***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Jio
Seattle, June 12, 2008
I step down onto the old dock and it creaks beneath my feet, as if letting out a deep sigh. It’s dark out, but the string lights that dangle overhead illuminate my path.
What did the woman from the rental office say on the phone? Seventh houseboat on the left? Yes. I think. I grasp my suitcase tighter and walk ahead slowly. A sailboat sways gently in the water where it’s tethered to an adjoining houseboat, a two-story, with a rooftop deck and cedar shingle siding weathered to a gray-brown. A lantern flickers on a table on the front deck, but seconds later its flame is extinguished, maybe by the breeze, maybe by someone lingering in the shadows. I imagine the residents of the dock peering through their darkened windows, watching me, whispering. “There she is,” one says to another. “The new neighbor.” Someone smirks. “I hear she’s from New York.”
I hate the hushed exchanges, the looks. The crush of curiosity drove me from New York. “The poor thing,” I overheard someone utter as she stepped out of the office elevator a month ago. “I don’t know how she even manages to get out of bed every morning after what happened. If it were me, I don’t know how I’d go on.” I remember how I hovered in the hallway until the woman rounded the corner. I couldn’t bear to see the look on her face, or any of their faces. The headshaking. The pity. The horror. In Seattle, the shadow of my past would be under cloud cover.
I take a deep breath and look up when I hear the distant creak of a door hinge. I pause, bracing for confrontation. But the only movement I detect is a kayak gliding slowly across the lake. Its lone passenger nods at me, before disappearing into the moonlight. The dock rocks a little, and I wobble, steadying myself. New York is a long way from Seattle, and I’m still groggy from the transcontinental flight. I stop and wonder, for a moment, what I’m doing here.
I pass two more houseboats. One is gray, with French doors that face north and a weather vane perched on the roof. The next is tan, with window boxes brimming with red geraniums. Various urns and planters line the deck in front of the home, and I stop to admire the blue hydrangeas growing in a terra-cotta pot. Whoever lives here must be a meticulous gardener. I think of the garden I left behind on my balcony in New York, the little garden box planted with chard and basil and the sugar pumpkin for . . . I bite my lip. My heart swells, but the porch light on houseboat number seven anchors me to the moment. I stop to take in the sight of what will be my new home: Situated on the farthest slip on the dock, it floats solemnly, unafraid. Weathered cedar shingles cover its sides, and I smile when I notice an open porthole on the upper floor. It’s just as the advertisement depicted. I sigh.
Here I am.
I feel a lump in my throat as I insert the key into the lock. My legs are suddenly weak, and as soon as I open the door, I fall to my knees, bury my head in my hands, and weep.
Three weeks earlier
It’s nine in the morning, and the New York sun streams through the eighth-floor windows of Dr. Evinson’s office with such intensity, I drape my hand over my eyes.
“Sorry,” he says, gesturing toward the blinds. “Is the light bothering you?” “Yes,” I say. “Well, no, it’s . . .” The truth is, it isn’t the light that’s burning, but my news.
I sigh and sit up straighter in the overstuffed chair with its brash white and green stripes. A signed, framed photo of Mick Jagger hangs on the wall. I smile inwardly, recalling how I walked into Dr. Evinson’s office a year ago, expecting a black leather couch and a clean-shaven man in a suit holding a notebook and nodding reassuringly as I dabbed a tissue to my eyes.
According to my sister-in-law, Joanie, he was Manhattan’s most sought-after grief therapist. Past patients included Mick Jagger— hence the wall art—and other big names. After Heath Ledger’s death, his ex, Michelle Williams, came to see Dr. Evinson on a weekly basis. I know because I saw her in the lobby once flipping through an issue of Us Weekly. But his celebrity client list didn’t impress me. Frankly, I’d always been scared of therapists, scared of what they might cause me to say, cause me to feel. But Joan encouraged me to go. Actually, encourage is the wrong word. One morning, she met me for breakfast in the restaurant on the ground floor of Dr. Evinson’s office building, then put me on an elevator destined for the ninth floor. When I reached his foyer, I thought about turning around, but the receptionist said, “You must be Dr. Evinson’s nine o’clock.”
I walked into the room reluctantly, noticing the green-and-white-striped chair, the one I’d sit in every Friday at nine for a year. “You expected a couch, didn’t you?” Dr. Evinson asked with a
He swiveled around in his desk chair and patted his gray beard. “Never trust a therapist who makes his patients lie on a couch.”
