Where’s Your Boyfriend?

“Oh, he died, I think.”

Justine Skahan, Imaginary House. 2016, oil on wood, 11 x 14". Courtesy the artist.  

The bottom of Prioleau Lake buckled and shoaled but the man driving the water taxi wove through the shallows without looking, rolling a cigarette at his waist. He knew where the rocks were. They shot into the open channel past a thousand islands, inlet after inlet, but to Tristan it was all the same — water led to more water, shore to more shore. Tristan sat with his feet in the air, braced on the bench between his mother and another passenger, a man he’d never seen. His mother’s long black hair whipped across his face, into his mouth. He kept brushing it away. The arm of the man beside him was as wide and warm as a dock plank in the sun, the opposite of his mother’s, which was so slight Tristan could feel the nub of her elbow through her coat. Inside, his mother took on the temperature of a room. Outside, she took on the temperature of the sky. She was so cold now that he leaned away from her into the plank arm. Hoping she wouldn’t notice, he shifted his weight a little at a time, in rhythm with the waves knocking at the bow.

As the boat rounded Treble Island, Rachel thought it might not be so bad to live here. Treble had no farming acres. It was only woods, a wild place, and so nothing less than a paradise or hell, depending on how you felt. She had memories of landing on Treble to go to the trading post with her father. She could still see him drinking on that wide porch. They would stay past sundown, then cross the water home in the dark. Maybe he stayed late for no other reason than that night ride, flying low over the water blind. Sometimes he did nothing but smoke and drink, not saying anything to the next man. Now and then, many people gathered on the porch, playing music and dancing on the long boards, which bent underfoot with the give of a diving board and made Rachel feel the muscles in her legs. She danced with everyone, not only the boys but also the men and women, and she remembered how their bodies through jeans and loose shirts were hard from work, how she drew in close and took any affection allowed her, and how a bad sunburn could make the cool of evening come on stronger.

As the boat slowed, she smelled the trees. The air snapped its fingers like a smelling salt and seemed to wake her. From what sleep she didn’t know. She held her hand in the air and the air washed her hand. She bent her head and it washed the back of her neck.

The other passengers gathered their bags and stepped off the taxi. Rachel and Tristan were supposed to follow them along the boardwalk through the tall grasses to the trading post, then take the wide path right to the old church land. A cabin was waiting for them, she’d been told. It had no windows, but it did have a stove. It had a door they could open to move the air, Codas had said. But Rachel didn’t follow the crowd up the boardwalk through the grasses, not even with her eyes. She looked out at the water and tried to imagine how deep it was, and how many islands lay just below the surface.

Tristan held on to the bench with both hands as they jerked into reverse and pulled away from the dock. Treble Island had come and gone. The boat hit the waves harder without the weight of the other passengers, and he felt each wave as a blow to the stomach. From his stomach a bad feeling rose into his chest and spread across the tops of his shoulders like big hands pressing him down. He was soaring and drowning, or he was crying, that was it.

He closed his eyes as Rachel put her arm around him. She held the top of his shoulder, but it was so small it didn’t fill her hand. She’d made this shoulder, but it was smaller than her idea of it. Did she not know him? Not even his shoulder. But she had saved him, and herself. The debt they would have found taking charity on Treble Island was not the kind that could be paid off. It was the kind of debt that could only be forgiven.

“Your island?” the man driving the boat yelled over his shoulder.

Her island.

“What’s your number?”

There were hundreds of islands. He knew them by number, even the sliver islands in the shadows of the mainland. In his mind, the islands formed constellations, but he also saw them as single points of light.

“Do you know Ransom’s place?” she said.

It was awkward for this man to look at her, she thought. Maybe he wasn’t used to looking at women. “Sure I do,” he got out. “It’s through the narrows. You’re alone out there.”

She wanted him to keep looking so she could figure him out, but he turned back toward the bow. Maybe his eyes were only good for distances. His clothes hung loose, which Rachel understood. She had grown up around men who wore the same set of clothes all year. When it was late summer or fall, the clothes fit well, but after winter into spring, their pants had to be cinched high and fell loose, and out on the water their shirts were sails. She caught herself looking at the lines of his arms and back, sharp and square. They were the kind of lines that tire because we tire, but are unbending.

He watched the bottom for rocks and asked them to jump to shore from the bow, because there was no dock. Rachel pulled Tristan’s hands off his face. He’d been crying, but she would think about that later.

