The summer my mother died, my father drove his way through grief and found a lake. A city barber trekking hours north with his nine-year-old to spend hot summer weekends at a cabin built so close to the shoreline you could hear the wash against rock when you lay in bed at night. A small place, plumbed with pipes that would need to be drained every fall when the seep of cool air sent us back to wait out another winter at home.
For years, my father was friendly with one of the neighbours, a guy named Jack who had the cabin next to ours. He was a few years younger, less polished than the men in leather shoes and button down shirts that came to my father’s barbershop in Providence. I couldn’t make sense of their friendship, not at first, not until I felt the pull myself, the excitement in gaining passage on his flirts with the forbidden.
When I was thirteen, Jack came over to our cabin one morning to tell us he was going to blow up the road. He had sold off some property down shore with the stipulation that the buyer put in his own right-of-way. A year later, the new owner was still using Jack’s driveway, leaning on the horn until he came out to move his car.
My father laughed and asked Jack if he wanted to come in for coffee.
“I’m serious,” Jack said. “I’ve got dynamite.”
My father’s face went slack. “You can’t.”
“I can,” Jack said.
He lent us his rowboat, and my father paddled out to the middle of the lake to wait it out.
“Give me a half hour,” Jack called after us.
It was a weekday morning and the lake stretched wide and calm, quiet but for the buzz of a chainsaw from the woods along the opposite shore.
“Lucky if he doesn’t kill himself,” my father said as he pulled the oar handles through the locks so that the ends dripped pearls of water back into the lake.
I’d been facing shore, and I spun around when he said it.
My father shook his head. “He’ll be fine.” But I could tell he was worried by how often he glanced at his watch after that.
“I’m hot,” I finally said, reaching over the side to trail my arm through the water.
My father checked his watch again. “He must have come to his senses.”
We were halfway back to the dock when the dynamite went off.
Five years later, when I came home for the summer after my sophomore year in college, my father and I went out on the party barge Jack built from boards pulled off a shed he’d lost to a heavy snow load the previous winter. Just a platform really, with a motor attached to one end, and no rails so it would be easy to jump off when you wanted to swim. He set up his barbecue grill right in the middle so we could cook burgers in the cove near Stay Off Beach. Two older women-owned the strip of sand and blueberry bushes, and all the land behind it that led uphill to the weathered white farmhouse they’d lived in since they were girls. But we were anchored out, not trespassing technically, Jack said. He had a cooler full of beer on board and when I finished one, he’d hand me another.
“What?” I said when my father gave me a look. “I’m legal now.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Relax,” Jack said. “There’s plenty for everyone.”
I smiled and fanned my face with my hand. Jack plucked another can from the cooler and ice collapsed into the hole it left, like change in a return slot, rushing into my father’s silence.
“Let’s head around Black Island,” Jack said, batting the cooler cover shut and starting the engine.
My father pulled the back of his lounge chair upright, and I glanced across deck through the blur of heat still rising from the charcoal. His forehead was red and moist, and he dragged the back of his hand across it. I turned to search out the stand of pines breaking the waterline to the south, thinking about the boulders looming in the water all around it, a minefield waiting to explode hulls. Knowing too that this was what drew Jack there, the chance to steer right into the risk.
There was a cabin out on Black Island, tucked too deep in the brush to see. “Who lives out there, anyway?” I asked when we were thirty feet or so offshore.
“A blind man,” Jack said, cutting the engine again and letting the barge drift further in, where mere inches of water washed over the yellowy rock faces. “If we get close enough, you can see the ropes tied from tree to tree. He uses them to find his way around.”
My father rolled his eyes, but I squinted, trying to pick out strings of white.
“So, let’s hear about school.” Jack said. He stood and poked at one of the burgers left on the grill grate, then pushed the cooler into the space between my father and me. I helped myself to another can.
Out in the middle, another boat pulled a skier in broad loops, sending curls of water from its wake that rolled toward and then under us, rocking the barge like a cradle, so that I wasn’t sure if it was the water or the beer that made me feel off balance.
“I can’t wait to go back,” I said.
Jack cocked his head and a half-smile played across his face. “Got a boyfriend yet?”
“Maybe,” I said, teasing out the syllables so that it sounded like two words. The metal frame of my father’s chair rubbed the deck as he shifted sideways but I kept my eyes on Jack’s.
“You hear that, Sal?” Jack said. “Your little girl’s old enough to break hearts.”
My father shook his head at Jack, his eyes slightly narrowed.
Jack laughed, and looked out over the water at the other boat. The waterskier was zipping back and forth across the wake now, bending his knees to catch air over the crest. When he landed, he crouched deeper to speed alongside the boat until the rope went slack, then leaned back and cut sideways, a rooster tail of water rising behind him.
“I am,” I said, holding my beer can out in front of me as the barge rolled in the crisscross of waves.
“You are what?” my father said.
Jack turned to look at me, and then watched my father. We’d been drifting nearer to the island, close enough to watch the waves churn in the shallows, exposing bits of rock in the troughs.
“I’m just saying things have changed,” I said, because there was someone, a boy named Dan I’d met in the dorm one night.
I’d been studying in the lounge off the lobby, a room filled with vending machines and chrome trimmed sofas and chairs. He’d come in to buy a soda, wearing sweatpants and a white T-shirt that hung loose on his willowy frame, his hair dark and wet from the shower. I pretended to ignore him at first, but he lingered, popping the top off his can and drinking it there instead of taking it up to his room, asking if I wanted to listen to some music. When I pointed out it was after midnight and that I had a class at eight that very morning, he’d shrugged and said, “That’s hours from now.”
I took another drink of my beer, turned warm in the near empty can, and set it down near my feet. It slid a little then tipped, trailing gold from the hole in the lid. My father reached across the deck and grabbed it. His head jerked toward Jack.
“You going to take this out where it’s deeper, or what?”
Jack raised his eyebrows.
My eyes drifted to my father, a slow sweep across the deck and up. He looked boyish to me, despite the creases in his forehead and the steely stubble of beard already visible so soon after he’d shaved, a change of perception that came from knowing he was powerless to undo what had already happened. But now I had to close my eyes to picture Dan, the smooth line of his jaw, the fullness of his lower lip, because there wasn’t room on board for this many men. When I opened them again, my father was looking at me full in the face.
“Things are different now.” My words seemed muted, like someone had turned down the volume.
“Some things, maybe,” Jack muttered, pulling the cord to start the engine.
“What I mean is I’m not a little girl.” The sun was at my father’s back and I squinted into it. “I’m not a girl anymore. Not your girl. I’m trying to tell you that I’m not . . .”
“Hold on,” Jack said, and then water was flooding the deck, floating the cooler across the boards, surging around the legs of the lounge chairs. He gunned the engine, and the barge pitched crazily as we crested the wake, hurling the grill into the lake.
“You son of a bitch,” Jack yelled at the receding boat and skier as he stripped off his shirt and jumped in after the grill, and my father sprung to his feet to take the throttle.
I don’t recall the ride back to our dock, just the throb in my temples the following day, the set of my father’s jaw when we passed each other and he refused to face me, the flaring scorch of heat each time I struggled to remember if I’d said the word virgin.