“Oh,” I said, taking a seat. I recall reading an article about the great debate over the couch as a therapeutic mechanism. Freud had subscribed to the method of sitting behind his patients, while they reclined on a couch in front of him. Evidently, he despised eye contact. Still, others, including Dr. Evinson, found the whole couch scenario to be unproductive, even stifling. Others agreed, saying it put the therapist in a place of dominance over the patient, squashing any chance for real dialogue and meaningful feedback.
I wasn’t sure which side I was on, just that I felt awkward in his office. But I sat in that overstuffed chair anyway, sinking down into its deep cushions. The soft fabric felt like a great big hug, and I proceeded to tell him everything.
I lean my head back into the thick cushion.
“You’re still not sleeping well, are you?” he asks.
I shrug. He prescribed sleeping pills, which help . . . a little. But I still wake up at four each morning, eyes wide open, heart hurting no less than it did when I closed my eyes the night before. Nothing has helped. Antidepressants. Sedatives. The Valium they gave me in the hospital the day my world changed forever. None of it takes the pain away, the loneliness, the sense of being forever lost in my own life.
“You’re keeping something from me,” he says.
I look away.
“Ada, what is it?”
I nod. “You’re not going to like it.”
His silence, I’ve learned, is my cue to continue. I take a deep breath. “I’m thinking about leaving New York.”
He raises his eyebrows. “And why is that?”
I rub my forehead. “It’s the memories of them,” I say. “I can’t bear it anymore. I can’t . . .” Tears well up in my eyes, though I haven’t cried here in months. I’d reached a level of healing, a plateau, as Dr. Evinson called it, and had felt a little stronger— until now.
“If I leave,” I say with a trembling voice, “if I go away, maybe this pain won’t follow me. Maybe I . . .” I bury my face in my hands.
“Good,” Dr. Evinson says, always quick to find the positive. “Change can be beneficial.” He nods as I look up from my hands, but I can tell his skepticism mirrors my own. The fight-or-flight response has come up in our sessions, but I’ve never been one to act on the latter.
“Let’s talk about this,” he continues. “So you’d really want to leave your home, your work? I know how important both are to you.”
Last month, I was named deputy editor of Sunrise magazine, and at thirty-three, I’m the youngest person to hold the post. Just last week, as a spokesperson for the magazine, I shared travel tips for families with Matt Lauer on the Today show. My career is thriving, yes, but my personal life, well, it withered and died two years ago.
Everywhere, from the window seat in the apartment to the little café on Fifty-Sixth Street, memories linger and taunt me. “Remember when life was perfect?” they whisper. “Remember when you were happy?”
I grimace and look Dr. Evinson square in the eye. “I fill my days with work, so much work,” I say, shaking my head. “But I don’t work because I love it. I mean, I used to love it.” The tears well up in my eyes again. “Now none of it matters. I feel like a kid who works so hard on an art project at school, but when she brings it home, no one’s there to care.” I throw up my hands. “When there’s no one there to care, what does any of it matter? Does any of it even matter?” I rub my eyes. “I have to get out of this city, Dr. Evinson. I’ve known it for a long time. I can’t stay here.”
He nods thoughtfully. I can tell my words have registered. “Yes,” he says.
“So you think it’s a good idea?” I ask nervously.
“I think it could have value,” he says after a moment of thought. “But only if you’re leaving for the right reasons.” He looks at me intently, with those knowing eyes that seem to peer right into my psyche. “Are you running from your pain, Ada?”
I knew he’d ask me that. “Maybe,” I say honestly, wiping a tear from my cheek. “Really, all I know is that I don’t want to hurt anymore.” I shake my head. “I just don’t want to hurt anymore.”
“Ada,” he says, “you must come to terms with the fact that you may hurt for the rest of your life.” His words gouge me like a dull knife, but I know I must listen. “Part of what we’re doing here is helping you live with your sadness, helping you manage it. I worry that you’re compartmentalizing your pain, that you’ve made yourself believe that the hurt you feel exists only in New York, when it actually lives in here.” He points to his heart.
I look away.
“Where will you go?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Somewhere far from here.”
He leans back in his chair and scratches his head before clasping his hands together. “My daughter has a friend in Seattle who owns a houseboat, and it’s for rent,” he says suddenly.
“A houseboat?” I furrow my brow slightly. “Like that movie with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?”
“Yes,” he says, digging a card out of his desk drawer. “She was here visiting and mentioned that my wife and I should come stay.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I was kind of thinking of someplace warm. Doesn’t it rain a lot there?”
“You know what they say about rain,” he says with a smile. “God’s tears.”
