October 27, 2014 | ,

As Big as a Boat

Leaving the airport is what frightens her, walking from the cocoon of baggage carousels and rental car booths out into the brightness of the California sun.

Natalie loves planes, the enormous airlessness of them, the cold of the window pressed against her cheek, and the efficient flight attendants with their carts full plastic dinner trays and drinks. Other people may be nervous about hijackings, crashes and turbulence. But Natalie feels safe, as if she’s suspended in time, eternally protected.

She has managed, and it wasn’t easy, to pull her two enormous purple duffels off the carousel and is pushing them outside on a cart at the San Francisco airport. Natalie is curvy. A fifteen-year-old wearing the uniform of every teenage girl in the mid-seventies-flared jeans, a black leotard, and three-inch platforms. Her dark hair curls down her back, and her brown eyes are rimmed with kohl. Men’s gazes linger a little too long on her, but she is used to this. What unnerves her are the women who scan her from head to toe. Their steely evaluations. She thinks of them as the up-and-downers. When mothers of her friends do this–it gives her a strange sad power. It is, she believes, unkind. Men can’t help themselves. She is pretty sure of that. Just as she is sure of her beauty when it’s reflected back at her in their eyes.

She scans the cars outside, and tries not to appear nervous. This is Natalie’s first trip alone, and she needs to find her father’s friend, John Duffy, who’s driving her to her new boarding school. It’s a progressive co-ed school, which emphasizes the arts as well as academics. She will supposedly learn to sculpt and paint as well as do calculus. She can’t do any of these things now. She’s not arty, or exceptionally intellectual, but her father’s convinced that her mind has been dulled by public school, that there is some form of genius hiding in her. Nurturing is his new favorite word.

John Duffy is a photographer like her father, but she’s never met him. He’s in fashion, according to her dad, and a very cool guy. What does her father consider cool? He photographs rocks and trees, and has recently moved to an apartment in Boston, leaving Natalie’s sad mother and her sister, Liza, in the big house in Newton.

Natalie is glad she’s leaving. The house looks strange without her father’s books and cameras. There are white spaces on the walls where he’s removed pictures, and he’s taken the couch from the family room. Her mother has become thinner and quieter, and Liza, her sister, whose problem finally has a name–Asperger’s–has terrible tantrums. When Natalie was packing, her mother didn’t even check to see if she remembered things like nightgowns and underwear, but she had.

Natalie is more worried than she’d like to admit about finding John Duffy. What if she doesn’t? She will have to call home collect from a pay phone. Someone will have to rescue her. It would have to be her father, who wouldn’t be happy about it. He has an opening in New York tomorrow. Her mother can’t leave. Who would take care of Liza?

She suddenly misses her mother, who had cried when she took Natalie to the gate, wiping tears away with her palms. “If you don’t like it you can always come home,” she’d said, and gave Natalie a kiss, her lips wet with tears. She’d hugged her tightly and seemed so small and birdlike, her ribs pressing into Natalie. Natalie stops, and sniffs her wrist where she’s dabbed the musk perfume that she’s stolen off her mother’s dresser. Her embroidered and mirrored Indian shoulder bag is sliding down her arm. She hoists it back, and fishes for some lip-gloss. She slicks it on, and reminds herself of her father’s assurances that she’ll recognize John Duffy’s car. He drives a vintage Rolls Royce. Exquisite is the word her father used to describe it. She likes that word–rolls it in the back of her throat.

Just as she carefully wheels the cart onto the sidewalk, the most beautiful car she has ever seen glides to a stop. It’s as big as a boat, a pale yellow convertible with crimson leather bench seats. The man behind the wheel calls: “Natalie? I’m John.”

“Hi,” she says. She does not know what she was expecting, but he is not it. Still, she almost crumples in relief. She’s been found.

“Hop in,” he says, getting out and tossing her duffels onto the soft leather of the back seat as if they weigh nothing. He’s tan, wearing a tight white T-shirt. His muscles move as he picks up each bag. He looks at her and smiles. His skin is smooth; he’s not wrinkled like her dad. He holds out a large hand, and she feels his cool fingers. They wrap around her palm, then quickly release it.

“How did you know it was me?”

“You were the only girl standing on the curb with duffel bags. Not so hard to figure out.”

He is not, she is glad to see, a tooth flasher. He smiles with his mouth, a real smile. His lips are full and rosy. Almost like a woman’s.

She slides into the front seat. The sun is hot on her shoulders and her jeans make an embarrassing swishing sound moving across the leather. Maybe it’s because she’s too fat. Her father tells her the calorie counts of everything she eats when she visits, and says she could stand to lose five pounds. A map is attached above the burled wooden dashboard. The town where Natalie’s going is circled in red. It’s almost an hour away, at the base of Mt. Diablo, and she knows she is part of a gigantic favor. One that must be paid back with a gift or a dinner. Perhaps a case of wine.

She tries not to look directly at John Duffy. He looks like one of those gym guys who spends all his free time working out and trying to stay young. Her father has become one too. He works out with his new girlfriend, Margot, every day. Margot is twenty-seven with perfectly toned abs and small twinkly diamonds in her pierced ears. The earrings are a gift from her father. Natalie has been unfairly forbidden by, both her parents, to pierce her ears until she is sixteen. She would like tiny diamonds nestled in her lobes–to own that glint and spark.

