In the Water

5 min
Image of Spring 2019
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It was a reunion of sorts. The eight of us had spent a week together the previous winter, sailing around the Grenadines on a time-share catamaran. It was Grayson and me, Ben and Alicia, and two other couples. Grayson and I didn’t even know one of the couples, but everyone got along well, and it was a great week. Wonderful vacation.

Now, months later, Ben and Alicia, who live near Montauk, asked us all to join them for Sunday afternoon on their boat. It was the eight of us plus Grayson’s nine-year-old son, Daniel, who was visiting his father for the summer. (He spent most of the year in France with his mother.)

The day was gorgeous. Hot, but not muggy. Clear. Picture-perfect. It was great to see everyone again. On the boat, we settled down with cocktails and appetizers. Ben did something to the engine, and then we were off, several of us talking at once.

‘Paul, did you ever get that job?’

‘Hey, Mary, whatever happened with that apartment?’

And, to Grayson and me, “I heard you set a date, congratulations!”

We were out for maybe 20 minutes before Ben decided to anchor. I had no idea where we were. I’m terrible with directions on land, never mind the water. Grayson and I had been engaged for close to a year, and although we took turns spending weekends at each other’s houses, I still got lost when I went out for bike rides in his neighborhood.

We all took turns diving in and cooling off. We weren’t there very long before Ben decided to try another area. I don’t know why he wasn’t happy where we were, but no one minded pulling up anchor and moving on. The plan was to tool around and try a few different spots. It was late August, and we all realized that it might be our last perfect summer day on the water.

The second place Ben chose was about 10 minutes away. According to the instrument panel, we were about 45 feet from the bottom. We were pretty close to shore, though, and there were other boats around us, also anchored. I noticed one in particular that was much larger than Ben’s, with its taut anchor line forming a kind of triangle between the water and the prow. It looked huge. I couldn’t even see the people on it, they were too high up. Ben said something about how many feet of rope he let out before the anchor finally caught.

Daniel and I were both ready to dive right in. Grayson’s house was near the ocean, and he also had a pool, so his son had been swimming fearlessly for years. Same with me – I’ve never had official swimming lessons, but I’ve spent plenty of summers at the Jersey shore, and I’m fine in the water.

It didn’t occur to Grayson or me or anyone else that we needed life vests. Everyone had already been in the water without them that day. There were other boats right near us. We were close to the shore. The water was calm. Nothing looked amiss. But what none of us realized was that here, the current was different. Daniel and I dove in and when we came up, Ben’s boat looked a lot further away than it did the last time we went swimming.

I didn’t think anything about it at first. I kept my legs moving, and Daniel and I were doing somersaults He challenged me to do a backward one, and then a frontward one, and so on. He was a very competitive little kid. Every time he did anything in the pool, he wanted to know if his father and I could do it, too. Can you stand on your hands? Can you swim to the other side without coming up for air? How long can you hold your breath? My favorite moment in the pool had come when Daniel wanted to know if I could touch bottom, but he didn’t know the right English, so he pointed downwards and said, “Jackie, you have feet there?”

Now I looked over at Grayson, who was watching us closely, grinning; drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. He was in a great mood. It always made him happy to see me spending time with his son. He was constantly pushing us together – constantly suggesting that I include his son, even when I was doing something mundane. His intense need for the two of us to spend time together was actually a problem. Not only that, it was irrational. The kid adored me. He wasn’t the slightest bit interested in being alone when I was around. I stayed longer than necessary in the downstairs bathroom once because I knew he was sitting right outside on the floor, waiting for me to come out so we could play. When I did finally open the door, I pretended, loudly enough for Grayson to hear, that I was surprised to find little Daniel sitting right there. “Whoa! Daniel! Wow! You’re RIGHT THERE!”

Much to my silent relief, Grayson got the hint and started yelling to his son to leave Jackie alone once in a while, she was in the bathroom, for God’s sake!

It had gotten to the point where I stopped telling Grayson if I was just going to run out for milk, or limes, or whatever, so he wouldn’t suggest that I take Daniel with me. Enough, already.

I didn’t want to completely let on how much of a problem it was that I didn’t relish the stepmother role. I still wasn’t sure whether it was the role itself or the kid in particular, or the way Grayson’s whole personality changed whenever his son was around. Maybe it was a combination of all three, but I thought about it a lot, and could never be completely honest with Grayson that Daniel was the primary reason that our engagement had not yet culminated in a wedding. So far, I had managed by just getting through Daniel’s visits, but the thought of sharing Grayson with him forever gave me pause.

Looking up at Grayson now, happy and handsome in the sunlight, it occurred to me that he was kind of far away.

I turned to Daniel and said, “You know what? Let’s swim back to the boat. I’m hungry!”

He laughed, as I hoped he would. We both loved to eat -- it was one of the things we enjoyed doing together.

We started swimming toward the boat. Or rather, we started trying to swim toward the boat. I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I could see that neither was Daniel.

Grayson wasn’t far away. We were. And the current was keeping us that way.

I could feel my throat start to tighten. I got caught in a rip current once, and this was starting to feel the same way. You know that cliché about your heart being in your throat? Well, it’s even worse when the water is up to your neck.

I started dog-paddling and looked over at Daniel.

“Ha!” he said. “The water is strong!”

“It sure is!” I said, trying to smile. I looked away from him, up at his father. Grayson, thank God, never took his eyes off us, but I just didn’t know how to communicate to him that his son and I were in trouble. If I called out, Daniel would hear. He might panic.

Then Daniel wrapped his hand around my arm. Tightly. He wanted me to hold him up. Oh God. Oh God, no. That was never gonna work. If he held onto me, we were both screwed.

This was bad. This was really bad. I was scared and if I got this kid scared, he would hold on even tighter and bring us both down.

“You know what?” I said. “My feet aren’t on the bottom, so I don’t think I can hold you up, but let’s do this. Let’s swim over to that boat. See the big one over there? Behind us? We can grab onto that rope and hold onto it. Want to? Let’s do that.”

Somehow it worked. He took his hand off my arm and we were able to make it to the big enormous boat behind us. Going in that direction, the current was in our favor. We each grabbed onto the anchor line.

Breathing hard, I stared at the rest of the party on the boat. Everyone was watching us. Finally, Grayson yelled, “Jack!” He held up his hands as if to say, “What are you doing?”

Daniel looked back’n’forth between us. He was confused. I still couldn’t say anything, but at least we were safe. He was safe.

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