Somehow, one of the ropes tightly connecting The Abigail-May to her sister ship at her side -- the center ship in the row of three -- had come loose. Mr. Harding, standing at the opposite end spewing a constant stream of lecture onto some upper-class Sigma Nu's, halted and called to Billy, who was standing right beside the problem, to retie it. How Mr. Harding knew it was untied at that distance Billy did not know. But he nodded back to him and nonchalantly turned around to see a widened gap of a foot or so between the whites of The Abigail-May and the ship it was tied to.
He leaned down into the darkness between the ships and retrieved a portion of the long, wet rope, at which point he had no idea how to re-secure it. The rope was thick and the silver anchors on the railing were quite small; too small to wrap the rope around. Looking down the length of the ships, he saw only bare anchors and not an inch of rope. He was becoming flustered, not wanting Mr. Harding to go out of his way to do it himself. He also couldn't help but to regard the ships as fragile things -- as people regularly regard things which aren't theirs -- as if to handle them incorrectly meant to shatter them like brittle glass in the cold. Then, just as he thought to look down along the hull, he was interrupted.
"Toss it here," she said.
Billy first saw a flute of half-gone champagne sat down on the opposite deck from which his eyes then quickly ran up a vibrantly colored summer dress dangling from arced shoulders and a pointy collar bone until they inevitably collapsed upon that angelic face he had come to know detail for detail throughout the course of the day.
"The reason it came undone is probably because someone didn't tie it correctly in the first place. Daddy had all kinds of kids helping dock today."
She held out her stringent, sun-kissed hand to retrieve the husky rope and smiled. Billy was taken aback, it seemed, for as long as he could remember and was yet to even attempt saying anything. She appeared so suddenly. All day he had been readying himself for an encounter with her, stocking his mind with clever introductions for every optimal situation of his fancy as well as what he considered the most unfavorable. All of which, however, he planned to be ready for.
But now, in the suddenness of it all, every bit of preparation was out the window. He was as unsteady as a boy caught stealing gum. He reached out and handed it back to the clerk over the waist-high counter which stood between them.
"I'll show you," she said, nicely.
She placed one sandaled foot on the railing of the ship and pulled with all her weight at the rope until the ships were but a whistle's crease away from each other. Then she pushed them apart only wide enough to fit her streamlined arms between, which she did after having Billy hold a block of wood in the space. Now she secured it down below with a turned down ear and the bite of her shiny lower lip, upturning her big eyes at him for a quick instant before aiming them off to nothing, using all the sense she could to figure the knot below sight. "Okay," she said as she rose, signaling Billy to pull out the block. After he did, the two ships pressed flush against one another. She stood resolutely, with her hands on her hips in the fashion of Peter Pan. Billy half expected her to dust them off.
In a completely polarized moment, she raised her eyes from the ships to Billy as she would have anyone. Although strikingly handsome, Billy was still just another student to her, shelved in that dusty library in the back of her mind of crushes and fantasies of a hundred other handsome boys whom which she was completely oblivious to. So she innocently looked at him with the casualness of a friendly passerby. As for Billy, he too had found a spot for her in his mind -- a grand spot, looming gracefully in the shiny foreground of it, like a high wall intent to block anything golden to present, let alone the color to his face, the gumption to his posture, the right words to his mouth...
"We don't usually tie all the ships together like this. This is new," she said sprightly, shrugging her shoulders. Billy just nodded back and kind of grinned a bit -- which looked something more like a twitch at the side of his mouth. He then finally locked eyes with her before aiming them upward at the masts.
"They're nice," he said mechanically, as if his body had taken over his brain's control of speech.
"Yes," she said, looking up. "They are nice, I suppose."
"Have you ever climbed up there?"
Instead of feeling like an idiot, Billy rather felt grateful for having asked the irreverent question, for the ridiculousness of it was like a screaming alarm at dawn and jolted him out of his daze.
"You've gotten hold of some champagne, I see," is all that came to him.
"Oh," she said as she kneeled down to retrieve it. The look of puzzlement which had been becoming more and more distinct across her face had vanished once she rose. She pursed her lips and then smiled. "Shhh..."
"Your ship, your rules."
"Well actually, this is my sister's ship. You're on my ship."
