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FICTION:
“Love Can’t Be Love All the Time” by Erik Jaccard

I am 8 years old and Ted, my stepdad, is crying on a boat. I remember his position and posture perfectly: hunched on a seat in the stern, feet shoulder width apart, elbows on knees, hands covering face. At first, I think he is tired, that his hands will eventually fall to his lap, that he will lift his brown eyes to consider the tufted, fir-covered ridges of the humpbacked island to our south, slathered in low, summer evening sunshine. This is what I want to happen; this would be normal. I do not want to hear the muffled sobs that leak from between his fingers.

My gut knots. I shift in my seat and feel the damp discomfort of my bunched, sandy swim trunks as they slide across the vinyl covering. I transform the slight thwack thwack thwack of the hull against the strait’s soft chop into a beat in my head and create a basic melody I can hum to it. I clench and unclench my fists three times. I flex my calf muscles and then let them sigh into rest. I repeat this with my thighs and arms and feel momentarily calm.

I turn and glance over my left shoulder, where my mom stands with one hand on the wheel and the other on the throttle, her head jutting over the low, slanted windshield, curly brown hair blown back over her shoulders. Her expression is inscrutable, but her jaw is set and her posture rigid. My sister and I know this look. It is the symptom of a dangerous and ambivalent calm: an ungrounded electrical system or a dim parlor slowly filling with gas.

I have found two methods for dealing with these moments. The first is to assimilate with the charged atmosphere, which in practice means matching her silence with silence, containing the uncomfortable energy behind a dam and hoping it will dissipate in time. I personally find this unbearable, and at such times usually slip quietly out the back door to play alone or with my sister, if she’s willing. The problem with this strategy is that it changes nothing. I just wait in dread, knowing I’ll eventually return. My second—and preferred—line of defense is to break the silence with speech, to say some innocuous thing in a desperate attempt to restore equilibrium.

In this moment, I hop down from my seat and pad unsteadily forward to tug gently at her sleeve, which makes me feel half my age.

“Can we have pizza tonight?”

She turns her head slightly toward me but does not meet my eyes. She waits five seconds before extending a hand to my head, where she rests it gently.

“I don’t know. We’ll see how late it is when we get back”.

I glance at my sister sitting just to the left, her dirty blonde mop of hair covering her eyes. She is examining her bathing suit, a red one piece with white spots. I stare into the top of her head, willing her to join me; two kids running distraction are better than one. She does not look up, so I forge ahead alone. Squinting against the sun pouring over my left shoulder and pointing at a low-lying blob of greenish-brown island to the north, I say matter of factly, “That one is called Sucia. Dad says it means dirty in Spanish.” I giggle softly look clownishly up at her, hoping she, too, will find the idea of a “dirty” island amusing.

She doesn’t turn her head, but frowns almost imperceptibly. “Hm,” she says. I’m rotating the fortune wheel of chit chat in my head trying to land on my next attempt when she follows up:

“Dirty woman.”

“What?”

“Spanish words are gendered. The a at the end of Sucia means it’s feminine. Dirty woman. I’m guessing there’s more to it than just dirt.”

I am caught now between interest in this new depth to my knowledge, shame for not having known it in the first place, and confusion at the meaning of her last comment. I feel my stomach knot again. This is not going well. Either we will have this clipped, meandering conversation all the way home or something will give. I sneak another furtive glance at Ted.

“Ted is crying,” I say with the same matter of factness as my comment about the island.

This is not a question, but I can tell by the way she purses her lips slightly that she has taken it as one. Some people purse their lips like that to express pity, which would be welcome here, but I know it means I am about to receive one of her frequent “fact of life” comments.

“You know, sometimes people argue and sometimes they cry. There’s not much you can do about it. Sometimes people aren’t nice to one another. Love can’t be love all the time.”

“What did you—”

“We’re going home now.”

Then, in a softer voice, trying for tenderness: “Everything will be fine.”

I resent her briefly for this lie, but I rest my head gently on her shoulder anyway because it will feel better than returning to my seat. She pats me once more on the head and then returns her hand to the wheel. Love can’t be love all the time.

Ted has raised his head and is staring off at the mountain to the south.

Instead of sitting down, I arrange myself in a surfer pose in the middle of the boat, right knee jutting out towards the bow, left tilted back, hands outstretched like I’ve seen in movies. I attempt some comic wobbles and then tumble headfirst into my seat, my mouth a dramatic O of anguish. My sister looks up and giggles.

I feel the stony tension thaw briefly and relax into myself. For a few sunlit minutes, we no longer feel like a dim statuary dangling in the breeze, affixed from a rope strung bow to stern.

Ted looks over and chuckles softly. My mother drives. We carry on.

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