The Names Have Been Changed to Protect the Guilty

By Seyna Bruskin

1979, Long Island, NY

7.1 I-small have no recollection of my thoughts as I plunged through the water. It seemed endless. I had fallen through a gap in the bridge connecting the two cabins of the catamaran. I have a brief visual memory of streaks of white and greenish water, streams of bubbles shooting upward. As soon as I resurfaced, though in terror, I started to think really fast while gasping for air.

“Hold on!” I told myself, feeling the sides of the boat, seeking anything to grab. But the sides of the boat were slippery and smooth: there was nothing I could cling to. The dangling ladder I saw was way above my reach. I knew I could tread water but could not really swim. My wool jacket and heavy shoes—my mother’s Wallabees—were weighing me down. How long could I keep my head out of the water? “Wear shoes with a thick tread,” Jessica had said. Thanks, Jessica.

“OK, take a deep breath from the diaphragm,” I coached myself, “just as if you were going to sing, just like you learned,” and I inhaled and screamed at a low pitch, to not hurt my throat, “HE-E-E-LP,” an elongated scream. Again, and again. The rest of the people on board were in the cabin, drunk and making noise. I could drown very quickly if no one heard me. It became more and more difficult to scream and tread water at the same time.

Suddenly, Jessica, Tommy, and his girlfriend were on the bridge shouting back at me. Tommy extended his arm down through the open trapdoor. “Grab hold!”

My immediate thought was, “Is he kidding; that skinny kid, he’ll never be able to lift me up; I’m totally soaked!” But at the same moment, I thought, “Trust him,” and I reached for his hand.

Then I was sitting on one of the bunks in the cabin, tearing off my soaking-wet clothes, not caring who was looking, taking the towels that they handed me, trying to get warm, coughing up the small amount of water in my stomach. I was grateful that none had gotten into my lungs.

The only thing I lost was my glasses.

That day began early, in Manhattan. I took a subway down to SoHo and walked east past an empty, quiet little park to Jessica’s crummy walk-up.

I was carrying a few clothes for the weekend, my camera gear, and film. Jessica and I had agreed on a barter: a weekend on the 55-foot mahogany catamaran that her boyfriend (let’s call him Bluto) had built from scratch, in exchange for my photographs of the boat. It was in the marina of Sag Harbor, out on Long Island, a few hours’ drive in Jessica’s old car.

I remembered the primitive catamarans of India, consisting of two, maybe three, banana-tree logs lashed together with vines. I couldn’t envision how that could morph into a luxurious cruiser.

Jessica and Bluto had decided they could get income from the boat through weekend charters, where they would serve as captain and hostess. Jessica said they couldn’t really advertise the boat, because it had been built with profits from Bluto’s cocaine sales. Plus, they wanted to hide the income from the IRS, a tradition in their household. So the brochure would be undercover, privately passed around. She was a journalist who regularly worked for a business magazine and had already published a book, so the text of the brochure was not a problem.

It seemed like a fun thing to do, though I was mildly uncomfortable about the drug and tax issues. I wasn’t involved with this shadowy entrepreneurship, I reasoned, and permitted myself to not observe the hypocrisy of my position. Besides, this would be a small link to my former countercultural image. So off we drove to Sag Harbor on the east end of Long Island, with about ten years of lifetime to catch up on as conversational material.

We arrived in Sag Harbor late in the afternoon and had several hours before meeting Bluto, who was already on the boat, and another couple that Jessica knew, who would meet us at the marina. We walked around the cute little town, had something to eat, and settled in at a bar. Though I’m not a drinker, I ordered a margarita out of curiosity. I’d had a tequila sunrise once, to see the colors, and hadn’t minded the taste too much.

Now, Jessica was not a pretty woman. She had not been a pretty girl back in high school either. She was a bit heavy, had hair rather like broomstraw, and thick, ungraceful limbs. But she projected a knowing sensuality that, on the evidence, did attract men. The evidence included her current boyfriend and an ex-husband.

So there we were, in a bar, waiting to go to her boat and meet her boyfriend. I was newly slender, had just gotten a perm, and was seeking (as always) some subtle yet effective way to attract male attention—because it never seemed to just come to me—when some nice-looking guy introduces himself to Jessica as Jeff and starts to flirt with her.

