I don’t understand why he calls it a houseboat. It doesn’t look like a house, and it doesn’t look like a boat. What it looks like is a white box with windows cut out of the sides, railings clamped all around, and deck chairs tossed on the roof. The whole thing bobs in the lake, tethered to a dock post by a soggy green rope. Inside, everything is brown. The walls are covered in plastic panels printed with a wood-grain design, as if to remind us that wood floats and it’s perfectly reasonable that we’re loaded on this box for the next six days, instead of at home in an actual house. He, my Dad, is one of three Dads for whom this trip is now an annual thing, the third summer in a row that these college friends have brought along their elder sons for a week of fishing on a giant lake—this year, in Minnesota.
The kitchen in the houseboat is brown tile instead of brown carpet. I’m eleven years old and standing in front of the sink, washing every dish from the cupboards. The Dads and the other Sons are sitting on the slick white top of the boat, a deck on the roof above me. The sunset is beautiful, they keep telling me, but I keep doing the dishes, which is taking a lot longer than anyone would have guessed. We’ve already unpacked, already uncoiled the rope linking us to shore, already buzzed out across the water, turned off the engine, and started our slow drift around the lake in whatever direction the waves and wind push us.
Even though I’ve endured two previous trips, something about this houseboat idea unsettled me as soon as I heard about it. Maybe the intimacy of all of us aboard one small vessel, three Dads and three Sons in too close quarters? When my Dad announced our plan, I tried suggesting how disastrous my habit of sleepwalking might be on a houseboat, the way I could silently slip into the dark water before anyone noticed I wasn’t tucked inside my sleeping bag anymore. This was unconvincing because, to his knowledge, I’d only sleepwalked once—when I was five and stood in the hallway snoring and peeing in a corner before shuffling back to bed—and because it hadn’t happened since then, he wasn’t worried.
I also hate fishing, but that’s never worked, so I didn’t bother bringing it up. I’ve always hated fishing because it’s boring. For that first trip, I was simply excited by the fact that I was going somewhere on my own with Dad—no little brother or Mom. And I was so intrigued by the special pants required for trout fishing that I forgot about the fishing part. The waders looked like green, rubber overalls, and as soon as my Dad returned from the hunting store with a pair for me, I wiggled into them and started sliding my slick feet across the carpet, pretending I was figure skating. Besides wearing special pants, trout fishing also involved special rules, which he said both at home before the trip and again on our first cold morning, as we all walked with our poles and stepped down the river bank. I plunged into the frigid stream, the pants suddenly sucking at my body, and as the pressure of the water squeezed my legs and crotch, I fidgeted and tried to pretend I didn’t already need the bathroom.
The rules were that we had to wait until a bell sounded before casting our lines. A game warden would watch us. The clear water streamed by as I shivered, and at the opposite bank, root beer–colored trout darted in the current. Men in their own sucking pants stood in the water around me, their poles raised and patient. Somewhere in my waders, there was a sudden small coldness like I was leaking.
Sometimes I don’t act the way boys are supposed to: in a high, panicked voice, I told my Dad about my waders. I felt the eyes of the other men turn to us. “Your pants are fine,” he said, keeping his own voice low, his head still, his face calm. I had the feeling I’d done something wrong, and the anxiety snagged at me, forcing my leaking legs to shudder. My shaking fingers unlocked my fishing line. Before I knew it, I reflexively dipped my pole back and cast out to the opposite bank, the lure flying perfectly—in a way it never did from my arm—plunking down in the glittering cloud of fish under the water; they scattered and disappeared.
“What are you doing?” my Dad asked, dark lines creasing his forehead. I shook my head and tried to explain, but my voice wasn’t working.
