by Stephanie Han
I was sitting on the ferry from Woods Hole to Nantucket, trying to devise a way for Ted to notice me. All I saw were his mirrored sunglasses, which could not conceal his beautiful face, a crown of golden hair, and a cigarette emerging from the corner of his smooth-lipped mouth.
I was pretending to read a book that years later would fall out of my window onto a back-alley rooftop. Irretrievable and slowly disintegrating, I forgot about it until my brother Michael told me that Ted had killed himself by jumping from his mother’s New York 57th street penthouse. The news triggered the taste of ocean salt and his sun drenched supple body and caused my head to throb with recollection. It had been more than a decade since that Nantucket summer, and by then, I no longer knew Ted, nor had I thought of him for many years, but his death gave me pause; it reminded me that there was a time when I did not hesitate in love, did not understand inhibition, and dared to question the contradictions of innocence and bravery.
That long ago day on the ferry, Ted was watching me. I thought this peculiar given my ongoing battle with a recent lopsided perm. At seventeen, my pre-orthodontic grin was crooked but enthusiastic, and while my looks were the type that my mother assured me I would “grow into,” Ted exuded the fearless wonder of youth and privilege.
His stance told me that to flirt with someone with his perceived mystique and definite physique was an audacious move on my part, but the coolness of the Atlantic swaddled me with a delicious chill and imbued me with bravery. I felt carefree and confident in my decision to wear a tight tank top that emphasized the rise of my breasts and had the added bonus of squeezing my round stomach under my jean jacket, rather than the one turtleneck packed for cool evenings on the beach.
I stepped out onto the deck and leaned against the railing, scanning the page for a run of dialogue to anchor my wandering eye. As the sweet sun heated my face, I glanced down at the white edge of foam framing the wave and the possibilities of the summer rolled before me. It was barely the first of May, a month before Nantucket’s season officially began, but I was determined to get an early start.
Nantucket had been my plan to escape the confines of home before going to state university that fall. To my surprise, my parents agreed. I had skipped two grades and they felt the summer would be a time for me to mature and make money, a practical reward for a year spent obediently following the plans they had laid for me as a community college student and intern at the local newspaper’s art department. When my friends visited from college I had felt younger for not having left home. Dorms. Drinking. Sex. Nantucket would be my chance to experience adulthood and independence.
My brother Michael was the pre-med student at Cornell upon whom my parents projected their immigrant dreams of success; by contrast, I was the daughter who aspired to be an artist, an idea that made my Confucian father shake his head when he contemplated the impracticality of such a pursuit. It was my burden to live in my brother’s shadow and to accept without complaint the privileges bestowed upon a first-born male; my brother’s burden was to prove to my parents that he was deserving of every sacrifice they had made over the years. Michael was a student at Phillips Academy Andover located in the Massachusetts town where I, a “townie,” attended the local high school. By the time I was old enough to go, my parents felt private school tuition wasn’t worth the expense, especially after Michael didn’t get into Harvard. And so it was that I came to look upon such gates of entitlement with a strange mixture of familiarity, curiosity, and resentment.
When Ted flashed a warm grin and sat across from me to look out on the horizon, he appeared before me like my answer from the gods, exuding summer and release, adventure and desire. I felt a nervous rush of adrenaline surge in his presence and could feel his eyes scan my body as I angled it towards him. I found myself smiling as he pulled off his sunglasses, my posture shifting as I deliberately exposed my shoulder blade and pulled my tank top tighter against my breasts. As the small flock leaving the ferry began to disperse, I stalled, slowed my walk to a ponderous pace, pulled out a worn address book from my backpack, and pretended to search for a name.
I wanted him with a burst of denial and simultaneous dread, and before I knew it, a few questions soon led pretty Ted to say: “I know this is kind of strange, but if you don’t have a place to stay, you could stay at mine. I got the rental early; my roommates won’t be here ‘til Memorial Day.”
“Sure,” I said, hoping he thought it was the biting wind turning my face pink.
I tried to convince myself it didn’t mean anything as a few inquiries revealed that he vaguely knew Michael from a class at Andover. They hadn’t been friends, but I guessed that Ted’s hospitality could be chalked up to preppy behavior—doing favors and opening doors; behavior I had enviously observed when around my brother and his friends.
