I watched him for a moment sitting on the dock. His back was facing me, his eyes toward the water. He didn’t know I was there, standing on the grass. I still had time to be gone before he turned around. He wouldn’t know that I chose to leave without saying goodbye.
I simply could not move.
The flurry of activity in my body was invisible – a hammering heart, tingling palms, a racing mind. From the outside I could have been anyone going about their day. Someone enjoying a sunny day outside by the water, perhaps there for a picnic or to meet a friend. I could be anyone.
I thought about what his face would look like if he finally turned around and I wasn’t there. If I disappeared and broke my promises and left my words dangling between us. I could see those long lashes of his looking down, those wide, soft eyes scanning this dock where we had spent so much time together.
Would he ever come back here if I left now?
Would he realize that this was the last place that he had seen me? Would he hate me?
I would hate me.
I called his name louder than I had meant to. It was a raspy yell, it sounded desperate, and maybe it was. The evening was still, my voice bounced off the water and back toward us. He stood at the sound of his name, and turned toward me. His Red Sox hat was pulled low over his eyes, dirty and worn and on his head almost constantly. God, I loved that hat.
He didn’t stand still, not even for a moment, but immediately started walking toward me, not hesitating like I would have. The dock swayed with his footsteps, an irritated duck took flight at his movements. He looked at me as he walked, his jaw set, but his eyes soft and on mine. Always soft.
He touched my hair when he reached me, his hand on the top of my head, his fingers trailing the length of it.
I nodded. I had been so close to leaving. I was so angry.
But then I thought about the way he laughed through his words, in that loud way of his. Tossing his head back like a child, closing his eyes, laughing until tears.
I thought about the time I cut my hand deep enough to need stitches on a rusty nail on this dock. He had wrapped it gently and tucked me under his arm in the car on the way to the hospital, never revealing how worried he had been until later, how much seeing me bleed like that bothered him. I remember retelling the whole story to my dad, how his eyes had shone at Chris’s worry. I remember thinking about that for a long time after.
He prefers oatmeal raisin cookies over chocolate chip and is the only person I know with that preference. He always kisses me when I least expect it. He loves this dock, but refuses to fish. He gets quiet when he’s mad. I’ve never heard him swear, and he drops his head to my shoulder everytime I hug him. It’s everything, it’s nothing at all.
“Thanks for staying,” he said quietly enough that it could have been the wind. He reached toward me and linked a finger through one of mine, stepping closer as he did. One of his feet was wedged between mine.
“I almost left.”
“I’m scared. And sad. I don’t think I can do it.”
He nodded and squeezed that one finger tighter.
“Anything is scary if you think about it long enough. But I’ll be here, too. As long as you want me, I’ll be here.”
The breeze had begun to chill as the day wore out. Soon the sun would disappear across the other side of the water, leaving the shadows to do its bidding. Leaving me to think about this place and its ghosts and decide just how brave I could be.
“He wanted me to have this place,” I said quietly to our hands.
“I don’t know if I can be here without him.”
He nodded at that. What can you say?
Chris had known dad before he knew me.
He had to come to this dock while my dad was working to replace the boards that had come loose over the winter. It was a tedious job, one that I knew dad dreaded each spring.
I remember seeing my dad talking to him from the front porch, and I wondered who he was. I saw them shake hands, saw Chris stand straight-backed as he swiped the old baseball hat off his head. My dad rested his hands lightly on his hips, the hammer still dangling from his right, and listened as Chris spoke. I could tell, even from the back of his head, that he was taking in every word.
He listened, my dad. It was one of the best things about him. When he talked to you, you felt like the only person in the world. He was interested in what you had to say, asked questions about it and wanted to know more. He made you feel valued, important. I missed that warm feeling of belonging, of being heard.
I took a step closer to Chris and bent my forehead to his chest now. His hand found the back of my head and the warm weight of it made me close my eyes. I could smell the day on him – the sun and water, the crispness of a changing air. It would be winter soon, the world would keep going, and my dad was dead.
My dad hired Chris that very day they shook hands on the dock. Later, when I asked him about it he told me, “you can tell when someone wants to work, Lizzie.”
And he had been right.
