My aunt doesn’t dye her hair—she lets it gleam silver like a minnow in a thick, shimmering braid down her back. I never think about this unless she’s in a crowd of Other Moms at a parents meeting. Other Moms who bleach their hair blonde or stain it dark black so it ‘looks normal,’ a funny contrast up-close to the crow’s feet gently appearing at the corners of their eyes. My aunt is not afraid to be old. Her skin smells old and her silver hair matches her wrinkles and crow’s feet and she wears sweaters that look like the Ojibwe blankets on our couch and walls. It’s perfect. A tiny, silent part of me sometimes wishes I wasn’t too big to sit in her lap, that I wasn’t growing into new and confusing curvier hips.
My aunt was standing out on the dock, looking out at the bay. I could just barely see her over the sand-grass that’s right out the kitchen window. I was sitting at the counter, browsing aimlessly on the computer. I reached across to my aunt’s vacant seat to take her coffee mug, stealing a sip of what I forget always ends up being cold and bitter. I was warm in my plaid flannel pajama shorts, but outside, the water was angry. Black, churning waves, with whitecaps rather than twinkling tips. Aggravated by a wind we can’t see. Those who don’t live by a large body of water forget that it has a life of its own, and a human—no, beyond human—range of moods. My aunt just stood and surveyed.
I looked back at the screen for awhile, and when I glanced up next, my aunt is looking out at the water still but waving an arm towards our dock in a broad, sweeping gesture. I squinted to see that what I thought was a large whitecap was actually a tiny, white rowing shell, hull swaying and oars flailing. Though I couldn’t hear, I knew my aunt was yelling, “Come in! Use our dock!” We’d caught wayside rowers and kayaks before, innocents who found themselves in surprise storms. Our own plastic kayaks sat onshore by the dock.
The rower had drifted past the window’s view, out of my line of sight, but I saw my aunt rip off her sweater and kick off her shoes. She sat down on the dock and slid into the water. The rower must have gone down. I stood up and shut the lid of the laptop, and ran barefoot out of the house onto the lawn.
My body shuddered to acknowledge the cold wind and slanted rain. I stopped in the middle of the yard and looked out. My aunt was wading out into the water, but appeared to be almost to the end of the shallow sand and near where the sand-shelf drops off below the water’s surface, leaving bathers with no choice but to swim. The rower’s shell had flipped, and he treaded water near the hull, which was being tossed with each dark wave. I saw an oar getting carried away in a current. My aunt was pulling in a steady breaststroke, but every couple of strokes, a wave washed over the top of her head.
I was paralyzed with no idea what to do. If I took a kayak, I’d get tossed over as well. If I swam and got tired, my aunt would have to drag me back and do more work. I could tell she was slowing down on the way to the man. I ran out to the end of the dock. It sounded like my aunt was trying to yell something as she swam. I couldn’t quite make out her words, but when I looked back out at the man it occurred to me. “Grab the shell!” I yelled to the man. He turned in my direction, but must not have been able to hear. “Grab the shell!” I held my arms forward in two limp rainbows, like they were draped over the capsized boat. If you ever flip in a boat, grab the boat first, my aunt had told me. The boat will keep you afloat, and if you hold onto it you won’t lose it.
I watched the man struggling to kick towards the shell as it kept floating further away. Finally, I saw him grab the gunnel and drape his long, dark arms over the boat’s hull. He had drifted very far out, though, and my aunt didn’t appear to be making much progress. The motorboat was thumping hard on our dock, making it lurch under my feet with each wave.
The motorboat. I bolted inside to the counter, grabbing the red bungee lanyard marked ‘Yamaha.’ Grabbing the gas can from the back porch but not bothering with a life jacket, I sprinted to the boat, hurled the can into the backseat, and plugged it into the motor just like I’d watched my aunt do. Good so far. I untied the boat from the dock and pushed it away instead of backing it out like a car, like my aunt always did. This was an emergency. Whipping around into the cracked driver’s seat with its yellow foam exposed, I sat down in front of the steering wheel. I plugged the key into the ignition and turned it. The boat whinnied, then wheezed, but didn’t turn to a steady hum like when my aunt drove. I tried again, with the same result. Growling with frustration, I tried a third time. I roared with anger, but it was a pathetic roar with a squeaky voice crack in the middle. A pitiful squeak from a thirteen-year-old voice whose owner didn’t know how to start a car.
I ripped the keys out of the ignition and threw them down into the small pool of rainwater accumulating in the bottom of the boat, swimming with bits of dead leaves and sand. Not looking behind me to check my aunt’s progress, I jumped right out of the drifting boat and into the water, which, surprisingly, was very warm. A wave caught my face and I gagged on a mouthful of silt—the swells had tossed up sand and clay from the bay floor. I gagged, and pulled forwards. I’d forgotten how hard it was to swim in clothing—my T-shirt billowed out around me below the surface, catching water and thrashing me back and forth with each wave. My flannel shorts were getting dragged down by the water—I could feel the waistband sliding down my underwear. With all the might in my wiry arms, I took a pull and reached my face for the surface, craning my neck, and gasped. I got half a breath of air before a wave hit my face and sent me plunging under.
