When I was seventeen and vacationing with my family in Montauk, I went with a man down into the cabin of his sailboat. I’d gotten up early while my family was still sleeping and put on the ragged skirt I’d made out of old jeans, and then I walked down the road to the marina and met this man. He was much older than I was—maybe thirty-five—and his name was Doug. I think he bought me breakfast. The hem of my jean skirt trailed on the ground.
I didn’t have very much fear in those days; certainly not much common sense. Doug offered to show me his boat, and I went along happily. Then we sat below deck and talked for an hour or two. He was something of a philosopher, and he told me about Zen Buddhism and the Maharishi, and about his daughter who was four and whose name was Ross B. I asked what the B stood for, and he said it was for possibility. This was a novel idea, not at all the kind of thing my parents would have countenanced. He said Ross B could choose her own middle name when she was old enough.
Afterwards he drove me the two miles back to the cottage, and I waved good-bye and promptly forgot what he looked like. But what the meeting set in motion was a kind of aching. When I thought about him later, I felt unreasonably jealous of Ross B. She would be his golden girl, lounging below deck and dealing the cards and finally coming up with her own name. Or maybe never coming up with one at all. The fact that I had a middle name (Jean) did away with possibilities. I was already closed in, my life plotted out. No rocking your gypsy soul and sailing into the mystic.
Years later, after I’d graduated from university and landed an entry-level job with a publisher, I went to a conference in Toronto and met a man called Ross B. That’s the truth, it was the name on his badge. I tended not to look at name badges because the overload was always too much, and I usually didn’t have on my glasses anyway. But there were ten of us at a table over lunch, and I turned to the man on my left, and there was his name, Ross B. Naturally we had a conversation.
“What does the B stand for?” I asked, and he told me to take a guess.
So I guessed silly things like Byron and Beowulf, because we were at a publishing conference, and in the end he wrote it out for me—Bosnjakovic. “See if you can pronounce it,” he said. And I would have gotten it right, if it hadn’t been for the j. “That’s okay,” he said. “No one gets it. But you did better than most.” He was looking at me appraisingly, as though doing better than most had boosted my appeal. He was a couple of years older than I was, and a bit too tidy for my tastes. In those days I preferred scruffy-looking men, and it was a point against them if they drove a nice car.
We got married. It was a small wedding—his parents with their Polish accents, my mother and her new companion (my father had died five years earlier). A handful of our publishing friends. We had a gift registry at Pier 1. It was the early eighties, before real estate skyrocketed, so we bought a garden-level condo in an old house in Little Italy. We adopted a rescue dog, a pointer named Lorelei. By then I was working for a small press, and Ross was on the rise at Random House. We were both writing novels. Mine was a literary murder mystery without a solution. His was about a guy playing Roulette with the stock market.
He lost all his savings and some of mine. So did the guy in his novel. It seemed he’d planned it—Ross, I mean—maybe to get writing material. I decided to go on a cruise, with some savings I had left. I’d never been a cruise sort of person, but I thought water would give me scope to think. Neither of us said it, but we both wondered if it was the end.
In Port Zante, on St. Kitts, I met a man on the terrace of a pub. I was eating jerk lobster and he was several tables over, reading a newspaper. The sea was very blue. Everything was blue, with a golden hue. He got up and came over, carrying his drink, and asked if he could join me. I’d declined a couple of offers on board, preferring to sit alone with a paperback or the manuscript I’d brought along for editing. But ships, even cruise ships, were confined places, and St. Kitts offered the possibility of escape.
His name was Doug. He didn’t seem much older than I was, maybe five or six years. He was handsome in an untidy way—flip-flops, beat-up board shorts, a faded coral polo shirt. “This is my favourite of the Leeward islands,” he said. “It hasn’t been overrun with tourists yet. Are you mooring down there?” He motioned toward the marina.
“I’m on a cruise,” I said, feeling unaccountably ashamed.
There was no recognition on either of our parts, just a comfortable connection. I wasn’t ready to plunge the dagger into my marriage, although taking a cruise on my own was maybe the first step. But I finished my jerk lobster and agreed to go down and see his Snowgoose.
The catamaran was docked at the end of the marina, blue with white trim. It looked pretty sleek, although Doug said it wasn’t as sexy as the newer cats. (He called it it, not she, which was a point in his favour.) Then I saw the name on the side of the boat, and it was Ross B. I know this should be fiction, but it’s not.
“Your daughter?” I asked, and he looked surprised.
I was looking at his face, then—trying to piece together his nose and eyes and mouth as a memory. But I couldn’t; 1978 was too far back. A year might even have been too far back. I’d forgotten his features as soon as he’d dropped me off at the cottage, that long-ago morning on Long Island. What I’d retained all these years was a distilled version of him—his essence, maybe—and his daughter’s name.
“I think I’m in a kind of loop,” I told him.
So we sat down on the deck of the Ross B and had a talk in earnest. He’d bought the boat eight years before, when his old boat, the Sylvie, had become too costly to repair. His daughter had learned to sail on the catamaran, so after a year he christened it accordingly. He remembered being in Montauk—he’d moored there many times—but he didn’t remember the summer morning when he’d taken an underage girl below deck.
“Christ,” he said. “A man could get in deep shit for that, now. Did I make a pass at you?”
I thought hard, and shook my head. “I probably wanted you to. Back in those days, I was desperate to live on the edge.”
“So why didn’t you make the pass?”
“I was too shy in those days. Besides, I wanted to feel desired.”
“So you married a Ross B,” he said. “Pretty Twilight Zone, don’t you think?”
“A bit. Although his name’s really Rościsław. His parents are Polish. Where’s your daughter now?”
“Hiking in California. We’re planning to cross the Atlantic this summer, leaving in June—a father-daughter voyage. There’s a boat I have to deliver to a friend of mine in the Canaries. Then she’s starting NYU. She’s all grown up.”
I asked him if she’d ever chosen a middle name. “Never. She’s flirted with plenty, but likes to keep her options open.”
He didn’t do email, so I gave him my work address. I would have given him my home address, but didn’t know what I was going home to. “Still no passes,” he said, as I got up to leave. He was looking at me quizzically, as if it were a question. But my ship was about to sail.
I went home to Toronto. Ross was waiting for me at the airport. “I think we should go for counselling,” he said. “I don’t want our marriage to end.”
I took Lorelei for a run. It was March, and the last of the snow was melting. There were muddy tracks everywhere in Bickford Park. Lorelei disappeared into a bush, and I had to go back and get her. She had a sock in her mouth. “Why do you love gross things?” I asked, trying to wrestle it from her. There was a sock in my novel, the murder mystery with no solution.
Ross and I lay in bed, on opposite sides. “I think I’m always looking for signs,” I told him. “That’s my problem. When you appeared with that bloody nametag, it was just too good to turn down.”
“What was?” he said, turning on one elbow to look at me.
“The nametag. I was shaped by the idea of someone just having just an initial. I don’t think I would have ever gone out with you, except for that nametag.”
“I don’t get it,” he said. “Why do you always want to hurt me?”
He had a funny cleft in his chin, which tended to emphasize his slightly oversized jaw. I’d always found it kind of cute, but at that moment it annoyed me. “I met him again, you know—in St. Kitts.”
“The guy from Montauk all those years ago. Doug.”
His cleft dropped a little. “So you think it’s some kind of sign?”
There was no good answer to that. The captain of the Ross B, who had taken me below deck when I was seventeen and never laid a hand on me, was the author of possibility. My husband was just the author of lost funds. “I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
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