Chris had wanted to work, to learn, from my dad. He had lost his own father as a child and could hardly remember him. He and his mother had just moved to Danvers and had their own dock, their own small waterfront cabin. He wanted to be sure that he knew how to take care of it. He wanted to teach his mom so she would know when he was away at school and when Chris asked around at different places in town everyone had recommended he talk to my dad.
Dad knew a bit of everything, and had his own carpentry business that had been known in town and the surrounding areas for my entire life. It was more than just the business with dad, though. It was his nature. The gentleness of him, the willingness to help. People liked being around him, and didn’t mind asking him for help or advice. People felt good when they were around him.
“Why Danvers?” I had asked Chris two weeks after he started working on the dock. He was pulling up the rotted boards and tossing them in a neat pile on the grass. It was a warm, fresh day. Tingling with possibilities.
He shrugged at my question, but looked up and smiled. He lifted one hand to shield his eyes from the sun and it cast a shadow over his face, but I had already memorized the exact shade of blue in his eyes.
“My mom liked it here,” he said, bending over and yanking up another board, “and it’s not too far from school. It’s a good place, maybe a new start for us both.”
I nodded, my bare feet stretched out in front of me in the grass. I had offered to help him tear up the boards, but he refused, telling me that he didn’t want to lose his brand new job. “Your dad would kill us both if you got hurt,” he had said, “and I would never forgive myself.”
I had torn up plenty of those boards myself, and had hammered my own fingers countless times. I had insisted on helping in any way dad would let me ever since I was small. I loved working side by side with him, learning all the things that he was teaching Chris now. But I let Chris think he was doing me a favor. It seemed important to him.
“What school are you going to?”
I tried to sound experienced when I said it, with what I hoped was an easy air in my voice, having just completed my own freshman year at Tufts and feeling very in the know.
He bent over and pulled up another board. I hoped that I hid my surprise by the time he looked at me again.
“Wow. That’s impressive, good for you.”
He shrugged again. He did that a lot, I had noticed.
“My dad went there too,” he said quietly, not looking at me this time.
I nodded again, although he didn’t see, and pulled a few blades of grass out, twirling them in my fingers. I never knew exactly what to say when he mentioned his dad, so I usually chose nothing. I wondered if that made me a coward, but Chris never seemed to mind. His pile of rotten wood grew, and soon he began hammering in the fresh pieces in their place, making the deck look unbalanced against the gently rocking water. My dad joined Chris not long after, and I remember wondering if between the two of them all of the pieces would eventually be brand new.
Every day during that summer I saw Chris.
He came most days and worked with my dad, and it was easy to find time to talk to him. If we didn’t see each other while he worked we would meet later at Gretchen’s Scoops for ice cream, or take a walk by the bay. We watched sunsets, split lobster roll sandwiches, and slowly but steadily figured out to love each other.
One day, as I walked down to see him, I passed my dad coming up the hill.
“Where are you headed?”
It was unlike him to leave so early in the day, especially with Chris still working. They had finished the dock, and had now moved onto preparing the small boat we owned for the summer. I heard them talking about getting Chris’ ready as well.
“Lunch,” he said simply, slowing his pace, but not stopping.
“Lunch? It’s ten am.”
He shrugged and his mouth pulled up into a half smile. I saw his bright green eyes shimmer.
“When you’re hungry, you’re hungry,” he said with a wink.
I glanced back at him while I made my way closer to the water. His hands were in his pockets and his chin was pointed toward the sky, like he was looking at something high above him. I turned back to see Chris waiting for me, his hand in the air as a greeting.
“Hey,” I said, smiling at him.
I felt jumpy when I was close to him, but not in an uncomfortable way. It was like being hyper-observant, aware of every sensation, every glance and smile, touch and blink. It was exhilarating and new, exhausting and familiar.
“Hey,” he replied with a smile of his own, bright and sincere, “I was hoping I would see you today.”
I settled myself on the grass next to the dock, fishing a cookie out of my bag and handed it to him. I pulled another out for myself, still warm from the oven. They were oatmeal raisin, which I had just learned were, somehow, Chris’ favorite.
“Hope is the thing with feathers, as they say.”
He broke a piece of cookie off and popped it in his mouth.
“They do say that.”
We ate in silence for a moment, a goose flying overhead and honking loudly. Chris leaned his head back, trying to get a better look at the bird. He came and sat next to me on the grass, our legs nearly touching, his hand resting near mine.
