fog.
I heard then saw the disturbance in the water. He was heading into whiteness toward the channel where tidal currents could carry him away. If he did make it across the channel, he’d end up on the other side of the creek. An easy swim for him years ago, but he couldn’t do that now.
Did he know?
I hopped into the dinghy and rowed facing forward so I wouldn’t lose sight of him. It was awkward, but it worked. My grandmother had taught me that trick when I was eight or nine during one of my visits. She had an original set of Johnson Brothers Willow Blue dinnerware and I adored the Chinese images that told the story of star-crossed lovers in a Mandarin court. Forbidden love. I was already desperate for quiet romance and the certainty of a single love, and so I was drawn to the plates, the saucers, the teapot, because hope was right there. Forever. All my memories of childhood seemed to fit in those blue fairytale cups.
The next year they were gone, replaced by unbreakable Corelle. Then another year and she was gone.
Mark had stood in our kitchen, staring at me with eyes that didn’t know me, shouting sentences he couldn’t form, smashing our everyday china in his frustration, the plates, the saucers, the cups. Our terrified cat streaked past me, and I just stood there and watched. When he was done, he let me come to him and hold him as we sank together to the tile floor amidst the shattered cups.
Now we had Corelle dinnerware, white and blank like all this fog. When I pulled alongside him he seemed exhausted.
“Mark. Enough. Get in the boat, please.”
He stopped to tread water. We drifted together.
“Please, get in the boat.” He couldn’t last much longer, and neither could I.
“Get in the boat, right now!” I yelled, stunning us both. “Right this minute.” I threw a line to him and he pulled himself over. “Give me your hand.” He did. “Pull yourself up with the other one. Now, throw your leg up and over.” He flopped like an exhausted fish onto the slats covering the bilge.
“Sit on this,” I said, guiding him to a towel, his skin cold under my hand. “Let’s get you dry.” I rubbed him down and draped him with dry towels. He hugged himself and shivered.
I leaned in to kiss his forehead. Please, just another day, another month, I thought. Was a year too much to ask for?
Impenetrable fog surrounded us. Now, I had to get us back.
“Remember Eleanor Roosevelt?” I did my best drag imitation. “To live, one must learn to make a nest in the storm.” He smiled at that.
Early in our relationship, thirty-seven years ago, that had been our mantra when times got hard, when I got laid off, when friends died of AIDS because there was no money for research, when gay panic and the Twinkie defense worked in court.
Mark and I got married because, “Oh. You’re not married?” the emergency room nurse asked. “You can’t see him until he signs these forms. Let’s pray that he’s conscious.” The bitch.
I feathered the oars, not knowing which way to go in this fog, fear swirling up around me. Would it have been kinder to let him keep swimming? I hated myself for thinking it.
Mark patted my knee, as if to say it was okay. “Stop. Whistling,” he said.
I listened. The teakettle sang through the fog. I had left it on. I headed toward that audible lighthouse. Aboard, I caught it just as the last tablespoon evaporated.
I made breakfast to the sound of a workboat across the channel. Mark and I lazed in the cockpit. The fog lifted, presenting us with all the signs of a beautiful day. I wanted to stay snuggled in our little morning, safe in our bubble of now. Now was now, but when we pulled anchor later, I knew it would be the last time, and I’d be adrift.