Billy looked down at the deck in the same matter of fact fashion as she had a moment before at her champagne.
"But either way," she continued, "Not much jurisdiction pertains to these yachts anyway, especially those of the SC Greek system."
Billy smiled, placing his hands into his short pockets and taking a glance at the active decks. "Than how come everyone's not drinking champagne?"
She playfully tightened up. "Because they don't know where it is," she said, rather than ending the question with a quick, boring answer.
"Where is it?"
She looked slyly down the length of the ships, rocking her hips, and then ran her eyes smoothly back to Billy, smugly, sarcastically raising her nose. "This is the last glass."
"I doubt it."
"Well I doubt that'll get you anywhere."
"Liar." A worrisome flash swept over Billy that he sounded too literal, but she took it in stride, signaling that she was game as she gasped:
Billy smiled at the exchange. "How much of it have you drank?"
"Well, the glass was full."
"You know what I mean. How many glasses have been full tonight?"
"This has been the only one."
"Sure it has."
"It has. There's too many people here to get very tipsy."
"I can imagine what it'd be like if everyone was drinking the stuff."
Billy paused. "Yes, the stuff."
"Everyone would be dancing maybe."
"Maybe you should go bring a few bottles up than. We can have a dance."
She rocked her hips. "If everyone was dancing, someone would fall overboard. Daddy wouldn't like that," she said, holding her champagne eye level, examining it. "I love dancing."
"So, would you like the last of the stuff?" She held out her glass.
"Ah, no thanks. I didn't mean to sound like I was asking or anything."
"You should have than. It's the best. Have you ever tasted the best?"
Billy was unsure of the question and wondered what it was that exactly prompted it. He worried that it was perhaps rhetorical and was quite unsure what to say. So he lied.
"Sure I have."
"Then have it again - the best stuff."
She held the glass over the ships between them. Billy took it and rather un-elegantly drank it down as if it were a shot of whiskey.
"It's good," he said, tightening his mouth. "It's a little flat."
"I've been babysitting."
Billy handed back the glass once she motioned to retrieve it -- an action, as it was, that subjected them to the pins and needles of an awkward silence, due in large part to either of them awaiting the other. Billy had assumed she'd continue while she was satisfied with her quaint admittance. They held onto their assumptions stubbornly, saying nothing more for what seemed like far longer than the handful of moments which it was.
"Um - "
"Do you come out on these things a lot?"
She didn't look up at the masts this time. Her glistening eyes, dusted with microscopic intensities of the yellow lights hanging about the ship, remained locked on Billy, who was again peeled at the masts. She now began to notice him. He stood fairly tall, but his arms projected out a bit farther from his body than did those of other guys. She never noticed such a thing until now. It added to his presence.
The L's of his jaw and his chin formed a triangle before he looked back down at her once realizing she hadn't answered. She was looking at him with a fox-like suspicion.
"Are you the ski-town boy?"
"The ski-town boy?"
He looked around. "Is that what I'm being called?"
"You've got some fans here tonight."
"Fans?" Billy said incredulously, pointing at his chest.
She grinned and kindly rolled her eyes, not wanting to improperly misplace herself by complimenting or seeming to acknowledge him too much so.
"I guess I am then. If there was another one I'm sure we'd have been made aware of it by now."
"Word spreads fast. Everybody knows everything on ships."
Billy laughed, nodding, thinking about the relevance and depth of the comment. She looked at her glass, spinning the stem between her fingers.
"Once," she began, "A few years ago, my family and I and my boyfriend at the time and, of --" The telling of an ex suddenly made her more human, and the gone relationship existed like an entity to Billy, looming heavily in the past like the precipice state of a disappeared civilization, with the ex-boyfriend as its divine emperor, passing through the vacant streets and emptied buildings forever. The distraction kept Billy from hearing whatever she said immediately after, so he again picked up at: "...I know I was sixteen because I was mad at not getting the exact car that I wanted. Spoiled of me, I know. Oh, yes! We were in the BVI just before --"
"What's the BVI?"
"Oh, the British Virgin Islands," she said, turning her eyes quite convincingly upon Billy. "It's beautiful there. You'll go someday -- you have to."
"I'll put a tack on my globe."