She does nothing to discourage him or drop hints about a boyfriend. She leads him on, says “yes” when he offers to buy her a drink, and flirts back. That familiar edged-out feeling suffused me, reminding me that I usually avoid bars because I don’t enjoy feeling invisible or rejected. Soon, I reason, we’ll abandon this barfly, meet Bluto, and go out to the boat. But when the time comes, Jessica invites her new friend to come out to the boat with us.

The three of us, by now slightly tipsy, aimlessly dawdle down to the marina, talking loudly through the streets to the piers. I’m looking at Jeff and thinking of how unfair it is that Jessica is monopolizing his attention, which will most likely be cut short once Bluto comes into the picture, when I’m right there, ready and ripe for the taking.

There are sounds of people approaching. Jessica responds; it’s Tommy and his nameless girlfriend. Jessica calls them over.

“Hey, Tommy, this is my old friend, Seyna.”

“What kind of name is that?” he says. “How do you know Jessica?”

“We went to high school together and haven’t seen each other in ten years.” I said. “My mother made up my name.”

Taking a sharp inhale from a menthol cigarette, Jessica says she knows Tommy from hanging out on the Island. He has the triple crown of male attributes: tall, dark, handsome. By now I have forgotten Jessica’s original connection to him, but I recall that he was a number of years younger than we were. The large, flat package he’s carrying is his portfolio; he’s studying stage design. Jessica remembers that my father is in theater and tells him. I can see his calculating behind his eyes, “Hey, this could be a good connection.” I decide not to disenchant him just yet.

Tommy’s nameless girlfriend and Jeff have no importance to Jessica, who therefore doesn’t introduce them. She has cultivated dismissiveness into a high art. She has a distinctive way of speaking: sharp consonants contrasting with a low voice and carefully tossed-off, carefully selected words. Her sentences are well structured and peppered with ironic phrases. They are often followed by a low, guttural chuckle that emanates from a thrown-back head. Interesting that her writing is financial reportage and totally devoid of any irony or chuckle.

We gather in a loud cluster, our voices echoing off the boats dropping into the waters just beyond the marina. The boat, Jessica says, pointing at the water, is right there. I can’t quite see where “there” is. We have to wait until Bluto comes to get us. It’s just after the appointed time, so he knew we were waiting to be picked up.

Soon, a motor sound materializes, and it’s Bluto in the dinghy or launch or whatever you call the small boat used to ferry people back and forth from ship to shore. Maybe it was a launch, which I think is more likely to be a real boat with a real motor, able to carry real people. We clamber in with our stuff. She introduces us all to Bluto, who clearly thinks Jeff is with me.

Everything about this world is new to me, with words that have only existed in books and films. I hear “starboard” uttered in context for the first time and try to remember what it means. Though I’m just going to take pictures, Jessica has promised me fun and comfort, so I’m starting to feel enthusiastic. Given my minute tolerance for alcohol and the strength of the margarita, I’m a bit tipsy, though I only drank a small amount and passed it on to someone more habituated to such things.

We approach the sleek boat. I have never seen a boat with two parallel cabins. They are spaced widely apart. From the ladder hanging between them, we each climb up onto the slat bridge between the two decks that top the two cabins.

Jessica shows us a few of Bluto’s shiny handmade brass fixtures on the decks, which each have one or two small structures, and ushers us into one of them to descend the flimsy steps to the cabin below. I am prepared, from her descriptions, for palatial. I encounter small and cramped. Being just under five feet tall, I’m the only person that can actually stand up in the cabin, which has two or three long, open cubbies on each side of the cabin. The cubbies turn out to be berths, where we’re supposed to sleep, with no privacy from the others. Jessica and Bluto’s berth, as well as the galley and the bucket toilet, is in the other cabin. Just cross over that same little bridge.

“Dump it overboard when you’re finished,” she says, and I recoil.