Ted and I spent the night in the empty beach house, drinking beer and eating pizza, stepping outside to gaze at the crisp stars dropped in the hollow of the night, our eyes opening in applause. I found myself chatting at rapid speed when he leaned over to kiss me.
“Have you ever kissed an Asian before?” I blurted, waiting for the response that would reveal me as an aberration in what I perceived to be Ted’s life—one gloriously free of difference and the questions of belonging.
“No. Does it matter? I’m kissing you, Lydia. Have you ever kissed someone white?” he asked thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” I said. Once in the first grade.
“I don’t mind,” said Ted.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I guess, it just doesn’t really matter. Are you liking it?”
As our clothes came off, we reached and arched and turned. I felt his mouth on my neck, ran my hands over his chest and thighs, and felt him pull my body into his skin and flesh. Hips touching, I couldn’t tell whose it was, mine or his, but it didn’t matter.
During the nights and days that followed, we partied and played with others who were making their way to the island for summer. My roommate was Amanda, a jewelry maker with sandy brown ringlets and a high-pitched giggle who worked at a deli across from the Royal Saloon where I worked as a waitress. Friends flitted from parties to work, camaraderie the dollar, the beach, and the romance of the long summer stretched out before us.
Ted had taken the semester off from Princeton where he was studying architecture to travel to Europe and had plans to apprentice with a local furniture maker. We discussed future plans and I too, felt the possibilities lap at the shore. We ate steamers, drank Cape Codders, and exchanged witticisms, making up voices and rules and laughing only long enough to come up for air before another exuberant embrace. Running out onto the sand dunes, we watched the small waves dance and break, chased each other into the water, and licked the salt from each other’s skin. Hiding in our bodies, racing to take off our clothes, arms and legs pliant and warm like pretzels, we watched golden flecks bounce off our bodies browned from the sun.
“I like your eyes. The blue is pretty,” I said.
“I like yours.”
“All Asians have my eyes,” I said, shying from his compliment.
“Can’t Asians have different eyes?”
“I guess,” I said, scarlet faced. I didn’t believe what I said and was embarrassed that I said it.
“I like your eyes. They say things,” said Ted softly.
The island was a postcard of quaint clapboard homes and cobblestone streets, clean Atlantic air filling me with nostalgia before I experienced the event. Days off meant biking and swimming with evening keggers on the beach and a dance at a club. Ted and I strolled along the sand and watched the sunset and I reveled in acting out my summer movie. The soundtrack swelled. Credits rolled. Patrons smashed the popcorn on the sticky cement floor and walked out into the sun that stabbed their eyes.
“This family friend came on Island and mentioned Dad got married to another woman,” said Ted disgustedly.
“He didn’t tell you he got married?”
“No. And the point is that he’s a money hungry asshole. My father told me he married my mom because he was broke, and that would be the only reason he would ever marry, ever. Mom is on drugs and a bitch; who’d want to marry her? He only screws rich women and that includes my mother, who frankly deserves the worst.”
When the weather turned, we sat on the dunes and huddled like birds in a scooped-out basin. I leapt up from the sand and spun in circles and sprawled out like a starfish as tiny silken grains slid off my ankles and filled my hair.
“What are you doing?” said Ted laughing.
“Getting dizzy,” I said.
“Better than being boring. I’d hate to be old and boring.”
“I can’t imagine you boring or old. Shit, I feel old. Not always, but I’m not a young one like you,” said Ted somberly.
“How do you think you’re gonna die? Young or old?”
“Weird question... maybe in the middle of an orgasm. Young.”
“Maybe old. Sex doesn’t stop. Dad’s wife is my age.”
“You’re sick. I think I’ll die in some weird way,” I said, thinking of the murders I had read about in the horror magazines stacked in my bedroom closet at home.
“My uncle hung himself.”
“My grandma said he was too sensitive. She said when he was a kid he even cried at the zoo ‘cause the animals were locked up in cages. She said it was the monkeys. Actually, it’s not funny,” he said frowning at my laughter. The wind took a rest. Ted sorrowfully looked out at the water.
“Forget it. I used to think about suicide. Everyone does, you know. But I haven’t recently. You get used to it all.”