"You won't regret it. Anyway, I'm losing my point. One night, long story short, we were all staying out on the ship. We had to. It was one of the most beautiful nights I've ever seen. It was one of those nights where you can literally see every star there is. And, you know, we never see the stars here. It was just sooo clear. It was warm, it was still...it was just amazing. So after we all went to bed, I had this bad dream; not a nightmare, it was just a crappy dream --"
Billy broke his lips, pantomiming her to go on.
"I'll tell you...So the next day at breakfast -- daddy took us in to eat at one of the restaurants at the resort. It had a patio that overlooked the ocean. We could see the ship and everything from it. Of course, after we settled into the table, I told everyone about my dream -- about how real it was; about how daddy had broke it to everyone that we had to return home because he had some obligation for work." She leaned forward and quieted herself, placing a hand on the railing.
"Daddy was sitting right across from me. I told him how when I woke up from it I was so happy that it was just a dream that I couldn't fall back to sleep. When I told him that, he looked crushed, and his eyes kinda welled up. But no one noticed but me. He looked down and recovered himself pretty quickly. But that's when I knew that it wasn't a dream - he must've been whispering in the other room to Candace, his girlfriend at the time, or something. When we got back to the states a month later I found out that he had lost some massive amount of money in some negotiation he didn't attend. I don't know the specifics of it -- I hardly even get what he does. He travels a lot. He's going to Europe for four months next week. But yeah, I definitely understood the importance of it."
She looked down for a moment, nudging her foot at something that wasn't there, but then she looked back to Billy pleasantly half-smiling, her head tilted a bit to the side like a curious puppy. "So see. You can't keep secrets on ships like this."
"Does he know?"
"Yeah, I think so. He doesn't want me to ever feel bad about it, though. It was one of the times in my life that blind sincerity actually accomplished more for me than anything else could have. There would've been nothing I could do to change his mind."
She hadn't meant to do anything except skim the surface in the encounter with Billy -- she was unaware that he was the boy her father spoke so highly of, after all -- yet she had, so looked at him as so. Finally, although far from submitting too much of herself to him -- at least if she had a little already she wouldn't anymore, she at least found him attractive. She was lending him that. It was simply by the way he had listened; by the way he had answered with his eyes and the bends around his mouth and the lifts of his brow that raised him above the other boys.
"Did you have fun today," she asked.
"I'm still having fun," he said quickly. "I could stay on these things all night."
"You and your stuff and things."
"You know what I mean."
"I'm done for the night," she said.
"We've been out all day."
"You've told me such a good story, and I haven't told you anything."
"I can stay here all night," he said again, this time much quieter.
"I have many times. But I'm getting bored. And I want my bed."
Billy nodded. "Why lucky?"
"You can tell me another time."
The addictiveness that which his eyes could often be found locking onto things was finally beginning to again resonate as the last end of the exchange had calmed him enough to remind the millions of firing nerve endings all over his body of its true self. All that lingered was a lightening weight in his chest, which regained itself a bit in a notion of sudden urgency.
She watched him motion to speak and then refrain, for some reason reluctant, then surge out of it, fumbling his phone around his hand as he then did the words which fell from his mouth, forming some kind of clear yet awkwardly constructed sentence used to request her phone number.
She answered neither yes nor no, and rather kept in tact the silence that now seemed so much more relevant than their exchange of half-wit replies, drawing the slightest indentation of her dimples with the easy upward draw of the ends of her glossy lips and almost whispering the necessary numbers. He punched them in carefully, insecurely watching the slight tremble in his hand.
"I'll call you," he promised.
Although it was what she wanted to hear, she shrugged the three words off, indeed having heard them many times, and then sweetly whispered him a good night and an I hope so before floating off.
For a handful of moments Billy remained in his place on the deck, surging with a million different thoughts and a million different feelings, looking at his phone in an entirely different light than ever before as he assigned her name to the number she had given.
When he returned the phone to his pocket, the millions of thoughts and feelings diminished to but a few quite specific ones. In way of what he felt, he was now less anchored and was jovial for the first time all evening. Although Billy wanted nothing more than to be beside his Abigail, the relief that she was now gone; floated away, as it was, after a successful encounter to leave no time to ruin his charmed impression, a sturdy sense of promise fell over him that the next encounter would be a sure one, and that before sinking into her bed that night she would perhaps know of it and wonder about it.