They pull smoothly out of the winding airport drive and onto the freeway. She’s never been on a road like this. Red and pink flowers grow along both sides of the median. Even the cars seem perfect, small and sporty, unlike the clunky practical Fords and Chevys she’s used to seeing. When John Duffy moves to squint at the map she gets a whiff of sharp citrus. He’s wearing an expensive-looking gold watch with a brown crocodile band and his arm is surprisingly hairless. She feels like she should try to make polite conversation, but he starts first.

“I’m a big fan of your father’s,” he says. “He’s a true artist.”

“Thank you.” Her father is famous for his still lifes: stalks of wheat, trees sketchy as a line drawing across the sky, boulders like black pillows floating in a river. His pictures are in museums. When she sees his photos, and she has seen all of them many times, her stomach still flips in astonishment.

“Do you work for Vogue?” she says. Fashion, she’s heard, is not really art.

“Sometimes,” he replies. I just finished a shoot for them in Barbados.”

She reads Vogue cover to cover every month. It comes in the mail addressed to her mother who never even picks it up. Her mother would be having a fit right now. The car has no seat belts, which feels weird. Natalie perches on the edge of her seat staring out the windshield and imagines going through it. Shards of broken glass, bone and blood. Her father would be responsible for her death, since this whole thing was his idea. John Duffy is driving very fast, too fast, and her hair is whipping around her face, catching in knots. His hair, mysteriously, ripples only slightly.

A green sports car passes. “Cool car,” the driver yells, pumping his fist in the air. John Duffy waves back, a small controlled wave, as if he were royalty or a beauty pageant contestant.

She’s beginning to settle into the silence and the speed, beginning to believe she won’t die, when John Duffy exits the freeway and pulls over onto a small dirt road with no traffic. The car raises a cloud of dust. She digs one of her nails into the back of her hand, and reminds herself that this man is her father’s friend, that he works with women as beautiful as his car. Still, an acid-y panic burns in her chest. John Duffy takes his hands off the steering wheel. He clears his throat. His voice sounds practiced, as hers had sounded when she’d memorized poems by repeating them over and over.

“This may seem silly to you, but your dad asked me to talk to you about boys. He thought you’d listen to me because I’m not quite as old as he is and, well, I’m not your father.” His voice catches and he coughs, turns to look at her, but she avoids his eyes.

“You need to be careful. Especially with teenage boys. Guys will do anything to get into your pants. It means nothing. They can’t help it. Don’t think you’ll be different, and they’ll love you. Don’t mistake sex and hormones for love.”

Blood rushes to her face. She nods even though she doesn’t understand, cannot imagine how her father could have asked this man to give her this talk. Planned it. Her lungs are tight with rage. She feels like she can’t breath. She’s looking down, but can feel him watching her, feel his weight shift on the seat.

“We had sex-ed in school,” she says. “I learned that in the fifth grade.” This is not completely true. They learned about their periods, birth control and viewed enormous diagrams of male and female anatomy. Mrs. Davidson had told them that boys got excited much faster than girls, and that it was their job to be mindful of this. To stop them. Girls were the payers of consequences.

“Your father just worries about you. He doesn’t want you to get hurt. I don’t mean to scare you. You seem like you’re a together kind of girl. I’m just the messenger.”

“I get it,” she says. “No fucking, and no one will ever love me.” Her mouth tastes bitter. She is not sure if she has ever said the word fuck out loud. And her father is no one to talk. She hears him having sex, through the thin apartment walls, on the weekends she stays there. Margot’s muffled screams. Her father’s groans. When they start up she puts a pillow over her head.

“That’s not what he meant,” John Duffy says, his face sags. “Well, the sex part, but not the no one ever loving you part. I’m sure he didn’t mean that.”

She sits perfectly still. She would like to feel nothing. She would like to be invisible.

“Sorry,” he moves over and ruffles his fingers through her tangled hair. She knows he is trying to be comforting. That his only fault was being stupid enough to agree to go along with her father’s crackpot idea. He looks down at her, seeking forgiveness, and she impulsively stretches to meet his lips. They are soft and warm and hesitate for a beat.

They kiss for a long time. She can feel his tongue darting around in her mouth and she’s not sure what’s she’s supposed to do with it. She presses nearer him, and he pulls her even closer. He suddenly seems desperate, helpless, which makes her nervous. She opens her eyes to look at his closed ones, and sees that three brown-and-white cows are grazing behind a fence near the car. His hands move over her leotard to find her breasts.

“Oh God,” John Duffy says, pulling away. “This is a huge mistake.”

“Not really,” she says, and as she says it, she’s fairly sure it’s true. She has her power back.

He reddens and his hands return to the steering wheel. He pulls back onto the highway and moves as far away from her as he can get. She can see the base of the mountain looming ahead as well as the brownish hills. There were hills in the photos in the school brochure. They pass a small run-down farm. A chained dog barks. They can’t be far.

