New Book from Melanie Neale

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Damn it’s hot, I thought. The sheets bunched around my feet, up at the end of the V-berth where Celia’s feet rested, one on top of the other, touching mine because there was no way to avoid touching in a bed as small as the one on Short Story. Her legs were tangled in the sheets, and the full moon coming through the open forward hatch cast a swath of light across the bed and over her breasts. I wished she would cover them up and I wished she wouldn’t.

The South Florida September heat barely lifted at night. I flipped onto my back and imagined waking Celia up and taking her out to the cockpit, and going for a night swim in the Oleta River or pouring buckets of salt water over each other until we cooled off. I wondered whether Short Story’s anchor was holding. It had seemed to set just fine. We’d anchored directly off the Florida International University campus, where the Oleta River fed into Biscayne Bay. We’d had martinis for lunch and wine for dinner.

Celia had driven over from St. Petersburg to see me. She was younger than me and had seemed so naïve when I’d given her shots of tequila in the dorm at Eckerd College. She still had a goddess body.

She was out cold from the wine. She mumbled something I couldn’t understand and turned to face me, her breasts spilling onto the sheets and her brown hair softly wrapping around them. I wanted to reach out and touch her and run my hands along her soft and glowing skin. Short Story spun on her anchor chain as the current shifted in the anchorage, and a night heron called somewhere in the mangroves. I pulled myself out of bed, careful not to wake her, and climbed out the companionway. I sat in the cockpit and looked at the night sky—too bright with the moon and the city lights of Miami. Ashore, the cars hummed as they rolled by on US1, just west of the FIU campus. I took a bearing on one of the buildings and a city light behind it and watched for them to move in relation to each other. But they didn’t. Short Story’s anchor was fixed to the bottom.

I could have folded the settee down into a bed and made Celia sleep there. I could have put her in the quarterberth. But the V-berth was the most comfortable place on the boat. My mother and I had shared it only weeks earlier. However, Celia and my mother were two very different people, and I didn’t think I’d be able to get back to sleep up there with her. I drifted off in the cockpit.

I woke up sweating at seven in the morning. Celia was still asleep, so I moved around on the deck as softly as I could. I pulled in the anchor line, hand over hand, coiling it on the bow, until the remaining line met the water at a right angle and the anchor was directly underneath the hull and still buried in the sand below. I slipped back to the stern and started the outboard, idling it as low as it would go without dying, and returned to the bow to pull the anchor the rest of the way up. I leaned back against the weight of the line, expecting to feel the soft pop as the anchor let go of the sand.

Nothing happened. I rested a few seconds and tried again. I’d put the anchor down while the boat was in the slip and pulled it back up, just for practice, and the anchor and chain together weighed no more than 40 pounds. I leaned over the bow and looked at the white nylon line where it disappeared into the murk. I didn’t want to have to dive on it.

“Hi,” Celia said. She sat on the cabin in her bikini top and gym shorts, brown strings of her hair clinging to her cheeks. “I think I got attacked last night.” She smoothed her hands over her thighs, which were red with mosquito bites.

“I’m sorry. We should have stayed at the dock.”

“No, I’m glad we got to take the boat out.” She cupped her hand over her mouth and yawned. “I feel like I know you a lot better now. I’ve seen you doing what you do best and what you love to do, and it’s beautiful.”

“We’re stuck,” I said. “I can’t get the anchor up.”

“I’m sure you can.”

I braced my legs against the bow pulpit and pulled again, stretching the line so tight I wondered if it would snap. After a few more yanks, it gave a few inches and I could see the chain where it was spliced to the nylon. Celia stood next to me and stared into the water. A dusky angular shape had appeared just beneath the chain.

“What do you think it is?” Celia asked.

“I can’t tell.” I pulled at the anchor some more and the thing rose a few more inches. “I’m going to get into the dink and see if I can get a better grip on it.” I cleated off the line and brought the dinghy around from the stern. Celia watched as I climbed in and kneeled in the bilge, keeping my center of gravity low for stability. I reached into the water, leaning so far that it came up to my shoulders, and grabbed the anchor line. Tiny bubbles formed on my arm hairs and let go, spinning to the surface. I leaned back into the dink and pulled the line in a few more inches. “Can you take in the slack?” I held the line with every muscle in my body and watched Celia wrap the line around Short Story’s small cleat.

After a few more heaves and wraps, I could see the anchor and the thing it had snagged—a tangle of old lines covered in barnacles and muck, all wrapped neatly around an underwater cable. It looked less ominous near the surface. “What do you think it’s from?” Celia handed me the boat hook before I had a chance to ask.

