It was my husband Graham’s idea to buy the houseboat. The notion took shape on the first leg of our move from Illinois to Miami, between pulling away from the cottage in Round Lake and stopping at the county fair outside of Peoria, where we urged our three-year-old, Frankie, into a gargantuan bouncy castle. For a few minutes Frankie seemed to take some pleasure in jumping haphazardly among strangers, until he remembered that he didn’t like strangers, and staggered lock-kneed toward the exit. I mention this interlude in the long drive for one reason: a few minutes after we walked away from the enormous cartoonish castle, a gust of wind upended it, bouncing children and all. Ambulances arrived quickly. As we stood among the anxious crowd, I thought—not for the first time and not for the last—that to be a parent is terrifying. Graham once told me how the stoics practiced imagining their own worst fears had come to pass, to make peace. But it seems to me that what worries us most—pedophiles, kidnappers, dog attacks—is least likely to happen, while what is most likely is some unimagined event. And how do we prepare for that?
We debated the pros and cons of the houseboat through Tennessee and Georgia. An adventure, Graham said, and relatively inexpensive. Naive, I thought, considering neither of us knew much about boats. Making the most of the locale, he argued. Soggy and mildewed, I said. We’d intended to rent a house on Key Biscayne, near the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, where Graham would occupy a two-year research fellowship. But once my husband latched onto an idea, it was difficult to shake him loose. And the truth was that I wondered if living on a houseboat might be every bit the adventure he hoped. Sometimes you have to remind yourself after adventure comes that there was a time when you went looking for it.
We stopped for fuel outside of Gainesville, and Graham picked up a boat trader magazine, then made a few calls when we stopped again in St. Cloud. By the time we reached Miami, he’d found three candidates, all in the Pompano area. After we unloaded the trailer into the spare room of my father’s wife’s house, Graham got back on the road with my father at the wheel.
Graham didn’t drive, not since he was a teenager. I’d done all of the driving from Illinois, while he fidgeted in the passenger seat and Frankie slept open-mouthed in his car seat, a coloring book open across his thighs and a crayon in his fleshy fist, waking every so often to give the sign for milk and dig into a sleeve of crackers. We stopped every few hours at a rest area, and while I plotted our route and fetched cold drinks, Graham led Frankie in a vigorous game of freeze tag, and they returned to the car red-faced and panting. For much of the ride, I eyed our hulking trailer in the side-view mirror, my gut lurching each time it swerved with the contours of the road. When I started off from a stop, the heavy pull of the trailer reminded me of the lifeguard tests I’d taken in junior high, when I’d swum the length of a pool wearing two pair of blue jeans and three sweaters. It was exactly the same feeling: I knew where I was going, and I was damned if I wouldn’t break away from something powerful to get there.
To the extent that Graham would have admitted that his aversion to driving was a phobia, it was incongruent with his bold and blustery personality, his assertiveness, even his maturity. When we’d gotten serious, I’d thought I might ingratiate him to the act of driving with subtle, loving encouragement. He’d been in the backseat, sixteen years old, when his mother’s car had jumped the median on the way home from a birthday party. It was February; the roads were icy. His sister, Lauren, fourteen at the time and in the passenger seat, was thrown clear and never regained consciousness. Graham insisted that the event had been so sterilized by retelling and scrubbed by time that the two things—witnessing his sister’s death and not driving—were unrelated. This was a testament not to Graham’s lack of self-awareness, I believe, but to the confused nature of each of our personal histories, the mess of contradicting passions and aversions developed over a lifetime. To love one’s sister for indulging their mother by singing along on road trips, and to hate one’s sister for refusing to wear a seatbelt. To love the car trips of one’s childhood, the ambling farm roads and lush hillsides, and to hate the heavy inertial machinery of a car, particularly when measured against glass, body, and brain.
Graham called from Pompano. I was drinking a beer in the kitchen while Frankie played with blocks at the table. My father’s wife, Lidia, who was Puerto Rican by birth and spoke perfect English with a heavy accent, stood at the counter wiping crumbs. Her home was on the Coral Gables waterway, and she’d offered to let us dock on the property for as long as we needed. She’d prepared the spare room by piling towels and toys on the bed and clearing dresser drawers. On the nightstand she’d set out framed photos of me and my family, including one from Frankie’s bald and blotchy first weeks. There was one of me and Graham standing on a volcano in Pico, Portugal, and one of my high school portraits, which I hadn’t known still existed. The latter called to mind a memory of my mother, who’d ordered it mistakenly after I’d marked the few that I’d not liked. We’d ended up with a stack of glossy photos of me with my eyes in slits, chin pimple glowing, upper lip stuck to my teeth. I’d berated my mother soundly. It’s disconcerting how often, after a deeply loved person dies, the memories that return are not reverent or nostalgic, but disquieting. My mother was prone to making flighty mistakes, yes, but not until I became a mother did I understand what the flightiness meant: she was overwhelmed at the basic level. More times than I care to admit, I’ve come home with the incorrect item from the grocery store. The nonfat instead of lowfat, the vanilla instead of plain. And every time I do, I think of how I ridiculed my mother for doing the same thing, how I rolled my sullen-teenager eyes at her, and how it seems, in retrospect, that she adopted my interpretation of these non-events—that she was flighty—instead of regarding them the way I’ve come to: a parent’s brain is rarely in one place at a time, and the grocery store does not command one’s precious minutes of focus.
I stuffed the portrait into a drawer. Not because the photo was unflattering, but because the memory was.