Tristan wasn’t the kind of boy who jumped off the bow of a boat, but now he jumped far and landed light, with animal grace, his feet sticking to the wet rock, and he turned back with a smile on his face.

The cabin was like most cabins that far down the lake. There were three holes cut out of the front wall, a door and two windows. There was another hole in the roof for the woodstove pipe. It had been ten years since Rachel had opened the cabin door, and she was surprised to find not disaster but preservation. No trippers or hunters had broken in. The small bed was made, the quilt flat and still blue. Nothing had changed, which was unsettling but confirmed what she most wanted: if no one had been there, then no one was coming.

The chairs were pulled out from the table. She pushed them in. A skeleton the length of an index finger lay on the kitchen counter: a row of pine-needle ribs, a tail, and a skull that bore no features, just a pinched bone. A patch, a badge, of thick gray dust blew out from the top of the skeleton, and it took Rachel a second to realize this was the flesh degraded, burned to ash by time. The fur had not survived. Her instinct was to blow the dust off the counter, to see if it would rise. But she didn’t want to breathe it in.

She poured a bucket of water down the open handle of the water pump and janked it up and down but no pressure bore. The pump leathers had to be rotten, which in a way was a blessing — it would give Tristan a job to do, carrying water up the path from shore.

It was by the way she washed the windowsills, the table, the chair legs, the floor, that Tristan understood she’d been here before. She could only be this rough with things that were hers. She used too much water, maybe because everything felt so dry. But this was not a garden, he kept thinking, as she kept asking him for more.

Together they pulled out the mattress, beat it with a broom, and left it to air. They shook the dust out of the floor rug, dug the ashes from the belly of the woodstove, washed the kitchen utensils in the lake, and dragged the cedar canoe out from under the cabin. The canoe was lacquered in pollen and lichen and looked like it wanted to rot. Tristan watched his mother scrape it clean with the back of a knife, slowly revealing that its hull must have been bloodred once.

To him everything felt like too much. To Rachel it wasn’t enough, she wanted to do more work to calm down. When the day ended — the sun set without a show and the pines went black — she was too tired to put the bed back together and decided they would throw blankets down and sleep outside on the mattress.

“Here we can do what we want,” she told him.

She wanted to tell him everything. He wanted to tell her that he was hungry.

Tristan fell asleep and didn’t dream. There was mercy in exhaustion. Rachel watched his chest rise and fall and couldn’t believe how slowly he breathed with such small lungs. Moments passed when it seemed he had stopped breathing at all, and so peacefully that she worried that he would yearn one day, or already yearned, for slower breath still, deeper sleep than this. She thought she saw it in him, frustration at the kinds of feeling they were given. Nothing felt quite as it should. His eyelashes were longer and more beautiful than hers, his hair a little darker. Maybe they were the same, or maybe he would have it worse.

The mattress, the blankets, and their clothes were wet with dew in the morning, and so was their skin, but the quiet of night was in them and they woke happily, smiling at each other. His mother was beautiful, Tristan knew. The hurt part of her face made the rest look more perfect, so he looked back and forth. When they were fully awake, she showed him the mist on the far shore, how it looked like smoke, like the mainland was on fire. The smoke didn’t cloud but clung to the land like breath reluctant to leave the mouth and the warmth of the body. She kissed his hair and brushed it with her hand, kissing where she brushed, telling him with her affection that this was where they would try to live.

Days went by without name for two weeks before a boat came around the front of the island, slowing in a moan of lost momentum. The sound brought Rachel to the window. She knew that she was supposed to go down and help him land. It was the water taxi. It was the same man.

Tristan was playing with cards at the table. His cards were spread out like he was drawing with them, making a landscape: a spade and club forest, heart and diamond sky. She didn’t think he knew a card game, and she resolved to teach him one, though she’d never liked cards. She had always preferred doing nothing to playing a game, had never been bored, but too full of feeling for that. Now she couldn’t tell if it was the cards or the man that was making her anxious.

The pines gave shelter and long shade, but Rachel felt like she was crossing an open field as she left the cabin. She was supposed to know there was no protection, no place to hide, but it was something that had to be learned in variation. There’s no protection, she told herself, forcing her hands open so she might wave, straightening her back, brushing the hair off her face.

“There’s no place to hide,” she said.

He thought about it. “You’re probably right.” On his way, he had imagined that she would take relief in seeing him. That’s what people did this far out.

“What do you want?” she asked.

