By Rory Say
The first time he’s pushed to the ground by one of his peers, he doesn’t even realize what’s happened. He thinks he’s finally been included in a game until he tries to get up but isn’t allowed to, and the sudden squeal that comes from him, as well as the tears that follow, causes laughter and hurtful words. Nicknames that stick.
When his parents ask about how he gets along with the other boys, he tells them fine, and they believe him because why wouldn’t they. Because to them, what others see as his imperfections are the very things that make him who he is, which is perfect.
His sister, on the other hand, sees him as a threat to her own image, a concern she often describes in more passionate terms. And the harmless boy sometimes wonders if her professed hatred might be more real and substantial than ordinary sibling resentment, if there really is no trace of love hidden somewhere beneath the scowls, the glares, the dead-eyed proclamations that he is not her brother.
Nor do even his teachers like him. They wince at the pitch of his voice and feel their neck’s muscles tense at the sight of his gait. They hate themselves for doing this and yet they do it. They hate the sharp stabs of guilt they feel when they overhear something awful whispered at the harmless boy’s expense and catch themselves smiling.
In high school, the guidance counselor he speaks to on Tuesdays tells his wife that the new boy he’s seeing has a face only a mother could love. Similar things are told to the harmless boy directly on a near-daily basis, and the worst part is that it’s impossible to disbelieve.
Girls who accidentally look his way either tear their eyes groundward or begin to stare with a kind of roadkill gaze.
His sister’s cruelty evolves into a simple disregard for his existence: she pretends at all times that he is not there. Which makes the harmless boy feel even more dejected and worthless than he felt in the face of her open hostility. Which, he guesses, is the desired effect.
At fifteen he joins his dad crabbing on weekends and loves it. Finally, something he loves. The feel of the streets when they’re empty in the predawn dark and the steam rising from the thermos between his knees in the truck’s passenger seat; that first lungful of ocean air when they park in the harbor, and the wet ropes running cold through his hands as they pull out from the dock.
But what he loves most is just being away. When he’s out on the water and they’re waiting for the catch, his dad sitting in the orange deck chair with a paperback held to his face, the harmless boy feels beautifully far away and unreachable. He watches the day finish breaking over the mountains while he finishes the coffee that’s somehow still hot, and he never wants to go back.
He begins to anticipate this moment all week, until he’s there, and it happens, and finishes happening, and then he anticipates it again.
When he hits sixteen, he gets his boating license, and his dad lets him have Saturdays to himself. He packs food in a big paper bag and takes his schoolwork so he can stay on the water for as long as possible, sometimes going out farther than he’s supposed to just so he can feel farther away from everything else. And every time he’s out there, it gets harder to go back.
Then comes a morning three weeks shy of his seventeenth birthday. It’s mid-April and summer still seems far off, but on the water just now it’s calm and windless and almost warm. He feels relaxed because of where he is, sitting in his dad’s deck chair as the sun climbs the mountaintops to the east, slowly turning the ocean to fire. But this time he’s scared also, because why wouldn’t he be. Because he’s almost finished the coffee at the bottom of the thermos and he knows what’s going to happen when it’s done. He can hardly imagine it happening but he knows it’s going to, because this time he can’t bear waiting another week to be back to where he is, where he always wants to be, where he now decides he never needs to leave.