On a Sunday morning in late July, at the end of my first-ever visit to Miami, I took a cab from my hotel to Snapper Creek marina to join a woman named Marse Heiger, whom I’d met the day before. When I stepped out of the cab, I saw Marse standing in the well of her little fishing boat, wearing denim knee shorts and a yellow sleeveless blouse, her stiff brown hair pinned under a bandanna. She waved and gestured for me to climb into the boat. She poured me a mug of coffee from an aluminum thermos and started the engine. “Ready?” she said.
We puttered out of the marina, under a bridge from which two black boys were fishing with what looked like homemade poles, down a winding canal flanked by mangroves. The knobby, twining roots rose from the water. I sat on a cushioned bench and Marse sat in a captain’s chair at the helm. She handed me a scarf and told me to tie back my hair, which I did. We passed an egret standing stock-still on a mangrove root, then emerged from the canal into the wide, open bay. The Miami shoreline stretched out in both directions. Marse picked up speed, and each time we came down on a wave, I gripped the corner of my bench.
I’d grown up in Decatur, Georgia, just outside Atlanta, and had been to the ocean only once, when I was eleven years old. My parents and I had spent a weekend on Saint Simons island, in a one-bedroom rental cottage three blocks from the beach. That weekend, I’d seen a dark fin from shore, but my father had said it was probably just a dolphin. And though I’d spent a few afternoons on lake pontoons with friends during college, never had I been out on the open water. From halfway across the bay I could see the low silhouette of downtown Miami, where Freedom Tower spiked above the blocky buildings. The bridge connecting the city to Key Biscayne looked like a stroke of watercolor. Above the wind and whine of the engine, Marse named Miami’s parts for me, pointing: farthest southwest were the Everglades, then the twin nuclear reactors at Turkey Point—just built but not yet in operation—then Coral Gables and Coconut Grove, then downtown. To the east, the Cape Florida lighthouse squatted at the tip of Key Biscayne, signaling the edge of a continent.
We landed hard on each wave and the spray hit my face. Marse’s boat—an eleven-foot Boston Whaler with a single outboard engine—was, in my estimation, little more than a dinghy. When we’d traveled fifteen minutes across the bay, Marse pointed ahead, away from shore. There was nothing there but sea and sky, but then a few matchbox shapes formed on the hazy horizon. They grew larger and I saw that they were houses, propped above the water on pilings. I counted fourteen of them. As we neared, I saw that some were painted, some were two stories high, some had boats moored at the docks, and some were shuttered and still. They stood on cement pillars, flanking a dark channel along the rim of the bay, as if guarding it from the open ocean. Marse slowed the boat as we entered the channel, and when we came to a red-painted house with white shutters, she shifted into neutral. A larger boat was tied to the dock, but there was no one around to greet us. Marse cut the engine and the world stilled. “Where are they?” she said. A plastic owl perched atop a dock piling. An open bag of potato chips sat in a rocking chair on the upstairs porch.
“Guys?” called Marse. She stepped to the house’s dock with the stern line. I took her cue and stepped up with the bowline. I imitated Marse’s knot, a figure eight with an inward loop, and after the boat was secured, I heard shouting in the distance. I turned. Two men stood on the dock of a stilt house eighty yards east; they waved at us. One was dark-haired and held a duffel bag, and the other was fair-haired and wore bright orange swimming trunks. Marse waved back, and because the waving went on for several seconds, I raised my arm as well. As I did, the fair-haired boy dove off the dock into the water, then started to swim.
I’d taken the train from Atlanta two days earlier to attend the wedding of a college girlfriend. I’d met Marse at the reception, and we’d spent an hour chatting about Atlanta and Miami, and about the bridesmaids’ dresses and the best man’s toast. Her given name was Marilyn, but Marse—rhymes with
While we waited in rocking chairs on the upstairs porch for the boys to arrive, Marse filled me in. The dark-haired boy was Kyle, her older brother, and the fair-headed one was Dennis DuVal, whose parents owned the stilt house where we were sitting. Kyle and Dennis were in their last year of law school at the University of Miami; Marse was a year behind them. “You’ll like Kyle,” Marse said. “Girls tend to.”
“Dennis is mine. That’s the plan, anyway.”
She wore dark sunglasses and she’d pulled off her top to reveal two triangles of purple bikini. Her stomach was flat and tan, with taut creases across the navel. The boys were yards from the dock, arms and legs lashing, sending up brief white wakes. “Does Kyle know I’m coming?” I said.
She nodded. “Don’t worry, there’s no pressure. You’ll be gone tomorrow, anyway.”
It was true: my train back to Atlanta left the following afternoon. In the time since I’d graduated from college, I’d dated a few colleagues from the bank where I worked as a teller. I was twenty-six years old, and though I’d come close, I’d never been in love. “What’s your plan with Dennis?” I said.
She took lip balm from her pocket and applied it, then handed it to me. “There’s this fund-raiser every year at Vizcaya,” she said. She didn’t explain what Vizcaya was but I already knew—it was a Renaissance-style villa on the bay in Coconut Grove, surrounded by elaborate formal gardens, open for tours and events. I’d visited Vizcaya the day before the wedding, sightseeing. I’d walked alone through the overdressed rooms, then stood on the limestone terrace and watched sailboats cross the bay. “Everyone dresses up and picnics on their good china and drinks champagne.”
“You’re going to ask him?” I said.
“I’m hoping he’ll ask me.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
She frowned. “You’re no fun.” She stood and lifted one bare foot onto the porch railing, then folded over to touch nose to ankle. I was tall but Marse was taller, and her limbs were sleek and muscular. “Besides, that’s why it’s so great that you’re here. You’ll be my impartial third party. Just watch him, see how he acts.”
“I’ll do my best.”