“Sitting down on the job?” I asked, reclining backwards on my elbows. He took the same position, tilted his head up again, his eyes still searching for the goose.
“Your dad told me to take a break,” he said, squinting against the brightness.
“Did he, now?” I asked, hiding my own smile.
“Said we were out of gas for the boat anyway, so he was just going to get some now.”
I didn’t reply, but let my smile go. I tilted my own head toward the clouds and leaned my shoulder against Chris. Neither one of us could see the bright red gas can sitting on the dock with our heads tilted up, our faces warmed by the sun.
My dad got sick when Chris and I were back at school.
We were two weeks from Christmas break when he called me to tell me what the doctor had said. I remember not believing him, feeling like I was flying, or falling. I called Chris as I packed my bag, choking on sobs.
We drove home together, the Christmas lights we passed setting his face in a soft glow in the car. His hand was warm around mine, his hand the only tether keeping me together.
I kept thinking about the text message I had sent dad that morning. It had been a video of a cat sliding into a tiny box that he inexplicably fit into. Can you even believe this?! I had written, chuckling to myself, thinking how dad would find it hilarious. Lizzie, I love it! One day we’ll get a cat, they’re the funniest little creatures.
Had he been at the doctor’s when he sent that? Had he already known his diagnosis? Did he really laugh? I was sending cat videos and he was learning life-altering news. My chest hurt when I thought of it, and I squeezed Chris’ hand tighter and closed my eyes until all the Christmas lights were gone.
Today I had spread dad’s ashes on the lake, standing on this dock. Dad’s dock. Chris stood next to me, one finger linked with mine as I let him go. I had known it would happen, I knew that he didn’t have much longer, but it would take a long time to understand that he was really gone.
Dad left the place to me – the cottage, the dock, the water, the memories. It was too much, and I wanted to run.
“You can’t just leave,” Chris had said to me this morning. I was getting ready to spread dad’s ashes and my head was swimming. Should I wear a dress? Dad won’t ever fix that dock again. Dad is dead.
“I can leave. This place was his, Chris.”
He ran a hand through his hair in frustration. It had turned so much lighter over the summer. His eyelashes were pointed down at me, his blue eyes gray and stormy.
“It’s yours, too, Lizzie. You deserve to be here, too. Why can’t you see that?”
Because I feel like I would suffocate here without either of them. Because I don’t think I can do everything alone. Because I’m not ready to be on my own. I’m still a kid and I miss my parents.
“I don’t know.”
He walked to me then and pulled me toward him. I thought about pushing him away, still hot with anger, but the effort was too much. He was solid and warm and my dad was dead.
“I’ll meet you at the dock,” his voice said in my ear. He brushed the hair away from my neck and pressed a kiss there. I watched him close the door gently behind him and changed out of the new dress I had bought and into my favorite jeans and dad’s old Tufts sweatshirt. It still smelled like him.
I didn’t get to say goodbye to dad. I had been at school and he fell asleep and didn’t wake up in the same bed he had shared with my mom before she left us, too. I couldn’t remember her at all, but I always pretended I could a little bit for dad. He had never stopped missing her, loving her, and a romantic part of me liked to think of them laughing together again. It took away some of the sting, whether it was true or not.
Dad was warm and comfortable and knew how much I loved him before he went. There shouldn’t be anything else to ask for, but a selfish part of me wanted him to stay longer so I wouldn’t have to miss him, so I wouldn’t have to learn to live without him. It would never be enough time.
I took Chris’s whole hand in mine now and we watched as the sun lit the water on fire as it moved. Dad was somewhere in that water now, even if his ashes dissolved. He was around, even if it was just in my head.
I belong here, too.
Chris pulled me in close. I was warm inside dad’s sweatshirt, but I didn’t think I could quite smell him anymore in the fresh air. I leaned into Chris and glanced up at him. He was looking out to the water, his eyes focused, his mouth relaxed like at any moment he might smile.
I closed my eyes and listened to the geese honk high in the sky. I breathed in the clean air and pressed my cheek into Chris’ side.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.”
The Mary Oliver poem was framed on dad’s desk, dusty in its frame, but its words sharp and clear.
“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again.”
Cory Essey lives in Pittsburgh. Her work has previously appeared on Discretionary Love, The Write Launch, and Two Sisters Writing and Publishing.