“So I won’t be crying alone,” I say, half-smiling.
He hands me the card, and I read the name Roxanne Went-worth. “Thanks,” I say, tucking it in my pocket as I stand up.
“Remember what I said,” Dr. Evinson reminds me, pointing to his chest. I nod, but I pray that he’s wrong, because I know I can’t bear to feel this way much longer. My heart can’t take much more.
The phone rings once, then twice. I consider hanging up. Suddenly this idea of mine seems crazy. Leave my job? Move to Seattle? To a houseboat? My finger hovers over the End Call button, but then a cheerful voice answers. “Ms. Wentworth’s office, how may I help you?”
“Yes,” I say, fumbling to find my voice. “Yes, this is, um, my name is Ada Santorini, and I’m calling to inquire about . . . the houseboat for rent.”
“Santorini,” the woman says. “What a beautiful name. I knew a family with that last name when I studied abroad in Milan. You must be Italian?”
“No,” I say quickly. “I mean, my husband was—I mean, listen, I’m sure you’ve already rented the houseboat.”
“No,” the woman says. “It’s available the first of the month. It’s absolutely charming, though I’m sure you already know as you’ve seen the photos online.”
“Yes,” she says, reading me a Web site address, which I quickly key into my computer. My office door is open and I hope the nosy intern in the cubicle outside isn’t listening.
“Wow,” I say, scrolling through the images on my screen. “It’s . . . really cute.”
Maybe Dr. Evinson is wrong. Maybe I can escape my pain. I feel my heart beating wildly inside my chest as an e-mail from my editor in chief pops up on my screen. “The Today segment was a hit. The producer wants you to share more tips on traveling with children. Be in studio for hair and makeup by five a.m. tomorrow.” My head is spinning a little. No. No, I can’t do this. Not anymore. “I would like to rent it,” I say suddenly.
“You would?” the woman asks. “But don’t you want to hear more details? We haven’t even talked about the rent.”
The nosy intern is standing in my doorway now. She’s holding the cover image of the August issue. A little girl and her mother are smiling, swinging in a hammock. “No,” I say immediately. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll take it.”
I open my eyes, and for a moment I have no idea where I am, and the void is blissfully frightening. Then I hear the sound of the lake outside, and the scene comes into focus.
I’m on a couch draped with a stark white slipcover. My sandals are still strapped to my feet, and my large black suitcase is beside the door. I gaze around the houseboat as if seeing it for the first time. The clock says it’s quarter till six, nearly nine on the East Coast. This is a fact I find shocking, because I haven’t slept this late in years.
I stand up and walk to the little kitchen. Running my hand along the tile countertop, I find a brass key resting on top of a note written on Wentworth Real Estate letterhead. “Welcome to Seattle!” it reads. “Here’s an extra key. If you need anything, give us a call.” I tuck the key in my pocket and notice a coffeemaker. I pour fresh water into the tank and toss in a packet of pre-ground Star-bucks Breakfast Blend, listening as the machine hisses and spurts.
I peek inside a cabinet and open a few drawers, happy to find all fully stocked. A set of well-worn pots and pans hang from hooks over the stove. Many meals have been cooked here. Wineglasses line an open shelf, champagne glasses on the next. I wonder about the people who have pressed their lips against them over the years, and I can almost hear them blowing noisemakers and shouting, “Happy New Year!” before huddling on the dock to sing “Auld Lang Syne.”
Were they happy here? Will I be?
I reach for a mug on the shelf and fill it with coffee. I hold it up to my nose, then take a sip before proceeding down the hall, where a daybed is wedged against the wall facing a white bookshelf. The shelf is stocked with castaways from renters of years past. Maeve Binchy. Stephen King. I smile when I see a copy of The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It used to be James’s favorite.
I close my eyes tightly, then proceed around the corner, where I pass a pint-size stacked washer and dryer set, a linen closet, and a small bathroom. A generous skylight presides over the shower, with a tiny square window that looks out from the stall to the dock and the lake beyond. I can see a young family motoring past in a small boat. There’s a little girl in a pink life jacket and an older boy on the stern with his father. I look away.
I walk back down the hall, passing a framed painting of an old sailboat. I squint and see the name Catalina painted in blue on her side. My mind turns to the island off the coast of San Diego. Sunrise sent me there nine years ago, the year after the wedding. I remember watching seabirds swooping into the cove. James came with me. We had panini at a little café on the beach. I take a deep breath, turning back to the painting. The boat’s two sails puff out proudly over its wooden hull. The blue water below is tropical. Perhaps this is the Bahamas, or somewhere else in the Caribbean. Where is she sailing, this ship called Catalina? She looks unbounded, full of life, pushing ahead with no anchor, no concerns to hold her back. I reach out and touch my finger to the canvas. I know it’s bad etiquette, but I can’t help it. It’s as if the painting is magnetic. I feel the lines, the texture of the artist’s brush.