For some reason Rachel’s hostility made him comfortable. Maybe because she wasn’t pretending anything. Or because no one had spoken to him so directly in a long time. She stood where the water slid up over the rocks, leaving no room for him to imagine coming to shore or getting past her. It was like she was trying to hide the whole island behind her back.

“Why are you smiling like that?” she asked.

Against her will, he made her comfortable too. His face was easy to look at. It had the confidence of someone who lives on the water. He was wearing the same loose clothes as the first day, standing still in the rocking boat.

“I’ve got something here,” he said, holding out a letter.

When he let go, his fingers stayed bent. She wondered if they hurt him.

“So you’re Ransom’s daughter?”

He tried to see her father in her face. The scar on her cheek was as wide as an open hand. It wrapped behind her ear and distracted him. “You must be his daughter. I saw you in the window up there, and I thought that could be him. I know he’s dead and it can’t be him. I mean, I know it’s not him, it’s you.”

Rachel shook her head like she didn’t understand, but she did.

“I knew him.”

“I knew him too,” she said, smiling now. They were familiar to each other.

When she opened the letter a few days later, it was bad but not awful, a couple of pages and a folded map from Codas. He’d heard that she’d taken up camp at her father’s fishing cabin. She took the map as an insult: like she didn’t know the lake. The letter itself was two pages of small, cloying handwriting. He pressed too hard into the page. Nothing was natural about Codas. It was the longest letter she’d ever received. Did they have a boat? Gas for the boat? Oil to mix with the gas? How would she support herself? Codas told her to come to Treble Island. She should come on Sunday at eleven. If she didn’t, he would come the following week to bring them himself.

On paper, Prioleau’s main channels took the shape of a body falling. A body like a cliff jumper. The legs sunk south, while the arms shot over the shoulders and seemed to be reaching for something. The silhouette was headless. Some people said the lake was reaching for its ghost head. Their island was at the heel of the right leg. Treble Island was mid-breast, its outline a dab shape like a heart. Rachel traced their route on her father’s old map. The scale was an inch per mile. From heel to heart, it was six inches, six miles, with two or three miles open to rough water.

On their practice run, the wind had its way with them. Tristan was weak in the bow of the canoe. “Turn around and watch me,” Rachel said to his back, but he didn’t turn around. “Do you see how I pull on the water? I get ahold of it and pull” — no he couldn’t see — “and with my top hand I push.” The canoe was moving backward now; the prow and their bodies were slim, but the wind on the water could make a sail of anything. Tristan dipped his paddle like he was dipping his finger into a bowl of batter. “Don’t lily-dip,” Rachel told him. “Cut in and pull.” He finally looked back, but not at what his mother was trying to teach him; he looked at her dark hair across her forehead, down her shoulders, and at her face, which was calm, like she didn’t care about what she was saying. But all the more reason that he should listen.

“You’re not trying.”

He put his paddle into the lake up to its hilt, but when he pulled back his low hand pinched against the gunnel.

Every day she made him practice, like he was learning an instrument. They went out together, and she knelt him down on a ledge at shore and made him paddle in place, his knees rubbing against the rock.

Tristan’s weakness worked its way out of him like an illness. It persisted strangely, disappearing only to claw back in, until it eased imperceptibly; then one day it broke, for reasons of its own, and was gone. That Sunday, Rachel filled the bottom of the canoe with rocks to set it deep in the water against the wind, and they climbed in, setting it deeper. They put their paddles into the water without talking and pressed the canoe into the bay. The bow cut the water so cleanly the cut closed quickly behind them. They drew a disappearing line, which no one saw in the first place: they didn’t look back, only down at the sky, pitch-blue in the water, or at the black cliffs hanging over their shoulders. When her top arm grew tired, Rachel told him, “Switch,” and they slid their paddles over the gunnels and started again.

“I’m keeping note of you, Rachel,” Codas told her when she came to the door to show her face.

When he talked in his sleep, his small voice strained, like he was trying to sing, but he never sang. She could have reached out then, but didn’t want to wake him. She had always felt it was embarrassing to be woken from a dream, to know that you were seen when you could not see.

He was dreaming of treading water and couldn’t find shore. The sky, the land, the lake were all the same fresh black. There was the slightest shimmer, but from what light? He tried to find it from his dugout.

She played shadow to him all day. Only at night could she break off on her own. But here she was leaning over him, her body like a shield, protecting him from what? Maybe she was the reason he never sang out. Maybe she was what he needed her protection from.

She needed him to eat more. Tomorrow he would eat something from a package. They would go to the trading post, and she’d buy him anything. With the money she would get. Her plan was good, because it was not complicated.

