Glass-Bottomed Boat

MaryRose Lovgren

The engines are thrumming, vibrating up through the carpeted floor of the catamaran, rising in sound then dropping to a low pitch that hurts her ears. A register too low for ears, she thinks. The sea outside the small windows is dark blue and has dark blue patches expanding and pooling with white edges like an oil painting.

She turns from the window and says, “Teddy, look at the water.”

“It’s too loud!” shouts the 3-year-old, his small white hands over his ears. His face is white too, and so soft it looks dusted in powder. Whorls of transparent hair shine like fingerprints on his neck.

“We’ll be there soon,” she says, and leans forward to kiss his forehead, but he pulls back. She notices new freckles across the tops of his cheek and nose.

“Do you want something to eat?” she asks. “A fruit snack?”

He shakes his head hard with his hands still book-ending his head.

“Well, we’ll be there soon,” she says abruptly, and turns forward again. There is a tray on the seat-back in front of her and she pulls it down and begins to set up a small workstation, her sketch book and a pen. She will draw the ocean, she decides, and leans over the blank white paper, but as she looks out through the little window again, she realizes that she can’t.

“Momma,” he shouts, prodding her with an elevated elbow. “I have to go to the bathroom!”

She closes the sketchbook and slips it and the pen back into her purse, a continuation of the original movement.

“All right,” she says, “then let’s go,” and she gathers up her purse and the backpack of coloring books and crayons and fruit bars and their jackets and hats. There is a red crayon on the ground but it rolls away before she can grab it.

She stands ups and pushes him slightly and says, “You’re gonna have to move it,” and they side step out to the aisle.

They make their way between rows of seats, stopping and starting, leaning on seatbacks when the floor rises. His hands are still over his ears. Past the snack shack and piles of luggage and a man sleeping with his mouth open; she can see his gold molars. She turns and uses her back to push open the large doors into a throughway, and suddenly, there is the ocean, black and roiling, and for a moment she thinks that the sound that hits them, the sound of the engines, is the sound of all that water.

The 3-year-old shouts again, “It’s too loud!” but she has found a steward and she cups her hand and shouts too, “Is there a bathroom?”

“Yes,” he mouths, in an accent that sounds like he is biting off the word, and makes a stiff nod, and though the ship is moving beneath his feet, his hands are clasped behind his back. He must have strong legs, she thinks.

“Is it upstairs?”

“Yes,” he says.

“Where upstairs?” she asks, but he only raises his eyebrows.

“Somewhere upstairs,” she states, pitching slightly forward, and he nods again, and says, “Yes.”

She holds onto the railing with one hand, the other on the thick upper arm of her son, and as they mount the stairs she imagines that he is watching her, following her legs with his eyes.

 

 

The six-year-old is lying down on the sand, spread-eagle, and facing the ocean. His hands are out in front of him, grabbing fistfuls of sand. He is letting each wave come up and wash over him, and each time they come he gives a shriek.

Her book is on the towel next to her, spine sticking up, and beyond that is Teddy, scraping sand into a large mound, his swim vest surrounding him like an awkward shell and the strap connecting back to front pulling up high between his legs.

She had forgotten her sunglasses, so she is sitting with knees pulled up and one hand flat above her eyes, shading them, and she watches the water come up and cover her son, then retreat, pulling him slightly toward the sea, inch by inch.

The sudden shade is her husband, dripping on the sand and her towel. He is wearing black swim trunks that are not swim trunks at all, but long shorts that have been cut off at the knees.

“Whew,” he breathes, and then says, “Have you been in the water?”

“Not yet,” she says, and he continues, “Because it is damn cold. Whew!” he says again, and it is half of a laugh. His thin blond hair is raked into sections that reveal a pink scalp.

She turns back toward the harbor, to the yachts and glass-bottomed boats and fishing boats and the horizon that is not stationary but made of shifting things.

“Where’s Andrew?” he asks, squatting down.

“There,” she says, pointing, “being slowly reclaimed by the sea.”

“Ah,” he says, his elbows on his knees, his mouth open. He still seems out of breath, or maybe just cold.