The boys reached the dock in a flurry of splashing and pulled themselves onto the transom of the big boat. The fair one—Dennis—took a towel from the console and dried his hair, and the other one—Kyle—hauled up a small duffel bag he’d strapped over one arm, then reached into a cooler and opened a can of beer. They resembled, in their unself-conscious mannerisms and the energetic timbre of their voices, overgrown children. Dennis called up, “Welcome!”
“Did you bring the burgers?” called Kyle.
Marse ignored him and smoothed her hair with both hands. “OK?” she said to me.
She wore no makeup and her hair was long, her body lean and tan. “You look great,” I said, because she did. We went downstairs side by side. The boys stepped onto the dock and Marse greeted Dennis with a quick embrace. His eyes were blue, his face was pink from exercise, and he’d grown a dusting of red beard since his last shave. He smiled at me. “Who are you?” he said.
“Frances Ellerby,” I said. I shook Dennis’s hand, then Kyle’s. Of the two of them, Kyle was the looker. His eyebrows were thick and dark, his nose was sharp, and his teeth were white. He had a wide, confident smile and ropy muscles. Dennis’s nose was crooked (from a boxing injury in college, I would learn), and his teeth were uneven (he’d resisted braces), and his legs were pale and skinny. “I hope Marse told you about our mission,” Dennis said to me. His hair, drying in the sun, stuck up at odd angles. It was more red than blond, and it needed a cut. Freckles spotted his shoulders and earlobes. “Just because this is your first time,” he said, “don’t think we don’t expect you to contribute.”
“Damn straight,” said Kyle. He opened the duffel bag he’d brought from the other stilt house, pulled out a machete, and removed its sheath; it glinted in the sunlight. They had swum to the other house, which Marse told me belonged to a family named the Becks, to borrow the weapon and also to prove which boy was the faster swimmer. Kyle had won.
“What’s the mission?” I said.
“I don’t want anything to do with it,” said Marse.
“She disapproves,” said Kyle to me. He brandished the machete in the air, then brought it down over an invisible kill. “Take that,” he said, “and that.”
Dennis took the machete and set it down on the flat top of a piling. “Let’s eat.”
The boys cooked burgers on the grill on the upstairs porch while Marse and I fixed potato salad in the kitchen. “What do you think?” said Marse. We could see Kyle and Dennis through the kitchen window. They stood with spatulas in hand, swatting at mosquitoes.
“Of which one?”
She reached over and pinched my elbow. It was an intimate gesture, a gesture fitting old friends. It was Marse’s style, I gathered, to rush into intimacy. I was flattered. “Come on,” she said.
“He’s cute,” I said, and she frowned at me. “I can’t tell yet. I need more to go on.”
Marse put down the knife she was using to dice the potatoes. In her expression, I recognized a cautious optimism I’d felt many times. “I know he’s not interested right now,” she said. “But I don’t see why he couldn’t get interested.”
She was pretty and strong. There was something dynamic about her, something vital. “I don’t see why not,” I said.
There was, explained Dennis and Kyle over lunch, an electric eel living in a submerged toilet bowl under the stilt house dock. “It’s the meanest-looking creature you’ve ever seen,” said Kyle, chewing his hamburger.
Dennis nodded. “It looks like a very old man. It looks like something that would yell at a kid for cutting through the yard.”
I laughed. Marse crushed a peanut shell between her fingers and handed the nut to Dennis. “It’s probably been there for years,” she said.
“My father sank that bowl a year ago,” he said, “and I’ve swum by it a hundred times without that thing poking out at me.”
“Why did your father sink a toilet bowl?” I said.
“For the fish,” said Dennis.
“But—” Marse started.
“Real fish,” said Dennis. “Playful fish. And coral and plants and such. We replaced the downstairs toilet, and we wanted to see what would grow there.”
“You have your answer,” said Marse.
“It could hurt someone,” said Kyle. “Shit, it flashed its fangs at me, and I’m big. What about a kid? That thing could grab hold of a little arm.”
“Ridiculous,” said Marse. She handed me a peanut, then winked without letting the boys see. I admired the way she baited them.
Dennis stood up. There were crumbs on his lips. “I think it’s time,” he said, “for the skeptics to see for themselves.”
Marse clapped. We followed Dennis downstairs, then lay on our stomachs on the dock, watching the rim of the toilet bowl skip beneath the water’s surface. The water was the near-cloudy green of jade dishware, shrouding the seafloor. Marse jumped up and snatched the machete from the piling. “Dennis, you are not going to kill that animal.”
Dennis faced her, smiling slyly, and I saw that he’d never intended, truly, to kill the eel. “We’ll catch it,” he said. “We’ll give it a new home.”
“Where?” said Marse.
“I thought we were going to kill it,” said Kyle.
“We’ll take it to Soldier’s Key,” said Dennis. “We’ll find it a cozy little cave in the reef.”
“We’ll all be electrocuted,” said Kyle.
Marse put down the machete and Kyle reached for it. She snatched it up again. “No,” she said, pointing a finger at him.
There were two nets on the premises—a flat one with holes the size of playing cards, which wouldn’t hold the eel, and a round one attached to a pole, which was too small. Dennis decided to swim back to the Becks’ house, where a cabin cruiser was docked, to return the machete and borrow a different net. He took off his shirt and shaded his eyes, searching the channel. It was empty. The only boats nearby were fastened to docks, rocking on their lines. It was early afternoon, the sun directly overhead. Westward down the channel, people stood in tight clusters on the dock of another house. Party noises—music, laughter—reached us in muted chirps. The whole world—the houses, the blue water, the still shoreline in the distance—swam in thick white light.
Dennis dove into the channel, sending up a stream of white bubbles. Kyle tossed him the duffel bag with the machete inside. We watched until he arrived at the neighboring house. He climbed up the transom of the cruiser, then stepped onto the dock. “I don’t understand,” said Kyle to Marse. “You used to rip the arms off your dolls.”