Rachel sat on the floor beside him. “No more of this,” she whispered. She leaned and put her lips close to his cheek. “No more sleeping on the ground.” He was his own child. She wrapped his blanket around his waist and legs, then pulled her own blanket down off the bed. As she spread it over him, her hands moved across his shoulders, down his arms, to his hands. She wanted to hold his hands down, to reason with him, to tell him to stop talking in his sleep, to stop sleeping on the floor, that he must eat; but then there was a different want, which was to keep her hands off and to learn from him.

Dreaming was exhausting. She was grateful to have a night of work ahead. She struck one match and it stayed lit long enough to light the kindling in the stove. There was no question the fire would burn, not smolder; she’d used all the best pieces. She took her blouse from the old tissue paper it was folded in and put it on, fresh against her skin that smelled strong. She put on her jeans and a loose sweater, pulled her hair back, and tied it. When she lowered her chin against the collar of her coat, she could smell the sweet blouse and her body too. As a teenager, Rachel would sell herself to a friend. She didn’t think of it as selling sex. They were not good friends, but he would pay her, and they went like that, having sex in his bedroom, even when his parents were home, for about a year until he got a girlfriend. Another time, it was one of her brother Sheridan’s friends, who’d heard about what she’d done. He asked her, said he liked her, he wouldn’t tell Sheridan, and he would pay. At 15, she had no other way to get money. She knew those boys, and she wasn’t afraid of herself.

She carried the canoe down to the water against her thighs. It felt light, which it wasn’t, and so she recognized her body was rising to the occasion. She pushed off and started south, staying close to shore to keep her line. The only place to go at this hour was the drinking house on the mainland at the bottom of the copper-mine road, Sebastian’s place. If she was at the heel of the lake, it was at the hip. It was a place only men went, so they would know why she’d come.

An awkward moon lit the way, which seemed right. It would have felt forbidding if the moon had been pretty. It was a useful moon, a hunk like a ham roast, that gave enough light to see the shoreline but roused no wind and called no spirits on.

She passed the time listening to her own breath and the sound of the paddle pulling through the water, and the eddies that swirled and sucked as she drew the paddle out. After two hours, when she was almost there, she heard a motor. She stopped paddling so whoever it was wouldn’t see her paddle flash in the moonlight, the wet blade like a mirror. But it wasn’t any use: no one seemed to notice Rachel when she was in plain sight — then they ignored her — but when she tried to hide or slip by, she was cornered.

The boat came straight for her and slowed until the motor idled. It was the water taxi again.

“Is that you? I thought you were a man!” He cut the motor.

She wondered what he was doing out there and decided he was probably drunk.

“Hey,” she said.

“What are you doing out here?”

As she let go of her paddle for the first time, Rachel felt patches of blisters on the palms of her hands. They felt gross, like holding warm teabags. Oh my god, I’m fucked, she thought. Paddling back would break the blisters.

“You aren’t sleepwalking?”

“I don’t think so,” she said, feeling her hands start to pulse.

“Don’t tell anyone you saw me out here,” she said.

“I don’t talk to people,” he told her.

But that wasn’t true, he’d been asking people about her. Why hadn’t he seen her before? She had kept to herself, they said, lived outside of town in a trailer with her brother. Now she lived with a boy and had no way to support him. His wife said she’d seen Rachel a few times: “I don’t know what she’s thinking. I can usually tell what people are thinking.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes.” Her eyes were everywhere.

“I can give you a ride where you’re going.”

“No, you can’t,” she said, “not tonight.”

She looked out at the water, not at him.

“I’m going to the place up there, Sebastian’s,” he told her.

“You are?”

“You should come with me.”

She would have refused and met him later, if that was meant to happen. But her hands.

There was no more light inside than out. Over the bar two propane lamps smoldered like abandoned coals, not gold like they should have been, but a sunken red. The brittle mantles were seared at the bottom in black rings. Rachel always wanted to crush dead mantles, since they turned to ash at the lightest touch, into a powder finer than flour. She had to stop herself.

“Where’s your boyfriend, Rachel?” asked Sebastian. Women weren’t really welcome, but Sebastian had always liked her.

“Oh, he died, I think.” She looked past him.

“He died, you think?”

“He probably didn’t die. But if you never see someone again, how alive are they really?”

“Not very,” Sebastian agreed, “unless you think of them.”