Behind me are the stairs—well, more like a ship’s ladder—that lead to the loft above. I duck my head and climb up until I reach the upper floor, where the fir plank floors creak beneath my feet. There’s a double bed—its crisp, white linens look freshly laundered and pressed—and an old dresser with brass door pulls shaped like lion heads. Above the wooden headboard is the porthole. It’s been propped open, and I feel the cool morning air on my face. I listen as a pair of Canadian geese fly by, alternating squawks as they skim the water with their feet.
I carefully climb down the ladder to the living room. Outside the French doors, a sailboat bobs on the water. The rental office didn’t say anything about a sailboat. Its hull is wooden, stained the color of honey. It looks old but well kept. I unlock the door and walk out to the dock. I notice a yellow Lab snoozing outside a houseboat on the slip to my left. By now in New York, I’d already be sitting at my desk, having my second espresso and editing layouts. I would do that until one, until someone pried me away for lunch, which I would eat, reluctantly, before rushing back. I’d stay past nine, leaving only when the cleaning crew came in. I hated going home.
I sit down on a white Adirondack chair that looks out to the west side of Lake Union, where boats and floating homes nestle against the water’s edge. I see a green, grassy hill on my right—Gas Works Park, I think, remembering the Seattle guidebook I thumbed through on the plane—covered with rusted-out industrial relics that look almost sculptural. I watch the boats glide by for the next hour. Violin music lilts through the air, and I can’t make out the source. I remember something James always said, that sound is deceiving on the water, that sometimes you can hear a whisper from a half mile away. I listen for a moment, transfixed by the melody, until the music stops. I hear footsteps behind me, and then a voice.
“Henrietta!” It’s a man, on the dock. “Henrietta!” He sounds concerned, and for a moment, I wonder if someone is in trouble. Cautiously, I walk to the end of the deck, and I peer down the dock. I see his back first. He’s tall and in good shape for his age. Judging by the weathered look in his eyes, I’d peg him at a young sixty. His gray hair is parted at the side and falls over his forehead the way Ernest Hemingway’s did in the Key West photos, charming in a sort of boyish, brash way. “Oh,” he says, noticing me suddenly. “You must be the new neighbor.” He smiles warmly. “I’m sorry about the boat,” he continues, pointing to the sailboat moored outside my deck. “I meant to move that over to my slip before you arrived. I’ve just got to get the contractor out to fix the dock, and, well—”
“It’s OK,” I reply, taking a few steps closer.
“I’m Jim,” he says.
“Ada,” I say, taking his hand. “I arrived last night. I’m the new renter.”
He smiles. “Well then, let me be the first to welcome you to Boat Street.”
I give him a confused look.
“Oh, it’s what we call our dock,” he says.
I nod. “Oh, I’m sorry. You were looking for someone? Henrietta?”
His grin morphs into a frown, as if he’s remembering an upsetting fact. “Oh, yeah,” he says, shaking his head. “Haines, where are you, old boy?” I watch, perplexed, as he looks behind him. A moment later a mallard duck peers cautiously around the side of the houseboat ahead. He waddles toward Jim, stopping briefly to look up at me. “You see, Haines here is married to a fine duck named Henrietta. But they fight a lot, and they had quite a donnybrook last night.” He speaks without sarcasm, as if the love lives of ducks are quite a serious matter. I’m not sure if I should smile, but it’s impossible not to.
“Do you think she’s run away?” I ask, giving my best effort to keep a straight face.
“Oh no,” Jim says. “She’s just off sulking somewhere. Last week I found her in a kayak. She’d been gone for two days, and Haines was beside himself.” He kneels down beside the duck, who fluffs his feathers and lets out a little quack. “Mallards mate for life, you know.”
“I’ve heard,” I say. “It’s really sweet.”
“Anyway,” he says, standing, “we’re all hoping for ducklings this spring.”
I smile. “Ducklings?”
He nods. “They’ve been going together for five years, and you’d think they’d consummate this marriage at some point.”
“Maybe this is their year,” I say.
“Maybe. Anyway, if you see Henrietta, let me know. I live four houseboats down.”
“Oh,” I say, remembering the garden I passed the night before. “You must have potted all those flowers—they’re so pretty.”
