Dan and I had planned to ride bikes to a park the day we ended up on the sailboat. We had met through Peter, my glass-blowing neighbor who I was actively betraying by hanging out with his friends without inviting him along. Dan had asked me to go climbing one day; we talked about Euclid, Dostoyevsky, and Gödel. He was neither mathematician nor writer but spoke about the two with the authority of a dedicated spectator. There was tension between us from the beginning, at least I felt it. My intrigue with Dan’s ability to do and know wasn’t sexual in nature, but somehow awkward tension is only ever interpreted in this way.
Matt was the experienced sailor of the group. I had met him once before on a mushroom picking trip with Peter. Rather than a tension, I felt a connection to Matt – one characterized by eyes that shift and pause before they laugh. Matt’s girlfriend, Sara, I had also met mushroom hunting. I remember being envious of her simplicity and ability to make any environment comfortable. Kip was the owner of the boat. A thin moccasin-wearing person somewhere between a boy and a man, perhaps even part fairy. He had long straight blonde hair and wore an Italian cut t-shirt that showed more cleavage than anything I owned. I was meeting Kip for the first time.
The five of us reluctantly climbed into the sailboat, bound together only by our mutual desire to want to experience new things without actually going through with them. Uncomfortable with the situation and everyone around me, I rehearsed everything I said before I spoke. More transparent than the plastic cups the wine spilled from, I could barely get myself to look away from my bare feet when I spoke. Despite this mental filter, I somehow managed to ask Matt why the sailboat had two sails. The look that came back at me from Dan, Matt, and Sara was one of relief at not being the ones to set the stupid bar. Somebody had to do it, I thought.
As more wine spilled onto the boat, tongues got lighter, laughs more liberated; the boat was sailing itself. My balancing act between the deck and the cabin almost started to feel natural, unlike the swimsuit that pressed against my skin. I thought how silly I must have looked wearing a swimsuit on a sailboat in sixty degree weather with heavy winds.
The way upstream was a succession of nods to Matt and Kip in response to the sailing tips and terminology they threw at me – nods that screamed “I don’t understand anything you just said!” Somehow looking into Matt’s eyes assured him that we were playing the same game. The way back was an exercise in positioning my body out of the way and looking at the sunset with thoughts focused only on counting down the time until we docked.
Night fell and the dock lamp illuminated the parked boat. Dan squatted on his knees, his every move arrogant with yoga-trained flexibility. Feeding nuts to the family of ducks in the water, Dan reached out and caught one in his hands. His pride wasn’t of the beaming type, but rather one of shock and respect for Matt, who had coached him along in the process. “We would’ve lived”, replied Matt to Dan’s smile. The human way Dan looked up to Matt made me feel comfortable enough to step back into the boat with one full stride. I could sense Kip wanting to force a second round of wine spilling, this time less innocent.
The five of us crammed into the boat cabin. The locking of the door to the deck had the strange effect of easing my anxiety. Sitting in two rows, one opposite the other, my bare knees rubbed against Dan’s but my eyes were still following Matt’s drunk saccades. I noticed the pillow on Dan’s lap moments before Kip and Matt started making jokes. My confidence and curiosity was gaining ground on my awkwardness.
The buzz of something about to happen grew louder with the card tricks and more wine spilling on the floor. Matt and Kip left the cabin for a talk and came back smiling, smoothly shifting into giving each other back rubs. Matt leaned heavily into my arm as if testing whether it would hold. Sara and I looked at each other, both aware of what was happening but having two different dispositions: I was curious about pushing this boat trip out to its logical conclusion, Sara seemed all too familiar with the situation and wasn’t in the mood.
Sensing Sara’s authoritative annoyance at being locked up in the boat, Kip proposed that we all go back to his house where there would be weed and entire rooms walled with mirrors. Matt wanted everyone to go back to the house of mirrors, Sara wanted to go back home to Matt’s – where she had just moved in that day – and Dan and I were weights serving to balance out the energies.
During the car ride back, Kip dominated the silence, nervously trying to salvage the mood and the idea of the house of mirrors. We arrived at Dan’s without knowing why. I found myself standing next to Matt outside the car. Whether I approached him or the other way around is still something that plagues my memory of the night. As if saying goodbye to each other, Matt and I stood hugging, I felt comfortable in his arms. He regrettably told me that it was very clear what was going to happen next. I nodded my head without understanding.
Matt and I stepped into Dan’s living room where the others were suspended motionlessly in tension. The living room stage shattered with the door that slammed behind us. As if that was all the energy that was needed to break the bonds holding five particles together, the sound of the door sent us flying in disparate directions. Time accelerated to a near imperceptible speed. Feeding off the liberated energy, Matt and Sara screamed at each other, Sara called a cab, I came out to offer her a ride in my non-existent car, Matt and Sara had a smoke, Dan ate an avocado, and Kip gave up on his house of mirrors.
Reluctantly leaving Dan’s house like somebody who has accepted defeat but whose pride keeps him kicking, Matt said goodbye to Kip and Dan. When it was my turn, Matt held out his fist and I looked at it for a moment without looking up. When our eyes finally met and my fist pounded against his, Matt spoke half audibly: “you can do better than that”. As if hypnotized I repeated into his eyes, “I can do better than that”. I slid into his arms for another hug and wondered to myself if this is what he meant. Was a hug more personal than a pound? Or was Matt talking about Dan with whom I would inevitably find myself alone with in a few moments – could I do better than Dan? Or was he referring to me – could I do better than be this nervous shell of a person? The trinity of possibilities paralyzed me.
When everyone but Dan and I were gone, I slipped away from the tension that was starting to build again in my stomach and slammed the porch door behind me for the last time. I thought about how cold I felt on the bike ride back to my house in the hours before sunrise.