As children they’d danced together, or at least very near to each other, on Treble Island on those summer nights her father kept her by his side. She remembered how Sebastian flicked his fingers as he danced. He would flick them, then pull up and brandish the bottom of his button-down shirt like it was the hem of a dress, showing his stomach, then covering it again. He’d shown everyone his stomach.

There were three old guys at the end of the bar, copper miners, she figured by their tight builds and matching black steel-toe boots, and by how they talked so close to each other’s faces. They were comfortable that close. They were good at being buried alive together, both under the earth and here, under a cloud of cigarette smoke so thick it looked painted onto the air over their heads, the same gray color as their hands and faces.

Summer would bring tourists and migrant workers, but she couldn’t wait for them. She was here now, hoping to find a man she’d never seen.

“One day this place will burn down,” said the man from the water taxi. “It’s so dark it’s turning in on itself.”

He was right to interrupt her. There was no one else, and she’d already chosen him.

“The dark’s good, we can’t see how disgusting everything is,” she said. “The floor, the counter. Everything’s sticky.” She lifted her glass and took a big sip. “My glass is dirty, I can taste it.”

He looked at her hard.

“OK, what’s your name?” she asked.


“That’s your nickname?”

“No, that’s my name. I don’t have another one.”

Keb saw that Rachel was too thin. Her bones — her shoulders, the clavicle — pressed against the skin. It was hard to see her whole, since all these lines called for separate attention. There was her wrist. He’d seen piles of wrists, but never one so clearly. She put her hands on the table and stretched her arms. He followed the movement of her hands from the table to her neck, through her hair, back to the table, down to her thighs. She moved a lot. Only her eyes held still. But she wasn’t looking at him. She seemed to be looking nowhere.

He tested himself by staring at her sunken cheek. It didn’t make him apprehensive. He told himself that he didn’t wonder about the story. He felt defensive on her behalf: her scar wasn’t a big deal, didn’t make her ugly. It didn’t make her hands, or where she put them, less interesting to him.

“You’re looking at my face,” she said.


She didn’t mind.

They drank mixed rye straight, and it tasted good until it didn’t taste at all.

“I’d go home,” said Rachel, once she realized they’d been drinking for hours. They’d been keeping pace with the miners over there, but it was impossible to finish with their kind of composure. “I’d go now,” she said, sliding her legs out against his.

“You can,” he told her.

“I wonder what time it is.”

It grieved him that she should mention time.

Rachel fell asleep in her bed at six-thirty. When she woke at nine she was fully dressed. She smelled of whiskey and bile, but her limbs felt light as she lifted them. As she rose she felt exceedingly physically good, better than other mornings. First thing, she took off her blouse and wrapped it in its tissue paper. It was wet at the back — she’d been sweating in her sleep — and crumpled and marked with black down the sides, where Keb had reached under her sweater and put his hands the first time. He’d cleaned his hands on her. But if his hands weren’t clean, she didn’t blame him. They weren’t supposed to be.

She crouched by the woodstove in her bra and held her hands out, but the stove was blunt cold. She filled it with balls of newspaper and kindling and lit it, her hand shaking at the match. A strange momentum in her body had carried her out of bed, out of the blouse, to here, and it wanted to keep going, so she put oatmeal and water in the pot, went outside, and brought in an armful of firewood. When the oatmeal was done, she filled a bowl and put it down on the table with a hard knock, almost breaking the dish. Distances were hard to judge. Like the distance between her hand and her waist. She tried to rest her hand on her hip, but her hand wouldn’t land. That’s when she remembered Tristan.

She searched everywhere. Under the bed, across the floorboards with her hands. Something was wrong with her hands. She searched in impossible places, as if searching for something smaller than a boy. She opened the cupboards, lifted the blankets, two and three times. Did he always scatter the blankets? She couldn’t remember. Maybe he’d been taken away. Someone had come. Her body tightened around the idea. She sat down and threw up.

Rachel rose to her feet, walked wall to wall, and touched the walls like a swimmer pushing off. Her hands were beating with pain, a ragged pulse, but she refused to look at them. Her hands didn’t matter.

She went to the window, not to look out, but to hate this place she loved. Why did it matter? Why did she think it was hers? She was ready to see the sky empty, the water empty, her eyes empty, but there was Tristan down low on the shore, sitting where he always sat to watch over the water.

“We’re going to Treble Island,” she said, coming up behind him, breathing like she’d been running. “But don’t worry, not to see anyone. We’re going to the store.”

He didn’t look at her.

“You can choose something. I’m going to choose something too.”

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