“I know what you mean,” I said, absorbed in my own worries. Recent family turmoil had centered around Michael’s girlfriend Stacey, a pre- law student and the daughter of wealthy Jamaican real estate developers. Stacey was black. Dad had threatened to disown him; Michael had stopped calling, and Mom was crying on the phone to me. I didn’t tell Michael about Ted. I knew what my brother would say.
“You couldn’t possibly. People do things that you could never understand.”
“What do you mean?” I asked defensively.
“You just can’t. Maybe it’s because your family is not as fucked up as mine. But deep down people are always the same. Assholes. What the hell do you know?”
Ted’s anger seemed to devour his very flesh, and I acquiesced in silence. All I knew was that he had a way of slowly peeling my skin until I was a quivering jellyfish floating with the tides, a clear surface that split when I dove. I was swimming in his deep, my toes unable to touch the sand, my lungs ready to burst, determination scratching and stinging my legs as I kicked. I picked up a handful of sand and threw it at him, and we wrestled in the sand before he pinned me on my back.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m just some old bitter fart. You’re a young one, I should be more kind.” He patted me and looked out at the water.
“Hey, you’re only three years older than I am,” I said.
He kissed me and paused and squeezed my hand. “True. Lydia—I have this girlfriend but we’re kind of taking a break from each other.”
“Oh,” I said my stomach dropping.
“Martha was a girlfriend of mine at Andover. We’ve been on and off for a few years.”
“I mean, nothing’s definite in terms of her coming to Nantucket.”
“Come catch me!” I didn’t want to hear him, so I turned away, stripped off my clothes and hurled myself into water so cold it cut my flesh. Ted ran up to the water’s edge with my sweater and held my shivering body. “I’m freezing to death,” I gasped.
“No, shit,” he said laughing.
“You know what your problem is? You’re uptight,” I said relieved that the subject had changed.
“One of us has to be.”
The day his friends came on Island, I spent the night in my apartment alone. Amanda was at her new boyfriend Kevin’s. Thereafter I saw Ted sporadically after the bars closed. He would ride up on his motorcycle, shout up to the window, and I would open the back door. Reeking of alcohol and cigarettes, he would stumble up the steps and we would hungrily cling to each other, as if to squeeze the hope and life from our bodies, crashing into a deep sleep and reluctantly awakening early the next morning, the taste and feel of sex on our bodies, in our mouths, and on our necks. He would leave with a friendly unsentimental good-bye and a bare mention of seeing each other in the future. After the door closed, I would go back to bed for a few minutes, feeling the warm spot on the sheets, smelling him on the pillows and blankets, closing my eyes and touching my own skin, still tingling from the night before.
Ted kept a strict distance from me in public. Yet, it was difficult for me to piece together how this came about; who started this mutual dislike— was he like this all along?
“Jesus, Lydia, I mean the guy was always a jerk,” said Michael over the phone with exasperation.
“No, he wasn’t.”
“He’s a typical white prep. Not worth it.”
“They’re assholes and racists. And I’m moving in with Stacey. Fuck ‘em,” said Michael.
Ted’s absence from my daily life marked a turn in the season. Without him I became aware of my difference and so did others, or so it seemed. Summer revelry began to sour. Amanda and I were arguing about her boyfriend Kevin, who had moved into our apartment. I was fired from the Royal Saloon, and though I hated the job, I was mad when Amanda took my place.
I hadn’t talked to Ted in weeks when he called. “They’re my favorite pair,” he said.
“I thought you were trying to defy your stereotype.”
“I like them. Plus, they’re monogrammed at the bottom. They gotta be around your apartment someplace. Martha gave them to me.”
“Maybe you lost them when you went skinny-dipping out at Madaket.” I picked up his shorts and studied the hand-embroidered name Martha next to a tiny mallard duck on the waistband.
“I’d appreciate it if you would tell me if they show up,” said Ted politely.
“No prob, but they’re not here.”
By late July I began work as a housecleaner for the realty companies. The rental homes were decorated with an uncanny uniformity. Tasteful, predictable, and practical homes held wicker furniture with firm chintz cushions, dog-eared paperbacks of Moby Dick perched on oak bookshelves, shiny copper kettles atop white stoves, and braided rag rugs strewn across smooth wooden floors. The walls sounded off echoes of platitudes about how things are done, debates about sailing and the proper books to read, and careful analysis based on family experience about Milton, Deerfield, or Andover. I tried to imagine something ugly or sordid occurring within the walls of those homes, but I never could, as if the armor protecting the righteous and deserved were well-worn corduroys, Brooks Brothers sweaters, and blemish-free complexions.