The rushing sound of the water grew loud like headphones turned up too high. I couldn’t remember how to reel in my line, and I couldn’t help but just stare at the thin, white wire that spanned the width of the stream connecting me to my mistake. Every man’s eye in the water pointed at me, except my Dad’s. The strange men groaned, whispered to each other, sighed. My stiff fingers finally snapped down the catch on my pole, and I quickly wound in the line, cranking the lever, hoping the fish would ignore my lure and that the warden wasn’t watching. As soon as my hook lifted from the water, the bell went off. But the fish were already gone.
“You’re not done with those yet?” Jim, one of the Dads asks, as he pushes open the sliding glass door of the houseboat kitchen and steps inside.
“I’ll be done in a minute,” I say. My fingertips are fat and numb, whitening and wrinkling, but I don’t care. The evening sky is dark by now, and the square window above the sink is like a mirror; the yellow kitchen light puts my reflection up there, a small mouth drawing a tight line across a white face. Behind me, I see Jim bent over and rooting around in a cooler. He cradles a can of beer in the crook of his elbow, and digs around for two more. Three beers, three Dads.
Jim is the oldest of the three by just a year or two, though he doesn’t look it. He actually doesn’t act or dress much like a Dad either—or at least not like any of the Dads I know—the ones who wear T-shirts dotted with house paint and furniture stain, or ripped jeans smeared with car grease, like mine. Jim wears clothes like the popular boys at my middle school, the ones who live on the other side of the highway in the sprawling subdivisions with names. Polo shirts with flipped-up collars, plaid shorts, deck shoes. In clothes like those, with his carefully combed hair and his trimmed brown beard, he never looks ready to fish, but he still fishes anyway.
“Your dad says you’re not playing baseball this year? Jimmy’s missing a game this week, and it’s killing him.” In the window, I watch him yanking on a can of soda, trying to separate it from its clear plastic ring. Jim’s son is also named Jim, but everybody calls him Jimmy. The third son on the boat with us is Eric. Jimmy and Eric live close enough to each other to be good friends. Because I only see them about twice a year, each trip it’s like I’m meeting two brand-new boys.
I rub my sponge back and forth on the rim of a plate until it squeaks, and then it gets quiet enough to hear the dish-soap bubbles popping rapidly. I shrug to Jim.
“Well, Jimmy’s pitching again. He loves it,” he continues, and I turn around to finally face the real him, instead of the reflected one. He’s holding three beers and a can of orange soda, and the hair on the backs of his hands is slicked down and shiny. Boys, like men, are supposed to want to do things like throw baseballs and catch fish. What do you call a boy who doesn’t? He slides the door open again with the toe of his shoe, and steps through it. “You don’t even have to wash those in the first place, you know. You could just come on up.”
“I know.” With my sponge, I’m scrubbing hard between all the tines of all the forks. “I like it,” I say. He doesn’t know I keep refilling the sink with fresh hot water and new squirts of soap. What I like best about this chore is I’m the only one here that wants to do it, so it’s mine, alone.
“Okay,” he says, and he’s gone. Last year, when we stayed in a cabin on another huge lake in Minnesota, I washed all the dishes on our first night too. I loved the cabin, especially being alone in it. When the Dads and Sons wanted to walk down to the slip and check out the boats, I stayed behind, pretending I was tired and needed a nap. Once they walked off far enough, I started my skipping. That summer, the year I was ten, I was convinced skipping got you across the house, the yard, the grocery store, or the baseball field better than either walking or running—though skipping publicly was strongly discouraged by my Dad. After a few skipped laps, I decided to pretend I was a Mom, a very busy woman, and this was my bustling house. I checked the beds, made sure the tub was scrubbed, jerked open each kitchen cupboard, removed every dish, washed and dried them, and stacked them back inside. During my charade, I talked aloud, scolding invisible children for standing under my feet while I cooked, warning my imaginary husband to stop asking if dinner was ready. Pretending to be characters like Busy Mom, or my other favorite, Beauty Pageant Winner, was something I did often, but only alone in my tree house or in my bedroom with the door closed.