Anyone who has ever thought drowning would be a peaceful way to die is horribly wrong. I tried conserving my air by letting it slowly out my nose, a couple bubbles at a time, as I struggled to get out of my ballooning medium T-shirt. First, individual pockets of my brain started screaming out, “Air! Air,” before being joined in chorus by my arms, thighs, and, rippingly, wrenchingly, my chest cavity. I needed to give up on my shirt and get to the surface. It was still mostly on, but half was bunched around my left arm, restricting the arm’s motion. Counterproductive. With my right, I reached upward, found air, and, whip kicking my screaming legs, got to the surface and got half a gasp in before the next wave hit the back of my head and washed over.
It felt like my shirt was wrapping tighter around my waist, but I realized it was an arm. My face was brought above water and I felt myself being pulled to the right.
“Grab the boat,” it was my aunt’s voice. I opened half a water-stung eye and felt in front of me. It was the rowing shell. I dragged an arm over its surface. I thought the shell had started moving of its own accord, but realized that my aunt and the man were kicking. When we’d brought the boat up to wading-deep water, I tried to stand but my legs were wobbly. Stabilizing myself on the boat with my arm, I got myself semi-standing. I coughed and gasped. We walked the boat right up to shore instead of using the dock.
The man, who was pulling in front of me, turned around and said, “Thanks for helping, missy.” I sheepishly looked away, knowing full well that I’d created more work for him, not the other way around. I looked behind me, expecting my aunt’s familiar tan wrinkles. Instead, I saw her tiny figure back out in the waves. The motorboat. She had to get the motorboat and drive it back.
“Do you think you could help me lift my boat?” the man asked. I must have given him a doubtful stare, because he added, “Don’t be fooled, it’s actually really light.”
He directed me almost to the end of the hull, past the seat but before the boat’s tip, and asked me to lift as hard as I could “in three.” We were parallel to shore, and just a few steps would bring it up. “One, two, THREE.” The man had been right—the boat was much lighter than my red plastic kayak. We set it upside-down on shore, and I strained my neck to look out for my aunt. She had climbed into the boat and appeared to be starting the engine. Though I wanted to be sure she made it in, the tiny screams in my head that had been calling for air before told me to leave. Saying nothing to the man, I ran across the yard, and, not wiping my feet stuck with sand and grass cuttings, sprinted to the bathroom, slammed the door, and hopped into the bathtub, turning the shower on.
I sat on the tub floor under the pellet-shape, unnatural rain, fully clothed, not caring that the water was just starting to get warm. You fucked that one up, kid, I thought, pulling out a sharp word my aunt saved for rare frustrations. I laid down on the tub floor and let the water wash over my face, alone and humiliated.
Then, I heard her voice above me. “Want to see how to start the boat?” Tears hotter than the shower water started trickling out of my eyes. This was my punishment. Not looking at my aunt, I sat up, and, grabbing the tub’s edge, brought myself to my feet.
I kept several paces ahead of her the whole way to the dock so I didn’t have to meet her eyes. “You take the seat,” she said. I sat down. She pressed the key into my hand with her own, its loose, wrinkled skin soggy and cold.
“Key in the ignition, and turn,” she said. I turned the key, heard the motor whinny behind me, and turned it right off. I looked up at my aunt. She was shivering and her braid was dripping, but she watched me patiently. “Try again, but this time, be patient. Keep the key turned at the top for a minute.” I did. The engine started. I realized I had no idea how to drive it.
This time I looked up at her fully, expectantly. “I don’t know how to drive it.”
“You don’t have to. And you shouldn’t, not yet,” she replied.
Rage churned my stomach. “But how am I supposed to help you,” I sputtered angrily. “There’s no reason you even have me! I’m not your kid! All I do is take from you and I can never give you anything, you won’t even teach me how!”
I was shaking with rage, and her hand on my shoulder calmed me in spite of my words. She didn’t say anything, which I preferred. She leaned into me, and her warmth radiated through her soggy clothes. She loved me but I didn’t know why.
With a hand still on my shoulder, she reached over, took the key from the ignition, and went inside. I sat for a minute, letting the rain pelt my left cheek, and then came in through the back door. I heard the shower running, and turned into the kitchenette. Two steaming mugs of tea sat on the counter, clay-red and blue. I picked up the red one and let the heat seep into my fingers, let the steam rise up and warm my nose. The shower turned off, and my aunt left the bathroom in the fleece pants she saved for winter and a fresh sweater. She lifted her mug from the counter, leaned across from me on the refrigerator, took a sip, and said, “You’re going to spend every day of your life interacting with things you don’t understand, so get used to it. And I will never need a reason to love you. Go shower while the pipes are still hot.” And I did. The pellets of water were soothing this time.