As I dusted the picture frames and polished the furniture, I could hear Ted reminisce in a faltering voice about the few summers his family spent on Nantucket before his dad had a breakdown and left. Ted had showed me the photograph of his handsome silver-haired father and his new wife —a year older than Ted, she was a fashion model and the daughter of a shipping magnate.
“She married my father because her own dad hates him,” explained Ted.
Big Balding Bill, a middle-aged bouncer who spent his days working in the bike shop, was an exception to the palette of heather blonds and baby blues. He was one of the few black year-long residents, and could be spotted cast fishing along the beaches in the early foggy morning. He was known by the community as a decent fellow who kept to himself, a quality that probably made him all the more acceptable to the islanders. One night when I went up to the bar for a beer, I passed a table of men I had seen come into the Royal Saloon—daytrippers I guessed, though later I learned a few were seasonal workers like myself.
“Ah-sooo,” said one with a snicker. A low murmur was followed by “chink,” uttered loud enough to cause me to march back to the table.
“What the hell was that?” I growled. Barely audible denials met my anger. One man grinned, another sneered, yet another stood, mouth agape in the shape of a perfect oval. “Fuck you!” I said.
A few chuckled. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Someone was saying something, assholes. And I’m not a chink, you fuckers. I’m Korean.”
I promptly reported the incident to Bill who lumbered over to express his displeasure in a few quiet syllables; the men left the bar en masse.
I would see the men skulk and slither past the Royal Saloon and felt satisfaction knowing that they felt foolish in my presence, yet in truth it was their victory. My charge led them to back down, but their actions made me hesitant about meeting people the rest of the summer, a fear I disguised by arrogance and wisecracks. I spun thin strings of protection into a sturdy cocoon, nurtured my defiance, and learned how to collapse into an invisible tiny ball that even friends couldn’t open.
The only other Asian on Island was a young Filipina who worked behind the soda fountain in the town’s main drugstore. From her accent, clothes, and hairstyle I knew she was a recent immigrant, “unassimilated” —the kind who often showed up in my family’s living room and with whom I was obliged to socialize with, but never introduced to my friends. We barely acknowledged each other, yet it was the only place I sat in public without feeling uncomfortable. I passed many hours reading at that drugstore, sipping chocolate ice cream sodas, staring out the window, and scribbling away in my journal on the pink Formica table. I came to know her name because someone called me Frances and asked when I quit my job at the soda fountain.
I wish I could say that I answered smartly back, “No, you have the wrong Asian,” but I didn’t. I said: “My name’s Lydia.”
I got a second job at Nantucket’s public laundromat to supplement my income cleaning houses. I made a dollar above minimum wage and worked folding sheets and clothes with Friendly Felicia—a high school senior, Big Balding Bill’s niece and the only black girl I saw all summer on Nantucket, and Simple Edie—a strawberry blonde college student whose family had summered on Island since she was a baby.
Helen, my cigarette-smoking boss, was a divorcée with a tough accent that demarked her Gloucester, Massachusetts origins. Her dad was a second generation Portuguese fisherman, her mom, she said proudly, was a good old-fashioned Boston Irish Catholic girl, god-bless-her. For the past fifteen years, the profitable summer months had subsidized the rest of Helen’s year.
The surroundings were pleasant. Bright sunlight came in through the open doors and windows and the linoleum floors were swept and mopped every day. Flowers of peach and blue grew along the fence, and the dusty gravel road by the entrance was filled with a constant stream of bicycles and cars driving in and out.
“At the end of the season, I throw a party for my girls. You might not make as many tips as you do down on Main Street, but it’s steady work, and I’m flexible. Plus, you can do your laundry for free,” she said, puffing away at the entrance under the ‘No Smoking’ sign.
“You’re good at this,” said Helen approvingly. There was a system to doing the laundry. We separated colors and whites before throwing the laundry into the wash; then before transferring the load to the dryer, we shook out the wrinkled clothes. After forty-three minutes the buzzer would sound and the folding would begin. If jeans took longer, we might run the dryer longer, or lay them on top of the machine to grab some warmth. Socks were folded into thirds like compact squares, underwear into tiny neat quarters; bras straps were smartly tucked into the cups. We were wash, dry, and fold only. No ironing. “And you don’t need to,” said Helen firmly. “If you do the washing and drying properly, that is, fold as soon as you take it out.”