Two girls walk by, teenagers or close to it, whispering with their heads bobbing close and their legs rising up high and tan. She knows his eyes are following them, though his head does not move. He is well practiced at this. She imagines him breathing them in through his open mouth.

When they have passed she blurts, “Well, I guess it’s easy to look like that when you’re young.”

“I’m going back out,” he says, and is already standing up. “I’ll take Andrew.”

“No,” she says quickly. “Don’t go yet.”

Her husband shrugs. “You can come too.”

“Someone has to stay and watch all our stuff.”

“I wanna go!” yells Teddy, and he struggles to his feet.
“Teddy, honey, you stay here with me,” she says.

“Momma!” he shouts.

“You can’t swim, honey. They want to go swimming.”

“Momma, I can swim real good because I have my swim vest.” His hands go out, his palms cupped in front of him. Sand falls from his hands like bits breaking off from a whole.

“I’ll watch him,” says her husband. “We’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be fine, Momma,” says Teddy, and he reaches up and takes her husband’s hand.

“I just worry,” she calls after them, and her husband says, “Don’t!” and they trot down to Andrew and he pops up and turns, and waves to her. She waves back but now they have moved beyond her hearing, and she can only see the three of them race along the shore, all of their sounds replaced with the relentless shush of the ocean.

 

 

She is lying in bed in their cottage with Teddy, lying on her side and he is spooned against her chest and his big white legs are hanging up and over hers. She is clicking through the channels trying to find a children’s program for him to watch.

“That one, Momma,” he says, but she says, “No, honey. Let’s keep looking.”

The window behind them is curtained and beyond that rises the side of another cottage. The path between them ends at a ravine that continues up the side of the mountain. At the top of the mountain the sky is still lavender but out above the sea it is dark blue, and the only difference between it and the sea now is the swath of stars and the stillness.

“I want Andrew.”

“They’ll be back soon,” she says.

“I don’t like this show.”

“Just hold on,” she says. She is mesmerized by the man on the program, a man with a face like a horse, large and angular and whose expressions flit across it quickly in a way that does not seem human. He is counseling a couple sitting at a breakfast table in a garden by a lake, or maybe it is the sea, but the husband is in a wheelchair and the wife has a long, beaten-down face. The man has just told them they will be sky-diving together to break through what has been stopping them. He uses that word, breakthrough, a lot.

“I don’t like this show,” repeats Andrew.

“I know, honey,” she says.

 

 

The path to the casino curves along the shore and is lit by green wrought-iron street lamps, and their glow looks like beads on a string. The boys race ahead and then race back, entering and leaving the circles of light. The sound of the ocean is still there, and she thinks it is a strange thing, that it is still rushing in and out, as if someone forgot to turn it off for the night.

Other couples walk by them on their return, and the boys say hello to each as they go by. The 3-year-old repeats everything his older brother says, but tempered by his lisp.

“Nice night!” Andrew will say, and then, quieter, Teddy will repeat, “Nithe night!” Sometimes the people that walk by laugh.

They are now at the casino, large and white and round, jutting out on its own piece of land. They walk up to the entrance, tall glass doors surrounded by enormous mosaics of the sea, but behind the glass it is dark and the doors are locked.

“We can’t go in?” says Teddy, pulling on the doors.

“No, dummy, it’s not open,” says Andrew.

“Don’t call your brother dummy,” she says.

“So what is this place?” says Andrew.

“It used to be a casino.”

They ask what a casino is, and she has trouble answering. She uses the word gambling, but her husband frowns so she says it was just a place for people to play games.

“What kind of games?” they ask.

“Card games.”

“Boring,” says Andrew, and he has already walked ahead, dragging his fingertips along the rough white walls.

“It looks like a cake, don’t you think?” she says. “I always thought it looked like a cake.”

They walk all the way around it, to where it juts out over the sea, and the boys run and lean against the iron that separates them from a steep white wall that slopes down into the ocean.

“Don’t lean on that!” she says, walking up quickly. “I don’t know how strong it is.”

“Hey Teddy,” says Andrew, pointing. “There are monsters down there.”

“Hey,” she says to Andrew, and slaps him hard on the shoulder.“Don’t say that.”