“No,” he says quickly. “That’s my mother’s garden. My parents live next door. I grew up here on the dock.” He looks thoughtful for a moment. “I stayed away for a long time, but when the house next door came up for sale last year, I decided to buy it.” He looks down the dock as if seeing it through the lens of the past, exactly how it appeared fifty years ago. “When I left this dock, I swore I’d never return. But I guess every eighteen-year-old thinks that, right?” He shrugs. “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that time mellows things.” He eyes the potted plants in front of his parents’ houseboat. “No matter what, home is home. It’s where you belong.”
I nod hesitantly, thinking of my own home. I haven’t been back to Kansas City in years. The reason pains me, and I let my mind extinguish the thought like a flickering ember doused with water. And New York City—no, it isn’t home anymore either. I’m not anchored to any place.
“Anyway, I needed to come back,” Jim continues. “Mom and Dad aren’t in the best health. Mom broke her hip last fall. She’s finally up and about, but she’s frail. And Dad, well, he’s been having memory trouble. Some days are better than others.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say, thinking of my own parents for a moment. I feel guilty for the great wall of silence I’ve built between us. I didn’t do it intentionally, of course. I just couldn’t bear to hear their voices, see their faces—mirrors of the pain I felt. We went out to see them the summer before . . . I close my eyes for a moment, and I can see Ella jumping around in the steamy Midwest night air, reaching for fireflies. “Look, Mama,” she squeals, her voice still so fresh in my mind. She runs to me with hands cupped together. “I caught one! What should we call him?”
I smile and take her inside, where I find an old mason jar in a cabinet in my mother’s kitchen and show her how to make a proper firefly home, adding some twigs and leaves to the bottom, then piercing the metal lid with a steak knife to provide airflow for the little critter. “There,” I say. “Your very own firefly.”
She presses her nose to the glass. “Can we take him home to New York?”
I shake my head. “No, honey,” I say softly. “He belongs here.”
I don’t have to explain any further. She understands.
Ella understood so much more than most little girls her age. I sigh, thinking of that magical summer trip, thinking of James, and my parents, who’d had a new swing set installed in their backyard that month for Ella, their only grandchild. I shake my head. No, I couldn’t face them. So when my parents called, I didn’t answer the phone one day, and the next, and the next. Eventually, I sent a letter. I promised I’d call when I was ready. But I didn’t know when that would be.
Jim looks down at Haines and smiles. “Anyway, it’s nice to be here for them, you know?”
“Yeah,” I say vacantly.
“How about you?” he asks. “Where’s home for you?”
I look in the distance, as if I can actually see my Manhattan apartment beyond the Seattle skyline, then I turn back to face Jim. “I’ve lived in a lot of places,” I say.
“Right,” he says. His eyes sparkle as if he gets it, as if he has secrets of his own. He nods. “Well, you’re going to love it here.”
“I hope,” I say. “By the way, is there a grocery store nearby, someplace to pick up the essentials?”
Jim nods and points to the street above the dock. “Pete’s Market,” he says. “Just a few blocks from here. It’s been around as long as I have. Great wine, too. But then again, if you need anything, just pop over. We’re very communal here when it comes to bread, eggs, and milk.”
I smile. “Thanks.” I turn back to the lake, then again to the street above the dock. “It was dark when I arrived last night, so I’m still trying to get my bearings. Can you walk to much else around here?”
He nods. “Best coffee shop in Seattle is just up the hill on East-lake, and you don’t want to miss the Italian restaurant, Serafina.”
“Sounds nice,” I say. If James were here, he would have already scouted it and made reservations for dinner tonight.
“You won’t find a better little community on the West Coast.”
He turns back to Haines, who’s been listening to our conversation intently. “Well, I better get back to the search party,” he says, digging a hand into his pocket and pulling out a crust of bread. “Her favorite: stale ciabatta.”
“I hope you find her,” I say. Haines tilts his head as if he understands exactly what I’m saying.
Jim nods. “I’ll be back around this afternoon to move the boat back to my slip.”
“Oh, please don’t worry about it,” I reply. “I really don’t mind. It’s actually kind of quaint.”
He scratches his head. “Well, if it’s all right with you.”
“I insist,” I add.
“She has quite a history here, the Catalina.”
I shake my head. Her name must be painted on the opposite side. And then I remember the painting. “The Catalina?”
“Inside my houseboat,” I say, pointing back toward the French doors, “there’s a painting—”
“Yes,” he says. I see the sparkle in his eyes again. “Well, I’ll be seeing you around.”