“That’s different,” said Marse. She slipped out of her shorts and spread a towel. I took her cue and removed my shirt, revealing the top half of a navy one-piece. It was the only swimsuit I owned. Kyle went to the big boat and returned with sweaty cans of beer. I took a long swallow of mine, then unzipped my shorts and wiggled out of them, frowning at my pale legs. Wasted on the young: I didn’t know how pretty I was, with my smooth skin and strong limbs. I had the habit of slumping to appear smaller and more feminine. Yet I admired the way women like Marse—she was almost as tall as Dennis, nearly six feet—seemed to relish their height. I lay down and put a palm on my stomach. The fabric was warm from the sunlight. “Here he comes,” said Marse.
I sat up. Dennis, returning from the other house, carried a wad of netting above his head as he swam. He struggled to keep the net in one hand while taking clumsy strokes with the other. Every few strokes, a corner of the net dangled and he stopped to gather it up again. “Jesus,” said Marse.
Kyle, who’d been lying with his face over the water, splashing at the eel, moved to stand beside us. His shadow darkened our towels. I scanned the channel, empty of boats. We were quiet. We were, I assumed, all imagining the same scenario: if the net came loose and Dennis found himself under it—what then? Could he keep his head above water without thrashing around? He could lie on his back, maybe, and breathe through a square in the net, and Kyle could swim out or Marse could take her boat.
Dennis inched closer. I kept glancing at the mouth of the channel, certain that a speedboat would come screaming down it, spreading white wake. Dennis’s s stroke was sloppy. I didn’t know him well enough to decide if he would have considered the danger of swimming with a net. Why didn’t he drag the net behind him, or put it in the duffel bag? Maybe, I thought, he was one of the careless but lucky, as so many people are.
Kyle bounced on the balls of his feet, as if preparing to dive in. From where she was sitting beside him, Marse put a hand on his leg. “Don’t,” she said.
A corner of the net dropped behind Dennis’s head; he kept swimming, oblivious. I took a breath and Marse looked at me. Kyle called out to Dennis and Dennis stopped swimming. Kyle gestured. “Pick it up,” he shouted, and Dennis gathered up the net again, then resumed swimming. I could see the light lines of his legs through the water, the white bottoms of his feet. He reached the dock and tossed the net onto the wood. Kyle kicked it aside and braced himself against a piling, then reached down to help Dennis climb out. I sat down beside Dennis on the dock. Kyle handed him a beer and he drank from it. My toes dipped below the waterline and, remembering the eel, I drew them up. “That was kind of dangerous,” I said.
Dennis looked at me. Then he looked at the net, heaped in a puddle on the wood, and up the channel toward the Becks’ stilt house. I saw the notion—the net dropping, his body flailing—enter his mind, but he shook his head. “I made it,” he said. It wasn’t bravado or machismo. He
“The eel?” He nodded. Beside us, Marse’s little boat rocked on the waves, its lines tautening and slackening. “Yes,” I said.
Dennis jumped up and stepped onto the big boat—this was his father’s boat, a twenty-one-foot Chris Craft Cavalier with a lapstrake hull—then returned with fins and masks and snorkels. “Marse?” he said, holding out the gear.
She sat up on her elbows and propped her sunglasses on her head. Dennis’s eyes slid over her long body. She shook her head. “Fish freak me out.”
Dennis handed me the mask and snorkel. “Try these,” he said. I pulled the mask over my dry hair, and Dennis came forward to adjust the fit. I watched him through the binocular lenses, and when he was finished, he tugged it off. “All set,” he said. “Get wet before you put it on.” He laid his hands on my shoulders for a brief moment, then withdrew them. I looked down at the water, at the flash of porcelain beneath the surface. I curled my toes over the lip of the dock, then pushed off.
The water felt like soft warm fabric. Dennis crouched and I swam until I was underneath him, several feet from the toilet bowl. He handed me the mask and snorkel and I pulled them on and tested the suction. Water beaded on the lenses and slid off. I fitted the snorkel to my mouth and blew out, then let it dangle from its loop in the mask. Dennis slid onto his stomach, his face over the water. His shoulders, spotted with watery freckles, flexed as he gestured below. “It’s pretty harmless, don’t be afraid,” he said. “Don’t get too close, though, and don’t—
I swallowed a mouthful of seawater and coughed. “Why would I put my hand inside the bowl?”
“Just swim on by, like you’re minding your own business.” There was the question of the eel’s intelligence. I watched the bowl through the water, keeping my arms and legs clear. I would learn, months later, that electric eels can discharge as much as six hundred volts of electricity—enough to kill a horse. “Do you want me to get in?” said Dennis.
“Stay there,” I said. I backed away from the dock, kicking, then turned and dove. Under the dock, the world was dim and calm. My body swayed with the current. I could see, but I couldn’t see far. I did not know, then, that there was a difference between the tidal current that tugged at my legs and the surface current, wind-driven, that lifted my hair from my neck and dropped it again. The sandy seafloor sloped toward the house, textured with a thousand vulnerable peaks, the way dunes texture a beach. By nighttime the seafloor would be wholly rearranged, each peak erased and re-formed in mirror image.
A school of needlefish, bright as new nickels, flashed by. I’d traveled several yards from the dock. Dennis stared down at me, his arms across his chest. I dove deep enough to fill my snorkel with water and kicked toward the toilet bowl. By the time it entered my range of vision, I could have reached out and touched it, and the eel did not uncoil or snap or even blink—it just nosed its bald head beyond the rim of its home, and watched as I kicked by.
I knifed one knee between my body and the dock, and levered myself up. “Well?” said Dennis.
