“Believe it or not,” I say, hoisting the ice chest over my head, “I cannot control the river.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Samantha says. “Just get us the fuck out of here.” She stands on the levee in a black and purple bikini, rubbing her arms across her chest. Her eyebrows furrow and her freckles have already darkened in the six hours we’ve spent on the water. Today’s adventures are not gaining me any points as a potential boyfriend.
“Why’s it always my fault?” I balance the ice chest on the rocks by her feet. Our 1975 jet boat sways back and forth on the Sacramento River like a tightrope walker testing a rope. The boat glitters like the fool’s gold in the shallows. Every few minutes a jet skier zooms by, shattering the river’s glass surface. If water skiers or fishermen stopped to chat, they would notice that the boat is filling with water from the inside, the river is claiming it as its own.
“It’s not always your fault,” Samantha says. “Today it’s your fault because you’re the one who backed over the fucking tow line.”
“She’s right,” pipes in a voice from above. “It’s your fucking fault.” Riley, my 11-year-old cousin, balances her feet on two big rocks at the top of the levee. She still wears her canary yellow life jacket strapped over her oversized t-shirt and board shorts. Her nose is bright orange from the Zinc Oxide sunscreen that she smeared all over her face. She looks like Hagar the Horrible.
“Ri, don’t cuss,” I say. She is only here because Samantha and I needed an observer to spot us when we tow each other behind the boat. According to California law, observers must be at least 12. We were so desperate to get on the water that I accepted my Aunt Patsy’s babysitting plea on the condition that Riley pretended to be 12. On the car ride over, she recited her new birthday beneath her breath, chanting “January fifteenth nineteen ninety-four January fifteenth nineteen ninety-four.”
“Whatever, ” Riley says. She wiggles her hips side to side and sticks out her tongue. “At least I didn’t sink my dad’s boat in front of my girlfriend.”
“For the last time,” Samantha says, “we’re not—”
“Either of you two feel like helping a guy out?” I open the ice chest and pull out some Tupperwares of carrots and celery sticks. The silence is real as both girls pin their eyes on me. I remove each object from the ice chest and place it on the rocks. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches wrapped in cellophane, sticks of string cheese, strawberry yogurt, Dr. Pepper and bottled water. Beads of sweat trickle down my neck. There’s sunscreen in my eye.
“What are you doing?” Samantha swings her weight from one hip to the other in an effect that is alluring and at times dangerous. Now it is the latter.
“I’m, uh, taking inventory,” I say. “These could be useful.”
“You’re going to fix the boat with Tupperware?”
“These things can do everything,” I say. “They keep your food fresh and double as bailing tools.” I pick one up, open the lid and dump the carrots onto the riprap, then walk back into the water to the boat.
“You’re pathetic,” Riley calls from her perch. “We’re going to die out here.”
Some part of me has already resigned. The August heat weighs on my bare back. The climbing temperature makes me feel like I’ve developed another layer of skin. Birds of prey circle and weave above us, leaving shadowy trails along the levee.
“You’d better move, Riley,” I say, “or else those vultures will think you’re dead.”
“Whatever, Timothy,” she says. But she does scuttle off the rocks. We’d removed all our towels, skis and wakeboards from the boat the moment we noticed it sinking. They decorate the shoreline now like goods set out for a garage sale. I approach the boat, armed with Tupperwares, and all I see are mismatched ski gloves, bottles of Moose Juice and wadded up bags of chips. The water level inside the boat has risen about a half-inch. I scoop water with the Tupperware and pour it into the river.
“You bailing out the boat with Tupperware is a little like George W. Bush cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina with a vacuum,” Samantha says. She blows her bangs out of her eyes. I used to think it was sexy.
“It’s working,” I say.
“That’s what FEMA said.” There are sweat trails crawling down Samantha’s shoulders. I’d like to follow them with my eyes but know I shouldn’t.
“Hey! Look what I can do!” Riley picks up a rock and arches her arm back, flinging it forward. It hits me square in the shoulder blades.
“God damnit Riley! If you’re not going to help, could you at least not attack me with rocks?”
She reaches into her pocket to reapply sunscreen. Aunt Patsy made me promise to keep her daughter well-protected. With her fair skin and red hair, Riley is at high risk for skin cancer. Because Aunt Patsy is a woman who fuels on fear, it’s never surprised me that the threat of one disease carries over to countless others. According to her mother, Riley could get Lyme disease from ticks, AIDS from an infected toilet seat, diabetes from increased doughnut intake. Aunt Patsy believes science exists to frighten us. How would she respond when she found out that Riley was lost not to disease but to her own cousin, certified EMT and rescue lifeguard?
Samantha moves down the rocks to the water. “I’ll help,” she says, emptying out a Tupperware of radishes. “Look, they’re like little red buoys.” The vegetables float on the water. The heat lessens.