“Geez, Mom,” he says, rubbing his arm. Her husband raises his eyebrows.

“Well, he’s going to give him nightmares,” she says.

“I don’t like monsters,” says Teddy, stepping back and grabbing her hand.       

“There aren’t any monsters,” she says to Teddy. “Only nice things.”

“What nice things,” he says.

“Oh, dolphins and sea stars. And pretty fish. And they’ve all gone to bed and the moon is their night-light.”

“I don’t like monsters,” he says again, quietly.

“Did you know I used to swim here?” she says. “I would row out here in a boat and then swim. Right down there,” she said, pointing.

Andrew and her husband have started walking back.

“And I never saw a monster.”

“Okay,” says Teddy.    

 

 

The boys are asleep in their room and she is in the bathroom that connects the two bedrooms. She is brushing her teeth and wearing the pajamas that she bought just for this trip, red and black striped and hemmed with black lace. She does not remove her makeup. There is a glass beer bottle on the counter that she has been sipping from all evening, although it is still half-full.

“What are you watching,” she calls out, but her husband doesn’t answer.

She turns off the light and brings her beer with her into the bed.

“What’s this,” she says.

“I don’t know. I’m just turning channels.”

“You want another beer?”

“Sure,” he says, so she pulls back the sheets and pads barefoot over to the dresser and takes one out and pulls off the top. She brings it over and climbs back under the sheets.

“Can we turn off the TV?”

“Sure,” he says again, and clicks it off and puts the remote on the side table.

The TV is still giving off some kind of glow, but there is also light coming in the curtains from the moon, almost full, drifting anchorless somewhere above the ravine and the mountaintop.

“The kids sure like the water,” she says.“This was a good idea.”

“Mmm-hmm,” he says, his mouth on the mouth of the bottle. He has already drunk most of the beer.

“What do you want to do tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. Swim.” He finishes the bottle and puts it on the nightstand next to him. He settles back and closes his eyes, so she keeps talking.

“Remember our honeymoon?”

“Mmm-hmm,” he says.

“You know what we should try?” she says. “Skydiving.” She sits up now, drawing her knees to her chest. “Can you imagine? Ha! What would the kids say!”

“I’ve done it.”

“What? When did you do it?”

“In college,” he says, but he has turned to his side, and his voice is muffled. “A bunch of us did it.”

“Oh. Well. I didn’t know that.” Her throat has begun to hurt, and her chest. Her face has pulled down into a deep frown and when she realizes this she rubs her mouth.

Now there is crying, coming from beyond the bathroom.

“Who’s that?” she says.

“One of the boys.”

“Well, I know that.” She climbs out of the bed again. “Don’t go anywhere.” She walks through the bathroom and looks for a moment in the mirror. A small skylight in the ceiling throws down some light and she sees herself in the mirror, in her matching pajamas and hair brushed down, and it is her at eight, walking through the dark house. She was such a pretty girl. She did not know this until now.

The crying was from Teddy. He has wet the bed.

“Shit,” she says, and then, softer, “It’s okay, honey.” He is still crying though he is asleep. She pulls off his pajama bottoms and takes them into the bathroom, balling them up and putting them on the counter. She takes one of the folded-up towels from above the sink, and when she is back in the bedroom rolls him to the side. She puts the towel down on the bed and rolls him back on top of it. She hunts through the duffel bag at the foot of the bed and finds some sweat pants. She pulls his feet through, then lifts his bottom to slide them on. She covers him with the sheet and leans down and kisses him, then buries her nose in his neck. The urine smell has soaked into him, and is sweet, like bread.

When she gets back to their bedroom her husband is asleep. She gathers up the beer bottles and puts them on the dresser, then climbs in and pulls the covers up to her neck and lies on her back. The ceiling is white and made of popcorn, and as she stares at it she thinks she can hear the ocean but maybe she is imagining it. The ceiling begins to look frothy and white and now she is drifting up into it, and just before she falls asleep her body gives a small jump, like she has tripped off a step.