“I saw it,” I said, breathing hard.
From his towel, Kyle raised his head. “Dangerous son of a bitch,” he said.
“I think you should leave it alone,” I said.
Dennis seemed pleased. He nodded and handed me a towel. “From now on, no more swimming near the toilet bowl.”
“Amen,” said Marse.
In July in South Florida, the sunlight fusses and adjusts a hundred times over the course of the day. By mid-afternoon, hours from sunset, the blue of the sky was rich and dense, as if a dusting of powder had been wiped from its surface. Marse and I chatted on the porch for a while, but the conversation grew sluggish and she started filing her fingernails, so I took myself on a tour of the upstairs. Every so often, male voices filtered up through the floorboards: the boys were underneath the house, gathering lobsters from traps for dinner.
The main room of the stilt house was paneled with wood and stocked with old appliances and a shabby wicker sofa with turquoise vinyl cushions—it occurred to me that the cushions would likely float, if called upon. The kitchen and living area shared one open space, with two doors that opened onto the west and north porches. This design gave the house an inside-out quality, like the interior of a cabana or, I imagined, a yacht. A counter separated the kitchen from the rest of the living area, and trimming the edge of the countertop was a dingy decorative rope that sagged down an inch here and there. The windows had thick jalousie panes that operated on turn-screw cranks. On the coffee table was a stack of fishing and boating magazines, and above the sofa was a black-and-white photograph of a man—Dennis’s father, I assumed—wearing white canvas pants and a captain’s hat and holding a swordfish on a line. Beside the photograph was a hurricane tracking map, its tiny magnets (blue for watch, red for warning) huddled in one corner. Above the sink in the kitchen hung an enormous marlin with sparkling blue flanks and gray-green eyes. A short hallway off the living room led to a small bathroom and two dark bedrooms, one with two beds and a ratty dresser and the other with two bunk beds. All the beds were neatly made with a thin white blanket folded at the foot of each. I wondered how all the furnishings had come to be here, how the house itself had come to be.
There was a shower in the small upstairs bathroom, and a window that faced south, away from shore. There was a two-story rainwater tank just outside the back window, and beyond, the lumpy green bundle of an island a mile away: this was Soldier’s Key. A toothbrush lay bristles-up on the window ledge. The mirror over the sink was tarnished and nicked, and in it my cheeks were raw with sunburn and my eyes were bright. Studying my reflection, I felt the queasy thrill of recognizing something unfamiliar in my own face.
I left the bathroom and went downstairs. Marse looked up when I passed but didn’t say anything. The bottom story of the house was open on all sides, existing only to elevate the second floor away from the water—except for one corner where there was a tiny bathroom and a storage shed with a generator inside. I opened the door to the generator room and inhaled the briny air. Beside the machine, which was quiet, there were ceiling-high shelves piled with tools and old shoes and fishing gear. I closed the door and walked to the dock, then crouched and looked through the slats of the steps that led from the dock to the first floor. From there, I could see beneath the house to the space underneath, where Dennis and Kyle stood in knee-high water. Sea urchins and sand dollars dotted the beige seafloor. Stripes of sunlight streaked through cracks between the floorboards. Dennis held a net and water inked the hems of his shorts. He noticed me and gave a wave. He pointed at a dark creature crawling across the seafloor. “Dinner,” he said. “You like lobster?”
“Yes,” I said.
“We’re going to feast.” Droplets of sweat or seawater fell from his hair. He glanced at the scuttling lobster, then back at me. “We’re almost done.”
“Take your time,” I said, then stepped up from the dock to the first floor. The water tower stood flush with the back of the house. I knocked on it to gauge the water level and it returned a booming, hollow sound. From below the house, Kyle called, “Come in!” and Dennis laughed. I looked around: the bottom story of the house was as bare as a picnic shelter at a park. The dock made a T with the first floor of the house, and alongside it the two boats rocked calmly on their lines, facing east, toward the Becks’ stilt house and the wide ocean beyond. The second story was aproned on three sides by a veranda with a white wood railing, but there was no railing on the first floor. One could simply step off into the water.
There was, however, a shallow wooden ledge affixed to the exterior wall of the downstairs bathroom. It looked like the scaffolding used by painters working on high buildings—and I guessed that this was more or less what it was, used originally when the house was being built, then left behind. The ledge was about eighteen inches deep. To get to where I could stand on it, I had to take a wide step over a triangle of empty air between the bottom floor of the house and the ledge itself. It didn’t occur to me until I put my foot down that the ledge might not hold. It did. Once I was standing on the ledge, though, I couldn’t manage to turn around. I slid down the exterior wall until I was sitting on the ledge, then crossed my legs so Dennis and Kyle wouldn’t see them dangling.
From seaward, the human eye can distinguish prominent shapes—the lighthouse or Freedom Tower or Turkey Point—at eight miles. To a person of my height standing above the waterline, the horizon is two and a half miles away: a stone’s throw. Considering the blue expanse of ocean in my vision and the thousands of glassy wavelets and the fathoms of veiled blond seafloor, I would have thought I could see to Cuba. I felt tremendously calm. I felt caught in a swell of well-being. Maybe I was lulled by the waves and the sunlight, or maybe I believed that there were no stakes on vacation, and had abandoned my usual anxieties regarding the future, that unnavigable ocean. When I returned home, I knew, I would spend evenings on the front porch of my apartment house in Atlanta, where I’d lived and worked since graduating from college, chatting with my neighbors and slapping at mosquitoes. Soon the sunlight would weaken and blanch, and I would add a quilt to my bedspread and unpack the space heater. A smattering of my still-single college friends would get engaged or married, and I would swim through fits of loneliness like cold undercurrents. But that afternoon, on that clandestine ledge, I felt like a stowaway whose trip had begun. All I had to do was wait.