I heard the Sons stomp up the porch stairs, and I had enough time to get into a mostly normal pose before they flung open the door. The Dads went off to buy some snacks at that little store, they said, the one I knew sold groceries and live worms. We decided to figure out the sleeping arrangements, and began wheeling around the extra rollaway beds, two of them, both folded in half and closed up.
During that second trip, the age difference between the Sons and me wasn’t as obvious as the summer on the houseboat. The only noticeable difference in the cabin was simply that when my Dad wasn’t around, I skipped and pretended I was a mother, while when the Sons weren’t under the watch of their Dads, they moved furniture, and wondered if there was a way to sneak out at night to walk around the lake and look for girls.
Jimmy was all brown legs and arms, with long hands and feet like flippers. His skin and hair had the same goldenness of the lifeguards at the country club pool where I spent summer afternoons calling my parents from a pay phone, pleading to be picked up and taken home. Eric was a squattier, twitchier boy, with round cheeks and wide, light eyes. His rough hands would grab my shoulders and jerk and pull at me for a joke. He fiddled with any object that happened to be in front of him and often broke things without meaning to.
Eric perched himself on top of one of the beds to talk about wrestling, a popular topic for the Sons. The beds were crammed together at a right angle, forming a corner in the middle of the largest part of the cabin floor. Jimmy stood beside the other one, and I stood in front of them, pretending I knew what they were talking about.
“Did you see that awesome time he jumped off the ropes?” Eric asked, hands raised above his head. I’d missed the wrestler’s name, but I pictured long hair, boots, a growling face, a black unitard. Jimmy said, “Yeah, I think so. What happened again?”
“Man, it was so bad,” Eric said. “He stood on the ropes and jumped down and clotheslined the bastard.” To show us, Eric shot himself off the bed’s edge and landed in the center of the room. The rollaway bed rocked on its small wheels, tipped forward, and the steel frame slammed on my left foot’s big toe before I thought to move out of the way.
The pain shocked my bare foot, the toenail felt instantly loose and wet, and I knew that once the mattress was lifted, there would be a splatter of red across the floor, like ketchup packets squished underfoot across the school cafeteria tiles. I cradled my foot in my lap, squeezing it as hard as I could while tears fell out of my eyes. Jimmy and Eric stood silently with open-mouthed stares, wondering if they would be blamed. They couldn’t believe I was sobbing, wailing like a girl and rocking with pain, all over a smashed toe.
The Dads returned with their snacks and found me laid across the floor, a dishcloth stuffed with ice cubes balanced on my red foot. There wasn’t blood after all, though the nail was somehow very shiny, already dented and lavender. My Dad leaned over me while the other Dads examined the scene— by then the rollaway beds were standing against the cabin wall—and interrogated the witnesses. My Dad’s fingers kept getting too close to the toe as he examined it. “Don’t touch it,” I warned, pulling it out of his hands. “You’re fine,” he said. An hour later, after the tears dried and my chin stopped vibrating, I limped dramatically to the bathroom, and limped the same way back to bed. The next morning, as we set off for a day of fishing for pike, the pointy fish in the lake that sparkled like chrome, the toe was purple and horrible. I hobbled to the motorboat, one sneaker on, the other dangling from my hand by the laces, because the idea of shoving the giant toe into a shoe made me swoon. “You’re fine,” he said again. “Just get in the boat.”
Somehow, in just a year, the age difference between us now stretches out wide and obvious. Their bodies have changed, though I look the same: short, skinny, pale—a doll with a head too big for its body. Eric is even more solid, an efficient mass of energy and force with a line of dark fuzz curving along his upper lip. He barrels across the deck, he and his Dad grabbing each other, clamping necks into surprise headlocks, their knuckles grinding out noogies. Jimmy is grown up too, long and lean, not gawky anymore but tall enough so his gold flipper feet fit the ends of his legs. The Sons also both have leg hair.