 

 

They can’t swim today. Andrew has a rash high up between his thighs and across his scrotum from the sand and screams when she tries to rinse him off in the shower. They walk along the shops instead and stop at a café. Her husband goes to get them some coffee and pastries and she finds a table with a wide, green umbrella over it. She puts down the backpack and pulls out the sketchbooks and pens.

“I want the iPod,” says Teddy.

“Not first thing,” she says. Andrew is already sketching something in his book. He keeps shaking his head to get his long blond bangs out of his eyes, and she can suddenly see him at fourteen, tall and tan and indifferent to her.

“Why don’t you do some drawing. Andrew is making a great drawing.”

“I don’t want to draw,” says Teddy.

“I bought brand-new crayons for the trip.”

“I don’t like to draw.”

“Then just sit there,” she snaps.

Her husband returns. His legs are tan and muscled, and he seems well-rested and fit. He puts a white paper coffee cup in front of her and then splits open a bag on the table.

“Oh,” she says. “I had wanted it iced.”

“You didn’t say that.” He rips off pieces of the bag and puts them down like placemats in front of each boy.

“I just don’t want something hot right now.”

“Then go buy another one,” he says. He sits down with his coffee and begins to stir it, although he has added no milk or sugar.

“It’s fine. I’ll have it this way. Hey, boys,” she says, looking up. “Eat up. This is breakfast.”

 

 

Andrew is upset that he can’t swim today and is folding his arms across his chest and kicking at the concrete curbs of the buildings as they pass. His face is distorted from trying not to cry. He is still sullen when she buys tickets for the glass-bottomed boat but Teddy is enamored with the button they give him. It has the name of the tour boat and a cartoon of a big yellow fish. He makes her pin it to him in the exact center of his shirt.

They wait for their turn to board, standing in line on the pier. They watch as people in paddle boats and rowboats glide past.

“Did you know your momma used to row?” she asks, but they don’t answer. Teddy has an entire muffin in his mouth.

“I used to be the stroke,” she says. “That’s what they call the person that sets the pace for the whole boat. Can you believe that? Your momma?”

“That’s great, mom,” says Andrew, without looking up.

“Let’s rent a boat today. I could row us around. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“I’d rather go swimming,” Andrew says softly.

“I know, honey,” she says. “I’m really sorry.” She puts her arm around his shoulder. “But you’re going to love this, Andrew,” she says. “You can see the whole bottom. All the fish. Maybe even a shark.”

“All right,” he says.

“You’re a great kid, Andrew.”          

He shrugs again, but then she feels him tuck his wet face under her arm, against her breast.

“I love you so much,” she says quietly, squeezing him. She rests her cheek on the top of his warm head.

There are benches along each side of the boat, and they scoot down the length of one and even after they sit they scoot down more, for the boat is crowded. Between the benches in the center are large wooden boxes, but when you peer over their edges the bottoms are glass. She imagines Teddy leaning too far forward and falling on the glass, and then she imagines waiting for the glass to break underneath him and him screaming and she loops her fingers tight through one of his belt loops.

Everything through the glass is green. Large waving fronds of kelp and schools of bright fish and far below that the crystalline sand. For a few minutes it is wonderful but then she gets sick. She stops looking down and tries to focus on something else but the open windows are too high to see anything but sky.

I’m not going to barf, she tells herself, and it becomes a mantra, Don’t barf. She closes her eyes and thinks about breathing. Her fingers clutch at both boys’ pant loops. She breathes in and out slowly and feels a hiccup coming but forces it back. She is swallowing a lot while the boys tell her what they are seeing.

“That’s wonderful,” she says, but does not open her eyes.

When they are back at the pier they all shuffle out. She is the last one and she looks down once more to see what she had missed. Down in the sand, lying on its side, is a brown horse, fully saddled, its legs straight out as if it were standing. Sand sweeps over it like a fluttering veil.

“Jesus,” she says, and looks up. “Wait!” she calls out. “Look at this!” But they have all filed out, and when she looks back down it is gone.

Author Portrait

MaryRose Lovgren has degrees in Zoology and English Literature from UC Davis and often uses her background in science to influence her naturalistic storytelling. She received two honorable mentions in the 80th Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition for her short stories. She is currently working on her second novel.