Splashing sounds came from beneath the house. “Where did it go?” said Kyle.
“I’ve got it,” Dennis said.
With some effort, I swung my legs to one side and eased my stomach onto the bare, warm wood. I peered over the ledge until I could see beneath the house. Dennis was lowering a squirming lobster into a crate filled with other lobsters; their antennae lashed through the slats. Fish darted around the boys’ legs. “Join your family,” said Dennis to the lobster, and I pushed myself back into a sitting position.
The boys splashed through deeper water and hauled themselves onto the dock. “They’re angry,” said Dennis, and Kyle said, “Sweetens the meat.” Their steps on the stairs were noisy and quick. I knew I should join them, but I felt fastened to that ledge, partly from inertia and partly from reluctance to try to stand in so tight a space. Below me, seven feet down, the sandy seafloor was covered by only a few feet of water: it would hurt if I fell, might even break a bone. Dennis called my name. I thought it would confuse him if I answered—where would it seem like my voice was coming from?—so I stood, carefully. Then I heard his steps on the stairs. “Frances!” His voice was gruff and resolute. It grew quieter as he moved down the dock, away from the house, then louder as he returned. “Frances!”
I closed my eyes. It was his concern, the throaty pitch of it, that moved me to answer, even before I could manage to get myself off the ledge. “Here,” I said. Then louder, “I’m here.”
He appeared beside the water tower, leaning out beyond the back of the house. His mouth was tight. “What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Looking around.”
He glanced south, toward Soldier’s Key, then down at the water. “We wouldn’t want to lose track of you out here.”
“I wouldn’t want that either.”
The irritation slipped from his face. He looked around again, then stepped onto the ledge beside me. I edged over to give him room, and we stood with our backs to the wall, our arms at our sides. “Are you contemplating fate and the universe?” he said, not unkindly.
I smiled. I didn’t want to seem overly serious. “I like it here.”
“You’re welcome anytime.”
I wanted to say something about having felt like a different person all day, but I didn’t know what I meant or how he would respond, so I stayed quiet. He said, “My father was boating back from Bimini once, and he ran out of gas right out there.” He pointed. “He radioed the Coast Guard and told them he was ten miles northwest of the lighthouse, then his radio gave out. They didn’t find him for hours. By the time they did, it was night. He asked what had taken them so long and they said they’d been searching for him on the north side of Miami Beach. Then they’d realized he’d given his position wrong—the lighthouse was ten miles northwest of him, not the other way around. I look out there and I think, how could he make that mistake?”
I followed his stare into the thick blue distance, bare of markers or guides. It would take an enormous act of faith, I thought, to trust the jittery needle of a compass. “I can see how a person might get confused,” I said.
I don’t think Dennis meant to kiss me. He was leaning in to hear me, and when I turned our noses and cheeks met and—this amazes me still—neither of us backed away. Our mouths were uncertain. We kissed without embracing. We kept our eyes open. We could feel even then that we were at the beginning of something, I think—something that might go on and on before it ended. After, we faced each other.
“We could go skiing, if you want, before dinner,” he said. He reached toward my face. His fingers found my earlobe.
“I haven’t skied since college, and then it was in a lake.”
“It’ll come back to you.”
I could feel the warmth from his body and I could smell his clean, sun-soaked smell.
“If we’re going to go we should go,” he said, “or we’ll miss the daylight.”
I nodded. He stepped from the ledge onto the bottom floor of the house, then reached for my hand and pulled me over the gap. I walked ahead of him up the stairs, and as we went he kept one hand on the small of my back, the gentlest suggestion of a rudder.
The sun was easing toward the horizon by the time we headed off. We took Dennis’s father’s boat because it was more powerful and because, Dennis said, the hull of Marse’s boat was painted blue, which was bad luck. This was mariner lore: the sea might confuse the boat with itself and drag it down. I stood by while Marse affixed a towline and Dennis started the engine and Kyle handled the lines. The channel was dark and choppy and wide. Marse handed me a lumpy orange life vest and I tightened it at the chest and waist, but Dennis loosened it again. His knuckles brushed my stomach through the swimsuit. “It won’t come off,” he said, “but you don’t want it too tight.”
Our kiss rose in my gut. “I’m ready,” I said, and because the lie was so obvious, we both laughed. He went to the console and put the boat in gear. I stumbled when the boat moved. When I regained my balance, I noticed Marse watching me.
We agreed that Kyle would ski first, then I would ski, then Marse. Kyle rose on skis as if from land, as if the baton were a sturdy hand. I recollected all I knew about waterskiing: Treat the water like a chair. Bend your knees. Let the towline pull you up. Lean back. Relax. Kyle skipped over the waves, and the boat rounded the mouth of the channel and returned, passing the stilt house, before he fell. I don’t think he fell, actually—he threw his skis to the side and skidded, sending up white spray, then let go of the line. When we reached him, Marse asked if he wanted to go again, but he said he was wiped out. He climbed into the boat and took a beer from the cooler.
Dennis gathered the skis from the water—they were wooden, with a yellow stripe painted down the center of each. “Kyle will be your lookout,” he said to me. “He won’t take his eyes off you.”
“I’m an ace lookout,” said Kyle. He’d wrapped himself in a towel.
“Just don’t leave me there,” I said to Dennis. “When I fall, come right back.”
“I will,” Dennis said.
I slid into the water, avoiding the stilled propellers. I struggled with each ski, then stretched my legs in front of me, drifting from the boat. The water cupped and jostled me; I tipped and righted. Dennis gave me a thumbs-up and I returned it awkwardly, and then the line spun out and I started to rise. Halfway up, I shifted and wobbled, and then I was hunched with my elbows over my knees. I straightened as much as I could without losing my balance. Kyle stood at the stern, watching me. Beneath my skis, the water whitened with friction and speed. The boat’s wake, like the crease of an open book, stretched between the engine and my skis. We sped by one stilt house, then another. Kyle clapped for me and pumped a fist in the air. I tried to turn my grimace into a smile. Marse moved to stand beside Dennis, leaning toward him to be heard over the engine.