I folded sheets with Friendly Felicia whose thick glasses and endless high school chatter I found amusing and all too reminiscent of a recent past. She had olive skin and thick wavy black hair and a large collection of hair ribbons. Simple Edie was all pink and shiny blonde. Her welcoming smile was genuine, but I found her dull and slow-witted. After her fourth recap of her French shopping trip my vituperative tongue gave way.
“You make France sound like a mall.”
I watched Simple Edie’s face fall and quickly said, “I’m joking, Edie. I’m sorry, I’m just tired today.” I bought her a muffin at lunchtime and folded sheets with her the rest of the day.
We folded fitted sheets by matching up the elasticized corners, carefully aligning the elasticized white strips and white seams corner to corner. The sheet would then be folded until it was a neat rectangle; to this day, I fold my sheets the way Helen taught me.
Every day I swept the floors, did laundry, took my lunch break out in the garden, and watched the people come into the laundromat. The job was monotonous, but even worse, when I told friends or acquaintances I was working at the laundromat they appeared baffled. My new job was not the prestige position I once held as a Royal Saloon waitress. Weeks had passed since I saw Ted, but like everyone else who worked on the island, he showed up at the laundromat.
“Lydia, when did you start working here?” Ted asked in disbelief. He gave a laugh. Not a snicker, but more than a snort, a voice pushing the edge of disdain.
“A while ago. Not long.” I went to the small back room and pretended to look for the broom. “I’m going for lunch, Helen,” I announced. Lydia The Laundry Lady. Helen waved me off and I put on my sunglasses, hopped on my bike, and pedaled away. Ted had made me flush a scarlet shame: My arrogance and pride. My humility and desire. My reward and embarrassment.
By the time I had returned, Nick The Gardener was at work mowing the lawn. Under Nick’s care, Helen’s verdant garden was gloriously healthy. He planted rows of orange patience and bachelor’s buttons, trimmed the bushes, watered the grass, and repainted the white picket fence. Nick had a deep baritone voice, a reddish beard, and pink, not bronze skin. He wore a dirty Oakland A’s baseball cap and his fingers were thick and short. Familiar and easy, everything he was and believed showed on his face.
“Helen, you are going to have the most amazing compost pile. The best on the island,” said Nick.
“Your pile. I’m not one for worms. You take care of it,” Helen said, shaking her head and walking inside.
“Helen, Fair Queen of the Compost. Alas, I am merely Nick, her lowly and grunged out serf.”
“I’m her serf, too,” I said giggling.
“You can be the Compost Princess.”
“I’m not into monarchy.”
“Okay, serf. Or ‘serf-ette,’” joked Nick.
“What the hell is a serf-ette?”
“A modern female serf. Not to be confused of course, with a ‘surfer babe’ or a suffragette, although all good serfs do vote,” he quipped.
Nick was going back to Santa Barbara in the fall to finish his degree in environmental science. I began to anticipate the days we sat outside together for lunch. He brought his laundry by on the days he worked on the lawn, but instead of asking me to take care of it like others I knew had begun to do, he politely dropped it in a pile. I knew he liked me, but I closed my body to him and guarded my movements, avoiding conversation that had any nuance of sexual innuendo.
A week later I found myself at the soda fountain talking to a young woman with a luminous face and skinny legs and arms. With her evenly worn Levi’s cutoffs, a forest green L.L. Bean backpack, and a two-tone Rolex strapped on her wrist, she was a poster child for the New England good life, right down to her name—Martha. I could tell at best we would be acquaintances, classroom equals who respected each other’s intellect, but under no circumstances would we be friends. When she stood near me I could smell the thick and powdery scent of Ralph Lauren Polo. I had to suppress a sneeze.
“I’d do anything. I haven’t ever worked before, or I mean for a restaurant before, so I probably couldn’t be a waitress,” she said, swinging her long sunlit hair. Her pert freckled nose and blue eyes were friendly.
“I used to work at the Royal Saloon. Too much stress. You know, everyone’s such a cokehead in the bars, so it’s hard to deal with. I prefer a mellow situation, so I work folding clothes,” I said, watching Martha’s peaked interest.