Our captain and hostess start to pass around beer and joints and other inebriants. I’ve never liked beer and I lost interest in grass years ago, when I noticed it made my muscles feel as if they had lead in them and that I got paranoid. The extra calories from munchies weren’t welcome either, but that night I took a hit or two as the weed circulated, nothing else. Bluto put on some music to demonstrate his stereo system, and little by little the group got lubricated, Ms. Nameless especially. Jeff started to get personal with Jessica who, he thought—logically enough—was interested in him. When he started to lean in a bit too close, Bluto took notice and got appropriately jealous, in the manner of his namesake, while looking back and forth between Jeff and me in some confusion.

Meanwhile, I have to go to the bathroom. I’m turned off by the fact that I will have to walk across the narrow wooden bridge to the other cabin, find where it is they keep their pissoir, and then pee in that pot. I can’t even visualize what this will look like, not to mention how it will work, or how to keep my pants out of the way. As a finale, I will have to somehow toss my by-products into the water… No, I don’t like this.

Don’t forget the marijuana paranoia: Standing up means that everyone will know I have to go to the bathroom. The paranoia magnifies something in my emotional makeup that makes me hesitant about announcing my excretory needs to other people. I look for an opportunity to ask Jessica to accompany me, without seeming like a baby. Is everyone else this self-conscious, I wonder?

About this time, Bluto comes to a boil and begins to get belligerent with Jeff, but manages to calm himself down and announce to Jeff that it is time to go back to shore; you’d better get in the dinghy/launch/whatever and go back with me. Off they go. I figure Jeff is lucky to get by with not getting punched out by Bluto, and I wonder what notation Jessica has made in her little mental notebook: “Score one for successfully leading on a cute guy,” or “Score two for also making my old man jealous.”

But not too long after Bluto drags off his rival, I realize that my need is urgent and get up. I ask Jessica for redirection, and she does some vague pointing, and I ascend the little steps, look around, see the bridge to the other cabin, take two steps, and find myself in the harbor.

Once Tommy has dragged me up, the little cabin explodes into Grand Central Station. Loud announcements bounce over a nonexistent sound system, invisible crowds run back and forth, uniformed ghost officials scurry in circles, carrying packages and clipboards with multiple carbon copies of accident reports flying in all directions. They want to ensure that I have survived.

Tommy takes care of me. He is solicitous, concerned, and worried. His nameless girlfriend is repeatedly screaming that I almost died; what were they going to do? Jessica is trying to divert my attention away from the subject. She is trying to be reassuring, jocular, and witty, saying brilliantly original things like, “Well, we’ve never lost anyone yet!” Caring is clearly beyond her capacity. Someone hangs up my clothes, puts a man’s shirt on me, gives me a towel to rub my hair dry, and asks me if I need anything to eat or drink.

No. I don’t need anything to eat or drink. Or smoke.

I am very tired. I am shaking. I am trying not to think about the fact that I almost died.

My teeth are still chattering when Bluto returns. Jessica tells him what happened.

It’s clear to me that he realizes he left the trapdoor open. Bluto takes a dark, long look at me and shouts, “You idiot. What the hell did you think you were doing?” Jessica tries to calm him down, but Bluto is clearly furious that I fell through the trapdoor he left open. Had I drowned, it would have been his fault.

I drift off to a restless sleep, trying to be comforted by the rocking of the boat. Jessica and Bluto retreat to their cabin; Tommy and Nameless are in the cabin with me. The interior is lit by a dim bare bulb that remains on all night. I hear sounds of retching.

Suddenly, someone is in the berth with me, on top of me, pushing me, crawling on top of me, muttering something I cannot understand, tearing at the shirt I am wearing. I realize it’s Tommy, and his hands are all over me as I twist and protest and try to slither out of his grasp. He has a hard-on and before I know what’s going on, he has entered me.

I thought he was with Nameless. What’s happened to Nameless? Is she the one who was throwing up? Why is he here? Is this one of those circumstances when, if you save someone’s life, you’re responsible for them for the rest of their life? Does he like me? What if I get pregnant? I have at least two streams of thought, maybe more, going on in my head, trying to reconcile what is happening with earlier versions of reality.

Maybe he started to have sex with her, and she got sick or pushed him away, and there I was, just feet away. Or maybe the sight earlier of my nearly naked body, as I tore my clothes off, was just too much for him to withstand. Don’t be ridiculous.