If there is one thing I can enjoy about these trips, it’s watching and being this close to older boys—curiosities to a boy who hardly looks or acts like one. This year I’m following Jimmy around, watching intently as he does whatever he does. When he fishes, I fish too, sometimes so focused on the mechanics of his hands turning the crank on his pole, I forget to reel in my own line. When he and Eric swim in the lake, leaping off the roof, I station myself up there too with my stack of library books. As much as I usually love reading about twin babysitting sisters and haunted dollhouses, I can’t keep my eyes off Jimmy’s flat body as he climbs the ladder and yanks up his soaking trunks before bending and jumping again—the deep splash I can’t see but can imagine.
I’ve also got my Walkman with me, and a satchel full of tapes. I know which ones to listen to in front of the Sons and Dads, and which to reserve for my bunk bed. Disney’s Favorite Songs, Volumes One and Two, for example, are bunk tapes. However, another one, the soundtrack to a rated-R movie that I’ve never seen, is a public tape. It’s music that other boys my age would actually listen to. I like all the songs except the last one—a loud insistent track with harsh, unintelligible lyrics. I fast-forward through it so I can flip over the tape and start again at the beginning with my favorite, The Pointer Sisters. On our third morning, I sit at the kitchen table listening to my tape; Jimmy picks up the empty case, unfolds the little booklet, and asks to listen to the last song.
I almost tell him he won’t like it, it’s the worst one, but before I can he says, “I like this band.” I hand him my headphones. With the cord strung across the plastic wood tabletop, I press PLAY and watch his face as he listens; his head begins to nod as the rough beat begins to pound. I suddenly love the song without even hearing it because I love the way Jimmy listens to it. He asks to hear it again as soon as the final notes fade in his ears, and I manage the buttons, rewinding the tape and guessing the place where the song will start. “Go back,” he says. “A little more.” Then, “There. That’s it,” when we find the silent gap. He listens again and again.
For the rest of the trip, he’ll listen to this song after I hold up the headphones to him and swing them side to side like a hypnotist’s pocket watch. “Jim-mee? Don’t you want to hear your song again?” I’ll ask, high and cloying. When he agrees, I’ll perform a look of exasperation, shake my head but also smile, and work the buttons to cue it up. Though he doesn’t, if he were ever to turn me down, I know I’d feel a hard release of disappointment. Each time, the cord of the headphones connects us, the power streaming from my hands to his ears, and he is dazed by the rhythm while I scrutinize his face, music rippling across it.
The days pass on the houseboat, one the same as the next until one afternoon something across the lake catches my Dad’s attention. He rushes in from the deck, crosses the kitchen where I’m seated at the table, and unzips his duffel bag. He runs across the kitchen again, this time clutching his spyglass, his small, handheld telescope. I love this telescope, though I’m not allowed to use it without his permission because it’s expensive. In fact, its smooth bronze tubes and glass lenses weigh so heavily in my hands, it actually feels expensive.
But what he’s looking at now, I have no idea. Usually we only look through the telescope at night, pointing it at the stars or the moon with its dark patches like birthmarks—one of us finds something bright and flashing in the sky and then passes it to the other one to share. He and the other Dads hunker now behind the railings and take turns, one eye looking through the telescope with the other one squeezed shut. They point, grip each others’ shoulders and snicker, until one of them whispers something, and my Dad lets out a huge laugh, an explosion that seems to reach over the water.
He never laughs that way at home. There, he’s the quiet one compared to my Mom, my younger brother, and me, and he’s always telling us he can’t hear the news or his baseball game.
Leaving my books and Walkman in the kitchen, I tiptoe across the boat and hop into my bunk bed. There’s a small window with a stiff, pleated curtain Velcroed over it. My fingers peel it back slowly, trying to keep the snagging sound quiet enough that it won’t wake Jimmy from napping in the bunk above me, one of his feet hanging over the side, his breathing soft and constant like the rhythm of the lake waves. Far off in the frame of the window, a sailboat floats, small, white and shining. A woman stands at the prow, her long, yellow hair hanging down.