“Probably somebody else caught their anchor on that cable and just cut it loose. Or maybe it’s from a sunk boat.” I wondered how many boats had been abandoned and sunk or lost in hurricanes in the murky waters of northern Biscayne Bay and Maule Lake as I pried at the cable with my boathook. Celia dropped the anchor a few feet while I held the cable and Short Story was free.

We pulled back into the slip at Maule Lake Marina half an hour later, both sweaty and needing showers. Celia handled the dock lines like a pro. I watched her duck beneath the shrouds as she walked one of the spring lines to the cleat on the stern. Thunderclouds hung over the Everglades to the west, rumbling and announcing themselves even though it was still too early in the morning for the storms I’d come to expect every day during the South Florida summer.

A small crowd of men had gathered on the dock in front of Short Story. I wondered why they hadn’t offered to catch our lines—the standard marina code of conduct—but it didn’t bother me.

“Did ya’ll have fun?” The oldest one was slightly overweight and had a white Hemingway beard. His jeans were held up with green suspenders, and he smiled as he stepped closer to my boat and did the same thing I always did when I saw a boat I’d never seen before: he looked up at the top of the mast and scanned down, taking in the lines and probably calculating hull speed and the year she was built and all the rest of the specs. “I’m Rob,” he said. “That’s my boat.” He pointed to the beautiful ketch in the slip next to me.

I introduced myself and Celia and told him he had a gorgeous boat.

“Where’d you go?” The second man was younger, but gaunt and unhealthy looking. A mangy black dog sat on the dock next to him and scratched its neck.

“Um, we anchored off FIU for the night,” I said, suddenly aware that I had nothing on but a faded bikini top and cutoff jeans. I pulled the jeans down over my thighs where they tended to creep up and stick to my skin when it was hot out.

“That’s a pretty anchorage,” Rob said. The rest of them, five in all, stood back and nodded.

“We got the anchor caught on a cable, but other than that it was nice.” I hopped into the dink to bail it and tie it up properly.

“So are you here for the long run?” The skinny one with the dog sat down and swung his feet over the dock.

“Depends on how long that is,” I said.

“Well…I’ve been here eight years now. Some people have been here for twenty.”

“Not that long,” I said. “Just until I finish school. A few years.”

“What are you studying?” Rob asked.

I decided I would call him Captain Rob. “Creative writing,” I said.

“You’ll have a lot to write about here,” said the skinny one. “See that boat over on A-dock?” He pointed to a weirdly misshapen Catalina 22 that looked like the hull had been chopped in half and then built up for more headroom. “That guy’s a male prostitute. I mean, for guys.”

“Oh?” I looked at the boat and Celia followed my gaze. I would have to befriend the male prostitute and find out for sure. I’d seen him, a young Latino, climbing on and off his boat late at night, and he seemed friendly enough.

“And the people on that houseboat are the ones who’ve been here for twenty years. They’re nuts,” he said. “But most everyone on this dock is okay. This is the high-class neighborhood.”

“That’s why they stuck you over on C,” Captain Rob said.

“As soon as a slip opens up here, we’re moving. Right?” The skinny guy rubbed the black dog behind its ears.

They stood there and watched as Celia and I finished stowing everything and hosed the salt and grime off the deck. I wondered how much more they wanted to ask, like what was a 22-year-old woman doing with her own boat, and what had happened between Celia and me out in the anchorage. They’d be disappointed by the truth, I thought. And I was a little disappointed too. Would things have been different if I hadn’t fought the urge to touch her?

Celia drove home that afternoon and I sat on the dock and drank a Miller Lite with Captain Rob. “There’s a lot of history here,” he said. “This place was one of the busiest drug-running spots in the eighties. There used to be high-speed chases out in the lake, and everyone knew Tuna’s was the place to go for a party,” He pointed at the marina restaurant. “I wasn’t here then.”

I did more listening than talking, and Maule Lake started to grow on me.

That night, the band at Tuna’s was just loud enough so I could hear it from Short Story’s V-berth, and the lights in the marina parking lot filtered though the hatch, illuminating the cabin. But something was scraping at the bottom of the boat. I tried to close my eyes and ignore it.

It went away for a few minutes and then came back, just below my head. I grabbed the flashlight I kept next to the V-berth and slowly opened the forward hatch and pulled myself through, hooking my arms over the flange and wiggling my body onto the foredeck. Flat on my stomach, I inched to the side of the boat and waited until I heard it again. I swung the beam of my flashlight into the water and leaned out so I could see. A prehistoric looking boxfish, with octagonal scales and tiny fins, stared sideways at me and went back to pecking at the hull. I stared at it for a few minutes, an eerie feeling creeping over me, thinking: this place is so strange. But it feels right. The people here don’t fit in with the rest of the world but they fit here. This place is perfect for me.

Excerpt from Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love & Fiberglass, by Melanie Neale, Published in 2012 by Beating Windward Press

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