Maybe he felt so sorry for me because I almost drowned that… No, that doesn’t make sense. As far as he knew, I was asleep.

I try to push him away, but I’m too tired and not strong enough. Besides, I can’t stop my body from responding. Physically, part of me is enjoying what is happening; you know which part. I don’t want to think that he’s raping me; after all, he was so nice before, saving my life and all. A tall, dark, and handsome guy doesn’t need to rape anyone. Deeper still, sadder still, a desperate, needy part of me is trying to make me believe that he is doing this because he is attracted to me. He is drawn to me. Maybe he has even fallen in love with me, now that he’s seen me at my weakest, most vulnerable, and that sure can turn a man on. The confusion and conflict take over in my brain, he vanishes, and I finally sleep.

The next day, crack of dawn, Bluto is growling to get me started taking photographs of the boat. I say that I just want to get the hell off the boat, and besides, I lost my glasses and can’t see to focus the camera, so the photos would be useless to him. Bluto again explodes in his only available emotion: anger. He curses at me, screams, using words that no one has ever used about me, or even in front of me, before or since.

“You fucking cunt! You asshole, bitch! What the fuck do you think we brought you for?” Gee, Bluto, I thought you cared.

“Get your big ass outta here and photograph the boat!”

His words were flung at me with such force and venom that they had a physical impact. I felt myself vaporizing in their wake.

I guessed that Bluto was envisioning implosions of the FBI, the IRS, and other law-enforcement agencies. He insisted that the loss of my glasses (my vision, essentially—usually needed to take photographs) would have no impact on the quality of photographs that they so badly need for the advertising brochure, their key to a steady income free of encumbrance by the Feds. I understand, but don’t say, that he is screaming so that I will take the blame for the situation, and not sue him for nearly drowning because he left the hatch open. The violence and force in his speech represent what he will surely do to me given physical access.

I am shaking with anger and fear and beg Jessica to get me out of this cursed place, to take me home. She turns her head. She fucking wimps out. That strong chick does nothing unless Bluto allows her to do it.

Tommy and Nameless have vanished, but within an hour or so, still before noon, he reappears without her. He says he wants to talk to me; he wants to help me because I am clearly so freaked out about last night. He doesn’t want me to be afraid of boats now and takes me out on the launch, or dinghy, trying to get me to relax and enjoy being out on the water. Part of me thinks that he is in cahoots with Bluto, to deflect my anger or any attempt at a lawsuit. As it happens, his effort was wasted, because I have been terrified of boats and water ever since. Neither of us referred to what happened in bed that night. I was a real chickenshit. So was he, maybe worse.

How did I manage to fall into the water that night? I was not used to walking on boats and never expected that a part of the floor would be missing. I was stoned, sure, but there’s one other reason, always a bitterly recurring theme in my life, that I probably couldn’t perceive the missing piece in the bridge. I only see with one eye and don’t have depth perception. I probably thought it was a dark patch.

Jessica drove me back to the city that day, and I never spoke to her again. I may have mailed her a book I’d borrowed. Or did she mail me a book she borrowed from me? I don’t know or care. Now and then, friends of friends want to tell me what she is doing but I don’t let them. I hope Bluto has met a violent and painful death.

Tommy called me not too long after the incident. He was very nice and said he wanted to get together, but I said I wouldn’t. Besides, he lived out on the Island, which made him geographically undesirable. Years later I found his name written on a card I inadvertently saved. I googled it. There are no set designers by that name.

 

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Seyna Bruskin was raised in and near New York CIty.  She traveled widely but never escaped its magnetic pull.  Her major cultural influences include the choreography and musical repertory of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, where she volunteered for over 20 years, writing about these works for audience outreach.  She can best be described as eclectic and her favorite word is “vivify.” Her biographical essays (about persons real or imaginary) are being published online and in print; “Her Bestiary” was a semi-finalist in the 2012 H.E. Francis Competition, and “Dress Rehearsal D’ Une Faune,” (about the public dress rehearsal of Vaslav Nijinsky’s “Apre-Midi d’une Faune) was published online in “The Drill Press.”


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