“I don’t know anything about retail.”
“Oh, no. I work at the laundromat. Cool boss and pay is okay. She lets us off a little early sometimes,” I added, trying to sound as disinterested as possible. “It’s not like a real laundry. It’s the Nantucket Laundromat.”
“Do you think she’s hiring anyone? I need a job. I came because my boyfriend’s here,” said Martha.
“I’ll ask,” I generously offered. I rambled on about the tourist economy, the antagonism between Island locals and summer residents, and Nantucket City Council meetings on zoning. I painted an image of politics and drama, obfuscation pieced together to imply that employment was scarce and difficult to obtain. “This is a highly educated work force. Quite ironic, but a good exercise in Marxist principles that would otherwise escape the realities of these college kids.”
“I totally agree,” said Martha. Agreeable Martha. How irritating.
“Come in and fill out an application. When I quit, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
“Cool. That would be great. Do you know Ted Barrett?”
“Vaguely. I think he’s done his laundry there before.” My stomach dropped. Ted and Martha. I felt queasy. I imagined telling her the truth and her angry confrontation with Ted, and rolled the secret back and forth in my mind like a cinnamon candy on my tongue, sweet and hot.
Her perfume stamped her presence. After she left my head hurt, but I wasn’t sure if it was her scent or my imagination. A week later I spied Martha and Ted in front of the coffee shop window. Ted’s arm was around her, and he was touching her hair the same way he had touched mine.
I was angry when I came back to my apartment. The phone rang and it was my mother asking me to take a family trip to see Michael. I said no, but when she called again the following week, I decided to go. Helen said she knew she couldn’t keep me forever, and I told her a girl named Martha would be coming in. Simple Edie said that she learned some unusual facts listening to my perspectives, and Friendly Felicia asked if I was coming back the next summer. I lied and said I would and Helen said a job was always open.
I was downtown when a man from the group who had called me names in the bar crossed the street to speak to me. I met his eyes with a mean squint and a grimace.
“What,” I said flatly. The enemy. I was ready to roll. Stand tall. Stand fierce.
“I want you to know it wasn’t me who said all of that shit. Those other guys, I hardly know them. My girlfriend’s Filipino. I think you’re all beautiful.”
“Your friends are fucking losers. Bunch of assholes,” I said dryly, hands on my hips, foot poised ready to kick him in the groin.
“They’re not my friends. Sorry about those fuckers. Coming back next year?”
I stayed an extra week and spent my days letting the rays paint my skin a deep brown, biking past the cranberry bogs in Sconset, and watching the orange sun melt into the blue aluminum waves of Madaket Beach.
I ran into Ted at the grocery store loading up on beer for a party. “Dad and wifey are on Island. A barbeque at the house,” said Ted.
“Guess it’s all worked out with your Dad and Martha and—”
“You know, some things are better left unsaid.” We stood looking at each other as my eyes grew heavy, slowly filling with a warm liquid. My nose clogged up. My ears felt hot, and I wanted to say something but my mouth was dry. I can only remember how I desperately wanted to jump in the freezer, lose myself in frozen pizzas, cans of juice, and boxes of popsicles. I opened the glass door and let a cloud of cool air hit my face. It didn’t hide me. “This is lunch. Caterers coming tonight. See ya,” he said, filling his cart.
I went home and wadded up his boxer shorts I had been wearing around the apartment and used them to dust off my dresser before throwing them in the broom closet. I called Nick and he came by in his truck. I slept with him figuring that because he was going back to school in California, it’d be a long time, if ever, before I saw him again. The next day he bought me an ice cream cone and we went sailing on a little boat and talked and laughed all day long. As we headed into town that night for a bite to eat, I found myself wistful about leaving.
“I’ve had a good summer,” I said.
“Me, too. But after two years, I’m ready to get back to California,” said Nick.
“Do you think you’ll come back?”
“It’s been good but the summers are too crowded. Winter is nice. Reading. Fishing. Cheap rent. My ex-girlfriend bailed though, got island fever.”
“Where’s she now?”
“Back in Berkeley living with another guy. What about you?” asked Nick.