“Thanks,” I say. I clear my throat whenever I lean over; a nervous habit. There’s something about Samantha Jefferson in a purple bikini with popsicle stains on her stomach that reduces me to funny noises. When she transferred to my school in eighth grade, she made my voice skip octaves. She could braid hair the way some people speed-read. During silent sustained reading, she would prop her book up on her desk with her hairbrush and divide her hair into sections, which she would braid without looking up. Her beckoning fingers made me relax. I wish she would braid her hair now.
Our movements are soon interrupted by the mind-numbing thump of bass. A sleek white ski boat is drifting our way, music jiggling the wakeboards strapped to the central pole. A crowd of sunburned teenage boys loom like characters from a Dr. Suess book, long and lean with puffs of bleached hair like human Q-tips. My forehead sweats.
“Ooh! Look! A rescue party!” Samantha straightens, places her Tupperware inside the nylon siding of the boat, and pulls her hair back into a ponytail.
“Ship’s ahoy!” Riley yells, scrambling down the rocks. She slips, and I wince for the howl of pain that’s sure to follow. Her head bobs as the cries come.
“There, there,” I say, hopping up the levee to where she sits, tears streaming through sunscreen. I wish I could see what Samantha is doing. Riley’s knee is bleeding.
“My leg’s gonna fall off!” Riley’s back shudders with sobs. “I’m gonna get gangrene and they’re gonna cut it off!”
“You’ll be fine,” I say. “One Band-Aid should do it.” I turn around to the pile of goods on the bank, where the first aid kit sits between the ice chest and the umbrella. I get a good, long look at the approaching boat. Four guys, all maybe 16 to18 years old, wiry and tan. I don’t recognize any of them. Thank goodness. Someone turns down the bass and Samantha wanders into the shallows.
“Hey boys,” she says.
“I’m gonna die and it’s all because-a you!” Riley holds her knee between her hands. I return to the bank, straining to hear Samantha’s conversation.
“Thank goodness there’s someone out here who can manage a boat!” Samantha says.
I should be used to this. I should be comfortable with rejection. This is why I should clarify my feelings sooner, but I never do because I’m a gangly guy with a squeaky voice who has never had a girlfriend because girls who make me doubt what I know make me scared. I like that fear, the shiver in my stomach that makes me realize that I’m not going to rescue every person who jumps in a pool, nor might any girl I fall in love with love me back. I like that shiver because it’s a risk, like waterskiing.
“—and then when I got in from the water, Tim started up the boat before I could pull in the line. Sometimes he gets nervous around me.”
Am I that obvious?
“Are you about done?” Riley has stopped crying and looks annoyed. “Are you paying attention to anything today?” She waves a hand in front of my face. “Can you see my hand?”
“Riley, stop,” I say, pushing down her hand. “Of course I can see.”
“And then what happened?” A boy with a Neanderthal voice asks.
“Well, the rope got stuck in the propeller, so when we cut the engine—”
“—water could come in but couldn’t flow out,” Neanderthal says. He sits on the engine cover in his boat surrounded by his cronies. He’s ugly. I hope Samantha thinks so too, but it’s hard to tell. She swings her arms by her sides.
“Do you think you can tow us?” she asks, her voice rising.
“Sure thing,” Neanderthal says. “Phil here is just getting our fishing knife to cut your line out. Once we get the rope out from under the prop, the water should be able to flow back out.”
“If you still have trouble starting,” the boy named Phil pipes in, “we can tie our rope to your bow.”
“I’m Tim.” I step into the water and extend my hand. “Thanks for helping us out.” Their boat is a few feet away and so Neanderthal doesn’t attempt to meet my hand.
“Lance,” says Neanderthal. “No worries, brah. Happens all the time.”
Phil finds his knife and hops out of their boat to swim over. He balances the fishing knife in his teeth while doing the doggy paddle. He’s missing a few front teeth. Wakeboarders.
“How lucky we are to find these nice guys!” Samantha grins, wider than she’s ever grinned around me.
“Yeah, no kidding,” I say. I wish the sun would hurry up and go down because the heat is smacking me in waves.
“You could use some of Riley’s sunscreen,” she says, grabbing me by the nose and giggling.
“Need any help?” I ask, turning to Phil, who is nosing around underneath the propeller. He grins.
“So, pretty lady, I never caught your name,” Lance says, picking up a can of Bud Light.
“I’m Samantha,” she says, smiling into her stomach.
“He means me!” Riley rushes into the water, disregarding her bandaged knee. “I’m Riley.”
Lance and his friends laugh. The other two guys look like extras from a surf video. One has a full beard and a beer belly and he can’t be more than 18. The other has an arm covered in tattoos. Did one arm beg redecoration or was it hiding some body flaw? If tattoos are meant to hide scars, then I should be getting a big one across my chest any day now.
“I’m going under,” Phil says, then dives below the prop. He wrings the rope free from the propeller, but the engine won’t turn over, so Lance and company have to tow us to the dock. Samantha squeezes in between Lance and Phil, braiding her hair as a Bud Light jiggles in her lap. I get stuck with Riley in our gold boat, covered in Zinc Oxide sunscreen, watching the trail of radishes follow us home. Vultures circle and I play dead.