The sky was working up to dusk, the light so clear that I could make out the shoreline along Key Biscayne. Dennis’s back was a landscape of swells and shadows. Marse had a hand on his arm. She was talking and he was nodding. I took one hand from the baton and sliced it through the air in front of my neck: I quit. Kyle turned to tell Dennis, and I let go. I skidded and started to sink. Dennis waited a few seconds before turning—maybe the channel was too narrow, or there was another boat—and as I waited, I closed my eyes and tasted the salt on my lips. There were dune-shaped ripples on every wave: ripples on waves on tidal swells. I felt like a very small piece of a very large puzzle.
The sound of the engine grew louder, then shifted as Dennis put the boat into neutral. I opened my eyes. Dennis leaned over the gunwale. He pulled my skis out of the water and reached for me. Marse was suited up by the time I was back in the boat. She dove in, and Dennis fed a ski into the water. I went to hand her the other one, but he stopped me. “She’s going to slalom,” he said.
“Wow,” I said.
“You were good.”
“I almost fell getting up.”
“But you didn’t.”
“Let’s go,” said Marse. “Start out faster this time.”
“You’re her lookout,” said Dennis to me.
She skied beautifully. The way her body responded to each wave, her rubbery maneuvers, reminded me of a child on a trampoline. Her body held no resistance, no fear. We neared a stilt house and I alerted Dennis, but he just nodded and stayed the course. He was so intent that his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed. I watched him for a moment, and when I looked back at Marse, she wasn’t there. “Stop!” I said.
Dennis slowed the boat before looking around, which gave me a moment to search the water for Marse’s orange life vest. I found her a ways back, in the dead center of the channel. Sit up, I thought. Show yourself. Dennis started his turn. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I looked away.”
“You can’t look away,” he said.
I pointed at Marse until he spotted her. Beyond her, a speedboat with a high red hull cruised toward us. “Hurry up,” I said.
“I can’t,” said Dennis. “We’ll fly right by her.”
When we were close, Marse waved, rising from the water, and as she did, the red boat adjusted its course by a degree or two, and there were twenty yards of water between Marse and the red boat when it passed her. Dennis and the captain exchanged gestures of greeting. We were supposed to be flying a flag—I know this now—to convey to other boaters that we had a skier in the water. It was the kind of rule that most boaters ignored, which made me frantic: it’s a terrific idea, that flag.
“Were you planning to leave me here?” said Marse. She spat water.
Dennis cut the engine. The boat’s shadow swallowed Marse, and I noticed how dark it had become. Orange sunset soaked into the horizon. “Sorry about that,” said Dennis.
Marse held up her ski and I pulled it into the boat. Dennis reached to give her a hand, but she was unfastening her life vest. “You go on,” she said. “I’m going to swim.”
The stilt house was about three hundred yards away. I had no idea how far a person could swim. “No way,” said Dennis.
Marse handed the life vest up to me and, not thinking, I took it, but Dennis snatched it from me and threw it down to her. “It’s getting dark,” he said. “Get in the boat.”
“Don’t be such a bore,” said Marse. She kicked away from us, leaving the life vest behind. Kyle pulled it out of the water. Dennis started the engine and maneuvered until we were puttering along beside her. Her stroke was fast and smooth. She raised her face from the water. “Go away,” she shouted.
Kyle stood beside me at the gunwale. “Marse,” he called, “I’m hungry. Get in the boat.”
To Kyle, I said, “This is my fault.”
“Not really,” he said, but I saw in his expression that he didn’t wholly trust me. Marse’s stroke had started to falter. The tide was probably coming in, canceling her efforts. She could have swum all night just to keep the stilt house in sight.
“Dennis,” I said. I thought he should have been doing something.
“She’ll get tired,” he said.
“She won’t,” said Kyle. When Marse tilted her head to breathe between strokes, her face was very red. Quietly, Kyle said to me, “Tell her you’re sorry.”
I cupped my hands around my mouth. “Marse,” I called, “I’m a lousy lookout—”
“Not that,” Kyle said.
I wondered if Kyle was particularly astute, or if I had been—if Dennis and I had been—particularly transparent. And I wondered how I’d gotten myself into this situation. Less than forty-eight hours from now, I thought, I’ll be back in Atlanta, thinking that I kissed a boy I barely knew and hurt a girl who’d been nice to me. “Marse,” I called again, “I’m going home tomorrow.” She slowed, then treaded water. “I’m going home tomorrow,” I said again, “but if you drown, I’ll have to stick around.”
The tactic was plain; it embarrassed us both. “Big deal,” she said.
“Get in the boat,” said Dennis.
Marse looked away, toward Miami, then ahead at the stilt house, blue with evening. When finally she swam to the boat, her stroke had returned and her breathing was even. She sat at the prow without drying herself off, and Kyle sat beside her. They passed a beer back and forth and I watched them from the stern, holding my towel with both arms around my chest, clutching the solid, loyal edges of myself.