From this far away, her skin is so orangey that I think she’s wearing a bathing suit like my Mom’s, one that covers her whole torso. But when I notice the dark blue wrapped around her lower part, I understand that she’s wearing a bikini, just not all of it. Jimmy and Eric will want to see this—even though without a telescope, her nudity is completely featureless—so I stand up and look over the lip of the mattress. Jimmy’s mouth is open and dark, his limbs are thrown over his sleeping bag. Before I wake him, I wonder what I will say about the naked woman and worry it will be wrong. Once, a kid I knew from school who lives in my neighborhood showed me a magazine of his Dad’s filled with pictures of naked women. We squatted in the woods behind my house, and he turned the pages. One of the images was of a lady lying back on a floor, her knees bent, her legs parted. The neighbor pointed between them, glanced at me for my reaction. In a quiet, drawn-out voice I said, “Gross.” He grimaced and rolled up the magazine. The next day at school, the other boys in our class teased me because of what I called the naked woman.
In my bunk, I smooth the curtain back in place so the woman disappears, though I still hear the Dads ogling her. What would Jimmy say about the naked woman if he were here instead of me? I prop myself up with pillows and watch his elegant foot as he dozes, knowing I could reach it if I lifted my hand. I want Jimmy to like me. I want to be like Jimmy, or I want to be Jimmy. Or I want to touch Jimmy.
Later that evening, we’re all on the roof doing nothing. The naked woman’s sailboat has drifted off to its own cove. A dark edge of trees reaches across the lake on one side of the boat, and on the other is a straight line of water drawn across the horizon. Above that blue line, the sky is pink and the red sun has been sitting in the same spot for hours. Eric and Jimmy are fishing, while the Dads sip early beers sitting in a row, Eric’s Dad and my Dad in chairs, and Jim laid out on a chaise lounge wearing only his baseball cap and swimming trunks. I’m pretending to read the library book that’s open in my lap.
The soft waves rock the boat in a lulling way that makes me sleepy. Eric’s losing interest in fishing. Nothing’s biting, not even a nibble. He turns and faces the dull sun, its color seeping down to touch the water. “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” His Dad nods at him, which is probably who he heard that from—the saying I don’t understand. This is another one of those things, like the naked magazine, that means something to them but not to me.
Jimmy feels the tug of a fish down below, starts shouting and pulling, his pole bending like the curve of a hook. He turns the crank. The fish must be fighting because Jimmy struggles against it, his big feet braced against the white railing, his whole body arching back. I’m mesmerized. There seems to be an impossible amount of line left to reel in, like Jimmy’s pulling this fish in from miles away. Suddenly, a splashing sound, Jimmy cranks furiously, the fish is suspended at the end of the pole, twisting and thrashing. He hangs there, not that big but not small either, and Jimmy hands his pole to Eric so he can rip the hook out of its mouth.
“I don’t want to clean any more fish today,” Jim says. His eyes are closed. His hands cradle his own head as he dozes on the lounge. Jimmy says something to protest, then gives up easily, and continues fiddling with the fish. He and Eric talk about what kind it is, names I don’t really register because, without being entirely conscious of it, I’ve been staring at Jim’s bare chest. There’s brown hair covering it, which starts in the divot at the root of his neck then spreads over the twin circles as wide as dinner plates between his armpits. His flat belly is covered in hair too. Pushed to the left and right of his chest, his nipples are smaller circles and dark red. In his arms, tough muscles like embedded baseballs roll up and down as he adjusts his body in his sleep. There’s a second splash, which is probably Jimmy tossing his fish back to the lake, but I can’t be sure because my eyes are stuck.
“Ryan,” my Dad says. “Stop it.”