In way of thought, he replayed their scene over and over, seeing their dialogue as if it were a script, and grading it like a professor of romantic exchange. Micro-dissect it as he did, his overall assessment of it was approving. He may have relished in this confidence all night in his spot on the side of the ship had he not been called upon by the sophomore Scott Franklin, who all the upper-class boys seemed to be calling Frank. He later explained this label to Billy in the exhausted way that which people do after having explained something time and time again.
"There was already a Scott in the junior class living in the house," he said, exhaustedly. "So right off the bat the bastards started calling me Frank. It happened so naturally that most of the guys probably think it's my actual name. Fuckers."
So it was Frank who tugged Billy back to the sober party.
From unseen speakers all around the ships came the soft play of generally chosen, mildly tempo'd rock from generations before, mostly the late sixties and early seventies, and then a handful from the awkward, electrical eighties, spotted with a few things current. A Killers song played out to the water, which seemed a blend of the substance of the sixties and the catchy predictability of the eighties, only far less annoying. "Tiny Dancer' played. There was even a song from the piano-band Something Corporate mixed into the shuffle. A senior Pi-Phi, a few pounds heavy yet gallant and pleasant with an infecting confidence, commented at Billy about the lead singer of the band; about how, a few years before her enrollment at USC, her older sister almost opted for UCLA because he was a student there.
Although late, Billy had entered the party. He did so in some subtle, delayed slide after discretely roving the decks all day, from idle to idle, like some indecisive interior decorator's light fixture flickering in and out, finally plugged in and turned on upon the discovery of a satisfactory spot.
Abigail's splendid figurehead had made him glow. She ran through his veins like a peaking upper. His energy was contagious. His handsomeness became something resilient, and now on the dark side of twilight the strings of radiant lights -- in combination with his sudden euphoric charisma -- flattered him so that by the end of the night, all aboard knew him and spoke of it in a beautiful assortment of the way people speak behind the backs of those they admire.
Unlike most rush events, this one, Sails and Serpents as it was called, ran on no schedule of time. It was simply light when they sailed in the relative calm between the protection of Catalina and the mainland and then a pink evening and then an enchanted night at the docks. The absence of alcohol, save a few flasks among the older boys and the Harding's champagne, kept the internal clocks of all present somewhat synchronized, so at another point, things began winding down and burning out as naturally and gradually as a campfire.
There were more people sitting now than not. Couples had appeared out of the day, cuddling on the deck, wrapped in arms, with various blanknesses of pleasantly fatigued expressions across their faces. The volume of conversations dropped as well -- enough decibels to make them no longer a disturbance of the night, but an accent of it, like a treble to its deep, undisclosed bass and gentle rhythm of splashing against the hulls. Even the music became something second to the tiresome night, like the comfort of a muffled tune in the distance after a long time away, un-precise but quite familiar, signatory of a return to the way things were.
Intermittently, the hinting pokes of cold in the later hours of the night would breathe deeply and rise a little with a burst of laughter from a more lively group on deck, particularly the one centered by Mr. Harding, still as bright as he was that morning, buzzing his audience right along with him.
The contentment on the ships was so earnest and so evenly spread that it was quite consensual for most people to stay aboard for as long as they could. Everyone was clinging to each moment, pulling back at them in hopes that they'd stay forever and be new again, like a lover changing mind at the airport.
Billy, in fact, was the only one aboard not desperately pulling or at least embracing the fleeting moments of so charming an evening. Rather, he was caught between relishing in his earlier love scene and thinking ahead as to how things might turn out. The moment, as it was, contrary to the way it was inhabited by Billy all day, was no longer a place of his. The jolt which thrust him into the party shortly after the scene now separated him from it. The party had lost all the flavor he previously found in it so rich. He stood on the deck -- again by himself -- like oil stands on water. She was gone. She was probably asleep, and Billy was anxious.
So it figured that Billy blundered and became such a sensation when he did.