Dennis’s father, Grady, had built his family’s stilt house in 1945, when Dennis was just two years old. The idea came from a local fisherman named “Crawfish” Eddie Walker, who constructed a shack in shallow water in Biscayne Bay and became legendary for the fresh chowder he sold to passing boaters. Grady had friends who followed Eddie’s lead. By the time Grady secured the funds and manpower to build his own shack, several more had sprouted, including a men’s club called the Quarterdeck. By 1960, Stiltsville comprised twenty-seven shacks, but then the Quarterdeck burned in a fire and hurricane Donna leveled all but six of the other buildings. Many of the squatters, including Grady, rebuilt, and the new houses were cottage-style, larger and sturdier, designed to withstand all but the most devastating squall. Then in 1965, responding to complaints from Key Biscayne residents who claimed that Stiltsville ruined their ocean view, the state of Florida issued private leases for plots of submerged land. After hurricane Betsy hit that year, fourteen houses were left standing, and the state stopped issuing new leases and banned commercial ventures altogether. Grady was, by this point, Stiltsville’s semi-official mayor—he kept the paperwork up-to-date and mediated grievances between stilt house owners and the state, or between owners and each other.
Dennis was twenty-six years old when I met him, same as me. He’d lived in Miami all his life, as I’d lived in the Atlanta area all of mine. After graduating from college, he’d worked for a sailing company that hauled tourists on sunset cruises. He’d lived briefly with a girl named Peggy on a yawl moored at Dinner Key marina, but she’d grown weary of the waterlogged life and moved to Boca Raton to become a travel agent. He’d missed her for a long time. He’d quit his job and spent six months in Spain with his high school friend Paul, touring and living on fried fish from street vendors. Then he’d returned to Miami to attend law school, and moved into a small apartment on Miami Beach. He liked school but wasn’t crazy about the prospect of being a lawyer; he hoped an affection for law would come with the diploma. He knew Marse was after him and he liked her and considered having sex with her, but the thought of what would happen afterward made him feel unkind. He spent at least one weekend a month alone at the stilt house. On land, he studied in diners and took long drives at night, often ending up in the lounge of the Key Largo airport, where they served the best conch fritters in the state. Sometimes he thought about buying a house in Coconut Grove or Coral Gables—he couldn’t imagine living anywhere except South Florida—but he made no promises to himself. He liked his small beachfront apartment. He kept his bicycle unchained on the balcony and walked barefoot to the corner store. Once a week, he paid an upstairs neighbor five dollars to give him an hour-long Spanish lesson.
That night at the stilt house, Kyle and I set the table for dinner while Marse changed clothes and Dennis used the boat radio to check the weather. The boats rocked against the dock; the blue-black water heaved beneath the house. The lobsters’ tails ticked against the steel insides of the giant cooking pot, slowing from desperate to resigned. I could taste and feel salt on my lips and skin. When we were finished, Kyle stared out the kitchen window toward land, where lights along the shoreline flashed like sequins.
“I’ll be sorry to leave,” I said.
He took a jug of water from the refrigerator. “You’ll be back.”
In the bedroom, Marse was leaning toward the mirror, applying lip gloss. When she saw me come in, she turned her back to me and put both hands behind her neck, holding the ends of a red halter-top. “Do me up?” she said. I took the fabric and tied a bow. The backs of my fingers brushed her neck. “Not quite so tight,” she said. We looked at each other in the mirror. I admired the peaks of her collarbone, the hollows in her neck. The day before, at the wedding, her shoes had given her blisters—they were sling-backs, and new—so she’d taken them off and looped them around the strap of her purse so she wouldn’t forget to take them home. “You could forget your shoes?” I’d asked, and she’d said, “It’s been known to happen.” She’d greeted the bride and groom in her stockings, standing tall and straight-backed.
“Marse—” I said.
“It doesn’t matter.” She shook her head and shrugged.
I retied the bow slowly, leaving a little slack. “You don’t know me,” I said, “but if you did, you’d know that this isn’t like me.”
She thought for a moment. “If you say so,” she said. “I believe you.”
It would have seemed ridiculous to say what I wanted to say at the time: that I hoped we could be friends. I said, “I appreciate that.”
It seemed we were both making an enormous effort to act like grown-ups. She tugged at her halter to test the knot, then turned to face me. We both looked at her torso—the fabric was in place, everything covered. “How do I look?” she said.
All at once, the room went dark and the generators stilled. She said, “He always does this for dinner. Saves propane.”
Moonlight dove in through the windows, bluing the planes of her face. She led me into the main room, where the firelight from stout white candles made shadows on the walls. The room smelled strongly of garlic cooking in butter. Kyle and Dennis set down plates piled with lobster tails and filled cups with red wine. I watched their faces in the candlelight. They were easy together, chatting and teasing. Marse joined in. Dennis pulled out a chair next to him, and when we were seated, I toasted the most beautiful scenery south of the Mason-Dixon, and Dennis toasted adventurous southern belles. The meeting of Styrofoam brims gave off a squeak. Wine sloshed onto the table and no one bothered to wipe it up. Dennis’s knee brushed mine, then stayed there. Every so often I felt him looking at me. I cherished the sense of caged joy.
The lobster was so sweet I ate it plain. Kyle told a story about walking with a girl on the beach at night and slipping on a jellyfish. He’d cried real tears from the pain, and the girl had stopped returning his calls. Marse told a story about her first day working for a district judge—she’d been waiting for the judge to get off the telephone when he’d picked up a steno pad and written on it. He’d held it up for her to read: YOUR ZIPPER IS UNDONE, said the note. SORRY TO EMBARRASS YOU. We laughed so hard our eyes watered. During a lull, Dennis said, “The wind is up.”
“Aye, captain,” Kyle said.
“What does that mean?” I said.
Marse folded her long arms on the table. “Dennis thinks a storm is coming,” she said to me. I thought she winked, but it might have been the candlelight. “He’s about to tell us we can’t stay the night.”
Dennis leaned back in his chair and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “I’ll check the barometer after dinner.”
“Either way,” said Marse. “Just let me follow you in. I don’t know the way at night.”
It hadn’t occurred to me that we might stay the night. I hadn’t brought extra clothes. The boys went downstairs to check the barometer on the boat while Marse washed plates and I dried them. In the candlelight, without the thunder of the generators, the clatter of dishes punctuated the night. “Dennis is probably right about the storm,” she said. “He has hunches about these things.”