Lidia handed me the phone. The over-spiraled cord pulled annoyingly against my hand. This was exactly the way in which other people’s homes are unlivable, I thought, which led me to the opposite thought: I was grateful to Lidia. I was touched by her efforts. She was generous of time and spirit, eager to be a grandmother to Frankie, and she was not some shiny young thing—she was only a few years younger than my father.
Still, I was relieved when Graham told me on the phone that he’d found us a home of our own. It was a 1974 Sumerset, fifty feet in length and fourteen in width, with a propane stove and refrigerator, and a new 30-amp inlet. My father would run shore power and water from the main house, and we could drive it to a local marina every few weeks to empty the sewage tanks. The engines and bilge were in good shape, he said. I calculated the square footage in my head: the size of a tiny city apartment.
“She’s not pretty,” he said, “but there’s a berth for us and a bunk for Frankie.”
I pictured him scraping the stubble of his chin and squinting in the sunlight. I could hear the cries of the gulls in the background, could almost smell the marina, that stew of seaweed and engine oil and fuel. My father had owned boats when I was a child, first a cabin cruiser with a tuna tower that he’d shared with two other musicians, then a heavy trawler that took several seconds to respond. I was comfortable riding in boats but had only driven one a handful of times. I’d never known my husband, the Midwesterner, to use the words bilge and berth.
“Buy it,” I said.
“Why not?” said Graham.
After I hung up, Lidia presented me with an old coffee maker. “I knew I had one somewhere,” she said, pushing it into my hands. Lidia and my father drank only tea, which was one of a dozen of little things that had made me wonder, in the time since they’d married four years before, if she was a better match for him than my mother had been.
“Normalcy,” she said.
“Normalcy,” I said, nodding.
Lidia had a way of getting to the heart of it. A year before, I’d been running a business that if not thriving, exactly, then still had potential. A year before, Graham had still had a shot at tenure, and his sleep troubles were more or less under control. Frankie had been a well-adjusted two-year-old, a little slow to talk but not yet entirely mute.
Time is tricky. Time is surprising. Time and age play important roles in my story, so I will say right away that at the time of these events, during the summer of 1992, I was thirty-six years old. Graham was forty-four and Frankie was three. My marriage was ten. The hermit, Charlie Hicks, was sixty-one, the same age as my father and three years older than my father’s new wife. My mother, had she been alive, would have been sixty-two.
The boat cost roughly two thousand dollars less than we had in the bank. Our reserves had been sapped—first by the collapse of my business, into which we’d sunk three years of time and savings, and then by moving and renting out our home in Round Lake, which had needed work to be ready to show to prospective renters, then more work once a lease had been signed. The cottage was on the lake, which was a big part of its appeal and its decline, both. We’d replaced every other plank in the pier. We’d replaced the soffits and roof and water heater, and installed a sump pump. We were landlords now, which was not something either of us had ever wanted to be.
We’d brought our clothes, some books, both of Graham’s bicycles, and Frankie’s favorite toys. Each decision, to leave behind or bring along, had been more grueling than the last. It wasn’t that we believed we’d be back—in fact, I hoped we never would be, even as I hoped I’d change my mind—but more that we felt selling the house, which had been in Graham’s family for three generations, was not an option. Our renters were a visiting professor in Graham’s former department at Northwestern, and the professor’s young wife. No matter how ready I’d been to flee, when I thought of them using our bed, clipping herbs from Graham’s garden, crossing the lake in our kayaks, I had to turn away from the thoughts as if from something bright and hot.
Behind Lidia’s home was a kidney-shaped swimming pool and a rectangle of green lawn that sloped down to a canal. A narrow cement pier ran parallel to the house, and a slip was carved from the limestone bank at one corner, shaded by a tangle of mangroves between her yard and her neighbor’s. Lidia owned a little two-seater Zodiac—the red inflated collar reminded me of a child’s pool—that she moved to the pier so the houseboat could dock in the slip. She’d assured us that we could dock behind her house as long as we wanted, but had given no thought, it seemed, as to whether the manicured and bucolic city of Coral Gables (a cut above the modest South Miami neighborhood where I’d grown up) would allow a houseboat to reside in its canals. I’d decided to give this no thought, either. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would occur to my father, and Graham had only visited Miami three times in a decade, and had no sense of the laws of the land. For the time being, I put the whole question out of mind.
That evening, Lidia and Frankie and I romped around in the backyard, throwing an old Frisbee. I amused Frankie by lunging into the grass to catch his misfired throws, streaking my knees with grass stains. He made the sign for Swim over and over, and I signed Tomorrow and I promise. Lidia and I let him spray us with a garden hose. After a bath, I put him down in the guest room. My father arrived home in my car, then left for a gig, and Lidia poured a glass of wine for herself and said goodnight. After midnight, as I sat out back watching the slow crawl of the dark water, I heard the houseboat choking its way up the canal. When it came into view, I could make out Graham inside at the helm, waving through a window. Why he was willing to captain this hulking vessel and not our sedan, I wasn’t certain. One was a burden, I guessed, and the other a lark. The houseboat was plodding and boxy and took up more than its share of the waterway’s width. If ever its paint had gleamed, that time was long gone. Over the back deck, a white scalloped awning flapped in the wind. Graham throttled down and nosed toward the pier, and when he cut the engine and the noise died, I tied off the lines and stepped aboard. On the brief rectangle of faded Formica in the houseboat’s galley, I set down Lidia’s coffee maker.