He found himself against the port railing, staring into the darkness of the deep night. What with the lights and scattered glows of ships, it was like looking into a dark cave, for the round glares soft in his fatigued yet viral eyes blotted out the nearly full-moon, and the sea was still. Even for the harbor, the still was as frightfully glassy as a pond, as if the Pacific itself had laid down to rest for the night. In a few seconds, though, Billy brought the serenity to a crashing halt, instantaneously becoming the one and only highlight of the party as well as crystallizing himself the beginnings of a social path at the university while also, like a cigar, dissolving something sturdy enough to hold onto into the immense darkness beyond the lamps.
Like when reacting to satisfy an itch, Billy retrieved his phone from his shorts as he stood against the railing. His motion was fluid, nonchalant, as conditioned as brushing the dark strands from his forehead. But as he flipped it open, for his model of phone had been cutting edge in his sophomore year of high school so remained at present one of the few flip phones left in existence -- at least in LA, something happened.
It was as if the world prohibited a perfect evening, restricting its notions of utopia back to the impossibilities of imagination, in quick moments and etchings into the cement of bitter sweet memories. A breeze, a breath, an inkling as faint as the single flutter of an eyelash was all the ripple it took to preserve them with so high a value and so cherished an embrace. Billy dropped his phone. By the flickering of some chaotic nerve, it hit a flush edge on the side of the ship and broke apart, falling to the water in pieces and then quickly disappearing somewhere below the wiggling reflection of Billy's deflated face, squinting as if trying to see his ruined phone, soon nestled in the sand at the bottom.
In an impulsive move much the same as when he first retrieved his phone, Billy threw himself over the side and dove downward fearlessly.
The splash uprooted nearly everyone. Many of them sprang up to the port to see who had gone over. But before the water could recover from the disturbance, Frank was en-route to the action, tearing off his shirt as he came down the deck.
"Gladsten went in! That little bastard," he yelled. He must have been launching through the air already by the time he proclaimed: "Let's join him!"
Quickly after, a girl named Marie and a boy named James took the initiative and went over. Then Annette, a girl named Jane and a guy named Monroe, a senior, were over. At that, the plunge of a popular senior, came the sound -- much like a television at full volume on a station without reception -- of dozens of young bodies splashing into the dark water in danger-like urgency, as if worried about missing the opportunity, yet with every bit of smiles and laughs as children on a playground.
Then, once all who decided to take the jump were over, came a more rhythmic, distinct sound, like when the bad channel comes into a bit of distant reception, going in and out with jolts of voices and hints of music between the static. Everyone was splashing and playing in the water. For a few new couples, the plunge was an ice breaker, wrapping them tight as ever.
Billy came up absolutely surprised by all of it. He was disoriented after holding his breath so long to emerge into a fiasco of splashes and cries of which took him a moment to get a finger on as he coughed and gasped for air. Under which, formed without voice and only by a handful of notes of breath, he repeated, "It's gone. Dammit, it's gone. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit..."
"What's wrong?" A blonde girl asked as she wrapped her arms around his neck and forced herself against his lips. "You're crazy, Billy."
If he wasn't so engrossed by the happenings all around him and rattled by the tremors of his slip, he could've seen the firm, artificial breasts clear through her translucently white spaghetti strap t-shirt as well as been aware of her long legs attempting to wrap him up and that her face, although streaked with eye-makeup, was pretty. Rather, he looked around blankly as he caught his breath, his eyes wide. Frank soon appeared beside him as she drifted off into the splashes. Somehow and oddly, his glasses were still on.
"I'm upset with myself that I didn't think of this! But why didn't you take my shoes off first!"
Billy fully understood why he seemed to be the only one in the water to notice Mr. Harding. He was standing on the edge of the deck with his hands on his hips, revolving his disapproving examination of the scene around Billy like a satellite around a planet, always looking back on it, the nucleus of its momentary existence. There was that tingling pull of a gaze which turned Billy's eyes up at him. There was nothing of envy across the captain's face; there was no sign of admiration or nostalgia in his wrinkles. After all, he was a firm man, built by the years to know what to feel when to feel with no reluctant lingerings in the grey. By now, there was no pondering such a scene. He was at an end of simple aghast disappointment that such a thing had happened on his watch, on his ships without his order.
The only still figure in the small torrent was Billy. His attempt at explanation came only in the separation of his lips before Mr. Harding walked away, for a word or phrase, apology or excuse wouldn't have done. He had too much to say.