Jim opens his eyes and sees mine pointing his direction. Eric’s Dad and both Sons look over at me too. I freeze in my spot on the floor, looking back at my Dad until I can’t stand his eyes. Don’t do that, he mouths silently before I look away, and the fact that he can’t say his words weights them.
My eyes fall to my crossed legs, staring at the book I’ve inadvertently closed, but I don’t need to look up to know they are all searching me for whatever I’ve been told to quit. Nose picking, scab picking, hands in pants—I try imagining something objectionable but still not as awful as what I’ve actually done. My shame is solid, and I am immobile under the mass of it; my feet feel prickly like they’ve fallen asleep. All of us sit and wait for something, but it doesn’t seem to arrive. Eric yawns and stretches. Jimmy throws his line out in the water again. Jim picks up his hat and scratches the crown of flat hair. Eric’s Dad crumples an empty beer can. My Dad takes it from him. “Why don’t you go get us three more?” he says, and suddenly my legs and feet operate again: I can move.
Below them, in the kitchen, I hear the scooting noises of deck chairs, their bare heels bumping across the ceiling from one side to the other. I wait for voices, for my Dad’s explanation, but it doesn’t come. Just more laughing, Dads and Sons, and then more cheering coming from Jimmy. From the window, I watch a golden fish rise out of the water like a miracle, dripping and spinning as the line hooked in his mouth lifts him into the air. Jimmy’s got another one. The fish levitates a few seconds and then ascends out of view.
I’ve embarrassed my Dad on our trips before, so why does this feel different, more severe than casting out too early in a trout stream or being dramatic about a toe? I flip the lid off the cooler, dig my fingers into the ice, scoop up two handfuls of cubes, lift them dripping out the water, and release them sloshing back down. I was just looking at him. Why, if that was so embarrassing, didn’t my Dad just stay quiet? And why did he have to say something in front of Jimmy?
I slump down on the brown tile and wrap my cold hands around the back of my neck. From this angle, all I can see in the window is the glowing blankness of pre-evening sky. There’s so much water shimmering and vast in every direction. I want to drop silently and lose myself in it without fighting the way fish do when they’re pulled into the air. I’d like to just step off the boat—it would be something my body wants to do, an accident, and nobody knows why.
Houseboat. There are some names for things that don’t fit if I think about them too much. Toenail. Cupboard. Hot dog. How much does a thing have to resemble its word? Butterfly. Boy. They all looked at me when he said my name, they all wanted to see what I’d done this time. The same way those men looked at me with my line stretched across the water on that trout-fishing morning. Every eye was on me, except my Dad’s. But I understand now that the men weren’t just looking at me; they knew what kind of boy acted the way I did. What they wanted to find out was what kind of a man my father was. He spoke my name up there to keep from facing that look again.
I dig three beers out of the cooler. They sting my bare arm as I rest them in an elbow crook, cradling them like Jim did. I somehow balance them, and if I slide my feet and go slow, I can make it up the ladder. There’s suddenly no noise above me. They have quieted because they’re listening, straining for the sound of my feet crossing the boat under them, the punch of my heels up the metal rungs of the ladder. I stop in my place and listen back, staring out the window. I remember Jimmy’s fish, and I listen for that too, deciding I’ll move again only when it slides from his fingers towards the water and splashes back into its own darkness.
Anna Cabe (Creative Non Fiction Editor): With quiet, devastating precision, Ryan Van Meter examines a boyhood vacation on a houseboat, a vacation in which he came to anguished realizations about his burgeoning sexuality, the ways in which gender roles constrict and damage, and the limitations of his own father. It’s masterful and subtle in its recreation of his young consciousness; we’re with young Ryan the whole essay.
This poem appeared in Indiana Review 29.2, Winter 2007, and in Van Meter’s collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now published by Sarabande Books.
Ryan Van Meter‘s essay collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now is now available from Sarabande Books. His essays have been published in The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters and Fourth Genre, among others, and selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009 and Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. He currently teaches creative writing at The University of San Francisco.