As they round the curve, Natalie spots the school’s sign and a sprawling log cabin of an office building appears. The car attracts a lot of attention pulling into the school’s parking lot, which is full of family groups struggling with bags, desk lamps, cases of soda and small fridges. She feels light. She only has her duffels. All the other kids have parents with them.

Before they go into the door marked Main Office to get her room assignment, she turns and sees a few boys circling the car, running their hands over the smooth seats and dashboard. The headmaster, Mr. Elliot, shakes her hand as well as John Duffy’s. Then he shows them the cafeteria, with its mismatched chairs and muffin smell, where dinner will be served at six. When they leave the boys are still standing by the car. They look from her to the car, and then move away when John Duffy returns for her bags.

On the way to her room they pass several parent-type couples, who smile and say hello. She hopes nobody thinks John Duffy is her father. She unlocks her door and shuts it quickly behind them.

“Will you be okay?” he says, dropping the duffels next to her bed, which is made up with grayish white sheets and a brown blanket. She’s not sure she will be okay. The room is dank and cell-like, with wooden walls and concrete floors. The only furniture other than a bed is a beat-up wooden dresser and a desk. She has no friends here.

He’s about to leave. She knows this, and she goes over to him. Puts her hand on the bare part of his arm. Kisses him. He’s tall, and she has to stand on her tiptoes. She will do anything it takes to keep him here. Outside she can hear hellos and goodbyes.

“God, you smell good,” he says and buries his nose behind her ear. He starts with her leotard. Eases it down. He studies her as he peels off her clothes. She likes that he can’t stop staring, that she is something he wants. Her washed out pink panties and bra lay on top of her jeans.

“Is this all right?” he says, as he scoops her up and puts her down on the scratchy blanket. His belt buckle is gouging her stomach, but she nods, yes. “You’re incredible,” he says, and she wonders if this is true, or just something men say. If this is what is reflected in their eyes. If this is why the mothers stare.

He undoes the buckle, unzips his jeans. His penis is bigger than she thought it would be. Kind of purple and ugly. She has never seen an adult one. He stops and pulls a condom on–where he got it is a mystery–and it looks even stranger. The kissing is wonderful, though, and she begins to feel a heat. It’s good, all this touching and stroking. And then it’s not good. There’s a swift burning pain, and suddenly there’s something moving inside of her that feels like it shouldn’t be there. She clamps her lips together, and wills herself to stay quiet. John Duffy makes a low guttural sound. The pain doesn’t stop. Their stomachs are stuck together with sweat. How long, she wonders, can he possibly go on? A door down the hall slams. John Duffy exhales a whimper. He stays on top of her for a minute. He’s too heavy. She feels squashed and squirms until he moves. Her body cools under the sweat. They are silent for a few minutes, listening to the background sounds of furniture sliding across floors, and the thump of trunks and suitcases. She suddenly wants a mini-fridge that someone has filled with cold drinks. She shuts her eyes and imagines the pop of a Tab can. John Duffy starts talking, and she has too open them.

“I don’t usually do this,” he says, propping his head on his hand, looking at her. “I want you to know that. Our secret?” He runs one finger over her nipple, but she senses that he’s eager to get up.

Photo Credit: "city girl in a little town" by Martin Pulaski
Photo Credit: “city girl in a little town” by Martin Pulaski

She wonders what “this” is. There are so many possibilities–fifteen-year-old girls, friend’s daughters, total strangers.

She watches him pick his clothes up from the floor, and get dressed. He does not seem to realize that this is her first time. She thought men might be able to guess things like that.

“If you need anything call me. Anything.” He gives her a last kiss, gentler than the others, and glances around the room with a worried look. Fumbling in his pocket he finds a glossy black business card and hands it to her.

She takes it, and ducks behind the door to open it for him. She is sticky and sore, and she doesn’t want to look at her body. She quickly pulls on her clothes, raises the blinds and opens the window. There is no screen. The school handbook says that they must take a flashlight when walking to the library at night, so as not to step on tarantulas. She’s heard that they can jump, but she leaves the window open even though she’s terrified of spiders. Especially tarantulas.

There’s so much to be afraid of, yet she’s less afraid than before. She feels as if she’s won something.

Out of the window, she can see John Duffy walking back to his car. She watches until he disappears behind a small hill into the parking lot. The air smells sweet and clean. Different than home. She unzips her bag and dumps it on the floor. The clothes scatter. She searches until she finds a small framed photo by her father that she’s snuck into her suitcase and padded with a shirt. The only things she wants these days are things that belong to others. Her mother’s perfume. Her father’s photo. Around her neck she’s wearing a small coral heart of Liza’s. She’s a thief.

The picture is a white poppy; its open translucent petals are finely dusted with orange. She loops it over a nail that is already in the wall, and steps back to get a better look before she gathers her things.

 See Karen Uhlmann’s Bio


Karen Uhlmann lives in Chicago and graduated with an MFA from Bennington in 2010. Currently, she has a story in Noo Journal. Her fiction has been published in Southern Indiana Review, Fiction Southeast, and Specter, as well as other literary magazines. She writes book reviews for The Common. In 2012, she won the Northern Colorado Writers contest, which …

Learn More