“Oh, you know, Disneyland.” It was the first time I had used the summer workers’ term for Nantucket, slang for the island’s alleged reputation as a site of adult hedonistic pleasure. I said it as if to say so would make it true.
I biked by the laundromat three days later and through the window saw Martha folding clothes and Simple Edie sweeping. The Laundry Ladies.
That night, I met Nick at the Royal Saloon for a drink and chuckled with the manager; after a few drinks, memories of the restaurant at 10:00 a.m. opening and the stench of garbage and spilt alcohol had faded to an old-fashioned grainy home movie. I spotted Martha and Ted from the corner of my eye.
“I got the job. Thanks for the mention. Ted, do you know Lydia?” asked Martha.
“Hi, Ted. I think we met earlier in the summer,” I said coyly.
“We might have, probably not though,” said Ted uncomfortably. I looked defiantly into his eyes and he turned away, taking his hand off Martha’s shoulder.
“I’m pretty easy to spot here, so probably not if you don’t remember,” I laughed in agreement. “Maybe I just saw you doing laundry. This is Nick,” I said giving Nick a pat on his chest. Nick gave his usual affable grin and I grabbed his arm.
At the end of the evening I kissed Nick a polite good-bye and lied, telling him I had my period, my excuse for not spending the night. He was leaving for the Cape on an early boat to see friends and invited me to go, but I declined.
I was also leaving the next day, on the last boat out. Mom had called crying on the phone; the family trip was cancelled. Michael was going with Stacey to Jamaica. I left a note with my address and phone number in Nick’s mailbox and packed my backpack, cleaned out the apartment, and took Ted’s silk boxer shorts along with a few old clothes down to the laundromat.
Martha walked over to a washer as it lurched to a stop. “Can you do this for me? There’s some nice stuff. Silk’s washable. It’d be great if you could fold,” I said.
“Sure,” said Martha taking the small plastic bag of laundry.
“Thanks,” I said smiling.
Wash, dry and fold. I took the numbered chit she handed me, biked down to the wharf, and put the chit in an envelope addressed to Ted with no return address. I anticipated how everything would unravel, how he would tell her about his summer, about me. I did not understand the prevaricating truths between lovers, or how passion is by nature a harbor both reckless and unforgiving. I wanted to be honest and as I biked away I felt a tremendous relief and a feeling of both guarded and wounded pride. Summer over, I sold my bike at the cycle shop, bought a ticket with the cash in my pocket and sat on a bench where I looked out at the murmuring forbidden water and waited for the four o’clock ferry to Cape Cod.
I turned to look one last time at the clean white clapboard houses and saw Ted strolling down the main drag. I faced the ocean as my heart raced and my knee began to bounce up and down. I gripped the seat, felt the rough ridges of wood, and wished for a splinter. Salt inched its way up my nostrils. Ted waved, I pretended not to notice.
“Lydia, going off Island for awhile?”
“Yeah,” I said looking at the ground. I felt the heat rise off my face and my body stiffen as my stomach wound into a tight acid knot.
“I’m going to tell Martha about stuff, but I haven’t yet,” he said quietly.
“I know.” The ferry was pulling into the harbor and I could see the indecipherable blobs of light and dark, people strolling along the decks, lifting and dropping their bags, and calling out to each other. Ted looked at my backpack.
“I thought you’d be cool about it,” said Ted awkwardly.
I took a step back and started towards the ferry. A voice rose from my throat; it was laughing, shouting, and sobbing, but eerily nothing came out. I was cutting through the water and swimming miles past the dock.
“I love you, bye,” I said simply.
I love you, too.
I caught them. Astonished blue eyes. Everything sharp and bitter. No theme song, just the sound of the water and a dull pain gnawing at my heart. I picked up my bags and ran down to the ferry, hoping that maybe he would run after me, wanting him to say something, but knowing that he wouldn’t, and wishing with all of my body that I’d never see him again.
I never did.
Stephanie Han's Swimming in Hong Kong
was the finalist for the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction as well as the Spokane Prize. She is City University of Hong Kong's first English literature PhD. She divides her time between Mui Wo, Lantau, Hong Kong and Honolulu, Hawaii, home of her family since 1904. Swimming in Hong Kong
is available at www.willowspringsbooks.org
for domestic US readers; worldwide through University of Washington Press, February 2017. Contact stephaniehan.com
for more information and Hong Kong special delivery.