Learning to Float


When people gave Rawl grief about how young I was, he'd brag I was the smart one. Truth was, there wasn't much to be smart about. Life on Nantucket was an endless party, a festooned carriage without brakes. Mushrooms. Pot. Cocaine. Percoset. No matter how high you were, someone else was higher. The debauchery crescendoed at the annual Wapatula Party, a come-one come-all beach drunkfest where everyone dumped a bottle-tequila, Old Milwaukee, grain alcohol, whatever-into a massive vat where it was ladled out to bombed-out partiers. Unsure of the toxicity of the communal brew, many guests arrived tripping, just to be sure they got off.

After work, Rawl and I holed up in candlelit bars, shooting the shit. We drank Madrases, Sea Breezes, Bloody Marys, Tom Collins, White Russians, Kamikazes, Salty Dogs, Cape Codders, Iced Teas, Tequila Sunrises, Frozen Mud Slides, Stingers straight-up, Gimlets, Margaritas, Mimosas, Courvosier, Compari, Rum Punches, Pousse Cafes, Grand Manier, Fuzzy Navels, Sloe Comfortable Screws, Sex Between the Sheets, Sex on the Beach, Tanqueray and Tonics, Seven and Sevens, Tab with lemon, Rum and Coke, and for hangovers, the hair of the dog, beer with Worcestershire over ice. Rawl always had a friend at the bar; our tab seldom topped ten bucks.

We first had sex a week or two after that first date. Rawl liked to joke about the gay boys driving to the beach for "a quickie," their heads popping from the dunes like rabbits, but the truth was we weren't all that different. One night, we climbed on his moped and rode out to Seaside Beach. Rawl howled in the moonlight, let his unbuttoned shirt whip in the warm wind. We spread a short towel on a patch of sand. I looked up at a million dusty stars. Sex on the beach, the act, not the drink, was another first, though like many bold maneuvers, better in theory than practice. Rawl always looked amazed when we made love, like he couldn't believe we were really going to set the whole pretty house on fire.

As summer passed, we developed a reputation around town for falling asleep on the hoods of parked cars. We'd lean back to gaze at the moon and drift off only to wake up to Officer Friendly shining a flashlight in our faces and telling us to get on home.

"Yes-sir," Rawl'd say. "Just dozing. Nice night, izinit?"

We fell asleep on benches and curbs because we were exhausted. We worked even harder than we played; Rawl worked double shifts, and I picked up Happy Hour. Many nights I was so delirious I waited tables in my sleep. In this nightmare night shift, tables and menus swirled about as angry customers clamored for their daiquiris, their check, their oyster crackers. Their soup was cold. Their ice had melted. No matter how hard I ran, I could never keep everyone happy.

On our rare days off, Rawl brought me to beautiful places where we practiced the fine art of doing absolutely nothing. One morning after a plate of fried eggs, Rawl took me to a secluded dock and we lay on the wood planks, letting the sun warm our faces.

"Sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the high TIIIIIIIDE roll away," sang Rawl. "Sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting TIIIMMME."

I lay my head on his growling stomach, listening to the ocean slurp up against the pilings. Rawl had settled into his favorite topic, how he wanted to open his own restaurant on Nantucket. He spread his blonde locks out to bade in the sun; they looked like a halo.

"Lil, all I got to do is get a place," Rawl began. "Stoofie can be the chef. His cream sauce puts the cha in your chacha-cha. Arnball runs the dining room. Arnball Henderson ran After Fives in Memphis. Kept the gay boys in line. We decorate like the Summer House, all pink flowers and shit."

"What'll we do in the winters?" I asked. Ever practical.

"Winters?" said Rawl. "Well, Lil. We go to the Virgin Islands. Ohhhh God, you would love it down there. We're talking paradise. Live in a fucking hammock. Make a little afternoon delight. Sip a cocktail. Do you think you could handle it?"

"You know Rawl," I said, squeezing his hand. "I think I could handle it."

The way Rawl saw it, investment bankers had it all wrong. They worked like dogs to buy the Nantucket dream house that they had no time to enjoy because they were slaving away to bring home the bones. Meanwhile, here we were, two carefree waitrons living on this gorgeous rock, waving the bankers off on the noon boat. Let them have the cash-ishe. We had Nantucket. The important thing was to live for beauty. To take the CEO's money with a smile.

As I lay on the dock, blinded by the July sun, I realized my parents had totally blown it. They didn't live for beauty. They were too worried about taxes and carburetors and mold. They'd never pile into the car and drive to a dock and just sit there. If they went somewhere, they went for a reason. They didn't drink Mai Tais and make out. Old people could drink Mai Tais and make-out, but my parents didn't and it was a roaring shame. But there was no way to suggest this to your parents. They had to figure these things out for themselves. Only maybe I would rent them a hotel room on Nantucket. Sit them front of the fireplace at the Summer House. Drag them to sea water. Make them drink.

Rawl was still talking about his restaurant. It seemed doubtful he'd ever get the money together to open his own place, but I wasn't going to pop his balloon. Let him dream on. That's what I loved about Rawl; he was everything I was raised not to be. My father's pragmatism, my mother's propriety, I threw them in a closet, slammed the door, ran off barefoot in the moonlight.

Of course, the reprieve was only temporary. Reality skulked with the coat hangers, plotting its revenge. The moving finger writes; and having writ; moves on; nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back and cancel half a line." It was one of Rawl's favorite sayings, most of which made me laugh, but this moving finger business gave me the creeps. I pictured a gloved hand signing a blank page with a quill pen in black ink. Still, I didn't really understand what it meant—the moving finger writes; consequence being inconceivable to an eighteen-year-old, consequence being inconceivable on Nantucket.

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Excerpted from Learning to Float by Lili Wright. Copyright © 2002 by Lili Wright. Excerpted by permission of Anchor Books, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.