On land, one looks toward the ocean to predict whether a storm is coming. From the ocean, one looks to the horizon. But the sky through the window was black, the stars cloaked by cloud cover. I wondered what it would be like to ride out a storm at the stilt house. We would refasten the boat lines and shutter all the windows. The doors would rattle on their hinges, and surely the roof would leak. How much weather could the house withstand? This was a question that would go unanswered for many years. We went downstairs and found the boys on the big boat, which lunged with every wave. “The barometer’s falling,” said Dennis.
Marse stepped onto the boat. “How fast?”
“Fast,” said Dennis.
I stepped after Marse, but once I was standing in the boat, I didn’t know where to go. Dennis and Kyle and Marse were spaced out around the deck; I stood awkwardly in the middle. “Come look,” said Dennis, extending an arm. I followed him to the helm, and he positioned me in front of the steering wheel and stood behind me. If Marse and Kyle had been looking in our direction, they could have seen our necks and heads, but the console obscured our bodies. I put my hands on the metal wheel and jiggled it. It locked like a car’s. Dennis reached over my shoulder and touched a circular instrument in a teak case. “The most important piece of weather equipment on a boat,” he said. “A rise could mean strong winds or good weather. A drop means a storm.” He moved his hand to my hip. Then it seemed he wasn’t satisfied, and he pulled me against him, snaking his arm around my waist. “The quicker the drop, the bigger the storm.” I layered my arm over his. I could feel the rush of my blood, my beating heart. He spoke into my ear. “Come back with me. I’ll take you home.”
I turned to reply, but Kyle called out from the prow. “Let’s go if we’re going to go.”
Dennis released me. “Pack up,” he said loudly. “I’ll close the house.”
Marse’s bag was upstairs, so we went to get it and I followed her from room to room, checking for forgotten items. Dennis and Kyle closed all the shutters and dragged the rocking chairs inside and locked the doors. Dennis pulled a gate across the stairs and secured it with a padlock. We gathered on the dock, and Marse stepped onto her boat and started the engine, and Kyle stepped onto Dennis’s boat. To Marse, Dennis said, “Follow me to the second set of markers. You’ll know the way from there.”
“Got it,” said Marse.
I hadn’t realized we weren’t all headed to the same marina. I felt a flush of resentment toward Dennis because he seemed to hold all the cards. He could come to Snapper Creek to find us, but we might be gone by then, or he could call Marse later to find out where I was staying. Or—what? He most likely would do nothing. He would drop off Kyle and drive home alone, wondering what might have happened. I started to say good-bye, but then I didn’t. I untied the stern line and climbed into Marse’s little boat. Dennis tossed aboard the bowline, watching me. We drifted from the dock.
In the dark, Dennis’s body at the helm of the bigger boat was grainy and indistinct. We kept up with him for a while, trailing in his wake, but the water was choppy and soon it was difficult to distinguish wake from waves. I tried to keep an eye on his running lights, but I had to keep turning my head to avoid spray coming over the side of the boat, and eventually I lost track of him altogether. Marse shouted over the motor and the wind. “Shit,” she said. “He’s gone.”
She pulled back on the throttle. The boat slowed, slapping hard against each wave. I lost my balance and grabbed the gunwale. Without stars, the night was black and suffocating. Not until we stopped could I even tell that it was raining. The fall was light but the drops were large and warm. Tropical storm, I thought. Hurricane. This toy boat, this floating saucer. I could barely make out the dark snake of shoreline. A minute later, in the thickening rain, it vanished entirely.
Marse went to the prow and searched the darkness, then returned to the helm. With her wet hair and clinging clothes, she seemed to have shrunk. I shouted over the rain, “Tell me what to do.”
She wiped her face. “Get up on the bow, hold on to the rail. Don’t let go. Watch the water, make sure we stay in the channel.”
“What happens if we leave the channel?”
“We could run aground. I don’t want to be out here in a storm.”
I thought I could see her shivering. “Go slow,” I said.
At the prow, I crouched low and held on to the anchor chain with one hand and the metal rail with the other. The water was a roiling black tangle streaked with white and gray, and I couldn’t judge its depth. Lightning flashed to the north. For an instant, I could see the whole Miami coastline, from the Everglades to Cape Florida, in one electric sweep. But then night fell again. Rain slid off my hair into my face. Every time I took my hand from the rail to wipe water from my eyes, the boat tipped and I stumbled. There was another flash of lightning, then another. I used the bright seconds to try to assess the depth of the water. The light silvered the slopes of the waves. “Frances!” called Marse. I couldn’t turn toward her without losing my grip, so I looked up instead. Something ahead of us caught my eye: a red light. “Took you long enough,” shouted Marse into the rain.
The red light approached, followed by the bright white of a boat’s deck, nestled in the night like teeth in a dark mouth. I stepped down and made my way to Marse’s side. Dennis’s boat came closer, and then we could make out the captain himself, a solid figure with one hand on the throttle and one on the wheel. Kyle huddled under a raincoat at the stern.
Four weeks from that night, on a clear evening salted with stars, Marse would attend the Vizcaya gala in an enticing black cocktail dress, and Dennis would dance with her on the mansion’s limestone deck while I watched from our picnic spot on the grass. The heels of their shoes would click against the stone, and over Marse’s shoulder Dennis would meet my eye, and wink, and my heart would buoy. Dennis would say that love is like the electric eel, coiled wherever it happens to live, unflappable and ready to strike. We want to mess with it but we can’t. On that stormy night, though, as the big boat drew nearer, I stood so close to Marse that the rain skated off us as if we were one person, and when we raised our arms to wave, Dennis could not distinguish my hand from hers.